Daily Press Briefing - December 5, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:10 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Hey, everybody. Happy Monday.
QUESTION: Happy Monday.
QUESTION: Happy Monday.
MR TONER: Welcome to the State Department. A couple things at the top and then I’ll get to your questions.
First of all, Libya. The United States expresses its deep concern over the escalation of violence between armed groups in Tripoli and calls on all the parties to immediately heed the Government of National Accord’s appeal to cease fighting. We urge all parties to de-escalate tensions in the capital and respect the terms of the Libyan political agreement, including security arrangements for the withdrawal of armed groups from Libyan cities and their replacement with government army and police units. We reiterate our support – our strong support for Prime Minister Fayiz al-Saraj and the GNA and for the quick restoration of order and security for the people of Libya.
Also, just a brief update. As many of you are aware, Secretary Kerry is in Berlin today. Earlier, he met with a group of young German professionals involved in deepening and expanding the transatlantic relationship. They had a good discussion. He also met with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. At a ceremony following the meeting, the foreign minister presented the Secretary with the Grand Cross First Class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, and this is the highest award Germany can bestow on a non-head of state. Right now, Secretary Kerry, I believe, is having dinner with Foreign Minister Steinmeier.
And tomorrow, he’ll travel to Brussels to attend the NATO foreign ministerial. It’s his last one as Secretary of State. And he’ll discuss there – he’ll meet there and discuss with allies and partners efforts to further strengthen NATO’s security, project stability to the alliance’s east and south, and enhance NATO-EU cooperation.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- to – with the Taiwanese president --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- last week? Just to go over some of the logistics, you guys were not informed beforehand that this call might happen. Is that correct?
MR TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: And has there been any contact with the president-elect or his team or anyone from the transition apparatuses since the call?
MR TONER: Not that I’m aware of. Since the call took place --
QUESTION: Yeah, did you --
MR TONER: -- have we gotten any kind of readout or anything like that?
MR TONER: No, we have not.
QUESTION: And has --
MR TONER: To my knowledge, we have not.
QUESTION: Have you had any contacts with – has the Chinese Government had any contact with you particularly about this call?
MR TONER: So in that regard, and I can’t – it’s for them; I’ll let them read out what that contact entailed – but my understanding is that Chinese vice foreign minister did speak with Ambassador Baucus on the issue, I believe, on Saturday.
QUESTION: On Saturday?
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: And without getting, then, into exactly the substance of what they said, what did you tell them in response?
MR TONER: Well, I wasn’t privy to the phone conversation. Certainly, what I can say is that there’s no change to our longstanding policy on cross-strait issues, which, as all of you know in this room, is based on the fundamental interest in peaceful and stable cross-strait relations, and obviously we remain firmly committed to the “one China” policy, and that’s based on the three joint communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act.
So from our perspective, there’s been no change in our longstanding policy with regard to Taiwan.
QUESTION: And you’re speaking on behalf of the Obama --
MR TONER: I’m speaking on behalf of the --
QUESTION: -- the Obama Administration or --
MR TONER: -- present Administration, yes.
QUESTION: The current Administration?
MR TONER: That’s – and that is all I can do.
QUESTION: Right. So you don’t know exactly – one, you don’t know what the phone conversation between the president-elect and the Taiwanese entailed?
MR TONER: I don’t.
QUESTION: And you don’t know exactly what their plans are for this “one China” policy that you say --
MR TONER: No, I’d have to refer you to them, obviously, to speak to it.
QUESTION: All right, thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: A follow-up?
QUESTION: A follow-up?
MR TONER: Oh, sure. Did you want to follow up on --
QUESTION: Yeah, I’m on the --
MR TONER: Are you going to go – let’s finish this and then we’ll go over to you. Sure.
QUESTION: So from the State Department perspective, how will you suggest or advise the transition team for this kind of call?
MR TONER: How would we --
QUESTION: How will you advise or suggest the transition team?
MR TONER: Well, broadly speaking, the Secretary spoke a little bit about this process yesterday when he was at the Saban Forum, and it is normally – and others have spoken about this as well – in the past, president-elects – presidents-elect, rather, excuse me, have consulted with secretaries of state or subject matter experts within the State Department before making these kinds of calls. It’s not necessary. It’s not mandatory. It does allow them to get perspective on policy issues by people who have been intimately involved in these issues for some period of time. And I think the Secretary made the point that that can be helpful.
QUESTION: Chinese – the Chinese foreign ministry characterized this incident as a petty maneuver on Taiwan’s part. How would you suggest that Taiwanese president – would you encourage her to reach out more to the transition team?
MR TONER: Look, I’m certainly not – not my job to advise the president of Taiwan or how she should conduct her – or their relations with other countries. All I can speak to is what our current policy is with regard to Taiwan and with regard to cross-strait relations.
Our primary interest, as I just said, is in stable, peaceful cross-strait relations. And the – one of the ways in which we pursue this, and we’ve done so since, I think, 1979, is that we remain firmly committed to this policy of one China. And as I said, that has not changed previous to or since the phone call by the President-elect.
QUESTION: This is obviously a transition period and policies have not been articulated yet, policy teams haven’t even completely been formed, but is – what is your sense in terms of the impact of the call for U.S.-Chinese relations? Has it been damaging?
MR TONER: I mean, I’d really – again, I’d have to say that the Chinese are probably best positioned to characterize their reaction to the phone call.
QUESTION: But you wouldn’t call it --
MR TONER: No, of course. I mean, they clearly – they clearly used established diplomatic channels to engage and to express their feelings about the phone call or their position on the phone call. Again, I don’t want to characterize it. It’s not up to us to do that. What our – what I can say is that our response back to them has been that our policy has not changed and it’s going to remain that way, at least for the balance of this Administration.
Now, we cannot speak to the incoming administration and what their priorities and what their policies might be and how they might change. We just aren’t able to do that at this point.
QUESTION: And what do you see as the benefit of the policy you’ve had since ’79? I mean, if it was changed, what would be the impact of that? Why would you --
MR TONER: Well, again, it’s allowed us – I mean, there’s a number of reasons, but by establishing this “one China” policy, it’s allowed us to develop relations – frankly, closer relations with Beijing and also to deepen our unofficial ties with Taipei. So in our estimation, it’s been a productive policy to pursue given Beijing’s very serious concerns in this case. Again, it’s allowed us, in a sense, to, as I say, deepen our cooperation with China on many different aspects, including economic, but certainly security and others; but also, as I said, at the same time, we’re able to still pursue relations with Taipei.
QUESTION: Change of topic?
QUESTION: Mark, you said that there’s been no contact whatsoever, diplomatic contact with Taiwan since 1979. None whatsoever, right?
MR TONER: Well, we’ve had informal contacts. I mean, I – what I think I was responding to is --
QUESTION: Okay. So how do you conduct your relations with Taiwan in this case? I mean, much as the President-elect said, you sell them arms, you do a lot of trade and all these things.
MR TONER: Well, right. I mean – again, I mean, we have informal contacts with the leadership in Taipei, and as you note, we do have fairly strong relations with them that includes arms sales and other --
QUESTION: Trade – they’re the ninth trading partner and --
MR TONER: Trade – exactly, trade is another important issue. I mean, look, we – again, this policy is predicated on the belief that we can pursue closer relations with Taipei at the same time that – as we are cognizant of China’s security concerns and political concerns regarding Taiwan.
QUESTION: President Tsai Ing-wen --
MR TONER: Sure, one more, and then we’ll get --
QUESTION: President Tsai Ing-wen will be in New York next month on transit to Nicaragua early January. Can we expect any exchanges between the State Department and her team?
MR TONER: I certainly don’t have anything to announce at this time. You do point out that these – periodically, the president will transit through U.S. territory. What I can say about that is that that kind of transit’s based on longstanding U.S. practice and it’s consistent with the unofficial nature of our relations with Taiwan. And frankly, they’re – reflect or they’re done out of consideration, I think, for the safety, comfort, and convenience for the travelers.
QUESTION: So will the State Department provide any safety, comfort, assistance to the --
MR TONER: Again, I mean, there’s a certain protocol here, an informal protocol. We usually allow them to transit here, if nothing else, for their comfort and convenience. But it’s in keeping – it’s consistent with longstanding practice. But I can’t say whether we’ll have any meetings with them. I just don’t have that in front of me at the time to announce or to confirm.
QUESTION: So is – this phone call will give any influence for – about President Tsai’s transit stop in New York?
MR TONER: I just – it’s just hard for me to predict. Again, it’s several weeks off, I believe, or a month or so off. Look, we have ongoing relations with Taipei, with the leadership there. That hasn’t changed. What I can just say is that there has been no change yet in our policy regarding Taiwan, and it’s an important point to make because, as we say, that policy has allowed us to improve relations with Beijing, with China, at the same time as engaging in strong bilateral relations with – or strong relations, informal relations, with Taipei.
QUESTION: Can --
QUESTION: So can I say that --
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead, go ahead. It’s okay.
QUESTION: Can I say – so did the State Department treat this phone call like not improving the relationship between Taipei and --
MR TONER: I just – I’m sorry, and I know what you’re trying to ask me. I’m not going to characterize it one way or another. This – he is the President-elect. He is making his own decisions. He’s getting his own advice and counsel from his transition team. We respect that. We certainly are – stand by – we being the State Department, but indeed the entire Obama Administration stands ready to brief them, consult with them before they make not just this phone call, but other phone calls to leaders around the world. But it’s by no means, as I said, mandatory. It’s not required.
So it’s really up to them to make their own decisions with regard to who they’re going to speak to, who they’re going to engage with, and the ramifications or consequences of those actions.
QUESTION: It sounds from – from what you’re saying, it sounds like this call doesn’t undermine the current “one China” policy that you have.
MR TONER: It doesn’t. I mean, that policy hasn’t changed. Yes.
QUESTION: So why did American presidents avoid having conversations like this for the last 40 years if having – if the president-elect having one doesn’t seem to have any effect? You’re saying it’s not a big deal, everything goes on as before, and then at the same time you’re saying we’ve avoided this for 40 years because the “one China” policy is so great and it’s allowed us to do all these wonderful things with both China and Taiwan.
MR TONER: Well --
QUESTION: So you’re having it both ways.
MR TONER: Sure. Well, let’s be clear, is – and this just isn’t me speaking obviously – that Beijing, China’s position on Taiwan, is very well known, and it’s because of that position that we developed and adhere to this “one China” policy. So I’m not saying that one phone call, give or take, is going to upset that balance, but it is – it’s only through consistency in implementing this policy and standing by this policy that you have, as I said, stable cross-strait relations.
Yeah, one more. One more, and then I promise I’ll get to you. I apologize.
QUESTION: Sorry. Thank you. Has anyone talked to --
MR TONER: I think we’ve talked this --
QUESTION: Has anyone talked to the Taiwanese Government regarding this call?
MR TONER: Since the phone call?
MR TONER: It’s a fair question. I’m not aware we have. If that’s different – I just don’t think we have. I don’t think there’s been any calls. But if that’s changed, we do have – excuse me. We do have an unofficial relations – or rather, we have the American Institute in Taiwan, which is how we carry out our relations, informal relations, with Taiwan. I don’t know if they’ve had any contact with government officials since the call, so I’ll just have to check on that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: You look confused. I’m just saying I don’t have anything to read out. I don’t have anything to confirm.
QUESTION: I have, actually, a quick Taiwan follow-up and then Syria.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: So the president-elect said that the Taiwanese leadership had contacted him. Do you know if that’s a habit that they have of trying to contact whoever the U.S. president-elect is, and then it’s up to that president to answer or not? For example, did they try to call Obama in 2008?
MR TONER: Yeah. Yes, and the answer is I don’t know. I don’t have that in front of me. I’m sorry.
MR TONER: No, you were going to do Syria, and then I’ll do Syria.
QUESTION: Syria – Syria --
MR TONER: Sorry. Please.
QUESTION: Yeah. So the Russian Government said today that they would start talks with Washington on a rebel withdrawal from eastern Aleppo or from Aleppo this week. Do you have anything on that?
MR TONER: I’ve seen those comments. We don’t have anything to confirm at this point. Obviously, we’re very seized with the situation, the very dire situation in Aleppo. There was some discussion coming out of the meeting in Rome on Friday that there would be technical talks taking place this week, but we don’t have anything to confirm at this point.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: So is there --
QUESTION: -- could I just follow up on – a follow-up, Mark?
QUESTION: Could you talk a little --
MR TONER: Of course. So follow-up, you and then you, I promise. Don’t give me a look, Said.
QUESTION: On the technical talks, can you just characterize like what those specifically would be, would be concerning and what – would it be on the idea of withdrawal as the Russians are saying?
MR TONER: Well, I think it’s – I don’t want to get into – too much into the details. For one thing, they’re still being hashed out. But the basic challenge is the same, which is how do we – how do we meet Russia, and by extension, the regime’s concerns about Nusrah in Aleppo at the same time we bring about a credible cessation of hostilities in Aleppo, even a pause in the fighting, frankly, whereby we can get much-needed humanitarian assistance in. And by that I mean foodstuffs, medical care, et cetera.
So I mean, the basic parameters are the same of what we’ve been discussing for many, many weeks, indeed months, but – so I don’t want to get too many into the – too much into the details. But the challenge is the same. I mean, it’s – you’ve got Russia very concerned about Nusrah’s presence. At the same time, we’re concerned about the effects and the constant bombardment on the civilian population of Aleppo, and we’re also adamant that while Nusrah is there and is an element of this, that there’s a moderate Syrian opposition that should not and does not deserve to be bombed into submission.
QUESTION: Thanks. Today, rebels in eastern Aleppo shelled a mobile hospital that Russia set up, killing two Russian medics, injuring another, as well as a number of patients. Do you condemn the attack?
MR TONER: So here’s what I know about that. I’ve seen the reports. We’ve not been able to confirm. It’s difficult to do, obviously, given the fighting and given our lack of access to what’s happening on the ground. But to answer your question, of course we condemn any attack on a hospital or health care facility.
QUESTION: Would you – actually, I have a few more. Sorry.
MR TONER: Okay. Yeah, two more, please.
QUESTION: The U.S. is – the U.S. is known to have influence with some of the rebel groups.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: What is your message to them? Should they continue the shelling?
MR TONER: The shelling of – I think I just was very clear about we would condemn any shelling by anybody – opposition rebels or regime forces, what have you – on health care or hospitals, schools, civilian infrastructure, any of that. And we’ve been – I would hope we’ve been very consistent publicly as well as privately in conveying that message.
QUESTION: Again --
MR TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: So this is happening in the context of these talks and responding to the talks that the U.S. and Russia are having, as I understand, on the withdrawal of the rebels from Aleppo.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The rebels said they would not leave. What makes the U.S. think that they would, since you are having the discussions?
MR TONER: You mean leave Aleppo?
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, those – again, this is part of the dynamic that we’re dealing with on the ground. Look, I mean --
QUESTION: Can the U.S. really bow to them just because it’s --
MR TONER: Sure, let me – I’m just trying to – so one of the dynamics of the siege that’s been taking place on Aleppo is that, as much as Russia, as much as the regime says that oh, we need to separate and get Nusrah out and separate the opposition from Nusrah. It’s hard to conduct that kind of separation when you’ve got a civilian population, when you have these opposition forces under nearly constant barrage of bombs and assault. That’s hard to do in a combat situation. It’s hard to do if there was actually a ceasefire in place – difficult enough to do, let me put it that way. When you add the fact that there’s this siege taking place on Aleppo, that’s a harder nut to crack, if I can put it that way.
That said, we recognize that part of the getting to a solution here – and by a solution, I mean an end to the violence – is finding a way to get Nusrah out of the equation, to separate them or to some way address our mutual concerns about Nusrah as a terrorist organization, but also end the fighting. And that’s the challenge. I don’t know how to put it other way. So these are all technical talks taking place. I don’t want to show too much of what we may be talking about. These are for these groups to hopefully address this week, but we don’t know at this point whether those talks are going to take place.
QUESTION: I guess my question --
QUESTION: Mark, could I --
QUESTION: Oh, sorry.
MR TONER: That’s okay. Why don’t you go, and then I’ll get back to you.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you about a statement made by the Russian deputy foreign minister, Bogdanov.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: He said that they received suggestions, American suggestions on how to – I guess to bring about a cessation of hostilities, or a total cessation of hostilities.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: And then they in turn gave them to the Iranians. Are you aware of that? Could you shed some light on this? Could you tell us some of the points that you may have --
MR TONER: They in turn – that we gave them? I – so I’m not going to --
QUESTION: You’re not?
MR TONER: So I’m – no, no, sorry, let me be very clear: I’m not going to talk about the substance of what we’re looking at in terms of proposals, in terms of ways to – we’re just not there yet. And you’ve seen that the Secretary’s been also very disciplined about not talking about the substance of these talks before we’ve had a chance to really develop them and to reach agreement on them. Your – your question was about sharing them with the Iranians --
QUESTION: Yeah, my question is: Are you aware that whatever proposals you gave to the Russians, they say that they have in turn given them to the Iranians, I guess as party to the conflict --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- in this case, and they are waiting on them? Are you aware of that? Is that something --
MR TONER: I’m not aware of that particularly.
QUESTION: Did the Russians tell you, “We are going to share them with the Iranians” beforehand?
MR TONER: I don’t know. I mean, to some respect the Iranians are part of the ISSG, so I don’t – I just don’t know. I don’t have the --
QUESTION: Does that impact – I’m sorry --
MR TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: -- does that impact the ongoing talks that are ongoing now in any way, and do they cover just Aleppo? Are they for the whole of Syria?
MR TONER: So there’s still – obviously, there’s still the broader talks – and we’ve talked about this – the broader multilateral talks going on in Geneva. Those are ongoing. These technical talks would be a little bit different, more focused on some new ideas to stop the fighting in Aleppo. And those – we’re just not in a position to confirm those will take place yet. We’re just not there yet.
QUESTION: So they are dedicated to just Aleppo?
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: And they’d be just U.S.-Russia?
MR TONER: That’s what I don’t know yet. We’re still trying to formalize all this. I’m sorry – we just – this is still in play.
QUESTION: So --
MR TONER: Go ahead.
QUESTION: If – at the Secretary’s news conference in Rome on Friday --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- he said all the talks between the U.S. and Russia and the set of ideas that had been exchanged were about getting to a political – political talks, not about removing Nusrah forces, you – surrender of the opposition in eastern Aleppo. He kind of painted it opposite. He said it was about getting to the intra-Syrian talks. How would a surrender of Nusrah plus opposition --
MR TONER: So we’re not necessarily – yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: -- in eastern Aleppo – so they would lose everything, and then they would say, “Now we’re ready to talk”? I mean, explain to me the strategy.
MR TONER: Again, we’re not – I don’t want to get ahead of process here and what we’re talking about. And if I’ve given that impression that we’re talking about some kind of surrender, that’s not the case. We’re talking about an effort to de-escalate or pause the violence in Aleppo. Obviously, the Secretary is right in that our broader endgame here is to get the political talks back up and running. Because as the Secretary made clear when he was in Rome, Russia and the regime are deluded if they think, even if they do take Aleppo, that this is over. It’s not. The rebels – the opposition has shown that they’re not willing to simply give up. And so the only solution – credible, long-term solution to the fighting in Syria is a political one.
QUESTION: So the Russians and the Russian foreign minister said even last week that these should start immediately, now. And he actually criticized the United Nations for not setting them up immediately. So what is the impasse? His suggestion was it’s the United Nations isn’t setting it up and you guys aren’t pressuring the opposition to start these talks immediately. Is that fair?
MR TONER: I don’t think it is. I mean, I think the impasse is that the opposition would tell you that why should they go to Geneva and have talks when they’re fighting for their very existence in places like Aleppo. Look, in all – again, the basic strategy, as difficult as it – as it’s been has not changed, and fundamentally it’s cessation of hostilities, then you move to – when you’ve got some kind of credibility established, you can move – and some kind of trust – you can move to and have that become the basis for negotiations to resume in Geneva. We just haven’t been there in months. We had the Geneva in September 10th, but that fell apart quickly, and since then we’ve been nowhere close to that.
QUESTION: I have one more.
MR TONER: Yeah, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Well, I’ll let your assessment go, which seems like we’re backwards, then, many months from where we were if we’re not even where we were in September. But be that as it may, I just want to ask you specifically on the Russian claim today by the defense ministry that you guys gave – you, the French, and the British may have given the coordinates of their hospital or --
MR TONER: Yeah --
QUESTION: -- or clinic to the opposition in order to – for it to be bombed. Do you have a response --
MR TONER: We’d never do that and it’s completely false.
QUESTION: So you never give coordinates to the Syrian opposition?
MR TONER: No. We would never give coordinates to the Syrian opposition.
QUESTION: Mark, could you --
MR TONER: Are we done? Yeah.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on the UN Security Council meeting now – that is happening now and so on? Because the Russians seems to have dismissed it even before it began. They’re saying that the proposal does not meet – whatever – their requirements, which may lead to another veto. Are you – do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: I don’t. I know they’re scheduled to meet later this afternoon, I believe.
MR TONER: Look, I mean, we’ve been very clear that we welcome any chance to highlight the dire situation in Aleppo and those who are suffering there, so we would welcome and we do welcome this Security Council session. I’m not going to prejudge it or speak to where it may end up, but certainly, once that session is held, we’ll have more to say.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Russia and China vetoed the resolution.
MR TONER: Well, there you go. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Do you have any reactions?
MR TONER: We’ll have more to say. We will, and I – the reason I don’t want to get ahead is we’ll have something more formal. I mean, I can certainly speak off the cuff about it, but we’ll have something more formal to say about it in the coming hours.
MR TONER: Don’t say it like that. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: A couple of questions.
QUESTION: Yes. How long – when did the State Department become aware of this, is one question.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: And the other is this embassy – so-called embassy – had access to blank forms that were deemed authentic, issued visas. And so how many people got into the United States from these visas?
MR TONER: Sure. All good questions. All right, there’s a lot to unpack here. I’ll do my best and then answer any follow-ups. So yes, the quote/unquote “fake embassy.” This was a criminal fraud operation masquerading as a fake U.S. embassy in Ghana, in Accra, and it was shut down, as you know. No visa obtained – no fake visa, and let’s be very clear; we’re talking about counterfeit visas – that no visa that was obtained through this fraud scheme was ever used to enter the United States.
What happened was that the operators of this fraud operation were able to obtain real Ghanaian passports or even foreign passports that were either lost, stolen, or somehow sold to them. A handful – and I think it was fewer than 10 – of the passports seized by law enforcement contained expired U.S. visas. So they then used these expired visas to, as – to counterfeit off of, to – as prototypes or whatever, as models to attempt to produce counterfeit visas. So the visas in questions were not stolen from the U.S. embassy, and again, this operation – this fake embassy – made and printed counterfeit visas using the expired visas as a blueprint.
So none of the individuals, as I said, who purchased these counterfeit visas were able to use them to travel to the United States. And why is that? Because it’s very, very hard to counterfeit U.S. visas these days. It’s a highly secure document. It’s got numerous security features designed to prevent successful counterfeiting, and so this operation failed basically because they couldn’t produce – please.
QUESTION: Were people nabbed coming into JFK or somewhere? Did actually anybody try to use these to get in?
MR TONER: My understanding is that no – is that no one was actually even attempted or caught at the border. Now, I – we’re still going through some assessment of this operation, but my understanding at this point is that no one was actually stopped at the border trying to enter into the United States using one of these fraudulent visas. My understanding is that, frankly, the counterfeits – visas were of pretty poor quality, so it may have been the fact that these people, once they paid for them and got them, realized they weren’t going to be able to use them to get into the United States.
QUESTION: And for how long did the State Department know that this operation was going on?
MR TONER: We only learned about this this year.
QUESTION: Even though it had been there for 10 years with a U.S. flag flying --
MR TONER: Yeah, no, apparently --
QUESTION: -- outside three days a week?
MR TONER: So – yeah, I mean – look, I mean, I don’t want to – I’ll refer you to the Ghanaian authorities to speak to how this operation existed for so long without it coming to their notice. You can imagine the ways in which that could happen.
QUESTION: Yes, we can.
MR TONER: But yeah, we learned about it this year, and the extent of the counterfeiting and visa fraud only became apparent – I think we had an anti-fraud operation called Spartan Vanguard, and that helped, I think, bring the extent, as I said, of this to light.
I think I’ve answered more or less all the --
QUESTION: Did you learn about it and bring it to the Ghanaian officials’ attention, or they shut it down?
MR TONER: I believe it’s that we learned about it and brought it to the Ghanaian authorities’ attention.
QUESTION: Can you just answer this?
MR TONER: Yeah, I’ll try.
QUESTION: So you don’t believe that anyone ever tried to use any of these, that these --
QUESTION: How did they operate for 10 years, then, if --
QUESTION: -- these people who didn’t have the perceptive qualities to realize they were walking into a fake U.S. embassy and then pay that fake U.S. embassy then were able to discern on their own that the visas didn’t look good enough, and so they decided not to try? That just seems so wholly unrealistic, it cannot be possible in this universe to be true, on a universal level.
QUESTION: Or make a report on that to the authorities?
QUESTION: That nobody tried – all these people who went to a fake U.S. embassy then realized, based on the quality of the visa, that it wouldn’t work and just gave up? Mark, that doesn’t pass the laugh test, seriously.
MR TONER: Well, no. Look, so first of all, many of the people who engaged in this activity – and I’m not talking about the people who ran the operation, but the people who tried to obtain visas – it was – they were duped. They were conned. And once they were conned, you don’t necessarily go running to the police and say, “I just obtained illegally a U.S. visa, and oh, by the way, it looks terrible, doesn’t it? I can’t use this to get into the United States.”
Again, I didn’t say categorically that no one did. I thought I said “to our knowledge.” As of today, we do not believe that anyone actually used or was stopped at the border trying to use one of these fake visas to enter into the United States. I can’t speak to what their motivation was for not trying that, but it’s not --
QUESTION: If you didn’t stop anybody, how do you know that all of them didn’t get in?
MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, we – I’m sorry, I’m trying to --
QUESTION: If everybody who – if you never stopped a single person with one of these fake visas, how can you plausibly say that you know that they didn’t all get in successfully into the United States?
MR TONER: Well, look, we – so whenever anybody applies for a visa, we collect the biometric data as part of their visa application. So when you come to the border and they look at your visa, they verify – there’s biometric data at the port of entry. So that’s right there – in a fake visa from a Ghanaian fake embassy, you’re not going to have that biometric data. It’s going to send up alarms. It’s going to not register. And so, as I said, to my knowledge we have not been able to say – although we may find out yes, there were two or three of these individuals, and we stopped them at the border. I just don’t have that in front of me right now.
QUESTION: Okay, all right.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Follow-up on this?
MR TONER: Sure, and then I’ll get to you, Margaret.
QUESTION: So do you have any reason to believe that there might be other operations in any other countries similar to this?
MR TONER: Well, we’re running this – as I said, I mentioned – it’s got a very cool name, Spartan Vanguard or something. Yeah, Spartan Vanguard. But it’s an anti-fraud operation, and that’s what this is. The intent of it is to kind of sniff out and find out where these fraudulent operations are ongoing. This is a longstanding practice, it’s just that now it’s awfully hard to do because, as I said, of the things that – the security that they’re able to build into these visas. I mean, we all have it. Whether it’s your credit card or whatever, it’s a lot harder to counterfeit that kind of stuff today. But I can’t speak to – say that I’m sure there’s other operations ongoing, and we’re going to keep – remain vigilant and try to stop them.
QUESTION: But are there any particular areas that you might see more of that activity?
MR TONER: You mean regions of the world?
MR TONER: I don’t have that. I don’t know that.
Yeah, please, Margaret.
QUESTION: Mark, the House Oversight Committee has a report out here talking about what they say is the State Department taking too long and spending far too much to construct new diplomatic facilities abroad. Some very specific and big numbers in this report. Do you know what is leading to these delays, and is State upset?
MR TONER: Sure. Margaret, I – so a couple of points to make. One is the safety and security of U.S. personnel serving overseas is obviously at the forefront. It’s our top priority and the cornerstone of all the work that the bureaus of Diplomatic Security and Overseas Building Operations do.
I’m aware of this report. We have not yet received a copy of it. I think we’ve been allowed what they call a limited camera use – in-camera review of a draft version of the report. So we haven’t even seen the final version of the report. So it’s hard for me to comment on all of the report’s allegations without reviewing the final report, and certainly we remain hopeful that the committee will revise its report based on some of the input and significant concerns that we’ve raised related to the accuracy and fairness and security sensitivities that were contained in the report.
We’ve also requested that the committee submit its report for an interagency, internal – or rather, sorry, interagency security sensitivity review in advance of its publication to ensure that its release doesn’t – sorry – the release of sensitive information in the report doesn’t compromise any of our people serving abroad or any of our facilities serving abroad.
So I understand your question. We want to be able, obviously, to address once that report’s gone public the concerns it raises, the allegations it makes. We work really hard in this building to ensure that our embassies, our consulates, our buildings overseas are protected. Obviously, that’s not easy in today’s world. It requires constant updating, innovation. We do so mindful always of the price of that. But I can’t speak to the contents of the report until we’ve received it.
QUESTION: To be clear, though --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- when you said you looked at that draft already, are you saying that there was information in that draft that should not be released to the public?
MR TONER: So what we’ve asked is that they just submit this to what’s called an interagency security sensitivity review – obviously, not just State Department equities here – involved here. And just so every – so that these other agencies can review what’s in the report so that before it does go public, we can obviously address if there are any – if there is any information that’s deemed sensitive.
QUESTION: Because the report talks about Kabul, Jakarta, London, Mexico – significant U.S. diplomatic posts --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- and saying that while there are questions of security, it’s specifically the amount of taxpayer money that Congress is concerned about. I mean, do you have any kind of timeline as to when these embassies will be both secure and finished? And what’s leading to these delays?
MR TONER: Well, I can certainly – again, it would have to be on a case-by-case basis – try to get back to you with information about where we’re at in the status of each of these projects. But this is hard, as I said, and with any construction project, not just U.S. embassies abroad, there’s always inevitably some delays in the process. It’s just how building projects work, fortunately or unfortunately, as things need to be updated, need to be addressed. All I can say is that our Diplomatic Security Bureau and our Overseas Buildings Operations Bureau and our Management Bureau work hand in hand to ensure that safety is foremost, first and foremost for Americans living overseas, and also of course we look at the bottom line and what this costs the taxpayer.
QUESTION: So just to put a fine point on it --
MR TONER: Of course, yeah.
QUESTION: -- you fully reject the assertion here that the State Department is taking a risky approach of prioritizing architecture over security and over financial sensibility?
MR TONER: That we’re – take a risky approach in what? Prioritizing --
QUESTION: Prioritizing the way an embassy looks over just how much it costs or how secure it is.
MR TONER: I would – again, not having seen the report myself, security first and foremost; functionality of an embassy is also important. This is the face of the U.S. Government overseas, and that’s important as well, is how it presents American ideals and America to another country. There’s been – I can probably point you to many cases of criticism of – that U.S. embassies have become too fortress-like over the past decades, partly as a result of the security threats that we face.
So we’re always mindful of aesthetics, but mostly security.
MR TONER: We can go to the Palestinian --
QUESTION: Okay, and the Secretary’s remarks yesterday. Yesterday Secretary Kerry at the Saban Forum gave – in his remarks gave a stinging rebuke of the settlement policy. But he also refrained from committing to a veto at the United Nations if a resolution on settlements will be forthcoming, only saying that if it is biased, an unfair resolution calculated to delegitimize Israel, only then would they veto. Does that – is that a departure from, let’s say, past American policy?
MR TONER: I don’t think so, Said. I mean, we’ve said that before. I’ve said it before. I know John’s said it before. And it’s consistent with always what’s been our approach. We also often will make the point as well, is we don’t believe that multilateral settings are necessarily the way to – the best way to pursue what we believe is the ultimate goal here, which is a two-state solution. That’s up to the parties. And we’ve said it before, whether it’s – when the UN Security Council or elsewhere, that we oppose any resolutions that seek to delegitimize or are biased against Israel. And that remains the case.
QUESTION: I just have a couple of follow-ups on that.
MR TONER: Of course. Yeah.
QUESTION: But earlier in the day, Prime Minister Netanyahu to the same forum basically said, look, we will continue with settlement. It doesn’t matter who is in power, whether it’s Obama or Trump or anyone. We will continue with this policy. So obviously, they are not heeding your call on the cessation of settlements. In this case, why not – what would be sort of contrary to U.S. principles and so on, on the issue of settlement by going to the United Nations? Why would that stand against your position – your principle position – against settlements?
MR TONER: Going --
QUESTION: If you are unable to persuade the Israelis on your own, why not do it in an international forum?
MR TONER: Well, again, there’s – first of all, there’s been no decisions made either way about any kind of step we may – that may or may not be taken at the UN or elsewhere.
I was there yesterday at the event. The Secretary spoke, I think, very frankly about and out of friendship, and he talked about some of the challenges. I mean, he got the same question that you just posed, which is Israel doesn’t seem to listen. And he acknowledged that on the case of settlements they often don’t listen, but that doesn’t make our message any less relevant. And I think the Secretary’s abiding point yesterday was you can’t have – and he was also, by the way, very quick to recognize this is not all on Israel, and frankly, settlements aren’t the only impediment to a two-state solution. The Palestinians need to take steps --
QUESTION: No, he said settlements were not the cause of the conflict but were --
MR TONER: Exactly. Not the cause of the conflict. But he said that as you look at the reality of settlements and the reality that they’re creating on the ground, it’s hard to imagine how you can get to a two-state solution. That was a very frank message to the Israeli Government, to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and it’s been a message we’ve been trying to convey to them. But ultimately, as we’ve said many times before, the U.S. can only try to play a mediating role to try to get the two sides or the two parties back to the negotiating table. We can’t force them, and they’ve got to both do it. And that’s true for Israel; it’s true for the Palestinians.
QUESTION: He also warned against a vote that might take place today – maybe it has taken place already – in the Knesset on legalizing a sort of --
MR TONER: You’re talking about a legalization bill. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: Right, right. The legalization bill.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Are you – did he follow his warning with any kind of a conversation with anyone in the Israeli Government, be it be the prime minister of Israel? He said he spoke with him like 975 times, so did he speak with him on this issue?
MR TONER: I’m not sure that – I’m not sure that there was a – no, I don’t believe there was a conversation after that event yesterday, but I’m sure his remarks were closely followed by those in the Israeli Government yesterday.
On the legalization bill, we understand that there is a plan to vote on it tonight. We also understand there may have been some changes to the bill, so we’re – I’d refer you to the Israelis for more information. I don’t have what those changes might be.
QUESTION: We’ve had what appears to be the first real democratic transition in Central Asia with the election in Uzbekistan yesterday. But the OSCE Human Rights Office says the campaign was, quote, “devoid of genuine competition and that the media covering the election was in a highly restrictive and controlled environment, and the state-defined narrative did not provide voters the opportunity to hear alternative viewpoints.”
How does the State Department assess this election?
MR TONER: So you’re correct; the OSCE did note some irregularities in the conduct of the December 4th vote and some shortcomings in the electoral process. They did, however, praise the election’s increased transparency. They praised access to disabled voters and, frankly, unfettered access to 600 international observers. And the embassy I think did – our U.S. embassy did conduct its own observation mission.
Overall, we congratulate acting President and Prime Minister Mirziyoyev – excuse me, I just really fractured his name, I apologize – Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev and his election as the new president of Uzbekistan. And as the country – as Uzbekistan transitions into this new chapter, we look forward to sustained regional stability and progress towards broad economic and political and social reforms. And just to highlight that ongoing engagement, there will be a meeting of these Central Asian countries, I think the third one. I was at the first one in Samarkand, I think, last year. And that’ll take place in Hamburg later this week.
MR TONER: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Prime Minister Abe --
MR TONER: Where are we at? Oh, Japan, I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Prime Minister Abe will visit Pearl Harbor later this month and meet with President Obama. Do you have any expectations for this visit?
MR TONER: Do I have any expectations?
QUESTION: Mm-hmm, or what are your expectations?
MR TONER: No. I mean, I – honestly, I would just refer you to the statement, I believe, that the White House put out. You’re right. It’s going to take place on December 27th, 2016. But again, in the statement, they just said that it’s an opportunity for the two leaders to review joint efforts over the past four years to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, which is a critical one for us, obviously. And poignantly, the President will also accompany Prime Minister Abe to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor to honor those who were killed on December 7th.
QUESTION: And specifically on --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: -- U.S.-Japan relations, what effect do you think it will have?
MR TONER: I’m sorry?
QUESTION: What effect do you think it will have on U.S.-Japan relations?
MR TONER: You’re talking about the visit to the memorial or the visit to – just the visit in general?
QUESTION: To – yes, in general.
MR TONER: Okay. (Laughter.) Sorry. It’s obviously the end of President Obama’s Administration, his tenure as President, and he, as we all know, has been at the forefront of our strategic pivot to Asia, and --
QUESTION: Thought it was rebalancing.
MR TONER: Rebalancing, yes. (Laughter.) Thank you. I’m using first-term language here, I apologize. Rebalancing to Asia and I think it’s going to be a chance for them to take stock of what was accomplished, but also look to the future, and I think to just convey that the U.S.-Japan partnership alliance is a critical one to our ongoing engagement with Asia.
QUESTION: On --
QUESTION: And do you think – sorry, one more.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: Do you think the U.S. Government will be expecting any sort of apology from Prime Minister Abe while he’s there?
MR TONER: Look, I’m not going to speak to that. That’s – I think it’s – it will be a, as I just said, a very poignant moment in the long process of reconciliation and partnership with Japan coming out of that terrible day.
QUESTION: But you’re not asking for --
MR TONER: I’m not asking for --
QUESTION: You’re not asking for an apology?
MR TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no. It’s --
MR TONER: Please, in the back.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: The North Korean foreign ministry has announced that North Korea will take strong actions against the new UN sanctions and the U.S. additional sanctions on North Korea. Do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: I don’t, other than that we would hope that the action – the strong action that they would take would be to address the international community’s very serious concerns about their nuclear ambitions. That’s the actions that these sanctions are designed to prompt.
QUESTION: Do you have any --
QUESTION: Can I just ask really quickly – a follow-up on my question? Because apparently, the Israeli Knesset just passed the first law regarding --
MR TONER: I keep telling them we got to cut the Wi-Fi in here. (Laughter.) I’ll never get out of here. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I wonder if you have any comment on that. Because yesterday, it was – the Secretary said it was very clear and warning against such a step, but apparently, today, that step is taken. So in light of that, would the United States pursue any kind of effort at the United Nations?
MR TONER: I don’t have any – certainly not going to speak to any actions we may pursue with regard to the United Nations. Our clear – our policy of settlements, I think, is crystal clear.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:03 p.m.)