Daily Press Briefing - December 19, 2016

John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 19, 2016


2:12 p.m. EST

MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. I’ll get that there.

I know – or at least I hope – you’ve seen the statement that the Secretary just put out, but if you didn’t, please allow me to reiterate what Secretary Kerry said in his statement, which is that the United States condemns the assassination today in Ankara of Russian Ambassador Andrey Karlov. Our thoughts and prayers are of course with his loved ones, with the Russian people, and with all the other victims who were injured in this attack and their families. We stand ready to offer any assistance that may be required to Russia and Turkey as they investigate this despicable attack, which was, as the Secretary noted, also an assault on the right of all diplomats to safely and securely advance and represent their nations around the world.

On Libya, Saturday – this last Saturday – apologize, the 17th – marked the one-year anniversary of the signing of the historic Libyan Political Agreement in Morocco by the participants of the Libyan Political Dialogue, a broad range of Libyan society from across the country, including members of the house of representatives. The Libyan Political Agreement paved the way for the formation of the Government of National Accord, the GNA, and its presidency council under the leadership of Prime Minister al-Sarraj. During the past year, the GNA presidency council has taken significant steps to combat terrorism, to increase oil production, to improve economic management, and to establish a presidential guard to restore security and governance in Libya. The prime minister has been a steadfast partner of the United States against Daesh. GNA-aligned forces made great sacrifices in eradicating Daesh from Sirte, making Libya and the world safer. The United States supported the GNA by conducting nearly 500 airstrikes in Sirte at the request of Prime Minister al-Sarraj.

Now, in the next phase of implementation of the political agreement, the international community must stand by the GNA as it continues toward national reconciliation and builds consensus for a constitutional referendum and legislative and executive national elections. The Libyan Political Agreement is a transitional two-year road map. It is the responsibility of the GNA and all Libyans to ensure a stable, peaceful transition to an elected, unified government that represents all Libyans.

With that, Brad.

QUESTION: Seen the statements by you and the Secretary. Secretary said he would be willing – the U.S. would be willing to help with the Russians and Turks on any aspect of the investigation. Has he had any preliminary contacts with either side, or has anyone else in this building?

MR KIRBY: No, not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: Are you worried – let me say – are you prepared for what I think is going to be inevitable claims from some parts of Turkey that either the U.S. is somehow responsible or that its protection of Mr. Gulen is somehow involved in this? I’ve already seen some stuff on Twitter from prominent individuals suggesting this was a Gulenist plot.


QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about that?

MR KIRBY: We – I’ve seen some of those claims as well, Brad. I mean, look, this just happened literally, what, not even hours ago, and there’s an investigation which is just now starting. And I’m certainly not going to and I don’t think it’s helpful for anybody to prejudge the outcomes of this investigation.

We also have to remember that there’s a mourning family out there. There’s a diplomat now who lay dead and a family who is going through an incredibly tough time, as well as those who were hurt and their loved ones. So I think that’s where we need to stay focused, not on needlessly pointing fingers here, until the investigation has had a chance to work its way through.

As for the United States, as I’ve said many, many times, we – as we always have – continue to support the democratically elected government of Turkey, and any suggestion that the United States in any way, shape, or form would be responsible for this act of murder and assassination or any other related activity to the coup – and I’m not saying this one was. I’m just saying that it obviously flies in the face of facts.

QUESTION: And lastly, the Russians say they’re going ahead with this tripartite meeting tomorrow. Has the U.S. reconsidered, or has the U.S. received any invitation to take part in any way, or has it asked to be part of this process in any --

MR KIRBY: No, as far as I know, this is, as you’ve described it, between Russia, Iran, and Turkey. And as we’ve always said, any solutions that can be arrived by any of the parties that can lead to a reduction in the bloodshed, to a cessation of hostilities, to humanitarian aid, and to a resumption of political talks is welcome, whether or not we’re at the table.

QUESTION: But you’re not – so you’re not an active participant in this diplomatic instance, let’s say?



QUESTION: Do you consider this assassination as a terror act?

MR KIRBY: I think that’s for the investigators to determine. I have seen the press reporting, as you have, of some of the things shouted by the perpetrator, but I’m – we weren’t there and I think it’s really important that we let investigators work through this. I certainly couldn’t rule out terrorism as a motive or behind this. Wouldn’t rule that out at all at this early stage. But I think it’s really important that rather than jumping to conclusions, particularly those of us who aren’t there and weren’t involved, that we ought to let the investigators do their jobs.

QUESTION: Supposedly, the killer was one of the, like, militant supporters, so he was shouting, “We die in Aleppo and you die here.” So are you going to use, like, U.S. influence to let these militants know that this kind of, like, criminal act is unacceptable?

MR KIRBY: Well, sir, I think in your question you’re already making the assumption that it’s, in fact, what’s behind this. And it could very well be. I’m not ruling that out or in; it’s not my place. We need to let the investigation run its course to figure out exactly what happened here, and I’m just not going to jump to conclusions. If it is an act of terrorism – and I’m not saying it is, but if it is – obviously, we have routinely and continue to condemn all acts of terrorism. We condemn this murder. We condemned it very openly, very strongly. You heard the Secretary say so himself – this assassination. I correct myself – this assassination.

But I think it’s really important to let the investigation work its way, okay?

QUESTION: What is the situation at the U.S. embassy right now in Ankara? The State Department Diplomatic Security tweeted it was under lockdown. There’s an advisory sent out to U.S. citizens to stay away from the area.

MR KIRBY: I’m not aware that the situation at the embassy has changed since they issued the lockdown and issued a message urging people to stay away from it. That was an act of prudence, and obviously keeping safety foremost in mind. I don’t have an update beyond that.


MR KIRBY: But the embassy wasn’t involved in this. It just is, as I understand it, very close.

QUESTION: It’s fairly close though, right?

MR KIRBY: Somebody told me it’s within a hundred yards or so.

QUESTION: Hundred, yeah.

MR KIRBY: So that’s pretty close and I think that warrants this embassy issuing a security message, but I’m not aware that there’s been any change to their status after they issued the lockdown.

QUESTION: And what are international guidelines --

MR KIRBY: Can I ask who you are?

QUESTION: Excuse me?

MR KIRBY: Who are you?

QUESTION: With Russian TV.


QUESTION: TV show in Russia. What are international guidelines in terms of diplomats’ securities? Does U.S. ambassador to Turkey have armed bodyguards or, like, extensional* security in this --

MR KIRBY: Well, look, I think wherever we have ambassadors and consulate officials around the world, they have appropriate security. We never talk about the details of the force protection procedures and processes and resources that we apply in any country anywhere around the world. We obviously take the safety and security of not only our personnel but Americans abroad very, very seriously, and I think I’ll leave it at that. Okay?


QUESTION: Let me ask – the shooter is quoted as saying, “Don’t forget Syria, don’t forget Aleppo. You will not be safe as long as we are not safe.” Is there any reaction to these words from the shooter?

MR KIRBY: I have seen the press reports of those comments, and only the press reports of those comments. As I said, the U.S. State Department is not ruling out the possibility that this is an act of terrorism. We would never do that. But I think we also need to let investigators do their work. It is still very much an active crime scene, and we’re going to let that process proceed before making any conclusions. And matter of fact, it really isn’t for us to make those conclusions. But certainly, without question, we would think that terrorism would need to be one thing investigated, one thing looked into, given the press reporting that we’ve seen about what his alleged comments were. But again, I don’t think it’s helpful for anybody to get ahead of this.

I also think, if you don’t mind me saying, that we all need to recognize that there’s a family going through a very tough time today. This man was assassinated in cold blood, and I think we need to keep their sensitivities and their concerns and their grief in mind right now, and it doesn’t do anybody any good to try to leap two, three, 10 steps ahead of where we are. There is a diplomat who was killed today. There’s a family who’s in grief, and obviously this is an assault, as the Secretary said, not just on this individual but on the act of diplomacy itself. I mean, he was speaking at an art gallery. This is what – part of what diplomats do, in terms of sharing in dialogue and culture. And I mean, there’s an international system here that was also assaulted, and I think we need to keep that in mind.

QUESTION: Now, is the situation at the U.S. embassy connected with the shooting? Is this, like, in response to the shooting, or is there a separate incident?

MR KIRBY: No. I mean, they – the order to lock down and the security message was done specifically because of the shooting at the art gallery. There is no other incident, no other threat at all. This – the embassy did exactly what they should have done given their proximity to the scene.

QUESTION: And will this enhance the possibility of cooperation between countries against terrorism?

MR KIRBY: I think, as we’ve said many times, the international community does share a common threat against terrorism. And to the degree that the international community, bilaterally or multilaterally, can improve cooperation on counter-terrorism efforts, that’s to the betterment of everybody, no matter where you live, no matter what country you call home. What will come as a result of this incident I think we, again, need to wait to see the results of the investigation and see where it leads us. As I said, I don’t think anybody can rule out the possibility that this was terrorism, but we can’t get ahead of what is really only an hour or two old fresh start investigation.

QUESTION: Now, the city that the shooter reportedly invoked is a big point of disagreement between the United States and Russia, correct?

MR KIRBY: It’s a big point of contention between Syria, Russia, Iran, and the rest of the international community.


MR KIRBY: Ma’am.

QUESTION: Have we increased security or taken any further precautions for our own ambassadors in the area and other countries surrounding that?

MR KIRBY: Well, as – again, I would say we don’t talk about the specifics of force protection. We obviously take the protection of our embassy personnel very, very seriously all around the world. And you can imagine that in certain places and at certain times that security is adjusted to react to or to reflect whatever the security environment is there. I won’t speculate, I won’t talk in any detail about what if any changes there might be to our security posture in Ankara. I can just assure you and assure the American people that we take the safety and security of our ambassadors and our embassy personnel very, very seriously – as, if I could just mention, we also do take seriously the safety and security of Americans that are overseas, whether they’re on business or on travel for pleasure. That’s why it was so important for our embassy to issue that security message to warn people to stay away because of their proximity to this event.

So it’s something we always look at, we always amend as needed, and we never, ever talk about the details of that.

QUESTION: Syria question.


QUESTION: UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura said he plans to convene peace talks in Geneva in February.


QUESTION: Does the U.S. have any comment or statement?

MR KIRBY: We’ve seen those comments, and if in fact it can be done in February, we would certainly welcome that. I think you heard the Secretary talk to this last week, that we want to see a return to political talks as soon as possible. So if in fact it can happen in early February, that would be very welcome.

Yeah. Yeah.

QUESTION: In Iraq, Mosul. Both The New York Times and Washington Post over the weekend reported that there are serious difficulties in the liberation of Mosul, both in the slow pace of the operation and in the humanitarian situation. Do you think that you or at least Baghdad, which had the lead, that you – that the difficulties in Mosul were underestimated?

MR KIRBY: Well, first of all, I would commend the reporting of both The Washington Post and The New York Times. I mean, those are very thoughtful pieces about a very dynamic, very fluid, very challenging environment. And there is no question – I think everybody knew well in advance of the Mosul campaign kicking off that it was going to be difficult and that there was going to be humanitarian needs on a major scale as a result of the campaign.

I remember being asked many months ago about, “Why hasn’t Mosul kicked off yet,” and “What’s the delay,” and “Why aren’t you putting more effort into spurring Iraq to mount that campaign sooner?” And back then we said, “Because it’s going to be hard, and because there’s a lot of planning that needs to go into it” – not just pre-planning, or even implementation, but thinking about post-liberation.

And so there was a lot of that thought and there was a lot of that planning, and there has been a lot of effort put into the humanitarian aspect of this. And just, if you don’t mind, I’ll walk through just a little bit of it.

Now, as I say this, I also want to say right at the outset that we’re mindful there’s still work to be done. We’re mindful that there are still internally-displaced people and that there are still needs that have to be met. I’m not at all suggesting that the reporting is inaccurate. We know that there are many people being pushed out because of the campaign there and that they are, some of them, in desperate need. But there was a lot of thought given to this and there has been a lot of effort applied to it. Since the 17th of October, UN and humanitarian partners have provided more than 130,000 people with USAID-funded relief kits, nearly 163,000 – I’m sorry, nearly 164,000 people with household items, and approximately 185,000 with 30-day food rations. Relief groups have also provided medical care to almost 50,000 people. Since the start of the operation, more than 100,000 have been provided shelter in camps or local communities. There continue to be spaces available – more than 40,000 spaces available – for additional internally displaced people who are – who we do anticipate now being in need as a result of the Mosul operations.

On December 8th, just a little bit ago, USAID-funded UN partners, the World Food Program, UNICEF, UN Population Fund provided food, hygiene kits, water for – purification tablets, water containers, and other critical relief items to more than 42,000 people in eastern Mosul, making this the single largest humanitarian aid delivery in eastern Mosul since the current conflict began.

So, look, that’s just a little bit of the metrics to show the degree to which and the specificity to which these kinds of needs were anticipated. Again, not disputing the reporting, not disputing that more needs to be done and that we’re going to continue to work with the Government of Iraq and with the UN and other agencies to constantly assess the situation on the ground and adjust as necessary.

QUESTION: Well, would you know, then, why there’s space available? The Washington Post says that humanitarian agencies say – in Mosul say they don’t have enough aid to meet the need. Is it that people can’t get out or --

MR KIRBY: Well, as I said, we hold it that there is space available – more than 40,000 spaces available. And if there’s a disconnect, we’ll see what we can do to close that disconnect, to close that seam. And as I also said, we’re in constant communication with the UN and other aid agencies and organizations, and we’ll continue to do that. But I also – but I want to underscore here that while we have thought this through and while we have done these things, we recognize there’s still a challenge out there. We’re not at all rejecting that premise, and we’re not at all saying that there aren’t people in need. Maybe it’s just that they don’t know where to go, so maybe it’s really just an issue of trying to help them get to where they need to be. But we’re all mindful of this.

And as to your question on the pace of it, as we also always said that this was going to be a long, tough fight, it’s proving to be a long, tough fight, and it’s only going to go as fast and it’s only going to go as far as the Iraqi Security Forces are able to do it on their schedule, on their plan. This is their campaign. We’re going to continue to support it.

QUESTION: If I could ask two related questions. Secretary Kerry was in Riyadh over the weekend, maybe even you were with him. Anyhow --

MR KIRBY: No, he’s not back yet. So I know I wasn’t there.

QUESTION: You weren’t with him, okay. But did he discuss the fight against ISIS while he was in Riyadh, or are the Saudis still part of the anti-ISIS coalition?

MR KIRBY: They are. They are a major contributor in terms of humanitarian needs and other such contributions. Certainly, they’re a part of the coalition, absolutely. And yes, they did talk about the counter-Daesh fight. But the primary focus, as I think you saw from the Secretary’s comments himself, was really about Yemen and trying to get to a better outcome there.

QUESTION: Can you inform us what they discussed about the counter-Daesh fight?

MR KIRBY: I think I’d leave it to the traveling team to read out those discussions. And you saw the Secretary’s press conference himself. Obviously, they talked about the need to continue to keep the pressure on Daesh. They talked about the progress that we’ve made against the organization, and yet they also, I think, squarely acknowledged that there’s more to be done.

QUESTION: Can I ask about Iraq?


QUESTION: Well, could I have just one more on Baghdadi? You’ve announced $25 million for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. What explains the timing? Is it related to concerns about ISIS terrorism that have prompted the Raqqa operation to be accelerated or something like that?

MR KIRBY: The – I’m not aware that there was a particular trigger here. I think Brett McGurk and our principal deputy assistant secretary for diplomatic security talked about this on Friday. But look, I mean, we have to continue to look for ways to put pressure on Daesh. And this is a group that is under stress, no question about it. But this particular decision on Baghdadi is very much in keeping with our broader efforts to continue to try to degrade and destroy this group. And I wouldn't link the timing of the announcement to any one thing. We certainly know he’s still out there. We certainly know that he’s in a leadership role, and that makes him a legitimate national security threat.

QUESTION: So just kind of out of the blue. For your --

MR KIRBY: I wouldn’t say it was out of the blue. I mean, you don’t – we don’t just --

QUESTION: Well, what causes it?

MR KIRBY: I think I answered the question.


QUESTION: Over the weekend there were Iranian calls for a P5+1 plus Iran meeting. They’re still quite peeved about the Iran Sanctions Act extension. Is that something the United States would be amenable to?

MR KIRBY: Well, as you know, the joint commission was set up to talk about compliance issues and to provide a forum to do that. So certainly it’s within Iran’s purview to ask for a joint commission meeting to talk about this as they see it in terms of compliance.

What I would just simply repeat is that the Iran Sanctions Act was in place at the time the JCPOA was negotiated and has remained in place. Its extension is not a violation of the JCPOA and does not re-introduce or re-impose any nuclear-related secondary sanctions that were waived on implementation day, nor does it impose any new nuclear-related sanctions. So while we didn’t believe the act needed to be extended, its extension as written in law does not violate it. We stand by that as well as the Secretary’s intention to continue to waive as necessary --

QUESTION: Specific sanctions, yeah.

MR KIRBY: -- those specific sanctions. Yeah. So – but again, look, I mean --

QUESTION: But when is --

MR KIRBY: -- if they call for that, certainly that’s their purview to do it and we would participate.

QUESTION: So you – okay, that was – so do you expect this meeting – well, what level would this meeting be at? Just --

MR KIRBY: I don’t know.

QUESTION: -- technical level?

MR KIRBY: I don’t know. It’s hypothetical at this point.

QUESTION: Okay, and then one other Iran question. There were some pictures – plenty of them, actually – of IRGC Commander Qasem Soleimani in Aleppo. I know this isn’t the first time he’s traveled abroad despite his ban on international travel. Is this something you guys plan to raise at any level, or have you kind of given up on enforcement of this ban?

MR KIRBY: No, we do intend to consult with our partners on the Security Council about how to address our concerns with this. We’ve long said that Iran needs to choose whether it’s going to play a positive role in helping peacefully resolve conflicts such as in Syria or whether it will choose to prolong them. And you’re absolutely right; his travel is a violation. He’s one of the designated individuals. No exemption to the travel ban was sought, and so it does constitute a violation of UNSCR 2231. As I said, we will – we fully anticipate bringing this up inside the council.

QUESTION: The last – well, not the last time, but previously he’s been – there’s been talk of him visiting Moscow, I think confirmation of him at least once visiting Moscow. How did that go when you brought that up in the sanctions committee given that Russia was a member?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have the history here in front of me. Let me see if we can get – I know we raised it, but I don’t recall what the outcome was. We’ll get you that.


MR KIRBY: That’s just a bit of history I don’t have.


QUESTION: This morning – well, this morning our time, I don’t know what time it was in France – Christine Lagarde, the director of the IMF, was convicted of negligence in a French court for actions she took – committed before she became director of the IMF. Does the United States still have confidence in her as the leader of an international organization?

MR KIRBY: I think we’re not going to make a judgment here about the court’s decision. I’m not – as I think we are still studying it, and I think I would reserve a statement or a conclusion by the United States until we’ve had a chance to review it further.


QUESTION: Sir, can we go to Asia?


QUESTION: So Secretary Russell was in Japan this weekend. I was wondering if you had any readouts.

MR KIRBY: I don’t, actually. You’re right; he was in Tokyo. And as I understand, he’s wrapping up his visit, so we’ll have to get back to you on a readout of his discussions. I just don’t have that here as of the time we came out.

QUESTION: Okay. And also, I hope I can ask about the drone that was seized in the --


QUESTION: -- South China Sea. So first, are there any, like, updates or --

MR KIRBY: Unmanned Underwater Vehicle.



MR KIRBY: UUV. (Laughter.) Not drone, but please go ahead.

QUESTION: Underwater drone, is it? So I was wondering if there’s --

MR KIRBY: No, it’s not an underwater drone. (Laughter.) I think I know what I’m talking about on this one.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) My apologies.

MR KIRBY: It’s all right.

QUESTION: I’m wondering if there’s any updates since this weekend in the talks about maybe getting it back or --

MR KIRBY: I think my Pentagon colleague addressed this just a few minutes ago. As we are given to understand it here at the State Department, there are discussions going on now military-to-military to arrange the return of the UUV. I don’t believe the details of that have been fleshed out, so I’ll let DOD speak to how that’s all going to transpire.

QUESTION: And I was just wondering, so I know you’ve spoken very much about like freedom of navigation. And when it comes to these UUVs, does that – is that included within that definition? Because as far as my understanding, it was, like, taking the – excuse me – taking the temperature of the water and, like, and all that. So does that – is that also freedom of navigation?

MR KIRBY: Well, I think the short answer to your question is yes. I don’t know exactly what you’re asking, but let me just back up a little bit. The device that we’re talking about is – it’s a scientific research device. It’s meant to help us with oceanographic studies. Now, I don’t know – maybe you know more than me. I don’t know what specifically they had tasked this UUV to do on that particular day, but it was doing oceanographic work and only oceanographic work. And there’s many different tasks that you can put these tools to, so again, I don’t know whether it was temperature taking or what. And again, DOD can speak to that.

But it absolutely was operating inside international waters, and it was absolutely performing necessary scientific research, certainly within the bounds of international law. And the absconding with it acted against that very international law, which is, again, why we’re going to get it back. Okay?


QUESTION: So do you see it as, like, raising the tension with respect to --

MR KIRBY: Well, it’s certainly not doing anything to de-escalate tensions. It --

QUESTION: So did you --

MR KIRBY: Go ahead. No, go ahead.

QUESTION: So did you raise your concern with your Chinese counterpart?

MR KIRBY: We – yes, of course, we did. Yes. Ambassador Baucus, our ambassador in Beijing, personally was involved in the discussions which led to our ability now to get it returned, for the Chinese, the PLA, to – to return it to us. So yes, we were absolutely engaged right there at our ambassador’s level.


QUESTION: A new subject. I’m wondering if you can confirm this letter from House Democrats to the Secretary of State warning of a potential witch hunt here at the State Department by the incoming administration and advising the Secretary essentially to push back against any potential retaliation against Foreign Service officers, Civil Servants, and other staff, for anything they may have been involved in in working on policy.

MR KIRBY: Well, I can confirm that we’ve – we’re in receipt of a letter from members of Congress that voices their concerns over what they saw as reported requests for names of individuals who work on energy issues, I think at the Department of Energy. And it was an expression of their concern over the possibility that such a request would be made here at State. We’re going to reply as appropriate to those members of Congress. I’m not going to read out that reply here in public, but we certainly understand their concerns and we’ll respond appropriately.

For our part, we continue to work with the transition team that’s here at the State Department to help them prepare for seamlessly assuming the reins here at Foggy Bottom, and that work continues.

QUESTION: Has there been any request here similar to what happened at Energy as far as getting --

MR KIRBY: I know of no such request for lists of people that were involved in energy issues here at the State Department.

QUESTION: Or any issue?

MR KIRBY: Or any issue. I know of no such request for lists of that sort.


QUESTION: Last week the Family Research Council president urged the incoming president to remove State Department officials who support the promotion of LGBT rights and reproductive rights abroad. That came out last Wednesday, I believe. Do you have any comment on that?

MR KIRBY: I’ve seen the letter, and I think the president-elect’s transition team already spoke to that, the issue, and pushed back pretty hard, I thought, on the notion that the president-elect would in any way abide by discrimination here at the State Department. So I think I would let them speak to the concerns, as they did, expressed by the Family Research Council since their open letter was addressed really towards the president-elect. But again, I’d point you back to what Mr. Miller said. I think he was pretty succinct, pretty clear, pretty concise about where they stand on discrimination, and I think you know very well our views on human rights writ large not just here at the State Department but around the world.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Okay, I’ve got time for just – looks like I’ve got time for two more. Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: Just real quick, and you might not have something on this. We’re just getting reports of a truck running into a crowded Christmas market – nothing yet? – in Berlin.

MR KIRBY: Why do you look at her and not me? (Laughter.) I’m the one up here.

QUESTION: She’s on her State email. She’s on her Blackberry. (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: I look at her too all the time. If she doesn’t know it, I don’t know it.

We’ll have to get back to you. Sorry.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

QUESTION: And I wanted to ask about Taiwan, because President Obama said last week that as long as the Taiwanese are able to continue with some degree of autonomy, they won’t charge forward and declare the independence. That’s kind of new to us. I mean, usually U.S. says that U.S. does not support Taiwan for independence. Does that imply then the U.S. changed its position?

MR KIRBY: There is no change to our “one China” policy.

Thanks, everybody. Have a great day.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:44 p.m.)