Daily Press Briefing - December 21, 2016

John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 21, 2016


2:09 p.m. EST

MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. We’ll wait for Lesley to get seated – (laughter) – and begin. I don’t have any opening comments, so we’ll hit it over to you, Brad.

QUESTION: I don’t have a whole lot either, but I did want to ask you about the Kremlin’s remark that U.S.-Russian ties are essentially frozen now --


QUESTION: -- or nonexistent, if you will.


QUESTION: Do you have a response to that statement?

MR KIRBY: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know exactly what to make of that comment. Obviously, we don’t agree and have issues with Russia on a variety of issues, but dialogue has not been broken. We talked yesterday about the Secretary and his phone call with Foreign Minister Lavrov after their meeting on Syria in Moscow. The – I think the Defense Department acknowledged earlier today that they too held a de-confliction VTC, as they’ve been doing, with respect to operations in Syria. So certainly on the major issues and the issues that matter most, I mean, there continues to be a dialogue. So I’m just not sure what to make of his comment; that’s certainly not reflective of the way we see communications between Moscow and Washington.

QUESTION: Given that when there was the period that the United States said it was cutting back bilateral engagement with Russia, you still maintained the de-confliction, is there any other process right now you can point to where there is kind of strong U.S.-Russian engagement? I mean, they’ve excluded you just recently from this latest Syrian effort. Is there something going on otherwise that you can point to?

MR KIRBY: Well, I would push back on this idea that they’ve excluded us from Syria. Yes, we weren’t in the meeting in Moscow, but it’s not as if we haven’t had communication with them before and then right after that meeting. So there’s been no exclusion of the United States with respect to the issue of Syria. You’re right; DOD keeps the de-confliction channel open, and they just used it again today as I’m given to understand. And then there’s just a range of other issues where dialogue continues with Russia, even on Ukraine and our concerns about where the Minsk agreement is and their implementation of it. So even on an issue like that where clearly we’re not in agreement on everything, we’re still – there’s still dialogue. And then just the normal give and take on a day-to-day basis. We have an embassy there, an ambassador who engages with his counterparts every day and on all manner of issues.


QUESTION: Mr. Kirby --

QUESTION: Just one more, just – and then I’m done. Since we’re on this broader U.S.-Russian relationship and levels of interaction, has there been any recent conversations involving anyone from the State Department on the cyber matter? Whether it was Mr. Painter or someone else, has there been any cyber talks involving the State Department?

MR KIRBY: By cyber, are you referring to the intel community’s assessment of hacking during the election?

QUESTION: However you want to categorize it.

MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any specific bilateral discussions with respect to cyber issues of late. There was, as we said even back in the fall, communications between this Administration and President Putin about our concerns over indications that we had prior to the election that they were involving themselves in cyber issues with respect to electoral confidence here in the United States. I’m not aware of anything in just recent days or weeks.

I would remind, though, that the President did order a review. That review’s ongoing. He wants it on his desk before the end of his term of office, and so we’re – that’s what our focus is on – on cyber issues with Russia specifically, that’s the focus area.


QUESTION: Kirby, can I ask, have you sought clarification from the Russians on what he meant by that statement?


QUESTION: Nothing?



QUESTION: Isn’t it self-evident – he’s not talking about break in the relations. He is speaking about a freeze, about how the contacts became pretty minimal. I mean, the Bilateral Presidential Commission is frozen and almost all high-level contacts are gone. He is not speaking about break; he is speaking about how it’s all one nosedive.

MR KIRBY: I think I’ve answered the question. You have the foreign minister of their country and the Secretary of State of the United States just speaking yesterday, and you have --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR KIRBY: -- let me finish – you have the Defense Department acknowledging that they held another VTC on de-confliction in Syria, what, today, I think. I – as I said at the outset – and maybe you didn’t hear what I said – I said I don’t know what to make of his comments. I think you should ask Mr. Peskov what he means by his comments. What I can tell you is from our perspective, there’s no break in the dialogue and communications are not frozen. That’s not the way we would describe it.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t tension between the United States and Russia on a range of issues. Brad talked about cyber. That’s clearly an issue of tension. Ukraine is an issue of tension. What’s going on in Syria and Aleppo – obviously, an issue of tension. But the dialogue, the communications, haven’t been frozen. That’s not the way we would describe it. You should ask Mr. Peskov what he meant by his comments. I’m not clear I understand what he meant by his comments.

QUESTION: I’m not trying to argue this point, and I agree with you, and I agree with him. What I’m saying is it’s – I mean, it’s not a big deal, the way I see it, and this is – this is sort of becoming another stumbling block where it’s not even needed. I mean, something seems to be lost in translation, and maybe I’m wrong.

MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I don’t know if you’re wrong or not. As I said, I don’t know what to make of his comments either. But look, there’s a lot of issues where dialogue and communications between the United States and Russia remains important, and for our part, we remain committed to that dialogue and that communication. Again – and it doesn’t mean that we’re not always going to agree and it doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be tensions. But as far as we’re concerned, communications is – are not frozen and dialogue is still happening. Differences are still being discussed, debated, and there continues to be, obviously, issues of concern. But again, I would point you to Mr. Peskov for a greater clarification of what he meant, because it wasn’t clear to me.

QUESTION: Could the sanctions that were imposed yesterday have anything to do with that? Do you think that was a reaction?

MR KIRBY: You’d have to ask Mr. Peskov. I don’t know.

QUESTION: Well, in your assessment – in your assessment, could the sanctions – I mean, there is a great deal of anti-Russian sentiment that is going around town and so on, and there is added sanctions. Could that, in a way, exacerbated the --

MR KIRBY: Said, I really couldn’t get inside Mr. Peskov’s head and tell you that. You’d really have to talk to him.

QUESTION: Okay. Let me just ask you a couple more questions. Can you sort of name a time where the relations between – Russian-U.S. relations have been this bad since the Cold War?

MR KIRBY: I think we’ve actually had this exchange a while ago.

QUESTION: We discussed it – right, right.

MR KIRBY: I’m not a historian to the degree that I can – or to any degree, but certainly to the degree that I can walk you through the history since the end of the Cold War. But obviously, there’s been times since the wall came down that there have been heightened tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation. And there have been times when those tensions have been eased and we have been able to work constructively with Russia on things like climate change and on – like the – on the Iran deal, and up until recently, on Syria. So I just don’t know. I’m not expert enough to tell you that this is sort of the nadir of the relationship between the United States and Russia, and nobody’s looking for that. As tense as things are and can be, we still believe it’s an important bilateral relationship and it’s important to keep working on it.

QUESTION: And my last one on this: I mean, I am an old-timer and I remember during the height of the Cold War there were still delegations being exchanged in science and other areas. Almost on a daily basis, there were things that are going on. There are – today, they’re just not there, or at least we don’t see them.

MR KIRBY: I think I kind of touched on this with Brad. I think that’s not necessarily correct, Said. I mean, there are daily interactions. We do have diplomatic relations with Russia. There are exchange programs. There are Russian students here and American students there. I mean, there is – there are ongoing exchanges and interactions between the United States and Russia, between our two governments, and between our two peoples, and that’s healthy. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to agree on everything, and we don’t. But there’s been no break in dialogue, there’s been no break in diplomatic relations, and those things continue.

Yeah, in the back there, because I’m guessing you’re going to ask about this too, right?

QUESTION: Well, I’m actually going to ask about Aleppo.


QUESTION: Repeatedly from this podium, when asked about the situation in Aleppo, you have advised people here to turn on their TVs, watch American television. Do you stand by that? Do you still recommend people do that if they want to learn credible reports about what’s happening in Aleppo?

MR KIRBY: Oh, I think you’re grossly mischaracterizing my comments. I didn’t say that the only way to get informed about Aleppo is to turn on your TV. I was referring to questions about people dancing in the streets. And I didn’t deny – unlike what’s been out there on Twitter, I didn’t deny that there aren’t images of people that were – may have been happy about what happened in Aleppo. I said I hadn’t seen them, which at the time I hadn’t. But I also encouraged people to look at news coverage – the broad swath of news coverage – about what’s going on in Aleppo. And I think you can see that through the imagery that’s being conveyed, mostly by television news coverage but not only, you can see the devastation that’s being wrought on the people of Aleppo and the innocent men, women, and children that are still there, that still are trying to get out, and still haven’t received any humanitarian aid.

So let’s not oversimplify what I said.

QUESTION: Well, let me ask you, one of the things that was highlighted on American television was these final messages from people, right? They were tweeting out this is their final message, as soon as the city is liberated we’re going to be killed, and these messages turned out to not be final messages. I mean, not a single one of these people ended up being – being slaughtered. So is it still credible to watch American media?

MR KIRBY: Boy, talk about a loaded question. So I don’t know, maybe you have specific knowledge about every person that sent a tweet as --

QUESTION: I have some specifics here if you want to get into that.



MR KIRBY: If you’ll let me finish --


MR KIRBY: -- then we can have this conversation. Maybe you have more knowledge about the individuals tweeting. I don’t. And my goodness, if every single person that thought they were going to die at the hands of the Syrian armed forces with the support of Russia didn’t die, you’re going to – are you claiming that’s a bad thing? I think that’s a pretty darn good thing. So I can’t speak for the fact that some may have survived and some didn’t. But the fact that they believed it at the time and were honestly scared about their lives and the livelihoods of their friends and family seemed pretty legitimate to me based on the social media interaction that I saw. If that didn’t happen to them, then I think that’s terrific, obviously, and we should all be rejoicing in the fact that they were able to survive the onslaught and the siege and the surrender tactics of the regime and its backers.

Now, as for the American media, yeah, I think – I think the reporting coming out of Aleppo, some of what we’re seeing is pretty darn courageous reporting, pretty brave.


MR KIRBY: And I think it’s pretty important. And I always advocate, whenever anybody asks me about media coverage, to read and digest a broad array of media – not just U.S. media but foreign media as well. Take it all in, take all those sources and make your own judgments. But absolutely, I think it’s important that independent, third-party media coverage of whatever the issue is – we’re talking about Aleppo; it could be anything – is vital. It’s vital to the public so that they can better understand what’s going on. So if you’re asking me if I think that following the U.S. media with respect to what’s going on in Syria is important, the answer is absolutely yes.

QUESTION: Well, one of the journalists who was – who was quoted and featured across American mainstream media is Bilal Abdul Kareem. Here he is being interviewed. And this individual, we also have some of his other journalism, and here he is with someone – this is what he, in his words, describes as an explosive vest, and this is an interview he did with a fighter in an explosive vest. He reports, “The fighters are now preparing to leave the city. This is an explosive belt. This is what many fighters are wearing because they don’t feel they can trust the regime.” Is this an unbiased, credible source, this person standing next to what looks like a potential suicide bomber?

MR KIRBY: Look, I’m not going to speak to every single news account that you can sit there and cite, sir. What I can tell you is, as I said, I think the broad swath of coverage about what’s going on in Syria is worth people paying attention to, and people have to decide for themselves what they’re going to find credible and what they’re not going to find credible. But if you’re – if by the tone of your questioning or by the questions themselves you’re trying to imply that what’s going on in Aleppo is more – nothing more than a liberation festival or a parade of proud, happy people that they’re being liberated, I think that is ludicrous and I think it is not backed up by any stretch of normal, independent reporting that we’ve seen coming out of there.

Now, I’m not going to debate each and every account with you. I’m not going to get into an argument over each and every story that’s been filed. But I think the – I think the travesty that has become Aleppo is clearly and should be squarely put on the regime’s doorstep as well as their backers in Russia and Iran.

QUESTION: Now, this man is in an explosive vest --

QUESTION: No one denies there’s carnage --

QUESTION: This man in an explosive vest --

MR KIRBY: Steve. Steve.

QUESTION: He’s not in charge of the American media. Let’s move on.


MR KIRBY: Steve.

QUESTION: Following up on Aleppo, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that the city itself is now firmly in the hands of Assad’s troops and the last rebels have left the city. A UN official there in Syria says the evacuations are still ongoing and cannot confirm that the last fighters have left. What information do you have at this hour as to the state of Aleppo?

MR KIRBY: It’s unclear to us as well, so I don’t think we can say definitively one way or another. We have been concerned that UN monitors have not been allowed in to do exactly that, to try to see for themselves what the situation is and who might be left and who might still need to go. So that’s a concern to us. So I don’t think we could go any further than the UN on this. Okay?

Lesley, did you have something?

QUESTION: No, I was going to ask a question as well whether you can confirm – the British Observatory is saying that --

QUESTION: I just want to follow up --

MR KIRBY: I just can’t. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: -- on the carnage in Aleppo, and it is visible by all accounts. But going – moving forward, because there was also a statement made by the United States and other governments and so on about somehow in the future addressing some war crimes and so on. How would you go about vetting the evidence on these crimes considering that it seems to be – at least to all this imagery, it seems to be coming out from certain sources related or connected or somehow reporting on the opposition. How could you at the end say this is unrefutable evidence that war crimes have been committed on this day and in this fashion?

MR KIRBY: I think there is a lot of imagery that I think needs to be part and parcel of whatever accountability measures are taken up, and I think the Security Council is actually talking about this as we speak – about pursuing some sort of measure to ensure accountability, which we obviously would support. But I think it’s going to be, as it would be in any such case, an array – a range of evidence and material that would be collected to be able to provide that assessment.

QUESTION: And on the humanitarian aid, any update on whether humanitarian aid is being --

MR KIRBY: Yeah, I’ve seen no reports of aid getting in. I mean, as of coming out here, I’m not aware of any aid still getting in to the people of Aleppo. Go ahead, I’ll give you one more.

QUESTION: Just one?

MR KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Wow, that’s generous. John --

MR KIRBY: Yes, it is – (laughter) – especially since you’ve already had one and there are people here who haven’t had any.

QUESTION: Okay. All right. I wanted to go back for a second to an interview that Secretary Kerry gave to The Globe, The Boston Globe, in which he admitted that the deal with the Russians over Syria was basically killed here because of the divisions within the Administration. Who was that – what was the agency that killed the deal? Was it the Pentagon?

MR KIRBY: I don’t think that that’s what the Secretary said. I think the Secretary acknowledged what we’ve long acknowledged; there was nothing new in this interview. He’s been very open and candid that even amongst the interagency here in the United States we haven’t all agreed on the way forward in Syria. I’m also not sure why that should be shocking to anybody. Every federal agency has a different view --

QUESTION: I wasn’t saying it’s shocking.

MR KIRBY: Every federal agency has a different view when it comes to those, or at least with respect to foreign policy issues, that have purview over foreign policy issues. And there is a robust debate that happens, and then the Commander-in-Chief makes decisions. And that’s the way our system works.

The Secretary was simply acknowledging what he has long acknowledged, that there was a robust interagency debate about Syria and our policy going forward, and we are where we are. So I don’t read it the way you do, and I’m certainly not going to start today making a habit to read out interagency discussions and who held what position or whose advice and counsel was on a particular side of an issue.

Back here. Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m wondering if you can give an update on the transition. It’s been a month now since the landing team was named. What’s been going on in general? What sort of information are the team members asking for? And then, has the Secretary had an opportunity to either meet with or at least talk on the phone for an extended period with the designee by --

MR KIRBY: The Secretary’s not met with members of the transition team here. Now, as I said, I’m not going to read out our daily interactions with them. I’m going to still hew to that rule. But I can tell you the Secretary hasn’t met with him. However, and I think you saw this, he did speak to the president-elect’s nominee for secretary of state, Mr. Tillerson. They had a nice chat where the Secretary had an opportunity to congratulate him. And there might be future conversations going forward. We’ll just have to see.

The transition team that’s here at the – I won’t speak for them, but obviously we continue to provide them information and context and material that they are requesting. And I can tell you that having gone through a transition myself a few years ago, without getting into detail I can tell you that the kinds of things, the kinds of material, the kind of information that they are asking for is very much in keeping with what I’ve seen in at least the one previous presidential transition that I lived through when I was at the Pentagon. It’s, again without speaking to detail, very much in keeping, nothing out of the norm, and very much in line with their need to better understand the bureaucracy of the organization that they’re about to lead.

QUESTION: Okay. If I could follow up just briefly, the – do you know when that conversation with Mr. Tillerson was and approximately how long – and I assume by phone; is that right?

MR KIRBY: It was – don’t have the date on it. We did a readout of it. We can get you the date or you can get on our website and find it. I don’t have it handy, but it was just in the last few days.

QUESTION: Okay. And then regarding the types of things that they’re asking for and that they’re in keeping with transitions past, this administration coming in seems to be very interested in finding out what’s been going on with climate change research. Certainly they did at the Department of Energy. How aggressive have they been in trying to find out and ferret out what the Department of State has been doing on that issue?

MR KIRBY: Again, I really want to be careful not to speak for them and for what information needs they have. That’s really for them to speak to in terms of what they’re looking for. We have been very, I think, strict about not reading out their information needs, and I don’t want to violate that today.

I would just – let me put it this way: It is – in my experience, it is normal, it’s expected, it’s not at all unusual for transition team members to want to have a handle on the way the organization is staffed, it’s manned, and it’s resourced, because this is a big bureaucracy. And there’s a lot of people here who work hard every day and do a lot of things that may not be obvious on day one. You have to kind of learn more; you have to spend some time soaking in what people do here. And again, nothing that I’ve seen and nothing that we’re aware of falls outside the lines of what would be a normal – normal inquiries about the institution that they are about to lead and take over. I think that’s really as far as I can go.

QUESTION: Can we go to Asia?

MR KIRBY: Can we go to Asia? Sure.

QUESTION: Yeah. Taiwan terminated diplomatic relation with Sao Tome and Principe. So I wondered, do you see any, like, tension escalating between the two side of the Taiwan Strait?

MR KIRBY: I would say we’re aware of reports that indicate Sao Tome and Principe have announced that they’ll end diplomatic ties with Taiwan. For our part, we have a deep and abiding interest in cross-state – cross-strait, excuse me, stability, and we believe that dialogue between the two sides has enabled peace, stability, and development in recent years. We urge all concerned parties to engage in a productive dialogue that supports cross-strait stability and to avoid destabilizing moves, but obviously, this is a decision that Sao Tome and Principe have to speak to.

QUESTION: So do you see the status quo has been changed or not?


QUESTION: Do you think the status quos has been changed or not?

MR KIRBY: I think I’ve answered the question.

QUESTION: A follow-up?

QUESTION: The first time Sao Tome has ever been mentioned --

QUESTION: Has been mentioned in --

QUESTION: -- from podium probably ever. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: We have a transmitter, so --

QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up?

MR KIRBY: Go ahead, sure.

QUESTION: Yeah, I just wonder if U.S. has information – this is an effort from China to further isolate Taiwan, or this is independent decision by --

MR KIRBY: Again, this is a question for Sao Tome and Principe to speak to, not for the United States. I’ve already said what our policy is with respect to cross-strait relations and stability, and that hasn’t changed and this is for them to speak to.


QUESTION: And for the Taiwan’s president to transit next month in the U.S., do you have any information?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything with respect to travel.

QUESTION: Not yet?


QUESTION: Just a quick – one follow-up to yesterday’s question. Did you talk with a lawyer to find out which specific international law you were referring to?

MR KIRBY: I did not, and I said we can try to get back to you on that. But look, I don’t want to revisit this whole dialogue with you. It’s our property. We got it back. That’s all that matters, and there’s – while I can try to see if there’s some sort of specific regulation here to point you to, it’s really not relevant to the larger discussion, okay?


QUESTION: Can I just --

MR KIRBY: Go ahead, go ahead.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up on that, because I actually looked up into UNCLOS, and under Article 95, under Article 96, which actually specify the sovereign immunity, it applies to warships, applies to ships, but not unmanned vehicles. So I would like to seek your definition of the UUV.

MR KIRBY: This has nothing to do with sovereign immunity; this is about a piece of property. Look, if you were playing with a remote-controlled car out in your street in front of your house and I walked up and saw it and decided on my own that it represented some sort of threat to cars on the street, and I just picked it up and took it and walked away, what would you call that?

QUESTION: But I need to identify if that --

MR KIRBY: No, what would you call that?

QUESTION: -- belongs to you first.

MR KIRBY: You would call that theft, and I would have no right to take your toy away, right? Well, we were operating an unmanned, controlled – remotely controlled unmanned vehicle underwater in international waters, doing perfectly legitimate oceanographic research, and the Chinese stole it. They took it. Now, we got it back and the incident is over and we’re grateful that it’s over, and I think we all need to move on. I just really don’t see there – much value here in you and me continuing to debate this. Okay?

QUESTION: Stay in the region?



MR KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead, Steve.

QUESTION: Do you have anything on this security message from the U.S. embassy in Jakarta saying that Indonesian security officials disrupted as late as yesterday multiple terrorist cells and arrested more than a dozen individuals suspected of planning attacks in Indonesia?

MR KIRBY: I’ve seen those reports, Steve. I’m not – I don’t have any additional information on that and I think I’d point you to Indian authorities for --

QUESTION: This was a U.S. embassy statement on this. You don’t --

MR KIRBY: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I misunderstood. I – yeah, I have seen the security message. You’re right. I apologize for that.

QUESTION: Do you have a readout?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have additional details on it. And again, this would be the kind of thing that we would point you to local authorities for anyway.


MR KIRBY: But I apologize, I didn’t hear your question properly.


QUESTION: You’ve recently done some things that fall into the category of the right thing to do, and we’ve discussed some of this here. Like, for instance, criticizing the Turkish Government when there are really bad abuses of democratic principles and suspending some munitions sales to Saudi Arabia because of civilian casualties. And I wondered with Christmas upon us and the end of the Administration --

MR KIRBY: I’m wondering where this is going. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: It’s going like this, okay: In the category of doing the right thing, the Yezidi victims of genocide, wouldn’t they merit such consideration? Nadia Murad, who suffered terrible abuse from ISIS, addressed the Security Council yesterday. And she pleaded with the council to refer ISIS crimes against the Yezidis to the International Criminal Court. Is that something that you might now be willing to consider doing, referring the ISIS genocide against the Yezidis to the International Criminal Court?

MR KIRBY: First of all, I would say clearly that Ms. Murad has a powerful and she has an eloquent voice. We support her efforts to hold Daesh accountable for their crimes. Like her, we’re appalled by the atrocities that Daesh has perpetuated in Iraq and Syria. And working with our partners at the UN, we are committed to addressing atrocities in Iraq and elsewhere that involve wide-scale killings and injuries, destruction of cultural heritage, forced displacement, forced conversions, and sexual violence toward all Iraqis and Syrians of all backgrounds – including, of course, religious and ethnic minorities such as the Yezidis.

As we’ve said in the past, there is no doubt that those who are responsible for these acts must be held accountable. There are a number of venues at national and international levels in which accountability can be pursued, and our focus right now is on supporting the ongoing efforts of Iraqi authorities to hold the perpetrators of Daesh’s atrocities accountable. In both Iraq and in Syria, we’re supporting ongoing efforts to document, to preserve, and to analyze evidence of atrocities that could potentially serve a wide range of future transnational justice purposes, including but not limited to criminal justice.

QUESTION: Is there really such a contradiction between the national prosecution of criminal acts and the international prosecution of them? Couldn’t you do both, support a referral to the International Criminal Court as well as to let the Iraqis do what they choose to do?

MR KIRBY: Well, as I said, we are in support of the gathering and the analyzing of information that could support one or both. I mean, I think I said that.

QUESTION: But what if – what she is personally pleading for is that the Security Council refer this case to the International Criminal Court. Couldn’t you do that as well as let the Iraqis do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it?

MR KIRBY: Again, I think I’ve responded here. I – we support holding Daesh accountable and we want to make sure that there is enough evidentiary material there to back up the potential for both national and international venues, and there are several and many, to look at this. And I just simply won’t get ahead of that process or prognosticate about a specific outcome at the UN.


QUESTION: Could we stay in the region?


QUESTION: Could you update us on the situation in Mosul? And there are a lot of reports that say the fighting or the effort to liberate Mosul is bogged down. Could you comment on that?

MR KIRBY: As far as I know, and again, I would refer you to my colleagues at the Defense Department who are obviously tracking this much closer than me, that the Iraqi Security Forces continue to work on the campaign to liberate Mosul. We always said that it was going to be long and that it was potentially going to be slow, that it was going to be very dangerous, and it has proven to be all three of those things. I am not aware of daily battlefield progress, so I’m --


MR KIRBY: Again, I’d point you to the Defense Department to speak to that, but I’m also not aware of any reports that it has, quote, “been bogged down.” Have there been times where they’ve made more rapid progress than others? Absolutely, but that’s the way things go on in combat. Every day is not linear and every day you are not going to make the same amount of progress as you made perhaps the day before.

We have been nothing but candid about the challenges in liberating Mosul and that’s why it’s taken so long to even get to the point where they can move in there. And it’s likely going to continue to be a fight that is going to change from day to day.

QUESTION: Could you tell us whether Mr. Brett McGurk is in Iraq at the present time because --

MR KIRBY: I don’t have an update on Brett’s --

QUESTION: Because he was supposed to brief us last week and he didn’t, so --

MR KIRBY: Well, he didn’t --

QUESTION: -- on the situation.

MR KIRBY: He didn’t come to the podium because --

QUESTION: Right. I understand --

MR KIRBY: -- Secretary Kerry came to the podium.

QUESTION: -- because the Secretary – right, right.

MR KIRBY: And the purpose of that was the Rewards for Justice program. He did update the White House press corps last week on progress in the counter-ISIL campaign. I’m not aware of his travel right now.

Goyal, go ahead.

QUESTION: India. Two questions, sir. One, if U.S. is following the black market money campaign by Prime Minister Modi in India to clean up the corrupt system in India, and if U.S. is supporting India?

MR KIRBY: We’ve spoken about this one, Goyal, you and I. This is an internal matter for Indian authorities to speak to.

QUESTION: And second, if you can – year in review of U.S.-India relations and what is the future under the new administration and what advice do you think --

MR KIRBY: I think we’ve talked about this one too.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Well, what advice do you think the Secretary will give to the upcoming --

MR KIRBY: I am not going to use the podium to talk about advice that Secretary Kerry may give to his successor. We obviously believe in the strength of our bilateral relationship with India. It is vital and important on so many different levels and we will certainly do all that’s required of us by the transition team to provide them the context and information about that relationship with India for them to make their own decisions. And I simply wouldn’t predict or get ahead of how the next administration is going to interact with India. But I think, obviously, it goes without saying that because India is such an important partner and such an important power that I see no diminution in the strong U.S.-India bilateral relations that we’ve enjoyed to date.

QUESTION: But let me just quickly --

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: -- on this black market --

MR KIRBY: You said you only had two.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. No, because you didn’t answer about the black market money.

MR KIRBY: I don’t think you are sorry. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: What I’m asking you is, sir, that is other relations between U.S.-India affected because of the black market money, and number two, under the table, the transitions are going on between the --

MR KIRBY: Well, look, I think the Indian Government has spoken to this. I think that’s where comment is appropriate on this. And again, I also think I’ve made clear the strength of our bilateral relations and the fact that it exists on many, many levels. And I think I’d just leave it at that.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

MR KIRBY: Ma’am.

QUESTION: I have a few for you. So we’re looking at data that shows there’s been a gradual increase of terror attacks since the beginning of the Obama Administration, specifically a spike – 2013, ’14, and ’15. What does the Administration attribute that to, if anything?

MR KIRBY: Well, I haven’t seen that data so I don’t – I mean, I’m not disputing it, I just haven’t seen it, so I can’t speak to the numbers one way or the other. What I can tell you is that certainly over the last two years with the growth of Daesh – ISIL, if you will – in the region, that – and their inertia at the beginning here when they first moved into Mosul and the attraction that they posed to foreign fighters and people that were susceptible to self-radicalization has led to inspired attacks on Western targets, soft targets. We may be seeing exactly that in what happened in Berlin. Of course, the investigation is still ongoing, but it certainly bears all the hallmarks of at the very least an ISIL-inspired attack.

So while I haven’t seen the data and can’t confirm it, I’m certainly not going to refute the notion that there continues to be very lethal, very dangerous, and very real threats from terrorist networks around the world – not just in Western countries but around the world, which is why the United States did fashion and lead a 67-member coalition to counter Daesh and why that coalition has had some success.

Now, have we completely eliminated ISIL from the face of the Earth? No, but they are a radically different group now than they were two years ago, under much more pressure, and we knew even before we started to see that pressure having an effect on them as an organization that they were also going to try to branch out, to metastasize, with cells outside Iraq and Syria, and to inspire foreign fighters and to inspire individuals to conduct attacks on their own.

So we certainly understand real – very well the real threats that terrorism poses, which is again why we continue to work closely not only inside the U.S. Government but with our allies, partners, and friends around the world to beat back this threat. But look, I’m not going to dispute that it’s not still a very real, very dangerous threat.

QUESTION: Okay. And then a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban says they are ready for peace talks with the U.S. if their demands are met. Do you have any reaction to that?

MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments either, but I would tell you that nothing has changed about our view that what we support is an Afghan-led reconciliation process. We believe that’s the right approach. We’ve always believed that that’s the right approach. President Ghani, more importantly, also believes in the criticality of that approach, and that’s where our support will go to.

QUESTION: And if I can move it to Caitlan Coleman and her situation, what agency is leading that effort? What’s being done for her family? Have there been any talks about trading Gitmo detainees as we did with Sergeant Bergdahl?

MR KIRBY: A couple of things. We obviously continue to be very focused on Caitlan’s case, as we are on others, other American citizens that are being held hostage overseas. We remain in close touch with her family. We remain very focused across the interagency – not any one agency but all of us with a purview in this – I’m sorry, with a stake in this – remain very focused on seeing her and her family returned safely. And I think you can understand, or at least I hope you can understand, that it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to go into the details of that work and that effort. Okay?

Said, I’ve gotten you a million times. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I’ve got to ask you --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: But I have other topics, John.

MR KIRBY: I know, I know.

QUESTION: I want to talk about the Palestinian issue and Yemen.

MR KIRBY: And we’ll get to you. We’ll get to you.

QUESTION: Okay, take your time.

MR KIRBY: I’m just moving it around a little bit.

QUESTION: I’ll be the last. Give me the last question.

MR KIRBY: I mean, it’s not like – well, I didn’t say you’d be the last question. I’ll come back to you.

QUESTION: I don’t care where I get --

QUESTION: On Japan, I was wondering if you have a statement on the land return in Okinawa?

MR KIRBY: The land return in Okinawa. I probably do, but you’re going to have to give me a second. So we’re pleased to confirm the land return of a major portion of the Northern Training Area in two handover ceremonies with Ambassador Kennedy, one involving Prime Minister Abe in Tokyo on the 21st, and another involving Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga in Okinawa on the 22nd. The nearly 10,000-acre northern training area return is the single largest land return to the Japanese Government since Okinawa’s reversion in 1972. This return reduces the amount of land utilized by the United States on Okinawa by close to 20 percent while ensuring our capability to fulfill our security treaty commitments. The return exemplifies the cooperative nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance and advances our commitment to the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.

Said, go ahead.

QUESTION: Sorry. In terms of the timing of the return, was that done in light of the --

MR KIRBY: I tried, man.

QUESTION: -- in light of the court decision?

MR KIRBY: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Was that done in light of the court decision earlier this week?

MR KIRBY: This, as I understand, was very – was a long-planned return.

QUESTION: I’m guessing that the one on the 22nd hasn’t happened yet.

MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t know. They are well ahead of us.

QUESTION: It’s 3:00 a.m. there or 2:00 a.m. there in Japan.

MR KIRBY: I don’t know. If it hasn’t, it’s going --

QUESTION: A midnight handover?

MR KIRBY: If it hasn’t, it’s going to.

QUESTION: All right.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: Very quickly – I know you probably don’t comment on visa issuance and so on, but --

MR KIRBY: That’s right, I don’t. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: -- a young Palestinian girl – so let me ask it --

MR KIRBY: So are you sure you want to throw this one out there?

QUESTION: Let me ask it – yeah, exactly. I mean, let me ask it anyway. So a young Palestinian girl – 15-year-old Ahed Tamimi – was slated to be part of the No Child Behind Bars Living Resistance speaking tour that begins on the 15th and she was denied a visa. Is that –because the Israelis have expressed, like, displeasure with someone like her touring the United States and speaking about the occupation – she’s from Hebron. Could that be the reason? Could it be that Israel has requested that such a person should not be issued a visa? (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: As you know, we cannot discuss individual visa cases. In general, all visa applications are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis in accordance of the requirements of the Immigration and Nationality Act and other applicable laws. Do you have another question?

All right.

QUESTION: That’s it.

MR KIRBY: All right, we’ve got to go. Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:51 p.m.)