Daily Press Briefing - January 12, 2017

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 12, 2017


1:44 p.m. EST

MR TONER: Hey guys.


MR TONER: Welcome to the State Department. My name is Mark, and I’ll be your hostess tonight. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Seriously, that’s the way you want to --

MR TONER: No. Welcome to the State Department. I don’t have anything at the top, so I’ll turn it over to your questions. Matt?

QUESTION: Okay. I don’t really have a lot either because things seem to be in a big state of flux. (Laughter.)


QUESTION: And I’m not exactly sure why --


QUESTION: -- but in a week or so I think we’ll know. I do have one small thing, and that is --

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: -- or it’s not small necessarily, but I don’t know how much you’ll be able to say about it. Yesterday you guys announced the Secretary’s travel, his --


QUESTION: -- presumably his last trip as Secretary of State. And I’m interested in particular in the stop in Paris and the Mideast conference that the French are hosting there. What is it that you guys expect to get out of this meeting, given the fact that there’s only – at that point there will be less than a week left in your holding of the reins --

MR TONER: Yeah, I mean --

QUESTION: -- or of this Administration’s holding of the reins.


QUESTION: And less than a week, presumably, of – given comments from the president-elect and his team, less than a week of the current policy.

MR TONER: Sure. Well – sorry, I don’t mean to talk over you.


MR TONER: Obviously, we recognize the short amount of time remaining in this Administration’s tenure. That said, this conference is going to take place with us or without us; and I think the Secretary, given his dedication and commitment to Middle East peace process and his engagement on the issue, feels obliged to be there because we have an interest in advancing a two-state solution, and we also have an interest in ensuring that whatever happens in this conference is constructive and balanced.

QUESTION: Constructive and --

MR TONER: And balanced.

QUESTION: -- balanced. How so?

MR TONER: Well, I think in terms of – we’ve said this before – we don’t want to certainly see anything come up that attempts to impose a solution on Israel. We want to see a constructive approach. And I’m not trying to predict that this is going to go one way or the other; I’m just saying we need to be at the table, and we need to be part of that discussion to ensure that our concerns with regard to whatever emerges on a two-state solution is aligned with our ideals or our concerns.

QUESTION: Are you saying – you’re saying then that the Secretary, the Administration more broadly, feels obliged to go to protect Israel from a one-sided statement? Is that --

MR TONER: I think we just – again, I think we feel obliged to be there, to be part of the discussions, to help make them into something that we believe is constructive and positively oriented towards --


MR TONER: -- getting negotiations back up and running, and doesn’t attempt to in any way kind of dictate a solution or --

QUESTION: Right. It’s just – I don’t know, it’s a little bit odd --


QUESTION: -- to hear you say that you want to be there to make sure that it’s not one-sided, because critics of the Administration – including the man who has been nominated to succeed Secretary Kerry – have been very critical of the Administration’s most recent actions, the abstention at the UN on the Security Council resolution and then the Secretary’s speech saying that that – they say that it was a betrayal, that you stabbed Israel in the back. And now you’re saying that you want to go to this conference, or you feel like you have to go to this conference in order to protect Israel from a one-sided result. Do you see that there is a bit of a dissonance there?

MR TONER: So – no, let me – I’ll attempt to respond to several different aspects of that question. First of all, we stand by our abstention. We’ve made very clear the reasons why we did it; that it wasn’t, we believed, one-sided against Israel; that it did, in fact, call out Palestinian actions that are also – run counter to what our ultimate goal is, which is a two-state solution. And we don’t want – I don’t want to re-litigate that now, but we stand by that decision.

Also, I don’t want to attempt to – forgive me if I was trying to – if I sounded a little bit too negative about this conference. I think we just want to be – any time there is this level and this type of gathering, I think it’s important that the U.S. be at the table. And certainly, the Secretary feels this way, given the importance of the issue and, as I said, his level of engagement on Middle East peace. And I think he wants to be there to ensure that U.S. interests and concerns are addressed. And I don’t want to – I’m not trying to prejudge the outcome of this.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, I mean, you would acknowledge though that those U.S. interests and concerns that he is there to preserve and are – seem that they’re going to change significantly after next Friday at noon, right?

MR TONER: Again, though, I mean, I don’t think that just because we’re in the waning days here --


MR TONER: -- doesn’t, I think, allow us to abdicate our responsibilities.

QUESTION: All right. One – French officials --


QUESTION: -- have said that one reason that they want to have this now and have it before the inauguration is to send a message to the incoming administration. And they have suggested that in whatever document this conference produces, in the final document, that there could be a reference or a warning about – to the incoming administration about moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Is that something that this Administration is prepared to support if it does, in fact, come up?

MR TONER: I mean, first of all, our position on moving the embassy to Jerusalem is – hasn’t changed and is very well known.


MR TONER: Secondly --

QUESTION: -- but you can concede --

MR TONER: But secondly – secondly, I don’t want to also deal with what may or may not come out of this conference. I think we just have to wait and see. And let’s wait and meet and see what comes out of it. We’re not going in there with any kind of intent to in any way box in the incoming administration. Again, our goal writ large with the new administration coming in is to be helpful in the transition. That said, we’ve been very clear where we stand with that issue.

QUESTION: But just two very brief things on that.

MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: You would concede, though, that that that longstanding position of yours on the embassy, if you judge by the statements that have been made by the president-elect and members of his team, is not – is going to change on Friday, right?

MR TONER: Again, that may very well be the case, just judging by what he has said publicly.

QUESTION: Okay. Secondly, to take it out of the realm of the hypothetical and perhaps put you more on the spot in a position where you actually have to – can’t duck the question because it is a hypothetical: Would the United States block an attempt to include a warning about moving the embassy in the final statement?

MR TONER: Still technically a hypothetical.

QUESTION: No, it’s not.

MR TONER: (Laughter.) Look, Matt – let’s let – and I’m not trying to --

QUESTION: I distinctly avoided the word “if.” (Laughter.) That means that it is not a hypothetical.

MR TONER: It’s conditional, I guess. Look --

QUESTION: Will the United States --

MR TONER: I don’t want to attempt --

QUESTION: How about – forget about “would.”

MR TONER: Yeah. Will the United States block --

QUESTION: Will the Administration – will Secretary Kerry, speaking on behalf of this Administration, block an attempt to warn the incoming administration against moving the embassy to Jerusalem in a final document that is produced by this conference?

MR TONER: I think Secretary Kerry, as have others in this Administration, been very clear on their views about moving the U.S. embassy, relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and the possible implications that could have on Palestinian-Israeli peace but also on tensions writ large. I am not going to attempt to either characterize what may or may not come out of this conference before they’ve actually met or prejudge it or to attempt to say that this is something that’s going to come out of it. I think we’ve been very clear on where we stand with regard to relocating the embassy. But I’m not going to, like, say – I’m not going to in any way affirm some of the actions that may come out of this conference. Let’s let it happen.

QUESTION: It’s going to be interesting when I ask you the same question on January 23rd what your longstanding position has been, but I’m not sure I understand why it is you can’t --

MR TONER: I’ll have a different hairstyle. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: -- why you can’t say that you would or wouldn’t block it.

MR TONER: I just – partly, Matt – look, it’s not – I mean, we know what our --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR TONER: We know what our position is.

QUESTION: But you have evinced two competing ideas here. One is that the Administration’s longstanding position and previous administrations’ longstanding position is that moving the embassy is – would be a bad thing.

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: And at the same time, you’ve said – take that, one. Two, the incoming administration, the president-elect and his team, have said that that’s not their position, that they are going to move it, and that it’s going to happen. And then you also say – part two of this is that you don’t want to do anything to box in the incoming administration. So if you want to do two, number two, I don’t see how you can --

MR TONER: The only thing I’m saying, Matt, is that we --

QUESTION: -- cannot block – how you can stay true to --

MR TONER: There’s only one president at a time.


MR TONER: And as of January 20th, there’s going to be a new president.


MR TONER: Till the end of this Administration, it will be our policy that moving – relocating the embassy to Jerusalem would be a mistake, would be --



QUESTION: So does that mean that you would not see a document that comes out of this that warns the incoming administration against moving the embassy – you would not see that as boxing them in?

MR TONER: I – again, it depends on what the document looks like and what comes out of this. That’s partly my reluctance, is I don’t know what’s going to come out of this meeting.


MR TONER: I think what we want to see come out of the meeting – if I could put it this way and try to put it in a little bit different manner, but what we want to see come out of this meeting is constructive and balanced.

QUESTION: Well, going into the meeting --


QUESTION: -- would you be willing to support a warning to the incoming administration that --

MR TONER: I don't have an answer for you on that.

QUESTION: All right.


QUESTION: Well, to follow up on that, given that you feel that you – obliged and you need to be at the table, what exactly is the Secretary’s message to the meeting going to be? Don’t do anything rash? Wait for the new administration? Talk to them? What exactly --


QUESTION: -- would you see is his --

MR TONER: Well, again, I feel like so much of this has already been – I mean, the Secretary’s views on where the Middle East peace process stands and the challenges that are facing it are, as we all know, very public, coming out of his speech a couple weeks ago. I think that, as I just explained to Matt, he’s going to Paris to participate in this conference because he believes it’s worth our while to have a seat at the table when any large group of leaders, his counterparts, are sitting around to talk about the future of the Middle East peace process to make sure, as I said, that U.S. views are expressed and heard.

I just don’t want to prejudge the outcome of this conference. We just don’t know what’s going to come out of it. I think we’re looking for – and we’ve said this many times about this Paris conference, because it’s been, frankly, talked about for some time – is that we just want to see whatever comes out of it to be constructive and balanced and not try to prejudge any kind of outcome. And so --

QUESTION: Is there --

MR TONER: Yeah, please.

QUESTION: I mean, the way you put it now, I mean, is there a – what exactly is your concern, that they could rush off and impose things that might change the dynamic without a proper conversation?

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I think that the Secretary just wants to make sure – I mean, we – look, we’ve got – we’ve been very clear, and it was talked a lot about in the context of this abstention from the UN Security Council resolution, that we don’t want to see any action in the UN Security Council, for instance, that would attempt to impose a solution on Israel. We don’t know if that’s the plan coming out of this. We don’t know what the plan is for further action. I think we’re going to listen and to provide our viewpoint.

QUESTION: Also following up on what Matt just said, I mean, would you stand – would the U.S. take a hard position if there were indications from the Europeans that they could move on such things, such as sanctions against Israel if they continue with the settlements?

MR TONER: I think that, as a friend and ally of Israel, we always have – we’re always aware and will oppose any one-sided actions against Israel.

Yeah, Steve.

QUESTION: On the Secretary’s travels --


QUESTION: -- Vietnam is also on the agenda. There are reports that ahead of his arrival there --

MR TONER: He’s there. Sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: -- that a dozen or so activists have either been put under house arrest or detained. I believe this has happened previously. What’s this department’s response on that? And does the Secretary plan to meet with any opposition figures in Vietnam?

MR TONER: So we’re not aware at this time of any arrests or detentions of activists in conjunction with his visit to Vietnam, but of course, we continue to urge Vietnam – and I’m sure the Secretary will do so in his meetings – to make continued progress on human rights, and that includes releasing all political prisoners. And as I said, he’s going to make a point of this, as he does everywhere. But certainly in Vietnam, he’ll make a point of raising our concerns with Vietnamese leaders.

QUESTION: Is he only meeting with government officials or anybody from civil society?

MR TONER: That is a – that’s a very good question. I believe he will, but let me take that question and get back to you.

Wait, I’m sorry. I’m looking at both of you. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Two questions, one on shutting down an NGO called the Yazda organization, which is supported by Nadia Murad – I don’t know if you’re aware of – in Dohuk by the Kurdish Government. I don’t know if you are aware of that and if you had any statement. It’s been, like, a couple weeks. They just closed and shut it down for no obvious reason. That center is providing service for IDPs, and I think it’s something political, the Kurdish Government closing --

MR TONER: This is in the Kurdistan region of --

QUESTION: Yeah, Kurdistan region. They closed down the Yazda organization office, and the facilities, they’re taken over by the Kurdish KRG forces in Dohuk. I don’t know if you can also take the question and --

MR TONER: Apologies. And this is --

QUESTION: The Yazda organization. It’s supported by Nadia Murad.

MR TONER: No, I apologize. I don’t have anything on it. I’ll take the question --


MR TONER: -- if we have any comment on it.

QUESTION: So the second one is on the Syrian refugees. I know that in the Fiscal Year 2016, you got – you increased your manpower and also the budget to bring more Syrians, that as a result you brought, like, 12,000 of them, and this year also until now, you brought over 3,000 of them. My question is going to be: Is the money allocated for this fiscal year – is going to the program, is going to continue to bring Syrians to United States? Or it’s up to the incoming administration to continue?

MR TONER: Sorry, is the – your – the last part of your question? I apologize. I didn’t catch it.


QUESTION: The numbers that were announced by the White House --

MR TONER: The numbers that were announced by the White House are going to continue through this fiscal year?

QUESTION: Yes. Will – or is it up to the incoming administration to --

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.

MR TONER: Well, I think it – I mean, I think it’s ultimately up to the incoming administration as to whether they’re going to maintain or fulfill those numbers. As you know, we increased the number of refugees writ large, but also Syria, and obviously, last fiscal year – and we met that challenge, but – and it was a pretty intensive effort, frankly – all the while ensuring that these – all of these refugees, Syrian included, were fully vetted through all the various security aspects of that process.

But as for what will happen as of January 23rd, I can’t predict whether they’ll change the number in terms of target of refugees that are coming into the United States.

QUESTION: And you haven’t got anything from their transition team --


QUESTION: -- if they want to continue it, anything like that?

MR TONER: No, no. Nothing I can announce or speak to, no.


QUESTION: Yeah. I have several questions on Syria, Turkey, and the Kurds in Syria.

On Tuesday, you said that the PYD should be part of any political settlement in Syria. And yesterday, the Turkish deputy prime minister responded to you, “And what business does a terror group have at the peace table?” Do you have a response to him?

MR TONER: Sure. Look, I saw that there was a lot of commentary about some of my remarks – I guess it was Tuesday. We’ve long said that there needs to be a political solution to the Syrian crisis and that that is a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led process that can bring out – bring about a more representative, peaceful, and united Syria. And that’s the only reason and the only context that I was trying to put in my remarks of Tuesday. UN Security Council Resolution 2254 says very clearly the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria. And we believe that all Syrians – and that speaks to Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arabs, Syrian Turkmen, all groups – will have to have a say in that process. So I wasn’t speaking about necessarily who would be at the table should there be follow-on discussions or should the negotiations in Geneva get back up and running. I was simply stating the fact that whatever comes out of this political process will need to be something that is accepted by all Syrians. All Syrians will have to have a voice in that. That’s my only comment.

QUESTION: Are you – was this a change in the U.S. position?

MR TONER: Not at all.

QUESTION: Not at all.

MR TONER: We’ve been saying this for months.

QUESTION: And on Tuesday you also said the U.S. was, quote, “poised to provide additional support to Turkey’s offensive on al-Bab.”


QUESTION: Is there anything new in that?

MR TONER: Not at all. We talked about the fact that we’re now providing ISR – what we call ISR, which is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to our Turkish partners, and we’re poised to provide additional assistance to them in and around al-Bab as needed.

QUESTION: Okay. And there have been numerous reports of human rights abuses in PYD-controlled territory in Syria. The Washington Post in a recent story mentioned them in general terms, in December there were three missing members of the Kurdish National Council who were found burned to death. What is your comment on such behavior?

MR TONER: We’ve seen those reports – I think you’re specifically talking about these individuals who were burned. Obviously, it goes without saying we’re concerned by those kinds of reports. I don’t have anything to confirm them. At this point in time we would condemn any human rights abuse by anyone operating in that area.

QUESTION: Would that cause you to question whether they qualify as a legitimate party to the Syrian political process if they’re engaged in such abuses?

MR TONER: I just don’t think we have enough detail or granularity on who was behind this attack – and I looked into this before coming out here – that we would be able to make any kind of judgment on who was behind it. So we’re watching it closely, we’re obviously concerned by it, and, frankly, disgusted by it, but if we get more information, we’ll make a judgment.


QUESTION: I just wanted to ask a question about the sanctions that came out today on the Syrian regime for association with chemical weapon use. Is there any more as to the timing of these sanctions, why it is that these sanctions are being brought now instead of --


QUESTION: -- in October when the report came out?

MR TONER: Sure. I mean, I think it’s – and I – frankly, I saw Josh got this same question over at the White House. It’s – as you know, shocking news here, but we are a bureaucracy. But in any kind of sanctions-related activity, there’s a process that needs to take place, and certainly Treasury is the one who handles that. But in order to fully vet these and to ensure that these individuals – that there is a case to be made against them, and also to move to designate them for sanctions, takes a little bit of time. But what I think it shows just overall is that – is a positive thing, which shows that we’re holding individuals and entities that we believe are behind both the weaponization of chemical weapons, but also the use of chemical weapons in Syria, accountable for their actions. And we’re going to continue to do that and a lot of this is a result of the so-called JIM – I think it’s the Joint Investigative Mechanism – at the UN that’s also produced very strong evidence of this kind of behavior.

So there’s nothing to the timing; I wouldn’t link it to the fact that we’re all trying to – the fact that there’s only one week left in this Administration. I think and I would hope that the next administration would continue these efforts. I mean, use of chemical weapons by the regime in Syria is inexcusable, and I think that it’s a nonpartisan issue and, frankly, it’s a global issue of concern.

QUESTION: Another Syria question?

QUESTION: Hold on. Just on --

MR TONER: Yeah, please.

QUESTION: It doesn’t mention – I was just reading it now – it doesn’t say that this is necessarily related to chlorine attacks or attacks with chlorine. Is that what this refers to or is it more – is it more broad?

MR TONER: It’s going – I think it’s broader than that. It’s going after this – the Organization for Technological Industries, which is this state-run entity --


MR TONER: -- that’s looking – that’s behind some of the – excuse me – the weaponization of these materials. I don’t think it’s specifically focused on chlorine, although that’s one element of it.

QUESTION: Okay, well --

MR TONER: But I think it’s coming out of the JIM report.

QUESTION: Yeah, but if that’s the case that it’s not specifically related to chlorine, that it’s related to broader use of chemical weapons, doesn’t that call into question again the Administration’s consistent line that the deal that was done to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons didn’t work?

MR TONER: So I’m just looking, and I’ll get to that question in a second, because Secretary – because Ambassador Power also I think released a statement. But I’m also looking at some of the materials that I have in front of me that this – out of these findings that the Syrian regime used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people. So it does look like it is focused on --

QUESTION: Okay. That’s in her --

MR TONER: -- specifically the use of industrial chlorine.

QUESTION: That’s in her comments. That’s not in the --

MR TONER: It’s in – I apologize. It’s in the Treasury release on this.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. All right.

MR TONER: I apologize. Yeah.

QUESTION: Obviously, in the State Department. Okay, thank you.

QUESTION: On Syria, the talks in Astana are supposed to begin on the 23rd of January. Will you have a role in them?

MR TONER: I don’t know if we’ll have a role in them, and I’d refer you for any details about that to the organizers, who are Russia and Turkey. We haven’t gotten an invitation yet.

QUESTION: Have they told you anything about these talks?

MR TONER: Well, I think the Secretary’s in – as he’s said himself, is in contact with both his counterparts in Russia and his counterparts in – counterpart in Turkey, talking about the situation in Syria. So of course, he’s up to speed on what’s happening with regard to these talks, but we are not an organizer of these talks.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: Are the talks actually taking place? I thought I saw --

MR TONER: I think they – I think I saw the Russians actually announce them, but – announce the date. That’s my understanding.

QUESTION: I thought I saw yesterday they have been postponed.

MR TONER: I think that’s my understanding. I think they gave a date for January 23rd. But I mean, again, as we’ve said before, we would support any kind of talks that attempt to get a political process, negotiations back on track. And if we can see the ceasefire be strengthened and sustained, that’s a good thing.


QUESTION: Yes. Prime Minister Abe is in the Philippines, and I was wondering if you were coordinating at all in terms of messaging and trying to rebuild relations with Philippines given the tensions that the two countries have had.

MR TONER: I’m sorry, you – I missed the first part. Who is in the Philippines?

QUESTION: Prime Minister Abe of Japan.

MR TONER: Oh, Abe. Okay. I’m sorry. I missed it. I mean, we’re obviously always in close coordination with Japan and – on a range of regional matters. I can’t say as to whether we’ve consulted with him prior to his visit to the Philippines.

With regard to our own bilateral relationship with the Philippines, we still continue to work on a government-to-government level, on a military-to-military level with the Philippine Government, and are going to continue to do so. It’s an important bilateral relationship for us.

Yeah, Steve.

QUESTION: Just if I can go – apparently, there’s been a fresh security message issued for U.S. citizens today in Gambia. Do you have a readout on that? I’m just seeing it that – dated January 12th.

MR TONER: Don’t think I --

QUESTION: Citizens not advised to travel east of the Denton Bridge into central Banjul.

MR TONER: No, I don’t think I have that update with me. But obviously, it’s a very sensitive situation right now in the Gambia, and it sounds to me, hearing it from you, that there is some kind of information that the embassy is aware of about a disturbance or some kind of unrest, and that’s perfectly typical that we would send out a security message to resident U.S. citizens there.


QUESTION: Wondered if you had any readout from the U.S.-Cuba meetings that were being held today, and also whether or not --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: Think they are. In fact, I think they’re – well, it’s today. They’re being held today. Yeah.

QUESTION: Whether or not --

MR TONER: It’s the government-to-government on claims.

QUESTION: -- you had heard anything from the Cubans regarding the comments made by Secretary of State nominee stating he was going to review the criteria for placing – or removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terror list. Has there been any expressions of concern to this building after that statement?

MR TONER: So I don’t have a readout of the meetings. As I said, they’re ongoing. The U.S. delegation to those meetings is being led by our legal adviser, Brian Egan. I mean, the intent of these meetings is to build upon previous discussions, exchange views on technical details and methodologies regarding outstanding claims, which is one element of our restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

I don’t know – I just don’t have a readout – whether other views or other opinions have been shared with that group. If I get anything, I’ll obviously let you know.

QUESTION: Can I have one more on that?

MR TONER: Yeah, of course.

QUESTION: Are you hoping to button up or finish these discussions on claims and human trafficking, other such discussions, before the end of this Administration?

MR TONER: I – without being in the meetings, I think it would be highly unlikely that we would resolve all these outstanding claims by the end of next week. I think we’re going to continue, as I said, up to January 20th to pursue our foreign policy agenda across many different fronts, but certainly on Cuba, and with the hope that the incoming administration will see the merit in those efforts and continue them.

QUESTION: I’ve got a couple related to the nominee’s testimony yesterday – separate issues, but not (inaudible). One, on China, Mr. Tillerson made some rather strong comments about China and its behavior in the South China Sea, and said that China should – at one point said that China should not have access to these manmade islands that are going up. I’m just – I’m not going to ask you to speak on his behalf or on behalf of the next – the incoming administration, at least until you are up there representing the new administration. (Laughter.) But I want to – I mean, I’m curious to know if you – if this current Administration, if your embassy in Beijing or here at the department, if you’ve heard anything from the Chinese about those comments.

MR TONER: I don’t believe so, but I will check on that.

QUESTION: And then two other things. Senator Rubio, among others, repeatedly pressed Mr. Tillerson on two topics: one, on whether the – Russia, and in particular President Putin, is guilty of war crimes for Russian military activity in Syria. I know that the department – and he got no response; the nominee was not prepared to say that. He said he needed more information. But to your knowledge, beyond the accusation that war crimes may have been committed in the – in certain bombings of hospitals and civilian areas in and around Aleppo, has this Administration actually made a determination that the Russians committed war crimes?

MR TONER: To my knowledge, we have not made that determination. We have condemned strongly their indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure and civilians. But we have not made that determination, no.

QUESTION: But you have – but you have suggested that they may have happened?

MR TONER: I believe – well, I believe – not to borrow a line from our – from the secretary of state designee, but I believe that’s a process, that’s a legal determination --


MR TONER: -- that involves detailed analysis and investigations. Yeah. So we have not made that determination.

QUESTION: Okay. So you would say – and again, I’m not asking you to speak for him --

MR TONER: Yeah, please.

QUESTION: -- but you would say that his position is – from what you heard yesterday, is not dissimilar to that of what this Administration has come to, at least in terms of definitive conclusions?

MR TONER: Without attempting to speak on his behalf, I would say that, while we strongly condemn Russia’s actions, especially in and around Aleppo, we have not made the determination yet that they would constitute war crimes.

QUESTION: Okay. And then the other issue that Senator Rubio and some others pressed him on was the Philippines --


QUESTION: -- and whether or not President Duterte and his government have committed human rights abuses in their war against narcotics and other drugs. And again, as with – in the case of Russia and Syria, Mr. Tillerson said he was not – he didn’t have enough information to make that determination. Has this Administration, this building, made a firm determination that, in fact, human rights abuses are being committed in the Philippines in this war on drugs?

MR TONER: So, no. We are very concerned by reports of extrajudicial killings by or at the behest of the Philippine – or government authorities in the Philippines. And we have called for thorough and transparent investigations into these allegations, these credible allegations – any allegation of extrajudicial killings, we believe, and strongly urge the Philippine authorities to ensure that its law enforcement’s – law enforcement officials act in a way that’s consistent with international norms and laws. But we have not made a determination yet that this is indeed what’s happening.

QUESTION: Okay. So --

MR TONER: That said, we’ve been very concerned by allegations, credible allegations of --

QUESTION: Okay. So in other words, on these two issues – and specifically on the Philippines --


QUESTION: -- and Russia-Syria, the nominee’s testimony yesterday is not at odds with what this current Administration has concluded?

MR TONER: I – again, I’m --

QUESTION: Based on what you heard. Now, don’t tell me you didn’t watch. (Laughter.) I know you did – all nine hours of it. (Laughter.) Based on what you heard in your very careful listening, which I --

MR TONER: Yes. With regard to those issues --

QUESTION: His responses do not --

MR TONER: -- directly oppose or run counter to --

QUESTION: -- or run counter at all to --

MR TONER: -- to --

QUESTION: -- what this Administration has come to in terms of conclusions about human rights abuses in the Philippines and about war crimes in Syria. Is that correct?

MR TONER: It is – from what I heard, it appears that they were consistent.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

QUESTION: Can I ask about the war crimes thing too?

QUESTION: I have a follow-up (inaudible) --

QUESTION: The follow-up is --

MR TONER: I’ll get to you in a second.

QUESTION: -- have you actually begun to look at assessing whether it is a war crime? Is that an ongoing process, or is it something that somebody has to direct?

MR TONER: That’s a good question. I mean, I know that there are entities out there. And I know part of the work that the JIM and other types of investigative bodies have been looking at is amassing the evidence. I mean, what we’ve long said about this with regard to Syria is that ultimately these are determinations that we believe are in the interests of the Syrian people to make.

Some – at some point, we hope to be – and partly we’re at a stage now where we’re collecting, and by “we” I mean collectively the UN, as well as separately the United States, are in the process of collecting this information, of collecting evidence, of gathering evidence, so that in the future we can hold these people accountable.

But as we’ve said in other instances, we believe these kinds of determinations have to – let me back away from that and come at it a different way – that it’s up to the people who have been affected by these terrible acts to make the determination of how and for what crimes these – the guilty perpetrators should be held accountable.


MR TONER: Yep, please.

QUESTION: Can I get back to China? Yeah.

MR TONER: Back to China.

QUESTION: Yes. Mr. Tillerson didn’t mention about the three joint communique, but Taiwan Relation Act and six assurance during hearing yesterday. And then, Chinese has already claimed that what he said is inconsistent with the “one China” principle, their “one China” principle. I’m just wondering, do you get – does current Administration get complaint from Beijing from your counterpart?

MR TONER: I’ve just seen – I’ve seen the same public comments that you have. I’m not aware that we’ve received any private – or through diplomatic channels any such complaints. But I am aware of the public remarks, certainly.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Said, and then I’ll get back to you. I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: Sure. Just staying on the Tillerson hearing. Apologies for --

MR TONER: No worries.

QUESTION: -- being late. I don’t know if you addressed this, but he also spoke of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and so on belong to a – what he described radical Islam. And later on in that evening, a new law was – or a new proposal was submitted by Senator Cruz and so on to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. I know that you guys have looked at their past activities in the past when this came up, and you said that there was no evidence that they had departed – moved away from their stated anti-violence position.

I wonder if you would comment on this. Has there been anything, from your view, that the Muslim Brotherhood has done to basically make it – or to list it under the – as a terrorist organization?

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I certainly don’t have anything to forecast that we’re going to change our assessment. As you know, when – any kind of determination like that, it is – it is a process to reach that conclusion. And it’s not just – it is a legal determination, and so it takes some time and takes analysis. I’m sure that we’re constantly looking at Muslim Brotherhood in that regard, but I don’t have anything certainly to announce.

QUESTION: And one other thing. I know you talked about the Palestinian-Israeli issue, but that was --


QUESTION: -- regarding what he said. He put the blame basically, or mostly, on the Palestinian leadership that it was not able to reduce the violence and so on. Do you share that assessment that the Palestinian Authority did not coordinate? Because I thought they were coordinating on security matters with Israel to prevent violence. Do you share that assessment?

MR TONER: What we’ve talked about before is, with regard to Palestinian actions, that they could take positive, affirmative actions that they could take to calm the situation as well as to avoid escalatory actions and to avoid the kind of rhetoric that leads to incitement. That’s always been our beef. And we were actually – one of the reasons that we abstained rather than veto the UN Security Council resolution was because we felt it did contain that element. So I think our view writ large is that, just as we’re concerned about Israeli actions with regard to settlement activity, we’re also concerned about Palestinian actions with regard to incitement, with regard to inflammatory rhetoric and actions such as that that only exacerbate tension.

QUESTION: But he seems to suggest that there was – or maybe he’s unaware – that there is some sort of security coordination between the PA and the Israeli Government. To the best of your knowledge, they have not stopped coordinating on security matters.

MR TONER: To the best of my knowledge, they have not stopped coordinating.

Please, sir, in the back.

QUESTION: Sir, thank you. Sir, yesterday, a State Department spokesperson talks about the missing of professors, journalist, and human rights activist in Pakistan. It’s now been a week that these bloggers are missing. Sir, many of the Pakistani’s journalists know where these missing persons are, but, sir, you always talk about the freedom of speech. Will you send any strong message to Pakistani authorities on this?

MR TONER: Well, we’re very concerned by reports that several Pakistani bloggers and activists have been reported missing and we’re going to continue to monitor the situation. We of course welcome that the interior ministry, I believe, announced that it’s going to investigate the disappearance of one of those individuals, Salman Haider, and we also appreciate the fact that both members – or, rather, members of both houses of parliament have voiced their concern and called for an investigation into all four disappearances.

Of course, we value freedom of expression. That’s something we take very seriously and are going to continue to monitor the situation in Pakistan.

QUESTION: Sir, a couple of days ago, the Secretary of State John Kerry has said that Pakistan was among the countries in which the United States built state-of-the-art security operations center --


QUESTION: -- the tactical security operations center. Sir, what really is the function of this security center, then? Who is heading this center? Thank you, sir.

MR TONER: Sure. It’s – I think he referred to tactical operations centers, yeah. And there’s one of them – there are several, I think, in – of our embassies worldwide. It’s an embassy operations center. I don’t know if you’re aware of what the operations center does here at the State Department. I’m a veteran of the operations center. It’s basically monitoring worldwide activity 24/7 in order to – if something happens in anywhere in the world that affects our people or affects American citizens or is a crisis that it has to involve the Secretary of State or, rather, the interagency, the operations center is, if you will, the first responders to any kind of activity like that, to any kind of crisis.

These function along the – kind of along the same lines. They are – the embassy operations center are kind of a central location – is a central location to kind of coordinate security and emergency events as well as monitor threats to the embassy or its personnel and it allows for real-time communications with Diplomatic Security and department officials in Washington. It also allows us a way to connect directly with host government officials. So we have one of these in Pakistan, we have them elsewhere in the world as well.

QUESTION: Sir, I have one more question --

MR TONER: Yeah, of course.

QUESTION: -- about the Guantanamo Bay prison. Sir, despite his promises, President Obama failed to shut down the Gitmo. You know about it. But he’s still trying to release as much as he can before January 20. And it feels like it’s a race against time, but the question is that here – that in different surveys, it said that 30 percent of the released prisoner are back into the battlefield and joined the bad guys. So the question is there, sir: Whenever you release a prisoner from Gitmo, who is responsible for the security of those and – the country releasing them or the country where they transferred?

MR TONER: So, to the first part of your question, as you noted, the President has made clear – everyone knows this – that he believes that a continued operation of Gitmo or Guantanamo Bay detention facility weakens our national security. It does that by draining our resources, but it also does that by damaging our relationship with key allies and partners, and we believe emboldens violent extremists. So we’ve been taking steps to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo Bay, and we’ve been doing that steadily throughout the past eight years. I think I’m looking at the current numbers since --

QUESTION: Fifty-five?

MR TONER: Right, but I’m looking at – so when President Obama took office, the detainee population at Guantanamo was 242. Since that time, we have moved 183 detainees to 42 countries for repatriation and resettlement, and also for prosecution. So that’s a significant reduction.

With respect to what you said – re-engagement of some of these and who watches that – we work, we take any kind of incident of re-engagement very seriously, we work very closely through military intelligence, law enforcement channels, and diplomatic channels, of course, to mitigate re-engagement and to take follow-on action when necessary.

So in short, what we try to do is first thoroughly vet any detainee that we’re going to release to a third country and we’re, let me just say, very grateful for the many governments around the world who have stepped up to take these detainees and relocate them. But we also are going forward very closely with the governments, as I said, through all the channels I just mentioned to try to prevent any kind of re-engagement by these individuals. We recognize and certainly these governments also take steps to prevent that as well, but it’s something we always try to stay vigilant about.

QUESTION: Sir, do you have any details of how many prisoners are going to be released before Jan 20?

MR TONER: I don’t. I cannot predict that. I know that they’re hard at work until the transition takes place.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Thanks. Yeah, man.

QUESTION: I’ve got a really quick question on the --

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: -- Palestinian-Israeli issue.

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: There’s been a marked increase in home demolitions and so on in the last few days especially in the aftermath of the attack in Jerusalem. I wonder if you have any comment on that or have you been in touch with Israeli authorities to urge them to scale back or not to do such?

MR TONER: Yeah, Said, I – first of all, we – and I put out a statement on Sunday, I believe, condemning the very terrible truck attack on Israeli soldiers. But we’ve been very clear that we have seen – and I don’t know, it might – I don’t know if it’s increased since Sunday, but we have seen the acceleration of demolitions of Palestinian structures in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and we’re very concerned about it and we’ve made those concerns clear to the Israeli Government.

QUESTION: There has been an increase today, I mean, in the amount – in the amount of violence on --

MR TONER: I’m aware, but I – anyway – I mean, we’ve – they’re aware of our concerns.


QUESTION: And I have one last question.


QUESTION: Also, Israel is trying to pass a law to prevent BDS activists from entering the country, including Palestinian Americans. Do you have a point of view on that?

MR TONER: Well, we’ve discussed this legislation before. A couple points that I think I’ve made before – one is that our strong opposition to boycotts and to sanctions of the state of Israel is well known, hasn’t changed. That said, as a general principle, we value freedom of expression and believe that even when we don’t agree with the political views necessarily that are expressed, we believe that individuals should have the right to peacefully protest.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: So wait a second, just – I want to follow up on that, because I – when --

MR TONER: This always gets you. I knew he was waiting.

QUESTION: No, no, no, no, when the question --

MR TONER: Sure, I’m sorry.

QUESTION: -- when the question was raised the first time – I think it was several months ago – I asked the same thing. But you also would not – you would not argue or even quibble with the idea that Israel can decide who it wants to – or any country can decide who it wants to allow into its country.

MR TONER: I mean, ultimately, it is a sovereign state and we can only express our view that people should be allowed to – excuse me – peacefully protest.

QUESTION: Right, I understand that, but I mean, it is their prerogative to decide who they want to come in and into the country --

MR TONER: Ultimately, yes. Yeah.

QUESTION: -- just as it is the United States’s prerogative.

MR TONER: Of course, of course, yes.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MR TONER: Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:35 p.m.)

DPB # 6