Secretary Clinton's Meeting with Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez

Special Briefing
Ian Kelly
Department Spokesman
Background Briefing by Senior State Department Official
Washington, DC
August 18, 2009

(5:25 p.m. EDT)

MR. KELLY: I think our Senior State Department Official has a few remarks to make at the beginning, and then we’ll turn it over to your questions.

QUESTION: Can we make the remarks on the record, and then go on background for questions?

MR. KELLY: I think we’ll just keep it on background. Is that – I mean, you have the Secretary on the record.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Well, thank you all. I know it’s late, so I’m not going to keep you. At least with my remarks, I’ll make them brief. But I just wanted to give you some context of this agreement because there’s been a lot out there in the press and I want to give you a broader context of knowing what this is about, when we began it. This really started about midway through Plan Colombia that we decided that it was time to formalize a lot of the ad hoc agreements that we’ve developed over the years, really dating back way before Plan Colombia started in 1999 and 2000. Many of these agreements date back to the 1950s and ‘60s and are Cold War relics in some ways. So we felt that there was a lot of value in putting our defense and security and counternarcotics relationship in kind of a broader framework.

So what this agreement is, is really a framework agreement for us to cooperate on counternarcotics and security affairs. It’s not unusual for governments to do this to kind of establish the rules of the game as we move forward. The idea was to formalize this at a time where, as you can see from the numbers for Plan Colombia, that we’re reducing our assistance, in part, because we’re transferring a lot of our security and counternarcotics programs over to the Colombian Government to carry out – and they’re doing a very good job – with the ultimate goal of us having , ideally, a minimal presence in Colombia and returning to the pre-Plan Colombia, pre-1999 kind of relationship that we have in Colombia.

So that’s kind of what the objective was. It’s a strictly bilateral agreement focused on dealing with the drug and the – kind of the terrorist problem, particularly the FARC problem and the ELN problem in Colombia. And you’ll see that the two bases that we’re most interested in having access to are the bases right in the heart of the areas where we have the most problems with the FARC and with narcotics trafficking and cultivation.

In terms of their global – how this ranks with our other agreements, we have these kinds of agreements. All these agreements differ somewhat from country to country because of the local situation or local sensitivities. But we have agreements, such as this one, with about 120 countries in the world. So you can see this is not unusual at all for the United States to have this type of agreement. And we’ll continue to talk to other governments in the region, too, to see if we can develop bilateral accords that meet these two objectives.

So with that, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Madame Secretary kept talking about that this was a bilateral agreement, however, in this Defense Cooperation Agreement, is there going to be a specific clause that will guarantee that will not – that the Colombian forces are not going to repeat what they did against Ecuador, using U.S. military intelligence and equipment to launch such an attack against Ecuador, and the Pentagon acknowledged that they used U.S. intelligence and equipment for this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, you heard both Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Bermúdez both state directly, and they were quoting from part of the Defense Cooperation Agreement, that this respects territorial integrity, it’s based on the principle of non-intervention and the principle of sovereignty. So I think that’s pretty much – I mean, it’s an agreement between two governments. So I --

QUESTION: But it already happened. What is – I mean, is there a specific clause this time that it prevents that kind of usage of U.S. military equipment?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I just – I think I just repeated what both the Secretary and Foreign Minister Bermúdez said. I don’t know what I can add to that. The language is in an agreement that will be signed by two governments, so it is a binding commitment by both governments. And on top of that, I think you saw Foreign Minister Bermúdez’s comments that were quoted in a Brazilian daily, Folha de Sao Paulo last week in which he said Colombia would not allow the United States any kind of ability to go into other – overfly other countries.

So I mean, it’s pretty clear what – this is directed towards Colombia. It’s directed towards a problem. The narcotics problem is centered not exclusively in Colombia, but most of the cocaine that comes into the United States comes from Colombia. Most of the violence in South America is derived from the violence around the FARC. Colombia has been at war for 45 years with the FARC, so that’s what this is focused on.


QUESTION: Yes. Maria Pena with EFE News Services. You said that you were working – that you’ve got similar agreements with 100 and plus countries --


QUESTION: -- and that you’re looking to have more agreements in the region. Can you name if Mexico is included in one of those countries that you’re looking to have that kind of bilateral agreement in terms of using bases in Mexico, for instance? And also, I wanted to know if you know, to your knowledge, whether or not the free trade agreement with Colombia that’s stuck in Congress came up. And if so, do you think this particular agreement, although it’s military in nature, will somehow advance that part of the bilateral agenda with Colombia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: First of all let me clarify, when I said these types of agreements, I’m not talking about necessarily access agreements, you know, access to bases. I’m not aware of any negotiations with Mexico on that issue. You know, we talk to governments on a regular basis about how to combat the narcotics trafficking problem and there are ongoing negotiations. Some of them are at the beginning, some of them are further developed. But I really can’t comment on any specific. We have no plans right now to sign one in the imminent future.

As far as the free trade agreement, it did not come up in the context of this – the conversation between the Secretary and the foreign minister.

QUESTION: Yeah. You talk about, like what you – what the agreement won’t do and, you know, that – and you also – in terms of just access to the bases, what does this agreement do? You’re not adding any more personnel, so how does this agreement help you in terms of access to the bases? Do you think this will mean that the military personnel on the ground will be more active in operations as long as you have cooperation from the Colombian Government? I mean, what’s the goal of the agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Actually, I know it seems counterintuitive, but this allows us to have fewer people on the ground, because by formalizing – the way things have worked in Colombia and they work in a lot of other countries, where we ask for ad hoc access to use facilities – airfields or whatever – is very labor intensive for the military and for our embassies to do that. So by having a formal agreement which mechanisms – and these mechanisms still have to be negotiated by both countries how – you know, what the notification will be, how the permission will be given to use the access. So, actually, it will make it less labor intensive for us. And it will allow us a lot more ability to, in an emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster or a volcano, floods, whatever, to bring in humanitarian assistance to the country or face any other kind of humanitarian – and that’s why we have these with so many countries is to allow the U.S. Government the ability to move very quickly in these kinds of crises.

QUESTION: But you also don’t have kind of an active drug war in most of the countries that you have --


QUESTION: But I’m just curious, do you think that this will mean for the military that you already have on the ground or the existing, kind of, quota, that this will mean a more robust role for them in the counterdrug war?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, not necessarily. We’re turning our programs over to the Colombians and we’re making pretty good progress on that. Our numbers, as you know, that Congress has set the limit – 800 U.S. military at any given time. For the last couple years, we’ve been well below that. It’s been below 300 that we’ve averaged, and the trend line will continue downward. That’s not to say we will continue at all times. There may be a bump-up if there’s – if something happens in Colombia that we need more U.S. military. So we’ll respect those limits.

QUESTION: You mentioned that this agreement has its roots in the Plan Colombia. So you consider that Plan Colombia was so successful that you want to reinforce the same strategy, or Plan Colombia didn’t work that well that you want to change the strategy in Colombia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, what I meant by that is, you know, a lot of the military agreements that are now contained in this framework agreement that date back to 1952 and 1954 are the standard kind of military exchange, professional exchanges, training, shift visits, things like that that we have with a lot of countries. When we developed Plan Colombia focused on the counternarcotics program, that created a new situation in which we needed a new template or a new model to develop. And we had so many people on the ground as technicians helping the Colombians get Plan Colombia started that we felt that it’s better to kind of rationalize this process rather than to continue on an ad hoc basis, which really both countries felt very uncomfortable with dealing with these kinds of things on an ad hoc basis because there was no – there were no rules of the game for, you know --

QUESTION: It’s not mentioned in the fact sheet, but there’s a $46 million investment in the Palanquero base. I was wondering if you could –


QUESTION: Why is there a need for this, and this is an actual change of policy?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Right. And Palanquero – it was the base that we were principally interested in Colombia because of its proximity to the drug problem and the security problems in Colombia. Palanquero, while it’s a very good facility, it does not meet the standards that U.S. pilots normally – the safety standards that U.S. pilots normally have. For that reason, our Congress has appropriated $46 million to upgrade the facilities there to make them up to U.S. standards.

QUESTION: You say that this is a –

QUESTION: Sorry, and what –just to follow up on that, in what way? To upgrade them how? Would it be extending the runway, or what’s the --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: [Second official], you may want to – my colleague –

SECOND OFFICIAL: Just a communication -- so just some safety upgrades. I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of infrastructure upgrades, going into Palanquero.

QUESTION: $46 million for --

SECOND OFFICIAL: But that’s actually – that’s not even formalized in the agreement. That’s just – a lot of it’s added on, so that’s a separate issue.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The connection between the two are, when our Congress, or the American people, put $46 million of investment in a facility and our forces are going to use that, normally they want some guaranteed access for a period of time, and they want legal protections for our troops, as we try to do all around the world, whether it’s Spain or Germany or Kenya or Oman or whatever. So it’s connected to the agreement in that sense that there’s a relationship, but [the second official] is right. There is no – it’s not in the agreement itself.

QUESTION: When did you start negotiating –

QUESTION: I’m sorry, excuse me –

QUESTION: -- since the Palanquero money was put in before the announcement of the agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, she – can we get back to you in a second? Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. Just to check a few things, did you say the $46 million has been appropriated, or is that in the 2010 (inaudible)?


SECOND OFFICIAL: Yeah, I think it’s in the next –

QUESTION: Next budget. Okay, thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. I’m sorry, good point.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. And is this a SOFA, or no?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It’s got SOFA-like elements to it. I mean, a SOFA can be either a very – with some of our NATO allies, they’re very robust packages. I would say this is light on the SOFA part in the sense that it has guarantees for protection of U.S. forces, but they may not be up to – I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll just – but I don’t think they’re necessarily up to the standards of some other SOFA-like agreements.

It’s a combination, if I could just add – what it is, is a combination of an access agreement, giving access, and protections to U.S. troops that are on the ground using that access.

QUESTION: And – I’m sorry, and one last clarification. Did you – did I understand right at the end of your comments, initial comments, that these sorts of agreements are now going to be worked out with other countries also in Latin America?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: No, not necessarily this particular type of agreement. What I’m talking about is agreements to cooperate in the counterdrug war with other countries in the region.

QUESTION: Which countries?

QUESTION: So what will that be, or what kind of agreements are these?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, it depends. I mean, in the case of El Salvador, we have a forward-operating location. In the case of the Dutch Antilles, we have also an agreement. In the case of Ecuador, we work with their police, as you know – that we’re no longer in Manta, but we still have very close cooperation. So we share information.

I mean, these agreements, in other words, don’t always mean having access to facilities. Sometimes it’s just sharing information about drug trafficking or training.

QUESTION: So these are agreements that already exist. You’re not talking about new ones.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, but I mean, they’re always evolving. They’re always – we develop new ones. And they range from everything from training for counterdrug war to this – an access agreement like this or the one we have in El Salvador.


QUESTION: You said that this is a bilateral issue, but it’s becoming a very hot political issue in the region, really hot. And also, there’s going to be a meeting in Argentina, trying to go –


QUESTION: -- against the agreement.


QUESTION: So the first question is, how are you going to deal with that meeting? Are you planning to – how is going to be the diplomatic effort to try to explain this since they are? Second, are you going to send somebody there to Argentina to explain the situation, which level? And the third one, you are talking about agreements in the region, but the countries that you mentioned, they are not the most important that are running against this kind of agreement in this moment. For example, the biggest players, again, are Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina. Are you planning to have any kind of agreement with those countries or treaties with them? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, we have very close cooperation with Brazil, for instance. Our DEA, our Drug Enforcement Administration, works very closely with the federal police in Brazil, and we have – when we have – again, it goes back to the issue of agreements. Don’t think of an agreement only as a defense cooperation agreement with Colombia as being one – but our agreements are more working-level agreements in which we share information and intelligence about drug trafficking cartels. So that’ll continue.

Actually, in most of the countries, whether it’s Peru, Chile –

QUESTION: Argentina.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Argentina, virtually every country I can think of – now our relationship, you’re right, has degraded with Venezuela over recent years. But I would say in most of the other countries in South America or Latin America, we have some form of agreements to cooperate in combating drug trafficking, which is the focus of this in Colombia, as well as dealing with the FARC.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, let me point out the obvious. We are not members of UNASUR. So I think the Colombians are perfectly capable of explaining to other governments what this agreement is about. I think as more – we just –remember, we just concluded this agreement in principle on Friday evening. So now we have the opportunity and you have the fact sheet. We’ve already discussed this agreement with other governments in the region to explain what it is and what it’s not. So I think as the facts get out there, I think the best antidote to a speculation is transparency, and that’s what we’re trying to do is be as – is be --

QUESTION: Following up on the question, you say that’s correct that you are not part of the UNASUR, but this has been an invitation or a –

QUESTION: President Wu (ph) invited formally Lula --

QUESTION: Yes, formally invited the United States to be there. So what is going to be the answer?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, we still have till next Friday, I guess, to decide.


QUESTION: Did you include some human rights protections, considering the killing of (inaudible) leaders in Colombia that were (inaudible) trying to stop the free trade agreement?


QUESTION: I don’t know if you consider that – the issue of human rights.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Consider it within the framework of this?

QUESTION: Within it, yes.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think that’s a very good point. I mean, I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. I don’t think that we necessarily give up on developing better security relations and counternarcotics cooperation, but then forget about human rights. Human rights is at the top of our agenda because, let’s be honest, actually, as the Deputy Defense Minister Sergio Jaramillo says all the time; human rights are the center of gravity in the war against the FARC and against drug cartels. That is to say, if you don’t get the human rights part right, everything else is going to fail.

QUESTION: This is included in the agreement? It’s mentioned in this agreement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Human rights is mentioned in it? I don’t remember whether human rights per se is, to be honest with you. But I mean, it’s contained in virtually every other principle that we have.

QUESTION: The Merida Initiative in Mexico, they are trying to protect the citizens from human rights abuses. I don’t know if you included that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. We donate or dedicate a lot of our resources within Plan Colombia to both human rights and strengthening democratic institutions. And depending on how you count the money, as much as 20 percent, 25 percent of our money is being spent in trying to improve human rights and strengthening democratic institutions. So we certainly have that at the forefront of our efforts.

MR. KELLY: Let’s take one more question. Okay.

QUESTION: Okay. The Colombian foreign minister mentioned that he’s willing or Colombia is willing to use their experience in other countries.


QUESTION: That will be a joint effort with the U.S. in other countries? And can you please mention which other countries are you talking to?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I know that the Colombians are already – they have already offered to train Mexican – I think it’s their federal police, but I’m not exactly sure. They’re in Haiti doing police training. They’re helping in Guatemala.

QUESTION: In Panama too?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Panama, what they’ve been doing, they’ve been cooperating with all the Central American countries in trying to establish more information sharing among the countries on the drug trafficking routes, how the cartels work, in order to kind of close the seams that the – their corridors that the drug cartels have been using through Central America. And going back to our agreement, I mean, that’s the point of this agreement. You go where the heart of the problem is. And the heart of the problem really is Colombia, again, not exclusively, but it’s a big part of it. We also have – Peru is also a center, and Bolivia.

But to answer your question, we’re happy – we’re already working with most of these governments on our own. We’re happy to coordinate with Colombia and other countries in the region because I think you get greater synergies and greater efficiencies if you work together in the hemisphere, rather than doing it piecemeal, simply bilaterally. So yes, we would like to work with Colombia.

QUESTION: So then it’s an invitation from the U.S. side to cooperate with other countries?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. We’ve said that a long time. I mean, the Secretary said it again after her meeting with Foreign Minister Bermúdez.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], something real quick about the immunity issue. What was the final agreement on that – immunity for U.S. soldiers, how is that resolved, because I know there was a kind of controversy regarding that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. It always is in every country. And I think the text will come out. I don’t want to say anything until there’s approval on both sides of the text. But as I mentioned before, I think it’s on the lighter side; that is, less robust than a lot of other of our agreements, but I’ll leave it at that. But it does provide what we think is the minimum that our U.S. Congress and the American people feel should be given to our servicemen.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

PRN: 2009/842