Background Briefing on Libya

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official, Office of the Spokesperson
Via Teleconference
March 8, 2012

MODERATOR: Thank you, and good morning to everyone. And thanks to all of you for joining us on short notice. As all of you know, Secretary just finished her bilateral with Prime Minister of Libya ElKeib, and we thought it would be a good opportunity to do this background call with an individual who you all got to know quite well a year ago through all the trials and tribulations of last spring, [Senior Administration Official], who will henceforth be known as Senior Administration Official, as this call will be on background. And [Senior Administration Official]’s here to talk to all of you and answer your questions about his views having been on the ground now for about --


MODERATOR: -- six months. So without further ado, I’ll hand it over to [Senior Administration Official]. Go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. Good morning everybody. I’m very pleased to be here in Washington, especially to be partaking – participating in the visit of the prime minister here, which the visit of which has gone very well so far. He saw the President yesterday, had a meeting with Tom Donilon at the White House, and today met with the Secretary, and he’s got some other meetings with some officials before he heads back to Tripoli tomorrow evening, I believe.

One of the reasons why I wanted to participate or to do this call with you today, actually, was to – there’s a sense, certainly, among people in Washington and others that when they see headlines that have been coming out of Libya over the past several weeks, militias running rampant, separatists all over the place, an economy in ruins, Qadhafi – Qadhafi elements back on track trying to destabilize the country. I think people get a false sense of exactly what’s going on in the country. And look, I’m – first of all, I’m not going to say that things are peachy keen, let’s start with that statement. And in fact, there are several challenges that his government is facing right now. But let’s just remember that this government has been in power for four months now. And if you recall during the whole last year when you all heard me several times speak about the kind of Libya that these people have inherited, I think that they have made some very good progress over the last four months. And I just wanted to make sure that these – that at least these elements got some play as well. Again, I do not underestimate, and I certainly don’t – will not neglect to discuss the issues that they face in terms of stabilization, in terms of the militias, in terms of the economy, and in terms of the questions of transparency and accountability which this government faces, but I just wanted to make sure that you had a sense of, from those of us on the ground, just as to what’s going on.

Let me just say, first of all, that I – life is returning to normal in Libya, or better than normal, as Libyan – many Libyans would say looking back at, quote-unquote, “normal” under Qadhafi. Schools and universities are open, cafes and restaurants are open, stores are stocked with local, imported goods. The airport has opened again; it’s full of international travelers seeking new investment opportunities. Public life is evolving as a lively debate with civil society groups, the media, government officials all taking part.

Libyans are exercising their newfound freedoms in ways previously unimaginable. The sense of a people breathing freedom for the first time is palpable. They’re holding peaceful protests, they’re forming political parties. You can’t spend a night without getting invited to the launch of a new political party. NGOs are filling the airwaves and neighborhood cafes are bristling with passionate discussions about every topic under the sun. Commerce has returned to Libya. Some local businesses report booming sales. For example, at the Al Naseem Dairy in Misrata, production is expected to double by May as compared to pre-revolution levels.

Shockingly, and I really think this is ‘shockingly’ given the fact that the analysts here, and certainly in Washington, were so pessimistic about this – oil production levels are rapidly approaching pre-revolution rates. And the oil ministry, as of a few weeks ago, expects this level of oil production to reach 1.7 million barrels per day, which was the level before the revolution. And this is providing the Government of Libya a steady stream of reliable income.

Public confidence in the banking sector has resumed. Banks are witnessing the daily flurry of customers making deposits and withdrawals. The Central Bank of Libya is now free of sanctions, has an estimated $100 billion worldwide, and all of this money is now at the full disposal of the Libyan Government. I would note that the February 17th anniversary date of the revolution, in which there were several assumptions that whatever was the plan for celebrations would come off with being threatened or that there would be insurrection in the country, or people would cause problems, came off without a hitch. It was a remarkable sight to be in that country and to see hundreds of thousands of people walking in the streets with their families, and very, very few instances of that celebratory gunfire which had made everybody so uncomfortable and which, in fact, had caused several deaths during that time.

On the militia and the disarmament, it remains a concern of the government. They acknowledge it but they are focused on this program of reintegrating the militias. We have been working very hard with them, along with the international community, on the conventional weapons. I think you’re all aware that we in Libya have worked together to account for nearly 5,000 such weapons, the MANPADS and the components. And in fact, to show now that Libya is also becoming an actor on the regional stage, they’re going to be hosting a high-level meeting this week on regional security, with several interior ministers, defense ministers coming to Tripoli to talk about, for the first time in decades, meaningful ways to promote border cooperation throughout the region.

Elections that – they’ve been – the Libyan electoral commission is up. There’s electoral law. And we keep in close touch with the UN group, Carlos Valenzuela, who is a known expert on this and is working with them. And they are – they’re going toward elections, still holding to the June 21st date. There are several obstacles to overcome. But they seem to be confident that they will be able to do that.

I would add also that the United States is a very firm partner with Libya during these past several months. The issue of the U.S.-Libya partnership was a main theme of the discussion with the President and certainly with the Secretary of State. We’re working very closely with the electoral commission through the UN to help on that score. We’ve been very, very active in providing funds through AID and other institutions working with us for the development of civil society. We’ve established a military-to-military dialogue. And we’ve also begun, again, a good cooperation in counterterrorism.

So I just wanted to give a sense to you that, in fact, yes, this government is struggling with some very, very difficult issues. And they themselves have acknowledged it. So it’s not as if these issues are being swept under the rug. But I also want to emphasize that given where they have come, I think they have achieved quite a lot in the last four months, and the United States intends to be a firm partner with them. Just as we supported them during the revolution, we’re also making robust efforts and commitments to help them during this very, very critical time in their history. Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you, [Senior Administration Official]. We’ll now turn it over to some of your questions with the caveat that we have about 15 minutes or so for Q&A, and also just a reminder of the ground rules, that this is on background with a Senior Administration Official.

So we’ll take your questions. Operator?

OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone and record your name. This is needed in order to announce your question. Once again, to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone and record your name when prompted.

Our first question comes from Andrew Quinn. Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official]. It’s Andy Quinn at Reuters. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about how the U.S. views this eastern autonomy move. How dangerous do you think this is, if at all? Do you think it’s got any traction? And secondly, I was wondering if you could tell us what the Libyans want the U.S. to do as far as these regime remnants that the prime minister mentioned this morning. Is there some specific ask there that they have?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. On the first question, I think the prime minister handled the question beautifully this morning, really. Look, one of the byproducts or consequences of establishing a democracy is that new voices want to express their views. And especially in a place like Libya, which you all understand has had none of this for 42 years, there’s a tremendous amount of political expression.

And I think the prime minister covered it very well by saying, look, this is part of the democratic process. He does not necessarily agree with the way that this particular group of 3,000 headed by Mr. Senussi is approaching the issue, because in fact, the issue of how this government or how this country will develop its political institutions will be a subject for the constitution, which will be debated after the election of the 200 in June.

So I think, yes – is it of concern? Of course it is, because it also reflects a sense – and this is something that was acknowledged by Mr. Jalil openly – that the people in the East are a little – remain suspicious of what’s going on in terms of the centralization of power in Tripoli, that they have been denied for the whole time of the Qadhafi years. And they’re very concerned that the government in Tripoli is turning their backs on them right now, which I don’t believe is the case.

But I think that’s part of the reason that they’re doing it. They want attention, they want to make sure that their voice is heard. And while it is, like I said, an issue of concern, it is also a manifestation of what is going on in Libya with groups bringing up – demanding their political – their part of the political pie that is now becoming open to them since the revolution.

With respect to the regime elements, I think what the Libyans would like is just help with us talking to our friendly governments in the region that – in which these family members are being allowed to live right now, and to basically not – basically, when you have Saadi Qadhafi living in Niger somewhere, broadcasting through whatever means he does or through the – I think he did it through Al Jazeera or an interview with Al Arabiya – I forget right now – fomenting revolution again and antigovernment activities, I think that’s something that we’re all – we all should be concerned about. The same was the case for the daughter Ayesha, who was spewing her vitriol against the current government.

So I think what the Libyans are looking for now is our support in trying to help convince the – those countries that are harboring these people that it’s not in anybody’s interest to allow this kind of provocative rhetoric at this very critical time in Libya’s history.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Cami McCormick.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior Administration Official]. Thank you. Andy asked most of the questions. I was wondering – the prime minister said the war is not over until these remnants are dealt with. So aside from provocative rhetoric and so forth, how serious a threat are these remnants?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the Libyans have been – obviously acknowledged that their borders are certainly not under the kind of firm control that they would like them to be, and they are – we and along with our partners are trying to cooperate with them to get their border institutions and protection back up.

But in the meantime, there is a flow of people and potentially weapons throughout the country. I don’t – I can’t give you a sense of whether, in fact, there’s imminent danger from these elements. Let’s just say that they can cause some problems right now, but I think the tide of public opinion certainly doesn’t support them. But I think they can be troublesome to the current situation. But I don’t think that anybody in the government feels that they are in danger of trying to establish a counter-coup of some kind, as advocated by Saadi Qadhafi and other members of the regime.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Karen DeYoung.

QUESTION: Hi. I just wondered if you could clarify – when you talked about oil production, you said that the oil minister had talked about – expects 1.7 million barrels per day, which is – was the level before the revolution. Could you just clarify? Expects it when?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that by this summer is the target date for getting back to the 1.7 level, I think, based on the calculations and assessments that they’re doing right now in Libya.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Andrei Surzhanskiy.

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you for doing this. My question is this: Russia’s envoy to the United Nations, Mr. Churkin, has accused Libya of running a training center for Syrian rebels fighting the government of President Assad. And do you have any knowledge about existing such a center? I mean, can you confirm that it really exists? How would you react to this accusation? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would refer you to the prime minister’s comments this morning during the press availability with Secretary Clinton where he addressed that question, basically firmly denying the existence of those camps.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Lachlan Carmichael. Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Hi there. Yes, I’ll just follow up on the – my Russian colleague’s question. Would you oppose any Syrians being trained in Libya?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, I don’t think that that’s an issue for me to answer. What I would say is that there’s a very strong sentiment among the people for – in sympathy with the people of Syria. And in fact, there have been some fairly large protests by Libyan civilians in support of the Syrian revolution – or the Syrian opposition’s efforts right now, as you can well imagine, because of the perception of similarity in terms of both – what both peoples are suffering and just this – a feeling on the part of the Libyan people that they would like to support the Syrian people in whatever way they could.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Camille Elhassani. Your line is now open.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you for doing this. I wondered if, [Senior Administration Official], if you could comment on allegations that weapons that were provided to the TNC last year are now making their hands across the region and into the hands of people you might not want to see them in, and if you guys are tracking any of that and what’s the status of them?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’re working very – I can’t – I don’t have any specific information as to what kind or what type of weapons may have crossed the border or may have proliferated in the region. What I can tell you is that we have been working very closely with the Libyans in terms of getting – of the kind of inventories related to the kind of weapons that are in the country right now, and as I said before, working with them to try to alleviate this issue with respect to MANPADS. And we’ve gotten very, very good cooperation from them since we’ve been back in early fall.

QUESTION: Okay. Just a – can I follow up just quickly? The – yesterday, Secretary Panetta said some of these weapons have ended up in the Sinai. Is that – you haven’t seen that or --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I really can’t comment on that. I have not – I’m just not privy to that information, whether or not – it may be true, it may not be true. I just don’t know.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Great. We have time for a couple more questions.

OPERATOR: Once again, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touchtone phone and record your name when prompted.

I am showing no questions at this time.

MODERATOR: All right, then. Well, thank you all very much for joining us this morning, and thanks also to [Senior Administration Official] for sharing his thoughts and views with us today. Thanks again, everybody. Have a good day.

PRN: 2012/355