Background Briefing on the Situation in West Africa

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
May 14, 2014

MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Thanks so very much for joining us today. We are going to open up with very brief remarks by [Senior State Department Official] hereafter will be referred to as Senior State Department Official, as a Senior State Department Official. [Senior State Department Official] is going to make brief remarks and then we’ll turn it over to you to take your questions.

Thanks very much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Good morning, everyone, and I too would like to thank you for your continued interest and your continued coverage of this story. As you know, the search really still is ongoing. Secretary Kerry’s engagement on this really has galvanized international support and activity on this, and we’re very grateful and cooperating with everybody on this; we’re very happy to see it. We were – our team was the first on the ground to support the Nigerians, but as you know, other countries are – have also come to that cause.

Most of you know, basically – the basics of this story. I could just say that we are committed – as the President has said, we are really committed to doing everything we can to help Nigeria find and free the girls and to bring them home safely.

I’d be much more – I’m open to your questions and will provide you with as much information as I can in that context.

MODERATOR: Okay. I’m sorry, okay. We’re ready to go ahead and turn it over for questions. Again, our Senior State – this is on background and our speaker shall be referred to as a Senior State Department Official. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press * and then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating that you have been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the pound key. So again, for your questions, please press * and then 1 at this time. And please allow just a few moments as questions are queuing up.

And we’ll take our first question from Elise Labott with CNN. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing this call. I have two questions. First of all, can you – I know that many if not all of the girls have not been located yet, but can you say if you have any information about – Boko Haram has threatened to sell them into slavery, has threatened rape, has threatened a lot of things. Can you say anything about what you believe has happened to the girls at this point? Any more information about whether they’ve been taken over the borders, put into small groups? I mean, what is your understanding, as – even as rudimentary as it might be, about what’s – this situation with them?

And then secondly, the Secretary of Defense and also at the State Department and all have talked about, in terms of the U.S. assistance, U.S. surveillance planes, manned and unmanned, flying over Nigerian territory. Have you also been in touch with the neighboring countries like Chad and Cameroon and gotten their permission to fly over their territory, given that you’ve said on the record – not you, but others have said on the record that you believe that they might have been moved? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, Elise. On the first question, I’ve really got to reiterate: we are continuing to work with the Nigerians to help locate the girls. We really don’t know where the girls are. We’re talking about an area about the size of West Virginia, compared – other people have compared it to the size of all of New England. Essentially, finding them is the first critical step. So the speculation about the different kinds of things that could have happened to them is just that. It’s speculation at this point. And the threats are awful, just that – so much coming from Boko Haram. So I really can’t expand on that. We don’t have information, and I can’t tell you have they been split up or not.

On the second thing about the surveillance and the kind of support we’re giving in that regard, that’s almost an operational question. I can tell you that we are using some of our surveillance assets in order to help with the search. My assumption – I guess that’s a good question for DOD, but the assumption is, of course, if permissions were needed, permissions obviously were requested.

We are in communication with all the governments bordering Nigeria. Those governments too are in communication with the Nigerians because they’ve all been engaged to try to figure out how to help with the search for the girls.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question in queue will come from Ali Weinberg with ABC News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi again. Thank you so much for doing the call. I had two related questions on the personnel on the ground. Number one, could you expand at all on what sort of day-to-day tasks and responsibilities the five State Department officials on the ground in Nigeria will be in charge of? Specifically I’m referring to the two strategic communications experts who are on the ground, as well as the civilian security experts. We’d just be curious to hear what sort of things, what sort of tasks they’re going to be in charge of.

Second, we understand that there are going to be roughly 30 U.S. Government personnel on the ground. So far, the tally individually from State, DOD, FBI, has added up to, in various estimations, 26 or 27. So I just wanted to ask also if you anticipate there will be more U.S. personnel coming on the ground in the coming days. And will the final number be, in fact, 30? Will it be more or less? Thank you so much.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, Ali. For your first question, the kinds of activities – actually I’m not getting their calendars, but I’ll tell you the kinds of things that strategic communications people do. I think we were all extremely surprised by the dearth of communication that was coming out about this event from the Nigerian Government. One of the things that our team of communicators is going to try to help the Nigerians with is getting a better handle on communicating with the Nigerian population, with telling their people – one of our messages had been you need to keep everyone informed as to what you’re doing because actually, the Nigerian Government said that they had actually – that they were doing more than they were expressing.

So our – the communications specialists are really going to be talking about how to get your – how to get a message out, how to keep people informed, and the importance of making sure that they have regular communication with their public. So basically, they’ll be working with Nigerian personnel on communication strategy.

Our security experts, our civilian security experts – they will probably be talking about – with other law enforcement and security people about early warning systems. Basically, what is it that the local governments can be working on and the Nigerian law enforcement security apparatus needs to be working on to help communities that are isolated or that may not have a really robust official law enforcement presence, how to help communities work together, talk to each other, and alert each other and then be able to communicate with the security people that they need to. So that would be the sort of taskings.

They are – they have – they are in meetings with Nigerian officials every day, but also there is, as I mentioned earlier, basically an international team that is developing there. The Brits have their experts there as well as the French, and in many instances we’re – they’re sitting in mini clusters of – international clusters working on these issues and working through these issues with the Nigerians.

Oh, the number of personnel, 30 USG personnel on the ground. I took quick notes of what you were asking. What – the first tranche – our first tranche of experts arrived, and I think we arrived basically as about 36, and then maybe one had come on the next plane or something like that. Will we end up roughly with about 30 people? I believe so. It might be 29, but essentially we’ve identified – and they’ve already been the areas that we’ve already identified to you – the kinds of things that we feel that we are best equipped to work with the Nigerians on. And these teams were rapidly put together. It might be that we’ll have to swap people because other people had other things on their plate. But essentially, I think we won’t – we will not have more than 30 as part of the special support team that’s working with the Nigerians.

QUESTION: Thank you so much.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, as a reminder, to queue up, you may press * followed by 1. And next in queue is Philip Crowther with France 24. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Just a question on the summit on this precise subject that will be happening in Paris on Saturday. Do you already know what the U.S. participation will be? We heard from the French foreign minister visiting Washington yesterday that there had been an invitation sent out to foreign ministers, including the United States, meaning the Secretary of State. Will he be attending, first of all? If not, who will be attending? And also, what would you expect and wish to get as a result from this summit or conference that will be taking place in Paris on Saturday?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you. Yes, we were invited and yes, we’re still going over. This did come up late yesterday, so we’re looking – I don’t have – I think the official announcement will be made from the podium by our spokesperson. But yes, the United States will be represented. I can say that.

And what do we expect from this? It’s a good initiative. It’s very important that the heads of state from the affected region, from Nigeria as well as the neighbors, have all agreed to attend this. And the United States as well as the other European partners plan to be there. So I think what we’re looking for really will be perhaps some better definition about cooperation among the states in the region and from the international community. The United States has already been very forthcoming and clear about the kind of approach that needs to be taken in – to counter terrorism. You can’t – there can’t just be a military response; you have to have a holistic response. You have to deal with legitimate grievances that might be in a region. You also have to deal with alternatives to violent extremism. You have to deal with making sure communities have support to prevent – well, have support and that are resilient enough and can have – I’m trying to get back to early warning systems.

So I think we will have much more talk about that and probably will share lessons learned from our engagement or our dealings with these kinds of incidents. The outcome would be probably a commitment to greater cooperation and participation and communication, particularly within the region, I would think.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Our next question in queue will come from Nicole Gaouette with Bloomberg. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks very much for doing this. I was wondering if you could address concerns about the Nigerian military’s human rights record and the various violations it stands accused of, and also if you could tell us to what degree restrictions because of the Leahy Law are impacting your ability to work with the military in this search, and whether you are increasing any efforts to reform those units of the Nigerian military that are affected by Leahy Law restrictions in order to help them more with the search. Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you. I got – I know you have three questions. Your voice sort of trailed off on the first one, but I – are you saying what concerns we have about the human rights record of the Nigerian military in general? Is that basically it?

QUESTION: Well, yeah. I’m specifically curious about how it’s impacting your ability to help them search.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I got the – I got that. Okay. Certainly, we’ve been very clear about our concerns about the Nigerian – reports of and evidence of abuses and excessive violations of the Nigerian military. And we have said that – that we have urged the Nigerian government to address, to hold violators accountable, and to make sure that the human rights and – of all of the Nigerian people are respected as the Nigerian military tries to go and do its – well, execute its responsibilities.

We are encouraged by the fact that President Jonathan recently did declare that he was going to have to have a better approach, that he was going to have to address the way the military was responding to things. And they came out with a term – excuse me, I’m just groping in my mind for something. Anyway, he – give me one minute, because this really is important and we do take it very seriously.

Essentially, the Nigerian Government recently came out with a statement that they were going to have to broaden their approach, and they recognized the fact that they have had excesses in their military. We separate that specific from our ability to help now. Leahy does prevent us from working directly with any of the military units – or rather the individuals or units that have been tainted. So there – for example, there is a specific counterterrorism unit with which we don’t interact in Nigeria because we’re not able to by Leahy. However, we’re not prevented from working with the Nigerian military for those soldiers or units that were not affected, and we are doing training on human rights training and on appropriate use of force with the military for those elements that we can work with.

It would be dishonest to say that it – that the law doesn’t have – that this – these measures don’t have an impact. They do have an impact. But all we have to use are – we have to use what we know will work, and it is counterproductive and counter-effective to have a military that is not professional and that your population lives in fear of. So that’s been part of the message that we’ve been giving to the Nigerians, and we are working very hard to help them professionalize their military with their new units and with elements that we are able to work with.

Is that increasing our effort to – no. So we are not – the way you phrased your question, are we increasing our effort to reform the units that have already been determined to have been violators, no, we do not work directly with the units that have been violator.

QUESTION: I understand that part of the law, though, is an incentive, maybe not for State but for DOD, some --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m sorry. You’re not – I’m not hearing you very well. Can you speak --

QUESTION: Sorry. I’m struggling with a cold. You know what, I can follow up with my question at a later date. Thanks.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question in queue will come from Jessica Stone with CCTV. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing the call. I wanted to ask: This past weekend, there were reports of the U.S. and surveillance equipment locating the girls in the Nigerian press. Obviously, that was never confirmed by anyone in Washington, but is that the type of scenario that the U.S. could be helpful in?

And secondly, there have been some criticisms about the length of time it took for the U.S. to get involved in the situation, and I’m just wondering what the tick-tock, the timeline was in terms of making that decision and why it took that period of time.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I missed the first part of your question. You said surveillance and then communication? I’m not sure I --

QUESTION: Sorry, no. There were reports in the Nigerian media on Saturday last – this past Saturday, that the U.S. had used surveillance equipment and had located the girls. Obviously, that doesn’t appear to be the case. We haven’t ever been able to confirm that, but is that the type of scenario that the U.S. and the type of technology being deployed could be helpful in?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’re using various types of assets. In our surveillance, we are just trying to make – to see what we can see. Yes, if there is imagery, it would be part of what we would be able to share. So would the imagery be good enough to talk about exact location? I’m not sure. But we might be able to have imagery that is – that the Nigerians would be able to understand as far as what they’re used to seeing in their own territory.

The length of time. Frankly, when our Embassy first found out about the abduction, the Embassy, as part of – immediately contacted the Nigerian Government to say – for an update, to find out any information, to find out what, if anything, the Nigerian Government might want to ask of the United States. And at the time, the Nigerian Government was also getting its own information and trying determine what it was going to do.

So we – the United States – we don’t consider that there was a lag in our attention to this. There was a lag in the information getting from the school to the capital, but once reports started coming out, we, of course, checked in with the capital to find out details and to find out what we could do.

That’s my answer.

MODERATOR: Okay, ladies and gentlemen. I think that that will be our last question today. If there’s anyone else – operator, could you tell them how – could you – I’m sorry – prompt them on how to ask a question? And if not, we’ll go ahead and wrap up this call.

OPERATOR: And if there’s additional questions, please press * 1. And please allow just a few moments. And again, if there’s a question, you may press * 1. And please allow just a few moments.

(No response.)