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04 January 2005

State Department Noon Briefing, January 4

Asian tsunami/department, Egypt, Israel/Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Cuba, Romania

State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli briefed the press January 4.

Following is the transcript of the State Department briefing:

(begin transcript)

U.S. Department of State
Daily Press Briefing Index
Tuesday, January 4, 2005
12:20 p.m. EST

Briefer: Adam Ereli, Deputy Spokesman

-- Welfare and Whereabouts of American Citizens in Region
-- American Citizen Inquiries/American Citizens Killed
-- Guidelines for Americans Interested in Adopting Orphaned Children
-- Trafficking in Persons Issue

-- Reported IAEA Report on Evidence of Illegal Uranium Research

-- Abu Mazen's Comments Regarding Israel

-- Assassination of Baghdad Governor Ali Al-Haidri
-- Prospects for Election on January 30

-- Reported Renewal of Diplomatic Contacts with 8 European Countries

-- U.S. Relations with New Government



12:20 p.m. EST

MR. ERELI: Hello, everyone. Good to see you.

QUESTION: Good to see you.

MR. ERELI: We can go right to your questions, because I have no statements.

QUESTION: Good. Let's try to delve a little more deeply into that elusive, if you don't mind me using the word, account of unlocated or missing Americans, all right? What is -- and please, if I may say so, the number of calls that come in really are a little beside the point, although it helps explain -- because we're looking to see, ten days after this disaster, how many Americans are unaccounted for and how concerned the State Department is that they may not just be -- may not be remiss in calling home and saying, Ma, I'm fine.

So how many missing Americans are there now estimated to be?

MR. ERELI: I don't have a specific number for you, and the reason I don't have a specific number for you is because what we're trying to do is work systematically through all the calls we've received, and determine -- and account for the whereabouts of all those calls. Not every call represents an individual. We are now -- we have whittled the number down to slightly over 4,000. Remember, this started off, since December 26th, it's been 20,000. Yesterday, after our briefing, the number of inquiries we got went up to 6,000. So based on our entreaties of people to call, based on new calls that we got, it went up to 6,000. We've been able to -- yesterday we started at 5,000 inquiries. We've been able to whittle that down to slightly over 4,000.

QUESTION: Those are --

MR. ERELI: I cannot tell you -- I cannot tell you how many -- the specific number of individuals we are looking for. The number, obviously, is large. And the reason I can't tell you is because there is a, unfortunately, a decided lack of specificity and detail that is required in order to be specific about the precise number of missing Americans. And I'll give you an example. If you've got different people reporting on one person using different names, using different variations of names, if you get reports about the same person at a variety of -- from a variety of different places, you've got to reconcile all those.

We are working systematically, as I said yesterday, to eliminate the duplication and to come to as narrow a number as possible. That is what the Secretary meant when he said, you know, every day, we're working to grind this down.

So -- and I think, obviously, we're making progress. We've got, you know, we've got over -- people throughout the region working 24 hours a day trying to get this done. I would say, you know, there are some steps we're taking that are resulting in progress.

Yesterday I mentioned, for example, that we had gotten from the Thai authorities immigration records of Americans who had entered and left the country. That has helped us significantly. We are working with authorities in Sri Lanka and Indonesia for the same kind of information that will help us to provide a more precise accounting.

Another thing we're doing is working with airlines in Thailand, for example, to get information of Americans who came and left the country, and that way we can also eliminate a lot of names on the list. So this is a very broad-based effort to come to as precise and definitive an understanding of exactly who is out there that we don't know about.

QUESTION: Well look, obviously, you can create categories. You have a lot of people here, an enormous staff. It's ten days. You referred the other day to, you know, obviously, without attacking anybody's motives, but people who call and say I haven't heard from my nephew, he's in Brisbane, Australia. And you say, well, gee, that hasn't been touched by the disaster, so you could shove that aside.

And so I would think you could cull by now calls that are irrelevant, clearly irrelevant. I also think you have lists of people who registered -- I know a lot of people don't -- with U.S. diplomatic offices. So even if I narrowed the question to how many -- I would think it's plausible to ask you, after ten days, how many people who were listed with U.S. offices abroad remain unaccounted for. That's a definable category of people.

MR. ERELI: Well, here's the problem, Barry. There are actually two issues here. First of all, as you well know, being a foreign correspondent, Americans are a very mobile group and they're a very independent-minded group. They don't always register with consulates. They don't always register with embassies.


MR. ERELI: And so to say -- to give you a number based on registrations or that sort of thing would be misleading and incomplete. That's point one.

Point two -- so there are a lot of Americans out there that we have to actively go out and hunt for, and that's what we're doing.

Point number two, as I said yesterday, and as events since yesterday, I think, bear out, the number changes every day. Since -- you know, yesterday we were dealing with 5,000 inquiries. It went up to 6,000. Now it's down to 4,000. So, frankly, I think it's something -- you're asking for something that's very difficult to provide, given the nature of the movement of Americans, given the nature of the way we get the information, given the nature of the information itself, and given what we have to do to track it down. It's such a moving target that we can't give you a specific number at any one moment of time that is both comprehensive and reliable with any degree of certainty.

QUESTION: I hear you --

MR. ERELI: And so the most accurate way we can explain this, I think, and the most useful way to try to understand it is we are acting on slightly over 4,000 inquiries about missing Americans, about people who loved ones or other contacts don't where are, and we are trying and working actively every day in a variety of ways to reconcile those inquiries with, I guess, data that we have or we can acquire to make sure that we either know where they are, or if we don't know, we can focus our attention more on that area.

QUESTION: I realize it's an enormous task. It just boggles the mind that of 4,000, you -- the State Department wouldn't know fairly definitively about three percent of those 4,000. You have not listed one American as missing. You've listed 15 Americans as dead.

MR. ERELI: Actually, the number today is up to 16.

QUESTION: Could you --

MR. ERELI: There's one additional death in Sri Lanka.

QUESTION: But these are --

MR. ERELI: So there are eight in Sri Lanka and eight in Thailand now, for a total of 16.

QUESTION: Identified as dead.

MR. ERELI: Exactly.

QUESTION: All right. I hope I don't sound argumentative, but I'm saying, of 4,000 inquiries, after ten days you would think 150 cases, at least, have been resolved by now, that you have --

MR. ERELI: Thousands have been resolved. Thousands have been resolved.

QUESTION: No, that you've checked every which way and you know that Joe Jones has simply -- is simply missing. Nobody's heard from him. He was listed with the embassy. You've called his hotel. You know where he lived and the people next door say, we haven't seen him since Sunday. Doesn't that make Joe Jones missing by now? Can't you, you know, bite the bullet and make some statement about Americans probably missing?

MR. ERELI: Yeah, yeah. I think, frankly, Barry, that we'll soon be in a position to do that. As we talk to more people, as we complete our work on the ground in the areas concerned, that we will -- I think we'll soon be in a position to be a little bit more specific and a little bit more expansive on the list. I'm not ready to do it right now, but I think our efforts are certainly going in that direction.


QUESTION: Secretary Powell said yesterday that despite the thousands of unresolved, missing, unaccounted for, whatever, he did not expect a particularly large American death toll.

MR. ERELI: Yeah.

QUESTION: Could you explain what leads to that conclusion?

MR. ERELI: You know, I saw Secretary Powell's remarks and he was specifically asked about that, and he said it wouldn't be useful to speculate and it wouldn't be helpful to speculate, because it, I think, gets people excited in ways that's not good, that's not helpful. So we're not going to speculate on what a death toll eventually may or may not be.

We are working systematically. When we find the facts, when we're confident of what we know, we will say so. And right now, what we can say, I think, with confidence is: There are a large number of Americans that are unaccounted for and that we're trying to track down, and that we're trying to determine their whereabouts; and we're working systematically with immigration authorities, with local relief officials, with airlines to try to get as much clarity and definition on the whereabouts of the very large number of Americans, who were reported in the region affected, so that we can determine exactly where they are and what their status is.


QUESTION: How would you describe that cooperation from the immigration and airline?

MR. ERELI: Very good, very good. I mean, certainly, in Thailand, as I said, we've gotten immigration records. Not every country has the same system for documenting entry and exit. But I would characterize the overall cooperation as good. Obviously, all of these systems are under a great deal of stress, so we're, I think -- and this is obviously part of a larger relief and recovery effort, but we're all interested in the same thing, which is providing help to those who need it and moving towards recovery.


QUESTION: Other countries are giving, are able to give, like, numbers, specific numbers, as to who's, you know, the numbers that are missing. That doesn't -- you guys still aren't --

MR. ERELI: Well, I guess I have two things to say about that. Number one, I'm not so sure, because in the discussions I've been involved with it's been mentioned that a number of the other countries involved from Europe and elsewhere are dealing with similar problems of specificity and reliability and confirmability of data, so that there's -- you know, they're all dealing with this, like, how do we get a firm, reliable number that we can have confidence in. So there is that degree of -- there is, I think, a common degree of uncertainty and a common effort to try to get as much specificity as possible. That's point one.

Point two is, again, every country has different requirements, procedures, regarding the movement and documentation of their citizens. As I mentioned earlier, the United States is obviously one of the more liberal, or one of the countries that has fewer procedures to keep tabs on where its citizens go. And as a result, you know, that affects, when you're looking for them, how much extra effort you have to do to find them.

QUESTION: Is it your understanding that the Europeans are more stringent about knowing where their citizens are? Because it seems to me that the Swedes and the Danes are resigned to the fact that literally hundreds and hundreds of their countrymen have died in the tsunami.

MR. ERELI: I don't know that that's the case. I do know that in dealing -- in our discussions with these other countries, they have expressed to us the same -- I wouldn't use frustration, but the same appreciation of the difficulties in accurately and definitively accounting for a large number of citizens spread out over a wide area.

QUESTION: On a related -- or I guess not related, it's just involved with the tsunami -- orphans, the devastation has created, of course, orphans. Is the State Department applying any particular guidelines to Americans who might want to adopt orphaned children?

MR. ERELI: Not that I'm aware of, but let me check and see if we have something on that.

QUESTION: Have you received many calls about adopting?

MR. ERELI: No, again, not that I'm aware of.

QUESTION: And there seem to be reports about children being picked up, starting to come in --

MR. ERELI: I've seen those reports. They're certainly very disturbing. And without speaking to the trafficking issue, which certainly is something that, separate from this disaster and on its own -- you know, in and of itself, is a critical focus of American foreign policy and American diplomatic efforts around the world to crack down on these kinds of groups and these kinds of illegal flows of people and trade in people. We do a lot, you know, with all of the countries concerned to prevent it. But in this specific case, I think, gives added urgency to our efforts to resolve the whereabouts questions of the citizens that are involved and the citizens that have come to us.

QUESTION: This is a current problem, you're saying --

MR. ERELI: Yes, that is a very important focus of our diplomatic efforts throughout the year, the Trafficking in Persons report --


MR. ERELI: -- the sanctioning of countries that do not take steps against the trafficking of persons. This includes women. This includes children.


MR. ERELI: So it is a problem that we recognize, both in terms of this crisis, but also as a unfortunate regular feature of the social landscape.

QUESTION: But have you seen any evidence of this in this particular --

MR. ERELI: Not that I can speak to, no. Seen the reports but not --

QUESTION: Not evidence.

QUESTION: If I can change the subject?

QUESTION: Go ahead.

MR. ERELI: Go ahead. Sure.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on this IAEA report regarding Egypt and the research with uranium that may be in violation of non-proliferation treaties?

MR. ERELI: We've seen the press reports. We don't have anything definitive or authoritative from the IAEA. I expect we'll be discussing these press reports with them.

As a general matter, we certainly believe it's imperative that member-states comply with their nuclear safeguards obligations, and we support the International Atomic Energy Agency in its efforts to investigate and document compliance by member states with their Nuclear Proliferation Treaty obligations and safeguards agreements. And I would note that Egypt is a member of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty or is a signatory to Nuclear Proliferation Treaty and has an active safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

QUESTION: But you haven't jumped on this yet? Nobody's been in touch with the Egyptian Government yet?

MR. ERELI: Not that I'm aware, on this issue.

QUESTION: But, I'm sorry, did you say we'll be discussing it with them?

MR. ERELI: With the IAEA.

QUESTION: Oh, with the IAEA. I see. Isn't there an impact on U.S. foreign policy?

MR. ERELI: Well, let's see what the facts are before talking about impact.

QUESTION: Well, in the Middle East, your former friend, Abu Mazen --

QUESTION: Actually, could I just follow up --

MR. ERELI: I'm sorry, let's continue this.

QUESTION: -- follow up on that. I mean, does the U.S., separately from the IAEA, have any concerns or any information that corroborates?

MR. ERELI: I think the -- we -- at this point, we would defer to the IAEA to present the evidence that it has. I'm not in a position to talk about what indications we may or may not have. I think that, in our experience, Egypt has been a responsible -- has been a responsible member of the NPT and has a -- as I said, has an active safeguards agreement with the IAEA. And that's our view of the situation.

QUESTION: With all your criticism of the IAEA in the past, though, about reports on different countries, why would you just wait and take the IAEA's word for something and not check with Egypt yourself?

MR. ERELI: Well, you know, the question was about press reports that the IAEA has discovered things, so let's see what the IAEA has, let's discuss it in the proper forum, which is the IAEA, and, with the other members of the IAEA, based on what the findings are, decide what the appropriate action is. You guys are, you know, saying -- I think jumping to conclusions and saying take steps before you know what the facts are.

QUESTION: No. Why don't you just ask?

MR. ERELI: The issue is let's find the facts. The IAEA is the body with the authority to investigate member-states' compliance with the NPT and with safeguards agreements. The questions relate to those kinds of activities, so it's perfectly appropriate to look to the IAEA to report on what they've found and to act on that basis.

So it's, you know, it's -- that's the procedure that works, that's the procedure that we'll follow, and it's on that basis that we'll make decisions about what appropriate next steps are.

QUESTION: Is it possible to find out if the U.S. has ever bilaterally raised this issue in the past with Egypt?

MR. ERELI: I can ask.


QUESTION: Can I ask you --

MR. ERELI: I'm sorry, on this same subject?

QUESTION: Yeah same subject. On -- does this latest report raise concerns within the State Department about the threat of proliferation? We had the South Korean report, and now we have this Egyptian report. What does this say about international non-proliferation efforts and --

MR. ERELI: Well, let's be -- I think, before making those kinds of assessments and coming to those kinds of conclusions, let's see what the activity is; and on that basis, I think, come to some conclusion about what, if any, are the wider implications for non-proliferation concerns.

I think it's -- at this point, it's a little -- it's jumping the gun. It's a little early to say.

QUESTION: Is there a reaction to Abu Mazen calling Israel a "Zionist enemy"? At least, those are the reports from the area.

MR. ERELI: I haven't seen those. I have not seen those reports. I would not, therefore, be able to comment on them.


QUESTION: In reference to Iraq, the Provincial Governor of Baghdad was assassinated today. My question is, do you know if he was a part of one of the slates that will participate in the upcoming elections? I'm asking you if you knew whether or not he was going to participate in the election process at all.

MR. ERELI: I don't know. Frankly, it doesn't make a difference. Ali Al-Haidri was a loyal and patriotic Iraqi and his death is a great loss for the people of Iraq and it is a tragic murder that we condemn. And we feel as a loss as well and we offer our condolences to his family.

It is, as the Secretary said, yet another sign that there are elements in Iraq that will stop at nothing to turn the clock back and to impede the progress of their country and to try to frustrate the will of the vast majority of Iraqis who want to vote, who want to choose their own leaders and who want to build a new country based on the free expression of views and participation in political life. That's what Mr. Al-Haidri gave his life for. That's what thousands of Iraqis risk their lives for every day. And that's what -- that's the goal that we will continue to stand with them shoulder to shoulder on and help them achieve through elections, through the writing of a constitution and through the formation of government based on the will of the people.

QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up? I guess there are some reports now that elements related to Zarqawi have taken credit for this assassination. Any comment on that?

MR. ERELI: No, I don't have any basis on which to assess the credibility of that claim. I would note that simply that those who killed Ali Al-Haidri should be -- should be seen for what they are, which are murderers and enemies of the people of Iraq, who want democracy, who want to vote, who want to choose their leaders and who want a free Iraq.


QUESTION: Another country. Do you have any comment on the decision by the Cuban Government to renew diplomatic contacts with eight European countries, seeing that these countries have decided to stop inviting dissidents to official events at their embassies?

MR. ERELI: I don't know that -- no, I don't have any comment on that. That's a statement that the Government of Cuba has made. I would note a couple things.

Number one, the position of the United States Government is clear, and that is that Cuba systematically and brutally suppresses human rights, suppresses the expression of -- free expression of views, freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of -- and just about every fundamental human freedom that you can imagine. Number one.

Number two, the arrest of 75 dissidents and their continued -- the continuing incarceration of most of them, I think, is a vivid example of that policy.

Number three, it's up to every country to determine what kind of response it wants to have to this kind of -- these kinds of actions by the Government of Cuba. We certainly take every effort to make our views known about our opposition to what Cuba is doing and the importance, I think, of the United -- of the international community speaking out and acting firmly in this regard. But I don't know the facts of the -- actually what's happened. I know what Cuba's reporting, but I don't know the facts of what's been decided and agreed to within the European Union. So I wouldn't really want to speak to this specific report.

QUESTION: But you will once the Europeans confirm what the Cubans say, right?

MR. ERELI: That hasn't happened yet.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. ERELI: Thanks.

QUESTION: One more question?

MR. ERELI: Did you have one more question?

QUESTION: Yes, I have a question, please.

MR. ERELI: Go ahead.

QUESTION: A new government has been set up in Bucharest in Romania. What are the priorities for the State Department in the relations with the new government and the new Foreign Minister? Thank you very much.

MR. ERELI: Sure. First, let us congratulate President Basescu and Prime Minister Tariceanu on the formation of a new government in Romania. Last week, Secretary Powell called the new Foreign Minister, Mr. Ungureanu, to offer his congratulations and to discuss relations between the United States and Romania.

We have a close and valuable partnership with Romania. We look forward to continuing the kind of cooperation we've had with our Romanian allies on a wide range of issues. Those include the global war on terror, Iraq, Afghanistan and regional and NATO issues.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 12: 45 p.m.)

(end transcript)

(Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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