Daily Press Briefing
Tom Casey, Deputy Spokesman
June 8, 2007
|Implementing Land and Sea Borders into Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative|
|Temporary Travel Flexibility within the Western Hemisphere|
|Level of Security at U.S. Borders|
|Western Hemisphere Working Together to Keep Safe and Secure Borders|
|Possibility of Canadian Government Implementing a Similar Initiative|
|President Bush's Trip to Albania|
|Relations between U.S. and Albania|
|Israeli Foreign Policy towards Syria|
|U.S. Would Welcome Syria in Taking Steps to Better Diplomatic Relations|
|Secretary Rice's Meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Mofaz|
|Members of the G-8 Supporting the Transition to Independence|
|South Korea's Six-Party Talks Negotiator Mr. Chun Yung-woo's Schedule at DOS|
|Government Trying to Organize Meeting of Lebanese Parties at the end of June|
|Prime Minister Recep Erdogan's Comments Regarding Reports on Invading Iraq|
12:50 p.m. EDT
MR. CASEY: Good afternoon, everybody and TGIF. I don't have anything to start you with so why don't we go right to your questions.
QUESTION: On the passport issue again.
MR. CASEY: How did I know? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Specifically, does the State Department still expect to implement the land and sea by January 1st, land and sea initiative given the problems that they've had?
MR. CASEY: Well, I think that first of all we have a legislative mandate to implement the law. And we do intend, as I understand it with the Department of Homeland Security, to move forward with that. I believe that the regulations for that could be put forward as soon as or as early as January 1st of 2008. Full compliance with the law, of course, is mandated in the legislation itself and we certainly have every intention of doing so. Certainly with respect to this issue, with air transit under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, we came to a conclusion in this instance that we did have an inability in some cases to meet the commitment that we had made to our customers, to the American people, to be able to produce passports in a fixed period of time that we've given to everyone in approximately 10 to 12 weeks. So, you know, this measure that we've taken today is an offer of, in effect, temporary relief. We want to make sure that honor our commitments. And we didn't think it was fair that the delays in issuing some of these passports would have affected people's ability to undertake travel when they had legitimately and honestly made a good-faith effort to comply with the laws here.
So, you know, we believe that what we've implemented here is a good way to ensure both that we are allowing American citizens to undertake the travel that they need to undertake while at the same time assuring that we can comply with the spirit and the letter of the law. Because I think as you've heard from some of our other officials and from people over at DHS, the presentation of the documents from our website saying that you've applied for a U.S. passport is material that is accessible to our border security agents, our customs immigration service people as you go across the border, and helps provide a reliable backup and check to the photo ID that people are also being asked to provide. And this way it's a way to ensure that we are giving full and due protection at our ports of entry and that people doing the inspections there can verify the identity of people coming back in.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CASEY: Yeah.
QUESTION: I have just come from your 19th Street passport office where there are huge lines and very many angry people, some of them have driven from, you know, hundreds of miles to get there, et cetera, and have had great difficulty. What do you say to all of these angry people about this foul up?
MR. CASEY: Well, first of all, we are going to do everything we need to do to be able to implement the law that Congress passed. It's important that we do everything we can to be able to make sure that travel is safe and that our borders are secure. At the same time, what we've done today is in recognition of the concerns that we've heard from American citizens, from members of Congress and from other people about this issue. And again, we made a commitment to our customers, to the American people to be able to provide them with passports in a fixed period of time. We recognize that due to the extraordinary surge in applications, as well as due to some of the issues that have come up with the handling of them through our lockbox facility, that we weren't able to honor that commitment in the way we wanted to. And what we are trying to do now is, in recognition of the fact that there are these problems, provide a means for people to be able to safely and securely go about their travel.
But we do want to move as quickly as possible getting all these applications processed and making sure that we get back to what our regular standard is, which is usually in the six-week range for turning around the passport.
QUESTION: The people in line, though, wanted to know why this demand wasn't anticipated. You had this legislation, you knew this was coming, why wasn't the demand anticipated?
MR. CASEY: Well, we did anticipate a strong increase in demand. We have, since the legislation has been implemented, hired hundreds, both of contract employees as well as full-time passport adjudicators, who are operating our passport offices 24 hours a day. We've instituted new passport facilities. We've instituted a call-in system as well as a second call center to be able to handle requests for information about this. We've hired over 259 employees just in the last couple of months. We're hiring hundreds more to be able to deal with this.
The fact of the matter is that the volume and level exceeded any of the anticipated estimates that were made in advance. And again, as I spoke about this morning, when we talked about this at the gaggle, we also have an agreement with our lockbox facility. The lockbox facility is the place that passport applications go to first. And it's something that is a facility that ensures that the fees that people pay are properly deposited and handled through the U.S. Treasury. Their contract with us calls for a 24-hour turnaround on those applications; to get them through their facility and on to us.
Because of the surge in demand, they were, in some cases, running four or five weeks delayed before those applications came to us. They recognized the problem as did we when it came to our attention. They took corrective action, but that created a very large bulge of applications in addition to the record numbers we were already receiving. That's produced a substantial delay and kept us from being able to meet our 10- to 12-week commitment. And that's why we felt it necessary to be able to take these kinds of steps.
Again though, you know, we made a good-faith effort and we will continue to make those efforts to meet the goals that we've set for customer service on this. But we recognize that we've been unable to do it, and that's why we're taking these corrective actions now. And we certainly hope that we will be able to allow everyone who's out there, who wants to travel, the opportunity to do so.
QUESTION: With the changes made today, how soon will this backlog be reduced, do you think?
MR. CASEY: Well, this temporary measure that we've implemented runs through the end of September. And it's our hope and expectation that we will be able to get back to the standard we've set for ourselves by the end of that period, by the end of September. If we move as we hope, we certainly don't expect to have any difficulty in being able to meet that.
QUESTION: Same thing. Can I just ask you why you decided to do this now? Is this a decision that you and Homeland Security made yourselves or was this after pressure from Congress for all these angry constituents writing in about this?
MR. CASEY: Well, Nina, look obviously, we've been aware now for a few weeks that there's been an increasing number of concerned Americans calling us and calling their congressional offices to say that they've been waiting for a passport, they hadn't seen it yet and concerned about being able to meet their own travel commitments. So we are doing this again in recognition of the fact that there has been a delay, that there has been a problem and very much are responding to the concerns of the American people as well as to the U.S. Congress. But the service standard here is one that we are serious about and we intend to meet. And again, we recognize we haven't lived up to it in this particular instance and that's why we're taking corrective actions. We certainly want to be able be able to make sure that everyone has the opportunity get to where they need to go and we don't want anybody missing an important family occasion or important business event because of this delay.
QUESTION: So this was implemented to begin with because of security concerns. So are you increasing security at borders to deal with this because you're going to be looking at -- or at airports to look at all these different IDs and to check them out? I mean, are you a little concerned that there's going to be some sort of security vacuum between now and the end of September?
MR. CASEY: Well, the short answer is no, and the longer answer, I would pose to you, goes as follows. This law is being implemented and it's requiring a real change of behavior on the part of American citizens. Up until now, American citizens have not been required to have a passport or have substantial levels of documentation to be able to reenter the United States from these countries. And again, let me stress we're talking about Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda, which are countries that do not require U.S. citizens to have passports to enter.
This new law, of course, mandates that American citizens have passports to come back to the United States from these countries. And what we are now putting in place with this temporary measure allows us a strong level of certainty and security that the people coming in claiming to be American citizens are, in fact, American citizens.
In addition to the government-issued photo ID, that combined with the documentation from our website, is something that will allow border security folks to be able to thoroughly check the identities of the individuals involved. The information that is in our Consular Affairs database, our passport database, is accessible to DHS border security folks, customs and immigration folks on the way in. They can check that information on that sheet against the government ID and record that they are presenting as well. And certainly, we'll look very carefully to make sure that that information matches up and that the individual who is presenting themselves at the port of entry is who they say they are. That is basically what our border people do with passports as well. Passports, as you know, do get screened. They are run through a computer system. They are run through checks. Because again, we've done everything that we can, and we will continue to do everything we can to ensure the safety and the security of our travel documents. And passports are certainly the premier travel document that we've got.
At the same time, though, we want to make sure that we not just take as valid someone presenting a passport, so there are checks that are done and I allow my friends at DHS whose territory I'm quickly straying into to talk about their procedures. But again, we don't believe that this represents a relaxation in security or creates any kind of new problem for security at U.S. ports of entry.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CASEY: Mr. Lambros.
QUESTION: On Albania, Mr. Casey, the citizens of the Greek town (inaudible) in the recent days are subjected to unrelenting question by the Albanian authorities to abandon their properties and their homes. Has the Department of State briefed the President on the precarious situation of the Greek minority in Albania since he's going to speak this coming Sunday in Tirana?
MR. CASEY: Mr. Lambros, I'm sure that the President will raise a variety of bilateral and regional issues when he goes to Albania. I'm not aware of the specific instance that you're referring to. Again, Albania has a democratically elected government. It is a government that can speak for itself in terms of how it might be handling any internal disputes or internal issues within the country.
QUESTION: One more on Albania?
MR. CASEY: One more on Albania, okay, and then we've got to go back to this woman who's been waiting very patiently.
QUESTION: What role did Tom Ridge, who's stationed (inaudible) in Albania play in arranging the visit by President Bush to Albania? Did he consult with the Department of State or did (inaudible) --
MR. CASEY: I'm sorry, did --
QUESTION: -- with the Department of Justice for his representation of Albanian interest in this time?
MR. CASEY: I'm sorry, Mr. Lambros, did who arrange the visit? The visit was arranged by --
QUESTION: Tom Ridge, Tom Ridge. He's stationed in Albania and was going to be (inaudible) Department of State.
MR. CASEY: He's stationed in Albania as what? He's stationed in Albania as what?
QUESTION: Excuse me?
MR. CASEY: He's stationed in --
QUESTION: In Albania, yes, correct.
MR. CASEY: As what?
QUESTION: As PR man, as -- I think.
MR. CASEY: I have no idea what Mr. Ridge is doing. I have no idea whether he's in Albania or not. I do know that we have strong relations with our good friend and ally, Albania, and that the visit of the President of the United States represents that; and you can talk to the White House in terms of the greater specifics of it. But last time I looked, you know, PR companies aren't the representatives of sovereign governments either in the United States or Albania or any other place.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CASEY: Let's go back here.
QUESTION: Well, Canadians are also -- back on the passport issue --
MR. CASEY: Sure.
QUESTION: Canadians are facing the same kind of backlog issues as Americans are. Why wouldn't Canada be offered the same opportunities you're giving to American citizens?
MR. CASEY: Well, again, we're trying to comply with the laws as passed -- as provided to us by Congress. In this instance, we've dealt with a situation in our country that represents a unique challenge for our system and our ability to be able to produce these passports. I can't speak to how Canadian authorities are dealing with their question. I can say that the Canadian Government, as well as the Government of Mexico and our other partners here in the hemisphere, have all been working together to try and make sure that we can do what's in all our interest, which is ensure security for our borders, for our own citizens, as well as for visitors from each other's countries.
QUESTION: So if Canadians tried to implement the same kind of thing that the Americans have, would DHS and would the State Department allow that?
MR. CASEY: Well, again, I can't speak to the Canadian Government. I'm not aware that they've proposed any kind of thing. Certainly, we have an obligation to implement our law. We are moving in -- taking this particular step in compliance with our legislation. I'm not in the position to be able to speculate for you on, you know, what kinds of measures the Canadian Government might take in the future.
QUESTION: Sorry, and just one more on this --
MR. CASEY: Sure.
QUESTION: On the issue of border cards, the implementation of border cards, if you're seeing this much of a delay when it comes to passports, what does this mean for, you know, any sort of future border card for land crossings?
MR. CASEY: Well, look, that's -- the next phases of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative are not yet implemented. There are still a lot of people working on it, both in this building and DHS and in other parts of the U.S. Government. But we've got a mandate from Congress on this. We certainly not only want to comply with that, but we have to comply with it because it's the law. We're going to work as hard as we can to make sure that that next phase gets implemented and gets implemented as smoothly as possible.
Certainly, I think what we've done here today though, shows that we do understand that as much as we all want to see this done as quickly and as efficiently as possible, that we honor the fact that there are unforeseen circumstances that come up and we're willing to make adjustments within the confines of the law to be able to deal with it.
QUESTION: Apparently, Israel has told Syria that it's willing to trade land for peace, the (inaudible) have discussed the Golan Heights and they're waiting to -- Israel is waiting to hear from President Assad whether he's prepared to cut ties with Iran and also with various sort of hostile groups in return. Do you have any comment on this and is the United States offering to become involved in sort of -- some sort of mediation?
MR. CASEY: Well, look Sue, I think the answer on this question today is the answer on similar questions over the last few days. It's up to Israel to determine how it's going to conduct its diplomatic relations with Syria or with any other country. We would certainly note that with respect to Syria, Syria has not to date taken any of the kind of positive steps that we would like to see happen with respect to Lebanon, with respect to its support for Palestinian rejectionist groups, with regard to the need to police its borders with Iraq to prevent foreign fighters from moving across. And certainly, we think that would be something that Israel would like to consider.
In terms of what Syria would commit to, we would certainly welcome Syria responding to our continuous request that it do those kinds of things -- that it does take steps to limit its contacts with the Palestinian rejectionist groups; that it, in fact, close those offices and throw out the leadership of those groups that are most responsible for terrorist attacks in Israel; that it disengage with it and Iran's continuous support for Hezbollah; that it move away from its turning a blind eye to foreign fighters coming into the airport in Damascus and then passing through the border into Iraq. But what we continue to see with the Syrians, and have seen over time, is a lot of words and a lot of promises, but no actions. So I think it's a skeptical jury that's listening to Syrian words on any of these subjects and we want to see the Syrians take real and concrete steps to deal with some of these problems.
QUESTION: But did the Secretary discuss this issue with Syria, maybe land for peace during her discussions with the Israelis this week in the Israel-U.S. dialogue?
MR. CASEY: I'm not aware that that issue came up. I think Sean discussed the meeting between the Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister Mofaz, and I believe he described the general issue of Syria coming up in passing.
QUESTION: Do you think it's time to start discussing the Golan Heights?
MR. CASEY: Again, it's up to Syria to determine how it's going to proceed in its diplomatic relations. Ultimately, in addition to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and a two-state solution, there needs to be a broader regional settlement with all of Israel's neighbors, and that includes Syria. But I think for us, certainly, discussions with Syria wouldn't be a substitute for what we consider to be the most important focus, which is furthering the cause of peace and furthering the development of a two-state solution with Israel and the Palestinians.
QUESTION: But it's an important part of the puzzle.
MR. CASEY: It is ultimately one of the issues that needs to be addressed as part of a broader regional settlement, yeah.
QUESTION: Human rights groups have accused the Sri Lankan Government of ethnic cleansing of Tamils from Colombo. Has the U.S. Government expressed any concern to the Sri Lankan authority?
MR. CASEY: You know, I saw that story earlier and unfortunately, I don't think we ever got a response.
MR. CASEY: Okay. I think there's an embassy statement on that. I'd refer you back to that. I don't have anything further to add to it right now.
QUESTION: Tom, there's some reporting out at the summit in Germany that the big powers have agreed on a -- sort of put the Kosovo issue on ice for six months. Is that something that rings a bell with you?
MR. CASEY: Well, I know that there have been discussions out at the G-8 on Kosovo. To my knowledge, there's been no decision reached among the leadership on any particular avenue to pursue on this. I think it's very clear that the -- by and large the members of the G-8 are supportive of the Ahtisaari plan and the idea that there would be this transition to independence for Kosovo. Obviously, the Russian Government has concerns that they've voiced on a number of different occasions about this. I don't believe those concerns have gone away yet, so certainly this is an issue that we'll need to continue to discuss and talk about. But I -- you can certainly check with the party out in Germany, but I'm not aware that there has been any decision rendered on the part of the G-8 to change the basic approach that we're taking on Kosovo.
Let's go back here.
QUESTION: South Korea's six-party talks' negotiator Mr. Chun Yung-woo will be in town next week. I was wondering if you had anything on his schedule of meetings here at the State Department.
MR. CASEY: No, I don't. I'm not familiar with his schedule. You'll probably want to check with the Koreans on that in terms of who he might meet with here. We'll try and find out for you what appointments he might have in the building.
Let's go over here. Yep, that's you.
QUESTION: Back to the passports, it's -- given the difficulty you're having with it on the air side, as of January 2008, we can conclude that you're not going to bring in the WHTI full program then, I gather. And can you explain what is meant by this proposed rule-making notice that's going out for a phased implementation in the next couple weeks? Can you help us understand, sort of, what you're thinking of with this phased implementation?
MR. CASEY: Well, again, first of all, I think that what we've done here today is simply take a temporary fix to what is a short-term problem and was an unexpected problem. I wouldn't draw any conclusions from that about the broader implementation of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. And again, this is something that's been mandated by Congress, so it is not a matter of choice. It's a matter of law.
In terms of rulemaking, as we had done with phase one, there will be proposed rules that'll be put forward in the federal register that will explain how we intend to go about implementing phase two of WHTI. And those rules, as the first set were for this phase will be open to public comment, as is the standard practice. So I think you can look to the publication of those rules in terms of understanding how we intend to go about implementing this next phase and that'll be I think the opportunity for us to have a broader discussion about that next day as how we intend to move forward with it and what the ideas are.
QUESTION: So it doesn't suggest that there's a phased implementation coming for WHTI.
MR. CASEY: Well, WHTI as a whole is a phased process. The air phase is what we're in now and that was phase one -- land and sea borders come in next. I wouldn't interpret from that anything more than wait till you see the rules before you try and make any assertion or assumptions about where we're going with phase two.
QUESTION: Also a passport question?
MR. CASEY: Sure, Joel.
QUESTION: Aside from WHTI, which is Western Hemisphere in the last half month, you've had Mr. Speaker who now sits in a Denver Hospital going over into Europe, told not to. He went by air, obviously auto travel, came back via Paris to Montreal, rented a car. So in other words, are these regulations and rules stiff enough, or do you next have to go back along with Congress and DHS to figure out how you can next implement maybe some health regulations and/or priorities in that respect?
MR. CASEY: Joel, there have been -- there's been more airtime and more comments spent on this issue. I would refer you to the CDC, Department of Health and Human Services, as well as DHS. On the issues related to that specific case, I guess I'm missing how any of that's related to whether the guy got a passport or not. He's an American citizen. He certainly was entitled to one. The issues involved in this case and his ability to transit and do things like that, I'd refer you to the respective agencies involved.
QUESTION: The French Government is trying to organize a meeting of all Lebanese parties at the end of June in Paris. I wanted to know if the U.S. was consulted on that and if you approve?
MR. CASEY: That is a wonderful question that our friend Michel Ghandour asked me this morning, and I still don't have an answer for you on it. So we'll endeavor to get you one sometime later on.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CASEY: Okay. All right, Mr. Lambros, you'll get a last shot in.
QUESTION: On Turkey. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, Mr. Casey, stated today, "If Turkey will conduct an operation, it won't be done that loudly. The responsible authorities will make the decisions but that Parliament is needed as well." Any comments since there was so much discussion here on the (inaudible) about this operation?
MR. CASEY: Yes, there was so much discussion here and our position on it remains the same.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:15 p.m.)
DPB # 103
Released on June 8, 2007
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