Daily Press Briefing
Mark C. Toner
Daily Press Briefing
July 8, 2015
Index for Today's Briefing
2:05 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. I'm a little off; John's going to be disappointed in me. That's okay. Just a couple things to mention at the top.
First of all, we appreciate the United Kingdom's leadership in announcing today that it will continue to meet the Wales Summit defense investment pledge. Now, for all of you who are non – not NATO-niks around here, that means basically targets – reaching targets of overall defense spending of 2 percent of GDP and investment in new capabilities that's 20 percent of their defense budget. So we applaud their leadership. We strongly urge all NATO allies to do the same. And it's critically important that NATO be able to respond effectively to existing and future threats, and the only way to do that is for allies to make the necessary investment in their armed forces. As one of our greatest friends and our strongest allies, the United Kingdom is our indispensable partner in all ongoing NATO activities, including reassurance measures and also Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. So again, thank you to the UK.
Also briefly wanted to mention today we – the United States and the United Arab Emirates – launched the Sawab Center, which is a joint online messaging and engagement initiative that was first announced by President Obama earlier this year at the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, which took place – or at least a couple days here at the State Department. U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel as well as the UAE's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash attended the launch. Now, the Sawab Center will use direct online engagement to rapidly and effectively counter terrorist propaganda, including messages used to recruit foreign fighters, fundraise for illicit activities, and intimidate and terrorize local populations. It's intended to contribute to the online debate by giving a platform to moderate and tolerant voices from across the region and amplifying inclusive and constructive narratives.
As President Obama stated earlier this week, in order to defeat terrorists like ISIL, it will require the international community to discredit their ideology. And this is one of the key lines of effort in the overall campaign against ISIL. So the United States will therefore continue to do its part to support partners like the United Arab Emirates to counter ISIL's hateful ideology and will partner specifically with Muslim communities as they work to reject some of these distorted interpretations of Islam that are propagated and peddled by ISIL.
That's all I have at the top. Lesley.
QUESTION: Yeah. I know probably a few people want to ask about these cyber attacks, but the White House –
MR TONER: Yeah, of course.
QUESTION: The White House and the Homeland spoke about that earlier. I just want to very briefly ask: Do you have anything to add to what they said? Is there any links to the State Department's own outage recently?
MR TONER: Again, not that we're aware of. I can say that Secretary Kerry was briefed on this, obviously, in Vienna. As for our own systems, we have no outages for the department that have been reported today. Obviously, the department continuously monitors our computer systems for any outages – that's on a 24/7 basis. But they continue to operate normally, so nothing to report from this end, but we'll continue to watch it closely.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: And then back on track on --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- to something else. I wanted to raise with you the Taliban and the Afghan peace talks --
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: -- that took place in which the U.S. and China were observers. Is there anything from these discussions that give you hope that a formal peace process can be launched, and what makes this discussion different?
MR TONER: Well, as we've long said, we believe an Afghan-led and an Afghan-owned peace effort and reconciliation process is really the best and surest way to end the violence and ensure lasting stability in Afghanistan and the region. So we certainly commend the Government of Afghanistan for initiating this reconciliation process with the Taliban, and we strongly support the government's efforts and prioritization of peace and reconciliation. And that said, we also – Pakistan has also been involved in these, and we certainly appreciate its efforts and involvement in this as well. It's an important – obviously important partner.
QUESTION: Is there anything – I mean, as these talks took place there were continued attacks in Afghanistan, in Kabul. Is there anything that you think that you'd like to see to come – that would come out of this process quickly?
MR TONER: Well, obviously, an end to the violence, ongoing violence, is obviously a priority in any situation but certainly in this case. And as we have always said again about the armed opposition groups that take part in these talks, we want to see as part of any outcome a renouncement of violence, we want to see them break any associations with international terrorism, and we also want to see them accept the Afghan constitution, including its protections for women and minorities. So those are the outcomes we've long said we wanted to see. But in general, this is a positive step, a step in the right direction – these peace talks.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Said.
QUESTION: Can we go to the Iran talks?
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
MR TONER: Yeah, absolutely. Sure.
QUESTION: Do you know who represented the U.S. delegation?
MR TONER: You know what? I think it was some individual or individuals from our mission in Kabul. I don't believe I have exactly who was there – in an observer status, I believe. So – but I don't have the exact individual's name or position.
QUESTION: Has the U.S. (inaudible) in bringing these parties together?
MR TONER: Well, look, I mean, it's obviously something we've – as I said, we've long supported and something we've obviously, in our discussions frequently with the Afghanistan Government, have raised and we encouraged. But I'll leave it at that.
Yeah, go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: Yeah. Sorry for being late and missing at the top.
MR TONER: No worries. You weren't that late.
QUESTION: I mean, you haven't --
MR TONER: I didn't. Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. I just wanted to ask about the Iran talks. Now, there are reports that there are more briefings than you would expect, and that is really a bad sign in many ways, some people are saying. Could you comment on that? Is that true? I mean, I'm following our colleagues here and so on.
MR TONER: Sorry. To clarify, you said more briefings --
QUESTION: The more briefings there are by both – by all sides.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: The --
MR TONER: So you're saying more engagement with the U.S. spells --
QUESTION: Exactly. The more engagement with the media, according to these reports, spells out sort of a very difficult situation.
MR TONER: I frankly don't have overall a lot to say about the talks other than that they're obviously ongoing. Secretary Kerry and his team remain there.
MR TONER: The Iranians remain there. I think the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers left to attend a BRIC summit. But they remain hard at work on the ground in Vienna. I'm not going to gauge the number of briefings as a barometer for how well the talks are going. Obviously, difficult issues, as we discussed yesterday and the day before, remain. They're trying to surmount those issues and work towards a comprehensive agreement. But we're not there yet.
QUESTION: So let me ask you, from your experience and from your conversations with those --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- your colleagues in Vienna and so on. Now, do we have, like, one issue that is a problem, a number of issues that are a problem? Any particular issue, or there's a whole gamut of things that need to be renegotiated, so to speak?
MR TONER: Well, good question but not a question I'm going to answer in any depth or detail from here, because these are all issues that are being discussed right now in the negotiating room. And as we've often said about many different negotiations --
MR TONER: -- we don't want to do that from here, from the podium, in public. We want to let our team, the Iranians, P5+1, other parties there on the ground, negotiate these details. But you've gotten, as you've said, from some of the briefings on the ground, you've gotten a sense of some of the issues that remain that need to be worked through. Fundamentally, again, we've said – the President has said, the Secretary has said multiple times – we would rather walk away than not get the best agreement we possibly can that prohibits a nuclear weapon – or Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: And my last question. In this sort of setting, was it wrong to set deadlines? Perhaps they should have set some target dates or something like this that would give you more flexibility, because with every passing deadline the deadline element seems to lose its essence or its importance. So what happens, let's say, if they miss this deadline? Will we have another target date, or what will go – I mean, what is likely to happen?
MR TONER: Well, I don't want to get too far out ahead of ongoing negotiations and talk about additional deadlines or what might happen next. Not really for me to speak to at this point. We're still intent on trying to reach a deal over the next 20 – or 48 hours, and that's where the focus remains. From that point, we'll assess what additional steps need to be taken.
We've talked a lot about deadlines. You know, they're motivational factors, and it can help drive the negotiations forward, but what we've said throughout is if we need to negotiate further we will. And we – and they – the goal is a good deal, not meeting some deadline.
QUESTION: And I promise this is my final question on this issue.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Now, if it doesn't happen on Friday the 10th, Congress gets an additional 30 days. Could you explain that? I mean, instead of just 30 days in which they review and have whatever input and so on, they have like a larger period of time – maybe 60 days and some. Could you explain that to us?
MR TONER: Well, I mean just – just as you rightly note that, I believe it's the 10th, that Congress would then, yes, get an additional 60-day review period.
MR TONER: But again, as we've said before, if we reach a deal, which we're all striving towards, you know we expect it to stand up to and pass congressional scrutiny regardless of the length of any review period. So that's not again our focus. Our focus is getting the best possible deal.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah, please go ahead, Lesley.
QUESTION: Can you confirm that the Iranians have made a new proposal?
MR TONER: I cannot, no. Not from here.
QUESTION: Can we go to Colombia?
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the FARC. They announced today a unilateral ceasefire from the 20th of July on. Do you welcome this step? Is this positive in the peace talks?
MR TONER: Well, I think without having seen those reports myself, we all obviously would welcome any kind of sincere and credible ceasefire and cessation of violence. But I'll leave it at that and see if we have anything additional to say later.
MR TONER: Please. Yeah.
QUESTION: Mark, what can you tell us about Ambassador Kennedy's role in the releasing of the former Toyota executive, Julia Hamp, who was released from jail today?
MR TONER: I'm sorry. You're talking about Ambassador Kennedy over --
QUESTION: In Japan, yes.
MR TONER: -- in Japan, of course.
QUESTION: Caroline Kennedy's involvement in getting this former executive released from jail today.
MR TONER: Well, I don't have any comment, frankly. I don't know that – what, if any, role she played.
QUESTION: It's been reported in several newspapers and such and wire reports that she did have some involvement. Can you take the question and --
MR TONER: Well, again, I'm sure she was engaged at some level, but in terms of concretely what role she played I'll see if we have anything to add to that.
QUESTION: All right, thanks.
MR TONER: Please. Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: I want to go to a new topic.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. Today – or yesterday – marks the one-year anniversary of the Gaza war, and I have a couple questions on that. First of all, Israeli soldiers are saying that – standing order, they were on CNN, a group who call themselves "Breaking the Silence," and they're saying that standing orders were actually to shoot to kill – no civilians, no innocents, nothing. Anything that moves – if it's a male, shoot – and so on. Do you have any comment on that? I mean, Israeli soldiers went around collecting testimonies from dozens and dozens of soldiers who were in combat.
MR TONER: Said, I've seen some of the reporting. We were very clear at the time that – before calling on Israel – both sides, frankly – to show restraint, especially in targeting civilians. The Government of Israel has conducted its own review and, again, we stand by in that conflict what we've said publicly before in statements from the podium and elsewhere about the need to show that restraint regarding civilian populations. But as to these new allegations, I don't have anything to add.
QUESTION: It's been a year, yet the aid that was promised – a huge amount of aid last October was promised. None of it went in. The situation is really very desperate. Is the United States doing anything on its own to alleviate the suffering of the people of Gaza?
MR TONER: Sorry, when you speak of aid, are you talking specifically about (inaudible)?
QUESTION: I'm talking about the donor – the donors they had a meeting Cairo, including Secretary of State Kerry, who attended and some – and something like $4 billion were --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- sort of pledged in aid to Gaza that up to this point none of it has gone in. I was wondering, while we for the donors to sort of fulfill their obligation, is the United States doing anything on its own to alleviate the suffering of the people of Gaza such as perhaps pressure on Israel and Egypt to sort of open the entry points and exits and so on to Gaza?
MR TONER: Yeah, specifically as to the assistance, I don't have an update on that to share. You know, we've long said that we recognize the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and you know as we've spoken before there are legitimate avenues to get assistance into the people of Gaza. Certainly, there are security considerations as well. But, you know, it's something we've long recognized. It's something we discuss, obviously, with all the key players in the region. And I don't know if we have a specific update on that plight of assistance to Gaza but you know, again, we recognize the situation and the need.
QUESTION: And finally on Gaza.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Last night I met with a Gazan whom you guys lifted out of there because he has two kids that are U.S. citizens. They were born in this country, so he was able to come on the 21st of July last year. But his wife – they only allow one of the parents. His wife had to remain behind and since then she had a baby. What is the U.S. policy in this case? Would you bring in the other parent, or would you keep them, you know, sort of trapped where she is? What's the policy in this case?
MR TONER: Said, again, without having all of the casework in front of me and, frankly, without having a Consular Affairs expert to adjudicate it, I can't really speak to these kinds of individual cases. And not to mention, there's privacy considerations here.
QUESTION: So, but you do – you are aware that you can only – one parent could leave, right?
MR TONER: I'm generally aware of some of the parameters that you talk about, but I don't – I can't specifically address that case. I'm just – sorry, but I can't.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Sorry. Lesley, go ahead.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) a new subject?
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you for any comment on the – Myanmar set an election date for November 8. Do you have any comment on that? And how do you see this vote going ahead?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, we welcome the announcement of an election date. We think that a credible parliamentary election will serve as an important step in Burma's democratic transition. And the United States is providing some technical support to the Union Election Commission as well as some of the political parties and civil society groups and stakeholders, other stakeholders to ensure that they are able to conduct inclusive and transparent elections.
QUESTION: So the U.S. is an observer or just providing funding?
MR TONER: So we are providing funding and technical assistance. I do know that in terms of the observer status, members of The Carter Center and the European Union have been invited to monitor the general election process.
Now the Union Election Commission, rather – Union Election Commission – sorry – said it will also allow other domestic and international election observers, but that process is still ongoing and indentifying some of those folks.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you.
MR TONER: But we are – just to answer your question fully, we are providing election monitoring training, support to civil society, organizations, and they'll provide or filed upwards of 5,000 independent nonpartisan electoral observers in the months leading up to the general election.
QUESTION: A follow-up?
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: The U.S. is observing that as well in Myanmar?
MR TONER: I just said we haven't – you know, the answer is maybe because the Union Election Commission is still vetting and deciding, but they said they will invite domestic and international observers. So far The Carter Center, I think, has been invited and the European Union have both been invited.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Another topic?
MR TONER: Yeah, no worries.
QUESTION: On Cuba, any update on the opening of the embassy?
MR TONER: No, nothing to announce in terms of ribbon cutting. I mean as we've said, just to delineate between that ribbon cutting ceremony at the embassy and the actual opening of the embassy, the exchange of letters that the two Presidents shared last week, that did say – that did stipulate that on July 20th the embassies will actually reopen. So as of July 20th, we will have a functioning embassy in Havana. But as far as the ribbon cutting and all that goes, nothing to announce.
QUESTION: Not yet?
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: New topic?
MR TONER: Sure thing, Said. Go ahead.
QUESTION: The fight against ISIS?
MR TONER: The fight against ISIS.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: I mean, now that we've had time --
MR TONER: Wouldn't be a briefing without some discussion on --
MR TONER: No, go ahead. I'm sorry.
QUESTION: No, I just wanted to follow up on some of the things that John said yesterday --
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: -- but I (inaudible). He cited that when there is a – basically, implicitly, when there is a will to fight, such as the Peshmerga and the north fighting ISIS and the Kurdish fighters also in the north of Syria fighting ISIS, then we can see the outcome on the ground, that ISIS can be pushed back. Is the implicit suggestion there that the Iraqi army is not fighting or will not fight?
MR TONER: Not at all. We've long said that some of these local fighters have been absolutely integral to combating ISIL. But everything we do is through the Iraqi military and the Iraqi Government, and all the equipping and supplying that we do is conducted through them and with their concurrence. So there's a recognition, I think, that this needs to be locally owned, if you will; that we need to really build the capacity of local forces, and that includes the Iraqi military itself, to be able to push back and combat ISIL.
QUESTION: Would that implicitly suggest that you – maybe you ought to give direct aid to the Peshmerga directly – heavy equipment, I mean. Not --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- just rifles and guns and so on, but things like tanks and other battlefield equipment, heavy duty that they can use.
MR TONER: Well, again, we have been providing some assistance to the Peshmerga, again, through the Iraqi Government. We feel like that's getting into their hands expeditiously. We don't feel like there's a delay mechanism or anything. We feel like that the system currently is working pretty well in terms of getting them what they need. In terms of additional support, obviously, we're always looking at that, but nothing to announce.
Yeah, go ahead, Elise.
QUESTION: Can I go back to Cuba? I mean, I know you were --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. No, please.
QUESTION: -- talking about the embassy opening.
MR TONER: Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: But I just want to go back to the detentions over the weekend --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- and any discussions with the Cubans about this. I mean, I know that we saw the comments yesterday by John and a couple of tweets. But in terms of diplomatic outreach to the Cuban Government about it and – have you heard that they've been released, anything – any update you could provide?
MR TONER: I don't have a real update. We had seen reports that some of the, if not all, of the activists had been released by the Cuban authorities. But we did certainly raise it with the Cubans, and as you said, we spoke about it publicly, which we will continue to do when we see these kinds of human rights violations.
QUESTION: Well, you only spoke about it because we asked about it. I mean --
MR TONER: That's not true. Roberta Jacobson --
QUESTION: Well, I mean, a tweet --
MR TONER: -- tweeted about it over the weekend.
QUESTION: I understand, but --
MR TONER: I understand that it's not – or it's a different form for --
QUESTION: I don't think – right.
MR TONER: -- communicating, but it's still nevertheless a public one.
QUESTION: I mean, I'm just wondering the level of – it just seems as if there's an effort to kind of downplay this a bit because in the – playing the long game in the hopes that your outreach will eventually give you leverage with the Cubans. It doesn't sound like a week after your announcement of restoring diplomatic ties – in many ways because of the hopes that political reforms would take place on the island – something like this happens. I mean --
MR TONER: Right. Well --
QUESTION: -- is this a backtrack?
MR TONER: I don't know that it's a backtrack, but it's certainly – it's not the progress we hoped to see through the restoration of diplomatic relations, but we have been very clear why we're doing this and why we're seeking to re-engage with the Cuban Government. Because 54 years of isolation hasn't been doing us any good. And so we believe that through that engagement, through that engagement both with the Cuban people but certainly with the Cuban Government, we're going to be able to raise all of these issues on a consistent basis, but not going away. We're not saying, "Oh -- "
QUESTION: No, I understand. But you say that 50 years of isolation didn't help, but at the first sign of serious engagement, this happens. And I'm wondering, is – what's the message you take from this?
MR TONER: I would just say this is a process. It's – I don't think any of us were under any illusions that this would be overnight. But we're going to continue to engage. We're not going to, certainly, not raise these issues. It's – we've said – as I said all along, we believe that through engagement, we can actually push a more positive agenda and get the Cuban Government to change its ways.
QUESTION: I'm just – coming back to that, you said it was raised with the Cubans. At what level? Through the mission?
MR TONER: I'm not sure. That's what I was checking. I'd have to check on that.
MR TONER: I apologize. I don't have it in front of me.
Anything else, guys?
QUESTION: Can I ask about Africa?
MR TONER: Yeah, please. Go ahead, Lesley --
QUESTION: You – this week you named a new special envoy for the Great Lakes.
MR TONER: We did.
QUESTION: Can – what exactly is his first – I mean, when is he planning to visit the region? Is – would Burundi be the first thing he'll try to tackle in that area, since it looks as though it's one of the biggest --
MR TONER: Right, very good question. And I don't have – he just began or was appointed earlier this week – Thomas Perriello. I mean, obviously, the Great Lakes encompasses – just for the other folks; I know you know this, Lesley – but the Great Lakes states of Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Obviously, the situation in Burundi is of great concern and one of our priorities, one of his priorities. I don't know of any plans to immediately travel there, but we can try to get an update for you.
MR TONER: Yeah, please, go ahead.
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Could you tell us how and if the Grexit, the potential exit of Greece from the euro zone, is impacting the transatlantic treaty – the negotiations, the terms, or any U.S.-related interests?
MR TONER: Sure. As we've said and Lesley's heard us say all this week, certainly Secretary Lew, other senior Treasury and State officials, obviously Secretary Kerry and the White House continue to stay in close touch with a broad array of counterparts on the situation in Greece. What you're speaking about more broadly, about the potential impact, of course the stability and security of Greece, who is a NATO ally as well as an EU partner, is important to the United States and the transatlantic community, which is why we continue to believe it's in the interest of all parties to get Greece back on a path whereby it can resume reforms, return to growth, and achieve debt sustainability within the euro zone.
So that's it. Good, guys. Thank you so much.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:33 p.m.)
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