Daily Press Briefing, August 12, 2015
Mark C. Toner
Daily Press Briefing
August 12, 2015
Index for Today's Briefing
2:06 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hey, everyone, welcome to the State Department. Happy Wednesday. Just a couple things at the top. First of all, I wanted to speak to the possible death of a Croatian citizen in Egypt that took place; many of you are aware of the video that’s circulated earlier today. We’ve obviously seen Prime Minister Milanovic’s statement about the reported murder of a Croatian citizen, Tomislav Salopek, by ISIL terrorists in Egypt. We understand the Government of Croatia is still working to confirm this brutal act. Our thoughts, obviously, are with Mr. Salopek’s wife and children, his family, and the Croatian people at this very difficult time.
We obviously condemn in the strongest possible terms the horrific violence and brutality that ISIL continues to carry out across the region. The United States stands shoulder to shoulder with Croatia, with Egypt, and all of our friends and partners in the fight against terrorism.
And I just – I did want to commend to all of you – I know most of you got to see or read the Secretary’s – the transcript of the Secretary’s event at Thomson Reuters yesterday in New York. It was a thorough discussion of how the JCPOA effectively shuts down all of Iran’s pathways to enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon and also why other options that opponents of the deal have proposed, such as walking away or securing a better deal, are not only not realistic but are likely to have the opposite effect, which would remove – see the removal of all constraints on Iran’s nuclear program and the crumbling of the international sanctions regime.
I also want to call your attention to the continuing support that we’ve seen for the Iran deal. Over the weekend, I think there was a letter from the nation’s leading scientists – a letter sent to President Obama. And also yesterday an open letter that was shared from three dozen retired U.S. military generals and admirals who unequivocally stated that, “There is no better option to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon,” end quote. We believe that the more the American people understand how good this deal is, how effective it is for America’s security and that of our allies and partners around the world, the more they’ll support it.
I’ll take your questions. Brad, do you want to go?
QUESTION: So I think we’ll get back to both of those in a bit. I just wanted to ask firstly about the emails of former Secretary of State Clinton. We heard from this podium when we first learned about her private email account that no classified information was supposedly within those emails, and now we found out yesterday. Does that make you worried about what more is – we’re going to learn from these emails?
MR TONER: Well, so obviously most or many of you saw the statement that we put out last night. Just to reiterate, the emails that have been discussed have not been released to the public, and where we’re at in this right now, this process, is we’re working with the director of national intelligence to resolve whether in fact this material is actually classified. But in the meantime we’re taking steps, clearly, to make sure that the information is protected and stored properly.
So it’s also important, I think, to emphasize that these emails were not marked as classified at the time they were sent, and both of – both of which they were received obviously by Secretary Clinton. They weren’t sent by her. But none of them were classified at the time. And what we’re – our focus has been throughout this is obviously we need to be responsive to the request put on us to release publicly all of her emails that she provided to us, the State Department, per FOIA regulations and processes. We’ve been doing that. We’ve been working to clear these in a manner that’s been as responsive as possible and quick as possible, because we know that many members of the public and you journalists want to see these emails, and are redacting them as necessary, as we find things that need to be upgraded in their classification.
We have not seen anything at the TS level yet, and so – but that is our function throughout, and we have an embedded group of folks from the IC community – or from the IC, rather, who are looking at these emails and helping us clear them as we go through them.
QUESTION: So it’s your assertion that none of the information even in these latest emails, like, that have come to light contained information that was classified at the time they were penned? Is that right?
MR TONER: Again, I think we’re – what I would say is we’re in discussions with ODNI about their recommendations. They’ve clearly – and we’ve seen those and acknowledged the fact that they’ve – they – so they’ve taken two of the emails and they’ve said there’s no IC equities in these. The other two they’ve said should be classified, I think, at the Top Secret level. We’re now assessing that ourselves internally. I think we’ve said in the past, classification, looking at these kinds of issues, it’s – sometimes it’s black and white but oftentimes it’s not. And so there’s lots of considerations to take into account when we’re looking at these. So we’re looking at – or we’re working with ODNI on these emails. We’re looking at – we’re trying to clarify their findings and trying to resolve whether we think they need to be classified.
QUESTION: But you – at this point you’re not satisfied that it was classified at the time that they were written?
MR TONER: I’d just say we’re in discussion with them.
QUESTION: Okay. But that shouldn’t be – I mean, that’s not – that should be pretty black and white if somebody’s classified it, and until that --
MR TONER: Well, they weren’t marked. Let me clarify that. They were not --
QUESTION: Well, the emails weren’t marked.
MR TONER: Yeah, they were marked as classified, right.
MR TONER: But as we’ve been doing throughout --
QUESTION: But the information therein doesn’t – if you write down everything you heard at a classified briefing and put it in an email, that’s – it’s not marked as classified but that’s classified information.
MR TONER: Right, right. Right, correct.
QUESTION: I mean, not that that happened here, but --
MR TONER: No, no, right. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I mean, shouldn’t – did all of her aides get some sort of training in how they handle classified information when they joined the State Department?
MR TONER: And that’s a normal step, yes. They would all get briefings on --
MR TONER: -- handling classified material. That’s --
QUESTION: Does the secretary get that as well, or is that something presumed at the – that a secretary --
MR TONER: I can’t speak to – precisely to what she received in terms of training, but that’s a normal part of the process as well.
QUESTION: So shouldn’t they have known better on information that could perceivably become classified, not to have sent that over to an unclassified email account, let alone a nongovernmental email account?
MR TONER: Well, Brad, again, you’re asking me to step back in time and make judgments on who was sending what at that time and how they were assessing the information. That’s not, frankly, our job here. Our job is to look at the information that Secretary Clinton has passed on to us and release it publicly.
QUESTION: I understand.
MR TONER: And so as we release it, we’re looking to see if any of that needs to be upgraded. We’re not aware now – with the exception now of these two emails that have been flagged, and we’re looking at them and working – but we’re not aware of any classified material that was sent to her at that time.
MR TONER: But what we’re doing and what we have done, frankly, and you know this, is we’ve redacted stuff after the fact.
QUESTION: And then I just have --
MR TONER: Upgraded it. Yeah, please.
QUESTION: -- one final question, since it deals with the retention element which you raised, and it had been the position of this building that the server and the thumb drives, that that – with – those being retained by her lawyer was acceptable. The Justice Department felt otherwise. Where did you come to the conclusion that that was an acceptable means of retention at that time?
MR TONER: So my answer to that is we had based our assessment of where these materials are being held at the lawyer’s office based on what we had determined, which was that some of it was classified as – up to Secret/No Foreign, I think is the classification level. And we sent security experts to evaluate where they were being held, and at that level that was acceptable.
QUESTION: Mark, could you clarify something --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- that you just said – I’m sorry – on this one.
MR TONER: It’s okay.
QUESTION: How does something that was unclassified get upgraded to be classified? What is the mechanism or how is it determined that it should become classified?
MR TONER: Sure. I mean, a lot of it, without getting into too much detail, deals with names, sources, all that thing – all that kind of consideration. So we would look at it – if something was not sensitive or considered sensitive at the time or classified, it could over time evolve that given who was saying what to whom, where that source – where that information was coming from, that we would need to upgrade the classification to protect those sources. That’s usually, generally. I mean, there’s other variations on that, but that’s generally the --
QUESTION: So I thought with time --
MR TONER: So what we do is – sorry, I apologize – essentially, so we – and we’ve said this before. So we don’t throw the entire document out; what we do is often redact certain lines that protect --
QUESTION: I thought with the passage of time, things that are classified become unclassified, not the other way around.
MR TONER: That’s true as well. That’s true as well. I mean, both are – again, this is – I mean, there’s very clear examples of when it’s black and white, but it’s not often black and white. And these are – it’s – some of it’s art and some of it’s science. But a lot of it is, frankly, very knowledgeable people looking at this and sharing it among those who have equities in the content and information for us all to reach a common agreement on the classification level.
Yeah, I’ll go to you, James.
QUESTION: Thanks very much, Mark. I have a few questions on this subject.
MR TONER: Sure thing.
QUESTION: And forgive me if any have already been addressed in this setting, because I think you’ll agree this is rapidly becoming a sprawling subject difficult for any one person to master.
First, is it the understanding of the department that the actual server has been turned over to the FBI?
MR TONER: So unfortunately, I’m going to have to refer you to the FBI. They have not confirmed that. We’ve also seen the reports from Secretary Clinton’s lawyers and from Secretary Clinton’s staff that that has happened, but we’ve not received an independent confirmation. And it’s not for me to confirm that, so that’s a question for the FBI to answer.
QUESTION: We were just talking about what is known as derivative classification, and I just wonder if it’s your understanding that material which is classified at some level which is transmitted from one individual to another electronically, whether there are in place any coding or encryption systems that flag when such classified information is taken from a classified source and cut-and-paste, if you will, into an unclassified source. Is there like a marker, like the dye that we put on money, on banks or whatever, that will help us trace when that’s happening?
MR TONER: That’s beyond my level of expertise. I mean, a lot of times, as you note, James, whether it’s email or cable traffic or whatever, classified information – and it’s something we drill into every Foreign Service officer and take very seriously and every civil servant within the State Department – the proper level of classification, identifying it as such, and then marking it and keeping it marked. I just don’t have the expertise to say that the – in the information sphere that that’s able to – that you’re able to, as you say, dye it.
QUESTION: You just alluded to a visit to Mrs. Clinton’s lawyer’s office that was taken – made by government personnel for the purpose of verifying that the security in that lawyer’s office was adequate for the purpose of retaining the server. Who made that visit? When was it?
MR TONER: I don’t have the details, but we’ve talked about this before. We sent over a – again, I don’t know if it was one person or several persons, but we were in touch with the lawyer’s office – again, understanding at that time we weren’t dealing with a top secret level – the possibility of a top secret level email or emails. We did make the determination at the time, and that included an onsite visit. So I don’t have details of who, what, where, when, but that was done. And we ensured at that time to our confidence in – or that we had confidence that that was being appropriately stored up to that level that we had at the time.
QUESTION: It seems to me that if this department has working for it people with the expertise to make such a determination about the security procedures and their adequacy in the lawyer’s office, this department also has access to people who’d be in a position to judge whether the procedures that Mrs. Clinton herself was using with respect to the server were adequate or appropriate. And has that determination been made?
MR TONER: Again, two points to make. One is – and we all understand this in this room, both those of us who are in government service but also all of you in the media – cyber security is an evolving issue, and so what the level of cyber security that existed four or five, six years ago, is not at the level that we need today. So let me just finish. So we’re obviously always looking to upgrade and assure that we have the best protections available both on our unclassified but certainly our classified systems.
But I would also just remind you, so this was in response to a FOIA request that Secretary Clinton handed over these emails for us to go through and make public. We’ve been doing that. That’s our goal in this. She said this is the – encompassed the entirety of her email exchange on that given issue, Benghazi and Libya, and we’ve been focused – our efforts have been focused on sifting through this stuff, making it public, and then classifying where we – or upgrading the classification where necessary.
QUESTION: Just a few more.
MR TONER: Yeah, please. No, that’s okay.
QUESTION: And I appreciate your indulgence and that of the room.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Has, to your knowledge, Secretary of State Kerry, at any time since March when this story first broke in The New York Times, discussed this matter with former Secretary of State Clinton directly?
MR TONER: I can tell you that Secretary Kerry is very seized with the overall issue. Two points to make here. One, in making sure that we fulfill our requirement to make these emails public while classifying them or upgrading their classification if necessary, takes that very seriously. We have devoted a considerable amount of resources and manpower to this effort.
Secondly, I’m not – he wants to make sure that our existing security – computer security is at a level that’s needed in today’s age.
QUESTION: Has he spoken to Clinton?
MR TONER: I don’t know – that’s what my – the last thing is. I don’t – I’m not aware that he has spoken directly with Secretary Clinton about this issue. I’d have to check on that.
QUESTION: Obviously, the Department of State has been in touch with Secretary Clinton or her aides just for the logistical purposes of meeting the various timetables for requests, the litigation involved, and so forth. Is the Department of State providing any counsel or maintaining any contact of any kind with respect to this matter with any of Secretary Clinton’s former staff?
MR TONER: No. Not that I’m aware of, no.
QUESTION: The revelations about ex post facto amplification of classification level – does this place any of Mrs. Clinton’s former aides in any kind of jeopardy such as you understand it?
MR TONER: Again, it’s not really my position to make that kind of a judgment, frankly.
QUESTION: Last question.
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: We have here the former Secretary of State, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States, and she’s now engaged in the business of turning stuff over to the FBI. That’s pretty heavy stuff, isn’t it?
MR TONER: Well, again, I would just return to what our role is and the State Department’s role is in this process, which is to go through these emails, to make them public, while making sure that any material within them that needs to be upgraded in classification is – that we do so. It’s not for me to talk to the broader issues at hand here. That I’d refer you to the Department of Justice.
QUESTION: Do you see parallels with the Petraeus case?
MR TONER: I do not. I’ve said this before; it’s apples and oranges in my view.
QUESTION: Can I just do one here?
MR TONER: Yeah, please go ahead, Brad.
QUESTION: Do FOIA processes ever lead to investigations on the improper use, storage, or transmission of classified information? Or are those two things completely siloed off? I mean, has there ever been an example where in a FOIA process --
MR TONER: Yeah, and I --
QUESTION: -- you’ve ever referred something then for an investigation?
MR TONER: Right. It’s a good question, and I don’t have a ready answer in terms of examples of where that’s been the case. I think – and again, I would refer you to the IG, because I think what’s – that would be in the purview of the IG, to look at those kinds of issues. And that’s frankly why they exist, is to see if there’s broader implications and to conduct investigations as they see fit. And they’ve got full autonomy to do so.
QUESTION: And then just in these emails, without describing what they are, you don’t see any element, even if something was or has now become top secret, of intent by any official to transmit classified information?
MR TONER: No.
QUESTION: So even if --
MR TONER: You’re talking about – sorry, you’re talking about intent by the originators of the --
QUESTION: By the sender, yeah. Or the sendee too, the recipient, to receive classified information improperly or something like that.
MR TONER: Again, we’re still in the process, frankly, of discussing with ODNI whether they need to be classified at that level.
QUESTION: Mark, one more, just one more?
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Go ahead, James.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry responded in an interview setting recently to the question of whether it was likely that the Russians and the Chinese had had access to his email. And he said words to the effect that it was a safe bet. Is it a safe bet that the Russians and Chinese had access to Hillary Clinton’s official email given how little security procedures were in place?
MR TONER: Again, where the Secretary’s remarks – and he speaks to the reality, as I said, that we all live in today, which is that anything sent in an unclassified setting is vulnerable. So I’d leave it there.
QUESTION: Following up, did you --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Do you have access, the United States, to the emails of Chinese and Russian officials, since he’s so sure – (laughter) --
MR TONER: Nice try, Brad.
QUESTION: I mean, how does he know they have his emails unless he has their emails, maybe?
MR TONER: Nice try. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: All right. New topic?
MR TONER: Please. Sure. Are we done with --
QUESTION: A new topic?
MR TONER: Okay, yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. On Cuba, I wanted to ask about the AP report that the Obama Administration doesn’t plan to have Cuban dissidents at the morning flag-raising with John Kerry. Could you tell us when and where and which dissidents Secretary Kerry is planning on meeting? Will he be meeting with them privately in the afternoon at a separate flag raising? Who will he meet with?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, I think – sure.
QUESTION: And also explain to us why the decision was made to not have some at the morning event.
MR TONER: Well – so I’m not going to, frankly, get into detail walking through his schedule for that day, who he’s going to meet with where and what and how that’s going to look. Frankly, I’ll leave that for him or for others to speak to as we get closer to the actual day. I know we’re only two days away, but – but the Secretary has been very clear and we’ve been very clear that he plans to meet with a broad range of civil society during his day or during the day in Cuba, in Havana. But I don’t want to get into specific details about who – and I said who he’s going to meet with, where that’s going to take place.
But we’ve been very clear more broadly in saying that, as much as we look forward to increasing our diplomatic engagement with the Government of Cuba, we’re well aware of the challenges that we face on the human rights sphere and we’re not going to shy away from addressing those challenges and continuing to meet with key members of civil society in Cuba.
QUESTION: But did the Cuban Government tell you that if you had any of those dissidents at the morning event, that they would not attend?
MR TONER: I can’t speak to what we may or may not have shared with – or discussed with the Cuban Government.
QUESTION: And so can you give us any insight into why they are not going to be at the morning event?
MR TONER: Well, again, then you’re asking me to implicitly confirm whether they’re not or not. I’m not going to speak to who the invitees are to specific events. I’ll let others do that as we get closer.
Please, in the back.
QUESTION: I just want to --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure, go ahead if you’re --
QUESTION: -- follow up on this issue.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Did you address the fact that the Cuban Government is arresting some opponents of rapprochement?
MR TONER: I think we spoke to this, frankly, as of Monday --
QUESTION: You did? Okay. Could you – okay. Is there anything beyond that?
MR TONER: -- and I believe that John Kirby was quoted in the very story in expressing our --
QUESTION: Okay. Apologies for (inaudible).
MR TONER: No, it’s okay. I’m just – I’m teasing Brad over here.
But in any case, no, we’ve been very clear. We spoke out against it. Any time we see that kind of action, we’re not going to shy away from addressing these issues from – and discussing human rights. It remains a challenge in the relationship. But we’re basing this sea change in our policy towards Cuba on the assessment that through increased diplomatic engagement we can offer more opportunity to the Cuban people, increase the amount of exchange between our two peoples, and open up the space, if you will, between our two countries.
QUESTION: Would you say that it is highly likely that Secretary Kerry would meet with President Castro?
MR TONER: I – (laughter) – nothing – but nice try, again. This is a fun – anyway, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. Something separate.
MR TONER: And I’ll get to you, I promise. Oh, is this a separate --
MR TONER: Okay, go ahead. And then I apologize. I thought it was still on the --
QUESTION: Okay. So the Swiss Government announced today that they were lifting – not just suspending, but lifting – previously suspended sanctions on Iran. So they are completely lifting their sanctions; that, I believe, makes them the first country that is doing so, even though the JCPOA has not been implemented. What’s the – was the U.S. Government consulted? Did you know that they were planning on lifting their sanctions today, and what is your reaction to the fact that they’re doing that before the EU, the U.S., Russia, China, UN, anyone else?
MR TONER: Sure. In answer to one of your questions, my first point to make is that we’ve seen these reports. We’re looking into them, so we just found out about it.
QUESTION: So the U.S. Government wasn’t consulted ahead of time?
MR TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no. But we’ve been clear that we won’t relieve any sanctions under the JCPOA until after the IAEA verifies that Iran has taken all of its major nuclear-related steps, and that remains our policy. So until that occurs, we intend to continue aggressively enforcing those sanctions. But as to specifically what these sanctions were that lifted and how they’ll affect, we’ll have to look into that and get back to you with more detail.
QUESTION: Good. So U.S. enforcement means then that if Swiss companies were to avail themselves of their country having lifted those sanctions, the U.S. would still prosecute them under secondary sanctions – or I shouldn’t say prosecute – would still pursue them under secondary sanctions?
MR TONER: I would say that, yes, any of our sanctions – I would say any of our sanctions pertaining to Iran would still apply, yeah.
QUESTION: A follow-up?
QUESTION: Can we stay on Iran?
QUESTION: On Iran.
QUESTION: Still on Iran?
MR TONER: You’re a different topic, or --
MR TONER: Okay. Well, let’s stay on Iran, and then we’ll finish that.
QUESTION: I just want to follow up from the Thomson Reuters event yesterday.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Secretary Kerry made a comment that was – I didn’t see any readout of a conversation with Zarif, but he mentioned that he received a message from Secretary Zarif only yesterday. Was that a telephone call or an email? Are they snapchatting now? (Laughter.) Do you know what that was?
MR TONER: I don’t – aware of the – that he did make the remark. I’m not certain of how that communication took place.
QUESTION: Okay. And then just to --
MR TONER: I don’t believe it was a phone call.
QUESTION: You don’t believe it was a phone call? Okay. And then – which is interesting. Maybe it was Snapchat, then. But to the substance of that, he said that Zarif was in Beirut doing outreach, and he seemed to paint it in a positive light where he either used outreach or coordinating. And I just wanted to wonder – I mean, I just wanted to ask: What was his understanding of that outreach or what is your understanding? He said he’s reaching out to those countries.
MR TONER: It’s a fair question. I – again, I’m aware of the remark and I truly don’t want to put myself in the position of parsing his words without understanding the context, but my assumption, generally, would be that Zarif was also engaged in reaching out to the region. He’s already been doing so talking about the deal and making efforts to convince them of the importance of this deal.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, I was only struck by it later --
MR TONER: But I don’t have any specific --
QUESTION: -- because then I saw a report in Al-Manar, and while I don’t vouch for it necessarily, I saw that they quoted Zarif saying that he was there for regional cooperation “to fight extremism and face threats posed by the Zionist entity,” which made me wonder why the Secretary was expressing this outreach in such a positive tone.
MR TONER: Well, I mean, certainly – and we’ve been clear about this throughout – just because we have reached agreement on a specific deal dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, we have segmented that because it’s important that we not have a nuclear-capable Iran, but that doesn’t take away from all of our – all of our problems with Iran’s involvement in the region, and that includes, obviously, anti-Semitism and issues with Israel.
QUESTION: So to – just to hammer it home, you’re okay with him going to Beirut and Kuwait and Qatar to do outreach for anti-extremism efforts but anti-Israel would be still problematic?
MR TONER: Of course. But also, again, we’re focused – and the Secretary’s spoken to this as have others – we’re focused on getting this deal across the finish line, getting Congress’ approval. We believe it’s in the best interest of the United States, of all our partners and allies. It prevents – it provides the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that’s where we’re focused on.
What that may mean for the other aspects of our relations with Iran and Iran’s behavior in the region, that’s all an open question, frankly. And we’re very – and we’re obviously very wary.
Yeah, please, James, if you – are we – on the – still on the same topic?
QUESTION: I am on Iran sanctions, yeah.
MR TONER: Okay. Let’s just finish Iran then.
Do you have Iran too?
QUESTION: Yeah, very quickly. On --
MR TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: On the Secretary’s comments yesterday, he expressed confidence that the deal will go through and in fact he does not have a plan B. So what gives him that confidence? I mean, do you have – do you keep a tally that you have maybe less than 60 senators that will oppose it or less than 67 that could override the veto? What gives him that confidence that he does not need a plan B?
MR TONER: Well, I think the Secretary’s been very frank in saying that there is – the critics of the deal --
MR TONER: -- don’t really have a plan B. None of the plan Bs that they’re offering really offer an acceptable resolution to the problem at hand, which is keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. In terms of what makes him confident that eventually Congress will approve it, I think, I mean, he’s a former senator; he can do counts. He knows how to – how the – that legislative body works. But I think he’s also confident in the merits of the deal and the more that people know about it, the more that they’ll understand that this is, as I said, a good, effective way to and the best way to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: And just to quickly follow up, a PR firm, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, took 58 legislators to Israel basically to be lobbied by the Israeli Government to vote against the deal. Should, in this case, this PR firm or – this PR firm register as a foreign agent? Should it register as a foreign agent?
MR TONER: I’m not going to speak to that. They’re – we’re a free society.
MR TONER: They’re fully capable and have every right to do what they’re doing. Again, what we would just ask is that they make the same effort to learn enough about the deal themselves that they can make up their own – make a sound judgment about its merits.
QUESTION: Does this kind of activity qualify for a PR firm to – or does it obligate them to register as a foreign agent in your judgment?
MR TONER: Again, I don’t have the legal expertise to answer that question.
QUESTION: Is that something that the State Department does or is it the Department of Justice? Who determines --
MR TONER: I believe it’s the FBI, Department of Justice who makes that determination.
Yeah. Go ahead, James.
QUESTION: I wanted to follow up with a few questions on the exclusive reporting of my Fox News colleagues Jennifer Griffin and Lucas Tomlinson last week, wherein they disclosed that General Soleimani of the Qods Force had secretly traveled to Russia in the latter part of July of this year, apparently in so doing in violation of existing U.S. and UN sanctions on him. First, do you have any better an idea now, today, than you did when this story first broke last week as to the purpose of the general’s travel to Russia?
MR TONER: So we’ve – obviously, as we said last weekend, I think, when the story broke, as you mentioned, we’ve seen these reports. We – and we said at the time this travel would be a violation of UNSC resolutions and thus a serious matter of concern to the UN Security Council as well as, obviously, to the United States. So we’ve raised this travel with senior Russian foreign ministry officials, and we’re going to raise it and address it further in New York. We intend to work with the Security Council and its Iran Sanctions Committee and the UN’s Iran Panel of Experts, which is a sanctions monitoring team, to ensure, frankly, that there’s a full, thorough, adequate investigation as well as sufficient follow-up. The UN sanctions on Soleimani do remain in effect, and so we call on all countries to respect and enforce all designations made under UN Security Council resolutions.
QUESTION: Has the United States Government, in pursuing this in these various channels, yet received any responses from any concerned parties?
MR TONER: My understanding is we have not. So again, we’re pursuing this and we’ve made our concerns clear to Russia, but we’re also pursuing it within the Security Council.
QUESTION: You have no idea what the purpose of his visit was?
MR TONER: At this point, we do not.
QUESTION: Because I believe it has been asserted by the semi-official news agency in Iran that the purpose of the general’s visit was to discuss arms sales. Are you aware of that report?
MR TONER: We’re aware of reports, but we have not, again, received a firm response from the Russian Government.
QUESTION: Have you confirmed that the general met with President Putin?
MR TONER: I have not, we have not.
QUESTION: Doesn’t this episode raise very valid concerns about how much cooperation the U.S. and the other members of the P5+1 can expect to receive from Russia in the implementation of the JCPOA, when here the Russian Federation is colluding actively in a violation of existing sanctions?
MR TONER: Well, first of all, Russia was, as you know, a member of the P5+1 process and an effective one. The Secretary has spoken to the fact that they were among the toughest negotiators with Iran and were helpful to reaching the deal that we were able to reach. I think it’s important that there are sanctions in place specific to this individual, but that --
QUESTION: But Mark, this doesn’t bode well --
MR TONER: Sorry, let me just finish. But – sorry, just – but that they remain in effect, and we’re following up through the mechanisms that are available to us in the Security Council to ensure that enforcement is carried out.
QUESTION: But if Russia is violating the sanctions that are in place right now, why should any American regard that the Russians will be reliable in implementing the terms of the deal once it goes into effect?
MR TONER: But again, these are – so it’s – careful not to get too caught up. We have a series or network of sanctions, both unilateral sanctions as well as through the UN Security Council that specifically target the IGRC and its actions, and we’re going to make sure that those sanctions continue to be enforced. As for this specific incident, we’ve reached out to Russia. We’re trying to carry through and make sure that whatever applicable sanctions apply, that they’re fully enforced. And I’ll just leave it there.
Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Quick follow-up: General Soleimani was in Iraq some months back --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- publicly and knowingly. Did the U.S. refer that to the sanctions committee and ask that it be investigated?
MR TONER: I’ll have to look. I don’t remember.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR KIRBY: Please. Let me get to Dmitry, he’s --
QUESTION: Can I follow up on the Soleimani and Russia --
MR TONER: Sure thing.
QUESTION: Are you prepared at this point and from this podium to unequivocally declare that this violation – this alleged violation of sanctions by Russia actually took place? Do you know --
MR TONER: No. As I said, we’re – no. And it’s an important point of clarification: We’re investigating it. We’ve gone through the UN Security Council. There are mechanisms in place to look into this incident and to come up with a conclusion.
QUESTION: Do you – you don’t know if it happened or not?
MR TONER: Again, we’ve reached out. We’ve seen the press reports, but we haven’t determined yet.
QUESTION: But surely the U.S. Government knows where perhaps the biggest – one of the leading sponsors of terrorism, specifically against Americans, in the last several years is in the world, right?
MR TONER: So just to clarify, Brad, we’re looking into what was the purpose of his travel, the purpose of his meetings, and how – and whether sanctions apply to his travel there.
QUESTION: You just said you’re looking into his travel, not his alleged travel, correct?
MR TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: So you do accept it as a fact that the travel occurred.
MR TONER: That’s our understanding, yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. (Inaudible.)
MR TONER: Yeah, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Iraq, one on General Qasem Soleimani – he was actually meeting in Iraqi Kurdistan also. I don’t know if that implies on his travels.
MR TONER: Yeah, that’s what he just referred to. Yeah.
QUESTION: He met with the Kurdish leaders before Ambassador McGurk meet them about the crisis of the President Barzani, but this is something else.
But I just want to ask you about something else. You have the nuclear deal with Iran, and that raise concern in the region. And United States did much to convince its allies, like the Gulf states, to enhancing their defense system by giving them the missile – what they need against Iranian threat. And also Israel – and also even you made phone calls. President Obama made phone call to the Israel prime minister, and also – so several other step happen to ensure the allies in the region.
But one group was there left out: the Iranian oppositions; the Kurds and others also. And before the deal and after the deal, the Iranian – they intensified their harassment on the opposition groups, those that live in Iraq, including the Kurdish opposition and the other Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq in Iran – in Iraq. And you have said – you have even not condemned their actions. There was an attempt at – three times attempt assassination one of the Iranian leader, Abdullah Mohtadi, the head of the Komala of Iranian Kurdistan in his headquarters three days ago.
MR TONER: Right. Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off, but – so your specific question is --
QUESTION: -- is you haven’t done anything to protect the positions they live peacefully in Iraq and in other places. Some of them, they have been in contact with you in the past, and there was also other stuff happen inside Iran, like executions of the political activist.
MR TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to – I – so --
QUESTION: So you have done much for your allies --
MR TONER: So we haven’t – sorry, just to – I don’t mean to cut you off, but – so I mean, we’ve been very clear of the fact that our pursuit of a nuclear deal via the P5+1 was focused solely on preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
MR TONER: We’ve not given them a free pass and by no means intend to give them a free pass on all the other issues, challenges that we face in the region with Iran. And so --
QUESTION: But you haven’t done also --
MR TONER: -- if you’re speaking about some of the harassment, I guess, of opposition forces that are in Iraq, again, that’s all – these are all issues that we’re going to continue to address as appropriate.
Please – yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Can we – change of topic?
MR TONER: Sure thing.
QUESTION: China and the devaluation of the yuan. I know that you talk about it yesterday, but the yuan dropped sharply again today. Is it a matter of concern for the U.S. Government, and do you know if the Secretary is in contact with the Chinese authorities?
MR TONER: I’m not aware. I’d refer you to really the treasury. The Department of Treasury and Secretary Lew has obviously been following this issue. I mean, we’re obviously following it closely. I think I said yesterday that we have and continue to press China to make necessary financial reforms. We’ve seen some progress and we want to see more, but for greater insight into what this means or what this could potentially mean for the U.S. market or the U.S. dollar, I would refer you to the Department of Treasury.
MR TONER: Syria, sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: On the attack to the Atima village in northern Syria, I have --
MR TONER: Apologize, I didn’t hear the first part of your question.
QUESTION: On the – to the Atima village in northern Syria, the attack – I just want to ask about it, a few questions.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: The coalition said it could confirm a deliberate airstrike in the vicinity of Aleppo, including Atima. So it means that the attack was done by the coalition, and where dozens of civilians have died. And Pentagon says that the targets are identified properly. Upon that, how does it come, then, that so many civilians have died? And what was the target of these attacks?
I have a few questions more. Will you run an investigation on the responsibles of this attack? And how do you plan to compensate the civilian death?
MR TONER: I’m – I apologize, I’m not aware of the specific incident that you’re talking about. I mean, certainly, as we’ve said many times, when our Air Force carries out airstrikes we take every effort to avoid civilian casualties, and to the extent that we can carry them out with pinpoint accuracy and spare civilian lives, we do so. We make every effort to do so. And we’ve been very clear that all of our airstrikes – the coalition’s airstrikes – are done in coordination to assist anti-ISIL forces on the ground. I’m just not aware of the specific incident that you’re discussing right now, so I’d refer you really to the Pentagon to give those kinds of operational details.
QUESTION: Can I ask a few questions?
MR TONER: Sure thing, yeah. I don’t know if I can answer them, but I’ll – you can ask them.
QUESTION: And some reports say that it has been long time that al-Nusrah left the area, so how would you elaborate this, that al-Nusrah left the area that was attacked – Atima?
MR TONER: Again, so I apologize that I’m not – I mean, al-Nusrah obviously is an al-Qaida affiliated group. We know that they’ve attacked some of the Free Syrian Army contingents that we’ve helped train up. I’m not sure again of the specific incident, so I apologize whether you’re – whether there was ISIL forces in that area or what we were actually – if there were indeed coalition airstrikes, what the focus was. I apologize.
QUESTION: Syria too? Syria.
MR TONER: Sure, Syria, and then back to you, Dmitry.
QUESTION: Today the Security Council met and either they did issue or are in the process of issuing a statement to shore up de Mistura’s effort – the United Nations envoy to Syria – effort to find some sort of resolution based on the Geneva I principles and so on. First of all, are you aware of the statement that is either coming out or came out today?
MR TONER: I haven’t seen it yet, no.
QUESTION: Okay. So with all this --
MR TONER: But we’ve been very clear that we support, obviously, de Mistura’s efforts.
QUESTION: Okay. So with all that is going on – today, Zarif made his way to Syria; there are movements and foreign ministers visiting everywhere – are we likely to see a political process or the restart of the diplomatic process on a Syria resolution possibly right after, let’s say, the Iran deal is done and behind us?
MR TONER: Boy, Said, I don’t want to make those kinds of predictions, but I can tell you that we remain hard at work at trying to reach a political resolution. Obviously, it’s a key component of our overall strategy to the region.
QUESTION: And today the Information Minister of Syria Umran gave us an interview to CNN saying that they are willing to meet with the militant opposition, the armed opposition. That is --
MR TONER: This is the Syrian minister?
QUESTION: The moderate, yes.
MR TONER: I apologize. Okay.
QUESTION: Yes, the moderate opposition that you are supporting. First of all, can you tell us what the status of the New Syria Force is? Was it decimated last week? Are they still there? Are they the ones that will be negotiating with any representative of the Syrian Government in your estimate?
MR TONER: I’m not aware specifically what the statement was or what is being proposed in terms of meetings between moderate Syrian opposition and the Syrian Government, so I can’t speak to that. In terms of those forces that were, as you mentioned, I believe, attacked last week, we’ve been very clear, first of all, that those forces aren’t anywhere near the levels that they need to be. We need to continue to train and equip these individuals and build up the capacity of those forces. More generally speaking about the political process, we’ve also been very clear and continue to make efforts to help the moderate Syrian opposition consolidate because you need a common voice there if you are, as you said, going to reach a political resolution that adheres to the Geneva Communique.
QUESTION: Stay on Syria?
MR TONER: Yeah. Let’s let Dmitry --
QUESTION: There was --
MR TONER: He had his hand up first, and I’ll get to you.
QUESTION: There was an article published yesterday by the Daily Beast which essentially stated that the United States decided to drop its idea to stand up this new Syrian force and instead rely on Kurdish militias. My question is: Is there a policy shift within the U.S. Government on that, with regards to that?
MR TONER: No, we remain focused on the train and equip program. But that’s just one component of our overall efforts. And as you mentioned, anti-ISIL Kurdish forces, Turkomen, Syrian Arab forces that are all fighting ISIL in northern Syria are all part of that effort, as is the broader coalition.
QUESTION: And a couple of – a couple of tangential on that.
MR TONER: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: Is there plans, other plans being considered right now to not only increase U.S.-Russian interaction with regards to Syria to get a political settlement in the country, but also to counter terrorism more efficiently there? Is it – does it make sense, for instance, to send General Allen to Moscow to get this dialogue going, do you think?
MR TONER: You’re talking about in general anti-ISIL efforts?
MR TONER: Counterterrorism efforts --
MR TONER: -- in the region?
QUESTION: Well, yeah, mostly Syrian and the region in general.
MR TONER: In Syria, okay. Sorry, just clarifying. Look, our focus remains on countering ISIL, but certainly, we realize that when you’re talking about a place like Syria we want to see a political resolution to the broader conflict there that is being perpetrated on the Syrian people by Assad’s regime. We’ve been very clear, though, that Assad cannot be part of any final outcome or resolution to that situation, and that’s been our stance now for quite a few years and we remain true to that. We believe that he has lost all credibility.
So when we’re talking about – we have to – and I said this yesterday. I will use a bad metaphor again, but we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We’ve got to be able to take the fight against IS – or against ISIL and push it out of where it’s holding territory. We’ve also got to reach a political resolution – but again, not one that can involve Assad.
And guys, I’m sorry; I’m looking at the clock because I’ve got just a couple more questions. In the back.
QUESTION: Iran. Yesterday Secretary Kerry indicated that some allies were reluctant regarding backing – they’re ready to walk away on Ukraine. Do you know which allies are those and --
MR TONER: Sorry. You said Iran but then you said walking away on --
QUESTION: Well, first --
MR TONER: Sorry.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. He said he was worried that – he warned that if people reject – if the U.S. and Congress reject the Iran deal, some of our allies will walk away from the situation in Ukraine. And he said they’re already dicey and they’re already ready to say, well, we have done our part. Which allies is he referring to? Why are they reluctant --
MR TONER: You’re talking about this as in a part of the Thomson Reuters --
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. Part of the speech.
MR TONER: Okay. Look, I think he was just more broadly speaking – and he’s touched on this before – that if we fail to get this agreement – as I said, to cross the finish line – that it really undermines U.S. credibility. And as we’ve seen with Iran, the fact that we’ve been able to maintain uniformity on sanctions and rely on our partners and allies --
QUESTION: The Soleimani visit notwithstanding? (Laughter.)
MR TONER: With our allies and partners to keep the pressure on Iran. It brought them to the negotiating table and it helped us reach a deal. And what he’s speaking to more broadly, whether it’s Ukraine or other issues, that our credibility will take a hit if we don’t get this deal.
QUESTION: Yeah. With Ukraine, though, he said right now it’s already very dicey and some are reluctant, some are ready to walk away is what he kind of indicated. Which allies are reluctant and ready to walk away?
MR TONER: I’m not going to speak to that. We’ve had tremendous support with EU and with other allies and partners in the region in maintaining sanctions. And frankly, once Russia and the separatists it backs complies with the Minsk agreements, then we can have and talk about real sanctions relief.
Please, very quickly.
QUESTION: On Syria, today yet new reports that say that this new zone, ISIL-free zone, YPG forces or PYD forces will not be allowed in that zone. Would you be able to confirm that?
MR TONER: I can’t confirm that.
QUESTION: And can you also tell me what’s your understanding with regards to Ahrar Al Sham opposition group? Do you think these opposition forces can be a group that can seize or secure this new zone once the ISIL will be freed?
MR TONER: I’m sorry. You’re talking specific --
QUESTION: Ahrar Al Sham.
MR TONER: I’d have to look into that group.
MR TONER: But we’ve talked about what we want to see on the ground, which is stability, security, but also local government’s return and create a safe and secure environment for people.
Please, just a couple Asian press. Are you – yeah.
QUESTION: I have two question. Yesterday, Japanese central government begin to talk with the Okinawa governor over the continuous – the plan to relocate a U.S. Marine air base to the Henoko Nago. The two sides had remained as far apart as ever. So what does the U.S. Government expect at the conference? And also same day, the U.S. army helicopter crashed in Okinawa during a training mission. So Japanese Government and Okinawa Governor Onaga has requested the information of the accident. So what is – do you think the accident would impact the conference?
MR TONER: First of all, on the accident, we’re obviously aware of reports that a U.S. Army helicopter had a hard landing, what they call it, aboard the U.S. Naval Ship Red Cloud that was in international waters off Okinawa. Certainly our thoughts and prayers are with the injured crewmembers and obviously their families. I refer you to the Department of Defense as to whether there will be an investigation into that incident and for further information in general. But we’re confident both sides, speaking more broadly to your question about Futenma, remain committed to implementing the relocation of Marine Corps air station Futenma to Camp Schwab at Henoko Bay.
Guys, I have to – I’m sorry, guys. I have to cut it off there. I apologize.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:59 p.m.)
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