Daily Press Briefing
Daily Press Briefing
January 8, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing
MIDDLE EAST PEACE
2:14 p.m. EST
MR KIRBY: Happy Friday, everybody. Just one thing at the top here. I just want to make mention of the town of Madaya. We've talked about it a couple – the last couple of days. But we continue to track closely the developments there in Madaya where nearly 42,000 residents remain at risk of hunger and starvation. The UN said yesterday, and I think we talked about this as well, that it had received credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed while trying to leave.
Madaya is emblematic of regime behavior throughout Syria. And we urge the Assad regime to fulfill immediately its stated pledge, which you may have seen this morning, to lift its siege and to allow humanitarian access not just to Madaya but to a town called Foah and another town called Kefraya as well as many other towns throughout Syria that are suffering at the hands of the Assad regime. We're looking for actions not words. The regime's record of broken promises on humanitarian access must stop now.
We also urge Russia to use its influence with the Assad regime to get the regime to allow immediate and unfettered humanitarian assistance to reach those in need on an ongoing basis. It can't be a one-off. Relief organizations should not have to argue over every little bit of access to help saves people's lives. And of course, it's unacceptable that these conditions are created in the first place.
To bring an end to this and to other daily horrors imposed on Syrians, we remain committed – and this underscores the need – to keep advancing a negotiated political transition in Syria that stops the violence and ends the conflict. And so while we certainly have – there's an immediate need of humanitarian access to people in need, there's also an urgent need for the conditions that create that to stop. It's not just enough that humanitarian organizations get to these places. The kind of abuse that they're being – that they have – that they're being forced to endure needs to stop. And then thirdly, again, it's all the more reason why the political process, the Vienna process, getting a political transition in Syria, needs to continue and needs to go – and needs to continue unabated.
So with that, Matt.
QUESTION: Right. Can we start with the latest email release? And before getting into the substance of it, I want to – this – I don't want you to take this as a complaint, although I know you probably will.
MR KIRBY: I --
QUESTION: It's more of a --
MR KIRBY: I very rarely take your observations as complaints, Matt. I --
QUESTION: It's more of an --
MR KIRBY: I view them as constructive criticism.
QUESTION: -- as an observatory question which is, I think everybody in this rooms understands the concept of a deadline except maybe – at least everyone on this side.
MR KIRBY: Except maybe the State Department?
QUESTION: Everyone on this side of the podium probably does. (Laughter.) But the deadline for these emails to be released was New Year's Eve, and I --
QUESTION: The court-ordered deadline.
QUESTION: The court-ordered deadline, right, was New Year's Eve. And you had missed it, and the court said okay, just come up whenever – you had an agreement with the court that it was okay that you had missed the deadline. But it was supposed to be yesterday. First it was 4 o'clock, then it was 4:00 to 6:00, then it was 6:00 to 10:00, then it was 11:45, and then finally 2:00 a.m.
MR KIRBY: Forcing deadline.
QUESTION: Forcing – well, yeah, not much of one. But anyway, what was going on? And --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, sure. Look, it's a fair question. I can – first of all, let me apologize for the inconvenience caused by the continued delays last night. That was certainly not something we wanted to see happen. First of all, I mean, we would have preferred, obviously, to meet the court-ordered deadline by the 31st, obviously. And when we couldn't --
QUESTION: If you missed it by that much, why not just wait until like 8:00 a.m? I mean, is the judge involved sitting up like I was hitting refresh constantly from 6:00 to 10:00?
MR KIRBY: Well, I don't – I mean, what – but if he was, wouldn't --
QUESTION: Was he?
MR KIRBY: Wouldn't you want him to --
QUESTION: I mean, did he – did he --
QUESTION: You don't look refreshed, Matt. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I know. That's why, because I was hitting refresh all night. I just want to know. I mean --
MR KIRBY: Even if he is up all night, he doesn't look refreshed.
QUESTION: Was it an agreement with the judge that you were gonna – you had to do this by 2:00 a.m.? I mean, why couldn't it have waited until 7:00 or 8:00 a.m.? If you're that late – a week already late and then hours and hours late – why do it at 2:00?
MR KIRBY: Well, so let me --
QUESTION: All right.
MR KIRBY: Let me –
QUESTION: I'll let you (inaudible).
MR KIRBY: Let me start again. (Laughter.) We do apologize for the inconvenience of the sliding deadlines. That was not intentional. Certainly when we put out the original estimates, they were done in good faith and we wanted to make sure you were kept informed which is why, when they changed over a period of time, we kept updating you so that you could make a decision about whether to go to bed or not. Obviously, you didn't.
QUESTION: Well, I did make the decision and it wasn't to go to bed.
MR KIRBY: Okay. Obviously, you didn't go to bed. What I can tell you is as we worked through these, there were – we found cases where doing the quality control check that there were some duplicates in there. And we wanted to continue to search the entire batch to make sure that we got all those duplicates out. So it took some time because this is all being done on paper, the original searches. So it just took a lot – it took a lot longer than we wanted it to. And again, we regret the inconvenience for that.
It was important for us – the reason why last night mattered was because last night was also the deadline to the court for our filing. So you have a court-ordered deadline to get the documents out. We also every month have to submit a report to the court. That deadline was yesterday. And we wanted to, when we submitted that report, we wanted to be able to say in that report we know we missed the 31st --
QUESTION: All right.
MR KIRBY: -- but by the time of us giving you this report, we completed our task, we got it out. And so that's why we were working so diligently to get it out and why we didn't want to delay it any further. It was not at all – and I know, I understand the perceptions here. It was not at all an effort to make it harder for you to cover the story or for – to go through the documents. It was really to try to meet as best we could in good faith the requirements set forth by the court.
QUESTION: That was an unintended bonus for you though, right? It may have not been the intention --
MR KIRBY: Well, I can neither confirm or deny whether I enjoy the fact that you get --
MR KIRBY: -- sometimes inconvenienced or grumpy. (Laughter.) But it was not --
QUESTION: Okay, all right. Well, let's go to the substance of this.
QUESTION: Can I ask one more thing about that? Did you get from the court any kind of an agreement to release it today rather than by midnight?
MR KIRBY: No. No, as Matt said, I mean, we made – we were very honest and upfront with the court in December that we weren't going to get to the 82 percent. Now, we did with last night's tranche. But no, there was not a separate understanding that it had to – that the bulk, that the remainder had to go with the filing of our report. That was an internal deadline we gave ourselves to say hey, we know we have to file this report on Thursday, we'd like to be able to in the process of doing it say we caught up.
QUESTION: Okay, got it.
MR KIRBY: So it was all – it was all on us. It was all on us.
QUESTION: Can we go to the substance now of some of these emails? And particularly one that's attracted a lot of attention is this exchange between former Secretary Clinton and Jake Sullivan on June 16th through the 17th of 2011 in which one of them, she, tells Jake to – that if they – if she can't get a secure fax through or if there's a problem with a secure fax going through, she asks him would he remove the header, make it a non-paper, and email it to her on her private server.
Do you know what this is about? They appear to be – appear to have been talking points for a telephone conversation she was going to have with Senator Cardin. But I'm looking to you to see if you can confirm that and also to ask whether or not this is an issue, a problematic – a problem for the State Department.
MR KIRBY: So on the first part of your question, I do not know. I don't know anything more about the document in question or the email traffic than what you do, having seen it. So I don't have additional context on it. And as I've said many times, I'm not – I am going to continue to refrain from speaking to specific content here or former Secretary Clinton's email practices. That's not – that's not our role right now.
The second part of your question, it was about whether it's a problem. Can you – can you be more specific about what you mean by that?
QUESTION: Well, I mean, yeah. It would – some, including Senator Grassley, say that this suggests that former Secretary Clinton was asking her deputy chief of staff to remove potentially classified information from what was to be a secure fax and put it into an email that was – that would be sent unclassified into her private server. Would that be a violation of State Department rules if that was the case? I mean, first of all, is that the case? Is that what was happening here?
MR KIRBY: I don't know that it's the case. And as you know, I'm not going to talk about former Secretary Clinton's email practices. That's not our role here, not least of which also those practices are under review and investigation, so it wouldn't be appropriate for me to talk about that. And as for the intention, the motivation, I simply wouldn't have that information.
QUESTION: Well --
QUESTION: Can I ask just some really simple things about this?
QUESTION: Do you have any reason to believe that the document in question, the talking points, was classified?
MR KIRBY: I have no way of knowing that. I have absolutely no way of knowing that. Two – but two points I'd like to make on this. First is we actually did search the entire collection – 55,000 pages that we've talked about – and could find no evidence and no indication that the talking points, the documents in question in that email was emailed to Secretary Clinton. So we did do some forensics on that and found no evidence that it was actually emailed to her.
The second point that I would make – and again, I am not making a judgment on this case, because I'm not going to speak to her practices and I'm not going to speak to content – but it is not uncommon, it's not atypical for documents – unclassified documents to be created, crafted, edited, shared on a classified system. It's perfectly okay. You just – to write something unclassified on a classified system and share it around for editing and distribution. So there's just no way of knowing, but – in this particular case, but it is not – just because something is on – a document is on a classified system doesn't necessarily make the document, the content necessarily classified.
QUESTION: Right. So the mere fact that there was an effort to send the document via secure fax does not imply that it was necessarily a classified document?
MR KIRBY: There's no way to know that. The short answer to your question is no, it does not necessarily convey conviction that the document was classified. But if something exists on a classified system, unless you convert it over to an unclassified system, you have to keep transmitting it on classified networks.
MR KIRBY: Does that make sense?
QUESTION: Yeah, I get that. And then one other question. Does the Secretary of State have the authority themselves – and I think this goes to where the information originates – but doesn't the Secretary of State have the authority to declassify something if the information in the document is entirely generated within the State Department, it's within their purview, there are no other government equities involved? Can't the State – the Secretary of State simply decide to declassify something if they wish? If it had been --
MR KIRBY: The agency has the ability, as we've talked about before, if it's something internal, it doesn't need – there's no interagency equities. It can certainly do that. It's not done lightly, and it's usually not done unilaterally by any individual. It's usually – there is a process as well inside the – inside an agency there's a process that is followed to declassify material. But is it possible? Yes. But there's usually a process associated with it, and it's not something that we've – that anybody takes lightly.
QUESTION: I don't understand why – how you can say that there is no way to tell whether this information was classified. Can't you just find the talking points?
MR KIRBY: There's – as I said to Arshad, there's no evidence that --
QUESTION: In the email.
MR KIRBY: -- there's no evidence that the document was sent to former Secretary Clinton over email.
QUESTION: I know.
MR KIRBY: And we don't have a record of the actual document.
QUESTION: And in fact it's – so the hard copy that was faxed to her is just gone?
MR KIRBY: I can't – I can't tell you that the hard copy was faxed to her. I – we simply don't – we don't have --
QUESTION: Did you --
QUESTION: Are you looking into this? I mean, this is the question that Senator Grassley's asking.
MR KIRBY: As I said – as I said, we searched everything, couldn't find any indication that it was --
QUESTION: I – you couldn't find that it --
QUESTION: You searched the email.
QUESTION: You didn't say you searched the archives or anywhere else for the actual document.
MR KIRBY: Well, obviously we'll continue to do whatever searches are necessary. What I can tell you at this point in time on this particular day, we have found no indication that the document was emailed to former Secretary Clinton. Now, if it – there are other ways it could have found its way to her for her use. We've found no evidence that over email, unclassified email, that it was sent to her.
QUESTION: John, by telling us that you have made a diligent effort to determine whether or not this document was sent to Secretary Clinton and you have found no evidence that it was, aren't you in effect discussing the substance of her email archive?
MR KIRBY: No. First of all --
QUESTION: Or you're only discussing the absence of certain substance from the archive?
MR KIRBY: First of all, I said we found no evidence – indication that it was emailed to her, not sent to her.
MR KIRBY: And I don't know anything more about the content of the attachment, if you will, or of the email traffic, than you do. And that's not our role here, James. Our role here is very specifically to make these documents public and to do so in a responsible way.
QUESTION: You are aware that some of your predecessors at the podium have indeed addressed the substance of the emails and defended Secretary Clinton's email practices. Am I correct about that?
MR KIRBY: I'll leave that to your judgment in terms of --
QUESTION: Are you aware of that or not?
MR KIRBY: I'm not, actually. I was at a different podium then and focused on other issues. I can only speak for what --
QUESTION: Okay. But I just want to get to your ground rules here for a moment, because when you tell us "we have found no evidence that this was emailed to her," then you're telling us that there's no evidence that this is contained in the body of the – of her archive, right, of emails? Is that correct?
MR KIRBY: Correct.
QUESTION: Okay. So if you're telling us what's not in the body of archives of the emails, then you are getting to the substance of the archive, aren't you?
MR KIRBY: No, I'm not talking about – I'm talking --
QUESTION: You're only willing to discuss things that are absent from the archive?
MR KIRBY: No, James, what I'm saying is knowing that this was going to be an issue of discussion today, we did – we prudently looked to see, in the entire collection of 55,000 pages, if that document was in fact emailed, and we found no indication that it was. Now, that's the 55,000 documents that we are going through. So look, if it were to turn up somewhere else in some other form, in some other cache that we don't know about, well, then we'll have to deal with it. But right now we are – all we have to go on is the 55,000 pages of email traffic that former Secretary Clinton handed over. That's our task. We have a very specific role here – court-ordered – to go through those and make those public. I am not – in saying that, I'm trying to show that we're trying to be as diligent as possible. I am not talking about the physical content of what was in that document.
QUESTION: Right. If I can make a rough analogy here, John, if there were a painting of a set of fire hydrants, and you were telling us that you refuse to discuss the content of the painting, but you are assuredly telling us we know for a fact there is no depiction of a cat in that fire – in that painting of a fire – of several fire hydrants, aren't you in effect discussing the contents of the painting?
MR KIRBY: No. I'm telling you what's not in the painting.
QUESTION: Do you --
QUESTION: What else isn't in the emails, John?
QUESTION: Yeah, tell us what else isn't in the emails?
QUESTION: What else isn't there?
MR KIRBY: So the next – so the lesson for me is the next time I come up here is to --
QUESTION: Script for the new Star Wars movie?
MR KIRBY: Huh?
MR KIRBY: So the lesson for me then is to not be as forthcoming as I possibly can without getting into specific content. So that's what you'd like to see the next time we do this?
QUESTION: Can I --
QUESTION: No, I'd like to see you follow your own rules, and if you're telling us what's not in the archive, you should be prepared to tell us what is.
MR KIRBY: I have consistently --
QUESTION: They're the flip side of the coin.
QUESTION: I have consistently, James, refrained, as I will continue to refrain, from discussing former Secretary Clinton's email practices or the specific content in the actual traffic. You can see for yourself what is or what isn't there, and frankly, I don't know anything more about that traffic than you do. I didn't see that email until – well, actually I didn't stay up until 2 o'clock.
QUESTION: Did you – two more and I'll --
QUESTION: You didn't?
MR KIRBY: But I didn't see them until you did.
QUESTION: -- I'll wrap up here. Do you know whether anyone in this building has referred the matter of this particular email to the Department of Justice for further investigation?
MR KIRBY: I do not know that. You'd have to refer --
QUESTION: Are you concerned that there is a violation of law here?
MR KIRBY: That is not our role. Our role is to work through the process to make these public and to do so in a responsible way, obeying the Freedom of Information Act, and that law. As I said at the outset, the practices themselves are matters of review and investigation, not by the State Department, and so it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it.
QUESTION: And lastly, when you took this job, did you undertake no effort to familiarize yourself with the postures of your predecessors on various pressing issues, such as Secretary Clinton's email practices?
MR KIRBY: I made as much of an effort as I could to try to learn the State Department, and I --
QUESTION: So you're familiar with what your predecessor said?
MR KIRBY: I did a lot of reading, sure. But look, I didn't study every single press conference transcript, and I can't speak for what my predecessors did or didn't do, as talented and as capable as they are and they were. I can only do it the way I know how to do it and the way I believe it should be done, and that's what I'm doing.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: So in some respects, though, it doesn't really matter how she ended up getting these talking points. I mean, it could have been faxed to her. You could have had some guy bring it over in a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, or a carrier pigeon for that matter. The point that I think that Senator Grassley and others are asking about or trying to make is that in this email, she asked her aide to strip off the heading of a – something that was going to be sent on a secure fax, and turn it into a non-paper, and then their implication – the critics' implication – is that that is to disguise it, what might have been classified information, and then send it to her on her email. So is that a concern of the Department, that this is – this might have been an attempt to skirt the rules of classification?
MR KIRBY: Once again, our role is to make these documents public, not to make judgments about the content of them or the practices. That's not our role. There are --
QUESTION: But you're making judgments about the content of them all the time. That's what you do when you redact them; when you go through and review them, you judge whether --
MR KIRBY: That's appropriate security-related work that has to be done because of the law. The law makes that so. It's not because we're making some subjective decision that, well, we don't want Matt Lee to know about this, so let's just redact it. There's a law that says that certain information --
QUESTION: Well, sometimes it feels that way.
MR KIRBY: Well, if I had my way. (Laughter.) But no, there's a law that governs these redactions, Matt.
QUESTION: I know, but there's also a law that governs classification.
MR KIRBY: We don't make that stuff up.
QUESTION: I know you don't.
MR KIRBY: And we're not making subjective judgments about the practices that the former secretary used in how she communicated with her staff. That's not our job. It's not our role here. And we're not making subjective judgments about the content of the traffic, except to say that we have a very, very – as you guys know better than me, a very rigorous, thorough --
MR KIRBY: -- and sometimes slow process to redact them appropriately for public consumption. That's our job.
QUESTION: "Sometimes slow" is an understatement, but --
MR KIRBY: These practices – this issue is under several reviews and investigations. You guys know that.
QUESTION: Right, okay. But whose job is it, then, to determine whether the rules or the laws governing classification --
MR KIRBY: It would be those who are investigating this. They have to make those determinations. That's not for the State Department to do.
QUESTION: So the State Department never makes any judgments about whether the rules of classification have been broken?
MR KIRBY: Of course. We make judgments about classification every day on any number of documents and traffic that we communicate with now, right now. But in terms of former Secretary Clinton's practices and the content of that traffic, those are issues under review and investigation and wouldn't be appropriate for us to speak to it.
QUESTION: All right.
QUESTION: John, did you decide to check the information in this one email was not sent by email because it was a red flag to you yourselves, or just because you thought we'd ask about it today?
MR KIRBY: I think it certainly – we noticed this particular traffic and --
QUESTION: But during the process of preparing them or after people started saying "Ooh, this one looks a bit dodgy"?
MR KIRBY: No, during the process. It wasn't the "whoo" watching your coverage, no.
MR KIRBY: I mean, it was, it was something that we had already done.
QUESTION: No, because you seemed to imply before it was because you were going to get questions about it today.
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, we carefully --
QUESTION: So what I'm going – getting to is when you saw that email, someone must have thought, "Oh, I hope you didn't send that by email."
MR KIRBY: Sure, sure. There was appropriate staff work done to see. That's what diligence is all about. That's what we're – that's why we're working so hard. And that kind of thoroughness and completeness is one reason why it sometimes can be a slower process than you or I would like.
QUESTION: So just to clarify one last point, you don't necessarily vouch for the accuracy of all the statements made from this podium by your predecessors about Secretary Clinton's email practices?
MR KIRBY: James, I can appreciate why you'd like me to comment specifically on remarks made by previous spokesmen at the State Department. I can't do that. I simply have not read every word that was uttered --
QUESTION: So the answer to my question is no, you cannot vouch for the accuracy of your predecessors' statements on this issue.
MR KIRBY: I can only and ever will only vouch for the veracity of what I try to communicate from this podium. I simply haven't read every word. I wouldn't do that. We have --
QUESTION: So it's possible that some of those statements are now inoperative.
MR KIRBY: James, I don't know, because I don't know what comments you're talking about. And I'm not doing a judgment on – not only am I not doing a judgment on the email traffic itself, I'm in no position and nor would I do a judgment on what's been said from this podium prior to me getting here. All I know is my job, and my job is to communicate to you how seriously Secretary Kerry is taking the court-ordered process of making these documents public. And that's what our focus is on.
QUESTION: So because it's under investigation and because you make no judgments about the substance of the archive, you yourself are not in a position to discount the possibility that Secretary Clinton violated the law here?
MR KIRBY: That is not our role. That is not our role, James. Our role is to make these public so that you and the American people can see them.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Could I --
MR KIRBY: Samir.
QUESTION: New topic?
QUESTION: Can we – no, can we go to the IG report?
MR KIRBY: Is that a new – that's not – it's kind of related.
QUESTION: It's – well, it relates to your FOIA practices --
MR KIRBY: Sure, yeah.
QUESTION: -- and it specifically says, "These procedural weaknesses, coupled by" – "with a lack of oversight by leadership and failure to routinely search emails, appear to contribute to inaccurate and incomplete responses to FOIA requests." Do you have – and we have your – the on-the-record comment that you provided earlier.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Do you have anything else to say about how you plan going forward to ensure that you get the resources necessary and that you oversee the processes in a sufficiently rigorous manner that your efforts won't be judged incomplete and inaccurate?
MR KIRBY: Well, I thought my statement was pretty eloquent. It's hard to improve on that, I think. But look, we – as I said yesterday, we appreciate the work that the IG did. Secretary Kerry specifically asked for that. We have accepted unilaterally every recommendation that the IG made because we believe they're right. We know we don't get it – we know we have a lot of work to improve, and we're committed to doing that. So we're already implementing all the recommendations. And as you probably saw in the report, the IG considers them "resolved" because they have seen that we are already taking steps to implement these improvements.
And yes, to your other question, we are taking active steps, mainly in the sense of resourcing, and we are in the midst of hiring. Now, we haven't met our whole goal of 50-some-odd-plus additional employees for the FOIA office, but we're getting there – about halfway through that – and we're going to continue to hire additional resources and manpower.
Because, look, bottom line is aside from the fact that qualitatively we know we can do better in terms of FOIA response, quantitatively, we've got a challenge. I mean, I – and we've talked about this before: a threefold increase in several years over FOIA requests in general. There's just more of them. And because we want to take them seriously, because we want to be thorough, the more you have, the harder it is to get them out on time.
So it's a long answer to a very good question, but the bottom line is, yes, we know we have more to do, and we are applying extra resources to get it done.
QUESTION: One other follow-up on the 50: Is that the 50 that we've talked about before --
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: -- from last year?
MR KIRBY: No, it's the same.
QUESTION: So those are retransferred – those are – those were – that was an effort, as I recall, to transfer people from elsewhere within State to the FOIA office, correct?
MR KIRBY: Some are – some are --
QUESTION: It wasn't new hires?
MR KIRBY: Some are details from other places --
MR KIRBY: -- and some could be outside hires.
QUESTION: Okay. But it's the --
MR KIRBY: We're working --
QUESTION: But it's the same 50? It's not – we're not talking about an additional 50 or --
MR KIRBY: That's correct.
MR KIRBY: It's the same exact manpower plus-up that we've discussed before.
QUESTION: Thank you, yeah.
MR KIRBY: But we're not there yet.
QUESTION: I get it.
MR KIRBY: I mean, we're still working on the original --
QUESTION: You said you're halfway.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, yeah.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Samir. I'm sorry, Samir.
QUESTION: What is the U.S. reaction to reports that the Israel minister of defense on Wednesday approved the creation of a 10-acre settlement in the West Bank?
MR KIRBY: We are deeply concerned about the minister of defense's decision to expand the existing settlement boundary of the Gush Etzion Regional Council to include a former church compound, which effectively creates a new settlement on 10 acres in the West Bank. It's important to note that some 70 percent of the West Bank's Area C has already been unilaterally designated as Israeli state land, or within the boundaries of these regional settlement councils.
The new decision only expands this significant majority of the West Bank that has already been claimed for exclusive Israeli use. Along with the regular retroactive legalization of unauthorized outposts and construction of infrastructure in remote settlements, actions such as this decision clearly undermine the possibility of a two-state solution.
And Samir, as you know, our longstanding position on settlement activity is clear and has not changed. We view it as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace. Continued settlement activity and expansion raises honest questions about Israel's long-term intentions and will only make achieving a two-state solution that much more difficult. As we've previously made clear, we continue to look at both sides to demonstrate with actions and policies a genuine commitment to a two-state solution, and actions such as yesterday's decision, we believe, does just the opposite.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Wait, yesterday's or Wednesday's?
MR KIRBY: My point – Wednesday.
QUESTION: But can I just follow up very quickly on this issue? What about the – those who are purchasing these lands? There are – there seems to be American groups and American citizens that are buying this land or establish some sort of schemes through which they can buy land and so on. There is a lot of wealthy Americans who are buying some of this land and financing the settlements. Do you have a position on that? I mean, do you have – do you call on, let's say, United States citizens who live in the United States that the purchase of land for the purpose of settlement expansion is a hindrance to peace or to the efforts or to would-be talks?
MR KIRBY: I would just say – I would just say two things, Said – that these donors are private citizens --
MR KIRBY: -- but this Administration, like every one before it since 1967, views settlement activity as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace. And the U.S. Government does not support any activity that would indicate otherwise, okay?
QUESTION: Okay. If I also may follow on a couple issues on the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation, I know I asked you on Wednesday about the excessive use of force, possible excessive use of force. I mean, just today, the Israelis shot with live ammunition 14 Palestinians throughout the West Bank, they attacked demonstrators, including Western demonstrators, including Americans, who were in support of the Palestinians with tear gas, many of them were injured, and so on. But you will not say that Israel is using an excessive use of force in quelling these demonstrations and these confrontations, despite the fact that you are aware that there are things that are very close – if you don't want to call them that way, but they look like so many executions and so on. So when will you at call – at what level will you say that this is really an excessive use of force that we will not accept?
MR KIRBY: I have been nothing but consistent, Said, that I'm not going to characterize every single act or every single word that's uttered. We've made clear to all sides what we want to see, which is tensions to go down, violence to stop, and innocent people allowed to continue their lives. Now, look, in general, without speaking to any one act, of course we never want to see security forces in any country overreact to activities. But I'm not going to get into a situation where every act there we are making judgments about or characterizing. We've made it very clear to leaders on all sides what we want to see happen here. People need to be able to go about their lives on all sides of this and to live peacefully, and that's what we want to see. And the violence that continues is doing nothing to get us there. It's certainly not doing anything to get us to a point where you can legitimately begin to talk about pursuing a two-state solution.
QUESTION: Including easing up on the checkpoints? I mean --
MR KIRBY: Again, I'm not going to --
QUESTION: -- I'm sorry to bring in a personal issue, but I was talking to my newspaper editors, and they were held up for like three, four hours today at the checkpoints. They couldn't get to the paper because of just at whim they hold them up for hours on end. I mean, what needs to be done? In your view, what needs to be done to ease the situation? You constantly speak of things that the Israelis can do to ease up the situation and make life somewhat more tolerable for the Palestinians.
MR KIRBY: We've said that leaders on all sides have a lot to do here, which is to take proactive steps to restore calm and to cease the violence, to allow innocent people to continue to live their lives, and to try to get us to a point where we can begin to work towards a two-state solution. That's a requirement for leaders on all sides of this, Said, and we've been very consistent and very clear about that.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Oh, wait. I just have two very brief ones on this. One, have you spoken to or been asked about the reports that an American citizen was one of the people who was indicted for the arson fire that killed a Palestinian family? And if you haven't been asked about it, could you --
MR KIRBY: I have not been asked about it, but now that I have, I cannot --
QUESTION: You're not going to say anything.
MR KIRBY: I cannot comment due to privacy considerations.
QUESTION: Oh, my favorite. Okay. All right, well, that's out of the way.
And then secondly, is there any update on the cameras --
MR KIRBY: I'm guessing I'm not going to get a Christmas card from you next year, right?
QUESTION: Did you get one this year?
MR KIRBY: No, I didn't get one. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Just candy.
MR KIRBY: Now I know why.
QUESTION: Any update on the cameras – Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif?
MR KIRBY: I have no updates for you.
QUESTION: So --
MR KIRBY: But I do know that – I – technical discussions, as we understand them, are ongoing.
QUESTION: How long do you think those technical discussions are going to take?
MR KIRBY: I don't know.
QUESTION: Do you know when the last round of the technical discussions --
MR KIRBY: I don't know. You'd have to talk to --
QUESTION: It was like two weeks after --
MR KIRBY: -- to both parties.
QUESTION: I remember.
QUESTION: They were months ago. All right.
MR KIRBY: You'd have to talk to both parties.
MR KIRBY: Sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: Based on Vienna process and UN Security Council resolution, in your understanding, what role should or would President Assad play by the end of the six months and after the formation of the transitional body by both sides?
MR KIRBY: We've talked about this, Michel. I don't – the exact role for Assad in the transition process has not been hammered out. It's one of the reasons why we want to see the talks go forward at the end of this month between the opposition and the regime, because we want the opposition to have a voice in this process and in these types of decisions. It's also why it's important for the Vienna process under the ISSG to continue to discuss this as a body and to move forward. But the bottom line is there's been no final decisions about the length of time that Assad would remain in power or what his role in a transition would be.
Clearly – and this is the most important point, as we've said before – he cannot be part of the long-term future of Syria, and that we're looking for a government that can be responsive to and responsible for the Syrian people. And clearly that's not his government.
QUESTION: But when the document published by AP talking about President Assad and his inner circle leaving by March 2017.
MR KIRBY: We've – I've addressed this before.
QUESTION: Yeah, but how can we say that he won't play any role after the six months and after the formation of the transitional body and at the same time talking about him leaving in 2017?
MR KIRBY: We've talked about this before. Two things. It's a working-level staff document. It's not an official U.S. policy document. And there is a – there is – and I wouldn't talk about specific milestones inside the process, but you don't have to look any further than the last communique coming out of Vienna as for sort of the rough outlines about what this would look like. So six months after the beginning of negotiations, a target would be – six months after – to begin to work on the process of drafting a constitution which would take targeted – targeted, okay, not definite – about a year, after which another six months or so to get to some kind of national elections. Targeted. Everybody recognizes that it's hard to be perfectly predictive in a specific way about this.
What Assad does inside that timeframe we don't know right now, and what role he plays we don't know right now. That's why it's important for the political process – going back to my opening statement on humanitarian access – that's another reason why this process is so important. It's why the UN codified it in that Security Council resolution before Christmas, and it's why the Secretary continues to believe that the ISSG must play a role in moving through these issues and trying to get at some sort of sense of consensus of exactly what Assad's future is going to be in terms of the political process. I mean, obviously the transition – obviously, we don't believe he could be part of the future of Syria. But the short answer is that the international community has not resolved that issue yet. And the Secretary, I can assure you, is going to stay committed to working on that this year.
QUESTION: A follow-on on Syria?
QUESTION: Do you have any definition of what is the inner circle of – when they say Assad and the inner circle, what does that mean in your view or in – in your understanding?
MR KIRBY: I don't have an organization chart that would --
QUESTION: Is it members of his family, his brothers, his cabinet, heads of agencies and so on?
MR KIRBY: I think it's generally referring to those who are deemed his closest and most trusted advisors. But who they are, I don't have a list of that, Said.
QUESTION: Okay. And let me just ask you a follow-up question on the meeting on the 25th in Geneva. What is the role of the United States in that meeting? Could you --
MR KIRBY: This is a – this meeting is not an ISSG meeting.
QUESTION: I understand.
MR KIRBY: This is a meeting between the opposition groups and the regime, and it is being facilitated by the UN Special Envoy de Mistura. It is not intended for the nations or the organizations of the ISSG to be participants or to be in attendance. It's not the purpose of it.
QUESTION: So let me just rephrase the question. Will you give any kind of advisory role or will you be called on or will you be on standby to see how things evolve and so on?
MR KIRBY: No. Look, I can't rule out that we may – may not have a presence, but it's not to be – if – and I'm not saying that there will be. But it wouldn't be in any way to participate in that process or steer it or guide it. That is not the purpose of it.
Again, in keeping with the Vienna communique, we want a Syrian-led, Syrian-run transition process. And we want, and now we're grateful for, UN auspices over that process. And that's what needs to happen here on the 25th – the opposition meeting with the regime under UN auspices, not with interference or steering by the ISSG. That's not how it's been constructed.
QUESTION: And finally on Syria, on the Madaya siege, do you have any like late information on the number of killed and starvation and (inaudible)?
MR KIRBY: No. As I said, the estimates are 42,000 people there --
QUESTION: Under siege?
MR KIRBY: -- that are being – yeah, that are falling victim to hunger and starvation, but I don't have an exact figure as to how many have died from that. I mean, we've all seen the images, and I understand they're difficult to look at, and I don't – I can't tell you exactly from where the photos were taken, but we have no reason to suspect that they aren't of Syrian people that are literally dying for lack of sustenance and nutrition. And to use that, to use starvation as a tool of war, as I said the other day, is utterly despicable and it needs to stop. And we are looking for actions, not words. So while it's nice to hear that access will be granted, what really matters is that it is granted and that that aid and assistance can get there unfettered, and as I said in my opening statement, over a sustained period of time.
QUESTION: John, following up on the Secretary's comments yesterday again on Syria, he said that Iran and Saudi Arabia had said they wouldn't stand in the way or interfere with the January 25th talks in Geneva. Do they need to be any part of it? Do you need them behind the scenes?
MR KIRBY: No. As I said to Said's question, this is – this is an issue between the opposition groups and the regime. That's the way it's been set up from the beginning – again, in keeping with the Vienna communique. Now, we want, obviously, Minister – Special Envoy de Mistura, Staffan de Mistura, to be there because this is all under UN auspices, as it should be. But this is not a meeting. It's not a foreign – it's not a ministerial meeting of the ISSG. Secretary Kerry won't be there, and we don't expect that foreign ministers of any other nation in the ISSG will be there.
What was reassuring for the Secretary to hear from leaders in Saudi and Iran is that they would not let the tensions now between them get in the way of making sure that meeting happens.
QUESTION: And has Iraq made any headway in its efforts to mediate between the two that it said it would carry out?
MR KIRBY: I think you should ask Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi Government.
QUESTION: I was hoping they'd kept you in the loop.
MR KIRBY: But I mean, look, I – we've made clear our view that mediation is not what's required here; bilateral discussions and conversation and dialogue is what needs to happen, and we want these nations to work this out together. I won't speak for what another nation, third-party nation, might attempt to do or try to do or how successfully they might be at it. I know of no – let me put it this way. I know of no mediation progress that's been made.
QUESTION: Can I pivot to another issue? The HPSCI and SSCI, the House Homeland and Intelligence Committee chairmen have both come out again and attacked the refugee program because two refugees were detained, were arrested by the FBI, allegedly for wanting to join ISIS or being part of ISIS. Has this caused you to relook the program again or add anything to your evaluation process that's going on right now?
MR KIRBY: We're always looking at the program, as I said. We've talked – we're always looking for ways to improve it. If – I can't speak to – for very good reason I can't speak to specific cases and I won't, but I can tell you that we're always looking for ways to improve the process. Nothing is more important to the Secretary than making sure that the – that we here at the State Department do our part to ensure the safety and security of the American people. And we take that very seriously, and he has made it clear here in the building that he wants his leadership to constantly review policies and measures, in particular for the refugee program, to make sure that it's as stringent as it can possibly be. It already is. It takes 18 to 24 months for a refugee to get into the United States. There is a rigorous screening and vetting process that they must undergo. And as we've said before, refugees from Syria in particular are even reviewed with more scrutiny than anybody else.
So without speaking to specific cases, what I will say is that if additional information from whatever source should come to our attention that would bring to light ways in which we can improve, we'll do that. And we're not going to wait for some formal review to be done to do it, or an investigation to be complete. If we get additional information – in whatever process, in whatever case that might be – that can help us get better, we're going to do it.
QUESTION: Does that mean that that hasn't happened in this – in these most recent incidents?
MR KIRBY: Well, again --
QUESTION: If they have not – the recent incidents have not --
MR KIRBY: Just happened.
QUESTION: I know. But that hasn't triggered some kind of a review, because you're saying --
MR KIRBY: I'm not aware of any --
QUESTION: -- the review is constant.
MR KIRBY: I'm not aware of any additional measures or additional reviews that have been borne out of these most recent cases. But obviously, as I'm sure you understand, I can't talk about specifics.
QUESTION: In Syria, a follow-up to the political process, please?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah. I mean --
QUESTION: I'm sorry, can I ask one more just on this? You've said that Syrians seeking to – refugee status in the United States get more scrutiny than anybody else. Are you considering increasing the scrutiny given to Iraqis since the two latest incidents concern Iraqi citizens who sought --
MR KIRBY: I think this gets to my answer to Matt. I'm not aware of any specific changes that have been considered or implemented over the last 24 hours. But, as I said to Kim, if in any case or through any process we gain insight or information that can help us do this better, we're going to take it on board and do it.
QUESTION: Yes. Regarding the political process and the expected meeting on January 25th, and you are mentioning opposition and Syria – Syria regime, let's call it. Do you have any say about the components of what the members who are going to sit there? Because this was a big talk, like, in the last few weeks, whether in Riyadh or in Amman, Jordan, regarding who is going to attend the meeting from the opposition. Is it classified?
MR KIRBY: It's not for the United States to decide. As we talked about after Riyadh, the opposition formed a – what they call a high negotiating committee, which selected the members that they want – that they were going to be the actual negotiators. They've – as far as I know, they've made some of those decisions. I don't know what they are, and we're not imposing ourselves into that decision-making process.
QUESTION: You are not – you don't have any say about who is coming from Damascus or who is coming from (inaudible)?
MR KIRBY: These are decisions to be made by the high negotiating committee of the opposition.
QUESTION: John, on --
MR KIRBY: Janne.
QUESTION: On North Korea.
QUESTION: On this issue --
QUESTION: The same issue, or different?
MR KIRBY: I don't know. I'm beginning to think it doesn't really matter who I call on anymore. Go ahead. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: On the ISSG foreign --
MR KIRBY: As long as it's you.
QUESTION: Do you expect any meeting for the ISSG foreign ministers before the 25th?
MR KIRBY: I have nothing – no ISSG meetings or schedule to announce today.
QUESTION: Does it carry on a meeting from time to time, or is it on hold until we see how the --
MR KIRBY: I just don't have anything new to announce or with respect to the schedule for ISSG meetings. So – and when we do, I'll certainly pass it on. Obviously, the UN codified that process, and I think you will continue to see ISSG meetings and discussions going forward. I just don't have anything to announce today.
QUESTION: John --
QUESTION: Before we go to the North, real quick on – in the region, on Iran. Has the United States Government yet confirmed that Iran conducted a second illegal ballistic missile test on the 21st of November?
MR KIRBY: I have nothing new to speak to with respect to those reports. And as I said yesterday, I'm not going to get into intelligence matters here from the podium.
QUESTION: John, thank you. On North Korea, Secretary Kerry mentioned about the problems for North Korea policy in China. And also, the Secretary tried to pressure North Korea will in a different way. Would this be applied independently of pressure level in United States, or --
MR KIRBY: Independent pressure for --
QUESTION: Level, level, in U.S. or in sanctions work of UN dimension?
MR KIRBY: Are you asking if we're going to consider unilateral sanctions on North Korea?
QUESTION: Yes, by your own, U.S., own --
MR KIRBY: I wouldn't get ahead of decisions that haven't been made. There are some U.S. unilateral sanctions against North Korea. And as I said yesterday, we will continue to work with the Congress as to the best path forward using that tool. I don't have any decisions one way or the other to talk about today. But as I said over the last couple of days, we're not ruling anything in or out. What we most want to see, though, is increased international pressure applied on North Korea. And that is best pursued through the UN.
QUESTION: Yeah, but the U.S. already has existing sanctions against North Korea. It will be the additional sanctions you will --
MR KIRBY: Again, Janne, you're asking me to speculate on decisions that haven't been made yet. I mean, you know that when you have existing sanctions, you can intensify them; that's an option. You can create new ones; that's an option. You can take some of them off the table and recraft them altogether. None of those decisions have been made yet. There's been no final determination about the best path forward here, the appropriate measures that must be taken to continue to put pressure on the North. But I can assure you that everybody here is working that very hard, as I said yesterday. We will obviously consult with Congress. We understand many members of Congress are – have talked about considering additional sanctions, unilateral sanctions. We'll work with them towards that. But I have nothing specific to announce or to read out right now. And this just happened, and we're working our way through it.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan?
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Next week there will be a peace talk between Afghan and Taliban in Pakistan, and representatives from China, U.S., and Pakistan will attend. What is the expectation from the U.S. Government on this talk?
MR KIRBY: Well, look, I think you're talking about this quadrilateral meeting, yeah. We do plan to participate. It'll be an opportunity to further our partnership with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China in support of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation, which is what we've said all along we want to see. It's a good and significant follow-up to the Heart of Asia discussions that we talked about last month. And I'm not at this point able to identify or confirm a U.S. delegation, but obviously we will participate, and we're looking forward to the discussions. We're obviously looking forward to trying to make some progress here on what has been a very difficult issue.
QUESTION: So Mr. Olson will participate, right?
MR KIRBY: I said the United States looks forward to participating. I don't have any specific delegation members to announce or to speak to today.
QUESTION: So --
QUESTION: Deputy secretary --
QUESTION: Wait, so you are going to be sitting down with the Taliban?
MR KIRBY: We plan to participate in this quadrilateral meeting next week. No Taliban are going to be participating in this coordination meeting.
QUESTION: So this is just Afghanistan, Pakistan, China --
MR KIRBY: It's aimed at coordinating Afghan, Pakistani, Chinese, and U.S. efforts to set the conditions for peace in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: And no Taliban involved?
MR KIRBY: No Taliban involved.
QUESTION: Is Deputy Secretary Blinken attending, and if not, what – do you have anything on his itinerary to Asia?
MR KIRBY: Is he attending this? As I said, I have no delegation participation specifics to give you today with – the U.S. plans to participate. When I have more detail in terms of who exactly that is, we'll certainly tell you. The deputy secretary's trip to the Asia Pacific region is still being refined. Again, when we have more detail of where he's going to go and when he's going to be there, we'll announce it as we always do. All senior-level travel gets announced here. We'll do that appropriately. I just don't have additional details today.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on the disappearance of Hong Kong's booksellers and – followed by the removal of political works from the shelves?
MR KIRBY: I think I do.
We are disturbed by reports of the disappearances of five people associated with the Mighty Current publishing house and we share the concern of the people of Hong Kong regarding these disappearances. We're following the issue closely. We noted the January 4th statement by Hong Kong's chief executive expressing concerns about the potential implications of this case, and we share those concerns.
I've got time for really just one more.
QUESTION: John, can we go to Cuba?
MR KIRBY: Abbie.
QUESTION: There have been reports that there's a Hellfire missile that has somehow made its way to Cuba. I was wondering if you are – can say where that missile is now or who is in possession of it, and if it's been a part of the normalization talks.
MR KIRBY: I am restricted under federal law and regulations from comment on specific defense trade licensing cases and compliance matters, Abbie. What I can say is that under the Arms Export Control Act, the State Department licenses both permanent and temporary exports by U.S. companies of regulated defense articles. U.S. companies are responsible for documenting their proposed shipping logistics in this – in the application of the export license, as well as U.S. companies are responsible for reporting any shipping deviations to the department as appropriate. I'm afraid that's as far as I can go on this.
QUESTION: Can you confirm that the State Department was notified in June of 2014 about the absence of the missile?
MR KIRBY: I'm not at liberty to comment further.
QUESTION: Can I --
QUESTION: But you're not suggesting that you actually sold this to the Cubans, are you?
MR KIRBY: I'm not at liberty to comment further. As I said --
QUESTION: What? Are you in a --
MR KIRBY: I'm restricted under law from commenting on specific defense trade licensing cases.
QUESTION: Well, why can't – I don't understand why you can't say no, we didn't sell this to the Cubans; it got there by accident – by mistake.
MR KIRBY: I've commented as far as I can go.
QUESTION: So you want to leave open the possibility that the U.S. Government sold or gave a Hellfire missile intentionally to the Government of Cuba?
MR KIRBY: I've commented on this as far as I can go, Matt.
QUESTION: Can I go back quickly to North Korea? Yesterday Secretary Kerry mentioned here that he was trying to urge China to play a bigger role against North Korea and that China's way was not working. So would you be able to share what China's response was to that? Because the readout was, like, very bland, and there was nothing to it.
MR KIRBY: You're criticizing our readouts?
MR KIRBY: Man, this is a tough crowd today. I don't find them bland. I find them quite substantive, and I really liked it. So I'm not really sure that I agree with your --
QUESTION: Well, I think Secretary Kerry's comments were more --
MR KIRBY: -- the homework you're giving here.
QUESTION: -- substantive, but what was the China – what was China's reaction to that?
MR KIRBY: I would – you should ask officials in Beijing what reaction they might have. I can't speak for the Chinese, and I wouldn't – I wouldn't do so. I think the Secretary was very clear yesterday about how he sees this moving forward, and I've said myself that we obviously want to see China exert its leadership and its influence in Pyongyang in a positive, constructive way, to get us at a better condition there on the peninsula.
QUESTION: Well, in the readout it says that they kind of agreed to take the appropriate action. So does that mean that China is agreeing to the fact that --
MR KIRBY: I won't speak.
QUESTION: -- their framework is not working?
MR KIRBY: I think I'm going to let the readout speak for itself, and I'm not going to speak for officials in Beijing. We've been very clear about what our expectations are and what our hopes are for Chinese leadership.
Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Have a good weekend.
MR KIRBY: You guys have a good weekend too. Now you can get some sleep.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:13 p.m.)
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