Daily Press Briefing
Mark C. Toner
Daily Press Briefing
January 27, 2016
Index for Today's Briefing
2:12 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Hi, guys. Happy first day of the week – work week. (Laughter.) Hope everybody survived Snowzilla okay.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) for some people.
MR TONER: That's right. Oh, very, very well put, Brad.
QUESTION: I assume the government folk were working. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: I can assure you I was logged in the entire time ready for action. Anyway, welcome back, everyone, including Lesley. And it is Wednesday, and welcome to the State Department. And I don't have anything at the top, believe it or not, so I'll take your questions.
QUESTION: I had some follow-up questions on last week's discussion about the Visa Waiver Program.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: But I'm thinking there may be more pressing global concerns than the travel plans --
QUESTION: Okay, then let's start with – shall we start with Syria?
MR TONER: Sure, please.
QUESTION: As you, I'm sure, will have seen, the Syrian High Negotiations Committee has said that they've written to the UN and that they have a series of answers that they want before deciding whether or not to go to the UN-sponsored peace talks, and in particular, the things that they've talked about at least publicly include an end to the violence, release of prisoners. Are these, in your view, reasonable things for them to seek before going?
MR TONER: Sure. Not "Sure," answer to your question, but let me answer that question.
So we've encouraged the Syrian opposition's High Negotiations Committee to respond positively to Special Envoy de Mistura's invitation. And as you know, Secretary Kerry met last weekend in Riyadh with the HNC to express our focus on the need for a political transition, a ceasefire, and a need to implement confidence-building measures including immediate humanitarian access to many of these hard-to-reach areas in Syria.
So we believe that the HNC delegation and the various factions of the Syrian opposition have an historic opportunity to go to Geneva and propose serious, practical ways to implement a ceasefire, humanitarian access, and other confidence-building measures and that they should do so without preconditions. We believe it should seize this opportunity to test the regime's willingness and intentions, and expose before the entire world which parties are serious about a potential peaceful political transition in Syria and which are not.
QUESTION: Why --
MR TONER: Now – sorry, just a quick follow-up. But I don't want to necessarily say that we don't take the Syrian opposition's call for humanitarian access and a ceasefire not seriously – that we don't take them seriously. We do, in fact, take them seriously. Our only – my only point here, and our only point here is that the Syrian people are looking to this process and they need signs of hope that they're not destined to live in conflict indefinitely. And frankly, Secretary Kerry had raised this very point when he spoke to the HNC last Saturday. The world is outraged by the dire situation in Madaya and elsewhere by the continued barrel bombing and airstrikes that destroy homes and hospitals and kill countless civilians. But there is an urgency to getting these talks started.
Go ahead, Arshad. I'm sorry for the long answer.
QUESTION: Why is it – why should they go without preconditions? I mean, if they are purporting to represent a group of people that are being shelled, bombed, barrel-bombed, starved, does it not seem to you that if they show up, they just lose credibility with all the people on the ground because they're sitting in a hotel or somewhere in Geneva talking indirectly to the very people who are crushing the people they represent? Why do you think it is not reasonable for them to just – to hold out for something rather --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- than sit down with the people who have been – whom they've been fighting for five years?
MR TONER: Well, as I said, we do understand. We share the opposition's belief that Assad must – and his regime must stop blocking food and humanitarian assistance and stop barrel bombing the Syrian people and attacking civilians. That goes without saying.
But we, the UN, the other members of the ISSG have set in place a process here that we believe can lead to a political transition, and we don't want to delay the start of that transition. That's not to say that any of these demands should be taken off the table, that they should be somehow put aside and not addressed. The pressure needs to be kept on the regime to, in fact, adopt some of these, as we said, confidence-building measures to take steps. But this is going to be a long process, and everyone – everyone – fully recognizes that it's going to be a long and challenging process. We feel that it's important to get that process going.
QUESTION: If you --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- can't even – if the United States and the Russians cannot even get the Syrian Government to reduce the violence, to engage in talks, what on Earth makes you think that once the talks have begun, it will be possible to convince the government to reduce the violence?
MR TONER: Well, again – and just to talk a little bit about the process, I mean, these are – we're talking about proximity talks. These are going to take some time. No one is expecting some kind of 180-degree turnaround on the part of anyone in a matter of days or even weeks. But when you get people talking back and forth, you can create some measure of negotiations and some measure of dialogue that we believe could – and no one's predicting that it will – but could lead to some concrete steps on the part of the regime.
Look, I think also it's very important to recognize that – and the regime needs to recognize this, and frankly, it's up to Russia – and we've talked about this before – to convince the regime of this fact that there is no military solution to what's going on in Syria right now. So they need a political process here. And I know there's been reports of recent gains on the battlefield by the Syrian regime. They need to be disabused of the idea that there's some kind of political or some kind of military way out for them.
Yeah, sure, go ahead.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Why don't you – if you – you said that you share the opposition demands. If so, why don't you press the Syrian regime and Russia to implement some of these demands instead of pressing the opposition to go to Geneva?
MR TONER: Sure. Well, we've been doing both. I mean, to be perfectly honest, we have been. I mean, we don't directly speak to the regime, but through the Russians. And the Secretary's been on the phone multiple times over the long weekend – not long weekend for him, he was actually working the entire time – but he's been on the phone multiple times with other members of the ISSG, but also with Foreign Minister Lavrov talking about the need for the regime to take these steps and – sorry.
QUESTION: Do you expect something to happen on the ground before Friday?
MR TONER: I can't predict – I mean, obviously, we would welcome any kind of confidence-building measure going into the talks. Given that they're two days away, I can't predict anything at this point.
QUESTION: One question on the Geneva II conference. The leader of the main Kurdish party in Syria, PYD, has said that he has not – or any member of his party has not been invited for that Geneva II. What is the U.S. take on that?
MR TONER: I apologize. The main?
QUESTION: The main Kurdish party in Syria, why hasn't – why haven't they been invited? What is your take on that?
MR TONER: So these were invitations that were issued by Staffan de Mistura. I'd refer you to him and to his party – or his group that – to the UN for the rationale behind who they invited. Obviously, there was a vetting, there was a meeting in Saudi Arabia for choosing the members of the HNC. I can say that in general, Kurds have been included in this entire process. They were represented in last month's opposition conference in Riyadh, in fact, where some 115, 116 participants did establish the HNC. So I'm not sure – are you speaking specifically about --
QUESTION: PYD. I mean, the Kurds in general, but they are the largest party --
MR TONER: PYD. No, I understand. So the UN hasn't announced its list of invitees or those extended in an advisory role, but our understanding is that the PYD will not be participating in the – in this week's talks.
QUESTION: Your position as the U.S. Government, do --
MR TONER: It's not our position. It's – I'm just saying it's our understanding.
MR TONER: That's my understanding at this point.
QUESTION: Do you believe they should have been invited? The Russians say they should be invited. Lavrov himself said that without the PYD, there will not be a, quote-un-quote, definitive resolution for the conflict in Syria.
MR TONER: Yeah, and I'll just say that I understand there's differing views and differing opinions on their inclusion or exclusion from the process. I'd just say we stand by the HNC, its current composition, and the choice by Staffan de Mistura to invite additional representatives also to participate in this process. We stand by the process thus far, how it's chosen who represents the Syrian opposition.
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: A couple of things. You said "no preconditions." When did this become a guiding principle? I mean, I thought you had a meeting in Riyadh where you wanted all the opposition to accept the Vienna statement, then you wanted everyone to accept the UN Security Council – that's a lot of preconditions so far. When did this new "no preconditions" start?
MR TONER: Well, again, what the Vienna statement did was codify a process in which we want both, or all, sides to participate in as a way to reach a political transition in Syria. And this week's meeting is really the start of that between the two different sides – the regime and the Syrian opposition. So I guess what I'm saying is by saying we don't want – and I'm – we don't want these demands or preconditions – the ceasefire, end to barrel bombing, and also humanitarian access to some of these areas – to stand in the way of getting that process going. We understand that these are valid concerns, urgent concerns on the part of the Syrian opposition. We want to see movement on them as well, but we don't want to see them stop this process from starting.
QUESTION: So talk for peace; don't expect peace to happen before you even start talking, essentially?
MR TONER: Essentially.
QUESTION: And then you said you don't expect anyone to change their position in days or weeks. Wasn't it the goal of the U.S. to get a – what was it at the time? – a security committee and a transitional governing body by April, as part of its kind of vision of how this process would happen?
MR TONER: Well --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: It's not two or three weeks.
MR TONER: No, I agree. I agree.
QUESTION: It's 12 weeks or 10 weeks.
MR TONER: No, I think – and de Mistura has spoken to this himself. This is the beginning of a process that's going to span the course of – I mean, he put it several months, so that would put it on that timeframe. Of course, given the challenges, given the issues, that's I think an optimistic assessment, but we need to get the process started. That's why there's an urgency here. There could be any number of things that will happen along the way in these talks that delay them further, so we need to keep the momentum up, and I think that's the point here.
QUESTION: And then my question is very similar to Arshad's. How important is it that something very quickly, even if it's not a definitive agreement, some of these major things, these demands that were cited, are realized? I mean, you're talking about opposition people who are going to be traveling for several months if this happens, and any day their kids, fighters, wives, whatever, could be killed.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: How important to you is it to get something very quickly to build confidence that --
MR TONER: Without defining "very quickly," and just because these are negotiations and they're starting as proximity talks, not direct talks – and this – again, I don't mean to overstate it, but this, in and of itself, is a significant step forward if we get them to Geneva on Friday. But absolutely, I agree with you, it is important, and we've said this, that there are confidence-building measures, that there's a need for a ceasefire, immediate humanitarian access. There's any number of steps that can be taken that would help build on the momentum.
MR TONER: Richard.
QUESTION: The British home office sent out a --
MR TONER: (Sneezes.) Excuse me.
QUESTION: -- statement criticizing the Syrian Government and Russia's support around this area of al-Sheikh Miskeen, this town, and they're saying that it would damage – it's going to damage these peace talks, these – and you mentioned this too, these military advances, gains that the Syrian Government has made. Does – do these advances damage the peace talks? And what impact do they have?
MR TONER: Well, I did mention that, and I guess my answer would be we hope not. And we don't want there to be this kind of – as I said to Arshad, this kind of belief among those in the regime that enough progress has been made or that they're somehow winning on the battlefield that they feel that they don't have to pursue peace talks. And again, just to disabuse them of the idea that there's some kind of military solution to what's happening in Syria.
And that's something – again, these talks going forward is a little bit of a forcing mechanism. Russian officials have said, publicly and privately, that they agree that the only solution in Syria is a political transition. So we need to keep the momentum up. They need to exert what influence they have on the Assad regime to convince them that these talks need to continue.
QUESTION: So about the Russian role in this, they're supporting these gains that the Syrian Government is making, and they're specifically attacking opposition groups that they have said themselves are members of the opposition and not terrorists or ISIS or al-Qaida.
MR TONER: Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: So is their role – how do you characterize their role? Or is the United States and Russia working towards the same goals here, or not?
MR TONER: Well, again, I think – to use a pretty hackneyed expression, but the proof is in the pudding. I mean, they have said publicly and privately that they support a political transition. That said, Russia's invested years in keeping Assad and keeping his regime in power. It's stepped up that investment, if you will, in the past months. And I would say its recent activities show once again that it's more interested in bolstering Assad than fighting ISIL. But that said, they have been supportive of this process. They've been a vocal member of the ISSG, and so I think at this point, given that they are a significant stakeholder in this process, we need to take them at their word, we need to move this process forward and see what comes of it.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: Yeah, please.
QUESTION: I have one more question. That no precondition advice that you gave to the Syrian opposition – that doesn't seem to apply to Turkey, because it's Turkey which has very openly said that if the PYD is included in the talks, we will not participate. Would that include – would that – would your advice go for the Turks as well?
MR TONER: Turkey is, as we've said, a member of the ISSG and a stakeholder in this process. They obviously have their concerns – very real and almost existential concerns about peace and stability in Syria because it threatens them directly. It's on their border. They have their concerns. They've been very vocal about their concerns with this process as it moves forward. But the exclusion of the PYD, at least in this initial round of talks, was a decision taken by de Mistura and his people and it was – and it was partly a reflection of, again, these meetings to define the Syrian opposition and to basically choose who among the Syrian opposition would represent them going forward into these talks, and we respect that process.
QUESTION: Do you tell the Turks as well to have no preconditions?
MR TONER: Again, I'm not going to reveal or talk about what our conversations with the Turks – with the Turkish authorities are. I can say that we have very frank exchanges as befitting a NATO ally and a strong partner in this process.
QUESTION: So Mark --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: You described this process as – these negotiations as a test of the Syrian Government and the Russian support for this transition process, and I guess other parties involved also.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: And the – and at the same time, the Russians and the Syrians are providing additional support to the fight, or to their side of the fight. At what point does the United States decide that this test may be – that they failed the test and decide to increase – to increase pressure or change the balance of power on the ground in support of the people that the Americans are supporting?
MR TONER: Sure. I think that's a very valid but also very difficult question to answer. I would say we're still committed – strongly committed – to seeing this process move forward. We feel like, since really this process began and has taken shape throughout the autumn, that we have gathered a little momentum here, that we have moved the parties together in the sense of having these talks, and that we've got to keep that momentum going.
QUESTION: Mark, there's been reports in the German press that German intelligence fears that the number of radicals heading into Syria has increased rather than decreased in recent months. How are we progressing with the Turks in sealing that border?
MR TONER: Sure --
QUESTION: And do you share this assessment that the inflows are continuing to rise?
MR TONER: Well, so I haven't seen those particular reports, but we continue to work on the very complex and very difficult issue of foreign fighter flow. It's clearly a matter of concern when you look at the terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere in December. And we're working with Turkey on a variety of ways to increase the security along its border and to close off or seal that remaining 98 kilometers to ensure that ISIL can no longer use it to gain access to Syria, and vice versa. That was a key focus of Joint Chief of Staff's Chairman Dunford's visit to Turkey, and was obviously also a key part of – the Vice President was just there, and a key part of his trip as well.
We think it's become harder. We think it's gotten – they've strengthened the border, but clearly there's still more work to be done. I just don't have – if I get a response to that specific number, I'll get back to you.
QUESTION: Okay. But it seems to have taken quite a lot of heavy lifting with very senior officials repeatedly going to Turkey to talk to them. They're a NATO ally and they're part of the coalition. Why does it take so much diplomatic effort to --
MR TONER: Well, I don't know that it takes so much diplomatic effort. I think that – I mean, in some respects, yes, it's only 98 kilometers, it's a persistent problem, but we are absolutely convinced that Turkey understands the magnitude of the problem. Again, this affects – as they've seen with countless terrorist attacks on their own soil, this affects them as much as the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. So we're absolutely convinced that they want to stop that flow of foreign fighters, that they need to seal off their borders. It's a challenge, and we're working with it. And I think it just reflects how seriously we both take the challenge.
MR TONER: Michael.
QUESTION: Related to that, the Greek and Israeli defense ministers, they called on – yesterday they called on the Turkish Government to stop supporting terrorism. The Greek defense minister said the bulk of Islamic State oil and terrorist financing flows through Turkey. How does this square with your previous statements that the Turkish Government is not involved in these areas, terrorist financing activities or the oil trade?
MR TONER: Sure. Thanks for the question, Michael. We've addressed this on multiple occasions. And I would also point – I don't have the document in front of me, but we actually did a background briefing with a senior State Department official who really walked through why this wasn't a valid allegation or accusation to say that Turkey was actually smuggling ISIL or Daesh oil. It didn't make, first of all, economic sense at all, but secondly, there was just no evidence to those allegations that there was some kind of high-level Turkish Government involvement in some oil smuggling. That just – we just have not seen any inclination to that, any kind of sign of that.
QUESTION: The Greek --
MR TONER: So we --
QUESTION: Well, they have it wrong? Sorry, go ahead.
MR TONER: So we disagree with that assessment.
QUESTION: Even if there's no hard evidence, are you concerned about neglect facilitating this process? Do they need to crack down on extremists more and --
MR TONER: I mean, I think – look. First of all, as we all know, smuggling along that area or in that area is frankly centuries old. There's established smuggling routes, and those are persistent and they're difficult to squelch altogether. I just – and we, the United States, reject the premise that the Turkish Government is somehow in league with ISIL to smuggle oil. We just see no evidence to support that accusation.
QUESTION: But is it more they're looking the other way, though, not necessarily in league?
MR TONER: I can't – look, I can't say that there's no type of smuggling going – taking place along the border. There may well be. But it doesn't make economic sense. It's not how ISIL moves its commodity. And frankly, we've seen that ISIL has – the more prevalent practice is for ISIL to sell its oil at the wellhead, the point of production, in Syria and in Iraq, frankly. And the oil is sold directly to smugglers and middlemen and truckers rather than ISIL kind of engaging in some broad distribution network. It's quite the opposite.
QUESTION: Follow-up. You talk about Vice President Biden's visit, Mark.
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Since the Vice President did not take any questions in Turkey, we are curious what exact – what kind of progress made regarding the 98 kilometers, but on the other side of the border is there some kind of agreement? Do you know who are going to do the work in that particular area?
MR TONER: When you say the other side of the border, you mean --
QUESTION: Oh, Syria. On Syrian part, where the ISIS is present.
MR TONER: So, first of all, on the Vice President's – not to get too interagency here, but I would refer you to the Vice President's office to talk in detail about his trip there. He did have, though, very good talks and spoke about the work that the U.S., that Turkey, and indeed the whole anti-ISIL coalition needs to do to destroy and degrade ISIL in Syria – that there's been progress made, but there's a heck of a lot more work that needs to be done, and we need to work more closely together to meet – to reach that goal.
QUESTION: Another question, the question many Turkish journalists are asking: Why the American officials, when they are together with the Turkish officials, for a number of years now, are not taking questions from the press?
MR TONER: Oh, gosh, I'm sorry. I don't really know that – what decisions were made or – in terms of his press availability. A lot of that comes down to simple logistics, whether he's – whether he or any official has the time to do a press availability when they're on the ground in any given country. So I can't speak to the details of the Vice President's trip. I know with Secretary Kerry, we always try to carve out some time to do media availabilities. Sometimes those are shorter than other times, but we always try to work that in in some respect.
QUESTION: A number of European countries, but particularly Denmark, just passed a law which allows Danish authorities to seize valuables from migrants. I think there are similar laws not as rigid as this one. Do you have any position on this kind of laws?
MR TONER: I mean, really – you're talking about the Danish law?
MR TONER: I mean, I would refer you to the Danish authorities. I mean, there's a number of things that countries in Europe – number of steps that these European countries are taking to deal with the influx of refugees and the impact that that's having on the economy, on other aspects of life in these countries. It's been an enormous – extraordinary, if you will – surge of refugees coming into Europe. I think what we've said all along is in dealing with this surge of – influx of – immigrants, rather, or migrants – refugees, rather; excuse me – refugees into Europe, that there needs to be a comprehensive approach to dealing with it, that all the countries that are dealing with this influx need to agree on how they're going to deal with that and come up with a way to treat these refugees, many of whom are fleeing violence, fleeing persecution, in a way that is systematic but also humane and takes into consideration the dire circumstances that they're both fleeing and then oftentimes landing into in these countries.
QUESTION: I have a couple different topics --
MR TONER: Go for it.
QUESTION: -- if we're ready to move on.
MR TONER: Well, I – okay.
QUESTION: Well, first of all, the Clinton emails. Have you heard back from the judge on your request for more time for publication or are you planning to publish on Friday as (inaudible)?
MR TONER: So we have not heard back. You're referring – sorry, just to set the context here – you're referring to the court extension request that we submitted last Friday. We filed a motion in a Freedom of Information Act case and litigation, Leopold v. State, and that's the case involving our monthly release for – of former Secretary Clinton's emails. And we did, as you noted, ask for an extension – a one-month extension – to February 29th to finish our production of these emails.
To the – at this point in time, we've not received a decision on whether this extension would be granted. What I can say is that it's our intention to move forward with another production of emails – former Secretary Clinton's emails – on January 29th as planned, recognizing that we'll – as we put forth in this motion, will not meet the deadline or the goal of producing the remaining emails. But we're going to strive to produce as many documents as we possibly can, and I can assure you that the team working on this has worked long hours – they even came in this past weekend during the snowstorm to continue working on meeting the production goals. But we also recognize, for a number of reasons, that we're probably not going to get there this month. We need an additional month.
QUESTION: Okay. And --
QUESTION: So (inaudible) will have some kind of release on Friday?
MR TONER: That's correct.
QUESTION: Just not complete?
MR TONER: That's correct.
MR TONER: Okay, this --
QUESTION: Change – I had a different one too unless there's more follow-up on this question.
MR TONER: Anything on --
QUESTION: Yeah, on China.
MR TONER: Okay. Let's finish your question --
QUESTION: Okay. My other --
MR TONER: -- and then I promise I'll get to you.
QUESTION: Sorry, my other question --
QUESTION: -- was also a technical one on the visa waiver issue.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: One of the things you said last week was that journalists and others were – could be waived by a case-by-case basis. You might have seen that, for instance, The New York Times bureau chief in Tehran had his – got word back that he now has to apply for a visa. So I'm wondering how this is really going to work with these waivers, and are you guys staffed up in London and Paris and elsewhere for lots of people requiring visas now?
MR TONER: Sure. So it's a totally fair question. So a couple of thoughts to give you. One is that as the U.S. Government is working to implement this new law, travelers that may fall into any one of the waiver categories – as you mentioned, journalism is one of them – should apply for a visa at this time until implementation is complete.
And so where we're working or what direction we're working in now is we're going to – the Department of Homeland Security, in fact, is working on updating the ESTA form that will be available in February. And once available, we do encourage travelers seeking an ESTA to use the enhanced system which will assist in making individual determinations on the potential granting of these waivers. And we've said before these are made on – these will be made on a case-by-case basis. But any travelers who believe they may fall into these waiver categories but who do have an immediate need to travel, we would encourage them to request an expedited visa appointment with their nearest embassy or consulate.
In terms of stepping up our support, we are in fact doing that in many if not all of our consulates and embassies throughout the Visa Waiver Program countries. And we're obviously going to look at what the demand is and adjust accordingly, but we're certainly looking at surging some of our capacity to deal with increased demand for visa appointments. And again --
QUESTION: You haven't seen that yet, then?
MR TONER: Not yet, frankly. And again, what we're – and what I tried to explain last week is it is – if you – there are advantages and disadvantages to visa waiver travel versus a visa. I mean, a visa is valid for 10 years versus a ESTA or – rather, a visa waiver travel, which I think is only good for a couple years, if that – 20 months.
If you've got – if you have a need to travel, urgent, and you think you fall into these categories, or you've received an email that you're no longer eligible to travel via Visa Waiver Program, then please, we encourage these people to make nonimmigrant visa appointments. And again, we're staffed up and ready to go to accommodate any influx that's going to mean in our embassies throughout Europe mostly.
QUESTION: And have you heard anything about reciprocity from other countries or do you have any messages to Iranian Americans or Sudanese Americans or Syrian Americans about --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- whether they may face this kind of restriction?
MR TONER: On the question – first of all, on the question of reciprocity, we have not seen anything yet from any of the countries affected by the Visa Waiver Program or affected by this new legislation on – that indicates one way or another that there's going to be any kind of reciprocity.
In terms of our message to so-called dual nationality citizens who may be affected by these changes, I think it's recognizing that this may be an inconvenience – and I fully recognize that, we fully recognize that. But it's important, I think, to keep focused on the big picture, and that is that this legislation in no way prohibits the travel to the United States of anyone, and what it does do is it makes an eligible certain – ineligible, rather, certain categories of travelers to come here via the Visa Waiver Program. But they are simply required to follow the normal visa application process. We're staffed up and ready to accommodate these people, and we would encourage them to simply follow through with that process.
QUESTION: But just on a technical point, my visa is only valid for five years. (Laughter.) I think that's how I visas work for journalists.
MR TONER: It's because you're a troublemaker (inaudible). (Laughter.)
QUESTION: That's probably what it is. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Question: Why --
MR TONER: I have no idea, actually. It's because of your --
QUESTION: It's an --
MR TONER: -- journalists, and what category is it?
QUESTION: It's a – I'm an I visa. I'm a visiting foreign correspondent.
MR TONER: See, that's why.
QUESTION: So I have a follow-up on this. You announced last week that you were starting the implementation of the new law.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: And you have said all along that it would be phased implementation.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: And today you've just explained that you don't actually have ready yet, and it won't be ready until sometime in February, the new form that would allow people who have been informed that they – their ability to travel under the Visa Waiver Program using ESTA has been revoked, that if they need a visa, they should apply for one now because that form won't be ready until next month sometime. Why didn't you – just as a matter of efficiency and clarity, why didn't the State Department implement all of this on a specific date certain so that everything would go into effect at the same time and you wouldn't have had the BBC reporter who was told that they couldn't travel and so forth? Why not, just as a matter of practicality, just say, okay, we're going to do this starting April 15th? Or --
MR TONER: Right. So a couple of thoughts on that. One is that this was enacted mid-December and we were bound by law to begin implementing it. It was enacted by Congress. As – and it is – you mentioned the State Department, but this actually is an interagency effort, and a lot of the responsibility, frankly, for implementing it does lie with the Department of Homeland Security, which I did mention. And they're the ones looking at how to recreate or revamp the ESTA form so that it reflects – and better reflects – the changes that this new legislation enacts. At the same time, I think in an effort to deal with the inevitable strain that this is going to cause on people, they – we set about – we, working with DHS, set about identifying those who would be affected by this right away, who fell into those categories of ineligibility. And we have taken steps to identify them through emails. That's the idea of a phased approach.
I do agree that it can be somewhat confusing, and certainly we stand ready to answer questions and also provide as clearly as possible information to would-be travelers or those affected by this. And frankly, I do want to put on record – I can put on record the fact that there is a website now that does have all of this information available, and let me just give that on the record. I apologize, but it's important, because you said there – as you put it, there is a lot of confusion about this. If you all visit – or anyone can visit travel.state.gov for detailed information about these changes as well as about the visa application process.
Arshad, I think we're trying to the best of our ability to implement these changes to the legislation as quickly and efficiently as possible, as we are mandated by Congress to do; at the same time, make systemic changes that it requires to the ESTA form and other aspects of it. Is it causing inconveniences? Probably, but we're working hard to address them.
QUESTION: When the new form is available in April, is it just a matter for us of ticking the box marked "journalist," or will that then be --
MR TONER: You're very concerned about – I'm joking with you.
QUESTION: Well, that – I have a number of colleagues who are going to be inconvenienced by this.
MR TONER: It is – so I don't want to preview what it's going to look like, and frankly, I don't know what it – it's going try to --
QUESTION: But is it just our declaration that we're journalists, or do you then have to go and check that we're not lying?
MR TONER: I'd have to refer you to DHS on what this thing's going to look like.
MR TONER: My sense is that it will try to, in a very user-friendly way, try to clarify what might apply to you or how you may apply for these exemptions or whether you apply – these exemptions apply to you, rather.
QUESTION: Different topic?
MR TONER: Can we move from visa waiver? Thank you. I know I have to get back to you. I promise, I haven't forgotten.
QUESTION: This is a follow-up to something from last week. Now that the CDC has issued interim travel guidance for countries in the area that is affected by the Zika virus --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- do you have any guidance to issue to Americans about their travel there or Americans who live in the affected area?
MR TONER: Sure. And apologies – correct me, is it Zika or Zika? I don't --
QUESTION: Zika, sorry.
MR TONER: Zika. It's okay, I just didn't know. I didn't want to mispronounce it. That's okay. I can say that the department is monitoring the evolving situation very closely. We are obviously in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We're also in contact with the Government of Brazil, which has been probably the most impacted country, as well as others throughout the region. The CDC did issue updated guidance on Zika on January 26th, and we refer you to the CDC for additional technical information on the guidance.
Obviously, the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas is top priority for the State Department. And through our consular information program, we're – we'll provide U.S. citizens with up-to-date information about security abroad and other aspects of their travel abroad so they can make well-informed decisions. And we're also, in terms of – we've also reviewed, rather, the Center for Disease Control's information regarding the Zika virus and we're going to provide links to the updated information in our country-specific information pages.
There's a lot of, obviously, concern about the impact of this virus not just in Latin America or south – southern – South America, rather, but frankly, throughout the Western Hemisphere. I think we all need to do our best to provide as quickly and as easily as possible good, solid, credible information so that travelers can make good decisions about their travel.
QUESTION: Mark – Turkey --
MR TONER: Sorry. Please.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Mark.
MR TONER: This is – but I'll get back to you, I promise.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. On Secretary visit to China --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- and he had meeting with Xi Jinping – President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
MR TONER: It was quite a day, yes.
QUESTION: Okay. And the Secretary Kerry mentions that he has not successfully reached agreement for more strong sanctions on North Korea. Can you tell us more about what is the difference view of – difference of views between U.S. and China for the sanctions against North Korea?
MR TONER: Well, and I would refer you to the press availability he did after his – I guess it was his meeting with Foreign Secretary Yi earlier today. He – the Secretary was very clear, saying it was probably the issue that topped their agenda was North Korea and the issue that they spent the most time talking about. We do, obviously, agree that North Korea's behavior, most recently through its attempted test of a hydrogen bomb last month, is reckless, is dangerous for the security and stability of the Korean Peninsula and, frankly, the region. And so it's – there's an urgency there to convince the government to change its current course of action.
And I think that they – they being the Secretary and the – his Chinese counterparts – had a good, thorough, substantive discussion about the ways that we can do that. I think that there was agreement on the need for meaningful steps to get to the goal of North Korea returning to talks. And there was a lot – a little back-and-forth about sanctions being a means to an end, and that end should always be a return to Six-Party Talks. But sanctions are, frankly, one of our most effective tools to convince them of that.
QUESTION: Did you say "attempted test of a hydrogen bomb last month"?
MR TONER: We never, I think, verified that --
MR TONER: -- that it was. In fact, we --
QUESTION: Right. I thought you just used the word "attempted." Did you or did I mishear?
MR TONER: I did. Was that – did I misstate? I'm sorry.
QUESTION: No, no. I thought you said "attempted." And the reason I'm asking about it is that my understanding was the Administration has always said that it wasn't a – that your understanding was it was a conventional atomic bomb, not a hydrogen bomb.
MR TONER: Right. That's why I said – they, in fact, came out and said – if I mischaracterized that or – it was unintentional.
QUESTION: No, no --
MR TONER: I was just trying to simply say that they claimed it was the test of a hydrogen bomb.
MR TONER: We said otherwise, yes.
QUESTION: Yes. But you're not – I guess my question is whether you believe that they were in fact attempting to test a hydrogen bomb, or not; if you believe they were just doing an ordinary non-hydrogen bomb.
MR TONER: I mean, unclear to us. They stated afterwards that they thought it was – or that they – it was a hydrogen bomb test. We said otherwise. We were unconvinced --
MR TONER: -- that it was that for a variety of scientific reasons. But in any case, it was a reckless and dangerous action.
QUESTION: But by saying --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- "their attempted test," are you conveying that you believe that that was indeed what they were trying to do? Or are you just saying that that's what they claimed they were trying to do.
MR TONER: That's what they claimed.
QUESTION: Okay, thanks.
QUESTION: Mark, the --
QUESTION: On South China Sea?
QUESTION: On this issue --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) even finished yet.
MR TONER: Sorry, sorry. Just really quickly. So just to finish, so – sorry, we – and so I think we both agree that one of the key ways forward, key path forward is through the UN Security Council. And we're going to continue to work with China in that process.
QUESTION: So the Chinese have said that they might be – I think they've said that they're open to the idea of a resolution, but not sanctions at the Security Council. And you're saying that there need to be some ways to pressure North Korea to change its behavior and to return to the Six-Party Talks. Other than sanctions, what are the options?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, there's – I don't want to necessarily lay out all the tools, but sanctions are frankly a very potent tool, as we've seen with Iran. And we believe that, if necessary, sanctions can be strengthened. But again, I think the important point here is that there is agreement between us and China that North Korea needs to change its ways.
QUESTION: Yeah, follow-up. Last week, the South Korean President Park Geun-hye recommend the five-party talks instead of Six-Party Talks. How do you – U.S. think about this suggestion?
MR TONER: We've seen those comments. I mean, five-party talks are a chance for the – those of us who agree on North Korea's behavior and the need to persuade it or to get it to change its ways. Occasionally do need to get together and talk about this. We do this all the time. We consult bilaterally, multilaterally with the other members of that mechanism on ways to confront and to get North Korea to change its ways. So we would support that dialogue going forward.
QUESTION: It's on North Korea.
MR TONER: Let's get Taiwan and South China Sea.
QUESTION: Yeah. The president of Taiwan, the President Ma, is going to travel to Taiping Island. And what's the U.S. comment on it?
MR TONER: Sure. Hold on one second, please.
MR TONER: You're talking about – yeah, President Ma Ying-jeou's plans to travel to Taiping Island, I think. Frankly, we're disappointed. We view such an action as unhelpful, and it does not contribute to the peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. We urge Taiwan and all claimants to lower tensions and de-escalate tensions rather than taking actions that could possibly raise them.
QUESTION: But even during the China build the rock, the U.S. don't even use the wording like "disappointed" and "unhelpful." Why this time the U.S. pick up these two wording on Taiwan? Is it fair enough for all the claimant?
MR TONER: Well, look. I'm not going to – we've been very clear that we disagree with China's actions in terms of manmade structures on the islands. We view them also as unhelpful and that they don't lead to a peaceful resolution of the disputes over the South China Sea. We want to see a halt among all claimants to further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, militarization of outposts. All of that would help lower tensions and create space for a peaceful resolution.
QUESTION: Will it further U.S.-Taiwan's relation?
MR TONER: I'm not aware that we had a conversation with them. I just don't know.
QUESTION: Will it affect the U.S. and Taiwan's relation?
MR TONER: Will affect our --
QUESTION: Yeah. How will it affect --
QUESTION: We have very strong relations with Taiwan. Sometimes we disagree on their actions. We're committed to a "one China" policy. We look forward to the incoming president and building stronger relations with Taiwan. But we disagree on this particular act.
QUESTION: Yeah, Mark, the – you used some of the harsh words on President Ma's trip to the Taiping Island. But Taiping is the largest natural island in the South China Sea the Republican of China has claimed since 1946 and has occupied since 1956. Why can't he do that? Taiwan is probably the last party to want to raise tension in the South China Sea. But it has a voice that it wants the international community to hear. When you have – when you consult on the South China Sea, when you discuss the disputes in the South China Sea, Taiwan is never a party to be invited to the table. For instance, Secretary Kerry talked about a diplomatic approach to the disputes in the South China Sea in Beijing today. Would the United States make sure that Taiwan would be invited to the table as a party to the diplomatic approach? Thank you.
MR TONER: So – sure. I can't speak to whether we would invite Taiwan to take part in any diplomatic conversations, except to say that – and to address your first part of your question, which is why not have its voice be heard by traveling to Taiping Island. Taiwan is – or rather, President Ma Ying-jeou has every right to make his position clear on the South China Sea. We just disagree with this particular action. We view it as – frankly, as raising tensions rather than what we want to see, which is de-escalation. We do want to see dialogue. We welcome all voices in the region weighing in in that dialogue. And it's only through, as we've said many times, a diplomatic mechanism that we can successfully resolve the South China Sea.
Taiwan is a valued partner. We do have a strong dialogue with them and we're going to continue to listen to their concerns and reflect their concerns in the various fora that address this issue.
MR TONER: Please, follow up. Let's finish this and then --
QUESTION: Last one.
MR TONER: Are you on this too?
QUESTION: In the region.
MR TONER: Okay. Cool.
QUESTION: Thanks. I mean, the point is Taiwan has long been excluded from the dialogue among the claimant of the South China Sea, and since the United States discourage President Ma from visiting the island, what would you encourage the Government of Taiwan to do as a claimant of the South China Sea?
MR TONER: Well again, I mean, I'm not going to list the steps that Taiwan or the Taiwanese Government should take and dictate to it in any way, shape, or form. I'm just saying that this particular action, we view as unhelpful.
QUESTION: I was wondering if there's any update on the case of an American woman from Texas who's being held in China – Sandy Phan-Gillis. I believe we heard about her last in September, and I was wondering if the Secretary brought up her case during his recent trip to China.
MR TONER: I'm not sure. I don't believe I have an update on that particular case. I'm aware of the case, obviously. I can take the question. We – on her particular case, as to whether the Secretary raised it – I mean, we raise human rights. We raise the welfare of our American citizens detained abroad, and with multiple governments and multiple occasions, and certainly we have those kinds of frank discussions with China all the time about human rights. I'll check on that as well.
QUESTION: Back on North Korea?
MR TONER: Back on North Korea. Okay. Let's finish North Korea straight up, and then we'll go to Turkey again.
QUESTION: Thank you. There are reports that North Korea is preparing a new missile test. Do you have any update or report on that? Do you know if --
MR TONER: No, I don't. I mean, it's a very opaque regime there, so obviously there are some indicators, but I can't speak to those.
QUESTION: Do you know if that has at all been – has influenced the discussion in Beijing between Secretary Kerry and his counterparts?
MR TONER: Oh, whether there's – I mean, look, there's always – as we saw with the test last month, there's always the threat that they're going to take these kinds of provocative actions. So I think there's always a sense of urgency because of that.
QUESTION: I have one on North Korea.
MR TONER: And then I --
QUESTION: It's quick. North Korea announced North Korea seized a U.S. citizens, one student. Do you have any information on that?
MR TONER: You're talking – I'm sorry, you said the American --
QUESTION: U.S. citizens.
MR TONER: The American citizen?
MR TONER: Hold on one second. I don't have much new to say. I know we are aware of media reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea. I don't have any particular information about that. We obviously don't have a Privacy Act waiver which would allow us to reveal more details. In cases where U.S. citizens are detained in North Korea, we rely heavily on our Swedish embassy, which is our protecting – the Swedish embassy, which is our protecting power in North Korea, and try to reach out through them for consular access.
QUESTION: Can I have some quick ones?
MR TONER: Sure. Can I just do Nike --
MR TONER: -- who had her hand up and then I promise I'll (inaudible).
QUESTION: Sure, please. Sure, sure.
QUESTION: I have a couple of different topic if it's okay. First on Russia, near the U.S. embassy in Moscow, there is a poster hanging very – kind of hostile to President Obama. I would like to get your stand on that.
MR TONER: You said a poster hanging near the embassy that's hostile to --
QUESTION: It said – report say President – calling President Obama a killer, it's a laser projection, and there is a poster hanging across the street from the U.S. embassy in Moscow. I wonder if you have any stand.
MR TONER: I mean, I guess freedom of speech is freedom of speech no matter where, but we obviously would object strongly to any characterization of our President in such a way.
QUESTION: And another topic about freedom of speech and human rights in Egypt. I wonder if you have anything on the fifth anniversary of the uprising, and also reports that hundreds of Egyptians were forced to disappear as a new security crackdown widens.
MR TONER: The second part of your question I'll answer first. We are aware of these reports. We would note with concern the stark deterioration in respect for freedom of expression, association, and press in Egypt over the past weeks and months, including the arrests of journalists and civil society activists and the intimidation of social media users, and we continue to have very frank discussions with the Government of Egypt about our human rights concerns.
More broadly on the anniversary – the upcoming fifth anniversary of the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is in many ways built on common interests such as combatting terrorism. And as we've learned ourselves and learned in many countries, to eradicate violent extremism, it's critical to strengthen the ties of trust between the state and the public and enable those who are critical of official policies to find means of voicing their dissents – their dissent peacefully. And so in this sense, realizing the desires, the aspirations, the ideals for which Egyptians spoke out five years ago would be not only the right thing to do; it's absolutely vital to our shared interests.
So, as I said with regard to your previous question, we're concerned about what we've seen as a deterioration in respect for freedom of expression in Egypt.
Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Same subject, different country: Turkey, freedom of speech --
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: -- and freedom of the press. Just today, an indictment against the Turkish journalists – editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyetnewspaper --
MR TONER: Yeah, I'm aware of it.
QUESTION: -- Can Dundar and the Ankara rep Erdem Gul revealed. And the indictment is asking two times the prison – in prison and plus 30 years in prison. What's your take on this indictment?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, we're obviously very troubled by the reports. You're talking about Cumhuriyet editor-in-chief Can Dundar – Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul, as you said, seeking life imprisonment. We said before the extraordinarily harsh criminal charges, pretrial arrest, and now the prosecution's call for life sentences raise serious concerns about Turkey's commitment to fundamental principles of freedom of expression, of democracy, of due process, and judicial independence. So we call on Turkish authorities to ensure that all individuals, all organizations, including but not limited to the media, are free to voice a full range of opinions and criticism in accordance with Turkey's constitutional guarantees of media freedom.
QUESTION: Just one more on that.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Apparently, those journalists – everybody can't be certain, including journalists, it's obvious, but these journalists are in jail while they are asking for life imprisonment. And also Vice President Biden seen one of Can Dundar's family when he was here and he said that your father is a courageous man. So right after Vice President left Turkey this indictment and asking for imprisonment, is there another additional angle you see right after Vice President left Turkey and meeting with the family and same people are rotting in jail?
MR TONER: Yeah. I would hope not. We obviously have very – as I said, Turkey's a NATO ally. It's a democracy. It's a friend. It's a partner. We have these kinds of conversations with Turkey about the quality of its democracy and we're going to continue to raise these kinds of issues as we move forward. We're not going to shy away from that – those kinds of discussions. So I would hope there's no link.
Please, Arshad, yeah. Yeah, no worries.
QUESTION: There's a UN panel of experts that has issued, I think, a 51-page report about Saudi – the Saudi-led coalition's activities in Yemen. It says, as I understand it, that it believes that the Saudi-led coalition has been targeting civilians and civilian facilities, and it cites 119 sorties that it regards as having violated international law. Do you have any comment on the panel of experts' report in particular and in general on the now multiplying allegations that the Saudi-led coalition has done a lot of violence to a lot of civilians in that country?
MR TONER: Well, first of all, with regards to the UN panels of experts' report, we've seen media reports. Apparently, this is a leaked UN panel or UN report, so it hasn't been published yet. It hasn't been released to the public. I'm going to wait till it's released publicly to comment on its contents except to say that, clearly, we're always concerned about serious allegations of abuse. We take these kinds of accounts very seriously, and the loss of civilian life in any conflict is tragic, and we call on all sides in the – of the conflict in Yemen to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law, including the obligation to distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects, and to take all feasible actions to minimize harm to civilians.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that one?
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Have you taken, has the Administration taken any legal advice as to whether, given your support for the Saudi-led coalition, whether you might be accomplices in these alleged crimes?
MR TONER: I couldn't speak to any implications for us. I just don't have that legal analysis in front of me. And I would also just say --
QUESTION: Would you support a Security Council --
MR TONER: Sure --
QUESTION: -- investigation into these allegations?
MR TONER: Well, again, I think we would call on all parties to uphold their international obligations, and that includes Saudi Arabia. I can't speak to any UN Security Council investigation at this point. Let's wait for the UN panel report to be released.
QUESTION: And last one for me: Do you have any updates on the fate of Siamak Namazi, the U.S. citizen reported to be in prison in Iran who is not among the prisoners who were recently released?
MR TONER: I do not. I'll check on that. I'll get back to you. I'll take that question.
Is that it, guys?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:19 p.m.)
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