Mark C. Toner
Daily Press Briefing
August 16, 2016
Index for Today's BriefingSYRIA/RUSSIA/IRAN SYRIA/CHINA SYRIA/RUSSIA/IRAN DEPARTMENT MIDDLE EAST PEACE TURKEY AZERBAIJAN INDIA INDIA/PAKISTAN JAPAN/REGION GUANTANAMO BAY DEPARTMENT IRAQ DEPARTMENT YEMEN/REGION SOUTH SUDAN
2:08 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hey, Brad. Hey, everyone. Wow, quite a crowd. Might have to wear my glasses so I can see in the back.
QUESTION: It’s always great to be back.
MR TONER: I know, how nice. Let me tell you, vacation – try it. (Laughter.) I’m sure I’ll be beaten down in no time, but – (laughter). Anyway, I don’t have anything at the top, so over to you, Brad.
QUESTION: Can we start with Russia’s use of the Iranian air base for Syria missions today?
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: What – firstly, what is your general response to this decision by Russia? Do you find this concerning? Are you worried about a deepening Russian-Iranian military alliance?
MR TONER: Well, I think we’re still trying to assess – and – assess what exactly they’re doing to the extent that they’re doing it. It appears that they did use, in some fashion, Iranian air bases, and I believe the Defense Department has already spoken to that to some extent, so I would refer you to them.
But look, I mean, it’s – I guess I would say it’s unfortunate but not surprising or unexpected, and I think it speaks to the continuation of a pattern that we’ve seen of Russia continuing to carry out airstrikes, now it appears with Iran’s direct assistance, that at least purport to target ISIL and Daesh targets as well as Nusrah targets, but in fact – and we’ve seen this continually – predominately target moderate Syrian opposition forces. So that’s unfortunate, and frankly, that only makes more difficult what is already a very contentious and complex and difficult situation, and it only pushes us further away from what we’re all at least say we’re trying to pursue, which is a credible nationwide cessation of hostilities and a political process in Geneva that leads to a peaceful transition.
So what’s unclear to us right now, as I said, I think, is the extent to which they’re using Iran. We’ve seen varying reports that maybe it was a one-off thing, or whether they’re going to continue; we just don’t know at this point. I can confirm – I am sure some of you have seen it – Secretary Kerry did speak to Foreign Minister Lavrov. I think this came up in some fashion, but I don’t have much detail beyond that.
QUESTION: That’s the next question.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Did you get from Foreign Minister Lavrov any answers to these questions? Did they, in fact, say it was a one-off? Did he explain why they were using – is there a military reason for this?
MR TONER: I believe it didn’t come – it did come up, and I apologize, but the call was just – it just concluded before I came up here. But I believe it did come up. I believe it was raised by the Russian side, and I think Secretary Kerry stated our concerns.
QUESTION: Last year when the Iranian nuclear agreement was enshrined by the UN – I think it was 2231 --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- there was specific language that carried over from previous resolutions about the use of Iranian territory or even its airspace for combat aircraft. Do you view this as a violation of the UN Security Council – I think it said provided that – it was permissible if the Security Council gave specific permission on a case-by-case basis. I’m guessing that didn’t happen in this case. Correct me if I’m wrong.
MR TONER: I don’t believe it did happen, and we’re looking into it is the short answer to your question. If these reports are true, it could very well be a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which, as you noted, prohibits the supply, sale, or transfer of combat aircraft to Iran unless approved in advanced by the UN Security Council. I just don’t have a definitive answer. I know our lawyers are kind of looking at the – and trying to collect as much – many details as they can at this point.
QUESTION: Well, what would be the real-world ramifications of that? Just great, Russia violated something, but it doesn’t really matter?
MR TONER: Fair question, and I don’t have a complete answer for you. I know that it would be discussed at – obviously at the Security Council level. As to what steps may be taken as a result or as a consequence, if it is even proven that this happened, I can’t give you much detail right now.
QUESTION: And I have one more technical question.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Is it your understanding – looking at the map, it looks pretty clear that they would have used Iraqi airspace. Is that your understanding? And two, do you know of any Iraqi permission for them to use that airspace?
MR TONER: I’d have to refer you to the Iraqi Government to speak to whether they gave permission; but yes, normally, it is prudent for any country overflying someone’s territory to seek permission.
QUESTION: But you don’t --
QUESTION: I have a follow-up. Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: You said they did use it in some fashion. Does that mean that you still believe they are using it as a base?
MR TONER: I don’t know, and frankly, we’ve seen varying reports. I mean, I’d have to really refer you to the Russians to speak to what their future intentions are regarding the use of Iranian air bases. It’s unclear whether – we’ve seen, frankly, news reports and other reports that they may have just used it as a stopover. We just don’t have any firm details.
QUESTION: But Mark, I mean --
MR TONER: I just don’t.
QUESTION: -- the U.S. has a vast intelligence base. How come the U.S. wouldn’t know if Russia using Iran as a base?
MR TONER: Well, again, we’ve – we haven’t completed our own, I think, internal assessment of what exactly took place.
QUESTION: When did the U.S. become aware that Russia had been – was using this base?
MR TONER: Sure. I think through Department of Defense channels we were told, again, as part of de-conflicting in advance, but I believe it was very short notice.
QUESTION: So they gave you – you notice of it through – on their coordination under (inaudible)?
MR TONER: I believe so. I’d refer you to Department of Defense. I think our new spokesperson spoke to this in Baghdad.
QUESTION: So – and how do you think that this – does it complicate what the U.S. is trying to do in Syria?
MR TONER: I mean, again, I don’t want to overhype this in the sense that, look, we’ve known that Iran has been supportive of and an active combatant in the Syrian civil war in support of the regime. Russia has been supporting the regime. So the fact that they’re working together now to carry out airstrikes collaboratively against what they say are terrorist targets but what we have seen are still a majority – well, I don’t want to say a majority, but are still a mixed bag of targeting, which is some legitimate ISIL, Nusrah targets but also a lot of moderate Syrian opposition.
So again, just to get back to your question, I don’t want to say it’s – we’re surprised, shocked, but it’s not helpful. It’s not helpful to the situation that we currently have where we’ve got the stalemate around Aleppo, where we have no access to humanitarian assistance or insufficient access to humanitarian assistance, where we have civilian populations at incredible risk, and we’re no closer to any kind of credible cessation of hostilities like we had a few months ago, certainly not nationwide, and as a result, no real relaunch of negotiations in Geneva. So it just – as I said, it complicates what is already a tense, complicated situation.
QUESTION: And my one follow-up.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: The one is on cooperation. Lavrov – the Russians did say that they discussed today the possible cooperation. Given the fact that this is now Iran and Russia are cooperating, which – on this base, is it your understanding that the cooperation agreement that Kerry is seeking with the Russians can go ahead given this? I mean, you were looking for a cessation of hostilities. Isn’t that – that was the main factor here.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: And everything seems to be pointing in an opposite direction.
MR TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to – my short answer to you is no, it is not – does not preclude the fact that we will reach some kind of cooperative arrangement with Russia, and we continue to pursue that. We continue to speak with Russia in working groups, or via working groups I guess, about ways that we can put in place a credible nationwide ceasefire, have full access to humanitarian assistance, and then again, get negotiations restarted in Geneva. And that continues to be our focus. We’re not there yet, though.
QUESTION: So Mark, I just want to follow up on --
QUESTION: It doesn’t preclude it? Sorry.
MR TONER: Sorry, I thought you said – and I apologize if I misunderstood. I thought you said does this latest development now --
QUESTION: Preclude the --
MR TONER: -- preclude us from doing that.
MR TONER: I said it doesn’t. We’re still continuing to pursue that. I mean --
QUESTION: So they wouldn’t have to end this arrangement with the Iranians to have a similar arrange – I mean, that would suggest that you’re open to the possibility of a U.S.-Russia-Iran partnership.
MR TONER: I didn’t say that.
QUESTION: But no, I know you didn’t say that.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: But that’s what it means. If Russia has a partnership with Iran and is flying from those bases, at the same time it has a partnership with you, that’s Russia-Iran-U.S. partnership.
MR TONER: I meant today’s events did not necessarily preclude that we would stop those discussions.
MR TONER: And I wasn’t trying to --
MR TONER: And thank you for trying to clarify or for clarifying. I don’t want to jump ahead too far. I think what I would say is we continue to have those conversations, we continue to pursue that goal, because we believe it’s the best way – the goal of creating a coordination cell with Russia that we’ve talked about before in the past, because we believe that’s the best mechanism to get this back on track, this effort back on track in Syria. But we don’t know all the details about today’s events and whether there is some kind of ongoing partnership or coordination effort with Iran, so I think we’re still looking for clarification on that.
QUESTION: Mark, also on cooperation --
QUESTION: Mark, I just want to follow up.
MR TONER: I’ll get Said and then I’ll get to you. I promise.
QUESTION: Yeah. Is this just a one event kind of a thing --
MR TONER: That’s something I don’t know, Said. Yeah --
QUESTION: -- or is it going to – is it – has it happened in the past? Is it part of a continuing pattern?
MR TONER: It doesn’t appear to have happened in the past, and the reason why is because (a) they acknowledged it was happening today – they – the Russian authorities, but also we did, as I acknowledged to Lesley and as the Department of Defense has already acknowledged, they did give us notification.
QUESTION: And you said that whatever negotiations or whatever process that may go on is not really contingent on Russia --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- ceasing this kind of operation. First of all, do you have any reason to believe that this is going to be just a one event or part of a future – or a process that may go on, and in a way, jeopardize whatever process that you are trying to do with the Russians to bring about some sort of a political solution? And second, do you have – with all due respect, I mean, do you have the leverage to tell Russia no, you cannot cooperate or you cannot use Iranian bases to bomb whatever targets that they want to bomb in Syria?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, of course not, and that’s a very frank answer to your question. We can only pursue dialogue and discussion and diplomacy with Russia. That said – and we’ve talked about this many times in the past – is no one should be under any illusions that there is some kind of military solution or ultimate victory to be gained in Syria. And in our continuing conversations and dialogue with Russia, they insist that they are of the same mindset. Again, we’ve said we have to test this to its limits, this idea that Russia is on board with pursuing a political solution in Syria.
We’ve talked before about these tension points, which is where they see terrorists, we see moderate Syrian opposition. We do agree that Daesh and Nusrah, or whatever it’s rebranded as these days, are terrorist organizations, but beyond that, we have a difference of opinion. And we believe, as you know, that it’s important that that moderate Syrian opposition that has bought into the process, bought into the cessation of hostility, not be subjected to ongoing airstrikes and attacks by the regime.
QUESTION: I have just a very quick follow-up --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: -- on the potential for these talks and the potential for working together with the Russians. There was an interview in Foreign Policy of Mr. Robert Malley, an advisor to the President on the Middle East. And he basically said that we can conceivably support an armed opposition for the foreseeable future and this war can go on and on. In a way, he was trying to incentivize the Russians to come along. So is the United States prepared to have this conflict go on endlessly?
MR TONER: So I haven’t seen the interview. My – and I’m not trying to parse your words --
MR TONER: -- or hit your interpretation of what the interview said. My sense or guess is that he said something along the lines of what we, including the Secretary, have said before, which is that there’s no military solution, but the alternative to a diplomatic solution, which we believe is the best way forward – or a political solution – could mean full-scale war. And that means all the members of the – or not all the members, but various members of the ISSG supporting different factions in this civil war that they believe is in their interest that could, frankly, exacerbate what is already a very difficult situation. And so we certainly don’t want to see – the last thing anyone wants to see in Syria is for things to get worse. But we believe that unless there’s some kind of credible process towards a political resolution to the conflict, that could very well happen.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: Just – you said --
MR TONER: Yeah, of course, go ahead.
QUESTION: You said it was unfortunate that Russia flew out of the Iranian airbase. And today on that specific mission --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- Russian authorities said that the strikes had eliminated five major terrorist weapons depots and training compounds in the area. Do you have information to refute that, and if yes, do you think – if no, do you think it is unfortunate that they were targeting terrorist depots and weapons depots and training facilities?
MR TONER: So I – sure. Fair question. I’d refer you to – always to Department of Defense, who does this kind of analysis, and especially our very good people who are stationed in Baghdad, but also the Pentagon regularly assesses where these strikes go or who they hit or who they target.
QUESTION: But there is a reason why you said “unfortunate,” so --
MR TONER: So let me finish. Let me finish. Let me finish. So let me finish. So what we continually find is indeed there are, among the airstrikes, what we would consider legitimate strikes against Nusrah, against Daesh/ISIL. But we also continue to see strikes that target moderate Syrian opposition forces. Now, we have seen – and you know this as well as anybody in this room – there are disagreements. And that’s what we’re trying to work through over how to go about this, whether – how to separate these and get a clear understanding of who is in the moderate opposition and then cordon them off, if you will, in a sense, so that they’re protected under a cessation of hostilities.
But to this point we’ve not gotten there. And as my – the reason I said it’s unfortunate is that today’s events, if in fact they did hit moderate Syrian opposition forces, they’re only going to exacerbate what is already a very difficult situation.
QUESTION: A senior – I want to – yeah, on this topic, please.
MR TONER: One more question. Yeah, please. Go ahead.
QUESTION: A senior Chinese military official, Guan Youfei, went to Damascus, sought closer military ties with Syria, and according to Chinese news agency Xinhua, pledged assistance in training Syrian forces. What are your thoughts about a China support for the Syrian Government?
MR TONER: Well, first of all, I’d refer you to the Chinese Government to talk about their level of support or their intentions. We speak regularly with Chinese officials on Syria, including ways to strengthen the cessation of hostilities in a way to get the political track up and running, improve humanitarian access. And we’re going to continue to have those conversations with China. But I can’t speak to what their intentions may or may not be in terms of working cooperatively with the Syrian Government.
QUESTION: But not their intentions, but the U.S. position on this, or opinion on this?
MR TONER: I mean, I guess I – look, I mean, the ISSG, the International Syria Support Group, includes the gamut. We have governments within that group that have worked with the regime, in support of the regime. We all know that. We have governments within that organization or that group that have worked with the moderate Syrian opposition. I think the important thing is: Do all the members of this group and do any – and does China agree with the sense that or the idea that we cannot have a military solution in Syria, that we’ve got to get a cessation of hostilities back on track, and we’ve got to work collaboratively in order to get there?
QUESTION: Specifically on the fight against terrorists, is the U.S. just as --
MR TONER: Last question, because there’s a lot of --
MR TONER: Okay, go ahead. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. just as – on the fight against terrorists in Syria, is the U.S. just as determined not to help the Syrian army in their fight against these terrorist groups?
MR TONER: Well, I mean, we’re not going to work with the regime forces, if that’s what you mean. What I think we have talked about is a way to – if we believe that – sorry. We believe that there is a way that we could, if we address all the issues and all our areas of concern, work with Russia to target specifically ISIL or Daesh – nice catch – effectively and really focus our efforts. But we’re not there yet. And we’re certainly not going to turn our back on the moderate Syrian opposition forces that, frankly, are vital to any kind of political transition in Syria.
MR TONER: Sorry.
QUESTION: When you said that these Russian planes flying from Iran to Syria --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- flew over the airspace of Iraq, could you explain whether that was the airspace of the Kurdistan region?
MR TONER: I can’t. I just don’t have that level of detail. I apologize.
QUESTION: Or Iraq? You don’t know? And the other part of the question --
MR TONER: I think that would be a great Department of Defense question.
QUESTION: Okay, I will seek --
MR TONER: Okay. Sorry, I’m not trying to – I’m just – I just don’t have that level of --
QUESTION: Okay. I’ll get more specificity. I thought you might know.
MR TONER: Okay. Sure.
QUESTION: But whether it was the Kurdistan region or whether it was Iraq, I mean, if the United States does not want to see more such strikes in the future, how about asking whatever authority’s airspace they – these planes flew over to deny the Russians permission to fly over their airspace?
MR TONER: Well, fair question. I’m sure we’ll continue to talk to Iraqi authorities about that. But --
QUESTION: How large is Iraq’s air force, as you know?
MR TONER: Yeah, fair point. But – and that’s a fair point as well. But look, Iraq is a sovereign country and it’s going to make its own decisions. But we’re going to raise our concerns.
QUESTION: In this regard, Mark, a Russian news agency has said today that – or has quoted Colonel Christopher Garver --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson, saying, “U.S. forces ensured the safety of Russian bombers en route to Syria from an Iranian air base as the aircraft traversed areas controlled by the U.S.-led coalition.”
MR TONER: I think I – I’m pretty sure that’s simply speaking about the fact that we de-conflicted. We used – we were – and my understanding is that it came relatively late, but we did receive word that they were going to request and carry out these operations, and that’s part of that mechanism, that de-confliction mechanism that we laboriously discussed here in the briefing room, but it’s to prevent any kind of mishap over the skies of Syria.
QUESTION: Are you alarmed that this thing may even get worse? In essence, you have Russia, Iran, Hizballah, and potentially Iraq, like a Shia camp, fighting the opposition, which are 100 percent Sunni, Saudi Arabia and the other countries. Do you see this really getting out of hand? Are you alarmed --
MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, again --
QUESTION: -- that this may happen if you don’t reach an accommodation with the Russians?
MR TONER: No. Sorry. I didn’t mean to cut you off. Look, I mean, the Secretary and others have spoken about this far more articulately or eloquently than I could, but absolutely. There’s a chance this could – if there’s no process in place, or at least hope for a political resolution, that this could descend even further into bloodshed and conflict and, as you noted, spread to become a wider conflict. And that’s our concern, and that’s why we’re trying to pursue, to the extent every – the extent possible a diplomatic solution.
QUESTION: As you’ve been listening, like I had a question about the Indian minister visiting Syria.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: And the minister is meeting the president and is also supporting like – and now you have the reports of China supporting, now Russia, now Iran. So there is a coalition that is supporting the Syrian regime. So do we still stand on that point that Assad has to go? Or do we find a political solution that includes him?
MR TONER: I’ll begin at the end of your question. So we’ve long said that the view of the United States is that there can be no successful political transition with Assad as the leader of Syria, but how that transition takes place, the pace of that transition is really something to be negotiated in Geneva between the two sides. That’s for them to figure that out. But we believe that Assad cannot be the future leader; we, the United States, believes that Assad cannot be the future leader of Syria because of the misery and carnage that he has caused in Syria on his own people.
In answer to your question, look, I mean, I don’t want to give any kind of credence or – to your question, saying that there’s some kind of pro-Assad coalition forming. I’ll let the Indian Government speak to what its intentions are. I think – as I said in a previous question about China is I think what is important here is that whatever you’re – whatever side you support, if I could put it that way, is that there be a general consensus towards a political or a diplomatic solution for Syria. Otherwise, it’s just going to get worse. And let me be clear, I’m talking about just the civil war. What we all need to focus on and what we’ve talked about before is we’re trying to end the civil war that’s taking place in Syria so that we can all focus our efforts to destroying and degrading Daesh.
QUESTION: Can we change topics?
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Just --
QUESTION: Can I ask one?
QUESTION: Can I just clarify that? The question was that the Assad is getting the support from not only India but China, Russia.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: These are not just small countries or small powers. So what is – how can you still stand, because when you come – when it comes to the negotiations table, so you’re going with this mindset that Assad has to go and these people are supporting Assad. So where do we stand on that?
MR TONER: That, my friend, is the art of diplomacy. And I’m not being facetious or lighthearted about it. I’m just – that’s walking into a room and building a consensus and dealing with tough issues and coming at it with different viewpoints. We’ve done that before. This Secretary of State has shown that he is capable of building that kind of consensus, whether it’s on climate change or an Iran nuclear deal. But that is – as I said, that’s the cornerstone of any successful diplomatic process.
QUESTION: Can you help me – help us get through --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- the new stands on the Clinton emails?
MR TONER: Of course. Yeah.
QUESTION: There’s a couple different things going on.
MR TONER: I hope so.
QUESTION: Yeah. Me too. Firstly, we understand that you will produce now emails for the Judicial Watch case. These are the new emails the FBI was able to recover from the server. Can you explain what exactly is going on with that?
MR TONER: Right. So you’re talking about the commitment to produce the FBI emails or the new --
QUESTION: The new work-related emails that were turned over to you as part of – after the FBI investigation, if I understand it.
MR TONER: Got it. Okay.
MR TONER: Right. So I think I’ve got this right. But I can confirm that last Friday, in a court filing, the State Department voluntarily agreed to produce to Judicial Watch any emails sent or received by Secretary Clinton in her official capacity during her tenure as Secretary of State which are contained in – within the material turned over by the FBI and which were not already processed for FOIA by the State Department. So you understand the distinction: anything that’s not already part of that 55,000 that we already went through. Anything that’s new that was sent or received by Secretary Clinton in her official capacity we would voluntarily produce to Judicial Watch – those emails.
And we also, in that filing, advise that we are or we would be prepared to suggest a production schedule to the court on August 22nd. So we’re not there yet. We’re looking at, frankly, the scope of the work involved and trying to come up with a plan.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: And before I ask about the FBI stuff --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- will those emails also be put on your website for the general public, in the way that you did with the 55,000 pages?
MR TONER: Yeah, I don’t have a definitive answer yet. I think, Brad, we’re still assessing how these documents will be produced, and we’re also in discussions with the court on this matter. So it’s part of what we’re looking at, I think, over the next couple of weeks.
QUESTION: And then just real quick on --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Yesterday, your colleague mentioned that you wanted to see the notes – the FBI notes – that would be passed to the Hill. Have you been able to see them yet, and --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- were there any – if you have, or have you – did you notice any issues?
MR TONER: Yeah. So we did – as you know, my colleague mentioned yesterday, we did ask the FBI that we be kept apprised of any information that they provided to Congress. And the reason why we did this is because it would relate to State Department equities, and this is a – frankly, a time-honored, traditional interagency practice. So we were provided – we have been provided emails with – the FBI intends to give to Congress, and we’ve reviewed them. The State Department obviously respects the FBI’s desire to accommodate the request of its committees of oversight in Congress, just as we do with our oversight committees, and we’re going to continue to cooperate, just as we have with the FBI in every step of the process.
QUESTION: Okay. So you reviewed them, but you didn’t have any problems, per se, with those being shared with members of Congress?
MR TONER: No, I – sure. I think we’re satisfied, after having reviewed these emails, that the FBI has made arrangements to ensure that the documents will be transmitted subject to appropriate handling rules.
MR TONER: I’ll put it that way – or controls. I guess I’ll put it that way.
QUESTION: And then there was also the issue of the FBI’s notes from its interviews that would be shared. Have you had the chance yet to review those before they are shared?
MR TONER: So my understanding is that we continue to work with the FBI on that, on those interview summaries – the 302s I guess is what they’re known as. We obviously respect the FBI’s desire to accommodate Congress and its committees of oversight, but we haven’t quite reached an agreement on those.
QUESTION: So you – they haven’t shown them to you yet?
MR TONER: My understanding is we’ve not received those summaries yet.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: Can I change topics?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Can I go to the Palestinian-Israeli issue?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Okay. According to Peace Now, which is an Israeli NGO, Israel is doing surveys, conducting surveys, and planning to take land in southern – in the Bethlehem area, which will basically cut – and they are building a road to connect the settlement of Efrat with Givat Eitam, which will basically cut the West Bank in half. Have any reaction to that?
MR TONER: Well, we’re concerned. We’re concerned because these plans, if carried out, would have the effect of isolating Bethlehem from the southern West Bank, and that’s fundamentally – in our view, fundamentally incompatible with the pursuit of a two-state solution. That’s it.
QUESTION: Now, the Palestinians --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- in turn, they put together a file that they want to take to – either to the ICC or the Security Council.
MR TONER: They put together a what? I’m sorry; I apologize.
QUESTION: As a – to the International Criminal Court --
MR TONER: No, no, I didn’t hear the first. They put together a file?
QUESTION: A file.
MR TONER: I’m sorry. I just didn’t hear what you said. Sorry.
QUESTION: A file. As according to Geneva Convention, settlements are war crimes. So they put together this file. They want to take it to the ICC; they want to take it to the Security Council. Because Israel has been quite obstinate in terms of heeding your calls and your advice and so on, why wouldn’t you support Palestinian efforts in either venue? Would you – is it likely that you would support an effort in the Security Council where, conceivably or presumably, a resolution can be taken place to say that the settlements are illegal?
MR TONER: Well, look, I think I just spoke very forcefully about – on our view that these settlements are counterproductive. Israel is an important partner and ally, and we believe that we can effectively make these points to Israel, to the Israeli Government, as part of our bilateral relationship. But I’m not going to go beyond that.
QUESTION: But you’ve – repeatedly you’ve called on the Israelis to stop demolitions --
MR TONER: Sure. One more question. Sure.
QUESTION: One more. One more on this.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure. It’s okay.
QUESTION: You’ve repeatedly called on the Israelis to stop demolitions. Yesterday, they demolished 50 Palestinian homes. You know they make like a few dozens or maybe more than a hundred people homeless and so on. So I mean, it seems that we have like a broken record. I keep asking the question; you keep telling me exactly the same thing. Will there be ultimately a U.S. position, where you can actually take a stand, a real stand, that will stop Israel from these excesses?
MR TONER: Said, I mean, as a spokesperson --
MR TONER: -- I mean, it’s my job to get up here and tell you what our position is about these kinds of actions. We make these equally clear to the Israeli Government in our private conversations with them. Beyond that, I’m not going to get into the – any detail or hypotheticals about what additional actions we may or may not take.
QUESTION: I want to talk on Turkey.
MR TONER: I’ll get to you. Thanks.
MR TONER: Turkey.
QUESTION: Thank you. What’s your take, Mark, on the fact that the Turkish prosecution has demanded this morning life terms against Fethullah Gulen – sorry – given the fact that he’s living here? And we talk about it yesterday with Elizabeth. What do you think about Fethullah Gulen’s request to set up an international investigation about the coup in Turkey?
MR TONER: So I stand by what Elizabeth said yesterday. No, of course, in terms of an extradition request for Gulen, we’ve, I think, been abundantly clear that this is a process that is separated and apart from any kind of political process, any kind of emotionally driven reaction to the events that happened in Turkey. It is part of our legal requirements under the extradition treaty that we have with Turkey.
We’ve received documents regarding Gulen. We’re continuing to look at those documents. We’ve said also repeatedly that this is not going to be an overnight process, that it needs to be studied, it needs – all the evidence needs to be looked at before we can make a decision, and we continue to process that request.
QUESTION: So you are still not certain that these documents constitute a formal extradition request by the Turkish authorities?
MR TONER: I think I’ll just say that we continue to look at what we’ve received from Turkish authorities and study them and analyze them, and we’ll make a decision when we make a decision. I don’t mean to be – I’m not trying to be trite or anything. I’m just trying to convey that this has been an exceptional case in that we usually don’t even get into this level of detail in talking about extradition requests, but we have acknowledged at least that, because the Turks have been very public as well – but we’ve also acknowledged that we have this treaty with them, that we’re going to look at this, that we’re going to work it through the system. But I think we owe it to the integrity of this process not to get into too many details and not call a play-by-play on how we’re feeling today about where this stands. I think we need to be very deliberate – and we are being very deliberate – about analyzing the materials that we’ve had.
So I don’t want to say, yes, this is a formal extradition request regarding this or that event or this or that concern by the Turkish Government. I just want to say we’ve received several batches of materials from the Turkish authorities and we’re analyzing them.
QUESTION: But Mark, Kerry had a discussion or at least a call with his Turkish counterpart today.
MR TONER: Yeah. That’s right.
QUESTION: Do you have a readout on what --
MR TONER: Just that they did talk about – well, they talked about the breadth of bilateral and regional issues, obviously talked a lot about Syria and counter-ISIL efforts, but they did raise this extradition matter.
QUESTION: And who was the call from and to whom?
MR TONER: That’s a good question. Let me see if it’s – I want to say it was – no, you know what, let me make sure. I think it was Cavusoglu reaching out to Secretary Kerry, but let me just double-check that.
QUESTION: At this point, you still haven’t seen the minimum of evidence against Gulen, given that you haven’t even arrested him to start the extradition process.
MR TONER: Well, right. I mean, we haven’t made a decision. I mean, it wouldn’t even be a minimal – a minimum of evidence. I mean, we wouldn’t – my understanding is that we wouldn’t take any action, legal action, against an individual until we determine --
QUESTION: You don’t stop a guy from leaving the country while you’re weighing his extradition?
MR TONER: There are mechanisms in place to do that.
QUESTION: Usually if a guy’s accused of masterminding a terrorist attack you confine him before you decide on whether you’re going to – you don’t let him go free.
MR TONER: I understand what you’re asking, but that was not the question that I heard. And again, talk to somebody over at Department of Justice. But there are mechanisms in place via – short of an extradition that you can stop someone or not allow them to take place.
QUESTION: Has his passport been revoked or his freedom of travel been restricted?
MR TONER: I can’t speak to that. I won’t speak to that. I would not speak to that.
QUESTION: You cannot speak to --
QUESTION: So you’re saying it’s possible that you have taken some restrictions on his movement that just haven’t been publicized?
MR TONER: I’m just not going to – I’m not going to speak to his status. I’m not going to speak to where we’re at in this process, Brad.
QUESTION: And one more on Turkey. There was a document that came out from the German interior ministry – I don’t know if you saw it – that described Turkey as the central platform for Islamist militant groups in the Middle East, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Islamist militant groups in Syria. Is that your view, that Turkey’s now the big Islamist on the block?
MR TONER: I’m sorry. Where is this report from?
QUESTION: German interior ministry. Leaked documents.
MR TONER: I have not seen it, so I don’t want to speak to it.
QUESTION: What is your feeling on Turkey’s support for Islamist militantism?
MR TONER: Look, I mean, I think that Turkey has suffered, frankly, from terrorism, ISIL-related terrorism but also PKK-related terrorism, and has been victimized by these terrorists. So I think that it is – and it is an important member of the coalition to defeat Daesh in Syria. And beyond that, it has also acknowledged that it has a problem with foreign fighters transiting or using its territory, and that’s something that we’ve tried to focus on, frankly, in trying to stop the flow of these foreign fighters into Syria and out of Syria back into Western Europe and back into other parts of Europe. These continue to be challenges that we’re working to address with Turkey. Our opinion, though, is that Turkey is an important democratic ally and NATO member.
QUESTION: So you don’t see it as a terror supporter or terror enabler, just as a terror victim?
MR TONER: No. Look, I mean, it is dealing – it is at a crossroads of many of these different groups and ideologies. And it is, I think, working hard to confront these challenges and provide for the security of its people.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: Let’s do Azerbaijan. I’ll get to you. I promise, Goyal.
QUESTION: Okay. Azerbaijan opposition figure Jafarli has been detained, following his criticism of changes to the constitution. What is the position of the State Department on his arrest as well as these proposed changes to the constitution?
MR TONER: Sure. So with regard to the arrest of, I think on August 12th, of Azerbaijani opposition – he’s frankly the Republican Alternative movement executive secretary. His name is Natig, as you noted, Jafarli. We’re very troubled by his arrest. We’re also troubled by reports that – of additional arrests of activists. We would urge strongly the Azerbaijani Government to release these and other activists who’ve been incarcerated in connection with exercising their fundamental freedoms. And we call on them to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens and to allow an open and public dialogue about the direction of their country, particularly in the run-up to the planned September 26 constitutional amendment referendum. And so we would also urge the government to submit the constitutional amendments for a joint Venice Commission and ODIHR opinion as well.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah, please. Your turn, Goyal.
QUESTION: South Asia. Quick question.
MR TONER: South Asia.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Starting with India. Mark, U.S. is the most favored nation for visitations and investment in the U.S. for thousands of Indians. And now this – at least one Shah Rukh Khan keeps coming to the U.S. and complaining against the U.S. This was the third time for him last week when he was held for four hours at the L.A. International Airport. He said because his name is Khan, Shah Rukh Khan. He said he’s the superstar and billionaire – maybe in Indian rupees. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: Pretty good.
QUESTION: Last time he was held at the JFK for two hours, and then Liberty International Airport in Newark also for two hours. But few words which he tweeted – I mean, he tweeted – I cannot even say in public meeting here. But Madam Nisha Desai, she tweeted – in one line she said that – a casual sorry; even U.S. diplomats sometimes are pulled over and screened for extra screening. So what I’m asking you is, in India he made a big thing about this, and Indian media is saying that U.S. apologize to Shah Rukh Khan. Is this casual sorry, is apology, or any comments? Because he said, why I am always pulled by the U.S. airports?
MR TONER: Can I – you know what, Goyal? Can I just look into it? I’m sorry, I just am not aware of the – I’m not trying to be glib; I’m just – I’m not aware of the – what happened. I need to get all the facts of his – of this case, and I’ll get back to you with an answer.
QUESTION: And second, just a quick question about India and Pakistan.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Both countries just celebrated independence days.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: And now Pakistan has invited again India for talks – conflict talks and all that. But what Indian officials in Delhi are saying that after supporting terrorism against India and also home minister, Mr. Rajnath, was in Pakistan for the SAARC meeting, which was a failure for him or his visit was failure. And Sushma Swaraj, the foreign minister of India, said that we already said many times that unless – until Pakistan stops terrorism against India, there is no way – any use of talking. So you have any comments about this?
MR TONER: So I just – my only comment is that – and I’ve said this before – is that we would encourage greater dialogue and counterterrorism cooperation between both Pakistan and India. We’ve said that many times. It’s for the good of both countries; it’s for the good of the region. Frankly, it’s for the benefit of the United States. It’s important that Pakistan do the utmost to prevent terrorists from carrying out acts of terror – not just in Pakistan, but elsewhere in the region. So it’s important that there’s greater collaboration, greater dialogue. And we would encourage any effort in that regard.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
MR TONER: Thank you. Yeah.
QUESTION: On Japan.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: In the --
MR TONER: Good to see you.
QUESTION: Washington Post reported that President Obama is considering new nuclear weapons policy, which includes the one that the U.S. will never use a nuclear weapon, but U.S. will never use their – no first use.
MR TONER: No first use. Right.
QUESTION: And then the report also said the Japanese prime minister expressed a concern to U.S. officials because Japan is – Japan is worried about the threat from North Korea. But do you have any comment on that possible new --
MR TONER: Well, I think we share Japan’s concern about the threat of North Korea’s actions. Look, the President in his landmark 2009 speech in Prague talked about a way forward, a path, if you will, that would – to a world without nuclear weapons. And in the past years this Administration has achieved progress on a number of fronts in that regard: reducing our own deployed stockpiles and launchers through the New START, but also diminishing the role of nuclear weapons in our security strategy and securing the Iran deal, which will help, we believe, stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. We are always looking for additional ways to achieve progress towards the President’s goal while maintaining – and this is important – a credible deterrent for the United States, our allies, and our partners.
So we’ve said we’ll continue to review our plan modernization programs. We’re going to continue to assess whether there are additional steps that we can take to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our security strategy and pursue ways to strengthen the global nonproliferation regime further. But as I said, we’re always going to maintain a credible deterrent for our friends and our allies.
QUESTION: A follow-up on that? Have there been concerns expressed diplomatically by Japan and South Korea about this proposal that the President is supposed to make before the UN General Assembly next month?
MR TONER: I’m not aware. That’s an honest answer.
QUESTION: I have two questions. The first one was on Gitmo. I was wondering if you can guarantee the American people that the 15 detainees released this week won’t go right back out into the battlefield to fight against and target Americans. And if not, why continue to release them?
MR TONER: Well, good question. I think that we’ve talked about this before. But what’s important is that any time – so as we scale down Gitmo and hopefully one day close it altogether, the detainees have been vetted through what is a very rigorous process, and I can assure you that it’s a very rigorous process – looked at all of the – whether they would return to the battlefield; recidivist or recidivism, I guess, is – was the terminology used. Is it 100 percent foolproof? Have there been no cases or zero cases of this happening? Well, no. There have been cases of it, but very few. I don’t know the percentage in front of me, but it’s incredibly small. By and large, these detainees that have been sent to various countries and governments who have accepted them have worked very hard to maintain surveillance of these individuals, to keep track of them, keep an eye on them, if you will, to ensure that they no longer pose a security threat to anyone – not just the American people, but to anyone. That is something that we take very seriously. These governments who take these detainees on and find them homes and resettle them also take it very seriously because it’s on their home soil that these people are living. That’s, I think, step one in any kind of plan to close Gitmo: where you relocate the detainees. I think security, safety of innocent civilians is foremost.
QUESTION: And I have another question --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- on a different topic. We understand there was a discussion at the State --
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on --
QUESTION: Oh, yeah, sure.
QUESTION: -- Gitmo. So what is – how many cases where the former Gitmo detainees were actually caught in attacking or planning attacks on the United States? Do you have any record of that?
MR TONER: How many --
QUESTION: How many incidents? You said that there were some incidents, but you don’t think they --
MR TONER: Yeah, I don’t. There is – you know what? And I’m not trying to – we can get you this, but the Department of Defense also puts out recidivist rates.
QUESTION: Okay, this --
MR TONER: Again, they’re relatively small.
QUESTION: Yeah, it’s a difficult word to pronounce: recidivism rate. And compared, let’s say, to American prisoners in American prisons. I mean, how does it compare?
MR TONER: I don’t --
QUESTION: In my understanding, it’s a lot less.
MR TONER: I don’t, but that doesn’t sound unrealistic to me.
QUESTION: Thank you. So we understand there was a discussion here at the State Department about the feasibility of then-Secretary Clinton using a wireless earpiece or Bluetooth earpiece. This is roughly the same time period as the lengthy discussions about BlackBerry use. So was there an informal discussion or a formal request within Secretary Clinton’s proposed use of a wireless earpiece or Bluetooth?
MR TONER: Hold on a second. So I think we just got this request – or this question in an hour or so ago. We’re looking at it. We don’t have an answer for you yet. We’ll get back to you when we know more about whether indeed Secretary Clinton asked for or requested to use a Bluetooth or wireless earpiece within – what I think you’re talking about was within the seventh floor.
QUESTION: And then what’s the --
MR TONER: Mahogany Row, so-called Mahogany Row.
QUESTION: Is there a State Department policy on Bluetooth devices from your security professionals or anything that way then?
MR TONER: Well, again, we’re looking into what the stated policy is. I mean, in general, any kind of Bluetooth – it’s a security assessment whether any kind of device – whether a – whether it’s a phone or, as I said, a Bluetooth earpiece might be used as a way to gain access to information or listen in on conversations, but I don’t have a clear, definitive policy for you. We’ll get that for you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure thing.
QUESTION: The Washington Post has a big story that you have doubtless seen that lays a lot of responsibility on the White House for the messy situation in Iraq today, that actually in 2012 when the U.S. troops withdrew, it pressed for extensive cutbacks in State Department programs slated for Iraq over objections of both the military and the State Department with negative consequences. Do you concur in that assessment? And if not, why not?
MR TONER: I’m aware of the article. I mean, look, it’s a very lengthy piece and lengthy analysis. I guess in answer to your question, I would say that I can acknowledge that our security relationship is fundamentally different than it was – than the one we had with Iraq prior to 2011. We all know that. The majority of programs that were run by the Department of Defense weren’t impacted as much by budget cuts as they were by the fundamental change in our security cooperation with Iraq as well as the departure of thousands of Department of Defense personnel. And I think that they can probably speak in greater detail to those programs or the effect or ramifications of those programs being closed or shut down or scaled back.
It also should be noted that the Government of Iraq also had a say in all of these decisions. They are a sovereign country, as I mentioned previously. So there were Department of State programs, for instance, that they were not in favor of supporting at that point in time or at that time.
I also think with regard to our general focus or how we’re targeting or going about pursuing a strategy to root out terrorist networks in Iraq, we’re doing it in a different way, and we’ve talked a lot about that. I mean, how we’re going after ISIL and Daesh in Iraq right now is that we are working through the Government of Iraq to build up the capabilities of Iraq’s forces to destroy, dismantle ISIL, to rebuild these communities, and to provide for the security of the Iraqi people going forward.
That’s a hard thing to do, harder than just putting a lot of U.S. troops on the ground in some ways and going after ISIL and Daesh, but it’s an important thing to do, because ultimately, this is about enabling Iraq to provide for its own security. And we’ve seen on the battlefield Iraq’s forces, security forces, have shown that they have the ability, and we’ve seen it with Kurdish forces as well – the ability to defeat, go after, defeat ISIL, to remove them, and then in places where we’ve seen them rebuild communities that have been devastated by ISIL.
As I said, this is a long-term strategy, but it’s one we have to do in conjunction with the Iraqi Government and we have to succeed at if we want Iraq to be able to, frankly, stand on its own two feet going forward.
QUESTION: Back to the emails.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Just a couple of clarification points. So can you – are you able to say the number of emails that the FBI will be turning over to Congress as part of --
MR TONER: Turning over to Congress?
QUESTION: State Department --
MR TONER: I don’t think I do have that. I apologize. Sorry for the awkward pause as I look through this.
MR TONER: Dramatic pause. (Laughter.) Thank you.
I don’t. We’ll try to see if we can get you a firm number on that --
QUESTION: So it would not be the entirety of the thousands of Clinton emails that --
MR TONER: Well, no. And again, my understanding is that these are not just Clinton emails. These are emails from other individuals and sources that haven’t been out there yet, so it’s not just – these are not unseen Clinton emails; these are from different sources, different individuals. I don’t know how to put it.
QUESTION: And going back to the Judicial Watch --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Earlier in August you had released a statement saying that these documents would be made public as part of your legal obligation, so – as far as the Clinton emails that were originally procured by the FBI that were then handed over to the State Department. So will those still be made public?
MR TONER: I’m sorry. So just to clarify, you’re talking about – right, the thousands of documents that the FBI provided. We have agreed to produce to Judicial Watch any emails sent in her official capacity. We are still trying to come up with a decision on how we’ll or whether we’ll release them publicly, as we did with the 55,000. So I --
QUESTION: So it is now a question as to whether they – it would be up to Judicial Watch as to whether or not they were to become public?
MR TONER: Yes. Well, no. I mean, not – look, I mean, we’re still assessing, I guess is how I’d put it at this point. We have voluntarily agreed to produce to Judicial Watch these emails, and we’ve made that in a court filing last Friday. But in answer to Brad’s question, which is are we going to put them up on State’s FOIA website like we did with the previous 55,000, we’re still trying to assess how or if we’re going to do that.
QUESTION: Yemen very quickly?
MR TONER: Yemen, sure.
QUESTION: Follow-up on – yesterday there was – the question was asked on the bombardment of the hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders and the school.
MR TONER: Yeah, of course.
QUESTION: I wonder if you have received any word from the Saudis that they have begun conducting an investigation or where the situation is.
MR TONER: Well, certainly – and I think we spoke to this yesterday – we strongly urge all sides to end these kinds of offensive military actions in Yemen. We express our condolences to the victims’ families of yesterday’s horrible attacks – or airstrikes, rather. Goes without saying that civilians are the most vulnerable victims of any conflict, and we’re always concerned by civilian casualties, and especially in this case – in this conflict.
In terms of – we have obviously expressed our concerns to the Saudi-led coalition. We’ve urged them, as I said, to cease all military action. The only solution to Yemen’s challenges, as we have said many times, is through peaceful dialogue, so we reiterate our calls for the Saudi-led coalition to take all feasible measures to protect civilians while also ensuring accountability and avoiding future civilian harm.
As – I don’t think there’s an update on yesterday’s statement that we said that the Saudi-led coalition has announced it will conduct an investigation. I would just add that we would urge them to do it very quickly and to release their findings publicly.
QUESTION: One more on Yemen.
MR TONER: One more. Sorry.
QUESTION: Do you have any response to a bipartisan group of senators who have expressed their concerns about the continual sale of arms to Saudi Arabia given these civilian casualties?
MR TONER: I mean, I’ll – any – look, I mean, I haven’t seen the letter, so I am hesitant to respond to it except to say that any defense or security products that we give to or sell to the Saudis, as with any country, are under the end-use protocols that always look at and monitor usage of them.
QUESTION: Defensive? You sell more than defensive weapons to Saudi Arabia. Is that – I mean, fighter jets are purely defensive? Missiles --
MR TONER: Sorry, security – security materials. I apologize.
QUESTION: Mark, did you get any update from UN on South Sudan?
MR TONER: No, I don’t believe so, Tejinder. Let me just look very quickly. Sorry, guys. I’m not trying to – I think we’re pretty much where we were yesterday.
MR TONER: But let me just very quickly look here.
I mean, we – what I – all I can say is that we’ve raised this incident and our concerns with senior officials in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the secretary-general’s staff, and we’re going to continue to seek clarification on the UN’s response to the incident on July 11th. We’ll continue to pressure the UN to improve security for all UNMIS personnel, as well as NGO workers and civilians.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:10 p.m.)
DPB # 143
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