Daily Archives: August 3, 2015

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing – August 3, 2015

1:39 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome back.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Hope that was vacation you were on.


MR TONER: Fantastic – hopefully. (Laughter.) Welcome to a Monday at the State Department. As you know, or may not know, but the Secretary just left Doha en route to Singapore, his next stop; had, obviously, good meetings today around the meetings with the GCC ministers collectively, but also with individual as well, and also met with Foreign Minister Lavrov and Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir.

He announced briefly at the top – I just wanted to cite and reiterate it – the – that the United States will provide nearly $62 million in additional humanitarian assistance to help those affected by the violence in Iraq. That brings the total of U.S. humanitarian assistance to Iraqis in the region to more than 477 million since the start of Fiscal Year 2014.

I can stop there and just move to your questions. Not a lot.


MR TONER: Yeah, please, go ahead, Lesley.

QUESTION: I actually want to raise the issue with you on Syria.

MR TONER: Excuse me.

QUESTION: News came out yesterday that the U.S. has decided to allow airstrikes to defend Syrian rebels trained by the U.S. military even if the other side – even if the – even if on the other side they attack the Syrian forces that are loyal to Assad. This raises the question – I mean, I’ll ask you about that Lavrov raised it today. But does this kind of open the possibility of the – of direct confrontation with Syria – with Assad’s forces?

MR TONER: Well —

QUESTION: Which the U.S. has said it would not do.

MR TONER: Sure. Well, let me start by saying we view the Syrian forces that have been trained and equipped by the Department of Defense as partners in our overall counter-ISIL effort, and those forces – these forces, rather, are being provided with a wide range of coalition support in their mission to counter ISIL in Syria. And that includes – and I’m using a terminology – but defensive fire support to protect them. So I can’t get into the specifics of the rules of engagement, but we’ve said all along that we’ll take necessary steps to ensure these forces can successfully carry out their mission. And we’ve cautioned Syria in the past not to engage U.S. aircraft, and the Syrian regime would similarly be advised not to interfere with New Syrian Forces’ counter-ISIL mission. So we’ve conveyed that.

QUESTION: So you basically are hoping that the Syrian forces loyal to Assad will just kind of stay out of the way?

MR TONER: Again, I think what I – what we want to underscore is that we’re prepared to support these forces on the ground who are fighting ISIL in northern Syria. That’s the main focus of their efforts. That’s the main focus of our efforts. But we also want to protect them from other possible attacks.


MR TONER: So that’s why I say – used the term defensive fire.

QUESTION: So if Assad’s forces come – are in the vicinity, they – I mean, there is a possibility that they would – will be hit by these airstrikes.

MR TONER: So – well, I mean, that’s a somewhat hypothetical question. As I said, we – I’ll just leave it where I just said, is we’re going to take steps necessary to ensure these forces can carry out their anti-ISIL mission, and we’ll take any kind of measures that we believe —

QUESTION: One more follow-up —


QUESTION: — on that one. And that is that the Russians are obviously not happy about this. Today Lavrov, who had a meeting with Kerry in Doha, said that these U.S. airstrikes would complicate counterterrorism efforts.

MR TONER: Well, you’re right in noting that there was a meeting earlier today with, as I mentioned at the top, Foreign Minister Lavrov and Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir, and they did discuss specifically Syria. And it was the first trilateral meeting convened for this purpose. I think all three – let me start with what they agreed on and what they talked about. They did agree – acknowledge the dangers posed to the Syrian people by the rise of extremist forces and the need for a meaningful political transition to enable a unified fight against ISIL and other extremist groups in Syria.

Secretary Kerry did reiterate the U.S. view that the Assad regime – regime’s brutality against the Syrian people has helped foster ISIL’s growth in the region and as well as foster the presence of foreign fighters, and made clear that Assad had no role in Syria’s future. But he did in that context also stress the coalition’s commitment to supporting counter-ISIL fighters on the ground in Syria.

QUESTION: So what was —

MR TONER: So – but again, sorry, just to finish my – but again, I think the focus – it’s proper to keep the focus on countering ISIL’s presence in northern Syria and enabling those forces that we’ve trained, in part, but are also supporting their efforts to take the fight against ISIL.

Go ahead. You had a follow-up. Go ahead, please.

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, I mean, does the U.S. not think this is going to complicate stuff with Assad? I mean, here you’re trying to also have a political – with the help of the Russians a political path. Is this just not going to complicate stuff? And why would —

MR TONER: Look, I mean, no one’s denying it’s a very complex situation in northern Syria. You have these forces, both Syrian Arab but also Syrian Kurdish forces that are fighting ISIL, some of whom who’ve been trained by the U.S., but other forces as well, and they’ve been effective in driving ISIL out of the region. In part, I think what we’re trying to convey here is that we’re going to support these forces with airstrikes and also, if they’re under threat, whoever they’re under threat by – or from, rather. And so I think that’s the important message here. They’re focused on countering ISIL in the region. We’re going to support and protect them as they take the fight to ISIL.

More broadly, we certainly want a political solution, and we maintain that a political solution is the only way to resolve the crisis and end the bloodshed in Syria. And that’s the essence of today’s meeting, this trilateral meeting that took place today, and that’s going to be the focus of our efforts going forward.


QUESTION: Given that things are not so clearly defined and clear-cut on the ground, isn’t there a danger that you could encounter or the U.S. coalition flights could encounter Syrian airplanes, especially as you get closer to Aleppo, because this is a very fluid situation?

MR TONER: It is a very fluid situation. It’s part of the reason that I stressed in my remarks a few minutes ago that this is something we’ve been very clear in terms of conveying to the Syrian Government.

QUESTION: Where will these trained forced be stationed specifically in Syria?

MR TONER: I don’t have a laydown operationally to give you. They’re stationed – or stationed —

QUESTION: In the north?

MR TONER: Yeah, northern Syria was what we’re talking about, that region. The same region we’ve been talking about all along last week and the week before, where they’re, frankly, having some success in driving ISIL, I-S-I-L, out of those – this area along Turkey’s border with Syria.

QUESTION: As you know, even the opposition forces is divided – are divided in Syria.


QUESTION: You have the Kurdish forces, for example, who are not clearly part of the Free Syrian Army opposition, and they have their own spheres of – sphere of influence or strongholds in Syria. Isn’t there a danger also that they might actually face those forces in fighting for land or influence in Syria?

MR TONER: You’re talking about – sorry —

QUESTION: They might counter the Kurdish forces.

MR TONER: — within the counter-ISIL groups that are fighting in Syria?

QUESTION: That they don’t all have the same agenda and goals.

MR TONER: Again, though, but I think the common goal here is that all of these groups, frankly, believe that ISIL is a pervasive and, frankly, the more significant threat to the region. And so to some extent, yes, we’re aware that, as I said before, it’s a complex situation. But I think all of these groups as well as the coalition are united in putting the focus where it belongs, which is on driving ISIL out of the region.

We’ve also been very clear, and as has Turkey, frankly, in talking about as these areas or cities and towns are liberated that we want to see local government restored and we want to see an environment that’s conducive to all displaced people returning to those areas.

QUESTION: Can I go to Iraq, the Iraq aid?

MR TONER: Sure thing. Yeah, absolutely. We’re not —

QUESTION: Just one more question on Syria?

MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead. Finish with Syria, please.

QUESTION: It’s slightly different, but —

MR TONER: Yeah, it’s okay.

QUESTION: — it’s this Airwatch report about coalition strikes having killed 450 civilians. Have you got a response to that? And could you include in that which incidents – how many incidents the U.S. is currently investigating?

MR TONER: Sure. We have seen the report and we’re reviewing the findings. We obviously take serious – very seriously efforts to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. When we receive these kinds of reliable reports, we obviously share them with the Department of Defense as well as with CENTCOM, and we review the information rigorously, conduct an investigation, and try to figure out what’s – as I said, what the more credible information is. But we always believe that it’s absolutely important to protect the lives of civilians on the ground, so we take these kinds of reports very seriously.

QUESTION: But there’s a huge difference between 450 as cited by Airwatch —

MR TONER: They are high, yeah.

QUESTION: — and two as cited by CENTCOM.

MR TONER: I agree. There’s a discrepancy and we’ve noted that. That’s why we’re looking into them and trying to see where the – what the right number is, to be frank.

QUESTION: And do you know how many specific incidents are being investigated?

MR TONER: I don’t. I don’t have more details, so —


MR TONER: Yeah. I’m sorry, yeah.

QUESTION: So you talked about like $600 million in aid.

MR TONER: Yes. Hold on, let me get the exact – I don’t want to give you the wrong —

QUESTION: Sure. Can you tell us specifically where that aid goes – what part of this goes for refugees or —

MR TONER: Sure. So 62 million, you’re absolutely right. So it’s – this funding, as it often – often, our humanitarian assistance is funneled through and supports the activities of UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Children’s Fund – UNICEF, and the International Organization for Migration – IOM, as well as other international and nongovernmental organizations. It’s going to be critically needed relief, so water – clean water, rather – medical care, shelter, and other necessities by those most affected by the ongoing conflict. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees in the region. And we’re also going to – the money’s going to go to help provide assistance to host communities throughout the region who are also struggling to deal with the displaced as well.

QUESTION: So the total is 477 million?

MR TONER: That’s right.

QUESTION: Does that make the U.S. the largest donor in Iraq?

MR TONER: That is a fair question. I believe that’s correct, yes.


QUESTION: Mark, can I change the subject?


QUESTION: This report in The New York Times on China’s asking for the extradition of this businessman, Ling Wancheng. Are you aware of this case, and has he asked for asylum? Where is he? Is he in the United States?

MR TONER: Sure. First of all, because I’m not able to discuss individual cases such as this, more broadly I can say that we regularly engage with China on law enforcement matters of mutual concern, and that includes fugitives and also includes anti-corruption. And that’s through the U.S.-China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement Cooperation.

We continue to emphasize to Chinese officials, though, that it’s incumbent on them to provide U.S. officials with clear, significant, compelling, convincing evidence to allow our law enforcement agencies to proceed with investigations, removals, and prosecutions of fugitives. So I don’t want to get too much into the details of this specific case, but more broadly, that’s our approach.

QUESTION: So China has asked – from what you’re saying, if the U.S. has come back to them and said, well, you need to provide us with that information —

MR TONER: So we do have this working group. It does look at all of these, and this case, if it’s indeed a case – and I can’t speak to confirm it or deny it because, as we talked about in another extradition case, we’re not able to discuss the specifics of these cases. But more broadly speaking, we do have this mechanism, this working group in place that looks at all the cases, frankly, that China has against its nationals living in the United States. And we try to vet those, and, as I said, rely on China to provide us with what we believe is legitimate, compelling, credible evidence of why these people should be – sorry, extradited, I apologize.


QUESTION: Can you say whether this man, Ling Wancheng, has – is suspected of breaking any U.S. laws?

MR TONER: I’m not aware of that, no. I’m not aware that he’s suspected of breaking any U.S. laws. But that’s a matter for the FBI or for other domestic law enforcement agencies.

In the back, please, and then I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. We understand the Secretary’s going to participate ASEAN-related meetings —

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — in Kuala Lumpur. And what kind of message the Secretary is going to convey to stop the Chinese militarization of Spratly Islands?

MR TONER: Well, so, as you mentioned, he’s on his way to Asia now, and looking forward to his meetings and participation there in ASEAN. I think it’s – he’s going to – sorry, these – sorry, just – you asked about – specifically about South China Sea, right? Yeah.

I think we would expect that issue to come up in the broader framework of the meetings that he’s going to have there with the ASEAN foreign ministers. Generally speaking, any issue that’s – that ASEAN considers important for the security of the region is a topic for conversation. And I think that it’s safe to say developments in the South China Sea are a critical aspect of regional security. So I think it’s natural in that context that they could be raised in ASEAN, in the ARF and EAS meetings.

We have interests at stake. We’ve been clear about that. The claimants, various claimants do, and the international community has interests at stake because it’s a critical waterway. And as we’ve been very clear, the U.S. supports freedom of navigation, overflight, and while we don’t take a position on the competing claims for sovereignty of the islands, we do observe that it would – that – sorry, on the competing claims to sovereignty on the – over the land features in the South China Sea, it’s our strong opinion that a claimant not undertake actions that significantly increase the physical size or functionality of disputed features, or to militarize them. We would view that as provocative.

QUESTION: Is the Secretary planning to meet his Chinese counterpart there?

MR TONER: Yeah, I don’t want to get ahead of the meetings that he’s going to have on the ground there, but I expect that he’ll be meeting with the Chinese as well as many other of the partners.

QUESTION: Possible?

MR TONER: Excuse me?

QUESTION: Highly possible?

MR TONER: Highly possible.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that one?

MR TONER: Sure thing, yeah.

QUESTION: Well, the Times today said that they don’t want to talk, they don’t want the South China Sea issue to come up at the ASEAN group. He was quite – we interviewed the vice foreign minister today —


QUESTION: — and he was quite adamant that it shouldn’t be discussed.

MR TONER: I’m aware of those comments.

QUESTION: Yeah. Any reaction to that?

MR TONER: Yeah, I think I said, again, this is a forum in which critical security issues need to be brought up and discussed, and frankly, as I just said, we believe that developments in the South China Sea meet that criteria.

QUESTION: The issue of the South China Sea is not officially on that agenda as far as we know.

MR TONER: Right, but again, we’ve – we expect – and again, it’s not just the U.S. raising this; these are other members who we expect will raise these issues.

QUESTION: If I remember, last year, the U.S. did raise it, even though China again said it didn’t want to talk about it. How would – I mean, other than reiterating the U.S. position on this, is there any further steps that the U.S. is going to propose to try to resolve this issue, which has been a longstanding one?

MR TONER: It has been a longstanding issue, I believe – or I agree. I think it’s important, frankly – and again, not just the U.S., but for all of the various claimants, all those who have interests in this important issue – that their voices can be heard as well. Frankly, that’s why fora such as the ASEAN meeting exists in order to get out – or rather discuss these issues frankly among nations. We’ve long insisted that what we want to see is a cooperative process here to discuss all the various interests and claims. We want to see tensions reduced, and in that regard I think we would be interested in hearing other possible ways and means to reduce tensions in the region.

QUESTION: So one of those steps is for to freeze the activity and then discuss it. Is that one of the issues that’s going to be raised —

MR TONER: I don’t want to predetermine what they’re going to discuss in those meetings.


MR TONER: Sure thing.

QUESTION: I realize just from last week the U.S. doesn’t comment on WikiLeaks revelations.


QUESTION: But the chief cabinet secretary of Japan said Tokyo was waiting to hear some clarification on the situation. How are you going to clarify?

MR TONER: Well, I’ll just say that our two governments have been in communication on this issue. I think I said last week I wasn’t going to speak to the allegations made by purportedly classified documents, but we have been in touch with the Japanese Government. I’m not going to talk about the contents of those discussions, but we are in touch.




QUESTION: Sorry. Follow up on that?

MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead, please. Yeah, of course.

QUESTION: So are you going to be providing assurances that there will be no more future spying on —

MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to get into the contents of what we’re going to discuss or what we are discussing with the Japanese Government. More broadly, our intelligence activities are always focused on our national security needs as well as the needs of those of our allies and partners. And I would just again reiterate the fact that Japan is a stalwart U.S. partner and ally in the region.

QUESTION: Do you expect that you will be giving some type of assurance that was given to, for example, Germany or Brazil?

MR TONER: Again, because these are intelligence issues, I don’t want to get into what we may or may not say about them.

Yeah, I’m sorry. You were —

QUESTION: Yeah, that’s —

MR TONER: — and Israel.

QUESTION: The 16-year-old stabbing victim of the Jerusalem pride attack unfortunately passed away yesterday. Do you have any further response to it than what you expressed on Friday? And then to add onto that, you had said – you weren’t ready to say that that was an act of terrorism. Has that changed?

MR TONER: Well, I think you saw – first of all, we are aware – saw, obviously, the reports that the 16-year-old Shira Banki passed away. Our deepest condolences go out to her family and to her friends. It was a vicious attack, as I said last Thursday, and we welcome the commitment by Israel – Israeli authorities to bring her killer to justice. We’ve been encouraged, frankly, by many of the strong statements made by President Rivlin as well as Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior Government of Israel officials who condemned the attack. We welcome the Government of Israel’s commitment to ensure that the perpetrators of this – or perpetrator, rather, is held accountable for his actions.

QUESTION: So you’re still not willing to say it’s an act of terrorism?

MR TONER: It’s – again, I’m not going to qualify it in any way other than say it’s a terrible tragedy. We believe that Israel is committed to, as I said, holding the perpetrator of this horrible crime accountable for his actions.

QUESTION: And then one additional question as well I wanted to ask.

MR TONER: Yeah, please. Yeah.

QUESTION: Did LGBT rights at all come up with the Secretary’s conversations with Egyptian, Saudi, and Qatari officials that he had yesterday and today before leaving Doha and Cairo?

MR TONER: I haven’t seen that specifically raised. I can look into it. I know, obviously, Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski was with the Secretary, so I can see if those were specifically raised.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

MR TONER: Yeah, please.

QUESTION: Clinton emails.


QUESTION: On July the 24th, the inspectors general for the intelligence community and the State Department – they released a joint statement saying that some of the emails that Hillary Clinton sent while she was Secretary of State from her personal email account were, and I can quote it, “not retroactively classified but contained classified information when they were generated. That information remains classified today and they should never have been transmitted via an unclassified personal system.” Does the State Department refute the factuality of any part of this statement by the two IGs, first of all?

MR TONER: Well, so you’re talking about – this is already a couple weeks old, but we spoke to this at the time this report came out. We don’t have any purview over the Office of Inspector General. That’s an independent operation, rightly so, and so we, frankly, I don’t believe, have seen the emails that they’ve questioned.

We’ve been very forthright, I think, in saying that we believe everything we’ve seen and cleared on and put out publicly was not confidential or classified at the time. But we have since then upgraded it and redacted portions of these documents. So you’ll see on – if you look at it online, you’ll see certain names and other portions simply blocked out. So that’s a common thing to do in these kinds of FOIA requests where documents over time have become – you need to upgrade their classification, I guess is the simplest way of putting it. But I can’t speak to the contents of these – in emails that they’re talking about in the report, because we don’t – we frankly don’t know. All I can say is what we put out publicly, released up ‘til now, we believe was not classified at the time. But we’ve redacted portions of these documents since then that we believe should be classified now.

QUESTION: And I just had a couple of follow-up questions with that.

MR TONER: That’s okay. Please.

QUESTION: The other thing that they said in this memo was that this information may exist on at least one private server and a thumb drive that’s purportedly in the hands of Mrs. Clinton’s personal attorney. Do you know if any effort has been made to recover that thumb drive; if it has been recovered, what the status is?

MR TONER: So it is the – that all that – and I spoke a little bit to – about this on last Friday, but all of that material is actually being held in a secure environment at the law offices, and spoke to the fact that her attorney is also cleared to hold this kind of material. And we’ve, in fact – our security experts have gone and looked at the facility and deemed it appropriate.

Yeah, please.

QUESTION: And just setting that specific instance aside and kind of talking about this a little more generally —

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: — as a matter of law or policy, if a State Department employee is retiring and heading into private life to just live in the private sector, can he take official government documents —

MR TONER: Sounds wonderful, by the way. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: — can he take official —

MR TONER: I prefer —

QUESTION: — government documents or correspondence home with him when he goes? Can they exist in his home?

MR TONER: You’re talking about just official unclassified —

QUESTION: Just a government employee – can he take official government documents? And if he can, is he required to notify the State Department that he has whatever it is he wants to take home?

MR TONER: Well, again, if you’re speaking generally, I would have to check on the precise regulations for any – myself included – any State Department official who’s retired. There’s – but there’s a clear distinction between what is unclassified and classified. And then there’s also a clear obligation for record keeping and what have you to ensure that copies or originals of any documents or any kind of email traffic or whatever are preserved. And so that’s the case here, I think, is – what happened is Secretary Clinton gave the State Department – I don’t have the exact amount – some 30,000-plus pages of her correspondence. And that’s what we’re going through now and making sure that that is kept and preserved.

QUESTION: Well, the IG is now saying that some of it is classified. So somebody takes something and the State Department isn’t aware that they have it; what if it ends up being classified and they just didn’t realize it was classified, such as seems to be the case here?

MR TONER: Well, again, when you look at things retroactively, we do upgrade the classification. She did have her own server, and frankly, it’s not my role or the State Department’s role, right, from here to litigate that portion of it. What we’re trying to do is respond to a FOIA request to publicly release these documents, and that’s what we’re doing. That’s our – that’s where our focus remains.

QUESTION: When’s the next tranche? When’s the next tranche —

MR TONER: That’ll be at the end of the month. And I think as we talked about last week, we were a little bit behind the last tranche because we tried to incorporate, frankly, some of the IC’s concerns and streamline that process a little bit. We brought in a contingent from the intelligence community to actually be here physically present at the State Department and try to go through some of these documents alongside our folks. Initially, that’s – that led to a little bit of a slowdown but we hope that actually will meet and exceed going forward the goals for each month.

QUESTION: Turkey. On the Turkish airstrikes —

MR TONER: I’m sorry, I missed the last part. Turkey and —

QUESTION: Turkey. On the Turkish airstrikes.

MR TONER: Turkish airstrikes.

QUESTION: Yeah. They earlier this week – I think it was over the weekend or Friday, the airstrikes killed at least eight civilians in a village in northern Iraq. Do you condemn that?

MR TONER: I talked a little bit about this last week, but we don’t want to see any civilian casualties and we take those kinds of reports very seriously. We want to see the PKK stop its attacks against Turkey and then for the Turkish Government to respond proportionately. We want to see all that violence end, and we want to see the efforts of Turkey but also the coalition’s efforts as well as the anti-ISIL groups fighting in northern Syria focus on combatting ISIL.


QUESTION: Both the Turkish Government and the Iraqi Kurdistan government have said there were civilian casualties in this specific case. I want to say whether you will – see whether you condemn this and whether you believe what has happened, why the Turkish Government attacked the civilians which are clearly not PKK hideouts?

MR TONER: Well, again, I don’t know the specifics of these attacks, but often – not often, but sometimes, when you have airstrikes or civilians in the area, they can be affected, so – but these are airstrikes being carried out against PKK targets. And again, just going to the root of this, PKK has carried out attacks against Turkey. We have defended Turkey’s right to self-defense in this case, but we want to see the violence end, we want to see the PKK cease its attacks, and as I said, the Turkish Government to respond proportionately.


QUESTION: On the same topic.


QUESTION: Over the weekend again, in Turkey, two Turkish soldiers were killed and more than 20 were injured after PKK suicide attack to a military police station in eastern Turkey with a tractor carrying two tons of explosives. Do you have any comment on this issue as well?

MR TONER: Any comment on?

QUESTION: On PKK’s attack to a Turkish police station, which —

MR TONER: Well, again, we —

QUESTION: — deadly attack.

MR TONER: These attacks are only exacerbating the continuation and the cycle of violence here. We want to see these attacks cease. We want to see the PKK to renounce violence and re-engage in talks with the Government of Turkey. And as I said, we want to see the Turkish Government respond proportionately.

Is that – oh, yeah, in the back, I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Thank you. At the Young African Leaders Initiative earlier today, when President Obama was asked about UN Security Council reform, he answered that there needs to be a process through which legitimate interests are sorted through and that the UN Security Council can be more effective with more – being more representative.

MR TONER: We agree. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I was wondering if there’s any particular reform proposal that the U.S. is inclined towards or any states that the U.S. particularly supports for a permanent seat on the Security Council.

MR TONER: No, we’ve always been very clear about not discussing those kinds of matters in public, but in general, obviously, the President’s very correct in his viewpoint.

Is that it, guys? Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:12 p.m.)