State Department Briefing by Mark C. Toner, October 22, 2012

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–October 22, 2012.

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Tonight’s Presidential Debate
    • Situation in Lebanon
    • FBI Team
    • Abbottabad Commission Report
    • Malala / Access to Education for Young Girls
    • Cease-fire
    • Car Bombing
    • Assad / Syrian Government
    • Governor of Okinawa’s US Visit / Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell’s Meeting
    • Reports of a Visit to Gaza by Qatari Senior Officials / David Hale
  • IRAN
    • White House Statement on Iran / P-5+1
  • MALI
    • African Union-Sponsored Meeting / ECOWAS / Meetings in Paris


1:19 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: Good afternoon, folks, on a fine autumn day in Washington, DC. The Secretary, as you all know, is in Haiti. I’m here, and I’m ready to take your questions.

QUESTION: Who got the better end of that deal? (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: It’s lovely this time of year in Haiti.

QUESTION: Yeah, so Mark, in light of the fact that the debate – or the debate tonight, I’m wondering if you would do me a favor. How would you rate the – from the State Department point of view – the Obama Administration’s foreign policy? Would you say it was outstanding, the best country has ever seen in its history, or just merely excellent?

MR. TONER: Well, Matt, you’re right, there will be a debate tonight for both candidates to address issues of foreign policy. I think you know where we stand on the last four years and this Administration’s efforts around the world to increase the United States standing, to provide leadership on a range of issues, as well as address many issues of concern.

QUESTION: And you believe that’s been done? You would not agree with critics who say that the foreign – the Administration’s policies have been a dismal failure?

MR. TONER: I would not agree.

QUESTION: All right. No. Now I have a more serious question. (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: But thanks for asking, Matt.

QUESTION: Lebanon – well, I was going to give you a chance to wave the flag. (Laughter.) Lebanon. The situation there does not look good. How concerned are you that we’re looking at what could erupt into an all-out return to violence there?

MR. TONER: Well, Matt, you’re right in that we are concerned about the situation in Lebanon. The Secretary, as you know, spoke to Prime Minister Mikati yesterday. I think we gave you a readout of that conversation. But she certainly emphasized our firm commitment to Lebanon’s stability, its independence, its sovereignty, and its security. She also noted the importance of political leaders working together at this sensitive juncture to ensure that calm prevails and that those responsible for the attack are brought to justice.

But we’re certainly concerned. We’ve been clear for some time about the possibility of a possible spillover effect from the conflict in Syria. But what I can say, as the Secretary said in her call yesterday, is that we are prepared to offer assistance. There is going to be an FBI team headed to Lebanon to help with them with their investigation, but we’ll certainly wait for the results of that investigation.

QUESTION: That team is already there, or –

MR. TONER: I’ll have to refer to you to the FBI. I don’t know what their status is.

QUESTION: And when you say that you’re concerned about spillover from Syria, do you think that what’s happened so far is spillover?

MR. TONER: I think we’ll wait and see. Let’s wait for the outcome of the investigation. But I think – again, maybe I read too much into your question, but we have been concerned about the possibility of violence that right now is taking place in Syria spilling over into the region.

QUESTION: And have you noticed – are you aware that a Jordanian soldier was killed today?

MR. TONER: I am aware. Yeah.

QUESTION: And do you have anything to say about that?

MR. TONER: Well, I mean, we obviously, again, condemn this kind of violence. It’s concerning. And the onus for this kind of violence rests squarely on the Assad regime.

QUESTION: On Lebanon, there has been calls for the government to step down. And you’re concerned about the stability there. So do you see the government stepping down as a more stabilizing factor, or destabilizing?

MR. TONER: No, I would just stay right –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. TONER: Right. No. Absolutely. Again, the Secretary in her phone call yesterday stressed the importance of all political leaders working together. It’s a very sensitive time. We want to see the investigation move forward, but we also want to see, as I said, political leaders show dialogue and also to show restraint.

QUESTION: Has the Secretary encouraged Prime Minister Mikati to stay as the Prime Minister after the calls of his resignation?

MR. TONER: Well, again, you’re talking about a domestic political process in Lebanon, and I’m not going to talk about her conversation, except that she was very, very clear in stressing our support for Lebanon’s sovereignty.

QUESTION: There are stories on the ground saying that U.S., France, Britain, have encouraged Prime Minister Mikati to stay in charge.

MR. TONER: Again, what we support very clearly is that all of Lebanon’s political leaders need to work together, need to address the concerns over this attack, that there’s an investigation underway, and we’re going to look to the results of that investigation. And we also would urge calm.

QUESTION: Can you just –

MR. TONER: Sure thing. Yeah, go ahead, Michel.

QUESTION: Opponents of Syria have blamed the regime in Damascus for the bomb that occurred last week. What do you think about this?

MR. TONER: You’re talking about Friday’s bombing?


MR. TONER: Yeah. Again, I think we are where we are – where we were Friday, which is that an investigation’s been launched. We’ve pledged our support through this FBI team that’s going to help in the investigation. Let’s wait and see the outcome of that investigation. But we’ve also had long-term concerns, as you well know, about Assad’s disregard – flagrant disregard – for Lebanon’s sovereignty and relevant UN Security Council resolutions. I’m talking writ large now. But in terms of this investigation, let’s let it run its course.


QUESTION: Yeah. Just on the FBI, did they ask for this, or are you foisting your help upon them?

MR. TONER: I think we offered our assistance and they accepted, but I’d have to double-check on that –

QUESTION: Do you know –

MR. TONER: — whether they asked specifically for our help. I can take the question.

QUESTION: Okay. Do you know if FBI team helped in the investigation of the Hariri assassination?

MR. TONER: I’ll take that as well.

QUESTION: Or have they – are there any –

MR. TONER: Is there a history there? Yeah. That’s a valid question. I’ll find out.

QUESTION: Not just in Lebanon but elsewhere.

MR. TONER: You mean –

QUESTION: I mean, the fact that there were no Americans killed, correct?

MR. TONER: Right. But we have elsewhere in the world.

QUESTION: No, I know. But I mean –

MR. TONER: I think there’s been instances of FBI offering – well, we’ve offered assistance, and countries have accepted in cases of terrorism. But let me get some specific details for you.


QUESTION: Change of subject?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Did Pakistan share with the U.S. the report of its Abbottabad Commission, which was established after Usama bin Ladin was killed in May last year?

MR. TONER: Frankly, we’ve just seen reports in the Pakistani press about the Abbottabad Commission report. As we’ve stated previously, we obviously share with the Government of Pakistan a profound interest in finding out what kinds of support networks bin Ladin might have had. So we believe such a report, when it does finally get finalized and published, that it’s an –important for the American people and the Pakistani people to know.

QUESTION: Do you agree with their assessment, which has also come up in the news reports, that no one in Pakistan knew about the presence of Usama bin Ladin in –

MR. TONER: Can you – just the first part of your question again. Do I agree with –

QUESTION: Do you agree with the assessment of the report, which has appeared in the Pakistani newspapers and elsewhere, that no one inside Pakistan knew that Usama bin Ladin is present in the city for last five years?

MR. TONER: Again, we’ve not yet seen the report itself, so you’re asking me to comment on press reports about the report’s contents. So let’s wait until we have the report and then we’ll be happy to comment on it.

QUESTION: And finally, during this investigation, did the Pakistani team seek any information or assistance as part of the investigation from the U.S.?

MR. TONER: From the U.S.? Not that I’m aware. If that’s different, I’ll find out.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: On different question on Pakistan, as far as shooting of this 14-year-old girl Malala – now she’s in U.K. for the advanced treatment – what do we learn from this shooting, and is there a message for anybody from this shooting that there is still – terrorism is still there or —

MR. TONER: Well, the message couldn’t be more clear. When you’re talking about the right of young girls to receive an education and the fact that these individuals, these terrorists, are looking to wipe out or stop these girls from access to education, access to their very basic rights. I think it was a clear message to the Pakistani people, one that’s clearly resonated with them, and I think it strengthened their resolve.

QUESTION: Anybody from that investigation had any conversation after the shooting with any Pakistani officials or ambassador?

MR. TONER: Ongoing. I know, in fact, Ambassador Grossman was in Pakistan over the weekend, so I’m certain that that was a topic of conversation.


MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: On Syria, the Arab League is pessimist today about reaching an agreement on a cease-fire during this week. Do you still think that there is a hope for a cease-fire?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to – I’m not going to lay odds either way. We’ve spoken out that we would support such a cease-fire. I’ll leave it to Special Representative Brahimi to assess the chances and to give a readout of his meetings thus far. I believe he’s been in Syria for a day now, so I’ll let him respond to what he believes what might be the outcome of his conversations with the Syrian Government.

We do want to just condemn yesterday’s car bombing near a police station in central – rather in the historic Bab Touma district of Damascus that killed approximately 13 people, injured many more. We obviously condemn this kind of act that targets innocent civilians.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Tomos Lewis, BBC News. Just staying with Syria, the government of Bashar al-Assad has said for a while that elements of the Free Syrian Army are becoming more radicalized and becoming more extremist in their complexion, and some independent reports seem to suggest that that is the case. Does the U.S. Government believe that to be true?

MR. TONER: That there are extremist elements within the Syrian – the Free Syrian Army?


MR. TONER: We have said all along that the kind of environment that Assad has created through the relentless use of violence against innocent civilians has led to extremists trying to grab a foothold, exploit, if you will. And again, the sooner Assad leaves, the better it is, frankly, for the Syrian people, so that a genuine, meaningful democratic political transition can take place.

QUESTION: How concerned is the U.S. if that does turn out to be true?

MR. TONER: We’ve obviously very concerned about – when we’ve seen it elsewhere in the world. But we’ve been very vocal about our concerns that the kind of environment that the Syrian Government has created leads to these kinds of groups exploiting and trying, as I say, to gain a foothold.

QUESTION: And just a final question.

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Does the U.S. accept that had it been more explicit in its support for the Free Syrian Army that perhaps there might not have been such an appeal to going maybe towards more extremist groups who are very well-armed themselves?

MR. TONER: Not at all. Look, our stance from the very beginning has been we want to see a cessation of violence, we want to see a trajectory towards a peaceful democratic transition. Certainly, the Syrian Government has made this impossible. You’ve seen the Free Syrian Army rise up, frankly, out of a situation where civilians were being slaughtered wholesale. We are concerned about these groups trying to exploit this kind of environment, but we stand clearly on the side of nonviolence. We want to see the Syrian opposition make a peaceful political transition, and that’s where our support is focused.


QUESTION: The Vatican will send a delegation to Syria soon. Are you aware of this visit, and what do you think that it means?

MR. TONER: I am aware of it. I don’t have many more details about it as to when they’ll be there. Again, our focus right now is on Special Representative Brahimi, who is on the ground.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Today, after a gap of 10 years, the British Ambassador to India met Gujarat chief Mr. Narendra Modi, indicating a change in the British position towards him. U.S. and Britain have a similar position on Narendra Modi. Is there any change in U.S.–

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. You’re talking about – again?

QUESTION: In the past, U.S. and Britain has had a similar position on Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister. Following British, is the U.S. also reviewing its policy towards him?

MR. TONER: Again, I’ll have to take that question. Sorry.

Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: As far as Japan, the governor of Okinawa departed on Sunday to Washington, DC. What kind of issues is he going —

MR. TONER: Or arrived here, right? Exactly.

QUESTION: Okay. (Laughter.)

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. What was your question?

QUESTION: What kind of issues they’re going to talk about in details.

MR. TONER: Well, you’re right in that Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell as well as Assistant Secretary of Defense Mark Lippert will meet with Okinawa – the Okinawa governor on October 22nd, today, at the Department of State. Obviously, they’re going to discuss a broad range of bilateral issues. I’ll let them meet, and we’ll give a readout, is probably the easiest way to do this rather than try to – for me to try to guess all the issues that might come up.

QUESTION: According to the media that he’s planning to lodge a protest with the U.S. Government about the rape of young men by U.S. sailors and also the deployment of MV-22 Osprey aircraft. So how the State Department going to deal with these issues?

MR. TONER: Well, we’re certainly going to have – if those topics are raised, and we’ll certainly discuss them. As to these – the allegations of rape, we take those allegations, obviously, very seriously. We’ve spoken to it last week. We’re cooperating closely with the Okinawa City Police Department on the investigation.

QUESTION: Does it influence the relationship between Japan and the U.S., because – these issues, these controversial issues?

MR. TONER: We have a very deep, broad relationship with Japan. Certainly when these issues come up, they’re difficult, but we address them in a matter-of-fact and cooperative way, and we deal with them and we move on.

QUESTION: What do you think the chances are that those issues don’t come up at the meeting?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to —

QUESTION: Can you say that – zero percent chance that they don’t – of —

MR. TONER: That they don’t come up? Again, it’s easier for me to say when – let the meeting take place and we’ll give you a readout of what was discussed.

QUESTION: But to some extent, it’s already raised some angers of the local citizens, and because the commander of the U.S. Forces in Japan placed, like, 11:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. curfew. Do you think it’s a good way of preventing these kind of issue happen again?

MR. TONER: Again, this is something we’re in discussion with – we’re working with the Okinawa Police Department. We’re also obviously working and talking with the Government of Japan. I can just say that we expect the highest standards of conduct from all U.S. service members in Japan, and the Department of State as well as the Department of Defense are going to work closely with our Japanese partners on this matter going forward. But I don’t want to prejudge any outcomes.


QUESTION: The Emir of Qatar will visit Gaza this week. Do you have any reaction to this visit?

MR. TONER: I don’t have any reaction to it. I don’t think I have much to – what did you say? He’s going to visit?


MR. TONER: Gaza. Let me check. I don’t think I have any comment on it.

QUESTION: Have you heard or have you read former President Carter’s statements on the peace process today?

MR. TONER: No, I have not.

QUESTION: He criticized the American absence of – from the peace process and he said that this is the first time since 1967 that the United States is not playing any role with the two parties to make progress.

MR. TONER: Well, look, I haven’t seen his remarks. I’m not going to – actually, I did find – we have seen reports about the possible visit to Gaza by Qatari senior officials, and our only comment would be that our position towards Hamas has not changed. We still view them as a designated foreign terrorist organization.

With respect to former President Carter’s remarks, I haven’t seen them, Michel, so it’s hard for me to comment. I don’t like to respond to paraphrasing of the remarks. You know what we’re trying to do there. David Hale remains very engaged on this issue. The Secretary’s obviously engaged on this issue. We want to see both parties get back to the negotiating table. It’s our firm belief that only by getting them into direct talks will they be able to resolve these issues. And we’re in near-constant contact at David Hale’s level and beyond to work to that end.


QUESTION: Can I go back to two previous questions? One on Minister – Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Question is that in the past, UK Government, because of some misunderstandings about Chief Minister Modi’s comments, they put him on the blacklist not to —

MR. TONER: Yeah. I just – I don’t mean to cut you off, Goyal. I just don’t know enough about the issue, so let me get smart, find out whether we have had a change in position, whether we have any reaction to this meeting, and I’ll get it out to you guys, okay?

QUESTION: And second, Matt’s question – previous one – about foreign policy, Administration. You must be getting, of course, input from around the globe from all the people and the leaders. How do you see today the leaders around the globe and people? Are they happy? Are they supporting? I mean, what input is there as far as the past four years of the Administration policy? I mean, I know in India, they like, they love President Obama and the – Secretary Hillary Clinton. They can – if they run in India, they will win election anywhere in India.

MR. TONER: And I’ll just say I think it’s premature to get into legacy questions about this Administration. We still have a lot of work to do and we’re still actively addressing a range of issues around the world.

QUESTION: Does this building have anything to add to the White House comments from the other night about the Iran talks story?

MR. TONER: We don’t. The White House statement stands.

QUESTION: I understand it stands, but —

MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: — do you have anything additional to say?

MR. TONER: No. I mean, they —

QUESTION: There were some pretty specific – there’s some pretty specific allegations that – I don’t know if “allegations” is the right word – about secret meetings in Dubai and – or Doha.

MR. TONER: No. I mean, the White House statement was very clear the other night. We’ve not agreed to one-on-one talks or meetings with the Iranian Government. Our focus remains on the P-5+1 dual-track approach.

QUESTION: Why you didn’t? I mean —

MR. TONER: Again, you’re asking why didn’t we agree on – we just simply – we simply said that that story that appeared in The New York Times was not factually correct.

QUESTION: Just when —

QUESTION: Were there contacts about this?

MR. TONER: Sorry?

QUESTION: Were there contacts about such meetings?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to get into it.


QUESTION: Is there a – what’s the status of a new P-5+1 round?

MR. TONER: Right. They had substantive consultations in September in New York – the political – at the political director level.

QUESTION: That’s what the meetings (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: Right, and High Representative Ashton are – looking to be in touch with the Iranian Government. We’re going to continue consultations to ensure that we have a credible basis for those discussions, but there’s nothing, I think, scheduled at this time.

QUESTION: Right. But you know those consultations are – between Ashton and the Iranians – are ongoing?

MR. TONER: Ongoing, but I don’t believe there’s been any – I don’t think there’s anything on the schedule, if that’s what you’re asking.

QUESTION: Right. And then just move to Mali for a second?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: There was this meeting going on in Paris today or tomorrow or both. What – and apparently the French have decided to deploy some drones, surveillance drones, to the north. Do you have any view on this?

MR. TONER: I’m not aware of those reports. We obviously welcomed – the United States was – participated in the African Union-sponsored meeting in Bamako that took place on October 19th. Obviously, this was an important venue for the international community to discuss the ongoing situation, our concerns about Mali. I know that we are having meetings in Paris to find out how to best support what we believe should be an African-led approach to the crisis in Mali. So we’ll try to get a readout from those meetings.

In terms of the drones, I haven’t seen that, Matt. So I can’t comment.

QUESTION: Okay. What you say – you believe there should be an African-led approach. But are you comfortable with the French taking the lead as – from – at least on the, kind of, Western side of the equation?

MR. TONER: I think we’re working with France and other concerned countries to address the situation in Mali. Obviously, it’s a matter of concern not just for us, not just for France, but for the region. And so it’s going to take a collaborative approach, I think. And that collaborative approach should be, we think, correctly led by those countries in the region.

QUESTION: Well, do you think that – well, if you’re talking about in the region, you’re talking about ECOWAS.

MR. TONER: Yes, I’m talking about ECOWAS. Thank you.

QUESTION: Do you think that ECOWAS is capable of dealing with this, or the African Union is capable?

MR. TONER: We would support an ECOWAS effort, yes.

QUESTION: No, understood. But do you think that they’re capable of dealing with it without outside –

MR. TONER: With the right kind of support, yes.

QUESTION: Right, okay. In terms of supporting that, are you comfortable with the French taking the lead on the outside support? Are they not —

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t know that you’re asking me if we’re comfortable with the French taking the lead. I think we are working with France collaboratively to address this situation of who’s taking the lead. We’re certainly both concerned about the situation in northern Mali.

Is that it guys?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Yeah, thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:42 p.m.)