State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, October 18, 2012

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–October 18, 2012. 

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Daily Press Briefings to Stream Live
    • Support for Syrian People / Squeezing Assad Regime to End Violence
    • Humanitarian and Nonlethal Assistance
    • Syrian Opposition Morphing and Changing / Ongoing Challenge of Extremist Groups
    • Concern for Proliferation of Dangerous Weapons / Coordination amongst Countries
    • Suspect Arrested in Terror Plot / Student Visas
    • Palestinians Effort to Enhance Status at U.N. is Not Productive
    • Levy Report / Continued Israeli Settlement Activity
    • Diplomatic Engagement
    • Support for Two-Way Trade Based on Fair Rules
    • Strategic and Economic Dialogue
    • Electoral System / Afghans Responsible for Their Elections


12:32 p.m. EDT

MS. NULAND: So when we call it for noon, we actually get out here at 12:30. Call it for 12:30, we actually get out here at noon. Happy —

QUESTION: I thought you were going to be on time —

MS. NULAND: I know, I —

QUESTION: — with your appearance.

MS. NULAND: I had hoped to be, but life doesn’t always lend.

Anyway, happy Thursday, everyone. Just to advise, as you will have seen from our Media Note, we are finally in the 21st century here. Starting today, the State Department will stream the daily press briefing live on, which maybe will encourage some of you to watch it in your offices and I’ll have less people in the room – no.

I have nothing else at the top. Let’s go to what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: I don’t have anything to begin with.

QUESTION: Can I go on Syria?

MS. NULAND: Andy, anything?

QUESTION: No, I have nothing.




QUESTION: Today, there are some reports again that apparently Stingers now made it into Syria and there are videos. Can you confirm that? First of all, would you be able to confirm that right now the Stingers and the missiles are in the hands of the opposition in Syria?

MS. NULAND: I’m not in a position to confirm any of that. As you know, we don’t have an embassy in Syria at the moment.

QUESTION: To follow up, it looks like now – if the reports are credible – it looks like credible – Stingers in Syria, there is more destruction, there are more foreign fighters, more extreme elements are claiming responsibilities. So basically, everything this Administration has been telling that it shouldn’t happen in Syria, and now it’s happening.

Would you be able to concede that this Administration, when it comes to Syria, utterly and completely failed on its promises?

QUESTION: Yes. (Laughter.) I’ll give you a dollar if you say the Administration’s policy was an abject failure. (Laughter.)

MS. NULAND: Only a dollar, Matt?

QUESTION: Only a dollar. (Laughter.) I’ll also look for a new job for you. How’s that? (Laughter.)

MS. NULAND: You will, huh? I don’t think a dollar is going to help me on the – perhaps a Turkish lira will help. (Laughter.)

First of all, with regard to Stingers, we’ve been absolutely clear about how we feel about this kind of weaponry all over the world. We are working with governments all over the world to get rid of this kind of weaponry, so let me just state that for the record.

Let me also stand back and remind – I think this is an important reminder – what the United States seeks in Syria, what we have been working for, for more than a year now: We support a unified, free, prosperous, and tolerant Syria that respects the rights of all its people and becomes a force for stability and peace in the region rather than a threat. And no matter how the unrest in Syria ends – and it’s going to end; Assad’s time will come – it’s going to take a lot of hard work for the Syrian people to rebuild their country and begin this process of political transition that gets them where they want and deserve to go, which is not a Syria that trades one tyrant for another set of tyrants, or one tyrant for a set of extremists, but a Syria that is able to make the transition to a democratic, tolerant, prosperous, unified country.

So our policy is directed, first and foremost, towards squeezing the Assad regime to end its violence, but also to support those Syrians inside and outside of the country who are working for that kind of future. That’s what our nonlethal assistance is designed to do, that’s what our training is designed to do, to help Syrians unify behind these kinds of objectives – a real transition plan to get there, new leaders who are prepared to bring Syria into that kind of future, to resist extremism, to work against it, to not allow their own fight for freedom to be hijacked. That’s what we are working on. We’re also supporting Syrians in preparing accountability cases against anybody with blood on their hands from any side.

So that is a trajectory we are on, including our support for humanitarian assistance. As you know, we have quite a dire situation, including now refugees in very high numbers in parts of the world where we hadn’t spoken about them before. We’ve now got some 150,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt. We’ve got increasing numbers in parts of Europe. So it’s an issue of great concern.

QUESTION: Levity aside, and I’m not trying to get – and not – without trying to get you to admit that the Administration’s policy has been a complete and total failure in Syria, is it not correct that there – that you are increasingly concerned that the predictions made by in particular Foreign Minister Lavrov that Syria would descend into some kind of hellhole with extremists taking if not a major – if not taking over, taking a major part of it – it is a fact that you are concerned about that, is it not?

MS. NULAND: It is, of course, a fact that we’re concerned about it. We had a long review of that set of issues yesterday —


MS. NULAND: — as you recall, including all kinds of extremist groups seeking to hijack this situation for their own benefit, and the importance of the Syrian opposition resisting those efforts, and that anybody fighting in Syria’s name needs to conduct themselves in a manner that they will be proud of not only now, but in the future.

QUESTION: Right. But the criticism of the Administration has been that it has not led here, and that the reason that the weapons – this weaponry is getting to extremists is because it is not doing – because the Administration is not doing a good enough job or a forceful enough job in this vetting process that you say is happening. Do you not agree? Do you not accept that criticism?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, we also had a long review of this yesterday, so let’s go back to that as well. We have been saying for weeks and weeks and weeks, arguably months and months, that it is extremely important that anybody supporting the Syrian opposition have a very clear understanding of who they’re supporting, that we need not only to vet who we are supporting individually, but we need a better collective effort among those Friends of the Syrian People who are providing support, nonlethal and otherwise, to make sure that we are comparing information about who’s who. And particularly as these groups morph and change, and particularly as extremists try to make inroads with groups on the ground, particularly as Iran continues its nefarious efforts to arm, support the wrong trends and the growth of Hezbollah on the ground, that we have to be extremely vigilant together.

You’ve seen the Secretary lead these ad hoc meetings on Syria with key players, some 15 to 20 countries, as she did in New York. A key component of that group at her level and at the levels below is to compare notes on who’s who, to ensure that our vetting procedures are as strong as they possibly can. But this is an ongoing challenge because these groups are morphing and changing.

QUESTION: Right, but you can’t – can you say that you’re satisfied with the vetting efforts as they are to date, considering you have these concerns that extremists are – that the – that – not on the Russia/Iran side, but on the – on your Gulf and Arab and other allies who are doing the nonlethal, are you satisfied that that vetting is working? Because it seems that it’s not if you have concerns that weapons are getting into the wrong hands.

MS. NULAND: As I said, this is an ongoing challenge, not only because we have to coordinate the work of lots of countries, but also because the situation on the ground is changing in different parts of Syria and because extremists are being quite aggressive in their efforts to infiltrate. So this is something that we are extremely focused on, that we are working on with all of our partners, that we are working on with the Syrian opposition, and we will continue to be focused on it.

QUESTION: Okay. And then I’ll stop after this, but you would not concede that the effort so far has been a – the vetting effort so far has been a failure?

MS. NULAND: Of course not.

QUESTION: Victoria?

MS. NULAND: Please.

QUESTION: So why is it, then, while you categorically oppose the proliferation of Stinger missiles and shoulder surface-to-air missiles in the hands of the rebels, and you also acknowledge or you are aware that 5,000 foreign fighters have gone into Syria or whatever numbers that you have, why is it lost on your allies that this is something that they can affect and actually stem? Why is it lost on them, people – I mean countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia?

MS. NULAND: As you know, those countries have been participating in this group that I talked about, particularly the ad hoc group on Syria where we are endeavoring to coordinate what we are doing together to coordinate and share the information we have about who’s who. Everybody shares the concern about extremists hijacking the efforts of the Syrian people to have democratic change there. Everybody’s concerned about the proliferation of dangerous weapons or that some of the most dangerous weapons in Assad’s arsenal could fall into the wrong hands and be abused. So this is something we are all focused on together.


QUESTION: New topic?


QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MS. NULAND: And it’s still on – let’s finish on Syria. Please.

QUESTION: There are just a couple of weeks left ‘til the elections. How do you think this —

MS. NULAND: To our elections?

QUESTION: Yes. How do think this Administration is going to be remembered when it comes to Syria?

MS. NULAND: I – first of all, I will say it again, I will say it every day if I have to between now and November 7th: We don’t do politics at this podium. I’m also not prepared to embark on legacy predictions about the Administration.

QUESTION: Well, no, but I mean, this Administration, whether it – there’s another Obama Administration and will be a second one, this Administration is coming to an end. And you have been defending its policy from this podium since you – since the conflict began. So I think it’s a fair question.

MS. NULAND: This term of the President doesn’t come to an end until the third week of January. Maybe at that point, we’ll talk about the analysis of the term. Okay?

QUESTION: A quick follow-up: Brahimi said today that he again appealed for a ceasefire during al-Adha holiday. But he also said something that is very difficult to understand. He’s saying that the Syrians can’t police their own truce or ceasefire. Do you have a comment on that? Is that possible?

MS. NULAND: I actually didn’t see what you are referring to, Said. He may have been referring to the fact that we have, all of us, increasing concerns that the command and control of the Syrian regime over some of its irregulars, in particular, these – this shabiha force that the Iranians trained and that the Syrian regime has allowed to be unleashed may be difficult to control now. But I would refer you to Mr. Brahimi for what he precisely had in mind.

QUESTION: New topic?


QUESTION: I’d like to talk about this terror plot from New York. This gentleman was arrested. His name is Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis. I’m sure you have it in your book. He’s from Bangladesh, apparently came to the United States in January on a student visa, and his university – Southeast Missouri State University – confirms that he was a student here on cyber security. So I’m just wondering, I mean, isn’t there supposed to be some student – some monitoring of students with visas that come to this country?

MS. NULAND: Let me start by confirming that the suspect did have a student visa to attend a legitimate academic program in the United States, for which he was qualified. You know that I can’t speak about adjudication of specific cases. What I can do, though, Elise, is step back and remind you about how every single one of these visas is adjudicated overseas, and give you some of the backdrop on that.

Visa decisions are made in accordance with applicable law and Department regulations. Each case is looked at on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all of the information contained in the U.S. Government databases, and in consultation with other government agencies. This includes the database that we maintain, known as the Consular Lookout and Support System, or the CLASS system, which contains records on those who may be inadmissible into the United States. The majority of entries into the CLASS system come from other agencies, and they also include fingerprint records checked against the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI’s databases.

Our agencies are constantly adding more information to CLASS. It includes currently about 39 million records. So without speaking about the specifics of this case, let me reassure you that all cases are checked against this. But it goes to the question of what existed in our databases.

QUESTION: I understand, but about not talking about the adjudication of this guy’s visa – I mean, this guy was arrested for a terror plot against this country, so I kind of think his privacy issues on how his visa would be adjudicated would be forfeited, don’t you think?

MS. NULAND: Well, unfortunately, that’s not what U.S. visa law says, so I’m not —


QUESTION: What if – if he’s convicted, does that change?


MS. NULAND: I’ll check on that one, but at this stage —

QUESTION: All right. And then on the second part of the question, isn’t the – once someone like this arrives in the U.S. —

QUESTION: Is that a DHS function?

QUESTION: It’s no longer the State —

MS. NULAND: Correct.

QUESTION: — Department’s thing, right?

MS. NULAND: Correct. Correct.

QUESTION: Same issue?


QUESTION: Will this issue increase a more intense scrutiny of student visas coming here before you issue them?

MS. NULAND: Well, I obviously am not going to get in the middle of what we are learning from this case, but obviously we regularly and consistently update our visa adjudication system, including with regard to how we look at particular cases in particular countries based on new tactics and techniques that terrorists are trying to use to circumvent U.S. law.

QUESTION: Have you also received any communication from the Government of Bangladesh? Because the parents are saying that the boy’s – he was not like that, he was not a terrorist.

MS. NULAND: Generally we would only get involved in such a thing if it comes to the issue of consular access for the home state authorities. Frankly, I don’t have any – if you’re asking whether the Bangladeshi Governments had access to him, I can take that when I don’t have any information with regard to it.

QUESTION: Could you learn if they’ve asked for consular access?

MS. NULAND: Yeah, let me check whether they have —

QUESTION: Would it surprise you that a suspect’s parents might say that their child was innocent? Does that surprise you at all?

Can you just – on the visa, can you say when he got it?

MS. NULAND: My understanding is he was granted – no, I don’t think I can, actually.

QUESTION: I think you can.

MS. NULAND: I don’t think I can say anything.

QUESTION: You could with the underwear bomber.

MS. NULAND: All right. Let me check whether I can —

QUESTION: So can we – how long – basically how long ago, how long had he been in the – that might be a DHS thing, but when did he apply, when was the visa granted?

MS. NULAND: Let me check what I can say about that. But certainly with regard to the date that he entered the country, that would be a DHS question.

QUESTION: Well, but why could you talk about the adjudication of – did you not talk about the – I can’t remember, but did you not talk about the adjudication of the underwear bomber’s visa?

MS. NULAND: Since I was blessedly not here for the underwear bomber, I am not sure whether we talked ultimately —

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Blessedly.

MS. NULAND: — about the adjudication of his visa. All I can advise you is that in the status that he’s currently in, I’m not at liberty to talk about the adjudication of his particular case.

QUESTION: Well, I don’t want to – I’m not asking about adjudication.

MS. NULAND: I understand. You’re asking about something else. And we will take that.

QUESTION: Victoria, can we change topics?


MS. NULAND: Still on this guy?

QUESTION: Yeah. How many student visas are issued in —

MS. NULAND: Worldwide in every category?

QUESTION: Yes. I mean, no – I mean, student. How many students enter this country.

MS. NULAND: Worldwide in every student category?

QUESTION: Yes. Is there any data available?

MS. NULAND: There is data available. I’ll get it for you.


QUESTION: Change topic, Israel?


QUESTION: Yesterday you stated clearly your opposition to settlement activities, but it seems a few hours thereafter the Israeli Government announced that it will build a new eight or – 800 new settlement homes in Gilo or Beit Jala. Do you have any reaction to that?

MS. NULAND: Beyond saying that our settlement policy hasn’t changed nor has our clarity in our conversations with Israel with regard to it changed, I don’t have anything new for you, Said.

QUESTION: Okay. Also on the issue of Palestinian activities at the UN, I spoke with the Palestinian ambassador today, Riyad Monsour, and he assured me that he does feel that only two countries, Canada and Israel, categorically oppose Palestinian non-member observer or member observer status at the UN, that your position actually is not so strict.

MS. NULAND: And what we said here at the podium yesterday didn’t resonate with him?

QUESTION: I think it does. But he says that he – he did say that, so your position still —

MS. NULAND: Well, thank you for getting in the middle of our diplomacy with the Palestinian authorities here in the States. I will register your concerns with the appropriate folks.

QUESTION: But I mean, are you opposed to full recognition or even observer status?

MS. NULAND: We’ve been very clear that —

QUESTION: Nothing at the UN?

MS. NULAND: We don’t think anything at the UN to enhance status is going to be productive.

QUESTION: Just two quick – or one quick follow-up on that: Do you know if, in your conversations with other countries, particularly the Europeans, have you been making it clear to them what your position is and suggesting that they join you in opposition to anything that the Palestinians might do for that?

MS. NULAND: We’ve been absolutely clear. I mean, this is among the reasons that we work in Quartet format —


MS. NULAND: — is to maintain lashed up with the Europeans.

QUESTION: So Europeans are aware of your position on this?

MS. NULAND: Of course. Of course.

QUESTION: And then just the last one on this: When I asked yesterday, and you said – I asked if you had made it clear to the Palestinians that there would be ramifications to a move like this. Can you say specifically what those ramifications are, at least the legal ones? Not policy ones that you might change, but legal ones in terms of what it might mean in terms of aid, what you would be obligated to do under laws passed by Congress.

MS. NULAND: I don’t have a full list of the laws here, Matt. But as you know, we have statutes on the books which require us to cut off U.S. funding to UN organizations if the status of the Palestinians is enhanced.

QUESTION: Right, right. Let me be a little bit more clear. What would be the ramifications for the Palestinians themselves? In other words, is there or are there provisions that would actually punish the Palestinians and not the UN or not UN agencies?

MS. NULAND: Well, first and foremost there is the question of continued support in the U.S. Congress for the Palestinian Authority.

QUESTION: Right, but that’s – no, I understand, but that is not necessarily a law on the books.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. I’m going to send you to the Congress for some of the specifics, but let me just take from you – I know that there was some new stuff looked at last year. I don’t actually have in front of me what —

QUESTION: I think it was changed, actually, since the last time —

MS. NULAND: I think it has —

QUESTION: — so that’s why I’m asking.

MS. NULAND: It has changed, so let me take it.

QUESTION: Are there any waivers for the cutoff of when – of support for UN agencies?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, a waiver was something that the Administration had sought, but we have not yet achieved that with the Congress.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up very – before we go to another topic. Have you had a chance to look at the Levy Report that we spoke about yesterday?

MS. NULAND: Well, we have seen these reports about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s potential intention to seek government approval for the Levy Report, which recommends legalizing dozens of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I would simply say what I have said to you yesterday, Said, and what I said earlier, which is that the U.S. position on Israeli settlements is very clear: We don’t accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. And we’re making that clear to the Israeli side, as we always do.

QUESTION: So then – so you’re urging them in relation to this possible move about your objection to them doing that?

MS. NULAND: We’re – they are absolutely clear about where we stand on this issue.

QUESTION: So wait, wait. Wait, wait. So, in other words, you are willing to comment on a government’s prospective —

MS. NULAND: There you go. See what happens when you call me out, Matt?

Okay, yeah.

QUESTION: Could you update us on any activities, diplomatic or otherwise, by Mr. Hale and the Palestinians? Is there anything ongoing at the present time?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, the Secretary saw Prime Minister Netanyahu. She also saw President Abbas in New York not too long ago. David Hale had a Quartet meeting there at his level. He has been in contact with his Quartet counterparts. He’s also been in contact with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams. He doesn’t have any travel plans at the moment. I’ll let you know if that changes.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Victoria?




QUESTION: We know that recently a Chinese company, SANY Corp, was blocked by President Obama’s executive order to invest to buy four wind farms in Oregon on national security grounds. This is the first time for a U.S. president to block foreign buyers on a national security ground. Now the Chinese company is suing President Obama here in the court in the District of Columbia. What’s your comment on this, I’m wondering? Do you think – how do you think this will impact U.S.-China economic and trade relations?

MS. NULAND: It sounds like – I don’t actually have anything on the wind farm case as – but it sounds like this is something that is being addressed to the White House, so I’m going to send you there.

QUESTION: Because some people say this may not seem to be an isolated incident. If you look at the congressional report that singled out two Chinese telecommunications companies, saying that they might be spying on U.S. networks. And in fact, Reuters reported yesterday saying that a White House-ordered review has not found actual evidence of those two Chinese telecommunication companies to spy on U.S. networks on behalf of Chinese Government. So do we see a trend here? Should the Chinese investors who want to invest here in the United States be concerned anyways?

MS. NULAND: On the cyber issue, I’m going to send you to the White House. I think they have some comment on that today.

Please, behind you. Yeah.

QUESTION: Yes. I was going to ask — so as we know —

MS. NULAND: Is it the same set of questions?

QUESTION: Sort of.


QUESTION: But you know there are some issues about the Chinese companies ongoing recently, so I’m wondering what would you say to the thousands of Americans who are employed or who will be employed by those Chinese companies if those companies are blocked by the U.S. Government where they can’t – they are prevented from operating to their full capacities in the States?

MS. NULAND: Well, I’m not going to get into hypothetical action which may result or may not result in impacts on U.S. workers. I’m just not going to.

QUESTION: And also —

QUESTION: But wait, wait. It’s not hypothetical. The sale of the wind farms was blocked. That’s not —

MS. NULAND: Right. But she’s talking about – I understood your question to be Americans currently employed by Chinese companies who may have to close down versus prospective sales and prospective employment.

QUESTION: And also there were a lot of Chinese investments in the States, and I think those cases may scare them away or make them concerned about their investment in the States.

MS. NULAND: You know that all of us support – and from the President on down – increased two-way trade based on fair rules of the road and a legal playing field between the U.S. and China. That’s good for the U.S., it’s good for China, creates jobs in both countries. The question is simply ensuring that the playing field is level, that the U.S. companies have the same access to the Chinese market as Chinese companies have to the U.S. market, and that the way companies conduct themselves is appropriate and is legal inside the United States.

So those are the issues that we work on in our Strategic and Economic Dialogue with the Government of China, the Bilateral Forum that the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Treasury run together to work through these issues, including, as I said a couple of days ago, the issue of cyber security and appropriate ways to deal with our need for transparency, rule of law, well-understood rules of the road on these issues.


QUESTION: So you’re saying, Victoria, recent incidents are isolated incidents and Chinese investors should not be discouraged or concerned about investing here in the United States?

MS. NULAND: As I said, we strongly encourage strong two-way trade.

I’m getting the high sign from Courtney because the Secretary is about to give her speech. Let’s —

QUESTION: And also —

MS. NULAND: Let me just let Lalit have – has his – yeah.

QUESTION: The President of Afghanistan today said that the presence of foreigners in Electoral Complaints Commission, he was mentioning to the members from U.S., is in conflict with Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Do you agree with his views? And if yes, would U.S. consider pulling out its members or asking other foreign members in this commission to not be part of it?

MS. NULAND: Well, first let me just repeat what we’ve been saying, which is that it is Afghanistan and Afghans are responsible for their own elections. Our efforts are designed to support what Afghan electoral authorities themselves are leading, which is to try to build the strongest possible electoral system, to minimize electoral fraud, through all kinds of measures, including training, public information, domestic observation, and improved ways to identify eligible voters. So we will obviously be governed by the Afghans themselves in terms of the kinds of support that they need from the international community, that they’d like from us. We just share the goal of having the strongest possible elections in 2014 when they come around.

Thank you all.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:02 p.m.)