Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing – August 4, 2015

1:35 p.m. EDT

MR TONER:  Hello, everybody.  Happy Tuesday, as this week crawls on.  No, just kidding, sorry.  (Laughter.)  Got to stay positive.  Anyway, welcome to the State Department.  A couple things at the top and then I’ll take your questions.

First off, I just wanted to call everyone’s attention to a new website called medium.com.  So ever since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was finalized, you’ve seen and heard the Administration undertake a concerted campaign to ensure the American people understand precisely how this agreement would work.  And today we posted an annotated version of the full text of the JCPOA deal on medium.com.  So in this version, the American people can read the deal for themselves, which we hope they will take the time to do, and they can also see what some of our lead negotiators have to say about precisely how various elements of the arrangement will work.  Lawmakers as well as the American people should judge this deal on its merits, and we are pleased to introduce another tool that will allow them to do so.

I also just want to briefly mention that we strongly condemn last night’s terrorist firebomb attack on an Israeli vehicle in East Jerusalem which resulted in a woman being badly burned.  We wish a swift recovery to her and call on local authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice.  It is critical that restraint is exercised by all sides and that provocative actions and rhetoric cease.  We call on all sides to lower tensions, and obviously, we discourage any more violence.

With that, Lesley, do you want to go first?

QUESTION:  I can go first.  Mark, this is regarding the Reuters investigation into how the State Department handled its trafficking report this year.  The investigation found that the State Department inflated assessments of 14 strategically important countries in this year’s trafficking report.  Menendez has just called a hearing on it.  Can you confirm that Sarah Sewall will be appearing before that hearing this week?

MR TONER:  Yes, I can confirm that she’s going to be appearing at that hearing.

QUESTION:  What does it say about the State Department, about this report in which a lot of things are based – aid, judgments of countries, naming and shaming of countries – when such assessments are actually politicized and it’s not based really on what’s going on in the country?

MR TONER:  Sure.  Thanks for the question, Lesley.  You won’t be surprised if I disagree with some of the assumptions and allegations in your question.  Look, I’m not going to go in and re-litigate every analysis that we did as part of this report, Trafficking in Persons Report.  I think we’ve tried to talk about it.  I know Under Secretary Sewall was here at this podium and answered your questions about the report and its findings, but I can speak to the process and just stress and underscore that that process is – on how these rankings are decided – is iterative, it’s deliberative, and it’s fact-based, and it’s documented in the specific country narratives that are included in the report. 

The State Department staff in Washington and in embassies around the world work year-round to gather and evaluate information from foreign government officials, nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, as well as a full array of open sources.  And it’s only after that kind of rigorous analysis that – and discussion, frankly, between, obviously, the TIP office, the trafficking in persons office, also the relevant regional bureaus, and then the senior State Department leadership, then the Secretary of State does approve the final country rankings and determinations. 

But this idea that somehow this process is driven by anything other than a deliberative process analyzing the data and creating an objective report that is credible and stands alone – we stand by the process, frankly.  The goal here is to help nations improve their efforts to stop human trafficking and to fight modern slavery.  And that’s the goal, pure and simple, and we stand by the process by which we arrive at that – at those conclusions.  These are important rankings.  We understand that the world looks to them quite closely, and as such we need to ensure that the process stands on its own merits.

QUESTION:  Can I follow up?

MR TONER:  Yeah, please.  Sure thing.

QUESTION:  Would you – I mean, aside from being a tool to influence government policies, it’s also a reference that is relied upon by many people around the world.

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  Would you not say that the integrity of that – the quality of that reference has been compromised by the perception of these accusations that persist – that have been persistent for the last month or so?

MR TONER:  Well, again, I mean, frankly, the TIP report is just one of the many reports that we do.  The other one, frankly, is the annual human rights report, which is – as everyone here well knows, is looked upon by the NGO community, international agencies, other governments, as a truly credible analysis of the human rights situation around the world.  We’re fortunate in that we have almost universal representation in countries around the world, so we’re able to do deep dives drawing on our embassy staff overseas, and again, with our considerable connections with the nongovernmental community, civil society, to really analyze and come up with credible information and then make – from that draw judgments. 

You’re absolutely right; the credibility of these reports hinges on the public perception that there’s a process in place that is not influenced by political considerations or any of that.  And all I can do is vouch for that from here.  I’ve spoken to it.  John Kirby has spoken to it.  Frankly, the Secretary has spoken to it.  Under Secretary Sewall has spoken to it.  But we get that and we understand that.

QUESTION:  So you agree that the perception has taken a hit recently and that therefore the integrity also?

MR TONER:  I think – I mean, I acknowledge the fact that when you do have stories coming out that say that there – political considerations have biased the report or have influenced unduly the report’s conclusions, sure, I mean, you’ve got to accept the fact that people are going to read that and take it at face value.


QUESTION:  Senator Menendez is holding a hearing on Thursday about what he has long suspected was politicization of the rankings for the U.S.’s other goals.  And last Monday he noted in particular the rankings of Cuba and of Malaysia.  How does the under secretary and others who will be working with her plan to persuade him that the change in these two countries’ rankings, among others, was not the result of other foreign policy goals of this Administration?

MR TONER:  Sure.  Well, look, I’m not going to preview her testimony.  All I can say is that she’s an expert in this field; she brings considerable experience and knowledge, and understands how this process works probably better than anyone.  So in that regard, it’s simply another opportunity for us to engage with Congress, try to answer their questions as frankfully – frankfully? – frankly, thank you, self-correcting – frankly and honestly as we possibly can and attempt to address their concerns.  But again, we stand by the process.

QUESTION:  But he does note, for example, in the case of Malaysia, and I’m quoting the senator, “Members of the parliament, the legal profession, and human rights activists have urged the United States to support their efforts and to maintain the Tier 3 ranking which they tell us Malaysia deserves.  Today we have failed them,” closed quote.  In that case, is the Administration willing to argue that there was enough proactive progress made on Malaysia’s part given that it had been moved down last year really as a symbol of the fact that it wasn’t doing enough to get out of the Tier 2 Watch category?

MR TONER:  Well, look, I don’t want to, as I say, go country by country, although Malaysia has obviously been one that’s been targeted, if you will, as – by certain news organizations and others in Congress.  But we stand behind the results or the findings and the judgment of the report.  It’s not to say – and I think Under Secretary Sewall spoke to this – it’s not to say that everything is solved if you move up in a tier by any means.  Even Tier 1 countries have work to do.  We all have work to do.  I think it notes the progress that has been made on the ground, and there’s a very analytical process and it’s done individually.  We stress that, that it’s not done in relationship with how Malaysia works with other countries or how it fits into a broader – we look at these very country-specific and country-focused.  And it’s a straightforward assessment of the situation, but it’s not to say your work here is done; everybody can – has areas of improvement.

QUESTION:  Well, how does the State Department then rebuild the credibility around the report?  I mean, it’s not just —

MR TONER:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  — Senator Menendez; it is human rights organizations who are also very concerned that something that can be used to hold countries accountable essentially has been eroded.  And again, I’m going to use the case of Malaysia because it was involved in these talks which have stalled for the time being on trade, something which is, of course, a very key interest of this Administration.

MR TONER:  Look, I mean, you can use that argument with many countries around the world, that other factors weigh in.  And certainly, as I said, I’ve used other examples – the Human Rights Report as well.  It’s why, frankly, when we make these kinds of assessments, we really have to firewall them and ensure that the process is deliberative and it’s not influenced by other considerations, shall we say.  All we can do, if your question is how do we restore the credibility of this, is, frankly, defend it in public or with Congress to continue our outreach to the NGO community and continue to make the case that this – we believe the findings in this report are valid.

QUESTION:  Does the fact that there has been no permanent director of the office for the better part of the past year in any way make the office more vulnerable to political pressure within the government?  Because let’s be honest, people do have their own agendas and will try to put that agenda into something such as a report that does have this level of credibility.

MR TONER:  Well, look, I’d just say that we believe – and clearly, your interest endorses that – that the TIP office performs a critical function here at the State Department.  We certainly welcome the White House announcement that Susan Amato has been named as the nominee for the director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking.  And we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that she can get started as soon as possible.  Obviously, we want that kind of leadership for a variety of reasons within the TIP office. 

Please, go ahead.  Yeah.

QUESTION:  But Mark, can I just come back —

MR TONER:  Yeah, sure.

QUESTION:  — to this?  Because who ultimately makes that?  You said the Secretary signs off on it.  But if your humans rights experts are telling the State Department that they should – these countries should not be upgraded, that this is still a problem – I mean, in Cuba just a few weeks ago, from this podium John Kirby said that there’d been 100 people that had been detained in Cuba.  I mean, how can that be an improvement?  But most of all, if your experts in this department and on – and in those countries are saying this hasn’t improved, and that differs from what John Kerry is saying or his deputy or other people, how – who ultimately – should they not be listening to the people on the ground?

MR TONER:  Of course that’s one source, and obviously a critical source.  I do want to note with Cuba we were talking about human rights there, and obviously we spoke out against those detentions.  I think those people were subsequently released.  But returning to your overarching question, absolutely right that we look to nongovernmental organizations – I just spoke to that – international organizations, frankly, foreign government officials, and as I said, a full array of open sources in making these determinations.  But as I said, it’s a process.  We draw from a lot of different sources before we ultimately come up with a decision – an assessment, and then a decision.  And ultimately it’s the TIP office that – with the input of the regional bureaus, but the TIP office that ultimately makes that designation.  And as I said, the final decisions are the Secretary’s approval – are subject to the Secretary’s approval.


QUESTION:  Can we change topics?

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  Can we change topics?

MR TONER:  Do you have another – are you —

QUESTION:  No, I wanted to switch topics.

MR TONER:  Okay.  Let’s go Said, and then you.  Sorry.

QUESTION:  Sorry for being late.  I don’t know if you addressed this at the top.

MR TONER:  No worries.  We’re just talking about —

QUESTION:  On the Iran deal, as you brief right now, the Israeli prime minister is addressing Jewish Americans and Americans at large basically to sort of mobilize against the deal.  And so – and I wonder if you any reaction to that.  Are you aware of it?

MR TONER:  You just missed me —

QUESTION:  So sorry.

MR TONER:  No, that’s okay.  There’s a new website up called medium.com that talks about – actually has the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action up on the web.  So any American or, frankly, anyone can read it for themselves.


MR TONER:  I think we just need to be as transparent and open as possible.  We understand there are critics out there of the deal, and we’ve been – as I said, we’ve – certainly the Secretary, Under Secretary Sherman, Secretary Moniz have been very, very forward-leaning in trying to convince the American people and certainly Congress, and then also, as you saw with the Secretary’s trip to the GCC, other countries in the region, and around the world, that this is a good deal.  And we’ll continue to make that case, but this is partly a matter of free speech.  Others are certainly – have every right to make the case otherwise, but it won’t sway us in our determination.

QUESTION:  So you’re not bothered by the fact that a foreign leader is basically addressing and sort of pushing, if you will, Americans to sort of stand against a deal that you worked so hard for?  That does not bother you?

MR TONER:  Well, again, the Secretary has been very clear.  We recognize Israel prime – the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s disagreement, I guess, about the deal.  There are other voices in Israel who think it is a good deal.  The American people, and as we would hope for people anywhere, can look at a variety of sources.  We feel, however, we – and by “we” I mean the entire P5+1 – have made and will continue to make a compelling case that this deal is the best deal and, frankly, shuts off every pathway for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION:  The fact that —

MR TONER:  One more and then – sorry.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  The fact that the announcement was made on Saturday, a day after it was announced by the White House that the President is going to address the nation tomorrow about the Iran deal —

MR TONER:  Thank you for promoting that.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  So —

MR TONER:  I should have mentioned that.  (Laughter.)

QUESTION:  Okay.  So do you think that there is sort of an underhanded effort to sort of preempt the President before he speaks to the nation that (inaudible) —

MR TONER:  I don’t want to – I don’t want to make any judgments or characterizations in that regard.  I just think, as you noted, the President is going to be out himself tomorrow speaking on this subject.  Certainly look forward to that.  And again, it’s just an – clearly, we’re – “we” being the United States Government – are fully engaged on this issue. 


MR TONER:  Yeah.  Sorry, Said.

QUESTION:  The – there are reports that Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA has been quoted saying that the agency is barred from revealing to the U.S. any details of the deals – any deals it’s made with Tehran.  But my question is:  I thought that it had been said from this podium and also from the White House podium that you don’t have the actual documents but that you’ve either been briefed on the documents or have viewed the documents and then gone to Congress and briefed them on that.  Is that correct?

MR TONER:  My understanding is we have been briefed on the documents.  We’ve actually not laid eyes on the documents.  If that’s incorrect, I’ll – but I think that’s correct.  So we’ve been fully briefed and our experts are comfortable with the – with those documents and those deals, or those agreements.  And again, just to widen the lens a little bit, it’s important to note that this is true – these types of agreements are not just with Iran; they’re not some kind of secret deal.  The IAEA has this with every country, and so it’s not – the perception that there’s somehow some kind of secret, behind-the-scenes deal is incorrect.  And like I said, we’ve been fully briefed on what’s inside those agreements or what those agreements are about.

QUESTION:  But how do you kind of try to persuade the American people to go – to be supportive of this deal if there is a portion of it that prohibits the U.S. from knowing some of the most crucial details?  I mean, are you confident that you’ve been briefed on all the most crucial details and that’s what you’re telling the American people, that you don’t need to see the documents, you know everything that’s in there?

MR TONER:  Yeah.  I mean, basically we are confident.  Again, this is not unique to Iran.  These – the IAEA has these types of deals with countries around the world.  I don’t know the exact number; they have the same kind with the U.S.

QUESTION:  But Iran would be a unique —

MR TONER:  What’s that?

QUESTION:  But it would be unique in Iran – in the sense that their leaders have said certain things about other countries in the past.

MR TONER:  Well, again, this is – these are – it’s very common for these deals to – these types of agreements to exist.  There’s not anything secretive about them.  We’ve been briefed on them.  We’re confident that we understand that these are good – these agreements are fine.  Congress has what we have, which is basically all the materials required by the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act that we sent over to Congress on July 19th.

Just so you understand, I mean, the IAEA and Iran agreed on a roadmap that contains steps to clarify past and present issues, including PMD.  And under the JCPOA, Iran must complete the activities required of it in this roadmap by October 15th, well in advance of any sanctions relief, and that’s where our focus is.

QUESTION:  But there are some Republicans who have circulated a letter where they talk about the Nuclear Agreement Review Act, and they say basically, members have a right to all annexes, appendices, codicils, side agreements, implementing materials – basically saying that they should have a right to this stuff too.  To that, you say?

MR TONER:  But that’s not – sorry, just – the IAEA’s separate arrangements with Iran are not part of the agreement, so – within the definition of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR TONER:  Sure.  Please. 

QUESTION:  What you said about —

MR TONER:  Yeah, go ahead.  I’m —

QUESTION:  Yeah, no problem.

MR TONER:  Okay, cool.

QUESTION:  I’m just following up on Jake’s question.

MR TONER:  No worries.

QUESTION:  When you said that “we,” meaning the U.S. Government, have been briefed on what’s in the IAEA agreement —

MR TONER:  Correct.

QUESTION:  — with Iran, are you able to confirm reports that Under Secretary Sherman was able to see that agreement but wasn’t able to take notes, and then in turn, she briefed other members of the Administration?  Are those reports correct?

MR TONER:  Ros, I think that was part of, frankly, testimony last week on the Hill, but I’d have to double-check on that.  My understanding is that other experts also received that briefing, but I’ll have to double-check on exactly who and how many. 

QUESTION:  But whether she actually saw it?

QUESTION:  Yeah, if you could take the question.

MR TONER:  Yeah, no, I’ll have to – I believe that was part of the testimony last week, but I’ll double-check on that.


MR TONER:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR TONER:  Please. 

QUESTION:  Very quickly on —

MR TONER:  Yeah, sure.

QUESTION:  Can I, Elliot?


MR TONER:  Yeah, no worries.

QUESTION:  A very quick follow-up:  What is happening now as far as the – are there any kind of multilateral talks, or is everything on hold until after Congress votes on the deal?  What is happening diplomatically?  Is there anything going on?

MR TONER:  Well, again, we continue – I mean, diplomatically, meaning internationally, we continue to make —

QUESTION:  The P5+1 with Iran, is there anything ongoing?

MR TONER:  Yeah.  I mean, the Secretary just left Doha yesterday —


MR TONER:  — where he had meetings all day with other GCC member countries, and much of that was focused on —

QUESTION:  I am aware.  I’m sorry, Mark.

MR TONER:  Yeah, that’s okay.

QUESTION:  I’m saying any kind of —

MR TONER:  Yeah, I’m sorry.  What next?

QUESTION:  — P5+1.  Is there anything ongoing with Iran at the present time between those who negotiated the deal or among those who negotiated the deal?

MR TONER:  I don’t have anything specific to point to, but I know – in terms of process, but generally, those consultations and close coordination continue as we look to – as we look to get this over the finish line and then wait for Congress’s decision.  But I don’t have anything specific to point to other than that.  We continue to engage both domestically, but as well internationally.

QUESTION:  Thanks.

MR TONER:  Yeah, please. 

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Okay, thanks.  I wanted to switch gears and go to Japan.

MR TONER:  Okay, sure.

QUESTION:  The government has announced that they’re suspending construction of the replacement – Futenma replacement facility at Henoko Bay for a month while they negotiate with the Okinawa government first.  I assume that the U.S. was briefed on this issue.  Can you tell us what kind of explanation was provided by the Japanese Government and how you’re taking this generally?

MR TONER:  Sure.  Well, we’re aware of the announcement and we remain in close communication with officials from the Government of Japan.  And we are confident that both sides remain committed to implementing the relocation of Marine Corps Base – or Air Station, rather, Futenma to Camp Schwab at Henoko Bay.  As we’ve talked about for many times – or over many years, rather, from this podium, we believe construction of the Futenma replacement facility at Camp Schwab is the result of many years of sustained work between the United States and Japan, and is a critical step towards realizing our shared vision for the realignment of U.S. forces in Okinawa.  But for any information within – between the Government of Japan and local authorities, I would just refer you to them.

QUESTION:  When you say you’re confident that both sides remain committed —

MR TONER:  Sorry, by “both sides,” I mean, obviously, the U.S. and the Government of Japan.

QUESTION:  Okay, okay.

MR TONER:  Sorry, I should have clarified. 

QUESTION:  So how are you taking this?  Is this – do you see this as, like, a momentary setback?  Are you confident that they’ll reach an agreement and that construction will go forward?  From what you’re saying, is that correct?

MR TONER:  Yeah.  I mean, I think we want to – we obviously want them to have whatever internal discussions they need to have, but we’re confident that the commitment remains strong.

Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Sorry, follow up on that?

MR TONER:  Oh yeah, sure.  Sorry, let’s finish with this topic and then I’ll get to you.  Please.

QUESTION:  How much in advance were you notified prior to the Japanese —

MR TONER:  I don’t have – I’m sorry.  I just don’t – I don’t know.

QUESTION:  Follow-up?

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  Okay.  And the Okinawa peoples helped to the stopping the construction.  They also give up the Henoko relocation plan and that they believe that the democracy like United States Government to respect democracy.  How do you think United States and they give up the relocation plan this time?

MR TONER:  Again, I mean, clearly – and if I didn’t state that clearly enough, I apologize.  But this is – these are discussions that need to take place between local authorities and the Government of Japan.  We’re confident that they’ll do so, and we’re also confident that – certainly on our part, but also the Government of Japan remains committed to the relocation of Air Station Futenma.  So I’ll just leave it there.

QUESTION:  What do you expect —

MR TONER:  Yeah, please.  I’m sorry.  Let’s finish out the topic.  I apologize.

QUESTION:  Sorry.  So if the government of Okinawa were to rescind its approval process, what would be the next step for —

MR TONER:  That’s a hypothetical.  Let’s let them work it out and we’ll take it from there.


QUESTION:  In your communications with Japanese officials, are you reiterating the view that the U.S. sees this as a very vital national security interest?

MR TONER:  Of course.  And again, this is something we’ve discussed in depth with the Japanese Government over many, many years, so they are well aware of our position.

Please, now.  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Okay, thank you.  What is the legal basis for the authority that the Obama Administration gave itself to attack anyone who’s attacking Syrian opposition forces that the U.S. trains?

MR TONER:  The legal authority?

QUESTION:  Yes, legal basis.

MR TONER:  Well, you’re talking about in Syria and in protection of the —

QUESTION:  Correct, yes.

MR TONER:  — the ISIL – anti-ISIL coalition fighters that have in part been trained by the U.S.?


MR TONER:  I frankly don’t know what the legal authority is.  What we’re very clear about is that they’re fighting in, frankly, a lawless area of Syria.  They’re under attack —

QUESTION:  In terms of U.S. law —

MR TONER:  Let me finish.

QUESTION:  — but is it the AUMF?

MR TONER:  They’re under attack – just let me finish.  They’re under attack and under pressure from a lot of different forces – mostly ISIL, I-S-I-L, but other forces as well in that region.  And I think what we were trying to convey – and we talked about this yesterday – is the fact that we’re bringing airstrikes to bear on ISIL in that area as they advance on ISIL-held territory or I-S-I-L-held territory and supporting them in that way.  And that’s actually been effective in fighting ISIL.

It’s a very complex and fluid situation; I get that.  What we were trying to convey is that we’ll also do defensive efforts in case or in the hypothetical that they would come under fire from Syrian forces.

QUESTION:  So the only thing that changed since the announcement is the authority to go after Assad government forces, basically?  Because the U.S. had been bombing ISIS targets before in Syria – before that.

MR TONER:  It’s not the authority to go after – just let me clarify:  I said defensive measures.

QUESTION:  Yes, but – I’m sorry.  But what would be the legal basis for attacking Syrian Government forces?  Is that the AUMF?  Do you have congressional authorization for that?

MR TONER:  Well, again, we have as part of the coalition and obviously – but we’ve been carrying out airstrikes in that region for many months now, almost a year – and the same – in defense of these groups, but also to help them gain territory back from ISIL.  These are – any type of effort to protect them from Syrian forces would be defensive in nature, but I’m not going to talk about the legal framework for it.

QUESTION:  This is – but I’m sorry, but this is a major shift in policy.  It’s one thing to go after ISIS; it’s something else to attack forces that threaten the forces that go after ISIS.  Do you have congressional approval for that?  Are you seeking – are you going to seek congressional approval for that?  Under what authorization are you doing that?

MR TONER:  Whatever steps we took would be in close consultation with Congress.

QUESTION:  I’m sorry, but what – why do you think you don’t need a UN Security Council decision on this?

MR TONER:  What’s that?  Why don’t we think we need one?

QUESTION:  You don’t need one.  Because obviously, the U.S. thinks that —

MR TONER:  We’re obviously in close consultations with the UN Security Council.  Syria is a very complex situation; I’ve said this multiple times.  We want to see ultimately a political solution to the situation in Syria.  We’ve been very clear about that.  In fact, the Secretary just met with both the Saudi foreign minister as well as the Russian foreign minister in Doha yesterday.  And they talked about Syria and how to resolve the situation there —

QUESTION:  Yes, but no UN security —

MR TONER:  Let me finish.

QUESTION:  Excuse me, excuse me.

MR TONER:  So we’re clearly committed to working through the UN to bring about a political solution via the Geneva communique to the situation in Syria.  All we’re talking about right here is the fact that we would take defensive actions as needed to protect these forces that are fighting ISIL on the ground in northern Syria.

QUESTION:  But you don’t have a UN Security Council approval, you don’t have congressional approval for that.  Under what basis are you – is the Administration acting in this case?

MR TONER:  Again, we’re working with Congress on all of these issues, in close consultation with them, and I’ll leave it at that.


QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)

QUESTION:  Do you have the green light?

MR TONER:  Yeah sure.  Said, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Do you have their green light?  Consultations is one thing, but do you – who is —

MR TONER:  I direct you to Congress. 

Please go ahead, Said.

QUESTION:  No, I just wanted to clarify something.  You said that you will —

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  — given them defensive cover.  Suppose that they take action —

MR TONER:  I can’t remember what the – it’s an odd —

QUESTION:  I understand.  I was trying to clarify – suppose they —

MR TONER:  Defense – basically defensive action to – yeah – to protect.

QUESTION:  Suppose these groups, the New Syria Force – we’re talking about the New Syria Force.  Suppose they take the initiative and attack Syrian forces, regime forces.  Would you still give them air cover in that event?  Is that – is that included under the —

MR TONER:  This is – no, this is their – and we’ve said this many times about, as I said, the very dynamic situation.  These forces that we’re working with are fighting ISIL on the ground in northern Syria.


MR TONER:  That’s their focus.  That’s the focus of the forces that we’ve trained, and that’s where we want the focus to remain.

QUESTION:  Okay.  And just to understand, yesterday – and still, in fact, confusing, because we don’t know what kind of force the United States used.  Is it drones or is it fighter attacks and so on?

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  They all came out of Incirlik, apparently, in Turkey and so on.  So could you clarify that?  Because we’re a bit confused on that.

MR TONER:  No, I’d actually refer you to the Department of Defense.  They can speak more – much more —

QUESTION:  But the Department of Defense —

MR TONER:  I don’t want to get into operational details from here.

QUESTION:  But the Department of Defense gave two conflicting statements.  One said drones and the other one said – suggesting that —

MR TONER:  I’m aware of some of the reports, but they’re in a much better position to speak to it than we are.

QUESTION:  Is it possible that both are used?  Fixed – both fixed wing as well as maybe drones used in the attacks?  Is that possible?

MR TONER:  Again, I’d leave it to them to speak to the operational details.

Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Today, there were further reports that two or several more U.S.-trained Syrian New Forces have been taken hostage by the same group.  Would you be able to confirm that?  Is that —

MR TONER:  Again, I don’t – I can’t confirm anything from here.

QUESTION:  Mark, do you have any figure on the number trained?  I mean, this New Syria Force, what is the size of this —

MR TONER:  I don’t have an update.  No, I don’t have an update.  And frankly, it was – I mean – and we talked about this at length.


MR TONER:  I mean, we were – in terms of the train and equip program —


MR TONER:  — these forces had to be, obviously, extensively vetted and trained up.  And frankly, the numbers were low to begin with, moving though the system.  I don’t have a current figure on that.  I don’t know how many of them moved through the system.

QUESTION:  How do you take the reaction of the – the Russian reaction?  Because apparently, the Russians are warning not to attack Syrian forces.  Are you aware of that?

MR TONER:  Again, let’s clarify what I said, which is defensive measures —

QUESTION:  I understand.  I know exactly what you said, but are you aware of the Russian warning not to attack Syrian forces?

MR TONER:  I’m aware of – I’m aware of Russian comments about what they’re talking about, which are attacks on Syrian forces, but that’s not what we’re talking about.

QUESTION:  Just one more question.  How are —

QUESTION:  Do you communicate to the Syrian —

MR TONER:  Yeah, sure.  Lesley’s been —

QUESTION:  Yeah, sorry, sorry.  Do you communicate to the Syrians —


QUESTION:  — when you are doing this?

MR TONER:  When we’re doing what?

QUESTION:  When you’re about to attack —

MR TONER:  We’re not doing anything.  We’re talking about – yeah —

QUESTION:  You’re not communicating.  So they have —

MR TONER:  But we’re – we have – I think what I said yesterday, and I stand by that, we have conveyed our – what our intent would be to protect these forces.


QUESTION:  Mark, there were – just can you give us a more in-depth readout – excuse me – from yesterday’s meeting with – between Kerry and Lavrov on the political process going forward?  There’s been interesting developments over – today about the foreign ministers going off to speak to Tehran regarding the Syrians.  There’s been further developments —

MR TONER:  You’re talking about Lavrov going to —

QUESTION:  Lavrov.

MR TONER:  I’m sorry.

QUESTION:  That’s right. 

MR TONER:  Yeah, okay.  Sorry.

QUESTION:  Lavrov meeting the Saudis specifically on this.  Do you have any kind of insights into kind of where this is headed?

MR TONER:  Well, I don’t have a lot more detail to read out from yesterday’s meeting other than what we talked about.  I think without spinning it necessarily too positively, we’re at a point where we can possibly see a way forward.  We need to see a political process take hold.  We’ve been very adamant about the fact that that can’t include Assad.  He’s lost all legitimacy.  But we need to see a political resolution to the situation there.  We’ve had, I think, positive discussions with, among others, the Russians but also other members of the GCC.  And we’re looking to, hopefully, move this forward.  As you all know, last week Special Representative de Mistura spoke at the – to the UN Security Council trying to reinvigorate the peace process in Syria.  We certainly support those efforts and are working through all the various players, if you will, in this regard to try to jumpstart those efforts.

QUESTION:  Do you see this issue coming up in the UN meetings next month?

MR TONER:  I mean, without forecasting too far in advance, yes, I can very much imagine it will be a topic of discussion.

QUESTION:  Is it just the substance of the discussions that the U.S. has had with Russia and the GCC that gives the Administration a bit of optimism?  Is it developments within the greater Syrian opposition itself that gives you a sense of optimism?

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  What specifically is it?

MR TONER:  I don’t even know – necessarily know that I’d say optimism.  But look, we’re trying to move this forward.  I think we – we’re hopeful that all sides are coming to agreement about a way to move this forward, but there’s a lot, a lot of work to be done yet.


QUESTION:  Is there any new information regarding usage of Incirlik Base, whether any of U.S. Air Force arrived?

MR TONER:  Well, no, and I don’t really want to speak to, as I said, operational details.  We’ve – we continue to have ongoing discussions.  We spoke last week about working through some of the operational arrangements for using Incirlik, but I don’t have anything necessarily new to report. 

QUESTION:  Yesterday from here you called on PKK to return to the peace talks and stop violence.  Have you conveyed this message to PKK in any other way?  Have you been communicating with the PKK leadership on this?

MR TONER:  Fair question.  I don’t know that we have a direct line of communications to the PKK, but we’ve been very clear publicly in our statements we want to see really the PKK to cease its attacks on Turkish military and Turkish police, and then through that we hope to see a de-escalation of the violence.

QUESTION:  One more question on northern Iraq.

MR TONER:  Please.

QUESTION:  According to officials, the KRG recently – I believe since June they started to sell their oil once again to the international markets.  I don’t know if you – have you ever been answered this question.  Do you have any reaction to this resuming selling of oil without the knowledge or acceptance of the Baghdad government?

MR TONER:  I’m frankly not aware of those reports, so I’d have to look into them and – just to make sure that – if we have anything new to say.  But our general lines about sharing the oil revenues and resources within Iraq stand.


QUESTION:  Are you aware of the German authorities pursuing these journalists for leaking information about a internet monitoring program?  Freedom House came forward and urged them to prioritize media rights over —

MR TONER:  Which journalists?  Sorry.

QUESTION:  They’re part of this blog netzpolitik.org, I believe, and they —

MR TONER:  Sorry, Mike.  No, I don’t.  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Well, I guess their prosecutor is under fire —

MR TONER:  Okay.

QUESTION:  — because they put a —

MR TONER:  I’m sorry.  Are they a German-based organization?

QUESTION:  Yeah, German-based. 

MR TONER:  Okay, sorry.

QUESTION:  And he wouldn’t investigate what was going on with the NSA, but he wants to prosecute these journalists.  So – and Merkel is putting a pause to it, so I’m just wondering if you had anything.

MR TONER:  No, no, I don’t.  I apologize.  I’m just not aware of it.  I’ll have to look into it. 


MR TONER:  Thanks.

QUESTION:  Can we change subjects?

MR TONER:  Sure.  Yeah, absolutely. 

QUESTION:  Can we go to Sudan?

MR TONER:  We’ll go to Lesley and then I’ll go back to you. 

QUESTION:  Can I go to Sudan?

MR TONER:  Sure, you can go anywhere you want.

QUESTION:  Well, you probably saw the report yesterday that Sudan has said that Bashir is planning to address the UN General Assembly next month.  Is – we had this issue in 2013.  Has – have they – has Bashir applied for a visa, and is he likely to get it?

MR TONER:  Well, as you well know, we don’t talk about individual visa requests from the podium or even publicly in any way, shape, or form.  We’ve been very clear how we feel about the president of Sudan and that he’s wanted for crimes, and we want to see him held accountable for those crimes.  We have not, that I’m aware of, received any – or just rather, we’re aware of the reports but we haven’t seen anything beyond that.

QUESTION:  Staying on visas.

MR TONER:  Please.

QUESTION:  The special immigrant visa program for Iraqi and Afghans who worked with the U.S. military.

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  I understand there’s some – there are some things that you may not be able to say because there is an active lawsuit against the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, but there are a number of Afghan interpreters who are tentatively qualified to receive these SIVs but who have been waiting more – it’s alleged more than the five years specified by Congress.  Can you explain what the delay is in trying to process their visas?  Is there more that can be done absent more congressional action mandating how these visas are processed?

MR TONER:  Sure.  You’re talking obviously about the special immigrant visas.


MR TONER:  Obviously, first and foremost, we’re committed to helping those who, at great personal risk in many cases, have helped us over the years.  On December 19th of last year, 2014, the President signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which extends the Afghan SIV program, and also authorized 4,000 additional visas for principal applicants – excuse me.  There are approximately 13,000 Afghan principal applicants who are currently going through or being processed, I guess.  The majority of applicants are at the first step of the process pending submission of a complete set of documents for consideration by the chief of mission.

So the National Defense Authorization Act expands, as I said, the SIV program to include certain Afghans who are employed by the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, and information is now available on our website for the document requirements for those ISAF applicants who qualify to apply also for chief-of-mission approval.  But last year, in 2014 – and this includes both Afghans and Iraqis, who also make up a sizable component of this group – we issued more than 9,000 special immigrant visas – sorry, just to Afghans in FY 2014, which is an over 600 percent increase from the previous year.  So more than 15,000 Afghans who worked for the United States in Afghanistan have benefited now from the SIV program.  And with Iraq, it was 1,500 SIVs in FY 2014.

QUESTION:  But there is a small group of those —

MR TONER:  Right.

QUESTION:  — who say that some of the documentation that they need has to be released by Afghan authorities and that the Afghans are basically giving them the runaround.  Is there any leverage that the U.S. can place on Kabul to help them get their applications completed given that they’ve been waiting now —

MR TONER:  Sure.

QUESTION:  — more than the mandated five years?

MR TONER:  I mean, we’re looking at – continually looking at – we recognize, frankly, that the process is challenging for some of the applicants for some of the reasons you cited, and that some applicants – applications, rather, still require extensive time to complete, and we’re continuing – continually looking at ways to complete the process.  We also had an internal State Department review that identified certain inefficiencies that were previously causing delays and cut the average processing time for the majority of SIV applicants.

But the deadline to apply for chief-of-mission approval is December 31st, 2015.  So that remains the case.  Thanks.

Yeah, sure.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Just to be clear:  To my question —

MR TONER:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  — to my question, what the legal basis is for the decision to attack anyone who’s attacking Syrian opposition forces – legal basis under international law or under U.S. law – you said you don’t know.  How is it possible?

MR TONER:  I just – again, we’ve been carrying airstrikes out in northern Syria against ISIL.  We’re continuing to do that.  We’re doing that as part of a broad coalition – many countries as well as now Turkey – in support of these anti-ISIL fighters on the ground, both Kurds, Arabs, but also Turkmen in support of their efforts.  That continues to be our purpose.  Our main goal is to take the fight against ISIL.  Nothing’s changed in that regard.  So I feel like that answers your question.

QUESTION:  It’s a —

MR TONER:  There’s no change in the legal framework.

QUESTION:  It is actually a major change in policy.  It is major policy announcement —

MR TONER:  I would disagree.

QUESTION:  — and yet the Administration is not giving any legal justification for that.  How is it possible —

MR TONER:  Respectfully, I disagree, and I’m going to move on because I’m under a time limitation.

Please go ahead.

QUESTION:  Sorry, back on Japan, but a different topic.

MR TONER:  Yeah, sure.

QUESTION:  You had announced yesterday that Under Secretary Gottemoeller will be traveling to Japan and attending the ceremonies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Other than the ambassador, I believe that this is the first time that someone from State will be attending.  Is there any special message that she intends to convey or that the Administration intends to convey about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

MR TONER:  Well, sure.  As you mentioned, Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, obviously, but also Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs Rose Gottemoeller will attend the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, as you said, on August 6th, 2015, as well as the Nagasaki Peace Memorial Service, which is on August 9th.  We obviously look forward to continued work with Japan in advance – to advance, rather, President Obama’s goal of realizing a world without nuclear weapons.  And as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and, frankly, the enduring bilateral relationship and partnership that we have built with Japan, August 6th and 9th will remain days for somber reflection and a renewed commitment to building a more peaceful world.  So I think that would be our fundamental message.

Guys, I really have to – I apologize.  I’m under a tight deadline, I apologize.  One more question.

QUESTION:  Very quick.

MR TONER:  Said, I’ve answered a lot.  I’m not trying to – just one more question, please. 

QUESTION:  On the Secretary’s trip to Kuala Lumpur, can you give a little bit of idea of what his schedule will be looking like?  Will he be having any bilateral meetings on the side?

MR TONER:  He’ll be having many bilateral meetings.  Obviously, he left Singapore earlier today.  He’s now in Kuala Lumpur.  I don’t, frankly, have a schedule of his meetings.  I’ll have more tomorrow to outline for you.

QUESTION:  To clarify, will he be meeting with any of the Chinese counterparts?

MR TONER:  We talked about this a little bit yesterday.  I don’t have anything to confirm, but I can imagine he’ll be trying to meet up with as many of his counterparts as he possibly can over the next 48 hours.

QUESTION:  Just one quick one?  One quick follow-up. 

MR TONER:  One quick, okay.


MR TONER:  I apologize, guys.  I just have – I have an appointment I need to make.

QUESTION:  Yeah, yeah.  Kerry – Secretary Kerry will be holding many bilateral meeting, as you said, in KL.  I’m wondering if there’s any possibility of him meeting with his counterpart from North Korea, because this ASEAN conference is one of rare meetings attended regularly by North Korea’s and —

MR TONER:  I don’t believe so, no. 

Please, very quickly.

QUESTION:  Very quick, just I wanted to get your reaction to the decision by the UAE to commit ground troops to the conflict there.

MR TONER:  I’m aware of the reports.  I don’t really have any direct —

QUESTION:  The – I mean, the troops have arrived.

MR TONER:  What’s that?  Yeah, no, I’m aware of the reports that they’ve arrived and all of that, but I just don’t have any comment, no.


MR TONER:  Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:24 p.m.)

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