Robert Wood
Acting Department Spokesman
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 20, 2009

Index for Today's Briefing
    • New Media Technology / State to Facilitate Delegation to Baghdad, Iraq / Nine Senior High Technology Representatives / Explore Ways to Help Government and Nongovernment Stakeholders in Emerging New Media Industry
    • Secretary Clinton's Brief Meeting with President Chavez / Return of Ambassador / Positive Idea / Dialogue with Nations in Trying to Achieve U.S. National Interests / Looking at Ways to Solve Problems / Looking at Ways to Resolve Issues
  • IRAQ
    • President Ahmadinejad Speech at the UN Anti-Racism Conference / Comments Were Unacceptable and Feed Racial Hatred / Rhetoric is Unhelpful and Counterproductive / Durban Declaration / Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Statement
    • Want to Engage Iran Directly Through Diplomacy / Need to Engage Iran on Number of Issues / Iraq / Hezbollah
    • Roxana Saberi / No Response from Aide-Memoire / Working Hard on the Case Through our Swiss Protecting Power / Accusation of Espionage is Without Foundation
    • Sharia Law
    • Comments by Official that Mullah Omar and Usama bin Laden are Welcome in Region / Not a Place They Should be Welcomed / The Need to Confront Violent Extremist
    • Working Closely on Range of Issues / Pakistan Commitment to Address Issues / Pakistan Public Opinion
    • Try to Bring About Stable Afghanistan and Stable Border with Pakistan / Strategic Review / Severe Challenges / International Community and Commitment / Tokyo Donor's Conference /
    • Long-Planned NATO Exercises
    • Conflict in Sri Lanka / Department Statement / Call to Cease Violent Activity / Protection of Civilians in Safe Zones / Humanitarian Situation / Working with Interested Parties
    • Arrest of Opposition Figures / Expressed Concern on Infringement of Rights of Individuals
    • Dialogue Between North Korea and South Korea


12:48 p.m. EDT

MR. WOOD: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the briefing. Happy Monday. I’m going to start off with a brief statement and this is on new media technology.

The Department of State is facilitating the travel to Baghdad, Iraq, for the delegation of nine senior high-technology company representatives beginning Sunday, April 19, yesterday, to April 23. This will be the first delegation of its kind to Iraq. While in Iraq, the group will explore new opportunities to support Iraqi Government and nongovernment stakeholders in Iraq’s emerging new media industry.

The delegation includes a mix of CEOs, vice presidents, and senior representatives from AT&T, Google, Twitter, Howcast, Meetup, You Tube, Automatic/Wordpress, and Blue State Digital. During their visit to Iraq, they will provide conceptual input as well as ideas on how new technologies can be used to build local capacity, foster greater transparency and accountability, build upon anti-corruption efforts, promote critical thinking in the classroom, scale-up civil society, and further empower local entities and individuals by providing the tools for network building. As Iraqis think about how to integrate new technology as a tool for smart power, we view this as an opportunity to invite American technology industry to be part of this creative genesis.

During the trip the delegation will meet with representatives from the Government of Iraq, the public and private education sectors, Iraqi technology companies, and groups active in Iraqi civil society.

Secretary Clinton has been a strong proponent of using the full range of tools, including emerging new media and communication technologies, to leverage capabilities that will allow for diplomacy not just with governments, but also with people and between different societies.

And with that, I’m ready to take your questions.

QUESTION: Can you identify by name the executives who are going?

MR. WOOD: I don’t --

QUESTION: Can you identify by name?

MR. WOOD: I don’t have the names. We’ll – I’ll see if I can get them for you, so let us get back to you on that.

QUESTION: I have --

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: On a different topic.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: I’d like to ask about Secretary Clinton’s brief meeting with President Chavez, about returning an ambassador. I was wondering whether, you know, this is just now you have to work out the logistics, or has the decision been made to return an ambassador? What was the kind of context of the conversation?

MR. WOOD: Well, my understanding is that President Chavez approached Secretary Clinton and discussed this issue. And the Secretary thought it was a positive idea and that we are going to see how we can work together to try to, you know, further that shared goal. But we don’t have any further details at this point.

QUESTION: So just in, you know, general terms, there was an agreement that you’re both going to return ambassadors at some point?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’re looking into doing that.

QUESTION: Okay. Can you respond to some of the criticism that the Administration is facing for President Obama’s meeting with President Chavez? For instance, Newt Gingrich this morning said that – he thought that this is going to actually have dictators consider the U.S. weak and act even, you know, kind of tougher because – you know, now they sense this as weakness, they’ll start pushing ahead.

MR. WOOD: Well, we certainly don’t agree with that. I mean, the President spoke to this yesterday at his press conference. And the President believes that we need to have dialogue with nations. There have been in the past – there was a feeling, certainly in Latin America, that the United States was not engaged, wasn’t interested, wasn’t willing to seriously try to solve problems that exist in the region. And this is a President and a Secretary of State who believe in dialogue, in trying to achieve U.S. national interests. So I don’t think this shows any weakness on the part of this Administration in any way.

We’re trying to look for ways to solve problems. And we believe that through dialogue, it’s an opportunity to try and solve problems. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to. But this Administration’s committed to trying to see what we can do to resolve some of these very thorny issues that are out there. And you know, having a greeting with a foreign leader who we may not see eye to eye on a number of issues, is just not in any way a threat to U.S. national interests.

QUESTION: Well, what about the tone, though? I mean, you know, President Obama is seen kind of laughing and joking with Chavez, who is considered one of the most anti-American presidents not only in the hemisphere, but perhaps in the world, you know, he was seen laughing and joking with him. And some people kind of see that as irresponsible. Yes, it’s fine to talk. But that, you know, given what he said about the United States in the past, that all kind of shouldn’t be forgotten and there should be this kind of joking, friendly tone. Be more, kind of circumspect.

MR. WOOD: Well, Elise, the President addressed that yesterday. I don’t have anything to add to it, beyond saying that dialogue is a very important element of this Administration’s foreign policy. And we’re going to reach out where we can and try to pursue our national interests as best we can. But again, dialogue is what we believe is important. And we will see where – how things go with regard to President Chavez’s suggestion that we exchange ambassadors. We’re looking at it. We think it’s a positive idea, and we’ll go from there.

QUESTION: Robert, do you agree with the assessment of these people who think that the last Administration ignored Latin America?

MR. WOOD: I’m just telling you what the sense was from some in Latin America.

QUESTION: I wonder, this building – institutionally, I wonder if this building shares that?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m just telling you what the perceptions were, you know.

QUESTION: Are those perceptions valid?

MR. WOOD: Look, those were the perceptions that Latin American leaders have, some Latin American leaders, about the previous administration’s foreign policy. So what we have to go out there to do is to show that we are engaged and that we do care. And this Administration, I think, has really put forth a number of creative ideas and suggestions about how to move the relationship forward with Latin America, and it’s going to do so.


QUESTION: Another subject. Do you have any reaction to the speech of Ahmadinejad today at the Human Rights Council and the fact that he called Israel a racist state?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, Sylvie, look, unfortunately, we’ve heard all of this before from President Ahmadinejad. The comments that he made frankly were unacceptable, and frankly feed racial hatred. Iran needs to end this type of inflammatory rhetoric. It’s not helpful. And I think you saw today a number of delegates walked out during his speech, which I think sent a very powerful message to Iran that this type of rhetoric is unhelpful, it’s counterproductive. And as I said, it just feeds racial hatred. And you know, as I said, we’ve heard this before and, you know, we have said this type of rhetoric – this is not rhetoric that should be used in the 21st century, frankly.

QUESTION: So are you still interested in pursuing dialogue with Ahmadinejad and his government?

MR. WOOD: We have had said that we want to engage Iran directly through diplomacy.

QUESTION: Can you do that after he makes speeches like this?

MR. WOOD: Well, we – look, we certainly hope to be able to engage Iran on a number of issues. There are a number of situations around the world where we need to engage Iran. We’ve been very concerned about Iran’s behavior in Iraq, its support for Hezbollah, for other terrorist groups. So – and obviously, this type of rhetoric and behavior is unhelpful. And you know – but it’s up to Iran.

If Iran, as I’ve said many times, wants a different relationship with the international community, it’s got to change its behavior and stop this, you know, horrible rhetoric. In the end, it’s going to be up to Iran. But this Administration has said it’s willing to engage in direct diplomacy.

QUESTION: In his speech or his comments, this rhetoric doesn’t affect the Administration’s desire to have a dialogue with him?

MR. WOOD: Well, obviously, this type of rhetoric is not helpful to trying to contribute – it’s not helpful in contributing to a dialogue. But I think what was important is that a number of delegates today spoke out very clearly through their actions by walking out during that speech. And --

QUESTION: Well, I guess what I’m asking is: Are you – is the Administration still interested in pursuing dialogue with Iran after the speech?

MR. WOOD: Well, we want to have a direct dialogue with Iran, but Iran needs to do a number of things if it’s going to get back in the overall good graces of the international community. That type of rhetoric is not helpful and doesn’t help facilitate a constructive dialogue.

QUESTION: But it doesn’t preclude it?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not precluding it because we have said, very straightforwardly, we want to have direct diplomacy with Iran.

QUESTION: Right. Now you mentioned that the people who walked out sent a very powerful message. So why didn’t the U.S. go? If this is a very powerful message, why didn’t you guys go too and then walk out and join in this very powerful message?

MR. WOOD: Matt, as you know, we put out a statement on this, we’ve spoken to this quite clearly why we didn’t. We felt that there were references to the 2001 Durban Declaration and Program of Action that were not acceptable to us. There were some references to – in the document to – that, in our view, did not allow for, you know, broad freedom of speech and expression. And so we’ve made that very clear what our position was with regard to attending the conference. What I’m commenting on is what took place at the conference. And so I don’t have any more for that.

QUESTION: Do you think the Europeans were right to go there to attend this conference since they walked away?

MR. WOOD: You know, each individual country has to make a decision as to what it wants to do with regard to attendance at any conference. I’d have to refer you to those European leaders whose countries attended. I – you know, I just – I don’t have any comment on that.

QUESTION: Israel said that they were disappointed by (inaudible) because they weren’t there.

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, the Government of Israel is saying what it believes and feels. I’m just saying to you what our position was from the beginning, and that we tried to, you know, work with a number of countries to get a document that would allow us to attend, but in the end, that wasn’t possible.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Pakistan?

MR. WOOD: Hold on. Anything else on --

QUESTION: Yeah, just – do you have any reaction to Ban Ki-moon meeting with Ahmadinejad?

MR. WOOD: No, I saw that he had – Secretary General Ban issued a statement, but I don’t have anything more on that. Sorry.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Pentagon officials have said that the tribal areas of Waziristan are off limits for these aerial drones, and Special Operation teams to go and to look for terrorists, if you will. But there was an attack there. One of the aerial drones killed some civilians this past weekend. I was wondering if the Pakistani Government has said anything to you about that.

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware of anything at this point.

QUESTION: Okay. So they haven’t voiced their concerns about --

MR. WOOD: I’m not aware of it.

QUESTION: On Pakistan, on the Swat Valley?

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: Do you have any – sharia law took – went into effect there and the leader of the region says that bin Ladin and Mullah Omar are welcome there. Do you have any response to this? And in general, what do you think about the imposition of sharia there?

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, I’ve spoken to the issue of sharia law. I spoke to it last week. With regard to Mullah Omar and Usama bin Ladin, this is not a place where they should be welcome. And you know, we believe, and I made this clear last week, that violent extremists need to be confronted. Violent extremism needs to be confronted not just by Pakistan, but the entire international community. You know, we will continue to work with the Government of Pakistan and the Government of Afghanistan to try to help root out these violent extremists. They’re a threat to democracy and stability in the region, and we call on all those who are interested in bringing about stability to that region to work with us to root out violent extremism.

QUESTION: He had a question on Pakistan.

MR. WOOD: Oh yeah, I’m sorry. Please.

QUESTION: Yeah, a senior Pakistani minister said yesterday that U.S. is blaming Pakistan just because U.S. has failed in Afghanistan. Do you have the same assessment of the situation there?

MR. WOOD: Well, I haven’t seen those comments, but look, we are working hard with other countries in the international community to try to bring about, as I said, a stable Afghanistan and a stable Pakistani border with Afghanistan. This is not going to be easy. We’ve just finished conducting a strategic review, as you know. We are now getting – hopefully moving into the implementation phase, working with other governments who share our concerns.

But it’s not a question of whether people perceive the strategy of what has happened up until now as a failure or a success. What we need to do is we’ve got some severe challenges that we have to meet. We need to marshal all of our resources in the international community to take on these challenges. And the Government of Pakistan knows that we’re a dependable ally and that we are going to work very hard to do what we can. And I think, as you saw at the Tokyo donors conference, we exceeded the $4 billion in nonmilitary assistance that we all wanted to see. It was upwards of 5 billion or more.

There is a clear international commitment to Pakistan. And so, as I said, we’re in the implementation phase right now, and we’ll continue to move forward and work with our --

QUESTION: Last week --

MR. WOOD: -- Pakistani and Afghani friends.


QUESTION: -- on Friday, you spoke about issue of trust with Pakistan. How you plan to address that issue?

MR. WOOD: Well, as I said, we are working with Pakistan to deal with this sort of trust deficit, if you will. And the only way that we can do that effectively is by continuing to work closely together on a whole range of issues. And there is certainly a commitment on the part of the Government of Pakistan to address this issue, as on the part of the U.S. Government. So this is not something that will – you know, we won’t be able to erase that trust deficit tomorrow, but certainly, as days and weeks go by, that is our hope that we’ll be able to reduce that.

QUESTION: That’s at a government-to-government level, but it’s – anti-America sentiment is more among the people of Pakistan. How you are going to --

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I understand that there is a problem with regard to public opinion in Pakistan. And what we’re trying to do, as the Pakistani Government is trying to do, is trying to address that issue. And what we hope to do, and to show by our commitment in terms of assistance to Pakistan and our solidarity with the Pakistani people, we’re trying to show that, you know, America is in the corner of Pakistan, and we want to help Pakistan.

And so it’s a very difficult problem and it’s going to take time to deal with, so – but we are trying to address it and will continue to try.

QUESTION: Another country in the region --

QUESTION: But that really flows on this question.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: And you mentioned it a little bit just now, but you did mention the nonmilitary aid going to Pakistan for civilian and diplomatic projects. I know the Kerry-Lugar bill – they’re trying to pass that for the same reason. But if you keep seeing these aerial drones are killing civilians, and it sends a different message to the Pakistani people that you are sending – your nonmilitary aid, but the military is carrying out these actions against civilians. Do you think maybe the State Department has talked to the Pentagon about maybe they need to be more careful in where they’re carrying out these actions?

MR. WOOD: Well, you know, with regard to that particular issue, I don’t have anything to add on that, but just to say that over the years, the United States has been a major contributor to Pakistan. And you know, again, I point you to the billion dollars that we gave at the Tokyo donors conference, you know, which is going to help support Pakistan’s standby arrangement with the IMF. And we’ll continue to try to show the Pakistani people that we care about their interests, we want to see them succeed in terms of rid – you know, getting rid of these violent extremists that are bringing such harm and detriment to their country. But this is going to take time, as I said, and we’ll continue to work it. And the Pakistani Government shares our views in terms of the need to try to improve the public opinion situation in Pakistan. So we’ll continue to work that channel.


QUESTION: On Somalia, and I understand the Secretary has spoken on the topic, but I want to ask specifically about al-Shabab. And there’s been talk about a possible strike in Somalia against members of al-Shabab. Is the U.S. concerned about any possible ramifications, or the fact that any strike might embolden al-Shabab amongst Somalis?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, you know, I would never comment on anything like that even if I knew about it. So I don’t have anything for you on it.

Sylvie, and then we’ll go here.

QUESTION: Another subject. Do you have any reaction to the decision of Russia to cancel the NATO-Russia meeting, which was scheduled soon, because of the NATO exercise – military exercise in Georgia?

MR. WOOD: I saw one report – press report on that, Sylvie. I don’t have much of a comment. If it’s true, it’s unfortunate, but I don’t have much in the way of detail. Hopefully, I can get some detail on that for you.

QUESTION: And what about these exercises in NATO, Georgia? Do you think it’s fruitful – improving relations with Russia?

MR. WOOD: Well, these exercises were long planned. You know, this – I don’t have anything more to add to that. Again, I’m just responding to the press report I saw. I don’t have much more in the way of detail.

Yes, Arshad.

QUESTION: Robert, the Sri Lankan Government has given the Tamil Tigers 24 hours to surrender or die. And I wonder what you think about that, whether you think that’s a useful step for them to take or whether they should find a way to try to negotiate an end to this?

MR. WOOD: Well, I haven’t seen those comments, Arshad, but again, we continue – well, let me just say, first and foremost, that we recently issued a statement on the conflict in Sri Lanka. And again, we call on both the government and the Tamil Tigers to cease this violent activity, to protect civilians in the safe zones. We’re very concerned about the humanitarian situation there. It’s dire. We are working with a number of interested parties with regard to seeing this conflict ended, and we’re going to continue to try to do that. But it’s important that both sides minimize, to the greatest possible extent, any civilian casualties, protect civilians, allow humanitarian organizations to get food to the people who need it.

But you know, I’m not going to kid you. It’s a very serious situation on the ground there, and we’re going to continue to work with others in the international community to try to see what we can – to stop it.

QUESTION: But are you not worried that there could be a civilian bloodbath if the Sri Lankan military, at the end of the 24 hours, simply prosecutes a full-fledged offensive against the – such Tigers as remain?

MR. WOOD: You know, well, I don’t want to, you know, get ahead of things, Arshad. But obviously, our concern is for these innocent civilians who are trapped or caught in the middle of this conflict. And we want to try to do everything that we can to protect them and make sure that they get the assistance that they need.

I don’t have a magic formula for you in terms of how we deal with it, but we’re going to continue – the United States and others who are interested in seeing this conflict end immediately – work to try to convince both sides in the interest of, you know, their people to try to minimize any harm to civilians.

Let me go back here. Please.

QUESTION: Yes, different subject. Radical Islamic government of Turkey is now arresting several opposition figures. They arrested journalists, NGOs, union leaders, even the eight – university president. In the past, we were – monitored these kind of events, especially with our diplomats enter this kind of hearing and monitoring the situation. What are you planning to do on the situation in Turkey?

MR. WOOD: Well, I haven’t seen the reports. And look, we’ve expressed our concern about any infringement on the rights of individuals wherever those infringements take place. I don’t have much more than that for you because I haven’t seen these reports. So let me look into them and see what I can find out.

QUESTION: Also, the Secretary is – Turkish press reported that the Secretary will visit Turkey in the – soon, I believe. Do you have anything --

MR. WOOD: The Secretary was just in Turkey. I’m not aware of --

QUESTION: I know, but Secretary Gates is going, and after the Secretary is going, they told that Secretary Clinton also visit second time to Turkey.

MR. WOOD: Well, she – I’m not – I don’t have anything to announce about any future travel. But I’m, at this point, not aware of any planned trip by Secretary Clinton to Turkey.

QUESTION: Turkey again?

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: Well, sort of. In Cyprus, in the northern part of Cyprus, the Nationalist party won the election. Do you think it bodes well for the peace process with the Greeks in the south?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, I’ve seen reports about the election process. I don’t have very much for you, Sylvie, on that at this point. Yeah, I just don’t. I’ve just seen those. We’ll wait for – until we see some more definitive results. But I don’t have anything beyond that at this point.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: No, no. Iran again.

MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: The Secretary talked a little bit about the Roxana Saberi case upstairs earlier. But do you know when the last contact you had with the Swiss was? Have the Iranians ever responded to the aide-memoire?

MR. WOOD: They have not responded to the aide-memoire as far as I know.

QUESTION: And then on the Swiss contact, what else can you do to try and get the Iranians to release her?

MR. WOOD: We’re working very hard. Look --


MR. WOOD: Diplomatically.

QUESTION: Yeah, but how and with who?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’ve been in touch --

QUESTION: Through the Swiss?

MR. WOOD: That’s right, through our Swiss protecting partner – power. And we’re trying to get more details about the sentence, which I think we’ve spoken to over the weekend.

Look, she’s been wrongly accused. There have been charges that she, you know, committed espionage. And it’s absolutely without foundation. You know, we’re deeply concerned about this. And we are going to continue to work through the Swiss to find out as much information as we can, to make sure that she has been properly treated, and go from there.

I don’t really want to get much more into the substance of our diplomatic activities, but just to let you know that we are working this very hard. We’re very, very concerned about this case.

QUESTION: Well, is there any thought being given to possibly expanding from the Swiss to others to exert – to bring pressure on --

MR. WOOD: Well, Matt, I don’t want to talk about what we may or may not be doing beyond what I’ve said. But I can assure you, as you saw through the Secretary’s statement over the weekend, we remain extremely concerned about this process. And we’ll just have to see. We’ll keep you posted on that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. WOOD: We’ve got two more and then – please.

QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about the upcoming meeting between North Korea and South Korea, I believe outside of Kaesong?

MR. WOOD: Well, the only thing I can say is that, as you know, for a long time, we’ve encouraged dialogue between North Korea and South Korea. And we hope that the North will take advantage of this opportunity to have a fruitful dialogue with the Republic of Korea.

There is – please.

QUESTION: On North Korea again. I’m just wondering – there’s been some reports that the 1718 Sanctions Committee have run into some difficulties being able to have an agreement on a recommendation coming out of the committee. Are you confident that they will come up with an effective recommendation on the recommendations that the U.S. has made and given to the committee?

MR. WOOD: Well, we certainly hope so. But as I mentioned last week, you know, we expected that – we expected that there will be a few rounds of discussions before we reached agreement on a list of goods and entities. So this kind of discussion is natural at the United Nations, particularly in a number of the important committees. So we’re hopeful and, you know, we’ll have to see how that process unfolds.

But I understand there will be a Sanctions Committee meeting coming up soon, I think in the next day or so, and we’ll go from there.

QUESTION: So – I’m sorry, they’re supposed to have a deadline of Thursday making the recommendation. But you’re thinking it may need a few more rounds after that Thursday deadline?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. You know, as I said on Friday – or maybe it was Thursday, I can’t remember – we expected that there would be a few rounds of this. I just can’t tell you anything more beyond that at this point.

One last question.

QUESTION: Yes, South Korea delays couple times of the announcement to join the PSI, so that – I believe that South Korea is playing to U.S. Why? So do we have the – what’s the reason? And do you have the reaction on --

MR. WOOD: I don’t. You know, I’d have to refer you to the Government of South Korea for any details about – you know, their policy with regard to the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Okay, thank you all.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:15 p.m.)