Mark C. Toner
Acting Deputy Department Spokesman
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
February 17, 2010


Index for Today's Briefing
  • SECRETARY
    • Secretary Clinton has returned from the Middle East/Meetings today at the White House
  • DEPARTMENT
    • Under Secretary Burns in Damascus/Meetings with Syrian President Asad and other leaders/The decision to send a new ambassador to Syria is a recognition of the important role that Syria plays in the region/Robert Ford has been nominated for this post and still requires confirmation
    • Special Representative Holbrooke is in Afghanistan/Meeting with senior military and civilian leaders/Receiving briefings on current military operations in the Helmand Province
  • HAITI
    • Have yet to receive official confirmation regarding any possible release of the ten American missionaries
  • TIBET/CHINA
    • The Dalai Lama is to be at the White House Thursday/Relations between the U.S. and China are diverse and have been discussed frequently in recent press briefings
  • CUBA
    • U.S.-Cuba Migration talks this Friday/Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Craig Kelly to be the senior U.S. representative
  • SUDAN
    • Special Envoy Scott Gration continues his travels and meetings in Chad and Sudan in support of improved relations between nations in the region
  • AFGHANISTAN
    • Civilians are working alongside military forces in current operations/Following the conclusion of combat operations, civilians will move into affected areas to provide governance and stability
  • RUSSIA/MEXICO
    • Both countries are welcome to pursue bilateral relationships/No details regarding any arms sales by Russia to Mexico


TRANSCRIPT:

1:20 p.m. EST

MR. TONER: Good afternoon, everybody. You can tell it’s really the B team, eh? Actually, the C team. (Laughter.) Not you guys. I meant that about myself. That was not directed at you guys. (Laughter.) I’m saying – start off with a failed joke; that’s always the best way to go.

Actually, just to start off, Secretary Clinton is back in Washington, as many of you know. She returned earlier this morning. We appreciate General Petraeus, who generously diverted his plane in order to transport the Secretary back home. The Secretary’s plane suffered a mechanical problem. I believe it was a broken fuel valve. The Secretary and General Petraeus took advantage of this trip to consult extensively on regional issues on the return trip. The rest of the Secretary’s traveling party, including her colleagues in the press, are flying back commercially. We wish them, obviously, Godspeed.

The Secretary has meetings today at the White House on the implementation of the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, as well as her weekly meeting with the President. And I believe she’ll also participate in a lunch with King Juan Carlos.

In other news, Under Secretary William Burns – Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns was in Damascus today. He met with President Asad. As he said, he had productive and extensive discussions. They talked candidly about the areas in which we disagree, but also identified areas of common ground on which we can build. Under Secretary Burns also reiterated the White House announcement from yesterday that one of our most seasoned diplomats, Robert Ford, will be the next American ambassador to Syria, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate. As Burns – as Under Secretary Burns stated, it’s a clear sign after five years without an American ambassador in Damascus of America’s readiness to improve relations and to cooperate in the pursuit of a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace between Arabs and Israelis and progress on all tracks of the peace process, as well as pursuit of regional peace and stability. And he also said that Ambassador Dan Benjamin, the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism, will remain in Damascus for another day of meetings.

And then finally, Ambassador Holbrooke is on his seventh trip to the region in the last year. He’s in Afghanistan today, where he met with General McChrystal, General Caldwell, President Karzai, Foreign Minister Rassoul, Interior Minister Atmar, as well as the NATO Senior Civilian Representative Ambassador Mark Sedwill and the U.K. SRAP Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles as well as the interagency team promoting agriculture sector development. Discussed a range of issues, including, obviously, Operation Moshtarak in Marjah, Helmand province, as well as the training of the Afghan National Police. And in Marjah, civilians have been involved in every phase of the planning and execution of the stabilization effort, working alongside coalition forces and the Afghan military to support Afghan Government efforts to deliver governance and stability to the area immediately after the security operations.

From Afghanistan, very quickly, just to sum up, he’ll travel to Pakistan and then – not in any particular order – to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Berlin. It’s his first visit to the five Central Asian countries in his capacity as SRAP. Three of them border Afghanistan, obviously, and all five are involved in the region. So he looks forward to the opportunity for face-to-face talks.

That’s all I’ve got. I’ll take your questions. Kirit.

QUESTION: Can you give us any more details about the Af-Pak meeting going on over at the White House this afternoon, exactly what they’re talking about, what the --

MR. TONER: Sure. My understanding is that it’s a regular update on implementation of the Af-Pak program. And I mean, obviously, they’ll discuss the whole range of issues, as well as the more topical ones such as the Marjah. But you’ll have to go to the White House for more details.

QUESTION: On Bill Burns’s trip, I know we’ve talked about this before, but can you tell us why does the Administration think that at this time it is important to revitalize or reestablish better diplomatic ties with Syria with the new ambassador with the highest-ranking official there in five years? And what does it have to do with Iran?

MR. TONER: Well, as you know, the decision was made last year to return an ambassador to Syria and it’s a commitment – it’s a sign of the Administration’s commitment to use all the tools, which includes dialogue, to address our concerns. It also reflects the Administration’s recognition of the important role that Syria plays in the region, and as well as our hope that the Syrian Government will play a constructive role to promote peace and stability in the region.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up, and I’m not sure that the decision’s been made on this or whether you can say anything about it. But we all know about the ties with Iran I mentioned earlier and we also know that Iran, in fact, supports a large part of the Syrian economy. And if we want them to at least diminish, if not cut, their close ties with Iran, someone has to help them with their economy. So is the United States ready to give Syria any aid that it hasn’t given in the past?

MR. TONER: Well, look, I don’t want to get out in front of the process. We have a new ambassador. That’s an incredibly positive sign, I think, in the relationship, a turning of the page and one that I think is viewed optimistically, although, obviously, we still have concerns about Syrian actions in the region. But I think engaging with Syria and leveraging its importance in the region is an important step and one that can have --

QUESTION: What are the concerns? Can you say what the concerns are?

MR. TONER: Well, I don’t want to get into it. I just think that we’ve got concerns that they’ve been playing less than a productive role in some of their neighborly relations. But I’ll leave it there.

QUESTION: Just on terrorism and things like that?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Do you have any information on who Dan Benjamin is meeting there?

MR. TONER: I don’t. I’ll try to get that for you.

Kirit. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Different topic, if that’s okay.

MR. TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: I just wanted to ask about these Americans down in Haiti, who the judge says they are – he plans to release some of them today. What have you heard from the Haitians about this? Do you have any information of who they might be? And what are your plans if and when they are released to transport them or provide any other services?

MR. TONER: Sure. All very good questions, and I wish I had more information for you. I don’t. It’s our understanding, at least right before I walked out here, that no decision has been reached regarding their release. And we can just confirm that they remain in custody. And obviously, we’ve had regular consular access to them. We’ve provided all necessary assistance to ensure the group is safe, treated humanely, and is appropriately cared for. And we’re in regular contact with the families of the detained Americans. And just to say the Haitian authorities, in our view, have acted appropriately to ensure the group’s safety and welfare since their arrest. But I don’t have any details on when they might be released and what might ensue.

QUESTION: At this point, at this stage, would you call for them to be released, at least in part?

MR. TONER: I think we’re going to let the Haitian judicial process play itself out.

QUESTION: Do you know if – presuming they are released, if that release would enable them to leave the country? Do you know if they’re going to be under any kind of orders to stay in Haiti?

MR. TONER: I just don’t know. You’ll have to wait for the announcement to be made and what exactly it entails.

QUESTION: Different topic?

MR. TONER: Sorry. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Sure. The Dalai Lama is coming to town. Does Secretary Clinton or anybody else at the State Department have plans to meet him?

MR. TONER: As you know, she’s at the White House today, but – or, I’m sorry, the Dalai Lama is at the White House today [1], but I don’t have anything to announce in terms of other meetings.

QUESTION: Okay. So there’s no plans afoot for a meeting with Secretary Clinton?

MR. TONER: Nothing to announce.

Sorry, in the back.

QUESTION: How the visit of the Dalai Lama plus the sales of weapons to Taiwan can increase tension with China, and how do you think U.S. can handle that?

And in the second part, I would like to ask you what do you think about the announcement of the ministers of foreign affairs from Mexico and Russia about sales of weapons, Russian weapons, to Mexico?

MR. TONER: On Mexico-Russia arms sales, I’ll have to get back to you. I really don’t – I don’t have any information on it.

On the first question, which is what – the Dalai Lama and how that plays into the larger context of U.S.-China relations and arms sales and all that, look, I mean, P.J. and others have addressed this exhaustively from the podium last week and in weeks prior. Our relationship with China is diverse and there’s a lot of issues. There’s common ground. It’s a complex relationship. There’s areas where we agree on. There’s areas where we disagree on. And we’re going to continue to pursue that relationship vigorously, while at the same time recognizing, for example, the Dalai Lama, that he’s a respected cultural and religious figure and, as with past presidents, we intend to meet with him.

QUESTION: On Mexico as well?

MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment about Mexico’s decision to require U.S. citizens to carry a passport to get into the country?

MR. TONER: I do not. I’m sorry. I guess we can see if there’s any – if we have any reaction to that.

Sorry, back there.

QUESTION: Cuban migration talks – you put out that statement this morning. I’m just wondering, do you know if there’s any chance that those might also involve discussion of the contractor, and do we have any more information about the situation with the contractor, consular access, and all that?

MR. TONER: Well, that was one of the things on my to-do list to say what is the status, have we had access and whatnot, and I did not get an update prior to coming down here. So I’ll try to get that for you.

QUESTION: Okay, all right.

MR. TONER: Because that’s a valid question. I had the same thought.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that a bit --

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Correct me if I’m wrong, but he’s – the talks are going to be on Friday and he arrives today – Craig Kelly’s team?

MR. TONER: Yes, correct. Yeah, right. They are on Friday. Yeah, there was a little bit of a date discrepancy on that.

QUESTION: Sure, sure. Two days up to that, does he plan to have talks on any other range of issues with the Cubans?

MR. TONER: It’s a good question. I’m not sure when he actually arrives in country, so – whether he’ll have any time leading up to the talks. If you want, I can check on it and try to follow up with you.

QUESTION: Okay. Or more broadly, I mean, is there a significance to having the senior – this senior of a level official going to Havana at this time?

MR. TONER: Look, I mean, I think it’s always productive to have dialogue, but I think the primary purpose is to engage in these talks.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. TONER: Sure. Michele.

QUESTION: Several dozen Darfur activist groups have written to President Obama asking him to fire Scott Gration. I’m wondering if the – and to have the Secretary play a stronger role in overseeing whoever becomes the – whoever becomes the new one. And I wonder if you – if the Secretary has faith in what Gration’s been doing up to now.

MR. TONER: Well, the fact that he’s actually in the region visiting Chad and Sudan I think speaks to the last question, and that’s where he is. I’m not sure, in fact, where he is – in fact, today, I believe in Juba. But he’s there, he’s on the ground in support of improved relations between Chad and Sudan. And he’s also working to advance the remaining issues of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. So yes is the short answer to your question.

QUESTION: Yes, they have confidence in him?

MR. TONER: Yes.

You.

QUESTION: On combat operations in southern Afghanistan, they seem to be going well, but how and when do you see a civilian surge really beginning?

MR. TONER: Just one moment. I mean, I think the quick answer to you is almost immediately. And I think it was reflected in the short statement I read about Secretary [2] Holbrooke. But I do have – yes, civilians have been involved in every phase of the planning and execution of Operation Moshtarak, and they’re actually working alongside coalition forces. They’re standing by to deploy immediately after Marjah is cleared. Civilians will form a district support team consisting of two State Department governance advisors, one USAID development expert, and a British stabilization advisor. And they’ll be there in place to support the Afghan Government efforts to deliver governance and stability after the security operations end.

So I guess just on the heels, as soon as it’s deemed safe enough for them to go in, they’ll be in. And obviously, this is part of a larger strategy where you’ve got – if you simply provide security without bringing in the governance and development and assistance, it’s to no avail. So we’ve really got to make that happen very quickly.

Sure.

QUESTION: More on Ambassador Holbrooke’s trip. Does he have anything specific he’s trying to accomplish in the visit to the `Stans? I know a couple of them have signed on with air rights for Afghanistan, getting troops in and so on. Is there anything on the table that he wants the `Stans to do that they aren’t doing now?

MR. TONER: I mean, it’s a good question. I think he’s – my impression is that it’s just part of regular consultations that he’s trying to get out there and discuss some of these issues. But I don’t know if there’s anything specific on his agenda other than closer cooperation.

QUESTION: Can we go back to Envoy Gration?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: There have been some reports that in a recent meeting with kind of Darfuri expatriates, that he kind of sympathized with the Government of Sudan and said that the Government of Sudan never meant to kill any civilians and that they were really just trying to kill the rebels and they inadvertently kind of killed the civilians, indicating that they were collateral damage and kind of totally just dismissed the whole idea of genocide.

And so just back to the question of whether the Secretary has confidence in him, it sounds like, repeatedly, this envoy that was appointed by the President and Secretary Clinton has gone off the reservation and said things that are completely antithetical to U.S. policy.

MR. TONER: Look, you’re presenting me with details of a meeting that I wasn’t present at, that – and I don’t have any kind of transcript in front of me. I have no idea what he said. I do know that he enjoys the Secretary’s confidence. He’s in the region. He’s pursuing both improved relationships between Chad and Sudan as well as trying to move the process forward on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. But I really don’t have more than --

QUESTION: Well, does that include kind of making light of all of the killings in Darfur over the last few years?

MR. TONER: I just – I don’t – I can’t speak to that, I’m sorry. Sorry.

QUESTION: Back to Ambassador Holbrooke, I’m wondering if he’s getting any more information from the Afghan Government about the presumptive peace talks with the Taliban, and if there’s any confirmation from the State side on this report from the Maldives that there was a meeting in the Maldives between the Afghan Government and Taliban --

MR. TONER: You stumped me again. I haven’t seen that report. Look, I can imagine he’s going to talk about the efforts that were first discussed in detail in London. I can imagine that will be part of his regular dialogue with Karzai, but I don’t know whether there’s some new development there.

QUESTION: On North Korea?

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: DPRK nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan will visit to United States on next month. Do you have any information?

MR. TONER: I don’t have anything to announce on that. I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Wait, you don’t have any schedule to second round talk with North Korea?

MR. TONER: Not at this time, no. Sorry.

Please.

QUESTION: Going back to Mexico, do you have any concerns that maybe Russia gets closer to the Mexican Government in the struggle against the drug cartels perhaps due to the lack of enough support throughout the Merida Initiative?

MR. TONER: I mean, Mexico is a close neighbor, friend, partner with the United States. I would just say it’s welcome to pursue bilateral relationships with any country it wants to, including Russia.

QUESTION: But it will not have any impact in the Merida Initiative?

MR. TONER: Have no impact on the?

QUESTION: On the Merida Initiative?

MR. TONER: No, I don’t believe so.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR. TONER: Is that it? Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:35 p.m.)


[1] Thursday
[2] Special Representative

[This is a mobile copy of Daily Press Briefing - February 17]