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Washington, DC
May 9, 2011

The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of May 9, 2011

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1:28 p.m. EDT

MR. TONER: Yep.

QUESTION: We have a headline out saying Ahmadinejad says there will be – that – a new round of P-5+1 talks in Turkey with the Iranians. Do you have anything to substantiate that?

MR. TONER: The first I’ve heard of it. Nothing to confirm. Obviously, it’s been some time since our last P-5+1 talks. We’ve been quite clear on what we’re looking for, but we do support this dialogue. And as we’ve said often, there’s two tracks here and the door does remain open. But if we have anything to confirm, we’ll get back to you.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Prime Minister Gilani just addressed his parliament and he said two things – one, that if there’s another raid like the kind the U.S. carried out in their territory last Sunday, Pakistan respond in full and in kind. Is this some sort of a real threat or a reminder that they have nuclear weapons and --

MR. TONER: Look, I’m not going to parse his words. I’m aware of his remarks. The President also spoke on 60 Minutes, as you know, last evening and spoke to some of these issues. And I believe he said that whenever we do have actual intelligence against someone who is responsible for thousands of American and other deaths, other nationalities, we’re going to take action and feel it’s within our right to do so.

QUESTION: Sorry, he also said that he gave the ISI a clean chit. Do you take --

MR. TONER: I’m sorry, what?

QUESTION: He gave the ISI a clean chit. He said that they were above board.

MR. TONER: Oh, okay. I didn’t hear.

QUESTION: Do you – does the State – does the U.S. take him at his word?

MR. TONER: I think we’ve been pretty clear that we’ve asked some serious questions of the Pakistan Government about what kind of possible support network may have existed, and we expect, at some point, answers. I think that we don’t expect answers quickly. We realize that’ll take some time, but we’ll wait till we get a response.

QUESTION: So you talked about President Obama’s interview yesterday where he said certainly someone in Pakistan may have been involved or known about this. He didn’t go as far as saying the government was. And the national security advisor also gave a statement along those lines. But this seems to completely, totally contradict what Mr. Leon Panetta was saying in the beginning, the first few days after the raid.

MR. TONER: Actually, I don’t think it has. I think we’ve said pretty clearly – I think Mr. Brennan, from the very first hours after the raid, said that his whereabouts raise some questions about – indeed in this Administration and within Congress and, frankly, in the – within the Pakistani Government about how he could have lived for such a long time and whether he had any kind of support there. We’ve never – we haven’t speculated, we haven’t jumped to any conclusions, but we’ve asked those questions.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Have there been any –

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. Jill first, she had her raised. I apologize. Sorry.

QUESTION: Well, you have a direct contradiction right now, because Mr. Gilani is saying there was no incompetence and there was no collusion and that anything like that would be absurd. So he’s dismissing out of hand any charge or allegation that there was any type of collusion.

MR. TONER: Again, we have expressed our concerns to the Pakistani Government, and we’ll wait for their response.

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: On the same topic in the speech – as you say, you know about the speech – Mr. Gilani has said that who started Mujaheddin, he’s indirectly – who – gave prominence to al-Qaida and bin Ladin. He’s raised this question bringing history, ‘80s and ‘90s, and do you have any comment on that?

MR. TONER: Again, I’m not going to get into an exchange on his speeches, remarks. I’ll ask you to – I’ll ask him to explain, or you can ask him to explain his remarks, rather. We’re aware of the history here. We’re also aware that bin Ladin and al-Qaida were responsible for thousands of deaths both in the United States and elsewhere around the globe, including Pakistan. And the world’s a better place now that he’s gone.

QUESTION: Any update on –

QUESTION: Well, Mark –

MR. TONER: Go ahead, Matt. Yeah.

QUESTION: You said you’ve asked the Pakistanis these questions. You don’t regard the prime minister’s speech as a response to that – to those? You said you’ve asked them what did you know if you knew anything, when did you know it if there was a time that you came to know it. He says, “We didn’t know it, we’re not incompetent, and that’s it,” and that to you is not an answer? That’s not a response from the Pakistani Government? They have to do better than that?

MR. TONER: Again, we’ve – well, again, I’m not going to – his public remarks are his public remarks. We continue to be in dialogue with the Pakistani Government. And let’s also be very clear that our counterterrorism with Pakistan has yielded results over the years. It hasn’t always been a relationship where we’ve seen eye to eye, but we have made progress, significant process – progress and put --

QUESTION: Well, so – but –

MR. TONER: Sorry, just let me finish. We put pressure on al-Qaida, we had the success with bin Ladin last week, and so we believe it’s a worthwhile relationship. We’re going to – we want to continue this cooperation. The President has said that, the Secretary has said that, and we believe it’s in our best interests. That said, I think we’re looking for responses still about how he – whether he had any sort of support there.

QUESTION: Yeah. Well --

MR. TONER: I’m not sure that this constitutes –

QUESTION: But he answered that. He said no.

MR. TONER: My point is, Matt, I’m not sure this constitutes a response, a formal response.

QUESTION: So when the prime minister of a --

MR. TONER: I’m not.

QUESTION: -- of a country comes out and answers your questions, that’s not an answer to you.

MR. TONER: Again, it was public remarks. He’s made his case, but we’ll continue that dialogue.

QUESTION: So those – these aren’t – this isn’t acceptable to you? You don’t buy what the prime minister said?

MR. TONER: Again, we’ll assess his remarks. It’s not for me personally to say where they’re suitable or not.

Yeah. Rosalind.

QUESTION: But what about these two reports that apparently or allegedly have outed the CIA station chief in Islamabad? We just had this situation in December. Is the U.S. concerned that it is dealing with an ally who is working in good faith?

MR. TONER: Well, just to – I am aware of those reports and obviously don’t have any comment on the substance since they touch on intelligence matters. Look, again, I think I just said to Matt as clearly as I could that we believe counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan is in our national security interests. It has yielded results, tangible results over the last decade. And so we believe it’s worthwhile and in our national interests to continue that cooperation. We also believe it’s in Pakistan’s long-term interest. We believe this is to both our mutual benefit. That’s not to say we’re always going to see eye to eye on every issue.

QUESTION: But it does seem, though, that at least on the Pakistani side, the anti-Americanism is spiraling out of control where two media outlets, one said to be very close to the government, is willing to put someone’s life at jeopardy.

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to comment on the specific details of that report, and I’ll just stop where I – what I just said.

QUESTION: Mark, were there any high-level talks last –

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: In the last eight days, were there any high-level talks between the United States and Pakistan, and how high were those levels?

MR. TONER: Well, I think the President said last night that senior members of the Administration are in conversation with the Pakistanis. I don’t want to –

QUESTION: Can you tell us who these –

MR. TONER: I can’t, and I don’t want to get into characterizing them, but we did have Marc Grossman there last week. We continue through our ambassador in Islamabad. This is a dialogue that continues at multiple levels.

QUESTION: So is it safe to assume that it is at the level of Mr. Grossman? It did not go above that?

MR. TONER: I wouldn’t – no, I don’t want to say where it begins or where it ends, but it’s – I would just say it’s a dialogue that’s continuing on many fronts.

Welcome back, Kirit.

QUESTION: Will you (inaudible) specifically whether the Secretary has made a phone call?

MR. TONER: I am not aware that she’s made any phone calls.

QUESTION: Have you got any answer about –

MR. TONER: And welcome back.

QUESTION: -- accessible –

MR. TONER: Not, you Tejinder. But you’re welcomed as well. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Have you got any answer about the accessibility to bin Ladin’s wives and other people there that was --

MR. TONER: Tejinder, you obviously – National Security Advisor Donilon said we’ve asked the Pakistanis and confirmed that yesterday. And we’ve asked them for access, but I don’t have any follow-up or detail.

QUESTION: No (inaudible), okay. And can you confirm if the President or the Secretary Clinton today made a phone call to Indian prime minister?

MR. TONER: I cannot. I’ll try to see if she’s made a phone call. I didn’t get –

QUESTION: And the President Obama if he has made –

MR. TONER: I’ll check.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead. I’m sorry, Andrew. Just scratching your head.

Anything else? Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: So as this dialogue has to go forward, is there any chance that the ISI chief is going to be coming to the U.S. with --

MR. TONER: I don’t – I’ve seen news reports about that as well. I don’t have anything to announce or – I mean, I’d refer you, obviously, to the Pakistani Government for that. But we don’t have any details of any impending travel.

QUESTION: And which --

QUESTION: Can we switch to China?

MR. TONER: Sure. Well, I think Arshad had a question.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Mine was a different topic, too.

QUESTION: Staying on --

MR. TONER: Okay. Pakistan, one more, and then --

QUESTION: The trial in Chicago of Rana is coming up this month, and in that they have Major Iqbal --

MR. TONER: You’re talking about the Mumbai --

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. And they have Major Iqbal as one of the trials. And do you still give ISI a complete clean chit?

MR. TONER: Look, that’s an ongoing trial, legal process, and I’m not going to comment on the --

QUESTION: So when do you expect Pakistan to reply to? Do you have any time limit, or is it an open-ended --

MR. TONER: Again, I refer you to – the President last night has said we don’t – this is probably going to take more than a couple days or – that we’re only a week beyond this and we’re willing to wait a little longer.

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: In Egypt, Mark, to what --

MR. TONER: Are we ready to go to Egypt, everybody?

QUESTION: Yep.

MR. TONER: Good, good.

QUESTION: To what extent you’re – you are concerned about the situation in Egypt after the clashes between Muslims and Christians yesterday?

MR. TONER: Right. Well, our Embassy issued a statement yesterday, but I would just reiterate that the United States strongly condemns the senseless sectarian violence and destruction that took place in Baba and other neighborhoods of Cairo, including destructive attacks on churches, and just say that an attack on a religious institution or site is – irrespective of religion, is abhorrent.

We call for calm and restraint, and underscore our support for the Egyptians, who, in the spirit of unity that followed the January 25th revolution, reject religious violence. And we also recognize the Supreme Council of the Armed Force’s stated commitment to assure that justice is done and to deter future sectarian provocations, and urge that this commitment be implemented with full and transparent investigations followed by fair trials, in accordance with Egyptian – international standards of due process.

QUESTION: Have you talked to the military council about --

MR. TONER: I’m not sure – I’m sure we raised them on a bilateral level. I’m not sure beyond that.

QUESTION: Mark, staying on Egypt --

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- is there any truth to the newspaper report that the U.S. Government is considering a $1 billion – one billion dollars in debt relief for Egypt?

MR. TONER: Well, Arshad, I’m glad you raised that. Secretary – Under Secretary Hormats just returned from Egypt and held discussions there with several officials, Egyptian officials, regarding ways the United States might assist Egypt economically during this time of transition. We’ve talked a lot about that. We’re discussing currently a range of ideas with respect to our assistance to Egypt but are still in the process of consultations on how we can best assist Egypt.

We realize that this is a country facing extraordinary challenges, and we’re trying to see how we can best help them navigate those challenges. But no final decisions have been made, and really, the next step in process – in this process is, of course, we’d have to consult with Congress and that that would also remain a necessary element to any response to Egypt’s needs.

So I guess what I’m saying is we’re looking at a range of options right now, and I don’t want to narrow it down or say we’re there yet.

QUESTION: Is debt relief one of those options? Is it fair to say that debt relief is one of those options?

MR. TONER: I would say we’re looking at a range of options, including debt relief.

QUESTION: And – great. And then lastly, normally – I mean, I don’t know exactly what kind of debt relief might be under consideration, but normally, I think the United States prefers to have a country be in an IMF program and prefers to do things though the Paris Club. Is that what you sort of have in mind or (inaudible) unilateral --

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t know – we’re not at that level of detail yet, or at least I don’t have that level of detail to share for you yet.

QUESTION: When this – if it were to come true, would this happen ahead of the planned elections for September, or does that have anything to do with the political considerations?

MR. TONER: I mean, I think what we’re – in terms of our economic assistance to Egypt, I think our priority is simply this is a country that – obviously, the economy paid a price for the upheaval that took place over the past several months. And so it’s vital that we do get there – that we do try to help them get on back – get on track, rather, economically. So I wouldn't necessarily tie it to the elections. I would just say it’s on a more urgent timeline than that.

QUESTION: Well, do you think – is – Egypt is on the right way to democracy after these clashes and --

MR. TONER: Look, Michel, it’s – these are – this is a difficult transition and it’s been through – the country itself has been through a major period of upheaval, but – they’re facing enormous challenges, but we feel that they’re making progress. And we’re willing to help them make that progress.

Yeah.

QUESTION: You said that debt relief is a possibility, yes?

MR. TONER: I think it’s one of the possibilities that we’re discussing, yes.

QUESTION: A billion dollars in debt relief?

MR. TONER: I – no totals, no amounts, nothing like that. I don’t have those details.

QUESTION: So the answer – so the question that Arshad asked was: Is there any truth to this newspaper story? And I didn’t hear an answer to that. Is it yes or no?

MR. TONER: My answer to the question is it’s too early. We’re not there yet.

QUESTION: On Syria?

MR. TONER: Syria.

QUESTION: Do you have a clearer picture as to the level of the demonstrations and the number of killed and wounded and so on in the demonstrations?

MR. TONER: And the number of killed? I think we – yeah, we’ve said before that that’s – it’s really hard for us to ascertain a clear number. We obviously know that there are – there’s extreme cases of violence taking place in Syria, and we’re obviously concerned. The Secretary issued a statement on Friday night about it. We have account – I believe on Friday that 30 people were killed and – when Syrian forces opened fire. These kinds of cases, these kinds of actions are reprehensible, and we would just ask that the Syrian Government desist.

QUESTION: The pro-government outlets like media and others have attributed to Ambassador Ford that he’s saying that the demonstrations are not really as large and as widespread as they are alleged to be. Do you have any confirmation (inaudible) --

MR. TONER: I’m not aware of any comments by Ambassador Ford.

QUESTION: You’re not aware of any statement to that effect?

MR. TONER: No.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: Do you have any information, Mark, on this American, Adam Foster, who’s being held in the UAE?

MR. TONER: I do. I do, I do. Let me figure out where I have it. (Laughter.) Yes. You’re right. I believe his – he is – his name is Adam Lee Foster. He’s – U.S. consular officials have been in communication with him and his family and visited him on February 28th. He was released on bail on March 1st, 2011, and we’re providing him now with appropriate consular services.

QUESTION: So he’s out physically?

MR. TONER: He’s out, but he’s awaiting hearing. His hearing, I believe, is May 10th.

QUESTION: Just two clarifications to – going back to the Mumbai attacks, there were six Americans and more than a hundred Indians killed. So how seriously are you taking this Major Iqbal from the Pakistani army issue? It is not just a issue of a court case. Have you asked Pakistan about this particular person? Is there an extradition?

MR. TONER: Tejinder, we don’t talk about extradition requests. I can try to see if I can get more detail on it. I know – I’m aware that the trial’s taking place, but I’m not sure – I can – beyond saying that we, obviously, take it very seriously, because as you said countless Indians were killed in this attack as well as six Americans.

QUESTION: And six Americans.

MR. TONER: As well as six Americans. There’s a legal process underway. I would refer you to the Department of Justice for details as well. I could see if we have any more detail to provide on our end.

QUESTION: And the second one is about the speech which you know – you said that you know about it, Prime Minister Gilani’s – he talked about blame game, he talked about all the ’80s, ‘90s. So what is the reaction of the U.S.? Like he’s – he’s not giving any kind of help to the U.S., so far as Pakistani people are concerned. This is fanning anti-American --

MR. TONER: Again, this was a speech to his --

QUESTION: Parliament.

MR. TONER: Yeah, parliament. And that’s not for me to parse out his words. But I’d just say that we have been very clear about raising our concerns. We have raised those concerns. We’ll continue to raise those concerns until we get adequate answers.

QUESTION: And in that he said that China is a all-weather friend and U.S. is a strategic ally. Will you like to comment on this classification?

MR. TONER: No.

QUESTION: What is the standard --

QUESTION: Mark, (inaudible) judging the Pakistanis’ response in trying to determine who was helping bin Ladin for the past five, six years. I mean --

MR. TONER: Well --

QUESTION: I mean, it’s been suggested that perhaps it could have been just ordinary citizens.

MR. TONER: Right. I mean, it’s a fair question, but I would probably just defer to the expertise of intelligence officials who will be far better to judge the standard of our – of their response, when their response comes. It’s – for me to judge it, I can’t tell you what the standard is. I don't have that extra – that level of expertise.

QUESTION: Can you say whether Ambassador Haqqani has been called or brought in for discussions?

MR. TONER: I know we’ve been in discussions with him. I don't believe he’s been called in, but we’re in regular contact with Ambassador Haqqani.

QUESTION: What’s happening on Capitol Hill with the State Department? I seem to remember last week we were talking about some type of outreach in – amidst this theory among some legislators about what Pakistan did or didn’t do. Is there any outreach on Pakistan to (inaudible)?

MR. TONER: I know there’s some hearings planned later this week. When we have announcements to make, we’ll get back to you. But I’m not sure what the – what the – whether those are public hearings or not, so --

QUESTION: But can you --

QUESTION: Is there a sense inside the building that some of the funding could be jeopardized? I mean, for example Kerry-Lugar has to be appropriated every year, which means it’s subject to --

MR. TONER: Sure. I mean, we’ve been pretty clear in saying that the incidents of last week have raised concerns in Congress, and Congress does control its purse strings, so it’s important that those concerns be addressed, frankly.

QUESTION: But what are you telling them? I mean, what’s State telling these legislators who think that --

MR. TONER: I think we’re – I think our message to Congress is we recognize your concerns and we have shared those concerns. And indeed, as I’ve said, these concerns initially were raised by the Pakistani Government. I think everyone was surprised at where he was found and legitimately this raises some questions. I also think we are clear-eyed in our assessment that this counterterrorism cooperation has been worthwhile. And again, it’s in our national security interest that it continue. And --

QUESTION: How much do you know Pakistanis, because President Obama yesterday said that “I have not even told to my aides. How can I tell it to people whom I don't know?” So it means the U.S. doesn’t know Pakistanis.

MR. TONER: Tejinder, I think he was saying that --

QUESTION: How many people from other countries does the president (inaudible) --

MR. TONER: Right. Exactly. I think he’s answered this question multiple times, so anyway --

QUESTION: Can we move on to the Palestinians? Has there been any contact recently with the Palestinians about the shape of the formation of their unity government?

MR. TONER: I know we’ve been in contact with – in regular contact with President Abbas and his government as part of our consultations. But beyond that – obviously, as I said – as we said last week, the announcement has been made. They’ve reached a reconciliation agreement, but what’s important now is that the Palestinians ensure implementation in a way that advances the prospects of peace.

QUESTION: So you’re not prepared to go beyond anything – until they actually form a unity government you’re not going to say anything else?

MR. TONER: I think we will wait and see what this thing looks like. Yeah.

QUESTION: I have a follow-up on --

MR. TONER: Go ahead, so – yeah.

QUESTION: On the Palestinian issue.

MR. TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Congressman Ackerman and others are renewing calls to cut off all aid to the Palestinian Authority. Are you trying to convince otherwise? Because --

MR. TONER: Well, again, I mean, we understand these concerns. And I would just say as the new Palestinian government is formed, we’ll assess it based on its policies and we’ll determine the implications for our assistance.

QUESTION: But the cuts that are being called for will impact 3,000 security forces that have been trained by the U.S. military.

MR. TONER: I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what the first part of your question was.

QUESTION: Three thousand security forces.

MR. TONER: Rewind to the – I just didn’t hear the first part. Rosalind said something.

QUESTION: The first part is this: The call to cut aid also includes cutting aid to 3,000 Palestinian security force that is being trained by the U.S. Army and that has been claimed by the U.S. and by Israel as an effective force.

MR. TONER: Agree that they are an effective force and that they have made significant gains in providing security, and we believe that’s been worthwhile and we’re looking to see that continue. But again, I think we’re not – we’re looking to see what this reconciliation agreement looks like in practical terms, and before --

QUESTION: Is that --

MR. TONER: -- we make any decisions about future assistance.

QUESTION: Is this case a case that you would use to dissuade members of Congress from going forward with --

MR. TONER: I think we’ve always been clear in our conversations with Congress about the fact that this security assistance and this assistance is – helps build a more secure region and helps Palestine develop the kind of forces necessary for it to – for eventual statehood. But again, this is – it’s – we’re in an interim phase here. We’ve had this reconciliation agreement announced. What’s important now, as I said, is that the Palestinians ensure that any implementation of this agreement is done in a way that supports the process of – for peace.

QUESTION: Is (inaudible) for the Israeli Government to hold up the transfer of payments to the Palestinian Authority?

MR. TONER: They, again, have their concerns. We believe that we need to wait and see.

QUESTION: And one last thing on this issue: The Palestinians said that they will not have enough money to pay their employees for May. Will that – will you press the Israelis to release the funds?

MR. TONER: Will we?

QUESTION: Will you press the Israelis to release those funds?

MR. TONER: Again, we encourage a wait-and-see approach to this. We’ve had this announcement, but we haven’t seen any of the details yet. And we believe it’s premature to make any decisions.

QUESTION: There was a question taken last week about the flow of funds to Pakistan. I haven’t got the answer yet.

MR. TONER: I don’t have any more detail to you – for you other than what I said earlier, which is that we continue to believe assistance is worthwhile.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. TONER: Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:58 p.m.)

[This is a mobile copy of Middle East Digest - May 9, 2011]