Victoria Nuland
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 17, 2013

Index for Today's Briefing
    • Hostage Situation / Secretary's Conversation with Prime Minister Sellal
    • Statements by Egyptian Presidency / Religious Tolerance / Uphold International Obligations
    • Attacks at the University of Aleppo
  • MALI
    • Proving Information and Intelligence Support to French
    • Support for ECOWAS / ACOTA Teams En Route to Africa
    • Hostage Situation
    • U.S. Citizens and Companies Operating in Region Review Security Practices


This video is also available with closed captioning on YouTube.

12:31 p.m. EST

MS. NULAND: All right. Happy Thursday, everyone. Let me just, before we start, say that I know you all have dozens of questions about the situation in Algeria. As my colleague Jay Carney just said at the White House, we frankly do not have a lot of new information to share with you at the moment.

As you know, the situation is extremely fluid on the ground. We are working with the Government of Algeria, we’re working with other affected nations, to try to resolve this situation. But as you can imagine, as we talked about yesterday, this is a hostage situation. Our first priority is for the safety and the security of the people involved. And so we’re just not going to be able to get into too much detail here.

With that, let’s do what we can.

QUESTION: Well, can I just challenge the premise of your opening statement, that you do not have a lot of new information to share? You don’t have any information to share, whether new, old, or anything else. Is that correct?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have any information to share on the current ground situation right now.

QUESTION: The suggestion was made at the White House briefing that it’s premature to be asking these kinds of questions. Do you agree with that?

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, you and the American people want to know what is going on. We want to share as much as we can, when we can, but we want to do it in a manner that doesn’t in any way jeopardize the security of our Americans or anybody else on the ground.

QUESTION: Okay, understood. But I just want to get to this part. These are questions, the questions that were asked over there, you can presume we have the same questions here. Those are questions that you yourself are asking the Algerians, correct? What happened, what’s going on, who lived – those are questions that you are asking the Algerians, right?

MS. NULAND: We are obviously working with the Algerians. We’re also working with all the other affected governments on all of these questions.

QUESTION: Right. Okay. Well, I just want to make the point that if it’s not premature for you to be asking those questions of the Algerians, it is certainly not premature for us to be asking those questions of you. You may not have answers to them, but to suggest that it’s somehow wrong of us to be asking questions about a situation like this, I think is inappropriate.

MS. NULAND: Again, that was not the way we came at it here.


QUESTION: You said you’re working with the Algerians. Can you tell us a little more specifically what the Secretary is doing? There will be a meeting over at the White House today. What’s the state of play in terms of how the government is dealing with this?

MS. NULAND: How the U.S. Government is dealing with this?

QUESTION: The U.S. Government.

MS. NULAND: We’re obviously in open communication with the Algerians. We’re also talking, as I said, to the other governments who have citizens affected, who have interests affected there. I mentioned yesterday that the Secretary had spoken to Prime Minister Sellal of Algeria. I’m going to guess that there’ll be another contact at that level sometime in the next bunch of hours. I don’t have anything to read out for you yet, but we will after that is made. We obviously have open channels of communications in our – in counterterrorist channels, in diplomatic channels, et cetera.

QUESTION: Do you believe that the Algerians acted precipitously or recklessly?

MS. NULAND: Said, I am not going to comment at all on the ground situation, in the interest of the security of the individuals.


QUESTION: Toria, not on the ground situation, but on the consultations that you’ve described --


QUESTION: -- did the Algerians inform the United States prior to conducting this operation or seek the United States sanction for carrying it out?

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to get into the kind of detail that goes to the operational relationship. I’m just not.

QUESTION: Were you aware of the operation before it commenced?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get into that kind of detail here at this time, Michael.


QUESTION: Can you --

QUESTION: Do you consider the safety of the Americans being held hostage to be Algeria’s responsibility?

MS. NULAND: Obviously, all of us who are affected have an interest in resolving this situation as quickly as possible and as securely as possible. We’re all concerned about any – about innocent lives that are at stake here, so we are all working together on this.

QUESTION: Would you need Algerian permission to launch any unilateral U.S. attempt to free them?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get into any hypothetical situations that take us into any contingencies of that kind. You’re well aware of the basic tenets of international law. I’m not going to be getting into where this may go going forward.

QUESTION: Well, can you confirm that there are unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, being flown by the U.S. to assist the Algerians?

MS. NULAND: Have I ever talked about that kind of thing from this podium? No. We don’t talk about intelligence from this podium.


QUESTION: Can you tell us about numbers, how many Americans are there, the total number of hostages?

MS. NULAND: Again, I apologize if this is frustrating for you, but as we said yesterday, we’re not going to get into numbers, we’re not going to get into names. This goes directly to protecting the safety and security not only of our Americans but of the other nations that are affected.

QUESTION: It’s not so much that it’s frustrating for us. I’m sure it’s frustrating for you if you don’t have the information. I just think that it’s – what is frustrating is to be told that we shouldn’t be asking questions like this.

MS. NULAND: I did not. That was not my position here.

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, the Administration certainly suggested that.

QUESTION: Can I ask you, though, about something that perhaps you can talk about? Which is yesterday at the – when you came down and we were talking about this, you said the Secretary had just begun her first phone call with – or the first of this series of phone calls to the Algerian Prime Minister. Can you tell us what they talked about yesterday, more specifically than just this situation?

MS. NULAND: The phone call was, as you can imagine, a hundred percent about this situation, about our willingness to be helpful, about what might be needed, about the desire to keep lines of communication open. But beyond that, I’m not going to get into the details, because it’s going to take me into places that are not helpful.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, can I just – I’m just asking you, when you said it was about our willingness to helpful, does that – what – are you aware that the Secretary made any offers of assistance to the Algerians in that phone call, or is that something that she wouldn’t do, that someone else in the Administration would do? I mean, did they get into any kind of specifics about what the U.S. might do to be helpful to the Algerians?

MS. NULAND: Beyond the general frame, I’m not going to get into any details here, either at her level or at any other level. Please understand that what we are trying to do is resolve this as quickly as we can.

QUESTION: Okay. And then just the last one, just on the phone call, can you – what was the Prime Minister’s response? Did he say, “Oh, that would be wonderful, let me get back to you and tell you what we need or would like,” or did he say, “No thanks, we can handle this on our own”?

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to speak for the Algerian side. There was obviously a willingness to try to keep the channels of communication open, to be as collaborative as we possibly can going forward. And that’s the spirit in which we’re going try to work this.

QUESTION: All right. I’m sorry, I lied. It was not my last one. I have another question. But – (laughter) --

MS. NULAND: Okay, go one more.

QUESTION: I got one more, but it’s very brief. So did they agree in the phone call yesterday that they would speak again today, or is today’s expected conversation something that has arisen because of the reports of this operation?

MS. NULAND: Well, they agreed to keep the channel of communication open at that level and at all levels.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: Who’s providing assistance to the relatives of the Americans who are over there? Is it the company’s responsibility? Is the U.S. Government taking the lead on this?

MS. NULAND: Well, the company’s obviously spoken publicly about the fact that it is in contact with all those affected. We are also in contact with the families of the U.S. citizens that are known to be involved, as we are – always are in such circumstances. I’d also say that our Overseas Security Advisory Council is in touch with U.S. businesses across the region, and has also posted messages on that are being distributed to registered users to ensure not only that we’re in contact with directly affected businesses, but also with businesses with interests across the region should there be efforts at copycat type things.


QUESTION: Can we change topics?


QUESTION: The peace process?

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Today the French President, Francois Hollande, told Maariv, the Israeli newspaper, that France would launch a new peace initiative right after the conclusion of the Israeli elections. One, does that surprise you? And second, if you are not surprised, is that something that has been coordinated with the United States?

MS. NULAND: Well, I haven’t seen what President Hollande may have said to the Israelis, or to an Israeli newspaper. You know how closely we work together with our European partners in this context. The European Union is a full member of the Quartet. We work with France in that context. We always coordinate bilaterally with regard to our Middle East efforts. You know that the President is committed, in his second term, to staying deeply involved in these issues. So I would expect that we and France will be in communication about this.

QUESTION: Okay. And just a quick follow-up, do you believe that the fact that he said a new peace initiative – is that in a way saying that the former one did not work or the Quartet is not working, in your opinion?

MS. NULAND: Again, since I haven’t seen what he said, I can’t really speculate on what he might have in mind.

QUESTION: So along the lines of things that you haven’t seen what they’ve said --

MS. NULAND: Let’s keep trying, yeah.

QUESTION: No – well, Egypt. So were you able to track down the presidential spokesman’s comments? And are they enough of a repudiation, or does the President, President Morsi, have to come out himself and say it?

MS. NULAND: Well, the Egyptians issued two statements yesterday. The second one – in the second one yesterday evening, the Egyptian presidency explicitly rejected all forms of discrimination and incitement to violence or hostility on the basis of religion. And from our perspective, that statement was an important first step to make clear that the type of offensive rhetoric that we saw in 2010 is not acceptable, not productive, and shouldn’t be part of a democratic Egypt.

That said, we look to President Morsi and Egyptian leaders to demonstrate, in both word and in deed, their commitment to religious tolerance and to upholding all of Egypt’s international obligations.

QUESTION: Does that include a speech? Does that include a speech?

MS. NULAND: As I said, we consider what was issued by the presidency yesterday to be a good first step, and we will continue to track what is done, both in word and in deed, with regard to religious tolerance and with regard to international obligations.

QUESTION: But Toria, did it go far enough?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think I’ve spoken to the fact that we consider this a good first step, and they need to keep moving.

QUESTION: Does this call into question Morsi’s reliability as a partner in the region? Is this someone that the U.S. wants to be associated with if he doesn’t do anything beyond this first step, this statement that came out last night?

MS. NULAND: I think we’ve said all along that the United States has a deep interest in Egypt’s continuing transition to democracy, in Egypt’s economic success, in advancement of regional security, in Egypt working well with its neighbors in support of regional security, in upholding the peace treaty with Israel. It’s on that basis that we need to continue to work intensively with the Government of Egypt on all of these fronts, including, as I said, to continue to deepen and broaden respect for religious tolerance, and support broadly within the body politic for the steps that President Morsi has already taken to uphold the peace treaty, to work well with Israel on issues of common interest like Gaza. But this is a process going forward.

QUESTION: So when you say it’s an important first step, does that mean that you’re not really sure you believe him?

MS. NULAND: Matt, I’m not going to parse it any further than to say they’ve taken a first step, we’re going to keep watching in word and in deed.

QUESTION: Well, you specifically – on the other day when I asked about this the first time, you said that you wanted him to repudiate it. Is a spokesman doing it – is that good enough?

MS. NULAND: This was a --

QUESTION: What is it going to --

MS. NULAND: This was a strong statement from his office, which we consider a good first step. I’m really not going to parse it further than that.

QUESTION: Well, but he said this stuff personally in a speech and also in a television interview. And when you say it’s an important first step but it’s not – but you’re looking for more, that would imply that you want to hear it from him directly and that you’re not really convinced, that you think that he – that this statement from the presidency is just kind of window dressing and trying to just make --

QUESTION: Make it go away?

QUESTION: Exactly, trying to have it not become – not be an issue as Congress continues to look at assistance. So am I – is that supposition wrong?

MS. NULAND: Matt, I don’t think I can be any clearer than to say --

QUESTION: Sure you can. You can say, “We want President Morsi to go out -- ”


QUESTION: -- “and make a speech in which he says everything that his office -- ”

MS. NULAND: Would you like to stand here or would you like me to answer your question?

QUESTION: No, I’d like to – you’re saying you can’t be more specific. And whenever a government official --

MS. NULAND: If you --

QUESTION: -- or, in fact, whenever anyone says you can’t be more specific, generally, they’re wrong. You can be a lot more specific.

MS. NULAND: Since you didn’t let me finish my sentence --

QUESTION: Okay. Go ahead.

MS. NULAND: -- I don’t think we can be any more specific than to say what I said in my second sentence, and which I’ve now said twice and I’ll say a third time, which is that we look to President Morsi and Egypt’s leaders to demonstrate, in both word and deed going forward, their commitment to religious tolerance and to upholding Egypt’s international obligations. I think that makes very clear that we’re looking for continued demonstration of their commitment to these things.

QUESTION: But from him personally as well as the rest of the leadership?

MS. NULAND: From President Morsi and his – and Egypt’s leaders. I think I said that, Matt.

QUESTION: Okay. All right.

QUESTION: You mentioned two statements --

MS. NULAND: I’m – I think I’m going to get some Q-tips, maybe, for the front bench.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: You mentioned two statements?

MS. NULAND: There was an early statement and then there was a late – the lines that I quoted from were from the second statement yesterday evening out of the President’s --

QUESTION: The Q-tip line is really just exactly more of the stuff that I was talking about from the White House. I don’t understand why you think it is inappropriate or wrong for us to be asking questions for you to clarify exactly what you want from the Egyptian President.

MS. NULAND: Because I did clarify. You just didn’t hear it the first time.

Go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: What kind of steps should be demonstrated? You said they should demonstrate steps.

MS. NULAND: Said, I think we’ve parsed this as much as we need to today.

Anything else? Should we move on?

QUESTION: Yes, Syria.


QUESTION: Yesterday, your statement, in no uncertain terms, blamed the regime for bombing the University of Aleppo.

MS. NULAND: Right.

QUESTION: Yet there were all kinds of other reports, in fact, by Western media outlets and so on that said the rockets or the attacks came from the west area held by the rebels. Have you been able to glean through these statements?

MS. NULAND: As I said yesterday, we remain convinced that this was – that the regime was responsible for those attacks.

All right, guys? Thanks.

QUESTION: No, no, no, no. Mali. Is there anything – one, is there anything new in terms of your support for the French operation? And two, does the situation in Algeria, even though you can’t say anything about it, does that have any impact on what you do or what you might do to help the French in Mali?

MS. NULAND: With regard to Mali, as you know, we had mentioned yesterday, as did the Pentagon and Secretary Panetta, that we were providing information and intelligence support to the French. I believe you saw Secretary Panetta earlier today make clear that we’re now moving forward with support for the lifting of French materiel into the theater, and we’re continuing to look at the other things that they have asked us for.

I would also say you remember that Assistant Secretary Carson spoke about the support that we’re going to give to ECOWAS – the pre-deployment training, the lift, and the sustainment packages. Just to advise that our first ACOTA teams are en route to Africa and they will be in – on the continent by the weekend to start that. I don’t yet have a full list of the countries that they’re going to. I’ll get that for you tomorrow.

QUESTION: But they’re not going to Mali; is that correct?

MS. NULAND: No, they do not go to Mali. They’re going to the --

QUESTION: The contributing --

MS. NULAND: -- contributing nations to prepare them for deployment.

QUESTION: How many people are you talking about?

MS. NULAND: How many trainers? I don’t have a number. I think it’s a couple of dozen, but let me get you a number as well.


QUESTION: Just wanted to make sure, on the Panetta comments, he did make – and I didn’t see the verbatim, but he did say that he felt that they could overcome some legal questions. And that reminds me of the conversation we had two days ago, where you said that essentially, the U.S. can’t legally provide direct aid – assistance to – let’s say to people who’ve taken part in a coup. Did he mean that there would be more help than just lifting, or am I misreading that?

MS. NULAND: Well, I’m going to send you to the Pentagon to give any more detail on what he had in mind on the legal side. But as I said here, they’ve asked for intelligence. We’re providing that. They’ve asked for lift. We’re going to be able to move forward on that. We’re working through some other requests that they’ve made. But I’ll send you to the Pentagon for further details.

QUESTION: Toria, on that last point, my understanding from the backgrounder yesterday is there are no legal impediments to moving French troops or to training these African troops, that the only – the legal impediment is for direct support to the Mali armed forces and government; is that correct?

MS. NULAND: The way the statute is written, we cannot provide direct U.S. Government support to the Malian military. So that obviously doesn’t affect anything that we would do to train ECOWAS troops because we’re working with ECOWAS troops, not with Mali. It doesn’t pertain to the ability to lift French troops. It doesn’t pertain to, obviously, conveying information to them. Whether this last legal thing that the Secretary mentioned is connected to that, I frankly can’t speak to because you know it’s the Pentagon that’s looking at this. So I’ll send you to them on that.

All right?

QUESTION: I want to come back to something that you said in connection with the situation in Algeria. Is the concern or the warning, or if that’s not the right word, I guess the advisement that the U.S. Government is giving to businesses to basically be on guard for any sort of copycat attack, in the same vein is the U.S. concerned about this kind of situation that’s happening in Mali possibly happening in other countries?

QUESTION: In Algeria.

MS. NULAND: Well, let me say that we obviously see this terrorist tactic – we’ve seen it on a smaller scale before. The AQIM is known for trying to kidnap Westerners. That’s how they fund themselves is through ransoming and that kind of thing. This is obviously the larger – one of the larger hostage things that we’ve seen in recent times. So the concern is that groups operating in the region may be trying to do larger scale operations, and we want to make sure that any of our citizens and companies operating anywhere in the region are reviewing their security practices in light of this. This is not a new advisory we’ve made to them. We’ve consistently warned them to be on their guard with regard to efforts to take hostages, ransom, et cetera. But obviously this puts an even greater spotlight on all of that.

QUESTION: Can you say how big the swath is? I mean, I know that there was a new Travel Warning put out for Niger yesterday, I think yesterday. I mean, is that one of the – that is obviously one of the countries you’re talking about. But I mean, does it really include the whole Maghreb, or is it bigger than that?

MS. NULAND: Well, the – yeah, the Secretary has asked that the entire – that security in the entire region be reviewed in light of this. That goes not only for official American security but also the messages that we’re giving to American citizens and American businesses. So that’s underway now, obviously.

QUESTION: Sorry. And when you say the entire region, what – the Maghreb?

MS. NULAND: Maghreb, North Africa.

QUESTION: And how far south does that go? I mean, does it go southern Nigeria, or is it just really confined to what we would traditionally look at as Maghreb?

MS. NULAND: The entire Near East/Africa region is being reviewed yet again. Okay?


QUESTION: And also, when did that happen? Yesterday, today?

MS. NULAND: In the context of this Algeria situation.

QUESTION: And when you say review security, how far or how broadly are we speaking? What do you mean by security?

MS. NULAND: Again, to look again at the posture of official American facilities to ensure that our warnings to American citizens are updated and that our advice to American business is updated. So all of our embassies and consulates in that entire neighborhood are undergoing that exercise again today.

QUESTION: I got one more just on –

MS. NULAND: All right.

QUESTION: You said – and this is very brief. The being in touch with the families of the Americans who are – that’s being done by CA, right? Or is it being done at a higher level, a senior level?

MS. NULAND: It’s being done by a combination of consular officials here and embassy personnel.

Okay, please. Nicolas.

QUESTION: One more on --

MS. NULAND: Nicolas.


QUESTION: It’s a different topic, so maybe --


QUESTION: Zimbabwe. Your Ambassador in Zimbabwe had been prevented from speaking, apparently, two days ago by partisans of Mugabe, President Mugabe. Do you have any comment on that?

MS. NULAND: I didn’t have that, Nicolas. Let me look into it and see what we have.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: On Somalia with the meeting this afternoon, what is it that people should try to understand about this recognition that the U.S. is doing?

MS. NULAND: Well, we had a background briefing yesterday on this. I would refer you to the transcript where our briefer made clear that now that we have formal recognition, that opens the way for us to work on a development program with Somalia through USAID. It also opens the country for participation in international financial institutions. I think you were told that one of the stops that President Hassan Sheikh is making in Washington was to the World Bank yesterday. But I think the Secretary will have more to say about this when you see her in about an hour.

QUESTION: What about in terms of the security situation? Much has been made about the ability to degrade al-Shabaab’s effectiveness, but it has not been eliminated from Somalian territory. What is the U.S. prepared to do or what is the U.S. doing to try to help, admittedly, a very young and one would imagine very vulnerable government maintain its security posture?

MS. NULAND: I think the Secretary will have more to say about that when she comes out with the president in about an hour.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. NULAND: Okay. Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:56 p.m.)