Marie Harf
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 15, 2014


Index for Today's Briefing
  • DEPARTMENT
    • Secretary Travel Update/Montreux and Davos Switzerland
    • Update on Secretary Meetings at Syrian Donor Conference
  • PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES
    • Condemnation of Attack on Palestinian Mosque
  • BENGHAZI
    • Department Response to Senate Benghazi Report
    • Congress Appropriations for Overseas Building Operations
  • IRAQ
    • Countering Insurgency
    • Iraqi Parliamentarians in Washington
  • CHINA
    • Hypersonic Missile Delivery Vehicle
  • IRAN
    • Iran Relations with Russia
  • SYRIA
    • Participation by Syrian Opposition in Geneva II
    • Goals for Geneva II
    • Terrorist Threats within Syria
  • ISRAEL
    • Secretary Response to Comments by Israeli Defense Minister
  • AFGHANISTAN
    • World Bank Report / Growth Rate
  • INDIA
    • Deputy Secretary Burns Meeting with Indian Ambassador
  • SRI LANKA
    • Humanitarian Reforms
  • BURMA
    • Reports of Sexual Assaults by Burmese Military


TRANSCRIPT:

12:09 p.m. EST

MS. HARF: Where is everyone? I know. It’s just going to be the, what, seven of us. Wow. Well, people might trickle in. I know we’re briefing early today, but I gave you a heads-up. So I have a couple things at the top, so hopefully as I say them people will trickle in.

An update on Secretary Kerry’s travel: From January 21st through 25th, Secretary of State Kerry will travel to Montreux and Davos, Switzerland. In Montreux, Secretary Kerry will participate in the ministerial-level and UN-hosted international conference on Syria, also known as Geneva II. Secretary Kerry and his counterparts from around the world will launch the Geneva II process, aiming to fully implement the Geneva communique, including a negotiated political transition to begin the end of the Syrian civil war.

In Davos, Secretary Kerry will deliver remarks at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum on the United States commitment to and engagement in the Middle East region.

I’m just doing a few things at the top. I know we’re early today, which is shocking.

QUESTION: (Laughter.)

MS. HARF: (Laughter.) And a quick update on his meetings that he had today. Earlier today in Kuwait, Secretary Kerry announced an additional 380 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance to help those suffering inside Syria, as well as refugees in host communities in the neighboring countries. Combined with our previous efforts, the United States contribution since the start of the crisis now totals more than $1.7 billion. This new funding will ensure that vaccination campaigns continue for millions of children in the region, that basic necessities like clean water, food, and materials for shelter are available, and that millions of Syrians – excuse me – Syria’s youth get a chance to go to school again.

The United States is proud to be the leading humanitarian donor to the Syrian crisis, but we are under no illusions that our job is just to write a check. We reiterated our call for the Assad regime to stop blocking aid workers from reaching besieged communities and pledge our commitment to ending this crisis once and for all through the hard work of diplomacy.

Two more things at the top, and excuse me, I have a little bit of a cough, and then we’ll open it up.

The United States condemns the acts of vandalism that were committed against a Palestinian mosque in the West Bank on January 14th. We believe that such hateful and provocative actions against a place of worship are never justified. We look to Israeli law enforcement officials to quickly investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack. And we encourage local authorities to work together with the community to reduce tension, to defend religious freedom, and to work against incitement – excuse me guys, I’m really sorry. We agree with the sentiment of the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land that any attacks on the sites of one religion are, in effect, an attack on all religions.

Just give me one second. I’m so sorry. Okay.

Now, on to Benghazi. I have a statement at the top, and then we’ll open it up for questions.

We have seen the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report. Our initial assessment is that in sum it largely reaffirms the findings reached a year ago by the independent Benghazi Accountability Review Board. There have now been several reports on the issue, as well as multiple hearings and briefings on Capitol Hill. The facts are well-known, as are our efforts to prevent similar attacks in the future. A number of the SSCI recommendations are consistent with work the Department has already undertaken to improve diplomatic security, including upgrading security cameras, improving fire protective equipment, and increasing Marine security guard presence. Of 12 unclassified recommendations directed to the State Department, 10 were previously issued by either the Benghazi ARB or the Best Practices Panel. And we can talk about some of the specifics in terms of the report, but in terms of a statement at the top, Deb, I’ll turn it over to you to lead this small crowd today.

QUESTION: Okay. I – we note that your fact sheet on all the things that you’re doing with – in response to the review board --

MS. HARF: Yeah, has gone out.

QUESTION: One of the things that’s not very similar to the review board’s report is that it seems to call out Ambassador Stevens personally on a couple of his decisions. Apparently, the DOD confirmed to the Senate committee that twice they offered to help bolster his security force with troops from AFRICOM, but that he declined both times. It’s on page 20 of the report.

MS. HARF: Okay, I can check on that. I haven’t seen that. I’ll check on that specifically.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: On that specific – I mean, it’s – again, the report just came out. We’ve looked at it. I haven’t read the whole thing yet. I think in terms of security, whether it’s for him specifically or for the different facilities, has been discussed exhaustively in the ARB and on Capitol Hill. But I’m happy to check on that specific one.

QUESTION: And haven’t you looked at what he’s done – what he did with security over that time period?

MS. HARF: That’s certainly part of what folks have looked at --

QUESTION: Yeah.

MS. HARF: -- and I don’t have anything new on that. Again, I’m happy to check on what the report specifically says.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: Again, it just came out.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: We’re taking a look at it. But that issue has been discussed extensively; I’m happy to see if there’s anything new on that.

QUESTION: So up until now, you really haven’t seen anything that would indicate that he actually declined additional help and security?

MS. HARF: I can check on that – on that specific.

Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: One of the premises of the report is that the attacks were preventable. Is that something that you concur with in the State Department?

MS. HARF: Well, as we have repeatedly said, there was no specific threat indicating an attack was coming. Obviously, we’ve talked at length about the fact that we knew there were extremists and terrorists operating in Libya and in Benghazi. But again, we had no specific information indicating a threat, an attack was coming.

We can’t go back and look at the hypotheticals about what could have been prevented and what couldn’t have. We have said that security needs to be improved. We’ve been crystal clear about that. That’s why we’re implementing the ARB recommendations and have already made a lot of progress, as you can see from the fact sheet we put out. But on this point, we were – we have been crystal clear that there was no specific information that a threat was coming, and also that we don’t believe – we have nothing to indicate there was significant preplanning. So hindsight is 20/20, I guess, but again it doesn’t, I think, serve a lot of purposes to go back and look through hypotheticals, quite frankly, we can never answer. That’s why we’re committed to doing everything we can to prevent situations like this in the future.

QUESTION: But it did come against a context where there had already been an attack on the British mission; there’d been several attacks on other --

MS. HARF: Absolutely.

QUESTION: -- embassies and diplomatic personnel from different countries.

MS. HARF: And we were very clear about the security situation there. We knew it was dangerous, as are many places we operate around the world. But that doesn’t mean just because some place is dangerous that you have specific information or a specific threat that an attack is coming. You can only – you can act on threats and information you get. We knew the security situation was not good in Benghazi and in Libya, and that’s why we had taken steps. But the ARB made clear that we could have done more with security. Nobody is saying we did everything right. Clearly, that’s certainly not the case. But in terms of that specific question, I think that’s where we are on that.

QUESTION: And what about the issue that there hasn’t been – again, from the Senate report – that there hasn’t been enough, kind of, help and cooperation from the Libyan authorities in trying to find the people who were behind the attack?

MS. HARF: Well, we work closely with the Libyan Government, certainly on counterterrorism writ large. We’ve talked about that a lot recently and are pressing them to help us as much as possible. Let me check with our team to see in terms of cooperation what that currently looks like. But the FBI is running the investigation into what happened; that’s still ongoing. And we’ve said we’re very committed to bringing to justice the perpetrators. This is hard to do, to find the folks responsible and bring them to justice, but we are absolutely committing to do – committed to doing so, and we’ll work with the Libyan Government. I’m happy to check and see what the latest is on cooperation.

QUESTION: What about --

QUESTION: Marie?

MS. HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: What about the four people I know that were disciplined as – or five people that were disciplined as a result? I understand that a couple of them have been reassigned. Have they all been reassigned? Because if I remember, Eric Boswell had resigned, and then there were some reports that he was back at the State Department in another capacity.

MS. HARF: Well, nothing’s changed on that, I think, since we announced the outcome of the review. Let me check and see if I still have that in here. I think that I do. Just give me one second on that, Elise. I don’t think anything’s changed on that, but let me see. You’re talking about the four, correct? The four that we talked about?

QUESTION: There were – were there four, then Mr. Boswell?

MS. HARF: Four officials who were placed on administrative leave following the independent Accountability Review Board’s report. We – let me see what I have here. Yes. Going beyond the ARB’s recommendations, the four were being reassigned to different positions within the Department, without the same responsibilities they had on the day of the attack. So we announced months ago the Secretary had finished the review of the status of the four. And again, they are not in positions with the same responsibilities they had on the day of the attack.

QUESTION: And that includes Eric Boswell? Because he resigned from his position, if I remember correctly.

MS. HARF: I can – I don’t know if we talked about specific people.

QUESTION: If you could check specifically.

MS. HARF: Yeah. I mean, I understand that was part of it. But again, the four were just reassigned to different positions. They don’t have the same responsibilities they had at the time of the attack.

QUESTION: And just one more thing from the report. Sorry, Lesley.

QUESTION: That’s all right.

QUESTION: It said – it says, like, one of the key findings is that – I understand that there was no specific and imminent threat to the consulate, but there was a warning provided by the intelligence community that the security situation in eastern Libya was deteriorating and that U.S. facilities and personnel were at risk.

MS. HARF: That is a fairly – not atypical warning that we say about a number of places we operate overseas. That’s not specific to anything. Clearly, look, we’ve been clear that we could have done more with security, that we need to improve our security. I don’t want to make it sound like --

QUESTION: I’m not talking --

MS. HARF: -- just because there wasn’t – well, let me finish --

QUESTION: Yeah.

MS. HARF: Just because there wasn’t a specific threat, that we were not taking security seriously or we think that we shouldn’t have done more. Clearly that’s the case. But that is the kind of security warning, quite frankly, you could say about a number of places.

QUESTION: Well, I understand, but I’m talking about connecting the dots between --

MS. HARF: Well, there has to be dots to connect.

QUESTION: Well, connecting the dots between, “Here is a warning,” and not saying – I’m not saying you’re saying that, but the people that are making the decisions saying, “Oh, well, that’s – we hear that about a lot of places,” and not taking the necessary --

MS. HARF: Right.

QUESTION: -- measures to beef up security in relation to that specific warning.

MS. HARF: Right. And what I’m saying is we have said in the ARB and the State Department have said that we should have beefed up security and done things different.

QUESTION: As a result of those warnings?

MS. HARF: As a result of the ARB’s investigation into what happened, a variety of pieces of information, right. So as a result of the situation, we have said we need to get better doing security. We should have got – we should have been better then, and we need to get better going forward. What I am saying is – was about the question about this being able to be prevented, right. Yes, we should have beefed up security, but you asked about connecting dots – there have to be dots to connect, and that there was no specific threat that an attack was coming, and we don’t believe – we have nothing to indicate that this involved significant preplanning. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have been better at security. Of course we should have. But this notion that there was one piece of information, that if people had just --

QUESTION: I didn’t say that there was one piece.

MS. HARF: I know, but let me just – some people have. So this notion that there was just one piece of information, if we had listened to it we could have prevented this, I think is an appealing theory to some people but just isn’t borne out by the facts. It’s just not.

QUESTION: Marie?

MS. HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: Marie, does the report offer anything more to the Administration or the State Department on the lessons learned from the attack? I mean, is there anything new in effect that comes out of it that you are – you’re kind of having an “ah” moment.

MS. HARF: No, no, not from the folks I’ve talked to that have looked at it – this and their experts on this, no. I mean, they have access to the same information we have. There’s no new information here. And we’ve all looked at it exhaustively, whether it’s the ARB, the Best Practices Panel. Certainly, again, this largely reaffirms what we already knew, and, I mean, most of the recommendation they’ve made – I think 10 out of 12 – were made by the ARB or the Best Practices Panel as well. So there were a lot of the same conclusions.

QUESTION: Oh, I was going to ask: Is there anything that you can see coming up in addition to what you’re already doing or changes already made that the report suggests?

MS. HARF: Yes. Well, as I said – and we did release the fact sheet with what we’ve already done – in terms of the recommendations, there were 12 unclassified recommendations directed to the State Department in the SSCI report. Ten were previously issued by either the Benghazi ARB or the Best Practices Panel. I think we’re taking a look at the report and seeing if there are additional things we need to do.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

QUESTION: One more, please.

QUESTION: I thought they were classified, then?

MS. HARF: What?

QUESTION: If they’re the same as what came out of the ARB --

MS. HARF: Unclassified.

QUESTION: Oh, unclassified.

MS. HARF: Unclassified, yeah.

QUESTION: Sorry. Okay.

MS. HARF: That’s okay.

QUESTION: Marie, regarding the --

MS. HARF: Stressing the “un” part of that. Yes.

QUESTION: Regarding the ambassadors and embassies’ security --

MS. HARF: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: -- do the ambassadors usually have the final say in this regard?

MS. HARF: I can check on what the decision-making process is. I don’t know all the details on that. I think there’s a process for how we determine security – obviously involves a number of people in this building and the posts on the ground and what they think is necessary. I can see if I have a flow chart for how we make those decisions.

QUESTION: Well, can you – and I’m not sure you would have it today, but can you come back to us with an answer about whether there was an – was there an issue in terms of wanting to reduce the footprint of the U.S. military in Libya at the time, like to rely more on the security of the Libyans and boost the capacity? And to what extent did that factor into the decisions that you made on security? I mean, obviously the Libyans did not make good on their host government commitments in terms of security at the end of the day on the ground there, but how much was it a factor to give the Libyans a chance and --

MS. HARF: I can check on that, Elise. I mean, broadly speaking, obviously, different folks, us and host governments, have different responsibilities in terms of security in different places around the world. We work in collaboration with them to make these decisions. I’m happy to check with our folks on that question. I just quite frankly don’t know the answer.

QUESTION: Yes, please.

MS. HARF: On Benghazi?

QUESTION: Yes, please.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I mean, at the beginning, the first few months it was issued, the main issue was the – it was raised that one of the main issues that was raised, it was the limitation or the not funding – enough funding for the security, and it was blamed for this reason, the Congress, that they didn’t approve that. Is – the budget thing is solved, or not yet?

MS. HARF: Well, so – yes, I have a little information on the embassy security from the budget. There was some confusion. I think this has been reported in a little misleading way, so maybe I’ll just give some information on that and then we can talk a little bit more about Benghazi, because yesterday people asked about this.

So in Fiscal Year 2013, Congress legislated the transfer of $1.237 billion in existing funding from Iraq’s overseas contingency account to enable the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations to begin enhancing our security upgrades worldwide based in large part on the ARB recommendations. So basically, in 2013, based on the ARB – excuse me guys, I’m really sorry – as we were implementing those recommendations, we got a new pot of money to make those upgrades. So this made the total FY13 funds available 2.82 billion.

In FY14, the Congress has appropriated a total of 2.67 billion overall for overseas building operations. The best way to describe the difference between the 2.82 billion in FY13 and the 2.67 billion in FY14 is that the FY13 number included one-time funding for facilities for 35 new Marine security guard detachments. That’s part of the ARB implementation. These don’t have to be funded again in 2014 because they’re a one-time, you create them, the money goes to that. So we are actually quite happy with the levels of embassy security funding that Congress has put into the spending bill. I know people asked about this yesterday. I’m sorry I didn’t have this yesterday, but it’s especially relevant today, I think, as we’re talking about Benghazi.

Yes. Benghazi?

QUESTION: No.

MS. HARF: Anything else? I’m looking at you, Lucas. Not to just assume, but go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for looking at me.

MS. HARF: I’m so sorry, guys. Okay. Go ahead, Lucas.

QUESTION: In the Senate report, there were – it lists multiple warnings that the State Department had that al-Qaida was involved with planning an attack. And there were multiple attacks against our allies, against the special mission itself. And my question is: Just after the attack, why was there any doubt that al-Qaida was involved?

MS. HARF: Well, we still have no indications that core al-Qaida was involved in directing or planning this attack, and I think you’re generalizing a little bit about the warning. So let me say a few points, and then I’m sure you’ll have many follow-ups.

Again, as I said, there was no specific threat indicating an attack was coming. We knew there were a variety of bad guys operating in Benghazi. We knew there had been attacks in the past, and we knew it was a security environment that was quite challenging and very dangerous. But again, you can only act when you know, when you have information that a specific attack may be coming.

Further, we know that there are guys who may have ties or loose affiliations to people who are also affiliated with al-Qaida. That doesn’t mean al-Qaida core is directing or planning anything in Benghazi, and it doesn’t mean that they were involved here. We have no indications that they directed or planned this attack.

And I’d just reiterate a point that every bad guy with a gun isn’t al-Qaida. That may be a useful shorthand for politicians to use, but it’s not borne out by the facts on the ground.

QUESTION: Why do you think they chose September 11th as the date to attack the compound?

MS. HARF: Well, I – (a) I don’t want to get in the head – minds of terrorists and try to guess about their motivations. Clearly, they’ve used September 11th in the past, after 2001, as a date that they could possibly use to attack. And we are always --

QUESTION: And who’s the “they”?

MS. HARF: Different terrorist groups around the world, some affiliated with al-Qaida, and some not. Again, we’re always on heightened alert on September 11th. Every year we are. Clearly, we needed to do more with security here. Nobody’s saying we did everything perfectly by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve been very clear about that. But again, we continue to assess and have no information to indicate that there was any significant pre-planning involved here. So there was a situation where it looks like bad guys who were already operating there took advantage of a situation, used it – it was September 11th, you’re right – to do some very, very bad things. And that doesn’t mean that we had a specific threat or a specific warning. Again, as I said to Elise, if there was one piece of information that if someone had just listened to, this would have been prevented, I think that’s something that people – it’s appealing to some people because it would make people feel better, but unfortunately, the world is more complicated and that’s not the case here.

QUESTION: And you’re insisting on using the term “core al-Qaida” versus “affiliates of al-Qaida.”

MS. HARF: Because they’re different groups and they have different operational structures, different operational capabilities, different funding sources, different kinds of fighters, different goals in terms of who they attack and where.

QUESTION: Right, but --

MS. HARF: They’re different things.

QUESTION: -- at the end of the day, though, I mean, what difference does it make if it’s core al-Qaida or affiliates involved?

MS. HARF: Yeah. Well, it makes a difference for a couple of reasons. The first is it matters who’s involved when you’re trying to figure out who to hold responsible. So that’s A.

QUESTION: And who do you hold responsible for the attack?

MS. HARF: Well, we came out this week – was it this week – last week, sometime in the past few days, and designated Ansar al-Sharia, a group that is not an official affiliate of al-Qaida, and said that they were – some of their members were involved with the Benghazi attack. So when you’re talking about who to hold accountable, it matters. When you’re talking about how to prevent it in the future, it matters, because if you’re cutting off a funding source, if you’re – that’s why we designate groups. If you’re cutting off a funding source, if you’re trying to work with other governments to clamp down on these groups, it doesn’t do you any good to clamp down on a group in Pakistan and Afghanistan that has nothing to do with it if you’re trying to fight something in Libya. They’re just – it doesn’t make any sense.

QUESTION: One of the gentlemen you designated as a terrorist --

MS. HARF: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: -- Sufyan bin Qumu – he was a former Guantanamo detainee.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: He also had ties to al-Qaida. He did train with al-Qaida in Pakistan.

MS. HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: I said before he was an alumnus of al-Qaida. That designation – didn’t that mean that he’s involved in some way with these attacks? Or did it just happen to come out the week before this report came out?

MS. HARF: Well, he was designated as the leader of the group.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. HARF: That’s the purpose and reason for his designation. The investigation’s still ongoing to see who specifically from Ansar al-Sharia or other groups was involved with Benghazi. But again, let’s say he – let’s say hypothetically he was involved. That doesn’t mean al-Qaida was involved because he was an alumnus and had ties many, many years ago, or may even continue to. That doesn’t mean al-Qaida’s involved. We all have ties to organizations that have nothing to do with what we do every day.

QUESTION: But how do you designate someone an official affiliate?

MS. HARF: So there’s a process that al-Qaida itself has laid out to designate groups as official affiliates. There’s a pledging allegiance process that groups go through, and al-Qaida core has to accept it. AQAP’s done it, AQIM, AQI – again, it doesn’t mean these groups aren’t dangerous, and it doesn’t mean there’s not loose affiliations. But there is an official process groups go through.

QUESTION: But isn’t possible that their ideology, al-Qaida core’s ideology – using your term, al-Qaida core – that their ideology has spread throughout much of the world, specifically in Africa, parts of Europe, and Asia?

MS. HARF: Absolutely. No question. And we’ve always – we are always concerned, we’ve always been concerned about al-Qaida ideology that has gone to other places. But when we’re talking – look, ideology is concerning. What we are most concerned about is operational capability. And these groups – another reason it matters is because in general, groups that aren’t official affiliates aren’t looking at the same way at external plotting. They’re not getting the same guidance from AQ core. There are just different ways they go about operationally in doing what they do.

QUESTION: But once you take --

MS. HARF: And again, it matters when you’re trying to counter them.

QUESTION: Right. Once you’ve taken that pledge, though – this has been proven it’s a decentralized command structure – once you’ve taken that pledge --

MS. HARF: In large part because of the work we’ve done to fight al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Absolutely.

MS. HARF: Sorry. Continue.

QUESTION: When you’ve taken that pledge, though, when you go to a different part of the world to carry out attacks, that does bring back some ties to your official --

MS. HARF: If you’re an official affiliate, it certainly does. And as we’ve seen with AQAP, they have increasingly looked to plan and execute external attacks, including trying on the U.S. homeland, as we’ve seen.

QUESTION: But --

MS. HARF: So it matters because when we talk about the threat and the resources and how we counter it, it matters who they take instruction from, where they get their fighters, where they’re trying to plan attacks, how they’re trying to do that – all of those things matter not just intellectually, but when you’re talking about how best to counter them and prevent those attacks.

QUESTION: But going back to beginning, if you knew that al-Qaida elements were involved in the attacks leading up to September 11th, 2012, how can you not say today that, over 16 months later, that al-Qaida elements were not involved in the attack on September 11th?

MS. HARF: I didn't say that. I said we have no indication that al-Qaida core directed or planned this attack. We’re still looking at – determining everyone who was – let me finish and then you can follow – we’re still looking at everyone who was involved in the attack. I can’t rule out that somebody involved in the attack doesn’t have some affiliation in some way with al-Qaida core. I can’t rule that out, right.

QUESTION: Well, one of the guys that you named as a terrorist in relation to the Benghazi attack --

MS. HARF: We didn't name him in relation to the Benghazi attack. We named him in relation to the group. As the leader of it, we did not name him specifically in relation to the attack --

QUESTION: Okay. Well --

MS. HARF: -- in his designation.

QUESTION: But you believe that Ansar al-Sharia is a member – is – this guy is a member.

MS. HARF: He’s the leader of the group in Derna.

QUESTION: Sorry, yeah. He’s the leader of Ansar al-Sharia, which you have fingered as being involved in the attack.

MS. HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: And he has a lot of ties to core al-Qaida.

MS. HARF: So again, what we’re looking at right now through the investigation is his involvement – whether he was, whether he wasn’t. That’s not why he was designated --

QUESTION: Talking about Qumu. Right.

MS. HARF: Qumu, yeah. That’s not why he was designated. And again, just because someone has ties to core al-Qaida some way in their – at some point in their history or even now – it doesn’t mean core al-Qaida was necessarily involved.

QUESTION: Right, right.

QUESTION: But you don’t think that --

MS. HARF: And you need evidence, guys. Just because there some – I mean, terrorists have ties to people all over the world. It doesn’t mean they were involved in planning or executing attacks. And we do have no evidence that there was significant preplanning involved here by anybody.

QUESTION: But do you think it’s just a coincidence that the head of al-Sharia Derna happened to be in Benghazi the night of the attack?

MS. HARF: I don’t know what his location was on that. I honestly don’t know. I’m happy to check.

QUESTION: Can I change the --

MS. HARF: I don’t believe in coincidences, Lucas.

QUESTION: Yeah, me neither.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

MS. HARF: Yes, we’re done with Benghazi for today.

QUESTION: On Iraq.

MS. HARF: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could say something about these pictures that were released about military soldiers pouring gasoline on the bodies of Iraqis in Fallujah in 2004. I understand there’s an investigation going on.

MS. HARF: I have not seen those. I’m sorry. I would point you to DOD. They probably have the lead on this. I’m happy to check with our folks. I just haven’t.

QUESTION: I’m just wondering. I mean, right now as you are trying to work with the Iraqis on countering what’s going on, the violence on the ground, if this kind of damages your credibility in terms of someone that can be helpful right now.

MS. HARF: Well, we’re certainly extremely committed to working with Iraq in a variety of ways to counter this threat together. We’ve talked a lot about that in the past few weeks in a combination of political and counterterrorism support. I’m not familiar with the specifics about these photos, but we certainly are very committed to the relationship and have no indication that the Iraqis aren’t as well.

QUESTION: Marie --

MS. HARF: Uh-huh. Yep.

QUESTION: I have one more – Iraqi members of parliament are in town. Have they met anyone from the State Department?

MS. HARF: Members of parliament?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MS. HARF: I can check. I don’t know. I’ll check.

QUESTION: Change the subject?

MS. HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: On China, China has flight-tested a hypersonic missile delivery vehicle.

MS. HARF: What is that – interesting. A hypersonic delivery – I don’t know what that is.

QUESTION: We’ll find out. (Laughter.)

MS. HARF: We’ll find out. Were you asking for a reaction? I will look into it.

QUESTION: I figured with your background you’d know immediately.

MS. HARF: I know it’s – it’s strange. Usually, I know all about those types of missiles. I’m happy to check. I’m sorry. I don’t have anything for that.

QUESTION: No. Well, I mean, look, so the question would be, again --

MS. HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- whether you were notified or you think that – what your reading is of this. Beijing said that it was scientific in nature and not targeted at any country.

MS. HARF: Okay. Well, I will check with our team. Thanks for the question, and I’m sorry I don’t have anything for you.

Yes, then I’ll --

QUESTION: Can I go to Iran, please?

MS. HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: I wondered if the State Department had any details about a reported oil-for-goods deal between Russia and Iran that’s going on. I believe that this was discussed between the Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov in Paris over the weekend.

MS. HARF: It was. We’ve seen the reports of this potential deal. We can’t confirm those details. If this deal were to move forward, it would raise serious concerns as it would be inconsistent with the terms of the P5+1 Joint Plan of Action and could potentially trigger U.S. sanctions against the entities and individuals involved in any related transactions. As you mentioned, Secretary Kerry expressed our concerns directly to Foreign Minister Lavrov when he met with him recently, and we remain concerned. We’ll continue engaging on this.

QUESTION: So Foreign Minister Lavrov – you said you’d seen the reports, but Foreign Minister Lavrov didn't fill in the Secretary on any of the details of this?

MS. HARF: I don’t have a more detailed readout from their conversation. We can’t confirm all of the reports that have been out there, but I’m happy to continue updating folks as we get more.

QUESTION: So, what are you trying to do to confirm the reports?

MS. HARF: Well, we’re – clearly, the Secretary raised it directly. We’re working with the Russians on it.

QUESTION: Change of subject?

MS. HARF: Yes. And then I promise you’re next. I’m so sorry, guys.

QUESTION: So Secretary Kerry is going to the Syria conference next week --

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: -- you’ve confirmed today. Is there any indication yet what – how the opposition is going to vote?

MS. HARF: They’re voting on the 17th.

QUESTION: Is there any indication yet to the U.S. that they are going to go?

MS. HARF: Well, we’ve certainly encouraged them to, reiterated to them that it’s in their interest to do so. Ambassador Ford is, I believe, still in Istanbul engaged with the opposition to help us all get to a place where they do attend. So hopefully on the 17th, they will vote and we will have the delegation at the conference.

QUESTION: And then just coming back to that, if they decide not to go, does – would Secretary Kerry cancel the trip?

MS. HARF: We’re operating under the assumption that they will go. I don’t want to venture to guess what would happen if they don’t.

QUESTION: Then yesterday --

MS. HARF: But I think we’ve all got plane tickets to Montreux already, so --

QUESTION: Then on Monday --

MS. HARF: -- I think we’re going. But we hope and believe that they will as well.

QUESTION: If they don’t go, though, is there any purpose to having the talks even without the opposition?

MS. HARF: Well --

QUESTION: Is there something that practically you could do without them at the table?

MS. HARF: Well, the value would be greatly diminished – let’s all be honest here – that if they don’t go, it would be, because it’s in their interest to go. It’s not just that it’s in our interest. It’s that it’s in their interest and the Syrian people’s interest that they go. So we hope on the 17th they will vote to attend, they will name a delegation. We’re deeply engaged with them right now on that process.

QUESTION: But without them, even if they don’t go, you would still have the first talks, presumably, with the Syrian regime since the start of this conflict?

MS. HARF: Well, I don’t want to get too far ahead in terms of guessing what may happen if they don’t vote to go on the 17th. Our hope and belief is that they will. If that happens, we can entertain what that might look like.

QUESTION: And what are your expectations from Geneva II?

MS. HARF: Well, as I said at the top, our goal is to put in place a process here to fully implement the Geneva I communique. That involves a number of things, including a political transition by mutual consent for a transitional governing body. It also includes other things, important things that I think we focus on less in here but are not any less important, including humanitarian access. So we want to make progress, we want to put a process in place. Obviously, these are very complicated and tough discussions, but we need to do so. It’s just too important to go any longer without progress here.

QUESTION: And are your expectations high or low?

MS. HARF: I think our expectations are realistic.

QUESTION: Have you seen --

QUESTION: And what is --

QUESTION: Have you seen that the foreign ministry – the foreign minister of Iran has been meeting with the Russians and a few other countries? Is there any indication that you’ve had that they’re about to accept Geneva I and then will be invited to attend?

MS. HARF: I’ve seen no indications of that.

QUESTION: And what’s actually going on now at a lower level to prepare for these discussions? Presumably --

MS. HARF: Many, many meetings.

QUESTION: That’s what – could you give us sort of the ideas that are coming out of these meetings --

MS. HARF: Well --

QUESTION: -- for how you’re going to progress?

MS. HARF: -- let’s be clear too. This isn’t a U.S. process. This is a UN process that’s really the two sides, if we can get them all to the table, sitting down and talking to each other directly for the first time since this conflict began, which I think is an important point and we don’t focus on enough. Obviously, how we can play a role, how Russia can play a role, how all of us can play a role in helping to move some of these issues forward, I think – you saw some of the discussions Secretary Kerry had with Foreign Minister Lavrov about pushing the Assad regime on humanitarian access or ceasefires in localized areas. Some of those discussions we’ve already started having about how to create a climate to give this conference more of a chance of success.

Yes.

QUESTION: Having with whom? Sorry. You --

MS. HARF: Well, we’re having them with everyone – with the UN and with the Russians, with the opposition, and then --

QUESTION: And with the regime, and with --

MS. HARF: I can check on that. Not to my knowledge, but I can check on that. With the rest of the London 11, with everyone that will be working on these issues.

QUESTION: And just one more, sorry. Have you a sense of how long these talks could last? I know it’s one day in Montreux and then everyone moves to Geneva.

MS. HARF: Yeah. I don’t have a sense for the Geneva portion.

QUESTION: Are they open-ended? Is the plan to talk as long as it’s useful to keep talking?

MS. HARF: Let’s hope not. But no, I can check. I can check. I just don’t know.

QUESTION: Can I --

MS. HARF: Hold on. Okay. Go ahead, and then I’m going to you next.

QUESTION: Can I just go back to the idea that – I mean, even at this point that the opposition still can’t get it together to know who they’re going – what is the --

MS. HARF: Well, let’s not say that. They’re going to vote on this and then – and we have (inaudible).

QUESTION: Okay. So they’re voting five days before the conference on who would go.

MS. HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: I mean, clearly, even if they end up going, it isn’t like the – they’re – this delegation that’s going to be sitting across the table from the regime has been preparing for – as a delegation for deliberations with the regime on a political transition. So it’s just --

MS. HARF: Well --

QUESTION: Let me finish. It just raises the question --

MS. HARF: Role-play, that was good. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: It just raises the question of what are the goals of this conference. Is there – how can you in any way argue that this delegation is going to be in a strong position to be sitting across the table from the regime in terms of having bargaining power on a political transition?

MS. HARF: Well, let’s not get ahead of what will happen on the 17th, but I don’t think this would be --

QUESTION: Even if we assume that they are going.

MS. HARF: But I don’t think this would be a delegation that was sort of chosen from random people who haven’t been involved in it all along. So I think hopefully these will be people who are important in the opposition, players on that side who do, in fact – who are empowered to negotiate on the opposition’s behalf. Look, it’s complicated. Nobody’s naive about that.

And I do need to move on because I’m on a little bit of a time schedule today, guys, so I’m going to you, and then we’ll go around real quick.

QUESTION: It’s a Syria question.

MS. HARF: Okay, great.

QUESTION: So Lyse Doucet of BBC has interviewed the Syrian deputy foreign minister, and in this interview, he said that foreign intelligence agencies have visited Damascus to speak to the Assad regime.

MS. HARF: This was about the Europeans, right? I think I saw a report on this.

QUESTION: Well, it was Western. And the implication was that Americans were also involved.

MS. HARF: Oh. Okay.

QUESTION: Yes. So that’s mainly what my question is, if you can confirm knowledge of U.S. involvement in these discussions or visits.

MS. HARF: No. We were not.

QUESTION: And do you have any comment about the threat that they’re concerned of, which is al-Qaida’s growing presence in the country? And also, is the U.S. discussing having an official presence in Damascus?

MS. HARF: Well, we clearly consider the terrorist threat inside Syria to be of serious concern. But it’s absurd to consider Assad or the regime a partner in countering that threat. It is because of the climate they have created in the country, both the security climate and the way they’ve encouraged this behavior, that terrorists are able to operate so freely in Syria today. So we share the concern, but think the notion that the regime is truly concerned about it is sort of preposterous.

QUESTION: What about U.S. involvement, or kind of a presence in Damascus?

MS. HARF: Presence? No. I mean, nothing on that has changed. Let me see. Yeah. With – no talk about reopening our embassy there. Obviously, it would depend on a number of factors, but (inaudible).

QUESTION: Not just about embassy, but are you interested in putting someone in the interests section? Is there any talk of any type of U.S. presence on the ground?

MS. HARF: I can check. I can check.

QUESTION: And then also, are you categorically denying that the U.S. Government, particularly the foreign intelligence agencies – I know that’s not your – well, it is your old --

MS. HARF: It is (inaudible.)

QUESTION: -- it is your old purview – that U.S. intelligence is not in any way talking or having a dialogue with the regime right now?

MS. HARF: That’s not what I said. I said I would check on that, if there are conversations with the regime. Not to my knowledge, but I don’t want to say anything categorical that I don’t know to be true.

This specific report about intelligence agencies going to work with the Assad regime on counterterrorism, I am saying is not true. But in terms of the broader question, let me see what I can find out.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

QUESTION: Marie.

MS. HARF: Yes.

QUESTION: Why the State Department has decided to call the war in Syria a civil war?

MS. HARF: It’s been calling it that for months.

QUESTION: It wasn’t like this at the beginning.

MS. HARF: Well, we’ve been calling it that for months. I think the situation on the ground could really be called nothing else. Obviously, Syrians are killing other Syrians. The regime is brutalizing its own people. That’s what we’ve been calling it for months. No new policy decision.

And I do have to leave a little soon, guys. I’m sorry. So let me just very quickly essential questions.

QUESTION: This --

MS. HARF: I know you think they’re all essential.

QUESTION: This should be a quick one.

MS. HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: Do you have a readout from Deputy Secretary Burns’s meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Kishi from this morning?

MS. HARF: It was still ongoing, I believe, when I came down here. We’ll get you one after the briefing. I promise.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MS. HARF: Look at that, that was a promise.

Yes.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary accept the apology by the Israeli defense minister?

MS. HARF: Well, the Secretary spoke to this a little bit this morning in his press avail in Kuwait. He said – and I’m quoting – “We just can’t let one set of comments undermine that effort” – obviously, the peace process is what he’s referring to, and, quote, “I don’t intend to.”

So I think we made very clear yesterday our position on those comments. The Secretary spoke to it, and I think I’d let his words speak for themselves.

QUESTION: Marie --

QUESTION: Has he received a formal apology?

MS. HARF: I just don’t have anything more for you on this, guys.

QUESTION: Is there any update on the investigation into the attacks on Benghazi?

MS. HARF: No. No update.

Yes. Quickly.

QUESTION: Korea. Thank you. It is reported that Iran and North Korea cooperated development of super ICBM. Do you have anything on that?

MS. HARF: I can check on that. I just don’t know the answer. I’m happy to check.

QUESTION: All right.

MS. HARF: Yes. In the back.

QUESTION: Is there any reaction to the New York Times report about the NSA spying and how they’re using the radio frequencies to get computers off the grid?

MS. HARF: I don’t have any specific comment on that. As you know, the President will be making a speech on Friday at the Department of Justice addressing a whole host of issues related to our surveillance, our intelligence gathering, privacy. So I just don’t have anything for you on that.

Yes.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up: Actually, according to this article, some units of Chinese army are the target of the surveillance program. Do you have any comment?

MS. HARF: I just don’t have any comment on the article.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: Yeah. Thank you.

Yes. And then Deb, you’re last. I’m sorry, guys. You know I hate doing this.

QUESTION: A few small questions from South Asia.

MS. HARF: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: First, in Afghanistan: The World Bank today came out with a report in which the growth rate of Afghanistan has dropped from 14.4 percent to 3.1 percent this year. Is it worrying trend for you?

MS. HARF: I haven’t seen that. I’ll check with our folks.

QUESTION: And on India, about Deputy Secretary Burns with the Indian ambassador --

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm. We put a readout out of that yesterday.

QUESTION: Yes. According to the press note, they also discussed several diplomatic notes that India has sent to --

MS. HARF: Uh-huh. Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the U.S. And the press note, it said, is specifically about American Embassy School.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Do you know: What are the issues specifically about that?

MS. HARF: I don’t have more details on that for you now. I’m happy to provide some if we can.

QUESTION: And a senior U.S. official is visiting Sri Lanka right now, and the Sri Lankan Government has called the U.S. to review its policy on Sri Lanka’s position on humanitarian reforms. Do you have anything to say?

MS. HARF: We’ve said we’re interested in working together on addressing these issues. Let me see if there’s an update from our folks.

QUESTION: One more on Yaalon.

MS. HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: There are reports that the U.S. has asked Prime Minister Netanyahu to publicly condemn Yaalon attack on Secretary Kerry. Is that true?

MS. HARF: I just – I know there’s a lot of rumors out there. I just don’t have anything more for you on this. We’ve been very clear that we found those comments offensive. The prime minister is free to speak for himself.

Deb – last one?

QUESTION: Do you have anything on a rights group report on rape by the Myanmar military?

MS. HARF: Let me see what I have on that.

QUESTION: Or you could get it later.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm. Yes. So we are aware of the report documenting rapes and sexual assault by the Burmese military in the country’s ethnic areas. Despite tremendous progress in Burma over the past three years, much of which we’ve talked about in this room, significant challenges remain, including further improving the country’s overall human rights situation. We obviously decry all violations of human rights in Burma, many of which we have documented in our annual Human Rights and International Religious Freedom reports. We urge the Burmese Government and military to investigate and prosecute all allegations of rape and sexual assault.

Thank you, guys. And I’m really sorry for the short briefing today, and for surprising everyone with noon.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:49 p.m.)

[This is a mobile copy of Daily Press Briefing - January 15, 2014]