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Libyan Newswire

Press Releases: Daily Press Briefing – June 28, 2016

1:38 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Hey, everybody. Happy Tuesday. Welcome to the State Department. A couple things at the top, and then I’ll get to your questions.

First First of all, I just wanted to note that today through Thursday Assistant Secretary for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Frank Rose will co-chair the third plenary meeting of the International Partnership of Nuclear Disarmament Verification in Tokyo, Japan. And that partnership brings together 27 countries with relevant expertise to tackle the challenges associated with nuclear disarmament verification. In his remarks in Hiroshima last month, you’ll recall President Obama did speak about how the destructive force of nuclear weapons informs his desire – and, indeed, his Administration’s desire – to reduce their role and number. And the partnership is one of – one major step the United States and its partners to pursuing to help make that a reality.

I did also want to note that tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. at the United States Institute of Peace, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Samantha Power, Ambassador Samantha Power, will discuss the global refugee crisis at their Carlucci Auditorium. Ambassador Power will make the case for the international community to strengthen its response to the unprecedented crisis, address concerns about admitting additional refugees, and also underscore the strategic importance and imperative in providing humanitarian assistance, enhancing refugees’ living conditions, as well as providing resettlement opportunities. She’ll also provide a review of the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees that President Obama will convene on September 20th at the United Nations, a summit that will feature a select group of countries prepared to announce significant new commitments to address the crisis.

And with that, Brad, over to you.

QUESTION: Can we start with the Select Committee’s report on Benghazi?

MR TONER: Sure, Brad.

QUESTION: Now that you’ve had a few hours to look at it, can you give us your initial assessment?

MR TONER: Well, first of all, we are still reviewing the report, certainly, and in that regard I’m probably not going to get a – be able to necessarily debate, nor do I want to debate from this podium, every allegation that’s contained in a – what is a report that’s hundreds of pages long. But as you know, this is a topic that we’ve addressed on numerous occasions from this podium.

I think also it’s important to note a couple of things before we get into your specific questions about the report. First of all, I just want to underscore that no one takes Benghazi and the lessons we’ve learned from it more seriously than the State Department. It’s important never to lose sight of the human element of this story. We lost our friends and our colleagues on that terrible night. Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods did represent our very best, and their loss is a tragedy that remains with us. Our thoughts always remain with their family and their friends, those who knew them, those who worked with them. And we work hard every day since this terrible event to learn lessons from Benghazi and to internalize those lessons, and by that I mean, notably, in addressing security concerns.

Speaking specifically to your question about the report, I’d just say the – we believe that the essential facts surrounding the 2012 attacks in Benghazi have been known for some time. There have been numerous reviews, including, as you all well know, the Accountability Review Board report that was released I think more than three years ago. There have been seven congressional committees, and that includes the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. And so all of these, we believe, have reached many of the same conclusions about the events surrounding the tragedy in Benghazi, and we have been working hard to incorporate the recommendations surrounding concerns about security that the Accountability Review Board contained in its report, or put in its report. And in that regard, we have closed out now I think 26 out of 29 of the recommendations that they’ve made. So we’re about 98 percent there.

QUESTION: Well, that’s not 98 percent. That’s about —

MR TONER: Some of them are —

QUESTION: — 90 percent.

MR TONER: Ninety percent, oh.

QUESTION: Yeah, 80-something.

MR TONER: I never claimed to be a mathematician, Brad. You know that. But no, in – seriously – and these implementation efforts, to be specific, include expanding the role – or expanding, rather, the numbers of diplomatic security personnel overseas; enhancing interagency coordination to address threat information; expanding the Marine security guard program; and also, of course, accelerating projects to build and upgrade embassy security.

QUESTION: Do you – some of the members of the committee, the Republican members, pointed specifically at the former Secretary, Madam Clinton, including Congressman Pompeo, who said she was “morally reprehensible.” Do you agree with that position?

MR TONER: Look, we’re not going to get into assessing and certainly characterizing the actions of Secretary Clinton, beyond saying that she, as with all senior members of the State Department on that fateful night, were fully focused on assessing the situation on the ground in Benghazi and trying to provide, working within the interagency, what support we could during that relevant time period.

QUESTION: Do you see anything in the report that points to specific wrongdoing that either you contest or you weren’t aware of?

MR TONER: No, I mean, it’s a good question. Look, I mean, we didn’t – and I spoke a little bit about this just now – is we didn’t – we don’t see anything new there. I mean, accountability has always been an issue here. Accountability has always been important. The ARB, the Accountability Review – or the – yes, the Accountability Review Board, in its findings, did assign some level of accountability in saying that there were bureaucratic failings within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. We all know that. We’re all aware of those findings. And we have worked to address them in a variety of ways. But we still – we don’t believe that there’s anything new in this report that points fingers to any other individuals or entities within the State Department.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Now that this whole investigation has wrapped up and assuming there’s not another one, do you feel, when you look back at everything now, that the State Department erred in having this outpost in Benghazi in the first place?

MR TONER: So – no. Look, there was a lot – and I saw the press conference as well at 10 o’clock this morning. I heard some of the allegations put forth by various members of Congress who worked on this report, so I’m well aware of the context you ask that question in. All I can say is that Benghazi was important. We all know what Libya looked like at that time, post-civil war, post-conflict. Benghazi was an important outpost during the actual civil war. Nobody knew that more than Chris Stevens. Nobody believed in the importance of Benghazi more than Chris Stevens did. But his was not the only assessment that Benghazi was important. It was important that we had representation there, and that was why we were there.

And it speaks – to be frank here, it speaks to the risk-taking that our diplomats do every day because we need representation in a given place and we need our diplomats to go there and to be forward-leaning, if you will. We do our best to protect them. We’re trying to do a better job at protecting those individuals. But we stand by the fact that we needed our people to be in Benghazi.

QUESTION: Do you – I just have one extra one.

MR TONER: Yeah. Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: So you support the presence. You would accept more responsibility on the bureaucratic decision-making and security posture elements.

MR TONER: Well, I think we’ve acknowledged that in the past, Brad, that – a couple of points there. One is we did have and took seriously the request for security that the embassy made and tried to provide and, in fact, respond as quickly as we could to their request for increased security on the ground. I think with a few relative exceptions – and I can get into those if you’d like – that had more to deal with, frankly, the profile that we wanted to have on the ground and not necessarily the security concerns, because we tried to address them.

But – and we also – the other qualifier there is, as other past investigations have found and others have spoken to, including those on the ARB, that the attack on Benghazi was uniquely intense and we did not have enough assets on the ground to rebuff that. And it would have been difficult to have the assets on the ground to rebuff that. That said, of course, we’re going to take the lessons from Benghazi and we’re going to work our hardest – and have been working our hardest – to address them.

QUESTION: And my last one.

MR TONER: Yeah. Sure. That’s okay.

QUESTION: There seem to be a recurrent theme in the report that – and in some of the comments about the report – that the State Department put diplomatic niceties over the actual security needs, that this concern about not offending the Libyans, not having boots on the ground, that would put them in a tough spot, superseded the actual security needs that would have better protected both the Benghazi mission and Tripoli as well. Do you accept that in that you were hamstrung from actually providing adequate security?

MR TONER: So a couple of aspects to this. First of all, broadly speaking – so taking it broad and then I’ll narrow it down. Broadly speaking, of course we’re always assessing – and it goes into the kind of profile – it speaks to the kind of profile you want on the ground – whether that’s an enhancement or a detriment to your security on the ground. And boots and uniforms can sometimes be a detriment to that security. And you can talk to folks far more expert in this than I am, but sometimes you have a low profile and sometimes you have higher profile, and that’s always a consideration – not just unique to Libya, but around the world when we are trying to assess the security needs on the ground. That doesn’t mean you hold back or you dither or you somehow don’t fully respond to securities – post security needs, but that’s an ongoing conversation when you’re looking at the kind of profile you want on the ground.

Now, specifically, what I heard this morning, and I do want to refute vociferously and vigorously, is that somehow there was a military group or a detachment personnel – DOD personnel who were somehow kept from joining the fight in Benghazi because they weren’t sure, they had to change their uniforms or take their uniforms on and off again. I can say unequivocally that that is not true. I would – I refute that absolutely. At no point would that consideration or did that consideration cause any delay in the deployment of military assets.

Broadly speaking, I will defer to DOD to speak to their actions that night, because it’s really up to them to do that, but I did want to clear that up.

QUESTION: Did —

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Did the U.S., the decision-makers, underestimate the terrorist threat in Benghazi at the time?

MR TONER: A very good question. And I think that, as we’ve seen – I think the short answer is we did not – and we have acknowledged this – have the assets on the ground that were necessary to rebuff an attack like that. And others have spoken to this before me. Again, and I mentioned the seven-odd-some committees that have looked at this – this question before. And the fact is that we did not have forewarning of an attack of this ferocity, of this intensity. And as many saw in the aftermath, there was a lot of analysis that went into who was behind the attack – was it connected with other events going on in the Middle East at the time? It’s been talked about in the report. It’s been talked about in previous reports. But the fact of the matter is that we did not have any forewarning of an attack of that intensity on that night. Otherwise, clearly, we would have taken more serious precautions in addition to what we already had, which we did have security elements on the ground, just not enough.

QUESTION: Mark, you said that —

MR TONER: Please, Said.

QUESTION: — you guys met 26 of 29 recommendations?

MR TONER: That is correct. I can find the —

QUESTION: Okay. So what are —

MR TONER: Yeah, please.

QUESTION: — these three recommendations that you have not met or unable to meet, or why?

MR TONER: Sure. So thank you for asking. As Brad corrected me, I don’t think it’s – 26 out of 29 is not 99 percent done, but 90-ish percent done. The ongoing recommendations – reason we haven’t implemented them fully yet is because they concern long-term security upgrades and construction, and obviously that takes a while. But we are, obviously, dedicating the resources and personnel necessary to do those kinds of upgrades, and that’s obviously worldwide.

QUESTION: And you feel that if you meet these last three recommendations that everyone who has raised this issue and stirring it, so to speak —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — has been stirring it, will be satisfied if you —

MR TONER: I don’t think we’ll ever be satisfied when you’re talking about security. It’s —

QUESTION: I mean, those who —

MR TONER: Oh, I see what you’re saying, yeah.

QUESTION: — basically are raising the issue all the time —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — will they be satisfied if you were to meet those three obligations or recommendations?

MR TONER: I don’t know. All I can say is what our major concern is, and that is providing the best protection we can for our diplomats and personnel overseas. We took the ARB’s recommendations very seriously. We’re in the process of implementing all of them. As I said, we’re going to continue, obviously, given the changing nature of security around the world and constantly reassess our posture and take additional steps. Because you always have to be changing to and adapting to whatever the new threat you’re facing is.

So I mean, I don’t – I guess my point is I don’t know if those out there who are criticizing our security posture will ever be satisfied. I don’t’ think we can ever be satisfied with the status quo. But our responsibility is certainly to our personnel.

QUESTION: And lastly —

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: — do you think that the attack on – in Benghazi prevented you from taking further action in Libya? Is that – it sort of dissuaded you from becoming more involved in Libya?

MR TONER: I don’t think so. The – it’s a fair question. I mean, certainly in the aftermath of the attack we had to take security measures to protect our personnel who were still on the ground in Tripoli, as well as those obviously who were evacuated from Benghazi. And that meant, frankly, pulling out for a time.

QUESTION: Forever.

MR TONER: I know. I’m saying for a time, we’re – well, I mean, I would —

QUESTION: As of now —

MR TONER: As of now, right.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR TONER: Exactly. I’m sorry, Brad. I just – I would say that we are hopeful that we will once again be back in Libya. But I think more broadly, Said – and the President himself has spoken to the fact that in the aftermath of the civil war and Qadhafi’s death and departure from power, we, the United States, and broadly our allies and partners, didn’t do enough to provide stability, to provide assistance to those elements who could have played a more moderating role in the political landscape there. And because of that, Libya has remained in kind of a very unstable state. And we have taken steps, and certainly Secretary Kerry has been at the forefront of these efforts, to work with the new government there, to work with those moderate forces on the ground, to ensure that they’ve got the resources that they need to bring broader security and stability to the country, deal with, frankly, what we’ve acknowledged is an ISIL threat in that country trying to establish a foothold because of the instability there. So yes, we are trying to address some of those issues.

QUESTION: Can I just —

MR TONER: Please. Oh, I’m sorry —

QUESTION: Can I just go back to —

MR TONER: Why don’t you, Pam, and then I’ll get to you, Elise. Yeah.

QUESTION: — your comments on the changing of the uniforms? Can you clarify what you are refuting? Are you refuting the time factor, or refuting that the changes were made?

MR TONER: Yes. And I – and I’m reluctant to wade too deeply, but I did it, so – but there was an allegation made today – a vignette, if you will – of these forces somehow being kept in a – on a hold and not being allowed to deploy because of some issue over uniforms, whether they could wear them or not. And that’s what I wanted to refute. I’m not saying that the issue of whether, broadly speaking, our presence, our security forces in Libya should wear uniforms or not – that’s always a security posture question that we ask not just in Libya but all over the world – but the direct allegation that there was some kind of delay in responding because of this is just not right. It’s not correct.

QUESTION: Can I —

MR TONER: Yeah, please. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I go back to what you were just saying about the kind of chaos in Libya?

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: It kind of seemed as if Benghazi itself – the Benghazi attack itself was, like, kind of the first real – I mean, although there was, like, growing instability, that that was, like, the first kind of major evidence of the slide into chaos. And things just continued to get worse since then. And I mean, it does seem as if the initial decision to go into Libya, for instance, gave way to all of this instability.

MR TONER: Well, again – and we had a dictatorship – some 40-year-old dictatorship that was upended or uprooted when Qadhafi was killed, and absolutely, there was a period of chaos and instability because of that. We talked a lot about that at the time.

I do think that that instability, ongoing conflict on the ground, did create an atmosphere where something like Benghazi happened, and because we didn’t have our people or personnel on the ground out of security concerns. And that is always fundamentally at the root of our – any type of policy that we have – foreign policy is can we protect our people on the ground. So we had to withdraw.

I don’t necessarily want to draw a direct connection between that – I mean, always it’s desirable to have your diplomats on the ground, engage with the government or those trying to form a government, I guess, in Libya’s case. But I don’t want to necessarily make the connection that because of Benghazi, Libya foundered or floundered.

QUESTION: Well, I know – but okay, so I know you have this new government and there is, like, kind of hope that the pro-government forces will help root out ISIS and terrorism and —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — get their act together. But what would you say about the state of Libya today?

MR TONER: Well, I was going to say, in response to your question – previous question is I would hope and I think the Secretary believes that we’re turning a corner. We do have this national accord – Government of National Accord that is established now. It’s in Tripoli, which took some doing to get it there and established. We have Prime Minister Sarraj, who’s taking steps to stabilize the country, trying to form a presidential guard, trying to form security forces that are unified, and that’s been a huge challenge. And really, just trying to stabilize the political space there so that they can provide basic services and basic infrastructure to the Libyan people, which is an enormous challenge for them right now. And so I’m not saying we’re over the hump here, but we do believe that progress is being made.

QUESTION: But I understand that you say that progress is being made —

MR TONER: Yeah, I’m – yeah.

QUESTION: — and there’s hope and possibility or potential, but I mean, in terms of – when you look at Libya right now, what do you see?

MR TONER: Oh, I mean, it’s going to be a long process and nobody’s —

QUESTION: (Sneezes.)

MR TONER: God bless you, by the way. It’s going to be a long process and nobody’s underestimating that, I think. And we’re going to have to be – and partly, we’ve held I think two ministerial-level meetings on Libya focused on the fact that the international community needs to be there to support the new government as it attempts to establish itself and establish these basic services. I think it’s very fragile still, but I think we’re in a better place than we were six months ago.

QUESTION: Would you say it’s a failed state?

MR TONER: I don’t want to necessarily attach that moniker to it. I would say that it was a failing state for some time, but I think we’ve – again, we’ve made efforts – and this is not just the United States, although we’ve been at the forefront of these efforts – but Europe, Italy certainly played a valuable role, and others in the region to turn the corner to get a government into place that can provide some level of stability and infrastructure and support for the Libyan people.

QUESTION: Can I —

QUESTION: Mark —

QUESTION: — very quickly follow up – I’m sorry – on Pam’s question —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — on your response to Pam’s question?

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: How can you say there was no delay if the troops were asked, presumably ordered, to change uniforms four times? Four, was that what —

MR TONER: Again, I just – I don’t want to get into the timeline and I really don’t want to speak to what is essentially the Department of Defense’s equities. I’m just saying that this allegation that somehow we delayed over whether they – it didn’t – I can assure you that there was no back-and-forth over them changing their uniforms that caused a delay in these individuals being deployed to Benghazi. But as to the specific timeline and when they were deployed or why their deployment was delayed in any way, shape, or form, that’s really a Department of Defense question.

QUESTION: Well, there was some talk about the changing of the uniforms and stuff, but I think what – are you arguing that the amount of time it would have taken given the fact that they spent hours at the airport negotiating what to do in the first place – that that amount of time wouldn’t have made a difference? Is that what you’re saying?

MR TONER: No, and again, I don’t want to get into what is essentially – and I am drawing clear interagency lines here, but I don’t want to get into – I don’t want to speak on the part of – for Department of Defense on what are its equities. All I’m trying to say is – and there was this not even veiled allegation at the press conference this morning that somehow they were kept on hold because of the uniform issue. It’s just incorrect. That’s what I’m addressing.

Please, Abbie.

QUESTION: One of the suggestions in the report is that there wasn’t an evacuation plan for the Americans that remained on the compound to get to the airport, and it goes on to say that it was a former Qadhafi – former Qadhafi military officials who ended up coming in and rescuing the Americans to bring them to the airport. Do you have anything to speak to on that? Is that an accurate reflection?

MR TONER: Sure. Let me unpack that a couple different ways. So, aware of the allegations about the Qadhafi militia. So just so people understand, there was an arrangement between our folks in Benghazi – the annex in Benghazi – and the February 17th Militia to provide basically on-compound protection as well as quick reaction support, and that was carried through with on that night. They did both respond for on-the-ground or compound protection, rather, as well as quick reaction. It just wasn’t enough, and we’ve talked about this – the scope, breadth, and intensity of the attack overwhelmed what forces were on the ground. We’ve spoken to that many times in the past.

At the end of the attack – so this was hours later in the dawn, I guess – there was a different militia, and this is the one that they referred to, the one that was referenced in the report as the – being affiliated with Qadhafi – did provide escort for the remaining personnel to be escorted to the airport so they could be evacuated. So that part – that element is where they came into play. But in terms of that night, during the actual attack, it was really the February 17 Militia that did provide a quick reaction.

Your – sorry, I didn’t want to – your part about evacuation plans – of course there’s always contingency plans for any post anywhere in the world for evacuations. As many of you have known who’ve been in hot spots overseas, a lot of times, in the heat of the moment – in an incident or a crisis or a battle or whatever – those contingency plans have to be rethought and re-evaluated, and that was done, of course – and reassessed.

QUESTION: One of the things the report speaks to —

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: — is the irony of the fact that you had Qadahfi military officials, which, obviously, was the regime that had been ousted the year before, coming in to help 35 Americans get to the airport. Do you have any response to that?

MR TONER: Again, my only – my understanding – the only role that these individuals played was to escort the remaining personnel after the attack to the airport to get them on a plane. I can’t speak to whether they were Qadhafi supporters or ex-Qadhafi people or not. I just don’t know.

QUESTION: How did you organize that? Oh, sorry, go on.

MR TONER: I – that’s okay. How did we organize in that – I don’t have any more details about how we actually reached out to them and got them to provide us with that escort. I’d have to look into it, Brad. I don’t have it.

QUESTION: One more question – and I know that in response, the State Department said that Foreign Officer Hicks had spoken to this in the 2013 oversight committee hearing, but it seemed like the details within this report showing that Secretary Clinton was going to arrive within Benghazi in October of that year, one month after Stevens’ visit, was new. Is that something that was occurring, and do you have any response to the suggestion that it was a desire to create a deliverable for her visit that led to Stevens being down there at that time?

MR TONER: Right. It’s a fair question. First of all, the fact that she was planning a trip to Libya is not new information, as you note. It was raised, I think, previously by, as you noted, Greg Hicks, who was the deputy chief of mission at Tripoli at the time, in his testimony at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Look, the question of whether – and I think it speaks to Brad’s question somewhat as well – whether Benghazi was seen as some sort of deliverable or some desired outcome by senior Administration officials – I would just rebut that by saying that the State Department, the Administration, and frankly, Ambassador Stevens, Chris Stevens, felt it was in our foreign policy interests, international security interests, for us to have a presence in Benghazi. And that was what was driving our engagement there.

QUESTION: But did the secretary have a trip planned for October of that year as the —

MR TONER: I don’t know the exact date, but it was discussed before – as I said, previously disclosed – that she was planning on traveling to Libya. Yeah.

QUESTION: I have one more on the —

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: — the Benghazi report.

MR TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: At the – you said we believe the essential facts on the attack are known for – have been known for some time. Can you just say just what the essential facts are on the role the video played in the attack?

MR TONER: Oh, on the role that the video played.

QUESTION: Yes, because, I mean, this still seems like it’s – I don’t know what your position is.

MR TONER: No, you’re right. I mean, it still seems like it’s out there, if you will. And it’s being kind of still presented – well, let me address your question. How about this – (laughter) – how about – rather than me trying to characterize how it’s still being presented.

I think it’s – nothing has changed in the fact that we have acknowledged before that our initial assessment took into consideration what was happening elsewhere in the region. And elsewhere in the region we had had protests at embassies – including Cairo, including Khartoum – based on this video that had appeared on YouTube, that was seen as blaspheme against Prophet Muhammad. And so in our initial assessment – again, looking at the region – of course that was taken into consideration. But I think with respect to Benghazi, if – that was part of our initial assessment. After several days or a week or so, we quickly changed that analysis to better represent the facts as we knew them, which was that it was a coordinated attack on our facilities by an armed force of extremists.

And so I guess I go back to the fact that – and it’s not just unique to Benghazi, but in any kind of situation like this, it is hard to get all of the facts right away and to present them to the American people. And we at the time did the best we could to convey the facts as we knew them at the time to the American people.

QUESTION: So just to clarify —

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: — you no longer believe that the video played any role in motivating these extremists, armed or —

MR TONER: I don’t think we’ve ever been – to be honest, I don’t think we’ve ever been able to categorically say that the video played no role. But what I think we have been able to say is that this wasn’t a demonstration gone awry; this was a coordinated attack.

QUESTION: Right. But so you don’t – you have no evidence to back up any – you no longer have evidence to back up that initial assessment that the video was —

MR TONER: No. And again, I just – and I – but the context, and not just unique to Benghazi or Libya, as I said, in Khartoum, in Tunis, in Sana’a, and certainly in Cairo, as many know, there were serious demonstrations outside our embassies. So within that context – and the video did play a role in those demonstrations. But with respect to Benghazi, I don’t think we believe that – although we can’t rule out that it played some motivation – motivating role, we’ve acknowledged that this was not a demonstration, as I said, gone awry, or a demonstration gone – run amok. This was a serious, coordinated attack.

QUESTION: So you – sorry. So you —

MR TONER: Sorry – okay. I’m sorry if I’m not —

QUESTION: So you don’t believe the – so you don’t believe the video was the motivating factor for this attack? I’m not getting into it to attack this Administration.

MR TONER: Right. Right. I can’t say that it’s – right, exactly.

QUESTION: I’m talking about the video.

MR TONER: Yes. Yes. Yes.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR TONER: Yes. Sorry.

QUESTION: You don’t believe that?

MR TONER: Yes. We’ve said that before. I can’t say that it was not any – that it played no role, but I just – it was – I’m sorry to be —

QUESTION: Yeah. Yeah.

MR TONER: — I just don’t want to say categorically that it played no role.

QUESTION: Right, okay.

MR TONER: I don’t know that for a fact. I don’t think we know that for a fact. What I can say is that this was not some demonstration motivated by this video that suddenly spun up into an attack on our facility. This was a coordinated attack.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: Going to Syria?

QUESTION: Can we change to another subject?

QUESTION: Syria?

MR TONER: Yeah, I think we can.

QUESTION: Can I go next?

MR TONER: Let me (inaudible). Sorry (inaudible).

QUESTION: The Europeans have been meeting – have met today on Britain leaving the European Union.

MR TONER: Yes.

QUESTION: Have there – just further – have there been any further calls that Kerry has been making since he returned on this issue?

MR TONER: Good question.

QUESTION: And when does he see the next opportunity to discuss this?

MR TONER: Very quickly, I thought – I apologize. Yes, he did speak to High Representative Mogherini earlier today. That’s what I thought.

QUESTION: On what? To reinforce his message of —

MR TONER: Look, I mean, again, I don’t actually have a readout in front of me. I think clearly they talked about – as they always do – talked about the number of core foreign policy issues that we’re trying to address with the EU, but I’m certainly sure they spoke about Brexit as well.

QUESTION: When is the next opportunity he’s going to have to talk about this with anyone?

MR TONER: Well, with anyone? I mean, he is headed – obviously he’s in Aspen today, but he is headed to Ottawa or Quebec City, I’m not sure – where is it? – Ottawa. Thank you.

QUESTION: Yeah, Ottawa.

MR TONER: And for meetings with the Canadians as well as the Mexicans. And that will be another opportunity, I think, to touch base with his counterparts there. And then obviously, looking next week, he’ll be traveling to the NATO Summit in Warsaw. And again, that’s going to be a touchstone for further discussions and a chance really for us to continue to talk about how this transition will take place with both the EU and with the UK, but with the understanding, I think, that this is a process between the two of them, the two entities. And it’s – the details and the process and how it looks, logistics, timeline, all of that are for them to work out. I want to be very clear that our role here is simply to be what we have been, which is a strong partner and ally to the EU and a strong partner and ally with the UK and to, as much as possible, to help this process move forward in way that’s beneficial to everyone.

QUESTION: Paul Ryan said today that the U.S. should start negotiating the trade deal with the UK now. Does – is that your opinion, the same as what the Administration is thinking?

MR TONER: Look, I know there’s been lots of talk about – first off, what I think is most important to speak to is stability and stability in the process going forward and stability that extends to the financial markets. In terms of trade and investment arrangements in the EU and across the transatlantic community, those aren’t going to change overnight. But we believe that the UK and the EU can deliberatively and in a productive way negotiate forward to ensure that trade and investment can be – can ensure their mutual prosperity. So that’s – I think what’s important is that there be a deliberate process here that sends a strong signal of stability to the region and to the world, frankly.

QUESTION: Go to Syria?

MR TONER: Yeah. You okay? Yeah. Okay.

QUESTION: Is there – first of all, is there anything that you can – are we done with —

MR TONER: I think so. I was looking at her, but she’s writing.

QUESTION: Oh.

MR TONER: That’s okay. No worries. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Okay. I’m sorry.

MR TONER: Sorry. No, no worries. Please.

QUESTION: I thought you were done. Sorry.

MR TONER: Yeah. No, no. It’s okay. Go ahead. Go ahead, Said. Your turn.

QUESTION: Okay. First of all, can you share with us any kind of progress that you – in which you are involved in Syria, whether be it the talks forward or the humanitarian aid that is going to besieged areas and so on? Is there anything that you can share with us or even conversations with your Russian counterparts and so on, on maybe mitigating these horrible conditions?

MR TONER: I mean, look —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: I mean, it’s been – well, first of all, speaking more broadly about all of the aspects of Syria and, frankly, Iraq, I’d refer you to Special Envoy Brett McGurk’s testimony on the Hill today at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he spoke more broadly about our counter-ISIL or counter-Daesh efforts. And there has been real success there. And he obviously can speak to it much more fluently and much more expertly than I can, but the fact is is that there’s been significant – with most recently the liberation of Fallujah, there’s been significant progress and pressure put on Daesh on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. And that pressure continues.

With regard to Syria, with regard to the cessation of hostilities, with regard to the political negotiation track in Geneva, and with regard to the other piece of this, which is humanitarian assistance, we’ve seen, frankly, spotty progress. That doesn’t mean it’s far from the forefront of our efforts by any means. We continue to talk to the Russians; we continue to engage with other members of the ISSG. I know it was a topic of conversation for Secretary Kerry in his meetings yesterday and the day before and in Italy and in the UK and in Brussels, and those are going to continue. And we’re going to continue to try to put pressure on both sides – both the opposition, but certainly increase pressure on the regime – to get a credible and pervasive or nationwide cessation of hostilities in place. But it remains a challenge, I’ll be honest.

QUESTION: Now, let me just follow up —

MR TONER: Go ahead. Yeah.

QUESTION: — quickly. Yesterday the Pentagon announced a new program, which is a training —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — and equipping and so on the Syrian opposition, apparently modeling it after the awakenings or whatever the —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — mobilizing the tribes and so on. Is that a good idea, considering that your last program – the Administration’s last program, where they spent 400 billion – $400 million worth only to have like five or four or five at the end of the training program —

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: — stick around? So what is —

MR TONER: So I think —

QUESTION: What is your reading and —

MR TONER: A couple of quick points to make on this. And I preface my response by saying I would encourage you to follow up with my colleagues over at the DOD, who can speak to this and with – again, with much greater skill than I can or depth than I can. But what I can say is the revised Syria train-and-equip program tried to learn the lessons of the original program. And we all acknowledged that the original program was not doing the job. It was trying to train up groups of forces that could be deployed to the field, wasn’t doing it fast enough, didn’t have enough really bang for the buck, if I could put it that way. So they took a good, hard look at how to revise that program, make adjustments.

So the program now, I would say, looks at trying to improve the capabilities of vetted local forces. And one of the ways it’s doing that is the numbers of folks that are being trained, for lack of a better word, are force multipliers. Rather, these people coming out can now return to, again, these local vetted forces and share their skillset – if that makes sense what I’m saying – versus what the previous idea was, which was to deploy whole groups of people out to the field. So this is a different animal.

And again, just to put it in a broader context, this is just part of our overall efforts. We’re providing support for these Syrian Arab groups, Syrian Kurd groups on the field, who are fighting Daesh on the ground and creating gains. But this is, I guess, a part of a many-pronged effort that’s putting pressure on Daesh.

QUESTION: And lastly —

MR TONER: Yeah. Please.

QUESTION: On this point, the Pentagon also said that they train under a hundred to take the lead and hope that they will lead like tens of thousands or 10,000 fighters and so on. Is that a conceivable idea? Is that something that, in your opinion, a strategy that can be achieved?

MR TONER: I think it can. And you’re right. I mean, it says whether – yeah. I think there’s only like fewer than a hundred enablers – is what they call them – train, but that they can – they’ve helped train and field more than 10,000 Arab fighters, is the current number they’re using. I mean, look, it’s not a new system, but it’s a very smart way to take full advantage of training small groups of individuals who can then play, as I said, a leadership role within these forces fighting on the ground.

I got to go really quick guys, so Nike.

QUESTION: Right. You mentioned McGurk. He also said there’s a campaign on the way for – to liberate Mosul now that Fallujah is liberated. What lessons or models could be learned to use and apply for the liberation of Mosul?

MR TONER: What’s that? What lessons learned? In terms of?

QUESTION: The liberation of Mosul.

MR TONER: Well, a couple thoughts. In Fallujah, I think Prime Minister Abadi was able to manage the offensive very carefully and deliberately. He opened these safe corridors or safe passageways for civilians. He made – expended considerable effort and sent a very clear message to his forces on the ground to protect civilians and sent a very clear message that any human rights abuses would be prosecuted and people would be held accountable.

But I think another lesson learned is with an operation like Fallujah, you also can’t underestimate the amount of IDPs or internally displaced people that are going to be generated by this kind of operation, and the need to be able to absorb and react to them. And we’ve talked about the fact that we’re obviously providing additional funds to help those organizations on the ground and we’re also holding a donors conference, if you will, at the end of July to address that.

But we see in every case that the Iraqi forces are getting more capable, getting more confident, being able to interact and cooperate or coordinate better on the ground. So, I mean, there’s always lessons to be learned. Those are some.

QUESTION: He also mentioned that the challenge is not only a military one but also political. What is the most challenging political aspect in terms —

MR TONER: Political?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR TONER: Well, I think it’s – I mean, I think it’s trying to deal with some of the – if I could put it that way – this way, the sectarian tensions that exist in Iraq and trying to mitigate those and trying to create a conclusive – inclusive, sorry – an inclusive government and political system that allows all of these groups to coexist.

QUESTION: Can I ask a Cuba question?

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: I’ve got to go really quickly, guys. I apologize.

QUESTION: Okay, a Cuba question really quick.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Starwoods Hotel is now running —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — a hotel that’s owned by the Cuban military.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Can you have a comment on that? And is this what President Obama meant when he said helping – allowing investment to help ordinary Cubans, letting a hotel chain take over a military-owned hotel?

MR TONER: So I don’t have the details, Brad, on this deal, and I can’t speak to it in detail in – because we weren’t involved in the negotiations, and frankly, we’re not authorized to speak on the specifics of licenses that are issued by OFAC, which is the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Broadly speaking, there are some pros or some benefits to this kind of investment. Providing adequate lodging and safety and security for authorized travelers will increase people-to-people contact, and that’ll benefit the normalization process, and also, it’s going to help develop that sector-specific knowhow among Cuban employees in the lodging and travel business. And —

QUESTION: But the money goes to the military, right?

MR TONER: Well, again, I’m not sure about the details of it and I’d have to look into it, but I’d also encourage you to reach out to OFAC for more details and to Starwood themselves. This is just one deal, though, but what we want to keep seeing is a steady increase in these kinds of investments in these – certainly in the tourist infrastructure for Cuba.

QUESTION: Mark —

QUESTION: The —

MR TONER: You, and then you, sir, and then I’m done.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you, thank you. At the beginning of the year, a center was set up here at the State Department called Center for Global Engagement that would counter terrorist propaganda. Well, first of all, how is the center doing, and also, has it expanded over the past year? And most importantly, will the center’s mission expand beyond combating terrorism, or it’s just that?

MR TONER: So that’s a huge question to hit me at the – I’m trying to get off the podium. It is – it has been established, it is working hard, it is kind of reinventing how we engage in this – if I could put it this way – battlefield, because it is, in a sense. Countering violent extremism is important and we have to be present in that space. And it has been reinvented in a sense and they’re working hard at that. I can try to get you more information tomorrow or after this briefing on what the future holds for that group. But they’re looking at new ways of kind of engaging in that space and – new innovative ways. And so I’d like to be able to do it justice and talk about it more comprehensively.

And you, sir.

QUESTION: Last, okay. Iran has started bombarding the KRG borders —

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — not only KRG borders, both side of borders. And what does the U.S.A. have to say about this issue?

MR TONER: I think, frankly, that Elizabeth spoke to this yesterday. We’re aware of these reports, but I don’t have much more specifics to share with you at this time. But when we do, I’ll let you know.

Okay. Thank you, guys. I appreciate it. Sorry, I have to run.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:29 p.m.)

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