Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing – February 3, 2016

2:40 p.m. EST

MR KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. Just a short comment at the top and I’ll get right after it.

Today, we continue to see more Russian airstrikes in and around Aleppo – strikes not aimed at Daesh, but rather almost exclusively on the opposition; strikes which, again, have led to reports of civilian casualties, increased displacement of Syrian citizens, and the possible obstruction of humanitarian assistance routes. And so again we call on Russia to focus their military energy in Syria on Daesh, a common enemy to the entire international community, and not on the opposition or on innocent civilians.

It’s worth restating that UN Security Council Resolution 2254, for which the Russians voted, calls on the regime and all parties to cease bombings and other attacks on civilians, not eventually but immediately, not soon but now. It’s difficult in the extreme to see how strikes against civilian targets contribute in any way to the peace process now being explored.

Indeed, as you may have seen, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura today paused the talks in Geneva in part because of the difficulty of seeking political solutions while humanitarian aid is continually disrupted and innocent lives are taken. These attacks run counter not only to the desires of the Syrian people who want to see this political process succeed, but also to the stated intentions of the Russians themselves, who have publicly committed to the Vienna process and to seeking a unified, whole, and nonsectarian Syria that has at its head a government responsible for and responsive to the needs of the Syrian people.

The Syrian people want an end to the violence and destruction that has plagued their country for five years. So do we. So does the international community. It’s time for everyone in that community to honor their commitments and help move the political process forward. As we’ve long said, there can be no military solution to the conflict in Syria, and efforts to seek one are only making peace more elusive. They are only drawing us further backward.

With that, Matt.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, let’s start with that. So basically the breakdown or suspension in the Geneva talks is Russia’s fault; is that what you’re saying?

MR KIRBY: I didn’t say that. I said it was in part.

QUESTION: Well —

MR KIRBY: Go back to what I said, Matt.

QUESTION: Yes.

MR KIRBY: I said in part because of the disruptions to humanitarian aid and the continual attacks on civilian targets. But I would let Mr. de Mistura speak for himself, and he made comments about this, that he did not call the suspension a failure, it was simply a pause, that while there were – talks had started, there was more work to be done by the stakeholders going forward, and he was going to pause the talks to allow that work to be done. One way in which that work will be done is, of course, the meeting next week with the ISSG in Munich on the 11th. The Secretary will be there. And we’ll see where we are after that.

QUESTION: Right. Well, okay, let’s – in part, what else is it due to?

MR KIRBY: Well, I wasn’t privy to the discussions over there. I’d point you to what Mr. de Mistura said. He said he wasn’t going to have talks just for talks’ sake. He did cite the difficulties that the military activities by Russia and the regime are having in terms of demonstrating a good faith effort by the regime to have negotiations and talks, but I’m not privy to every issue that they’ve raised – the opposition has raised with Mr. de Mistura.

QUESTION: The Vienna agreement that was reached in November or December, whatever – whenever it was, the Vienna agreement —

MR KIRBY: In November. November.

QUESTION: — called for a ceasefire but didn’t say exactly when it was supposed to start. It was supposed to begin roughly around the same time as the talks. Are you saying that now a ceasefire, an end to the bombing is a requirement?

MR KIRBY: No.

QUESTION: A condition?

MR KIRBY: A condition to what?

QUESTION: To having the talks. I mean, I thought that —

MR KIRBY: No.

QUESTION: — it was the point – everyone’s point going into this was there have to be talks without preconditions, right?

MR KIRBY: Right.

QUESTION: Now that these talks which – let’s be honest; they never really started, so this is not a pause so much as just a not ever beginning. Is it now the opinion of you guys as well as others who are brokering this arrangement and supporting the UN that a ceasefire and this humanitarian access have to happen as – for the talks to begin?

MR KIRBY: No, Matt. They have to happen because they have to happen. They’re important. And in the Vienna process, the ISSG, every member signed up to that – that a ceasefire needs to begin. It’s stated in the UN resolution, which codifies the Vienna communique’s —

QUESTION: Right.

MR KIRBY: Just doesn’t change it.

QUESTION: But it doesn’t say that they have to be – that the ceasefire has to be – has to start immediately at the same – exactly the same time as the talks, right?

MR KIRBY: No, that’s right, it doesn’t, and we’re not saying that it should either. We —

QUESTION: Well, I thought it was —

MR KIRBY: I stood up here – I stood up here last week and said, when we were having a discussion about whether the opposition was going to show up in Geneva or not, and I reiterated that the Secretary, in all his conversations – publicly, privately – has said that the talks should begin without precondition. It’s still our – it’s still our policy that there should be no preconditions to the beginning of discussions and that includes now.

QUESTION: And that includes the ceasefire?

MR KIRBY: And so nobody’s saying that a ceasefire has to happen now in order for the suspension to get lifted and talks to resume. That’s going to be – that’s Mr. de Mistura’s decision to make.

QUESTION: All right.

MR KIRBY: A ceasefire is important because it’s important on its own right, not because it needs to be tied to the commencement of talks.

QUESTION: Well, all right. Then I’m confused. The opposition has been saying all along that it doesn’t think that – that they won’t join the talks until there is a ceasefire, until humanitarian aid is – gets there, and until prisoners are released.

MR KIRBY: They did join. They were there in Geneva. They were represented.

QUESTION: They joined what?

MR KIRBY: They were —

QUESTION: They got on a plane and flew to a city in Switzerland, but then that’s it.

MR KIRBY: They were represented in – they were represented in Geneva and there was no ceasefire in place when they got on that plane and landed there in Geneva. They were there. Now, again, we could dither back and forth about the degree to which talks happened or didn’t happen. Mr. de Mistura talked about the talks being suspended, which would lead one to believe that he believed they actually got off to at least a start. So let’s see where it goes. But there – the main point is that we agree with his decision to go ahead and suspend and pause, and we agree with him that more work needs to be done by the stakeholders to try to move the political process forward, which is why the Secretary’s looking forward to Munich next week.

QUESTION: Like what?

MR KIRBY: Like what?

QUESTION: What more can the stakeholders do to prepare?

MR KIRBY: Well, I think I mentioned that in my top. Only one really important thing that stakeholders could do would be to stop the bombing of innocent civilian targets —

QUESTION: All right. Well, the —

MR KIRBY: — stop going after the opposition —

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR KIRBY: — and allow for humanitarian aid and assistance to go in. But that’s not – I’m not saying that that’s a precondition. I’m answering your question. What more can be done? Those things can be done. They should be done —

QUESTION: That’s —

MR KIRBY: — because the international community signed up to them, they’re in the Security Council resolution, it’s all laid out there. I mean, those are things that everybody should be doing, should be focusing on Daesh and the terrorists inside Syria, not on the opposition and not on innocent civilians. But – so there’s going to be more work to be done.

QUESTION: All right. Well, I just don’t see how you can say that it’s not now a precondition. I mean —

MR KIRBY: It’s not now a precondition.

QUESTION: For you to flip-flop back and forth on this —

MR KIRBY: No, sir, I did not flip-flop.

QUESTION: Not – well, not you personally, but the Administration seems to have and the international community seems to have. First, it’s not – first, there can’t be any preconditions and now they’re being paused because those non-preconditions that you’re talking about haven’t been met.

MR KIRBY: I said in part because of the obstruction of humanitarian aid and in part because of the continued violence that’s being wrought by the regime —

QUESTION: Okay.

MR KIRBY: — supported by the Russian military activity. I did not say it was in total. Again, Mr. de Mistura should speak to all the complexities and factors that led to his decision. We support it. We agree with him that more work needs to be done, and again, the Secretary’s looking forward to going to Munich next week —

QUESTION: This —

MR KIRBY: — and to pursuing that.

QUESTION: All right, this is very confusing for me to figure out and I can only imagine that it’s confusing for the opposition and the people that you say that – the people that you’re supporting on the ground there because —

MR KIRBY: We also – we also have been very honest about the fact that this was never going to be easy. And nobody here at the State Department went into the talks in Geneva feeling that it was going to be the end-all/be-all of all the issues, that it was going to solve all the problems, that it was going to – that they were going to come out of Geneva with the tablets that say, “Here’s the plan and here’s what we’re going to do.”

QUESTION: All right. Well —

MR KIRBY: But – so we knew it was going to be hard; it’s proven to be hard. What’s important is that it did get to – it did get off to a start, however brief that start may have been, and just as importantly, what’s really critical is that the process continue to move forward. It would be immensely easier and, frankly, better for the Syrian people if that could be accompanied by a ceasefire, an end to these bombings, an end to strikes against the opposition, and the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Is – does it have to happen before we meet in Munich next week? No. But it sure would be better for the Syrian people and the process if it could.

QUESTION: Well, then why not make it a precondition? I don’t get it. I mean, why not put your foot down and say, “Look, Russia, look, Assad, stop your bombing”?

MR KIRBY: We have said that. We have said that. I just spent two minutes at the outset saying that.

QUESTION: Yeah, but you’re also saying at the same time that – you’re also sending a signal to the opposition that they don’t have to do that for there to be talks to – for the —

MR KIRBY: We – because we have —

QUESTION: — for the talks to start again, if they ever started.

MR KIRBY: — we have believed – not just us, but other members of the ISSG and the UN believe that it was important to get the political discussions going and to not try to hamstring them with preconditions, so that there could be a dialogue. Because we believe that should there be productive dialogue, it could lead to those outcomes as well. Why cut off that avenue to potentially getting to those outcomes?

QUESTION: Yeah, but they’re – hamstrung – they’re – they’ve been worse than hamstrung by the —

MR KIRBY: I think you could make the counterargument, Matt, that if they – if we had laid that precondition on there with the firing – with the bombing still going on, nobody would’ve gone to Geneva and nobody would’ve even attempted to have the talks.

QUESTION: Okay. But I just don’t see the value of the last two years —

MR KIRBY: I can understand that you don’t agree with —

QUESTION: I can’t. I just don’t see what it is, and I don’t see why it is that you insist on clinging to the charade that there were actually ever talks in the first place to be suspended.

MR KIRBY: Because it’s not a charade, because they were there, and because it was the beginning.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: So sort of beginning with – taking off on that point, were there real talks, or were there preparations for talks – let’s say Monday, Tuesday, and today?

MR KIRBY: I don’t – I wasn’t in Geneva. I can only point to what Special Envoy de Mistura has said. He has said that he’s suspending them —

QUESTION: Right.

MR KIRBY: — and that there was a beginning. Now, how deep did it go, how much dialogue there was, I don’t know. But they were there, and they got a start. And we all knew – and if you go back and listen to what the Secretary said last week, that it was going to – that it was going to be tough and it was going to be difficult, and that it needed to start in the nature of sort of proximity talks, where they weren’t exactly at the same table, where there was just some initial dialogue.

QUESTION: On the issue of access of humanitarian aid and so on, the regime source says – whether you believe them or not, they say that they allowed some humanitarian aid to go into certain besieged areas and so on. But on the other hand, the bombing continued to target militant groups that they deem as terrorists in the area of Aleppo. And that’s what they are complaining about. They’re saying that the opposition, they want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to continue with their flow of supplies, military supplies to continue their – whatever offensive they have, and basically the regime and the Russians will not stop. Do you have any comment on that?

MR KIRBY: I think I would refer you to my opening statement.

QUESTION: So you’re saying that —

MR KIRBY: I said exactly that.

QUESTION: Okay. So you’re saying that the Russians and the regime forces are targeting humanitarian supplies?

MR KIRBY: No. What I said was they are hitting almost exclusively opposition targets —

QUESTION: Right.

MR KIRBY: — and we have continued to see reports of civilian casualties caused as a result of these strikes, which are not in the main – anywhere near the main – going after Daesh.

QUESTION: Are these groups —

MR KIRBY: I did not say they were deliberately targeting humanitarian aid and assistance, but —

QUESTION: Right.

MR KIRBY: — but some of the strikes have caused the potential – as I said in my opening statement – the potential obstruction of humanitarian routes. So while it may not have been hitting a convoy of trucks with medical supplies and food, if you’re hitting the routes by which that aid can reach the civilian population, you are in effect preventing that aid from reaching there.

QUESTION: I understand. But you’re also saying that this offensive is targeting opposition groups. Are the opposition groups that you deem moderate – are the ones that are designated as moderate opposition – are they the ones that are being targeted?

MR KIRBY: We’ve had this discussion – we’ve had this discussion before, Said.

QUESTION: Yeah, I know. But today. I mean —

MR KIRBY: These are opposition groups that, yes, we believe are legitimate opposition groups.

QUESTION: Who are they? Is – are, let’s say, Ahrar al-Sham members of this opposition? Or is (inaudible)?

MR KIRBY: Said, I don’t have a list of every single group that’s operating in and around Aleppo. I would point you to DOD; we can get that information for you. I don’t have it. But by and large, the strikes are not being conducted against Daesh.

QUESTION: My last question: Should there be a determination on who is a terrorist and who is not among you all – among the Russians, you, the regional powers and so on – to say that these groups are terrorist groups and they are fair game, and these groups are not, they’re moderate opposition? Shouldn’t that determination be made?

MR KIRBY: We have continually tried to work towards that end. We recognize that there’s not unanimity of opinion about who can be worked with in this process and who cannot. We’re still working at that. But it is clear that nobody – nobody – disputes the fact that ISIL, Daesh, is a terrorist organization and is and should be a legitimate target of military activity in Syria. The Russians themselves have acknowledged that. The Russians themselves have said that they were interested in pursuing Daesh as a target. And yet, again, as we’ve said repeatedly from this podium, we continue to see the vast majority of their airstrikes not go against Daesh.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.

QUESTION: No, this —

MR KIRBY: I had a feeling you’d want to ask a few questions today.

QUESTION: Just to clarify, did the – did these moderate opposition groups reach out to the U.S. and say that they were under attack by Russia?

MR KIRBY: I don’t know that they reached out and said that they were under attack. We have lots of streams of information that would confirm that fact for us. Clearly, they spoke – I think you probably have seen, they’ve been speaking quite publicly in Geneva about the military activities that the regime is undertaking supported by the Russian military. So they have spoken quite publicly about their concerns. And as you well know, we have lots of streams of information, other information, that comes from operational sources that would confirm what I just said.

QUESTION: And just maybe you could specify, which groups were under attack in the case —

MR KIRBY: As I said to Said, I don’t have the list of every group, but it has been widely known that they have – that the Russians have not targeted Daesh to a great extent —

QUESTION: But in this case that you described —

MR KIRBY: — and that there are many opposition groups represented in Syria, several in and around Aleppo, and again, we don’t see the strikes going against Daesh, but rather much more against opposition groups.

Yeah.

QUESTION: John, on the reason why the talks have been suspended: What do you make of the accusations by the Syrian regime, who said that Saudi Arabia and Turkey put a lot of pressure on the opposition to leave the Geneva and the preparatory – proximity – sorry – talks?

MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any such pressure that was applied by third parties. As a matter of fact, I mean, we’ve long said that we know Saudi Arabia and other Arab states have influence over some of those opposition groups, and we wanted to continue them to use – to see them continue to use that influence to get them to participate, to help them participate in this political process. And that there were 116 participants that showed up in Riyadh under Saudi’s leadership and convening authority of that initial meeting, and that they did go to Geneva, was a positive, encouraging sign that we think indicates that those Arab states did use their influence in a productive way. I’m not seeing anything to confirm reports that there was pressure on them to then leave. I haven’t seen that.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on this issue? I mean, what is plan B? If the talks – if these talks fail, then what next, from your point of view? What does —

MR KIRBY: It’s important to not let them fail, Said. It’s important —

QUESTION: I understand, but —

MR KIRBY: — to have the political process go forward.

QUESTION: Yeah. But you said that they are difficult, and we understand —

MR KIRBY: Sure, sure.

QUESTION: — that they are very difficult to get going and so on. But in the event that the positions are so far apart that they could never take off the ground, and they remain in this state of —

MR KIRBY: Right.

QUESTION: — limbo meeting, or not meeting and so on, what is your next step? What – I mean, whether diplomatically or otherwise, what is the United States prepared to do to get the process moving?

MR KIRBY: The next step is to meet in Munich next week with the International Syria Support Group. The Secretary is looking forward to that discussion, to having Mr. de Mistura provide his sense and his perspective of what happened this week in Geneva, and to try to find ways forward. Nobody is under any illusion that this is going to be difficult, it’s going to be messy, and it’s going to be complicated, as it already has been. But that doesn’t mean the effort itself isn’t worth the energy that’s being expended towards it. It is. Because we continue to believe, as does the members of the International Syria Support Group, that there isn’t and can’t be a military solution to the conflict in Syria. And we want to see everybody who signed up to that idea live up to that idea.

So you’re asking me about plan B. What I can tell you is everybody is focused, as they should be, on plan A, which is to get the political process moving forward. Now, yes, it’s continuing to prove difficult and challenging, as we expected it would. Again, all the more reason why we need to stay focused at it, and all the more reason why the Secretary is continuing to have conversations with his counterparts inside the ISSG and will very much look forward to having discussions in Geneva next week.

Yeah, Goyal.

QUESTION: Another subject?

MR KIRBY: Sure.

QUESTION: No – well, Syria – just staying with Syria.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you.

About two weeks ago, our correspondent in Syria reported that the Rmeilan airfield in Syria’s Hasakah province was under construction, was being expanded, and today we saw a report on CNN showing the construction and showing how the runway was being extended to accommodate larger planes. It’s going to be for U.S. planes, isn’t it?

MR KIRBY: I would point you to the Department of Defense to speak to coalition military activities and preparations. I don’t have anything for you on that.

QUESTION: So we did actually reach out, and the Defense Department spokesman said that the U.S. has not taken control of any airfield in Syria. But then back in January, on January 20th, the Syrian Democratic Forces – the opposition group – said that the U.S. had taken control of the Rmeilan airstrip. So it’s a bit confusing. Why the confusing statements, you think?

MR KIRBY: I think I’d point you to DOD for that question. They are much better prepared to speak to that. I’ve said repeatedly from this podium that I’m not going to speak to tactical military issues or developments.

Goyal.

QUESTION: For my couple questions on South Asia, let me first ask about Mr. Trump’s remarks. Today President also spoke about religious freedom in America. He said that attacking one religion is attacking all the religions, which is not acceptable under U.S. law in the U.S. or – how much Mr. Trump’s comments impacted as far as diplomacy is concerned? Any reaction from any country, especially Muslim country? Because when you talk to the Muslims, they are reacting, of course, that this is not America that ever they expected or can happen and will never happen.

MR KIRBY: Well, as you know, Goyal, I’m not going to engage in debates or discussions about campaign rhetoric from this podium. We’re not involved in the political campaign in the United States and I’m not going to get involved in it now. What I have said, what Secretary Kerry has said, is that one of the great strengths of the United States of America is our espousal, deep and abiding that it is, to freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and that one of the great things – one of the things that makes us the great country we are is that we are welcoming and open to all views and a diversity not just of the origins of people but the things that they believe in. And I can – you mentioned the President’s speech today. I think that’s a fine iteration of exactly those ideals, and we think it’s important to continue to live up to those ideals. And, as I also said, that regardless of who’s saying it – again, I’m not going to get into debating rhetoric one way or the other, but public officials always should be mindful of the impact and the interpretations that their comments might leave with people. But who we are as Americans is open – open to other ideas, open to the expression of faith – and again, I think the President iterated that quite well today.

QUESTION: A question on Bangladesh.

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that? State Department is also involved in this building U.S. image overseas. Do you think that kind of rhetoric that is coming out from various individuals, organizations is damaging or hurting U.S. image overseas?

MR KIRBY: I would – you’d have to talk to audiences overseas about their impression of the comments that are being made on the campaign trail. Again, I’m not going to get into —

QUESTION: I’m not asking about the campaign trail and its – otherwise also it’s not from campaign. Other sources, other organizations, institutions have been calling —

MR KIRBY: I suspect that people around the world form their opinions about the United States through a variety of means and through a variety of ways, and I couldn’t begin to tell you what’s dominant in their thinking when they think about the United States. What we try to do here at the State Department is professionally and deliberately represent the foreign policies of this country and American values around the world. And we have literally thousands of people stationed all over the place that are doing just that, and they’re not just doing it through rhetoric. They’re doing it through real actions, out there helping teach young kids how to read and write, or helping build hospitals, helping connect local economies to regional economies and global economies. There’s a lot of great what we call public diplomacy going on out there that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves, and all that represents the United States very, very well, and all that, we hope, is what is helping shape opinions of people globally about America’s commitment to them and to security and stability around the world.

As to what commentary and analysis and opinion here that’s expressed in the United States, what effect that has on them I couldn’t begin to guess. But what we do here is try to make sure that not only what we say but what we do reinforces all the things that American foreign policy represents.

QUESTION: But do you think, like, attack on a Sikh or gurdwara or Sikh Americans is giving a wrong impression overseas globally that —

MR KIRBY: An attack on who?

QUESTION: Sikh.

QUESTION: On a Sikh. Sikh gurdwara.

MR KIRBY: Sikhs.

QUESTION: Yeah, on the Sikhs minority – Indian Sikhs – sometimes who are being considered similar to the Muslims. President mentioned in his speech today.

MR KIRBY: Attacks here in the United States?

QUESTION: Yes, yes – is sending a message or sending a wrong image about U.S. overseas?

MR KIRBY: Certainly. I mean, attacks on anybody in the United States – whether they’re verbal attacks or physical attacks – by virtue or due to a faith that they proclaim is abhorrent and not in keeping at all with American values or who we are as a country. And it would – obviously, we wouldn’t want people to take away from that a wrong impression about who we are as America, because it doesn’t represent American values any more than the abhorrent activity of groups like Daesh represents the peaceful faith of Islam.

QUESTION: Could I just follow up on this issue? There was a report today, I think in the Christian Science Monitor, about how the office to counter extremism in the State Department has tripled its staff and, like, tripled its budget and so on, basically to do exactly what you’re doing, to get that message across and to counter the terrible ideology of ISIS, Daesh. So can you elaborate on this? I mean, what is the – what does the office do? How expanded it has become and so on?

MR KIRBY: The Global Engagement Center, as it is now known, is going through some structural organizational changes to increase our ability as a government to deal with the messaging component specifically of groups like Daesh and other violent extremists. We’ve been very candid about the fact that we know that this is one of the lines of effort that we haven’t made as much progress on as we know we need to. The military line of effort has been very effective against Daesh in Iraq and in Syria. We know we’re hitting their financing and getting at their resources, that they’re having trouble paying their own fighters, but they still have an ability to recruit. They still have an ability to propagate this hateful message of theirs, and there’s still a very real problem with foreign fighters, which are themselves either attracted to the fight or inspired by the fight, and that they have this – they still have an ability to, again, to propagate this hateful ideology.

And so the Global Engagement Center, as it’s now called, has new leadership. They will be going through some organizational changes to become more robust in this effort. I don’t have a lot more detail for you now. These changes are just getting going and I suspect we’ll have more to say about it in the near future. But absolutely, it’s – it underscores and I think it’s representative of the fact that we know two things. One, we need to do a better job in that line of effort; and two, that it’s a significant line of effort for a group like Daesh. This is – that they have been able to see success on the messaging front and we’ve got to work harder to shut that down.

QUESTION: Going back to Bangladesh and Nepal —

MR KIRBY: We didn’t start with Bangladesh. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: As far as —

MR KIRBY: How can we be going back to Bangladesh?

QUESTION: Kind of like the Syria talks. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: As far as Bangladesh is concerned —

MR KIRBY: I’ll bet you, you’re going to get me on this one, Goyal. Because I don’t think I prepped for Bangladesh today.

QUESTION: Journalists and writers are in trouble in – or press in Bangladesh for writing their comments and articles and stories about – under the blasphemy law. And several of them have been already executed, and many are now on the road to be executed. U.S., India – U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – they have written a letter to Secretary Kerry on humanitarian basis to save them, those who are in the line of to be executed because of their writings – this is under the blasphemy law. And there is no freedom of religion and freedom of the press. Any comments on this?

MR KIRBY: Well, I am not aware of this correspondence. You’re going to have to let me take that and go back and look. I’m not familiar with these particular cases or that correspondence. But look, more broadly, we’ve talked many times from the podium about freedom of the press and freedom of expression. I would point you back to the Secretary’s speech last week at The Washington Post, where he spent a lot of time, obviously, welcoming back Jason Rezaian, but talking about the importance of the press and freedom of expression around the world. So we’ve made our positions on that very, very well known. Obviously, we don’t want to see any journalist imprisoned, harassed, or otherwise prevented from doing their job, which is to cover the decisions of leaders around the world and to explain the complexity of current events to audiences all around the world. We want to see that work continue. We’re dedicated to that here. But as for the specifics, you’re going to have to let me take that and see if I can get back to you.

QUESTION: And finally, just one: Nepal.

MR KIRBY: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Under the new government, Nepal is still not politically stable, and – but the new government and the new prime minister are trying to rebuild Nepal after the nine-months-old earthquake. And they are trying to rebuild one – at least one – over one million homes. What do you think, U.S. is now playing role? Because several of them, they were here at the – in D.C., the Nepali delegations.

MR KIRBY: In terms of earthquake rebuilding? Again, you’re – let me take that, let me take that. I don’t want to just guess here. Obviously, we expressed our support to the people of Nepal in the wake of the earthquake – I remember talking about that specifically – and we made offers of assistance. I don’t know – I’m just going to have to get back to you on the degree to which those offers were accepted and what was fulfilled. I just don’t know.

QUESTION: And finally, if they’re asking also any U.S. help as far as politically in connection with the still – the constitution? They are still – they are working on that.

MR KIRBY: Okay. Let me – again, let me get back to you, Goyal. I’m sorry, I wasn’t prepared for that.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

MR KIRBY: Abbie.

QUESTION: A Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee is claiming that there are 29 top secret emails instead of 22 that are being withheld. Is there any veracity to that statement, or are additional emails – will additional emails be withheld from Hillary Clinton’s —

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any additional emails to talk about from – in addition to the ones we’ve already very publicly talked about. As you know, there’s more emails that we still need to release through the Freedom of Information Act. The work of reviewing and preparing those emails, those remaining emails, is ongoing. It’s just the third of the month, so we still have work ahead of us to do that. I’m not aware of any additional specific classification issues, so when we have more and we’re in a position that we can talk about the next tranche, we will. I just don’t have any updates for you today.

QUESTION: On this, but also on other – this congressman, as well as some others who are involved in looking at these emails, have said that the information that was in the 22 – that some of the information that was deemed to be top secret compromised lives, sources, and methods of the intel community. Do you accept that or is that something that you would reject?

MR KIRBY: I would say a couple of things. First of all, nobody takes safety and security of not only the American people but protection of sensitive information and the means to acquire that sensitive information more seriously than we do here at the State Department. That’s why the Secretary has been very clear in his direction to the department that as we work through this process, we do so as expeditiously as we can, but also not sacrificing the proper protection of sensitive information. So we’re very mindful of that.

I’ve seen some – I haven’t seen the specific comments you’re referring to. I’ve certainly seen some anonymous sources speaking to risk – the risk exposed by the information that was transmitted in some of these emails. What I can tell you is that, without qualifying what that risk is or is not, we obviously take seriously our obligation to protect that sensitive information so that the risk can be mitigated in its public disclosure. And we’re going to continue to do that moving forward. But again, without getting into the content, which I’m loath to do, I would just tell you that we – having looked at that traffic, I think the claims at least by some of the anonymous sources I’ve seen, we – the claims about the significant risk, we would not ascribe to that same claim.

QUESTION: Okay. So you disagree with this. Now, let me just say this is Representative Chris Stewart. This is not an anonymous official.

MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments.

QUESTION: Well, I’m going to read them to you right now. “They do reveal classified methods, they do reveal classified sources, and they do reveal human assets.” I just want to make sure that you’re saying that you do not agree to – that you don’t agree with that.

MR KIRBY: I’m not going to get to the – I’m not going to get into the content of the specific traffic. So I can’t reaffirm that quote. What I can tell you is we take the protection of sensitive information seriously. That’s why they were redacted the way they were. That’s why classifications have been put on them through this review process. And we’re going to continue to work with the intelligence community going forward. We certainly share everybody’s concern about the proper protection of information that shouldn’t be revealed in a level of classification lower than what it was supposed to be.

QUESTION: I get that.

MR KIRBY: But some of the claims, we’ve – some of the claims about risk, I would say, we don’t subscribe to.

QUESTION: You don’t share, so – but you don’t want to – you don’t want to speak directly to what this congressman said?

MR KIRBY: I’m simply not because I don’t want to speak to the specific content —

QUESTION: Okay.

MR KIRBY: — on these emails.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Can I switch topic? A different – a couple of different issues. First, on Ukraine, do you have anything on the resignation of the minister of economic development? Because he was seen as a figure that implemented real reforms, and ambassadors from nine countries, including the American ambassador, has expressed disappointment. I wonder if – what is your stand on this? And how would this development affect the decision and the status of a U.S. loan guarantee? Thanks.

MR KIRBY: Well, we have seen the reports of his resignation, and I think it’s important to note he delivered real reform results for Ukraine. He and his team made strides implementing tough but necessary economic reforms to help stabilize Ukraine’s economy, root out corruption, and help bring Ukraine into compliance with its IMF program obligations, as well as promoting more openness and transparency. So we note that with this – with his resignation that we hope that those efforts will be able to continue, because he did make a difference in Ukraine on many fronts.

Ukraine’s stable, secure, and prosperous future is going to require the sustained efforts of a broad and inclusive team going forward of dedicated professionals like him who put the Ukrainian people’s interests above their own. We believe it’s important that Ukraine’s leaders set aside their differences, put the vested interests that have hindered the country’s progress for decades – put that all in the past, and press forward on these same vital reforms. And in doing that, they will continue to find a friend in the United States of America.

QUESTION: One of reason he said for his resignation is the pressure from president’s office. How would this affect the status or the decision from the U.S. Government to loan guarantee to Ukraine Government?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any specific and I wouldn’t speculate right now on any specific impacts that this would have. Again, he was a leader, he was one of those leaders who put Ukraine’s interests above any personal interests of his own, he did implement some important reforms. We want to see those reforms continue, but I wouldn’t speculate about hypotheticals going forward with respect to decisions that we haven’t even – haven’t even discussed making, okay?

QUESTION: Thank you. And then could I please ask another question on the Philippines? The U.S. ambassador to Philippines, he’s saying that he would not discard the possibility of a joint military patrolling with the U.S. military in the South China Sea. I wonder if you could confirm the —

MR KIRBY: Oh, I would point you to his comments. I read them. I didn’t take them quite the same way you did. I think he didn’t move anything in or out. He didn’t speculate. In fact, he said he wasn’t going to speculate about future military – potential military operations with the Philippines and their naval forces. What he did say was, as I’ve said, the United States military has the right to operate in international airspace and maritime space in accordance with international law, and we’re going to continue to do that. But I didn’t take it the way you phrased it in your question. He – in fact, he was very clear that he wasn’t going to speculate about the future. Now, do we operate with Philippine naval forces? All the time we do. But as for the future of that, again, we wouldn’t speak to future military operations one way or the other here.

QUESTION: You mentioned you operate with the Philippines military, the navy, all the time. Are you excluding the possibility of a joint military patrol in the South China Sea?

MR KIRBY: I think I just answered that. I said I’m not going to speculate one way or the other. I think you guys know I’m very judicious about not speaking to U.S. military operations here, certainly not speculating about the potential for future military operations one way or the other. And I don’t think the ambassador was alluding to that either. He made it very clear he wasn’t going to hypothesize, that we value our – the military-to-military cooperation that we have with the Philippines and we’re going to continue to look for ways to keep that relationship strong going forward. And I think that’s where he – that’s pretty much where he left it.

Said.

QUESTION: Can we go to the Palestinian-Israeli issue for a minute?

MR KIRBY: Sure.

QUESTION: Yesterday the Israeli army when into a village south of Hebron and demolished 24 structures, leaving about 80 people homeless. It is part of a – really a very old village resided by maybe 1,300 people. They’re farmers and so on. They’re saying they did not have proper permits. I wonder if you have – if you are aware of this and if you have a comment.

MR KIRBY: I’m not. No, I wasn’t tracking that particular issue, so let me get back to you on that. But in general, you know where we’ve been in terms of construction or deconstruction in the West Bank. But let me – without – I don’t want to speculate, so let me get that – let me take that for you.

QUESTION: You are aware, though, perhaps, of the attack at Damascus Gate —

MR KIRBY: I am.

QUESTION: — this morning? So I’m presuming that you’re going to condemn it, as you do with all these attacks. But it leads me to my – what is becoming the perennial question, even though it’s less than a year old, but it’s many months old. This is in the Old City. What happened to the cameras that were supposed to go up?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have an update for you, Matt. I would point you to Israeli and Jordanian technical authorities who, as we understand, are still discussing the parameters of that. But you’re right, we do strongly condemn the attack in Jerusalem today in which two female border police officers were attacked with automatic weapons. One of the police officers was killed and the other left severely wounded. As before, sadly, once again, we have to extend our deepest condolences to a mourning family and to friends and the community of the victim, and we wish the injured officer a full and complete recovery. As we’ve said before, there’s no justification for these terrorist attacks. These tragic incidents only underscore again the importance of affirmative steps to restore calm, reduce tensions, and bring an immediate end to the violence.

QUESTION: But you’re not – let me just follow up on this in general. These border police units, they are part of an occupying force. Correct? You agree with that?

MR KIRBY: I’m not going to characterize —

QUESTION: Okay.

MR KIRBY: — the – they – this was border police officers that were on duty doing their job.

QUESTION: No, I mean, I understand you want to condemn this and that’s your prerogative, but, I mean, the flipside of that – I mean, I don’t want to – I followed the discussion yesterday on the issue of the right to self-defense and so on. But how should the Palestinians respond to an overwhelming military presence that basically suffocates their lives? How – what they should do, in your opinion?

MR KIRBY: I addressed this yesterday with Matt, Said.

QUESTION: Okay, all right.

MR KIRBY: The – let me tell you what is not the way to do it, okay? The way to not do it is through attacks like today. The way to not do it is to incite those attacks with rhetoric that inflames these tensions. The way to do it – the way to move forward here – is through peaceful dialogue and conversation, and to take affirmative steps in both word and in action to walk people away from this kind of violence. That’s the way to do this.

QUESTION: I have one last question. There was a member of Knesset that – Ahmad Tibi was – I think he had some meetings in the State Department. Are you aware of that? He’s an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset.

MR KIRBY: I’m not. I’m sorry. I’ll have to check on that. I wasn’t tracking that. I got time for two more.

QUESTION: Japan announced that it would likely shoot down the North Korean missile if it flew over its territory. And likewise, South Korea warned of searing consequences in light of a North Korean missile launch. Do you have any response or —

MR KIRBY: These are – I mean, these are decisions that sovereign nations have to make. I’m not going to – I would refer you to South Korean and Japanese authorities to comment on whatever reaction they might have to this announced ballistic missile launch.

Yeah.

QUESTION: John, this is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV Pakistan. Sir, 13 years ago, a Pakistani taxi driver was arrested in Karachi and sent to Guantanamo Bay for the —

MR KIRBY: Sent where?

QUESTION: Guantanamo Bay.

QUESTION: A Pakistani taxi driver —

MR KIRBY: Guantanamo Bay, thank you.

QUESTION: — yeah, Ahmed Rabbani. But after 13 years, the Periodic Review Board, the PRB, said that it was a mistake and he was not the one they were looking for, like Mustafa al-Aziz al-Shamiri. So can you update us about that taxi driver? I mean, is he going to be freed or he – is there any contact with the Pakistani authorities on that?

MR KIRBY: I’m afraid I can’t. First of all, we don’t talk about pending transfers. We talk about transfers from Guantanamo Bay when they’re occurring, and that’s done by the Department of Defense. And so secondly, with any specific case, I would refer you to DOD who leads and manages the detention facility. But I suspect that there won’t be much that they can say about individual cases.

QUESTION: Sir, I have one more question about the Saudi coalition. There is a —

MR KIRBY: About what?

QUESTION: About the new coalition to fight extremism, like the Saudi – the 34 member-countries made a coalition to fight the terrorism. The Saudis are leading them – Saudi Arabia. But the interesting thing about this coalition is that all the member-countries are Sunni states. None of the Shia state is a member of this coalition. As you know that in Middle East, they already have sectarian violence there. So don’t you think that such type of actions make things even worse?

MR KIRBY: Well, first, the – as I said at the time, the Saudi Government is the right place to go for discussion and your question about their efforts internal to the region to form a coalition of nations to fight, counter extremism. As we said at the time also, we welcome all international efforts to go after violent extremism, but ultimately, this is for the Saudis to speak to. And again, we said the – we were – we would certainly not pass judgment until more information came to light or more – or there was more on this, and I don’t have anything additional to say with respect to that.

Secondarily to that in a related way, when there – when the tensions erupted over the mass executions in Saudi Arabia, we were very quick to say that we thought it was important for Saudi Arabia and Iran to work through dialogue to resolve the tensions peacefully, diplomatically; that we thought it was important to keep diplomatic relations actually in place rather than tear them down so that there wouldn’t be a larger sectarian issue ripped open in an already tense region. I mean —

QUESTION: But we haven’t seen any intervention about – I mean, the Saudis are – they are bombarding on the Yemeni civilians. I mean, they are – they’re killing the civilians in Yemen, but we haven’t – don’t you think the U.S. should intervene in this matter? I mean, there’s a lot of civilians —

MR KIRBY: In what matter?

QUESTION: — killed on a daily basis.

MR KIRBY: You’re jumping around all over the place. What – exactly what matter do you want us to intervene in?

QUESTION: I mean, do you condemn the Saudis’ bombardment on those Yemenis?

MR KIRBY: We – I’ve dealt with this as well. I mean, we’ve long made clear our concerns about the reports of civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure as a result of the coalition campaign in Yemen. And as I said earlier in respect to some recent reports, the Saudis have launched an investigation of their own. They’ve said themselves it’s going to be an independent investigation into these allegations of civilian casualties and collateral damage. We look forward to seeing them pursue that investigation, and look forward to seeing the results of it. As we’ve said throughout the conflict in Yemen, all parties have an obligation to abide by international law and to do everything they can to limit an impact on innocent civilians who are caught up in this deadly conflict.

QUESTION: Hey John, one —

MR KIRBY: Yeah. I’ll just take this last one.

QUESTION: Over – one of the Secretary’s priorities for this year has been getting through – the stalled nominations, stalled nominees through confirmation in the Senate. Over the course of the last 90 minutes or so, Senator Shaheen and I think maybe some others tried to get unanimous consent on at least four nominations: the ambassadors – ambassador nominees to Sweden, to Norway; Tom Shannon’s nomination as under secretary, and the legal adviser secretary.

In response to each of these requests, Senator Lee, speaking on behalf of Senator Cruz, has objected. In other words, he has kept – the unanimous consent has not gone through. The holds remain. One, I’m wondering if you have any response to that; and secondly, I’m wondering if you believe that this is the responsible use of senatorial privilege by someone who wants to set and run the foreign policy of the United States.

MR KIRBY: I’m – I appreciate where you’d like me to go on that last one. I’m – look, I’m not going to, again, cast us into the middle of an active campaign season here.

That said – and I’m – I can only point you back to what the Secretary himself said when he came to this podium a few weeks ago. There is important work being done all around the world by our diplomatic corps, and we’ve talked about a lot of it here today. I mean, just look at the spate of issues that we’ve dealt with. And to the question about the way we’re viewed around the world, there’s important work to be done, lots of challenges on our plate. The Secretary is in London right now getting ready for a major donor conference – the fourth one – for Syria. And it hampers our ability, as he said himself, to do that good work to represent American values around the world and to further our foreign policy objectives when we can’t get key positions filled. And so I would only echo what the Secretary has said, was that the time is not just now, it’s long past now, to confirm these individuals, let them get at their jobs, and let them do the work of furthering foreign policy objectives.

QUESTION: All right. Let’s leave the campaign or specific candidates out of it. Is this a – by any senator, is it a responsible use of their privilege to hold up nominees and to do what —

MR KIRBY: It is not – it’s not a matter of holds. I mean, even Secretary Kerry, as a former senator, understands that there’s a value to that technical application – the idea of a hold. It’s not that. It’s the holding for such a prolonged activity, and in some cases not even tied to concerns about the State Department, but tied to other concerns that an individual may have with this or that policy of the Administration. And that, I think, again, the Secretary has spoken to very clearly – that that isn’t helpful, that isn’t constructive, and that isn’t a wise use of that tactic to hold up positions for that long for no reason tied necessarily to that individual’s fitness for the job or the foreign policy objectives of the United States State Department.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 3.35 p.m.)