State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, March 19, 2012

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 19, 2012. 

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Condolences to Victims of School Shooting in Toulouse, France
    • Ambassador Grossman’s Travels
  • IRAQ
    • Update on U.S. Citizen Randy Michael Hultz
    • Capture of Abdullah al-Senussi
    • Kofi Annan’s Mission / Technical Meetings in Damascus Today
    • Humanitarian Cease-fire
    • Russia’s Involvement
    • Status of Aid
  • CUBA
    • Arrest of Citizens and Damas de Blanco
    • Parliamentary Review
    • Counterterrorism Cooperation
  • DPRK
    • Potential Satellite Launch
    • IAEA Monitors
    • Death of Pope Shenouda III
    • Death of U.S. citizen Joel Wesley Shrum
    • Falkland Islands


1:02 p.m. EDT

MS. NULAND: Afternoon, everybody. Sorry to be later than we planned. I don’t know if I’m wearing short shoes or if somebody’s been messing with my podium. Looks like it’s higher than usual today.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS. NULAND: Have you been messing with my podium? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No, I haven’t. But it’s pretty cool, because it does —

MS. NULAND: I know. It does go up and down. When I first came, I was – had to lower it by five inches. All right.

Let me start with the Toulouse shootings, and then we’ll go to what’s on your minds. We were shocked and saddened to learn of the horrific attack at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France. We stand with the victims of this attack and offer our condolences to their families and their community. We join the Government of France in condemning this unprovoked and vicious act of violence.

Let’s go to what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: I just have one kind of logistical question, and it has to do with the announcement of Grossman’s trip.


QUESTION: He is the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, correct?

MS. NULAND: Correct.


MS. NULAND: Correct.

QUESTION: And yet he’s going to neither of those two countries on his trip? I understand what the point of it is, but do the Afghans and the Pakistanis not get – aren’t they part of this consultation as well?

MS. NULAND: Well, just to update everybody, as you know, we put out a travel note. Ambassador Grossman is traveling this week to Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Warsaw, The Hague, Berlin, Paris, and Brussels through March 24th. He is working with our NATO allies and partners on the run-up to Chicago, and specifically on enduring support for Afghan National Security Forces. He may have other stops at the end of this trip, but we are still working on that itinerary, so stand by.

QUESTION: Does that depend on whether the Pakistanis will have him?

MS. NULAND: No. It depends on a number of factors that we’re still discussing, including whether he’ll do some Central Asia stops, et cetera.

QUESTION: Okay. But – so if the – you expect that there will be – that he will be going to South or Central Asia as part of this trip?

MS. NULAND: Again, I don’t have anything to announce today, but he’s keeping this itinerary open on the back end, and we’ll see.




QUESTION: — do you have any more information on this kind of strange story about the American who was released? Is he still being held at the Embassy? If so, what are they doing with him? And any further information about him?

MS. NULAND: Well, he’s not being held —

QUESTION: Well, I mean —

MS. NULAND: — in any manner.

QUESTION: — he is there.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. We can confirm that U.S. citizen Randy Michael Hultz was transferred to Embassy Baghdad from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq on March 17th, so on Saturday. He is a private citizen, as you know. He is not an employee or a contractor of the U.S. Government, and he was in Iraq on private business. We have been providing him consular assistance, including a medical checkup and a debriefing on his capture. I think he hasn’t decided, himself, what his next steps are.

QUESTION: Is there any clarification as to exactly what he was doing there?

MS. NULAND: Our understanding is that he was doing some private business of his own, but I think he may have more on that when he decides to see the press himself.

QUESTION: Did he have to have a visa to get there? Do you need a visa at this point to work?

MS. NULAND: I think he would’ve, yeah. So presumably, the Iraqi organization that he was working for would have seen to his visa —

QUESTION: Toria, is the —

MS. NULAND: — working with —

QUESTION: — UN sanctuary in the Embassy much like the NGOs were given sanctuary at an Embassy in Cairo? Is it kind of the same?

MS. NULAND: No. He was – as you know, he had been held captive. He was released into the hands of the UN, and then the UN turned him over to us since he’s an American citizen. When he came to the U.S. Embassy, he was in need of medical attention. He was open to being debriefed on his time in captivity, which, of course, is – was of interest to us. So it wasn’t a matter of being held. It’s a matter of his – he being one of our citizens, and therefore we have consular responsibilities to him.

QUESTION: So just to understand properly, this is not a cordon of immunity. That’s why he’s at the Embassy, so – to ensure that he’s not – for whatever reason, he’s beyond the reach of some —

MS. NULAND: No, no, no. This is to help him to get on his way. I don’t even know whether he has travel documents or any of those things that he would need.

QUESTION: Victoria, I guess the question is – it’s so odd that initially, like on Saturday, there was so little information about him.


QUESTION: And you’d think that if there were an American who was being held, private or not, that somebody would know about it and there wouldn’t be this level of confusion.

MS. NULAND: Well, I agree, Jill. We were all a little bit confused over the weekend, in part because, in coming back to Iraq, he had not chosen, as a private American in country, to register with the Embassy. So frankly, we didn’t have any information about his whereabouts, et cetera.

I will tell you that we did receive an email around June of 2011 from an Iraqi acquaintance of Mr. Hultz saying that he had not heard from this guy for several days. And the Iraqi indicated in that email that he was of the impression that Mr. Hultz was planning to leave Iraq in the near future. So this was in June, and that was the first that we had ever heard about him.

And at that point, we looked into it. We were able to figure out the hotel where the Iraqi had thought he had been staying and living. We consulted with the hotel, with Iraqi authorities, in the weeks that followed, and we weren’t able to find any trace of him. So at that point, we assumed, I think, that he had left the country. He had not chosen to contact us, so that was our only information about him one way or the other until he showed up at the UN.

QUESTION: Hmm. And that Iraqi friend never got back to you and said, by the way, he’s kidnapped?

MS. NULAND: No. No. And we were never contacted by any family members in the United States either. Yeah, I agree with you – unusual story.

Other thoughts? Andy.

QUESTION: Another topic?


QUESTION: Okay. Just on the capture over the weekend of Mr. Senussi, I’m just wondering if you can tell us if the U.S. has any interest in talking to him about potential connections with Lockerbie. Are you in contact with the Mauritanians, seeking either to get access to him there or to figure out where he’s going to go next, given the number of requests for his extradition?

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, to say that Abdullah al-Senussi’s capture in Mauritania is a crucial step towards justice and accountability, and another welcome step away from the dark 40- year history of Libya. As you know, he’s been accused of crimes against humanity and acts of terrorism, and the international community has been very clear that he needs to be held to account.

We are in contact with the Government of Mauritania about him. I’m not going to speak any further about what we may or may not be consulting about in that context. But as you know, both Libya and the Government of France have asked for extradition of him, the French Government in connection with a terrorist – the terrorist incident with UTA; the Libyans, for obvious reasons.

So we want to see him brought to justice and we will – right now we have a Libyan delegation in Mauritania, so we’ll see where those contacts go.

QUESTION: Are you able to say whether or not the U.S. Government regards him as a person of interest in connection with the Lockerbie case?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think we’ve always been interested in what he has to say about that, of course.

QUESTION: But you’re not – you can’t say whether or not you’re actually trying to get him to tell U.S. Government officials what he might know?

MS. NULAND: I’m not in a position to speak about whether we will be involved at all, but obviously the Mauritanians are cooperating with everybody who has an interest in him.


QUESTION: Syria? Can we move on to Syria?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Everybody finished with this one? Yeah? On to Syria?

Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. First of all, I want to ask about the Syrian Embassy. There seems to have been a breach of security on the wall of the Embassy, and some graffiti and so on. Are you —

MS. NULAND: I’m sorry, Said. On which embassy?

QUESTION: I’m sorry, the Syrian Embassy in town. There was a breach of security apparently and some graffiti on the inside of the walls (inaudible) sort of thing. Are you aware of that?

MS. NULAND: I’m not, Said. If we have anything to share —

QUESTION: Okay. But you provide security that is 24 hours a day to this Embassy?

MS. NULAND: We do. We have responsibilities under the Vienna Convention. I will look into what you’re speaking of.

QUESTION: Right. Okay. And then moving on, the Kofi Annan report seemed somewhat anticlimactic. I mean, it talked about something – monitors, and so on. Is there – could you give us more details on what’s going on now as far as diplomatic efforts with Syria is concerned?

MS. NULAND: Well, as he and his – and the British perm rep spoke to on Friday, the mission continues in the following sense: there is a technical team in Damascus today having meetings with the Syrian side on what a ceasefire and humanitarian access might look like. Kofi Annan himself has made clear that he plans to visit Moscow and Beijing. I think he plans to do both of those this week. So his efforts continue, and our support for him continues in this effort to, first and foremost, stop the violence. He’ll get humanitarian access in and then, we hope, facilitate a political transition.

QUESTION: And just a quick follow-up: Do you feel that your position is closer now to acknowledging that there are armed groups in Syria that need to ceasefire also and put down their arms as much as the regime to – for this – for the violence to stop?

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve always made clear that our view of this was that the regime needed to silence its guns and then anybody else involved in military activity also needed to silence their activities but that the sequence that we see is very clear: that it is the regime that bears primary responsibility for the violence and that they need to stop first.

QUESTION: So lastly, the regime must stop firing and withdraw its equipment from the neighborhoods and so on prior to the armed groups?

MS. NULAND: Well, it’s precisely these kinds of details of how a ceasefire might work that Kofi Annan’s representatives are working on, but our view remains that you cannot have sort of a moral equivalency, if you will, in understanding this violence – that it is Assad who bears primary responsibility, and without a commitment by him that is implemented, nobody should expect anybody else’s use of violence to end.

QUESTION: On the question of the humanitarian ceasefire —


QUESTION: — the suggestion put forward by the ICRC, we’re told now that Russia has explicitly come out and said that they back this ICRC proposal for a humanitarian ceasefire. What’s your understanding of what needs to happen next? Have the Russians communicated with you this – I don’t know if it’s a change in position, but certainly it’s a clarification of a position?

MS. NULAND: Well, as we started to say last week, we are seeing an evolution in the Russian public position. They – Foreign Minister Lavrov said again very clearly over the weekend, or it might have been in connection with seeing ICRC President Kellenberger in Moscow, that they don’t have any brief for Assad, that they don’t support him, that they do want to see a humanitarian ceasefire, that they do want to see a political process. So those are all good steps. I think it’s still an issue of sequencing and an issue of implementation that we are supporting Kofi in trying to achieve now.

QUESTION: Do you know who it is that he talks to on – Kofi Annan talks to – on the opposition side? In other words, who would one secure an agreement for a ceasefire with?

MS. NULAND: Well, he made clear —

QUESTION: Do you know?

MS. NULAND: — in talking about his trip publicly when he was in Turkey, that he had seen a broad cross-section of folks.

QUESTION: Yeah, but who does one go – I mean, presumably – maybe not, if you believe Assad himself, but presumably you go to Assad and you talk to him for the government side.


QUESTION: Is there an address or a name of someone that you are aware of on the opposition side?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think one would want to talk to local representatives in a number of areas. One would want to talk to —


MS. NULAND: — local coordinating committees. One would want to talk to self-described members of the FSA. But again, this is part and parcel of what Kofi is working on – not only the first step, which is for the government to stop, but how one could be assured that any ceasefire that was called was respected by all sides.

QUESTION: Right. But to the best of your knowledge, there isn’t a single point of contact for —

MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve always said that the opposition is quite diffuse and that there are different – yeah —

QUESTION: I understand that. But if you’re trying to – I mean, it just raises questions about whether the Syrian Government, for its part, would have any confidence – not suggesting that they are the ones who are acting competently or honestly here – but, I mean, if there isn’t a point of contact with which one can turn off the guns on the other side, it complicate – it would just seem to complicate things. And you’re not aware that there is – and that someone has emerged, or a group of people has emerged, to speak for the whole opposition?

MS. NULAND: There are a number of representatives who claim to speak for various different factions. So it is not wrong that if you were assured that you are headed towards a government ceasefire, you would have work to do to organize the reciprocal measures. This is part and parcel of what Kofi is working on now.

Yeah. Please.

QUESTION: Another topic. Cuba?

MS. NULAND: Let’s finish on Syria. Yeah.

QUESTION: One last thing on the humanitarian thing, because they said there’s a dire need to have at least a two-hour break during the day. How would you– okay. You have government forces on the one hand say we could cease fire, but who on the other side could cease fire?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think we’ve spoken to the issues here. The first thing is that we have – one would have to be reassured that the government guns were silenced before anybody would even have that conversation.


QUESTION: Is the Secretary – on Egypt, is the Secretary any closer to making a decision on Egypt aid?

MS. NULAND: She is still consulting broadly. As you know, her Foreign Policy Board is here today as well. So as we said last week, she could well make some decisions this week, but she hasn’t given us a calendar yet.

QUESTION: Sorry. Back on Syria?


QUESTION: Do you have any comments on the reports coming out of Russia today about the arrival of a Russian anti-terrorism unit to Syria’s Tartus Port?

MS. NULAND: I had not seen that. This is a report out of Russia that they’re sending —

QUESTION: Out of Russia and confirmed by Interfax.

MS. NULAND: Confirmed by Interfax. The – (laughter).

QUESTION: Is that the new measure of (inaudible) whether Interfax is able to confirm anything to the best of – to your satisfaction.

MS. NULAND: I had not seen that.

QUESTION: Not a vote of confidence?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Anything else on Syria before we move on?




QUESTION: The detentions of this weekend of seventy people?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, the White House has now issued a statement with regard to the arrest of 70 members of the – of Cuban civil society, including the Damas de Blanco over the weekend. Our view is that these are peaceful members of Cuba’s civil society. We strongly condemn any action taken against them. And the fact that so many of the Damas were rounded up and detained by the Cuban Government as they were congregating for religious services barely a week before the visit of Pope Benedict is particularly reprehensible and a violation of the democratic principles that the hemisphere stands for.

QUESTION: Do you expect to be any repercussions on the visit of the Pope, for such a thing?

MS. NULAND: Well, one would hope and expect that this would be the kind of thing that would be raised in the context of such a visit. And we would assume that, like us, there would be a call for the Cuban Government to release them and allow the people of Cuba to openly and peacefully exercise their rights, including practicing their religious beliefs.

QUESTION: I think they have been released.

MS. NULAND: Some of them have been released, not all of them, is our understanding today.

Please, in the back.

QUESTION: Tomorrow in Islamabad, the parliament starts discussing the best way forward for Pakistan’s relations with U.S. What are your expectations?

MS. NULAND: Well again, we have said that we will give Pakistan the time and the space to have this parliamentary review. President Zardari, as you know, made a speech yesterday underscoring the importance of the relationship that we have together. So we will obviously watch the parliamentary debate with interest, and we look forward to reengaging with the Government of Pakistan when it has a sense of the results of that review.

QUESTION: And one of the points in Pakistani discussions is that it has paid a heavy price in fighting terrorists along the Afghan border and its soldiers and civilians have been killed. And there is not so much – enough acknowledgement of its role and the sacrifices it has made. What are – what do you think about this point, which is discussed a lot in Pakistani media and think tanks?

MS. NULAND: Well, a point that we make almost every time we talk about the importance of U.S.-Pakistani counterterrorism cooperation is how much Pakistan has suffered – its civilians as victims of terror and its soldiers in trying to defeat terror. So we understand the risk to Pakistani society, and that is among the reasons why we are so intent on trying to help and trying to work together to beat this scourge.

Please, Scott.

QUESTION: Any progress over the weekend in talking with Ethiopians about what they’re doing in Eritrea?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything new on Ethiopia, so I know we owe you that. Let’s make sure that we have something tomorrow.


QUESTION: How about —

QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you have anything on the reports over the weekend from Omar Hammami and that he had been arrested by al-Shabaab, and al-Shabaab denies it?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything on that one way or the other.

QUESTION: North Korea.


QUESTION: It doesn’t look like they’ve – they took your comments to heart. They say that they’re going to go ahead with the satellite launch. I’m wondering if there was any further communication with them on Friday or through the weekend until now, and if it is your understanding that their public statement that they’re going to go ahead with it regardless is what you understand from them privately.

MS. NULAND: To my knowledge, we have not had any further bilateral communication with them since Clifford Hart saw them and since we spoke about this publicly on Friday. So that was Thursday night was the last time we had any contact with them directly. If that is not correct, we’ll get back to you.

Obviously, we were heartened that every single one of the Six-Party Talks participants made clear that they think that this would be an extremely bad idea and a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. So we are hoping and expecting that the DPRK will take that to heart. But I don’t have any new information.


QUESTION: What does the satellite launch mean for the food aid to North Korea?

MS. NULAND: We spoke about this extensively on Friday, so I would refer you to that transcript.


QUESTION: The Japanese media reporting that a senior North Korean official has said that North Korea has asked IAEA monitors to come in. Do you have any comments on that or —

MS. NULAND: We had not heard that there had been a formal invitation from the DPRK. But again, the intent was for the IAEA to go in and monitor implementation of the entire Leap Day deal. So obviously, there’s benefit for any access that the IAEA can get, but it doesn’t change the fact that we would consider a satellite launch a violation, not only of their UN obligations, but of the commitments that they made to us on Leap Day.


QUESTION: So the U.S. wouldn’t oppose the IAEA sending inspectors in prior to this potential launch? You think that would be a good thing?

MS. NULAND: Well, I think it depends on the circumstances of the invitation and what the IAEA is able to see. We don’t want them to waste their time, but we’re not opposed for opposition’s sake.


QUESTION: It was reported Russia and China they don’t take the satellite launch as violating the UN resolution. Do you think all the partners – the Six-Party Talks partners stand on the same page, which is the satellite launch equals to the missile launch?

MS. NULAND: I’m not sure what you’re seeing, but what we’re seeing is that both Russia and China have made clear that North Korea should not violate its international obligations.

QUESTION: So does that mean Russia and China also agree that satellite launch equals to the missile launch?

MS. NULAND: We haven’t seen any divergence in the international understanding that a satellite launched with ballistic missile technology is a violation of UN sanctions, particularly the UN resolution – I think it’s 1874, which explicitly says you can’t use ballistic missile technology to launch anything. Okay.

Please, Said.

QUESTION: Can we go back to Egypt for a little bit?


QUESTION: I know you issued a statement on the death of (inaudible) Shenouda, Pope Shenouda.


QUESTION: Now he was a great moral figure, but he also espoused really anti-American positions. He did not support the peace treaty. He was imprisoned under Sadat. So my question to you is: Do you hope that the next leader of the Coptic Church would be more – sort of, more supportive of U.S. policies, more supportive of the peace treaty with Israel, and so on?

MS. NULAND: Well, this is obviously a matter for the Coptic community to decide with regard to the leadership. I think our expectation is that we would have open lines of communication as we have always sought to have with all of the Coptic Church leaders and to be able to have an open dialogue about U.S. hopes for a strong, prosperous, and democratic Egypt where religions of all kinds are tolerated and supported.


QUESTION: On Yemen, the young man who was killed yesterday, do you have any details about that, his identity?

MS. NULAND: I think I have just a very, very little bit here. Let’s see. Too many Americans here, and I can’t find it. Looking under Yemen. Hold on a second. No – all right. I did have something this morning, but I can’t – oh, here it is. Right.

So we can confirm that U.S. citizen Joel Wesley Shrum was tragically killed in Yemen. We condemn this terrorist act in strongest terms and we express our deepest condolences to his family and his friends. We are in contact with the family and we are providing consular assistance, and we are urging Yemeni authorities to bring to justice those responsible for this heinous crime.

QUESTION: When you say you’re providing consular – what kind of consular assistance are you —

MS. NULAND: Repatriation —

QUESTION: Repatriation of remains?

MS. NULAND: — of remains, yeah.

QUESTION: One thing that’s sort of bubbling in the background is this Argentina-UK argument over the Falklands again, and Argentina this weekend was able to get a number of its neighbors to sign on to a statement which is essentially critical of Britain for promoting its ties with the Falklands. And they’ve threatened companies that engage in oil exploration around there. What’s the U.S. doing to try to get this situation under control?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we’ve called for calm in this anniversary year. We’ve called for both sides for – I think the President spoke to this issue when Prime Minister Cameron was here, so I don’t think I can improve on that at all.

QUESTION: Are you – is there any high-level contact from this building with Argentina about the steps that they’ve been taking?

MS. NULAND: I think that Assistant Secretary Jacobson – Acting Assistant Secretary Jacobson – has been in contact with the Argentines. I will get back to you if there’s anything further on that.

All right? Thank you, everybody.


(The briefing was concluded at 1:28 p.m.)