State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, March 19, 2013

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 19, 2013.

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • Secretary Kerry’s Travel to Israel
    • Claims of Use of Chemical Weapons
    • Ghassan Hitto’s Election as Prime Minister
    • Syria Democratic Transition Act
  • IRAQ
    • 10th Anniversary of the War
    • Terrorist Attacks
    • General Ntaganda
    • Death of Max Shatto
    • Working with Congress on Benghazi
    • Eurozone



12:41 p.m. EDT

MS. NULAND: All right, everybody. Happy Tuesday. The Secretary is in Israel in advance of the President’s arrival. We have nothing at the top, so why don’t we go what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: Can we stay with —

QUESTION: Yeah. Can we just —

QUESTION: Can we stay with the Secretary’s visit?

QUESTION: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Who is he planning to — is he planning to meet some people today, some of the Israeli or Palestinian officials today?

MS. NULAND: Well, he just arrived about an hour ago. We do expect that he will have a meeting or two in preparation for the President’s arrival. I don’t have any details at the moment. The schedule was being worked out as we came down.

QUESTION: Can you tell us who he does meet and provide whatever kind of readout you can today, and also the same for any meetings or conversations he may have tomorrow?

MS. NULAND: Well, certainly when we get a little bit of clarity about who his meetings are with this evening or tomorrow we will let you know. With regard to the content, I think you can assume that all of the conversations are preparatory to what the President is going to discuss with Israeli interlocutors tomorrow.

QUESTION: Right. But we’re still asking, and the President isn’t there yet, and the President doesn’t get there till tomorrow.

MS. NULAND: We’ll give you what we can, Arshad.

QUESTION: He is still the Secretary of State, so —

MS. NULAND: He is indeed.

QUESTION: And then Syria. Can we go —

QUESTION: No, I’m not through. Sorry.

QUESTION: Oh, sorry. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Why was it decided to send — that the Secretary would go ahead? I thought initially the idea was that he would travel with the President.

MS. NULAND: There’s always a decision to be made whether to go on the same plane or whether to go on his own plane. As you know, Secretary Clinton usually traveled on her own plane. So he decided to take his own plane this time, and his schedule was — I mean, you obviously can’t land at the same time, so it was to go a little bit earlier.

QUESTION: And there are press reports out of Israel and Haaretz that after Amman – because the Secretary is going to travel with the President to Amman – that the Secretary might then go back to Israel and have dinner with Prime Minister Netanyahu on Saturday night. Is that something you can confirm?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything on the Secretary’s schedule yet. After the President’s visit, when we do, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: Sorry, I didn’t understand. She asked you why he went ahead, and you said Secretary Clinton went with her own plane. So he’s going with his own plane? Is that —

MS. NULAND: No, I said that there is — Jo said that she thought he was planning to ride with the President. I was trying to make clear that that’s sometimes an option. It’s not the usual option. That’s all I was trying to do there.

QUESTION: Right. Because he —

QUESTION: I’m not convinced that it’s not always the usual option. I mean, going back to — Secretary Clinton didn’t always take her own plane. She did sometimes go on Air Force One, unless I’m mistaken.

MS. NULAND: Is this really what we’re going to spend today on, Arshad?

QUESTION: Well, no, I mean, you –

QUESTION: But you’re not giving a straight answer —

QUESTION: What’s troublesome about it is that we only learned when the Secretary himself said: Well, I’m leaving tomorrow night. He said that yesterday. And then that raises the question: Well, does he or doesn’t he have independent meetings? Which given that he’s the Secretary of State, you would think he would. And then that raises the question, which our Jerusalem bureaus, and I’m sure theirs have asked, which is: Well, gee, what is the Secretary of State of the United States doing in Israel or the Palestinian territories tonight and tomorrow? What coverage do we have? Can we get any kind of a readout?

And so far, you say you don’t know what meetings he’s having, although he might have one or two. And all you’re going to tell is that they were preparatory for the President. Well, we’d really like to know what are the meetings and provide any kind of a readout that you can.

MS. NULAND: Are we finished now?

QUESTION: Is my point clear now?

MS. NULAND: As I said, Arshad, he went early. We expect he’ll have a meeting or two tonight or tomorrow morning. When we have something further on it, we will let you know. They are all preparatory to the President’s visit. Okay?

QUESTION: Can we go to Syria now?

QUESTION: Let’s move onto Syria.

QUESTION: No, on this point —

MS. NULAND: Here we go.

QUESTION: So he’s likely to have — you just said that he’s likely to have some independent meeting? Is that it?

MS. NULAND: I just finished saying he’s likely to have a meeting or two in advance of the President’s visit, yes.

QUESTION: Okay. And that would be exclusively with Israelis, exclusively with the Palestinians, or with both?

MS. NULAND: Again, when I have more to share, I will. But at the moment, they’re being worked out on the ground. Okay?



QUESTION: Please. What is your assessment of whether or not chemical weapons were used in Syria as described in all the media reporting of today, and what is your view on who might have used them if you think anyone did?

MS. NULAND: Well, first let me say that my colleague, Jay Carney at the White House, spoke to this a little bit earlier. We’ve seen reports from the Assad regime alleging that the opposition has been responsible for use. Let me just say that we have no reason to believe these allegations represent anything more than the regime’s continued attempts to discredit the legitimate opposition and distract from its own atrocities committed against the Syrian people. We’ve been very clear about our concerns that the Assad regime is increasingly beleaguered, that it finds that the violence that it is using by conventional means is inadequate, including its barbaric use of SCUDs. And so we are quite concerned that they will resort to other weapons. We’ve made clear that this would constitute a red line for the United States. The President could not have been clearer about it.

QUESTION: So are you saying —

QUESTION: Can you say that Syria’s chemical weapons stock is still secure?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get into intelligence other than to say that we have concerns about what the regime may be trying to do here, and we’ve drawn a red line.

QUESTION: But in the past you’ve said that — you’ve confirmed that the stockpiles are secure, and now you’re not saying one way or another. Is that a change?

MS. NULAND: I wouldn’t over-read this. I’m certainly not going to get into detailed intelligence. We never do that from this platform. I’m simply reiterating the warning, as Jay Carney did today, that the President has laid down regarding the red line.

QUESTION: So the regime has — sorry, the rebels have countercharged that in fact it was — they believe that the regime has used chemical weapons in the same area, in Aleppo, saying that they had casualties of people who were suffering breathing problems. So if you have no reason to believe that the rebels used chemical weapons, have you any reason to believe that the Syrian regime might have used chemical weapons?

MS. NULAND: Well, we will look carefully at allegations made by the opposition. We will consult closely with our partners on this.

Let me just go back to the rebel charges, an additional point that Jay Carney made and just to make it clearly to you here, we don’t have any evidence to substantiate the regime’s charge that the opposition even has CW capability.

QUESTION: The Russian foreign ministry says that the rebels indeed used chemical weapons. You said you were talking to your partners, and as far as I know, you still consider Russia a partner, albeit a difficult one on this issue. Have you asked them for the evidence that they are citing?

MS. NULAND: I would expect that Ambassador McFaul is seeking some clarification from the Russian foreign ministry. If you read their statement, they appear to have taken the regime’s word for it. We would be deeply skeptical, as we have said, about accepting the word of a regime that’s lost all credibility.

QUESTION: In this case, though, you are taking the opposition’s word for it – is that correct? Or do you have independent – some sort of independent verification that no chemical weapons have been used?

MS. NULAND: I didn’t say that. I said that we would look into – we would look into the charges that the opposition is making.

QUESTION: No, no, no. I’m sorry. You’re taking the opposition’s word that they didn’t use chemical weapons; is that correct? You don’t have that independently confirmed in any way?

MS. NULAND: I simply have said that we don’t have any reason to confirm these charges by the regime. We also don’t have any information to suggest that the opposition has the capability to do what the regime has charged.

QUESTION: Toria, just to clarify —


QUESTION: On this point, you’re saying there’s no evidence that the opposition used chemical weapons, but what you’re not saying, if I understand you properly, is you’re not saying you have proof or evidence that some sort of CW agent was not, in fact, used. You’re not prepared to go that far – is that fair?

MS. NULAND: What I’m saying with regard to the opposition’s concerns with regard to the regime is that we are looking into them carefully.



QUESTION: If I can take you back for you – something that you said just a minute ago. Did you say – just for clarification, did you say you are confident that the regime at one point will use chemical weapons?

MS. NULAND: I’m sorry, Said. What?

QUESTION: Did you suggest that the regime is going to use – you’re almost certain that the regime will use chemical weapons at one point?

MS. NULAND: Said, when have you ever known me to predict the future from this podium?

QUESTION: I’m trying to clarify because I misheard. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to —

MS. NULAND: What I’m saying is that we have been concerned about regime intentions here. We’ve been concerned that the regime in failing to achieve its military objectives even by the most barbaric conventional means may get desperate enough to use these weapons, and we are reiterating the warning that the President’s been making for some months.

QUESTION: So the common wisdom in this building is that the regime is becoming so desperate with every passing day that ultimately they will use these weapons, which will call for U.S. intervention?

MS. NULAND: Said, you’re being predictive of the future. I’m simply reiterating the warning based on the concerns that we have.

QUESTION: Okay. And one last point on Syria from my part. Do you have any comment on the new government proposed by the opposition, Mr. Hitto?

MS. NULAND: Well, let me say that we welcome the coalition’s election of Ghassan Hitto as the interim prime minister. We know and respect him very well from his work building the Coalition’s Assistance Coordination Unit, and we are very hopeful that his election will foster unity and cohesion among the opposition. We look forward to seeing him build his relationship with SOC President al-Khatib and to being able to work with both of them and the entire SOC on continuing to help them strengthen the opposition’s ability to deliver services, et cetera, to the Syrian people.

QUESTION: With him being a citizen of the United States, would that complicate things or make things easier, facilitate things?

MS. NULAND: I simply said that we know him well from the work that he’s been doing since he returned to the region. You’re right that he’s Purdue educated. He spent about 25 years in Texas. We got to know him when he went back to Turkey and started leading the Syrian opposition’s direct relief effort and most recently as head of the coalition’s assistance unit. So he’s well and favorably known to us.

QUESTION: I guess my question is that him being a U.S. citizen, will that complicate his relationship with some of the more extreme elements of the opposition?

MS. NULAND: Well, you can imagine that privacy concerns preclude me from discussing his citizenship. I would refer you to him. I would simply say that this is an individual who, out of concern for the Syrian people, left a very successful life in Texas to go and work on humanitarian relief for the people of his home country.

QUESTION: Why do privacy concerns bar you from discussing his citizenship?

MS. NULAND: We never talk about an individual’s citizenship unless they’ve talked about it first.

QUESTION: I don’t believe that’s true.

MS. NULAND: Or unless we have a Privacy Act waiver. It is true, Arshad.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, the first statement, “We never talk about it unless they’ve talked about it first,” is not true because if you then – if you get a Privacy Act waiver and you can talk about it, you do. Secondly, I believe that when, say, an American somewhere dies or an American somewhere is in trouble, you talk about it.

MS. NULAND: Well, we’re not in that circumstance, Arshad.

QUESTION: No, but in other words, if you’re going to – I mean, let’s be precise here, please.

MS. NULAND: We’re having quite a day together, aren’t we, Arshad?

QUESTION: Can we go back to –

MS. NULAND: Did you eat your Wheaties this morning?

QUESTION: I want to go back to Syria. I want to go back to Syria. On your first – just to make sure that I understand it correctly, you said regarding Syrian Government allegations that the opposition may have used chemical weapons that you had no reason to believe that those allegations were anything other than an effort to discredit the opposition and distract from the government’s own atrocities.

MS. NULAND: Right.

QUESTION: Secondly, you said that you had no reason to believe that the opposition has a chemical weapons capability, correct?

MS. NULAND: Correct.

QUESTION: Thirdly, though, I don’t – unless I misunderstood, I don’t believe you’ve squarely addressed the question of whether or not you think anyone – opposition, government, anyone – has used chemical weapons. Do you have any assessment – I realize this is very hard to tell and a couple of hours may not be enough time to gather the kind of evidence you would need. In fact, it’s probably not. But it’s a – it’s not clear to me, what is the answer to that question: Does the U.S. Government believe anyone did or may have used chemical weapons here?

MS. NULAND: And what I said in response to that was we’ve seen the opposition’s charges with regard to the regime. We are looking into those. We are consulting. I don’t have anything further right now.

Okay, Said.

QUESTION: Victoria, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Senator Bob Casey and Senator Marco Rubio just announced something called the Syria Democratic Transition Act and it’s a bipartisan support to aid the opposition to provide all kinds of aid to it. Do you have any comment on this? Have you spoke to them, or it is something that just came out of the Hill?

MS. NULAND: I haven’t seen the details of this proposed piece of legislation. I think you know that we’ve been consulting intensively with the Congress, both houses, with regard to our humanitarian assistance, our non-lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition. We’ll continue to do that. I’m sure we’ll be consulting on these proposals as well.

QUESTION: Should that be interpreted similar to, say, the Iraq Liberation Act, which was also introduced on the Hill in 1998?

MS. NULAND: Again, you’re asking me to comment on something I haven’t seen, Said.

QUESTION: What about the House bill, then? That’s days old. Have you had a chance to look at that in the last five days?

MS. NULAND: As I said, we will consult with the Congress on what we think —

QUESTION: So you haven’t? Is that —

MS. NULAND: — our Syrian policy should be. But I’m not going to comment on draft legislation.


QUESTION: Can you clarify the relations between Syrian interim government and the SOC? Which represents the Syrian opposition, Prime Minister Hitto or SOC President al-Khatib?

MS. NULAND: Well, we have the Syrian Opposition Coalition, whose president is al-Khatib. We now have the Syrian opposition broadly choosing Mr. Hitto as its prime minister. They have not made decisions on a broader governing structure. They’re continuing to have those conversations.

As I said at the beginning, our hope is to see SOC President Khatib, the newly designated Prime Minister Hitto work well together and continue on the trajectory of unifying the opposition, both in terms of ensuring their effectiveness in delivering services to the Syrian people, but also as a partner for us as we work to try to keep alive the prospect of a political transition track.

Please, Said. Yeah.



QUESTION: Marking the 10th anniversary of the war today, the Iraqis marked that event with a barrage of bombardments all across the country – 60 people at least dead, 200 wounded. Would you say that the Iraq War is probably the biggest U.S. foreign policy blunder?

MS. NULAND: Said, I’m going to leave the judgments to – with regard to the larger issue to the historians to – Michael Gordon and company here. The President has spoken on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War today. I spoke about our relationship with Iraq 10 years on about two days ago, or on Friday, about the progress that we’ve seen in Iraq, but about the work that we still need to see going forward.

With regard to events today, let me simply say that the United States strongly condemns the terrorist attacks today that targeted innocent men, women, and children throughout Iraq. This kind of senseless violence such as this tears at the fabric of Iraqi unity. Our condolences go out to the families of the victims. We will continue our efforts to work with the Government of Iraq to combat al-Qaida and other threats to peace and security and unity in the country. That is the basis of our strategic partnership with Iraq and all the work we do together on security, on economic development, on stability across the country. It’s still difficult, but extremely important.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up: You, as a senior foreign policy official, what would be the lessons learned from this whole experience going forward, let’s say, with Afghanistan or Syria?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think we’re not going to do a big retrospective on Iraq. We will continue to talk about this in the coming days and years. We obviously have to continue to work with countries in democratic transition to ensure unity, to ensure that disputes are settled peacefully through dialogue, that there is a place in these transition societies for all the people of the country regardless of their sectarian background, their religious background.

The Iraqi constitution is strong. We want to see it continue to be implemented. That’s – the underlying principles in that constitution are the same as we wish for all transitioning countries. It’s a matter, then, of implementation.

QUESTION: Change topics?

MS. NULAND: Please, yeah.

QUESTION: The Indian Supreme Court has stopped the Italian Ambassador to leave the country.

MS. NULAND: I’m sorry, the?

QUESTION: The Indian Supreme Court has barred the Italian Ambassador in India to leave the country because of a dispute over death of – two marines who had killed two fishermans last year in Kerala. Does the U.S. has any position on this? The EU has come out with a statement today saying that this is a violation of Vienna Convention. India says the Italian Ambassador has – Indian Supreme Court says the Italian Ambassador has violated – has gone back on his commitment that he gave to the court.

MS. NULAND: This sounds like an issue between India and Italy, not an issue for us.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about Rwanda? Do you have any more information on Mr. – General Ntaganda and what your intentions are with him? Have you reached out to The Hague? Do you plan to transfer him in the coming days?

MS. NULAND: Mr. Ntaganda remains at the U.S. Embassy while we continue to consult with individuals and governments, including the Government of Rwanda, seeking to facilitate his transfer to the Hague at his own request. We do expect that the Rwandan Government will cooperate in facilitating his transfer to the ICC, consistent with its commitments. I would note that the Ministry of Justice tweeted not too long ago that it will provide safe passage, so now it’s a matter of working out the modalities, and that’s going to take a little bit more time, it appears.

QUESTION: Can you tell us anything more about how he came into the Embassy? Yesterday, there was precious little detail, just that he walked up and said, “Hi, I’m here,” something like that.

MS. NULAND: Yeah. I can confirm, as I said yesterday after the briefing, that we did not have any prior notice or any consultations with him to indicate that he would do that. He was a walk-in, in the truest sense of the word.

QUESTION: And can you say anything about why he chose the American Embassy as a venue to make his declarations known?

MS. NULAND: I think we’re going to leave that for him to speak to when he chooses to.

QUESTION: Is there any indication —

QUESTION: (Inaudible) that he might be fearful for his safety?

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m going to let him speak to his motives. He’s now asked to go to the Hague. That’s a good thing. We’re trying to facilitate that.

QUESTION: I mean, one of the reasons might be possibly that he – the Rwandans would not welcome whatever testimony he has to give, because it might show their implication in what’s been happening in the Great Lakes region.

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m not going to speak to his motives. We’ll let him do that. I would say, as I said at the beginning, that the Rwandan Government is indicating it will help facilitate, and we hope that’s the case.

QUESTION: Is there any indication that he may be followed by others looking to do the same?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have any information about others. There have been – there has been information about several hundred combatants from M23 who fled the DRC into Rwanda, and that some of them are being held now. But I don’t have anything further on others seeking ICC sanctuary, if that’s the right way to put it.

QUESTION: Can you recall the last time an ICC indictee willingly gave himself up to go to the Hague?

MS. NULAND: We’ve had ICC indictees in the Balkan context who have cooperated with —

QUESTION: (Inaudible)?

MS. NULAND: Yeah, we have. We have had some.


QUESTION: One, still on —

MS. NULAND: Yeah, still on this? Yeah.

QUESTION: Still on this, please. So going back to what you just said, you’re confident that Kigali will actually help transfer him? Because earlier yesterday, they were saying that they had no role to play with it in his transfer to the ICC at all.

MS. NULAND: What I said was that we expect that they will cooperate and meet their obligations, and I also noted that the Ministry of Justice itself has put out word that it will provide safe passage. So we’ve obviously got to work out the modalities, as I said, but we will hold them to those expectations.

QUESTION: How long are you prepared to keep him in the Embassy?

MS. NULAND: Again, we want to work this out as quickly as we can.

QUESTION: For however long it takes?

MS. NULAND: We want to make sure we can work it out properly and we can get him to the Hague, as he has requested.

QUESTION: On Russia. The – this case of this adopted boy that died. The Russian Government is criticizing the Texas prosecutors for not indicting the adoptive parents of the boy, who they say killed him. And I’m wondering if you – what you think of that, of their criticism, and whether you think that this will further aggravate efforts by you to work out the adoption issue with Russia.

MS. NULAND: First, let me say that we are deeply saddened by this terrible tragedy, and we extend our condolences to Max Shatto’s family. As has been announced in Texas after the medical examiner’s March 1st findings that his death was accidental, the grand jury determined that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against the Shattos. The district attorney and law enforcement officials in Texas conducted professional and thorough investigations into Max Shatto’s death. This included multiple reviews by medical experts, and a final review of the evidence and investigation were provided to the grand jury before they vacated the case.

We are in constant contact with Russian authorities, with Texas authorities. We have facilitated their contact with each other. This is a tragic case, but we don’t think it ought to change our ability to work through the remaining adoption cases in Russia.


QUESTION: Change of topic.

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News. Did then-Secretary Clinton – topic Benghazi – did then-Secretary Clinton ever visit with the survivors from Benghazi or the evacuees at Walter Reed or elsewhere?

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

QUESTION: No yes-or-no questions?

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

QUESTION: Okay. And was any list provided to Capitol Hill investigators, those members on Congress, on Capitol Hill, that were asking for a list of survivors or evacuees?

MS. NULAND: We have been working with the Congress on the Benghazi issue, both houses, many committees, for months and months and months, and we have been very open to all of their requests and transparent with them about the details and the ARB investigation, et cetera.

QUESTION: Just one more follow-up.


QUESTION: I know Director Mueller’s on Capitol Hill today. Is he talking about the hacking of the emails between then-Secretary Clinton and Blumenthal?

MS. NULAND: You’re asking me what —

QUESTION: About the hacking.

MS. NULAND: — FBI Director Mueller is talking about on the Hill?

QUESTION: Well, no – then okay, forget —

MS. NULAND: It sounds like a question for the FBI.

QUESTION: Can we skip – is your – do you have a statement about the hacking story that came out yesterday, about the hacking of emails?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything for you on that.


QUESTION: Can I ask on Cyprus?

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I wondered what the American assessment was on how the Eurozone deal with the Cypriot authorities has been handled. We’ve all seen an outpouring of anger from Cypriots about – in fear that they’re going to have their – what they call a haircut taken off their savings and deposits. Today the British are flying out a million euros for their troops who have been hit by this. What – how does America assess that this has been handled?

MS. NULAND: I would also refer you to comments that Jay Carney made yesterday. He spoke quite extensively on the Cyprus situation. We are continuing to monitor developments in Cyprus. As you heard yesterday from Treasury as well, Secretary Lew has been engaged with his European counterparts on the issue. Cyprus obviously faces some difficult choices. It’s a critical time. And we support efforts to restore the country’s economy to the path of growth and stability. More broadly, we have a profound interest in Europe’s prosperity as our largest economic partner. But I would refer you to Treasury for any more detailed questions.

QUESTION: Is there a feeling that perhaps this deal, which was agreed, is undermining confidence in the European banking system in general?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think we’ll let Treasury speak to any specific questions.


QUESTION: On the Palestinian issue.

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Israel just deported the Palestinian prisoner hunger strikers to Gaza. Do you believe that is a violation of human rights?

MS. NULAND: I had not seen that, Said. We will take that and if we have anything to share we’ll get back to you.

All right? Thank you all.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:08 p.m.)