State Department Noon Briefing, December 23, 2003
|Tuesday December 23, 2003
U.S. Department of State
BRIEFER: Richard Boucher, Spokesman
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 23, 2003
12:55 p.m. EST
MR. BOUCHER: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's a pleasure to be here. I don't have any statements or announcements. I'd be glad to take your questions.
QUESTION: Does the Administration plan to take Israel to task over the raid in Gaza?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't have anything specific on the raid in Gaza. We've always made clear that Israel has a right to defend itself, but needs to decide its actions in a way that doesn't result in the harm to innocent life and that doesn't disrupt prospects for forward movements towards peace. I'll leave it at that general comment that we've always made in cases like this.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? With Israel, you always maintain that Israel has its right to defend itself, but at any point do you question Israel on what it feels is self-defense versus what it feels is provoc -- what you feel is provocative action?
MR. BOUCHER: I would say that, as we have from here, we have often -- we always talk to the Israelis about actions that they take and how they may or may not contribute to Israeli security and the security of ordinary Israelis. That involves perhaps a bigger picture than just a specific action. But as you know, at times we have questioned the kinds of actions that they have carried out, the methods or the equipment used, because we felt that it was not done with regard to innocent life, it was not done with regard to the prospects of movement on the peace process.
QUESTION: But you don't question this particular action, in other words?
MR. BOUCHER: I'm not getting into this particular one, no.
QUESTION: On the -- a week ago Prime Minister Sharon gave his speech, he outlined in there a vision of how Israel might deal with the question of a settlement freeze. Have you come to any position on the ideas he laid out there and how that would conform with the requirements of the roadmap for a settlement freeze, including natural growth?
MR. BOUCHER: I think, first of all, we, I think, have responded on the speech itself. We have noted a number of things that he said: the specifics that he laid out in terms of steps he promised to take with regard to easing life for Palestinians; specifics he promised to take -- specific steps he promised to take to move down on the roadmap and to try to get progress on that. We avoided speculating on some of the things he said might, could be down the road.
In terms of action on settlements, we have made clear in the roadmap and elsewhere that we -- as part of the roadmap, there needs to be a freeze on settlements, including natural growth. We have not accepted any particular amendments to that, to that view. And so that remains the view of the U.S. Government.
QUESTION: I see. So the concept that he laid out in that speech, in which the -- you could allow -- you would not allow construction -- growth of settlements beyond the construction line, but allow, actually, buildings placed in there and additional people brought into settlements if they're within, you know, kind of infield building -- that is not a concept that at this moment is a choice that --
MR. BOUCHER: That's not a concept that we've agreed to or adopted. That was something that the Israelis at various moments have put forward.
QUESTION: So that's -- okay, so that's not something that's been accepted yet?
MR. BOUCHER: No.
QUESTION: Richard, the tour to East Jerusalem yesterday by Foreign Minister Maher of Egypt was roundly criticized -- the critics in the Egyptian press. Is this a first step in that both the Egyptian Government as well as news media are now critical of these extremists?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't think I can do that kind of commentary for you. I haven't followed the Egyptian press closely enough over time to know if that's the first time that they've criticized this kind of extremism.
Certainly, our view has been that Egypt has played a very important and helpful role in this process, and that the visit of Foreign Minister Maher yesterday was a good one. It was part of trying to move forward, a task that we, and they, are working hard at.
The Secretary did speak to Foreign Minister Maher yesterday about the time that we were in this room, so about midday. They talked about the incident, but they also talked about how to continue to press to move -- press the parties to move forward on the roadmap, press the parties to move forward on the peace process.
And later in the afternoon he also talked to Prime Minister Sharon and Foreign Minister Shalom about the same things: the incident and how to move forward on the roadmap.
QUESTION: I have a follow-up. Prime Minister Maher is scheduled, or at least up until now, to take a tour to Ramallah on the next week to ten days. Under those circumstances, do you think that trip could be worthwhile?
MR. BOUCHER: I really am not going to comment on his trips. We have appreciated the Egyptian Government's efforts on the roadmap and appreciated the personal involvement of Egyptian leaders and have worked closely with them.
QUESTION: In Bahrain, the Embassy has sent out a Warden message talking about a specific threat and says it's looking -- it's trying to gather more information on this. Do you have anything more you can tell us about that, and is it yet clear whether that threat was made specifically against Americans or more broadly against Western targets?
MR. BOUCHER: I am not in a position to go into too much detail on any specific threat. I would remind people that there is a Worldwide Caution, there is worldwide danger for Americans and Westerners. There have been more specific cautions issued with regard to the Arabian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula. And in this case of the Warden message, they did have information that deals with possible threats specific to Bahrain.
But generally, we consider that the threats out there are to Americans and Westerners and sometimes other groups as well. Unfortunately, you'll remember some of the bombings in Saudi Arabia where Arabs were hit as well.
So we're seeking more information about the threat, but the Embassy felt it was prudent at this time to put out a general announcement to the American community in Bahrain since that's where the threat is centered, this particular threat is centered, that alerted them to the possibility of attacks there.
QUESTION: Any idea how they got the timeframe of up to January 2nd?
MR. BOUCHER: I wouldn't be able to talk about that, no.
QUESTION: There was some talks that the Administration is planning to carry on with the alert status well into 2004. Do you have a comment on that?
And secondly --
MR. BOUCHER: I can't predict at this time how long it will last. It will depend on the threat information and the situation.
QUESTION: Secondly, the information that the intelligence are gathering is, as you said, is from certain sources, specified sources or specific sources, as they say. Is this information just mainly based on what they intercept through communication or messages between al-Qaida, or do you have information from Western intelligence or maybe Arab intelligence like Saudi Arabia?
MR. BOUCHER: I did not talk about intelligence sources, I will not talk about intelligence sources and I don't think I've ever done that in the past. I'm sorry, but we're just not in a position to talk about sources of intelligence.
We have information that we consider credible, based on a large number of sources, that the threat environment is at a high level right now. And that's why we raised our warning, that's why we put out the Worldwide Caution, and that's why we are taking so many steps at home and around the world in conjunction with other governments to improve security for people around the world.
QUESTION: Can you elaborate on those steps? Embassies?
MR. BOUCHER: Again, we don't get into specifics of what embassies are doing here or there. Certainly our embassies are working closely with local governments in terms of exchanging information and analyzing the local threat environment.
Second of all, the embassies have -- I'm sure almost all, if not all -- convened their emergency committees to look at specific information, specific environment that they operate in. They always look again at things like access routes, police presence, whether there are other things we need to ask local governments for in terms of closing roads or manning guard posts or expanding patrols.
There are a lot of things like that that our embassies can do, many of these things that they do on a regular basis, but a lot of things they can do to even further increase security at a time of high alert.
QUESTION: When the alert goes out that says that there are fears al-Qaida is going to try to hijack foreign airliners, does the State Department take any initiative in talking to foreign governments about what security measures they're taking at their own airports and on their airliners?
MR. BOUCHER: We certainly do. Many places we also have the Federal Aviation Administration working with other governments on airline security. They are located in many of our embassies and consulates at some of the major travel points overseas. And our embassies work with other governments, our people here work with other governments, to make sure that airport security around the world is kept at the highest possible levels.
QUESTION: Today there is supposed to be a summit meeting between President Mubarak and President Assad of Syria. With the United States being involved in the Middle East peace and Egypt being facilitator on many issues in there and facing lots of problems of obtaining any substantive steps from Sharon government, I wonder if you have any leverage in these talks or if you have any message to the summit.
MR. BOUCHER: I don't think it's for us to comment on meetings between two other governments like that. I'm sure that they will discuss the situation in the region, they will discuss the situation with Iraq, they will discuss many things that you and the parties, and the Egyptians included, are all very familiar with our views on. So to the extent the United States may come up in their meetings, that would be interesting, but it's not for us to give them messages or set the agenda for their discussions.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about Secretary Powell's interview yesterday with Ambassador Bremer?
MR. BOUCHER: The Secretary met yesterday afternoon at his home with Ambassador Bremer. Ambassador Bremer is back, as you know, for consultations, had a number of meetings with others in the Administration, including at the White House. And he went out to the Secretary's house [yesterday] afternoon, where they were joined by Deputy Secretary Armitage and Assistant Secretary for Near East Bill Burns.
Really, what they're talking about at this point is working to plan the political transition in Iraq, talking about how to support a UN role in that process, how to work with the United Nations as we're looking at upcoming events, and also to plan our own particular transition, which is from a coalition authority to basically a very large embassy setup that will work and support the Iraqi government when that Iraqi interim government is created on June 30th.
So they talked about things like personnel. How do we staff up a coalition? Ambassador Bremer is generally very satisfied with the people we've sent out to work with him, and we'll be sending more and more as we move to this sort of embassy-type operation on June 30th. So that's what they're planning.
More generally, I'd have to say that the Secretary has been using his time at the house, including all the e-mails, phone calls and other communications that people have been getting here to really look forward at next year: look forward at next year at this political transition in Iraq; look forward to how we can keep -- get some movement in the Middle East peace; look forward to how we use the structures that we've established with regard to North Korea or, now, Libya, or the IAEA in Iran to move forward on, to stop threats of weapons of mass destruction; a number of other areas -- Millennium Challenge Accounts, AIDS. So this was part of that process of -- that we've been working on for some time, but that he's particularly focused on in this time this week.
QUESTION: Was there discussion of keeping U.S. forces past the June 30th transition, and whether it would be a status of forces agreement? You know, what -- can you bring us up to date on where that stands?
MR. BOUCHER: That's -- certainly we all know that after the transition to an Iraqi interim government that they will need help with security and that U.S. forces will have to remain there to help them with security.
To what extent that was a specific discussion yesterday, I don't know. I don't know if they got into the details of how that would be done. But certainly that is part of the process of political transition that we are planning for, that the Secretary is looking forward to and planning for in Iraq this year.
QUESTION: But it sounds as if, when you talk about more personnel, more about staffing an embassy, that the State Department will have much more of a role in the political transition than up to this point, that the Coalition Authority, working with the Iraqis, has been led mostly by --
MR. BOUCHER: Well, the structure changes on June 30th when you have an Iraqi government. As you know from the November 15th agreement, on June 30th you have an Iraqi interim government and the Coalition Authority is no longer the authority in Iraq.
In terms of the U.S. presence -- the U.S. support and work with the Iraqis -- it's an embassy. It's an embassy that has lots of people to monitor the situation, help the Iraqis get established, that has a significant assistance program -- a very big, probably the biggest assistance program we have anywhere -- and that in other ways is set up to work with the Iraqis.
So we are planning on how to staff that up, planning on how to support the political transition in Iraq. Ambassador Bremer has been working on that now with all the parties in Iraq, working on how to implement the November 15th decisions of the Governing Council.
But that leads to a point on June 30th when there is a transition, not just a big one for the Iraqis, but also a transition from the Coalition Authority to an embassy -- a very large embassy.
QUESTION: Richard, in the meeting yesterday, did the communications with Sistani come up, and were there any conclusions reached on how, how we -- the United States --
MR. BOUCHER: I think generally, the political process in Iraq, the subject of Ambassador Bremer's discussion with all the Iraqi parties about how to implement the decisions of November 15th that he and the Governing Council took, that was the topic of discussion. We know there are different views in Iraq about how that should be implemented, but it's a decision that's been made and that we're going forward with, and that they are talking to all the parties about how to implement it.
QUESTION: Has there been a building chosen for our embassy yet? There's been talk --
MR. BOUCHER: Excuse me?
MR. BOUCHER: Has there been a building chosen for the U.S. Embassy, when you talk about getting the embassy staffed, you must --
MR. BOUCHER: I don't know if there's a final decision yet. The understanding is that we will have to build something for the longer term, but we have to find something for the short term as an interim location. I'll see when we have something to put out on that, if we've decided.
QUESTION: It's being reported that you might possibly go into the palace there.
MR. BOUCHER: I know it's been reported. What I'm trying to find out if those -- if there are decisions that have been made or not. I know we've looked at various locations in Iraq, in Baghdad, as an interim location for a U.S. Embassy, but let me find out if I can say whether there's been a decision or not. I just don't know.
QUESTION: I mean, there are some people that have criticized the possibility of the U.S. Government going into that palace. Is that a concern?
MR. BOUCHER: I'm sure we all know that there's no interim or a temporary location that you can find that would be ideal from all points of view. As I said, I will look and see if there's a decision or not.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) do you think that Sistani will pose a serious problem to the U.S. Government or Administration there? And the fact that until now he has not met with any U.S. officials, he is one of -- he is the most popular Shia clergy in Iraq, and he wants general election.
MR. BOUCHER: I'm not in a position to focus on any particular individual and what he does, doesn't do, what he might or might not think. That's for him to explain if he wants to.
What I would say is that we have a decision of the Governing Council that needs to be carried out. It needs to be carried out in cooperation with all -- all the people in Iraq, all the leaders in Iraq; that the Coalition Authority, Ambassador Bremer is meeting with a variety of people about how that can be implemented, talking to various groups around the country, and working the issue of how to implement the November 15th decision. So that's a process that's still underway.
QUESTION: Richard, from yesterday, you took a question concerning a surprise visit by Fidel Castro to Venezuela to meet with Hugo Chavez. And there's a Democratic Action party opposition that's asking for a recall, which includes both Hugo Chavez and 26 members aligned with him in the legislature.
Are you in support of this Democratic Action party and do you -- do you think there should be a recall?
MR. BOUCHER: I think this is something that we have discussed repeatedly over months of time as this process has gone forward. We've supported the rights of Venezuelans to petition for a recall under their constitution. We've supported the Group of Friends of Venezuela that has tried to monitor this process and make sure it's carried out peacefully, with full respect for the rights of the individuals involved. But we've also made clear we're not in the business of choosing other countries' leaders or supporting any particular faction or party.
QUESTION: Is that it?
MR. BOUCHER: No, we've got a couple more.
QUESTION: There were wire reports over the weekend out of China, I guess, quoting the Chinese News Agency about a special envoy named Joseph Detrani on North Korean affairs. Is this a -- is this the replacement for Jack Pritchard or is this a new position?
MR. BOUCHER: No, it's the -- it's a new guy. And I think we've -- well, let me -- the Chinese did put out some reports of his visit to China, and I'm prepared to tell you from our side about it. First, to make the point that we're continuing to work with the Chinese and other participants in an effort to resume the talks early in the coming year. Mr. Joseph Detrani joined the Department last month to become the Special Envoy for Negotiations with the DPRK, North Korea, and the U.S. Representative to KEDO, the Korean Energy Development Organization.
During his trip to Beijing, Mr. Detrani met with Asian Affairs Director General Fu Ying, incoming Chinese Ambassador for the Korean Peninsula Nuclear Issue, Ning Fukui, U.S. Affairs Director General He Yafei and Vice Minister -- Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi. They obviously discussed the situation in the North Korean Peninsula and the six-party talks. He also had an opportunity to call on the Korean and Japanese ambassadors to China because we always coordinate closely with our friends and allies in this process.
QUESTION: What sort of goals are you looking for in the -- there has been reporting about a statement that the Chinese would like to have issued as part of the next round of talks. And what, specifically, are you looking for in that statement that has thus far been lacking in the previous drafts?
MR. BOUCHER: Well, as we've discussed, I think, many times from this podium in recent weeks, we have been willing to go to talks without any preconditions. We have not required anything in either a statement or anything particular in that statement in order to go to talks.
At the same time, we've been willing to work with the Chinese and others on possible outcomes for the talks, possible understandings that can be reached in the talks that might form the basis of a final statement. Our goals, obviously, are to obtain the complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, to explain how we're willing to do that, as the President did in Bangkok, and to otherwise structure a process where that process can proceed in a verifiable manner.
QUESTION: Right, but they -- hasn't it been of concern that the previous drafts of that statement did not include all those elements that you just outlined?
MR. BOUCHER: We've been working with the Chinese and we've talked to the Chinese about this upcoming round, including on possible outcomes. That's a process that does continue. But I need to make clear once again that the United States has not set any preconditions for these talks and we would hope the North Koreans would not do that either.
QUESTION: And just lastly, there was a report over the weekend that Vice President Cheney, at a meeting on North Korea, said that the United States doesn't negotiate with evil. Do you know if there's any accuracy to that?
MR. BOUCHER: I wouldn't be able to speak for the Vice President. You'll have to ask his office.
QUESTION: Do you have anything on Pakistan acknowledging that some of its nuclear scientists might have cooperated in providing technology to Iran?
MR. BOUCHER: I think we talked about that yesterday. We've made clear our view that all nations should avoid nuclear cooperation with Iran, particularly in the areas of weapons development; that Iran needs to comply with all the requirements of the Board of Governors. So we've welcomed the inquiry or investigation that the Pakistanis are conducting into reports of possible ties from the past, and we think that's a positive process and demonstrates once again a Pakistani intention to carry out President Musharraf's commitment that he made to us that Pakistan will not be involved in any sort of transfers involved in weapons of mass destruction.
QUESTION: Just one quickly on Secretary Baker's trip next week. Japan hasn't really announced whether they're going to forgive Iraq's debt or not yet. Do you have any expectations, any comments on his trip?
MR. BOUCHER: I think we'll let Secretary Baker make his trip, as we did the last one, let him have his discussions. I'm sure he'll be very helpful, as he was on the last one, in telling us what comes out of that.
QUESTION: Libyan leader, Muammar Qadhafi gave an interview in which he said that he -- that Libya had a nuclear program in terms of a peaceful energy program, but that Libya did not have any nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons. Is that your understanding based on the negotiations that you've had with the Libyans over the last nine weeks?
MR. BOUCHER: I think what we saw and what we -- what the Libyans have disclosed in terms of their nuclear program has been made public to a great extent.
The next step in this process is that the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency is going down to Libya. We expect that Libya, in accord with the promises it has made, will get them involved in verification and destruction of nuclear equipment and materials that they had been developing. And so that'll be the next step in terms of inventory and verification, identification and moving onward.
We also expect Libya to sign, as they have promised to sign, the additional protocol which provides for more stringent oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
QUESTION: He also said that in exchange for him scrapping his programs that Libya expected to have a better relationship with the United States, and also said that -- that he expects that access to new technologies, things like that, will be shared with the Libyans and that U.S. businesses will be able to do business there once again, soon.
Have you given the Libyans any guarantees in terms of if they scrap its nuclear program that -- or weapons program -- that this is what they'll get? Or is it more of a, "You scrap everything and then you'll get better relations"?
MR. BOUCHER: The President, when he spoke about this last Friday, made clear that this was part of a process of Libya coming to rejoin the community of nations, and that we were willing to be partners, be -- reciprocate steps in that process.
At the same time, I think we've also made clear it may take some time to work our way through each of these issues -- the various problems that we've had with Libya's past behavior, the various sanctions that we have on Libya because of that. Each of those things will have to be looked at carefully, based on its merit and based on Libyan actions; first, Libyan actions that they have promised and that we expect will be in the area of weapons of mass destruction.
But there are other issues involved in terms of U.S. sanctions and relations as well, so we'll have to take the time, work our way through those things. Each decision will have to be based on its own merits. But certainly the prospect is out there of some improvement in our relations and some lifting of these sanctions if Libya meets the requirements for each and every one of them.
QUESTION: In Sudan, the two parties say that they have come to an agreement in principle on wealth sharing, which I think was the last sticking point, or the biggest sticking point left to getting an accord by the end of the year. Can you talk about that -- what the U.S. prognosis is?
MR. BOUCHER: I don't have a prognosis. Certainly we have been working very hard to try to help the parties come to agreement. Wealth sharing was the principal area of discussion in the Secretary's phone call with Dr. Garang and Vice President Taha -- last Friday?
MR. ERELI: Friday.
MR. BOUCHER: When he talked to each of them separately in those two phone calls. So we know that was one of the major issues at the talks. We have people who are out there who are working on these issues -- not at a point quite yet where I can say it's wrapped up or that they have agreed, but they did promise the Secretary and have subsequently worked with us to try to keep to their commitment to finish the talks by the end of this year.
QUESTION: And you don't have a -- you don't have a readout from our people there on how close this agreement in principle is to a real agreement on the wealth sharing?
MR. BOUCHER: No, I don't have a prediction that goes beyond the fact that they've been working very hard on wealth sharing at this point to say whether they're wrapping it all up or not.
QUESTION: There is an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, today. It says that the British Government, in cooperation with France and Germany, are trying to persuade Syria to open up for inspection and mainly to sign up an agreement regarding its chemical weapons. Are you familiar with the plan? Have they been in contact with the U.S. Government about that?
MR. BOUCHER: You'd have to ask the governments involved about that. I'm not in a position to brief on it.
QUESTION: No, but are you -- I mean, are you -- have you been informed?
MR. BOUCHER: I wouldn't be in a position to brief on it. I'm sorry.
QUESTION: You don't know anything about it or you just have not been informed?
MR. BOUCHER: I personally don't know anything about it, but I don't think it's for the U.S. Government to talk about other people's plans. I'm sorry.
QUESTION: In the last half week you've had a report on religious freedoms, and yet in China they've cracked down on unofficial worship. Yes -- shocking. Have you spoken to the Chinese concerning this?
MR. BOUCHER: We have repeatedly raised our concerns about religious freedom in China. We know the conditions are different from region to region, but there are consistent reports of harassment, intimidation, detention of religious believers. We've documented this treatment of religious activity in our annual report that you've read.
I would point out the Chinese constitution guarantees the right of religious belief, religious freedoms protected under international human rights interests, and we've called on the Chinese Government to respect and protect this right for all of its citizens.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:30 p.m.)
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