Mark C. Toner Deputy Spokesperson Daily Press Briefing Washington, DC October 19, 2015

Read Time38 Minute, 15 Second


1:41 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Hey, everybody. Happy Monday. I hope everyone had a nice weekend. I feel a little bit badly because I assured Arshad he had time to go get a coffee, and he’s not here.

QUESTION: Do you feel bad it’s 30 degrees in this room?

MR TONER: Yes, that too. It’s autumnal. Welcome to the State Department. I don’t actually have anything at the top, so I’ll take your questions.


QUESTION: So can we start with the Secretary’s comments today in Spain? And he noted that he wanted to talk about the Temple Mount status quo when he goes to the region, and specifically he suggested that they needed more clarity on the status quo. Can you elaborate on what he means by that?

MR TONER: You’re talking about, obviously, his —

QUESTION: Sorry. The Temple —

MR TONER: — the press availability that he gave in Spain earlier today and – as you noted.

QUESTION: Correct.

MR TONER: And he’s on his way back now. Here’s Arshad. Very good. I said I noted you were going to —

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the coffee was good. (Laughter.)

Thank you, sir. I want to make sure everyone’s in good mood and good – in good stead.

So obviously, the Secretary is, as he said, intending to travel to the region, and we’ll get the details to you. He’s still finalizing some of the meetings that he’s going to have. But in terms of your specific comments about the Temple Mount, I mean, we’ve said all along that we want to see the status quo maintained. And that’s obviously a critical part to reducing tensions and ending the violence, and ultimately, that’s where our priority is. In the coming days we want to obviously call on all sides to reduce tensions, scale back the rhetoric, and to end the violence as soon as possible.

QUESTION: Last week the – your fellow spokesman said there was no evidence Israel is not adhering to the status quo. Today the Secretary said he doesn’t contemplate changes to the status quo, nor does Israel —

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: — he said. Nor does Israel. And Israel has constantly said they’re not changing the status quo. So what is this clarity that is necessary if Israel isn’t changing the status quo, according to the U.S. Government, and is saying it isn’t changing the status quo? What has to be clear?

MR TONER: Look, I certainly don’t want to attempt to parse the Secretary’s words. As you appropriately mentioned, he did stress that everybody is clear about what is happening with respect to the Temple Mount and that Israel has made it clear that they do not intend to and have not changed the status quo.

And I think perhaps what we’re talking about is just clarity on all sides, and that includes the Palestinian side, that there is no change in the status quo, that all sides need to recognize that, make every effort possible to reduce tensions, and as I said, end the violence so that we can begin to take affirmative actions, as the Secretary has talked about, to reduce the temperature and to end the violence and to begin moving towards, ultimately, a two-state solution.

QUESTION: Do you believe that —

MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead, Said.

QUESTION: — that the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, exercises any authority over what’s going on in East Jerusalem, in terms of being able to sort of enforce any kind of security?

MR TONER: Well, I mean, he’s the president and so, as such —

QUESTION: But East Jerusalem is —

MR TONER: Understood.

QUESTION: — under Israeli occupation.

MR TONER: Understood, understood. I understand the – well, I understand the —


MR TONER: — context. But we believe he is still a viable voice to Palestinian and the Palestinian people and as such, as their leader, should make every effort possible to reduce tensions. That’s what we’re talking about here. I mean, we want to see all sides here take appropriate measures.

QUESTION: Right. Yeah, I understand. But there seems to be a disconnect between the reality on the ground where a lot of these young people are not, basically, listening to Mahmoud Abbas. He exercises no authority whatsoever over them.

MR TONER: Well —

QUESTION: He seems to – I mean, all the rhetoric aside, in reality he does not impact the situation.

MR TONER: No, of course, Said. But —

QUESTION: In the absence of this, what and how should the Palestinians in East Jerusalem be governed?

MR TONER: Well, I think what we’re talking about – your larger question at the end there notwithstanding, you mentioned that young Palestinians may or may not be listening to their leadership, may be getting cues from social media. But I think ultimately, just as in our own country, we look to our political leadership to send a clear message to the public – everyone from the young people to the old people in our society – and as a society we take our cues from our political leadership in many cases.

And so what we’re talking about is that message that will permeate down to the people, to the Palestinian youth. There’s other ways, obviously, to amplify that message, reinforce that message. But we’ve seen more violence over the weekend on both sides, but certainly, the attack yesterday on the Beersheba central bus station – and obviously, we extend our condolences to the victims of that attack. But what our priority, what our focus is right now, is to end the violence and for all sides to make every effort possible to reduce tensions.

QUESTION: I just have a couple more —

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: — on this issue.


QUESTION: Do you consider the entire closure of neighborhoods, completely sealing it off, disallowing people from movement, disallowing people from going to sort of harvest the olives, which is – this is the harvest season and so on – does that fall under collective punishment, in your view?

MR TONER: I would say look, I mean, on specific Israeli measures taken, security measures taken, I would refer you to the Israeli Government. Where we have been on this issue is that we support Israel’s right to defend itself. Certainly, what measures it takes is for its – is for it to explain. But there is certainly a heightened security, a sense of fear among the Israeli population, given that these attacks continue.

QUESTION: And my last question on this. Do you think that Israel is exercising self-defense in territories that it has occupied militarily for so many decades? Is that – does that fall under self-defense?

MR TONER: I think, again, what I would stress is that there have been a series of, frankly, ongoing attacks against innocent Israeli citizens. There’s been violence on both sides, clearly. But what I’m specifically referring to when I say Israel’s right to defend itself is to take the measures necessary to protect its own citizens.


QUESTION: Actually, the attack in Beersheba was carried out by an Israeli Arab, so Abbas has no control over it. It’s an Israeli. But saying that, Israelis have been accused Abbas of incitement while he’s clearly for a long time has been pursuing nonviolent path to end the occupation. So do you believe that Abbas inciting demonstrators, whether they’re listening, as you said, to social media, or they’re doing things by themselves or not? Do you blame him like the Israelis of inciting the violence?

MR TONER: I’m going to answer it this way, that President Abbas should, as the elected leader, make every effort to reinforce that message, to reduce tension, to promote nonviolence to his people in order to end the – this uptick, this cycle of violence that’s ongoing.


QUESTION: Sorry, just one technical question.

MR TONER: Go ahead. Go ahead. No worries.

QUESTION: I know you said you’re finalizing the schedule for the Secretary, but so now we’re ruling out that he’s meeting Netanyahu in Germany since he’s going to be in Washington tomorrow and Wednesday. So are we – is that correct?

MR TONER: I’m sorry. You said he’s ruling out – meaning the Secretary’s going to be —

QUESTION: I’m asking you – no, I said —

MR TONER: I apologize.

QUESTION: I’m asking you – you said you’re in the process of getting his schedule sorted out.

MR TONER: We are.

QUESTION: So are we ruling that the Secretary’s meeting with Netanyahu in Germany, as it was reported before?

MR TONER: That has been reported. Look, this is very – his intention is, as he said earlier today, is to meet with Netanyahu. We talked about meeting in Germany. We’re still finalizing the whole trip. And there’s obviously a Syria component to the trip, but clearly, a component that will talk about the ongoing violence in Israel and Jerusalem. So once we have those details ironed out, we’ll announce the whole trip. But I don’t want to get in the process of – or get into the process of confirming bits and pieces. I just want to be able to make sure that we give you guys the full trip and the full laydown.

QUESTION: I mean, is it safe to assume he’s meeting also with King Abdullah of Jordan in the weekend —

MR TONER: See, you’re asking me – I would – no, it’s okay, I understand that. And I understand clearly there’s a high level of interest in the trip. And as I said, the Secretary has already spoken to it somewhat in his press avail he gave earlier today. But until we really nail down the details – who, what, where, when – I just want to hold off on confirming it.


QUESTION: What about his meetings with officials from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and others to discuss Syria? Is there any new plan for the U.S. to present to these —

MR TONER: No, I think he spoke to that frankly at at least some length this morning in Spain. We need to end the violence there. We need to put forward a political process. I mean, we’ve talked about this. So the idea is to pull together the key regional players and to discuss a way forward.

QUESTION: Will it be a collective meeting that means everybody will be in this meeting, or one-on-one meetings?

MR TONER: It’s a good question. I’m not quite sure how it’s going to look. Again, once we have the details ironed out we’ll share all.

QUESTION: Can we finish —

MR TONER: Please. Yeah, please.

QUESTION: — the Israel-Palestine related questions?

MR TONER: Of course we can. Yeah.

QUESTION: You mentioned the attack in Beersheba. One of the persons who died was an Eritrean who wasn’t an attacker but apparently was mistaken for an attacker. Do you have a comment on this incident?

MR TONER: Sure. We’ve obviously also seen those reports about the – that tragic incident of the death of an Eritrean man who was not involved in the attack. We understand the Israeli Government has announced an investigation into this incident and would refer you to them for more specifics. Acknowledging the heightened sense of fear among Israeli citizens and amid this ongoing violence, I would just note what the mayor of Beersheba said to his citizens, which is that they shouldn’t take the law into their own hands.

QUESTION: Have people in the building had a chance to see some of the footage from this incident, where you have him laying on the ground bleeding and then people throwing chairs and stomping on him and doing all sorts of —

MR TONER: There are people in this building who have seen the footage, yes, Brad.

QUESTION: And does this type of – I mean, you mentioned fear, but that’s not the first adjective or first sentiment that strikes one when one watches that. It looks more like anger, hatred, whatever you want to call it. Are you concerned that this is, even just among the Israeli population, getting out of hand with this kind of acts of violence?

MR TONER: Well, again, I’d just – I think the mayor said it best when he said – urged the people not to take the law into their own hands. Whether it’s fear, anger, whatever, this incident is being investigated by Israeli authorities, so we’ll let them be the arbiter of what transpired.


QUESTION: You don’t know of anyone who’s been arrested or anything like that?

MR TONER: I’m not sure, no.

QUESTION: I just want to follow on Brad’s point.

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: I mean, he’s talking about a lynch mob kind of atmosphere, and there is obviously heightened rhetoric that contributes to that kind of —

MR TONER: And we’ve spoken to that as well, Said. We’ve said that everybody needs to – sorry – everybody needs to tone down the rhetoric, reduce the violence, take affirmative action, affirmative steps —

QUESTION: I think Brad’s point – he is saying that, look, the people stomping; it’s hatred and all these things. That’s a lynch mob kind of atmosphere. I mean, you certainly warn against such a thing, right?

MR TONER: I – again, I go back to – I don’t know how I could say much more clearly is people should not take the law into their own hands.

QUESTION: But there were incidents where actually the law enforcement, whether it’s the Israeli army or the police and so on, were actually looking at similar incidents – maybe not so graphic as the one we’ve seen, but in past incidents. So you would call on Israeli authorities and the police and so on not to use excessive force, which you backtracked from the other day.

MR TONER: We – no, that’s – look, we always call on frankly not just Israeli security forces but security forces all over the world to exercise proper restraint. That being said, we certainly recognize Israel’s right to defend itself separate and apart from what we’re talking about here, which is, as you said, this incident involving the death of an Eritrean man. I – again, I think I said it pretty clearly that there’s heightened fear, anger; there’s a lot of emotion. People – as the mayor of Beersheba said, people shouldn’t take the law into their own hands. There’s an investigation underway. Let’s let that play itself out.

Thank you.



MR TONER: Yeah, Pam.

QUESTION: Circling back to Michel’s question from earlier concerning the Secretary’s upcoming trip, it seems like there is an initial willingness expressed on the Israeli side with the announcement last week that Prime Minister Netanyahu was willing to meet with Kerry, possibly in Germany, then nothing really from Palestinian leader Abbas’s side. Is there reluctance on the Palestinian side to have a meeting with Kerry?

MR TONER: No, and I don’t want to get into the dynamics. I mean, certainly, I think almost somewhat legitimately, both on the Israeli side as well as the Palestinian side, they’ve got a lot of violence going on in their country – in the region, rather – and they’re trying to cope with it. And yet, certainly, there’s a willingness to meet with the Secretary to discuss a way forward, but it’s a very dynamic and fluid situation. So I just – again, we don’t have a firm schedule to give you all. Once we do, we’ll share it.

Yes sir.

QUESTION: Likely to have that schedule today?

MR TONER: Hope so. I mean, they’re on the flight back now, but we’re still trying to iron it out, and once we do, we’ll hopefully be able to give you some more information about it.

QUESTION: And what makes you think that the Secretary’s intervention in this instance – if he does go ahead with his planned meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and perhaps also sees President Abbas, what makes you think that that is likely to de-escalate tensions with regard to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif?

MR TONER: Well, a couple of thoughts on that. I mean, one is there’s the power of convening. So if we bring these various parties and people together to talk about some of these issues and discuss appropriate affirmative actions, we hope that that can be a mechanism to bring about a reduction in tensions. Again, what we’re talking about and what we’ve talked about before is trying to find a way forward through positive, affirmative actions that both sides can take to end this. As I said, this ongoing cycle, uptick, however you want to describe it, of violence – somebody needs to break the chains and – not somebody; both sides need to take appropriate measures to reduce the tensions and break the ongoing violence.

QUESTION: What – you mentioned one of the things —


QUESTION: — that you believe Abbas could do, which was to call for an end to violence. What are the practical steps that he or Prime Minister – he and Prime Minister Netanyahu can do?

MR TONER: Sure. I don’t want to necessarily prescribe the exact types of actions we’d like to see either side take. That’s frankly part of the reason why we’d like to meet with them privately, the Secretary, to discuss in real terms what they can do to reduce tensions on both sides, as I said. But generally, as I said, what we want to see is those kinds of affirmative steps that bring down the boiling point or the boiling level that’s currently ongoing.

QUESTION: Two more.

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: One, you talked about the power of convening, bringing the parties together. In all of the reporting that I’ve seen about this —

MR TONER: Although we’re not saying – yeah, no, that’s an important distinction.

QUESTION: — there’s been no discussion of a three-way meeting.

MR TONER: Yeah, what I’m talking about is traveling to, for example, meeting with the Jordanians, meeting with the Palestinians, meeting with Israelis. Obviously, they would be separate, but an opportunity to hear them out and to discuss ways that everyone can work. So I mean, we’re talking about —

QUESTION: So there are no plans for a collective or three-way meeting?

MR TONER: No, no. No.

QUESTION: Okay. And then —

MR TONER: Thank you for clarifying.

QUESTION: Yeah, that’s it for me on that.



QUESTION: Just to go back to the meeting that the Secretary’s calling with the Saudis and the Turks and the Russians about Syria, today, there seems to be an indication from the Saudi foreign minister after his meeting with the German foreign minister that they were willing to keep Assad in power for transitional period. Is this your kind of position as well, that after realization of the Russian military involvement in Syria, there is something has to happen and maybe Assad has to stay for a short period?

MR TONER: Well, we’ve talked about this. And we’ve been very clear, frankly, that Assad ultimately cannot stay in power. He cannot be part of that transitional government, however it ends. But what we want to see happen is a process toward a political resolution. But we’ve been very clear that Assad wouldn’t necessarily have to leave tomorrow or the next day. He can’t be – for obvious reasons, he cannot be a part of the solution here in terms of that transitional government that does emerge. He – for his many crimes against his people, for his brutality, cannot be a part of that ultimate transitional government. So – but we’ve not said that he has to leave tomorrow, that he has to be – that he can’t be part of the transitional process. We’ve been very clear for that – on that for a couple weeks now.

QUESTION: Sure. But I mean, as you know, the Middle East, transitional period could be a month or could be years. So I mean, since you – the President said he lost legitimacy, he said – as you said, all these reasons that you guys have been talking about why he shouldn’t be part of it. Then what are we talking about? This really is a confusing point for many people when you said not tomorrow and not next week, but how long?

MR TONER: I don’t think – I mean, look, maybe it is confusing; I’m not trying to make it confusing and I certainly don’t think it has to be confusing. I can’t put a timeframe on it. I can’t say two weeks, two months, six months. What we clearly need here is a political resolution to the conflict. What’s happening now, what’s being abetted by Russian airstrikes and by Iranian support for Assad, is only going to exacerbate the conflict on the ground and tensions and lead to more violence, ongoing violence, and ongoing casualties among Syrian civilians – innocent civilians. What we need is a political process moving forward, that transition that we talk about, the Geneva communique that lays out the guidelines for that process to take place.

What we have said is that the end result of that process can’t leave Assad in any leadership role given the tremendous suffering that he’s wrought on the people of Syria. And I think it’s not – this isn’t the U.S. dictating this. This is the feeling of many governments around the world, and frankly, the majority of the Syrian people. So that’s all we’re talking about here. I don’t want to lead any confusion that we’re somehow backing off. We’re not.


MR TONER: But we’re talking about a political process that – sorry – that resolves the violence.

QUESTION: So the mechanism will be similar to the Geneva III? Would you allow the Iranians to be part of it or be in on the table, or —

MR TONER: Well, again, the President talked about this at UNGA. We could eventually see and think that Iran does have to be a part of any political resolution. I don’t think we’re there yet, but – please.

QUESTION: This is a wholly hypothetical, this political transition process you’re talking about, right?

MR TONER: I’m not sure —

QUESTION: Is anything going – has the political transition started? I mean, is anything happening on this yet?

MR TONER: No, no, not – I mean, no, that’s – no. But I mean, what we’ve – what we’re working towards and what, frankly, the Secretary has been working towards coming out of the UN General Assembly is getting the various regional players together, along with Russia, to try to exert pressure on Assad to convince him to start such a process. And frankly, like I said, what is not working is what’s happening right now, which is an attempt to shore him up – Assad, I mean – and to —

QUESTION: Right. So we’re still in the process that would – to start the process?

MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, in a sense, yeah. That’s what we’re discussing. That’s what we’re driving toward.

QUESTION: So this process to start the process also has no timeframe, right?

MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, as hard as we – we’re working diligently on it, but it couldn’t – I mean, it’s urgent.

QUESTION: It is? Okay.

QUESTION: Mark, just —

QUESTION: It doesn’t always feel like it’s super-urgent. I mean, what have you changed in your approach in the last three years to – that shows the heightened urgency —

MR TONER: Well, look, Brad. I mean —

QUESTION: — about this political transition strategy?

MR TONER: Sure. I mean, look, we’ve been – this is a tough, complex problem that is not helped by the fact that Russia continues to shore up Assad to strengthen him, and frankly, so that he doesn’t change his political calculus – was that he wants to remain in power.

QUESTION: That’s true, but Russia —

MR TONER: We’ve been working with —

QUESTION: Russia only came in a couple months ago. You had three years before that.

MR TONER: Well, but you know they’ve been doing it for years. They’ve been shoring up Assad.

QUESTION: Yes, but this heightened level between —

MR TONER: No, I agree. And look, I —

QUESTION: — two months ago and going back to July 2012 how —


QUESTION: — this whole urgent period of getting a political transition – I mean, what was accomplished from that?

MR TONER: Well, first of all, the Syrian – moderate Syrian opposition, as we’ve talked about before, has been – has taken some time to coalesce given the pressure they’re under, given the fact that some of them are expatriated because of the threat against them, and some of them are still in Syria. And that’s an ongoing process as well.

But as the Secretary talked about up in New York, Russia can play a constructive role in this process. We can find a way forward. Some of these things can be action-forcing events to get us on a road towards a political resolution. But I agree; it’s gone on too long.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on Nadia’s question —

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: — on the format. Is it going to be like a Geneva III or is it going to be something entirely different altogether? In other words, are you still supporting the efforts done by the UN envoy de Mistura, who is basically using the Geneva format, although a bit expanded?

MR TONER: Yes. I mean, I think that’s the – yes, we still support de Mistura’s outline —


MR TONER: — and Geneva communique.

QUESTION: And given that Geneva II failed miserably because of the intransigence of the negotiators in this case, wouldn’t it be logical and helpful to have actually from the outset Iran and those who have a great deal of leverage or a great deal of interest in this crisis – like Turkey, like Iran, like Saudi Arabia – as part of the process to begin with?

MR TONER: Again, so I don’t want to get ahead of the process. The Secretary is working nonstop, frankly, on this issue. We get that there’s an urgency here that’s only been exacerbated by this refugee crisis, the flow of refugees into Europe, the ongoing violence against Syrians within Syria. This has gone on too long. We need a political process. We have the Geneva communique that lays that out. Certainly, we need Russia, and ultimately Iran, to play constructive roles in this process. And Turkey’s going to be a part of the discussions as well – they have been – as well as every other regional player.

Yes, sir.

QUESTION: If it is your belief, as you just said, that the Russian military operations in Syria are designed to prop up, to strengthen Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and if, as you said, it is the U.S. belief that Assad cannot play any role in an eventual sort of future Syria after some indeterminate transitional period, what makes you think that those two impulses – the Russian to prop up Assad and the U.S. desire to see Assad go – are not irreconcilable? What makes you think that a conversation in Europe this week is likely to reconcile those two hitherto irreconcilable objectives?

MR TONER: Well, as the Secretary said in New York, there are areas in which we agree with Russia. One —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: Well, we agree that ISIL is a profound enemy that needs to be destroyed. We agree that Syria needs to remain whole and intact and secular. We agree there needs to be a political resolution, or at least that’s what they say. And yet, you’re right; we come up against this obstacle, whatever, however you want to describe it, of Assad’s future. Our ultimate belief, I guess, is that Russia will realize it’s playing a losing hand, however you want to frame that or describe that, in propping up a political leader who represents a minority and who has carried out, as I said, an unspeaking campaign of terror against his own people. I’ve said this before, but I can keep reciting the fact that month by month we see human rights groups that tally civilian casualties in Syria: ISIL is behind Assad in the number of civilian casualties per month, and that tells you something about the level of his brutality.

So we’re going to – you’re right; we need to get beyond that sticking point. We need to convince Russia that there needs to be a political process but that they can exert the kind of influence necessary to persuade Assad that he cannot be ultimately the leader of that country.


QUESTION: What outcomes do you expect from these meetings this week?

MR TONER: Boy, I’m certainly not going to predict that. I think we’re still – it’s diplomacy and it’s – you can have the best intentions but you still need to get in the room and talk to people and figure out what can be done and what can be done practically in the near term, and certainly looking towards the long term, but I don’t want to try to predict what concretely may come out of these meetings.

QUESTION: Mark, one more on Syria.


QUESTION:  Is there anything new on reports that Cuba has been sending troops into Syria?

MR TONER: Sure. Well, you saw that the Cuban Government, in fact, denied those claims. And we discussed these allegations with our own experts here at State as well as in the intelligence community and have found nothing to substantiate or corroborate any of these reports. And moreover, no U.S. official has – who would be knowledgeable of Cuban military presence in Syria would corroborate any of these reports. I know one of the articles quoted a U.S. official, but I’m not sure who that was or what their level of expertise or knowledge about this instance or this allegation was.

QUESTION: Change topics?

MR TONER: Yeah, sure, sir. Please. I think so. Are we ready to move?


MR TONER: Yeah, great.

QUESTION: The cyber security firm CrowdStrike has put out a report today noting that Chinese Government-affiliated hackers are continuing to attack American companies. Josh Earnest spoke to it a little while ago, but I wanted to see if you have a reaction from the State Department as well. Are you disappointed by this?

MR TONER: Well, I’m not going to speak to the specific conclusions. I would only say that we take seriously any and all reports of intrusions. Regarding China, regarding cyber security, we’ve been very clear – we continue – we have and will continue to raise our concerns regarding cyber security with China. These efforts have already led to a set of key cyber security initiatives – or commitments, rather, that we announced during the Xi visit – President Xi – which included bilateral commitments that neither government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled economic espionage for commercial gain. And moving forward, we’re going to continue to monitor China’s cyber activities closely and press China to abide by its commitments.

QUESTION: Are you satisfied with the level of adherence to those commitments that you’ve seen so far, or is it – since the three – in three weeks?

MR TONER: I mean, the jury’s still out. We’re still looking at it very closely, and as I said, we’re going to continue to monitor and ask that China hold – abide by its commitments. I’ll leave it there.

Please, sir.

QUESTION: Still on cyber.


QUESTION: Do you have a comment on the story today about the less-than-stellar record of the State Department regarding cyber security, particularly under ex-Secretary Clinton’s time, but also continuing into Secretary Kerry’s tenure?

MR TONER: Sure. A couple of things I’d like to say, actually, to that, Brad. So I would say just overall we disagree with the characterization of our cyber security program in that article that you mentioned. The department has a very strong cyber security program, as I think I said in the article, that we successfully defeated almost 100 percent of the 4 billion – and I’ll say that again – 4 billion attempted intrusions that we experience each year.

And that’s an important point, guys. It’s an important point that sets us apart, I think: We are an outward-facing agency. We are a target. So we get lots of attacks on a daily basis – well, not on a daily basis, on a non-stop basis. So that’s another, I think, important element here, is that there’s this – the Federal Information Security Management Act, which is the – I think the acronym is FISMA. It’s very important, but it is process-oriented, and compliance is judged on meeting a process and not on the program’s actual results – that is, or i.e., if the data’s actually protected.

What we have in place is a system of continuous monitoring – so 24/7 – and we have certainly ratcheted up our compliance with FISMA and are making strong progress there as well. But I just – and then I’ll stop, I promise – but during, as you mentioned – during former Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure, we did commence on a plan to implement continuous monitoring of IT systems. That has continued after her departure. But something that was overlooked in the article, at least, is that State served as the model for DHS’s continuous diagnostic and mitigation program, which is now being rolled out to agencies government-wide.

Are we perfect? No. Do we have progress to make? Certainly. But I wouldn’t characterize our program as lacking as was put forth in the article.

QUESTION: But Mark, the descriptions and the low scores for the cyber security wasn’t the article’s creation; is that correct? That came from government audits that put you very low on the scale; is that not correct?

MR TONER: Well, again, some of these are related to, as I talked about, the FISMA —

QUESTION: And there may be reasons for that, but – I mean, you may have reasons for that, but that’s – it was the government itself —


QUESTION: — that gave you these scores.

MR TONER: Sure. And some of these – the allegations made were certainly made as part of inspector general reviews on our systems and processes. That is their role to play. And I would just say sometimes we’re in agreement with the inspector general’s assessments, but sometimes we’re not. And this is certainly, I think, a case where we’re not in agreement. We believe we’re making progress.

Please, in the back. I can take a couple more questions, guys.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?

MR TONER: Sure thing, Arshad.

QUESTION: You said you almost – it was nearly 100 percent. Was it like 99 percent?

MR TONER: Yeah, it is. I can get it – it’s like 99.5 percent and —

QUESTION: Because – and suppose it’s 99.5 percent, because I did the math. I mean, that would be like – that would mean that you failed – if it were 4 billion attacks, that means you failed in the case of 2 million attacks.

MR TONER: I think it’s – darn mathematicians. (Laughter.) It’s very high up. I think the only thing that we – admittedly, there was a Russian phishing – what do they call it – help me out here, guys.

QUESTION: Spear phishing.

MR TONER: Spear phishing, thank you so much – spear phishing that was successful, but only insofar as it permeated our emails, but not into any kind of databases or anything like that. And that, frankly, was picked up by continuous monitoring. But that’s the human element to this stuff is you can’t – although we educate people all the time, we have continuous education programs going on, you click on – as we all know – a link that you get in your email account, and that’s what spear phishing is.


QUESTION: Can I ask one other quick one?

MR TONER: But I’ll try to get clarity on exactly how many.

QUESTION: A number, yeah. I mean, 4 billion is a very big number, so 99 —

MR TONER: It’s a big number. You’re right,

QUESTION: One other thing, just —

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: And I hope that we can dispatch this quickly. But Chairman Gowdy, as I understand it, has made some allegations that the State Department failed to appropriately redact the name of a —

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — CIA source in Libya. That name, as has been I think widely publicly reported not just now but in years past, was Moussa Koussa, the former intelligence chief and also foreign minister of Libya. Does the State Department believe that it appropriately redacted all potential CIA sources or all CIA sources in the emails that it released, or was this an oversight that just got through?

MR TONER: That’s okay. So I will attempt to address it, as I said, relatively quickly, guys – and I apologize – then I’ll get to you and then I have to run. I apologize.

So quickly, so the CIA actually reviewed the relevant emails that Chairman Gowdy raised, and they assess that the information in question was not classified and suggested no redactions to the document in question – documents in question, I think.

QUESTION: Sorry. Document, a single letter?

MR TONER: Document in question, yeah.


MR TONER: We have asked the Benghazi committee not to use the individual’s name publicly to protect that individual’s privacy, although you just mentioned his name, but that’s okay. It’s widely reported.

QUESTION: It’s everywhere.

MR TONER: I admit it. That’s fine. But anyway, that was our rationale behind redacting his name. Now, these particular documents are still going through the FOIA review process, so they haven’t been, but they will be made publicly available.

QUESTION: And so just a question.


QUESTION: When you released the documents to the committee, you didn’t yourselves redact that name; you just asked that they please redact that name out of concern for the individual’s privacy?

MR TONER: That’s correct.

QUESTION: Okay. I think what they’ve said – last one from me on this —

MR TONER: Sure thing, yeah.

QUESTION: — is that it was redacted in a number of instances, but it was not redacted in a subject line. Your view is that it wasn’t redacted —

MR TONER: No, hold on. Yeah, now you’re – sorry, I’m looking through this. So there was one case, and I think it was just human error in our desire to get these documents to the Benghazi committee as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: So it should have been redacted for privacy reasons —

MR TONER: Correct.

QUESTION: — and wasn’t?

MR TONER: And was not. That’s my understanding.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MR TONER: Thanks for clarifying that.

QUESTION: Mark, a couple quick ones on different topics.

MR TONER: Yeah, really quickly.


MR TONER: Yes, please, let’s finish there.

QUESTION: All right.

QUESTION: On that topic —

MR TONER: A couple more questions, guys. I apologize.

QUESTION: Is it still your position that Blue Mountain UK had a valid security license on the day of the attacks?

MR TONER: Sure. Quickly, I’ll try to answer that. So we awarded Blue Mountain Group a contract on February 17th, 2012, to provide static guard services, and the Blue Mountain Group was this partnership between Blue Mountain UK and Blue Mountain Libya. Blue Mountain UK directly managed the guards and the contract while Blue Mountain Libya provided the security license to stand up the guard services in the country. And that’s pretty common in countries like Libya where it’s difficult for foreign security companies to acquire operating licenses.

So on August 20th, 2012, we were notified by Blue Mountain UK that the contracting officer – I’m sorry, they notified the contracting officer at the State Department that they dissolved their business relationship with Blue Mountain Libya. So – but under the terms of that dissolution agreement, Blue Mountain UK was permitted to continue its contract performance – so basically, remain on the job. Sorry, I’ll get to the punch here.

At the time of the Benghazi attack, our own Diplomatic Security was working on an arrangement to hire these guards as an alternative solution in case – and it hadn’t happened yet – in case there was some sort of gap in the service. But the bottom line is there was no gap in the guard service. We recognize there was this contract dispute between the two entities, but there was no gap in the provision of these guards on the ground in Benghazi at the time.

Thanks. Sorry, Pam. Quickly.

QUESTION: Does State have any reaction – have you seen these videos, reportedly from the Islamic State in Libya, showing the beheading of a man from South Sudan? And if so, what’s your reaction?

MR TONER: We are aware of these reports and we’ve – and the videos of an ISIL-aligned extremist who killed a South Sudanese man in Libya, beheading him. We can’t, obviously, confirm* specific details, but we condemn the wanton brutality of these violent extremists.

More generally, we do remain concerned about the growth of ISIL-aligned groups in Libya, and that only underscores in our mind the urgency of reaching a political solution in Libya as soon as possible. ISIL poses a threat to the people of Libya, and the most effective way to combat that threat and to counter that terrorism is to have a united effort by Libyans. So it’s critical that they form a government of national accord as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: And real quick: What’s your reaction to weekend clashes between police and demonstrators in Montenegro, and also your reaction to a comment from Russia that said, despite assurances from the West, Montenegro joining the Euro-Atlantic integrations will not lead to a consolidation and prosperity of the country?

MR TONER: Well, very quickly on Montenegro: We fully support freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest. We urge all sides, though, involved in any protest to display restraint and respect for rule of law. More broadly, Montenegro holds its future in its hands, its own hands as a sovereign nation. It is free to decide and seek NATO membership if it wants it. NATO’s a defensive alliance and the countries of the Balkan region are and will remain free to determine their own associations.

One last one, and this is it. I apologize.

QUESTION: Could you please confirm that United States just told Southeast Asia countries that – on diplomatic channels that – your plan to enter China’s 12 nautical miles of those disputed island in South China Sea?

MR TONER: Sorry, the last part of your question again? As my book falls apart.

QUESTION: Has the United States informed Southeast Asia countries about your plan to enter China’s 12 nautical miles of those disputed island in South China Sea?

MR TONER: Well, I’m not going to comment on the content of our private diplomatic conversations, as you know. I would just, frankly, quote President Obama, who has said we’re going to fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea and elsewhere in accordance with international law. The Defense Department conducts freedom of navigation operations to challenge excessive maritime claims on a regular basis around the world. They’re not targeted at any individual country, but conducted in accordance with international law, as I said, and applied evenhandedly with a wide range of nations.

QUESTION: Are you going to be telling the Chinese about what you plan to do in this area in order only to de-conflict, as it were?

MR TONER: I don’t discuss the contents of our private diplomatic conversations. I think we’re in – constantly in touch with China and share our concerns and our intentions regarding the South China Sea.

QUESTION: But not necessarily your flying and sailing plans.

MR TONER: Well, I think we’ve been very clear about – that we intend to do this and —

QUESTION: Right, but not: “We are sending a boat in here. Don’t shoot at it.”

MR TONER: I don’t know. I’d refer you to the DOD for that.

Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:27 p.m.)

Source; U.S Department of State


Robert Williams

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