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Middle East Digest: March 5, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
March 5, 2007

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/

From the Daily Briefing of March 5, 2007:

MR. MCCORMACK: Good afternoon, everybody. How are you? I don't have any opening statements, so we can get right into your questions. Whoever wants to start off.

QUESTION: Do you have more on the Palestinian aid question and the scholarship?

MR. MCCORMACK: I anticipated your question. They gave me a whole bunch of materials on this, so let me flip through here and get to the right spot because there's a lot in this Washington Times article and let me just start off with a couple baseline principles and then we can get into more detailed questions.

First of all, USAID requires of all of its contractors and subcontractors to go through a vetting -- a careful vetting process. And this involves working with our Consulate in Jerusalem. It involves working with our Embassy in Tel Aviv. It involves going through U.S. Government -- various U.S. Government databases to ensure that any of the recipients of U.S. Government monies are not affiliated with terrorist organizations or so that that money does not end up in the hands of terrorists or terrorist organizations.

All the -- both the universities mentioned in the article, the Islamic University of Gaza and Al Quds University, my understanding is that these are independent universities and it would be incorrect to characterize them as Hamas-controlled. They both have passed U.S. Government vetting anti-terrorism procedures, so the vetting procedures to which I was just referring. As I mentioned, any scholarship recipients are again vetted and the monies -- once they're vetted, if they qualify, then the monies for any tuition are deposited in a separate account. That account is controlled so that that money is used only for educational purposes, meaning their tuition.

It is -- oh, it was also mentioned in there that there was a project, a computer -- basically a computer lab at the Islamic University of Gaza, and that does not receive any U.S. Government funding. That is, in fact, part of a program of information technology centers of excellence that is privately funded, U.S. corporation privately funded. There are three of these that are already constructed -- one at Al Quds University, one at the Arab American University in Jenin, one at the Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron -- and there are a couple others under construction right now -- Birzeit University, Islamic University in Gaza which is apparently where they just broke ground.

So in terms of USAID, I talked to the folks over there and I'm conveying to you the information that was provided to me. They are confident that the organizations, including the NGO cited, ANERA, as well as the individuals who are recipients of USAID funding, have passed all U.S. Government anti-terrorism vetting procedures. The computer lab cited in the article is, in fact, not being funded by the U.S. Government; it is a private endeavor. And I think that that covers what I have been able to uncover with an opening. I'll be happy to --

QUESTION: What about the figures?

MR. MCCORMACK: What's that?

QUESTION: The figures.

MR. MCCORMACK: The figures?

QUESTION: The money. The amount of money.

MR. MCCORMACK: The amount of money --

QUESTION: Is that correct?

MR. MCCORMACK: -- provided to --

QUESTION: Was there something that was correct in the story?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, apparently, in terms of any -- you know, and again, you always get into dangerous territory when you start talking about money. But apparently, to Al Quds University the scholarships totaled about $2.2 million and then there were also some in-kind grants -- computers, reference resources, subscriptions, that sort of thing. And then for the Islamic University of Gaza, we're looking at about 93,000 in scholarships and then about roughly 12,000 in in-kind assistance and then other research grants totaling about $30,000.

QUESTION: That's over what time frame?

MR. MCCORMACK: This was -- again, I think we're looking at -- I'll have to look into that for you, Matt. I honestly don't -- I don't have that here.

QUESTION: And just one last thing on this, and that is when you say that the scholarship recipients are vetted and then the money that they get for the scholarships are deposited into an account to make --

MR. MCCORMACK: A separate bank account, right.

QUESTION: Right --

MR. MCCORMACK: Which is, again, controlled and audited. I don't have the bank --

QUESTION: No, no, but -- so it's like an escrow or something?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it's a controlled account so they -- you know, and again, I don't have the details. If you're really interested in these details, we can get somebody who does this on a daily basis for you.

QUESTION: No, no --

MR. MCCORMACK: But here's the other thing. Actually, this is an important point that was left out. Once people go through these vetting procedures, individuals as well as -- and this applies more to organizations -- go through the vetting procedures. There are follow-up audits that are conducted as well. So there are multiple, from USAID's point of view, there are multiple levels through which we can assure ourselves that these monies are not going to terrorists or terrorist organizations.

QUESTION: I guess that's just control -- when you say the account is controlled, controlled by who? Controlled by the student, controlled by the university, controlled by USAID?

MR. MCCORMACK: Matt, I'm happy to have somebody who delves into this sort of minutia talk to you offline after the briefing and be able to brief --

QUESTION: Okay. I'm not sure it's minutia. Is it?

MR. MCCORMACK: I would characterize it as that, yes.

QUESTION: That's interesting.

QUESTION: Can we stay on the Israeli-Palestinian issue? Congressman Lantos and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have put out a letter in which they call on the Secretary to essentially drop the $86 million in aid for President Abbas' security forces. The letter's dated March 1st, but I think it's just made public. There was a lot of skepticism when she testified to the committee about this, but I don't think you had the chairman and the ranking member then actually telling you to just stop it. What's your reaction to this? Is the Administration considering abandoning this effort or at least suspending it pending clarification of the shape of the national unity government?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, first of all, we just received the letter today. Second of all, I think what it does is it asks a series of questions and these are questions that the Secretary herself would want answered to ensure that any funding does not end up in the hands of Hamas or a Hamas-led government. The intention here is to assist with the training in non-lethal equipment assistance to those forces who might be under the control of President Abbas. And with the eventuality of a national unity government, which is Hamas led, we want to ensure that none of those funds would end up in the hands of that Hamas-led government. So we're going to take a look at -- and we are looking at right now -- the totality of the $86 million request. And we are studying it at the moment. We do not yet have a national unity government. And I would expect that in the not-too-distant future, we would probably have an answer in response to the letter.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say, just so we don't conflate your response to the letter and your sending a letter with your studying the overall $86 million, that you are essentially suspending that for the time being? You're not looking to actually get that money?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it's a request. It's a new -- it's a reprogramming request, so you can't move forward with, in fact, without the consent of the Congress. So I don't -- I wouldn't necessarily -- I wouldn't characterize it as suspending it. We are asking ourselves some questions as the Congress has asked us to look into some questions as well. So they are asking us to do, in essence, what we are doing ourselves.

QUESTION: But in other words, you're not going to like -- I mean, I realize that you have to ask Congress to be able to reprogram the money --

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: -- but, in other words, you're not telling them no, despite your questions, we still want you to reprogram the money. You're saying we're going -- we need to answer these questions ourselves.

MR. MCCORMACK: The bottom line is we intend -- our intention is to move forward with the program. Now, whether or not that includes the full $86 million will depend upon the answers to the questions that we have and obviously the answers to the questions that the Congress has.

QUESTION: So basically rethinking it in light of their questions --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I wouldn't say we're --

QUESTION: -- and your own?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we're not rethinking in response to the letter. We are already, as a result of the announcement of the intension to form a national unity government, we wanted to step back and ask ourselves those questions. So I wouldn't say that we're rethinking it or suspending it in response to the letter. We're following through on what the Secretary said she was going to be doing a couple of weeks ago when she said to these very appropriators -- well, not the appropriators, these committee members that she was going to make sure that she could assure herself that none of these funds were going to end up in the hands of Hamas or a Hamas-led government.

Yes.

QUESTION: Are you looking at other ways then of supporting President Abbas and his security forces? Is there another way that you can do this?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, in terms of what we're doing, that's transparent and you can see that in this food program and in requests. And all of our other funding goes through a transparent budgeting process. We are, of course, subject to provide that information up to the Hill, so what we are doing is completely transparent.

There are other things that other countries can do and they do work with the Palestinians on other aspects of the security forces and we think that's important. The Egyptians, in the past, have worked with the Palestinian security forces to help them -- help train them and make them more professional. There are also a variety of other equipment needs that the Palestinians have, but that would be done separately between the Palestinians and any other states that they may have a relationship with.

QUESTION: So because of your constraints on Capitol Hill in getting this money, are you now looking to the Europeans and others to fill that gap?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, no. And again, I would -- walking back from this idea of constraints imposed by Capitol Hill, what they have done is ask this series of questions. And we, of course, want to provide the answers to those questions. Many of the questions are very similar to the ones that we are asking ourselves. So this letter puts on record many of the questions that the committee had for Secretary Rice when she was up there a couple of weeks ago, but suffice it to say, we are already asking ourselves many of these questions prior to the arrival of this letter.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on Sue's question, I mean, you wouldn't sort of seek to subvert the will of Congress by trying to get other people to give you this money if you decide you can't get it through Congress?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, we're not trying to fill any other gaps. Now there are other aspects to training the Palestinian security forces or equipping the Palestinian security forces that we wouldn't consider or we wouldn't be doing because of our laws and regulations. Others can do that and they're -- and they have their own freestanding relationships with the Palestinians, so they are free, of course, to do that.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Staying on the Middle East if we could, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't today the day when the King of Jordan is meeting with Secretary Rice? And if that is correct, can you give us some idea of -- segueing from that subject into what they're going to be talking about and what Ms. Rice expects to be the conclusion and the result from this meeting?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it's another in a series of consultations that she's having with her counterparts and other leaders from the region. I would expect that they talk about bilateral issues of concern, both to Jordan and the United States; for example, Iraqi refugees. I know that's at the top of the Jordanian list. I know they have a lot of concerns about the pressures on the support network within Jordan and the ability of the NGOs working in Jordan to meet those humanitarian needs and -- as well as to start that process of looking at these individuals to see if they qualify for refugee status. So that's one issue, certainly.

We have a variety of other issues in the bilateral relationship. I would expect that they also talk about the situation in the region writ large, talk about the Israeli-Palestinian situation, talk about Secretary Rice's efforts to energize a process by which the Palestinians and the Israelis can come together to resolve the many differences that we all know exist between them.

QUESTION: Is that what you expect?

MR. MCCORMACK: As I said, this is a consultation. This isn't a meeting where somebody comes out with a written agreement or a product saying, "Oh, we solved it." This is part of a process, part of a consultative process.

Yeah, anything else on Israeli-Palestinian, Middle East?

QUESTION: Will they be talking about the Iraq conference that's coming up on the 10th this weekend? Is there any prep work being done for that between Rice and Abdullah?

MR. MCCORMACK: That -- I'm sure that she will talk about it to encourage full Jordanian participation at the conference, but I don't believe that that is something that is at the top of either agenda.

Yeah, Sylvie.

QUESTION: Also on Middle East, do you have any comment on the visit of the Hamas political leader, Khaled Meshal, to Iran?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, not surprisingly, we don't have a lot of sources of information, certainly not that I can share with you, beyond press reports concerning such a meeting, given our lack of relationship either with Hamas or Iran. So I can't provide you a lot of insight to it. I don't know if Mr. Haniya is going to try to make his way back into Gaza with a suitcase full of cash or not. We do know that Iran has not played a positive role either in the Palestinian areas or in Lebanon or a variety of other places throughout the Middle East. Beyond that, I can't really offer any comment.

QUESTION: Do you think it could be -- it could lead to a breakthrough since Meshal has been the most powerful person in Hamas recently and Iran has been -- has said that they are willing to participate in the East -- Middle East conference about Iraq, so maybe they are trying to soften vis--vis their position? Do you think there is hope on that?

MR. MCCORMACK: You know, I have no insight to that whatsoever. And I talked to -- earlier you mentioned -- this was Khaled Meshal. I mentioned Haniya going back into Gaza, so two separate incidents.

QUESTION: Sarah Becker (ph)* just filling in for ABC News today. But I had a question on the education front. Do you have any numbers -- are you familiar with with how many Iraqi students are admitted into the United States for study?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't. I'm happy to look into it for you, though.

QUESTION: Has anything happened in the last four hours on the Iran resolution?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don't -- I can't tell you. I'm sure that there's been some activity. I'm not sure that I can detail it for you from the podium. I'm sure that people were either thinking about it or writing about it or even making telephone calls and meeting about it, but I can't tell you exactly what those things are.

QUESTION: Sorry, one more on Iran. And that was the question that I asked you this morning about the rocket launch. Was there anything --

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, I looked into it and really nothing new. There were reports of a possible sounding rockets launch -- launches or launch that might have been sub-orbital. I can't provide you any information on that because that gets into intelligence sources so, you know, I can't provide any clarity about it. Suffice it to say we do have outstanding concerns about Iran's missile program and very -- and we're very much concerned about the possible nexus between that program and their nuclear weapons program.

QUESTION: The President of Iran just met with the top Saudi officials, went to Saudi Arabia, and here you have the two oil giants in the world meeting. And as I recall, the President of Iran said something to the effect he wants to talk -- he wanted to talk about the United States, he said, allegedly trying to split the Shia and the Sunni. And I think he wanted to talk about bridging that gap. What's the State Department think about this meeting between the President of Iran and the top Saudi officials?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, look, the Saudis live in a tight space in the Persian Gulf with the Iranians. That isn't going to change, so it is up to them how they interact with the Iranians. I think the Saudi Government has a healthy appreciation for the threat posed by violent extremism emanating from the regime in Tehran. And we encourage the Saudi Government to send a message to the Iranian regime in the form of President Ahmadi-Nejad that Iranian behavior across a spectrum of different issues is unacceptable.

We haven't -- I don't think we've had a detailed conversation with representatives from the Saudi Government to understand how the meeting went or what exactly came out of it. I've seen a lot of conflicting press reports about it, some of which involve the Iranians contradicting what the Saudi Government said about the meeting. So in terms of providing a detailed reaction, I can't because we don't have an understanding of the dynamics in the meeting and exactly what was discussed.

We would hope that coming out of the meeting the Iranian regime would change its behavior across a wide variety of issues; haven't seen any particular indication of that at this point. But of course we will be -- we remain hopeful of that. In the meantime, we are going to continue working with members in the international system, our friends and allies, to apply the necessary diplomatic leverage and pressure to Iran to get it to change its behavior.

QUESTION: Iraq, please. It's a reaction to a reaction to a reaction, I'm afraid, specifically this British raid in Basra, al-Maliki's comments.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right.

QUESTION: He was calling it a responsible, an illegal act. He seems more concerned about the fact that the raid occurred than there were apparent victims of torture there. Can you respond to this?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, our folks on the ground in Baghdad probably have a better, more full understanding of the circumstances surrounding this raid, so I can't tell you what level of authorization these Iraqi Government forces as well as these British forces had in entering this particular facility. So there'll be an investigation, I'm sure. If, in fact, there were individuals being held in that Iraqi Government facility who were being detained outside of Iraqi law or were in any way mistreated or tortured, that would be a source of great concern to us, of course.

So let's see if we can determine a better set of facts concerning (a) the conditions surrounding the raid and (b) what exactly what was found in there. There's a process question here that I think is more one for the Iraqis to take a look at, and that is what were the authorization procedures that precipitated this raid.

The second issue is a substantive issue of were there individuals being held in these facilities outside of Iraqi law and who were being mistreated or tortured in any way. That's a real concern for us.

QUESTION: Would this be a fully Iraqi-led investigation or would the U.S. take part in this or --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, inasmuch -- as far as I can determine, our forces weren't involved in the raid. So on the process question, I think that's one more for the Iraqis and the UK authorities to sort out if, in fact, they were part of the raid or part of the change of command that authorized the raid.


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