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Daily Press Briefing
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
December 18, 2008



Smoke Seen on Fifth Floor of Main State / Fire Department Responded / All Safe
18 White Powder Incidents at U.S. Embassies / FBI Is Investigating
Inspector General Report on Blackwater Contract / Embassy Recommendation


News Reports on Possible Closure of U.S. Bases are Untrue


Shoe Throwing Incident / Iraqi Authorities are Handling Matter


News Reports on Hamas Ending Ceasefire With Israel
Secretary Rice’s Working Dinner With President Abbas


Nicaraguan President Ortega’s Visit to South Ossetia and Abkhazia


Reports on Spreading of Unrest to Other Countries in Region


Convictions in International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda


View Video

10:31 a.m. EST

MR. MCCORMACK: Good morning, everybody. I don’t have anything to start off with, so we can dive right into your questions.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’ve got a couple housekeeping things.


QUESTION: Sean, can you bring us up to date on the white powder letters? And then, what was – tell us about the incident here in this building overnight?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, it was early this – I’ll start with the incident in the building this morning. The Fire Department came. On the fifth floor on the D Street side, which is on the north side of the building – they’re doing a lot of renovation work on all the various floors here. But on the fifth floor, they were doing some work, and I guess there was some smoke, and as a precautionary measure, the D.C. Fire Department was called. They responded immediately, made sure the area was safe and secure. During that period of time when the Fire Department was called until the point where they said that everything was okay, it was all cleared, we didn’t allow people to come into the building, just as a precautionary measure. So as far as I can tell, this was just one of those minor things that happens sometimes during construction.

QUESTION: And when was the building closed?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think it was – (inaudible) do you remember?

STAFF: (Off-mike.)

MR. MCCORMACK: It was early this morning, before I got to the building. (Laughter.) Just before. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: For about how long?

MR. MCCORMACK: Let me check for you, Matt. I don’t have that.

QUESTION: It was about 5 a.m.?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, it was about 5 a.m.

QUESTION: And you were just – you were on your way? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCORMACK: Exactly. Just – yeah, exactly.

QUESTION: Okay, all right. That sounds like nothing then. What about the –

MR. MCCORMACK: That’s right. Okay, on the white powder incidents, I can go through the whole list. I know Robert gave you the list yesterday, but let me give you a few facts and figures. Eighteen embassies, U.S. embassies, have received envelopes containing white powder. New ones to the list from yesterday are Prague and Tokyo. I’ll run through the whole list just for everybody’s benefit here, so you have it all in one place. The list is: Berlin, Bern, Brussels, Bucharest, Copenhagen, Dublin, (off-mike) Luxembourg, Madrid, Oslo, Paris, Prague, Reykjavik, Riga, Rome, Stockholm, Tallinn, The Hague, and Tokyo.

Thus far, the test results that we have received back from all the affected embassies have come back negative for any sort of, you know, harmful pathogens or anything harmful. In terms of how operations have been affected, our – the U.S. Embassy Consulate building in Rome is closed today, December 18th. I expect that they will reopen for regular business soon. And the U.S. Embassy’s Consulate building in Bucharest was temporarily closed to the public Tuesday but reopened Tuesday afternoon. And the FBI is – well, I’d refer you to any – the FBI for any questions about any criminal investigations.

QUESTION: Does it appear that all these letters have – were from the same –

MR. MCCORMACK: Don’t know. Too early to tell. I mean, of course, there was clearly a pattern here, but –

QUESTION: Well, there was a pattern until Tokyo came into it.

QUESTION: Yeah, Tokyo is the only one which is not European.

MR. MCCORMACK: There was a pattern in that you have a number of U.S. embassies within a relatively short period of time receive these envelopes with white powder in it. That’s the pattern I’m referring to.

QUESTION: Can you say when – when did they start arriving?

MR. MCCORMACK: Robert, do we have –

MR. WOOD: No, we don’t have an answer –

MR. MCCORMACK:I’ll try to find out for you. I’ll look – as we learn more about this, I’m happy to share it with you.

QUESTION: And can you tell us how many of the letters were postmarked from Texas? Apparently, some – a number were.


QUESTION: All of them?

MR. MCCORMACK: Don’t have that info for you, Charlie. Again, the – to the extent there’s an investigation ongoing here, FBI will handle all those questions. I don’t want to step into their territory.

QUESTION: A change of subject?


QUESTION: Kyrgyzstan.

MR. MCCORMACK: Kyrgyzstan, yes.

QUESTION: Yes. The Kyrgyz Government is moving to close the U.S. bases.

MR. MCCORMACK: I know, I’ve heard –

QUESTION: Is that –

MR. MCCORMACK: No, that’s untrue. And –

QUESTION: That’s untrue?

MR. MCCORMACK: That is untrue. I have seen – obviously, we – I have heard this morning that there were news reports to that effect. It’s untrue. Our Chargé d'Affaires confirmed the fact that the Kyrgyz Government is not taking such a step with the Office of the President. We also had somebody – another official from the Embassy confirm with the MFA that that is, in fact, not happening. So I’m not sure how this got started or who started such a rumor, but it is not true.

QUESTION: So there’s no truth to that whatsoever? There’s – it’s not like there’s – the contract is going to be – or the SOFA is coming to an end or something – there’s, you know –

MR. MCCORMACK: Not that I know of. But again, I can only report back to you what I’ve been told about this, that we talked to the presidency, we talked to the MFA. Those news reports are – they told us that they are not true.

QUESTION: It came from an interview the president gave saying that since there is no more military actions in Afghanistan, one can undoubtedly already talk about putting an end to the activity at – of the base at Manas.

MR. MCCORMACK: All I can say is they said it’s not true.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: What did the Inspector General’s report find that would suggest the State Department not renew Blackwater’s contract?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, there’s a draft Inspector General’s report circulating. It’s not yet completed. I’m not going to comment on any of the particulars of it.

I will – let me just back up a bit and talk about the decision-making process, about how we protect our diplomats in Iraq as well as elsewhere around the world. Specifically on Iraq, we all recall the incidents around September 17th, and I know the FBI recently announced some moves to prosecute some individuals who were connected with those events who work for Blackwater. That is going down a separate pathway, and the FBI and the Department of Justice can talk about those actions.

The Secretary, in the wake of that incident, asked for recommendations from a panel what steps to take. They looked into it. Deputy Secretary Negroponte and Under Secretary Pat Kennedy were deeply involved in this, along with Ryan Crocker out at Embassy Baghdad. One of the recommendations they came – we came back – they came back with numerous recommendations. But one of the things in terms of going forward that they recommended is that once the FBI has completed its investigation, which I understand is still an ongoing concern, that Embassy Baghdad would come through with a recommendation regarding Blackwater and its continuing to support the U.S. Embassy there and our diplomats there.

So I would expect that at a certain point of time, and we have not arrived at that point of time, that there are going to be a number of different data points that converge here; and that is, you have a completed Inspector General’s report, you have the FBI completing its work, and then you have Embassy Baghdad coming back to Main State with a recommendation concerning Blackwater. So those are all data points that are going to converge in the future. We’re still in the process of looking at this issue, as this is a draft Inspector General report.

QUESTION: And I just have one last question about that.


QUESTION: I know that the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform conducted a study where they found that Blackwater was involved in over 200 unprovoked shootings. Would that controversy have something to do with cutting off Blackwater’s contract?

MR. MCCORMACK: Again, I tried to outline for you all the known data points. I’m sure that there are others. And you know, I expect – I can’t predict with precision, but I would expect that all of these various things – you know, the FBI completing its investigation, Embassy Baghdad coming through with its recommendation – will probably happen after January 20th. I can’t speak to the timing of the Inspector General report.

Yeah, Matthew.

QUESTION: Just stay on Iraq for a second?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: The shoe-tosser has asked for clemency from Prime Minister Maliki. What’s the – does the U.S. Government have any position on this? What would you like to see happen to this guy?

MR. MCCORMACK: I – you know, I think that the Iraqi authorities are dealing with the matter. You know, Secretary Rice has spoken to this in a number of different interviews, and I’ll give you the shorthand version of it. And that is that we would hope that the fact of a U.S. president standing next to a freely elected prime minister of Iraq, who just happens to be Shia, who’s governing in a multiconfessional, multiethnic democracy in the heart of the Middle East, is not overshadowed by one incident like this. The Iraqi authorities are going to deal with it. And then I – the President has also spoken to it as well in general terms.

QUESTION: So your point is that everyone in the news media has gotten everything out of – blown everything out of proportion?

MR. MCCORMACK: No, look I– you know, I – no, that’s –

QUESTION: My question is really –

MR. MCCORMACK: No, that’s not my point. I’m not criticizing the media. This isn’t my – that’s not my intention here. I just – I would hope that –

QUESTION: Well, it seemed the Secretary came very close to doing that yesterday in an interview.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, look, you guys make decisions about what you cover. I suspect – just a guess – that three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years from now that the fact of the President making that visit under those circumstances will probably overshadow any memory of this particular gentleman and what he did.

QUESTION: That’s a pretty – that’s a pretty interesting prediction.

MR. MCCORMACK: Come back to me in 50 years; we can talk about it.

QUESTION: Would you care to bet? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCORMACK: Try and collect on it 50 years from now. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: But let me just make sure I understand. You don’t – this is entirely up to the Iraqis –

MR. MCCORMACK: Iraqi authorities –

QUESTION: – and you don’t care what happens to –

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, Iraqi authorities are dealing with it.

QUESTION: Just back – to be clear on the Blackwater business, so the Embassy will make a recommendation. You made it sound like that will come last, after these other reports are in. But then that’s still a recommendation, right? The decision is made by the State Department, yes?

QUESTION: The Secretary?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don’t know. You know, like I said, I expect that all of these things will – can be completed probably after the 20th of January. So you know, who – how they structure their decision-making process and who is the ultimate decision maker is going to be for somebody else to deal with.

Now, if it just – if it happens that all of these actions are completed and the moment is right for a decision in terms of all these steps being completed prior to January 20th, I am sure Secretary Rice will deal with the matter. But given what I understand of the rhythm and pace of events, I would expect that that – that they will probably – that would probably extend beyond January 20th.

QUESTION: Okay, I have another question on another subject. Right before I came in here, there was a news alert that Hamas has declared an end to the ceasefire with Israel in the Gaza Strip, an official statement by Hamas. Do you have anything on that?

MR. MCCORMACK: I hadn’t seen it. I mean, clearly, the interests of the people of the region, whether they’re Palestinian or Israeli or people elsewhere in the region, are served by peace along that border area between Gaza and Israel.


QUESTION: Okay, I have another one, a different subject.

QUESTION: Can we stick with the Middle – with Israeli-Palestinian, please?

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure. Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: Can you give us a preview of the Secretary’s working dinner tonight with President Abbas, what they’re going to talk about, you know, why – we’re now at December 18th. The Secretary did say you were going – she was going to keep working on this until her last day. But one always wonders about the timing and whether there’s any particular reason for this visit now.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think he’s visiting the President.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m aware.

MR. MCCORMACK: And typically, the Secretary will sit down with visiting dignitaries prior to their meeting with the President, and you should view that in this context. We recently passed a very important resolution up in the UN, at the UN Security Council, talking about the Annapolis process and really enshrining that in a more formal sense beyond the political sense in the international system. It still is, as the Secretary has said, worth continuing to work on this effort to continue to try to make progress. And you know, the next administration is going to have to decide how it deals with this issue, to what extent it uses or doesn’t use the Annapolis process that’s in place. Those are decisions that they’re going to have to make.

But you know, the Secretary has committed to continue to work on this process. And one of the reasons for that and why it’s particularly important that she continue to do so is, this is sort of a bottom-up process in the sense of, it is the Israelis and the Palestinians who are driving the process. We’re there to help. We’re there to help shepherd. We – she has served as the role of someone who can help them identify areas of convergence, and she has done that in the past. But it’s not about her making recommendations from the top down how to resolve the remaining issues between the two of them.

QUESTION: Different subject? Ortega announced today that he’s going to visit the brotherly states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I just wondered if you had any comment on that.

MR. MCCORMACK: So it’s – we’re up to Hamas and Nicaragua recognizing them? Look, I think –

QUESTION: And Russia.

MR. MCCORMACK: Oh, Russia. Excuse me.

QUESTION: Right, so part of their so inconsequential and insignificant –

MR. MCCORMACK: Table for three, then. Look, I think we’ve made our views clear on this issue. And it’s not a constructive act.

QUESTION: For him to visit?


QUESTION: It’s not constructive?


QUESTION: Why not?

MR. MCCORMACK: Why not? Because there is a – there’s a process that is still ongoing in Geneva, and Dan Fried recently went to Geneva to continue this political process that was started as a result of the agreement between President Sarkozy and President Medvedev.

Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: On Greece, do you have any reports on the unrest in Greece? There are reports that it’s spreading to Spain and Turkey, and that it’s fueled by the economic crisis.

MR. MCCORMACK: I hadn’t heard any of those reports. Obviously, I’m aware of the turbulence in Greece. I’m not aware that that has anything to do other than with domestic political concerns in Greece. And Greek authorities are dealing with it.


QUESTION: Do you have, or might you be providing, some kind of a reaction to the convictions today in Rwanda, the ICTR?

MR. MCCORMACK: I expect that we will. We will.

QUESTION: You don’t have one now?

MR. MCCORMACK: I don’t. I do not have one right now.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. MCCORMACK: Okay. Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 10:48 a.m.)

dpb # 214

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