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Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
July 19, 2006

Interview With Miles O'Brien of CNN's "American Morning"

O'BRIEN: I'm Miles O'Brien in New York. Thank you, Soledad.

The evacuation of U.S. citizens caught in the crossfire in Lebanon is under way. They're headed to right where Soledad is in many cases.

And while Americans who have made there are grateful to be there and out of harm's way, they also tell a tale of disorganization and disappointment that their government didn't act a little faster and more efficiently.

Joining us from the State Department is spokesman Sean McCormack.

Mr. McCormack, good to have you with us.

MCCORMACK: Good to be with you, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Soledad has been talking to several people there in Larnaca, including a student who left Beirut and talked about -- as a matter of fact, let's listen to her for one second.

ASHLEY MARINACCIO, AMERICAN STUDENT: The Dutch students got out the day -- you know, three days ago. The Swiss students, they sent a convoy, they got out. The French students, I believe they also got out, and a bunch of other embassies. Like everybody had their people out already and, you know, here we are just sitting there. And it was really disappointing.

O'BRIEN: What do you say to that?

MCCORMACK: Well, Miles, we've been working for the past several days, as a matter of fact. We started getting people out on Sunday, but we're operating on the scale of getting thousands of people out. This is an international operation spanning three continents. So we have been working very hard to make sure that our people get out in a safe, orderly and timely manner.

Now certainly we would like to make sure that people get out as quickly as possible, but we want to make share they're safe as well. So we have been laying the groundwork to make sure that people not only Beirut, but in the south of Lebanon, but also in the north of Lebanon, are able to get out, and those operations are under way.

O'BRIEN: I'm sorry, you're talking about three continents. Lebanon is a small country. We're not talking about three continents; we're talking about a small country, and some Americans who are there who need to get out.

MCCORMACK: That's right. But once they get out of Beirut, they have to have some place to go. And there are people want to travel on to the United States. We have to make sure that they are able to get to the United States.

If they don't want to go to the United States, then we're going to work with them to make sure that they are able to get to go where they need to go.

O'BRIEN: But I'm sure they would have been happy just to get out of Lebanon and get to Cyprus and figure that out later.

MCCORMACK: Right, but you want to make sure they're well cared for when they land in Cyprus as well. So we have been laying that infrastructure in Cyprus, back here in Washington and in Beirut. So this has been a very complicated, complex operation. Certainly we understand that people are in distress. They're in a battle zone. And we have been working very hard to make sure that they kept up to date on our planning, to make sure that they're able to get out in a safe manner. That has been our highest priority, making sure that they're safe.

And while we understand that people have been in some distress, we think that we have a good operation in place. We're moving more than 1,000 people today. We're going to ramp that up to about 2,000 tomorrow, and the day after that 4,000.

O'BRIEN: Now, in the midst of all this, a lot of controversy over that decision to ask people to essentially pay their own way out. That's been reversed.


O'BRIEN: But is that in any way reflective of -- well, maybe a little of callousness on the part of the U.S.? A tin ear, maybe?

MCCORMACK: Miles, this is a part of the law. It's a law that's been in place for 50 years, but Secretary Rice, when she took a look at that, she talked to members of Congress, she also talked to the White House. She wanted to go the extra mile. She wanted to go the extra mile to remove any possible worries people might have. She understands that they're in a very difficult situation, and while we have been working very hard to make sure that they get out and get out in a safe, timely manner, we also want to eliminate any concerns they might have had about having to pay.

I want to emphasize that nobody, nobody, was turned away on the basis of this question of whether or not they would pay. So any American who wants to get out of Lebanon is going to have that opportunity to get out of Lebanon, and now there will be no charge for that.

O'BRIEN: Let me shift gears here. You mentioned the secretary of state. She's headed to the region. We don't know just when yet. Going back 10 years ago, Clinton administration, predecessor of Condoleezza Rice, Warren Christopher, in the case where there was some conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, engaged in a week-long flurry of shuttle diplomacy between Damascus and Tel Aviv. Some would suggest that Damascus is a necessary destination to come up with a real solution to this crisis now. Are you going to rule out the secretary of state going to Damascus?

MCCORMACK: Well, Secretary Christopher and President Clinton did what was right for the time. I don't anticipate that Secretary Rice will be traveling to Damascus. Right now, Damascus is isolated. They're isolated from the rest of the international community. You have Hezbollah, Damascus and Tehran, the backers of Hezbollah, isolated from the rest of the region, isolated from the rest of the world.

So what we're doing right now is we're working with those states in the region, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, as well as others, who have an interest in seeing a permanent solution, so that we aren't in this position three weeks, six months or three years from now, where a terrorist organization can literally drag a region down into violence. So that's what Secretary Rice is focused on. She will travel to the region. The timing of that, she's going to determine based on when her trip might be most useful and when it might be most effective.

O'BRIEN: But that effort on the part of Warren Christopher did ultimately lead to a cease-fire. Is it not worth talking to the Syrians at some level, at a high level?

MCCORMACK: Well, certainly we do have an embassy in Damascus. Of course we have talked to the Syrians about this. But you also want to make sure that when you have a cessation of the violence -- and we all want to see the violence stop -- but when you have an end to that violence, you have an end in such a way that we are not back in the same situation once again, and you don't have the status quo ante. You don't have a situation where Hezbollah can sit back and rearm itself, only to fight another day.

O'BRIEN: When will the secretary of state travel to the region?

MCCORMACK: I anticipate in the near future she will travel, Miles. But again, the exact timing of that travel will be based upon when she thinks it's most useful and effective to go there.

O'BRIEN: Sean McCormack, State Department spokesman, thanks for being with us this morning.

MCCORMACK: Thanks, Miles.

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