12:50 p.m. EST
MR. ERELI: Welcome back, everybody, hope you all had a good holiday, and I'm pleased to see you, and no announcements. So who would like to start the briefing?
QUESTION: Oh, I can start with something that cropped up, the son of a Liberian diplomat in a group accused of carjacking. Is there anything that you folks have to say about it, or have you done anything?
MR. ERELI: For details on the circumstances of the arrest of the son of the Liberian chargé, I would refer you to the Montgomery County police, who have jurisdiction on this matter.
What I can say from the State Department is that, in accordance with established practice, we are contacting the local prosecutor to determine whether, absent immunity, he would wish to pursue the matter; and, if so, we may request a waiver of immunity, so that the case could be adjudicated pursuant to local law.
QUESTION: Do you know if it's decided yet whether to request a waiver of immunity?
MR. ERELI: It really depends on what the local prosecutor wants.
QUESTION: In other words, you haven't gotten an answer back yet?
MR. ERELI: No, because the arrest was made, I believe, on Sunday or Saturday. It was made over the weekend. We're contacting the local prosecutor today. We haven't heard back from them. So depending on what we hear back, we would consider whether to waive diplomatic immunity or not.
QUESTION: When you decide on whether you invoke immunity or ask to waive immunity, does it depend on, just on whether they want to press charges, if so, you would request a waiver, or depending on what the charges were and what the evidence was in the case?
MR. ERELI: All of the above. Less what the evidence is in the case. But if the local prosecutor wants to bring charges, or depending on whether the local prosecutor wants to bring charges and what those charges are, we could waive immunity.
QUESTION: Wait. Wait. Are you sure you can waive immunity?
MR. ERELI: No.
QUESTION: You ask the Liberians to waive --
MR. ERELI: Yeah, exactly. We request a waiver of immunity.
QUESTION: Do you have anything to say about the meeting today between Musharraf and Vajpayee in Islamabad?
MR. ERELI: I can say that the United States is pleased that Prime Minister Vajpayee and President Musharraf met today while attending the summit at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. And I would also add that other senior-level meetings have taken place between Indian and Pakistani officials. We warmly welcome these meetings and we hope that they will lead to further engagement and dialogue between India and Pakistan.
QUESTION: Do you have a positive spin on it, as the press accounts do, or is it just the fact that they met that gives you cause for cheer and exuberance?
MR. ERELI: I think the fact that the met is important and noteworthy. As to the substance of their meeting and what they discussed, I'd leave that to the parties to comment on.
QUESTION: I mean, they haven't told -- the U.S. hasn't -- doesn't know?
MR. ERELI: I don't have a readout.
QUESTION: No, I don't mean can you provide a readout, does the U.S. -- was the U.S. -- does the U.S. have an ear to the -- at that meeting?
MR. ERELI: I'd say we're in contact with both India and Pakistan as befits our close -- the close bilateral relationships we have with both countries, but I'm not aware that we've discussed the substance of this meeting with them at this point.
In the back, yes.
QUESTION: Could you comment on the capture in Ecuador of Colombian rebel leader, Simon Trinidad?
MR. ERELI: Are we done with India-Pakistan?
QUESTION: Well, actually one question, one quick one if you can take it on India-Pakistan.
MR. ERELI: Sure.
QUESTION: One of the ministers, I think Indian Foreign Minister Sinha said afterwards -- talked about the possibility of further confidence-building measures. Do you have any idea what those might be or what you'd like to see them do after resuming the flights, and so on?
MR. ERELI: Yeah, I don't have, sort of, anything specific to say on that comment. But what I would note is that both countries have taken a number of positive confidence-building steps over the past several months, and we certainly encourage them to continue this process.
On the capture of the Colombian terrorist leader Ricardo Palmero in Ecuador, we applaud the capture of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia leader Ricardo Palmero, also known as Simon Trinidad. This is a blow to regional terrorism throughout the region. We congratulate the Ecuadorian police for their superior performance in this case and the high level of professionalism they exhibited in carrying out such a sensitive operation.
The joint Ecuadorian-Colombian operation is a clear demonstration of how close cooperation between neighbors enhances the security of the region as a whole.
QUESTION: The Colombian Government stated that it was -- the capture was due to the intelligence -- shared intelligence between U.S. and Colombia, but the Ecuadorian police -- the Ecuadorian Government says that it was -- or a minister of Ecuador says that it was the sole work of Ecuadorian police.
What is your information regarding that?
MR. ERELI: And as a follow-up to, George, your question on the U.S. role, what I can tell you is this, that this was an Ecuadorian police operation. I would note that we have worked closely with the Ecuadorian police for years. We have provided training and equipment to them; therefore, you know, they did this job. We have been working closely with them for a long time and we congratulate them on their excellent work.
QUESTION: You can't specifically address the question of whether any U.S. intelligence was akin to this?
MR. ERELI: Yeah. I cannot.
QUESTION: Can you give us more information about this new embassy you're planning to build in Baghdad and about your role taking over from the State -- from the Pentagon? And why do you need 3,000 staff to work there? Is this a way of reoccupying Iraq in different form?
MR. ERELI: I'm just thinking where to start on that one. I guess I'd start by saying, since we're not -- we addressed this on Friday. When Iraq -- when the Iraqis take over sovereignty of their country, as per the November 15th agreement, on July 1st, the Coalition Provisional Authority will be transformed into -- or that the U.S. presence there will be -- I should -- the Coalition Provisional Authority will be basically out of business.
The U.S. presence in -- official U.S. presence in Iraq will be a U.S. embassy. That embassy is -- we are in the process now of preparing to stand up that embassy. It will involve a lot of people. Whether 3,000 is an accurate number or not, I think it's a little bit early to tell. It will certainly be a significant staff, but it's premature to talk about specific numbers, and I think the mission of this embassy is going to be quite clear.
It's going to be to work with the new Iraqi government, to help them secure a better future for the Iraqi people. It will be to coordinate the work being done in Iraq by various U.S. Government agencies, in coordination and cooperation with the government of Iraq and the Iraqi people. So in that sense, we look forward to a very close and cooperative relationship, as we've had up until now.
QUESTION: Do you see this embassy as -- I mean, some of your embassies in various regions are bigger than others and don't necessarily serve as a hub, but have a larger role in some of the workings of the region. Do you see the Embassy in Baghdad as serving that kind of function, as being one of the larger embassies in the region to also work in other countries?
MR. ERELI: I think the focus of the Embassy in Baghdad is going to be on Iraq.
QUESTION: Yes, regarding Iraq and the meeting at the UN coming up on January 19th, have you guys decided yet whether you're -- or has the CPA, are you aware if the CPA has decided whether to participate in this meeting as, kind of, as participants rather than --
MR. ERELI: Yeah. I think that's an issue that's being discussed and looked at but no decisions have been made.
QUESTION: Can I change the subject?
QUESTION: Can we stay with Iraq for one more question?
Has the Bush Administration taken any kind of a decision to essentially permit the continuation of relative autonomy or -- in the Kurdish regions of Iraq?
MR. ERELI: This is not a decision for the Bush Administration. We've said all along that it's up to the Iraqi people to determine their political future. This is the basis of the November 15th agreement which remains in effect. We will certainly be working, continuing to consult with them and exchange ideas with the Governing Council as we move forward in implementing the November 15th agreement.
I would say on the subject of the Kurds, that we have always supported and will continue to support Iraq's political unity and territorial integrity. The Kurds are members of the Governing Council, and have themselves expressed a commitment to a unified Iraq. The structure of a future Iraqi state, including federalist elements, is a constitutional issue for the Iraqis to decide.
QUESTION: So if the Kurds in northern Iraq want to maintain political autonomy and if the Governing Council feels like that's okay, that's fine with you?
MR. ERELI: Without getting into hypotheticals, I think what we're committed to is Iraq's political unity and territorial integrity.
QUESTION: Adam, in Iraq, over the week, U.S. troops raided a mosque and found a weapons arsenal there. And also, is there any connection to the new released bin Laden tape? Al Jazeera says they only released 14 minutes of maybe a half-hour audiotape. And further, there are the airport screenings. And is it all linked together for this turnover in the beginnings of July? Of course, there's a new handover for NATO, a new commander-in-chief there, for both Afghanistan and Iraq. Could you comment on all those?
MR. ERELI: I would comment on the common thread that I see linking all those ideas, which is --
QUESTION: Maybe make some sort of comment (inaudible) --
MR. ERELI: -- which is that the war on terror will continue. I think in Iraq what you've seen is, unfortunately, the use of religious establishments to hide arms that are used to attack innocent Iraqis trying to help their country. The Usama bin Laden tape is another reminder that the war on terror is not over, that there are still elements out there that seek to destabilize and terrorize, and that we've got to remain resolute and aggressive in confronting them.
On the NATO issue, I mean, obviously, getting NATO involved in Iraq is something we've been discussing, something the members of NATO have been discussing, and will be an issue that they look at and we look at in the coming year.
QUESTION: Does that mean that you don't see any connection between Mr. de Hoop Scheffer taking over NATO today as Secretary General and the release of the bin Laden tape?
MR. ERELI: That's a stretch, Matthew, but --
QUESTION: It's a stretch that there is a connection? Well, you said there was a common thread, and I just wanted to make sure that that wasn't one.
MR. ERELI: Yes, I would say that Mr. de Scheffer and we are resolute and aggressive in fighting terror. There's your link.
QUESTION: On the bin Laden tape itself, just as a follow-up to make sure I understand, the way you answered the question, you're saying that the U.S. Government believes it was bin Laden. Is that what you meant to say?
MR. ERELI: Yeah, I don't want to speak as to the authenticity of this specific tape. I'd leave it to others with expertise in the matter to do that. What I can say is that recurrent noises from terrorist elements remind us that the battle is not yet won.
QUESTION: Another common thread. Iran doesn't want U.S. help. And now there's a report in an Israeli newspaper that Palestinian groups don't want AID's money because AID is insisting that they show they're not terrorist groups. Are you having trouble with providing assistance to Palestinian groups?
MR. ERELI: I don't believe so. We continue to provide, to have an active aid program, in Palestinian, particularly with -- in the Palestinian territories, particularly with NGOs. I don't see any sign of that abating. These are programs designed to, you know, help rule of law, educational exchange, human rights, and those are continuing.
QUESTION: Do you have a mechanism for making sure the aid doesn't go to a terror group?
MR. ERELI: The aid is --
QUESTION: It doesn't go to the Palestinian Authority, I know that.
MR. ERELI: Yeah. No, there are obviously extensive checks and balances and accounting mechanisms, and so I think, you know, we're on fairly safe grounds saying that the aid does not go to groups that have anything to do with terror, or does not find its way into the pockets of terrorists.
QUESTION: Yesterday there was a Christian High Priest -- a Palestinian High Priest from Nablus. He called on this Arabic satellite for help for the moral -- what he called moral conscience of the world to stop the silence toward the demolishing of 500 houses and 1900 new Palestinian refugees only in the last few days, that Israel demolished their houses in those towns, the historic part of the city of Nablus. Do you have any just and compassionate, maybe, response to his goals and to the Palestinian goals, for that matter?
MR. ERELI: I think we've been pretty outspoken on, you know, our sympathy for the suffering that the Palestinian people are undergoing and the urging to Israel that while it has to take measures that are, legitimate measures that are in its self-defense, that it needs to bear in mind the consequences of its actions on innocent civilians.
So, you know, for those who are suffering and for those who have suffered, I would say that we are not blind to your suffering, and that we, you know, we would reiterate the call on Israel to bear in mind the consequences of actions. At the same time, we would say that terrorism also has to end, and that Israeli actions against Palestinian targets are in response to these terrorist actions.
QUESTION: But those are civilian targets, sir, and they go against the Geneva Convention that protect civilians under occupations.
MR. ERELI: Really, we're not going to break any new ground here. The fact is that Israel has a right of self-defense. They are being attacked by terrorist elements. In responding to those attacks they need to bear in mind and minimize the loss of innocent civilian life, or damage to innocent civilian life and property, and the Palestinians need to move resolutely to act against these terrorist organizations, disband them, dismantle their networks and engage in a peaceful dialogue.
QUESTION: Yeah, just back Iran for a second. Do you have any response to any of the particular official comments coming out of Tehran and other places in Iran over the weekend to the -- about their deciding now is not a good time for the, for the -- for a high-level humanitarian mission?
QUESTION: And particularly the Interior Minister's comment that if the United States wanted better -- wants better relations with -- with Iran -- if the United States wants better relations with Iran, that it should drop its "hostile" attitude?
MR. ERELI: Yeah. We're talking about two different issues: One is the humanitarian mission; and one is better relations with Iran. The two aren't linked.
QUESTION: No, no, but they link them. So you can --
MR. ERELI: Okay. I would not --
QUESTION: You can de-link them if you want to.
MR. ERELI: I would specifically de-link them.
QUESTION: There's no thread then?
MR. ERELI: No common thread. We addressed -- on Friday we addressed this issue pretty extensively, the issue of a humanitarian visit to -- proposed Iranian -- excuse me -- a proposed humanitarian visit to Iran. We raised the issue. The Iranians came back and said, "Not the best idea at this time. Hold it in -- preferable to hold it in abeyance." So that's where we are on that.
On the issue for a political dialogue, Mohamm -- Arshad, that you mentioned, there's nothing new there either. I think the President made it clear in his remarks from Texas last week that we're looking for Iran to take decisive action in a number of areas to address our concerns, and that remains the case -- cooperating in rendering al-Qaida suspects there, getting rid of its WMD programs, and getting out of it -- stopping support for terrorist organizations.
QUESTION: Would you want to dispute the suggestion that the United States has a hostile attitude toward Iran, or are you willing to leave that until --
MR. ERELI: I would resist characterizing the situation one way or the other. I'd say we are -- we have made clear our concerns and the kind of thing that we're looking for and leave it at that.
QUESTION: Adam, did you -- when you say that -- when the Iranians say that they'd like to hold the idea in abeyance, do you expect that there will be regular communications between the U.S. and Iran on this issue?
I mean, Deputy Secretary Armitage called the ambassador last week. Do you expect the contacts to go back to regular channels, or do you think this opens up a new line of communication on this particular issue?
MR. ERELI: Neither. Or both. What I would say is this. We have --
QUESTION: Either or both?
MR. ERELI: Either or both. What I would say is this. We have, you know, we don't have regular communications with the Iranians because we don't have diplomatic relations with the Iranians; however, we do talk to each other from time to time as circumstances warrant.
So in this case, we may talk to each other again, depending on the circumstances, but at the same time, as I noted on Friday, the circumstances are changing. So, you know, the need for a, or the relevance of a humanitarian mission to demonstrate our concern, may or may not be more relevant in the future depending on how things go.
QUESTION: So what would you be talking about, about the relationship, or the amount of humanitarian assistance?
MR. ERELI: No, she was talking about specifically this, for the providing of aid or that sort of thing.
QUESTION: Right. So that -- it isn't over with? It may come up again?
MR. ERELI: I wouldn't rule it out, but there are no sort of, there's no channel or process now under way to address this issue. It is an issue that is, that we -- like the other issues, in the sense of, when there's -- when circumstances warrant and there's a need for it and it's the most appropriate way to convey a message, we will talk directly to them in some form or another, but I would not look to regularizing that in any way.
QUESTION: Are there still people in this building who hold to the proposition that there's a democratic trend in Iran, despite everything that keeps happening?
You keep getting slapped in the face with a wet noodle, and there are people in this building -- I don't want to name names, but their names do come up in briefings, who seem to have, you know, some genuine hope that there's a trend. Is there a trend?
MR. ERELI: I think what's clear is that there is -- that the Iranian people, most of whom are under the age of 35, are making their voice increasingly heard, and through a variety of ways -- in the press, in voting, in meeting -- and it's important that the voice of the Iranian people be heard and be heeded to. That is something that we repeatedly call for and believe is in the interests -- in the interest of everyone.
QUESTION: Yeah. North Korea.
MR. ERELI: Finished with Iran?
QUESTION: Well, actually, could I -- just one more. Could you clarify, last May, the Administration seemed to be saying that it was placing conditions on a resumption of dialogue with Iran, which at that time was namely the handing over or dealing with these al-Qaida suspects. Do you have any preconditions now for reopening a dialogue with Iran, or, as you say, as you said just now, you will talk whenever you feel it is necessary?
MR. ERELI: Well, I think -- I would refer you to the Deputy Secretary's October 2003 testimony, which is pretty clear on this, which is that, you know, we're not opposed to some kind of -- we're not opposed to talking to Iran. But they've got to address our concerns, and, you know, it's something that, you know, if the time is right, and if it serves our interest, and if the President determines that it's the right thing to do, we can look at. And it's really pragmatic in that sense.
QUESTION: Yeah. I just wondered if there's any update at all on the status of a new round of six-party talks.
MR. ERELI: Don't have anything new for you, Matthew, on that. I mean, obviously, there have been a number of statements seen in the press. But in terms of diplomacy, you know, we are continuing to state pretty categorically that we're not going to offer incentives for North Korea to return to the negotiating table, that we are prepared to resume talks without preconditions.
No other party has set preconditions, and we urge the North to drop its preconditions and move to another round of talks where all parties can seek to achieve progress on the issues of concerns.
QUESTION: So when the North Koreans agreed in principle to resume talks, which they did through the Chinese, which was noted here --
MR. ERELI: Right, right.
QUESTION: -- they agreed in principle with preconditions. Is that what we're to conclude?
MR. ERELI: Well, the latest reports say that the ball is now in our court because, you know, we haven't agreed to do something in return for them coming to talks, and what we're saying is we're not, you know, we're not coming -- our position is we're not going to go to -- there are no preconditions to our going to the talks, and don't put preconditions on restarting the talks.
QUESTION: Are they still attaching pre -- you credited them with at least, in principle, agreeing to another round of talks.
MR. ERELI: I didn't credit them with anything. I said that's what they -- that's what they said.
QUESTION: Well, you noted -- all right. You took note of it.
MR. ERELI: Right.
QUESTION: You took note of it.
MR. ERELI: Right, took note of their statement. But also said, noted that there -- you know, there were --
QUESTION: That there can't be preconditions.
MR. ERELI: Right. And that, and that, you know, for elaborating on their statement, you'd need to talk to them, or what their statement meant.
QUESTION: This unofficial delegation that's going to North Korea, I know you spoke about this at length on Friday, but even though it's an unofficial delegation and it doesn't go with the -- any blessing or any message from the U.S., do you expect to be in contact with this delegation as they're there, or do you expect to be briefed by them when you get back?
I mean, although it's not going as an envoy of the U.S., what is -- what do you expect to gain from this trip?
MR. ERELI: Again, as we said on Friday, the people going to North Korea are people that we deal with on a fairly regular basis on a whole variety of State Department business, since they are from the committee on -- two committees on the Senate, or a number of committees on the Senate that deal with the State Department. So it certainly wouldn't be surprising if, following their trip, we did have discussions with them to sort of share information and views on what they experienced there.
QUESTION: Did you brief them before they left?
MR. ERELI: What I can tell you is that the members of the STAFFDEL met with the embassy staff in Beijing during a stopover.
QUESTION: In other words, they're there now?
MR. ERELI: I'm not sure where they are exactly now. I know they stopped over in Beijing on their way to North Korea, but their precise itinerary I don't have for you.
QUESTION: You may have said this on Friday, but I wasn't here. Can you clarify or make clear whether or not they are taking any kind of letter or --
MR. ERELI: Yes, I can make very clear that they are not acting on behalf of the Administration, that this is a private visit that -- which we neither facilitated nor opposed.
QUESTION: But, at the same time, I mean, while it's -- I mean, what is the purpose of the trip, then?
QUESTION: Ask them.
MR. ERELI: Ask them. Thank you.
QUESTION: Moving on to Libya.
QUESTION: Oh, excuse me, one more North Korea.
MR. ERELI: North Korea.
QUESTION: Let me get back on the six-party talk. Yesterday, Russian Foreign -- Deputy Foreign Minister Losyukov said this month, you know, another round of talk is unlikely, and that he also reiterated again both sides it's, you know, said it's no reason why it's the same old ones, mistrust and the very high demands set by both side. That was quote by Mr. Losyukov. What's your response on that?
MR. ERELI: I'll tell you what our position is, and our position is we're ready for talks without preconditions. And I'll let other people -- other people's characterizations go without comment.
QUESTION: Earlier today, both Homeland Security and State --
MR. ERELI: Oh, sorry. Yeah. Thanks.
QUESTION: Mr. Bolton was obviously in London last week for high-level discussions with his British counterparts. Has it been decided what kind of strategy you plan to have in terms of going into Libya, when that will take place, and what role the IAEA will have in terms of these long-term inspections and sort of oversight over Libya's promise to get rid of their weapons of mass destruction?
Are they going to be sort of working alongside the U.S. and the British or are they going to be, you know, sort of off to the side?
MR. ERELI: Under Secretary Bolton was in London last week. He met there with his UK counterparts, including William Ehrman, the Deputy Under Secretary of State, or Deputy Under Secretary for State for Security and Intelligence at the Foreign Commonwealth Office. He is -- I don't have anything really new to report to you on when the next team might be going to Libya.
I would say that the U.S. Government is working with the British and Libyan Governments and the IAEA to determine how best we all together can assist Libya in getting rid of its WMD programs. Those consultations are ongoing and there's nothing new to announce.
On the question of who's doing what, that also is something that we're working out with both the IAEA and the British. I would note that we do not see any conflict between the responsibilities of the IAEA and the initiative underway by the UK and the United States with Libya.
Under the N -- under the nuclear, under the Nonproliferation Treaty and the requisite Libyan safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, it is the Agency's job to implement international verification of Libyan nuclear activities, including the additional protocol that Libya has said it will sign.
As far as our role goes, we've got a political agreement with Libya under which we will need to help ensure and expedite the removal of all weapons-related aspects of Libya's nuclear program. And we plan to continue working closely with the IAEA in facilitating complete verification by it.
QUESTION: Related to that is, late last year, I think it was in November, the Secretary, in The Federal Register announced that they would review the travel ban, in reference to Libya, every three months. Can you give us any update on where that stands right now? I think the three-month deadline is, is approaching sometime soon. I'm not exactly sure when.
MR. ERELI: Yeah. I think The Federal Register notice came out on November 27th, if I'm not -- or thereabouts -- and said that the ban on the use of U.S. passports to travel to Libya will remain in effect for another year, and that the ban may be reviewed in three months, which would put us at February 27th, so nothing new on that.
QUESTION: The British Foreign Minister -- I'm sorry -- the Libyan Foreign Minister is going to be making a trip to the UK to kind of discuss their relationship and some of the issues related to this decision. Do you expect a visit by any Libyan officials at any time soon?
MR. ERELI: I don't have -- I haven't seen anything on that.
QUESTION: The charter plane that crashed out of Sharm El-Sheikh, were there any American citizens aboard?
MR. ERELI: Four U.S. citizens were among those killed in the plane crash of the Egyptian charter aircraft on January 3rd. We extend our deepest sympathies to the families of those who lost their lives in the Flash Airlines flight. Department officials have been in contact with the family members of the deceased Americans, although out of deference for the family, we won't be releasing further details on them.
QUESTION: Do you know when exactly you discovered that there were four Americans on this plane? And also if they -- do you know if they were dual-nationals or were they just -- or were they only citizens of the United States?
MR. ERELI: Let me check on, sort of, exact timing of notification and what we can say about their identities.
QUESTION: But I don't want to know their identities, I just want to know if they're --
MR. ERELI: Well, their --
QUESTION: -- not their names, but their personal data.
MR. ERELI: -- which would be --
QUESTION: That's right. Whether they're U.S. Government people, AID people --
MR. ERELI: Exactly. No, I mean, the dual natures, dual-citizenship nature question.
QUESTION: It's a tourist; place.
QUESTION: Because it is now two days afterwards. You -- generally, you know pretty quickly. I mean, you knew about Americans being killed in Bam, in Iran, a country that you don't even have diplomatic relations with, pretty quickly.
MR. ERELI: Right.
QUESTION: This is now, you know, two and a half days later and I asked all weekend and couldn't get an answer on this. So I'm just curious as to maybe the fact that, if they were dual-nationals, that might have held up the --
MR. ERELI: Yes. Let me check on that.
QUESTION: -- considering you just said that your largest embassy in the world is in Cairo and, you know, you got no one in Iran.
MR. ERELI: Joel.
QUESTION: Okay, returning to this earlier question. Today you're instituting this whole new policy for screening at airports for foreign travel and it's creating some commercial hardships by businessmen and others. Again, there was a delay for a British plane today coming to the States.
And do you expect, in talks with foreign governments, that they should and have a criteria of responsibility to set up similar -- you had some -- the same thing happen with Brazilians, they're fingerprinting Americans -- but do you expect to have an even playing field so that this will iron itself out in the next few weeks?
MR. ERELI: The Secretary of Homeland Security, Governor Ridge, gave a -- has spoken extensively on the U.S.-VISIT program today, so I would sort of refer you to his remarks on the details of the visit. I don't -- or -- details of the program. I don't -- I'm not aware of any sort of significant delays or cancellations that the VISIT -- that U.S.-VISIT program has caused.
It's an important measure to protect our borders and our homeland. I would also note that, you know, we continue to -- from the State Department's point of view, seek to work with our partners in government to help implement these programs with a minimum of disruption to our foreign friends and travelers, and that certainly continues to be the case here.
As far as what other countries are doing, obviously the measures they take for their security are their decision, and we wouldn't want to second guess that, and we certainly respect the principle of reciprocity.
QUESTION: Well, but in the case of Brazil, I mean, it -- it certainly seemed to peeve the Brazilians enough so that they're imposing a similar measure. Do you think that that's purely for security purposes, or is this more of a tit for tat type of thing?
MR. ERELI: No, I think it's a sovereign decision for the Brazilians to make.
QUESTION: Your position on this hasn't changed since you talked about on Friday, I take it?
MR. ERELI: That's correct.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Georgian elections. Do you have any comment?
MR. ERELI: Are we done with U.S.-VISIT?
On the Georgian elections, we believe that the presidential election of January 4th marks a significant step forward in the development of democracy in Georgia. We welcome the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe's preliminary assessment that these elections demonstrated notable progress over previous elections and brought the country closer to meeting international standards.
We believe that it is clear that the Georgian people have spoken and they support Mikheil Saakashvili's plan to reform Georgia. For our part, we look forward to working closely with President-elect Saakashvili to support Georgia's democratic and market economic reforms, fight against corruption and intensify relations with the United States, Europe, and all of Georgia's neighbors.
I would also note that Ambassador Miles met with President-elect Saakashvili on the evening of January 4th and conveyed our congratulations.
QUESTION: Two quick follow-ups on that: One, do you plan to do anything about reducing their debt burden through the Paris Club or elsewhere? And, two, when you note the OSCE's findings, it seems clear that the OSCE does not believe that the Georgians actually met international standards. Is that your view, that they didn't meet international standards in the conduct of this election despite all the money and time and effort the OSCE and the United States provided them?
MR. ERELI: On the issue of debt burden, let me take the question and look. On the issue of the OSCE, what I would stress is that we agree with them that they made notable progress. I think that they also noted some areas of concern, including the composition of the election administration and the separation between state administration and political party structures. We will continue working with the people of Georgia in addressing these concerns so that the Parliamentary elections in March can be even better than these.
QUESTION: Just when you say that you brought the country closer to meeting international standards, international standards for what?
MR. ERELI: Free and fair elections.
QUESTION: Is the Secretary -- can you give us an idea, is the Secretary going full blast, or can you give us an idea what he's been doing today? How's he feeling?
MR. ERELI: The Secretary was -- the Secretary's made a number of calls today. He spoke with Secretary General Annan on a number of issues -- Iraq, Afghanistan -- no, not on Cyprus -- Iraq, Afghanistan, and -- I'll check for you on the other stuff. It slipped my mind for the moment. He was also at Walter Reed for a post-operative checkup. He was in the office most of the last week and will be here this week.
QUESTION: The checkup was okay?
MR. ERELI: Okay.
QUESTION: Can you tell us anything more on what he -- on those conversations with Annan?
MR. ERELI: Yeah. He spoke with -- not to go into a lot of detail, he spoke on Afghanistan, the important developments there over the weekend, the new constitution, on Iraq, the issue of -- continuing issue of UN going back into Iraq. And the other issues just slipped my mind. I'll have to check.
QUESTION: When did they have the conversation?
MR. ERELI: I don't know. I'll have to check.
QUESTION: Well, can you find out and why?
MR. ERELI: Mm-hmm. Yes, Elise.
QUESTION: I have a change in subject.
QUESTION: If I could just follow up.
QUESTION: Has the Secretary been in touch with former Secretary Baker as well in the last few days?
MR. ERELI: The Secretary spoke with Special Envoy Baker upon Special Envoy Baker's return December 30th, I believe. So they did touch base when Special Envoy Baker returned to the states.
QUESTION: Well, he's headed to the Gulf this week, isn't he?
MR. ERELI: I've seen reports that he plans to go to -- his next trip is to the Middle East, but I'm not aware that any dates have been set.
QUESTION: And with reference to the post-operative checkup, can you tell us whether everything is as expected and his health is -- he's recovering nicely?
MR. ERELI: I don't -- you know, I don't have a medical report to share with you.
QUESTION: New subject. There are some reports coming from Latin America that the Cuban and Venezuelan Governments have been jointly creating and funding an effort to cultivate anti-American sentiment in the region. Do you know anything about -- have you heard anything about this?
MR. ERELI: We've seen those reports. I would say that we are concerned about any action that might impede free and fair democratic processes throughout the hemisphere. I would note that the Castro regime, as is well known, has a long history of attempting to undermine democratic governments throughout the region, and for that reason, the close ties between the Government of Venezuela and the Government of Cuba raise concerns among Venezuela's democratic neighbors.
Regarding these specific reports of terrorist elements operating along Venezuela's border with Colombia, we have expressed our concern to the Venezuelan Government and we continue to monitor the situation.
QUESTION: Would you say Venezuela's democratic neighbors as distinct from Venezuela?
MR. ERELI: No, I would not make that contrast.
QUESTION: Well, they're not tainted yet, in State Department terms, by dealing with Cuba?
MR. ERELI: I think we are concerned about these reports. I would say that, as far as our relationship with Venezuela goes, that we are -- we remain committed to working with the Organization of American States to support the Venezuelan Government and opposition achieving a constitutional, democratic, peaceful and electoral solution to the current political impasse there, as outlined in the OAS Permanent Council's Resolution 833.
QUESTION: Your comment about Cuba and its long history of interfering with democratically elected governments in this hemisphere. Does the United States also have a long history of interfering with democratically elected governments in this hemisphere?
MR. ERELI: I don't think the comparison is a valid one.
QUESTION: No? So you wouldn't suggest that, say, Chile's neighbors should have been concerned back in the '70s about involvement there?
MR. ERELI: I would not suggest it, and I reject the comparison.
QUESTION: A follow-up on that?
QUESTION: And you --
MR. ERELI: I reject the comparison between the United States' record, in supporting of democracy and freedom, and Cuba's.
MR. ERELI: Not support those principles in the hemisphere.
QUESTION: This could be an issue at the Special Summit of Monterrey, the close ties between President Chavez and coca leader of Bolivia and Fidel Castro? Do you think that will be an issue?
MR. ERELI: I don't think it's going to be on the formal agenda. I don't know if it won't come up in some discussions. But, you know, that's -- the focus of the Summit of the Americas is clearly on something different.
QUESTION: I just have --
MR. ERELI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Did you already receive any answer of the Venezuelan Government when you expressed your concerns on this close relationship?
MR. ERELI: Not that I have to share with you.
MR. ERELI: Yes, Charlie.
One more, in the back.
QUESTION: I want to ask you about a report that's not very clear. It talks about the special units, the elite units, that operate in Iraq and Afghanistan and join from the Delta forces known as 121, which was responsible for the capture of Saddam Hussein. It talks about these units being employed in Somalia and in South Lebanon for target assassination. Do you have any information about that?
MR. ERELI: No, I don't.
QUESTION: The report said that the State Department officials knows about this. So do you mean that you don't know personally, or they -- you don't know anything about it?
MR. ERELI: This State Department official doesn't know, and, generally, you know, military actions and movements are the purview of the Defense Department to talk about.
QUESTION: I'm aware of that, but the reference was specifically to State Department. That's why I asked you the question.
MR. ERELI: I don't have anything -- I don't have anything to add or to clarify those reports. I -- just leave it where they are.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. ERELI: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:35 p.m.)