U.S. Department of State
96/01/03 Daily Press Briefing
Office of the Spokesman
"Due to the Government furlough, this is an unedited transcript of the daily press briefing."
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
DAILY PRESS BRIEFING
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 3, 1996, 1:15 P. M.
(ON THE RECORD UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED)
MR. BURNS: Welcome to the State Department briefing. I have a couple of quick announcements to make, and then I'll be glad to go to your questions.
First of all, as you know, Secretary Christopher will be traveling to Paris and the Middle East next week. He will depart Washington early Monday morning, January 8, for Paris. He'll be spending two days there, until Wednesday morning, at the Middle East Donors' Conference.
He will then travel to the region, to the Middle East, on the afternoon of January 10 -- that's Wednesday afternoon -- and he'll be spending several days in the region. We're not quite sure what day we'll be coming back. That will depend, I think, on the pace of the discussions that he has in the Middle East.
For those of you who would like to accompany the Secretary, a sign- up sheet will be posted directly after the briefing, and we would welcome as many of you as the plane can take.
Secondly, the Secretary, of course, has returned to Washington. He's been in the building since early this morning, and he has spent most of this morning dealing with the very severe consequences of the furlough and of the governmental shutdown on the operations of the State Department, both here in the United States and overseas.
In fact, at our normal Wednesday morning senior staff meeting today, he devoted the entire discussions with the Under Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries present to this issue. He asked all of the Under and Assistant Secretaries to keep in close touch personally with our employees, our fellow colleagues, who are on furlough and who are at home. He asks that we make sure that all of them are called to be apprised of the situation with the Congress, the deliberations underway, and to pass on the message from him and the leadership here at the State Department that their services are indeed valued.
He directed the management officers of the Department to find a way to keep the Department's essential services running, despite the shortage of funds. He asked Under Secretary Dick Moose to attend the AFSA and AFGE rally that I think some of you just witnessed at 21st Street, and specifically asked Under Secretary Moose to express his concerns -- Secretary Christopher's concerns -- for the problems that our employees, our colleagues, are experiencing and the support that he has for the contribution that they make to America's national security.
Late this morning, he spent a good hour walking around the Department, meeting individual employees in offices. He went to the Office of Congressional Affairs, which is headed by Assistant Secretary Wendy Sherman, and talked to a number of the people who are at work about the effects of the shutdown on them and on their colleagues.
He visited our Office of Computer Operations, because, as you know, we need to keep our computer operations funded. That's the essential lifeline that we have to our more than 300 diplomatic posts overseas.
He went down to the cafeteria and talked to people having lunch -- spoke to people about the problems that they are experiencing. He visited the Bureau of Consular Affairs, which has really been the front lines of the Department throughout the last 19 days. These are the people who are responsible both for emergency passport services, visa services and other services to American citizens who find themselves in trouble overseas; and also visited the Office of International Organization Affairs -- that's the office responsible for our relationship with the United Nations and with other international organizations.
In the course of his walk-about, in the course of talking to people here in the Department, he made a couple of basic points in his individual conversations.
First, he very much understands the anger and the frustration that our employees, both people who are working and not being paid, but also those who are furloughed and who are not being paid -- the anger and frustration that people feel. He understands that there is an effect that is undeniable on the morale of everybody who works for the United States Government these days but specifically for those of us here in the Department of State.
Second, he said that he felt that it's unjustified that this coming Thursday the more than 25,000 people who work for the Department of State will not receive full paychecks, and that he understood that people have practical, everyday problems -- mortgages to pay, tuition payments to make for children in school, at universities, car payments to make, and that creditors may not always be understanding.
He expressed his very strong appreciation for the role of everybody who works at the Department of State, both in the United States and overseas, and asks that this support be conveyed to the colleagues of the people with whom he spoke.
Let me just remind you -- I think we've put these figures out before -- but 72 percent of the Department's employees in the United States, in Washington and in our other offices in the United States, have been furloughed. That's approximately 6500 people out of 9000 people in the United States.
Overseas the figures are much different, because by law, as you know, we cannot -- in almost all of the countries in which we work, we cannot lay off, we cannot furlough, our foreign national employees who make up the overwhelming percentage of our employees overseas.
I know there has been some interest in the press about how this shutdown is affecting the operations of the Department. I think you all know that on an average day we issue -- on an average day when we're working full-time -- we issue 20,000-plus visas every single day to people around the world who want to come to the United States as tourists, who want to spend their money in the United States on services provided by Americans, and that is not now happening.
All of our visa operations are shut down. So every day that this goes on, 20,000-plus people are not coming to the United States. We also have about 200,000 Americans -- 200,000 Americans -- who are awaiting passports, people who want to travel. When people have emergency reason to travel, then our Bureau of Consular Affairs is understanding and tries to on a case-by-case basis provide passports on an emergency basis; but an emergency means, really, a life-and-death situation. That is similarly true for our visa operations overseas.
I think, as The Washington Post reported this morning, there are a number of very specific ways that our people are being affected. We know that the guard contract -- the security contracts for the people who provide physical security for our Ambassadors and Deputy Chiefs of Mission and other officials overseas -- in a number of cases are running out, and some of our posts don't have the cash, because overseas you pay in cash, to pay for these services.
Obviously, we're going to try to make an attempt to see that the essential security of our employees is met, but we're going to have to do this by moving funds around and by finding emergency funds and perhaps even by borrowing money from other government agencies that are not shut down.
I think you all know that in some essential services -- specifically in Vietnam and in Cuba, two of our Embassies and Consulates -- are threatened now to be cut off by the people conveying those services. I think you also know that when emergencies do occur, as was the case in Colombia just two weeks ago, American employees, American diplomats, are going to help Americans in times of crises. But it is incongruous, and it is unjustifiable that this happens and that people are not paid for their services.
So there is a great deal of preoccupation this morning at the Department felt by the Secretary, but also felt, I think, by all of us who work here about the practical problems that we are experiencing personally. We are a national security agency. We're going to keep ourselves running and open. We're going to do the best job we can. But it's hard to have an effective foreign policy when 72 percent of your employees can't come to work by law, when nobody is being paid a full paycheck, and when most of the people that we normally depend on to do the work cannot come to work.
So that's just one point that I wanted to make today about the Secretary's preoccupation about his activities, and, George and Carol, I'll be glad to go to your questions.
Q You've got a good start there on the very severe consequences. Is that the sum total of your list, or do you have more in the way of consequences?
MR. BURNS: Oh, there's much more, George. I just didn't want to bore you with all of the details. But, I mean, I can go on and on. We could do the whole briefing. Keep going?
One of the problems that we have is that we are unable in many cases to meet our contractual obligations to our Foreign Service national employees who work for us overseas. These are the employees in London, British, U.K. citizens -- in Brazil, Brazilian citizens -- who make up the vast percentage of our employees in our Embassies and Consulates.
In some countries, local labor laws prescribe that when salaries are not paid on time -- and that will be the case tomorrow -- the employer, in this case the United States Government, is responsible f or paying the injustment penalties and sometimes interest, and the interest rate can vary. In some countries it's as low as seven-tenths of a percent, which is in Chile. In Israel, it's as high as ten percent of denied pay.
So there are going to be actual costs to the American taxpayer for this shutdown concerning State Department operations. We may have to make up more than just the back pay when Congress finally gets around to appropriating enough money to pay our bills.
We have a contract with our employees overseas, and local labor laws dictate that we not lay them off and that we pay them fully on time, and we are not going to be able to meet those contracts as of tomorrow when the paychecks are issued.
I think, George, one of the most serious problems does concern security. The fact is that in the 1990s, Americans are targets and American government officials are prime targets in some countries. We have an obligation to these American diplomats to defend them and to protect them overseas; and, as you know, as a matter of course in most Embassies, some of our higher level officials, including most Ambassadors, have private guards. There are guards around our Embassies. These contracts are all running out. They're normally short-term contracts. In most countries of the world, we operate on a case basis. We have to pay cash for services.
Our Embassies are without cash, because they don't have the appropriation. We don't have a legal way to get them cash. So Under Secretary Moose and Assistant Secretary Pat Kennedy and others are busy trying to figure out how we can fashion some kind of temporary system in the coming days -- and we hope not weeks, but if it takes that long in the coming weeks -- to make sure that these very essential services are carried out overseas.
In any given day -- I can also tell you, George, because I've been an American citizens' officer at a large Embassy -- where there are thousands of Americans visiting Egypt or the Philippines or Paris or London or Rome -- people unfortunately get in trouble. People lose their passports and can't fly home because they don't have passports.
People end up in jail and have to have the benefits of the advice of an American Consular Official in a foreign country, sometimes with very different legal systems. People end up needing birth certificates -- Americans who are born overseas. There are child custody cases. And in many, many Consulates and Embassies overseas, we are providing bare- bone services to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who travel overseas every week.
So there are very real consequences here. And last but not least, I should mention the fact that when I go around every morning anticipating your questions here at the briefing to our regional and functional bureaus -- to the Middle East Bureau, the East Asian Bureau - - oftentimes the people who are actually the experts on the issues that you want to talk about are not here. They're not here because they're furloughed. That has an effect on me and you.
You can imagine the effect on some of the treaties we're trying to negotiate that may not be the absolute vital treaties that we would work on in any case, but which are the normal course of American diplomacy, and the work that has to go on with foreign Embassies here in town. A lot of it is not being done.
There are consequences to what is happening, and I think we're feeling them here at the Department of State.
Q Do you have any estimate on how much extra money the shutdown is going to cost you? I mean, has anybody come up with hard figures?
MR. BURNS: I don't have any hard figures for you. We're going to have to come up with that estimate, because we're going to have to pay the money out of the pockets of the American taxpayer, and I know we will come up with that. The Secretary directed this morning, our financial people, to find a way, first of all, to pay for the essential services. I think one of the things mentioned in a very good article by Tom Lipman this morning was the prospect that on Saturday the money for our computer services, for our cable services, will run out.
That is an essential service of the Department of State. It's in effect our lifeline to all of our diplomatic establishments, our ability to communicate in a secure fashion. We will have to find a way to pay for that and to keep that running if this shutdown continues through this weekend. But in doing so, we're going to have to take from some other services that we offer taxpayers, and that service will have to go unmet for the time being.
Q Nick, you mentioned that 20,000 visas a day are not being handed out, and then you said that 20,000 people a day are not coming to the United States as a result. Isn't it true, however, that most people who are coming to the United States in these last three weeks have had their visas a long time earlier. Can you give us an actual number, a real number, of how many people are -- I mean, the airlines report that they can't even determine any slackening of travel plans.
MR. BURNS: There are two types of travelers. Some have multiple- entry visas. They have visas upon which they can enter and leave the United States and enter again without having to go back to get a visa.
But the vast majority of travelers to the United States are single- entry travelers, meaning they have visas issued for one entry only. We have 20,000 requests for visas every single day, roughly, and some days it's higher, all around the world --
Q But don't most people get these visas like months or weeks in advance, and therefore what I want to know really is how many people are affected or are unable to make their travel? I mean, do you have a number on that?
MR. BURNS: There's no way for us to say, you know, a specific number in the thousands, Ben, because we're talking about people who are all around the world, none of whom are reporting their intentions to the U.S. Government. But the visa lines in Manila and in Bangkok and in Moscow and in Paris and Sao Paolo and others places are closed. That means that we figure on average 20,000 people a day -- foreigners -- who at the end of the day would have a visa that would allow them to travel to the United States cannot do so.
That has an impact on 20,000 people's plans -- personal, professional. It has a financial impact on all the people in the United States that benefit from foreign visitors -- airlines, hotels, restaurants, tourist sites, other people.
Q The tone of the meeting outside today was very confrontational vis-a-vis the Republican freshmen who are held responsible. Are you concerned in any way that this is sort of polarized the State Department as sort of like anti-Republican or anti- conservative, or is this going to be something that's going to make problems in the future when you want funding, when you want Ambassadors?
MR. BURNS: All of us who are career Foreign Service Officers and career civil servants have a duty not to be partisan and not to judge situations in that way, and I think you can feel assured that all of us will maintain a professional decorum.
What we're looking for, I think, if I can just speak as an employee, as a career officer, is common sense to prevail. The greatest power in the world should not have to operate on a shoestring. The greatest power in the world should not have to shut down 72 percent of its people who want to come to work, who are frustrated because they can't come to work.
We have important and vital things to do on behalf of the American people, and we can't do some of them, and that's a shame. We're certainly calling on the people in Congress who have the power to give us the appropriations that we deserve to just let us do our jobs.
Q Nick, can I follow that up? Who does the Secretary hold responsible for this unfortunate situation?
MR. BURNS: As I describe the Secretary's remarks to Department employees, I think it's fairly obvious that we believe that we ought to be in a position to do our job; that the Department's operations ought to be fully funded -- you know who funds the Department's operations -- so that we can go on and do our business.
Q How does the cash -- another example -- how does the cash- crunch affect at all the Secretary's travel plan, getting a hotel in Paris and the cars in Paris and the rest of the trip?
MR. BURNS: We have decided from day one when this -- first of all, when it happened earlier this autumn but certainly 19 days ago -- that the Department of State cannot be shut down, because we carry out vital functions and responsibilities for the American people.
Nobody wants to see our efforts to help implement the Dayton Peace Accords stop because there's an argument in Washington about funding. Nobody wants to see the Middle East Peace Process grind to a halt because we can't afford to drive out to the Wye Plantation.
So the Secretary decided early on that the vital missions of this Department have to go forward. We have no alternative. We cannot be hostage to arguments on Capitol Hill. So we're doing the best we can. We're doing the best we can to serve the American people meet the vital interests of this country, and I think the American people would expect nothing less.
But all we're saying today is it's difficult to do the best possible job when 72 percent of your employees are at home and cannot by law come to work. Many of the employees in my bureau, the Bureau of Public Affairs, would come to work, knowing that they wouldn't be paid, because they want to work, but they can't do that. I think that's the point that has to be made to people who are listening to this briefing.
Q I was asking whether the trip is consuming scarce cash, or will you be negotiating with the hotels and the cars to find other --
MR. BURNS: Fortunately --
Q -- to not pay until --
MR. BURNS: Fortunately, as has been pointed out this morning in the press, we have good credit with the U.S. Air Force which supplies the airplane that me and you travel on. So I think the Air Force will let us fly on that plane next Monday and won't ask us to pay in cash Monday morning.
When Congress gets around to fulfilling an appropriation for the Department of State, we'll pay the Air Force back. Similarly, with the hotels we stay in in Paris, in Jerusalem and Damascus. They do not ask for payment in cash that day. Hotels normally don't work that way. We'll pay them, and they know that we'll pay them.
The point is the real impact, Terry, is being felt in human terms. The point is the Department of State is very different from the Department of Defense. We don't have hardware that we can cut when there's a budget crisis. We don't have programs that we can cut when there's a budget crisis. We have to cut people, and 72 percent of our people are at home, and that's a great pity.
Q How would the Secretary respond to the observation that this is a partisan political battle, a battle over the philosophy of government in this country; that it's a democratic process that's going on, and it does reflect on Presidential politics in '96? Isn't this --
MR. BURNS: The Secretary has got to be concerned with being America's chief diplomat. We have an enormous number of challenges ahead of us in 1996. He has thought hard about what our priorities should be. He'll be very, very busy pursuing peace in Bosnia, peace in the Middle East, good relations with Russia and China and Japan, and all the other things that the American people would expect a Secretary of State to do. He doesn't have time for the partisan side of it.
He is focused on the ability of the 25,000 people who work for him to do their job. The unfortunate circumstance today, Bill, is that the great majority of these people can't even come to work.
Q Is he asking for immediate funding to put everybody back to work while this is resolved?
MR. BURNS: I think all of us are acting collectively, and I told you that the Secretary has great sympathy for all the people out voicing their complaints today on 21st Street. All of us simply want the chance to go back to work on a normal basis. It's to be paid, to allow our colleagues to come back to work, to be fully staffed, so that we can undertake the work of American foreign policy, which is what we're here to do.
Q New subject.
MR. BURNS: Any more on this before we leave it? Terry.
Q I have one more. The Secretary has great sympathy for those who are outside, yet he dispatched Mr. Moose to go see them while he went on his inside walk-about. What is the reason that he, himself, did not go out?
MR. BURNS: The reason is very simple, Terry. He spent an hour of his time this morning on his own initiative walking about the Department to meet the people that make this place run and to commiserate with them and to say that he supported them and understood their anger and frustration.
When Mr. Moose stepped out to speak to the employees demonstrating at 21st Street, the Secretary was busy preparing and then leaving for a meeting at the White House to discuss this very subject, which is quite important for him to do.
Q I wondered --
MR. BURNS: Still on this subject?
Q Yes. I wondered, what type of correspondence have you had from foreign governments on this matter? Have they been -- we heard of a letter from the Brazilians, protesting about the congressional travel, but what kind of correspondence have you had about protestations of --
MR. BURNS: I think a lot of people are just incredulous that the greatest country in the world, the most powerful country on earth, cannot pay for its essential services in Latin America, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Europe and in Asia. People, I think, overseas that we deal with in foreign governments just can't understand how the greatest power in the world could bring itself to do this.
Frankly, I think the effect on our people overseas, in our Embassies overseas -- it makes Nebraska's drubbing of Florida last night look like flag football. I mean, the fact is that it's compounded. We have over 300 -- did that sink in to all of you who saw the football game? It was like 62 to 24, I think the final score was. It was a massacre.
The fact is that we are drastically reduced overseas. We can't do our job overseas, and we somehow have to convince the Congress -- and I know the American people want to do this -- just to let us get back to normal. Just put us back on a normal footing, and we'll do our job.
Q But have you -- any specific letters you've received from any governments, any people --
MR. BURNS: I haven't seen specific letters, but I've noted in a lot of the cables that have come in from our Chiefs of Mission, very specific ways in which we're having to shut down operations or curtail operations and the incredulity with which this is met in many countries around the world, who conceive of the United States as a rather civilized place where the trains run on time. Unfortunately, the diplomatic trains are not running on time.
Q Do you have any other examples of functions at foreign embassies that are going to be cut off? You've given us electricity in Vietnam, security problems --
MR. BURNS: Right.
Q -- a couple of them in Africa the paper said this morning. Do you have any other specifics?
MR. BURNS: I think there are two specific things to say, Betsy. The first is that many of our Foreign Service nationals -- our Russian employees in Moscow, our French employees in Paris -- who do not receive high salaries, now faced with half a paycheck, the inability to meet the payments that they have to make to continue living; and in some cases I think you read this morning about the situation in Russia. Our American diplomats in Russia have taken out an interest-free loan from their association -- the American Employees Association in Moscow -- to help pay the salaries of our Russian employees and some of our lower paid American employees until this crisis is resolved.
We're very concerned about our foreign employees, some of whom make a pittance compared to us -- we Americans -- and some of whom cannot get by. They don't have savings. They cannot get by without a paycheck. Their livelihood and their families, food to eat and shelter, depend on it. And this is not an exaggeration. We have tens of thousands of employees in Third World countries who simply are too poor to get along without a paycheck, and we have a responsibility for these people. That's the first -- Betsy, I think, the first specific case where people are really being hurt by this.
Second is the case of American citizens. The fact is that hundreds of thousands of Americans do travel overseas every single week, and they have come to rely on American Embassies and Consulates for legal support, for all the other support services that I mentioned earlier in the briefing. We are doing the best we can overseas to continue those services, but it is impossible to continue to them when many of our American employees overseas cannot come to work.
Q I have a question, a fact question. For many countries to visit -- for U.S. citizens -- a visa is not required. Are those always reciprocal relationships -- arrangements?
MR. BURNS: For the vast majority of 170-odd countries in the world, visas are required to enter the United States.
Q But, on the other hand --
MR. BURNS: For some countries -- the United Kingdom --
Q -- for the most populous --
MR. BURNS: Not always for the most populous.
Q Well, most --
MR. BURNS: Not certainly for China or India --
MR. BURNS: -- or the Philippines.
Q The most popular choices of -- not populous --
MR. BURNS: Some of the countries -- Germany, France, Britain -- there is no obligation. There is no requirement for a citizen of those countries to get a visa for the United States before they come here, but that is the vast minority of people who travel to the United States on a daily basis.
Q How many foreign national employees does the State Department have?
MR. BURNS: Let me see if I can get that figure for you. We have 19,000 employees overseas. I just don't know the breakdown. I don't know if Glyn (Davies) or Charity (Dennis) know, between Americans --
MR. DAVIES: Over 10,000.
MR. BURNS: Over 10,000 foreign. Of the l9,000, over 10,000 foreign service nationals. We can certainly get that for you, Jim. I don't have it off the tip of my tongue.
Q Nick, have the peace talks opened at Wye?
MR. BURNS: They have. I just spoke with Dennis Ross -- Ambassador Dennis Ross -- before coming out here. He's out at the Wye Plantation. The talks began earlier today. There was a lunch at noon. They've concluded that. Dennis was just about to go into a 1:30 meeting to start the second round of discussions.
As you know, we were encouraged by the first round of discussions. Dennis Ross and others in the American delegation had some informal discussions over the New Year's weekend with members of the Syrian and Israeli delegation. I would expect that this second round would last until sometime on Friday. I would not expect that we'd have much to say about the conduct of these talks, the course of them, until Friday. I don't know what we'll be in a position to say on Friday.
Secretary Christopher then will pick up the baton and will be out in the Middle East next week to confer directly with President Assad and Prime Minister Peres about how these two rounds went and where we should go from here.
Q What specifically are you trying to accomplish in the next three days?
MR. BURNS: Carol, what I don't want to do is set up expectations that we'll then have to say that we've met by Friday substantively. So if you'll just grant me that, I think you know what we want to do. What the Secretary said on his last trip was we want to renew and revitalize the Syrian-Israeli track discussions, and that means essentially tackle all of the major substantive issues that are on the table.
And, secondly, figure out a procedural way to move those discussions forward, whether it's in the face-to-face talks that we now have underway at Wye Plantation, whether it's in proximity talks, whether it's in some other kind of discussions. As the Secretary prepares to go out next week, I think he'll have two things in his mind.
What kind of substantive progress did we make at the Wye Plantation during the two rounds of talks, and what makes now sense procedurally as a way to continue the momentum that we hope will come out of Wye. I think that's what he'll be talking to both the Syrian and Israeli leadership about next week -- those two aspects of the peace talks.
Our ultimate objective here in 1996 is to try to help Syria and Israel reach a comprehensive agreement between them that will resolve the problems that have separated them since 1948.
Q Nick, is the United States prepared to accept the indefinite presence of large numbers of Syrian troops in Lebanon?
MR. BURNS: Mark, I think under the rules that we've all agreed upon, I'm just not going to go into that kind of substantive question at a time when all of these issues are being discussed at the Wye Plantation. It wouldn't be fair to the negotiators for me to do that.
Q Is there some change in American policy that you simply don't want to elaborate on right at the moment?
MR. BURNS: No. I'm not indicating there's any change. I'm not indicating that there is a change or that there's not a change. I'm just saying I'm not going to comment on the substantive aspects of the negotiation.
Q This is a substantive aspect of the negotiations, right?
MR. BURNS: Right.
Q What is American policy towards the presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon? If it's an old policy, can you restate it?
MR. BURNS: I can just say it's very well known, and it doesn't make any sense for me to rehash it today at a time when it's being -- when all of the issues concerning Syria and Israel are being hashed out at the Wye Plantation.
If I were at the Wye Plantation, the last thing I'd want someone here to do would be to start commenting on all the issues that have come up since 1948 between Israel and Syria. I think the best thing that we can do -- and I know all of you want to help in this regard -- is to let Dennis and the Israelis and Syrians to negotiate. When they resurface, you'll have a shot at me again, and you'll certainly have a shot at Secretary Christopher. You'll have many opportunities to talk to him next week, for those of you who decide to travel with us.
Q There's a report in Ha'aretz today, apparently, that the United States has already begun a sort of rally and international effort to support and Israel-Syria peace agreement. That suggests to me that if in fact it's true and that an organized effort is underway, even informal soundings are underway, that you guys are feeling pretty good about the potential for some sort of a deal. Has the United States begun, either informally or on a more formal way, trying to organize some sort of international support group for Syria and Israel?
MR. BURNS: I think that's putting the cart before the horse. These parties need to reach a peace agreement before we can rally support for it. Obviously, if they reach a peace agreement and we are involved in that, we will do everything we can to support it internationally. But I'm not aware of any efforts being made right now to kind of rally support for an agreement that is in the imagination right now. The agreement lies out there on the horizon as an objective. It has not been realized, and we'd expect many, many difficult discussions before an agreement is reached, if an agreement is going to be reached.
Q So you're ruling out also an informal conversation --
MR. BURNS: Carol, I'm not aware of any kind of diplomatic offensive by the United States to begin to rally support -- diplomatic or financial or otherwise -- for an agreement that has not yet been negotiated. I can tell you that we are very much in the mode of focusing on the talks at the Wye Plantation.
As of Friday afternoon we'll start to focus on next weeks. We're taking this one week at a time. I don't believe there's any other way to take these talks at this point.
Q (Inaudible) the outcome of these negotiations, it would be possible to remove Syria from the terror list?
MR. BURNS: That is a determination that will be made according to the law that has been set down by Congress, and it's not something that we are currently addressing.
Q This is not linked to the outcome of --
MR. BURNS: I'm not aware of any linkage.
Q Could we go to Bosnia?
MR. BURNS: Yes.
Q Are you now persuaded -- is the United States now persuaded that the Serbs have taken at least 16 civilians and are holding them?
MR. BURNS: I think there is ample evidence to indicate that 16 people have been detained by the Bosnian Serbs, and let me tell you, we're very concerned about this -- very concerned -- by reports that 16 people have been taken hostage, and that there have been other troubles with civilians traveling in Serb-held areas in and around Sarajevo. The IFOR Commander of land forces in Bosnia -- Lieutenant General Sir Michael Walker -- has raised this issue directly with Bosnian Serb authorities.
This morning we instructed our Embassy in Belgrade to raise this matter directly with the Government in Belgrade. We very much hope in fact to be personally in touch -- our Charge d'Affaires -- that he will be personally in touch with President Milosevic on this issue.
The fact is that the countries that signed the Dayton Accords have a fundamental obligation to implement and to enforce all aspects of that accord. There is no element of the accord more central to the civilians in Bosnia-Herzegovina than freedom of movement -- everything that they've been denied for the past three-and-a-half years.
On the whole, since November 21 and more specifically since the arrival of IFOR forces last months, there has been widespread freedom of movement for civilians. The situation has certainly changed for the better from what it was during the past three-and-a-half years, and there have been no attempts to hamper the movement of IFOR personnel.
But, as Secretary Perry indicated in his own press conference this morning, there is a problem. The problem essentially is a function of the fact that the civilian peace force, which will have primary responsibility for maintaining law and order, including the absence of this kind of harassment and abductions and checkpoints -- that civilian police force has not yet been built. It is in the process -- the beginning of being constructed.
As you know, the IFOR deployment is not, of course, at full strength, and until those two forces are built -- a full IFOR force and a very strong civilian police presence, with international police involvement -- IFOR will have to do what it can to assist in the meantime. I think those are the words that Secretary Perry used this morning. The United States and other countries who are a party to this agreement are going to continue to impress upon the Serbs and the Bosnians and the Croatians that all aspects of this agreement must be met.
So we're calling for the release -- the United States is calling for the release of the 16 people who are now being held by the Bosnian Serbs. We're calling for their immediate release. We are making this known privately to the Bosnian Serb military commanders, and we're now making it known privately just in the next couple of hours to President Milosevic in Belgrade. We very much expect that this call for the immediate release of these people will be met.
Q We have a report that --
Q (Inaudible) I mean, why do you think the Bosnian Serbs are doing this? Are they testing NATO? Are they just kicking sand in Milosevic's face? Did the Milosevic not make it clear enough to them that they're supposed to abide by the rules? How do you analyze it?
MR. BURNS: Carol, it's hard to know, because we're not sure of the identity of the people who abducted these 16 unfortunate civilians. So I think the first order of business here is to remind the Serbs -- the leadership of the people who abducted the civilians -- of their international treaty obligations.
The second thing is to remind them again this is bottom-line issue for the international community. It's good to see that Carl Bildt, who is on the ground -- he's working on this problem. He's spoken out publicly. He has now begun discussions with some of the local militia about this problem. I've told you that the IFOR commanders are doing the same thing, and that our diplomats in Belgrade are doing the same with Milosevic.
So we're going to continue to work very hard to make sure that this specific incident is resolved, but that the general point is understood that this is not something that can be tolerated. It can't happen. And that in the meantime, before the civilian force is fully in place, these countries are responsible for enforcing their own peace agreement. They have a self-interest in doing that.
Q What happens if these people are not released?
MR. BURNS: We're just going to have to take this one hour by hour, and one day at a time, and we're going to expect that they're going to be released. We have to expect that they'll be released.
Q We have a report that three of them already have been released.
MR. BURNS: I've also seen contradictory press reports that the three released may not have been among the 16. There may have been a separate incident. So I can't corroborate that report.
Q Nick, do you see this as interference with IFOR's mission?
MR. BURNS: It's interference with the Dayton Peace Accords, and it's interference with the self-interest of the Serbian community, which has an interest in seeing those accords fully implemented, because the Serbian community should be the last community that wants to see a deterioration of the accords, because peace is in their interest.
They were receiving the worst end of the fighting until the cease- fire was arranged on October 5 and until the Dayton Accords were negotiated on November 21.
Q But this is not interference with IFOR's ability to carry out its mission?
MR. BURNS: It doesn't interfere with IFOR's fundamental responsibilities, which are to separate the forces and to implement those portions of the peace agreement for which it is directly responsible. Secretary Perry was very clear this morning. He believes and we believe that the civilian implementation force -- in this case the people who will comprise the international police force -- will have, when they are fully constituted, direct responsibility for this type of incident.
In the meantime, IFOR will do what it can to assist in resolving this type of problem. That's why you've seen IFOR go into action today with the strong protest made by General Walker. But certainly IFOR's primary missions go forward.
Q But we're not going to see IFOR go into action in the Bosnian Serb suburbs to recover hostages, or who are said by some wires to be prisoners of war, according to the Bosnians.
MR. BURNS: I think all of us -- all of you in the press and all of us in government should put the responsibility for this incident where it lies directly, and that is with the people who abducted them. They're responsible. They have violated the Dayton Accords. They now have the responsibility and their superiors in Pale have the responsibility to right a wrong and to release 16 people unharmed.
Q Nick, when you say you don't know who -- the identities of those responsible -- are you suggesting that they might be a rogue group that Milosevic might not have influence over?
MR. BURNS: We just don't know who abducted these people. We don't know the identity of the people. We can guess that they were militia -- they were people in uniforms -- because these people by all accounts were stopped at roadblocks. So we're assuming that it was Bosnian Serb militia, and we know that those people report to people in Pale -- Mladic, Karadzic and the rest -- and that is why we are calling upon the Serb leadership in Pale to do the right thing -- release these people, conform to the Dayton Accords.
Q That raises another question. If they're reporting to Mladic and Karadzic, that's already a violation of the peace agreement, isn't it? They're not supposed to be in position of power, are they?
MR. BURNS: Actually, Judd, I'm glad you raised that question today. They shouldn't be in position of power. But while they are in positions of power, we certainly think that they ought to do everything they can to act in a civilized way on behalf of peace.
But you're right -- those two individuals are indicted war criminals, and they ought to remove themselves from power.
Q Another subject?
MR. BURNS: Be glad to.
Q Do you have anything, Nick, on the transit visa request by Taiwan Vice President Li Yuan-zu?
MR. BURNS: The United States has received a request for transit by the Taiwan Vice President. We are considering that request.
Q Would that be among the 20,000 a day? (Laughter)
MR. BURNS: Actually, Howard, it's a very useful --
Q (Inaudible) very easy-out --
MR. BURNS: That's a very useful contribution you've made to this discussion. I believe it is. I would count this visa request among the 20,000, and, as you know, we're not processing visa requests now. No -- we are considering this request. I have nothing really more to add to the discussion though.
Q Are you actually processing it or --
MR. BURNS: No, I said we're considering the request. Therefore, we have to make a decision about the request -- whether we accept the request or deny it. That decision has to be made, but I'm not in a position to elucidate the situation much further than that.
Q (Inaudible) specific on this visa request?
MR. BURNS: I don't know.
Q Do you expect to make a decision, you know, this year maybe?
MR. BURNS: Well, it's January 3, 1996. Yes, Carol, I think we have a pretty good record in the Department of State of being efficient cookie-pushers, and we're going to continue that. We're going to continue that.
Q Nick, what --
Q Do you expect a decision soon?
MR. BURNS: I think a decision will come when it's made. (Laughter) I can't foresee when it's going to be made. I think this year's a safe -- I'm going to go out on a limb and say, yes, this year.
Q Nick, when you consider it, what are the criteria that you'll be looking at? What's your policy on this? Would you consider the overall U.S.-China relations as well while reviewing the request?
MR. BURNS: I really have nothing more to share with you today. I think you all understand why. We're just going to consider this request privately. Once a decision is made, of course, we'll inform you as soon as we can of the decision, and we can talk all about why we did it and why we didn't do it. We're going to talk about the decision. We can explain it, and we'll have a good time doing that. That should fill up most of the briefings for three or four days, I'm sure, but today's not going to be one of those days.
Q But the trip is supposed to take place next Thursday, so you don't really have much time.
MR. BURNS: I'm not aware of the dates actually. When I was apprised of this situation this morning, I'd just come back from leave. I just was given the information that I have -- that we've received a request, we're considering it, but that's it.
Q Nick, also on China but on a different subject. Has the State Department seen a report that Israel has sold to China either the prototypes of the full plans for the Lavi fighter-bomber project, which was a joint U.S.-Israeli development?
MR. BURNS: We have seen reports alleging that Israel has transferred defense technologies to China, and we certainly take the report seriously. The United States discusses technology transfer issues with the Israel Government in our established channels -- our private, diplomatic channels -- as part of our ongoing security dialogue with the Government of Israel, and, of course, in accordance with the law we inform the Congress of transfers of U.S. technology that may have occurred without U.S. permission. But that's really all I can say today, Jim, on that subject.
Q Specifically, you say you have seen reports of -- regarding the Lavi fighter?
MR. BURNS: We've seen the reports, yes, alleging that Israel has transferred certain defense technologies to China.
Q And were you able and have you tried to confirm the reports?
MR. BURNS: We're discussing that with the Government of Israel.
Q And also with China?
MR. BURNS: I know that there are ongoing discussions with the Government of Israel. I assume that there are with the Government of China, but I can check on that for you.
Q Since when have those discussions been going on, on that particular --
MR. BURNS: I don't know when they began, but they are currently ongoing.
Q One more on China.
Q Well, I have (inaudible) another country, but you go ahead.
Q Go ahead.
Q Israel has a pending sale of planes to -- parts of planes to Ecuador, which requires U.S. approval -- they're U.S. parts. Peru has protested. Do you have a response to the Peruvian protest, given their border war of last year and long-standing animosity?
MR. BURNS: Given -- excuse me. I didn't get the last part.
Q Given the border war last year between Peru and Ecuador and the long-standing animosity, there's a Peruvian protest of this pending sale.
MR. BURNS: This is Ecuador.
MR. BURNS: I can tell you that I know that there are some press reports out there that the United States has rescinded an approval. We have not. The United States has not rescinded its approval of an Israel transfer of Kfir fighter aircraft that include U.S. components to Ecuador.
Any sales contract, as you know, is between the Governments of Ecuador and Israel, so I'd have to refer you to them regarding the specific terms of the sale.
Q But Peru is protesting the U.S. approval because it alters the balance of power, they say, and so forth. Any response to the Peruvian protest?
MR. BURNS: The United States has worked very, very hard over the past year to help Peru and Ecuador resolve their problems. We are one of the four guarantors of the Rio Pact of 1943, and we certainly would not take any action that would be inconsistent with our long-term desire to promote a resolution of the conflict between Peru and Ecuador and the overall stability of the region; and we believe that certainly in choosing to grant an approval of this particular sale is acting in the best interests, we think, of United States and Ecuador and Israel and does not in any way affect the regional balance of power.
Q Can I go back to the China deal? You didn't really expect any --
MR. BURNS: Which China. Is this the visa or is this the --
Q No, China and the Lavi.
MR. BURNS: And the Lavi.
Q You didn't really expect any concern about the prospect of Israel selling Lavis to China. Are you -- I mean, does that bother you?
MR. BURNS: Actually, I think what we have to do in this particular case is have private discussions with the Government of Israel, and I assume with the Government of China, about the reports that we've seen to understand if these reports can be substantiated. If they can be substantiated, then I think we'll then have subsequent discussions with both, but I'm not in a position right now to go much beyond that, Carol.
Q Are we to understand, though, that Israel is doing this behind the United States' back? I mean, if you don't know about it --
MR. BURNS: I didn't say that.
Q But if you don't know about it, then presumably they are.
MR. BURNS: When you have a good friend and you see a press report about a good friend, the last thing you want to do is talk about all aspects of that report in public. You go to that friend privately. You have a full discussion. You try to understand the situation as best you can. You then determine what your own course of action should be, and that's where we are now.
Q So you're saying that this good friend -- the first you heard of this --
MR. BURNS: Our good friend in this case is being Israel.
Q I understand -- (laughter) -- there was no ambiguity there. (Laughter)
MR. BURNS: Good.
Q But the point being, you're at least confirming that you didn't know about this until you read about it, and --
MR. BURNS: No, I didn't. I'm sorry if I inferred that. I mean to be very specific. I have a very specifically worded set of thoughts to give you today, and that is that we've seen the reports alleging that Israel has transferred defense technology to China, and we are discussing that issue with the Israeli Government in established channels, as you would expect us to do; and I really don't want to -- I can't make any of those discussions public before we're fully satisfied with the substance of those discussions.
Q (Multiple questions)
Q (Inaudible) -- Carol was trying to say was that those discussions --
MR. BURNS: Carol's pretty clear. I think I understood her pretty well. (Laughter) Try to interpret here.
Q Let me try one more time.
MR. BURNS: Do you want Terry to interpret you?
Q No, go right ahead. But I have another question.
Q Were these discussions instigated based on the media reports, or were they undertaken because of other information that you may have had that raised the -- that prompted you to raise questions with your good friend?
MR. BURNS: I have two things to say. We've seen reports, and we are discussing, and I don't know -- I'm not doing the discussing. I'm not involved in the discussions. I don't work in the Israeli Desk, so I actually can't answer that question. But I think if you take literally what I've said, it's impossible to answer that question, at least for the time being, but I'll do my best to ascertain an answer to that question for you.
Q I detected a trend here, though, you know. Israel is selling to China. Israel is selling to Ecuador. And the United States seems to be quite willing to have this commerce go ahead.
MR. BURNS: I think these are quite different situations, with all due respect, and we have to become very serious for a moment here. And that is in the case of Ecuador, I'm saying very flatly the United States has not rescinded its approval for a sale, which we must approve, because there are U.S. components involved in the Kfir fighter.
In the case of the Lavi, all I'm saying is we've seen press reports alleging that Israel has transferred certain defense technologies to China. We are discussing that issue with the Israeli Government. I'm not trying to put a qualitative spin on my answer here. I'm being very careful just to note what is happening without saying what is going on beneath the surface.
Q Let me try it from a different angle. The good friend is obligated by the terms of the original sale from the U.S., is it not, to notify the U.S. if there is a transfer to a third party.
MR. BURNS: Yes.
Q Israel has not made that notification, is that correct to infer by your responses?
MR. BURNS: I am not saying that that's true. I cannot say that that's true. The fact is --
Q (Inaudible) might cover Israeli -- the Israelis coming to you -- coming to the U.S. and saying --
MR. BURNS: The fact is that I'm not in a position to answer that question. I have not been negotiating this myself. I've not been involved in this until today, and so therefore I just can't answer the question. I don't know the answer, but I can't say yes to that question, because --
Q But let me -- but is it fair to say that your reference to "we have seen reports," includes the possibility that Israel has notified the U.S.?
MR. BURNS: No, it's just being very respectful to the American press corps, which is reporting some of this, and we always like to acknowledge the fact that we read what you're saying. That's all I mean. (Laughter)
Q One more on China?
MR. BURNS: It's not on the Lavi, I hope. We've exhausted the Lavis.
Q No, not at all. Taiwan policy. Somebody brought up yesterday that I'd like you to respond to, Nick, but it was --
MR. BURNS: How did Glyn do on this yesterday? Did he do a good job on this?
Q He did great! But I didn't get into the heart of this issue. Nick, the Chinese, the PRC, has stated now and has taken action -- the PLA has taken action to implement a policy of -- stated a policy of protection, defense of Taiwan. On the other hand, the United States policy, according to Mr. Nye(?), on the 12th of December, asked when -- what would the U.S. reaction be to any military crisis, he said, "Nobody knows." I presume then that the U.S. has not got a policy of defending Taiwan, and I would just ask you, is this accurate? Is this correct in the eyes of the State Department?
MR. BURNS: What -- this meaning -- the antecedent of --
Q The fact that, (1) the United States does not know what it would do in the event of military action against Taiwan. China knows what it will do.
MR. BURNS: The United States always know what it will do in a hypothetical situation concerning that part of the world, and, of course, you would expect that we would have thought long and hard about this; and the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 and the Normalization Act of 1979, I think, are the framework of our policy. I think we have a very clear understanding of what our interests are in that region, and we would act accordingly if those interests were threatened.
Q Thank you.
MR. BURNS: Thank you.
(The briefing concluded at 2:08 p.m.)
To the top of this page