Department of State Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesman
July 19, 2006
With Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty and Department of Defense Deputy Director for Regional Operations of the Joint Chief of Staff Brigadier General Barbero
MR. CASEY: Good afternoon again everyone. As you know, we want to be able to keep you updated on our ongoing efforts to help American citizens in Lebanon who are interested in leaving the country do so. We've got for you again our two briefers from yesterday, Assistant Secretary Maura Harty as well as General Barbero from the Defense Department, to be able to give you an update on the situation there. I think you've all heard from Sean on the political situation today earlier in the briefing. So again, just please keep questions to the specific subject at hand. Thanks again. Maura.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Thank you all very much for coming again today. I'll give a little bit of an update, then happy to take your questions just as we did yesterday.
First update, perhaps have already seen given the time of day, on Wednesday out of Beirut we had approximately 1,200 people board either helicopters or ships to be taken and assisted out of harm's way. Tomorrow, Thursday, we expect again to see helicopters carrying approximately 240 people and I'm happy to say that the Nashville will join in the endeavor at that point with a capacity of approximately 1,000. Once again, as I discussed yesterday, capacity was one question in how many people actually get on the conveyances and another for a variety of reasons. We have had in some instances some no-shows where we were able to give people appointments, but for whatever reason they did not necessarily make it to the ship at the appointed hour.
One of the things I talked about yesterday was a ship called the Orient Queen. We expect that to be a stalwart over the next several days. The Orient Queen today took out slightly over 1,000 people, but it is taking some time for that ship to move back and forth, so I would like to reiterate what I said about it yesterday. That it will move back and forth from Beirut to Cyprus and continue making roundtrips. What time of day it arrives tomorrow and whether or not they board it tomorrow or early Friday morning will depend on conditions on the ground at the time. And it's the kind of question -- that is a decision that will be taken by the officers on the ground doing that work.
Also on Thursday, we will continue to see people -- if there are possibilities exist we will try and have American citizens avail themselves of any opportunities on a Canadian vessel just as we did today. Yesterday also I mentioned a ship called the Sancak which did not make it as we had hoped it would. The Sancak is still en route. We will, of course, put it to use as soon as it does arrive. Just for further information on this subject, the Sancak has changed its name between yesterday and today. I have no personal explanation for that. But in the future we will be referring to the Ramah -- R-a-m-a-h. The Ramah is the ship formerly known as Sancak. When my colleague briefs, he will tell you a little bit more about additional ships that we expect to see entering into the arena on Friday, I suppose.
A couple of other quick things if I might. The process continues to be what it was yesterday, so I urge you, if you would, to report that if you are in America and you would like to help a family or a member or a friend register so that we can give them an appointment on a ship, please call us 1-888-407-4747. We're taking that information here. We are working off the same database as they have in Lebanon and we will make appointments for people on ships. If you are in or are in contact with somebody who is in Beirut who for some reason is having a hard time getting through to us, that now please call the Embassy there and the Embassy is doing the same thing we are, keeping in regular contact so that we know what one another are doing and we try to make sure to the greatest degree possible, we book the right amount of people, not too few, certainly not too many.
Some really good news is that on Thursday, the first of the chartered flights that we have arranged will arrive at BWI. And we have chartered so far nine flights, but this will be the first one making it back to CONUS and we are really all delighted by that. Continue to -- want to assure you that we are doing this in as safe and an orderly a fashion as possible.
One final update that I'd like to give is that yesterday I spoke about what we were beginning to do to get American citizens out of South Lebanon under the rubric of safe, orderly and the notion that things can be -- things are, in fact, quite volatile. Out of southern Lebanon right now we do have several groups of people that I mentioned yesterday that have congregated and are ready to move and we would like to be able to move them through the country up north and put them on ships and get them out of harm's way.
The decision was taken given conditions on the ground that they would not yet move, so they are in a holding pattern until such time as we think it is appropriate and safe and prudent to move them forward. So we will be happy to give you additional information on that when they do begin to move, just as soon as we can. But again, we are always going to err on the side of caution -- safe, orderly, continually monitoring the situation on the ground to make sure that what we are doing is the safest possible thing to be doing for our citizens at any given moment.
With that, I'll turn it over to the General. Thank you.
BGEN BARBERO: Thank you. Good afternoon. As you all know, the United States Military continues to assist with sea and air evacuations of American citizens wishing to depart Lebanon. As was discussed, the contract ship, the Orient Queen departed this morning. The motor ferry Ramah, a Panamanian flagship with the capacity of, we think, between 1,000 and 1,400 passengers will be arriving and commencing operations on the 21st. Also we've charted a high-speed vessel, the Victoria, an Italian flagship with a capacity of approximately 330 passengers, to commence operations on the 22nd.
Additionally, six CH-53 helicopters have been and are continuing to evacuate citizens, mainly those with special needs from the U.S. Embassy compound in Beirut. Three of these helicopters are from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit and three are from U.S. forces based in the United Kingdom. The following U.S. Navy Ships are now in the area: The USS Nashville and it has the capability to handle about 1,000 American citizens per day. The USS Gonzales, which is a guided missile destroyer, has the capability to conduct escort and search and rescue; the USS Barry which is also a guided-missile destroyer, has the capability to also conduct escort and search-and-rescue; and the USS Mount Whitney, which is a command-and-control ship to which the on-scene commander could move his command post to be located forward.
Five more ships are expected in the area over the coming days.
And with that, I think we'll take your questions.
QUESTION: President Bush today said that he was ready to send troops in Lebanon to help ensure the security of the safety of these operations. Can you give us more details on that?
BGEN BARBERO: I did not hear that and I can't really comment on that. We're sending troops to the area. The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit is flowing to the area along with the other naval and air assets as fast and as quickly as we can get them there. And aboard, as part of this Marine Expeditionary Unit, we have about 1,200 Marines which will be on the scene to afford that commander the flexibility to be able to execute his mission as the situation changes.
QUESTION: Is it done in consultation with the Lebanese Government?
BGEN BARBERO: It is done with consultation, yes, with the Lebanese Government through the Ambassador.
QUESTION: Sir, on that question, will the Marines -- or are the Marines expected to go onshore if they are not needed, that is to say if there's no problem, or would they only go onshore to assist if there were a problem?
BGEN BARBERO: Let me -- as we have developed the plan on this operation, we've had three key considerations: safety, security and speed. And it's a balance. We are not going to sacrifice either safety or security to achieve speed in getting American citizens evacuated. We're acting with a sense of urgency and a concern for the plight of our fellow Americans. We are also forming a task force which gives the on-scene commander the absolute flexibility to execute his mission in a very dynamic situation. As I said yesterday, this is a war zone with an active brigade -- I mean active blockade, so our intent is to provide the on-scene commander the assets he requires and to answer all of the requests for assistance that we receive from the Department of State.
QUESTION: With all due respect, sir, you didn't answer the question whether they would go onshore or only go onshore if there were trouble.
BGEN BARBERO: That's the call of the on-scene commander and I'm not sure what tactical decisions he will make once this force is assembled and as the situation develops.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) this military mission. Why does the U.S. seem to be lagging behind other nations in this effort to evacuate?
BGEN BARBERO: Let me challenge the lagging behind part of that. It's a time and distance issue. If we had ships and capability off the coast of Beirut when this started, that would be one thing. But we are assembling a task force from assets that were west and already transited out of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. The MEU itself was ashore in Jordan participating in an exercise. It had to withdraw from that exercise, prepare, reassemble, re-board those ships and then get underway. We have moved assets from the United Kingdom, from the continental United States. We have moved assets from European Command and Central Command and Special Operations Command with as fast as we can. But it's time and distance. It's physics. Getting from Point A to Point B as fast as you can.
QUESTION: And is that why other countries are faster, because they were closer?
BGEN BARBERO: I assume so. I can't speak for them, but that's -- believe me, we're not lagging. When we heard of a request from either the Department of State or from the local commander, we started to plan and coordinate before we received the official request to get things going. And we started moving assets as fast and as soon as we heard that a need had been established.
QUESTION: Were you in any way involved or hearing from members of Congress as well as the maybe these families back here in the States that we've seen, both Michigan senators on TV recently talking that they have family -- families they're concerned with both between let's say the Detroit area and in southern Lebanon, for instance? Was any of that go-between between what Michigan representatives are hearing voiced to you at the Pentagon and here at the State Department?
BGEN BARBERO: At the Pentagon, I have not heard that, you know. But I'll say again, these are fellow Americans and we're concerned for their safety. And we are moving out with a sense of urgency to try to evacuate them as fast and as safely and as securely as we can. We've got it. And trust me, you know, these are our fellow Americans. We're going to do everything possible and we have.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I love that answer because I agree with it completely. But with specificity, yes, we have heard from several members of Congress and we're really happy to get that information, get that input. And yes, in several cases legislators have made us aware of people to some degree we were already aware of in southern Lebanon, and that is a group of people that we're trying very hard to move up, as I described earlier, from southern Lebanon when it is safe to do so and out of harm's way by taking them over sea to Cyprus and then on home.
BGEN BARBERO: If I could just --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Sure.
BGEN BARBERO: If I could just follow up on those two questions. As I said, this is a war zone. And we have to get it right the first time and we are going to do all the prudent planning and coordination to get it right the first time. We're not going to rush to failure. And we're balancing that with the requirement to get our Americans evacuated as fast as we can. So it's a balance and we think we're achieving the right balance and doing it quickly, securely and safely.
QUESTION: Will the U.S. forces in the region, whether they actually land or not, have any -- do they have any particular instructions about getting into a shooting war here? I mean, if someone were to take a shot at a U.S. ship or a landing party, what are they supposed to do?
BGEN BARBERO: Standing rules of engagement are in place for self-defense and we are studying supplemental rules of engagement and we'll be issuing those to our forces once we've -- once they've been approved.
QUESTION: What --
BGEN BARBERO: And I don't want to discuss what actions we're going to take if we're presented with a certain threat. It just wouldn't be smart to do that with our forces flowing into a very dynamic situation.
QUESTION: How are they equipped?
BGEN BARBERO: How are they equipped? With all their organic weapons and --
QUESTION: Regular -- what they would have --
BGEN BARBERO: Yes.
QUESTION: Question for Maura. Can you clarify -- there's a little discrepancy. I believe Sean said today they're encouraging -- you're encouraging people to register via e-mail. But now you were saying phone. So what is the best way for people to register if they haven't yet? And also, on this issue of the phone, I know some Americans have complained about not being able to get through. What is your advice there and have you experienced an overload on the system? Obviously you have a lot of calls.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Get a lot of calls. In fact, believe it or not, I call the number myself every -- regularly throughout the day to get my own sense of it. And when we heard some of these kinds of complaints yesterday, we were concerned enough to put more people on. We're just going to expand that as wide as we need to to make sure that people don't wait too long.
But I have to say with all sincerity, it's worth waiting for. I'm going to put more people on. We're going to keep putting more people on. We have quite a large capacity to do this. But please, if you have made that call because you are concerned about somebody who is in a serious situation, and that is why I assume you're calling, please do wait on that line. I regret and will do everything possible to make that wait as short as possible, but it is worth waiting for. We do need that information. We do want to help people get out of country.
So please, I just want to say it in the strongest possible terms, if people are calling you, if people are calling anybody who might read the stories that you write, encourage them to make that call, call again perhaps if they can't get through right away, wait a little while, call again. I have done it myself, as I said, over and over again to make sure that works. And I would say do make the phone call because sometimes the e-mail is working. It is working for us quite well. A number of people are calling -- are contacting us that way. But I think sometimes that people like the rather immediate gratification of talking to somebody right in their ear, so call, please.
QUESTION: Are you finding that more people or less people are wanting to leave compared to the number you're predicting?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: You know, we're just taking people as they come. I think we really -- we will know how many people wanted to leave when this operation is completed. Don't want to give any sense that after we hit a certain number, our own efforts will flag in any way. We just do urge people to contact us just as quickly as they can so we know where they are.
QUESTION: Can I follow on this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Well, two follow-ups, one and one.
QUESTION: Maura, what happens if someone is not registered, either can't get through, doesn't get through, for whatever reason, shows up dockside? Do they have to be on a list to get on a ship or can they get on with their documentation and passport?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: The issue is capacity at this point. Since so many people will have -- will show up at the processing area who already have, if you will, a slot on that ship, people will likely not be able to make it if that ship is already booked. So we really do encourage people to keep trying. If they're able to tell you that's the case, then please have -- you tell us. Matter of fact, I encourage all of you, if you've heard from an individual and you are the only person who has heard from them, help us get them on a ship.
Having said that, I would also like to say that we have a secure area where we are processing people at the dock. I wish I had seen it with my own eyes so I could describe it more accurately for you, but there are a lot of people moving through there. It's also why we ask people please don't go directly to the port. We need to be able to get the people out who we have identified for a given convoy. So please contact the Embassy. Call us here. Please help us do this is an orderly fashion. Because if people show without any sort of previous engagement with us on that subject, there are going to be a lot more people at that port than we can deal with. And I am quite afraid that it will take us even longer to board people if we have to wade through people that way.
Now having that, several people did show -- more than a few people showed during yesterday's operations and they were, of course, then booked on subsequent ships a little bit down the line. But please call the Embassy, don't go to the dock, call the Embassy. Don't go to the dock.
QUESTION: When do you -- do you have like a kind of timeline of when you expect the operation to be complete? I mean, do you have a goal, like by the end of the week or by the weekend or something? Do you have a rough estimate of when you -- given the people that are registered and the pace of registration and the pace of numbers that you're getting out every day? I mean, do you have a kind of rough timeline when you hope to be through?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I am certain that you will think this answer far more glib than I mean it to sound, because I mean it to sound nothing but sincere. We will be done when we are done. We will continue this effort until we have -- until we are certain that everybody who has wanted to leave has left.
QUESTION: Right. But given the --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Excuse me.
QUESTION: I'm sorry.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: We have a group of people in southern Lebanon who I just described. We will not move them until we are certain that conditions allow us to do that. I suspect the Embassy had envisioned that we might do that more than once. There might be a need to do it several times. So it is really hard to predict, but what I will do ask all of you again to think about is how important it is to impart the message that the sooner people let us know where they are the better. Obviously, this won't go on indefinitely. But I will not put a date on it and I'm sure my colleagues would agree that we are there to get Americans out of harm's way and we will take as long as it -- as long as we need to do that. But we'd like very much to encourage people to think about this. It's a volatile situation. If I can get you out sooner, we want to get you out sooner.
QUESTION: What do you think the fallout of this whole outrage over the evacuation fees is going to be? Do you think it's going to set a precedent that you won't be able to ask for repayment in the future and what will happen for those people who've already paid and gone out?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: No one has paid.
QUESTION: No one?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: No. No one has paid anything. The procedure since -- for many, many years, in one form or another, in fact reimbursement has been a subject since pre-World War II days. No one has paid; some people have been asked to sign promissory notes. The Secretary recognized this as an extraordinary case, so I do not regard it as precedent-setting. Today's step that the Secretary took simply removes a potential worry for citizens who are in a difficult situation at the time.
QUESTION: Well, what -- why is it not precedent-setting? Surely, when anybody needs evacuation in an emergency they feel that their situation is as dire as these people feel theirs is.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: What we might do in a future situation is speculative at this point.
QUESTION: When people that have flipped over the border into Syria, are you getting any assistance through other governments and/or the Syria Government to handle those Americans to get them out of these conditions?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: As you have heard us say before, we are really -- we do not encourage people to go over land on their own at this point. But, yes, of course there are people who have done it. You have covered some of those stories. I am happy to see people who have done that -- they arrived safely home.
Our Embassy will do everything it can to help an American citizen who winds up in Damascus or any other country in the region and needs assistance. We learned several days ago that hotel space is limited, airline capacity to leave Damascus is limited. But rest assured, any American who makes it across the border and contacts the Embassy will be assisted to the greatest extent possible to get home just as safely and quickly as they can.
QUESTION: I've got a couple of questions on the people in southern Lebanon. Do you think at this point that you know how many people want to leave? In other words, that you have everybody collected in one place who actually wants to get out?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I was speaking that that was the Ambassador and also with the USAID Director. They were -- yesterday, they were sort of, of the mind that we would likely do again what we had hoped to do yesterday. It's a fluid situation. Don't know if they will need to, don't know if in fact over -- as we wait to be able to move those people forward, if we will see an incretion of number and more people will come in.
Regrettably, what we also don't know is how many people may have done what the other gentleman suggested -- may have already left of their own volition. So we will just keep beating the bushes as many ways as we can: nongovernmental organizations with which we work, truly word of mouth is great, congressional representatives have been extremely helpful in identifying where people are for us. Everyway that we can glean information, we welcome the opportunity to do so, put them into our planning.
QUESTION: You had planned, if I recall, to do sort of a bus bridge.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. Is that still the plan or, given as you say the conditions on the ground, would you switch to helicopters or something?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: No, no. That is still the plan. I have not heard anything but that articulated from the Embassy at this point.
QUESTION: So it's just a matter of when they can run the busses?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I think that's true, yeah.
QUESTION: Will the buses have military escort?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: You know, I don't know the answer to that question. I don't know the answer to that question. But of course we have worked very closely with Lebanese security forces, so I am sure that the Embassy is taking every precaution that it needs to. This has been the case in every step of the way.
QUESTION: Can I just ask the General now with military escorts for the buses from southern Lebanon?
BGEN BARBERO: I do not know.
MR. CASEY: You guys have got time for just a couple more. Go to Libby and then Elise.
QUESTION: I may have missed this, but how many Americans are in this holding pattern you talked about in southern Lebanon?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: It's several hundred at this point.
QUESTION: On the issue of southern Lebanon, you say you talked to the USAID Director. Does the U.S. have programs in that area and are U.S. personnel also stuck in that area?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: I do not believe there are any U.S. official personnel in that area right now. When we spoke about it yesterday with both those gentlemen, we were in conversation with a lot of nongovernmental organizations in the area. I'm sorry, I just don't know if there are AID programs there. Maybe we can find that out.
QUESTION: Are you helping those nongovernmental organizations? I would assume are probably still operating?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY HARTY: Well, right now in fact they're helping us contact American citizens in some cases, as are members of Congress, as are private American citizens. There are a number of people there and as I said earlier we are grateful for information just any and every way that we can receive it.
And we thank you all very much for your interest.
Released on July 19, 2006