|Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
Press briefing on Lifting of Restrictions on Use of U.S. Passports in Traveling to Lebanon
Enroute to Hawaii, July 30, 1997
As released by the Office of the Spokesman in Honolulu, Hawaii
U.S. Department of State
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: As many of you know it is under the authority of the Secretary of State to impose travel restrictions on Americans and their passports restrictions. And since 1987, when civil war was raging in Lebanon and there was the hostage taking, there has been a restriction on the use of American passports for travel to Lebanon. Since 1994 the reviews have been done on the basis of a six month review. As you know that expires tomorrow, July 31, and I have decided to let it expire.
I have had a unanimous recommendation on this from all of the bureaus in the Department of State. The threat assessment, which is an inter-governmental coordinated threat assessment, does show that there is a lower threat level in Lebanon. This has been true now for a number of years, but in the last six months, that threat assessment is even lower. So on the basis of that recommendation, and it is something that I have been thinking about for the last of couple of weeks, I decided that I was very concerned about making sure that we were doing everything we could in fighting terrorism and anti-terrorist activities. So I called Prime Minister Hariri to push him further to make sure that there was even better coordination in terms of dealing with the problems that we have had in Lebanon. As a result of my conversations with him, what has happened is that he has committed himself to a greater level of cooperation. He is sending somebody to Washington to work with our authorities. I think that should happen August 1 or as soon as possible.
The Lebanese have ratified nine out of the ten anti-terrorism conventions, and the Prime Minister committed himself to early ratification of the tenth one, and also to improve security measures. I pushed him pretty hard to make sure that we had this additional cooperative measure. Now having said all this, I do still believe that Lebanon is a dangerous place. We will be putting out a very stern travel advisory urging Americans not to go to Lebanon because of the continued fact that it is not one of the safer places in the world to travel to, but what this does is lift the passport restriction.
As many of you know, Americans of dual citizenship have been traveling there anyway. In many ways we believe that this is a safety precaution because they will then feel free to register with our embassy there and will have better information.
I also reserve the right for myself to keep this under review and reimpose the passport restriction if at any stage I believe that the danger has increased.
QUESTION: What strategic reason are you doing this for? Do you think it will have some impact on the peace process in the Middle East?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I did this because of the situation in Lebanon. I did this on the basis of facts that have to do with the situation there, and because of the threat assessment that I got, and because I believe that it is important not to restrict the liberties of Americans in this way while continuing to urge them not to go. I think we will have to see what effect it does have on the Middle East peace process. But the reason that I did it was because of the way I assessed the situation in Lebanon. In the long run, as you know, what we would like to see is an independent Lebanon, and the ability of people within that country to exist, and for Americans to be able go there and invest and have normal relations with them.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, the fact is that the Iranians still have a military presence there as do the Syrians and they virtually control large chunks of the country. Is your decision that it is safe for Americans to go to all parts of Lebanon?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: We are making quite clear that southern Lebanon, that Baaka Valley, are areas that are particularly dangerous. I think we are going to get for you a copy of the travel restriction as we are putting it out. We have a draft with us -- we do not have all of the capabilities here -- but you will see that it is a very stern travel warning. This can not be interpreted in any way as an assessment that Lebanon is a safe place for Americans to travel. We are warning Americans not to go. What this is is the removal of a legal restriction from their passports.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, you said you would like to see Lebanon independent, from which I infer that you do not think it is right now. Did you inform the Syrian government of this decision, or are you planning to, or can they just find out on the wires?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: We are going through the appropriate steps in letting those who need to know about this know. I am not going to go through the whole procedure that we are fulfilling, but this is an important step in terms of a lot of the regional people involved, and we obviously are being very careful in the way that we inform people about it. You are the first to know, however.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, have you received assurances from the Prime Minister or from the Syrian president that they would make efforts to either expel the Hezbollah militias or to contain them in the south, and that they will make sure that they are out of the actual airport -- they do not have personnel at the airport working as baggage handlers and such?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I am not going to go into the details of the assurances that the Prime Minister gave me. But I am assured of the fact that we will have increased cooperation across the board on anti-terrorist measures and an increased level of cooperation on a variety of security measures.
But again I repeat, this is in no way an indication that we believe Lebanon is a safe area, or that there are not various groups operating there, or that we regard it as being a place where Americans will find it a comfortable place to travel. I repeat, and I will repeat as many times as I can, that we are warning against travel to Lebanon.
QUESTION: What was Prime Minister Hariri's reaction when you told him?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think you will have to ask him. He did not say do not do it.
QUESTION: Did you talk to the Israelis about this? How do they feel about --
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I am not going to go in to all of the parts of whom we have talked to and the various parts of how we are doing the consulting on it. It is a decision that is made on the basis of the facts as I see them in Lebanon. It is my decision. It is a hard decision, and one that I have considered very carefully, and one that I made sure that I pushed even beyond what had been recommended to me in order to assure myself from Prime Minister Hariri that he was, in fact, going to take all of the variety of steps in order to ensure the best possible coordination. I know from my assessment of the facts that this is the right decision. But it is one that has to be taken in light of the fact that we still consider it a very dangerous place to go.
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, you mentioned that there is one terrorism agreement that Lebanon has yet to ratify. Which is that?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: We will do some backgrounding on some of the details.
QUESTION: What is the difference today from a year ago?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: First of all, the big difference has been, obviously, that the civil war is over, which ended earlier. But the coordinated threat assessment reports that there is less threat to American civilians than there was, based on a variety of ways that they analyze threat assessments.
QUESTION: You seem to be so ambivalent. On the one hand you say that this is the right decision, yet you make it very clear, and you repeated this to us, that you do not think it's safe for Americans to go to Lebanon. I know the Lebanese-American community has been pushing for this very hard, and I just wonder to what extent this is more of a political decision than anything else.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: It is not based on that. What it is based on is the following: You know that there are thousands of Americans of dual nationality who go in on their Lebanese passports. They then do not feel that they can register with the American Embassy. We believe that it is a good idea for Americans to feel free to have contact with the Embassy and to be able to have the safety net that comes with that. I do not think we should be pushing Americans to break the law. You have to keep in mind why the restrictions were put on; they were put on in 1987 during a civil war and during a period of hostage taking. I think it is evident that, one, the civil war is over and that there is a lessened threat assessment as I have been told on the experts on threat assessments. Therefore, while I do believe on the basis of my knowledge that it is a dangerous place to go, I do not believe that it should be illegal for Americans to go. I think that American citizens should be able to use their judgment based on facts which the Department is providing them and the facts being that we consider it a dangerous place and are warning them not to go, but that there should not be a restriction their passports.
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