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Aboard Air Force One
En Route Phnom Penh, Cambodia
4:33 P.M. ICT
MR. CARNEY: All right. Thanks for joining us as we make our way from Burma to Cambodia. I have joining me Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, who is here to give you an update on the President’s meetings in Rangoon and other matters.
MR. RHODES: Okay, I’ll try to be as quick as I can. But the President just concluded a very, I think, exciting and consequential visit to Burma. Just to run through, I think, some of the areas that we think are the most important steps that have been taken around the visit: We welcome the Burmese government providing access to the International Committee of the Red Cross to prisoners. We also welcome their decision to establish a process to adjudicate the remaining prisoners of conscience that we believe are being held within the country. And we’ll work with them to provide names of people that we think should be a part of that process.
Their decision to bring in the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will both help strengthen the monitoring capacity in the country and help build the capacity of Burma to deal with human rights issues. They’ve reiterated a commitment to pursue a ceasefire in Kachin State, which is the one remaining ethnic insurgency that they’re confronting. And with regards to the Rohingya in the Rakhine State, they reiterated their commitment to not just calm the situation, but to address the underlying issues including returning displaced people to their home and addressing the issue of citizenship for the Rohingya.
On nonproliferation, they came into the additional protocol of the IAEA, which submits them to additional safeguards and brings them into a nonproliferation regime that is important to the United States and the world. And they came in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which further commits them to end the military relationship with North Korea.
To go through the President’s meetings quickly, he began --
Q That was all put down on paper ahead of time. Did he talk about each of those things in the bilat?
MR. RHODES: Yes. So getting to the bilats, every one of those issues actually came up in the bilateral meeting with President Thein Sein. Just a couple of notes of color: At the beginning, the President commented to both President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi how much the people and the landscape of the country reminded him of Jakarta and Indonesia as a child. The President was struck by that, how similar it was as a setting. Thein Sein also went out of his way not just to welcome the President, but also to note what he’d learned about the President’s grandfather spending time in the country during World War II.
In their bilateral meeting, they addressed all of the issues that I just went through. The general message from President Obama was that they’ve taken bold steps that have set the country on a path to reform, but now they have to continue down that path so that it’s irreversible, and that the more they do to demonstrate that they’re implementing a reform agenda, the more we can do to assist them -- with our USAID mission that has begun again; with U.S. businesses and other international companies getting into the Burmese market; with military-to-military engagement to lift up the professionalism of the Burmese military.
So on a host of matters the President’s core message was, the more you do to continue down the path of reform, the more we will be able to do to help bring greater economic development to your country and to help consolidate the democratic progress that we’ve seen.
So it was a very positive discussion atmospherically. I think President Thein Sein went out of his way to signal his commitment to address issues like democracy and human rights. He understood that the ethnic challenges that remain are fundamental to continuing the process of reform, and he very much signaled how much he wants the United States to be engaged within Burma going forward. And we can get into any additional questions you have in a moment.
With Aung San Suu Kyi, the President -- his opening message was simply how much he admires what she’s done and that her, just as Thein Sein and the Burmese government’s, decisions have helped begin a process of reform. None of that would have been possible without the extraordinary sacrifices that Aung San Suu Kyi made over so many years. And the President reiterated how much he believes that the reform process needs to include, as he said in his speech, clear checks and balances so the legislative branch that Aung San Suu Kyi is a part of, again, is a key player in the Burmese system and that they’re addressing issues like constitutional reform, which are going to be necessary to consolidate the reform process.
Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about her work in the legislature, laws that she’s introduced, including the law to reopen the university that the President spoke at today, but also, again, the need to continue moving forward with issues such as constitutional reform and a full transition to civilian control going forward -- or a completion of that transition.
So those were the main issues discussed. They obviously discussed the broader reform agenda as well. I’d note that the President was very pleased to see in Aung San Suu Kyi’s house -- he had enjoyed introducing her to Bo, and he was very pleased to see that the stuffed Bo that we gave her was displayed in the -- where she was, in the room where the meeting was.
Q -- Aung San Suu Kyi talked about the full transition to civilian control? Did he talk about that with the president?
MR. RHODES: Yes. And what I mean by that, to be clear, is there’s been a transition to civilian leadership, but they’re on a path to an election in 2015, and so that as a part of that transition they’re going to be addressing how to make sure that’s a free and fair election, what amendments need to be considered for the constitution as they look to consolidate their democracy.
So again, they’ve transitioned to civilian leadership, yet this needs to -- for that to be irreversible they need to make sure that the types of reforms that they’ve begun are consolidated within the political system. So that was the gist of it.
He discussed both -- a similar set of issues with both leaders. Again, the reforms that have been taken, the reforms that need to be done on issues like rule of law, ethic -- the need for national reconciliation, the -- again, the -- and then the role the U.S. can play in supporting Burmese development going forward with the easing of our sanctions, with the USAID mission, and with our increased diplomatic engagement with the country.
Before I take questions I just want to give you an update on what we’ve been doing on Gaza, because I know there’s been some interest in that. First of all, basically the President has been updated regularly by both Tom Donilon and Secretary Clinton, who are traveling with him. Secretary Clinton has spoken to a number of world leaders in the last couple of days. She spoke to the French foreign minister and to Bank Ki-moon before they went to the region. She spoke to the Egyptian prime minister after he left Gaza. And she spoke to both the Qatari and the Turkish foreign ministers. So she is speaking to those nations in the region and those leaders who are going to the region about our efforts to achieve a de-escalation of the conflict that includes an end to rocket fire from Gaza.
In addition to that, Tom Donilon has spoken to the Israeli national security advisor on a more-than-daily basis. And then both Secretary Clinton and Tom Donilon have been speaking to our ambassadors in Israel and Egypt. In fact, Secretary Clinton and Tom Donilon had a conference call with our ambassador in Israel on the flight into Burma. And then at lunch, at the embassy, Tom Donilon and Secretary Clinton briefed the President on their discussions on Gaza. So Tom provided an update in the morning, and then at the embassy, Secretary Clinton and Tom were able to give him an additional update.
Q Has the President reached out to any foreign leaders?
MR. RHODES: He has not yet today. We’ll let you know if he does later tonight or tomorrow.
Q -- if he’s already?
MR. RHODES: He’s not yet reached out to any -- the President has not spoken to any foreign leaders today. We’ll keep you updated if he does. Again, basically Secretary Clinton is speaking to a number of her counterparts, Tom is as well, and then our ambassadors in Egypt and Israel have been in frequent contact with both of them and they’re able to update the President on it.
Q What is the U.S. strategy in all these discussions? I mean, what points are you making? What are you trying to get each side to do? And how are you doing that?
MR. RHODES: Again, I think what -- our position continues to be that those nations in the region, particularly nations that have influence over Hamas, and that’s principally Egypt and Turkey, also Qatar -- as I said, the Secretary spoke to the Qatari prime minister -- that those nations need to use that influence to de-escalate the conflict. And de-escalation has to begin with, again, an end to rocket fire from Gaza.
We are also speaking to the Israelis on a regular basis to update them about our contacts with these various countries. The Israelis are having their own conversations I’m sure. But the general goal here is de-escalation, because as the President said -- as you heard him in the press conference say, Israel has a right to defend itself. The best way to make sure that Israel is secure and the situation doesn’t escalate is for there to be a peaceful resolution and de-escalation rather than a military -- a continued military conflict.
Q Ben, you’ve touched on this a little bit, but did the President have any sort of impressions or kind of reaction to just the scene, all the people lining the streets, waving flags?
MR. RHODES: The President was very moved by the outpouring of people lining the streets. Actually I should have added, too, that the President -- we had originally not thought we had enough time to go to Shwedagon. And the President basically decided in the motorcade to the first meeting with Thein Sein that he was going to go to Shwedagon no matter whether there was time or not.
Q When we were going to the airport -- to the parliament?
MR. RHODES: Yes. So, I mean, because of the beauty of the site and the importance of it to the Burmese people. But I think he was struck by the reception he received. And then I’d say, look, in each meeting, the leaders could not have been more positive and gracious. And President Thein Sein went out of his way; multiple times in the meeting he used the President’s campaign slogan. You heard him do it in his public comments, but he did -- multiple times in the bilat he said, “I want to do what you’ve been talking about, I want to move forward.”
Q Was there an exclamation point?
MR. RHODES: I think there was an exclamation point. But in terms of with these -- with the reforms that he’s launched -- and he knew the issues we were interested in and was ready to make commitments to move forward on them, understanding that they’re going to have to follow through and that there’s going to be hard work in the follow-through.
So I think he was struck by the welcome he received from the people. He had a very positive meeting with the president in terms of the warmth with which he was received.
Then, with Aung San Suu Kyi, he commented about how moving it was to visit her in her home where she had previously been imprisoned, and now to visit her as a member of parliament is a remarkable testament to her and also to the progress that’s been made. And I think when you meet with Aung San Suu Kyi in her home, you’re sitting around a very small, round table, and it’s very intimate, and they were able to have a very free-flowing discussion.
And the point that she made to him is that she’s now a political figure in the country, and she’s been a symbol and a leader of a movement, but she’s also now a member of parliament. And so they discussed things on her agenda, like how can they create better opportunity for the Burmese people; how can they expand access to education and health care; again, how can we move forward with reforms to the constitution and laws that, again, make the progress that’s taken place irreversible.
And the President then, I think, at the speech site, was able to have this clutch, this brief meeting backstage with a number of people who have made extraordinary sacrifices -- the leader of the Saffron Revolution, political prisoners who have been released after many years in jail, representatives of ethnic minorities. And the President commented how struck he was by the sacrifices that these people had made and the perspective that gives you about, well, all the challenges that we’re dealing with. In some respects, these people have made extraordinary sacrifices in their own lives that are an inspiration to him as well.
And when he left he said -- he commented on how much he’d like to -- again, would have liked to have spent even more time in this country if he could. So I think all in all he was quite moved by the day.
Q Was his decision to go to the temple related to his reaction of seeing the people on the streets? You said them together, I wasn’t sure whether those two were related.
MR. RHODES: I think he actually saw the temple as we flew in and was discussing with us how important it was to this country as a symbol of national unity and something that they’re very proud of. And he just felt it was important to make sure that we took the time to do that, again, to send a signal of both respect for the culture of the country and also to be able to take in a remarkable site. And he very much enjoyed it.
Q What did he say? Did he say anything afterwards, like dousing the flames of anger, hatred?
MR. RHODES: Aung San Suu Kyi made sure that he poured water on his birthday. And she asked him what day of the week it was, and he said Friday. And she said, well, make sure you did it on a Friday, and he said yes, I did. And he described to her how he hit the gong and had gone through this very moving --
Q Did he hit the gong today?
MR. RHODES: Let me check that actually. I’m not sure. I wasn’t there. You guys were closer to it than I was. But he was describing the process.
But so, again, I think that given the importance of it to this country, he felt it was important to go to the site.
Q In the Thein Sein meeting he referenced Myanmar instead of Burma. Was that just a slipup or is it kind of a sign that you guys are sort of easing your references to the name?
MR. RHODES: The President felt that given the fact that -- the government obviously goes by Myanmar; it’s still a disputed issue. The United States government position is still Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi still refers to Burma. But then in his meeting with Thein Sein and his comment that he would refer to Myanmar, that that was a diplomatic courtesy to do, doesn’t change the fact that the U.S. government position is still Burma.
But we’ve said we recognize that different people call this country by different names, and we obviously accept that. We certainly accept that that’s the view of President Thein Sein.
So our view is that this is something we can continue to discuss moving forward, and it’s a symbol of how this country, again, is working through issues that in the past stood in the way of progress but now can be addressed through dialogue.
Q Did he just decide that on the spot? Because the guidance we had gotten ahead of time was that he was likely not to use either name.
MR. RHODES: Well, I think that was in reference to the speech when you asked me that question. No, I think in diplomatic meetings, it is often customary that when you’re meeting with certain government officials you use Myanmar; when you’re meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and others who use Burma, you use Burma. So I think within the meeting it was the diplomatic practice to use Myanmar, and then he used it in his public comment, and then --
Q What are the historical analogies for that, when you had -- what does that diplomatic custom derive from?
MR. RHODES: Well, it derives from the -- well, it’s -- I’m only speaking uniquely to this country.
Q Oh, yes.
MR. RHODES: This is what our diplomats do. So --
MR. RHODES: Yes.
Q I’m just saying, is there some historical example?
MR. RHODES: No, no, I was referring to that that’s basically the practice of our diplomats in Burma.