State Department addresses volatile situation in Yemen

This is a rush transcript from "The Kelly File," February 12, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MEGYN KELLY, HOST: New video reportedly showing Yemeni security forces guarding a now-empty U.S. Embassy in the Yemen capital. It is the third embassy in an Arab country abandoned by the United States in just over four years since the Arab spring revolutions. Tuesday, the State Department ordered everyone out. Now new reports portray what may have been a hasty getaway. This is new video of at least 20 U.S. Embassy vehicles left behind and then reportedly seized.  Some evacuating Americans reportedly leaving their keys in the ignition.

Last night we reported on U.S. Marines destroying their own weapons before boarding private planes and leaving Yemen. No military transports were provided. Why not?

U.S. ships are positioned off the coast. Now Yemeni officials at the airport say the operation was not planned.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN (through a translator): They arrived in their cars and entered the airport's parking lot. And it was not planned. But we seized the cars and their belongings.


KELLY: Then today in Southern Yemen more troubling news. This unconfirmed photo apparently showing Al Qaeda raising its flag over a Yemeni military base. Al Qaeda.

And tonight new questions over whether Yemen is becoming yet another terrorist safe haven in an increasingly chaotic Middle East.

Earlier tonight, I spoke to State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.


Jen, thank you for being here tonight.


KELLY: I mean, what a mess the situation in Yemen is now as you see Al Qaeda on the rise, this group that we are not in favor of, the Houthis, taking over. And we're out of there. The third country in just over four years that we have had to abandon in the Middle East as our embassies get evacuated. Do we have control of our policy in the Middle East? And does this reflect a lack of American leadership?

PSAKI: Megyn, first, let me say that of course the safety and security of our personnel where they're serving overseas is a top priority.  And Yemen has long been a high threat post. It wasn't just the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France and we certainly expect others will follow. The situation as you've referenced in your opening here is just too volatile to be on the ground right now. That's not about American leadership. That is about the situation on the ground and concerns about the future of Yemen for the Yemeni people.

KELLY: But the government there was U.S.-backed. And as recently as September Barack Obama was touting it as an example of a country in which our counterterrorism program is working and our support of a foreign government is working.

And here we are in early February, the government has collapsed. We had to abandon our embassy. Our counterterrorism program must have taken a hit because before we left we destroyed all the classified materials. Counterterrorism center is based in part in the embassies as everyone knows. Are we still supposed to be looking at Yemen as some sort of example of an American success?

PSAKI: Well, first what the president was referencing was our efforts to cooperate on counterterrorism. That's ongoing. Is it impacted by the volatility on the ground? Absolutely. Is it impacted by the fact that we don't have a diplomatic staff on the ground? Absolutely. But we still have means of communicating and working with a range of contacts and sources we have on the ground.


PSAKI: That's continuing.

KELLY: Who? The people we liked are now pushed out of power and here's video of the people who are now in control. They do not appear to be fans of the United States as they love to run around chanting the following. Show the video.


(Protesters): Death to Israel. Death to Israel. Victory to Islam.


KELLY: I mean, are we supposed to be coordinating with them? Are those our new counterterrorism partners?

PSAKI: Well, Megyn, there are as there are in any country, there are counterparts we work with that are on the military chains, that are in other chains that are not necessarily diplomatic chains. And that is continuing in Yemen today as we speak.

KELLY: Jen, the problem that the United States has now is it appears that the policy we pursued in connection with the Arab Spring from December 2010 forward has failed. And at a minimum is in the midst of failing. We had to pull out of Syria, our embassy. We had to pull out of Libya, our embassy. Now we've had to pull out of Yemen. And it seems very clear that American influence in that region is diminishing while that of Iran is on the rise. Is that not correct?

PSAKI: Well, first, I think we have to look at each of these countries individually. As it relates to Libya, you're right. The president and others in the administration have spoken about what more we could have and should have done and as have other countries. Syria's in the middle of a civil war with a brutal dictator who's killed hundreds of thousands of people.

KELLY: But there's a question whether we blew it. Whether we blew it in each of those instances and in the case of Yemen.

PSAKI: Well, what I'm getting at Megyn, is that these are hardly exactly the same circumstances. And we're dealing with each of these countries separately. Do we want a return to Yemen? Absolutely. That's why we suspended our operations. We plan on returning when we can. The Houthis have said, they are not threatening. They don't want to go after the United States. Well, the proof is in the pudding and we want to see our embassies --

KELLY: Well, the video sort of belies that promise. I mean, I like, you know, and by the way it's not just one slice of video. Apparently at all their checkpoints they like to post a sign. You know, like we have a yield or a stop sign on our checkpoints there, they have death to America literally written on their signs.

PSAKI: Well, Megyn, there's no question that actions speak louder than words. And they have said they want the Americans, they want the westerners to be and have a presence in Yemen.

KELLY: Why was the evacuation from the embassy so hasty when we knew things were deteriorating for weeks now? We sent amphibious ships to the region. We have evacuated some people from the embassy. And it's very clear that something did not go according to plan when you have U.S. diplomats rushing to the airport, leaving keys in the cars and U.S. Marines having to leave so quickly that they have to destroy their government-issued weapons at the embassy and take personal weapons with them so they're safe en route to the airport and having to physically destroy them before they board not a military plane but a commercial one.

PSAKI: Well, first, it wasn't hasty.

KELLY: It wasn't?

PSAKI: Just because everybody didn't know what the plans were, it didn't mean the plans weren't in place for weeks. We have been planning for weeks. A range of contingency options. You referenced the ships.  Obviously we worked with the Amanis (ph) on getting a plane. We always have a range of options we can take when we're talking about a high threat post.

KELLY: If we're so chummy with the Amanis which is the neighboring country, why wouldn't they let our U.S. Marines bring their guns on the plane?

PSAKI: Well, Megyn, the Marines which I know they've spoken to and I know you've put out the accurate information on this.

KELLY: Right.

PSAKI: They've put out the proper protocol to destroy their weapons or to disassemble their weapons before they got on the plane. What wasn't planned here is for the Houthis to take control of our vehicles. We obviously have locally employed staff who work loyally and proudly in partnership with our embassy. They were going to drive the cars back.  But we're not going to put them at risk either. Did everything go exactly as planned? No. But we've been planning these for weeks and everybody was following the proper protocol put in place for the advance.

KELLY: Who gave the order for the U.S. Marines to disarm, to destroy their personal firearms before they onboard that plane? Our reporting is that it was state but that doesn't come from the --

PSAKI: It was not the State Department and they have said that it wasn't --

KELLY: Was it the ambassador?

PSAKI: It was not the ambassador. They have talked about the protocol they followed --

KELLY: Was it the Pentagon?

PSAKI: I don't have any more details for you. I can tell you it was not the State Department.

KELLY: Why didn't we send them out in the military transport? There would be no problems with U.S. Marines maintaining their guns if they'd gone out on a military transport.

PSAKI: This was the way that we determined was the best way to bring our staff out of Yemen. It wasn't needed at the time. Obviously we can bring used military equipment and military assistance when we need and we work closely with DOD on every contingency plan that we implement around the world.

KELLY: Let's talk about ISIS. Because just yesterday President Obama said about ISIS that they are losing morale and that ISIS is now on the defensive. And yet today, there's report that ISIS has now completely taken over a town in Iraq that is about 13 minutes away from a U.S. air base where the Marines are stationed there. And in addition, there's a report and the Pentagon has confirmed us that ISIS has now spread to Afghanistan there. Although they described it as sort of the beginnings of ISIS. But that doesn't seem to jibe with President Obama's statement to us that ISIS is on the defensive, morale is low. He seems to be giving us an impression that it's on the decline and yet the facts don't seem to be bearing that out.

PSAKI: Well, the fact is that there are a number of areas of Iraq including the one you referenced that have been highly fought back and forth over the past several months. We have been able to push back in several areas of Iraq with the Iraqi security forces on ISIL. We've also killed a range of military ISIL military leaders. They are also having a harder time having access to funding. Is there more work to be done? Is this a long road? Absolutely it is.

KELLY: Let me ask you about this other -- there's a piece in the Jerusalem Post today. It's an op-ed written about what they perceive as the president's, the administration's interference in the Israeli election.  And they believe that this group, One Voice, that has received over $200,000 from the State Department not for this purpose, but has received this grant from the State Department, is interfering in that election.  That they are funding, and it is true that One Voice is funding this group that's working against Netanyahu. The complaint is that in essence this is the U.S. government funding a group that's trying to bring down Netanyahu at the same time the president says, we would never interfere in a foreign election.

I know it's true that the State Department has given money to One Voice, over $200,000, for a different purpose. But do you believe that now the State Department should go back to One Voice under the principle that money is fungible and since they have become so politically active in this election and say we would like the taxpayers' money returned?

PSAKI: Well, first, the grants that was given to one voice ended at the end of November, which was before the Israeli elections were even called.

KELLY: Understood.

PSAKI: We know what that money was used for. There are so many requirements in law. It was about promoting the peace process, which the Israelis were closely engaged in.

KELLY: Understood.

PSAKI: We have no involvement in the Israeli elections. We don't plan to have any involvement.

KELLY: But do you think, because some have said under the circumstances given their representations as I've laid them out, state should go back to one voice and say we want the taxpayers' money back. You have become a political operative and it's not inappropriate for you to have $200,000 of the American people's money?

PSAKI: We do not. And here's why. The role that they were playing and the money they were using this grant for through which there are a range of restrictions, was on a bipartisan-supported effort in Israel to support a two-state solution. That is a grant that ended, the money was done at the end of November. It has nothing to do with the elections.

KELLY: How do you know the money was done? I mean, how do you know that they aren't still using the money that you gave them for this new effort?

PSAKI: Because you have to account for otherwise there will be investigations as we've all seen for exactly the money and how it's spent.  And there's reporting that is required to be done about every dollar and cent of money that's spent of U.S. taxpayer dollars.

KELLY: All right. Jen Psaki, it's always great talking to you.  Thank you for being here.

PSAKI: Thanks, Megyn.

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