SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: I have to wait ‘til my body guard can sit down.
As we leave 2014 behind, I want to first of all thank all the men and women of the Defense Department for their sacrifice, their service for this country, and I also want to thank their families for the incredible sacrifices they make.
All of America, I know, is very proud of the men and women of this institution, and some of you know, last week I had an opportunity to thank some of those individuals personally as I took three days to travel around the United States and visited some of our bases.
And again, it was a personal opportunity for me to let them know how much I have appreciated the work they've done for this country and what they continue to do.
Again, I know how proud this country is of these men and women.
We see the kind of work they do, their commitment, their service, all over the world. We see their agility today in the Middle East, where our men and women continue to stay on high alert, specifically off the coast of Yemen, where that situation changes hourly, and I suspect we'll get into some of that here in a few minutes.
We've seen their agility in West Africa, where thousands of our troops deployed to help stop the spread of Ebola, stop the spread of Ebola at -- at the source. We've also seen their agility in Afghanistan and Iraq. Well, there is still much -- much more work to do and much ahead of us.
I am encouraged by the progress that has been made. And many of you know, many of you were with me on our recent trip to Afghanistan and Iraq. This is an ongoing process of development, measured by many metrics as to the progress we're making. And again, I'm sure we'll have an opportunity to deal with that more directly when we get to questions.
In Afghanistan, we've transitioned with our ISAF partners to the new resolute support mission: training, advising, and assisting Afghan forces as they assume full responsibility for the nation's security.
In Iraq, our troops are working with coalition partners to help train and support Iraqi forces as they take the fight to ISIL and as Iraq seeks to form an inclusive government that represents all the people of Iraq.
We will begin deploying soon troops to the region to help train and equip the moderate Syrian opposition. I was briefed yesterday by General Nagata on that progress.
These missions also demonstrate the critically important roles our allies play, very important roles our allies play in advancing our shared interests around the world.
Since our alliances and long-term partnerships are important to our own security, strengthening these allied relationships with a core strategic focus for this department in 2014 has been very important. And it will be an ongoing priority.
For the past year, we held the first U.S. ASEAN Defense Forum on U.S. soil and undertook new initiatives to strengthen our alliances with the Philippines and with Japan, South Korea, and Australia. We reached new agreements with China to build confidence between our militaries and prevent misunderstandings, while also upholding fundamental principles such as freedom of overflight and navigation.
We held a first U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council defense ministers meeting in over five years, deepening our cooperation with Gulf nations that have since been critical to our coalition operations against ISIL.
And as Russia's aggression in Ukraine galvanized our NATO alliance, we bolstered our training exercises and rotational deployments as we continue to make progress in this area, to reassure our allies, and demonstrate our resolve.
As we end more than 13 years of war, the DOD has also been focused on laying the groundwork for enduring institutional reform, ensuring our nuclear deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective, launching a path-breaking defense initiative, strengthening and improving our acquisition systems, embracing better business practices, and moving toward greater institutional financial accountability and transforming our POW-MIA accounting mission.
And we've put unprecedented focus on health of the force issues, like eliminating sexual assault in the military, improving the accessibility, quality, and safety of our military's health care system, and restructuring and modernizing DOD's programs and partnership with the VA.
All these efforts and more will help ensure that our institution will be stronger, more capable, and better prepared for future challenges.
The DOD's budget and its partnership with Congress is central to all of this, not only in finding new ways and funding our ongoing operations around the world, but also in pursuing cost-savings measures that are essential to fielding a ready and capable force.
I appreciated the members of Congress working together to provide DOD with the resources we needed last year. Given an increased operational tempo, the authorization and appropriation bills that Congress passed in December will help ensure our ability to execute the president's defense strategy this year.
However, the progress we've made will quickly evaporate if sequestration returns in 2016.
We need long-term budget predictability, and we need the flexibility to prioritize and make the difficult decisions in order to manage our institution more efficiently and more effectively. Deferring these necessary decisions and actions will only make them more difficult and costly down the road and into the future and weaken the defense enterprise.
The past year was marked by persistent and varied threats, from terrorism, global health pandemic, and sectarian violence to cyber-attacks, state-on-state aggression, and transnational crime.
Predicting the next crisis is impossible. But as the president reminded us on Tuesday night, if there's one constant we've seen over the last year, it is the necessity of American leadership in the world. That leadership and the ready and capable military that supports it will be even more important in the years to come.
Ladies and gentlemen, since this news conference will most likely be one of my last as secretary of defense, I wanted to thank you all: thank you for your informed work, thank those of you who have accompanied me on many of my trips over the last two years, and thank you all for your personal courtesies to me.
So, with that, be glad to answer questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, yesterday Prime Minister Abadi said that he was upset by what he considered the slow, stalled pace of U.S. weapons and training, both by the U.S. and the coalition in Iraq. Do you agree with his assessment? Has that been slow or delayed? And the 6,000 -- the reports of 6,000 insurgents killed, is that a measure of what the U.S. is doing, and is that number accurate?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, regarding Prime Minister Abadi's comments, first, I don't agree with those comments. I met with Prime Minister Abadi, as many of you know who accompanied me on that trip about a month ago. The fact is that we have put a particular emphasis on getting the kind of equipment and materiel, ammunition, the needs, the requirements for the Iraqi Security Forces and the -- and the Kurds.
To give you some examples, last year we were able to move more than 1,500 Hellfire missiles, expedited in every one of these cases, all of the requests that the Iraqi government has made.
We'll have provided over 250 MRAPs, some of those went to the Kurds. Tens of thousands of small arms and ammunition. The flow of ammunition and materiel and the requests continue at an accelerated rate.
So, I do -- I do disagree with the prime minister's comments. I would say even further, I don't think they're helpful. We have a coalition of over 60 countries that have come together to help Iraq. And I think the prime minister might want to be a little more mindful of that.
We are continuing to deploy more American troops for training. And we have three of four training sites now operational in Iraq. We have about a dozen coalition partners who have trainers there, along with our trainers. We'll have a fourth training camp up soon.
So, we are doing everything we can possibly do to help the Iraqis.
As to the second part of your question, first, I have not seen any verification of that number of 6,000 that you referred to. We do know that thousands of ISIL fighters have been killed, and we do know that some of ISIL's leadership have been killed.
But also, as you ask, is that the measurement or a significant measurement of progress? It is a measurement. But I don't think it is the measurement. I mean, I -- I was in a war where there was a lot of body counts every day. And we lost that war.
What you look at is you look at things like do you have ISIL on the defensive? And I think by most every measurement, not imperfect, not perfect, they have been on the defensive.
Are they having difficulty recruiting? Yes they are.
The Peshmerga and the Iraqi Security Forces cut into their supply lines? Yes, they have.
Has there been a distortion in command and control networks of ISIL? Yes, there has been. Significant, tangible, measurable.
These are also the metrics you look at as to how much progress you're making in a war.
Q: Let me ask you a budget question.
You said that the gains of the agility of the U.S. forces have demonstrated over the last year would quickly evaporate if sequestration returns. You and others keep pushing the Congress on this. What's your best take as you lead -- you read of the congressional dynamic, whether in fact sequestration will return in 2016 and the military services need to absorb an additional $34 billion? What's your take? Certainty, not certain, or what?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I don't make predictions.
But what I do do, and I have done, and I think the leaders of this institution will continue to do as the president noted, and he will do, I know, is warn and be very deliberate and direct about what will happen if sequestration comes back, as it is now scheduled to come back, because it is the law of the land.
We will not be able, this institution, to fulfill the commitments of the president's defense strategies with the kind of continued, abrupt, steep, large cuts that sequestration will demand.
There will be adequate opportunities for the chiefs to testify on this, as there will be as you all know because you cover them, budget hearings coming up soon. I don't think any of our oversight committees have scheduled those hearings yet.
So that is an appropriate venue and forum to talk about these kinds of things. But it is unanimous in this building, in this institution, that the men and women who have the responsibility to carry out the defense initiatives and strategies and defend this country, that this continuation of sequestration will impact readiness, it'll impact our acquisitions, it'll impact the uncertainty of our budgeting: that means platforms being deferred into the future.
Q: But this has been a message that you and the military have pushed for three years now, and it's fallen on largely deaf ears in the public. Is this a case where the one percent of the public being connected to the military, that disconnect is hurting you because the 99 percent really don't care that much enough to fight Congress or mobilize opposition to overturn sequestration?
SEC. HAGEL: Well I don't know, Tony, if I would identify that reality, the one percent of this country has the responsibility of fighting the wars and essentially defending our country. That is a factor, I think, in the large scope of -- of the dynamic of what's at play. But I think it's more the reality of the Congress. It is the responsibility of Congress. It's why you elect members of Congress.
Every man and woman in this country who has another job, and there are only 535 that have a member of Congress job. That's why you elect them: to make the tough choices, be aware, be informed, and then explain to their constituents, those they represent, what the realities are. Now, there are variations to that and there should be. That's the way our system works. It's their responsibility to make the case.
This afternoon, I'm going to have just as an example, two more conversations with two senior senators about sequestration.
I think that the last year, we have made progress with the Congress on informing and helping and helping them understand and assimilate what the consequences are of sequestration. It -- it does take time. Our system takes time.
And when you've got senior members of the Congress, both parties, calling me and calling other leaders, asking for some time with us for us, me, secretary of defense, to explain in more detail, "because I am concerned," the congressman and the senator says, that's progress. Now, will the Congress have the courage to do what leaders have to do on these kinds of things? That's why we elect them.
Q: Mr. Secretary?
SEC. HAGEL: Jamie.
Q: Jamie McIntyre with Al Jazeera America.
To what extent is the unrest in Yemen slowing the Obama administration's plans to transfer prisoners from Guantanamo and reduce the population there?
And by the way, what is happening at Guantanamo, where we've just heard the base commander's been relieved of his command?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, the base commander has been relieved. It is now in the purview of appropriate authorities. So, I won't have anything to say specifically about that, which would be inappropriate.
But the commander has been relieved and that is right.
To your bigger question, first, I have always supported the closing of Guantanamo. I did that when I was in the United States Senate. I was probably one of the first in the United States Senate: certainly one of the first Republicans to take that position.
And I articulated why I thought it was important. And it's essentially what the president has said.
That said, the secretary of defense has, under the current law, and the way the process works as you know, has the responsibility to certify the transfer of detainees in that significant -- to that certification process in the interagency, everybody has to sign off on it. And they do. And every transfer that I have certified, and I think there have been about 44 since I have been secretary of defense that I have certified, that there is a substantial mitigation of risk to the security of America and our people and our allies.
That's a standard in the law. And I have tried diligently before I put my name on that document to assure not only myself but the people of this country that that in fact is what I have done as the certifying officer here on behalf of the people of this country.
Now, that said, what we have left, about 122 I think in Guantanamo detainees, many are Yemenis, as you know. We take each case and we go through each of those cases very specifically, diligently, carefully. Every major player in the interagency has a role in that: our intelligence department, FBI, State, Department of Homeland Security, so on.
Because of what's happening in Yemen, and we were well aware of -- of the danger and the uncertainty and what was going on in Yemen before today, that has to be factored in. But here's the point: it's what country is willing to host these detainees. We've not sent them back to Yemen. We only would certify -- I certify, and the interagency signs off, as you know, on countries not only that are willing to take the detainees, but have the means and the commitment to do what we think is required in order to assure that these detainees don't return to the battlefield and again, substantially mitigate the risk to the United States.
So, the conditions in Yemen today aren't any different than what they have been, and we don't send them back to Yemen.
Q: Mr. Secretary.
Now that the European Command has increased security and force protection levels at its bases across Europe at General Breedlove's order, what are your concerns, post-Paris, post-Belgium, as you see the trend of foreign fighters returning to Europe? What has led to this increase in security measures, and what concerns do you have about the threat that foreign fighters, ISIS fighters in Europe pose to U.S. military personnel?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, it's -- it's been a threat, Barbara, and it's a reality. And we have been well aware of that. We are well aware of it. You noted General Breedlove's recent actions, which I support. We put trust and confidence in our combatant commanders to make those kind of decisions. They are the closest to the reality of these dangers.
As I've said before, Barbara, from this podium and in different venues, on Capitol Hill during hearings, this is a long-term challenge and threat that this country and countries of the world are going to be dealing with.
This isn't anything that's going to be over soon. This is not a threat that can be fixed by sending great armies in to invade countries. This is going to be fixed and resolved and ultimately, I believe this challenge won by an integration of the interests of nations and integration of the agencies within those nations: police, law enforcement, border security, military, diplomacy.
You're not going to fix all -- any of these big problems through just a military solution. But to protect our interests, protect our bases, to be alert to what the threats are, it takes all of these groups, all of these countries, and all of our instruments of -- of power together, working together to deal with them.
Q: Are foreign fighters in Europe, ISIS fighters in Europe, targeting U.S. military families, personnel? Do you believe that they are threatened by ISIS at this point?
SEC. HAGEL: We've seen no indication of that, Barbara. No intelligence on any of that.
Q: Sir, to follow up on Lita's question regarding Prime Minister Abadi, one of the components of the Obama administration strategy on Iraq, against the Islamic State, has been getting the Iraqi government to take steps to increase inclusiveness in the political and security spheres. How would you rate the Abadi government now that he's been in office since August, on that front in terms of taking steps -- (inaudible) -- the Sunni minority and certain legislation that will be important for that campaign?
SEC. HAGEL: Well Miss, you were in Iraq with me, and I think you were the pool representative in my initial meeting with -- with Abadi, so you were there at the time I was there. And I actually talked a little bit about this.
But first, the commitment that Abadi has made, Prime Minister Abadi, to in fact do what we think the United States and what he believes and I do believe he believes it, to form a more inclusive government, to allow all the elements of his country, Sunni, Shia, Kurds, to have a role, a real role, not just a paper role, in governing and a say in governing, is something that he is doing.
Is he moving as fast as we would like? Probably not. But in governing, especially in democracies, and when there are elections, you have certain parameters. And those are insulators, and those are safeguards that assure the people that voices, all voices will be heard. He has a lot of political dimensions and dynamics to what he is trying to do, which are not easy.
And I -- and I think we understand that. We appreciate that. But we've made it very clear, and I said this to him in my meeting, that is the one defining metric of success, ultimate success for his country because this is about the Iraqis. This isn't about the United States. For his country to bring that government together so that the people of Iraq will have some confidence and trust in its leaders and its government.
The national guard effort that we have worked with Prime Minister Abadi and his defense minister, which I think is another element of how important it is to bring the government together is another part of this.
So, I think he's trying, I think he's making every effort to do that, but it's not easy to do and we recognize that. But the acceleration of that is going to really determine, and ultimately the outcome of that effort, the future of Iraq.
Q: Mr. Secretary, can I follow up on Jamie's question regarding Guantanamo? What do you see, sir, as the biggest obstacle to making good on the promise to close it? Are you still willing to sign transfers and I understand there's one still on your desk. Will you be relieved to be rid of that duty when you leave this --
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I don't know about one still on my desk, unless it's under my desk.
As far as I know, everything -- I have made a decision on everything that is ready to be made a decision on. So, I don't know about that.
As to your second question, this is a responsibility, the certification of detainees from Guantanamo, that I have as secretary of defense. But it's just one of many. I think it's a big one. I take it seriously, as I've said. I think it's an important one. I won't be rushed into any decisions. And I've -- I suspect I have not made everybody happy, always on that point.
But it's too big a decision to be made quickly or politically. But it is one of many big decisions secretary of defense has to deal with every day.
Okay. I'll go with you.
Q: First off, happy new year, and I wish you all the best, personally.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.
Q: Sir, as far as your legacy is concerned, as India-U.S. relations, military-to-military, where do you put your legacy and the relations between the two countries, and as President Obama leaves for India this week for a very special and important mission between the two world's largest democracies?
SEC. HAGEL: First, I have -- I think many of you know this, because some of you were with me when I was in India in August, I have put this relationship, the U.S.-Indian relationship as high on -- on my priority list as -- as -- as any one area that we can find some not only common ground, but one where we can advance the relationship. And I've worked very hard on that.
And I think the president's trip, as you note, leaving this weekend, may well produce some very tangible and positive results of an effort being made, was made, continues to be made, by this department: not just me. But -- but people before me, people who -- who are working on this now, Frank Kendall, our undersecretary of acquisitions, is there now, closing out some of the things that we think can be delivered in -- in Prime Minister Modi and President Obama's meetings.
I think it is a unique time for India. It's a particularly, I think, unique time for this relationship between India and the United States. And I am very proud of the progress we've made. We'll make continued progress. We'll make more progress. We need to.
But I think this will be seen as you look back on this time, over the last couple of years, not just because of me, a lot of people have seen this.
And when I was in the Senate, I talked about the potential that we have, and strongly supported the Bush administration's civilian nuclear initiative, which I may have been the first Republican in the Senate to do that. So, it's an area that I've had particular interest in for -- for a long time.
Q: What do we read, sir, as far as this is the first time that our U.S. president is going to be honored on the Republic Day of India? And also, second time any U.S. president visiting India in his -- during his term?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, we're very proud of President Obama and the recognition that he will get, and also of the leadership of Prime Minister Modi.
Thank you very much. Thank you.