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DoD Briefing with Vice Admiral Walsh from Bahrain

Presenters: Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Vice Admiral Patrick Walsh
July 18, 2006

            MODERATOR:  Let's go ahead and get started.  Good afternoon, and to Vice Admiral Patrick Walsh, good evening, and thank you for taking the time this evening from Bahrain.  Our briefer is Vice Admiral Patrick Walsh, who is the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. 5th Fleet.  Vice Admiral Walsh and his staff are coordinating the U.S. military's assistance to the departure of Americans from Lebanon.  He is speaking to you outside his headquarters in Bahrain. 

 

            And again, we appreciate you doing this on little notice and late in the evening like it is. 

 

            With that, Admiral, I think what I'd like to do is turn it over to you to see if you'd like to start with any opening remarks, and then, we'll get into some questions here. 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Thank you, Bryan.  Yes, I thought what we would do is just give you a quick snapshot of how we see things developing in Beirut from our perspective and then open up for questions. Currently, Orient Queen is pier-side in Beirut.  We will take on passengers and depart at first light tomorrow morning.  We have Brigadier General Carl Jensen on the ground in Akrotiri, Cyprus.  He's the commander of our task force and coordinating the efforts. Approximately, nine ships are enroute to the area -- nine U.S. ships -- as well as coalition ships from the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy.  The ones I wanted to talk to you about tonight are the U.S. ships that's enroute. 

 

            We have six ships coming out of our area of responsibility, which includes ships from the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba that are enroute.  This is part of the Expeditionary Strike Group led by the Iwo Jima, and in conjunction with our European Command, we have three ships that are flowing in into the Mediterranean -- eastern Mediterranean -- excuse me -- enroute to the joint operating area off the coast of Beirut. 

 

            These ships have been involved in an effort that frankly has had our guidance to proceed at best speed and to be ready to accept passengers and American citizens on arrival.  And we are moving as quickly as we can.  It's a complex operation that involves an extraordinary level of effort.  We're sending the very best that we have available, and we'll move at max speed. 

 

            And what I'd like to do is open it up to your questions and find out what your interests are tonight. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Let's go ahead and start with Will. 

 

            Q     This is Will Dunham with Reuters.  Admiral, how many U.S. citizens will be on the Orient Queen tomorrow when it departs Lebanon? And why didn't the Orient Queen make its first passage to Cyprus today?  Did it involve the Israeli blockade? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Approximately, 800 to a thousand, Will, will be on the ship. 

 

            I can't give you the exact number.  This will be one of our first operations with the Orient Queen.  A lot that is involved in the answer to that question will specifically have to do with space available on the ship, but our understanding is approximately 800 to a thousand. 

 

            And as far as the second part of your question is concerned, the Orient Queen had come intact with the Israeli blockade while it was en route to Beirut.  It was delayed for a period of about 20 to 30 minutes.  I would characterize this as some coordination procedures, as the Orient Queen was inbound to Beirut.  But in terms of the ability of Orient Queen to arrive on station, it had a lot to do with just simply the time and distance and speed available. 

 

            Q     Admiral, have any additional commercial vessels been contracted to take on the evacuation? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Yes.  We're working with U.S. Transportation Command, and we have potentially two more motor vessels that will be part of the ferrying activities back and forth between Cyprus and Beirut. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Pauline. 

 

            Q     Pauline Jelinek of the Associated Press.  Sir, could you talk in more detail about when the nine ships you referred to would be arriving, and what their roles will be in more detail? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  The -- of the nine ships, four of those are amphibious ships.  They're arriving from Gulf of Aqaba and Red Sea. The first ship arrives tomorrow, and we'll see the rest of the ships arrive during the course of the week.  The three ships from European Command are arriving as we speak and over the next two or three days. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Tom. 

 

            Q     Admiral, Tom Bowman with National Public Radio.  Do you expect any of the Navy ships to take part in the evacuation? 

 

            And also, we've been told by the Military Sealift Command that they've already contracted with a ship called the Rahmah, which carries 1,400 passengers, and it's en route to Cyprus.  Can you talk about that? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Rahmah does have a capacity of about 1,400.  We'll see that in Cyprus here tomorrow, and I'll be able to update you once we get operations with it. 

 

            And I'm sorry, Tom.  What was the other part of your question? 

 

            Q     The other is, do you expect any of the Navy vessels to take part in the evacuation?  Or is that just in case of an emergency procedure? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  I do expect Navy vessels to participate in the authorized departure of American citizens out of Beirut. 

 

            I'm sorry, Tom.  I'm getting a little bit of feedback here with this microphone. 

 

            Q     (Off mike) -- Navy vessels taking part? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  We do -- yes, I'm sorry.  I was just going to complete the answer.  We do have to be prepared for any contingency. We have to be prepared for a range of operations for an extended period of time. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Let's go over here to Nick. 

 

            Q     Admiral, it's Nick Simeone at Fox News.  What -- how do you -- what do you consider the threat level to this operation to date? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  The threat level to date allows for us to move ferries back and forth.  But it's not something that we take for granted.  So part of the effort here is to plan for any contingency. That's our job, and that's the sort of mindset that we're going into with this operation.  So the threat level presently allows for us to move the ferry back and forth.  We will take advantage of that to the maximum extent possible.  But we'll also have warships positioned strategically and tactically in order to ensure the safe and secure passage of American citizens from Lebanon to Cyprus. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Peter. 

 

            Q     Peter Spiegel with the Los Angeles Times.  We know what ships are part of the Iwo Jima task group.  But can you give us some detail on the EUCOM ships?  Are they amphibs, or what kind of ships they are?  And also, to follow on Tom's question, if you could just give a little more detail on how the Navy ships might participate in the evacuation.  Are we talking about using helicopters from the amphibs to go into the embassy and bring them back on the ships, or are we talking about surface ships going back and forth?  Could you talk a bit more about that? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Sure.  I'd be glad to.  We have four amphibious ships with well-decks that can take American citizens on board. There's a substantial number of people that we can take on board with the amphibious transport docks and dock landing ships.  The operation with EUCOM assets involves the Gonzalez, which is already on station, Barry, which is en route, and the Mount Whitney, which is the command and control ship afloat.  Those assets are on the way to the operating area as well.  And I might add that we're working with our U.K. allies here when it comes to this operation, and they have approximately six ships that are arriving in the operating area here tomorrow and the day after. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Let's go over to Jim Mannion. 

 

            Q     Admiral, this is Jim Mannion from AFP.  How closely are you coordinating your operations with the Israelis now? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  We're working with European Command, who has contact with a coordination cell.  And I'd like to just leave it at that. We're deconflicting operations here.  Our sole purpose and focus here is the departure of American citizens out of Lebanon.  And that's really the extent of our mission at this point.  Any kind of  coordination that we can take with the Israelis through European Command that can facilitate that departure and help us to expedite and to move quickly, we will work with them closely in order to make that an efficient operation. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Joe. 

 

            Q     Joe Tabet with Al Hurra.  Admiral, do you have any information if this operation will take place in the port of Beirut? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  I'm sorry, could you repeat the question?  I don't think I was able to understand it completely. 

 

            MODERATOR:  I'm not sure I got it exactly -- 

 

            Q     I was asking if you have any information if this operation, the evacuation operations would take place in the port of Beirut? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Yes, we will use the port of Beirut for our amphibious operations.  The advantage of bringing the amphibious capability is that, if in the event that there is a deterioration of the conditions at the port, we're able to move either north or south, as required, in order to continue the departure of American citizens. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Jeff, go ahead. 

 

            Q     Admiral, Jeff Shogol with Stars and Stripes.  What role do you see the 2,200 sailors and Marines of the 24th MEU having in these evacuation efforts?   

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Well, this is our rapid response capability. They're capable of amphibious operations day and night, all weather. They're also capable of operations that are conventional in terms of an authorized departure like this.  And so this is a core Marine competency; this is part of the effort here that Marines train to, to be able to handle and facilitate the movement of this large number of people over to Cyprus.  So remember, they have an air element that will be part of the effort.  They have a ground element that we will have in ready reserve in the event that we need them.  And they also have a support group that will be part of facilitating this mission. 

 

            Q     They'll have them in ready reserve.  Does that mean they won't go on the ground unless you need them? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Remember the environment right now allows us to use ferries.  So when we characterize the environment, this is an environment that we would consider permissive.  However, we're very much aware of the movement of weapons into the area and how the situation can change rapidly.  So the benefit of having the Marine Expeditionary Unit on board is that we can adjust to changing conditions on the battlefield.   

 

            At the moment, I'm going to continue to use the ferries, and I'm going to facilitate the movement -- the mass movement of people as fast as we can using the amphibious transport that's available with the four ships that are here, part of the Iwo Jima Expeditionary Strike Group.   

 

            At that point, I don't think it would be helpful to speculate any further in terms of going ashore or future operations that may involve or may not involve the use of amphibious Marines ashore.  So let's leave it at that, and then we'll talk further in the event that the environment changes. 

 

            Q     Kay Maddux from Voice of America.  Admiral, two questions.  Has the U.S. military asked Israel to back off its targeting of Lebanon while these operations go on so they can go on safely and smoothly?  That's number one. 

 

            And number two, do you have an estimate of the total number of American citizens that will be evacuated eventually? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  I know the European Command is coordinating with the Israelis.  They're aware of our movement, they're aware of our intentions.   

 

            They know that we're on the way.  And they know that we're making best speed and we're going to operate as soon as we arrive. 

 

            To the second part of your question, we've got rough orders of magnitude, and frankly, we're not going to know until we get there in terms of how many people are ready to leave.  Some of the early estimates were 5,000, but we're prepared for that number to change in the event that conditions change.  And so that's part of our level of planning and effort that's gone into this mission up until this point. 

 

            Q     Jim Garamone from AFPS.  Israel is a part of European Command.  Lebanon is a part of Central Command.  That seam between the two commands, is that difficult for you to overcome? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Well, as you can see, we have command and control afloat capabilities that are here from European Command, we have destroyers that are here from European Command, and you have Central Command assets that are working as well.  So I haven't come up against any seam issues.  I will leverage whatever relationships that EUCOM has with Israel.  Remember that our sole focus in Central Command is really with a number of partners in the region that object to operations with Israel.  EUCOM has a relationship with Israel.  We'll work through that.  But up until this point we have not had any issues that we consider seams or that limit our ability to operate effectively in the area. 

 

            Q     Admiral, it's Lou Martinez of ABC News.  Can you tell us which port the Orient Queen is going to return to in Cyprus?  And given that this is a mission with a turnround maybe of about a day or so, is it your ultimate goal to have daily ferries going in and out of Cyprus?  And it seems right now there is going to be a gap right now. 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  We'll coordinate the number of times that we can get ferries back and forth alongside with the amphibious ships that will be moving people as well.  And let me get back to you in terms of the port and the port specifics, that part of your question.  We'll get that for you.  That will be a matter of record. 

 

            Q     Admiral, Jim Miklaszewski with NBC.  I just wanted to clarify one point.  Is it the intention to put U.S. naval vessels into the port at Beirut? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  It is the intention to use U.S. naval vessels to facilitate the rapid transfer of citizens off of Lebanon and into  Cyprus.  In terms of whether or not you're going to see ships tied up alongside or not, I don't know that that would facilitate the rapid use of amphibious craft, and recognize that we have a changing environment.   

 

            So Jim, the way to answer your question is, I'm going to position those ships tactically in view of how the environment changes, and I wouldn't try and predict what that's going to look like tomorrow or the day after.  So if you can give me a little room here, what we're going to do is take advantage of all the capability that we have, and then recognize that we're trying to move quickly, that we're trying to move large numbers of people as fast as we can, but at the same time we're charged with the responsibility for their security and safety. 

 

            So we'll take all that into account and then I'll be able to answer the question in terms of how close they're going to be or how far apart they're going to be. 

 

            Q     Larry Shaughnessy from CNN.  Admiral, should Americans who are being evacuated be expected to reimburse the federal government for those evacuations? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  I have not considered reimbursement.  But that is something that probably the State Department would be best positioned to answer. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Let's try to take these three, and we'll close it up then. 

 

            Let's start with Joe. 

 

            Q     Again, this is Joe Tabet.  Admiral, are you taking seriously the risk of any attack from the Hezbollah against your ships? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  I'm sorry, could you repeat the question?  We're just having a little interference here. 

 

            MODERATOR:  The question was your concern about attacks by Hezbollah. 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  I'm concerned about attacks on ships, you bet. That's our job and that is our focus.  And that's one of the reasons why the answers that I'm giving you tonight are the best I can give you conceptually, but they're not going to reveal a lot of specific detail, and that's because this is part of the ongoing calculations here.   

 

            We do not assume anything when we go into an environment like this.  And so we'll make all preparations in our planning and deliberations so that we're ready for any contingency.  And that sort of scenario is something that we are planning for.  It's something that, you know, up until this point, innocent vessels have been able to move freely back and forth.  Ferries are able to move freely back and forth.  And so we're going to continue to manage and monitor the situation and we'll take proactive steps to ensure the safety and security of the crew and the passengers. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Jim. 

 

            Q     Jim Mannion from AFP again.  Why is it that it's taken so long to order the amphibious warships to the Med?  I mean, we're six days into this crisis, and it seems like a long time. 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  It's a good question, and thank you for it.  The order did not come six days into the crisis.  Remember, we do have a time-distance problem here.  We've got vessels coming all the way from the Indian Ocean, Jabal ali in fact.  You have vessels that were in exercises, in this particular case on the ground in Jordan prior to the events that took place here over the weekend, as well as vessels in the Red Sea.  So we're working against the environment and we're making best speed, and we'll be ready on arrival. 

 

            Q     Admiral, Jeff with Stars and Stripes again.  In order to get the evacuees onto the amphibs, are you planning on helo-ing them from Beirut to the ships?  

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  I will use all means available to us, so that involves some of the landing craft units and it also involves helicopters. 

 

            Q     Admiral, Tom Bowman again with NPR.  Can you give us the capacity of the amphibs to take on evacuees?  Any sense of how many you can hold? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Tom, what I'd like to do is just describe -- it's a very large number.  It would be in excess of a thousand.  And what I'd like to do is, give us a day of these operations and we'll see exactly how this plays out.  We're working closely with the embassy, so the number that we actually take on board is a number that we've coordinated in advance with the embassy, and then what I'd like to do is to report to you at the end of the day just how that number has played out. 

 

            Q     A point of clarification, please? 

 

            MODERATOR:  Okay, we don't have a question, we have a clarification. 

 

            Q     Jim Miklaszewski, NBC, again.  Has the decision, Admiral, been made to use U.S. Navy vessels to transport American evacuees out of Lebanon, or is that a contingency? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  No.  The answer to your question is, it's not a contingency, we are going to use U.S. -- (word inaudible) -- vessels in order to transport -- excuse me again.  We are going to use U.S. Navy vessels to transport American citizens out of Beirut and to Cyprus.  We will do that in conjunction with the ferries that are moving people back and forth, the ones that we discussed earlier under contract with Military Sealift Command. 

 

            Q     I'm sorry.  That last part sort of muddied the waters a little bit.  Will we see American evacuees on U.S. Navy vessels transported to Cyprus, or will they just facilitate the use of the commercial carriers? 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  You will see amphibious ships with American citizens on board.  You will see the destroyers and the other combatants in the area facilitate the safe movement and secure movement of those passengers.   

 

            Does that help? 

 

            MODERATOR:  I think we've gotten through a good series of questions and even a couple clarifications there.  So Admiral, again I'd like to thank you for your time this evening.  And obviously, we're going to be into this for a little while, and we hope that you'll make yourself available as we go down the road a little bit to keep us well informed on what the command is doing. 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  I will make myself available.  I want to be clear tonight that we've addressed all the concerns and we gave you the clarifications that you need.  Are there any re-attacks here that we need to go back and provide further clarification? 

 

 

            Q     (Off mike) -- yourself up.  (Laughter.) 

 

            MODERATOR:  Admiral, that will keep you here all night. (Laughs.) 

 

            VICE ADM. WALSH:  Well, let's recognize -- I mean, I appreciate the point, but let's recognize we've got a changing situation, that we have a very complex environment that we're about ready to put a substantial number of more American citizens into, and that the security and safety of those people are paramount to us and that's our number-one mission. 

 

            And so while we're looking at 5,000 that are currently listed as authorized departures, we are expecting more; that we have a very large responsibility of -- a very large scope of effort. 

 

            And I want to be very clear on one point.  The order has been given some time ago in order to respond to this crisis, and you -- you're looking at substantial global effort in order to respond quickly and with the ability to adapt to any changes on the ground as well as to sustain the effort for however long it takes. 

 

            MODERATOR:  Again, Admiral, we hope to talk to you soon.

 

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