(Note: Gen. Jensen appears via videoconference from Cyprus.)
BRYAN WHITMAN (Pentagon spokesman): General Jensen, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me?
GEN. JENSEN: Yes, I can.
MR. WHITMAN: And we can hear you, too. Well, welcome. And good morning to the press corps here in the Pentagon, and good evening to you, General.
Our briefer today is Marine Corps General Brigadier -- or Marine Corps Brigadier General Carl Jensen. General Jensen is the commander of Task Force 59. He and his team have been coordinating the U.S. military assistance to assist in the departure of Americans from Lebanon and in the transportation of humanitarian assistance. He's speaking to us today from Cyprus, and we know that they have been very long days for you, general, and we're grateful that you've taken some time to talk to us this evening and to give us an update and take a couple of questions, and we promise not to keep you out there too long on this.
So with that, let me turn it over to you to -- in case you have some opening remarks you'd like to make, and then we'll take a few questions.
GEN. JENSEN: Okay. Thanks, Bryan.
I'll tell you I'm enormously proud of the effort here from some awfully hard-working Americans helping other Americans. We've been here for 10 days now, and in the span of those 10 days, we've had the opportunity and the privilege of moving over 14,000 American citizens who wish to voluntarily depart Lebanon. That's a huge number by anyone's standards, and it couldn't have happened without the magnificent joint efforts by all the services, by Transportation Command, by Atlantic, Pacific Command, Central Command, European Command. The entire nation has been focused on this extraordinary logistical effort in conjunction with, of course, our partners at the Department of State and most importantly the ambassador here in Lebanon, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon.
This has been a remarkable effort, and we've got some awfully tired soldiers, sailors and airmen and Marines out here. But I'll tell you what. It's hard to get real tired of this business because this is all about Americans helping Americans, and it gives you such a great feeling. This is in fact a labor of love.
In that regard, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the government of Cyprus, which has gone out of their way to offer us a safe haven spot here and the government of Turkey as well, where we've been able to trans-ship some of the Americans who wish to depart Lebanon for further transport back to the United States. Both governments have really helped out when we needed them to, and I certainly appreciate that.
The other day, we also began the leading edge of the -- our humanitarian effort here, of course run by USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. They have team members here that are going to analyze the situation, the scope of the follow on humanitarian effort. And just yesterday, we dropped off some basic medical supplies in Lebanon, which -- to start that effort and to spearhead it.
So again, I'm very pleased. Over 14,000 Americans transported safely in the period of 10 days, and that should be, by the close of business today -- there's reason for some significant optimism here in the south, and perhaps we can talk about that later with regards to the movement of Americans and other citizens out of that area.
And with that, I'll open it up to questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you, General. We'll get right into it here.
Q General, this is Kristin Roberts with Reuters. I want to jump right into that issue about the folks who are still in the south. Can you estimate how many Americans are still down there who might want to get out, and whether or not you're going to be able to help them do that?
GEN. JENSEN: Well, you're coming in just a little garbled at this end, but I think what I heard you ask for is can I give you any idea of the numbers of American citizens who may wish to still depart southern Lebanon. Is that fundamentally correct?
MR. WHITMAN: That's correct, General.
GEN. JENSEN: I'm guessing that that is -- I'm guessing that that is, so I will respond to it.
I can't give you an exact figure of Americans in south Lebanon, and even the ambassador himself would have a difficult job with that, I think.
We've -- it's unsure -- there's -- the war has significantly impacted the telecommunications capability of southern Lebanon. We've -- we hope to be able to move over a hundred American citizens out of Tyre today. That operation is still ongoing. These American citizens, and also a fairly large number of Australian citizens -- and I'm sure many other nationalities -- have had a harrowing drive from southeast Lebanon to the port city of Tyre, and we hopefully will get them out on a commercial vessel later this evening, and we're guardedly optimistic that that's going to happen.
And in speaking with the -- our embassy, that -- they feel relatively secure that -- in the notion that that will represent almost all of those Americans in south Lebanon who may wish to leave. Many of the Americans in south Lebanon had dual citizenship, and many, I'm told, have already left the country for Syria. So we hope this will be, if not all, then certainly the lion's share of those who wish to leave, but we may never know for sure.
MR. WHITMAN: Go ahead.
Q Pauline Jelinek, Associated Press. Sir, how would you describe the status of the operation now? Is it over? The State Department put out a last call yesterday. Are you about to disassemble the naval fleet? Just explain where you are. It's over? It's nearly over?
GEN. JENSEN: I understand.
Yes. I mean, I would have to say that we feel that we've addressed the lion's share of the movement. The amount of Americans that are showing up at the embassy in Beirut for further movement has diminished from thousands and thousands a day down to hundreds, and it seems clear that even in the wake of the ambassador's call for all Americans who wish to leave to do so now, that there just aren't the numbers -- anywhere near the numbers showing up that we had experienced just only four and five days ago. So it really is a good- news story. Again, over 14,000, we hope, by day's end, and all moved safely, and it really is remarkable.
Q And was the decision made last night to start reducing the number of Navy ships there?
GEN. JENSEN: No, it was not. There is still the same number of ships on scene now as there were some days ago. We will be here as long as the ambassador needs us to do the job that we've been assigned. We are still participating daily in moving the -- what amounts to the trickle of Americans now that wish to depart Lebanon out of Beirut, and we are supporting the embassy's efforts to continue to move Americans via civil transport out of southern Lebanon.
MR. WHITMAN: Jeff.
Q General, Jeff Schogol with Stars and Stripes. Can you talk about what role the Marines in the 24th MEU will play in the humanitarian relief efforts?
GEN. JENSEN: Well, I can't directly speak to that because we haven't been assigned a -- the MEU has not been assigned a particular mission in that regard. Certainly the humanitarian aspect of this, if we are asked to provide logistic support initially for this USAID effort, it's not inconceivable, in fact probable, that of course we'll move some of that with helicopters. And as you know, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit has quite a number of transport helicopters, which could certainly be pressed into the fight to do that.
Q To follow, do you foresee any Marines -- any more Marines going ashore as part of these humanitarian efforts?
GEN. JENSEN: Well, we will do, of course, what we're asked to do. I wouldn't see any requirement for that. You know, if we're asked to move goods, the trans-shipment of goods, we could do that very easily without going ashore. But I don't want to really speculate on that. But I don't see that as a likelihood, no.
MR. WHITMAN: Peter.
Q Sir, Peter Spiegel from the Los Angeles Times. Could I ask you to do a little looking backwards and talk to us about how your thinking has evolved on the threat assessment. Obviously, the Israelis were a bit surprised about Hezbollah's capability in land-to- sea missiles that almost sunk their Corvette. Here you are showing up with a rather sizable naval contingent. Can you talk a bit about what your original threat assessment was and why you thought it actually was benign enough to allow naval ships to get in there, given Hezbollah's proven capability there?
GEN. JENSEN: Well, I can't go into an awful lot of detail about that, as you might expect. Suffice it to say that after a very careful, very excruciating analysis of the threat, we felt it was safe enough to conduct ferrying operations.
And we evaluated the security environment on an hourly basis as we did that.
Q Sir, if I could just follow -- I'm sorry.
GEN. JENSEN: The ships that -- go ahead.
Q No, if you were to continue, please.
GEN. JENSEN: The ships that we did push in were very well defended. There were layers of security, some seen, many unseen.
But let me tell you that my job here in moving Americans from Lebanon who wish to leave to safe havens -- it not only involved their safety, but also the safety of the American servicemen and -women involved in that operation were paramount, in my mind and in the minds of my superiors. So we took that all into account, and we felt the risk was permissive enough to allow us to do that. And I think you see the results. We therefore were able to move thousands and thousands using small boats that would push ashore LCUs -- they're called landing craft units -- load American citizens in them, and then use those small boats to go out to the larger boats. And then as those larger boats transited out into deeper waters, they were escorted as well.
So that's probably all I'm going to go -- all the detail I'm going to go into on that. But we had sufficient security.
Q Sir, if you can't go into any detail, can you talk more broadly about the extent you coordinated with the Israelis; if there was, you know, bilateral cooperation on trying to come up with a proper threat assessment, because they obviously have quite a few assets on the ground there as well?
GEN. JENSEN: Well, we don't coordinate directly with the Israelis. We coordinated our movements through European Command, who has a relationship with the Israeli government. And we would make our movements known to European Command, and they would effect the necessary coordination with the Israeli Defense Forces.
Our objective in this entire operation was total transparency and predictability in that regard. We wanted to make sure that we were well understood, what our intentions were, on a day-by-day and hour- by-hour basis, to prevent any accidents.
MR. WHITMAN: Pam-o.
Q Hi. This is Pam Hess with UPI. I have a couple of questions. How many American service members were involved in this? How long were their days? Were they on 18-hour shifts or 20-hour shifts? Was this the largest evacuation in how many years? And on security, did you have any close calls or any -- at any point have a concern about something?
GEN. JENSEN: That seems like about seven questions. I'm not sure I can even remember them all.
But the total number of personnel involved in this operation, with all the attachments, with all the ships, would certainly run well over 5,000 -- an enormous number.
Give me your next few questions, and I'll answer them one at a time.
Q (Off mike) -- on 18- or 20-hour shifts or less?
GEN. JENSEN: Ah. Well, when we first arrived, it seems that at least my staff and I -- we were putting in close to 19-, 20-hour days. But we needed to get things started, and we needed to get things started right away.
We had movement -- we had assets closing on us that -- we knew that we needed to get protocols in place immediately to start getting Americans off of Lebanon who desired to leave. So we set to the task.
That first day, when we arrived, we were able -- only able to get 16 out on a helicopter. And that figure rapidly ramped up. But from the moment we had any kind of assets that could do the job, we threw them at it, because I know what our mission is here, and our mission is to move Americans as fastly and as efficiently as I possibly could, to assist in their departure.
So the days were long, yes. I mean, I can't tell you how many -- how many -- you know, I didn't set a -- that every man will work 18 hours. Everyone was assigned a task to do, and I expected them to do it, and they did it magnificently. They worked harder than any commander would have a right to expect.
But you really need to understand, these are great Americans and they have the best job in the world here, the best mission in the world, and that's helping other Americans. It just doesn't get any better than that. These young men and women are so pumped to be doing this job. And the American citizens that I saw at the processing centers, before they would board the ships or before they would get on the aircraft, they were so pleased to see how they were handled, so proud of the American service members who were helping them. They could see their obvious esprit and morale. And as I said, this was the greatest mission that I've had the opportunity to participate in since I've been a Marine.
I've told the story a couple of times, I'll briefly go over it again, and it just -- it really has touched me. We carry a fair bit of our passengers here in civilian ferries, so we don't only have military transport, but we try and use, of course, as much civilian ferry transport as we can as well. And a few evenings ago, on a ship called the Orient Queen, it had come out of Beirut harbor fairly late in the day and it was making its way to Cyprus. As I mentioned earlier, I believe, we escort these vessels because of the precious nature of the cargo that's on board -- wonderful American citizens, and they are the most precious thing you could possibly image, if course, to us, and we guard them very carefully.
So we had escorts guarding the Orient Queen. Normally we keep these escorts at a distance and they're unseen by the civil master of these vessels. They're not generally used to having large American steel that close abeam them. So we keep them out of sight just over the horizon, but still close enough to provide adequate coverage in case the vessel were to be attacked. At any rate, evening was setting, a light fog had rolled in; visibility was not that great. And in the setting rays of the sun that was going down, the USS Gonzalez steamed out of the mist, close abeam the Orient Queen. And the last rays of the sun flashed upon the stars and bars flying proudly in the breeze. Every American onboard that Orient Queen broke into spontaneous sustained applause and cheering. And I had a Marine abroad who was part of the security detachment, and he got on his phone and he called and he said that that moment when that happened was the most patriotic moment of his life. This is a major in the Marine Corps who's been around the block a couple of times. He said he never felt prouder of being an American at that moment. And I can tell you that I think the American citizens on the Orient Queen never felt prouder themselves to be citizens of the United States.
MR. WHITMAN: General, we have come to the end of the time that we've allocated for this. And we do appreciate you taking the time. We know that the days have been long. And we hope that in the days ahead that you'll find a little more time for us also to address our questions as our interest continues in this operation.
GEN. JENSEN: Well thanks. I'd like that very much.
MR. WHITMAN: Thank you. Good night.
GEN. JENSEN: Good night.
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