DoD News Briefing with Press Secretary Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. Thank you all for coming. It's good to see so many of you here today, especially considering that many of you may still be suffering from a little jet lag from this weekend. I know I am.
Before taking your questions, I would like to make a few short remarks about Secretary Gates's trip to Iraq. The secretary is very pleased that President Bush had a chance to sit down with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and hear firsthand their assessment of the situation on the ground. As I said last week, the secretary believes it is essential for the president to speak directly to his senior military leaders before making a decision on the way forward in Iraq. In the days since, you have seen the president to do just that, both here at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs and in Iraq with General Petraeus and Admiral Fallon, the CENTCOM commander.
I should note that just because Secretary Gates wants senior military leaders to present their views directly to the president without summary or filtering from himself or Chairman Pace does not necessarily mean that those views are in disagreement on the way forward in Iraq. While in Iraq, as you know, the president and Secretary Gates also sat down with Prime Minister Maliki and his Presidency Council. They then also met with several Anbari tribal sheikhs who have been instrumental in turning the tables on al Qaeda in their province.
That final meeting was especially heartening to Secretary Gates, because less than a year ago, al Qaeda was touting Anbar as the capital of its future caliphate. However, a few courageous tribal leaders stood up, rejected al Qaeda's dark and medieval vision for their future and joined with U.S. Marines to defeat the terrorists in Anbar. Anbaris were the first in the Middle East to live under al Qaeda rule, and if our progress in Iraq continues, they will hopefully be the last.
Of course that requires continued hard work both from the bottom- up, as we are seeing in Anbar, and from the top-down. Monday's meeting of leaders from the central government and the tribes is another step in the right direction. In fact, leaving Iraq Monday, Secretary Gates says he is more optimistic about our efforts there than at any time since taking office.
And with that, I'll take your questions. Lolita?
Q Geoff, General Jones's report on the Iraqi security forces offers a fairly dismal view of their readiness, saying that it'll be a good 12 to 18 months before they can actually be ready. It also talks a lot about the police and says that they are obviously even in worse shape. Does the department have any comment on that report, any disagreement along a similar vein as the GAO?
MR. MORRELL: I don't think it's fair to comment on the report directly, seeing how we have not received a copy of the report yet.
It's my understanding the report has gone to Senator Warner and Hill. They're the ones who asked for it, and I think they've received it by now. I think General Jones will soon be testifying about his report.
In terms of how it's been communicated to this office, all that's happened to date is that General Jones came by, I think, with a couple of members of the commission to brief the secretary last week on sort of the overarching issues. I don't think necessarily they got into the weeds on any of this stuff.
I know in some of the reporting that's come out that it's been noted that the Jones Commission supposedly takes great issue with the national police force, and that they even go so far -- and again, this is reported; I haven't seen it -- as to suggest that it should be disbanded and started over. So I've responded to this previously by sort of giving our position on this matter.
First of all, I think it should be put in context. The national police are 25,000 police officers. It's not reflective of the entire MOI police force, the Ministry of Interior police force, which I think includes roughly 300,000 local and provincial police as well. That said, 25,000's a lot. We do not believe it is necessary to disband the national police force. That said, we also acknowledge there have been real sectarian problems within the national police force. We recognize that, the Iraqi government recognizes that, and thus, we've undertaken a project which we call rebluing. And we've tried to re- vet, retrain and then reintegrate police officers back into the force in hopes of ridding it of its sectarian biases.
And to show the commitment of the Iraqi government on this, I think it's worth noting that they have fired two division commanders as well as nine brigade commanders because they were deemed too sectarian. So I think the view of this building is that it's too soon to give up on the Iraqi national police force.
Q Can I just follow up on Lolita's question because, I mean, I have a copy of the report here, and as Lolita says, it says -- specifically talking about the Iraqi army and Special Forces -- that they will not be ready to independently fulfill their security role within the next 12 to 18 months. And I know you haven't seen the report, but how does that square with the idea of "as they stand up, we'll stand down" in terms of -- (off mike)?
MR. MORRELL: I think it squares in the sense that we've always recognized that this is a long-term project. Getting the Iraqi army on its feet and capable of defending the borders of that country independently is not an overnight project, and we are continuing to work on it. And it is our belief that this will come to fruition. It's going to take some time to happen. I don't know -- you're saying they suggest it takes 12 months. I don't know if takes 12 months, I don't know if it takes six months, I don't know if it takes longer. We are committed to stay as long as it takes to help the Iraqi army get back on its feet to the point that they are able to take on the normal functions of an army, which is not to focus internally but to focus on defending the borders.
And that is one of the reasons, Lolita, we believe is essential that the defenses of Iraq also include a national police force; so that once the army is focused on the borders, a national police force can then be utilized to handle and assist local police, provincial police on matters that become too big for them to handle at the local level.
Q Geoff, are you frustrated that the Government Accountability Office didn't take into account more of the queries or the new facts that the Pentagon presented to them last week to try and get them to change some of the benchmarks? Can you talk about whether there's some frustration that they didn't take into account your concerns more with new data that you provided them?
MR. MORRELL: Let me first start off by saying that, you know, there are a number of reports -- we just talked about the Jones report; you've now mentioned the GAO report -- there are a number of reports that are either out or coming out. It seems to be the season of reports. We believe that the American people are most interested in the assessment of the commanders on the ground, so that very shortly they will hear from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, who know better than anybody else what the current state of affairs is on the ground in Iraq.
So we would point people towards that report -- pardon me, not report, assessment, which should be offered early next week, which we believe will be far more comprehensive and far more nuanced than any report to date, especially the GAO's.
Q But were you frustrated with the GAO not taking into account your --
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to characterize our response as frustrated. I think you will note in the report that they did take information we provided them and adjust some of their marks accordingly. (Short pause.) Pardon me. I think you'll see that on numbers nine, which dealt with providing three trained and ready brigades to support Baghdad operations, they took into account that indeed we have -- the Iraqi government has provided three brigades, and so they've adjusted their marks there. And when it comes to insuring that there are no safe havens, they've also taken our information and adjusted the remarks there.
One area that they have not adjusted is this notion of a reduction in the level of sectarianism in Iraq, and they have established that as not having been met. I don't know. If you talk to any of the commanders in Iraq -- and we hear from them frequently lately, including as recently as yesterday from General Odierno, who talks about how the overall level of violence in Iraq -- by that we are talking about attacks on military forces as well as Iraqi civilians -- are down. In fact, Odierno noted yesterday that it's down to its lowest level in 15 months.
So there seems to be -- there also has been a clear reduction in ethnosectarian violence, and I think General Bergner addressed this today his briefing from Baghdad in which he revealed that sectarian killings have dropped to about half the level they were in December of 2006, when, as you remember, tensions between Sunni and Shi'a groups was particularly high.
So we think there has been a clear reduction in sectarian violence, and we think that should have been noted by the GAO. But again, this is one of many reports; the most comprehensive and nuanced will be offered by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.
Q Can I push that a little bit? They did say in their report -- they couldn't determine whether sectarian violence levels were down because they couldn't determine the intent of the attacker. And they used DIA data through July to indicate that the attack levels roughly had stayed the same or increased a little bit against civilians --
MR. MORRELL: I'm not so sure, Tony, of the criteria that they used to judge this. All I can base it on is our commanders in Iraq. And when I hear General Odierno, the head of the Corps, talking about a reduction in overall levels of violence, and then I hear General Bergner provide the most up to date numbers on sectarian violence being down, I trust that.
I think the one who's going to elaborate on this more than anyone, and I think is the one who should be trusted more than anyone on this, is General Petraeus. And he next week, without pre-empting what he's going to say, I think will expand upon just these very issues before the Congress when he testifies on Monday.
Q (Off mike) -- he -- and I wanted to ask you -- but this is DIA data provided --
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I'm not sure what data was provided to them and what that data entailed. I'm just not, Tony.
Q Based on what General Petraeus said to ABC yesterday, can we expect that -- a troop reduction will happen around March '08?
MR. MORRELL: I didn't see what General Petraeus said to ABC. I think General Petraeus will offer his assessment on the reduction, if indeed he is calling for a reduction in troops when he testifies before the Congress next week, and I don't think it's fair for me to comment on what he will or will not advocate once he's before the Congress.
I think you heard the president very directly on Monday at al Asad talk about the idea that if progress continues, it may be possible to maintain the same level of security -- or improved security, even -- with a reduction in U.S. forces. What he did not elaborate on is when that might take place. But I think you see signs that things have progressed to the point that that can be considered. But beyond that, I don't know when and to what degree. But we'll shortly hear from General Petraeus on that.
Q Yes. Do you mind if I switch off Iraq?
MR. MORRELL: Sure.
Q This story that we now learned about, the Air Force inadvertently transporting six nuclear warheads from North Dakota to Louisiana -- how is it that these warheads were missing from Minot Air Force Base for some three or four hours and nobody apparently knew about it?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think as you all know, it's long-standing policy of this department not to talk about nuclear weapons, so I can't confirm or deny that indeed the nuclear weapons were involved in the incident which you relayed to me.
I can, however, tell you that the Air Force is currently investigating an error made last Thursday in the transfer of munitions, as you mentioned, from Minot Air Force Base to Barksdale Air Force Base aboard a B-52 Stratofortress.
I can also tell you furthermore that Secretary Gates was quickly informed of this incident. He was called, I believe, early Friday morning and he has been receiving daily briefings from General Buzz Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, on actions that the Air Force is taking and the progress of their investigation. Furthermore Secretary Gates has been assured by General Moseley that the munitions were part of a routine transfer between the two bases and at all times, they were in the custody and control of Air Force personnel, and at no time was the public in danger.
Q But I mean, apparently we've had the commander relieved of his command. We've had some airmen who have been suspended. Can you -- I mean, how serious an incident was this? And was there, at any time, any real danger on the ground?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not aware of any disciplinary action that's been taken. I am told however that the Air Force should complete a full report on this matter, including any prospective corrective actions which need to take place, and that should be delivered to the secretary by the end of next week. With regards to how important of how troublesome this is, I forget how you characterize it. Well, it's clearly important enough that the secretary was informed of it and that he has requested daily briefings from General Moseley as to what they are doing to fix the problem and to get to the bottom of the problem. I can also tell you that it's important enough that President Bush was notified of it, so it's clearly important. But I cannot as a matter of policy as I've stated before discuss whether or not nuclear weapons were involved.
Q You said very early in the morning. When? Was he actually awakened to the --
MR. MORRELL: I'm not clued in on the secretary's sleep patterns just yet. But I am told he was told early in the morning that Friday morning.
Q Geoff, another topic: the arrests in Germany and the reports that suggest those were linked to possible attacks on U.S. installations. Do you have anything on whether the Pentagon or the U.S. military was involved in the investigation, and whether specifically Ramstein Air Base was a target?
MR. MORRELL: I can't get into what the targets were frankly, Andrew. I don't know what precisely these terrorists were going after. It is still a developing situation. So I think the best source on this is still the German government who, I think, it is -- it should be noted that they have done a very admirable job in identifying and arresting this terrorist cell before they had a chance to attack anyone. I know the secretary wants to extend his congratulations to them on a job well done.
But clearly without identifying any particular targets, from the perspective of this building, you know, U.S. assets abroad, especially military personnel and installations, have historically been a prized target of terrorists, and they continue to be. So wherever our forces are stationed, we are constantly working to ensure that they are protected from any and all threats. And overseas, that vigilance includes working very closely with host governments such as Germany, and we have done so in this case, working closely with Germany.
But these arrests, I think, Andrew, are yet another reminder that the worldwide terrorist threat is alive. And it needs to be actively, as we have seen with this, policed against, fought against. And that includes not just military action but, in this case, you saw local international law enforcement get to the bottom of this.
Q And was the U.S. military involved in that investigation or operationally provide information?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think I characterize it the way I want to characterize it, that we work closely with host nations, and we have done so in this case.
Yeah, go ahead, Ken.
Q The secretary over the weekend when he was in Iraq and the president spoke at some length about political developments in Anbar and some of the other regional local areas -- how positive that is and how that represents, in their view, political progress in Iraq. You alluded to it also in your opening statement. Is there not a possibility, though, that there is another side to this coin and that it may wind up eroding the authority of the central government even further, and therefore making that government even more irrelevant than it seems to be right now?
MR. MORRELL: Ken, I think we believe that you can do both, that you can foster progress from the ground-up, from the bottom-up, if you will, by working with tribal leaders and local militia who have decided to become a more established force and eventually work within the framework of the central government. And we also believe that simultaneously you should and can be prodding the national government, the central government, to be working on reconciliation matters from the top-down.
So we don't believe it's an all-or-nothing proposition, that either you ride this horse or you ride that horse. We are working with both simultaneously, and hopefully we will join up in the middle sooner than later.
Q I understand that's the hope. But in the case of, for example, the tribal leaders in Anbar, who are now getting support directly from the United States, what incentive is there for them to be terribly concerned about what happens in Baghdad or the central government?
MR. MORRELL: Because they -- Ken, because there's a lot of money provided from the central government to the provincial government. I mean, in Anbar alone I think there's $107 million dedicated from the central government to the local provincial government. So it would very much behoove local leaders, provincial leaders to work with the central government because we will not be providing money at infinitum. At some point the central government is going to be the lone means of revenue and resources for provincial governments and local governments, so it behooves them to work -- eventually establish a better working relationship with the central government. I think we're on the path towards doing just that.
Q It was reported earlier this week that the Chinese military was behind a computer hacking incident in June. My question is, what steps is the Pentagon taking to counter these Chinese hacking activities? And has this matter been raised in some of the numerous military exchanges with the Chinese military and U.S. military, and if not, why not?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into who attacked us and how they attacked us. I will say this: I mean, there has been an incident which people have reported about, which took place, really, in the opening days of tenure here, which involved an attack on our computer system here. I think we've talked at length about this, but it required us to take some computers off-line temporarily. It caused some inconvenience. It did not in any way inhibit military operations, and we were back on-line with everybody very soon thereafter.
We are a hundred percent recovered right now.
In fact, we got back to that state twice as fast as ever before. And we've learned a lot about how to recover from these attacks. We learn from each one of these attacks. And they happen daily, hundreds of attacks on our system every day.
We have an elaborate and effective defense system set up, a redundant system, so that we are by and large protected against these attacks. This one happened to cause us to take some computers off line for some short period of time. But as I said, we're back on our feet and back at work.
Q And has it been raised with the Chinese military in exchange?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not aware that it has. But -- I haven't asked that question directly, but it has not come up in any meetings that I've --
Q And could I follow up? The BBC is reporting also that the British government protested to China about the influx of Chinese weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. Another report said the Chinese weaponry is getting in to insurgents in Iraq through Iran. Is this something that the Pentagon is concerned about? And have you raised that with the Chinese?
MR. MORRELL: I would say this. I've only been here a short time, but I've learned enough in that time to know that Chinese weapons are prolific. They're found all over the world. They are a large dealer and provider of such weapons. But as far as I know, there is nothing to suggest that they are directly/indirectly providing such weapons to insurgents in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan.
But we do believe -- this department does -- that every country should take a very active role in denying terrorists the ability to procure weapons or any materials, financing, whatever it is that would enable them to carry out any sort of terrorist attacks.
But with regard specifically to China, you know, clearly there are areas which historically and even now we have disagreement over. Counterterrorism luckily has not been one of those issues, and we have continued to work closely with the Chinese on counterterrorism efforts.
Q Geoff, it was nearly two years ago from this podium that a senior military official declared the year 2006 would be the year of police in Iraq, that the military would take over and accelerate the training and equipping of police forces in Iraq. Yet today, in the Jones report, we hear that the national police are still rife with corruption and sectarian militia.
So since the U.S. military is so directly involved in that, does anybody in the Pentagon or the military have an explanation for this apparent failure, two years later?
MR. MORRELL: I wouldn't characterize it as you have, as a "failure." I have acknowledged, and I think the Iraqi government has acknowledged and our commanders in Iraq have also that clearly there are problems that persist within the police force when it comes to sectarianism, and it's to nobody's satisfaction. And we have been working very hard to try to rid the national police force and the local police force, to the degree it exists there -- although much less than the national police force, it seems -- of sectarianism. It has been a problem, it seems, in particular within the Ministry of Interior, and -- but I -- we believe that the Iraqi government is committed to solving this problem. They've exhibited that by the fact that they have fired, as I mentioned, two division commanders within the national police force and nine brigade commanders.
Has this happened at the pace we would like? Ideally, this would all happen much faster, whether it be standing up the Iraqi army or ridding the national police of sectarianism. Obviously we would like this stuff to happen sooner than it has, but we do not believe either project or process should be abandoned because it hasn't happened at the pace which we would like. And we believe there is enough progress taking place on both fronts that this is an endeavor worth pursuing, and we believe we will get to the point we need to get so that the Iraqis rely far less on us for their protection and more on their own people.
Q It's just the police forces are considered absolutely critical to the overall security of Iraq. What is the level of concern in this building or within the military that the poor performance of the police could undermine the entire U.S. strategy for improving security in Iraq?
MR. MORRELL: To what level are we concerned that it could undermine things? I mean, I think any time that there is poor performance, it's a cause for concern. Do we believe that the performance is so poor that our efforts are not worth pursuing? No. We believe we can rectify the problems that exist, correct the sectarianism, rid the sectarianism in the national police force and get to where we want to go.
Q Yeah, if I could just add one more. The commission obviously got most of their information from U.S. military officials in Iraq, yet they say there is no need to disband the national police. Is there a divergence of views, a difference in views of what should be done with the national police within the Pentagon or military itself?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not a spokesperson for the Jones commission. I will say this -- having been in Iraq at the same time they were there and having overlapped on a couple of their fact-finding trips, their efforts, as far as I could tell, did not solely involve talking to the U.S. military. I think they had direct communication with Iraqi forces and Iraqi leaders as well. So I think there are a variety of people who they could have called upon and did call upon to come to the conclusions they did.
Just because they believe that the national police force is so problematic that it should be disband doesn't mean that they got that opinion somehow from our people on the ground there. It is the belief at least of this building -- I can't speak for the guys on the ground in Iraq -- that there is enough progress being made with the national police force that we should continue down this road to rebluing them, ridding them of sectarianism.
Q Was the secretary asked to testify before Congress next week, A, and B, will he? And my third question is: Can you give us a rough dollar estimate of how much money the Pentagon will be asking Congress for in the upcoming supplemental budget request?
MR. MORRELL: With regard, Guy, to requests for the secretary's testimony, the secretary has been asked to testify before -- pardon me -- the Congress. I think there was a request for him to testify next week. The secretary is ready and willing to testify before the Congress when it is appropriate to do so, and in his estimation it is most appropriate to do so after the president has laid forth his vision for what's next in Iraq. So do not expect to see the secretary up on the Hill before the president makes whatever announcement he's going to make, but I would also say that you should expect to see him shortly thereafter. I don't have a date for you beyond that.
With regards to a supplemental budget request, as I mentioned from this podium last week, stories suggesting dollar amounts are way premature. I told you last week that the secretary would have sort of his budget meeting this week; indeed, he is scheduled to do so tomorrow. But I want to just be clear, that's the first budget meeting and that it's really not possible to sort of ascertain exactly how much money we will need to ask the Congress for until, once again, the president lays out the road ahead. So I would not go chasing any numbers at this point because it's premature.
Q Geoff, there's been a whole slew of reports in the past week or so, primarily from Britain, about purporting to describe U.S. plans for massive air strikes against Iran. Are these reports merely speculation, or has there really been a shift in thinking in the building here about the need for military action against Iran?
MR. MORRELL: I have seen no such reports, and at this point I would categorize them as you have, as merely speculation. We are working diplomatically to solve our problems with Iran. Clearly we have problems with their meddling in Iraq, but we are working those problems primarily diplomatically. Obviously, when there are threats posed on the ground to our forces in Iraq through Iranian personnel, our forces will deal with those threats. But primarily, in terms of solving the problem that Iran poses, at least when it comes to Iraq, we are pursuing that through diplomatic channels.
And with that, let me just take -- I'll take one or two more.
Q If we have one or two more.
MR. MORRELL: The New York Times? Nothing from Cloud or Shanker? They don't like to show their hand in this setting, clearly.
All right. We're going to go back to Tony Capaccio.
Q Yes, on MRAPs, Senator Biden today wrote a letter -- you know, Biden-Graham -- to Secretary Gates complaining about the delays in MRAP deliveries. Can you give a feel for some of the specific actions being taken to cut that 58-day delivery -- conversion time down to like 30 days? Is there anything concrete going on you can --
MR. MORRELL: Since you last asked me, last week?
Q (Off mike) -- new development --
MR. MORRELL: Yeah. Yeah, you know, I --
Q -- (off mike) --
MR. MORRELL: Tony, I appreciate the question. I have not seen Senator Biden's letter. I don't know if the secretary has seen his letter yet. But as you know, the secretary, as he's made clear from the day he took office, he's committed to working in a very cooperative fashion with the Congress. And I'm sure he'll respond to Senator Biden as quickly as possible.
And I just would reiterate, you know, the priority that the secretary has placed upon MRAP production. This is the number-one acquisition program within this department. He is committed to producing as many MRAPs as possible, as quickly as possible, and fielding them as quickly as possible as well.
And I just -- you know, in my effort to sort of update us on progress with regards to MRAP production, I keep pressing our people, and they've been very responsive to sort of figure out where we are. We've just finished the month of August, and we have -- we've made up ground in MRAP production. We still remain a little bit behind. We're 31 vehicles behind our goal at the end of August. But that gap has been closed significantly from where it was in previous months.
So we've said all along that production would be ramping up. And as production ramped up, we would be making up for any slow production in the early months. And I think we are seeing that come to fruition; that as these vendors more competent and prolific in their production, we are making up any lost ground. And we believe ultimately we will get to our desired production numbers by the end of the year.
Thank you all. Appreciate it.
Q I've got something to ask, though. Did you answer the question of whether Secretary Gates was testifying -- (inaudible) -- next week?
MR. MORRELL: I did answer that.
Q And the answer?
MR. MORRELL: The answer is no.
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: Yeah.
Q Thank you, sir. Thank you.
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