DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. Thanks for coming today. I'll get to your questions shortly, but first I'd like to take a moment to brief you on Secretary Gates' trip to Capitol Hill this morning.
He had breakfast with leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Chairman Levin. The secretary thanked him for taking action on several key military nominations.
The committee has agreed to hold a confirmation hearing for General Petraeus next Thursday. He, as you know, was nominated to become commander of Central Command.
Next Thursday they will also hold a hearing, simultaneously I believe, for Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, who has been chosen to succeed Petraeus as commander of Multinational Forces-Iraq.
And this afternoon the committee meets with Lieutenant General McChrystal, nominated to become director of the Joint Staff, and Rear Admiral McRaven, McChrystal's would-be successor as commander of Joint Special Operations Command.
The secretary believes the quick confirmation of all four men is necessary to maintain continuity and focus in the global war on terror.
The secretary also expressed his appreciation for the committee's work on the FY '09 National Defense Authorization Act. He is particularly pleased that it includes full funding for a missile defense site in Europe and increased funding for programs dedicated to the training and equipping of foreign forces.
The secretary discussed the importance of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, also known as MEJA, and the need to clarify jurisdiction over all contractors working for the U.S. government in Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas where our military operates.
Finally, Secretary Gates reiterated his strong support for an enhanced GI Bill that allows troops to transfer their unused education benefits to family members while not undercutting retention in our all-volunteer force.
With that quick update, I'll take your questions.
Q Geoff, the secretary again spoke yesterday about the need to engage Iran and to find some incentive to obviously get them to send less support to militants in Iraq. Do you think there is a gap between what he said last night -- and what he has said before -- and what President Bush said today about this being a foolish delusion that the U.S. can -- should deal with the Iranians?
MR. MORRELL: I can tell you there is absolutely no gap between the secretary's position on Iran and the president's position on Iran. The secretary -- and just to clarify your question a little bit, I don't think the secretary ever spoke of incentives; he spoke of leverage. What the secretary believes we should be seeking is greater leverage over the Iranians. And we have been trying to do that -- the administration has been trying to do that for some time diplomatically, economically and militarily. The only incentive that would be offered to the Iranians would be a -- would be a reduction -- a diminishment -- of that pressure if they were to change their behavior, if they were to abandon their pursuit of a nuclear program and stop destabilizing the region in which they live.
But what the secretary is focused on and the rest of the administration is focused on is continuing to find ways to increase the pressure on the Iranian government to change their behavior.
Q Geoff, on China and the earthquake, have you --
MR. MORRELL: That was easy. That's it? Okay, China and the earthquake. (Laughs.)
Q Well, we'll get back there.
Q Sure. (Laughter.)
Yeah, have you seen any evidence that China's nuclear facilities that were inside that earthquake zone were affected?
MR. MORRELL: It has not come to my attention. If that is a concern of anybody's in this building, it has not been shared with me.
We have been, I think, primarily focused on how, if at all, we can provide any humanitarian assistance to the Chinese if they were to ask for it. As you know, to date they have not asked for it. I believe the offer was extended personally from the president to President Hu when they spoke earlier this week. So although we have -- we have the means and the resources and the ability to help them, as we have in the past when natural disasters have struck their country, in this case they have not yet asked for it.
Can I check on concern about their nuclear facilities? If I hear it, I will certainly pass it on.
Q Geoff, has there been a change in the secretary's thinking with regards to last week? He was asked about relief efforts for Myanmar, that I believe there's no consideration being given to airdrops. Has there been any change on that?
MR. MORRELL: There has been no change in his position or this department's position towards the prospect of unilateral airdrops into a sovereign country such as Burma. That is just not something that we are discussing at this time. I mean, incidentally, airdrops are not the most efficient or effective way of getting aid to those who need it, and at this point there's no consideration being given to conducting unilateral airdrops.
I mean, I should note that, thankfully, we have seen an increase in the number of flights day to day that the -- that the Burmese government is permitting. We had another five go in today. I think we've had 13 to date that have thus far been able to drop -- or provide 142 -- or, sorry, 313,000 pounds of aid -- that being water, blankets, hygiene kits, plastic sheeting, mosquito netting and food. So we are certainly encouraging the Burmese government to continue to let those flights come in, and if possible increase the number of flights that are coming in.
Q Did the U.S. military have -- is it putting everything it can right now into assisting Myanmar? Is there more that DOD can do? Could it possibly rush more assets into the region to impress upon the government of Myanmar that we are ready to come in and assist it?
MR. MORRELL: There is absolutely more we could do, if only the Burmese government would permit us to do it. We have more than enough resources nearby, ready and standing by to provide even more help than we have provided to date. And that is why our government has been working with other governments in the region to try to persuade the Burmese military, the leadership of that nation, to put their pride aside and let our -- let our troops come in with the aid that their people so desperately need.
Q And so unilateral action is fully out of the question is what you're saying?
MR. MORRELL: I have heard no discussion of unilateral action whatsoever. At this point, it is out of the question.
Q Just to follow --
MR. MORRELL: If I may --
Q Excuse me.
MR. MORRELL: -- I'll conduct this. Thank you.
Q Is the secretary convinced that the aid is getting to the right people? And are you comfortable with handing it over to the Myanmar junta, really?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, at this point, we have to -- we have to rely a lot on the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations that are being permitted to operate in Burma, and the reports we are getting back from them is that international relief supplies transported by the Burmese military have been arriving in disaster areas. I don't think we have a way to independently verify that because we don't have troops on the ground or U.S. government personnel on the ground who would be in a position to see the aid that we fly into country actually being delivered to those who need it. But so far the initial reports are that it is getting to those who need it.
Q Different subject? MRAPs. Can you just describe what's being done to improve the survivability of MRAPs, given the recent cases of soldiers and military personnel who have died in the MRAPs? What -- is there an initiative under way to add any additional armor to the MRAPs?
MR. MORRELL: To improve the survivability of MRAPs -- I mean, MRAPs have already proven themselves to be the most survivable vehicle we have in our arsenal by a multitude.
For example -- and the secretary spoke of these numbers earlier this week -- but the casualty rate we have for MRAPs is 6 percent. So that factors in the number of attacks, the crew size, and those who suffer injuries or deaths in such an attack. Thus far, the casualty rate for MRAPs is 6 percent. Compare that to an Abrams tank, for example, which has a casualty rate of 15 percent, or an up-armored humvee which has a casualty rate of 22 percent.
So these are significantly safer than any other vehicle we have on the ground in Iraq or elsewhere in the world today. As for how we're making efforts to improve MRAPs, we are constantly looking at ways to stay one step ahead of an ever-adapting enemy. And so we have long looked at the possibility -- and continue to look at it -- of providing additional armor to these already heavily-fortified vehicles.
Q Would that additional armor be aimed at making them more survivable against these EFPs, the deadliest kind of IEDs in Iraq?
MR. MORRELL: Additional armor or other enhanced protections on an MRAP are designed to keep us, as I said, one step ahead of the enemy. So whatever they seek to deploy against our troops, we want to make sure we have the very best, the very latest protective gear to make sure that they are not injured in those attacks.
But as we have said time and time again about MRAPs and every other vehicle which we field, these are not failsafe. This is not a silver bullet against the threat posed by IEDs. But it is the very best we can offer our troops.
Q Just a clarification on the rates that you gave us. Obviously, casualty refers to both deaths and injuries. Some of those injuries could be even fairly minor injuries. Do you have any comparable statistics for the death rates in these vehicles, the number of people who haven't actually survived an attack, which I presume would be much lower than the casualties?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think we -- I mean, we've talked about this, I think. We've had more than 150 attacks, enemy attacks, on MRAPs. And seven occupants of MRAPs have been killed in enemy action in those 150 attacks.
Q The rates you gave for different vehicles -- is it possible to get those same rates for deaths in vehicles instead of casualties in vehicles?
MR. MORRELL: I don't think we're going to be -- I don't think we're going to be providing that at this point.
Yeah, Yoki (sp)?
Q Earlier this week Colonel McMaster said that al Qaeda in Iraq was on its way to defeat. Colonel Paschal, when he was describing a few days the situation in the north, had a similarly positive assessment of al Qaeda in Iraq being degraded in the Kirkuk area. Is there more confidence now within the Pentagon and senior leadership that al Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated, more confidence now than there was, say, a few months back?
MR. MORRELL: I don't think you're going to hear anybody at this podium or elsewhere in this building talking at this point about the defeat of al Qaeda. Clearly, their ability to conduct widespread terror within Iraq continues. We have seen some spectacular attacks recently; in fact, involving very young children, in fact, which shows their complete disregard for any sense of societal norms or morals.
But they have clearly been greatly degraded by our efforts throughout the country, and particularly lately in the north, in Mosul. We've been conducting operations there for months now and have captured and killed scores, if not hundreds, of al Qaeda leaders there. And so we feel as though there's been tremendous progress against al Qaeda in Iraq, but I don't believe anybody at this point is ready to declare their defeat or their extermination, but we are well on our way towards that ultimate goal.
Q Just to follow up quickly. When looking at the threats in Iraq, it's always talked about al Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni extremists on the one side, Shi'ite militias with ties to Iran on the other. Has the pendulum shifted now so that the view is that the Shi'ite militias, especially those tied to Iran, pose a clearer and greater threat than al Qaeda in Iraq?
MR. MORRELL: I think General Petraeus said that very thing when he testified before the Congress in April. He said just that, the greatest threat now to the government of Iraq, to the stability of that government, is the threat posed by the sort of extremist Shi'ite groups, the special groups that are financed and trained and whose weapons are provided by Iran. And that's what he believes at this point. I believe that's what many people in this building believe.
Q Geoff, in Pakistan the government is proceeding with the so- called peace deals with the militants. This week they released roughly 30 militants that they had had in a hostage exchange. And NATO has said that these peace deals are increasing violence in Afghanistan.
How concerned is the Pentagon about these peace deals and what can the U.S. do?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, we are clearly concerned about militant activity in the FATA. This is clearly an area that has long been a problem for the Pakistani government -- for the Afghan government, for that matter -- because there does not seem to be a great deal of ability to exert control over those who operate there.
It is our hope that any deals which are cut with militants operating in that area -- with tribes, I believe, is who it would be cut with in that area -- are enforceable. A deal is only worth something if it can be enforced if it is violated by those who are signees to it. So we are imploring the Pakistani government to make sure that any deals that they cut with militants, tribes, those operating in the FATA are enforceable such that if there are irreconcilables they are dealt with severely.
Q How can they make it enforceable? What do you suggest?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, these are things that the Pakistani government will have to determine. We are just encouraging them to make sure that it is a deal that is worth more than the paper it's written on.
Q Can I just follow quickly?
MR. MORRELL: Yes, you may.
Q Two questions. One is this one: Many deals were made in the past also by the General Musharraf's government that they never went through the military. Isn't the -- since the U.S. military is there, U.S. interest is there, you have never been consulted with this whole dimension of such deals with the terrorists because after NATO's presence there and it all depends on the militants and al Qaeda's presence there the winning or losing the war in Afghanistan?
Also, this morning at -- (inaudible) -- they had some discussion on that U.S. military power and the future of the U.S. military. You think the U.S. military's winning the war in Afghanistan and also if it's ready for another war somewhere in the world if it erupts?
MR. MORRELL: The question is are we winning the war in Afghanistan?
Q And the deals, if you are part of any deals, if they consult with you or not. Should they consult?
MR. MORRELL: Whatever deal may or may not be taking place between the government of Pakistan and tribes in the FATA are the business of the government of Pakistan. We are not a party to such deals.
With regards to whether or not we're winning the war in Afghanistan, the answer is yes.
Q There was a report today that the Pentagon is getting ready to find some sort of an MOU with Libya. Is that true? Do you have any idea of what that's all about?
MR. MORRELL: I have no knowledge of it. If it is the case, I have no knowledge of it as I stand before you here at 12:16.
Q Could you take the question?
MR. MORRELL: You can contact with me afterwards and I'll chat with you.
Q Geoff, if we could go back to Iran for a second, can you shed any light on how the secretary envisions increasing leverage on Iran? And is there any intention for DOD to have any pseudo- diplomatic engagement with Iran along the lines of what a combatant commander might do?
MR. MORRELL: The secretary and this administration have been working hard over the last several years to gain leverage, to build leverage over Iran diplomatically, economically, militarily.
There are multiple examples of this, whether it be the three U.N. security resolutions, it be the P-5 plus one talks, economic sanctions, or the threat, if necessary, of military action. So the secretary believes we should be continuing all of those pressures simultaneously and in an amplified way to make sure that Iran feels the pressure of remaining a destabilizing influence in the Middle East.
And so through those pressures, he hopes to gain the leverage to ultimately, at some point, have them say, "Enough; we're ready to talk about changing our ways." But the only incentive the secretary is speaking of is the prospect of relieving some of that pressure if the Iranians were to abandon their nuclear program and stop destabilizing the region.
Q But as you implied, the pressure so far hasn't had the intended results, so how does he intend to amplify?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, some of these things take time, Al. I mean, we are -- we have been and we will continue to keep the pressure on Iran, amplify, as I said, the pressure on Iran so that they do ultimately feel so much pressure that they are willing to change their ways. That is the focus of the administration's policy. It has not changed. It did not change when the secretary made his remarks yesterday.
I mean, after all, you've heard the secretary say it time and time again. He's been dealing with Iran for nearly 40 years, and over those four decades, he is still looking for the elusive Iranian moderate with whom we can deal rationally and constructively. You know, you heard him talk yesterday about the notion that he wrote a paper with Brzezinski in 2004 about the prospect of reaching out to the Iranians back then, but that was under the leadership of President Khatami, who at that time was leading a government whose role in Iraq was somewhat ambivalent. They were doing some things that were helpful and some things that were not so helpful.
Under the leadership of President Ahmadinejad, their role in Iraq and elsewhere is completely unambiguous. It is entirely unhelpful. And under that -- the leadership of Ahmadinejad, the secretary sees no prospect for government-to-government talks, negotiations, until such time that the Iranians feel such pressure from government-to- government talks, negotiations, until such time that the Iranians feel such pressure from the diplomatic, economic and military pressure we are putting them under that they want to change their ways.
And what he was speaking of in terms of more contact with the Iranians is on a peoples-to-peoples basis; that there should be more of a flow of private citizens from the U.S. to Iran. I think there are actually a large number of citizens who travel from Iran to the U.S. And that, by the way, is totally in keeping with the objectives of a State Department policy which has expanded access to our respective peoples through a cultural exchange.
So that is the objective, that is the policy of our government, to try to foster a better understanding between our two peoples at the private citizen level. He is in no way at this point advocating offering incentives to talk with the Iranians.
Q And no COCOM type of contact is planned?
MR. MORRELL: No. I mean, obviously there have been -- MNF-I has had some dealings with the government of Iraq and the government of Iran. I mean, those have been well publicized. And the DCM -- or the chief of mission there, Ambassador Crocker, his operation -- I think there have been seven ambassadorial talks, I think, two or three times with the Iranians, but within a very limited agenda dedicated entirely to matters that deal with what's going on in Iraq.
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, Mike.
Q Geoff, yesterday the CENTCOM chief, Dempsey, made a quick trip to Lebanon, kind of significant timing for what's going on over there. Can you talk a bit about what he did over there, if he had any messages or delivery of any aid or any agreements?
MR. MORRELL: You know, Mike, I have no readout as of yet on General Dempsey's trip to Beirut.
I can tell you, obviously, we have had a long-standing relationship with the Lebanese government, the Lebanese armed forces. We've provided them, I think, since September of '06, with $371 million in security assistance to their Lebanese armed forces and the internal security services.
So we've made a financial commitment to them. We've made -- and that commitment continues. And we have actually made an effort to accelerate the delivery of already confirmed, already committed equipment to them, so that they are capable of fulfilling the very difficult mission they have right now in Lebanon.
Q (Off mike) -- he was invited over? Or did he ask to come over for that trip?
MR. MORRELL: I doubt he dropped in unannounced, but I'm not privy to how the actual invitation was offered. I really do not know his agenda, Mike. He may have just been going to the embassy. He may have had engagements with the government.
I just don't know. And I think you could -- either CENTCOM or we could certainly probably get to the bottom of that for you. I just don't have it right now.
Q I wanted to ask about -- you're talking about the different pressures that are available for Secretary Gates, the U.S. government to employ, against Iran, to amplify. He's already talked about military assets in that region being a reminder.
So could we tie amplification to the moving of U.S. military assets, through that region, or any uptick in doing that?
MR. MORRELL: Are you asking me if we plan to have an increased show of force in the region?
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: Listen, I'm not going to get into our plans in terms of moving assets to send a message.
You know, the secretary has been very candid about the fact that some of the things we do can also have the added benefit of being a reminder, to the Iranians, of our position of strength in the region. But I'm not going to get into whether or not we have any plans to do any more of that in the near future.
Obviously we have 150-plus-thousand troops in a neighboring country. We have many more troops in the region. We have ships; we have planes. We have more than enough assets.
But that is not the course of action at this point. It is an option that remains on the table.
It is not the chosen course. We wish to engage them diplomatically, economically, before militarily, although clearly the mere presence of our forces in those numbers is a reminder to them of the capabilities which we have.
Q So he's not talking about encouraging military pressure on Iran?
MR. MORRELL: Well, we have extraordinary military pressure on Iran within the confines of Iraq right now. As they continue to meddle, as they continue to train, fund and supply Shi'ite extremist groups, these special groups within Iraq, we go after them relentlessly. And we have done so to great success recently, uncovering, you know, huge caches of weapons that we continue to find that are clearly being provided by the Iranians. And so --
Q But Geoff, it hasn't changed the equation.
MR. MORRELL: It hasn't changed the equation? Has the situation in Basra not improved, Jim? Have we not seen a dramatic improvement of the security situation in Basra?
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: Have we not now seen an improvement over the last couple days of the security situation in Sadr City? Have we not seen a dramatic difference in many areas in which these special groups had operated? It is an ongoing battle. It no doubt will require, you know, many weeks, if not months, of continued pursuit of these people. But to say there's been no progress is simply to miss the situation.
Q Well, it's the secretary who said that you don't have enough leverage now to deal with Iran.
MR. MORRELL: We are still seeking more leverage, absolutely.
Q Geoff, what role will General Petraeus's report, when that comes out, that chronicles some of these things, what will that play in putting that leverage on? And how big a role do you expect that to play in this --
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think -- I mean, the MNF-I report you refer to, in which we are able to document how the Iranians have been supplying, training and equipping, financing special groups within Iraq, has already been shared with the Iranian government.
I don't know what, if at all, difference that has had. Perhaps when the rest of the world sees it -- sees the extent to which they have been undermining a duly elected government and really wrecking havoc within that country, perhaps it will increase the international pressure on Iran to change its ways. That is a hope at this point, Donna. I don't know that anybody here is terribly optimistic that that will be the case, but we are certainly hoping that something will finally persuade the Iranians to change their ways.
Q Geoff, why does the rest of the world -- (off mike)?
MR. MORRELL: I would talk to MNF-I. It's not our report. It's theirs.
A couple more, then we've got to go.
Q Geoff, there's a discussion taking place at the highest level in the government right now about changing our representative in Tehran from the Swiss to possibly the Swedish or others as a way to pressure the Iranian government after the Swiss cut a $45 billion gas deal with the Iranian government. Would the secretary be in favor of switching our representation in Tehran as a way to amplify and pressure the government?
MR. MORRELL: I know of nothing -- I know nothing of which you speak. I have not discussed it with the secretary, so I don't know his opinion on the State Department's moves within Iran. However, as I said before, he is open, we are open to looking at all sorts of ways to increase the leverage which we have over Iran.
Q Geoff -- (off mike).
MR. MORRELL: Yeah. We had one back here. Yeah, go ahead.
Q Thank you, Geoff. Admiral Keating's visit to Myanmar earlier this week seems on the face of it to be an extraordinary event. It's the highest level contact between the U.S. and Myanmar that anybody can remember in recent years. Can you give us any insight as to what was behind that trip? Was the secretary involved in Keating's decision to go there?
MR. MORRELL: I think the secretary was probably -- certainly made aware of Admiral Keating's trip to Burma. I don't know that he was intimately involved with it. I mean, he is clearly fully in favor of, as you heard him last week, I think, or the week before, of us, you know, using any and all of our assets to try to provide some humanitarian relief to the poor people of Burma.
And in fact, he said here before you guys that it in fact would be a tragedy if the Burmese government were not to take advantage of the incredible generosity of the American people and the incredible capabilities of the U.S. military in providing relief to their storm- stricken people.
But beyond that, I'm not familiar with what he thinks of General Keating's mission. I think it was successful to the extent that it opened the door to at least limited numbers of aid flights into Burma.
We will not be completely satisfied obviously until we are able to get much more of the aid, which we have at our disposal, to the people who so desperately need it.
Courtney, is that you?
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: Don't have a question. You're just hitting your head.
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: This is going to be the last one.
Q I guess I'm just -- I'm still unclear on the secretary's comments yesterday. And truth be told, since the media weren't allowed in to the event, and I'm going off of reports --
MR. MORRELL: The transcript, I think, should be posted.
Q It wasn't last I checked. But --
MR. MORRELL: Okay. It will be posted but hasn't been already. It was being transcribed overnight so it should be up by now.
Q I just -- I don't understand why --
MR. MORRELL: And there were media in there obviously.
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: As a result, you saw a number of stories in different publications.
Q I'm just unclear why the secretary was talking about amplifying these initiatives with Iran that seem to be State Department-based. I mean, surely there were military --
MR. MORRELL: This is a U.S. government initiative.
The entire government is working, to try to bring pressure upon the government of Iran, in every which way that we can. As I said, diplomatically the State Department would have the lead there. Economically other entities within this government would deal with that and of course militarily.
But I should say this. When we go around the region, and the secretary sits down with leaders in the Middle East, he is not simply talking to them about military matters.
We discuss with them the need for them to exert greater financial pressures on the Iranian government, to sort of work within their banking systems to bring pressure on those -- on the Iranians and those who invest in Iran.
We talk to them about the need for greater diplomatic pressure and the need, particularly with regards to Iraq, for them to send representatives -- for neighboring Arab states to send representatives, ambassadors, to Baghdad so that the only people the Iraqi government are dealing with are not the Iranian representatives that are there right now. Right now there is just not enough Arab representation in Baghdad to counterbalance the very pronounced Iranian representation there.
So we and the Iraqis have been imploring Iraq's Arab neighbors to invest more, to send more people to Baghdad to become a part of the rebuilding of this nation and to make -- to ensure that Iraq is not a bridge, but instead a barrier, to Iranian influence in Iraq and throughout the region.
Q Can I ask you something totally unrelated? Last week the secretary was asked -- I think he was down in Texas or Mexico -- about the notion of awarding Purple Hearts for post-traumatic stress disorder for veterans. Has he -- he mentioned -- he said something like that's something that we'll consider. Has he made any decisions on that? Is it something he's looking into?
MR. MORRELL: You know, I don't think it's for the secretary to make a decision on. I think the question was broached to the secretary; he answered it as best he could. I think based upon the fact that he took the question, the department -- the organization within this department that would look at such a thing has begun to examine it.
I should point out they've looked at this before and they determined -- the had determined that it was not appropriate to make PTSD a qualification for a Purple Heart. But I can tell you that the department is exploring PTSD as a qualifying wound through the DOD Awards Advisory Group. There is no timetable at this point for them to produce a recommendation. But that's the status of it as of right now.
Thanks so much.
Q Thanks a lot, Geoff.
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