MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. Thanks for coming. I've a couple of brief scheduling updates or notices, a clarification, and then I'll be glad to take your questions.
First of all, as some of you have heard by now, Secretary Gates meets this afternoon with Iraqi Minister of Defense Bolani and then a little later with Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani. It will be their second meeting in as many days, as the secretary joined the prime minister during his lunch yesterday with President Bush.
Second, I understand the House Government Reform Committee is planning to hold a hearing tomorrow on what it calls deficient electrical systems at U.S. facilities in Iraq. We certainly understand and appreciate Congress's concern for the well-being of service members and other U.S. personnel deployed in Iraq, but there seems to be a misperception out there that our facilities in that theater are replete with electrical hazards that have caused hundreds of fires and multiple fatalities.
What's more, some seem to believe that this department and one of the Army's lead logistical support contractors are so negligent or callous that we have failed to address these dangers.
I am here to tell you that characterization is flat out wrong. We care far too much about our men and women in uniform, as evidenced by the tens of billions of dollars we spend on force protection equipment, to knowingly allow them to live or work in an unsafe environment. Our civilian and military leadership would simply not tolerate that.
That said, 16 of our troops have been killed in electrical accidents in Iraq since the war began. We grieve for each and every one of them. But it is wrong to suggest that all these deaths were the result of shoddy workmanship by Defense contractors or lack of oversight by the Pentagon.
In fact, half of those deaths, eight in all, occurred when troops operating outside the wire accidentally came in contact with live power lines -- a constant risk in Iraq, where low-lying electrical lines are often jerry-rigged from house to house, and our troops are driving through narrow streets in large vehicles. Three more troops were killed while working with electrical generators that were not properly grounded. One soldier was electrocuted in a pool once belonging to Saddam Hussein. The remaining four deaths do seem to stem from wiring problems, but only one of them involves work done by KBR, although the inspector general is still looking into all these incidents.
This is in no way an attempt to diminish these tragedies. Every one of them -- excuse me, even one of them is too many. But they should be viewed in proper context. Ten American troops have been electrocuted outside of Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002. Sadly, accidents happen everywhere, but especially in a war zone with hundreds of thousands of troops working at a high-op tempo.
Nevertheless, this is a serious issue and we have been treating it as such. There are several investigations under way, and every facility our troops operate out of in Iraq is undergoing a safety inspection. That's nearly 5,000 buildings in all.
Ultimately, the commander is responsible for health and safety of his forces, and General Petraeus has taken a number of significant steps to enhance their protection. He recently issued an order creating one uniform electrical code for all U.S. military facilities in Iraq. And he has appointed Major General Tim McHale as his chief safety officer.
General McHale's exclusive mission is to minimize the dangers posed to our troops in Iraq.
I hope that clears up any confusion out there about this issue in advance of tomorrow's hearing up on the Hill.
And with that, I'm happy to take your questions. Lita?
Q Geoff, on Pakistan, can you talk a little bit about efforts to get the Pakistanis to perhaps step up with army -- with their army and move them closer to the Afghanistan border and whether reports are correct that the Pakistanis have indeed said that they were going to move some army troops into the border regions?
MR. MORRELL: I think I'd let the Pakistanis speak for themselves as to how they're going to deploy their forces within their borders.
And as for conversations which we have with the "Paks" about our mutual concern, the militants, the extremists, the terrorists that operate within the border region -- those are ongoing. The secretary got a brief today, as he does each week, from our commanders in Afghanistan, and I think he heard from them that they continued to meet with their "Pak" counterparts in an effort to try to improve the situation, to try to maintain pressure within the border regions, to minimize the movement of militants across the border into Afghanistan, and -- which has resulted, unfortunately, in an increase in violence in Afghanistan.
Q Well, on -- as a follow-up, has the Pentagon been able to identify any units to send into Afghanistan as part of the effort to identify smaller units?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I mean, we talked about this a little bit last week, and I can tell you that since our conversation, the efforts to identify potential additional assets to go into Afghanistan to at least partially meet the needs of commanders there, the Afghan needs of commanders there, is ongoing. Progress is being made toward that end. But I don't have anything definitive to stand here before you today and relay.
All I can tell you is that effort continues, and there is -- and that we are -- we're working toward that end. But I don't have anything definitive yet.
Q Do you -- was a -- was al Qaeda's top poison and explosive expert killed in that Sunday strike in Pakistan?
MR. MORRELL: Jim, you know, we don't -- we don't talk about the strikes. I mean, I would talk -- I would tell you that, you know, we continue to work with the Paks, as I just relayed to you, on these issues of mutual concern. Terrorists in their midst would certainly be one of them.
We, of course, respect the sovereignty of Pakistan. But as the president said after 9/11, we will do whatever is necessary to protect the homeland from future attacks.
Q Setting aside who may have conducted a strike or whether there was a strike or not, do you believe that this al Qaeda leader was killed or has died in the last couple of days?
MR. MORRELL: I have no -- I have no opinion on that matter.
Q Geoff, I would like to ask you about the Israeli minister of Defense, Barak visit yesterday to the Pentagon.
MR. MORRELL: He did, yes, indeed.
Q Yeah. What can you say about his talks with Secretary Gates?
MR. MORRELL: Well, you know, Joe, Minister Barak and Secretary Gates have known each other for years. They've worked together in various capacities over their decades in government.
Yesterday was I think the third or so meeting that they have had in their current capacities. It was another in a series of meetings they have with some regularity. They met for about an hour, very small group. It was the chairman; Ambassador Edelman, the undersecretary of Defense for policy; on the Israeli side, joining Minister Barak was the Israeli ambassador to the United States as well as an Israeli general.
They talked -- their discussion was broad and reflected a shared strategic vision and common understanding of the threats to the Middle East and emanating from it. Secretary Gates assured Minister Barak that the Bush administration is prepared to explore additional defensive capabilities for Israel. The secretary also renewed our nation's commitment to Israel's qualitative edge. But all these discussions, whether they take place here at the Pentagon or between other members of this government and the Israelis, all take place within the context, against the backdrop, of the larger presidential initiative, the Roadmap for Peace.
And I think -- and always there is an effort made to try to encourage all the partners privy to that agreement to keep working to fulfill their obligations under it so that we can work towards expanding the circle of peace in the Middle East between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Q Did Prime Minister Gilani, during his visit so far --
MR. MORRELL: Can I -- I'll come back to Gilani. Let's just finish the Israeli line of questions. I'll come back.
Q After the meeting, Defense Minister Barak said he urged Gates to keep all options on the table with regard to Iran. Are Secretary Gates and Defense Minister Barak on the same page when it comes to Iran? What can you tell us about that part of the meeting?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into the specifics of the meeting. It was deliberately small to avoid readouts that are too detailed. So I can reiterate for you once again our position on Iran, which is uniform throughout this government, and that is that we continue to believe the best possible avenue to prevent and dissuade the Iranians from pursuing nuclear weapons is through economic and political pressure. That is what we are committed to. We have been and remain so.
However, a military option is always available to us. It's not our first choice. We are focused at this point on pursuing economic and political pressures as a means of preventing the Iranians from developing or pursuing a nuclear weapon.
Q Minister Barak seemed to be -- Israel seemed to be pushing the United States to take a slightly tougher or a tougher stand. Would you agree with that?
MR. MORRELL: I didn't hear Minister Barak. I wasn't in the meeting. So I don't know if he was encouraging a tougher stand. I think our position has been made abundantly clear to the citizens of this country, indeed the citizens of the world, for that matter. Israel I'm sure has heard it loud and clear in our public statements and in our private meetings, whether they be between the chairman and his counterpart in Tel Aviv not so long ago or between the secretary and Minister Barak yesterday.
I think the Israelis are keenly aware that we believe the best possible avenue of pursuing -- of dissuading, rather, the Iranians from pursuing a nuclear weapon is through economic and political pressures.
We certainly understand the Israelis view a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. They have made that abundantly clear to us, to the world. And we are working -- we are working diligently to try to prevent that from happening. But the way in which we are focusing our efforts is on diplomatic, economic, financial pressures.
Q Geoff, a follow-up on that. The Israelis said that Gates also -- or they also discussed the possibility of providing Israel with missile defense systems, including X-band -- an X-band -- fully deployed X-band radar, early warning launch data, countermeasures against short and -- short-range rockets and mortars.
Is that the case? And is that something that you're committed to doing?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think as I shared with you a moment ago, what we are committed to is exploring additional defensive capabilities for Israel. The specifics of those capabilities I'm just not going to talk about from the podium.
MR. MORRELL: Yeah.
Any more on Israel?
Q One more.
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, Jennifer.
Q Did the Defense minister give a sense that the Israelis are working on a slightly longer time horizon now with regards to Iran, thinking that it could be one to two years before they cross a certain line?
MR. MORRELL: Again, Jennifer, I'm sorry; I wasn't there. I don't know exactly what he communicated. I can just tell you that there was a broad strategic vision that was shared between the two leaders about the threats to the Middle East and emanating from it, and we reiterated our commitment to work to enhance Israel's defensive capabilities.
Q I have a related Israel-Iran question. You told Reuters, as reported in The Jerusalem Post recently, that it was the department's firm belief that Iran would not be receiving the SA-20 missile, otherwise known as the S-300, this year. I wanted you to square that with the DIA's public assessment that, A, they believe it will be close to acquiring that missile. In response to queries from reporters, they say it's their belief that Iran could get this missile and associated equipment by the end of the year.
MR. MORRELL: And your question is?
Q My question is, who's right here? The department firmly believes, according to you, that they're not going to be receiving these missiles this year. DIA suggests otherwise, that it's a possibility.
MR. MORRELL: Well, I find it's always safest to repeat what my boss has said on this matter, and he does not believe that the -- my boss being Secretary Gates -- does not believe -- he said -- I think his quote was on July the 9th that it is "highly unlikely" that the Iranians will have in their hands anytime soon the SA-20.
I think what DIA has relayed is that they will not have -- DIA believes that associated equipment deliveries could start by the end of the year. I think the secretary was talking about the capabilities of the SA-20 -- i.e., a deployable system -- versus what DIA was specifically speaking to, which is the possibility that associated equipment or parts could be delivered sooner, perhaps by year's end.
There's no question, Tony, that the Iranians are pursuing a ballistic missile system. They are hell-bent on acquiring one. So I don't think that should come as a surprise to anyone. There is, perhaps, an evolving understanding about the timeline by which they could acquire one.
A lot of this is -- a lot of this -- excuse me, Tony -- is based upon intelligence. And intelligence, as you know, is constantly evolving. We get bits and pieces each and every day that cause us to reevaluate and reassess the situation. And so it would not surprise me that there is -- that there may be changes in our assessment.
But I would refer you back to the secretary's remarks about it on July the 9th, when he said, based on upon what I know, "it's highly unlikely that those air defense missiles would be in Iranian hands any time soon." I think that's -- that's the operative statement for this department.
Q DIA said the associated equipment, though, is the missiles also. I think your point is that they may not have a deployable, operational system this year. Is that your point?
MR. MORRELL: My point is the secretary believes that they will not have missiles. His quote -- and I'd refer you back to it, Tony -- July 9th: "those air defense missiles," "it's highly unlikely would be in Iranian hands any time soon." So I'd refer you to the secretary's comments.
Okay, yeah. Joe.
This is the end of Israel, right?
Q One more question.
Israel has expressed its interest in acquiring the F-22. Was that part of the discussion yesterday? Has there been any progress on this issue?
MR. MORRELL: We don't talk publicly about offensive capabilities.
Yeah, go on.
Q Geoff, did Prime Minister Gilani give any kind of a status update on the logic of the peace deals in Pakistan and why Pakistan believes that this time around they won't just end up creating safe havens for the militants?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I had the luxury of the fact that they haven't met yet, so I can't tell you what he's said to him or not said to him, and I wasn't privy to the president's meeting with him. I think the president has had some public remarks, as well as Prime Minister Gilani, afterwards, in which it was encouraging to see that Prime Minister Gilani reiterated his government's commitment to fight extremists and terrorists in Pakistan, who are making -- as he put it, making the world not safe. I noticed that he acknowledged that they are a threat to Pakistan too, and citing Prime Minister -- former Prime Minister Bhutto's assassination, and he went on to call this "our own war."
So he assured Americans that the majority of Pakistanis want to cooperate in this effort, and I think all those statements are encouraging.
But ultimately, Dmitri, actions speak louder than words, and so we are very encouraging of the Pakistani government to do as much as they possibly can to diminish the threat posed by militants, by terrorists, who are operating rather freely within the FATA and the other North-West provincial areas, so that they no longer pose a threat to our troops in Afghanistan, to the world and certainly to the government of Pakistan.
Q These discussions and negotiations have been ongoing now for almost nine months, on a kind of ad hoc basis. Are you more or less convinced, nine months in, that they're going to have positive effect or a negative effect?
MR. MORRELL: That the peace talks would?
Q That the peace negotiations -- (off mike) --
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think it's -- I think it would be a mistake, Dmitri, as far as I understand the situation, to view the Pakistani approach as strictly one of negotiation, because if you look at the situation of the past several weeks -- indeed, months -- there has been an uptick in Pakistani military operations within the border area. Is it enough? Is it enough to stem the flow of foreign fighters that continue to traverse the border into Afghanistan?
Obviously not, and therefore we have called on them to do even more.
They seen to believe that negotiations with tribal leaders, in the FATA and elsewhere, is worthwhile. We have said, from this podium and elsewhere, that that is an option that is worth pursuing, provided that these deals are enforceable, and that there is a constant military presence within the FATA going after terrorists, so that no safe havens can develop there.
So I don't think that we've rendered judgment on the -- I don't think we've assessed the negotiations to be futile. We just are urging the Pakistanis to combine them with consistent military operations, to enforce whatever deals they negotiate there.
But ultimately as I said, the words have been encouraging. But the deeds are what ultimately we will measure. And that is what we continue to work with them on.
Q Do you want the Pakistanis to do more and as much as they can, to try to diminish the threat from across the border? Are there concrete steps, that you can point to that, the Pentagon believes, the Pakistani government is capable of taking at the moment?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think, in a general sense, I would say this. And I think the secretary has said it to you before. The mere presence of Pakistani troops in the border region is, we have noticed, has helped on the Afghan side of the border, even if they are not actively engaged in aggressive offensive military operations.
The mere presence of large numbers of Pakistani troops seems to stem the flow, the free flow of fighters, within the FATA and across the border into Afghanistan. And that is helpful. But obviously we would like for the Pakistanis to be as aggressive as they can be.
Now, we are mindful of the fact that this is a delicate situation for them. It's a relatively new government who is facing, which is facing a huge challenge, not just to its sovereignty from these terrorists within its midst but also huge economic challenges: rampant inflation particularly on food and fuel, budget deficits that are skyrocketing.
So we are keenly aware of the additional pressures that are on that government and are working with them to try to alleviate them.
One of the ways we can be helpful and are trying to be helpful and need to do a better job of is by expediting the processing of coalition support funds. You know, this is reimbursement from the U.S. to the Pakistani military for operations they conduct on our behalf against mutual threats in their territory. And those payments are taking -- those reimbursements are taking an awful long time to get back to the Pakistani government.
And they are in the financial situation right now such that they do not have a lot of ability to float us for future operations while they await repayment for previous ones. So this is something that they have shared with us, that we are working to fix, but those are a few of the things that we're both working on together.
Q Is there a concern that the civilian government is too distracted by domestic affairs, including the economy, to really give the tribal areas and problems in the Northwest Frontier Province full attention, or the attention that's necessary?
MR. MORRELL: I don't know how a government could be “distracted” by rampant inflation and runaway budget deficits. Those are obviously something that -- those are obviously things that any government should be focused on. However, all governments must do multiple things at once. And if there is a threat to their sovereignty, to the government itself, as we believe there is from terrorists within the FATA, within the border region, that obviously has to be addressed simultaneously.
And the Pakistanis are aware of that. They saw the assassination of Prime Minister Bhutto. They're well aware of the terrorist networks that exist in those areas. And they are -- and they give us every indication that they are determined to root them out with us.
Q With our support.
Q Geoff, what --
MR. MORRELL: Yes.
Q What exactly did the U.S. get in terms of agreeing to this upgrade of the F-16s? Why was there a change of thinking on doing that, when the F-16s largely are not viewed as for the counterterrorism fight and are more part of the defense with regards to India?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into where we are in terms of -- Pakistan's desire for us to assist them in upgrading their F-16s. I will take issue, though, with your point that the F-16s are sort of only -- their only utility is in a potential war with India or another outside adversary. In fact, they would have great utility in counterterrorism as well. They could be used for close air support. So I'm not willing to accept the premise to the question, but I don't want to get into the particulars of it.
Q How often have they been used in the last couple of years for counterterror missions in the tribal areas?
MR. MORRELL: You might talk to the Pakistanis.
Q Geoff, as far as the Pakistan-Afghanistan issue is concerned, now FATA is more in the news than Afghanistan, and Secretary Gates has met many times officials and the leader and he has traveled there. Now, as far as their meeting is concerned, do you think he will have more a kind of warning for the Pakistanis to have Osama bin Laden or other high top officials or al Qaeda also in FATA area than in the past, or maybe they will have more harsh words for him?
Or -- I mean what I'm asking you is that we -- the U.S. got Saddam Hussein in a moment of time, but seven years now we're still waiting for Osama bin Laden and somebody, somewhere must be knowing where he is and what he's doing. Somebody must be helping him out.
MR. MORRELL: So you want to know if Secretary Gates is going to tell Prime Minister Gilani to hand over Osama bin Laden? Is that the question?
Q Yes, sir. More, I mean, where is Osama bin Laden?
MR. MORRELL: That's the question we'd all -- we'd all -- we would all like to know that. And I believe that the secretary would tell you that he believes that if Prime Minister Gilani or anybody in the Pakistani government knew where Osama bin Laden was, they would share that information with us. They want him as badly as we want him.
We will get him; it's a question of when. But don't mistake the fact that he remains at large with a lack of will to find him or the determination to find him. He will be found. And it's worth remembering, though, that, you know, if he is somewhere, he's sitting in a cave somewhere and has been enormously incapacitated by the war on terror that has been waged since his -- since his attack on this country seven years ago.
Q May I have one on India, please? As far as military-to- military is concerned, there have been a spate of bombings throughout India last week and this week. If anybody is in talks as far as terrorism in India or any supporting point of view from the U.S.?
MR. MORRELL: I am not aware of any conversations of that nature, but I'm sure that at some level somewhere they are taking place. We are partners in the war on terror, India and the U.S. And we of course, if India is a victim of terror, that is something we are concerned about and would always work with them to try to alleviate that threat. But I'm not aware of any specific conversations within this building.
Q Last time -- at the last press conference I asked about the 15th MEU, and you're talking about the instability in the neighborhood. Can I take away from that that the CENTCOM commander has decided that he can't assign the 15th MEU to Afghanistan because they may be needed elsewhere?
MR. MORRELL: That kind of deductive reasoning won't work in this case. I was just raising the notion that there are -- the whole point of a strategic reserve is that it is there in the -- in the event that it be needed for a future emergency that is perhaps unforeseen.
And therefore I think commanders -- the CENTCOM commander-- would inherently be reluctant to deploy it if he didn't have to, not knowing what could be around the corner that he may have to respond to. But I wouldn't read into it beyond that.
Q Well, sure, but it seems like you have two competing priorities here. That's kind of confusing. Officials have talked about the immediate need for troops in Afghanistan, that you're trying to look at sooner rather than later. You also have 2,200 Marines right now in the CENTCOM AOR who aren't in combat. Yet -- and you say the CENTCOM commander might be hesitant to commit them because they might be needed elsewhere. Wouldn't it be logical that if you need troops in Afghanistan, that these Marines would be the ones you'd commit?
MR. MORRELL: You know, Jeff, the beauty of this building is there are very smart people who are employed as military planners, who make those kinds of calculations on a day-in and day-out basis. I am not among them.
But I would sit here and try to deduce that one of the concerns would be the unforeseen. As much as they are needed in Afghanistan, and we are working to get additional forces to Afghanistan as soon as possible, the reality is that this is, as I said, an unstable part of the world, in which threats could emerge at a moment's notice.
If we were to commit these resources to Afghanistan now, we would be hamstrung in responding to future threats. And I'm reluctant to even go through the possibilities with you from up here, for fear of causing a story unto itself. But you can imagine what the other possible contingencies are that you need to be prepared for in that region.
So I would say we are working towards getting the commanders in Afghanistan the troops they need as soon as possible. But the situation is not so desperately urgent at this point that it requires us rushing the strategic reserve for Central Command into Afghanistan at this very moment. As I said to you last week, though the situation is serious and the commanders need additional troops, there is not the sense in this building among military planners, among the civilian leadership, that the situation is desperate, precarious or urgent. It is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed.
There are pockets of problems. There's still evidence of progress in other areas. And we are working to address this situation, as soon as possible, without putting ourselves at additional risk elsewhere in the world.
Okay. On this, or where are we going?
Let me go back -- (off mike) -- and I'll come back to you.
Q Geoff, there’s a May directive from Undersecretary Dominguez that appears to state, appears to allow DOD to take back bonuses for those not wounded directly in combat but are subsequently processed out of the military. The directive states that in all other cases, that is non-combat injuries. The Secretary concerned can determine whether to require repayment of the unearned portion of pay or the balance of the pay or benefits. What's the rationale behind that?
MR. MORRELL: I have no idea. Doesn't sound right to me, but it's the first I've heard of it. I've got to take another look at it.
Q May 21st directive.
MR. MORRELL: If you could share it with me, that would be great. Thanks.
Q Back on Jeff's point, it's not unprecedented for the strategic reserve to be sent in to one of the combat zones. They've been sent into Iraq, when there was a need.
I mean, wouldn't it make sense? As Jeff was saying, there's 2,200 Marines that are sitting there. We're in the middle of the fighting season in Afghanistan. Now is the time to get them in there.
What other possible threats could be more pressing than getting those Marines into Afghanistan? For the second month in a row, troop deaths are up in Afghanistan. They're down in Iraq.
I mean, besides Iraq, what other possible area would you deploy them to, when they're sitting in Kuwait right now?
MR. MORRELL: This is leading me down a path which I don't think I want to go down, because I don't want to have to raise hypotheticals from here as to what the MEU could be used for, what the strategic reserve could be used for.
I guess what I would say to you is that there have been instances in the past where we have deployed the strategic reserve in theater, in Iraq, where the judgment at the time was that they were most urgently needed there.
What I am suggesting to you now is that despite all, despite the line of questioning which I continue to get when I'm up here, about sort of the precarious nature of things, the urgency of additional troops in Afghanistan, the situation is not so desperate or urgent that the commanders believe, at this point, it is wise to send the strategic reserve, that MEU into Afghanistan to bolster fighting forces there.
So I guess what the bottom line is, is that yes, there are problems in Afghanistan. There are pockets of problems that we are concerned about, and we are determined to get the commanders the troops they need to address them.
But the situation is not precarious. It is not urgent. The sky is not falling in Afghanistan, and we will get the troops there as fast as we can without exposing ourselves to greater risk in a rather -- in a very volatile part of the world.
The commanders at this point want to keep the strategic reserve on the sidelines, ready to deploy to any future contingency, should they be -- should they come up.
Q Geoff, there have been a couple of resignations this week, including, I think, with the Air Force acquisitions, and citing concerns about not having what he needs to do his job the way he thinks it should be done. Has there been a reaction from Secretary Gates to these resignations?
MR. MORRELL: I have not heard any reaction from the secretary to the resignations. I've seen some of the reports. I've seen a letter that was written by one of them. But frankly, when I read this letter from Mr. Anderson, it was the first I'd ever heard of Mr. Anderson, and I'm -- and I strongly doubt that he had any interaction with the secretary such that the secretary would have a reaction to it.
Q But are you concerned at all that the secretary's policies may be driving good people out of government?
MR. MORRELL: Not at all. I think the secretary's policies are encouraging to all the good people who work within this building. It gives them the strength and resolve to carry on and fight the good fight and know that there is somebody at the helm who is committed to accountability and making sure that our warfighters on the front lines today have every possible resource we can provide to them. As he has said time and time again, he will not be satisfied until he can look the commander in the eye and say, "You have everything I can possibly give you." And that is what has driven him to address the situation at Walter Reed. It's what's driven him to address the situation with MRAPs, with ISR, you name it. The bottom line is, the warfighter is what the secretary is working for, is who the secretary is working for.
And I think that that is enormously gratifying to the vast majority of the people who work in this building.
Q Just one more on Pakistan, the F-16 issue.
MR. MORRELL: Yes, Tony?
Q Is it your understanding that the Pak officials are very intent on Congress approving this shift of dollars? Do you have a feel for just how (off mike) is?
MR. MORRELL: I don't. I can just tell you this: I think the Pakistanis have historically been very interested in upgrade -- in this mid-life upgrade to their F-16s. That's what I know.
Q Traditionally, though, this thing was going to be paid for with Pak money. They're asking the U.S. to pay a quarter of a billion dollars. That's the issue, not that the system's not good. I'm just asking you, do you get a feel that they want the United States government to pay for these upgrades?
MR. MORRELL: I don't have a feel for that, but it doesn't mean it's not the case. I just don't have a feel for it.
Q Geoff, do you have any update on the issue of media access to funerals at Arlington? And has OSD weighed in at all with the Army on this issue?
MR. MORRELL: I know the Army is working on this. I know that Secretary Geren personally is working on this. He, I believe, has convened -- I'm going to let the Army really speak to the specifics, but I think he's convened some of his staff and tasked them with trying to figure out if indeed we are striking the right balance between our first commitment, which is to the privacy and the desires of grieving families, and our secondary commitment, which is providing press access to those funerals. And it's a balancing act, and it's based upon the wishes of the family. And we're trying to work out a system which allows for the grieving families to have the privacy and the room that they need, and the press to have the access that they wish for.
Q Has OSD weighed in on the issue?
MR. MORRELL: I don't think -- I can tell you this. When the first articles came up raising concerns about this over the last couple months, the secretary read them and wanted to know more about what exactly is the policy. His staff prepared for him an informational memo, which basically said to him that there had not been a change in policy and that the policy worked towards the balance which I just described to you.
But I think since then, Secretary Geren has also taken an interest in this issue and is trying to see if we can do more, if the Army can do more to try to make both sides happy in this equation, always being mindful of the fact that Arlington is the most sacred of burial grounds. And we need -- we have a great responsibility, not just to the families of the dead, who are burying a loved on there, but also to our thousands of heroes, who are buried there. So we've got to keep a very reverential, solemn, dignified atmosphere as we work to try to create ways for greater access to the press.
Q At the very beginning of the briefing, you spent quite a bit of time putting into context or perspective the situation with the contracts and the electrical problems.
We just had a report, from the special inspector general for Iraq Reconstruction, on a number of projects in Iraq that were unfinished; millions of dollars that were wasted, projects that were never completed or might not even have been needed. We're going to be getting another report, I think, tomorrow from the same office.
Can you offer any perspective on -- to people who see these reports and believe that we're wasting millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in Iraq, on things --
MR. MORRELL: Well, the first thing I would do is put that -- I would put that report in perspective by making the fundamental bottom- line assessment, which is that it presented nothing new. It was a compilation of previous reports, a report on its reports.
Nonetheless we appreciate it because, I think, one of the things it tried to do is identify sort of key, recurring management issues. And we take the work of SIGIR and we take it seriously. We value it. We try to learn from it and build from it. And we will do so with this report as well. But there fundamentally was nothing new in this report.
But I would, I think, Ambassador Crocker had it best when he responded to this, I think, yesterday when he said, you know, he reminded people, the security situation has up until very recently been extremely fluid in Iraq, creating a very difficult atmosphere in which to undergo, undertake rebuilding projects.
These things, due to security, happen in fits and starts. And some have progressed better than others.
It's not an excuse, it's a reality. And hopefully, as the security situation continues to progress in Iraq and -- I know I shared with you last week some of the advances in a rather passionate response to one of the questions. But I'd note -- and I went back and looked at some of the things that have happened even since I last spoke to you.
Last Friday, for example, there were no attacks on civilians and only five casualties overall. It was the lowest daily casualty total on record. Seventeen hundred police officers graduated from Baghdad police college on the 21st of this month. That's the largest graduating class so far. In Basra we're starting to see religious leaders -- posters of religious leaders being replaced with advertisements for consumer goods. In Mosul, once-vacant areas are -- we're now seeing shops and businesses open up.
And this is all taking place, mind you, after all five surge brigades are out, the two Marine battalions, the MEU and an Australian battle group. And yet we continue to see these consistent and strong steps towards a more secure, stable environment in Iraq, and additionally the release of thousands of detainees.
So, progress continues, but obviously, as it continues, hopefully it will create a climate in which more of these reconstruction projects can take place on pace, on budget, so that the taxpayers get their money's worth out of these projects.
Q So when you look at the situation with construction projects and you look at the factors, whether they're a contractor performing the way they promised or whether there's sufficient government oversight, or you take the security situation that they're working in, do you think the security situation is the big factor in why some of these projects haven't turned out the way --
MR. MORRELL: No, I am sure, Jamie, I am sure that there was -- that there are cases in which contractors simply did not do the job they were contracted to do. But I am saying to you that the larger reason that applies to far more of these instances than that is that the security situation has been so volatile that some of these contracts have simply been too dangerous to probably complete in the time allotted and in the manner prescribed.
And that's not acceptable. We will work to fixing that. But I think more often than not it's the security and not malfeasance on the part of a contractor that's at issue here.
Q Geoff, can you comment on --
MR. MORRELL: Let's take two more and then I got to go.
Q Can you comment on this new operation in Diyala that is supposedly Iraqi-led? What's the purpose of it? What percentage of U.S. troops are involved versus Iraqi?
MR. MORRELL: You know, I don't -- again, this is an operational matter. I'd refer you to MNF-I.
I can tell you in general terms that this is the continuation of efforts that really began with the Basra offensive several months ago. You've seen the Iraqi security forces increasingly capable and going after special groups, going after al Qaeda, whether it be from Basra to Sadr City to Mosul to Maysan province. This is part of that ongoing effort to reclaim the entire country and rid it of terrorists and others who wish to undermine the central government.
But in terms of -- I think this is another instance in which the Iraqi security forces are in the lead, as they have been really since the Basra operation. But as for sort of the tactical components of it, I'd refer you over to MNF-I.
Last one, yeah.
Q Geoff -- (off mike) -- real indication of progress is the lowering of U.S. casualties? There was a news report today saying that thus far in July, casualties have been the lowest in months and months. Can you confirm that?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, we are at -- this is the 29th of July, and this is not the metric by which we measure success. But it is stunning nonetheless there remain four U.S. KIA in Iraq so far this month, the same number I reported to you when I spoke to you last week. But as heartening as that is, it is not the metric by which we measure success. But it is certainly an encouraging sign.
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