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DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
September 30, 2008
            MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. Thanks for coming. I have once again nothing specifically to talk with you about today.   
 
            (Laughter, cross talk.)   
 
            MR. MORRELL: Nothing specifically to talk to you about, not nothing to say.   
 
            I can --  
 
            (Cross talk.)   
 
            I can fill a half an hour easily, so let's get right to it.   
 
            Lita.   
 
            Q     Geoff, are there any meetings or any discussions ongoing right now about whether or not more can be done to secure the waterways where the piracy is occurring? Because there's been some concerns expressed by some of the shipping companies about the lack of security there. And I know they are typically involved in -- with some initial talks a while ago.   
 
            Has this been reinvigorated of late, particularly, considering the type of cargo in this latest incident?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, it's, it's a matter of real concern. And we have seen a dramatic increase in piratic activity -- (laughter) -- Barbara Starr's favorite term. No. We have seen a dramatic increase in piracy in this area. And it is a matter of real concern.   
 
            You know, the Fifth Fleet is there in force, particularly, dealing with the vessel in question, the Faina, which has the cargo that is of real concern to us right now. And they have several ships on site with constant contact  with the Faina and are closely monitoring the situation. But in terms of the bigger picture of increasing piracy and the problem that poses to commercial shipping in that area, it is a problem.   
 
            It is one, I can tell you, the Fifth Fleet has been, has been concerned about, working on, addressing. But I don't have any specifics for you about how they are increasing -- anything new they have devised to increase security in that particular area.   
 
            Q     But I guess the question is, has this risen to higher levels here at the Pentagon as a discussion point? (Inaudible) -- perhaps there are other ways or other means to do this or other, you know, work with allies or whatever.   
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah.   
 
            Lita, my sense of it is that this is a persistent problem although an increasing one that has indeed drawn the attention of high-ranking people within this building.   
 
            If you're asking me if the secretary of Defense is, is dealing with this particular situation, not to my knowledge. But this is a problem. And suffice it to say that it is one that's being worked on by people in this building and people in Bahrain.   
 
            Q     Is the U.S. military considering taking any action to actually liberate this hijacked ship?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: Jim, you know, I would be very hesitant to talk about prospective military operations. That wouldn't be wise to do from here or from anywhere else for that matter. But we clearly have a number of Navy vessels, warships if you will, in the vicinity, which have enormous capabilities on them.   
 
            But at this point what we are most concerned about is seeing a peaceful solution to this problem.   
 
            I mean, first and foremost, the concern is that this is another incident of piracy. And I think there are two additional ships that have been taken within that vicinity as well. So you've got three ships that have been captured by pirates in this area. That is -- that is cause for concern. 
 
            Additionally, this particular vessel, the Faina, has on it a number of Russian tanks and ammo and RPGs and anti-aircraft weapons that raise this to yet another level of concern. 
 
            Q     Where do you think that cargo was intended to go? And is that -- is the intended destination a concern? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I think the intended destination is less a concern than seeing this, at least in the near term, come to a peaceful solution -- a peaceful resolution.   
 
            We take -- and have no reason not to take -- the president of Kenya at his word when he expressed to the president of the United States yesterday that this shipment was bound for his government, which is a peaceful government with legitimate self-defense needs. And so we have no reason to believe that this cargo was not destined to government of Kenya as their president suggests. 
 
            But obviously, what we're concerned about now it's not in the control of those people who intended to deliver it to the government of Kenya. It's now in the control of pirates, to whom we do not know they will sell this material. And that's what's of concern now. Will it end up in the hands of responsible -- of a responsible entity, such as the government of Kenya, who would deal with it appropriately or will it end up in the hands of terrorists? And that's why we have a number of ships on-site to ensure that this does not end up in the wrong hands. 
 
            Q     There were reports this morning that there might have been an exchange of gunfire among the pirates themselves on the ship. Do you have any information that would corroborate those accounts? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I don't. 
 
            Yeah, Jeff. 
 
            Q     A couple of -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Are we still on pirates? 
 
            Q     No. Why? Can we go on? 
 
            Q     (Off mike.) 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Okay -- (name inaudible.) 
 
            Q     Yes, is the -- is the Navy in any way involved in negotiations with the people who are holding the ship? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: No. 
 
            Q     Is anybody? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I presume someone is. I'm not privy to the negotiation, so I can't tell you the characters who are involved. 
 
            I mean, this is Russian-supplied cargo. I think it was a Ukrainian ship or a contract. I think it may be a Belize flag ship. So there are a number of entities who could be involved, but the United States Navy -- the United States government, to my knowledge, is not involved in any of the negotiations.   
 
            Q     (Off mike) -- demanding something like $20 million. Would the U.S. government have a problem with a ransom being paid?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, I'm -- listen, I'm not going to get into what we would or would not have a problem with. Obviously we do not believe in paying terrorists. I don't believe we believe in paying pirates. The bottom line is, that's not our initial concern here. Our concern is right now making sure that there's a peaceful resolution to this, that this cargo does not end up in the hands of anyone who would use it in a way that would be destabilizing to the region, and we have committed significant resources to make sure that those two objectives are met.   
 
            Yes? Dave. 
 
            Q     The Russians are apparently sending a ship to -- (inaudible). And I wondered if there have been discussions with the Russians about what their role in this would be. And do you welcome their participation and need it? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I think -- my understanding, Dave, is it will take several days for the Russian naval ship that is heading that way to arrive. We already have several U.S. naval vessels on scene, which have sort of contained, if you will, the vessel in question. So I think from a resources standpoint we have what is necessary to deal with the situation at hand. But this involves Russian cargo, as I understand it, so I don't think we have a particular issue with the Russians coming on the scene as well. And we will obviously work hard to coordinate, once they are on-scene, our actions so that we are not conflicted in any way. 
 
            Yes?   
 
            Q     Can you talk a little bit about the capability of -- (off mike)? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I can't. (Inaudible) -- could tell you in detail, you know, which of their ships are there and what they're capable of. But I don't have that --  
 
            Q     Are there Marines on board? Are there special operations forces on board? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Don't know.   
 
            Yes?   
 
            Q     Geoff, typically when pirates hold a ship, they often have resupply dhows that come out and bring food or ammo or whatever. Have any of these started coming out to this particular ship? And has the U.S. fired on any of these ships?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: My understanding is that there have been resupply runs taken from the ship. And they have not been fired upon. They have been permitted for humanitarian reasons to resupply the ship. After all, there is a crew on board that ship of approximately 20 people who are being held hostage. But I will break it down for you like this, Mike. We have not seen any T-72 tanks being off-loaded on skiffs from that ship.   
 
            Q     What I'm talking about are from the Somali coast to the pirated ship. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah. I think these resupply vessels are so diminutive in size that they are not of concern to us in terms of what they are bringing on board.   
 
            Yeah, go ahead.   
 
            Q     Who do you think is responsible for -- (inaudible word) -- securing the shipment? Is it Ukraine or Kenya? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: It was not -- the ship was taken over by pirates. Who is responsible for allowing the pirates to board that ship and gain control of it? I don't know. I mean, that will have to be something that's for an after-action report by someone. That's not our concern. The concern is right now it has happened and it is a precarious situation that requires our attention, and that's what we're focused on right now. 
 
            But the larger issue of piracy in the region is an additional matter which, as I explained to Lita -- and I would urge you to follow up with the Fifth Fleet, because I bet you they have an active campaign to try to -- to try to make those waters there more secure -- is an ongoing problem. 
 
            Yeah, Ken. 
 
            Q     Does the government of Kenya have a history of buying sophisticated arms from Russia or Ukraine or did this come as a surprise to us, that they were -- 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Frankly, Ken, I don't know. I don't know the government of Kenya's buying history. You know, we know them as a government that is obviously in good enough standing that they can meet with the president of the United States yesterday, so I don't know that we have an issue with anything they may wish to purchase for legitimate self-defense reasons, but I don't have any insight into what they've purchased in the past. 
 
            Q     Why would the government of Kenya need T-72s? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I think that's a good question to address to them. 
 
            Yeah, Justin. 
 
            Q     In terms of addressing this problem in the long-term, is there any consideration being given to tackling this onshore? I mean, the pirates are coming from Somalia. They're coming from onshore. (Off mike) -- any consideration taking care of this problem there? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, obviously we have in Djibouti an active U.S. military presence in the Horn of Africa to deal with a growing terrorist presence in that region. So we are clearly concerned about terrorists in the Horn of Africa and the continent at large. So there is, you know, an active engagement there to try to reduce or defeat that threat. But I'm not aware of any U.S. military on-land, onshore program to try to eliminate piracy before it begins. 
 
            Q     Perhaps AFRICOM may be addressing this? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, AFRICOM to the extent -- and I should note that it will become operational tomorrow with the stand-up ceremony here at the Pentagon, so I urge you all to attend. But I think AFRICOM's -- you know, AFRICOM's role in this would not be a military one. That's not the purpose of AFRICOM. They're not there to defeat -- to become involved in active military operations. They are to work with our partner nations on the continent, try to enhance their capabilities to deal with the threats that are in their midst. 
 
            And what's unusual about this command is that it's a real effort across the interagency to try to bring all resources of the U.S. government, all the talents of the U.S. government to work in coordination to help some 54 nations on the continent be better able to do for themselves. 
 
            So the deputy commander, for example, under General Ward, is a career diplomat. There are members of USAID and Agriculture and other components of the government who also have staff positions in this command. So it's not your traditional military geographic combatant command. So I wouldn't presume that by the stand-up of AFRICOM, that all of a sudden you're going to see a more -- some sort of active U.S. military on-the-ground effort to go after pirates. That's not the point of this command. 
 
            Okay, I think we've exhausted that.   
 
            Jeff Schogol. 
 
            Q     Has the secretary taken any action on the recommendations from the Schlesinger report? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Frankly, Jeff, I was -- not to my knowledge. I think the actions of the Schlesinger report -- and I would be happy to go back and look at it further for you -- was that these were things that are primarily directed at the Air Force to do. And so I would have to check with them and I'd urge you to check with them to see which of the Schlesinger panel's recommendations they have embraced and are beginning to employ. But I'm not aware of any specific action the secretary has taken since that report was unveiled to you all. 
 
            Q     If possible -- I think one of the steps the SECDEF was considering was whether to re-task Space Command to have full control over the nuclear missile mission; and if possible, if we could get some kind of update on that. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: My guess is, Jeff -- and it's strictly a guess, and I will go back and ask the question -- that would be a pretty radical restructuring of how we handle our strategic weapons. And so I think that it's probably not something that the secretary's going to undertake in his remaining three, four months on the job. That would likely be something that he would want his successor to deal with. But I will certainly check for you. 
 
            Q     (You realize you ?) just made news. You said Secretary Gates is not expected to make a decision on restructuring the nuclear program before he leaves office. Did I hear right? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: That's my understanding, Jeff, but I will go back and double-check for you. It's not unusual that we will make news at the podium, but yes, I think that's what I did say.  
 
            Q     (Off mike) -- he's not going to work in the next administration. (Off mike.)  
 
            MR. MORRELL: He -- his term expires on January the 20th, like a lot of us here in the building. 
 
            Q     Is he now ruling out staying on after January 20th?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: No matter how many times we try to ask this question, the answer won't be that different. Fundamentally he says the same thing every time. The circumstances under which he will stay on are inconceivable to him. But he learned long ago never to say never. And I think that's still operative today.   
 
            Despite your last attempt in Baghdad and your most recent attempt, it is what it is. And --  
 
            Q     So never say never is the --  
 
            MR. MORRELL: Never say never. Never say never.    
 
            Yes, Jim.   
 
            Q     Can I ask you about the deployment of the X-band radar to Israel?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: Sure.   
 
            Q     (Inaudible.) There had been plans to deploy it a year from now for an exercise. And I was wondering why -- what's changed that has made it necessary to deploy it a year ahead of time?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: Without getting into whether or not that was the original plan, because frankly I don't recall whether, whether we're a year ahead of time or not. But the bottom line is and we all, we've talked about this at length.   
 
            There is a growing ballistic missile threat in the region, particularly, from Iran. And no one in the region should feel more nervous about that threat than the Israelis. And they clearly do and they have asked for our assistance. And we have now provided it in the form of this, this X-band radar equipment that we have now deployed in Israel with, I don't know, I would think, roughly 120 U.S. personnel on site, I think, at least initially to get it up and running.   
 
            I think it requires less than that to actually sustain its operation. But we are committed to the Israelis, to Israel's defense. And this is another sign of that commitment.   
 
            This will enable the Israelis to track medium-and-long-range ballistic missiles multiple times better than their current radar allows them to. So it greatly enhances their self defense. And we are, if nothing else, committed to the Israelis, Israel's defense.   
 
            Q     Are there plans to put any other X-band radars in that region, in other countries?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, I don't know that there are. But frankly I wouldn't talk about it if I did know.   
 
            I mean, this obviously we didn't, we didn't acknowledge publicly until the secretary had signed the deployment order late last week. And now that it is official and it is, it is about to be operational, we're speaking to you about another effort of ours to enhance Israel's defenses.   
 
            Yeah, Luis.   
 
            Q     Geoff, is the plan for the X-band to transition to Israeli control? Or is the plan to maintain U.S. forces manning --  
 
            MR. MORRELL: By the way, just to follow, it will double, as I'm looking here at my notes, it will double, more than double the range of Israel's missile defense radars and increase its available engagement time.   
 
            Will we -- my understanding is that this will -- this is and will remain a U.S. radar system. So this is not something we are giving or selling to the Israelis and it is something that will likely require U.S. personnel on-site to operate. I don't think it will require them in the numbers it takes to get it up and running, but I think that there will be U.S. personnel needed to run this. 
 
            Yes, sir, go ahead. 
 
            Q     (Off mike.) 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yes, go ahead. 
 
            Q     Secretary Gates said yesterday, in his speech, that North Korea has -- (inaudible) -- is planning to remove North Korea from the list of terrorist nations. What do you think of that, Geoff? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I'd have to go back and look specifically what the secretary said. I don't know if he was speaking in past tense. But obviously, until -- well, the North Korean actions lately have been very disappointing in terms of their efforts to restart the nuclear facility that they have there. And not until they have accepted a -- agreed to an acceptable verification protocol will we be in a position to take them off the state sponsor of terror list. 
 
            So I think until that point where there is a verifiable -- where there is an acceptable verification protocol in the eyes of this government -- and I defer you, really, to the State Department -- but until that happens, I think they remain on the state sponsor of terror list, so I don't know that the secretary's statements are incompatible with that reality. 
 
            Yeah, David. 
 
            Q     Can we move on to Pakistan? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Sure. 
 
            Q     As you know, there have been reports recently about the Pakistani military standing up tribal militias to confront Islamic militants in the tribal areas.  
 
            Given the similarities between this effort and the Sons of Iraq movement in Anbar, is this something that the U.S. government has recommended that the Pakistani government pursue? And is it being done with U.S. assistance? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I frankly don't know if it's something we recommended. I think it's certainly something that we would applaud. We had a great success working with the Sons of Iraq or the Awakening Council in Anbar. That obviously spread throughout Iraq, to the point now where there are about 100,000 Sons of Iraq, 54,000 of whom are going to be, as of tomorrow, paid by the government of Iraq, which is a real historic event.   
 
            It's another -- you know, I talked to you last week about the provincial election law being another sign of reconciliation. The government of Iraq paying the Sunni-dominated Sons of Iraq is yet another sign of increased reconciliation.   
 
            But that doesn't answer your question. We've had great success with the Sons of Iraq in Iraq. If that success could be replicated in Pakistan through tribal engagement, we would certainly welcome it, encourage it. If the Pakistanis needed our help to do it, we would offer it. 
 
            Q     But has the U.S. provided help to the Pakistani government? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Again, I think I answered it. To my knowledge, we have not actively been involved in pushing them to do this or yet providing them with anything that would enhance their ability to do this. But I think we would applaud the decision to do so, and if they asked for our help, we would provide it. 
 
            I would draw your attention too to the operations that are under way in Peshawar by the Pakistani military. They have -- you know, we have been awfully forthright, you know, from this podium and elsewhere in this town, about pushing the Pakistani government to do more to take on the militants in the tribal areas. And really since August, we have seen a steady and increasing effort under way by the Pakistani military to go after the destabilizing influence that exists in the tribal areas.   
 
            And, you know, in Peshawar for the last several weeks, they've really taken it to the militants there. And, you know, I think they -- by their estimates -- I thought I saw one of the Pakistani military leaders yesterday talk about some 600 militants killed. So they seem to be much more actively engaged in that region. Of course, it has not been without a price. I think that nearly 70 Pakistani military were also killed in these operations. 
 
            I think since 9/11 roughly 1,400 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the war on terror.   
 
            So as hard as we can be sometimes on the Pakistani government to address the problem in the tribal areas, the fact is, they have been a true partner in the war on terror and have suffered enormous number of casualties as a result of their engagement in it -- I mean, far more, for example, than we have in Afghanistan. 
 
            I mean, I think our total number of soldiers and Marines and so forth killed in Afghanistan numbers 600. I think about half that were killed in action. So we've paid a steep price in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, but the Pakistanis, on the other side of the border, have paid a far greater price thus far.   
 
            Yeah, Luis. 
 
            Q     Geoff, but the trainers at the Pentagon have been pushing to get into Pakistan -- have they been accepted? Will they be departing soon?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: I don't have anything new for you on that, Luis. If I did, I would share it, but I don't have anything new. Obviously we've been pushing to offer what capabilities we have to assist them in training, particularly the Frontier Corps. But I don't have an update. Or I'll look into it afterwards, if you want to check back with me. 
 
            But just to give you a sense of clearly how active the military engagement has been in that area of Bajaur now, the U.N. has estimated that nearly 20,000 Pakistani refugees have now fled that area into Afghanistan, so clearly the Pakistanis have been more aggressive in their efforts lately.   
 
            Yeah?   
 
            Q     On the Special Forces, is the acceptance of more forces for -- to train the Frontier Corps in Pakistan limited by what the U.S. can provide or limited by what Pakistan is willing to accept?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: I think this has been -- always been an issue about what the Pakistanis want. We have the means and are ready, willing and able to assist them. But to date, it has been a matter of what they are willing to ask for.   
 
            Q     Are you familiar --  
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah. Yeah, Elise.   
 
            Q     (Off mike) -- clarification. 
 
            MR. MORRELL: Yeah. 
 
            Q     The Iraq deployments that were recently announced -- these are going to replace outgoing troops?   
 
            MR. MORRELL: They are. This is, you know, the normal deployment cycle that we look, you know, months in advance down as to try to notify units of what their plans -- or some means for their families to plan ahead and for these units to train for the operation that they will -- that they've been tasked with.   
 
            So yeah. This is part of the normal deployment schedule that we release every so often.   
 
            Yeah? 
 
            Q     Are you familiar with the plan to assign an active-duty Army unit to the U.S. Northern Command for homeland defense? And can you comment at all about whether or not that raises questions about active-duty soldiers being drawn into domestic law enforcement? 
 
            MR. MORRELL: I'd have to take that, Jamie. I just -- it hasn't come across my radar, so I'm not familiar with it. I would urge you to talk to Northern Command, but if you and I want to talk further about it, I'm happy to try to look into it for you. 
 
            Anything else? All right. Thanks, guys. Appreciate it. Hopefully we'll see you next week across the way.
 
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