DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. I have a few announcements, and then I would be delighted to take your questions.
First of all, as part of our ongoing efforts to consult with Congress, just about an hour from now, Secretary Gates will be heading up to Capitol Hill, where he will join Secretary Rice and General Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in briefing members of the House and Senate on the status of forces agreement that has been approved by Iraq's Council of Ministers and is now being considered by the Council of Representatives. They will spend 90 minutes with the full Senate and then a nine -- another 90 with members of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees. Both sessions, however, will be closed to the public.
Second, tomorrow morning the secretary will meet with John White and Michele Flournoy, who are leading President-elect Obama's DOD transition team.
As many of you know, that team began work in the Pentagon on Monday. And we have been assisting them in every way possible, from making sure they have all the administrative support they could possibly need, to arranging initial meetings with senior defense leaders such as Secretary Gates. We are totally committed to ensuring the transition of leadership in this department is as smooth and seamless as can be. The troops on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan deserve it, and our nation's security demands it.
Later -- tomorrow Secretary Gates will travel to Cornwallis, Canada, to participate in a two-day meeting of defense ministers from nations contributing forces to the fight in Afghanistan's Regional Command South. This is the latest in a series of meetings between those eight defense ministers. The last occurred, I believe, back in June in Brussels. And it provides an opportunity for them to focus on the situation in RC-South and their strategy for stabilizing that volatile area, especially now that the Dutch have taken command down there as of this month.
Finally, on behalf of Secretary Gates and the rest of my colleagues here at the Pentagon, I'd like to express how much we have enjoyed working with Bob Burns of the Associated Press. He was not just the dean of the Pentagon Press Corps but was a very well- respected reporter and an even better-liked person. We are going to miss him on this beat. But our loss is State Department's gain. So Bob, if you're watching from your new post, good luck. And hopefully, we'll see you around here.
In honor of Bob, I was going to call on his replacement, but she's not here. So his colleague Lita, it's yours.
Q Can you -- just in terms of the SOFA, is there any way you can update us at all on any concerns the military may have about the SOFA and the transitioning of facilities, bases, et cetera, to the Iraqis under the guidelines and under the timelines that are in it?
MR. MORRELL: I don't believe we have any concerns. If we had concerns, trust me, Secretary Gates and General Cartwright would not be up explaining this and supporting this to members of Congress.
General Petraeus and General Odierno, who were heavily invested in the development of this agreement, would not have signed off on it. For that matter, the commander in chief wouldn't be supporting it.
We believe this is an agreement that respects Iraqi sovereignty, which was paramount here, but at the same time provides us with the authorities to do the work we still need to do in Iraq: going after terrorists that still remain there, and training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, so that ultimately they will be able to provide for their own internal and external security.
Q And do you -- just as a follow-up, Geoff, do you understand this to refer mainly to combat troops, such that training teams and other -- PRTs will be able to continue to assist and stay in -- with the Iraqis and with their units?
MR. MORRELL: Do I understand which to apply to --
Q Do you understand the timelines, the June -- in other words, be out of the cities by June and --
MR. MORRELL: You know, I'm not going to get into this -- the specifics of this, other than to say that how this agreement is implemented will be worked out between our commanders on the ground and the Iraqi leadership. And both seem to be very confident that it provides the framework for them to continue to do all that still needs to be done.
But until this document is released publicly -- and I would -- I know you guys are anxiously awaiting it, and I would suggest to you that that is coming soon -- we'd always made the commitment that once this had gone out of the executive branch and into the legislative branch, as it has now done, we would then provide it to the public, and I think that will happen very soon.
I'd point you, though, to the White House. I think they are preparing to do so in the next day or so.
So -- okay, Jim. On the -- let's stick to SOFA for a minute, if we can.
Q Yeah, on the SOFA, will it be more difficult to get the contractors that you need for your operations there if they are not, you know -- if they're subject to Iraqi law in -- under the new SOFA?
MR. MORRELL: Jim, without acknowledging whether or not they are indeed covered by the SOFA or not, because, again, I'm not going to get into point-by-point specifics, but speaking in general terms about contractors, I would say this. Our reliance on the military, the Defense Department's reliance upon security -- private security contractors in Iraq, is such that we employ fewer and fewer American or international security contractors.
Increasingly, Iraqis are doing security contracting work in Iraq. And obviously Iraqis would be subject to Iraqi law.
Furthermore -- listen, this is a -- this is clearly a very profitable business for contractors. That's why we see so many of them doing what has been to this point a very risky job.
I would imagine, and no matter what the legal protections are for contractors operating in Iraq, it will remain a profitable enough business that you will still see a number of companies willing to do this.
So I don't believe that there is any concern, separate and aside from whether or not they're -- the SOFA deals with them, there is any concern about the pool of potential contractors that would exist for us in the future.
Q Yesterday Admiral Mullen confirmed that the SOFA, as passed by the Iraqis so far, has a date of the end of 2011, by which all U.S. troops must leave, regardless of conditions on the ground.
MR. MORRELL: Yes --
Q The change to "regardless of conditions on the ground" -- does that represent a shift in strategy?
MR. MORRELL: Does it represent -- no, I don't think it represents a shift in strategy at all. The strategy has always been let's improve the situation on the ground as fast as we possibly can, so that we are no longer needed as the primary provider of security and that the Iraqis are in a position to do it for themselves. I mean, this has been going on for more than a year now. We've been drawing down forces in Iraq since the fall of 2007, when -- after General Petraeus's first assessment provided the Congress after the surge, the president made the decision that we were going to draw down the five surge brigades, and that began, as you know, with some Marine battalions coming out in the fall of '07. So this -- the drawdown began in -- more than a year ago. As the secretary's fond of saying, the direction has been determined, was determined then. It is now a question of pacing.
And as you've seen by our recent announcement that one of the brigade combat teams that was due to come out in January is going to be able to come home before Christmas, we are able to speed up the drawdown. And we hope to be able to do it at even better pace between now and the end of this agreement.
I mean, we would not have signed this agreement -- probably, you know, a year ago it would have been impossible to sign this agreement, given the security situation on the ground. But the security situation has improved so dramatically, and the Iraqi security forces have improved so dramatically, that we are confident that if things continue to trend as they have been, our services will no -- will not be needed in Iraq come 2012.
Q I understand the strategy has been to improve security as rapidly as possible, but the Defense Department and the U.S. government as a whole has, until now, resisted the idea of setting a date to leave, regardless of conditions on the ground. And now it appears to have done precisely that. Can you talk about --
MR. MORRELL: I think I have. I mean, I think conditions have improved so much that we are now comfortable looking three years down the road and saying: If things continue as they are now, which clearly we are confident they will, that we will be able to safely pull out our troops come the end of 2011, and the Iraqis will be capable of providing for their own security in lieu of our presence there.
I don't see that as a change in policy or strategy; I see that as indicative of the fact that things are improving at a rate that has surprised all of us, and that we are now going to take advantage of.
Q For a long time, the mantra was "fragile but reversible." You're now saying you're confident instead. Has something changed?
MR. MORRELL: No. I mean, I think, you know, we are confident that we have the time needed, three years, to make things that are fragile and reversible at this stage less so. We're confident in our abilities and the latitude that this agreement will provide us, and we are confident in the growth and the increased capability of the Iraqi security forces, such that, looking three years down the road, we think this is feasible.
Q New subject?
MR. MORRELL: Luis?
Q On the piracy situation, Geoff, about a year ago the Navy took an active --
MR. MORRELL: We're done with SOFA. Okay.
Q About a year ago the Navy took an active role in ending some piracy/hijacking situations off the coast of Somalia. Today, with the ongoing situation there, it doesn't seem like the Navy's taking an active role. What exactly is the policy with regards to dealing with piracy?
MR. MORRELL: Well, what do you mean, "an active role"? I mean, the 5th Fleet's out there patrolling, the U.K.'s out there patrolling, the French are out there patrolling, the Russians are out there patrolling, the Indians are out there patrolling. Any number of countries are out there now patrolling and having a deterrent effect in a huge body of water. Over 1 million nautical square miles is this -- is the Gulf of Aden, and we have a large naval presence out there from countries around the world. We are actively engaged in trying to prevent and deter piracy.
But so that's -- I'm sort of wondering, what don't you see as action being taken by the Navy?
Q A year ago, the Navy was actually firing its guns, at pirate vessels, to end hostage situations. But we don't see that --
MR. MORRELL: Okay.
Well, yesterday, well, this week, I think, the British killed a number of pirates onboard a ship. The Indians sunk a dhow. The Germans buzzed a British ship, with one of their helicopters, and prevented a pirate situation. I think the Italians did something similar.
So this notion that there's inaction, out there, is just utterly false. And I also take issue with this whole notion that it's incumbent upon the armed forces of the world, the navies of the world, to solve this problem.
I mean, first and foremost, yes, we have an obligation to protect international shipping lanes. And that is our first and foremost priority. But the companies, the shipping companies also have an obligation to secure their ships, to prevent incidents such that we've been seeing, at alarming rates, over the past several months, for this year, for that matter.
So I mean, there are shared responsibilities here. I think we are stepping to the plate, doing more than ever, for that matter. I think it's incumbent upon the companies, to look more and more at what they can do, to try to prevent these incidents from happening, whether it be posting more lookouts, whether it be investing in more technical devices that can prevent pirates from boarding ships.
I understand there's now sort of high-frequency sounds that can emanate, from ships, that would deter anybody from boarding. Or you know, why not consider the notion of more armed guards on these ships?
I mean, there has to be shared responsibility here. And you know and on top of that, there has to be, you know, a governance aspect to this as well. I mean, this problem emanates not at sea. I mean, it starts onshore. And clearly the Somali government needs help.
This transitional federal government has acknowledged it does not have the capacity to deal with this problem. And so it needs additional help -- from the U.N., from the African Union, from the world -- to try to deal with some of the economic and governance problems that lead to the pirates.
Q With regard to governance, how do you deal with pirates that you may capture at sea?
MR. MORRELL: That's a huge problem, Luis.
I mean, that is -- you know, those who ask for a more aggressive posture by navies, you know, must figure out the follow-on effects. What are the third-, fourth-, fifth-order effects?
And one of those is, okay, let's say you capture a bunch of pirates. What do you do with them? Now, the British, in this most recent incident have been able to work out a deal with the Kenyan government such as they will hold and then try them. But that's a -- that's a one-off arrangement. We need to figure out a more global, systemic agreement on how to deal with pirates once caught if, indeed, we are going to go down that road and more aggressively board and capture -- board ships and capture pirates.
Q Thanks. Some analysts have suggested that the piracy problem could approach the threat of terrorism as a risk. How would you assess piracy as a risk to American national security? And specifically, are any of the sea lanes that supply American troops in the region affected by this?
MR. MORRELL: I don't know yet, Tom, that we've seen any nexus between piracy and terrorism. But obviously, it is coming from -- you know, we're talking about the Horn of Africa here, which we have acknowledged to be a growing terrorist threat.
Thus far, this looks like a criminal enterprise, a very profitable criminal enterprise, given the exorbitant ransoms that are being paid by some of these companies. But -- so it is right now, I believe, more of a criminal enterprise, and one that is costing the shipping companies a great deal.
For example, insurance companies have increased premiums for sending cargo through the Gulf of Aden from $900 a year ago to $9,000, a ten-fold increase. This is enormously expensive -- just the insurance part of this, let alone the ransom part of this -- for these companies. And ultimately the cost, undoubtedly, will be passed onto the consumer. So we all lose in this.
This is a criminal problem that has to be combatted in a comprehensive -- in a comprehensive way. Kinetics alone will not solve it. You could have all the navies in the world having all their ships out there -- you know, it's not going to ever solve this problem. It requires a holistic approach from the international community at sea, ashore, with governance, with economic development.
And I tell you, in the near term, one thing we certainly need is to roll over the U.N. Security Council resolution which provides us the authorities to conduct counterpiracy operations within Somalian waters.
That is due to expire, I believe, on December the 2nd, Resolution 1816.
So we're working with the State Department to try to make sure that is a priority in the next couple of weeks to get passed so that we continue to at least have the authorities to operate off the coast of Somalia.
Q (Off mike) -- supplies to troops in that area?
MR. MORRELL: We -- I mean, I don't want to get into our shipping lanes from up here. But obviously, there are things we ship via -- via ship. There are things we -- you know, we've talked about it at length. We send MRAPs on ships to Iraq and Afghanistan and -- obviously, not directly to Afghanistan. And we need to -- so we do need to ship a number of items, a number of very valuable items.
But I'm not going to get into specifically how much we depend on the Gulf of Aden as a shipping route for our supplies.
Q From your earlier answer -- should we conclude that the United States is not contemplating any more aggressive action against piracy in the Gulf of Aden, along the lines of increased surveillance, attacking pirate bases --
MR. MORRELL: No.
Q -- or anything else?
MR. MORRELL: No, you shouldn't deduce that from my remarks. All I'm trying to say is don't look at this solely through the prism of what more can the U.S. Navy do and why isn't the U.S. Navy being more aggressive.
Q (Off mike) -- say that. I just want to know if you're considering becoming any more aggressive.
MR. MORRELL: You know, we constantly evaluating what the proper posture is. And trust me, this subject is being dealt with at the highest levels of this government. It is a real concern. And we are constantly evaluating what the best approach is.
I'm just trying to get you to think beyond the notion of "the answer is strictly kinetics; we've got to board more ships; we've got to fire on more pirates." Trust me. As the examples that I've just given you illustrate, it is being done by the navies that are out there. But that alone is not going to solve this crisis, and we've got to deal with it in a -- in a more comprehensive fashion -- pirates.
Q Geoff, what is the U.S. or the Pentagon looking for with regard to Security Council Resolution 1816? Is it simply a straight rollover or would the Pentagon like to see it be something --
MR. MORRELL: I don't know that we're asking for it to become more robust. I think what we want right now is the authority to continue to operate -- continue these counterpiracy operations, in particular, continue with the authority to operate in Somali waters, particularly in the Gulf of Aden.
Q Excuse me, you had mentioned that the U.S. sent MRAPs by ship.
Now, the Norwegian company whose tanker got hijacked is now ordering its ships to go around Cape of Good Hope.
Is the --
MR. MORRELL: That's not the answer to this problem.
Q Well --
MR. MORRELL: The answer to the problem isn't, everybody avoid the Gulf of Aden and go around the Cape of Good Hope.
Q Well, the question --
MR. MORRELL: I understand them wanting to take defensive measures. But ultimately that's not the solution to this. And that, to me -- in scenarios like that, the pirates win. And they should not be allowed to win.
We need to use the Gulf of Aden. It is a valuable shipping lane. It's a vitally important shipping lane. And we are determined to provide security for ships transiting that. I mean, as I mentioned, I mentioned a number of countries.
You've now got NATO ships out there, as well, protecting the World Food Programme deliveries to Somalia, vitally important to keep -- to prevent a famine there. And then hopefully in the near term, you will have the EU assume that mission from NATO. And so we are determined to make sure that the Gulf of Aden is a navigable shipping lane.
What I was asking about is whether those ships carrying MRAPs now also must go around the Cape of Good Hope and, if so, how much longer that adds to the journey.
MR. MORRELL: We're not going around the Cape of Good Hope.
Q Did you call me?
Q Beyond just the more aggressive possible tactics from the U.S. and coalition partners, is the U.S. or any of the coalition partners, are you talking to any of these shipping organizations?
Are you pressuring them to step up their own security, to actually transit through the maritime security area that's been set up that many of these ships --
MR. MORRELL: I think the truth is, Courtney, we've seen much better use of the safest shipping lanes. We've seen fewer and fewer examples of ships hugging the coast into treacherous waters. And more people are using the prescribed safest shipping lanes.
So that is less and less of a problem. But as we've seen, we are -- you know, pirates are becoming increasingly bold and increasingly capable, as evidenced by the taking of that Saudi ship, 400-plus nautical miles off the coast of Kenya.
That was -- you know, as the chairman mentioned yesterday -- or Monday, that was a surprise to all of us, to see something that far offshore, on a ship that big.
But are we working with companies? Absolutely. I mean, the United States government is working this problem, as I said before, holistically. We are trying to do anything and everything to make sure we are able to better secure the Gulf of Aden and other, you know, key transit areas. I mean, that's a bottleneck there that makes it particularly vulnerable. But -- so we are working in a variety of fashions.
Q But the reason that something like a supertanker and then the -- (inaudible) -- were taken so far off the coast is they have these sort of mother ships or safe ships that they're launching off of. Is there any discussion about more aggressive tactics against those ships specifically, not even going into the beaches of Somalia, where the -- (inaudible) -- are, to --
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, listen, I'm not going to talk specifically about, you know -- Al's the one who mentioned this notion of going ashore. Where we are being -- we are looking at what is required to reduce this problem. And I should say the mere presence of our -- of the -- the mere increased naval presence that we've seen out there -- and there are more naval ships out there from around the world than there have ever been, is having an impact. We've seen a lot of high- profile attacks lately, but the truth is, our statistics show that at least in -- over the past couple of months -- I think before August the success rate of piracy in the Gulf of Aden was 53 percent. In October the success rate was 31 percent. So you know, for example, thus far in 2008, there have been 95 total reported piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden region. Of those 95 attacks, 39 were successful. So more are being prevented than are actually being carried out.
Q (Off mike) -- flagships?
MR. MORRELL: I do not believe that any U.S. flagship has been hit yet, Tom. I say "yet," because obviously we are still -- you know, we are exposed as anybody is. And so we are ever-vigilant about this as well. But I do not believe any U.S. flagships have been hit.
Q Geoff, how many sailors have been taken hostage by these pirates? And how many of them are American?
MR. MORRELL: We have -- I believe our count is that 330 mariners are being held hostage by these criminals. And they come from 25 nations across the world. I do not believe that any Americans are among them.
Q Three hundred right now? (That much ?)?
MR. MORRELL: That's what I -- that's my understanding, that 330 mariners are being held hostage. And we have -- I believe there -- there are at least 18 ships being held by Somali pirates as we speak. So there are a lot of incidents, and some of these have gone on for quite some time.
Q I understood that --
MR. MORRELL: This is the third one from Jeff Schogol. Let me just share the wealth.
Yeah, Tony Capaccio.
Q Can I change the subject, or is this -- (off mike) --
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, changing.
Q The Faina -- I understand there are some specific rules to engagement if that -- they try to off-load the weapons on that ship. Could you get into that a little bit?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into the rules of engagement in any of these situations. But clearly, we are particularly concerned with the Faina, given its cargo, just as we're particularly concerned with the Saudi ship, the oil tanker, given its cargo and given the fact that, frankly, that ship was destined for the United States. But those two, obviously, have caused a great deal of concern.
And we are monitoring very closely, as are -- and it's encouraging to see how upset the Saudis were about this incident and how determined they seem to be to try to join us in combating this problem. So that was encouraging as well.
Q Are you worried about any possible environmental impact, if they mishandle that Saudi ship?
MR. MORRELL: Sure, absolutely. It's got 2 million -- it's got 2 million gallons of -- or barrels -- is it -- what is it? It's got 2 million barrels of crude oil on board. That's certainly a cause for concern when you've got people who are willing to -- you know, who have shown a willingness to risk life and limb to take these ships and hold them ransom, and, if not, threaten to kill those onboard or -- in fact, they have killed a number of people onboard other ships. And who knows what else they might do? They've certainly threatened to do things in the past.
Q Geoff, just to be clear, understanding everything you said about a broader approach, you also said that the U.S. posture is constantly being evaluated at the highest levels of the U.S. government. So is consideration being given to further more aggressive, kinetic-type steps or ISR steps by the Navy or other U.S. forces?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into the menu of options that are being considered. I will just say that you have people who are responsible for national security in this country who are dealing with this problem.
This is a problem that has -- that has elevated to the highest levels of the government. It's one we take very, very seriously. And it's one that we are looking to try to find the best solution possible. And if that means adjusting our tactics, we will do so. But that's sort of the status of it at this point.
Q And Geoff, you can say so far this year the U.S. Navy has not fired on any pirate ships.
MR. MORRELL: I can't say that. I don't think I did say that. I think I'd refer you to the U.S. Navy to figure out if indeed they've fired on anyone.
MR. MORRELL: Okay?
Q Can I change the subject really quickly?
MR. MORRELL: Really quickly, yeah.
Q One quick question.
MR. MORRELL: Bryan's getting antsy over there, so --
Q Okay. How concerned are you, as the United States, that Russian nuclear-power warships will be conducting exercises in our backyard with an openly hostile nation, Venezuela?
MR. MORRELL: I think we've talked about, you know, exercises the Russians have performed before. I mean, we've talked about --
Q I'm talking about --
MR. MORRELL: -- their bomber flights, we've talked about cruises they take down to South America. As I've said from this podium before, if they -- they are perfectly within their rights to exercise -- their military's perfectly within its rights to exercise. If they wish to exercise with the Venezuelans, my only reaction to that is, you are known by the company you keep.
All right. Anything else?
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: Quickly, quickly. Last question.
Q Okay. Budget -- couple of budget questions.
MR. MORRELL: Tony, I'm not going to get into the budget.
Q The supplemental. I mean, it's been signaled that the Pentagon wants to buy four more of these F-22 fighters --
MR. MORRELL: You and I can talk about this after.
Q Well, a --
MR. MORRELL: Yeah.
Q And one other transition question. You've mentioned Gates is going to meet with Michele Flournoy and John White. Has there been any change in his attitude about staying in Washington if asked by the Obama administration to stay on? He's been on the phone.
MR. MORRELL: I'm going to stick with the secretary's very eloquent response to Lita's question on this subject in Estonia.
Q (Off mike) --
MR. MORRELL: I have -- I have nothing new to share with you on that subject.
Q Well, can you repeat what he said eloquently back in --
Q That was it.
MR. MORRELL: That's it. A verbatim quote. (Laughter.) "I have nothing new to share with you on this subject."
Q But you will when there is something.
MR. MORRELL: If and when there is something, I am, of course, here to share whatever information I can.
Q I missed my chance to ask a SOFA question. Can you believe it?
MR. MORRELL: How did you possibly?
Q (Chuckles.) I don't know.
MR. MORRELL: Okay.
Q Is it true that the agreement that's been initialed offers enough caveats, or sufficient caveats, for the Iraqi government to keep U.S. troops in Iraq if conditions require?
MR. MORRELL: Does it offer enough -- I -- this requires me to go into specifics of this agreement. I would put it this way: This is an agreement between two sovereign nations. It is a very serious agreement. It takes care of both of our interests. We very much look forward to the second reading in the Council of Representatives as soon as possible, and then the third reading, and then ultimately passage, because we need this to continue to do our work in support of the Iraqis.
If at some point, the Iraqis wish to readdress this, in terms of future needs, two sovereign nations can always look at things. But we are focused on getting this agreement passed so that we can continue to operate in Iraq and support the Iraqi security forces and the people of Iraq over the next three years.
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