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DoD News Briefing with Press Secretary Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
February 03, 2009
                MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. How is everybody? A little quiet today. 
 
                Well, I have nothing specifically to start with, so let's get down to business. 
 
                David? 
 
                Q     Geoff, has the secretary now submitted his recommendation for Afghan troop deployments to the president? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: This is a work in progress. But if we want to be terribly precise about it, I would say that, no, he has not. I mean, have they had -- have he and the chairman discussed this issue of additional troops with the president? The answer to that is yes. But in terms of a formal submission of his recommendation, there is a process, it is ongoing, and there is still more work to be done within the confines of that process. 
 
                Q     That process doesn't generally include the president signing off on individual units that are being deployed, correct?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: No. But I think this secretary, going back over the last couple of years, has always made a point of, when it comes to recommendations involving significant numbers of additional troops into either theater, of bringing that to the commander in chief and getting his blessing, before he were to sign off on specific deployment orders.   
 
                You know, after all, he is the boss. He is in charge of the United States military. And when it comes to large numbers of additional troops, the secretary thinks it's the responsible thing to do to have the blessing of the commander in chief.   
 
                Q     He has already. Secretary Gates has already taken that general idea to President Obama, to the White House. That's what you just said, right?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, first of all, he's taken the general idea to the American people over the last several months. I mean, we have talked, as has the chairman, in very public forums, over the last several months, about the commander's request and his attitude about the commander's request, which is fundamentally that he does want to try to fulfill the commander's request.   
 
                But above and beyond four more brigade combat teams, three in addition to the 3rd of the 10th, which becomes operational, I believe, this week, that's where he thinks we have a real question about whether additional troops are needed. But I think he is inclined, as he has said publicly, to support the commander in his request for additional troops.   
 
                Now, it's not just a simple question of, you know, sending four more BCTs or signing off on that. There's context to this. We have a new president wishing to make -- who is having to make decisions on additional troop levels, in advance of his Afghan review being completed, because of the necessity that it takes to notify units and their families and begin the process of preparing, should he bless this, of going to Afghanistan.   
 
                So you know, I think, I made this point to some of you before. And I would urge you to talk to the White House about this, as well, because it is their process. But my understanding is that whatever decision is made, on additional forces for Afghanistan, will likely take place in advance of the conclusion of the strategy review that this White House has undertaken on Afghanistan.   
 
                And if indeed additional troops are signed off on for Afghanistan, people should not interpret that as signaling the direction the president has determined for Iraq, either. Both of these reviews are not completely in line, time-wise, with the near-term decision of trying to fulfill the commander's request for additional troops as soon as possible. 
 
                I seem to have confounded you. 
 
                Q     No. 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Okay. (Cross talk.) 
 
                Q     Geoff, just to follow up on that, that seems -- seems a little strange to decide on the amount of troops that are needed before the strategy is known, because doesn't the strategy and objectives that you're trying to achieve dictate how many forces you need? I mean, is it the case that the -- you're going to send these troops and then, depending on what the strategy is, you might ramp them up or ramp them down? What -- can you explain that a little bit more? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, first of all, I mean, you covered the campaign. You watched the -- Candidate Obama campaign on his desire to send additional forces into Afghanistan.   
 
                The secretary for some time now has been talking about his belief that the commander needs additional forces in Afghanistan as well. There needs to be established a baseline of security in Afghanistan. We are -- the mission fundamentally is a counterinsurgency operation. That has been the case. That likely will continue to be the case, albeit with more troops, if that's what the president signs off on. But no matter what your overall strategy may be, we need to reverse the trends that we are seeing in some parts of the country in terms of a deteriorating security situation. That is accepted as the foundation on whatever we -- whatever the president decides to develop in terms of a further strategy. But we have to reverse the downward trend in security in some parts of the country in order to have a more fulsome strategy. 
 
                But, you know -- and I think the secretary has also talked about and I think the White House has talked about the need to embrace more realistic goals for what can be achieved in Afghanistan in the coming three to five years.   
 
                And the primary focus of those goals is -- number one focus of that goal is ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a safe haven for terrorists, a place from which they can plot and launch attacks against us or our allies. So additional forces are needed to ensure that it does not revert to that status. 
 
                Q     Follow-up on that, Geoff? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Yeah. 
 
                Q     Just so I understand it, what you're saying is the overall strategy will focus more on the sort of political and economic goals that the administration wants to achieve as opposed to the security piece, which needs to come first. And that's why you -- 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I think the White House has talked to this, that an overall strategy will encompass far more than the military, that there will be political, economic components to this, additional civil support. I mean, these are matters that the president, in fact, spoke to when he visited the Tank last week and spoke to you all in the hallway afterwards. 
 
                So, yes, this will be a multifaceted approach to dealing with the problems we face in Afghanistan. I mean, everybody acknowledges this cannot be done with troops alone, but troops are essential at least in the near term to try to reverse the slide in some parts of the country in security. And I think everybody recognizes that. 
 
                Q     Geoff? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Yeah, Joe. 
 
                Q     We heard President Obama on Sunday saying that large number of the -- (inaudible) -- troops in Iraq would be home within a year. I want to ask you, is this a new plan? If it is not, what's the future of the troops in Iraq? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I heard the -- I heard the president before the Super Bowl on Sunday in that interview. He did -- he committed to having substantial numbers of American forces home within a year. I do not believe that is in any way different from anything he has said in the past. He has always made it clear it's his desire to bring American combat forces home as quickly and as responsibly as possible.  
 
                And that is what this building is working with him on, trying to figure out the proper pace by which to draw down forces from Iraq that allows American forces to return home as quickly as the president would like and, at the same time, not in any way taking on too much risk in Iraq such that the security situation there would reverse. 
 
                And we've seen stunning gains in Iraq, as evidenced by the election this past weekend where you saw very healthy voter turnout throughout the country, more than 50 percent of Iraqis taking to the polls; really, zero security incidents, at least significant security incidents, to speak of. That was another milestone in the progress that Iraq has made toward becoming a stable and thriving democracy. 
 
                But I don't think his statement on Sunday is -- terribly advances the position he has had all along, that he wants to draw down forces in Iraq, combat forces, as quickly and as responsibly as possible. 
 
                Q     (Off mike) -- but if the plan is within 12 months, does this go against the SOFA agreement that set 2011 as deadline to quit the country? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: There's two questions there. Let me just correct you on the SOFA. The SOFA says by the end of this three-year agreement we must be out of the country. There is nothing in the SOFA that precludes us from leaving earlier than the three-year deadline that we have. So if things were to progress so well that we can leave earlier, I think everybody would support that.  
 
                Obviously, the president is looking at these issues right now and determining how soon and how fast and how deeply he can draw down forces in Iraq, in a responsible manner, as he has said time and time again. 
 
                Jeff. Let me just wrap -- I know you've got another issue. Let me wrap this up, and I'll come to your issue. 
 
                Q     Can you talk about media reports that insurgents have blown up a bridge along the Khyber Pass, closing it? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Let me -- this is -- I know Barbara has something. Yes. Do you have any more on Iraq? And let me come to this. Yes, any more on Iraq? 
 
                Okay, Khyber Pass, the bridge: I saw those reports, Jeff. You know, I think we are in the process of assessing the damage to that bridge and what it would take to repair it, or if there are alternative routes by which to get our supplies into Afghanistan. I think that assessment is underway right now, and I don't have much more for you other than that we are aware of it and are looking into how severe the damage is and what the alternatives might be for our supply lines. 
 
                Q     Just so I understand, the bridge was destroyed and the Khyber is closed to U.S. supplies? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I -- I -- the bridge was damaged, is my understanding. And I don't know whether that has precluded the use, the complete use, of the Khyber Pass. But I do know that a bridge that we do use was damaged in an attack. Okay? 
 
                On this? 
 
                Q     Yes. 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Daphne? 
 
                Q     To follow up, Russia is reportedly trying to persuade Kyrgyzstan to close an American air base there. How disruptive would that be, in terms of supplying the troops in Afghanistan? And do you have a comment on Russia's attitude? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I have only seen press reports to that effect. I have not heard anything officially from the Russian government, so I would not presume to -- to assume that they are doing as is reported. 
 
                All I can tell you at this point is that we have an agreement with the Kyrgyzstan government for us -- and have had it for some time -- for us to operate out of the Manas Air Base there. It is a hugely important air base for us. It provides us with a launching-off point to provide supplies to our forces in Afghanistan. We very much appreciate the support the Kyrgyz have given us in the use of that base, and we hope to continue using it.   
 
                We have an agreement, but we remain in talks with them actively on addressing whatever concerns they may have about our continued use. But I think you've -- I think General Petraeus has been to see them, General McNabb has been to see them. We are actively involved in discussions with the Kyrgyz government about the continued use of Manas. 
 
                Q     Are they actually threatening to shut up that base? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I think you'd have to talk to them. I think we are -- 
 
                Q     What are the talks about, then? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Continued use of the base. I mean, this is a -- this is a -- this is an agreement between two governments, and the terms of that agreement are always subject to negotiation. And that is where we stand at this point. But we are hopeful that we can continue our good relation -- good relationship with the Kyrgyz government and can continue to use Manas in support of our operations in Afghanistan. 
 
                Q     (Off mike) – the outcome of this negotiation would be that the U.S. pays a little more money and things go on as usual? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Whether or not we pay more money is certainly a subject of discussion, and -- but that shouldn't be a surprise. In any negotiation, money is often at issue. And hopefully, we'll come to an agreement and can continue the use of the air base. And I don't -- I have seen nothing to -- more directly to your question, I have seen nothing to suggest -- other than press reports -- that the Russians are attempting to undermine our use of that facility. 
 
                Q     If those reports are true, would we consider that an unfriendly act by Russia? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: That's a hypothetical that I'm not prepared to get into. 
 
                Yeah? 
 
                Q     Can you address what military and security concerns are raised by Iran's launch of a satellite off a two-stage ballistic missile? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I can -- what I would say is this, Barbara: It is certainly a reason for us to be concerned about Iran and its continued attempts to develop a ballistic missile program of increasingly long range. Although this would appear just to be the launch of a satellite, their first, obviously there are dual-use capabilities in the technology here which could be applied toward the development of a long-range ballistic missile.   
 
                And that is a cause of concern to us, and I think to certainly everybody in the region -- Israel and their Arab neighbors -- as well as to our allies in Europe. I think you heard the secretary talk last week about the fact that even the Russians, in his conversations with President Putin, have expressed real concerns about Iran's intentions, calling them their number one security threat. And so this would -- this is clearly a concern of ours. 
 
                Yeah? 
 
                Q     Could you talk a little bit about the letter that was released yesterday from Secretary England to Congressman Price concerning Blackwater? What I'm interested in is why the department was registering an opinion about whether Blackwater could be prosecuted in a civilian court. I understand the department has expertise on the UCMJ, but that letter touches on whether they can be prosecuted in a civilian court. 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I don't -- I frankly have not seen the letter. My understanding of the letter is that they were -- he was responding to a query from a member of Congress about Blackwater in Iraq. And I think his point to that member was that we don't employ Blackwater in Iraq or frankly, for that matter, in Afghanistan. 
 
                But I think he was suggesting to them not much more than that, that this is a matter for you to take up with the State Department and not us. But I -- again, I haven't seen the letter. 
 
                Q     The letter doesn't say that. It says -- it expresses an opinion that the -- that what happened in Nisoor Square is not prosecutable in civilian courts. And I'm just wondering why the DOD, you know, wouldn't defer that to the attorney general. 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean -- well, first of all, that is up to the Department of Justice. I mean, they're the ones who would interpret whether MEJA is applicable to contractors working for the State Department. 
 
                We have legislation which makes it clear to us that we have the means to use the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act to prosecute contractors working for us. We have also -- and I think the secretary's spoken to this when he's been up on the Hill -- urged the Congress to try to strengthen that legal construct so that all contractors in Iraq could be held accountable. I do not believe that the legislation has been a change to -- in response to that request.   
 
                But we feel as though in this department we have multiple avenues by which to hold contractors accountable who work for us. Whether it be UCMJ or MEJA, we have the means to hold everybody accountable who is employed for the Department of Defense. 
 
                Tony Capaccio? 
 
                Q     Hello. Budget question. What's the status -- 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Anything else on this? Okay. Yeah. 
 
                Q     What's the status of the negotiations between this building and OMB about a top line for '10? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: The status is, we're in the midst of -- we're in the midst of those talks. It's -- you know, we're working closely with the Office of Management and Budget on the top-line number. The dialogue is really still in its early stages, but so far the process has been very constructive. And we anticipate that it will remain so, and that we'll ultimately arrive at a number that will be both healthy, responsible, and, at the same time, credible. 
 
                Q     Geoff? 
 
                Q     What was the reaction to the -- Mr. Gates when you received the so-called OMB passback that apparently was not to your liking? Was it an unhealthy, unresponsible number? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, I would not characterize whether the OMB passback was to our liking or not to our liking. All I would tell you is that this is a process. There is a give-and-take involved in this process.  It's not new to this administration; this is how it works. And it -- you know, unfortunately, I've seen some of this play out in newsprint when this should be taking place behind closed doors in the friendly manner that it is really going on. 
 
                So I would -- I would not get into any of this business about whether or not we are pleased or displeased by the number. We are in the process of figuring out what is the appropriate number that recognizes our needs and also the economic climate we are in.   
 
                The secretary has made it perfectly clear, both in speaking to you all and in testifying on the Hill, that he recognizes we are going to be facing a constrained budget. That is the economic reality of the times we are living in. And he is perfectly prepared to make hard choices. 
 
                Q     Can I follow-up? Is the F-22 decision that's supposed to be made by March 1st, is that a good example of the potential hard choices you're confronting? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I think, as you heard from the secretary up on the Hill last week, all programs are going to be getting a very critical review. That is the responsible thing to do when trying to prepare a budget, especially one during the fiscal crisis that the country finds itself in right now. 
 
                So this department is well aware of the fact that times are tough, and we are prepared to do the belt-tightening that is required and responsible of us. But in terms of where this process is, I would remind you it's in its early stages. And we are still working with the OMB, and doing so in a very constructive manner. 
 
                Q     But is it true or not true that this building was tasked with reducing the draft budget by $55 billion by OMB? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: The draft budget? 
 
                Q     The draft budget that this building put forward -- defense budget. 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, we -- there was no draft budget put forward by this department.   
 
                Q     Nobody on this building is working on reducing by $55 billion some of the programs that -- 
 
                MR. MORRELL: No. I mean, I think what you're referring to, in terms of a draft budget -- and I've seen these reports to this effect -- that there is somehow some $580 billion -- 
 
                Q     (Off mike). 
 
                MR. MORRELL: -- budget that was -- I think it's been -- (sound of a loud cough) -- I think it's -- do you need some water? 
 
                Q     No, I'm fine. 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Do you want to excuse yourself? (No audible reply.) Okay -- that was -- been attributed to the Joint Staff. 
 
                I have some water right here, Daphne. Would you like some? 
 
                Q     No --  
 
                MR. MORRELL: All right -- has been attributed to the Joint Staff. The truth of the matter is, this is -- there was an internal exercise done on budgeting matters.   
 
                And it reflected two things that are important to note, or three things: number one, the notion of 4 percent of GDP being dedicated to defense spending; number two, trying to be responsive to the desires of the Congress that more and more supplemental spending be moved into the base budget -- and by that, I'm speaking of things like Wounded Warrior, the JIEDDO program, you know, Army and Marine Corps growth, as well as some operational spending to reflect sort of the persistent-presence reality that we find ourselves in; and lastly, and most importantly, it was done at a time in which you could probably go through such an exercise.   
 
                The reality is, the economic situation has deteriorated dramatically since we undertook that exercise, and you can -- we today can probably not be as ambitious as we were in that exercise in moving funding from supplementals into the base budget. But that was an internal exercise, not a proposed budget, and not a starting-off point for any negotiations. 
 
                Q     And when was that, Geoff? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Oh, it was months ago. 
 
                Q     So will all of the supplemental remain in supplemental -- all the war funding remain in the supplemental? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: These are things to be discussed. Things to be discussed. 
 
                Q     A follow-up on that? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Yeah. 
 
                Q     You talked about the secretary committing to review every program, or every major program, as part of this exercise. Can you give us any insight into what the process on that will be? I mean, is he going to rely on the services to cough up things, or is there going to be some special group of people that he designates? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: There is a group working on the budget right now. There's a small group that's focused on the budget. And, trust me, every -- 
 
                Q     (Off mike.) 
 
                MR. MORRELL: It's not being done at the exclusion of the services. I mean, this is -- after all, they are an integral part of this process. But everybody must recognize -- and frankly, all the service chiefs do -- the economic climate we find ourselves in. I've said it before on other issues, but these guys don't live, you know, in a cave somewhere or in a vacuum. We all are living in the real world and see the difficulty that this economy is in. And at the same time, though, the service chiefs and the secretary and others obviously have a responsibility to look out for the national defense. 
 
                So we're, you know, working on balancing the reality of the economic situation and the need to prepare to defend the country.   
 
                Q     Geoff, why should the deterioration of the economy affect whether the money is put in the base budget or the supplemental, since the money would be spent either way? It's just the sort of process that goes through Congress.   
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, there's two different processes. I mean, they debate a base budget and they debate a supplemental. You know, there are different politics involved in each of these debates.   
 
                Yeah, Elizabeth.   
 
                Q     Geoff, on Korea, do you have any indications that North Korea is gearing up to conduct another long-range missile test? There are some reports.   
 
                MR. MORRELL: I've seen, Elizabeth, reports to that effect, I mean, press reports to that effect. But I think they quote intelligence matters and things of that nature. And I'm not going to get into any intelligence we may have or may not have that reflects that same thing.   
 
                I mean, obviously the testing of missiles, by North Korea, would be in violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions. But I would refer you to the State Department for more precision on what exactly is wrong with additional tests by the North Koreans.
 
                Yeah, Chris.   
 
                Q     When you look at right now what the Defense Department is allocated, under the economic stimulus package, you know, 3 to $400 million for child development centers, does the Pentagon feel like these are the projects that are its foremost priority, that the money is being allocated correctly?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: Well, we were intimately involved in that process. The White House came to each of the departments in the government and said, what do you have that could work for an economic stimulus package?   
 
                And we came up with a number of ideas. And, but keep in mind, there were requirements for this. It had to have a stimulative effect. I mean, I think, these were things that had to be completed or largely so within 6 to 18 months, if I recall.   
 
                So that obviously precludes, you know, weapons systems and things of that nature but does lend itself to some smaller construction projects such as developing more child care centers, some barracks, medical facilities, hospital improvements, things of that nature.   
 
                So I think, you know, those are recommendations we made and that we are -- would enthusiastically support, should they become legislation. 
 
                Yeah. Let me -- I'll come back to you, sir. Yeah. 
 
                Q     Afghan strategy question? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Sure. 
 
                Q     Two questions, related. One is, what's the role that NATO is playing in the creation of this strategy that some time the U.S. will settle on? And if all of the strategy is about just not military pieces, what role is State, Commerce, Agriculture, everybody else, playing in this? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I think the best person to ask would be Robert Gibbs and the guys over at the White House, because they're the ones who are undertaking this strategy. You know, we are there to support them in this effort. The secretary and the chairman I think are, you know, involved in assisting them in this matter, but it's their strategy review, and I'd let them speak to it. 
 
                Q     But from the military piece, isn't there a role for this U.S. military with NATO militaries? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I think, obviously, we recognize the fact that this is a -- you know, largely a NATO mission in Afghanistan. And I think that the White House will, of course, consult with our allies there about this review. But I can't speak to you with any specificity on where they are in terms of those consultations. 
 
                Yeah, Ken? 
 
                Q     I'd like to go back to the Iranian satellite launch for a minute. Did this launch reveal any new military capabilities on the part of the Iranians that we didn't know or think they had before? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I wouldn't get into what our intelligence has gleaned from this launch. I don't think that would be appropriate. I think the mere fact that this launch involves dual-purpose capabilities is what causes concern to us in this government. The technology that's used to get this space launch -- to get this satellite into orbit, this space launch vehicle, the technology that's used to propel the satellite into space is one that could also be used to propel, you know, long-range ballistic missiles. And that is why it is of concern to us. 
 
                But the truth is, you know, this doesn't in any way change our assessment of the threat posed by Iran. We have long recognized that the threat -- that they pose a real threat, and it is a growing threat, and that they are determined to develop long-range ballistic missiles. And I think all of Europe has recognized that to be the case, and that is why they unanimously embraced a third site for missile defense in Europe. 
 
                And the Russians have recognized it, telling the secretary that they view Iran to be a threat as well. 
 
                Clearly everybody in the Middle East recognizes it. The Israelis in particular but also the Gulf States are very concerned about Iran's actions in this realm.   
 
                So this development today is cause for concern, not just here in the United States but in Europe, throughout the Middle East and, I believe, the greater world.   
 
                Q     We've known that they could launch ballistic missiles. The question is, the fact that they can use a missile to put a satellite in orbit means that the range of those missiles --  
 
                MR. MORRELL: I think, you know, I'm not an expert on these matters, Ken. All I can tell you is that it is cause for concern for people in this building and others in Washington and for the reasons I stated.   
 
                Yeah, Joe?
 
                Q     Any update from this building on Guantanamo?   
 
                MR. MORRELL: The only update I would have: The near-term responsibility of this building is to carry out this 30-day review of or this review that must be completed, within 30 days, of the detention operations down at Guantanamo, at the detention facility down there. The only development on that front is that the secretary has asked the vice chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Pat Walsh, to head that review. So you have a very high-level, you know, four-star admiral who will be heading up the review that will look into the detention operations down there.   
 
                You know, I would remind you that we believe that operations down at Gitmo have been in compliance with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions for some time and are still so. But we take this tasking from the White House very seriously. And that's why the secretary has asked a four-star flag officer to go down there and put fresh eyes on the situation down there and come back with a -- with the most up-to-date assessment of detention operations.   
 
                Q     Excuse me -- (off mike) -- after 30 days, we can see a clear vision -- clear decision about Guantanamo? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: No. This is a subset of the executive orders that the president signed a couple weeks ago, most -- all of which, I think, have year timelines on them at the maximum. But part of this -- part of the jumping-off taskings was for this building to do an appraisal of detention operations at Gitmo to ensure that they are in compliance with Common Article 3. So the secretary's asked the vice chief of naval operations to go down there himself and determine what exactly the situation is. 
 
                Q     Geoff? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: Okay, I'll do Al and then I'll say goodbye. 
 
                Q     Do the experts in this building have an assessment of the state of al Qaeda leadership following the recent series of air strikes into its hiding grounds in Pakistan? 
 
                MR. MORRELL: I think that -- I think, without speaking to air strikes, because we don't speak to those things here, I think that the efforts of the government to degrade al Qaeda in Pakistan with the assistance of the Pakistani military have -- are proving to be successful. 
 
                Thank you.
 
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