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DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
March 17, 2009 12:00 PM EDT

                 MR. MORRELL:  Good afternoon, and happy Saint Patrick's Day. It's nice to be with you all today.  I have a quick announcement and then will be happy to take your questions.   


                 Late last night Secretary Gates traveled to Dover Air Force Base to pay his respects to four service members killed in Afghanistan over the weekend.  He wanted to personally honor the sacrifice of three soldiers and one airman who died when their vehicle was hit by an IED near Jalalabad on Sunday. 


                 The secretary was enormously impressed by the professionalism of the air crew, the honor guards, the Mortuary Affairs personnel and really everyone involved in this process.  He very much appreciates their steadfast commitment to treating our returning war dead as the fallen heroes they truly are. 


                 And with that, I'll take your questions.  Anne? 


                 Q      Is the final decision or the announcement of the sort of implementation of that decision for media coverage at Dover close at hand?  And was there any media presence at all for the return last night? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  The implementation committee, the working group, if you will, is still working.  They've met with the Secretary, I believe it was last week, and presented him with their initial recommendations.  They have some additional work to do.  They will eventually report back to him.  I would say we're likely a matter of weeks rather than months away from the new procedures being implemented.   


                 As for how long after that a military family -- families of the fallen were to avail themselves of this new policy, I don't know how long that will take.  But there is still some additional work to do, and the secretary has to sign off on the final recommendations of the working group in terms of how this is all going to all take place. 


                 Q      There was no presence inside, outside, anywhere? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  There was not, no.  And we did not travel even with an official photographer.  This was merely a personal visit of the secretary's, something that really you may find hard to believe was -- is completely detached, in his mind, from his decision about media access to Dover.  This is something he has been meaning to do for months, for months now, and it has been very, very difficult to schedule.  He was -- he has been pushing his staff to find the time and the means to do it, and they were able to do so last night.  And it was a very -- it was a very moving experience for him. 


                 Q     But to follow, if in this interim period a family says that because they know that the procedures are -- will soon be in place to allow media access, they want to, you know, have that access before all the "i's" are dotted, could that happen?  Would you-all make that happen? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  I would say, Anne that we are working as quickly and as responsibly as possible to get what is the best policy in place that reflects the secretary's wishes that the families' wishes be honored.  But I think it's in the best interest of everyone that all the "t's" be crossed and all the "i's" dotted before we do this on an ad-hoc basis.  This is serious stuff involving very sensitive family decisions, and we want to make sure that we are prepared for every possible eventuality.  


                 And so this -- this working group is completely dedicated to this task.  They've spent hours and hours on this thus far, and I think they are doing their -- their very best to try to get it done as quickly as possible. 


                 Yeah, Jeff. 


                 Q      Understood that it may be weeks before the new policy is implemented, but do you have any idea time wise of when the secretary might sign the new policy? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  I think, as I said, there's still some work that has to be done, Jeff, before the working group presents the secretary with what they believe to be their final implementation procedures, the ones they recommend.  So hopefully that'll take place, you know, very soon. 


                 I can't tell you with any precision how soon at this point.  I think they are working furiously to get it done, but I don't think anything is scheduled yet in terms of presenting those final recommendations to the secretary. 




                 Q      Russian President Medvedev today announced that Moscow plans to rearm on a big scale in the next years.  So is Russia's military buildup something to worry about?  And, second question, does this mean that the U.S. has to be careful not to neglect its need to devote sufficient budget to conventional weapons? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  On the first part of the question, I -- Russia is an independent sovereign state perfectly entitled to a robust self- defense.  I don't -- I have not heard any alarm in this building about any proposed Russian buildup of its military. 


                 I think the secretary has talked in the -- in the past, rather, about the challenges that the Russian government faces with regards to demographics which will inhibit its ability to probably maintain a military conventional force at this size into the future.  And as a result, we've noticed that the Russian government is investing heavily in its strategic arsenal.  That's a fact of life. 


                 I think we are always -- we are always mindful of how people are -- are arming themselves around the world, and we encourage everybody to be as transparent as possible so there's no misunderstanding about intentions.  Thankfully, we enjoy a good military-to-military relationship with the Russians.  And I think that you could ask the chairman that he is in good and regular contact with his counterpart in the Russian military.  As long as we have a good dialogue and a good understanding of what we are both developing our militaries for, I don't see that it poses a problem or a threat that we should be concerned with. 


                 Yeah, Justin? 


                 Q      Geoff, top commanders all the way up to the president would concede that we're not winning the war in Afghanistan.  But what about Iraq?  Is that war won? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Well, I don't think you've ever heard the secretary of Defense talk about either conflict in the terms of winning or losing.  I mean, but he has very clearly spoken of the fact that there has been enormous progress made in Iraq, particularly on the security side, but I -- I think he would tell you also on the political side. 


                 You know, you -- the best person to ask about this is the commander who's responsible for it.  And I think that General Odierno would tell you that the gains they've made are still -- are still fragile, not as fragile as they were when he took over, clearly.  And most of the fragility is located in particular hot spots -- I mean, the north and the Arab-Kurd tension areas, such as Kirkuk, and some of the remaining al Qaeda hotspots, such as Mosul and Diyala, that is where the fragility exists.  But you know, throughout the southern swath -- Basra had historically been a very insecure area.  Really, ever since Prime Minister Maliki's offensive last year we've seen remarkable calm in the south, and indeed, relative prosperity. Baghdad is enjoying a degree of stability that had -- that had escaped it, you know, since the outset of this war, really, six years ago. 


                 So I think that there's enormous progress, but I don't think anybody's ready to embrace terms such as "winning" or "won." 


                 Q      If you look back to the 18 benchmarks that were set out a couple years ago by the president, you could argue -- and officials at the State Department would even say that 17 out of 18 of those could be marked satisfactory now, possibly even all 18.  Is there any thinking about those benchmarks anymore?  Or are those completely washed away?  Or do people refer to those anymore?  At what point, then, can you start to say -- use the word "winning"? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Well, I mean, Justin, you know, I don't know what purpose using the word "winning" serves.  I mean, I think that the progress is obvious.  It's undeniable.  But I'm not so sure that words such as "winning" or "won" are -- are necessary.  I think that it's the responsibility of people in this building -- I mean, if commentators wish to use it, that's their prerogative, but it's the responsibility of people in this building to always be very realistic, to always be very cautious, to always be very mindful of the fact that -- that things happen which can reverse trends -- reverse positive trends. 


                 And so what you've seen from General Odierno is, in his working with the department and with the White House in fashioning the way ahead in Iraq, is flexibility to keep enough of a ground force at hand through the pivotal elections that are coming up -- both the district and sub-district hopefully in June and then the national elections in December -- that you have enough of a force on the ground to deal with any contingency that may present itself.  And then once we're on the other side of that, once there is hopefully a peaceful transfer of power after those elections, you would begin to see a more rapid drawdown of brigades, of combat brigades in Iraq. 


                 Q      So if a commentator were to use the word "won" would you dispute it? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  It's -- Steve, I don't know.  I mean, I don't know how many times I can really answer this question.  There's reluctance on the part of the secretary and the people who work in this building to use terms such as "winning" or "won."  I don't know that he or any of us would go out of our way to say they're wrong; they're premature to use that.  That's just not how we choose to characterize the situation on the ground. 


                 That doesn't mean that we are -- that we are deniers of the fact that there is enormous progress being made, but there's still more work to be done, not just on the security side.  You know, obviously we've got those hot spots that I spoke about, particularly in the north.  But we also have much more work to be done on the political side.  And so we are going to be cautious about it until we see some -- until we see such gains that we can all maybe start to consider things of that nature.  But I think we're a long, long way from that still. 


                 Q      I have one more question. 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Yeah? 


                 Q      On this Iranian drone that was shot down in Iraq -- 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Yes. 


                 Q      I had never heard there were Iranians running drones into Iraq as surveillance vehicles before.  Do you know that they had?  And if they had, why didn't we know about it? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  I -- you know, frankly, Steve, I don't know that they had.  As far as I know, this is the first of its kind.  I frankly don't know why it should come as a surprise to anybody.  The Iranians have tried multiple methods of destabilizing the government in Iraq, of providing extremist groups with the means to attack our forces and Iraqi security forces. 


                 So the fact that they sent a surveillance drone several miles into sovereign Iraqi territory and then hovered for more than an hour shouldn't come, I think, as a surprise to anybody; although it was the first, I think, that we've seen of that particular method. 


                 And when we saw it, as far as I know -- and Multinational Forces- Iraq has put out a statement to this effect -- as far as I know, we watched it for more than an hour; made sure that it was not any sort of coalition aircraft; eventually went about clearing the air space, to try to mitigate any collateral damage; and then shot it down. 


                 But we couldn't allow it to remain there, in part because it was operating in an area that is a high air traffic zone, and would have presented a danger to coalition aircraft; not to mention the fact it was in violation of sovereign Iraqi air space. 


                 Yeah, Tom? 


                 Q      Do you know -- and if so, can you say -- what it was looking at?  The statement from Iraq sort of said where it was.  We all have maps.  But was there some mission underway?  Is this an important Iraqi security force area?  Was it perhaps monitoring, you know, an Iranian operation of some kind along the border? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Well, I would argue, Tom that it was significantly in from the border.  This was, you know, tens of kilometers into Iraqi territory, so this was not a stray UAV flight.  I mean, this was by no means a mistake.  This UAV was several -- tens of kilometers inside Iraq, as MNF-I has said, about 65 miles northeast of Baghdad.  It would be pure speculation, Tom, to say what they were looking at, although there is exploitation underway right now of the debris from the aircraft to try to determine what precisely they had their eyes on. 


                 Anybody else on this? 


                 Q      But you're looking at the drone now?  You're examining it? Is that correct? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Sure. 




                 Q      A non-drone question? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Anything else on this? 


                 Q      Yes, a drone of this nature, which implies that it was collecting information and sending it back somewhere as well, is there any attempt that you can say to get to that information, or to strike such a location?  Or would this be license to do that? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  I, frankly, don't know if it was a drone that was capable of sending -- sending signals back or whether it was merely recording and then was going to return and its video or data then exploited by the Iranians.  So I'm not -- I'm not sure enough as to what precisely the capabilities of this drone were.  All I can tell you is that we're in the process of exploiting the debris that we've recovered. 


                 Q     Is there any initial sense of how sophisticated it was, though? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  I don't.  If there is, I don't have a good sense of it. 




                 Q      On the budget bill.  Can you give a sense of timing here of when decisions may get wrapped up?  Since the White House is shooting for a mid-August date -- excuse me, mid-April date, do you need to have figures in line and books printed?  I mean, is there any drop- dead date here? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  You're trying to figure out your vacation, your spring vacation?  (Laughter.) 


                 Q      (Off mike.) 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Stay tuned.  Don't go away.   


                 No, I would say, Tony, that there's still a lot of work to be done.  And if you were to -- if you were to read the tea leaves, I think the fact the secretary is not traveling to the NATO summit in Strasbourg is a sign of how long he expects the process to be going on at least, and that means at least through, what, the 3rd or 4th of April.   


                 He would normally have attended that.  It's the 60th anniversary, after all, of the alliance.  But the process under way in this building is not sufficiently evolved that he feels he can get away at that time.  He's still got dozens of decisions that have to be made.   


                 And so I think we are -- we are standing by.  But I would read -- the only thing I could tell you in terms of direction is he's not going to NATO, for the purpose of working on the budget.  So we're going to be hard at work at least through those dates. 


                 Q     One follow up, too.  A number of defense contractors, in their ads touting their products, like the F-22 and Lockheed, have highlighted the employment -- the implications of cutting programs or the employment benefits of having these programs in place.  One question for you.  To what extent are jobs considerations part of the budget review when you're looking at programs having serious execution issues or those simply that are big and need a lot of money?  Is the jobs issue playing within this building in terms of analysis? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Not at all. 


                 Q      Why not? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  It's not the responsibility of this building to worry about the economic impact of budgetary decisions.  It's the responsibility of the secretary and this building to provide recommendation to the president about what's in the best interest of our national security.  And that's the advice he will give.  That's the budget he is building.  If the president and the rest of his team wish to make adjustments to it, it is their budget.   


                 So if there is a determination made, at the White House, that there needs to be greater consideration for the economic impact of individual decisions or the budget as a whole that is their prerogative.  But the secretary and his staff are charged with providing a budget that protects the American people and our interest around the world.  And that's what he is focused on.   


                 And I just, you know, I talked about the idea that there are dozens of decisions that have to be made.  I would remind everyone of the secretary's words from up here a couple weeks ago.  And that is that he has made no decisions.  That still holds true.   


                 He does not anticipate making decisions until the very end of this process.  Because I've seen a couple of stories that have been written lately, including at least one today, which have suggested that decisions have been made about at least a few programs.  And I can tell you emphatically, none have been made.   


                 Q      When you say dozens of decisions, like 36 to --  


                 MR. MORRELL:  Listen, I'm not going to be any more specific than I have been.   




                 Q      Geoff, going back to Afghanistan, how much is the secretary worried?  And what do you think he's going to advise today, when he meets with the president, at the White House?   


                 I understand the review is still going on, on the process, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But the recent situation and demonstrations in Pakistan, because two kinds of wars are going on in Pakistan.  One is their internal demonstrations, and second is al Qaeda and the Taliban.  So this must be worrying to the region and also NATO and the U.S. forces.   


                 And second, the Indian secretary was here --  


                 MR. MORRELL:  I'll come -- I won't remember all this stuff if I take two at once.  I think you said there are two wars going on at once, in Pakistan, the internal al Qaeda threat and the demonstrations.   


                 Listen, I think, that is complete hyperbole.  I don't know anybody who would characterize what were largely violence-free demonstrations as in any way a war.  And we were certainly pleased to see them resolved in a non-violent manner.  But frankly that's a matter for my colleagues over at the State Department.   


                 Listen, the situation in Pakistan, as I've said time and time again from this podium, is of paramount concern to us.  But we take some degree of comfort and draw some confidence from the fact that the Pakistani government and the Pakistani military recognize that the al Qaeda threat which exists, in the ungoverned territories on the border, is a threat not just to us but to them.   


                 And there is a concerted effort under way by the Pakistani military, particularly in Bajaur, to combat that threat.  There are other tactics used in -- for example, in Swat, which historically have not borne much fruit but perhaps will play out differently this time.   


                 But I think there is clearly recognition by the Pakistanis that this is a serious threat not just to us but to them as well.  And we are determined to help them in any means that they are comfortable with, and we are looking for creative ways to do so. 


                 So that's where our focus is right now. 


                 Q      Second, the Indian foreign secretary was in Washington last week out of concern over these regional things going on.  He was also here at the Pentagon.  Whether he ever made any request to -- on the -- on behalf of India, any new weapons or any military-to-military concerns or buying? -- 


                 MR. MORRELL:  I -- I'm not familiar with that -- 


                 Q      -- Nuclear -- civil nuclear agreement -- 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Yeah.  I'm not familiar with that visit or any specific requests.  Obviously, we enjoy an excellent military-to- military relationship with India -- a very good government-to- government relationship as well.   


                 The secretary traveled there last year.  I think he wishes to travel there again in the future to build upon the progress he made. But I'm not aware of any specific requests or things that we're working on that are new or different. 


                 Q      Civil nuclear, anything -- he -- did he -- mentioned -- 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Again, I'm not familiar with the meeting, so I can't tell you what was mentioned. 


                 Hey, Chris. 


                 Q      Hey.  With the troops training now to head -- more troops heading into Afghanistan and the clock ticking on Kyrgyzstan, have there been any further talks to rework that agreement or open up some more supply lines? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Well, I mean, I think we believe that we have multiple and very good supply lines right now.  I think the impetus for the question is this rather -- at least video-wise -- spectacular attack that took place at a -- at some sort of a staging area for vehicles that were to be shipped into Afghanistan. 


                 I saw that video.  It was spectacular.   


                 The truth is, though, the attack was less effective than perhaps the video would have you believe.  I mean, I think we lost maybe a dozen or two vehicles in that attack.  Doesn't excuse it.  It's still a bad thing.  We've seen a steady uptick in attacks on our Pakistan supply routes.   


                 But the truth is, Chris, for example, last week we had near- record through-put of supplies through the Khyber Pass.  So I think I would caution everybody against trying to characterize our supply lines through Pakistan as imperiled.   


                 Obviously the situation in Pakistan, security-wise, is tenuous, and we are constantly watching it.  But our supply lines through Pakistan still serve us well.  We had near-record through-put last week, in fact, despite that spectacular attack.   


                 And -- but at the same time, we always have backups, either in place or in the works.  And so we now have this northern distribution network, which is in various stages of development.  We have freight that's passing through Russia.  We have -- several of the "Stans" have agreed to cooperate with us in terms of rail and road lines, and we're in talks with others. 


                 With regards to Manas, it remains open.  We still have several months in which to work with the Kyrgyz about its ultimate disposition.  We look forward to engaging in negotiations with them in the very near future.   


                 But you know, for the purposes of passenger through-put into Afghanistan, we have alternatives, should they become necessary.  It is -- as we've said time and time, it's an important base, but it's not irreplaceable.  We're willing to pay more, but we're not willing to pay any price.  And we do already have a number of viable options lined up, should they become necessary. 


                 Okay.  Everybody's running out of steam. 


                 Q      (Chuckles.) 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Andrew? 


                 Q      What's the latest thinking on the Afghan review, in terms of its timing?  And is the Pentagon still involved in providing input, or is it now in a kind of drafting stage with the NSC? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  I really am not the best person to speak to this. I mean, I could answer probably a couple of those questions, but it's not my place to do so.  This is a White House review at the behest of the president, so I'd ask you to speak with them. 


                 I can -- the only part of that question that I feel entitled to answer is our continued role.  Yes, Michelle Flournoy is still very actively engaged in this.  The secretary is now engaged in this.  So I think -- 


                 Q      In particular, will he be holding meetings this week regarding the -- 


                 MR. MORRELL:  I wouldn't want to -- I wouldn't want to speak with any more specificity than I have.  I mean, he's engaged, secretary -- or Undersecretary Flournoy is engaged.  There are a couple other key members of the team from this department and, as I've talked about before, Mike Vickers and David Sedney sort of chief among them.  Okay? 


                 Yes, Steve. 


                 Q      On missile defense -- the GAO report recently that the European system you have planned would deploy in Eastern Europe, but it doesn't work that well, it costs billions of dollars, and especially hasn't overcome the obstacle of decoys yet.  Are you still confident that you can go forward and solve those problems? 


                 MR. MORRELL:  Well, there's a couple different questions.  If you're asking it in a political context, that's one question.  If you're asking about the technology itself, I think that we've been very up-front about all these tests that have taken place over the years; have kept a score card; have shared it with you all after each and every one. 


                 Since 2001, there have been 37 successful intercepts in 47 tests against ballistic missiles of all ranges, short to long range.  So I think that percentage would make somebody very, very wealthy in major league baseball.  So I think it's the belief of people who are -- who deal with this matter in this building that the technology works.  I think it's the belief of the allies in NATO, who endorsed this a year ago, that it was viable and worth pursuing. 


                 But ultimately, this is going to be a decision for the new administration to make, once it reviews this system in the context of its technological capabilities, but also the political reality, and that I don't think has begun yet.  There's been a few other things on the plate.  But I think it's the desire of the president to deal with this, and we're ready to -- when he's ready to -- help him out. 


                 Q      Have all these 37 successful intercepts had decoys deployed?   


                 MR. MORRELL:  I'd refer you really to our missile defense people, who can tell you with precision the types of tasks and whether or not decoys were deployed.   


                 Q      Explaining the figures though, most of this is -- a lot of these are missiles launched at sea, short-and-medium-range. (Inaudible) -- ground-based systems that would be in Europe.   


                 MR. MORRELL:  Well, I guess, Tony, what I would disagree with you there is, missile defense, as we view it, is a variety of platforms. And we believe the people who work this system, in this building, believe that those platforms have technological capabilities that are undeniable.  But is it 100 percent?  Absolutely not.  Is it a work in progress?  Certainly is.   


                 Whether or not this will ultimately be something we pursue, in Europe, is something that's up to the president, I'm sure, working in close consultation with the secretary.  But the stats are what they are.  If you wish to speak further about it, I'd refer you to our missile defense folks.   


                 Okay.  Anybody else.  Last one.   




                 Q      One way to make Defense Department's personnel life a lot easier is to find a way that they could use thumb drives again.  Can you talk about what's being done that would allow them to use the portable devices that were banned in November?   


                 MR. MORRELL:  Are you asking this as a Stars and Stripes employee with a personal, vested interest in this or on behalf of --  


                 Q      When we went with, traveled with Admiral Mullen, that was the first question he was asked, at Fort Campbell, because this ban on portable devices, pardon my French, is a tremendous pain in the ass. And this is something that I'm guessing, if you talk to other Defense Department personnel about, you'd hear the same thing.   


                 MR. MORRELL:  Yeah.   


                 It clearly has presented additional hardships on people.  But I think everybody realizes the reason why we have taken the precautions we have taken.  We have to protect the integrity of our computer system, of our computer networks.   


                 And as long as that is -- as long as that is in jeopardy and as long as classified information is potentially at risk, we need to be mindful -- or rather not just classified-- any information is potentially at risk, we need to be mindful of precautions such as not using external devices like thumb drives.   


                 I couldn't tell you, Jeff, if there are plans right now or if there is a review under way, to determine if it needs -- how much longer they need to remain with that ban.  But perhaps we can check with the appropriate people and see if there's an update.  


                 Q      Thank you.   


                 MR. MORRELL:  Okay, thank you all.  Good to see you.









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