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DOD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
February 18, 2010

                MR. MORRELL:  Hey, guys.  Good afternoon.  This is going to be an abridged edition, much to the pleasure of my colleagues to the right, because the secretary and the vice president have an engagement at 1:00 at National Defense University.  So I urge you all to tune into that.  But let me just give you a quick rundown of the secretary's upcoming schedule, and then we'll get to your questions. 

 

                Tomorrow, for the third time since he retired as director and the first time since taking over the Defense Department, Secretary Gates will return to the CIA.  Director Panetta has kindly invited the secretary to come over for a luncheon meeting, after which he will address agency employees.  He will pay tribute to the agents who were killed or injured in last month's attack in Afghanistan, discuss the much-improved cooperation between the CIA and the military intelligence communities, and reflect on his time working at the agency for many years.  Those events, unfortunately for you all, will of course be closed to the press.

 

                On Monday night, the secretary will host a small dinner in honor of Anders Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO.  This dinner is to continue their discussions from the recent NATO defense ministerial meeting in Istanbul.  Guests will include the secretary of State, the national security adviser, and the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder. 

 

                The secretary-general is in town for the NATO Strategic Concept seminar, so on Tuesday Secretary Gates will give the opening remarks for that seminar at the National Defense University. 

 

                The Strategic Concept outlines the alliance's security tasks and guides its future political and military development.  It is being updated and revitalized to address new challenges that have arisen since the current concept was enacted in 1999.  The secretary will talk about the ongoing transformation of NATO from a defensive alliance to a more expeditionary force capable of dealing with a range of traditional and nontraditional threats.  This one will be open to the press.

 

                Later that morning, the secretary will open the inaugural meeting of the Council of Governors.  The Council of Governors was formed as part of the recommendations made by the Congress and the Commission on the National Guard and Reserve.  The council's mission is to strengthen the partnership between the federal and state governments to protect our nation against a range of hazards and threats, including natural disasters and acts of terrorism.  This is an important forum for exchanging views with state and local officials on homeland defense and the civilian-support challenges we face today and will continue to face in the future.

 

                Also Tuesday, the secretary will meet with the minister of Defense from Brazil, Nelson Jobim.  This is their third discussion over the last 14 months and will focus once again on increasing defense cooperation and exchanges between our two countries, specifically defense technology and trade.  The ongoing humanitarian operations in Haiti will also be high on the list of discussion points.

 

                Finally, on Wednesday night, the secretary will receive the Distinguished Service Award from the Nixon Center.  As many of you know, the Nixon Center was created by the late President Richard Nixon as an organization focused on international American policy in the post-Cold War era.  The secretary's honored by the distinction, is looking forward to the opportunity to share some thoughts on how this department is adapting to meet the most pressing security challenges of our time to include working with and through partner countries to overcome common threats.  And that event is also open to the press.

 

                So that's the rundown for between now and next Wednesday evening.  With that, let's get to it with our remaining 22 minutes. 

 

                Yes, Anne. 

 

                Q     There's --

 

                MR. MORRELL:  That's why I had to read so quickly.

 

                Q     There are reports coming out of Marja that the snipers there are alarmingly accurate, and more so than we've seen in the past.  Is this an issue that has risen to the level of Gates or other people at the Pentagon?  Have you been aware of this?  And is there anything that's being done about it?

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, luckily you guys had the benefit of a briefing from the RC South commander much closer to the operation in Helmand than I am or that the secretary is.  I can tell you this:  The secretary did receive a briefing this morning from General McChrystal on the ongoing operation down in Helmand, Operation Moshtarak, as well as other issues related to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

 

                He, I don't believe, was briefed specifically on the sniper threat.  I think the characterization that was offered to him was probably one that was similar to the one offered to you all by the RC South commander, and that is that this Afghan-initiated and Afghan-led operation is having great early success, but I stress early. 

 

                We're just six days into this.  We are still very much in the clearing phase, although there are -- there -- we do have assets in place and ready, and we are preparing to begin the hold and build phases.  And they have -- as I think General Carter mentioned to you, they are still meeting stiff resistance.  It is not very coordinated, but there still are holdouts who have remained in Marja and elsewhere in Helmand who have stayed to fight, and they're clearly going to fight to the bitter end.

 

                We have been sustaining casualties.  Yesterday I think we lost two more coalition forces.  We lost a couple of Afghan forces as well.  We mourn those losses.  But I think on the whole everybody is pleased with the -- with the rate of progress that we're seeing. 

 

                We are -- the biggest threat, as I understand it, to our forces right now is really from the slew of IEDs and mines and other explosives that have been left in the wake of many of the fleeing Taliban, those who left before the operation began and those who left once it began.  And so we are having to proceed at a very painstakingly slow rate to ensure that neither our forces nor any civilians are harmed by, you know, the bombs that have been left behind by these fighters.

 

                So a long way of getting back to your specific question with regards to the sniper threat is, it is not something that I believe has been raised to his level.  It's a -- frankly, it's -- although I've read in some of the press accounts some of the sniper issues -- we clearly are engaging in some small-arms battles with those forces that have remained behind -- it has not been an issue that has been highlighted, as far as I can tell. 

 

                Okay?  Yeah.

 

                Q     Yeah, could you talk a bit about the significance of this capture in Pakistan of the Afghan Taliban commander?  And then also --

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Let me just -- let me just add one thing.  And I don't -- I'm sure General Carter did.  One of the reasons that we're enjoying the success, I think, that we are thus far into this operation has been the extraordinary cooperation that we are getting from the Afghan locals in -- in and around Marja, who have put us in a position to identify IEDs before we happen upon them.  So their cooperation, their assistance is saving American and coalition lives, saving Afghan forces' lives and saving their fellow citizens' lives.  And so we are very much appreciative of that, because, after all, it is our highest priority to minimize civilian casualties.

 

                Obviously, we had a -- an unfortunate incident that happened a few days ago in which we did suffer some civilian casualties.  That investigation is still under way, although I think it clearly indicates thus far that, although civilians were in that house that was -- that was struck, that there were also insurgents in there who had been firing on our forces.

 

                Yeah, Phil (sp), I'm sorry.  So the pickups in Pakistan.  I'm not in a position to speak to any one of those with any specificity.  What I would only offer is that, between the ongoing operations that we have throughout Afghanistan, but in particularly -- particularly in Taliban strongholds, particularly in RC South and then the border region in RC East, as well as the sustained efforts that you've been reading about in Pakistan by the Pakistani military intelligence services, the Taliban is clearly being squeezed -- being squeezed by our forces, coalition forces, Afghan forces in Afghanistan, being squeezed by Pakistani military and intelligence forces in Pakistan. 

 

                And we have to see what the impact of this would be.  Our hope is clearly that this is creating a certain amount of discontent, worry, turmoil within the organization, such that it is, that Taliban fighters are going to think twice about remaining loyal to this cause and that this will ultimately adversely impact the momentum that they have enjoyed over the past several months.

 

                I think it's too soon to say with any certainty that we've -- that it has reversed the momentum trend that they had enjoyed.  I think you heard from General McChrystal last week when we were -- two weeks ago, I guess it was, when we were in Istanbul, that he no longer sees the situation as deteriorating.  But he was reluctant to go any further than that, so I'm certainly not going to.  But between the concerted efforts that you're seeing in Pakistan and the concerted efforts that we are undertaking along with our Afghan partners in Afghanistan, the squeeze is being put to the Taliban.

 

                Yeah, Mike.

 

                Q     Geoff, kind of along those same lines, there's been a concerted effort to grab -- capture or kill, I guess -- some of the local shadow governors of the -- around Afghanistan.  Can you talk just a bit about what those captures mean, and exactly what the -- what the shadow governments around Afghanistan have been -- have been doing in terms of --

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I -- I think -- you know, again, Mike, I think I fundamentally addressed this point.  I mean, I think that we are -- we believe, we certainly hope, that these combined efforts on both sides of the border are going to reverse the momentum that the Taliban had enjoyed.

 

                I can't speak with any specificity to any of these particulars but -- particular cases.  I'd urge you to, you know, talk to the Pakistani government about who they have and the significance of who they've picked up.

 

                We are obviously -- and you've heard me say it time and time again now over the last several months -- enormously pleased and gratified and heartened by the fact that the Pakistani government, the Pakistani military, their intelligence services, appreciate the threat that exists within their midst and is doing something about it.  That's reflected in the fact that they have an extraordinary number of forces now deployed on the border region in the west.  It's reflected in the fact that they are taking action against Taliban leaders.  There's a -- there's a host of examples of their recognition that this -- that this threat within their borders is every bit as much a danger to them as it is to us.

 

                Q     Can you talk, though, about what impact these shadow governments have been having on the effort?

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I mean, I think I would only -- I would only say, Mike, that clearly any attempt to undermine the legitimate government, the democratically elected government of Afghanistan is counterproductive.  And this is a fledgling government as it is; it's a government that has -- has been, you know, trying to get on its feet in the midst of war, in the midst of enormous economic hardships.  And the fact that there are those within the country who are trying to undermine it and set up alternative forms of governance are simply not helpful.  And so the more -- the more Pakistani leaders and shadow governors and wanna-be future leaders who are picked up, taken out, killed, arrested, whatever it may be, or want to lay down their arms and recognize and support the democratically elected government, the better.

 

                Yeah.

 

                Q     A couple of just quick questions --

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Let me just -- on this, I do want to note, though, for those of you who were with us in Istanbul, you heard the secretary talk several times about the need for more trainers in Afghanistan, and the need for countries that are supplying additional forces to Afghanistan to look at their mix of forces and to figure out if it might be better for the overall effort to provide more trainers than fighters at this point.

 

                Along those lines, we heard from the Italians today, or yesterday, that they have indeed adjusted their mix and, I think, are sending now 75 additional trainers.  So that's not on top of their -- the 1,000 forces that they have pledged, additional forces that they have pledged to the effort, but that is within that they are adjusting the mix to reflect the priorities of the commander, General McChrystal, and in response to the direct requests that were made by Secretary Gates at the ministerial and our subsequent visit to Rome a couple days later.

 

                Sorry.  Yeah.

 

                Q     I've got a couple of non-war assistance questions.  Will you --

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Okay, let's finish this, and we'll come -- we've got a couple of minutes to get to you.

 

                Q     Okay.

 

                Q     Can I follow up on the Pakistan question?  Should we attribute the sweep to increased cooperation by the Pakistanis, or an increased willingness of them to go after the Taliban?  Or should we -- is this lucky intelligence?

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I wouldn't -- I wouldn't attribute any specific operation to any particular motive.  I am speaking generally about the way the Pakistani government and its military and its secure -- intelligence services have responded to this threat over the last several months.

 

                Q     What would you say to critics who are saying this -- or the timing of this is almost suspicious?  The fact that so many of these big fish are being hooked at the same time is raising questions about Pakistan's motives here.  I mean, it comes just days after they say they want to be involved in reconciliation efforts.  The New York Times says now that this guy Baradar is one of the most approachable members of the Taliban.  People are wondering -- maybe Pakistan has motives to gain political favor here.  What do you say to that? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Again, I mean, I think the question was asked in a different way by your colleague to your left.  I'm not going to speak to their motives.  I'm not going to speak to any of the specific operations or these specific captures. 

 

                What I will say to you yet again is that we are enormously heartened by the fact that the Pakistani government and their military and intelligence services increasingly recognize the threat within their midst and are doing something about it.

 

                Yeah, Iraq, you said.  Is that right?

 

                Q     Yeah.  Just this morning we had reports of another bomb, in Ramadi this time.  In the previous months you described these attacks as, you know, few and far between, high-profile.  Have you seen a shift in that assessment, are we making a shift in that assessment of the attacks that are coming?  And is there going to be any change of the U.S. preparation for the elections because of these?  Are more troops going to be sent out to secure --

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Not that I know of.  I mean -- and I -- you know, I normally wouldn't speak of this from this distance, but Secretary Gates did get an update from General Odierno when he was in town yesterday.  He remains in town and will brief you, I believe, on Monday morning here. 

 

                But no, I think -- in fact, he was -- he met with the secretary shortly after the publication of that front-page Washington Post story -- you know, the sky is falling; sectarian violence is about to break out again; we're going to have a repeat of 2005, 2006 in Baghdad -- and he just couldn't disagree any more strongly with the story and can point to any number of examples of why it is not akin in any way to the horrors that we saw in 2005, 2006. 

 

                I mean, fundamentally, let's remember the context.  We are now a few weeks away from a major election in Baghdad -- in Iraq.  This is -- as horrific as some of these attacks have been, it is -- it is not unexpected.  This is the kind of pre-election tension and violence that had been anticipated.  Frankly, it has not been to the levels that some might expected.

 

                We are clearly heartened by the fact that unlike 2005, there is no credible call for boycotting these elections by any noteworthy politician.  In fact, the leading Sunni politician, al-Mutlaq, is actually encouraging widespread Sunni participation in the election as a means to redress some of their concerns.  I think all the major coalitions involved in the election understand the importance of trying to form a government as quickly as possible after the election, so that there is not this period of uncertainty and potential turmoil in the wake of it, and that they all recognize that it's going to have to be some sort of coalition that's built among competing parties.

 

                I think -- and by any objective measure, the number of security incidents is down dramatically and that even ethno-sectarian violence remains extraordinarily low. 

 

                And we're always heartened by the fact that the -- that there is no evidence thus far that the Iraqi people are in any way losing confidence in their security forces or that Shi'a militias are starting up or that the Sunnis are turning to al Qaeda.  And even if they were to, al Qaeda has been so decimated, they aren't in a position to undermine things to the extent that they -- that they did back in 2005, 2006.

 

                So I -- yes, I come back to the same point we've made time and time again:  that al Qaeda has been diminished to the point that they have to husband resources, ammunition, personnel and launch high-profile attacks with less and less frequency and attempt to reignite sectarian violence.  And time and time again they have done it, and time and time again it has not resulted in the outcome that they had wished.

 

                Yes, Mikey.

 

                Q     Geoff, a couple quick ones.  One, are you aware of any military resources assisting with this plane crash in Austin, Texas?

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I'm not.  I think that it is -- as I came in here, it's -- as I understand it, it's a Homeland Security issue, FAA issue.  And even if there were something sinister to be determined here, I think it would be for others and not us to deal with.

 

                Q     Okay.  About your point about al Qaeda, a West Point study recently out says that al Qaeda support in Muslim countries has dropped substantially.  Obviously that would be heartening news to the U.S. and its allies, but do you have an explanation for that, or do you want to comment on that?

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I think I'd defer to the study.  They're the experts, no?

 

                I mean, I -- listen, I mean, there's been a -- there's been a number of studies.  There's certainly been anecdotal evidence to suggest that this bankrupt ideology has certainly not been winning over people in the past, you know, nearly 10 years that it's sort of been on this most recent offensive.  And, you know -- and that's for a number of reasons.  I'm just -- speaking off the top of my head here. 

 

                But the fact is that what they are professing and preaching and promulgating is not consistent with the tenets of the Koran and what this otherwise peaceful religion is all about.  And so I don't think it resonates with the vast majority of Muslims around the world, in addition to the fact that the preponderance of their attacks, it seems, are so indiscriminate in nature that, you know, there have been an untold number of Muslim victims as a result of their campaign of terror.  So I don't think they have done anything.

 

                And my last point, just off the top of my head, would be that there is nothing here that they are offering to anyone other than death and destruction.  There is nothing that they are offering as an alternative to this Western way of life that they so despise.  There is no hope, there is no future, there is no building, there is no education, there is no promise.  I think those combination of factors are probably rooted in why it has not taken off probably as they wished it would.

 

                Sorry, five more minutes.  You, Tony Capaccio. 

 

                Q     (Off mike) -- tanker issue.  The final RFP is supposed to come out by the end of the month.  What steps, in one minute or less, has the Pentagon taken to mitigate losing in a protest?  What steps has it done to scrub the -- (inaudible)?

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to go through specific steps.  I mean, what I will tell you is, frankly, what I have told you some variation of before, that when we did the draft RFP process, we did it for a reason.  We sent out a draft for a reason, which is we want comments.  We want comments from industry, we want comments from Congress.  Those comments came in in abundance.  We then took those comments, or are taking those comments, and reviewing them.  And many of them are quite good and helpful.  And as I told you before, we are making adjustments to the RFP to reflect the fact that there were errors pointed out to us.

 

                Now, I think the implication is that somehow we are making adjustments to favor one person -- one party or another, because one party was threatening to abandon the competition.  I can tell you definitively there couldn't be -- that couldn't be any further from the truth.  We are trying to be as fair as humanly possible about this competition.  Our only goal here is to get our warfighters a new tanker so that they can have the support they need to be successful in their operations, and to get the taxpayers the best deal for their money.

 

                We don't have a dog in this fight otherwise.  We don't care who wins.  We want the warfighter and the taxpayer to win.  So we want to design a competition that is as fair as possible.  And that's what we are in the process of doing.  You will see a formal RFP released in the coming weeks.  And we hope to God that both -- that however many competitors wish to bid see it as what it is intended to be, which is an honest, fair attempt to produce a competition that provides our warfighters with the best plane possible and the taxpayers with the best value for their money.  That's it; no more, no less.

 

                Q     Last week, after 16 years in development, the famous airborne laser shot down a missile.  Will that notable success force the secretary to rethink his opposition to the program? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  But he was never opposed -- Tony, he was never opposed to the program.  He had issues with the platform.  The CONOP on the platform didn't work.  The whole idea is you got to hover a 747 in enemy territory to shoot down a missile in its boost phase, at extraordinary cost these planes were going to be built at.  He's always said the technology is important, and that's why, although we did away with the platform, we still are investing in the technology. 

 

                Directed energy still shows the most hopes, the most promise for dealing with the boost phase of missile defense.  And so we continue to invest there.  It's reflected in the FY '11 budget proposal. 

 

                And so I would just take issue with your characterization that he had an issue with the ABL or with directed energy.  He had an issue with the platform.  And we still very much want to pursue development of this promising technology, and we'll figure out down the road what the appropriate and cost-effective platform is. 

 

                Okay?  I got time for one or two more.  Yeah, go ahead.

 

                Q    Geoff, last week -- two weeks ago the secretary testified that -- to the House Armed Services Committee that he had not been consulted on the Obama administration's decision to cancel NASA's constellation program.  Does the department have any concerns about what the impact of that cancellation might have on military space programs?

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Not -- I mean, listen, you're catching me blindsided.  If it's a space -- that is so esoteric for my -- for my knowledge base that you're better to get me offline than up here.  I have no idea.  But I'm happy to help you afterwards. 

 

                Yeah. 

 

                Q     Real quickly, has there been a decision made to change within the Pentagon -- to change the dress code for the military?  And if so, what's the thinking behind that? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Let me try to do this in one minute. 

 

                There's not been a decision from on high about this.  To give you the quick history of this, the secretary has for a long time been thinking about making a change in his office.  When he came back from Christmas vacation, he asked his military staff to switch out of their BDUs, out of their fatigues, and into dress uniforms, their more appropriate work uniforms. 

 

                His thinking was simply that this is the headquarters of the United States military in our nation's capital.  He hosts leaders from around the world.  The people we do business with, from across the river, the professionals that come to see us are all dressed in business attire.  And he thought it was time for his office to be dressed accordingly. 

 

                This is -- he understands fully why this building changed in 19 -- in 2001 into its fatigues.  This building was hit, it was attacked.  We were at war.  Not only was that the appropriate dress, in the aftermath of that attack, it showed solidarity with the warfighter. 

 

                I think we are at a point now where he believes at least that what one dresses in does not necessarily reflect their commitment to the warfighter or, and that there are other ways to demonstrate their solidarity.  Frankly it's by doing everything you can, once you walk in this door every day, to make sure they have what they need to succeed. 

 

                This was not a mandate for the building as a whole.  This was meant for his staff.  If others take notice, as they clearly have, and make adjustments, that is their decision.  And I think you've seen some offices go about that. 

 

                You'll certainly see the people you deal with in Public Affairs, starting Monday [March 1], dressed in their business or dress attire.  And I think you'll likely see other officers in the building as well.  But it was not by fiat.  It was not mandated.  It's -- they've probably taken notice of the change upstairs and re-evaluated their own policies. 

 

                Okay, thank you all. 

 

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