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DOD News Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon

Presenter: Press Secretary George E. Little
May 17, 2012

            GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon.  Before taking your questions, let me preview the next few days.  This weekend, as you know, Secretary Panetta travels to Chicago for the NATO summit.  At the summit, Secretary Panetta will participate in discussions with heads of state and will attend three North Atlantic Council sessions -- the first on 21st-century NATO capabilities, the second with ISAF nations on the long-term commitment to Afghanistan, and the third on NATO partnerships involving partners in the Libya operation and discussing how NATO can work with these and other nations in the future.  In addition to these sessions, the secretary will have the opportunity to convene a working dinner of his fellow defense ministers. 

            This summit comes at an important and historic time for the alliance.  NATO nations have come a long way together in recent years, and allies and partners can take stock of that and look for ways to strengthen cooperation in the future. 

            On Afghanistan, which as you know is a major focus of the summit, the secretary is confident that the alliance will demonstrate its commitment in finishing the job in that country.  That means implementing the Lisbon framework in accordance with the principle of “in together, out together. “

            Last year was a turning point for that effort in Afghanistan, and progress has continued this year.  The Taliban have been weakened. Al-Qaida's organization has been decimated, and violence levels are down across the country, including in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south. 

            The third tranche of transition will bring three-quarters of the Afghan people under Afghan security lead.  All of that has sent a clear signal that the campaign is on track and that the international community remains committed to helping Afghanistan secure and govern itself. 

            Secretary Panetta looks forward to discussing with fellow ministers how to continue the transition to Afghan lead, to support sustainment of the ANSF and to determine the long-term relationship NATO will have with Afghanistan.  All of these steps will help define how we can responsibly conclude the war in Afghanistan while achieving our objectives and building a long-term partnership with the Afghan people. 

            Also while in Chicago, the secretary will join Secretary Shinseki for a visit to the James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, which is the first of its kind, joint DOD/VA hospital.  The DOD and VA health care systems continue to expand and integrate their services. This visit provides an opportunity for both secretaries to meet health care professionals and continue their dialogue about how to deliver the best possible treatment and care for our service members and veterans. 

            Following the visit there, there will be a joint press conference with the secretaries.  And we will send out a media advisory with additional details as well. 

            With that, let me open it up to your questions. 

            Lita. 

            Q:  George, two things.  One, can you talk anything -- any more about the discussions that the secretary had with Minister Barak specifically about Iran ahead of nuclear talks that are going to start next week? 

            And there's been a couple, I guess, estimates of how much the new Pakistan ground routes are going to cost, from like 1,500 to 5,000 [dollars] a day.  Can you provide any reality into some of these numbers and talk about when you think this may be a little bit more enlightening? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            On the first question, Lita, the secretary and Minister Barak had a very positive meeting today.  You've seen the statement that came out of that meeting on Iron Dome.  I think that Secretary Panetta has met with Minister Barak more than any of the other defense ministers since he became secretary of defense.  They've met here at the Pentagon, they've met, of course, in Israel last fall, and they've met in Canada.  So they have a very good working relationship.   

            And the clear message that these meetings send is that we have an unwavering commitment to the security of Israel that's reflected across the range of challenges that we both confront.  And of course, you saw the announcement on Iron Dome today, which signals our continued commitment to Israeli missile defense capabilities.  While I can't get into the specifics of their discussion, I can say that the -- they, over the course of their dialogue over the past several months, have discussed global and regional security challenges.  And I think that reflects their discussion today.   

            On the issue of Pakistan and the discussions we're having with the Pakistanis on the ground lines of communication, those discussions continue.  And I don't want to get into the specifics at this stage, but we remain hopeful that the ground supply routes will remain open. And of course that's very important, we believe, to our effort in Afghanistan.  Our supplies are sound in the country right now, but it would be helpful, you know, to have those routes reopened. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Spencer.   

            Q:  A follow-on on Iron Dome; is the department looking for any applications that you -- that Iron Dome might have for the United States for either protecting, you know, site installations or perhaps Navy ships there? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The focus of Iron Dome is, of course, on Israel at this stage.  If there are applications elsewhere, I can't rule out the possibility that we'd be looking to, you know, transfer that knowledge elsewhere.  

            But this really is about Israel and our commitment to that system.  As you know, in March that system was responsible for, you know, taking down 300 -- or excuse me, 80 percent of several hundred rockets directed toward Israel.  So it's a proven system that works, and that's why you saw today's announcement.  It's a proven system. Missile defense is important to Israel, and we're committed to supporting the Israelis. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Tony. 

            Q:  I need to ask a little bit more on this, because $70 million in fiscal '12 -- is that what you're providing? 

            MR. LITTLE:  That's what we're proposing as a reprogramming effort. 

            Q:  And yet Congress -- and for the fiscal '13 budget as budgeted, $680 million versus $70 million -- it does seem like a bit of a David and Goliath mismatch financially.  Why so little money?  And are you going to be supportive of the $680 million? 

            MR. LITTLE:  What we're supportive of is a very structured approach with the Israelis, and they agree with us, as we saw from Minister Barak's statement today, 70 million [dollars] this year, and then at the end of the year we'll assess where we are.  This is about assessing new technical challenges that may come our way, threats in the future.  So we may need to make adjustments going forward.  But I think it's safe to say that we have an enduring commitment to Israeli missile defense.  What the number will be in the out-years, I don't know for the moment.  But we expect to have a continued commitment to missile defense in the future.  So this is about -- this is about preserving a structured approach that's prudent and measured. 

            Q:  Last week Secretary Panetta complained about the adds from Congress that they will take from other needed programs.  Six hundred eighty million [dollars] was not requested by the Pentagon. 

            Are you going to oppose that money to Israel?  Or is that pretty much off the table in terms of opposition, because it's Israel?   

            MR. LITTLE:  We're talking about proposed reprogramming, Tony, here.  And that's -- you know, 70 million [dollars] is not a small sum, but it's certainly not as large as 680 million [dollars]. But this is, again, about a prudent, measured approached toward supporting Israeli missile defense.  And I don't see this having a major impact on our budget proposals.  This is perfectly consistent with our defense strategy and our commitment to the alliance with Israel. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) I'm talking about the 680 million dollars -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  That never happens. 

            Q:  If that's the case, you know, the '13 budget, it's got nothing to do with your budget proposal.  I'm asking -- it's well above anything you've requested for Iron Dome in '13, which was zero.  

            MR. LITTLE:  What we've been authorized to support this year is $70 million.  We're going to preserve flexibility to assess out-year funding levels and our outgoing -- or out-year support for Iron Dome, okay?   

            Joe. 

            Q:  Yeah.  The United States envoy to Israel, Dan Shapiro, has said yesterday that the U.S. military plan to attack Iran is ready. Do you have any comment on that?  And do you see any changes in the United States’ position in regards to how to deal with Iranian nuclear program and mainly in the negotiation with Iran?  

            MR. LITTLE:  Our policy has not changed, Joe, at all.  I think the ambassador's comments are perfectly in line with what we've been saying for a while with respect to Iran.   

            Our focus in United States is on using diplomatic and economic instruments, and not just national power but international power to bring pressure to bear on the Iranians to do the right thing.  And then, on the diplomatic front, of course, we're looking to the P5-plus-1 talks to try to move the Iranians in the right direction.  

            The ambassador was absolutely correct in saying that no options are off the table.  But those options are not something that are being contemplated at this point in terms of the military option. 

            So we continue to press on the diplomatic and economic fronts. As you've heard the secretary say, it's critical that we maintain international consensus and international pressure on Iran.  And we look forward to the P5-plus-1 hopefully achieving results. 

            Q:  So you cannot confirm that the U.S. military plan to attack Iran is ready?  That's what he said. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, the Pentagon, as I've said from this podium and in other forums -- this building is a professional planning organization.  We're prepared for a variety of contingencies around the world to including contingencies in the Middle East. 

            Q:  Hi, George.  Can I get something -- a statement from you regarding the Journal's -- story Journal did yesterday? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Obviously aware of The Wall Street Journal's story. And what I can say about the story is that while I won't comment on intelligence sharing with our Turkish allies, we have an enduring and very strong military-to-military relationship with Turkey. 

            We work with Turkey across a wide range of national security challenges.  And they're of course an important NATO partner.  The importance of counter-PKK efforts is critical, as the secretary indicated during his trip to Turkey last year.  And we will continue to work with Turkey on counter-PKK efforts and on other challenges. 

            Q:  Is this a -- is this a leak?  I mean, you don't discuss intelligence matters (inaudible) because I'm trying to get this kind of confirmation since a long time. 

            And each time (inaudible) this is an intelligence matter.  But you started to discuss the issue.  Is it a leak? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Is it a leak?  Well, I don't know where this report came from, and I'm not going to comment one way or another on intelligence.  Do leaks happen?  Leaks happen, regrettably. 

            Q:  How the report will affect your cooperation with Turkey? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We have an enduring, solid, strong alliance with Turkey.  They're an important part of NATO, we have an important bilateral and security relationship with Turkey, and we're going to continue to work closely with Turkey on a range of issues that we think are important to both countries. 

            John. 

            Q:  George, will the secretary be participating in any bilateral discussions on the sidelines of the NATO summit?  And will he be meeting with President Zardari? 

            MR. LITTLE:  He will have bilateral discussions in Chicago.  I don't have the full list right in front of me.  Some of that is still being scheduled.  I don't know of any plans at this point for him to meet bilaterally with President Zardari. 

            Q:  George, as you -- as you know, Mexico is facing a terrible nightmare with the violence of the drug cartels.  They are waiting for a sign of hope.  And I would like to know, recently U.S. and Mexico participated in some joint operations.  How these is opening the door to an increasing cooperation and maybe stronger efforts to stop the drug cartels? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The issue of counternarcotics and illicit crime was a top issue, as you know, at the recent trilateral meeting in Canada with the secretary and his Canadian and Mexican counterparts.  We fully understand the problems that cartels are bringing to the people of Mexico. 

            And we condemn the violence. 

            Our counternarcotic efforts in the U.S. government are led primarily by the Drug Enforcement Administration.  And we're going to continue to do what we can to support their and other agencies' efforts to thwart this problem.  This is a hemispheric security problem, the issue of narcotics.  And we're monitoring very closely with our Mexican counterparts the problem of violence in the country. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) where -- what was the main focus of these exercises (inaudible) Gulf of Mexico? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Which exercises are your referring to in particular? 

            Q:  From May the 2 to May the 9 there were joint exercises between the military forces from Mexico and the U.S.  I don't recall the operation. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay.  I'm going to have to get back to you on the specifics for those exercises. 

            Larry. 

            Q:  George, is the U.S. offering Pakistan monetary incentives to help persuade them to open up the transit routes? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We are in the midst of discussions with the Pakistanis right now on the ground supply routes.  And it really wouldn't be prudent or appropriate for me to discuss our negotiating in public.   

            Jeff. 

            Q:  George, there is a lake of human sewage in Kandahar Air Field affectionately known as the "poo pond."  It's roughly the size of Lake Michigan.  I've written about it so much my name is synonymous with human waste.  I've been asking NATO for months when it's going to be closed, and I've run into radio silence.  I think it's a closely guarded military secret.  The last I heard, there was a plan to drain it and fill it in and replace it with an honest-to-god wastewater treatment facility.  Could you check what is the latest on when this thing will be closed? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yes. I don't quite know how to elaborate any further on that particular question.  But I will -- but I will -- I will -- I will take it. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) 

            MR. LITTLE:  I probably -- on that one, I confess that you're right, okay? 

            Mike. 

            Q:  George, what would the U.S. say to NATO partners who might consider the last phase of the campaign in Afghanistan as looking ahead to perhaps grabbing a peace dividend from the end of the campaign in Afghanistan and start cutting defense programs again, as they have done in the past?  And is the drone -- surveillance drone that's currently buzzing around Chicago a military one or belongs to the mayor of Chicago? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The -- well, I don't know about the particular aircraft you're referencing.  But the U.S. military is providing a support role through NORTHCOM to support security for the summit.  The -- and that's in accordance with American law. 

            On the issue of NATO and defense expenditures and peace dividends, I'm not going to attach labels to what may -- the current trends of European and NATO defense spending.  That being said, let me make some important points -- at least I believe they're important points -- about the state of play in Afghanistan today. 

            The principle of "in together, out together" was reaffirmed in Brussels very recently.  We're confident that we're making progress in Afghanistan.  Afghan national security forces are improving their capabilities.  They are taking the fight to the enemy themselves. They are securing areas that were previously under Taliban control. 

            Our ISAF partners have been critical in that effort.  And we believe that we will maintain mission cohesion going forward.  This is about implementing the Lisbon framework toward the end -- to the end of 2014. 

            And our European and other ISAF partners have made it clear that they are committed to that Lisbon road map, as are we.   

            Again, I would reiterate that the narrative that's percolating out there is that somehow we're not on the path to probable success. Look, I'm not going to say here that we don't face challenges; we do. But we are seeing a narrative of success.  Violence levels in the country -- in Afghanistan are down.  And that's due in large part to not only ISAF efforts, but to the efforts of Afghans themselves.   

            So we believe that we're on the right path.  Again, we're going to face some stiff challenges along the way, but the way to do that is to take them head-on.  And that's exactly what we're doing.   

            In terms of peace dividends, again, we understand the pressures that many countries are facing, including our own, with respect to tough economies and tough fiscal challenges and tight budgets.  The important thing is for us to stay committed to top priorities like Afghanistan and to work whenever possible to partner on challenges going forward.  That's a key part of our defense strategy.   

            I can't speak for European countries, but I will say that we're looking, you know, not just in Europe, but also around the world for ways to strengthen innovative partnerships with other countries so that we can hopefully combine our capabilities, achieve efficiencies and bring down the shared cost of our collective defense. 

            Tony.   

            Q:  Barak -- on the meeting; I want to go back to that a second.   

            You've had several meetings with him and the secretary has -- you've been in on a lot of them, I guess.  Did you get a sense today that Barak is more willing than maybe the last visit to allow sanctions to play out, question one?  And two, did you get the sense that Israel still has not decided whether it will or will not attack Iran? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm going to let the Israelis answer those kinds of questions about what's in their mindset at the present time, but -- we continue to have very good discussions with the Israelis, but on those questions, I'd really point them in their direction. 

            Q:  You can't give any kind of -- you've been in several meetings with him, and no signs of progression, that he's more patient this time? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Again, I'm not going to speak for the Israelis. We've made our position known on Iran, and we believe the Israelis have heard our concerns.  So that's where I leave it. 

            Q:  Can you talk about the atmospherics a little bit on that?  I mean, just what -- is the level of tension down since last time Barak was here?  Would you even say that, or -- 

            MR. LITTLE:   I would point you to what the statement said today about productive meeting and about the good discussions.  I mean, this is -- 

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- productive meetings and discussions of mutual interest and concern, but -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  And often -- and often they're -- and often they're right.  Yeah.   

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- about the -- just about whether is the level of tension down from where -- it seems to be -- it seems to be down from the past couple of months, but is that your belief after -- your personal belief after sitting in the meetings? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I -- let me be clear; I was not part of today's session with Minister Barak, so I -- you know, I'm not going to offer a characterization one way or the other about today's meeting.  What I can tell you about the arc of discussions over the past several months is that -- look, the important thing is to have these discussions.  The important thing is to address areas where there may be disagreement and to work through them.  And again, we believe that the Israelis have heard our concerns, not just in meetings with Secretary Panetta but other U.S. officials, and they understand where we're coming from. 

            So I'm not going to characterize Israeli policy one way or the other or speculate on what they may or may not do.  They are an independent, sovereign country.  But we believe that it's very important that we have continued dialogue with Israel, not just about Iran but on other issues too. 

            (Inaudible). 

            Q:  In light of what's playing out regarding the U.S. defense budget, fiscal constraints, et cetera, how do you respond to the idea that the U.S. is spending far too much money on Israeli defense? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We are strongly committed to the defense of Israel. Israel is in a tough neighborhood, and we have for decades supported their independence and their security.  We believe that an investment in Israeli security is important for Israel and important for the United States. 

            This is a region of the world that is -- has faced and continues to face challenges to stability.  And if we can invest in Israel's security, we believe that it can also be an investment in regional security and in our security as Americans. 

            Q:  Just a quick follow-up. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay. 

            Q:  Turkish chairman of joint chief of staff was in town last weekend.  He met with General Dempsey and again Secretary Panetta. Did you discuss this issue with him last week?  I mean, this incident from December? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get into the specifics of our discussions with the -- but I don't -- I don't recall a Wall Street Journal story coming up in that session. 

            Q:  But what I'm trying to understand (inaudible) is there any meaning of the timing of this incident (inaudible) by the Pentagon officials (inaudible) to the -- this visit of Turkish chairman joint of -- joint -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Oh, look, I'm not going to comment on the particulars of what's reported in the Wall Street Journal, but I would reject the notion that this is somehow choreographed to -- timed to anything like a meeting with Turkish officials. 

            I reject that out of hand. 

            Q:  The Turks are -- the Turks want to purchase some drones -- attack drones from -- with the U.S. government since a long time.  And is this kind of practice will affect this kind of purchase in the near future?  I mean (inaudible) but the Congress was objecting to (inaudible).  It will affect your position?  

            MR. LITTLE:  We are looking -- look, this is -- this is one newspaper story.  And one newspaper story, in my view, does not have the ability to harm a relationship that goes back many years and a very strong relationship that goes back many years.   

            So let's not get out ahead of ourselves here and get into speculation about how this one media report may or may not affect the relationship with Turkey.  The relationship with Turkey is sound. It's strong.  And we want it to continue, and it will continue. 

            All right, a couple more questions.   

            Luis.   

            Q:  George, a series of questions; did Barak and Secretary Panetta agree to meet again next month?  

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know of another plan --   

            Q:  (Inaudible) 

            MR. LITTLE:  Pardon me? 

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- particularly here in this building.  I mean, he's been here three times in the last three months. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know when the next meeting is scheduled, but I know the secretary would welcome the opportunity. 

            OK.  Maybe one or two more.  (Inaudible.)   

            Q:  Just a short one -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yes. 

            Q:  -- (Inaudible) -- would it be possible to get a figure on the overrun caused by the closure of the ground lines of communication since the end of November?   

            MR. LITTLE:  I'll let you know if we can provide that information.  Again, ground lines of communication, very important to us.  We're at a very important stage in our discussions with the Pakistanis, and we have to come to a resolution soon. 

            Q:  George? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay. 

            Q:  Just one more.   

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay.

            Q:  For Mexico, two high-rank generals have been accused of corruption and links with the drug smugglers.  This can interfere in the relationship between both secretaries or undermine the trust between the militaries from Mexico and U.S.? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know the specifics of the corruption allegations you mention.  But look, the bottom line is that the U.S. and Mexican militaries, you know, have ongoing dialogue with one another.  That dialogue will continue.  We're looking for ways to expand cooperation.  And I think that, you know, we need to work through issues on both sides on occasion, and -- but the fundamentals are there for enduring cooperation.  All right? 

            Maybe one more.  Jon. 

            Q:  George, there are reports that North Korea has resumed construction on a light water reactor that could enable it to produce more nuclear weapons-grade material.  Has DOD seen any signs that these reports are accurate?  And if so, would you consider this destabilizing? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Wouldn't comment on those reports directly. Wouldn't comment on intelligence at all.  But what I would say is that we continue to want the North Koreans to take steps to provide for their own security and for regional security.  And steps they have taken in recent weeks and in recent years have not helped.  So they need to, in our estimation, heed the call not just of the United States, but of other countries in the international community to do what's right and to abide by their international obligations. 

            Thanks, everyone.