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DOD News Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon

Presenter: Press Secretary George E. Little
May 22, 2012

            GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon, and welcome back to the briefing room. Last night the secretary returned from the NATO summit in Chicago. He was pleased by the hospitality shown to him and other leaders by the city of Chicago and enjoyed the opportunity to meet with his counterparts on NATO capabilities, missile defense, and of course Afghanistan. On that topic, it's clear the alliance and our non-NATO partners are moving forward together with the Afghan government to support the security and stability of Afghanistan for years to come. 

            With that, I'd like to turn to another region of critical importance to the United States and to our partners. 

            Next Wednesday, Secretary Panetta will depart on a week-long trip to Asia, just -- to participate in the Shangri-La dialogues, among other things. Let me give you a schedule overview, and then say a few notes about each country. 

            On Wednesday, before departing for Asia, he'll fly to Honolulu. He'll receive briefings from PACOM Commander Admiral Sam Locklear and meet with service members stationed in Hawaii. From Hawaii, we will head to Singapore. On Saturday, Secretary Panetta will deliver remarks at the opening plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogues. 

            While in Singapore, he is scheduled to meet with leaders from Singapore, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and a number of other nations. 

            Following our stay in Singapore, the secretary will travel to Vietnam for a two-day visit. The United States has a long-term commitment to advancing a strong bilateral defense relationship with Vietnam that is based on mutual trust and understanding. And this visit will afford us an opportunity to continue to work on that very important relationship. 

            From there, the secretary will travel from Hanoi to Delhi for a two-day visit to India. Further developing the U.S.-India relationship is a priority for the United States government, and our bilateral relationship is one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century for the United States. 

            We'll have more details about the secretary's itinerary in the coming days. 

            In two other scheduling announcements for you, tomorrow Secretary Panetta, Secretary Clinton and Chairman Dempsey will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. And then here in the briefing room at 2 p.m., General John Allen, commander ISAF, will be here to brief you all on Afghanistan. 

            With that, I'll open it up to your questions, comments, concerns, other thoughts. 

            Mike. 

            Q:  I know that Secretary Panetta did not see President Zardari, but did he have or any of his officials have any discussions with any of the Pakistanis during the Chicago summit to chat about the you- know-what? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The you-know-what? OK. (Chuckles.) That calls for speculation. No. I understand the importance of the ground line of -- ground line of communication issue. 

            The secretary did not have a formal meeting with President Zardari, but they did have a brief exchange on the sidelines of meetings in Chicago. It was a friendly exchange, and Secretary Panetta knows the importance of resolving this issue in the near future. 

            Q:  There weren't any other discussions between -- General Dempsey didn't see anyone or -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not aware of any discussions between General Dempsey and his Pakistani counterparts. 

            Q:  Could we stay on that just a second? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  What is going on with opening up the ground lines?

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. We're obviously very interested in reopening the ground lines of communication. They are important supply routes into and out of Afghanistan. The discussions with our Pakistani counterparts continue, and we hope to get to a resolution very soon. 

            Yes. 

            Q:  Hi, Vivian (inaudible) of the World Journal. 

            MR. LITTLE:  All right. We'll come back to you in a minute. 

            Q:  Yeah, is the South China Sea going to be on the agenda for Shangri-La? And how would that be addressed? And also, like, do you have any plans or strategies for Law of the Sea to be passed in the Senate? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary is a strong supporter of ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, and he hopes that the Senate ratifies it as soon as possible and accepts the provisions of the convention. 

            With respect to the South China Sea, we're aware of the concerns over that important area of the Pacific. I wouldn't -- I'm sure it will come up while in Asia, but I wouldn't want to get out ahead of what may be discussed in Singapore. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Chris -- or Craig, excuse me. 

            Q:  George, can we go back to Pakistan for a minute? Are the discussions with the Pakistanis focused solely on reopening the ground lines of communications into Afghanistan? Is there also discussion about moving stuff out as U.S. troops withdraw over the next couple years? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Good question, Craig. And the ground lines of communication are important for both. So that set of discussions involved both the supplies into and out of Afghanistan. 

            Q:  Is the "out of" part a sticking point, or is it the “into” part that's the holdup? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think it's the closure of the ground lines of communication that's the issue. It's not the direction one way or the other of the flow of goods and other materiel. 

            Chris. 

            Q:  George, with regard to the memo that was reported in "Danger Room" this morning, the Army memo about the Bagram burn pit, does the Pentagon believe that service members at that air base are potentially in danger from the chemicals or the particulate matter coming out of the burn pit? (Off mic.) 

            MR. LITTLE:  I am aware of this concern and the issues that were raised in this memo. We obviously take very seriously the safety of our service members, wherever they may be, including Afghanistan. 

            It's my understanding that we do not have specific evidence that ties these kinds of disposal facilities to health issues, but we are aware of respiratory elements that have identified by service members themselves, so we're going to continue to look at this problem.

            Mark. 

            Q:  Yes. On the supply routes, George, is it money, or is it something else, or is it both that is the sticking point? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, again, a good question. I wouldn't get into the particulars of private discussions that are occurring right now with the Pakistanis, but I would tell you that there is a delta between the two sides on the charges that may be assigned to the reopening of the supply routes, and that's something we have to work through.

            Q:  So is it primarily a financial matter? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think the financial side of the equation is one of the -- one of the issues. 

            We think we can get past it. Look, the goal here is to move beyond this issue. It's one that we want to get beyond. It's one that we have emphasized to the Pakistanis that we want to get beyond. And it's critical, I think, that we pass this, and it's in the best interests of both countries. We are in a phase now where we're trying to reset the relationship with Pakistan, and that's where we want to go. 

            Tom. 

            Q:  I want to return to Law of the Sea treaty -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  -- if I could. This building has been unwavering in its support for the treaty, every secretary, every chairman, every sec[retary] of state. I'm just wondering why this accelerated effort? Have you gotten any indication that Congress has moved? I mean, the secretary and the chairman spoke together a couple weeks ago, the "big three" speaking tomorrow. Why suddenly, after years of this being kind of quiet, are everybody working so hard? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think there are a number of reasons for it. First, the United States Congress wanted to hold a hearing on this issue, and the secretary and the chairman and other U.S. officials believe that it's very important to share with Congress our perspective on the Law of the Sea convention. It's important to the establishment of regular international regimes governing maritime activities by nations, to include militaries around the world. And every time we have the opportunity to signal our support for this convention, we will. 

            Q:  Has Congress signaled to you that maybe there's movement there and that you might actually get something through now? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I grew up in this town. So I've long since offered predictions on what Congress may or may not do. I don't have any particular signals, Tom, about what they may do with respect to this convention. But we hope that it is eventually adopted by the United States. 

            Larry. 

            Q:  The Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday released its report on counterfeit electronic parts that have made their way into the defense procurement line -- supply line. 

            Most of the criticism seemed pointed at China, but they saved some of it for this department, saying the Defense Department lacks knowledge of the scope and impact of counterfeit parts on critical defense systems. And later they said in each of the three cases that the committee investigated in depth, DOD was unaware that counterfeit electronic parts had been installed on certain defense systems until the committee's investigation. 

            I was wondering if you had any reaction to the report in general and to the criticism of this department specifically.

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, we take seriously the report and we take seriously this very important issue. This is something that we've addressed for a number of years, the problem of counterfeit parts entering the DOD supply chain. 

            I would note that we have stepped up over time our aggressive actions to address this problem, and we've stepped it up on many fronts. For example, in March of this year, Acting Undersecretary Kendall issued a memorandum that was designed to take initial steps to stand up an aggressive and comprehensive anti-counterfeiting program to prevent and detect electronic counterfeit parts and other mission- critical and critical safety parts. 

            We're unaware to date of any loss of life or catastrophic mission failure that has occurred because of counterfeit parts. That doesn't mean we should stop addressing the issue. We will not stop until we strengthen our efforts to identify, prevent and detect these pieces of equipment from entering our supply chain. 

            I would note too that we've worked closely with the White House intellectual property coordinator to try to strengthen reporting requirements and contracting clauses through the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which, as you know, governs the establishment of contracting guidelines for suppliers of goods and services to the U.S. government, not just to the Department of Defense. 

            Those recommendations are in coordination right now with the Office of Management and Budget. 

            And finally, when counterfeiting problems are identified, we work closely with law enforcement to have those issues investigated, and where appropriate, we debar companies and support the prosecution of counterfeiters. We work closely with industry to try to attack this problem, and we'll continue to do so. So we are working very hard to try to sort this issue out and to take steps that will further strengthen our supply chain and ensure that this kind of problem does not occur in the future. 

            Q:  George, has the secretary been asked for his input on a review that we're told is under way by the White House that could change the way decisions are made to launch strikes from drones on terrorist targets? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm aware of at least one media report on this issue. And I wouldn't comment specifically on any counterterrorism operations. But let me say very clearly that this department retains its prerogatives. We're very comfortable with the process by which the oversight and management of American counterterrorism operations is conducted. And we work closely with our interagency partners and the White House to work within the parameters of American law and policy to conduct counterterrorism operations. 

            This is truly a joint effort across our government, and DOD is a big part of that effort, obviously. It is a goal of this department and of this government to pursue terrorists wherever they may be. 

            And we are satisfied that we have our authorities in place and that we have the means to effectively do our part to pursue terrorists around the world -- again, within the confines of American law. 

            Q:  But the vetting process has changed, clearly. That's what this report indicates. And do you acknowledge that? The White House has sort of changed the vetting process for how you look at and decide which terrorist leaders to take out. 

            MR. LITTLE:  You would have to talk to the White House about the vetting process for -- and reports on that process. I can assure you, though, that this department plays a very important role in the establishment and prosecution of our counterterrorism operations, and we're very comfortable with the process. 

            Q:  George -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yes. 

            Q:  -- is the - is the department still behind the deal for the sale of the Mi-17s, the Russian helicopters, to the Afghans? The House had an amendment against it last week. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think I addressed this with you last week, and there's been no change. We believe that this is a very important capability for the Afghan air force. They need this helicopter. It is very important to them. It complements their rotary wing aircraft capabilities. And we have no plans to cancel this procurement. 

            Jeff. 

            Q:  The Air Force recently announced some disciplinary actions taken against officials who have been cited in the OSC report for retaliating against people at Dover. Is the secretary satisfied with the way the Air Force has handled this matter? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Thank you, Jeff, for the question. 

            The issues at Dover Port Mortuary are issues that the secretary of defense, indeed, the entire department -- we never want to see them happen again. Our fallen heroes deserve the highest honor and respect. And we are committed to taking steps to ensure that lapses do not occur in the future. 

            I would note that the OSC issued a statement commending the Air Force for rendering its decisions on disciplinary actions. The Air Force has undertaken a very thorough and extensive process to review not just the lapses at Dover, but also the disciplinary actions that were levied. And the secretary is satisfied with that process. 

            Q:  Does he believe the disciplinary actions are appropriate? 

            MR. LITTLE:  He is satisfied that the Air Force took appropriate steps to investigate problems at Dover Port Mortuary. He is satisfied that they took a long, hard look at the disciplinary actions. And again, he has faith in the process that the Air Force undertook, absolutely. 

            Q:  And your answer to last part -- whether he thinks the disciplinary actions are appropriate. 

            MR. LITTLE:  The answer is he has confidence that the Air Force took the appropriate steps here.

            Yes. 

            Q:  This morning the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a military constructions appropriations bill. And within this, they decide to cut the entire Guam construction bill, saying that the Department of Defense doesn't have a clear defense strategy. Do you have any guidance on that? 

            MR. LITTLE:  That we don't have a clear defense strategy? 

            Q:  On the Asia-Pacific region. 

            MR. LITTLE:  On the Asia-Pacific region? Well, I think we've made it clear for the past several months that this department has a robust Asia-Pacific strategy that is contained in the new U.S. defense strategic guidance. 

            The secretary, when he was last in Asia, previewed much of that strategy. He talked about the United States being a Pacific nation and a Pacific power. He reiterated that several times in several locations in the region and on the continent. 

            The Asia-Pacific region is vital to U.S. national security interests and will be so in the future, and we are absolutely turning toward the Asia-Pacific as a place where our strategic interests are increasingly of importance. Our partnerships with partners in the region are critical. And we're going to continue to invest in those relationships. 

            So we have a very sound Asia-Pacific approach. So I would take issue with any suggestion that we have not put appropriate emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region as important to the United States military in our future. 

            Yes. Let's go over here. Justin again? 

            Q:  George, thanks. Do tomorrow's nuclear talks in Baghdad represent a last chance for Iran diplomatically? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I wouldn't characterize where we are in the process, but I do think it's very important that we are talking. The P5-plus-one process is critical and is one way of conveying to the Iranians that they need to take the appropriate steps not to pursue a nuclear weapons program. We hope that that P5-plus-one process yields results, and we are going to work with our partners in the international community to try to affect that outcome. 

            Q:  You -- well, just to follow on that, do you see -- do you see that the talks could continue after Baghdad, or is it truly the last in these -- in this short series? 

            MR. LITTLE:  This would really call for speculation, Justin, and I would refer you to the State Department for comment on the process going forward. 

            We believe it's an important process, and we believe there is a great deal of agreement around the world as to what the outcome of this process should be, and that is that Iran should not be able to develop a nuclear weapon. 

            Yeah. 

            Q:  George, I wanted to see if you had any comment regarding recent stories about U.S. troops on the ground in Yemen coordinating -- or helping with targeting missions for the Yemenis' military against al-Qaida targets. How does that square with Secretary Panetta's comments a few weeks back saying that no U.S. boots would be on the ground in Yemen? And if that's the case, does this targeting sort of support fall into the training and advising mission that American trainers are doing in-country? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We have a very strong military relationship with Yemen. That relationship is focused in large part on jointly addressing the counterterrorism threat posed by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. We know that they continue to plot against us. 

            There are U.S. military trainers on the ground in Yemen, and that's to support the government of Yemen's efforts to pursue terrorists in their own country. And we believe that that's a reflection of our shared commitment to thwart AQAP and its attempts to attack not just Yemenis but also Americans as well as other U.S. and Yemeni partners and allies. 

            Q:  Just to follow up, then, so if these targeting missions do fall under that training and advising sort of set that American trainers are working under over there, is that -- do you see that that is where things are going to stop, or is there a possibility that that mission could expand beyond just helping out with targeting operations? 

            MR. LITTLE:  It's a fair question. I would offer that it gets in the realm of the hypothetical again. Our focus is on train, advise, assist and on deepening our counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen. 

            We're committed to that.

             Let's see here. We're coming back around -- yes. 

            Q:  Thank you. When Secretary Panetta visit to South Korea next week, will the secretary discussing on the North Korean nuclear issue you had? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have the talking points in front of me. But I can assure you that any time the secretary of defense goes to the Republic of Korea, the issue of North Korea arises. And the secretary has made it clear that we have an unwavering commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea and that -- and he's made it clear very recently in his public comments that North Korea should not engage in provocative activities. So will it come up? It comes up every time we go to South Korea. 

            Nick. 

            Q:  (Off mic) -- 

            Q:  Two questions back on the counterfeiting parts -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm sorry. My apologies. 

            Q:  (Off mic)? 

            MR. LITTLE:  He will -- will it come up in Shangri La? Let's see here. He's meeting with the Republic of Korea -- counterparts in Singapore. My apologies if I wasn't precise. 

            Nick. 

            Q:  Two questions on the counterfeiting issue. One, you said there's no indication that any counterfeit parts contributed to loss of life or catastrophic mission failure. Have there been any examples of less than catastrophic mission failure as a result of these parts? The second part is, did this -- since the Senate Armed Services Committee investigation found that some 90 percent of these counterfeit parts are coming from China. Did this issue arise -- did the secretary bring up the issue when he talked with his counterpart a couple of weeks ago? And if not, why not? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The issue of counterfeit parts, as I recall, did not come up in discussions with his Chinese counterparts, but you know, this is an issue that, you know, I wouldn't attach to any one country. I mean, the supply chain can have problems from any number of sources. 

            So -- and to your other question, Mik, I don't know what you would define as less than catastrophic, but the important thing is that we don't believe there's been demonstrable mission impact based on counterfeit parts entering the supply chain. Look, we take it seriously. I'm not sure that I can say for sure that there's never been any impact whatsoever, but you know, we're continuing to work the issue. 

            Couple more questions. Courtney. 

            Q:  OK. Where are you -- how are you working the issue to stop parts from either being distributed or taken out of the supply chain right now? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think I've addressed some of the ways that we've done so already. One is to strengthen the federal acquisition regulations to impose tighter reporting requirements and contracting standards for the federal acquisition regulation. We're looking to work with industry to identify ways of detecting and preventing counterfeit parts of entering the supply chain. So those -- and we stood up an aggressive program through AT&L to look at this issue very closely. 

            Q:  Right, but when you -- what I'm talking about are the ones that exist in the system right now. Is there any effort to find -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Oh, sure. We're constantly evaluating the parts that are in the system, to include parts that have entered the system already. So yes, this is something we're looking at. I don't have the specifics for you on -- or statistics, but look, this is something that, yes, is part of our review of our existing equipment inventory, and we'll continue to work it hard. 

            This is not just about new parts coming in. 

            Q:  (Inaudible.) 

            MR. LITTLE:  And a couple more questions. 

            Yeah. 

            Q:  I wanted to insist in the matter of the corruption in Mexico. It's now four generals have been implicated in this alleged scandal, based on statements of a protected witness. How do you perceive this scandal? I know you don't want to interfere in that, but do you see it as maybe as example that they are fighting now corruption within the military? And how this can undermine the relationship between Mexico and U.S. in the military? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Right. This is really something for the government of Mexico to address. I'm aware of these allegations of corruption. But as recently as the Ottawa talks with Canada and Mexico, we have signaled our strong desire to work closely with the Mexican military on common security challenges and to promote hemispheric security. And that cooperation, we are -- look -- we look forward to continuing. 

            Q:  Well, are you concerned that maybe the drug cartels can infiltrate the military and corrupt even high officials? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I -- 

            Q:  I mean, just in Mexico, like in everywhere? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, to the extent that drug cartels have an influence on the military or the government anywhere around the world, I mean, that can be a problem. But to answer your question very directly, we will continue to work with the government of Mexico, including the Mexican military, on issues of common concern.

            And we're going to wrap it up with Mark. 

            Q:  Yes, sir. Thanks. Speaking -- going back to Yemen and counterterrorism, yesterday an alleged exploding vest killed more than 100 Yemeni paramilitary forces. Are there any insights that, you know, Yemen has some crafty bomb-makers? 

            Is there -- are there any insights from this building that maybe this was a new or special kind of exploding vest? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, we condemn this kind of violence. It bears all the hallmarks of an AQAP attack. And it obviously resulted in serious loss of life and injury, and our hearts go out to the victims and their families. 

            This was a bomb set off in a crowded area, apparently during a rehearsal for military commemorations. And there was enough ordnance attached to the device that it resulted in serious loss of life. I'm not sure that we can draw any conclusions more broadly about where terrorists might go in terms of their bomb-making and bomb attacks in Yemen or anywhere else based on this one event. We just need to stay vigilant, and we'll do that with our partners. 

            Thank you very much.

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