DOD News Briefing with Capt. Kirby from the Pentagon
CAPTAIN JOHN KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. I don't have any major things to announce.
I just wanted to remind everybody that the secretary is on travel … started yesterday. He's in Hawaii this morning. He'll meet with the Pacific Command commander, Admiral Locklear, get some briefings and updates, and then he'll also be doing an all-hands call, a troop call with the staffers there at the Pacific Command before moving on to Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue. And then we'll be, of course, posting transcripts of all the public things that he's saying throughout the trip.
So with that, Bob.
Q: (Inaudible) -- Courtney, then.
Q: Oh, hard question?
Q: I actually don't have a hard question, but I can ask one. (Laughter.) What's -- how many U.S. military trainers are now in Pakistan? And has that number increased recently?
CAPT. KIRBY: There are no U.S. trainers in Pakistan. What has happened in just the last week or so has been the return of a couple liaison officers from Regional Command East; they're at Bagram in Eastern Afghanistan. They -- a couple of liaison officers have returned to the area around Peshawar to coordinate and continue to liaise with the 11th Corps headquarters there at the Pakistani military.
Q: They were there or they're no longer there anymore?
CAPT. KIRBY: They were -- they were -- they -- those two liaison officers were removed from their posting there in Peshawar right after the November incident -- the cross-border incident, and then they have now returned.
Q: What's the purpose of that or the significance of that?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, I mean, it's significant in that, as we've been talking about all along, that the tactical and operational coordination between the ISAF and the Pakistani military is getting better, in fits and starts to be sure, but it is getting better, and this is another example of how that coordination is going to continue to improve. It's the same number of liaison officers we had before; it's just that now they're back. And that -- the whole purpose is to increase and improve communication between the two militaries along that border.
Q: So it's two?
CAPT. KIRBY: It's two.
Q: Are there any liaison officers anywhere else in Pakistan? You have --
CAPT. KIRBY: Not that I'm aware of, not that I'm aware of.
Q: Is this something done in isolation then? It's not part of a series of actions?
CAPT. KIRBY: I wouldn't say that it was a part of some sort of quid pro quo or negotiation process. It's been -- it's been something that obviously we were interested in renewing, and this is being done -- and I might add -- at the Pakistanis' request. I mean, they requested that these two liaison officers come back.
Q: No trainers?
CAPT. KIRBY: No trainers.
Q: And do you have any kind of agreement with the Pakistanis about sending trainers back in?
CAPT. KIRBY: Not right now. Again, even the training mission -- as you know, back before they left Pakistan, it was a train-the-trainers mission for their Frontier Corps. And the small number of trainers that were there were at the Pakistanis' request and invitation for a requirement they believed they needed to fill. They have not determined that that requirement exists anymore, so there are no trainers.
Q: (Inaudible) -- movement on it?
CAPT. KIRBY: There's been no movement on the ground lines of communication and the gates, no. They still remain closed.
Q: Different subject?
Q: Go ahead.
Q: When we asked George the day before yesterday about the North Korea story, he was very dismissive of it, to say the least, and was critical of the reporter who wrote it. And now we find out that the general involved said in fact he did say all of those things, although he did not -- the general himself takes responsibility and says he didn't mean it to come out the way it did.
So why did the Pentagon not tell us the day before yesterday that the general was acknowledging that he had said any of this? Why were we not offered the complete information?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, I think timing here is an issue. I don't think the general's statement had come out by the time that George did his briefing the other day.
But I think what George said was, and I agree with it, is that the general's comments were taken out of context. And when something's taken out of context, that's not just -- that's not always just the fault of the journalist or the reporter, sometimes it's the fault of the speaker. And the general acknowledged that he could have been a little bit more concise and a little bit more clear about what he was speaking to.
As I understand it, he was answering a hypothetical question about future potential outcomes, and it was just literally the words he used to answer the question which led to some confusion. But look, I mean, the bottom line is that there are no U.S. troops on the ground in North Korea. We do take our alliance with our South Korean partners very, very seriously, as we do the security of the Korean Peninsula. And we continue to try to make that alliance stronger and better and more robust all the time.
Q: My question -- I understand what you're saying. However, he is -- when you -- the -- when George spoke from the podium and -- did you have the full information at that time to make the statements that you did, that the reporter was distorting the facts?
CAPT. KIRBY: We had -- we had enough information to know that the general's comments had been taken out of context, that they -- that as -- that he did -- he did not mean it to come across the way it was reported. We did know that then. We didn't have the general's statement at that point, but we did know that they had been taken out of context.
Q: And let me just then, for the record, ask: You said there were no U.S. troops on the ground in North Korea. The question is of course ‘have U.S. special forces ever parachuted into North Korea on a mission?’
CAPT. KIRBY: Not to my knowledge, Barbara.
Q: Continuing on North Korea, are we still seeing preparations for a nuclear test, as they had indicated that they were going to be doing?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, as you know, Louie, we're not going to talk about intelligence matters. So I'm not going to be able to speak with any specificity to that. I will just say that we continue to call on North Korea to meet their obligations to the international community and to the United Nations and to -- and to stop any and all provocative acts such as trying to pursue a nuclear weapons capability.
Q: General Kehler yesterday said the -- his command was working on, in conjunction with the Pentagon, a, quote-unquote, "hedge strategy" for missile defense. And that included the possibility of standing up the East Coast missile defense shield. Now, what I want to ask you is, how seriously is the Pentagon -- how seriously is the Pentagon looking at setting up something like that on the East Coast? Is this just sort of an exercise to appease Congress or is DOD really looking at serious options for standing up a missile shield on the East Coast?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, we always look very seriously at the broad scope of our missile defense capabilities and how to make them more robust and to improve them. And as -- and the general said yesterday that there was a broad swath of things that they were looking at. That was just one of them. So certainly it's something that's in consideration.
But the general also said -- and General Dempsey himself said it just a couple weeks ago -- that we don't believe we need that kind of a capability right now. It's not programmed for in the budget we just submitted back in February. We don't believe we need it right now.
But just as a matter of course, we constantly look at ways to improve our capabilities, particularly in a field as dynamic and technologically challenging as missile defense.
Q: To follow up, then, if the marks that the House side put in on the defense spending bill, that does make it into the final version of the legislation and the money is there, would that accelerate or change DOD's sort of assessment about whether or not a missile shield will be needed?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, look, without speaking to pending legislation, it -- once the NDAA is signed into law, it becomes law. So we will follow the law and all the components of it.
Q: On the report this morning that some of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay have been subjected to hearing songs from "Sesame Street," first of all, can you comment on that? And second, if it's true, what would you say about the characterization of some who call this torture?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, look, there's been several investigations done about the use of interrogation techniques down there at Guantanamo Bay, and particularly the use of music as incentives or disincentives between 2004, 2008, that time frame. And universally, the -- these investigations have shown and leadership has revealed that music can be used as both an incentive and a disincentive. It depends on how you use it.
I don't know. I can't say with any specificity what type of music has been used in the past or is even being used now. But we -- I will reiterate that we don't mistreat detainees. That's the policy. We rigorously follow that policy. We do not torture, and we do not abuse our detainees at all. We subscribe to the law and to humane treatment. So it -- but yes, music is used, again, both in a -- in a positive way and as a disincentive. But I wouldn't get into characterizing exactly what type of music is being used.
Q: But are you --
CAPT. KIRBY: But we do not -- we do not torture.
Q: Music from the Barney show, if not Sesame Street?
CAPT. KIRBY: I don't know what the playlist is.
Q: Can you tell me how to get -- how to get to Sesame Street? (Laughter.)
CAPT. KIRBY: Next question, please.
Q: Also on Yemen, there is a -- (laughter) -- after the -- (inaudible) -- report this week, you know, one of the -- one of the, I think, implications of the report that came out were the Yemeni fighters, Yemeni security forces were being somehow outgunned by al-Qaida, at least the groups that were featured in that report. And I -- you provided some information about, you know, the U.S. arming Yemen security forces.
CAPT. KIRBY: Right.
Q: What's the latest, you know, interaction between U.S. and Yemen on their request for arms from the U.S. or the U.S. offering arms? Is this -- is this a concern for the Pentagon that security forces are, you know, Yemen security forces are outgunned by al-Qaida or is --
CAPT. KIRBY: I -- well, first of all, it's an ongoing dialogue and discussion that we have with the Yemeni military about the kind of support and the assistance that we give them, and it's not just military. I mean, the relationship with Yemen is not just about security, although that's a major component of it. So it's an ongoing discussion that we're having, to try to meet their needs as best we can. It's a comprehensive CT strategy that we have in Yemen.
I don't believe that we believe that the Yemeni military is, quote-unquote, "outgunned." Al-Qaida, AQAP specifically, in Yemen remains a threat not just to our interests and to our allies and to the American people, but to the Yemeni people and to the Yemeni government. And we are constantly -- as I said the other day, constantly looking at ways to try to help to improve our ability to help the Yemenis improve their capacity and capability.
Q: (Off mic) -- there's been a number of news reports on -- one on a ship carrying arms headed for Syria; another one today of Iranian commercial airliners, again, being used to carry arms into Syria.
CAPT. KIRBY: Yeah.
Q: What can you tell us about the level of arms smuggling you're seeing going on and your concerns that both Iran and Russia specifically may be using some of these techniques to get arms into Syria?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, we remain deeply troubled and concerned by the ongoing violence in Syria and by the horrific acts of the Assad regime against its own people. And we certainly have seen reports and have reason to believe that Iran continues to assist the Assad regime in committing these acts of atrocities against the Syrian people.
So it remains -- it remains a matter of deep concern. And we also know that other nations share that concern, and some of those nations are providing lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition as well. For our sake, what we're doing remains nonlethal assistance.
Q: Do you have anything on this -- on this report at all about the Iranians using commercial airliners, which has been a technique in the past?
CAPT. KIRBY: Yeah, we've seen the reports; can't confirm them. But again, the larger issue here is that the Iranian regime -- Tehran continues to support, in tangible and intangible ways, the Assad regime. And that needs to stop.
Q: On Syria, talking about the al-Qaida threats in the region, could you confirm if -- do you have any information if recently al-Qaida has had any significant presence inside Syria?
CAPT. KIRBY: I don't know that anybody has an accurate number on al-Qaida's presence in Syria.
We do believe that al-Qaida has some presence inside Syria and interest in fomenting violence in Syria. They are not -- we do not believe that they share the goals of the Syrian opposition or that they are even embraced by the opposition at all. But we -- I think we'd be hard-pressed to give you an exact number of how many are there. The sense that we get is that it is primarily members of AQI that are migrating into Syria.
Q: Al-Qaida in Iraq, you mean?
CAPT. KIRBY: Yeah, correct. Yeah, sorry, al-Qaida in Iraq.
Q: Take it back, John, to what you were saying earlier about the two liaison officers returning to Pakistan. Could you -- just for my clarification, you're saying their liasing with who and what --
CAPT. KIRBY: With the 11th Corps headquarters there. The 11th Corps is the -- is the chief command of the Pakistani military that -- that's their area of responsibility is that border region. That marries up with RC East on the Afghan side. And so these are liaison officers that every -- work every day there or will now work every day there in Peshawar with their counterparts in the 11th Corps headquarters staff, again, just to improve the communication between the two sides.
Q: Regarding -- (inaudible) -- border -- (inaudible) --
CAPT. KIRBY: Regarding -- yes, regarding operations along the border.
Q: They've been out of there since November?
CAPT. KIRBY: Correct.
Q: Or do they --
CAPT. KIRBY: Correct.
Q: John, this was raised the other day, but since then there's been further developments. The sort of language and rhetoric on Syria, military intervention or otherwise, has really been steadily creeping up over the last couple of days. Hillary Clinton is the latest, perhaps, to give her views on it, although she was pretty anti-intervention, but she did say it can't be ruled out. I wonder whether the exercise now completed has provided any valuable lessons or any potential future --
CAPT. KIRBY: Which exercise?
Q: Eager Lion.
CAPT. KIRBY: Oh, the exercises in Jordan.
Q: (Off mic) -- not connected to Syria, blah, blah, blah, but --
CAPT. KIRBY: (Laughs.)
Q: -- whether that has actually provided some pretty good lessons. A lot of people are talking now about, you know, using proxy forces to carry out the wishes of the alliance or America or whoever it may be. And you know, there were a lot of so-called proxy partners involved in that exercise.
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, let me start small and then try to get to a bigger point.
The -- it was an important exercise, and we were grateful for the opportunity to participate in it. It was a -- it was an exercise designed to deal with regional challenges, not a specific threat or a specific country, as you said yourself, Mike, and we are still processing the lessons learned from the exercise. So I have not seen a lessons-learned document from it; so I couldn't sit here and give you any specifics. I think all that work is being done.
It was a big exercise; it's going to take a little while, I think, to digest all the information and the results. But it -- but the intent was really about regional partnerships in those and regional challenges there.
But, to your other point about options, I mean, look, this building, the military, the Pentagon exists to provide the president options. That's what we do, and we would be irresponsible if we weren't thinking about options whether or not they're called for. And so, of course, we're certainly looking at a broad range of potential options here.
But that's not the track we're on. The president has been very clear that he wants to continue a diplomatic and economic regimen of pressure on the Assad regime to step down and to stop killing their people. And that's the track this government's on, and that's the track that the Pentagon supports.
Q: Military options? Military options to do what?
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, again, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals or specific planning scenarios. But again, we would -- it would be irresponsible for us if we weren't looking at a broad range of potential options. And you know very well, covering this beat for so long, that the military is -- can be valuable in any number of different scenarios, not all of which involve combat.
The point is we're doing the prudent thing that we're supposed to do, which is to think through options. But we've not been called to present any. And these are decisions that only the policymakers can make. And again, we're supporting the commander in chief's intent, which is to keep the pressure on them diplomatically and economically.
Q: Say to what extent you've discussed these military options that are being planned -- not yet asked for -- with U.S. military allies in the region?
CAPT. KIRBY: What I'll tell you is that we remain in communication with our allies and partners routinely. And we continue to be in communication with them as the situation develops in Syria. But I won't go beyond that.
Q: And if you were asked by the White House, the president, to exercise one of these military options, whatever they might be, how ready would the U.S. military be to do that?
CAPT. KIRBY: We get paid to be ready, Barbara.
Q: Going back to the North Korea story, the quote that George had was that it was contorted, distorted and misreported. Do you still think that's a fair characterization?
CAPT. KIRBY: Yes, I do.
Q: What exactly is misreported, though, if it was a --
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, I think -- again, it was -- the reporting was that there were U.S. boots on the ground in North Korea. There aren't. There aren't. And the general didn't say that there were. He was talking hypothetically about a future scenario that he was asked about.
But look, I mean, this isn't about bashing the journalist who wrote this blog, and it's not about bashing the general, who admitted that he used some unfortunate rhetoric. These things happen. It's unfortunate, but it happens. He didn't choose his words as precisely as he would have liked, and he admitted that, and what resulted was a story that didn't get it right in terms of what the situation really is in North Korea. And that's really the larger -- think we got to keep our mind on here, which is there aren't troops in North Korea and that we remain committed to our alliance there. That's really the important thing.
Q: Just following up on the point regarding al-Qaida's sort of influence in the Syrian -- amongst the Syrian rebel forces, there was a story, I think last week --
CAPT. KIRBY: Well, I didn't say they were part of rebel forces --
CAPT. KIRBY: -- or that they're even operating with the opposition. We don't believe that they are, and they -- certainly we don't believe they share the same goals as the Syrian opposition. So I'm sorry.
Q: But there was -- I think it was a report last week saying the administration was considering a plan to start vetting certain units or parts of the Free Syrian Army, whether or not to evaluate if there was any sort of influence of al-Qaida in those units and whether or not they can receive weapons, wherever they may come from. Is the Pentagon -- has the White House approached the Pentagon about that plan? Has the Pentagon been briefed on that plan? And if so, what's DOD's -- is -- what is DOD's role in that?
CAPT. KIRBY: Not to my knowledge. But I'm happy to take the question and look at it, but not to my knowledge.
Q: The U.S. and Israel back earlier this year had postponed a large missile defense exercise. And I think it's supposed to start around this time frame. Is it going to start soon? And what can we expect from it?
CAPT. KIRBY: I'll have to get back to you on that. I'll check on that. You're right that that was supposed to -- that that exercise was postponed for later in the year. And I'll check and see where we are on that.