MR. GEORGE LITTLE: Good afternoon. Today I wanted to go around the world and provide a few updates on some of our most pressing priorities.
Last night in Afghanistan, U.S. special operations joined Afghan commandos from the first special operations battalion in a full mission exercise demonstrating a night air assault. This was an Afghan plan, an Afghan-led mission. Afghan pilots flew four helicopters during the exercise, which involved more than 50 Afghan commandos, and U.S. special operations forces acting in an advisory capacity.
In the exercise, the commandos successfully discovered and apprehended a person of interest, recovered weapons and intelligence. I highlight this exercise as another example of the increasing versatility and capability of Afghan National Security Forces, which are stepping into the lead for even our most complex operations.
Meanwhile, as part of Pacific Partnership 2012, hospital ship USNS Mercy concluded its two-week humanitarian civic action mission to Vietnam. While in that country, our sailors completed more than 12,000 medical treatments and 200 surgeries, in addition to renovating two health clinics and constructing a new health building. USNS Mercy will continue next to Cambodia, after having already visited Indonesia and the Philippines.
Earlier this summer, the secretary made an historic visit to Vietnam and to other countries in the Asia Pacific region. Deputy Secretary Carter is just completing a 10-day trip to the region, and all of these visits, from operational to high-level engagement, demonstrate the commitment of the United States to strengthening our relationships across the Asia Pacific.
Our focus on the Pacific is very much in line with the new defense strategy, but that strategy also emphasizes that we will maintain a significant focus on the Middle East, as well.
On that note, let me preview the secretary's trip next week to northern Africa and the Levant. More than 18 months have passed since the start of dramatic changes we have seen sweeping the Arab world. These changes have presented new challenges, notably violence in Syria and the destabilizing behavior of Iran, but they have also presented new opportunities for security cooperation, with the beginning of peaceful, democratic transitions.
The secretary will visit Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, and continue on to Egypt. In both countries, we will consult with new leadership and reaffirm the support of the United States to continued reforms.
He will then visit Israel and Jordan to engage close allies who share our concerns about Syria and Iran.
The secretary's goal in the trip is to affirm the commitment of the United States to the security and stability of the Middle East and North Africa. That will require strengthening traditional alliances with countries like Israel and Jordan and building strong partnerships with new democratic governments.
Finally, in advance of tomorrow's Olympic Opening Ceremonies in London, I want to commend the 21 military athletes and coaches participating in the games, including Army shooters and Greco-Roman wrestlers, a Marine boxer, a Navy shooter, and an Air Force fencer, among others. They are superb representatives of the United States and our tremendous military, and all of us will be rooting for them as they compete in the days ahead.
Thank you. And with that, over to you. Spence?
Q: Al Qaida in Iraq is making threats about attacking the U.S. inside the homeland. After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, what kind of visibility does the Defense Department still have into this threat? Does that have to come from the Iraqis? And with all of the military equipment that still remains in Kuwait, could that be considered a kind of over-the-horizon capability in case the building decides it needs to take further action?
MR. LITTLE: We condemn AQI-related attacks in the strongest possible terms. We understand that they're a presence. We have expressed -- and I will reiterate today -- our belief that the Iraqi government and security forces can address the challenges posed by AQI.
Make no mistake about it. We are working closely with the Iraqis and with other governments to disrupt, defeat, and dismantle Al Qaida, to include AQI. Our continuing efforts to address not only AQI, but also Al Qaida in other parts of the world, to include Afghanistan and Pakistan, Yemen, North Africa, the Horn of Africa -- we will be unrelenting as we pursue this enemy.
Q: George, as a follow up on Spence's question on Al Qaida, does the Pentagon -- is the Pentagon concerned about Al Qaida presence in Syria? Do you see that -- do you have any information if Al Qaida and Syria is gaining foothold in the country?
MR. LITTLE: The people who are getting a true foothold in Syria are those who are opposing the brutal regime of Bashar Assad. I can't rule out the possibility that there are some extremists in Syria, but no one should think -- at least it's not our view -- that AQI has a significant major or particularly strong footprint in Syria. I can't eliminate the possibility that some elements of AQI might be there, but I wouldn't want anyone to overstate the concern about AQI in Syria.
Q: What else do you have that -- whoever might take over from Assad, if Assad falls, that that would not be a more brutal regime? I mean, what do you know about them?
MR. LITTLE: Well, it's hard for me to crystal ball the political transition that we hope takes place in Syria. The goal at the end of the day for the Syrian people, we believe, should be to define for themselves a path for the future. It's really not for us to define that path for them. And I can't speculate as to what kind of government may come next. The important thing at the moment is for Bashar al-Assad to go.
Q: I have just -- sorry, just one on a different topic.
MR. LITTLE: OK.
Q: What can you tell us about this Palantir controversy, this software that detects IEDs in Afghanistan? Is the secretary concerned that the Army is accused of destroying positive reviews of this software and then not providing it to Army units who have cited an urgent need for it?
MR. LITTLE: The detection and defeat of IEDs is a top priority for our commanders in the field. With respect to Palantir, the secretary has full confidence in the Army to look into issues that there may be with respect to the software. But I would refer you to the Army for specifics on this matter.
Q: (off mic) does he support a congressional inquiry, which is supposedly happening soon?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary believes that the Army can handle this appropriately. And obviously, we will consult closely with Congress. The Department of the Army, as I understand it, is consulting, but for details, I would refer you to them.
Q: But there -- but, of course, the Army is the one who's accused of destroying a report about it, so why would -- if that's the accusation, is it really appropriate (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: The secretary, Justin, has full confidence in the Army to look into this matter.
Q: Just to follow up on Justin's first question, you just said that you have no idea what sort of government may follow Assad, and yet your primary focus seems to be moving him out of power as soon as possible. Why are you so hell-bent on getting him out of there if you have no idea in the world that the alternative might be many times worse?
MR. LITTLE: Chris, I think the answer is quite obvious. And that is that he is a destructive force, literally a destructive force, who is responsible for the murder of countless Syrian civilians. That has to be a priority of this government, and not just this government, but also others who share our concerns about what the Syrian regime is doing.
We're not looking at this all in isolation. We understand that we have to look toward the future and toward a political transition. Again, this is ultimately something for the Syrian people to decide. We're not blind to the fact that we need to look toward that future, and we hope it's a future that's much brighter than what we're seeing today.
But the essential element to defining that path for the Syrian people is to get rid of this brutal dictator.
Q: But I guess, George, my point is that if you look at very recent past history as an example, the Iraqi government formed in a way that the U.S. really couldn't and didn't anticipate. You're saying you have no idea how some minorities in Syria, you know, Christian minorities like that may be treated, what may happen next, how brutal the next regime could be. But you just seem dead-set on getting to that point without having a clear idea of where you're -- what it is you're getting to.
MR. LITTLE: I would respectfully disagree with the premise of your question, which suggests that we're somehow blind to possibilities in the future, and we're not blind, Chris. We understand that this situation is fluid and that political transitions sometimes involve uncertainty and present challenges.
But this is something that the Syrians themselves need to define. We, along with our international partners who are opposing the Assad regime, we're working together to try to find ways to define or present ideas to define that political transition.
But make no mistake about it. It's very important that Assad go. He is inflicting tremendous violence on his own people. And we need to get beyond him.
Q: I'd like to ask -- you mentioned that reform would be one of the topics of conversation when Panetta goes to Tunisia and Egypt. In Egypt specifically, could you give us any more detail on what nature of those reforms might be? For example, will the secretary be pushing the military to sort of exercise more restraint in this role in the emerging government there?
And the second question is, the Senate Intel Committee on Tuesday passed some legislation apparently regarding disclosure of classified information. And as I understand it, the legislation would require some sort of new notification when any classified information is passed along. Do you all have any comment on that?
MR. LITTLE: The short answer to question two is no. That's pending legislation, and I wouldn't offer a view in this forum.
On the visit to Egypt, the secretary is very much looking forward to meeting with senior Egyptian officials and to encourage them to continue the political transition that's taking place. I wouldn't want to get too far ahead of the discussions, since they're taking place next week. That's always the risk in announcing a trip, but I think it'll be a very positive visit.
Q: There's been some criticism this week of the Pentagon's decision to allow servicemembers to march in the gay pride parade last weekend wearing their uniforms. I'm wondering if you could elaborate a little bit on the reasoning behind that permission granted, and also moving forward, is there a determination on whether gay pride parades are inherently political and would therefore, without this one-time exemption, be restricted in the future? Or are they considered just to be community events?
MR. LITTLE: The department has policies and procedures that govern uniform participation in civic events. The chain of command and local commanders make hundreds of decisions over the course of every year regarding appropriate uniformed participation in or support to civic events. Department leaders are continuing to work with the service chiefs to make sure that the policies are, indeed, clear. With respect to the event in San Diego, you've seen the memos that we released publicly.
Q: (off mic) low-flying -- low-altitude flight routes for the trainings for Osprey? And why is this low-altitude flight training necessary?
MR. LITTLE: Low-altitude flight training for the F-22, as you know, on Tuesday, we announced the gradual lifting of restrictions on the F-22 aircraft. We identified issues with the upper garment vest after an extensive Air Force technical review of potential problems contributing to hypoxia-like events. We're very confident that this plane can fly safely in the future.
The issue with the upper garment vests, which are worn at higher altitudes, above what a passenger jet normally flies, is one of the -- is one of the contributing factors we believe to these hypoxia-like symptoms. So at least in the near term, we're asking that training flights be conducted at lower altitudes.
And, in fact, the first deployment to Japan that we announced on Tuesday will not involve wearing the upper garment vest at all, because you don't need it at lower altitudes. So we're graduating our -- what's that?
Q: Well, my question's more for the Osprey, the --
MR. LITTLE: Oh, the Osprey, I'm sorry. OK. All right.
Q: I'm sorry that I let you keep going.
MR. LITTLE: Keep -- OK, all right. Well, I need to apparently listen more closely. All right. Let me rewind. OK. But good technical review of the F-22. All right. (Laughter) Look, we stand by the safety record of the V-22. The Osprey is a very important part of our fleet. I've addressed this on several occasions already.
If you have any more questions about the F-22, I'd be happy to answer them.
Q: Can I have one more question on Osprey, then?
MR. LITTLE: OK, sure.
Q: Is it possible that the department would postpone this -- the training routes in Japan like it did in New Mexico because of opposition from local residents?
MR. LITTLE: I am not aware of any changes to our V-22 training missions, but if that changes, I'll let you know.
Q: Back on the parade, George, some of the criticism this week from the Hill has focused on the idea that, because, you know, the parade is a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered parade, that that somehow inherently makes it political, because that has been a hot issue, particularly with regards to the military. Can you talk sort of in more detail than we've heard about how the decision of what's political and not political is made?
MR. LITTLE: While we're continuing to review these policies and procedures, I wouldn't want to offer definitive conclusion yet, Chris. But as I said, the department is continuing to work to make sure these policies are clear, and you saw the rationale for this particular event in the memos.
Q: You said the -- I'm sorry, a follow-up -- you said something still being worked out. Are there policies being developed right now regarding this?
MR. LITTLE: We're always looking at our policies and procedures with respect to these and other matters that we deal with. And this issue involves the same kind of ongoing review.
Q: Going back to AQI, given the recent threats that were announced today, the attacks from Monday, is there any possibility or consideration by the Pentagon of possibly escalating the counterterrorism mission in Iraq sort of along the lines of what's going on in Yemen, increased drone strikes, maybe boosting the number of special operations advisers in the country?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to speculate as to what our actions may or may not be with respect to Al Qaida in Iraq. But let me put it this way. They should not feel like they have any safe harbor.
Any other F-22 questions?
Q: No, an Asia Pacific question, though.
MR. LITTLE: Oh, OK, all right.
Q: Has DOD received any feedback from Congress regarding the independent CSIS analysis of the Asia Pacific realignment, which was submitted to the Hill a couple days ago?
MR. LITTLE: It's a fair question, John. I am unaware personally of any feedback that we've received, but I'll let you know if we do receive any.
Q: And will you be releasing that report to the press or to the public?
MR. LITTLE: I believe the Congress is releasing that report.
Q: You were talking in -- very publicly here a few minutes ago about encouraging transition in Syria. So my question is, now that you've talked about that, are -- does the Pentagon, the administration favor as part of that transition maintaining the current Syrian armed forces, unlike the scenario that was carried out in Iraq, where it was disbanded?
Number one, do you want to see the Syrian security forces maintained? Not a hypothetical question, because you've brought up transition.
My other question is a different topic, on the Olympics. The secretary said a few days ago that you were sending some military support to the Olympics. With U.S. personnel now competing, what can you tell us about the military security support you're sending and how certain you are that everyone can be kept safe?
MR. LITTLE: As the secretary indicated during his press conference with Minister -- excuse me, Secretary of State for Defence Hammond last week. He's very confident that the British government can provide for the security of the Olympics Games taking place in Great Britain. And I would reiterate the strong confidence that we have in the British government today.
With respect to specifics, I wouldn't necessarily get into those. If I can provide specifics on the kinds of military support that we're providing, I will share those details with you.
Q: On the Syrian army transition?
MR. LITTLE: This is really not for me to speak to. I'm not aware of any determination that's been made by the U.S. government. It's probably best directed to the State Department or to the White House.
Q: Can I also make sure I understood your answer to Chris? You said you were -- the department was reviewing the status of events that are gay, lesbian, and transgender. So are you saying -- just to be clear -- you are -- by definition, are gay, lesbian, transgender events determined, now that you've allowed one, to be non-political events? Or are you reviewing them to see if they're political events? What is it that you're reviewing?
MR. LITTLE: I said that we review our policies on an ongoing basis, with respect to this issue and with respect to a host of other issues, OK? Let me try to answer the question, OK, Barbara? Thank you.
This was a decision made with respect to one event. A memo that we issued clearly indicated that. As for future events of this kind or other kinds of parades that take place around the country, I'm not going to speculate, because this was -- as the memo very clearly indicates -- a one-time decision.
Q: But I'm still not understanding. Does this mean that -- does this mean that gay, lesbian and transgender events will now be reviewed on a case-by-case basis? And why can you not make a determination about them as you do with political events, no uniform at a political event? Why can you not make a determination about this category of events one way or the other?
MR. LITTLE: Well, the event in San Diego was deemed a patriotic celebration and a tribute to servicemembers. The memo clearly indicates that. I am not in a position today to make sweeping policy announcements or changes. A lot of these decisions are made, as I said earlier, by local commanders who have to take in requests from local communities on -- about a number of civic events, to include parades, and that's -- we want to make sure that they have a clear understanding of what the department's policies and procedures are.
Q: If I can follow up on John's question, on the CSIS report --
MR. LITTLE: Sure.
Q: -- I understand CSIS recommended transferring fewer Marines to Guam than the department has contemplated. Could you walk us through what the force posture review process is for the department in East Asia in particular? Is this just a one-off report that CSIS did? Or are you going to incorporate this in any further review of where your forces are going to be located in the Asia Pacific?
MR. LITTLE: We very much appreciate the work of CSIS in completing this report. It was a congressionally mandated report. And the secretary had the opportunity to comment on it.
We'll certainly take into consideration what is contained in the CSIS report, but I can't tell you at this point what recommendations or suggestions, findings will be implemented.
Q: Well, that's what I guess my question is. Is it reviewing these recommendations to determine if it might implement them? Or is it just saying, here's the study that you asked us to have done, and that's the end of the matter?
MR. LITTLE: Well, we're very appreciative, once again, of what CSIS did in this report. And it will certainly be considered as we move forward in our thinking on force posture in the region.
Q: Ban Ki-moon this week has called on the international community to take action over Syria. I don't think he was referring to sanctions. Has this department now received a specific request to make contingency plans for maybe something like a no-fly zone or whatever?
And a question I raised the other day, which I don't think I've had an answer to, which is, is there any evidence that anyone from the Syrian opposition side or militants have made any attempt to either target or attack or reconnoiter any of the chemical weapons stocks?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have anything for you on that last point, Mike. The chemical weapons stockpile in Syria remains a concern, not just to the United States, but also to our international partners.
With respect to planning, I think I've got nothing new to add to what I've said before about this department planning for a range of scenarios across a range of challenges and potential threats around the world.
Q: A few days ago, a Jordanian minister declared that he couldn't rule out the fact that the Al-Quds chief was part of the meeting in Damascus where there was an attack, which was attacked. Do you have any information on that? Or can you rule out the presence of the Al-Quds Force chief or not?
MR. LITTLE: You're referring to the --
Q: Right, Iranian Al-Quds force.
MR. LITTLE: Right, Iranian Al-Quds force and the incident in which the Syrian defense minister died. I can't confirm the attendance of that meeting. I simply don't know who was there, apart from those who we know were there. OK.
Q: A couple -- one on Syria, and then I have an Army question, and then in the planning issue. Can you address one aspect, though? There's going to be a lot more international pressure for the United States and the world to do something, given these attacks in the Aleppo, if I'm pronouncing it correctly, in terms of using artillery, helicopters and gun and aircraft.
Can you give the world a feel for how difficult it would be to set up a no-fly zone, given Syria's integrated air defense systems? How sophisticated is that system versus Libya's, say, a challenge it would present to any airplane, from the F-22 to a drone?
MR. LITTLE: Well, I wouldn't speculate or hypothesize, Tony. I don't think it's a secret that Syria over time has built up a sophisticated air defense system. As for no-fly zones, I'm not going to offer speculation from this podium.
The situation in Syria is grave. What we're seeing the Syrian regime do is intolerable. And the international community, you know, has made it clear that there needs to be a change. And, you know, there have been defections. They're feeling the pressure. They should feel the pressure. And we hope that the heat that is on them will get them to do at long last something that's actually right to do in this conflict.
Q: I have a question on an Army issue there. You know, the fate of General Patrick O'Reilly of the Missile Defense Agency, a lot of speculation about it. Yesterday, Secretary McHugh asked the Pentagon inspector general to look into new allegations that O'Reilly may have misled a congressional committee about the state of morale at his agency at the very time the I.G. was painting a less-than-flattering picture.
My question is this. Has Secretary Panetta -- does he retain confidence in O'Reilly? Or is he in the process right now of reviewing replacements for O'Reilly that would take place as early as next month?
MR. LITTLE: Thank you for the question. The secretary has full confidence in the Department of the Army to look into these issues with respect to the reported I.G. investigation. I wouldn't comment on that. This is really an Army matter.
Q: Yeah, with all due respect, George, the MDA is not an Army agency. It's a DOD agency. And the Army's made it clear that the ball is in the Pentagon's court. I'm just asking you straight up. Has Secretary Panetta reviewed or even signed off on a transition package to the White House for a successor to O'Reilly, who may show up as early as next month?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have any announcements to make today, Tony, on this matter. I would really leave it to the Department of the Army to address potential personnel matters that fall within their purview.
Q: Well, what about confidence in O'Reilly, though? Does the secretary retain confidence in O'Reilly's ability to manage his agency, given these charges?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary has full confidence in the Army to look into this matter.
Q: George, has DOD provided any CBRN training to allies in the Middle East, such as Israel or Jordan or Turkey?
MR. LITTLE: We're in constant dialogue with our international partners and allies about the situation that we see unfolding every day. With respect to your specific question, I simply wouldn't comment on it, but we are working closely to identify common concerns.
Q: Allow me to go back to F-22, as you were waiting for the question.
MR. LITTLE: OK. All right.
Q: First one is a factual one. Could you tell us when exactly when F-22 is going will go to leave for Okinawa? And second one is, could you tell us a reason why you choose Kadena Air Base as a (inaudible) for this mission?
MR. LITTLE: The -- I probably should answer a V-22 question, just to have a little symmetry here.
But in all seriousness, the aircraft are en route. They'll arrive very soon at Kadena Air Base in Japan. And there have been absolutely no incidents that I'm aware of to date. Now, with respect to the aircraft thus far, they have not yet arrived, but they are making their way there.
The U.S. base on Okinawa is a very important base strategically. The F-22, we believe, is a very important aircraft in the Asia Pacific portfolio and in our overall fleet. The aircraft has been deployed to the region, to other areas of the Asia Pacific in the past, so it is in some ways natural that they would return to Kadena.
Q: George, sorry if I misheard earlier, but in announcing the secretary's trip --
MR. LITTLE: Sure.
Q: -- when he goes to Egypt, is he meeting with the new president, Mohamed Morsi?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary is scheduled to meet with President Morsi and with Field Marshal Tantawi.
Q: Can I go back to your -- something you said right at the beginning about Al Qaida in Iraq inside Syria? If I understood right, you were talking about the fact that it's not an extensive threat at the moment.
MR. LITTLE: Well, we take very seriously AQI wherever they may operate, in Iraq, in Syria, or elsewhere, for that matter, so I'm not trying in any way, shape or form to diminish the concern we have about elements of AQI that operate anywhere in that region or the world.
But if the question is, do we believe that AQI has somehow overtaken the opposition or has a significant footprint inside the opposition, we believe the answer is no. Are there elements of AQI that might be in Syria trying to do bad things, planning bad things? I can't rule that out entirely.
Q: OK. And when you talked about Al Qaida, AQI right at the beginning then about the U.S. assisting the Iraqis in dealing with AQI inside of Iraq, I'm curious about that, because, of course, you speak on behalf of the U.S. military. So is this strictly advising the Iraqis? Or are there any U.S. military personnel -- are you talking about U.S. military personnel engaging in operations against AQI inside of Iraq? What were you really talking about?
MR. LITTLE: What I'm really talking about, Barbara, is close counterterrorism cooperation with the government of Iraq. And we have close counterterrorism cooperation with a number of countries around the world. That's what I was referring to.
Q: Well, when you say close counterterrorism cooperation, are U.S. troops in the field engaging in counterterrorism operations inside Iraq?
MR. LITTLE: I would really not comment on the nature of our counterterrorism cooperation. I am personally not aware, but I will let you know if that changes.
Q: Just to clarify, when you say that you don't believe that AQI is a major threat or has taken up the opposition in Syria, you just mean -- I presume you also mean like any Al Qaida, not just (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: The question was about AQI, right?
Q: Right, but is the answer the same for --
MR. LITTLE: The answer's the same for --
Q: -- any Al Qaida?
MR. LITTLE: -- any Al Qaida affiliate. Uh-huh. One or two more questions?
Q: If it turns out that AQI or A.Q. was responsible for the suicide bombing that killed the defense minister and security minister and the others, would that be viewed as a positive development or a negative development?
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't get into -- I'm not in a position to confirm attribution for the attack. I have no knowledge that AQI was involved.
Q: Do you have any idea on AQI's involvement or any jihadist organizations involvement in training bomb preparation with the FSA? This was kind of outside what they've been doing, right? So this is -- this was a difference for them. So what -- what do we know about that? What do we know about -- (inaudible) going to Istanbul for training. Was this with jihadist organizations, do you know? Or was this NATO?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have anything on that, to be honest with you.
OK? Thank you, everyone. I will listen better next time.