MR. GEORGE LITTLE: Good afternoon, everyone, and happy new year. I'd like to take this opportunity to provide a preview of the next few weeks here at the Pentagon.
Tomorrow evening, Secretary Panetta will host Israel's minister of defense, Ehud Barak, to continue regular consultations on U.S. and Israeli defense cooperation.
On Thursday, Secretary Panetta will welcome the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, to the Pentagon. President Karzai will receive full honors, a full honors welcome on the parade field just outside the river entrance prior to his meetings with Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey. The secretary and President Karzai will also visit the 9/11 Memorial to honor and remember the 184 people who lost their lives when Al Qaida attacked the United States.
Secretary Panetta will also participate in meetings with President Karzai on Friday at the White House. This visit, of course, provides an opportunity to discuss the ongoing transition to Afghan security lead and our enduring commitment to Afghanistan following completion of transition at the end of 2014.
Looking to next week, on Monday, Secretary Panetta will depart for a weeklong trip to Europe that will take him to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom. This trip provides an opportunity to meet with allies on NATO cooperation, as well as discuss the mission in Afghanistan. These nations combined have provided thousands of troops to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Secretary Panetta looks forward to meeting with his counterparts in each of these countries.
Finally, I want to reiterate the secretary's strong support for the president's nominee to become the 24th secretary of defense. As is customary, Secretary Panetta has authorized a joint military and civilian transition team that will provide support for the confirmation process. Senator Hagel will receive numerous briefings on department and administration policies, our budget, our current operations, and our capabilities.
With that, I'll turn it over to you for questions. Justin?
Q: On that last point, do you have any readout of the dinner between Panetta and Hagel last night?
MR. LITTLE: The dinner occurred last night here at the Pentagon. It was a one-on-one dinner with Secretary Panetta and Senator Hagel. It was a very good discussion. I am pleased to report that the dinner included corn chowder, filet mignon, and chocolate cake. So it was more Midwestern-themed, with a little steak and corn, than Italian this go-round.
Q: Did you have a follow-up?
Q: No (off mic).
Q: Also a housekeeping matter on the Karzai --
MR. LITTLE: I don't know if there was any Nebraska wine.
Q: All right. Housekeeping on the Karzai visit on Thursday. Will they be holding a joint press availability? Will we be getting any, you know, information? Because they're obviously going to be talking about substance even ahead of the White House visit.
MR. LITTLE: We will, of course, provide a readout of the meeting with President Karzai, but at this stage, there is no joint press availability with President Karzai here. This is a head of state visit. And more details, I'm sure, will follow from the White House on the visit. That being said, the secretary and the chairman do plan to have a press availability on Thursday afternoon.
Q: Two questions. One, if the secretary is aware of what's happening at the India-Pakistan border, LOC, what they call line of control, this time it's kind of serious matter has took place, infiltrations and little firings always been happening on the border, but not serious like this time. And according to the press reports, now it has become like a national issue in India, and they had -- (inaudible) -- Indian soldiers, and they took with them in Pakistan. If anything on -- and also at the same time, because now President Karzai is in Washington, coming here, and also things going on in the region, and India is also worried, of course, what's happening transition Afghanistan. And now all those terrorists, they are worried, India, that it might be hurting India, especially -- (inaudible) -- region.
MR. LITTLE: Well, the issue of tensions, historical tensions between India and Pakistan is one that the secretary knows very well. And, of course, we all hope -- and our Pakistani and Indian partners hope -- that we can maintain peace and stability in the region. The secretary has affirmed that on visits throughout that region, including to India.
And on the issue of terrorism, let me say that we stand with everyone in the world to include those in India and in Pakistan who take a very hard line against terrorists who want to kill civilians, whether it's Pakistani, Indian or American civilians.
We have all been affected by terrorism, and we believe that there needs to be a united front against terrorist groups operating in that region of the world and in others.
Q: Can I ask one quickly? As far as this issue and other issues are concerned, when was the last time if secretary had been asked by India any kind of help or military-to-military and other relations are concerned? Or before secretary leaves, is he going to talk to or visit anybody?
MR. LITTLE: Department officials have had regular dialogue with our Indian counterparts. As you know, Deputy Secretary Carter has been asked to take on the role of looking at how we might be able to facilitate transfers more effectively and more efficiently with the government of India. And that process is ongoing.
Q: What's the Pentagon assessment right now in regards to Syria's chemical weapons? Have you seen any indication that Assad has the intention to use those weapons? And do you think Minister Barak's visit tomorrow to the Pentagon is -- is within to discuss this topic, this issue?
MR. LITTLE: The minister and Secretary Panetta have met on a number of occasions at this point in the United States and in Israel. I'm sure the topic of Syria will come up.
To your question on chemical weapons, without getting too deep into matters of intelligence, I'm unaware of any information that would suggest that the Syrians are planning the imminent use of chemical weapons or deployment of chemical weapons.
Let me be very clear, that this government would view that kind of action as a red line. Senior officials in this government have been very clear about that. And we will continue to do so.
The Assad regime continues to perpetrate violence against its own people. It's entirely unacceptable. It's depraved. And it's time for the Assad regime to go. But in the meantime, they have a serious responsibility to maintain security over their chemical weapons stockpiles and not to use them.
Q: Just to be clear, does Secretary Panetta still believe that the Syrian chemical weapons are -- are in good hands, are safe so far?
MR. LITTLE: The Syrian regime has an obligation to maintain security over the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles. And I have not heard of a change in the secretary's assessment.
Q: George, there's been a lot of reporting recently and discussion about Al Qaida in Mali, and including reports of them having access to heavy equipment to dig into escarpments and desert floors and other places. There's also some reporting about the U.S. and France and some other countries making some plans to -- later in the year to do some kind of military operation. What can you say about what the Pentagon is planning or is doing, not just in terms of Mali, but in terms of extremist and terrorists in other parts of Africa?
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't get into specifics on potential operations, but we do understand the serious threat that terrorist groups pose in North Africa, to include Mali. And we are working closely with our partners in the region to try to find ways to thwart their activities.
This is a serious issue, and as the secretary has said, the United States is committed to going after terrorists wherever they may be, in order to protect American interests, but also those of our partners and allies around the world.
Q: Follow-up, please?
MR. LITTLE: Okay.
Q: There was some reporting recently about some small teams from the Pentagon and from -- or, rather, from the Department of Defense being sent to Africa to help train troops from other countries. Is there -- are they there? Or do we know what the situation -- can you say what the situation is with that?
MR. LITTLE: In Mali specifically or elsewhere?
Q: (off mic) in Africa specifically?
MR. LITTLE: Well, we have a host of defense relationships in Africa that we, of course, look to and value. And we do, in some cases, provide training support to militaries on the continent. It's a very important part of the world for any number of reasons, to include the common threat of terrorism that we and our African partners face.
Q: George, I've been away for a bit, so --
MR. LITTLE: Welcome back.
Q: Thank you. I don't think I've missed it, but where are we with General John Allen? This seems to be going on for months now. Are we -- has the report been completed? Is he likely now to get his next appointment?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have an update on the IG investigation, but the secretary and General Allen had a very good discussion this morning on the situation in Afghanistan. They have a weekly conversation. General Allen sits in Kabul for that conversation. And the secretary believes that General Allen continues to do a very effective job in prosecuting our efforts there toward transition and of prosecuting the war effort. Substantial progress has been made on his watch, and I don't have any update though, Mike, on the IG process.
Q: Questions on Afghanistan. By the end of the week, will the secretary have given the president his final recommendations on post-2014 options? And will those likely be discussed with President Karzai this week?
MR. LITTLE: Well, it won't surprise you, Tony that I'm not going to get into the private consultations that this department is having with the White House on specifics of troop numbers beyond 2014 or the drawdown between now and the end of 2014. That process is ongoing. It's a rigorous process inside this department and with the White House. And ultimately, it's the president's decision.
With respect to consultations with President Karzai, we believe that, on Thursday, the secretary and President Karzai will have a very good discussion on a broad range of issues. I would remind you that it's not just about troop numbers in Afghanistan. It's also about the bilateral security agreement, progress on the peace process, and a range of other issues.
And we think that there will be a very productive discussion. Both sides have prepared very hard for this visit, and we're looking forward to it.
Q: I need to ask you on this trip, by the way, to Europe, at a time when 800,000 of your civilian employees face furloughs, what's the justification for him taking him and an entourage, spending millions of dollars to go to the cushiest capitals in Europe? Seriously, in all -- London, Rome, Madrid, Lisbon. Why is he going? Why can't this be done by -- via VTC? What is in Rome that the Italian-American secretary wants to see? I mean, can you justify this a little bit more?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary of defense wants to see very strong NATO allies who have fought and died in Afghanistan. He wants to see our foreign counterparts to reaffirm our very strong commitment to transatlantic defense alliances. This is a trip that is about trying to drive even deeper relationships with very close allies. There is a lot of work to be done with our European allies, and I would remind you, Tony, that this is his first major swing through these capitals.
As secretary of defense, he's not been to London. He has not been to Lisbon. He's not been to Rome. He has not been to Madrid. All four of those counterparts have visited the United States. He has been to NATO, and he has been to the Munich Security Conference. He has made several trips to Asia at this stage and to other parts of the world, but this is his first swing through Europe.
Q: Well, again, the optics don't look great, given that you've got sequestration hanging over. And this -- you know, it looks like a farewell junket, basically.
MR. LITTLE: Well, that's your characterization. But we view it as a way of signaling our strong commitment to NATO and to our partners and allies who have been with us in Afghanistan and through many other challenges.
Let me go to someone else. Mike?
Q: Can I jump back on Syria quickly regarding the chemical weapons? There's some evidence that some of the -- some weapons were built up in bombs. There's some reporting, I think, today that said, you know, it could be as quickly as four hours if Assad gave the go-ahead to use those.
The U.S. has said, you know, there's a red line on using that. What position does that put the U.S. or other allies in, if there's a four-hour window and it looks like there's -- if this is going to be used? Is there any thought to destroying the air capability of Syria ahead of time in any way, shape or form? Or --
MR. LITTLE: Mike, I wouldn't tip our hand as to what we may or may not do in the event that we receive information of a possible deployment of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. I would simply reiterate what I said earlier, and that is that it would be absolutely unacceptable. And the international community has been clear about this; we've been clear about it; and we hope the Syrians receive that very strong message.
Q: Just on that -- sorry. Just on that point, the red line is the imminent use. Did I understand you say that?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get into a semantic discussion on red lines, but what I merely said was that I don't have any information that suggests the imminent use of chemical weapons.
Q: And you said something about a red line, and I couldn't quite hear you.
MR. LITTLE: Well, we have said I think at various points, not just from this building, but from other venues in Washington, that it would be totally unacceptable for the Syrian regime to use chemical weapons. And I would reiterate that very strong admonition.
Q: Can you give us an update on the deployment of Patriots to Turkey? Where do things stand now, when they'll be up and running, how many personnel are involved?
MR. LITTLE: We're very pleased to support our Turkish allies. This is a NATO effort in which the United States is participating. Roughly half of the 400 troops that are part of this effort have made their way to Turkey, and about half the equipment, as well. By the end of the month, we expect to have all 400 or so personnel in Turkey and all of the equipment there, too.
This is a mission that's slated for up to a year. We're going to continue to monitor the situation in Syria to see how long we need to be there, but this is something that we believe is very important for our alliance with Turkey and is very important in the context of NATO.
Q: George --
MR. LITTLE: I'll come back to you, Justin.
Q: I didn't get a real question.
Q: George, back on the Syrian chemical weapons --
MR. LITTLE: You're a foodie, I know.
Q: Back on the Syrian chemical weapons, a report -- the same report that Mike referred to also stated that the intelligence that the Syrians were preparing chemical -- 500-pound bombs, in fact, for -- preparing them for us came -- the report said that they -- the information came from Israeli intelligence. Can you tell us whether or not that the -- the Department of Defense had any corroborating intelligence independent of the Israelis?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to comment on intelligence matters. I've gone about as far as I can on Syrian chemical weapons today.
Justin, I'll give you an alibi.
Q: So one of the only men in custody as it was linked to the Benghazi attack was released in Tunisia today. They cited -- a Tunisian judge cited a lack of evidence. I wanted to know if the U.S. government agrees with that assessment, that there was a lack of evidence to hold this man, al-Harzi, and if you think that was the right thing, to let him go. And where is the U.S. government now on finding anyone at all linked to these attacks?
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't comment on this particular case. We're not in the lead on investigating this matter in the Department of Defense. That falls to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
But we've been very clear as a government that we will pursue justice for those who perpetuated the attack on our personnel in Benghazi on 11 September 2012 and that we will not stop until we find and seek justice for those perpetrators.
Q: And so you have no comment on the release of al-Harzi? I mean, do you think this is a (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: I don't have any comment on this particular case.
Q: I'm trying to get at, do you think this is a missed opportunity? Do you think we let the bad guy go? Or do we think this is -- this is the right decision?
MR. LITTLE: I said we wouldn't comment, Justin. Okay.
Q: When he makes the trip to Europe next week, will -- will the secretary be in a position to discuss with the allies there the size of the U.S. presence post-2014 in Afghanistan? And will he be seeking from them some sort of commitment as to their own participation in the post-2014 period?
MR. LITTLE: I think Afghanistan will clearly be on the agenda with these allies. As to the specifics, I wouldn't want to get out ahead of the secretary's trip.
Q: Only a month left until the Pentagon has to submit a budget to Congress under normal circumstances. Where does that process stand? And has the fiscal cliff deal -- or the clarity you got from the defense authorization act caused any major modifications? And in terms of Congress sort of tying the Pentagon's hands in terms of what kinds of cuts it can make to meet the budget targets, how does that shape what you do in '14?
MR. LITTLE: We're pleased that the NDAA was passed. But let me be very clear about the current budget situation. I could try to be somewhat artful and diplomatic, but I will boil it down to this. It is at this stage a mess. This is highly problematic. We don't have stability in the budget process. What we have is uncertainty.
And we need to avoid the fiscal cliff that we could go off on March the 1st. It's time for Congress to avert sequestration once and for all. This is not just about cells on an Excel spreadsheet. This is about the defense of the United States and the people who serve in the United States military and our civilian personnel, also, who carry out missions and support of the defense of this nation.
It's also about the entire federal budget. And the secretary has been very clear that we need to have a true, genuine, honest conversation about the budget. And he wants there to be a deal once and for all that gets us out of talking about sequestration, which we've talked about way too long. It's time for Congress to act.
Let me reiterate what Deputy Secretary Carter identified as potential impacts of sequestration back in August. And this hasn't changed. This could seriously disrupt our forces and programs to include readiness. It could require us to substantially modify and scale back our new defense strategy. It could cut thousands of programs by 10 or more percent. It could reduce war funding. It could allow for less training for later deploying Army and Marine Corps units to Afghanistan. It could force the release of temporary civilian employees. It could very well have an impact on morale.
We've heard that already on the frontlines in Afghanistan. The troops have serious questions about sequestration. This is not just a Washington issue. It's a Camp Bastion issue. It's an issue at Incirlik. It's an issue at our bases in Asia. We need to think carefully about this.
It could reduce commissary hours. It could delay payments to medical service providers. It could disrupt our investment programs. This is not a rational way to govern.
Q: (off mic) Barak visit, it wasn't many weeks ago that we were in this room and Secretary Panetta and Minister Barak exchanged gifts, said goodbye, they hugged, all that stuff. Is he back for something specific this visit? Or is it simply that Secretary Panetta has not been replaced by the next nominee, that this (off mic).
MR. LITTLE: Regular consultations -- Minister Barak and the secretary, as you know, have a very strong partnership. And I would characterize it, as they have, as a friendship. So I characterize this as a routine meeting. As you know, they've read on -- met on a number of occasions over the past year-and-a-half.
Q: (off mic) former Governor Richardson and Google executive Schmidt visit to North Korea right now. What is your comment on that, their visit?
MR. LITTLE: On the Schmidt visit to North Korea? I would really leave comment on this to my very good friends at the Department of State.
Q: George, a follow-up on your comment about sequester and everything. Comptroller Hale yesterday at Brookings indicated that they would try to protect the warfighters. You said that, quoting Secretary Carter, on -- you could affect the rotation of troops in -- on the theater -- (inaudible) -- is it -- does the department believe that within the rules of sequester, you could protect the OCO funds and -- and what happens in theater?
MR. LITTLE: It is certainly our hope to be able to protect OCO funds, and we expect to continue to be able to prosecute the war effort in Afghanistan. But I've got to tell you, I mean, this is very serious business, the sequester. And even though we may be able to still carry out the fight in Afghanistan, and we may be able to protect some programs, overall, our mission as a department could be devastated, at least for a short period of time, and that's not a prospect that any of us relish.
We have debt ceiling. We have continuing resolution. We have the prospect of sequester. And this is just not the right way to go about business. This is not the right way to run a railroad.
MR. LITTLE: Dan?
Q: On Karzai's visit and the troop numbers, once the decision is formally officially taken, is there a plan to announce that decision at some point? Or does the administration prefer never to make an announcement on this publicly?
MR. LITTLE: On our enduring presence?
MR. LITTLE: In Afghanistan? Well, this is, obviously, a White House call. I'm not going to get into more announcements they may or may not make, any particular time. But I do think that we will shed more light as decisions are made over time on what our plan is going to forward in Afghanistan, between now and the end of 2014 and then beyond.
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: Well, I would expect that more information will be provided on our enduring presence over time.
Q: Is this (off mic) between Presidents Karzai and Obama, is this a decision-making meeting, in terms of troop levels, for example?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to go beyond my brief. The White House, I think, is in the best position to characterize discussions between the president and President Karzai. What I will say is that we expect this to be a wide-ranging discussion on a number of issues, and it's not just about troop levels beyond 2014. It's about how we work together to prosecute the war effort, how we work together with our ISAF partners, how we look to the capabilities of the ANSF and how to continue to grow them. So there's a lot on the table, a lot of work to be done, and we are confident that progress will be made.
Q: And a follow-up on sequestration, following your admonition to Congress. Has the department identified specifics yet, in terms of specific programs, specific personnel, specific dollar figures in specific parts of the budget that would be affected by sequestration? And if it has, can it release those figures?
MR. LITTLE: I don't know that we have gotten down to that level, but let me assure you, we're doing some serious planning for sequestration. We hope to avoid it. We don't want there to be uncertainty. But with less than two months to go before the next deadline hits for fiscal cliff, we need to be ready. And we're working through those numbers right now.
Q: (off mic) Hagel, are you setting up an office for him here, so he's going to have a presence? Give a feel for the sequence over the next two or three weeks with him.
MR. LITTLE: Sure. It is customary, as I said in my opening statement, that we provide office space and -- to the nominee. That happened with Secretary Panetta and his predecessors. So he does have office space. How much he decides to use it is, obviously, up to him, but we stand ready to support him with that space and, of course, with information on the department's activities, budget, and capabilities.
Q: Would you agree that his biggest challenges in the first couple months is going to be managing the potential impacts of the sequestration? Or what are some of the other less-than-obvious challenges the new secretary will face?
MR. LITTLE: Well, I'm really not in a position to speak for Senator Hagel at this stage.
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: I realize that, but I would really leave it to him to characterize what he views as challenges. I think the department, it's no secret, faces, again, the budget problem in the near future, and there are -- is no shortage of issues to address for any secretary of defense.
Q: All right -- (inaudible) -- announced that they are going to increase the defense budget in light of the tension in the region. And do you welcome this decision when you face the fiscal strain -- budget strain?
MR. LITTLE: In which country? I apologize.
MR. LITTLE: In Japan. I wouldn't comment on budget decisions made by the government of Japan. Each country needs to make their own decisions, but we obviously work closely with our Japanese allies to ensure that we can support one another, support the defense of Japan, and Japan, obviously, supports the United States. But I wouldn't comment specifically on a budget decision made by a foreign government.
Q: George, in my excitement about the upcoming release of troop numbers post-2014 in Afghanistan, where do things stand pre-2014, as far as troop levels go, the decisions been made --
MR. LITTLE: No decision has been made on the numbers between now and the end of 2014. That's obviously going to be a subject of discussion, as well. And we continue to do the analysis on that, and that set of recommendations will come through the system at some point, but we're not there yet.
Q: And what position -- or what role does DOD play in Hagel's confirmation process, if any?
MR. LITTLE: The role of the department is to provide briefings to the nominee so that he is prepared to address questions, especially for his confirmation hearing. We have a small team of people who are going to be dedicated full time to support him in this process. And we'll bring in subject matter experts as required and at his request to provide him information. That's our central role.
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: Couple more questions. Go ahead, Mike.
Q: (off mic) I guess there's a chance that the new secretary of defense might be in a position before all the trouble with the budget is sorted out. Does Secretary Panetta feel frustrated that, after all the efforts he's made, he may be leaving without this resolved?
MR. LITTLE: Well, the president made clear yesterday at the White House that he hopes that the Senate will act quickly on Senator Hagel's confirmation. And I think the secretary would echo what the president said.
Separate and apart from the nomination process and confirmation, I think it's fair to say that this secretary has been very strong in suggesting that sequestration would be a very big problem for this department. And he hopes that we can achieve resolution on that as quickly as possible, as well.
These are serious times, fiscally and otherwise, for the United States. We face a number of serious security threats around the world. And it's time to stop this Washington debate on the budget when we face serious international problems.
Q: (off mic) forgive me if you've addressed this before, but is Secretary Panetta committed to staying until nominee Hagel is confirmed?
MR. LITTLE: It's the secretary's expectation that he would stay until his successor has been confirmed by the Senate.
Q: George -- (inaudible) -- focus on Asia. Do you care or worry or are you aware of -- as far as ongoing violence in Thailand and also in Burma?
MR. LITTLE: I'm aware of it.
Q: Is secretary -- are you focusing or doing anything about that? Or have been asked for any help?
MR. LITTLE: No, this has been the subject of discussion in Bangkok with our Thai allies. And -- but I wouldn't comment beyond that. These are really internal matters in Burma and in Thailand.
Q: (off mic) any kind of weaponry or any military help?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not aware of any requests for such assistance.
One or two more questions. Dave?
Q: Before the new year law went into effect that postponed sequestration, the department has been poised to notify employees about potential for -- for furloughs. How long will that be on hold? Will it wait again until we come down to the -- to the end of February? Or is there a possibility the department may notify employees ahead of time?
MR. LITTLE: We're going to do right by our employees, in terms of communication, and do what we have to do to follow the law. No decisions have been reached yet, but we're actively consulting with the Office of Management and Budget to see what actions we may need to take in advance of the 1 March fiscal cliff deadline.
Q: Would that be an advice from them (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: We would -- we would consult with them, I think, in advance, sure.
All right. Any final questions? Justin?
Q: No, I'm good.
MR. LITTLE: All right.
Q: What's the status of your -- the department's actions against Matthew Bissonette, the SEAL who wrote "No Easy Day"? Since the movie's coming out Friday, I think the interest in the raid and him is going to raise exponentially. You know, what's the status? Are you going to go after him or not?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have any updates to provide at this time. If I do, I'll certainly let you know. But I don't have any announcements to make.
Q: (off mic) George. I mean, the secretary's now a lame duck. At some point, you've got to do something (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: Let me be very clear. The secretary of defense is not a lame duck. The secretary of defense is the secretary of defense until his final minutes. And he is focused on his job, and he is focused on resolving all kinds of matters under his purview until his successor is confirmed. Thanks, everyone.