GEORGE LITTLE: Good afternoon.
I'll start with a brief statement in French on Mali.
(SPEAKING IN FRENCH)
And now in English.
The United States applauds the French for their leadership in Mali. We share the concerns of the French in Mali, and we are supporting their operations in a variety of ways.
Since French operations began on January 11, the U.S. has been sharing intelligence with the French. In addition, since January 21st, the United States has been providing airlift support to the French army. As of January 27th, the United States Air Force has flown 17 C-17 sorties, moving French personnel, supplies and equipment into Bamako. We have carried more than 391 tons of equipment and supplies and nearly 500 passengers.
Finally, on January 27th, the United States Air Force began refueling support to French air operations. We have conducted one refueling mission so far with the KC-135, which provided about 33,000 pounds of jet fuel to French fighter aircraft. More refueling missions should happen today.
With that, I'll open it up to your questions.
Q: Congratulations on your bilingual -- (inaudible).
Well, a question on Mali: Are there additional types of support that the U.S. is considering providing? And also, could you give us the latest on the planning for a possible drone base in Niger, the SOFA agreement?
MR. LITTLE: We're in constant consultations with the French on their operations in Mali. Our support is defined, as I just explained it, to information sharing, intelligence sharing, refueling and airlift.
In addition, as we indicated on Saturday, following a phone call between the secretary and his French counterpart, we are supporting the international effort by providing airlift to countries in the region, to include Chad and Togo.
We will review further requests from the French. We strongly support French operations in Mali. This is a key effort. AQIM [al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and other terrorist groups have threatened to establish a safe haven in Mali, and the French have done absolutely the right thing. And we will continue to assess their needs and what our support might be in the future.
As for Niger, we are grateful that the government of Niger has entered into a status of forces agreement with the United States. This is a very important agreement, and we are, of course, looking to work with them to define precisely what kind of military presence we may have in Niger in the future. That presence has not yet been defined.
Q: Can you comment on reports that you're considering a drone base in Niger?
MR. LITTLE: I think that a lot of the reports talk about, you know, considering any number of forms of a military presence, and I wouldn't speculate at this stage as to what that kind of presence might mean.
Q: Can I follow up on that?
Not to speculate, but what would -- what is -- two things, what is the U.S. national security interest right now in AQIM? Do you have reason to believe that they pose a threat to the United States, number one?
And number two, on Niger, what is the national security interest in having drone operations over western Africa? What -- what interests you about -- about doing this?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary has been very clear for a long time, since he was CIA director, that we have to go after A.Q. wherever they are, to include in South Asia, to include in other parts of Africa, and to include North Africa -- places like Yemen, as well.
We are taking the fight in various ways to al Qaeda, and we've been doing so very effectively for a number of years now.
AQIM poses a threat in the region, and I can't rule out the possibility that AQIM poses a threat to U.S. interests. This is a group that has shown its ability to demonstrate brutality and to conduct attacks. And it's very important that we work with our partners in the region and our allies to thwart them.
And that's why we're applauding the French effort.
Q: Do you see an AQIM threat to the U.S. homeland?
MR. LITTLE: Well, I'm unaware of any specific or credible information at this time that points to an AQIM threat against the homeland, but, again, I'm not ruling it out. We take al Qaeda wherever they are very seriously. And we are not going to rest on our laurels until we find that that kind of specific and credible information. At that point it could be too late.
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to comment specifically on certain capabilities that we have to pursue and gather information on terrorists. But rest assured that the United States has capabilities it needs to maintain a very strong edge against al Qaeda and other terrorist networks.
Q: Back to Mali?
MR. LITTLE: Yes?
Q: You mentioned that --
MR. LITTLE: Thank you for speaking English.
Q: If you want to in French --
MR. LITTLE: Okay.
Q: I wouldn't have to translate.
Yes, on Mali, you mentioned that the U.S. is providing airlift to countries in the region. You mentioned Chad and Togo. Could you give some specifics on that? And does the U.S. intend to provide some training to the African countries in the region. I know that there -- there's a State Department program under which there are 100 trainers from private security firms. Does the DOD intend to go further?
MR. LITTLE: We are not part of that State Department program at this stage, although I can't rule out support of that kind in the future. And to the first part of your question, you're looking for more specifics on --
Q: On this airlift, when did it start?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not sure that it's actually started yet. We've agreed to do so. I'll provide you information as we -- as we can. If it has started, I'll let you know that, too, but I don't have that information at this time.
Q: Do you believe, does the secretary believe that A.Q. in the Af-Pak [Afghanistan-Pakistan] area, the threat from A.Q. in Af-Pak area has moved now to the A.Q. in Middle East and northern Africa? Which was the more threat to the U.S.?
MR. LITTLE: I think A.Q. in Afghanistan and Pakistan, A.Q. in Yemen, A.Q. in various parts of Africa, they all pose a very serious threat to the United States. We view all of these groups as a priority in terms of our going after them. So I wouldn't rank order the various nodes of A.Q.
Let me be very clear that various nodes of A.Q. have come under very strong pressure in recent years in Pakistan and in Yemen and in Somalia, and we're seeing pressure brought to bear against AQIM and other groups in North Africa.
We intend with our allies and in the context of international effort to sustain that sustain that pressure.
Q: And -- (inaudible) -- complication and leadership exchange between A.Q. in Af-Pak and Yemen and northern Africa?
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't comment on that kind of thing. It might -- coordination we'll -- we have seen this kind of coordination in the past. I'm not going to get into specifics. But that is a concern of ours. And that's another reason why we need to keep up the pressure.
Q: Yeah, why did it take, given the gravity of the threat you've just described and -- and the support the U.S. has expressed for the French intervention, why did it take so long for the administration to decide whether it would offer up, I guess, three aerial refueling tankers, given how many tankers the U.S. has in its fleet?
MR. LITTLE: Well, we agreed to provide support almost immediately with information and intelligence sharing. We agreed to provide airlift rather quickly. And it was a matter of consulting closely with the French on their specific needs and their requirements to agree to the refueling capability, and we're doing that.
And we'll continue to consult with the government of France in this effort. And we, obviously, support what they're doing, and it's important that we do what we can to continue to help their effort and the effort -- efforts of other countries to beat back AQIM and other terrorist groups in Mali.
Q: The Global Hawks -- also just for a note, the Global Hawks are involved in the surveillance as well?
MR. LITTLE: It seems like ISR platforms are a theme of the day. I'm simply not going to get into the specifics.
Q: George, does the U.S. have the authority to conduct offensive strikes in Mali? Does it -- are there legal barriers that would stop you from doing that should you desire or if say something were to happen to some of the assets that you have operating there now?
MR. LITTLE: I've defined the parameters today to what our support to U.S. -- the support to French operations in Mali are. That's where we are right now. And as for the future, I wouldn't necessarily speculate, but there is no plan at this stage to engage in combat with the French in Mali.
Q: (off mic) paying for the fuel (off mic)?
MR. LITTLE: The United States, as I understand it, is not seeking reimbursement at this time for flight operations. The French have agreed to reimburse the United States for the cost of the jet fuel provided to French aircraft.
Q: Number one of the themes you read in stories about France's quick response in Mali is that they were able to take advantage of pre-positioned equipment in Chad and a couple other countries. Has General Ham of AFRICOM come to the -- come to Panetta and said, "We need to pre-position X, Y, Z assets around Africa." Is there any thought about that?
MR. LITTLE: General Ham, as all of you know, is a very thoughtful combatant commander. And he has put a great deal of strategic thinking around what we may need in the future to combat, not just the CT [counter terrorism] threat, but other national security challenges.
So is he looking at the mix of assets that we have in the region, is he energizing our defense relationships on the continent of Africa? Absolutely. So I would expect him to continue to make proposals on how we might be able to, working with countries in the region, address some of the issues that we confront together.
Q: One broader question too: How does this engagement fit into the pivot to Asia strategy? Do you envision now -- the plan -- Secretary Panetta and all the officials who crafted the Asia -- the Asia pivot, did they envision maybe a pirouette to Africa -- to incorporate some of the aid and the assistance the United States is providing there?
MR. LITTLE: Tony, I had no idea you were such a dance expert. Look, we have made it very clear that even as we rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region as part of our strategy that we're not going to keep our eye off the ball on security threats that we face in other parts of the world, to include terrorism, terrorism wherever it crops up, in Africa or elsewhere.
And it's not zero-sum. It's not Asia and then we withdraw from other places. We are going to sustain relationships throughout the world on every continent. And that's what we've expressed in the last 19 months since Secretary Panetta took office.
And we've gone to some three dozen countries. We have articulated that we have a commitment to our defense relationships, our partnerships and alliances around the world, and it's not just about Asia-Pacific. We are rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, but we're going to keep a focus on the Middle East, we're going to keep a focus on Europe. We have alliances around the world. And we want to energize relationships in Africa.
Q: This status of forces agreement that (off mic) with Niger, when did that – when was that -- concluded, and what does it envision in terms of the kind of force that will be there? Does it envision combat troops on the ground or combat aircraft or --
MR. LITTLE: All of that is still to be determined, David. But let me make a point about this particular SOFA. It's been in the works for some time with the government of Niger and is not related to recent events in Mali.
Again, we're grateful to the government of Niger for entering into this agreement with the United States. And we'll continue to consult with them on what kind of military presence we may have in the country going forward.
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: Oh, yesterday. I think it was the last couple of days that it was entered into.
Q: Are we doing similar agreements with other African -- African countries in the region?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not aware of any impending announcements on SOFAs, but if I learn differently I'll let you know.
Q: And you’re saying this is just a coincidence that this was signed at the same time reports have surfaced --
MR. LITTLE: It's been a long-planned agreement with Niger.
Q: Would it help to establish a drone base, should that be your future intent?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to speculate on what kind of military presence we may have in Niger. That's something that we have to work out with the government of Niger. And that's to be determined.
Q: Do you know how long it's been in the works, roughly?
MR. LITTLE: I think roughly months, or maybe a year.
Q: And does it replace any other SOFA or is it a brand new SOFA that's never been there?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not sure we've had a SOFA with Niger. I think it's new. If that is incorrect, I will certainly come back on the record and let you know.
Q: I didn't realize there were three tankers involved. Where are the tankers coming from?
MR. LITTLE: Moron Air Base in Spain.
Q: Where are the French warplanes flying out of?
MR. LITTLE: I'll leave that to the French.
Q: During the creation of the AFRICOM, there were some concerns about intentions of the U.S. to expand its military presence in Africa. (inaudible) -- plans for any kind of military engagement in the region that validate those concerns?
And then second issues, since we're talking about al Qaeda -- you mentioned al Qaeda in -- in that region in Africa. You talked about Asia. You talked about the Middle East. But it seems there is a growing presence of al Qaeda in Syria. And being serious as you said -- (inaudible) -- al Qaeda. What are you doing about al Qaeda in Syria?
MR. LITTLE: Well, we are concerned about al Qaeda wherever they are to include in Syria. I'm not going to get into specific steps we may or may not be taking with the countries in the region to address the AQA -- the A.Q. threat there and in other parts of the Middle East.
I don't think that these kinds of agreements with governments in Africa signal anything different about our approach on the continent. I think what we're talking about here is, as we do in other parts of the world, developing relationships and defense partnerships that benefit both countries. And to the extent that we can build up capabilities and capacity in Africa then we want to help African countries help themselves.
As we said in other parts of the world, our goal is not to establish U.S. bases everywhere, it's to help other governments provide for their own security. And that is a core theme that the secretary has stated throughout his trips on virtually every continent -- actually every continent minus Antarctica.
Q: George, just to follow up as far as the A.Q. threat in South Asia is concerned, -- (inaudible) -- network now beyond South Asia around the globe, or they are still in South Asia or -- or it has anything to do with the U.S. announcement that U.S. will withdraw from Afghanistan, and now they are maybe looking another network or other places to run their network?
MR. LITTLE: Al Qaeda remains in South Asia, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They're diminished, but they're not gone. They're in places like Yemen. We're concerned about their presence in other parts of the Middle East. And they're on the continent of Africa.
Q: And -- (inaudible) -- outside -- as far as U.S. focus on -- (inaudible) -- concern. China is not very happy that U.S. is now running their business in that part of the world-- near China or around China, in South Asia, in South China Sea.
Are you concerned with China what is their reaction now, because now al Qaeda is spreading in other parts of world also?
And finally, what do you think the strategy will be under the new secretary of defense?
MR. LITTLE: What are the Chinese unhappy with?
Q: U.S. presence in South Asia.
MR. LITTLE: South Asia -- Asia-Pacific? Well, we've had a presence in the Asia-Pacific region for decades. And we've made clear to the Chinese directly in Beijing that we plan to maintain that presence and we want to work with the Chinese to foster peace and security in the region. That's been a core theme of all of our discussions with the Chinese. And we welcome further engagement and transparency with the government of China.
So I think we've been very clear about what our goals and objectives are. We have longstanding partnerships and traditional alliances in the Asia-Pacific region and we will sustain those.
Q: -- (inaudible) -- the Chinese are expanding their presence in that part of the region now because of the -- (inaudible) -- U.S. -- U.S. announcement. And neighboring country like Japan -- Philippines and other countries, including even India, they are now under pressure and under threat from the Chinese.
MR. LITTLE: I'm not sure that I can definitively tie Chinese modernization efforts to our defense strategy. Again, we've had a presence in the Asia-Pacific region for a long time.
Q: Without going into whether or not it's going to be a drone base, can you say what the impetus, though, is from the U.S. side? And what does this give the U.S. that it did not have before in the region? And then I have a second question.
MR. LITTLE: SOFAs, as you all know, set up arrangements with other countries to establish, potentially, a military presence, or at least a presence of U.S. troops in the -- in the region. And this is often done to ensure that there are certain legal protections and a common understanding of what our presence is going to look like if it is actually gone into effect.
So I think that would -- leave it there. And these agreements tend to be frameworks and -- and signal deeper defense cooperation with other countries, and we see that happening with the government of Niger.
Q: But why Niger? I mean, the U.S. doesn't have a lot of assets in Africa as a whole when you look at the rest of the world. So why Niger, just for a reader's start here.
MR. LITTLE: Well, we've been in discussions with the government of Niger for a very long time. Why not Niger, I would ask you, Jon. They have expressed a willingness to engage more closely with us, and we are happy to engage with them.
Q: Can I just ask about Afghanistan quickly?
MR. LITTLE: Okay.
Q: There was a report yesterday, there's some comments from Pakistani military leaders about Pakistani troops training -- training Afghan troops. What's the DoD's take on that? I mean, can you comment? And how would that be beneficial?
MR. LITTLE: Who’s training who again?
Q: Pakistani troops training --
MR. LITTLE: Well, look, I think anytime the Pakistanis and the Afghans together -- come together and cooperate on training or other activities, that's beneficial. We've been encouraging that kind of cooperation for a long time. It's no secret that there has been tension in the past between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And if there are confidence-building measures like this that can take place, then we will welcome that.
Q: George, I would like to ask you about Egypt. How does the Pentagon assess the situation right now? And if the secretary has had any phone conversation with his Egyptian counterpart? How could you address the administration --
MR. LITTLE: I don't have any recent conversation between the secretary and Minister al-Sisi. I think, you know, I would leave a formal assessment of the situation in Egypt to the State Department. But we're obviously monitoring events closely in Egypt and look forward to a continuing defense dialogue with our Egyptian counterparts.
Q: George, could you give us your current assessment of the level of North Korea's preparations for a possible nuclear test? I'm presuming that the department is prepared to or will or has deployed a full range of assets to assess such a test if it were to take place. Is that true?
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't comment on intelligence matters, naturally, but they have stated, the North Koreans, that they might be preparing for a nuclear test. This statement is needlessly provocative. And a test, if it occurred, would be a significant violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Further provocations would only increase Pyongyang's isolation, and its continued focus on its nuclear missile program is doing nothing to help the North Korean people.
I would add that the U.N. Security Council resolution -- or Security Council adopted a resolution just a few days ago and expressed its determination to take significant action in the event of a further launch of some sort of a missile or a nuclear test.
Look, at the end of the day, we go through this cycle, it appears, with North Koreans, provocation and accommodation. And if we're entering a provocative phase -- and we hope we aren't -- that's problematic. Ultimately, it's problematic for the North Korean people. It's a problem for peace and security in that part of the world, and we'll continue to monitor events closely.
But the important thing is for the North Koreans to do the right thing. And they haven't shown that willingness at some points in the past, and maybe they'll take a different course in the future.
Q: Senator Graham said -- (inaudible) -- vote for Senator Hagel until Secretary Panetta testified before Congress on Benghazi. Any response to that? And do you feel -- does the secretary feel he's provided adequate explanation for the Pentagon's role during those events?
MR. LITTLE: I was recently made aware that a request was made of the secretary to testify. We will, of course, respond to Senator Graham and others on Capitol Hill. We have been very forthcoming with the United States Congress on the U.S. military response to the incident in Benghazi, and we'll continue to provide as much information as we can.
I think that it's very important that the confirmation process move forward. Senator Hagel will do an outstanding job, if confirmed, as secretary of defense. And we have called for that confirmation process to occur as quickly as possible.
Q: Was that a SASC request, for him to testify?
MR. LITTLE: I don't know if it was a committee request or if it was an individual member request.
Q: Does he intend to do it?
MR. LITTLE: I haven't heard whether or not there's intent to do that, but we will respond, of course, to the request that came in.
In the back?
Q: Hi, this is -- (inaudible) -- from Turkish -- (inaudible) -- television. Do you have any update information about Patriot batteries headed to Turkey?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have any further updates beyond what I provided in the past on our Patriot batteries in Turkey. With respect to Turkey, let me just say that we have a very strong alliance with Turkey, that the Patriot battery deployments are part of a NATO effort, and we will support Turkey as much as we can, especially against potential threats emanating from Syria.
So we value our relationship with Turkey and look forward to identifying other ways that we can be of help as Turkey confronts threats coming out of Syria and from other places.
Q: George -- (inaudible) -- interdiction off the coast of Yemen that involved some, I guess, the Yemeni government saying MANPADS coming from Iran. Can you tell us what the U.S. role was and what exactly the cargo was, and how do you know it came from Iran?
MR. LITTLE: We did provide support to the government of Yemen in intercepting and inspecting a vessel suspected of smuggling contraband into Yemen. We commend the government of Yemen in their actions in this interdiction. And for details, though, I would refer you to Sanaa and to the government of Yemen.
Let me just give you some -- a little bit of background on -- on this incident, though. The dhow was observed operating erratically and low in the water and ventured into Yemeni waters, so a routine boarding was conducted. Arms were discovered. I think the Yemenis have indicated what some of those weapons and material were. And we had crew statements that indicate that the point of origin was Iran.
Beyond that I would ask you to talk to our Yemeni partners.
Q: Who has the weapons now?
MR. LITTLE: I believe the government of Yemen does, but I would ask you to check with them to confirm.
Q: And you said the crew said they were coming from the point of origin --
MR. LITTLE: Crew statements indicate the point of origin was Iran.
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: We supported the mission. For details I would refer you to Yemen.
Q: (off mic) conclusive on the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan post 2014 -- (inaudible).
MR. LITTLE: No final decisions have been made.
Q: -- (inaudible) -- or has the White House gotten their formal -- quote/unquote, "formal" presentation yet?
MR. LITTLE: We are in consultations with the White House on enduring presence numbers as well as the so-called glide slope between now and the end of 2014. And those discussions are ongoing, but no updates at this time.
Maybe one or two more.
Q: Same question. Has it gone to the president, which seems to be the distinction? Because it's been at the White House for months, but has it gone to the president?
MR. LITTLE: I don't believe that the secretary and the president have spoken directly about this issue, but I'm sure that the secretary hopes to do so soon.
Q: Well, at this point it's fair to say that until a decision like this -- that decision is made, U.S. troop presence will stay at 66,000, 68,000 for the foreseeable future, until this decision's made, right?
So it's -- that --
MR. LITTLE: I -- I don't want to speculate, Courtney, but our troop numbers are -- right now in Afghanistan are around 66,000. And this is of course a presidential decision at the end of the day. I'm unaware of any change to that number in recent days.
Q: There's no plans -- there's no plan for any drawdown in the works at all, right, at this point?
I'm just trying to --
MR. LITTLE: Well, there are --
Q: -- so there's been so much speculation and back and forth over the numbers, and I mean, it's already almost February and there's still no plan for this year yet, right? Is that fair to say?
MR. LITTLE: Well, there's a lot of work being done right now. I wouldn't suggest in any way shape or form that we're not analyzing what the potential options might be and offering those up ultimately to the president. Of course it's his decision.
When the decision is made, I think we will do -- we will carry out his decision in a way that is -- is careful and prudent. And so I wouldn't get too worried about time frames.
Q: Is the secretary briefing the Senator Hagel on these global events, including Afghanistan and Tokyo and all those issues?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary has met privately with Senator Hagel, and they've discussed issues to include the defense strategy and the rebalance to Asia.
One or two more questions, Tony.
Q: Speaking of pending business, what is the status of your review of the SEAL book? In September, it was the biggest thing on earth. It dropped off the map. The movie's up for an Oscar end of the month. This profile is going to be raised again.
Where does this decision stand?
MR. LITTLE: I don't think this book contributed to the movie you're talking about.
But -- right. I understand.
MR. LITTLE: Let me pirouette here, Tony.
Yeah, there's no update on -- on this matter. When I do have one, I'll certainly let you know.
Q: George, I mean, are you going to nail him or not? Or let it drop?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to comment any further.
Q: Does the secretary plan to make a decision one way or another before he leaves the office?
MR. LITTLE: On what?
Q: On Bisonette?
MR. LITTLE: He makes lots of decisions every day. Look, this is a matter that's in certain channels that I'm not going to comment on what may or may not happen or define a precise timeline.
Q: Good pirouette.
Q: -- (inaudible) -- time frame on when the secretary's going to leave? I know that Senator Hagel hasn't even gone up yet, but --
MR. LITTLE: Senator Hagel, of course, testifies on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee and we hope that he's confirmed soon. The secretary has indicated that he will stay on until Senator Hagel is confirmed, and then would return home to California.
When that happens, of course, depends on the United States Senate and when they vote.