SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good afternoon. First, let me wish all of you and your families a happy holiday. I know you probably won't be sorry to escape for a while, those of you who are. I know news is made all the time everywhere, so you never get too far from anything. But have a wonderful holiday with your families.
As you all know, this year, 2013, has been a challenging year for the Department of Defense and for all the people who represent this institution all over the world, civilians and military, and their families.
But as we head into 2014, I think we're beginning to turn the page on a prolonged period of fiscal uncertainty. The budget deal that passed Congress yesterday provides some relief for DOD from the devastating cuts of sequestration in fiscal years 2014 and 2015. It gives us some predictability for those two years. And the Senate is scheduled to vote tonight, as you all know, on the Defense Authorization Act, which contains measures to strengthen sexual assault prevention and response efforts, as well as many other important provisions.
I'm encouraged by the budget deal that Congress has passed. It's a step in the right direction. It's a step in the right direction for us, and I expressed my support last week for that resolution. And I had an opportunity to talk with a number of members of Congress on the resolution and why it was important for us.
But even with this agreement, this budget agreement, DOD still faces very difficult budget decisions. The budget agreement reduces the $52 billion sequestration cut in fiscal year 2014 by roughly $21 billion, and it provides about $10 billion in relief for fiscal year 2015. We'll use those funds to restore spending on readiness. We will also work to minimize disruption to our most critical modernization efforts.
The budget agreement passed yesterday caps defense spending over two years at about $70 billion less than the president's budget request. This year's Strategic Choices and Management Review, which I directed in April-May, that review has given us a baseline to work from as we set defense spending priorities for the years ahead. We will continue to press ahead with our efforts to cut DOD's overhead and infrastructure costs, improving our acquisitions enterprise, and continue to make the tough choices on force structure.
We also recognize that we can no longer put off military compensation reform. DOD's leadership, Chairman [Gen. Martin] Dempsey, the service chiefs, the service secretaries, and myself, we all know that we need to slow cost growth in military compensation. Otherwise, we'll have to make disproportionate cuts to military readiness and modernization.
DOD cannot sustain these current programs as they are structured. We will work with Congress to bring the rate of growth of our compensation and benefits programs in line with budget limitations and fiscal realities.
We know that many proposals to change military compensation will be controversial and unpopular. One example is the provision in the budget agreement that slows the rate of growth and the cost-of-living adjustments for working-age military retirees. Going forward, I strongly support Senator Levin's efforts to review the provision in the Senate Armed Services Committee and take a comprehensive -- an overview of all the compensation programs, take a comprehensive look at military compensation reform. We need to review all options for achieving necessary savings, and we will work closely with Senator Levin and other leaders in Congress on this issue.
Tough decisions will have to be made on compensation. The leadership of DOD is prepared to engage the Congress in achieving compensation reform. But any changes to cost-of-living adjustments should not apply to medically disabled retirees. These retirees need to be exempted from the changes in the budget agreement just passed by Congress.
In addition to the budget and DOD's future structure, DOD's leaders and I will continue to focus on Afghanistan, as we complete our combat role there and bring America's longest war to an end.
General Dempsey and I have both recently returned from visiting our troops in Afghanistan, as some of you know, because you were with us. These troops, the men and women who serve this country in Afghanistan, continue to perform magnificently under very challenging conditions.
The loss of six U.S. troops in a helicopter crash on Tuesday is a heartbreaking reminder of the sacrifices they continue to make. And our thoughts and prayers go out to their families. We have a responsibility to all those who serve in Afghanistan today and all who have sacrificed there for more than 12 years, especially those who gave their lives and their limbs, and their families.
What role America and its allies continue to play in Afghanistan to help the people of that country after 2014 must be clearly defined, and it must be defined very soon. A bilateral security agreement between Afghanistan and the United States must be signed promptly. It must be signed promptly in order for the U.S. and its allies to plan and preserve options for a post-2014 presence.
The retrograde of personnel and equipment from Afghanistan is a complex undertaking. That undertaking is being executed carefully and responsibly, and it will continue to be a top priority. Continuing challenges with our ground lines of communication in Pakistan is but one example of the need to gain certainty now regarding our post-2014 presence.
You all know we live in a complicated and uncertain world. However, we do know there will be difficult challenges ahead and that our men and women in uniform will need to be prepared, prepared to successfully engage these new challenges.
Preparing our men and women who serve this country and the institution is one of the highest responsibilities of DOD leadership. Chairman Dempsey, all of our leaders, and I take that responsibility very seriously, and we will continue to stay focused on preparing these men and women in this institution for what lies ahead.
Thank you. Again, happy holidays. And I know Chairman Dempsey has some thoughts, and then we'll be glad to take your questions.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.
I'd like to add my wishes to all of you for a happy holiday for you and your families.
On the budget, many of you have heard me say for some time that there were three things we really need in order to manage the financial affairs of the department and the military. And they are certainty, time, and flexibility. The bilateral -- I should say bipartisan -- budget agreement gives us a little of each of those, so it is a welcome -- it is a welcome event here at the end of 2013. And in so doing, it will allow us to address most of our near-term readiness challenges and restore some readiness that we had lost over the past year-and-a-half or so.
We still need, as the secretary mentioned, to strap on the challenges of institutional reform, pay compensation, and health care changes, and acquisition reform, and we will do so. Of course, the remainder of sequestration still lurks on the horizon beyond these two years. And so some of the force structure changes, force structure reductions, that we had planned based on sequestration will march on. And I hope that in the time we've just now bought for ourselves, this two-year period, we can continue to have a conversation, a discussion, a debate, and an understanding about what full sequestration would do to the military forces of the United States. So that's where we are on the budget.
I just spent eight days on travel with the USO, visiting nine locations throughout Afghanistan and Europe. And I'd like to take this opportunity to remind us collectively that, when we talk about soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, deployed -- coast guardsmen -- deployed, it's not just those serving in Afghanistan. We've probably got 250,000 or so men and women in uniform deployed at any given holiday period. And I want to make sure that I wish their families a peaceful and calm and happy holiday season, as their loved ones are forward-deployed all over the world, doing what the nation asks them to do.
And I also want to compliment the seven remarkable and unselfish performers and athletes who joined me on that tour, as they do every year, by the way, in order to say thank you, to learn a little bit more about the -- what those young men and women do. I think both of us are better for that experience, and I want to compliment the USO for assisting in arranging that.
This trip reinforced my pride and confidence in how we continue to perform in this 12th year of conflict in Afghanistan. We do ask much of our men and women in uniform; we will continue to ask much of them. And as the secretary noted, the loss of those six soldiers in the helicopter crash in Afghanistan does -- should -- remind us of the dangerous nature of -- of our work and how important it is that we remember and continue to care for them and their families.
Another vivid reminder on the trip occurred when I was able to pin two Purple Hearts on two special operating forces who had been ambushed while advising and assisting their Afghan partners in a patrol in Afghanistan.
It's also, I think, worth noting that those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, Coast Guardsmen, are not alone in their service while forward deployed. We shoulder the burden with allies, with partners, and with civilians from across the government. And I encountered many of them on my travels, as well.
So my final reminder here at the end of 2013 is that we remain a nation at war, and we owe it to those who are committed into those conflicts to continue to provide them with not only the resources they need, but the support they need, and that during this holiday season we want to assure them and their families that we will remember that we've got young men and women doing what the country asks all across the globe.
I thank you for your support and interest and enthusiasm throughout the year. We look forward to 2014. And, again, I wish all of you a happy holidays.
SEC. HAGEL: Thanks, Marty.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned both Pakistan and Afghanistan in your opening comments. And I have a short question for each of you on both of those things.
On Pakistan, you mentioned the suspension of movement through the overland supply routes, Torkham Gate. Is this reaching a point where you're now going to have to soon move stuff over -- through air, at much greater expense -- in order to get material out on time?
And my second question about Afghanistan is, periodically over this year, there have been reports of Afghan security forces cutting cease-fire deals locally with the Taliban here and there. And, in fact, this week there's a report about this happening in Sangin and in Helmand province, where it seems to have gotten to the point where they actually turned over checkpoints to the Taliban.
And I'm wondering whether you see these developments as accelerating in the coming year as the U.S. further withdraws. And do you see it as a benign development? Or do you see it as possibly a development that's going to cause some additional problems in the future and give the Taliban more influence?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'll begin, and then I know Chairman Dempsey has some thoughts.
On Pakistan, as you all know, General [Joseph] Dunford was just there this week and met with senior leaders, including the new chief, who I met with, as many of you know, when I was there, and Marty's talked to on the phone, chief of the Pakistan army. And as many of you know, because you were with me, I also brought this issue up with the prime minister of Pakistan. But when General Dunford was there, he brought it up again and is working with the Pakistan forces to assure that we get that Torkham Gate back open.
But to the bigger issue, when we spoke to General Dunford this morning, and we had a long closed-circuit video conference with him yesterday, which we do at least once a week, I ask him -- I ask him on every one of these occasions when we talk where are we on the retrograde, we're actually ahead of schedule on the retrograde.
Now, we got a long way to go, a lot of troops to move out yet, a lot of equipment to move out yet, but this is an issue that is as high on the priority list as any that we all have to make sure we stay on track with that.
I think it was Admiral [John] Kirby or someone who once told me that logistics is about options, and it always is. And we have options to the north. We have another route to the south. We do use air now. But as we all know, air is a lot more expensive. And we're still moving on a couple of other ground lines. Torkham has been closed, as has been noted in your reporting and others' reporting.
But we're continuing to focus on this and get it back open. We do have options. We're using those other options. We'll continue to keep those options in play.
On Afghanistan, I am aware of the most recent relationship that I understand was -- maybe you alluded to. I don't have the specifics on it. And I'm going to ask General Dempsey -- he may know more of those -- of those areas of -- not just the specific question you ask, but more -- your more general question about, is this the way of the future? Is this what they're going to have to continue to do?
These are -- first of all, these are not new. These issues have come up, and there have been cooperative efforts over the years in these different areas with different groups. So that's not new.
But I think -- and then I'm going to ask General Dempsey to see if he's got more specifics on it -- and General Dunford and I talked about this when I was in Afghanistan. As I went out to some of the bases -- and some of you were with me on that occasion, and Marty was just there.
The Afghan National Army is doing a tremendous job to assure the security and do the things that they need for their country, as well as our partnership and our [International Security Assistance Force] partners there. So some of these get down into the tactical elements of command and how they deal with these things at that local level.
So let me ask Marty if he's got anything.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Thanks, Mr. Secretary. I just -- I think you've explained the issue with the lines of communication into and out of Pakistan very well. I mean, it is about options. We have the finest logistics architecture and enterprise in the world, that is to say, the Department of Defense, United States military. We'll get it done. It may be more expensive if it -- if this persists. We're engaged with our Pakistani partners, but it won't affect our -- it won't affect the way we operate, nor the way we retrograde.
In Afghanistan, you ask is this a -- is this a malign or a benign trend? You know, I think if it -- if it spread, if it -- if it affected the upcoming elections in any way, it could become malign. It's somewhat predictable, by the way, as the secretary said, but I want to highlight, this is exactly why we need the BSA [bilateral security agreement] to be signed, because what hangs in the balance, the longer the BSA is unresolved, is the confidence of the people of Sangin questioning whether we're going to actually be there for them and continue to allow the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] to develop so that it can counter the Taliban's influence. So if you want an example of why we need the BSA signed soon, there's one.
Q: (OFF-MIC) you said the BSA must be signed promptly. You just said soon. What is the honest to goodness...
GEN. DEMPSEY: Are you asking me for a redline?
I'm not going to give you...
Q: ... what are the -- what are the factors? I mean, NATO said yesterday or the day before that it had to be done by spring. As you just said with logistics, we'll get it done. So why -- why can't it wait...
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, if I could start, sir, and then I'll -- I just -- I just described why it can't wait. The Afghan security forces are capable of overcoming and, in most cases, overwhelming their Taliban competitors for control of Afghanistan. They have some systemic problems -- logistics, intelligence, signals, transportation -- that we're working with them to knit together into something that you would recognize as an institution, not just a bunch of individual units.
But they're not confident yet. You know, they've only been at this by themselves for about a year. And think about what they've got facing them in the -- in the first half of 2014, a political transition. Then it will take some period of time for them to seat their government and have it functioning.
They -- you know, they're -- if they have a single shortcoming right now, it's confidence, and the BSA will give them confidence. I can say that with great certainty.
SEC. HAGEL: The only thing I would add to that -- and that's a -- that's a very important point that should not go undervalued here, because everything works off of confidence. Markets work off confidence. We all work off confidence.
But in addition to that, for us -- and I spent a lot of time, as Marty did, with General Dunford when we -- when we were each there, spend a lot of time each week on this. Every day that goes by when we don't have that confidence-builder, that certainty of what is the role and define the mission and define the resources required, you're taking options away from your planning.
It takes months and months to close down a base. And if you just look at the physics of this, in an antiseptic world -- which Afghanistan is not antiseptic -- you've got a war going on -- it takes months to get all of this done, to -- just to get out and get to the end point of our 2014 end date on ending our combat mission there.
Then we're asking our commanders and our budgeters and our allies to start planning for a post-2014 world of commitments when they have no idea what that means. They have no idea what that means. And no leader can commit a country or their military or any of their resources to any other nation for any mission without some certainty of what that is. So, I mean, that's the reality of what we're dealing with here. And every day that goes by, we can't get that day back.
Q: But you're talking about psychological factors and convenience. Are there just flat-out practical reasons why an agreement has to be signed by such-and-such a date?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, there are some -- there's physics involved, but we continue to assess that based on how the lines of communication are available to us. Yeah, there's physics.
SEC. HAGEL: And there's reality of what I just said. I mean, without going through the whole thing again on -- on the planning, the budgeting, when it takes as many months as it does just to -- to continue to plan for what Dunford's got to do and all those commanders, and we've got ISAF partners and NATO partners, and let's just take that piece for a moment, NATO right now, as it was announced here, that they were going to begin a status-of-forces conversation, but they've also said they can't finalize or commit to anything until there's a bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. They won't do it.
They have their constituencies in each of their countries. They have their budgets. They have their parliaments. They have their leaders. What are you doing? Why? How long are you going to be there? How much is it going to cost us? What are the risks that we're putting our men and women into? So that's the reality, David, of -- there's no magical date, does it have to be December 30th or January 6th?
But the reality is, these are days, as I said, you can't get back. It takes an immense amount of -- of planning and time as you think through, what are you committing to? And those are -- those are just the realities of what we're up against here. And it takes options away the longer this goes.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you -- the Pentagon put out a statement that talked about your conversation with Egypt's Sisi and your concerns about charges against Morsi. Could you please go into some detail about those concerns? What are your concerns specifically?
And, Chairman Dempsey, on Syria, could you please speak to what trajectory you think Syria's opposition, armed opposition is on right now? Do you think it's trending more toward radical Islamist elements that are -- how do you -- how do you see the future of the moderate opposition? Thank you.
SEC. HAGEL: Well, on my conversation with General Sisi this morning, as you all know, I've spoken to him about 30 times, I think, since July. And the latest developments on the charges against Morsi, which we discussed, I'm -- I'm not going to get down into their judiciary and the specifics of analysis of their charges.
But what I said to him was, which I have been consistently saying to him, is that every time one of these developments occur, the world sees that. And we see it. And we in the United States, I think, most people in most of the world wants a stable, secure, free, democratic Egypt. And most countries want to help them get there.
But when these kind of developments occur, that sets back the effort. And if, in fact, they are going to continue to make progress on their democratic road map, as they have now moved forward on a constitutional reform text, that they're putting that to a referendum to the people for a vote -- and, by the way, he said that they will welcome international observers into the country to observe the elections, observe the polling places, observe everything -- then -- then that effort then gets set back. And it's a dangerous effort, because it doesn't bring people together. It alienates everyone even further.
So those were some of the elements of a conversation that we had, but other than the specific issue, they haven't been new to the conversations I've had with them over the last few months.
GEN. DEMPSEY: So on the trajectory of the -- of the opposition in Syria, I would describe it as there's a -- there's a competition among groups on the opposition side, a competition that is characterized by changing alliances of convenience. In some cases, those are based on ideologies. In some cases, it's based on far more pragmatic matters of control. And I think that, as -- as we move toward Geneva II, one of the goals we're trying to accomplish is to -- is to determine how that dynamic is changing from what it was maybe a year ago to what it is today.
SEC. HAGEL: Okay. Jennifer?
Q: Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey, I'd like to get your assessment of the Chinese navy, especially in the wake of this near-miss collision with the USS Cowpens? Was that intentional or accidental, according to your assessment? And how would you assess the navy? Is this aircraft carrier, the new aircraft carrier a serious threat? Does it even have aircraft onboard? What's your assessment?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'll let the chairman talk about the specifics of the -- you mean the Chinese aircraft carrier...
SEC. HAGEL: ... the one that they bought from the Ukrainians and retrofitted.
On the -- the bigger question about the Cowpens and what happened and why and motives and intentions, I think it goes back to something that Chairman Dempsey and I have talked about -- and others -- that what we want to avoid in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, all the conflict surrounding these -- these islands is restraint, responsible actions.
And that action by the Chinese, cutting in front of their ship, 100 yards out in front of the Cowpens, was not a responsible action. It was -- it was unhelpful. It was irresponsible. We need to work toward putting in place some kind of a mechanism in the Asia Pacific and with China -- and I know General Dempsey and the chiefs have been working on this, I've been working on this, to have a mechanism to be able to defuse some of these issues as they occur.
Because as I've said -- and I know Marty and others -- what we don't want is some miscalculation here to occur. And when you have a Cowpens issue, that's the kind of thing that's very incendiary, that could be a trigger or a spark that could set off some eventual miscalculation. And so this has been a very unhelpful event. We're working on it, and we'll continue to -- to work on it.
GEN. DEMPSEY: When I visited China in May of last year and I met my Chinese counterpart, General (inaudible), we took onboard three initiatives. One of them was to come to a common agreement about rules of behavior when we encounter each other in three particular domains -- air, sea, and cyber, and those working groups have actually been meeting and making some progress. This reinforces, in my mind -- and I -- and I trust in his -- that we need to keep continue to -- to have that work ongoing, because, as the secretary said, we -- we certainly don't want miscalculation or accident.
As far as the Chinese aircraft carrier, aircraft -- carrier ops are about as complicated an operation as any we conduct. There's actually a great short story by Tom Wolfe you ought to read about -- about carrier operations. It captures it in layman's terms. The point is, they are a long way from being a threat to us with their aircraft carrier.
SEC. HAGEL: Tony?
Q: I want to ask a question, but you might want to do a follow-up on China, too. As good as the deal was, you got $20 billion restored, there's another $32 billion roughly that's going to have to be cut. That's in the rule of the appropriators, not so much here. What areas are you going to recommend to the appropriators that they cut in the $32 billion remaining amount of money?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as you all know, that happy time of year -- I'm not talking about Christmas, necessarily -- but budgets is coming. The budget time of year is coming right behind that time of happy time of year, holiday season. And we will be presenting a budget, and we will be spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill. Our chiefs will be, our senior leaders will be, Mr. Hale, the comptroller will especially be spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill going through the specifics of this.
So I'm not going to preview what we'll be presenting and what we're not and where we're going to be cutting. As I said in my general comments, Tony, that buyback will be used -- and Marty and I just spent yesterday afternoon with the chiefs on this particular issue, where will they -- and we've been working with them on this -- how are we going to use that money? And then when are we going to have to deal -- where we continue to have to plan to cut and where are we are going to take it out of the $32 billion that we don't have? One...
Q: But that's in 2014, though. The appropriators are going to cut that. You're talking about rolling out the '15 budget, I think.
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah, but we're still talking about 2014, too, because -- yes, the budget's 2015, that's right. But 2014 is right -- we're living in that right now, and we -- we didn't have -- Tony, we didn't have any certainty at all. We don't have a budget, right, still, until the president signs this.
So we're going to -- we're still dealing with 2014. We have to, with the Congress, with the White House, and so that isn't going away. No, we've got to continue to figure out, as we work through this -- that was the whole point, as much as any, of the SCMR, of the SCMR, to get some baselines on the lowest total sequestration up to the president's budget and everything in between. Then each of the chiefs had to play out where they were going to take those cuts. So we're doing -- we're doing that now.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, if I -- if I could -- I mean, to complement the secretary, months ago, he said plan that we're going to be living with sequestration. So the services all -- and the SCMR was the first step -- the services' alternative POM, program operating memorandum, was the second step.
So what really we're doing now is we're buying back -- we know what the bottom looks like. The money that's coming back, we're buying it back, and we'll buy it up to the level we can buy it, and there will still be a delta. So the work is done.
Q: Well, what delta -- what areas -- the appropriators are going to cut and they come present an omnibus bill by January 15th...
GEN. DEMPSEY: Right.
Q: ... if all goes well, $32 billion or so is going to have to be cut to meet the $498 billion cap.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Right.
Q: What area -- are you going to say, don't take it out of O&M or readiness, go after modernization or compensation? I mean, are there areas you're going to advise the appropriators you would prefer that money come out of?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Yes, but you don't expect we're going to expose those to you today, I hope?
Q: I did expect that.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Sure you did. Yeah. (Laughter.)
SEC. HAGEL: Tony, are you finished?
Q: Yeah, Okay. (Laughter.)
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.
Q: Mr. Secretary, there were four prisoners transferred from Guantanamo this week. It's the biggest number in a long time. Was this a blip, do you think? Or do you expect in the coming months that this logjam of transfers from Guantanamo might be eased and there will be a significant reduction in population coming up?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as you all know, we transferred last week two Saudis, this week two Sudanese. You know -- I think you've read at least the highlights of the NDAA, which the Senate votes on tonight -- at least there's a scheduled vote. That gives a little more flexibility to the president, to all of us on this issue. We would anticipate to continue this effort of transferring these detainees, and -- and I think we're making good progress toward that, toward that objective.
Q: Mr. Secretary, Mr. Chairman, I would like to ask you about the situation in South Sudan. If you could give us your assessment, are you concerned about the ethnic tensions? And what is the Pentagon doing to secure the embassy and to avoid any similar incident such we saw in Benghazi two years ago?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'm sure most of you, if not all of you know that we were involved working with the State Department to get a number of our State Department officials out of the embassy here I think in the last 24 hours. And we were able to do that successfully with no incident.
We have -- we have military -- an additional military capability on the ground that we've put into place, I think, what, about 45...
GEN. DEMPSEY: Uh-huh.
SEC. HAGEL: ... that we have located there, we'll keep there for a while to help as this thing evolves. We hope it ratchets down. But we are working very closely with the embassy security, State Department security, and doing everything we can to facilitate their request.
Marty, you may have...
GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, just -- and that's really the answer, Joe. You know, we are responsive to -- to State Department requests. The ambassador on the ground believes that the evacuation has achieved the level of stability for the Americans in Sudan.
We're very worried about the ethnic conflict and, you know, are watching in some cases the maneuvering of units in and around Juba.
And to your larger point, I mean, we -- we have -- since the Benghazi incident, we've put response forces at various levels of readiness that we dial up and dial back as the situation requires. The nearest one to South Sudan happens to be the East Africa Response Force, and it will be prepared if -- if asked to do something.
SEC. HAGEL: Okay. Jim?
Q: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. Jim Sciutto with CNN. If I could address this to Secretary Hagel, you're aware of the recommendations of the intelligence reform panel. Two of them directly involve the military, two of their 46 recommendations, one, that the NSA, they recommend the next director be a civilian and, two, that you split off the military's Cyber Command from the NSA. These happen to be two recommendations that the White House has pushed back on.
I wonder if you see any fundamental reason why having a civilian at the head of the NSA would cause damage to its mission or, indeed, separating the military's Cyber Command from -- from the NSA, putting it under a separate command? Do you see -- would that in any way hamper its mission?
And if I could ask General Dempsey, I would appreciate your thoughts on that, as well, and just one follow to Jennifer's question on China. As you have so many assets floating in the air around China and on the seas, and in lieu of setting out these rules of engagement with the Chinese, are you telling your pilots and commanders and captains any new rules of engagement or any new rules for them to follow to avoid getting into a dustup there?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, Jim, on the NSA issue and the recommendation, we're just reviewing those now. I'm generally aware of not all of them. I haven't read all of them. I'm looking -- I've just started reviewing, and I think the interagency is reviewing them, as well, but I won't speak for anyone else. But we are, and we take those very seriously. And we will review all of them.
To your question about two specific recommendations on separating, I mean, I think the president, as you've noted, has made a decision on a couple of these things. I said, as some of you may remember, and I think -- I think Thom Shanker quoted me on this and a couple of others, when I expressed my thoughts on this early on, the president wanted everyone's thoughts, General Dempsey and everybody, one of the things that I focused on as -- as a very critical component of whatever decisions are going to be made is that our combatant commanders, our military, our individuals, men and women who are charged with the security of this country, they are as big a users and customers of the end product of what NSA and Cyber does as probably anyone.
And I emphasize that because what I would not want to see happen is -- is for a gap to occur here in some way. Now, I think you can do it in different ways. I'm not saying there's only one way to do it. But that -- my point was, we need to look at that very carefully, because if -- if that -- if that would create a gap here, if we change some of the structure at the top, or if this would jeopardize what our combatant commanders and our commanders on the ground are -- are getting, but more to the point, really require, then -- then we'd better think again about this.
So I think we've had a lot of meetings on this, as you know, the interagency. The president has played a lot of attention to this, I know, himself. He's spent time with General Dempsey and me and many others on it. So until we have a full understanding of how it all fits, all the recommendations, I guess I wouldn't say anything beyond that.
GEN. DEMPSEY: The only thing I'd add on the NSA Cyber, to reinforce -- my responsibility is to ensure that the warfighter gets the support they need. And that will always be the point on which I -- you know, I establish myself. And, secondly, more generally, that we don't increase our vulnerability, which is fairly significant right now. But we are working our way through these 46 recommendations. On the issue of whether we've published new rules of engagement, no, we have not. The rules -- the standing rules of engagement are adequate to the task. What we do constantly, though, is we remain alert for changes in the environment. You know, there are times that are more sensitive than others, and we're in a heightened period of sensitivity, and you can count on our mariners and airmen to be aware of that.
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: We've got time for just one (OFF-MIC) last question.
SEC. HAGEL: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Q: My name is Chi Dong Lee with South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, if you remember. North Korea executed the once powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, so what is the level of your concern about what's happening in North Korea, Mr. Secretary?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, the unpredictability of the actions that we see coming out of North Korea, and the latest being the example you use, is -- is very concerning to everyone. And the reality of that uncertainty heightens the -- the tensions. It, as you know, further deepens the suspicions of -- of motives.
That -- that nation is as closed as any nation in the world. There is no transparency. There is no interconnect to the outside world in any way. And so when you see things like this occur, it tightens the reaction of -- of what people think and what could happen with that kind of unpredictability. So it's not a -- it's not a welcome event at all.
Marty, you want to add anything?
GEN. DEMPSEY: No, just, you know, these kind of internal actions by dictators are often a precursor to provocation to distract attention from what they're doing inside of that country. So, yeah, if you're asking me, am I concerned? Absolutely.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks very much, folks.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you. Happy holidays.