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Department of Defense Press Briefing With Rear Admiral Kirby in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Presenter: Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby
February 05, 2014
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY:  Afternoon, everybody.  Let me begin with an update on the two reviews that Secretary Hagel has directed to address personnel challenges in the nuclear force. 
 
First, following the meeting last week that Secretary Hagel convened with senior leaders of our strategic deterrence enterprise, those leaders have now begun work on an action plan to identify any systemic personnel problems in the nuclear force and the steps necessary to fix those problems.
 
This effort is being co-chaired by the Joint Staff and the staff of the undersecretary for policy.  Secretary Hagel has asked that its work be completed and its recommendations presented to him within 60 days.  He's made it clear that he would certainly welcome the work sooner than that.
 
Second, I can announce today that retired Air Force General Larry Welch and retired Admiral John Harvey have agreed to lead an independent review of our nuclear enterprise, the same nuclear -- the same independent review that Secretary Hagel has requested.  They will offer their views on the quality and the effectiveness of the action plan, and they'll also provide their insights and recommendations on addressing any systemic personnel problems in the nuclear force.
 
As many of you know, General Welch is a former Air Force chief of staff, who led the Defense Science Board Task Force under former secretary general that examined DOD procedures and policies for handling nuclear weapons.
 
Admiral Harvey, a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer, retired after serving as commander of Fleet Forces Command and previously served as the chief of naval personnel.  Secretary Hagel is grateful that these two deeply respected leaders are once again willing to lend their expertise and their talents to this department.
 
Now, he announces these positions mindful of new allegations that have surfaced in recent days concerning the ethical behavior of servicemembers in and out of the nuclear force.  This issue has his full attention.  And it's fair to say that he's deeply troubled by it.  He's concerned about the health of the force and the health of the strong culture of accountability and responsibility that Americans have come to expect from their military.  
 
He's asking leaders of each military service many of the same tough questions that you are asking and that the American people are asking.
 
In fact, he just wrapped up his weekly meeting with the service secretaries and service chiefs, where he puts this topic front and center on the agenda.  It will, he told them, remain on the agenda for all future weekly meetings.
 
Having spent this past year leading this department, Secretary Hagel knows the overwhelming majority of our service members are brave, upright and honest people.  Under his leadership, the department has dealt aggressively with the problem of sexual assault in the ranks, even though it remains a vexing challenge.
 
He has strongly supported General Dempsey's efforts to place a renewed emphasis on character development, particularly amongst our officer corps.
 
But Secretary Hagel also believes there must be more urgency behind these efforts and that the military leaders and DOD leaders must take a step back and put renewed emphasis on developing moral character and moral courage in our force.
 
This will be a primary for the secretary going forward and I expect you'll be hearing more about it from him in the coming days and weeks.
 
Thank you.
 
Lita.
 
Q:  On (INAUDIBLE) updates, do you have any new updates on any of the (INAUDIBLE) any of the Air Force or the Navy (INAUDIBLE) issues?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  No, I don't.
 
Q:  And then, I guess, more broadly, how do you -- how does the secretary -- what is he directing?  How is he accepting (INAUDIBLE) ethics, when it's clearly a difficult problem to go after, I mean, do you go at it -- is he asking for training?  Is he asking for more severe punishment? 
 
What kinds of things is he -- are you looking at in order to go after such a difficult issue?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  There's sort of two parts to that answer.
 
One is we've -- when we -- we have undertaken a lot of measures in the last year or so.  You may remember Chairman Dempsey was tasked to go do a review particularly of the officer corps and the code of conduct inside the officer corps.
 
He came back with some -- with some recommendations and some steps forward.  And as a matter of fact, one of those was staff assistance visits, where joint staff experts are going out to each of the combatant commanders, to their command, and doing staff assistance visits on, for instance, how you use support staff and those kinds of issues.
 
And in fact, just today, the joint staff team is wrapping up their visit to AFRICOM.  And they'll move on to EUCOM later this week.  And they've already completed Southern Command's staff assist visits.
 
So there's been a lot of effort applied to this.  You may have heard that -- I mean, or seen Secretary Hagel issued a memo to the services about coming back to him with answers on how we're dealing with ethics and leadership curriculum at our war colleges and at our service academies.
 
And we expect that he -- that the due date for that was later this month; and we will expect to -- he looks forward to seeing the response to that.
 
So there has been -- there has been effort and energy applied to this issue.
 
Moving forward -- and I don't want to get ahead of the secretary or any decisions that he may be making and announcing himself.  But moving forward, I think it's safe to say he's going to be looking for even more tangible efforts and results that can help kind of get at this problem writ large.
 
One of the things he simply believes is -- and he started it today -- is that it's just got to be a constant focus.  It has to be something that he and the service secretaries and the service chiefs are talking about, thinking about, acting on every single day.
 
And I mean, he's definitely concerned about the direction here.
 
I would also add -- and I mentioned this in the opening, but it's worth repeating.  I mean that -- there's a -- none of this is to impugn the brave and the honorable service of the 2.5 million people that serve in military -- in the military here in the country.
 
I mean, he's mindful that the vast majority serve very honorably every day.  But it doesn't take more than a few to stain the honor and the integrity of the entire force.  And I think that's what we're starting to see now.  And I think it's fair to say, as I said at the outset, that he's deeply concerned about that and wants to look for both philosophical and practical solutions to this.
 
Yes, Phil?
 
Q:  Just to clarify, I mean, do you think these are isolated problems that are staining the reputation of everybody else?
 
Or is this -- or are we, the (INAUDIBLE) of this is, he's concerned about the direction here.
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Yes.
 
Q:  Do you see this as a growing problem that's getting worse?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  I think he definitely sees this as a growing problem.  And he's concerned about the depth of it.  I don't think he could stand here and tell you that we -- that he has -- that anybody has the full -- the full grasp here.  And that's what worries the secretary, is that maybe he -- maybe we don't, maybe he doesn't have the full grasp of the depth of the issue.  And he wants to better understand it and to the degree that there are systemic issues, just like we talked about with a nuclear force, now we're getting broader than just the nuclear force.  But to the degree there are systemic issues, he wants to attack them.
 
Barbara?
 
Q:  But the one thing you haven't mentioned, Admiral Kirby, is the notion that anybody might get fired for misconduct, unethical behavior, anything like that.  What I want to ask you is, I mean, even the secretary has seen it, the cases of especially general officers abusing alcohol, individual officers having multiple instances of adultery, lying on their expenses, inappropriate e-mails, but nobody seems to get fired for any of this.
 
Why is -- why does that not seem to be an option these days?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  I would challenge you on the -- on the notion that nobody's getting fired over this.  I think the services...
 
(CROSSTALK)
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Well, I don't have the list right here, but, I mean, I can -- I can actually -- we can -- we can walk you through that.  And I can -- and I'll take that for the record and we'll do that.  
 
But we have a strong record in this department of holding leaders accountable for their behavior, their conduct, and quite frankly, oftentimes, the behavior and conduct of their people or their command.
 
And so, when you look at the report that came out recently, you know, with the -- with the string of IG investigations on general and flag officers, a couple of things that I hope popped off the page, one, we're finding this misbehavior oftentimes ourselves.  Sometimes it's self-reported.  
 
And many of those senior officers are no longer in those positions.  They've either lost their positions or they've lost their career; they're cashiered out.
 
So there are -- there are people being held accountable.
 
Now, but I think what you're getting to is, so, you've worried about these issues, and so what of the -- what -- of the senior levels of the department, you know, who's being held accountable?  And I think the example that was brought up a week or so ago was Secretary Gates and the efforts that he -- that he took with respect to Air Force leadership a few years ago.
 
Secretary Hagel is not afraid to hold people accountable.  And he will hold people accountable when that is the proper course.
 
But he said it himself this morning.  I don't want to make that the bar for success here.  The bar for success is making sure that we are meeting the expectations of the American people in everything we do.  Every dollar we spend.  Every operation we conduct.  
 
And the way we behave, the way we perform, and how we do our job is just as important as the job we do.
 
And that's what he really wants to get at here.
 
If it requires, in order to get to that point if it requires holding people accountable, very senior people accountable, he'll do it.  But this is why he's focusing on it, because we just don't know right now.
 
Q:  If I could just add very quickly, you said something.  You said the secretary is worried he does not have the full grasp of this problem.  That's a pretty compelling statement that a secretary of defense is worried about this.
 
Does he have some indication that you say is systemic that -- that there is some across-the-board ethical problem here?  Does he believe these are instances that have simply popped up and you've got to deal with them as they come to you?
 
What is he worried that he doesn't have the grasp of?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Well, I think this gets to my answer to Phil, it's that he doesn't know, that as a department, we don't fully know right now what we're grappling with here and how deep and serious it is.
 
And I think, you know, for a leader at his level, with the responsibilities that he carries every day, not knowing something like that is something to be concerned about, and he wants to know more.
 
And so, you know, today's weekly meeting with the service chiefs and service secretaries was in large part about that, let's go find out what we don't know.  Let's go find out what we can about the scope of this, about this problem.
 
And he wants to use the chain of command to do this.  So, you know, we're not talking about standing up another task force here to go study this.  He wants to use the chain of command.  He wants -- and he wants -- he wants them to come back to him on a regular basis.  That's why I said it's going to be a topic every week now, on their routine weekly meetings.
 
Q:  John
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Jen
 
Q:  Are you suggesting that the secretary doesn't believe the Navy officials who announced the Navy cheating scandal when they say that their situation is separate from the Air Force's, that it was not a cultural issue, not a systemic issue, that it was 30 some odd people who were involved in this scandal.
 
Are you saying that he has questions about that?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  No, I'm not.  I'm not suggesting that he's questioning what Admiral Greenert and Admiral Richardson came out and talked to you about yesterday.
 
But it wasn't lost on him that here's another example of unethical behavior by people in uniform.  And that's really the core issue here.
 
And I think he wants to just better understand what we have going on here.
 
And is it -- is it a trend?  I mean, certainly there's been a lot of these.  And to Barbara's question about whether, is it isolated or systemic?  We don't know.  He wants to know.  And I think that's really what's driving this.
 
Dan?
 
Q:  Could you just actually -- if you go back on basics -- give a thumbnail description of what is -- what the problem appears to be?  Is it an ethical -- potential ethical problem throughout the military?  How would you describe it?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Well, again, we -- you know, it's a problem right now that is -- it's impossible to characterize specifically, because we don't -- again, we don't really know what we've got here.  But if you just take a look at recent incidents -- and I'm not just talking about in the last few weeks, last few months, even in the last couple of years, I think he's generally concerned that there could be at least at some level a breakdown in ethical behavior and in the demonstration of moral courage.  And I think he wants to get at that.
 
Q:  Sorry, just to follow up.  To that point -- because one of the questions he would like looked at, the effect of so many years of war on the force.  You know, your former boss, Chairman Mullen, used to talk about the danger of breaking the force, that it was getting stretched so much in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Is that a factor in his mind?  Is that being looked at?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  He believes that that is a factor that should be looked at.
 
David?
 
Q:  Is there -- is there any way to sort of get your hands around in more than an anecdotal way whether they're -- how big a problem this is and whether it's different than -- the military's always had ethical problems and, as you say, often deals with them itself.  It seems to me, if you actually want to answer this question of what the problem is and how big it is, you need somebody to look at -- compare it to previous eras and whether it's worse than that.  Is he interested in anything like that?  Has he ordered anything like that?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  He hasn't ordered anything like that.  But I think that he would like the chain of command to look at those things, as well, sure.  I mean, but history's only going to take you so far, though, David.  And he's dealing with the force that he's leading now, this force that is transitioning from a war footing to more of a peacetime footing, a force that's going to be experiencing declining budgets, a force that is still very much in demand all over the world, and more so in some areas than it used to be, and a force that's creating veterans every single day, and veterans who have real significant needs, you know, jobs, education, homes.  Some of them have wounds you can see; some of them have wounds you can't see.  And they're wounds -- they're going to be living with them for the rest of their lives and their families.
 
So it's a force that's been through a lot, seen a lot, incredibly resilient, but has been under stress and strain for a long time.  All these are things he wants to take a look at, and I think to the degree history can be instructive, he would certainly welcome that.  But is he tasking that out specifically?  Not that I'm aware of.
 
Louie?
 
Q:  Did the secretary order another kind of review in December that I think is due next week?  And what was that about...
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  That's what I was talking about at the outset.  This is about the curriculum at the war college and in the service academies.
 
Q:  So that is only dealing with educational facilities or...
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  It's -- he wanted to get a sense of the degree to which ethics and leadership are being taught at our military -- military education facilities.
 
Q:  Where do you go from there with that?  I mean, what do you...
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Well, let's see what they come back with, Louie.  I mean, you know, I think he's looking forward to getting the report out to see -- to see what we -- you know, what the baseline is, and then we'll go from there.
 
Barbara, again?
 
Q:  Yes.  You have used the phrase here a couple of times.  I want to make sure I understand it.  You've spoken about moral courage.  
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Yes.
 
Q:  In the United States military, what is that?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  That's doing the right thing when nobody's looking.  That's treating people the right way even when they can't do anything for you.  It's about the basic ideas of strapping on this uniform every day.  And it's what, frankly, keeps a lot of us in.
 
And I want to stress, again, this is not -- none of this effort and none of this concern is to impugn, you know, so many, many good people that are serving in uniform.  Look, my grandfather was in the Navy.  My dad was in the Navy.  My son is now in the Navy.  My son is a Navy nuclear sailor down there in Charleston.  He's none too happy about what he heard yesterday, as well.  I mean, most people in uniform are bothered by this just like the secretary.  So that's -- that's a long answer to your question, but that's basically what we believe moral courage to be.
 
Q:  Can I ask a question on a separate subject?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Sure.
 
Q:  Afghanistan.  The -- a lot of the top commanders met with the president yesterday to discuss the next year or so in Afghanistan.  Can you give us any sense of where you think this may be heading, whether or not there are any decisions that came out of this meeting, and what, you know, whether there was a lot of frustration or some frustration levels expressed over some of the inability to get some real answers?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Well -- okay.  I'm not -- I'm not at liberty to read out a meeting that was held at the White House.  I mean, that's really something for the president and his staff to talk to.  Secretary Hagel and the military leaders that went over there greatly appreciated the president's time.  I'm told it was a very productive and a very thorough discussion about what's going on in Afghanistan.  And as far as I know, and again, I would refer you to our colleagues at the White House, but as far as I know, the president has made no decisions, excuse me, about force levels going forward in Afghanistan post 2014.
 
Okay.  Louie.
 
Q:  So, we got word today that these two ships that have entered the Black Sea or are in the process of entering the Black Sea.  What's changed since the last time we spoke and I asked you these questions about those ships.  Is there any -- any greater priority to them being cast to Sochi?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  Nothing has changed other than their location.  It's true that they're in the Black Sea.  The USS Mount Whitney and the USS Taylor, a frigate, and a command and control ship, they're in the Black Sea as we -- as we said they would be.  It's routine for us to be operating in the Black Sea.  They are going to conduct port visits, they're going to be doing training, multiple missions inside the Black Sea.  Again, that's -- that's routine.  But nothing has changed aside from their location, no.
 
Q:  Would they still remain available if the State Department asked for them, or whatever?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  They -- they are Navy ships, and Navy ships all over the world are available for multiple tasking and should there be a need for them with respect to the Olympics, they're obviously -- they're assets that could be called upon, should they be the right asset, and should the State Department need that help.  
 
Again, and I'll stress again, there's been no request for that.  There's no demand signal for that right now.  The European commander -- European command commander does what every combatant commander does every day, and that's take a look at the assets that he has available to him for any wide range of military tasking. 
 
Bill?
 
Q:  (OFF-MIC) Sochi (inaudible) White House meeting, yesterday?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  With the commanders?  I don't know.  I -- that -- that was not the primary topic to be discussed, so I'd -- I'd refer you to the White House on the particulars there.
 
Dan?
 
Q:  On the budget.  Is the secretary willing to entertain the idea of -- of having a smaller aircraft carrier fleet?  Is that something to look at?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  I'm not going to get ahead of fiscal year '15 budget submission, which hasn't been submitted yet, so I'm simply not going to speculate about that.  As you know, the -- the strategic choices management review looked at a wide range of options, should sequestration remain the law of the land, and one of those options did involve reducing the size of the carrier fleet.  No decision has been made.
 
John.
 
Q:  Admiral Kirby, today at a congressional hearing, a State Department official said that the U.S. government is in talks with regional partners in the Middle East about potentially having U.S. troops conduct a training mission with Iraqi security forces on their soil, since the U.S. can't send large numbers of troops into Iraq.  Can you say which countries the U.S. is in talks with, and how large this U.S. training force might be, and how many Iraqi security forces might be involved?
 
REAR ADM. KIRBY:  I haven't seen that report, so I'm not going to comment on -- on spoken words I haven't seen.  As we've said before, that should there be a need to do training of Iraqi forces outside this country of Iraq, that's something for the government of Iraq to discuss with that -- with that third party.  I know Jordan has -- has talked about the potential for being a site for that.  Again, that's something for the government of Iraq and Jordan to -- to work out.  I just haven't seen those comments, and so I'd really be loath to speculate about that.
 
Okay.  Thanks everybody.

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