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Press Availability on Haiti

Presenters: Lawrence Di Rita, PDASD (Public Affairs) and Army Gen. James T. Hill
March 10, 2004 3:40 PM EDT
Press Availability on Haiti

(Participating were Lawrence Di Rita, principle deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, and Army Gen. James T. Hill, commander, U.S. Southern Command.)


     Di Rita:  Good afternoon.  It's nice to see you all.


     We were fortunate enough -- I learned that General Hill was in Washington today and in the department having some meetings inside the department, and we prevailed upon him to spend a little bit of time down here.  He's got a very tight time schedule and he's been gracious enough to offer some of that to us.  He's returning back to his command this afternoon.


     So without any further ado, I'll turn it over to him and we can have a few Q & A.  And if there's still an appetite after he leaves, I'm happy to stay and try and answer a few questions on other issues that may be available.


     Go ahead, General.


     Hill:  Let me give you quick opening remarks.


     I'm pleased to have this opportunity to talk to you about the ongoing operations of the Multinational Interim Force.  I visited Port-au-Prince last week and met with our multinational security forces and senior Haitian government officials.  I witnessed progress in the security and stability in Port-au-Prince due to the rapid deployment of international security forces and our closely coordinated U.S. interagency efforts.  We continue to assess the situation with our multinational partners and are establishing the required conditions for the arrival of a more robust U.N.-led multinational force.


     As you know, U.S. and international forces are in Haiti at the request of the new president of Haiti and in support of U.N. Resolution 1529 authorizing the deployment of a multinational interim force.  We are very appreciative of the great support of our partner nations -- from Canada, Chile and France -- and are working very closely with them to expedite the security and stability of the country.


     As of today, we've flown over 75 flights into Haiti, delivering approximately 1,600 U.S. troops, more than 1,900 tons of equipment and supplies.  More than 2,400 forces are currently on the ground as part of the MIF Haiti:  1,600 U.S., about 516 French, 328 Chileans, 52 Canadians, with 400 more arriving within the week.


     Currently, Multinational Interim Force personnel are conducting presence patrols with the Haitian national police to deter violence and promote security in Port-au-Prince.  The MIF will assist the Haitian national police to restore law and order in the capital and in surrounding areas.  Aside from recent isolated incidents, presence patrols have had a calming and stabilizing effect in the capital.


     During my visit to Haiti Friday, I met with President Alexandre, Prime Minister Neptune, and the new chief of police, Leon Charles.  We had productive meetings addressing the security situation in Haiti. We had frank discussions about specific missions and the roles that the interim force will play.  This was detailed coordination of communications and information-sharing.  Leaders are finalizing the operational plans and relationships.


     I also met with Ambassador Foley and the Multinational Interim Force Haiti leadership.  Our focus was on integration of MIF Haiti with Haitian authorities and Haitian national police in order to enhance stability and achieve order to facilitate the return of the democratic process.  This is a difficult task for the international community as there are many illegally armed gangs and groups in Haiti. Our forces have been fired on a handful of times since deployment into Haiti.  We have been forced to return fire on these occasions and there have been Haitian casualties as a result.  These gunmen posed a threat to our forces.  Any loss of life is regrettable, but we will simply not tolerate acts of violence against our multinational forces or innocent Haitians.


     I have authorized the Multinational Interim Force in Haiti to support the police in the disarmament of illegally armed civilians in accordance with Haitian law.  Any illegally armed civilians encountered by presence patrols will be immediately disarmed to ensure force protection of the multinational force.  Additionally, when Multinational Interim Force personnel encounter any acts of violence, they will intervene to protect life.  The Haitian national police will remain the lead in the disarmament process.  We strongly encourage all civilians to lay down their weapons and disarm to ensure the safety and security of Haiti.


     Our mission has been to secure key sites in Port-au-Prince for the purposes of contributing to a more secure and stable environment in the Haitian capital, to help promote the constitutional political process; assisting as may be needed to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance, protecting U.S. and partner nations' citizens   as may be required, facilitating the repatriation of any Haitian migrants interdicted at sea, and helping to create the conditions for the anticipated arrival of a U.N. multinational force.  The MIF in Haiti are supporting Haitian national police in disarmament of illegally armed civilians in accordance with Haitian law.  To date, forces that have arrived in Haiti are under my operational command and control, and our goal is to transition the lead of this interim multinational force to other countries.


     With that, I'll take your questions.


     Q:  General, could you explain the role of U.S. Marines in disarming illegally armed Haitians and the reasons for doing this? And also, are Marines actually going out searching for Haitians who may have arms, or will they disarm only those who they happen to encounter when they're out operating?


     Hill:  I talked with the commander there this morning, VTC from my headquarters.  And his instructions are as his forces move through Port-au-Prince and they encounter any armed Haitian, they are to take that weapon from that Haitian unless he has a valid permit by Haitian law and is in the process of conducting some valid security job.  Anybody.  In addition to that, as we develop intelligence and can find weapon caches, we are going to go after those.  This is to do two things.  First, it's a force protection issue for my forces.  And secondly, it is to help develop a more secure and stable environment inside Haiti.


     Q:  General, would the Marines have acted in the same way prior to this order, say a few days ago or a week ago?  If they had been going through the street and they saw somebody armed in a similar way, would they have disarmed them, or is this considered new?


     Hill:  They would not have a couple days ago.  They would have encountered them, in any exchange where they felt threatened they could have done that, but in point of fact, while it's not been an expansion of the ROE, it's been a clarification of the ROE after I talked with Haitian Police Chief Charles on Friday.


     Q:  General, is there any indication of any organized resistance to the presence of the U.S., French, Chilean forces, or is so far these encounters with the groups of gunmen sporadic?


     Hill:  We haven't seen any organized insurgent-type effort. There are two different groups.  There are the pro-Aristide chimeres and other gangs pro-Aristide, and then there are the opposition groups in various forms, all of which have guns, in different parts of the country.  But I do not see any organization and, in fact, I see a fissure between the opposition forces.


     Q:  You said you had frank discussions with the Haitian officials.  In diplomatic terms that's often considered laying down the law.  Did the U.S. do that with the Haitian officials, and did you have also frank discussions with these opposition groups?

     Hill:  I don't -- I'm not a diplomat; I am a soldier.  And I talk very frankly and candidly with anybody.  And what I did was I explained to President Alexandre, Prime Minister Neptune and Police Chief Charles (sp) what our mission was and how we could best support the Haitian authorities in reclaiming their government.


     Q:  Did you have those frank discussions with the opposition groups, the separate groups?


     Hill:  We have had separate discussions; I did not have any with them.


     Q:  Sir?


     Hill:  Yes, ma'am?


     Q:  When you talk about disarming these civilians, are the opposition groups and pro-Aristide forces considered that group?  Are they considered civilians who will be disarmed?


     Hill:  Absolutely.  And we are in negotiations with some of those groups trying to get them to voluntarily lay down their arms, along with the Haitian authorities who are working that with us.


     Q:  Do you have a number of how many folks you're talking about?


     Hill:  I couldn't give you a number.


     Di Rita:  And we may only have time for a couple more.  I promised General Hill a couple of comments.


     Q:  Can I ask you -- you also mentioned that one of the things you will now do is, quote, "intervene to protect life."  Could you explain that a little bit more, what that will involve?  Could you explain how these two things, intervening to protect life -- Haitian life -- and disarmament, is not an expansion of the mission?  Because it was not listed in your initial announcement of what your mission tasks were.  And now, finally, do you feel that this upper limit of 2,000 troops is enough?  Is that absolutely the cut-off point?  Are you ever going to contemplate more?


     Hill:  We had a modification of the ROE that ensured in writing that we had the ability to go and intervene Haitian-on-Haitian violence.  But we always understood that going in, that we could do that.  No one from the multinational force going in was going to stand there and watch one Haitian kill another Haitian without trying to intervene in that; witness what happened on Sunday when we took some people under fire who were shooting into the crowd, at the demonstration on Sunday.


     In answer to the follow-on to your question, in terms of force size, you just said what the U.S. force was; but in point of fact, there are upwards now of about 2,6(00), 2,700 multinational forces. There will be more coming in from Canada.  We've talked to other countries about coming in with some additional forces, and we continue to work other international forces to assist in that.


     The other piece of that question is, at the present time, given the mission that we have, I believe that we have an adequate force to conduct the operation that we've been given to do.  We will continue to reassess that mission as we do any military operation - daily, and if I need more forces I will come back into this building and ask for it, and I will go and try to get some more international forces.


     Di Rita:  Let me --


     Q:  Did you feel that you needed -- oh, I'm sorry.  I just need to understand one thing, sir.  Did you feel that you needed to have the ROE clarified in writing?


     Hill:  We wanted clarification.  You always want your ROE clarified in writing.


     Di Rita:  And also, Barbara, the initial mission, as was laid out, and which General Hill just repeated, talked about the desire to contribute to a more secure and stable environment within the capital. And it's certainly consistent with that objective to want to be able to clarify under what circumstances --


     Hill:  Right.


     Di Rita:  -- the military would be involved in Haitian-on- Haitian violence.  So it's -- I mean, certainly in terms of the mission, it's entirely consistent with what we said from the start.


     (Cross talk.)  This may have to be the last, say, two, questions.


     Q:  How well armed -- could you describe how well armed these groups are and what impact you think you can have by taking some of the guns away from them?  Can you take away enough that violence will go down, or are there just so many weapons out there that this -- is this a tractable problem?


     Hill:  Haiti has been a nation of violence for many, many, many, many years.  And there are a lot of guns and everything from rusted M-1s to top-of-the-line Uzis and other automatic weapons. That's all out there.


     What we do is, as we encounter weapons, we're going to get them off the street.  We'll work with the Haitian National Police as we go down the road to see if there's any other piece of a disarmament that needs to take place.


     Q:  General, could you explain what has happened in the past couple of days that's prompted to take this measure?  In other words, what did you see that convinced you that this was necessary?


     Hill:  Nothing convinced me in the last couple of days to take this action.  I knew going in that we would get to this point.


     But what you've got to remember is, we are eight days, nine days into this operation.  The first part of the flow in was to take up security positions to ensure that you could get the rest of the force in.   Then as we began to make greater presence patrols out into the area, guns were always going to come out of the hands of Haitians. That was always part of the mission.  But we -- as we -- as the force built up and began to expand out of the airfield, that's when you began to do it.


     Q:  But General, if you knew this from the beginning, why didn't you have it clarified in your ROE in the beginning?


     Di Rita:  Well, we -- listen, Eric (sp), we don't discuss ROEs.  The general's been very explicit about his own sense of how he wanted this -- these things elucidated.  But the mission is the mission, and the mission has not -- I mean, as I just described it and I think General Hill has certainly asserted, it is what it is.


     Hill:  In the original ROE, I have always had the authority to protect my force.  And that's -- that is taking guns away from people that will use them on your force, and that was always my intent.


     Q:  Are you doing this also in part because you're seeing too many of these guns used on other Haitians; Haitian-on-Haitian violence is putting too much pressure on you and your operation that you want to, you know, take away that danger as well?


     Hill:  Well, I think I just answered that question.  I think I answered it probably about three different times.  You've got to take guns off the streets if you have the ability to do it, and we do, and to protect yourself and to protect the government.


     Q:  (Off mike.)


     Di Rita:  It's been nine days.  Excuse me.  It's been nine days.  I mean, you talk about pressure on the operation.  It's been nine days.  I mean, the operation is really only now just getting to its full capacity.  So it's --


     Hill:  Let me make one other point, and then I really do have to go --


     Di Rita:  Then you really do need to go, right?


     Hill:  -- because it's too cold in Washington and I want to go back to Miami.  But I really would like to make one point on the nine days.


     What we have put into Haiti in terms of U.S., international support from the French, the Chilean support that was there in less than a week, the Canadians who have a team on the ground right now -- they're bringing their extra 400 -- is in my view a really pretty remarkable, good, solid piece of military planning and execution.  And what we've done on the ground already is a solid piece of work also.


     Q:  Thank you.


     Hill:  Okay.


     Q:  Thank you, General.


     Hill:  Thank you very much.


     Di Rita:  I don't know if --


     Q:  Thanks.


     Hill:  Thank you.


     Q:  We appreciate it.


     Hill:  Any time.


     Di Rita:  I'm happy to end there, but if there's any -- I know there has been one or two other things flying around today, and if there's a question --


     Q:  A follow-up.  Looting, obviously not on the list, and it ultimately became a big deal in Iraq.  Has looting been bandied about as something that we need to think about addressing in ROE?


     Di Rita:  No, not that I'm aware of.  I mean, again, we don't discuss the ROE, but looting in Haiti has been a problem for a very long time.  We discussed this the other day.  If I'm not mistaken, when we had 20,000 troops in Haiti in the mid-'90s, people complained about looting.  I don't know that there's a number of international troops that are sufficient to stop looting in Haiti, so that's clearly not one of the objectives here.  To the extent it gets into this question about Haitian-on-Haitian violence that General Hill just talked, then perhaps, but it is not an explicit objective of the --


     Q:  But just to point out to you, I mean, but it's that sort of attitude that everybody had about Iraq, too, and then looting ended up coming back and biting you in the butt.


     Di Rita:  I'm here to tell you what we're doing in Haiti.


     Q:  (Laughs.)


     Q:  Larry, what I was trying to get --


     Di Rita:  I'm sorry.


     Q:  -- that you may not know, is what do they intend to do with any weapons they confiscate?  Turn them over to the local authorities, or keep them?


     Di Rita:  I don't know.  If there's a way to try to get some information on that, I'd be happy to try and provide it.


     Q:  Sorry, I missed the beginning.  Was he here -- basically came up from Miami today to brief the secretary --


     Di Rita:  No, I don't think he saw the secretary.  He may have.  I don't think he did.


     Q:  Why did he come up here, then?


     Di Rita:  He had some meetings with the chairman, I think, and with the Joint Chiefs or something like that.  He had some meetings with the Joint Staff if I'm not mistaken, but he was here for a very brief period of time.  We learned he was here.  I asked him if he'd be willing to come down.  I think as, with all combatant commanders, they're back and forth a lot.


     Q:  To follow up on the looting issue, is there any special consideration that would be given for American companies, American business interests in Haiti, such as they are?


     Q:  Protection of property.


     Di Rita:  That's not one of the missions.


     Q:  What about protecting the U.N. warehouses --


     Di Rita:  As the mission does call for, as may be necessary to assist in the distribution of humanitarian -- that could be something that the Multinational Interim Force would be available.


     I think we've gone as far as we can on Haiti, but if there's anything else to wrap up --


     Q:  Can I ask you a question --


     Di Rita:  A non-Haiti question, is that what you said?


     Q:  Pardon me.


     Di Rita:  Go ahead.  I'm sorry.


     Q:  All right.  This announcement today that Secretary Roach was asking for his nomination as Army secretary to be withdrawn, a question for you.  Last July he was hand-picked by Secretary Rumsfeld to do this almost as a favor, "Help me with the Army."  You were -- are in on all these decisions.  (Laughter.)  Does the secretary --


     Di Rita:  (Off mike.)


     Q:  Well, you're part of it, though.  I mean, does the secretary see this as somewhat of a setback to his move toward transforming the Army or --


     Di Rita:  First of all, he was nominated by the president, so it's not that he was hand-picked by the secretary.  The president nominated him for this job.  For the purpose of clarity --


     Q:  But the secretary asked him to do it --


     Di Rita:  Yeah.  The -- it is what it is.  Secretary Roach mentioned in his statement that given the various activities on the Hill, it seems, I think at this point, unlikely, he feels, that he would be able to be confirmed simply because of the other issues in play.  His statement talks about that.  So I think it's a statement of --


     Q:  Beyond the calendar, though, you acknowledge that there is a political issue there --


     Di Rita:  I haven't acknowledged that.  Are you asking me, or -- ?


     Q:  Yeah.  I mean, are there other -- there are political issues beyond simply the Senate calendar, though, that drove this.  Is that accurate?


     Di Rita:  No, I think it's what we said.  I mean, it's what Secretary Roach said.  He's looked at the situation, has seen that there is a lot of interest in issues that he's responsible for in the Air Force.  Those issues are issues he's engaged in with the various -- with the committee up on the Hill.  It doesn't appear that there's going to be movement on his nomination, so he's just decided in the best interests of the department that it would be best if he just asked that he not be under consideration for it anymore, and the secretary agrees with that.  It's really no more than that.


     Thanks, folks.


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