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Defense Department Operational Update Briefing

Presenters: Lawrence Di Rita, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs; General David Rodriguez, Deputy Director for Operations, J-3, Joint Staff
July 08, 2004 3:10 PM EDT

Thursday, July 8, 2004 3:12 p.m. EDT

Defense Department Operational Update Briefing

            MR. DIRITA:  Just a couple of things I want to just summarize that's taken place in the last few days with respect to the detainee operations in Guantanamo.

 

            As you know, we announced yesterday the new combatant status review procedures, and those will be implemented in the coming days. Yesterday I think we also -- the president, I think, two days ago, and we announced yesterday that nine additional detainees in Guantanamo have been made subject to determinations -- the reason-to-believe determinations that make them eligible for military commissions. We've also in the last I think about 24 hours released another detainee from Guantanamo to his home country.

 

            So we're in a fairly timely fashion responding, attempting to respond to the decision of the Supreme Court; keep the procedures down there moving forward, and at the same time provide the process that the Supreme Court said was needed, and we've announced that.

 

            One or two other just sort of housekeeping things.  We're going to be up on the Hill tomorrow, I believe, in the various committees that have an interest, talking about the reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross.  We've got now what we believe to be all the relevant reports pertaining to Iraq, and we'll be up briefing those reports.  I'd like to credit Pam Hess for the suggestion to go ask the ICRC for them.  We did get some help from the committee, but in any event, we are providing those reports to the Congress tomorrow, and briefing them.

 

            And we'll also be -- we're kind of refining, as I've talked about -- General Abizaid testified to this.  Our procedures for managing reports of the International Committee of the Red Cross are wanting, because it tends to come into the department at various levels.  So we're refining our procedures for how those are managed.  We'll have something to announce on that in the next few days.

 

            General?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Thank you, Mr. DiRita.

 

            As reported earlier today, Corporal Hassoun is safe and currently at the U.S. Embassy compound in Beirut.  We have no additional information at this time regarding the events that led to his arrival in Lebanon.  Investigators continue to look into the circumstances surrounding his situation.  As I don't know the exact circumstance of his situation, it would be inappropriate for me to speak on what happened to him or the next steps that would be taken.

 

            In the past 24 hours, more than 1,900 patrols were conducted, of which 175 were joint with Iraqi police, 365 were joint with the Iraqi National Guard, and about 200 were Iraqi National Guard only.  We continue to train the Iraqi security forces and execute offensive operations to maintain a safe and secure environment for the Iraqi people.

 

            Having said that, there are still attacks by insurgents.  This morning there was an attack on Iraqi National Guard headquarters that killed five U.S. soldiers and injured 20.  The building has since been evacuated and all personnel have been accounted for.

 

            And with that, we'll take your questions.  Sir?

 

            Q     On Corporal Hassoun, is there any indication, any indication that he might have tried to desert the military?  And by whom and when and how was he picked up?  And are you-all bringing him back to this country in a hurry?  Is the military bringing him back?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Like I said, the investigation is ongoing, and we don't know how he got there or what went on between the time that he was reported missing from his unit until he got into Lebanon.  And he came to the embassy compound and under our control of his own accord.

 

            Q     He came to the embassy compound?  He was picked up by the military, or how did it happen?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  He came to link up with the U.S. embassy personnel and he's at the embassy compound.

 

            Q     So he wasn't picked up by the military.

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  No, he was not picked up.

 

            Q     And you are moving to quickly bring him back to the United States?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Look, Charlie.  There's a lot of interest in this, there's no question about it.

 

            Q     I understand.

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Right.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Almost nothing that's been reported about Corporal Hassoun has been accurate, when it was first believed.  So we're just going to stick to what we've told you, which is he is now in U.S. -- U.S. control at the embassy compound in Lebanon.  That's all we're able to confirm.  And beyond that, time will tell.  We'll let it sort itself out.

 

            Q     When you say almost nothing that's been reported has been accurate, what you're saying is you confirm that he was not deserting, or you just don't know?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  We do not --

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I'm saying we don't know and there's no sense speculating, because most of the speculation to this point has been confused.  And so we're just not going to contribute to do that.

 

            Q     What about his physical condition?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  We'll have more to say when we have more to say.

 

            Q     Can you say whether there's any indication that the capture, the videotape showing him on tape, is there any indication that that isn't what it seemed to be, that it's faked in any way?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I have nothing for you.  There's just -- we have nothing for you on it.  We'll just let this situation unfold, and when we've got something to say, we'll say it.

 

            Q     Is that under investigation, whether or not the capture was real?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  When we have something to announce, we will announce it.

 

            Q     Can you at least say if it's the Joint Repatriation Agency that's taking the lead in terms of talking with the corporal?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  No, we cannot say that.  When we have something to say, we will say it.

 

            Pam?  Is this anything, another topic?

 

            Q     I have some on other topics.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Terrific.

 

            Q     Since better reporters than I are getting nowhere.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  (Laughs.)

 

            Q     Oh, this is my question.  Guantanamo Bay.   The Supreme Court has given them habeas corpus access to federal courts, but only about half the names of the prisoners have come out, and without those names, lawyers say they have a hard time putting themselves in a position to help the prisoners.  Could you explain to us why the names of the prisoners have not been released or made public, and if there are any plans to do so in order to help them exercise the rights that have been bestowed upon them by the Supreme Court?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I cannot.  What I can tell you is that we announced the new procedures, and consistent with those procedures, within days all the detainees down there will be made aware of what is available to them, including a representative who will serve as their personal representative, a military officer.  They will be made aware of the fact that they are eligible to file for a writ of habeas corpus within the U.S. court system.  And the procedures by which all that develop are themselves being developed.  The secretary of the Navy has been directed, as the executive agent, to begin developing those policy procedures, and we'll see all of that coming together in the next few days.

 

            Q     But you can't say why their names haven't been released?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I can't.  I can say this; we've tried to be highly responsive to the Supreme Court's ruling.  We -- I'm talking about the U.S. government now -- has pulled together a serious, systematic process that responds directly to some of the, if you will, intimations of the ruling, that there's a way that this can be done. And we've tried to fashion these procedures that are responsive to that ruling.  And the specific procedures on how that works will unfold.  But the intent is clear, and the intent is to be utterly faithful to the Supreme Court decision.

 

            Q     Is the reason that you can't say why is because you do not know or --

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I do not know why we haven't done more to announce names.  But I'm not sure that -- I'm not sure whether that is relevant to following the procedures that have been announced.  And as I said, there will be additional policies developed as a result of the sort of initial procedures that we announced yesterday, and those policies are being developed.  But one thing is certain, in response to the new procedures, the detainees down there will all -- there will be contact made with each of them, with their own personal representative who will advise them of what we are required to advise them, including their ability to file.

 

            Q     Why aren't these personal representatives at the very least military lawyers?  How can these representatives advise them on whether they should go before tribunals, whether they should avail themselves of tribunals, how they should get lawyers?  Why aren't they at least getting military lawyers to advise them?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Well, there were a lot of factors that were considered.  And ultimately, there are procedures that are well steeped in U.S. military policy that provides for tribunals and provides for the use of line officers for these kinds of activities. And so it was perfectly consistent with those kinds of -- that kind of -- those kind of processes that already exist.  This is believed across the board by government lawyers who are charged with responding to the Supreme Court ruling, to be highly responsive to that ruling.  So --

 

            Q     There are those who would say that these people aren't getting -- not only are they not yet getting direct access to federal courts, but they're not even getting any legal advice that would help them have that access.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Mm-hmm.  All of this will obviously be a part of the process that determines, including in addition to their habeas corpus rights, these procedures themselves will undergo some scrutiny.  And people will have the opportunity to determine if the procedures are sufficient.  It is believed by those who are charged with the responsibility of responding to the Supreme Court ruling that these are highly responsive and that they are sufficient.

 

            Yep.

 

            Q     There were hearings on Capitol Hill today of this incident which resulted in the evacuation of the Capitol, in which a plane violated the airspace.  And published reports today suggested that the military was close to shooting the plane down, or at least that the question had been raised.  Can you tell us how close at all it was -- that plane came to being shot down, and did Secretary Rumsfeld, did it ever get to his level?  Was he ever consulted about the threat, the potential threat from the plane?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  A couple of things.  The -- I didn't see the hearing, so I'm not in a position to comment on what may have been given in testimony at the hearing.  My understanding of the circumstances of that situation are such that it -- my impression is that the description of what occurred is a little bit overheated.  The -- I think the headline is -- came close to shooting down, or firing down, or something like that.  That -- what happened was that the -- the military officials and the military processes established to manage this kind of airspace incursion were followed. The processes were followed.  And there -- the procedures are regularly tested, they are, in fact, regularly challenged because these kind of airspace incursions do occur.  To the best of my understanding, it was not the nature of the -- the incident was not such that it rose to the level of the secretary of Defense's involvement.  And that's not uncommon.  These kinds of things do happen.  There's a response activity that takes place when they do happen.  There's a communications network that's established immediately when it happens.  And then a variety of decisions are made that ultimately could involve the secretary's inclusion in the conference.  It was, in this case, not the case.  I mean, he wasn't involved.

 

            Q     Well, you said the procedures were followed, and -- and the processes --

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I'm speaking for those people in the Department of Defense who are -- who have responsibilities.  I don't know what happened up to the point.

 

            Q     Did the incident point out any shortcoming in those procedures?   And particularly, does the restricted airspace around Washington give the military enough time to respond, had there been an actual threat?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  One of the things that we're all mindful of since 9/11 is that on the day of 9/11 we were oriented for a different world.  And since 9/11, we recognize the world we live in.  For example, on 9/11, the North American Air Defense Command was oriented outward; it wasn't even looking for threats inside the country.  That has changed.  That's no longer the case.  We've, in fact, created a new combatant commander whose responsibility is the -- area of responsibility is the United States.  And so we've got procedures that are regularly practiced and regularly tested.  And we've got -- there have been -- and this was discussed at the 9/11 commission -- there have been improvements in immigration and naturalization processes; there's been improvements in the FAA's procedures.  Across the line there have been changes to the way we operate.

 

            That being said, as the secretary has discussed many times, the terrorists only have to be right once, and the defense against terrorists has to be perfect all the time in order to be successful. So we're always looking for ways to improve on the procedures.  We've made significant improvements over time.  But I wouldn't want to get into specific questions about whether a given airspace is sufficient, but it's a challenge, there's no question about it.

 

            Q     All I'm asking very simply is from the Pentagon's perspective, the military perspective, you know, in coordination with the FAA, did the procedures work that day, as far as you're concerned?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  (To General Rodriguez) Do you have a sense of it?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Yes.  Yeah, I think they were the right ones. Like I said, in this case the level -- we have different levels for different situations.  It got to the appropriate level, didn't get past that.  And we had the communication support we needed to do whatever was required in this situation.

 

            Q     Larry, Afghanistan, the three Americans who were arrested. One of them is named Idema.  I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing that right.  But he's supposed to be former Army Special Forces.  Do you have any information about his background?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Not much.  I do understand that there appears to be some former military -- he has a military background, but I don't know to what extent, how long he was in the service.  I don't have those details.  It's -- there have been a handful of people scooped up, and he's one of them.  But beyond that, I don't think we have much detail.

 

            (To General Rodriguez)  Do you have anything?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  No, we do not.

 

            Q     He's not presently in the military?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  No, he's not presently in the military.

 

            Q     How recent, do you know -- (inaudible) --

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  No, I don't know how recent, no.

 

            Q     -- or what type of service he had?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  We don't have a lot of detail, just other than it appears it has been confirmed that he had some military service.

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Yes.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Okay, Barbara.

 

            Q     A couple of questions.

 

            General Rodriguez, can you remind us -- and this isn't hypothetical; this is very specific -- in the military, what is it that makes someone -- what has to happen before someone is classified as a deserter, and what is the punishment for desertion from the U.S. military in time of war?

 

            And then I just wanted to ask a brief different question.

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Why don't we just take that and get back to you?

 

            Q     Are you just not familiar with -- maybe not the --

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  I wouldn't be able to tell you the full range of the punishments and that kind of specifics, but --

 

            MR. DIRITA:  It's a fairly specific thing, and we'll just try and get you the information.

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Yeah, I can get you the data on that, though.

 

            Q     All right.  Okay.

 

            And my other question is, given the fact that Secretary Ridge has publicly been out today talking about the administration's concerns about upcoming terrorist threats during the election season, what is the military -- since you have domestic responsibilities -- what's the military take on all of this?  Are you -- how are you concerned about the threat posed by terrorism in the election season, and what are you going to do to respond to it?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Well, first of all, in that we support, you know, Secretary Ridge in those operations, and we're prepared to support him.  We are in close coordination with all of them and watching the same threat streams and communicating constantly with them, and we're prepared to support however he sees fit in that support.

 

            Q     What do you perceive the threat to be?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  The threat stream that he talked about and what he talked about and the specifics he got in is the same level that we'd discuss here, and that's it.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  We don't have anything to add to what he said with respect to threat.

 

            Yeah, Tony.

 

            Q     ICRC -- these reports you're going to brief Congress on tomorrow, I mean, are you going to release those here at some point?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  No, no.  These are reports that are -- it's something of a stretch of policy and procedures to give them to the Congress.  The ICRC's been very clear -- it has given its consent to this, but it has acknowledged to the best of my understanding that this is not something that's done as a matter of routine.  They do get concerned about expanded exposure to these reports because it affects the way they operate around the world and we are trying to honor that. So we wouldn't release these to the press.

 

            Q     Speaking about closed hearings, the Senate --

 

            MR. DIRITA:  There's not hearings.  Let me -- if anybody -- these are not hearings.  They'll just be some briefings to -- oh, yeah, they'll be closed.

 

            Q     How many of these are you having?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I think we're doing it to committees.

 

            Q     The Senate Intelligence Committee is going to release their prewar intelligence report tomorrow on WMD claims.  At this point, are you guys going to respond at all?  Do you have any plans to respond in terms of the prewar intelligence?  Although be it the intelligence community is going to be the focus, it came out of the mouthpieces of this podium, you know, for a year and a half in terms of the bad intel.  Is the Pentagon going to be responding at all?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I doubt it.  I sure won't be.

 

            Q     What's the secretary's latest feeling about why nothing's been discovered to date?  You haven't been asked about this lately, but why nothing has been discovered.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I think what he -- I think what we continue to say is that the Iraq Survey Group is doing its work.  Mr. Duelfer has spoken a couple of times recently about the work he's doing, and we're going to let him continue to do his work.  And I think it's not yet the time to draw conclusions.

 

            Q     Yeah, but the secretary -- and you're close to him, that's why I'm asking you -- he went out on a limb and said Iraq had all these stockpiles and everything.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  What the secretary did was what I think most of the responsible officials of this government did, and that is rely on the best sense of not just the United States but a number of foreign intelligence communities, the consensus view of the United Nations as expressed through various U.N. resolutions with respect to Iraq's status and WMD.  And if that -- time will tell whether those assessments were accurate.

 

            Q     Does he feel misled by the intelligence community?  Again, you're close to him; you hear his insights a lot.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  He relied on the basis of the intelligence.  He had no reason to believe at the time that it was any more or less accurate than it was being presented to be and has no reason now to believe it is any different.  I mean, it was the best assessment in an admittedly very challenging intelligence environment where you have a very opaque society run by a dictator.  And these were consensus decisions that had stretched across several years -- consensus views, I should say. They were shared by many intelligence communities around the world and they were reflected in U.N. resolutions.  And that was -- those were the assessments on which the secretary and other officials in this government relied.

 

            Q     But the British prime minister has now said that he thinks it's very possible weapon stockpiles may never be found in Iraq.  Does the secretary agree with that assessment, or is he still of the view that stockpiles that he relied on intelligence -- does he believe stockpiles will be found in Iraq?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I think he believes it's too early to tell.  And when final conclusions are drawn, he'll assess those conclusions and have something to say.

 

            Q     And with the transition to Iraqi sovereignty, how has that affected the search?  Are you still able to go --

 

            MR. DIRITA:  The what?

 

            Q     The search.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  The search.

 

            Q     For WMD.  And interrogation of people since they are now turned over to a sovereign Iraqi government?  Are you still able to interrogate everyone you want to, when you want to, and search anywhere you want to?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  The Iraq Survey Group is able to continue doing the work that it's doing.

 

            Q     So sovereignty hasn't affected their work at all.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Not to the best of my knowledge.

 

            Yes, sir?

 

            Q     Yes.  I have a question about the Charles Robert Jenkins case and surrounding him, with him leaving North Korea for Indonesia. What is the Department of Defense's policy regarding his legal and military status?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I'll tell you what I'll do is, we'll give you -- we'll get back to you on that, because he has in -- I understand he has gone to Indonesia, but beyond that, I'm not sure we're prepared to make any statement.  Our long-standing view had been that he was a -- he was alleged to have violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and it was our view that he should be brought to justice.  But beyond that, I'm not in position to comment on the most recent developments. And if there is a view that is different or if there's additional information, we'll provide it.

 

            Q     On Hassoun, I know you don't want to get into the nuts and bolts here, but -- this is for the general -- when Scott O'Grady was shot down about seven or eight years ago, the whole national intelligence apparatus and the military apparatus was focused to find him.  Can you describe some of the level of effort that went into finding or at least tracking the corporal here and, you know, give us a feel for that?  The intelligence community and military -- how much focus was put on that?  And did you pretty much lose track of him until he showed up at the embassy?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  I'd say we do not have any information on how he got between when he left his unit and when he got there.  And the investigations continue to try to get to the bottom of things. But it was significantly different when -- O'Grady, who had a transponder with a location thing on him.  It was different.  But no, we do not know that information at this point in time.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  He's at the U.S. embassy compound.  He's alive.  And those are two things we're very grateful for.  And beyond that, we'll have more to say when we have it to say.

 

            Q     Well, where did you pick him up?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Barbara, when we've got more to say, we'll say it.

 

            Q     Is there --

 

            MR. DIRITA:  He's at the U.S. embassy compound.

 

            Q     Is it classified -- where you picked him up?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  It's developing situation, and it's just going to be just much better if we wait until we've got a little bit more firm understanding of exactly how the situation developed.

 

            Q      The reason I asked is, I think Tony brings up -- I personally think Tony brings up an interesting question.  You can tell --

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Maybe -- would you like to respond to this?

 

            Q     You can tell us nothing about how the U.S. military tried to find a missing member of the armed services?  You can't tell us anything about how you tried to find him?

 

            MR. DIRITA:  I don't think we're prepared to at the moment.  When --

 

            Q     Can you tell us that you tried to find him?

 

            GEN. RODRIGUEZ:  Yes.  In every case, just like all the hostages, we continue to look at every kind of intelligence we can to try to track them down, whether they be coalition hostages or U.S. hostages, and throughout the entire area of operations.

 

            MR. DIRITA:  You guys are easy today.  If there's no more questions, you're dismissed.

 

            Q     Okay.  Thank you.  (Laughter.)

 

            MR. DIRITA:  Thank you.

 

            Q     If there's no answers, no questions.  (Laughter continues.)  ####

 

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