DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
MR. MORRELL: Hi. Good afternoon. Pleasure to see all of you today.
Before taking your questions, I'd like to briefly address the global war on terror budget situation. Late Monday Secretary Gates sent letters to congressional leaders letting them know that he was encouraged to hear they intend to pass the rest of the president's FY '08 war funding request by Memorial Day. The remaining $108 billion is urgently needed for this department, as well as State and the intelligence agencies, to continue operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As it now stands, and has for months, actually, we here at the Pentagon are financing those wars by borrowing from our payroll accounts. But those accounts are about to run dry, and if Congress does not act soon, the Army will not be able to pay its soldiers after June the 15th. While we certainly hope lawmakers get their work done well before then, prudent management requires that we plan for the possibility that they do not meet that goal. After all, we first requested these funds more than a year ago.
In the interest of being completely transparent, the secretary has ordered his staff to keep the Congress fully informed of our contingency planning. In fact, our budget team briefed key Hill staffers here at the Pentagon this morning.
I know we have raised concerns about this issue before, but we are once again getting down to crunch time. And unless Congress appropriates the $108 billion in the next few weeks, most of our troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan could go without pay, and the critical progress they have achieved will be in jeopardy.
Now I'd be happy to take your questions. Lita?
Q Geoff, just a quick question on Myanmar. Can you say whether or not there are other assets other than the ships that are prepared to respond if indeed authorization is given? Are there any air assets that might be able to drop aid, or any other transport-type --
MR. MORRELL: My understanding is that there are a number of naval assets in the region, which also have air capabilities. I can provide you with specifics in terms what PACOM has in the region.
The Essex Expeditionary Strike Group, the 7th Fleet Flagship Blue Ridge, the USS Kitty Hawk Strike Group and the U.S. aircraft carrier the USS Nimitz, all those naval assets are in the region. We have the wherewithal to deploy them if the government of Burma were to ask us. As you heard the president this morning, he has made it clear that we are ready and willing to assist them. Obviously, this department -- the military has vast resources and experience in dealing with this type of situation, unfortunately. And we stand ready to provide that expertise and those resources to the Burmese people, hopefully when they -- when their government sees to it to ask us to provide them.
Q Just to follow up, Jeff, is there any -- have any orders or instructions been issued to prepare for that eventuality?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I can say this. We're now working with the State Department and with U.S. Pacific Command to at least begin the planning for possible humanitarian assistance, but that's all we can do at this point is to plan, because we have not received a request from the Burmese government.
And just to follow up, Lita, you asked about -- specifically about air assets, and I can tell you the Essex Strike Group is equipped with 23 helicopters, 19 of which are capable of lift. As well, they have over 1,800 Marines on board. They have three landing craft air cushion and two landing craft units. So they have sort of amphibious and air assets that can be deployed.
Anything else on Burma?
MR. MORRELL: Yes.
Q How long would it take? I mean, if the order were to come, let's say, today, how long would it take them to get there?
MR. MORRELL: I wish I could help you, Jim. I think it's an excellent question for PACOM. I'm sure they can help you with that. I mean, I think -- obviously, probably some of those assets are closer than others, so it would probably be varying degrees of time in which they could get in place, but I think they are all close enough that they could provide valuable assistance to the Burmese people.
Burma? Okay, new subject. Schogol had his hand up first, so I'll go to Jeffrey. Jeff?
Q Geoff, can you confirm that the two service members killed in an MRAP in April were killed by an EFP?
MR. MORRELL: I would never -- I would never confirm the mode of death, and it's just not appropriate for us to do from this podium. We speak of things in terms of IED attacks. That's how we describe them. Anything more specific than that would be, we believe, aiding and abetting the enemy. So I'm not prepared to do that.
Q Was there a third MRAP death caused by an IED in April?
MR. MORRELL: You know, I'm not -- there have been a number of question about MRAP deaths, particularly, I understand, this past month. I saw a story today which talked about them at length. In fact, it sort of left the impression that there are people in this building or downrange, perhaps, questioning the survivability or the enhanced survivability of these vehicles. I can tell you nobody in this building, nobody downrange is at all questioning the survivability -- the enhanced survivability that MRAPs provide.
In fact, without getting into specifics, Jeff, on the data, I can tell you that there have been over a hundred attacks on MRAP vehicles, and there have been a relatively small number of injuries associated with those attacks, and far fewer deaths associated. But I'm not going to get any more specific than that from here, for fear of assisting those who wish to harm our troops in the field.
Q Are you seeing any increase in the sophistication of EFPs that, you know, add risk to the MRAPs?
MR. MORRELL: Jim, we are facing an agile and deadly and dangerous enemy in Iraq who is constantly adjusting to meet our new and improved vehicles that we put in the field. We have never suggested -- I think we've always made the point of placing a real clear caveat on these MRAPs, or any vehicle, for that matter, by making it clear that there is no vehicle that we can produce which will completely protect our troops. There is no hull that we can build that is impenetrable.
That said, these vehicles, as a troop transporter, are as good as can be made today. They provide our troops with more and better protection than any other vehicle on the road today. And that is why commanders and troops in Iraq, and Afghanistan, for that matter, have been asking for more of them and have been raving about their increased protection.
Q Geoff, could you describe the secretary's level of confidence that the supplemental will be passed by Memorial Day? And could you also talk about the contingency plans the DOD has in place should it not be done?
MR. MORRELL: As for the secretary's confidence, I mean, he is taking members, leaders, actually, at their word that they will have this bit of business done by Memorial Day. That's all he can do at this point, is take them at their word. However, he also has to run this enormous department and provide for the well-being of the men and women who work here and provide for the continued progress on the missions that they are conducting.
With that in mind, he has asked the budget personnel in this building to begin contingency planning for the possibility that they do not meet -- the Congress does not meet its goal of passing a bill -- a budget bill the president can sign by Memorial Day. So we have begun that planning.
As for the specifics of the planning, I'm hesitant to get into it too much other than to say that, you know, the situation is as I described it. I mean, the Army will run out of money in terms of its payroll accounts, such that the last payroll it will be able to meet will be June the 15th if Congress does not act. And operation and maintenance accounts are a little more robust, but not much more, and if there is inaction there, they will run dry shortly thereafter.
So, right now we are focused on urging the Congress to pass the supplemental as quickly as possible, but we are making contingencies and planning for the possibility of reprogramming requests in case they do not.
Q Would you describe the situation as more or less urgent than it was last November or December?
MR. MORRELL: Well, it's a little different than it was last November and December. I don't -- you know, last November and December, we were -- what was most in jeopardy then were operation and maintenance accounts, and those directly (that funded ?) our operations, obviously, in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And at that time, we were forced to borrow against those accounts to fund those operations.
This time it's military personnel accounts that are running dry, and that would obviously most directly impact uniformed personnel, the men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is obviously not a prospect that we at all relish. And that's why we are -- here, and through letters to leaders, and through meetings with Hill staffers -- urging them to act quickly so we don't face the prospect of not paying our soldiers.
Q Why did you decide to dig into the Army payroll accounts as opposed to Navy or Air Force? Why Army?
MR. MORRELL: Why did we decide to dig into them?
Q You're saying that you're emptying the Army's --
MR. MORRELL: No, Army payroll accounts are just running dry faster, I mean. And if it -- if -- if the Congress does not act before Memorial Day, we will have to come back to them and ask them for permission to reprogram money so that we could take money from some of the other services -- the Navy, the Air Force -- and use those payroll dollars to pay the Army. But all of these measures, the reprogramming request, if we get to that point, will not buy us much more time. We're talking weeks of additional funds, not much more than that.
Q And another question, on the GI bill. Why does the secretary not like Senator Webb's GI bill?
MR. MORRELL: I am not so sure the secretary doesn't -- not like Senator Webb's GI bill. There are certainly characteristics of General -- of Secretary -- of Senator Webb's GI bill which do not meet the criteria which we have put forth to the Congress that we think is best. The things we are focusing on are the ability for troops to transfer their benefits to their family members, their spouse or children. And we wish to provide that additional benefit to troops because they deserve it and because we believe that it would probably enhance retention.
But the way Senator Webb has constructed his bill, that benefit would be offered to troops, the transferability would be offered to troops after just two years of service. We think that would not only not enhance retention, we think it could really undermine our efforts to keep men and women in uniform in the force.
Q Does the secretary support Senator McCain's bill?
MR. MORRELL: We have not --
Q Is that a perfect bill, as far as he's concerned?
MR. MORRELL: We are not going to get into the business of endorsing any of the three bills that are currently up on the Hill and being debated. But as you noted, we certainly do have issues with Senator Webb's bill as it has been described to us. And it's not, as some have suggested, a matter of cost. You know, we are mostly concerned with the harm it would do to troop retention. We have no issue with the fact that Senator Webb wishes to, you know, provide a more generous education benefit to troops, but we are certainly concerned that this would be eligible to them after only two years of service.
We think pegging it to a longer period of service -- the number we have in mind at this point is six years of service -- that the longer you stay in, the sweeter the benefits are to you. Six years would show a commitment to service. In fact, it would allow for at least, at that point, one reenlistment for another tour of duty. And having done that, we believe that they should certainly have the ability to transfer their unused education benefits to their spouse or to their children, and that we believe to be very family friendly and would also enhance retention among our troops. The last thing we want to do is provide a benefit -- or last thing we want to do is create a situation in which we are losing our men and women who we have worked so hard to train.
And the thing that's different this time, Jennifer, than when this bill was first introduced, I think in 1945, '44, was that at that point, you were trying to transition millions of men out of the -- out of the armed services back to the civilian workforce. At this day and age, we're trying to retain all the men and women now in the force who we have trained and who have gained all this experience over the last few years.
Q Geoff, can I ask you about Afghanistan? A lot of talk last week about increasing the U.S. role in southern Afghanistan. I know that Secretary Gates said that this is something that's worth looking at, but would have to be done in consultation with the NATO allies. Can you flesh out a little bit about how the U.S. might like to see the operation in Afghanistan evolve, how the command structure might be improved to -- over the next year or so?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, you know, listen, I think the secretary was asked this directly last week when we were down in Texas. And I think he provided the answer that he's probably most comfortable with at this point. And that is that clearly this is something that we are looking at; we are considering; but that we will take no action on without consultations with our allies.
Q Has the secretary given up essentially on NATO providing a substantial additional force of combat troops for Afghanistan?
MR. MORRELL: No. I mean, I think what you've seen -- the reason that RC South and an increased U.S. presence in RC South is even really under discussion is because there has been an increased NATO contribution to Afghanistan. When the French and President Sarkozy pledged to send upwards of a thousand additional forces to Afghanistan, he wishes to send them to RC East, where right now many of our forces are operating.
With the French being introduced to RC East, that will free up some of our forces to then move down to RC South, another area that has seen a great deal of combat. So with an increased American presence in RC South, there needs to be some discussion as to, what's the proper command and control structure?
Frankly this has been an issue that probably would have come up even before the French expressed a desire to go to RC South. Because there is some discussion among the allies as to whether nine months in charge of a sector is too short a period of time, and if there would be more cohesion in a command if commands were to last longer than nine months.
So there's some discussion about whether the rotations of commands, that are now under way in RC South, should be longer. But those discussions are really in their infancy among allies.
Q Could you end up with a situation where the U.S. is in charge in the eastern sector and the southern sector?
MR. MORRELL: I don't think at this point, Jamie, anybody is talking about, you know, a permanent control of RC South.
My understanding is that the discussion at this point focuses primarily on whether or not there should be longer tours of duty, if you will, for the commands in that sector.
Q One last question. I don't mean to beat this to death. But when General Conway made the suggestion about perhaps Marines playing a much bigger role in Afghanistan as they come out of Iraq, it didn't get an enthusiastic reception; but a lot has happened since then. Is that proposal back in play, the idea of the Marines just concentrating on Afghanistan?
MR. MORRELL: Well, listen, I know you reported last week that the secretary was considering holding the Marines in Afghanistan beyond their fall departure date. And you and I shared an e-mail. I went back and looked at this, and I can tell you at no point has that discussion, if it is taking place in this building, risen to the secretary's level. That is not something he is considering at this point.
The Marine deployment was and is a one-time extraordinary measure meant to enhance our fighting capabilities in the spring and summer fighting season. It is the plan -- it is the secretary's plan to have those Marines then depart when their tours run up after seven months, I think in November of -- later this year.
Whether or not there will be at some point follow-on Marine deployments to Afghanistan, clearly the Marines are desirous of participating more in the battle there, and those are discussions that --
Q This is really a separate question. I mean, General Conway basically has said he went in, pitched his idea to Secretary Gates; Secretary Gates said not at this time. I think he said in a briefing not while he was secretary; but we're talking about next year anyway.
But I'm just wondering about now, again, that idea -- which the Marine Corps still believes would help them manage their force better, and perhaps as they're taking Marines out of Anbar, give them a legitimate mission -- whether that idea is still kind of dead or whether it's come back and getting new life. The Conway proposal to have the Marines focus on Afghanistan.
MR. MORRELL: Focus exclusively on Afghanistan. Right now, I think, the Marines still have a role in Iraq, and I do not know of a change in the fact that they will -- they do and will continue to have a role in Iraq. I clearly -- I'm aware of their desire to focus more on Afghanistan, but I don't think it advanced much beyond it was when you addressed this question to the secretary before.
But I think, as you pointed out, listen, when he first came up with this notion of sending the Marines to Afghanistan, there was a less -- perhaps less than warm response to the notion, and the Marines are in Afghanistan.
So things can change. They have changed. The Marines are there in the size they are there now. They are going to leave in November. Whether they come back in any numbers or larger numbers are things that are still being discussed.
Q Is the department satisfied with the pace and intensity of the Iraqi effort to get Iran to stop the flow of weapons, money, training, et cetera into Iraq?
MR. MORRELL: Is the department satisfied with the Iraqi effort?
MR. MORRELL: Well, it's an Iraqi and U.S. effort. I mean, we are working hand in hand to try to minimize, ideally to try to stop, the Iranians from their deadly meddling in Iraq. And I am not aware of any -- how did you characterize it, are we satisfied?
Q With the pace and intensity. I understood that Iraq was taking the lead in that effort, and that was the delegation that they sent to Tehran.
MR. MORRELL: You're speaking about the briefing that was provided to the Iranian government on the fact that we have very clear evidence that they --
Q And a follow-up to the briefing.
MR. MORRELL: Well, we have very clear evidence of Iranian training and equipping of terrorists in Iraq. You know, I think the Iranians -- the Iraqis can best speak to how that brief went with the Iranian government. I can tell you this that we were very supportive of their desire, frankly, to go and share the information, the evidence that we have collected over the past several months, with the Iranian government. We certainly hope it helps the Iranian government make what we believe to be the fundamental choice before them, and that is whether or not to support their neighbor -- the Iraqi government -- or to continue to subvert them, as they have been, clearly. I mean, they have been trying to play both sides of this, at one time feigning -- or suggesting that they are friends of the Iraqi government, while at the same time providing weapons and equipment to those who are clearly undermining the stability of that government. So we certainly hope that this brief and the evidence we've collected helps focus their decision.
Q What's the impact of the suspension of the U.S.-Iran ambassadorial talks on that effort? And will that material be made public, and when, as Admiral Mullen suggested it would be soon?
MR. MORRELL: Well, you know, that's an MNF-I issue in terms of when they brief this material. I mean, clearly, frankly, much of it has been shared with you in one form or another in many of the stories that I've been reading over the past several months. We have made it clear from here and in reporting you've done elsewhere that the Iranians have been supplying, equipping, training terrorists in Iraq.
And there will hopefully one day not so far in the future be a brief which lays this all out to you, as it's now been laid out to the Iranian government. But I can't tell you how soon MNF-I plans on doing that.
Q And the impact of the ambassadorial talks?
MR. MORRELL: The ambassadorial talks have not -- my understanding is -- again, a State -- a question I would most put to the State Department -- my impression is that the -- that there have not been talks for quite some time. There's been a desire to hold some follow-up talks. There have been some sub-ambassadorial talks months ago. But I'm not familiar, Al, with the current state of efforts to get talks back on.
Q On a different topic altogether, I just wondered if you could characterize the degree to which the building is tracking social unrest that may result from the food crisis in different areas. And without getting into specific planning, what role potentially could the Defense Department play?
Also, a secondary -- different thing altogether, the secretary expressed the hope of getting the confirmation of General Petraeus done by -- in a couple weeks. Do you know anything about when that's going to happen?
MR. MORRELL: I heard today that he may have a date for hearings at the -- near the end of this month -- maybe the third week of this month. But I'd double-check up on the Hill to confirm that. I just heard that in the building. So that would be certainly good news that they are moving expeditiously on setting up hearings and hopefully confirmation soon thereafter, because it's important that we get him into his new job at CENTCOM.
As for world food crisis, unrest, preparations, I'm not familiar with any. If they are ongoing, it wouldn't surprise, me if there was somebody in this building preparing for that eventuality or possibility. I think it's probably something you should pose to Joint Staff. They may be undertaking something like that now.
Q (Off mike) -- General Petraeus does get confirmed, after he's confirmed, could he still stay out in Iraq for a few -- MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, the secretary has talked about -- he thinks it's important that General Petraeus stay in Iraq until the last surge brigade has come out in July and then for that initial 45-day assessment period, that pause or period of consolidation and evaluation. So it's the secretary's desire that he remain in there -- you know, I guess that would put you in September, October time -- July, August -- mid-September, probably, before he were to make the transition over to CENTCOM.
Q How long would you expect the general -- (off mike) -- to arrive for the overlap -- (off mike)?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think -- in most cases, you'd want -- you'd probably need less of the left seat, right seat with this transition than most, but I have not heard in terms of how much planning they are trying -- they are -- they wish for that.
I mean, the truth of the matter is, with -- I mean, General Odierno has just got back, and I think there probably will be some attempt to let him have as much time as he can back here at home before he has to turn around and go back to Iraq. And given the fact they worked so closely together before, I think that probably the overlap is perhaps less than it would be for other transitions of this nature.
Q I have a question about Russia, but first I want to ask a follow-up to Jennifer's question about the Webb proposal. He wants two years; you want six years. That sounds like something that can be compromised. Has the department or the secretary reached out to Senator Webb and said, "Can we work something out here that we can both live with?" And if so, what was his response?
MR. MORRELL: I am not aware of any communications between the two. I don't -- it may have taken place and I'm not aware of it. I do not believe that there is any sort of negotiation under way to find a compromise. I think that's really for lawmakers to undertake. I think we've made it clear to members of Congress what our priorities are. Transferability of benefits and -- while at the same time protecting retention are the keys for us. And those have been articulated to members. The secretary sent a letter to Senators Levin and McCain about this, I think last week or the week before.
So I think members are aware of our position on this. And clearly Senator Webb has made them aware of why he thinks his bill is best, and I think those are matters for members to work out among themselves. We clearly -- if they seek our guidance, our insight, we'll share with them, as I've shared with you, that we think it is key in terms of retaining our current force not to provide a benefit after only two years of service. The risk is too great that we are going to lose our good men and women in uniform and that we should instead peg this to more -- greater benefits to longer service.
Q On Russia, the Russians in two days are going to celebrate the anniversary of the victory of World War II in a way that they haven't done in about 18 years, which is to parade through Red Square their most advanced military weapons, including ICBMs and related things. Is that kind of back to the future celebration something that concerns us? Is this --
MR. MORRELL: I don't think so. I mean, I think it's -- I think frankly it's on the level, Ken, of these Bear bomber flights. If they wish to take out their old equipment and take it for a spin and check it out, they're more than welcome to do so.
Q Will our military attache in Moscow be there to look at --
MR. MORRELL: I think you'd have to talk to the State Department, talk o the embassy about that.
Q I wanted to ask you real quick about the prospects for additional forces in Afghanistan for the rest of the year, not just Marines, but additional forces that Secretary Gates has talked about?
MR. MORRELL: The prospect for them?
Q Yeah. Are there going to be more? Is there a specific number?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, the numbers the commanders articulated. I mean, General McNeill has shared with people in this building and, I think, at the White House that if he were to have his druthers, he would like an additional brigades in Afghanistan. Is that going to happen any time soon? I don't know that he has the expectations that it will. Obviously, for us right now as we draw down in Iraq and as we have made a commitment to troops and their families to return to a 12-month deployment and 12-month rest time, that is -- those are the confines with which we will work on perhaps plussing up in Afghanistan. We really have to get down in Iraq below 15 brigade combat teams for us to consider adding multiple additional brigades to Afghanistan. So not until we get to that point can we even consider that prospect.
But the president at Bucharest made it clear to our allies that he is committed, this nation is committed to Afghanistan and would consider the prospect of plussing up in Afghanistan beyond the 34,000 troops that we have there right now, but that in all likelihood that's going to come, if -- not until very late in his tenure, if it comes at all under his tenure.
Does that make sense?
I guess now my follow-up would be, has the secretary looked at the number, three additional brigades? And what is his consideration?
MR. MORRELL: I think it's too soon. I think he's looked at it. But it's one of those things that, you know, every commander in every conflict has always wanted more troops than they have.
The secretary does not believe that this is necessarily unnecessary. But we're not at the point where it is being given serious consideration within this building. Because we have troop levels in Iraq which would, if we are to keep our commitment to limit tour lengths and to increase or to maintain dwell time, that we could do that at this point.
Q Did you say you have to get to 15 brigades or below 15 brigades?
MR. MORRELL: You've got to get below 15.
MR. MORRELL: Yeah.
You've got to get to 15 BCTs in order to enact our new boots-on- the-ground and dwell time lengths. So this is a consideration after you were to get to 15 BCTs and below. And obviously that is a conditions-based issue, depending on how things are going in Iraq at the time.
I think we ought to wrap it up. Just one more.
Q Why is there a principals meeting taking place, at the White House right now, on Iran and military planning with regards to Iran? Is there a new military plan being discussed with regards to possibly striking Iran? MR. MORRELL: I don't talk about White House meetings from this podium. But I will say that if you asked me questions based upon how many White House meetings actually do take place involving the principals, we'd have a lot of questions to answer.
They meet often and they meet often about a variety of issues, including Iran. But I'm not going to get into any specifics of why they're meeting today.
Q Quick clarification: You said after Memorial Day, if Congress does not pass the supplemental, the Defense Department will have to use other services' payroll accounts to pay the Army.
Is it after June 15th? That is when there will just not be any more money for the Army. That's the limit.
MR. MORRELL: June 15th is the last payroll the Army, at this point, can make without congressional action.
Q So you're saying, troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's the day, June 15th, where soldiers in Afghanistan --
MR. MORRELL: The last payday we know we can make without congressional action. So that action hopefully will be the passage of the global war on terror supplemental, the remainder of it. If not, as I said, we're looking at contingencies. But all those contingencies would really require congressional action because they would be reprogramming requests. We'd have to go to them and ask them for permission to move money from military -- from one military personnel account to another military personnel account.
Q But what's the real likelihood that troops -- that soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't going to get paychecks if this isn't passed? I mean, wouldn't you plan on moving some other money around? I mean, it's not really a probability --
MR. MORRELL: This is up to the Congress. It's not an issue for us. We run out of money in order to pay soldiers after June 15th unless the Congress acts to pass a supplemental or provided us with the reprogramming authorities to move money within accounts. We do not have the authorities right now to pay soldiers beyond June the 15th.
Q All soldiers, not just soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
MR.MORRELL: All soldiers.
Q Thank you.
MR. MORRELL: The Army military personnel account runs dry.
Thanks so much.
Copyright (c) 2008 by Federal News Service, Inc., Ste. 500 1000 Vermont Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005, USA. Federal News Service is a private firm not affiliated with the federal government. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold or retransmitted without the written authority of Federal News Service, Inc. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of the original work prepared by a United States government officer or employee as a part of that person's official duties. For information on subscribing to the FNS Internet Service, please visit http://www.fednews.com or call(202)347-1400