MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon and thanks for coming. Sorry to keep you waiting.
Secretary Gates, as you know, is closely following the discussion in Congress over the new GI Bill, and while he is greatly encouraged by the widespread support for enhancing education benefits for veterans, he is equally concerned about how the leading bills are taking shape.
The secretary, indeed, this entire department, believes the men and women who have sacrificed so much in defense of our nation deserve a bigger and better education benefit. However, he also believes it is absolutely imperative that a new and improved GI Bill allows troops to transfer their unused education benefits to their spouse or children. That is the number one priority of the military families Secretary Gates has met with over the past year or so. Tending to their needs and concerns is vitally important because families, more often than not, determine whether a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine makes a career out of the military.
It is also essential, Secretary Gates believes, that this new benefit not in any way undermine the all-volunteer force. And he fears the leading bills, as currently constructed, would do just that, by creating an incentive for troops to leave the military prematurely. Offering this new benefit after just two years on the job would seriously harm retention. And we cannot afford that risk right now, as we conduct this global war on terror. Now, more than ever, we need to hold on to our superbly trained, battle-tested troops. They are the key to victory in this conflict.
These are the secretary's concerns. He has shared them with Congress and he is more than willing to work -- to continue to work with Congress to make sure our nation provides our troops with the benefits they so richly deserve but do so in a way that does not jeopardize our national security.
With that, I'll be glad to take your questions.
Q Geoff, General Petraeus and General Odierno will go before the Senate Armed Services Committee tomorrow. Does the secretary have any concerns or is he fairly confident that these two generals will indeed get through the process?
And has he met with any members of either the committee or the senate to talk specifically about any concerns they may have with either of them?
MR. MORRELL: I do not believe the secretary has engaged in conversations with members of Congress about these particular nominations aside from when he first alerted a select number of members initially that it was his intention to recommend to the president that these two able military leaders take on new assignments. So I do not believe there has been a lobbying campaign on his behalf -- or on their behalf by the secretary, and I don't believe there needs to be one. These two veterans of combat and leadership in Iraq have more than demonstrated their ability to take on these new commands, and the secretary is supremely confident that the Congress recognizes that and will quickly approve their nomination so that they can get on to their jobs as soon as possible.
I should point out the secretary did have a chance to meet with General Petraeus yesterday. The general was in town, as you know, for the hearings, so General Petraeus conducted his weekly update to the secretary on the situation in Iraq in person this week, and that was followed by a one-on-one meeting between those two men.
And I believe, though, in answer to your question on sort of outreach to the Congress, that General Petraeus has been involved in some outreach to members up there, but I don't believe the secretary has on his behalf.
Q And did he give the secretary any preview of what he may be telling Congress tomorrow?
MR. MORRELL: I don't know. I think they had a conversation about issues in Iraq more than about he plans to deal with the Congress tomorrow. But I was not privy to that conversation; I'm sorry.
Q Has there been any discussion about how long the Essex and other assets remain in the Myanmar area, bearing in mind that the government there has repeatedly said -- or declined offers of assistance?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think it's our hope that even as we're now several weeks into this crisis, that the Burmese military junta will see to it to finally change their mind about increased international assistance and take advantage of these incredible assets that are just off their shores. We have, obviously, had a number of flights -- aid flights by the United States military into Burma over the past couple of weeks. I think we're up to 40 total now. And while we certainly are pleased that we've been able to provide some aid, we obviously have much, much more that is at the ready and on the Essex and other assets just offshore and can be provided at a moment's notice if only the Burmese government would have a change of heart on this matter.
So I think right now the plan is to keep them there, you know, hoping and working with our friends in the region to try to persuade the Burmese government that they should take advantage of all the generous aid that we have at the -- really, at their shores.
Q Geoff, Israeli leaders today pressured some members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to impose a naval blockade on Iran as a way to pressure them on the nuclear program. Isn't that an act of war? And is that one of the options on the table that the Pentagon is considering right now?
MR. MORRELL: Well, obviously, I'm not going to discuss from this podium, or off this podium, what -- the options we're considering right now. I think we -- this department, this government has made clear that we are going to continue to increase the pressure on Iran, to try to persuade them to change their ways. And we are doing so on a number of fronts. We are doing so diplomatically, we are doing so economically and we are certainly doing so militarily. But I'm not going to get into specifics of how we may or may not -- may or not -- may or may not increase that pressure militarily. I am not aware of any plans to impose a naval blockade on Iran, but, you know, as we've said from the outset of this -- of this problem, all military options remain on the table.
Q Would a naval blockade be considered an act of war?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to make judgments on what does or does not constitute an act of war.
Q You were talking about the secretary's concern that if the GI Bill vote passes as it is, that it would give service members an incentive to leave after two years. Would it be possible to counteract that incentive by increasing retention bonuses?
MR. MORRELL: Well, right now what's being discussed, Jeff, is an education benefit that is extraordinarily generous, and we have no issue with the fact that it is generous. We think our troops deserve to be rewarded for their service. However, we do take issue with a benefit that becomes an inducement, an incentive for them to leave the service prematurely. We work very, very hard and spend enormous sums of money to train our forces to be the best fighting forces in the world.
And we fear, and studies have shown this, that if we were to offer a benefit as generous as the one that is being discussed after only two years on the job, it would invite too many well-trained, experienced soldiers, airmen, Marines, sailors to leave before they have had a chance to make a career out of service to their country through the military.
Does that not -- you seem still concerned.
Q I appreciate the answer.
MR. MORRELL: You think that the counterbalance to this incentive is by sweetening the retention bonuses.
Q Well, that's what I was asking, if perhaps that might be a way.
MR. MORRELL: Yeah.
Q Is that something the Defense Department might consider?
MR. MORRELL: I think what we'd like to do is provide this benefit in a way that does not undermine retention. And we believe there is a way to do so.
The secretary has advocated to members of Congress and to the public that a six-year service, six years of service, is the proper time at which to introduce this new, enhanced benefit. That will be after troops will have had a chance to reenlist, reup at least once and will have shown a commitment to pursuing a career in the military. But two years is just too soon, as far as the secretary is concerned.
Q Geoff, yesterday, an amendment was introduced to allow transferability of that benefit to family members. Senator Webb and Senator Warner introduced that, I believe.
Is that transferability amendment to Secretary Gates's liking?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not familiar with the exact proposal that you're speaking of.
I mean, what he wants is the ability for troops who do not anticipate that they will take advantage of this education benefit because they are too busy pursuing a career in the military or have used as much of it as they would like to, to transfer the unused portion to family members.
That's his concern on transferability, okay? So long as any proposal that is being seriously considered includes the option to transfer unused benefits to spouses or children, we're good with it. But simultaneously it can't provide that benefit after just two years of service. It's too much of an inducement for troops to leave.
Now, this is not indentured servitude.
We're not trying to, you know, keep people here forever. But we are trying to -- you know, we are trying to create a system in which troops see the benefit in making a career out of the military, out of being the beneficiaries of the training and the experience and the education that we provide them. We make an enormous investment in their careers and their futures and we think it would be very damaging to the all-volunteer force if they were to leave prematurely.
Q To make sure I understand, at six years, the secretary would say -- or would agree with the award of a full benefit and full transferability at that point?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah. We can introduce this benefit after six years, yes.
Q Not at --
MR. MORRELL: Not at a -- I don't think he's taking issue with the graduated -- our proposal is not a graduated benefit, although I think in principal we would align ourselves with those who believe that the longer one serves, the sweeter the benefit is generally a good rule.
Q Can I ask you two questions in -- related questions in the Special Operations world? The Senate Armed Services Committee has been expressing some concerns, apparently, about confirming both General McChrystal and Admiral McRaven in their new billets, expressing some concerns about the so-called "Bagram II" detention facility. And apparently Secretary Gates has been trying to encourage the committee to move ahead on their confirmation of their appointments to their new jobs.
What can you tell us about that if you can? What has Secretary Gates been saying? Have there been any reassurances on this other detention facility at Bagram?
And then I have a separate --
MR. MORRELL: Well, let's start with one and I'll come back to you.
Q Yeah. MR. MORRELL: On General McChrystal and Admiral McRaven, the secretary is fully supportive, obviously, of their nominations and has been encouraging of the Senate Armed Services Committee to vote on their nominations as quickly as possible.
McChrystal has been nominated to become staff director for the Joint Staff. It's an important job. As you know, with General Sharp assuming command in Korea, it is vitally important that we get new leadership into the Joint Staff as quickly as possible. He will -- if any of you know General McChrystal, he has a force of personality that will reinvigorate that shop very, very quickly.
And so we are fully supportive of him getting on that job as soon as possible. His replacement at Special Operations -- Operations will -- Admiral McRaven is also one who the secretary strongly supports and wants to see that nomination moved on quickly.
They, as I told you last week, had a meeting, had a hearing, a closed-door hearing with the committee. I believe it was last Thursday. I have not heard what the results of that were, but I do not believe as of yet there's been movement on their nominations, and we would encourage the committee to do so.
Q I still have my second question, but could I just ask you, with all of that, has the secretary offered any new assurances, changes, anything regarding the detention facility at Bagram, that the Senate is apparently concerned about?
MR. MORRELL: Not to my knowledge.
Q Can I ask you, just the other question -- Admiral Olson, head of Special Operations Command, made some comments some weeks ago that are back in the press today about what Special Operations Command does, and he talked about the Unified Command Plan and that it requires SOCOM to be the lead agency conducting DOD operations against terrorists.
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I'm familiar with the story, yes.
Q Right. And he said about that: We don't really do that. It's too much for us to do that and it's not right for us to do that. Since this keeps coming back, what is the secretary's reaction or view about a four-star sort of saying that a presidential-signed Unified Command Plan isn't really something that he does?
MR. MORRELL: I think that we're looking at this issue perhaps more black and white than it ought to be. Special Operations are usually in shades of gray. I think this is a more nuanced and complicated issue than perhaps today's article, or as you've recounted to me, paints it. As you know, the global war on terror is a unique conflict. Our operations against terrorists transcend geographic boundaries. And so the role of Special Operations Command in that conflict is often a little more nuanced than some would probably believe it to be. I would say the Special Operations Command can and does conduct operations anywhere in the world at the direction of the president and -- or the secretary of Defense.
But they also routinely coordinate their work with the geographic combatant commanders. So they are at times supporting of the geographic combatant commanders and at other times supported by the GCCs.
So I think situations are unique. And there are going to be occasions in which Admiral Olson and SOCOM believes it is appropriate that they operate unilaterally. And there are going to be times at which they feel as though it is best that they do things in close coordination with the geographic combatant commanders.
Q With all respect, I mean, you say that Admiral Olson -- there will be times that he believes it's appropriate to operate unilaterally. But he says it's not right for us to do that.
So is there a disconnect?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think he thinks it is important that he views this problem of global terrorism from a global perspective. And the secretary is pleased that he does so.
But at the same time, there are regional concerns that he has to be mindful of. And that's why Admiral Olson believes it's important that he also work with the geographic combatant commands to take into account whatever concerns they may have about operations in their area of responsibility.
But I think this is a situation in which both concerns are taken into account. And on a situation by situation basis, there are judgments made. It is not necessarily as black and white as you would perhaps believe it to be.
Q I’ve got a question about Latin America.
The military has an important forward operating location in Ecuador that’s, I think, is probably going to be closed sometime next year, because the lease expires and the Ecuadorean government doesn't want it there.
Is the military, the Pentagon making any plans to move that base to Colombia?
MR. MORRELL: You know, Jim, this is something that came up time and time again on our trip to Colombia and Latin America. I believe it was last fall. I frankly have not heard talk of it since then. I know it was a question that came to the secretary repeatedly. And I think he addressed those issues then.
I don't think it's something that we are focused on. But I have not gotten an update since that trip. So I can't really tell you where it stands right now.
Q Are there any plans for replacing that base?
MR. MORRELL: I really haven't looked at it since then. So I wish --
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: I will take the question.
Happy to do so.
Q Excuse me. I have a question about the conflict between Russia and Georgia. Tensions between those two countries are obviously rising. And there are some people who are voicing fears that there could be an actual armed conflict between Russian peacekeepers that are in the area and Georgian troops. Is that a matter of concern in the Pentagon? And if that were to happen, what would be the U.S. posture?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I think this is -- at this point, that's a State Department issue. I think that's something I'd address to them.
Q So -- but it's a military --
MR. MORRELL: At this point, it's not a military issue. So I don't have anything to add to it. Yeah. Yeah.
Q Geoff, what's the assessment of the senior military and civilian officials in the department of the Iraqi military's performance in Sadr City and in their new offensive in the north? Are they are ready to do that? Are they being effective? And are they well enough coordinated with our command?
MR. MORRELL: Well, they've demonstrated over the past several weeks that they are far more capable than a lot of people gave them credit for, haven't they? While they're -- while the operations in Basra initially revealed some shortcomings of the force that went down there, they've toughed it out, and they've persevered, and they have taken control of most of if not all of that vitally important southern city.
With regards to the new operation, al Salam, Operation Peace, in Sadr City, I think the initial -- the initial stages, as I think you've all read about in the press coverage today, show that things have gone well thus far. I mean, that one's going to be a tough one. Sadr City has been a rat's nest full of terrorists and special group operators who are supplied, trained, funded by the Iranians and by the Revolutionary Guard there. And this is going to be a difficult one. But thus far it's been going pretty well. Up in Mosul, in the north, they've been conducting that operation simultaneously. So you're now talking about three major operations across the country, the south, the middle and the north, being conducted simultaneously, and thus far, as I said, with some success, far more than -- success than most people probably would have thought at this point.
Q Are you privy to whatever General Petraeus might have reported to Secretary Gates about that? Can you share some of that?
MR. MORRELL: I think he recounted much as I have with you, that thus far things are looking good, that the Iraqi forces are acquitting themselves well, not just on the battlefield but in their ability to supply and support their troops. So this is proving to be a increasingly professional military. It's not going to happen overnight. It hasn't happened overnight. This may not be the turning point, but this is clearly another step in the right direction by the Iraqi security forces.
Q This is something that presumably would impact the assessment. And I know it's jumping the gun to ask about it, but this has got to be one of the major metrics that will go into it now.
MR. MORRELL: Sure. Sure, Al. I mean, the more capable the Iraqi security forces are, the less of a need there is for U.S. forces. That's the metric by which we're evaluating this situation. So when the last surge brigade leaves at the end of July, General Petraeus will then sit down and make evaluations on -- does he have enough forces on hand, given how improved the Iraqi security forces are, to do the job?
Does he need to retain additional brigades, or can he start to allow others to go home?
Ken, another try?
Q Different part of the world. When the secretary testified yesterday, he was asked about his May 14th comment about negotiations with Iran. And what he said yesterday was that his view was that for any such negotiation to be successful, the U.S. needed some leverage so that the Iranians went into the negotiation wanting to get something out of it. What kind of leverage -- can you clarify what kind of leverage he was talking about?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah. I thought I did -- I thought I did last week, but I'm happy to reiterate it. The secretary believes that leverage is pressure, so that the more pressure the Iranians feel, the more they are going to be induced to ask to relieve that pressure. So we are, through military, economic, diplomatic means, trying to ramp up the pressure on Iran to the point that hopefully they will say: You know what? Enough. We are ready to talk to and to do so in a constructive and reasonable way.
But the incentive is merely the relief of pressure. That is what the leverage we are seeking is. I mean, and he talked about historical examples of that. I mean, I think other -- some have mentioned the fact that President Reagan reached out to Gorbachev, but he did so after an enormous arms buildup by this military, to the point where the Russians obviously felt -- or the Soviets at that time felt enormous pressure by the threat posed by our military. So -- and whether the more recent examples of Libya, for example, and our working with Libya to -- I mean, they felt an economic pressure. They also felt clearly the military pressure, the fact that we had gone into Iraq and Afghanistan and toppled two repressive regimes there. So we are looking to create pressure for them to change their ways.
Q (Off mike) -- increasing military pressure?
MR. MORRELL: Right now we are increasing military pressure within the confines of Iraq. So we are going after those Iranians who may be operating within Iraq, going after those who are their lieutenants or their surrogates who are operating within Iraq, trying to stem the flow of Iranian arms into Iraq, go after the networks that they support in Iraq in an attempt to destabilize the Iraqi government and exert greater influence over their neighbor.
Q (Off mike) -- exert military pressure outside the bounds of Iraq.
MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, there are -- obviously, when we have ships that -- when we have carrier groups that operate in the Persian Gulf, that obviously is a form of pressure as well.
Q Geoff, just on that point. Last week the secretary made -- when asked about U.S. military action against Iran, made a point to say that it was almost exclusively inside Iraq.
Can we also interpret that to be an admission at least that there is some U.S. military working inside Iran?
MR. MORRELL: No, I wouldn't interpret that to be an admission of that. I think as I just -- one of the examples I just offered Ken was the notion that what we do in the Persian Gulf is not within the confines of Iraq but it still exerts pressure on Iran.
Q So that was, then, what he was referring to?
MR. MORRELL: I didn't actually ask him specifically what he was referring to there, but that is certainly a possibility.
Q Has the secretary met with the prime minister of KRG this morning? Did the meeting take place in this building? And what were the talking points?
MR. MORRELL: I think that was supposed to be today. And you know what? I was busy on some other things so I didn't get a chance to participate or go up there, so I have not heard. But I'll be happy to try to get a readout for you if that's of particular interest to you. But I don't have it right now. Sorry.
Q Has the secretary engaged in any recent discussions with his counterparts from NATO allies regarding changing the command structure in southern Afghanistan?
MR. MORRELL: Yes. He has had a couple of phone calls recently, I think with his counterparts in the Netherlands and Great Britain, who are due to take over for the Canadians in RC South -- oh, what's the date, October? No, November. So the Canadians will relinquish command of RC South in November of this year, at which point the Dutch are due to assume command. The way it had been structured, they would serve in that role for nine months. The secretary has asked and the Dutch have agreed to serve in that role now for 12 months. The same is true for the British. They will take over for the Dutch and they will serve as the commander of RC South for a year as well.
We are due to take over after the British. That would be in November 2010. But what happens at that point is not known at this juncture. However, I can tell you that, you know, we believe this new arrangement -- and our allies clearly do as well, because they've agreed to it -- will provide greater predictability, continuity, stability in this volatile but vitally important region of Afghanistan.
Q Is this something that has to be agreed upon by the entire NATO, or is this just something that's a new informal agreement?
MR. MORRELL: No, this can be done among the countries that have -- I think any country that has the majority of forces in RC South is entitled to command at some point.
And I think as we are increasing our forces in RC South we will have the right to command. But I think this is an agreed-upon arrangement among the troop-contributing nations to RC South.
Q Does it meet all the concerns that the secretary had or does he still have other concerns?
MR. MORRELL: I think this is one of the things that sort of addresses issues. I mean, the bottom line is you've -- I think the troop rotation for NATO forces in Afghanistan or European forces in Afghanistan is generally three to six months. And so basically, as they are turning over -- there's a lot of turnover as it is, so I think we're trying to create a situation in which the command -- by the command serving longer, there will be greater stability and continuity to our operations in RC South.
Q It doesn't affect the length of troop rotations?
MR. MORRELL: Whose troop rotations?
Q The Europeans'.
MR. MORRELL: Not to my knowledge, no.
Q Geoff, was this the end of that discussion, then, which he'd talked about happening in terms of the command arrangements for the south? There has been talk of a permanent arrangement, not just extending the rotations. Is that on the table right now?
MR. MORRELL: I don't believe it's -- I think right now we have made provisions for command of RC South, you know, until November 2010. So -- what's that -- two and a half years from now we have covered in terms of command. What happens when we assume command at the end of 2010 is still open to discussion. But right now that is the plan, for the Canadians to serve out the remainder of their command, which would last nine months, then the Dutch and the British to serve in command for 12 months apiece.
Q Are you finished with that discussion for now, pretty much?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah.
Q Are you suggesting that when we take over in November 2010 that might become permanent?
MR. MORRELL: I'm suggesting it's a long way aways from now and many things can happen between now and then. And we haven't made such decisions.
Q Just to clarify Andrew's point, does this mean that the discussions about any sort of more of a kind of unifying command there are over or will there -- is this the beginning --
MR. MORRELL: No. I think we -- Lita, we are always looking at ways to improve the command structure in Afghanistan. You've got 40-plus nations contributing troops to this effort. It's a complicated, large operation and we are constantly looking at ways to try to improve how we run it. So I do not believe the discussions on how to improve the command and control are complete. But I think that this, at least, addresses the issue in RC South as to how the command is going to work down there for the next two-plus years.
Q Geoff, to follow up on that, the secretary's also said that -- has raised questions about whether it's a good idea to have two combatant commanders being involved in the same place.
MR. MORRELL: Right.
Q Has his thinking evolved any further than that?
MR. MORRELL: Those are -- that is probably the last large remaining issue to be dealt with: whether it makes sense to sort of dual-hat a commander down there or keep the command divided. And that is something that is being discussed, has been discussed.
There is no imminent movement on that. But we are always looking and evaluating -- looking at ways and evaluating how to improve the command structure in Afghanistan. And we do so not unilaterally. We do so in conjunction and in consultation with our allies, who are contributing to the effort there.
Q Would you expect that to be resolved by the time Petraeus assumes head of Central Command?
MR. MORRELL: I have no idea as to the timetable that people are looking at. I do not believe there is anything imminent in the works. I think the focus has thus far been on straightening out the command structure down in RC South a little bit, by extending the command tour lengths. And now perhaps some of these other issues will be addressed with greater attention.
You on this.
MR. MORRELL: Okay.
Q You said, and I paraphrase, as we are increasing our forces in RC South, we will have the right to command.
Does that mean the U.S. will be further increasing its troop presence?
MR. MORRELL: We just sent, what, 2,400 Marines to RC South.
Q (Off mike) – be replaced, unless I missed something.
MR. MORRELL: No. But there are still 2,400 U.S. Marines in there. And that counts for something.
Q But they'll be gone by the end of the year.
MR. MORRELL: It counts for something, that we've contributed troops there.
But as we've talked about openly, Jeff, the French, their troop contribution is primarily going to go to -- not primarily, entirely, it looks as though -- going to go to RC East. That could for us free up forces that we could then contribute to the effort in RC South.
So it's not just the Marines. We've openly talked about the prospect of additional U.S. forces being deployed in RC South.
Q (Off mike.)
Can you give an estimate of how many U.S. forces will be in RC South?
MR. MORRELL: No, I can't.
I mean, I think the French are -- I think the French are talking about sending anywhere between 700 and 1,000 forces to RC East. You know, that will obviously – that could free up an equivalent number of U.S. forces. I don't know that it will be a one-for-one swap. But I think it certainly won't be any more than that leaving.
A couple more.
Q The same issue.
Would you, or would the secretary, consider this sort of a compromise resolution, based on some of the NATO allies' resistance to the idea of the U.S. taking over command? Was this kind of the compromise? Or --
MR. MORRELL: No. I think this was -- I think frankly this was a notion that was offered by us, that was put forth initially by us and was embraced by the other troop-contributing nations in RC South.
Q Geoff, I think General McNeill -- I was at a briefing this morning where General McNeill spoke about this and said the problem was rotation; that particularly with the Afghan forces, they get used to one nation commanding in the south, and how they operate. Then a new one comes in. They have to start again.
So in a sense, you haven't solved that problem. You're just stretching out the rotations.
MR. MORRELL: We've certainly improved it, haven't we? (Cross talk.)
If continuity of command is an issue, extending command tours from 9 to 12 months certainly helps address that problem.
Q But it doesn't get to what General McNeill and General Craddock are talking about, which is getting one nation in charge and remaining in charge, as you have in the North and in other areas.
MR. MORRELL: Well, General McNeill and General Craddock are certainly entitled to their opinions in this. But we work with allies in RC South and throughout the country. And we take their considerations into account.
Q But this does mean or -- does this mean that for at least the first two years of General Petraeus's expected tenure at CENTCOM, that he won't have command of this key region of Afghanistan, that that will be under EUCOM-NATO-ISAF, or NATO-ISAF?
MR. MORRELL: I think it is as I've just explained it. It -- for the next two and a half years, the Canadians, the Dutch and the British will share command of RC South and that the latter two nations, the Dutch and the Brits -- and the British, will have that command for a year instead of nine months. And they will be followed in that command by the United States. That's all I can share with you on that.
All right. Thanks so much.
Q Thank you.
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