DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. Hi, everybody. I have nothing to open with. So let's get down to questions.
Q Geoff, do you have anything on these latest accusations from Afghanistan, that the Pakistan intelligence agency may have been involved in some of the recent violence there, including the attempted assassination of Karzai?
Is there anything the U.S. military has either identified --
MR. MORRELL: No, not to my knowledge.
Q On Israel and Iran, is there any pressure right now from Israel to take action against Iran? Did Secretary Gates send Chairman Mullen over to Israel with any specific agenda related -- (off mike)?
MR. MORRELL: No pressure that I'm aware of.
As for Chairman Mullen's trip, I believe it's been months at least that it's been -- well, it's been months on the schedule. It is, I believe, part of his normal outreach to strong allies of ours across the globe, Israel being one of our closest and strongest. But I believe this is a routine opportunity for Chairman Mullen to engage his counterpart in Israel on military-to-military matters, as he does in much of his travels around the world.
Q There's been an incredible amount of speculation, especially in the markets, this week about a possible strike in Iran, again. Can you just bring us up to date on the state of contingency planning? Are these things being reviewed on a weekly basis? And what are we talking about in terms of planning -- (off mike)?
MR. MORRELL: I can't. I can't. Obviously I can repeat for you our -- this administration's policy on dealing with the threat posed by Iran, which is that we believe the best way to deter their nuclear ambitions and their other meddling behavior and disruptive and deadly behavior in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is to pressure them diplomatically, financially, economically, while at the same time holding out the option of a military strike if necessary.
But the military strike is not our first choice, never has been. And we continue to pursue economic and diplomatic pressures as the policy of this government.
Q Follow on this?
MR. MORRELL: I will tell you this, though. Obviously, when Chairman Mullen goes to Israel and speaks with the Israelis, they will no doubt discuss the threat posed by Iran. As we discuss it in this building, in other buildings in this town, it is a concern of all of ours. It's a shared concern, certainly between the Israelis and this government. But I wouldn't read anything more into it than that they are discussing that, among many other issues, when they meet.
Q Follow on that?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, Ken?
Q Will the chairman discuss the Israeli military exercise of early June? And if so, what will he --
MR. MORRELL: Not to my knowledge. He may. He may not. I'm just -- I don't have a detailed itinerary of what their discussions will incorporate. I believe, though, that any discussion between us and the Israelis will invariably also deal with the threat posed by Iran.
Q Do we think -- what's -- does the Pentagon, does the department think that exercise was helpful or not helpful?
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into whether we think it's helpful or harmful. They are a sovereign nation who has security -- obvious security challenges and certainly have -- has the right to exercise in preparation for any possible contingencies they may feel are necessary. But we have no opinion from here on any of the exercises they may or may not have conducted.
Q The Iraqi president, Talabani, is in town right now to discuss what -- among his discussion is the U.S. permanent pact in Iraq.
MR. MORRELL: The U.S. what?
Q The permanent pact, the pact in Iraq.
MR. MORRELL: There's no permanent pact. The strategic framework agreement?
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, okay.
Q Does the Pentagon have anything to say about the critics in Iraq regarding this thing?
MR. MORRELL: Regarding the strategic framework agreement and the status of forces agreement? No. I mean, as you heard from President Bush and President Talabani this morning at the White House, they discussed the strategic framework agreement and our ongoing efforts to get a deal done with the Iraqis on the timetable that has been set out by President Bush, which is the end of next month. I saw their statement after they met, and it indicated that they discussed that, as you would imagine.
And both President Bush and President Talabani reiterated their commitment to work out a strategic framework agreement and to provide the legal authorities for our troops to continue to operate in Iraq after the United Nations Security Council resolution expires at the end of the year. So we are committed to it. It seems as though the Iraqis are committed to it. We are still working on it. And hopefully, we'll have something done within the timeline that has been set forth by the president.
Q Geoff, is the secretary still concerned about the GI Bill as it now stands; that it looks like it's set to pass and those GI Bill benefits will accrue after three years? Is he still concerned that it could lead to an exodus from the military?
MR. MORRELL: Well, we are pleased that the House version incorporates transferability, and that was -- the number one priority of this department was that any enhanced benefit coming out of the Congress provide for the ability for service members to transfer any unused benefits to their family members. We are certainly pleased to see that the House provides such an opportunity.
That said, it also does allow this benefit to -- this new, enhanced education benefit to be attained after 36 months of service. That, we have said from the beginning, we believe is too soon, but if that's the way the Congress ultimately chooses to go -- I think the Senate will take this up shortly -- we will work with it, obviously. And one of the things we'll have to consider and study and look at closely is the impact that that has on retention. And if we find that it's having an adverse impact on retention, we're going to have to figure out other ways to entice men and women in uniform to stay in the service.
And that will likely include additional financial benefits to -- while they're being lured out by some of the education benefits, we'll have to find a way to entice them to stay in through additional financial benefits.
Q So is he concerned that it's going to lead to an exodus? I mean --
MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, he's expressed it to you. I've expressed it to you. We believe that offering this benefit after just 36 months will, in all likelihood, lead to some people taking advantage of it, particularly people who we are trying to keep in the force because of their experiences, because of the money we've invested in training them.
But above all, Jennifer, he is pleased that this bill, as it's working its way through the Congress right now, allows for transferability of this new benefit, this new enhanced benefit. That, above all, was his concern. And so he is far more pleased that this bill includes transferability than he is disappointed that it could adversely impact retention by offering it only after 36 months. Although I guess as it's now working its way around, the transferability would not be offered for several years.
Q Can you tell us what briefings are being provided to the major presidential candidates, Senators McCain and Obama? And are they any different from briefings that they would get just in their role as senators?
MR. MORRELL: No, they are not different in any way. Not until Senators Obama and McCain officially become the nominees of their respective parties will they be entitled to any different briefings than are provided to any other member of Congress.
To date, as I conferred with our legislative affairs and people today on the joint staff today it looks as though Senator Obama has received one ops-intel briefing -- operations and intelligence briefing -- from the joint staff, I think a couple or three months ago. He has, as I think you've seen reported, requested another one. And we are trying to arrange that for him.
Senator McCain, obviously, is in a slightly different position, given the fact that he's chairman of the -- or, sorry, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and therefore is privy to and has access to a great deal of ops and intelligence information. But he, too, has been briefed by us before.
But their treatment -- their briefings are no different from those provided to any other member of the Congress at this point.
Anybody else on that?
Q The GAO --
MR. MORRELL: Let me just -- can I just make one further point on this, just so it's clear that all these requests -- just to put a finer point on it -- come through their Senate offices, that none of this works its way through the campaign. So if they request such a briefing from us, it must come from their Senate staff, their committee staff. So this is strictly business, has nothing to do with the campaign.
Q On the GAO report from last week, has the secretary been briefed on it?
MR. MORRELL: A lot of GAO reports floating around these days -- which one?
Q On the tanker decision.
MR. MORRELL: Okay.
Q Has the secretary been briefed? Is he going to get counsel from Mr. Young or from Ms. Payton? When can we expect him to weigh in on this? Will he be the ultimate arbiter of this, how’s it going to work out?
MR. MORRELL: Probably by the time I get off this podium, this stage, he will begin his first briefing with Mr. Young, who heads up AT&L, with the Air Force, with our lawyers.
It will be the first time he has had a chance to hear from them, about the GAO's recommendations as well as the preliminary analysis that's been done within the department on how those recommendations would potentially impact the Air Force's February decision to award the new tanker contract to Northrop Grumman and EADS. So that will begin a few moments from now.
And I think though, Luis, although we have 60 days with which to, in which to respond to the GAO, I think you will see, the secretary wants to move as quickly as possible.
But keep in mind, this is a complicated matter. I think the GAO decision was nearly 70 pages long, and it only dealt with a small slice of this massive contracting process.
That said, the secretary is just about to begin reviewing the various options available to him and will chart a course as to the way ahead as soon as possible.
Q So the decision will come up to him, rather than staying internally within the Air Force.
MR. MORRELL: I mean, this is something the secretary is going to be involved in.
Any more on the tanker.
Q Does the secretary have the final decision on this? I mean, it's a procurement issue.
MR. MORRELL: It's a procurement issue that's been going on seven years now, seven years probably too long. And we have been -- our men and women in uniform, who depend on this now-ancient fleet of tankers, needs a new tanker as soon as possible.
This delay will certainly not help matters, and he is determined to make sure that we are able to figure out the best course ahead in the wake of these recommendations as quickly as possible.
Q He'll be the decision-maker on --
MR. MORRELL: Well, I'm not going to get into who's going to be the decision-maker. He is intimately involved in this process. It's something that is -- that warrants his involvement. He wants to make sure that there are no further delays to replacing this vitally important piece of equipment, on which our warfighters depend every single day.
Q Is it your understanding, Geoff, that the GAO report suggests that the process has to start over again, or is that what the secretary's determining with the lawyers right now?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I think the GAO has recommended that the contracts be opened up and rebid and the whole process begin -- be opened up again.
Listen, at this point, we are still of the mind that this was a full -- this was a fair and transparent process that produced the best tanker for our warfighters at the best cost to the taxpayer. That said, the GAO has identified some areas of concern in the contracting process, and we are going to closely examine the areas of their concern and the recommendations that they've provided and see what the best course of action is from here.
Q Geoff, just to clarify, if there would be a decision to rebid or something, can the secretary make that decision and just say, "Okay, no, I think we want to rebid," or does he need any other authorities, or can he just do that on his own?
MR. MORRELL: Ultimately, he's the boss. And ultimately, if it requires his decision, he will make sure that a decision is made that moves this process on as quickly as possible, while at the same time addressing concerns raised by some of the watchdog groups.
Q Earlier this year, the president committed more troops to Afghanistan. Do you have any more information about how many we're talking about and when they could arrive in 2009?
MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean -- and the president committed it in principle. Obviously, he won't be the president in 2009 for very long. What I think he was doing was reiterating our nation's commitment in really a bipartisan fashion to making sure that we win the war that's being fought in Afghanistan and recognizing at the same time that it's likely going to require some additional troops to do so.
And so he was expressing, I believe, this country's commitment to that fight and hopefully early next year -- sometime next year additional forces can be committed to Afghanistan.
That said, we have already committed additional forces to Afghanistan. We sent 3,500 Marines there. They're there right now.
The French are about to send 700 of their forces in. The Poles, I think, are sending another 400 in. And we saw yesterday that the German government is committed to increasing the number of forces that they are allowed to send to Afghanistan. And the German parliament should take that up, I believe, in the fall. And hopefully we'll see another thousand German forces there. So the allies are stepping up, but there's more of a need, and we will, as the president said, do what is necessary come next year.
Q Is there any talk about keeping the Marines -- some kind of Marine, not this MEU, but some Marine presence in Afghanistan?
MR. MORRELL: The secretary has said that the 3,500 Marines that were sent to Afghanistan that are due to come out this fall was a one-time extraordinary deployment to beat back any summer offensive that may be undertaken by the Taliban. That position has not changed. It is still a one-time extraordinary deployment. Those Marines will come out come the fall.
As for what happens next fighting season, that will likely be a matter for the next secretary of Defense to take up.
Q North Koreans have announced that they are intending to blow up their cooling tower this weekend and North Korean nuclear declaration by tomorrow, Thursday. How did you feel about those North Korean decisions?
MR. MORRELL: The North Korean declaration?
MR. MORRELL: I think everybody anxiously awaits to see what comes from them. But I would take that up with the State Department, who is the lead on the six-party talks or with the White House. Okay?
Q Can I just go back and make sure I understand what you were saying about briefing both Senators McCain and Obama?
MR. MORRELL: Sure.
Q Okay. So Senator McCain is ranking on Armed Services. Senator Obama's on foreign relations. As ranking, Senator McCain has access, I think you indicated, to more information.
But now that you have agreed to start briefing Senator Obama as a sitting senator, does this indicate that the secretary or the chairman has made a decision -- level playing field, if you will -- that both men will through the election be briefed, get the same briefing information?
Or does Senator McCain, by virtue of his position on Armed Services, as ranking member, continue to get, the Senator gets, the additional information that you described?
MR. MORRELL: We treat every member of Congress the same on this. There are members who hold positions, committee positions, who by virtue of that position get briefings that the committee would get.
Obviously the secretary of Defense, the secretary of State goes to the Hill on a quarterly basis and provides an operations and intelligence briefing to members. We are due to probably do that not too long from now.
And, but there is no different treatment between Senator Obama and Senator McCain, other than the fact that Senator McCain in his position, as ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, deals with a lot of military issues -- that's the nature of the job -- and therefore probably comes across and has access to more of the information that we provide the committee.
MR. MORRELL: But in terms of being briefed by us, specifically briefed by us, there is no difference in how they are treated.
Q I apologize for pressing the point.
But my question goes to exactly what you're saying which is, albeit Senator McCain, as a member of Armed Services, has information related to the Armed Services Committee and to military affairs, belonging to that committee's jurisdiction. And yet you said you treat all senators alike. Is it both at the same time?
My question is, will they get exactly the same information? Or will Senator McCain continue to get information from this building that Senator Obama would have to ask for?
MR. MORRELL: I get the question and I guess I'll answer it this way.
When it comes to being briefed by us, they both will receive the same briefings.
When it comes to the vast volumes of information that flow from this building to the Senate Armed Services Committee, by virtue of his position on that committee I would imagine that Senator McCain has access to more information. They are the committee of jurisdiction over this building, and we send literally hundreds of thousands of documents to them throughout the course of this Congress. I think I have the exact numbers for you here. But I think we've sent 189,000 -- nearly 190,000 pages have been produced to the Senate Armed Services Committee during the 110th Congress. So by virtue of his position on that committee, he has access to a lot of information that comes out of this building.
Q Both of them, has some sort of --
MR. MORRELL: No arrangement's been made. They are being treated as all members of Congress are treated by this building. If they request a briefing, they are provided with one, as is any senator who's not running for president.
Q What I just wanted to ask is, it's still in the phase that they would need -- Senator Obama, as not a member of Armed Services, would have to request. There's no -- what I'm trying to ask is, from this building in military ops intel briefings that you've described the Joint Staff is giving, is it still the case that Senator Obama has to ask, or is any regular --
MR. MORRELL: Just as Senator McCain has to ask, as any member of Congress has to ask for an ops intel briefing. Once they ask, we work to schedule it and provide it to them. Not until they are officially the nominees of their respective parties will they be treated any differently than any other member of Congress.
Q And what happens after they become nominees?
MR. MORRELL: We'll have to make -- we'll have to determine that once it happens.
Q That was my question.
MR. MORRELL: Well, we'll have to determine it. I mean, that will be a decision that's ultimately made by the White House in determining what is the best course of action, in consultation, clearly, with the secretary of Defense, but what's the best course of action in terms of getting both of those nominees up to speed on the various issues that are confronting this department.
Q Geoff, I'm sorry to belabor the point, but I mean, obviously this happens every four -- well, during presidential elections when the presidency changes, this is a common occurrence. So is there not sort of a regular --
MR. MORRELL: Not to my knowledge.
Q There's no --
MR. MORRELL: No, I think it's just at the discretion -- I mean, there may be historical norms, but I think ultimately it's at the discretion of the president.
Q So ultimately there's nothing that Senator McCain has access to out of this building that Senator Obama could not -- that Senator Obama would be refused, if asked. That's basically -- (off mike) -- right?
MR. MORRELL: Not to my knowledge. I mean, listen, let me take that back. Obviously I believe there are compartment -- there are certain classified compartmentalized programs that only select members of Congress, given -- on a need-to-know basis, they have access to. And that is not based upon anybody's political position or standing in the polls or presidential prospects. It is based upon their position in the Senate or the House on -- in terms of intelligence matters, whether they need to know and have jurisdiction over, provide funding for certain programs which are compartmentalized and secret.
But that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about the senator wishing to gain a better sense of what our current thinking is in certain regions of the world, not highly classified programs. Okay?
Q You mentioned that there were two briefings, that Obama had had one and he had requested one. Do you know when he had the previous one?
MR. MORRELL: As I said before, I think it was in the last two or three months.
Q And Senator McCain hasn't requested any?
MR. MORRELL: And that was done in town and, I believe, up on the Hill.
Senator McCain -- I think the last time he got a sort of a personal ops-intel brief -- I think you should really talk to their offices, but my belief -- it was within the last six months.
Q I want to go back to Israel and Iran --
MR. MORRELL: Anybody else on this? I think we've beaten this to death. But are you --
Q I think I can come up with one more question --
MR. MORRELL: Yeah, let's go, last one --
Q Okay. You've talked that it's the discretion of the White House, likely, what briefings they'll get once they become the nominees. Is there a law that dictates what briefings --
MR. MORRELL: Not to my knowledge. Not to my knowledge.
Q -- and just what briefings the president-elect will get, or is that up to the president-elect and the sitting president to determine through the transition process?
MR. MORRELL: I frankly don't know.
Okay. Next one?
Q Yeah. I want to go back to Israel and Iran.
MR. MORRELL: Oh, sure. (Laughter.)
Q You said that this department -- I think you said that this department has no view on the Israeli exercise that was reported last week.
MR. MORRELL: That's correct.
Q Does the secretary have a view on whether or not Israel -- well, on an Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear program, given that the --
MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into the hypotheticals about an Israeli strike. I'm just not. I mean, look, let's -- what we've been talking about is an exercise which they conducted, which we are choosing -- I mean, this is a matter for them to address. The only thing I've said about it is that obviously they have the right to conduct exercises. We share this concern about the threat posed by Iran. It will likely be a subject of conversation when the chairman is there, just as it's the subject of virtually every conversation which we have with the Israelis. So that's where things stand right now.
Q But the exercise is interpreted as preparation for a strike. And they --
MR. MORRELL: You could interpret it. We're choosing -- we're not offering any interpretation from here.
Q I have a McCain-Obama question, but it has nothing to do with briefing, nothing --
MR. MORRELL: Okay. Anybody else on --
Q No, no, no. No --
MR. MORRELL: All right, McCain-Obama, let's go.
Q Both of them have expressed a lot of criticism about the weapons acquisition process in the Pentagon. Both of them have said that early in their presidency, if they're elected, they'll conduct a comprehensive review of that whole process. Given those views, is there a concern in this building that regardless of who wins, given those views, the views that they have, there could be some serious disruption to the acquisitions process --
MR. MORRELL: Not to my knowledge.
Q Why not, given --
MR. MORRELL: I have no knowledge of it with which to share with you. If there is concern or if there isn't concern, I have not heard such concern so I can't help you out with it.
Q Is Major General Rodriguez going to be the secretary's new senior military adviser?
MR. MORRELL: I can tell you the secretary has made a decision on who will replace General Chiarelli as his senior military assistant, but until such time as that person is nominated for that position, it's a three -- in this case, it's a three-star position and will require Senate confirmation. I'm not going to discuss it from up here.
Q Just one other thing for the nomination, General Schwartz -- has that nomination yet gone?
MR. MORRELL: I don't know.
You know, I was off a little bit at the end of last week, and so I'm not quite certain. I think -- I know that Acting Secretary Donley's package has gone up. I'm not so sure about --
Q (Off mike.)
MR. MORRELL: Yeah.
Q And do you know what, if any, hang-up there is with that? Is there some concern in this building that there's a problem?
MR. MORRELL: No. I don't believe there's any concern. I think everybody here is thrilled at the choice and confident that he'll be quickly confirmed. I think it takes a while to get all the paperwork together, and I imagine that's what's involved here. But I know of no issue. I only know that people are applauding the secretary's decision to nominate General Schwartz to become the chief of staff.
Q The other GAO report on coalition support funds -- has the secretary taken a personal interest in this issue? Because the report from yesterday talked about billions upon billions that have been provided to the Pakistanis with little documentation, little awareness of actually where the money has gone. Based on that, has he taken a personal interest --
MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, he -- yeah, sure. I mean, the secretary pays a great deal of attention, has a great deal of interest in Pakistan. And as you've heard him say time and time again, they are a vital ally in the war on terror.
He is a strong believer in the utility of coalition support funds. As you know, this is not, in any way, aid to Pakistan. This is reimbursement for military operations that they are conducting, really, on our behalf in an area of the world that we cannot operate at this point. They are going after terrorists who are a threat to us and them. But we strongly stand by the need and the effectiveness of coalition support funds.
I would remind you also that these are vetted at multiple levels, the request for reimbursement. They're vetted at the embassy level in Islamabad. They're vetted at the CENTCOM level. They're vetted at the comptroller level in this department. State Department reviews them. OMB does. Congress ultimately signs off on them. So there are many layers of review involved in this process.
That said, is this -- you know, I think people are trying to impose sort of Wall Street accounting standards on this process. We're dealing with a sovereign nation involved in a contingency environment. These are -- this is a -- difficult circumstances and they are providing us with, we believe, adequate -- well, we would always like to -- as much transparency as we can possibly have for the taxpayer on how their money is being spent, we want it. But we believe the circumstances that the Pakistanis are operating in right now are providing us with clarity on what they're seeking reimbursement for.
And keep in mind also that this is -- this is money well spent, not just in terms of providing us with the additional security we need but in terms of the cost to the taxpayer, in the sense that for the Pakistanis to operate, they operate at a significantly lesser cost than it would for us to operate in that same environment.
Q So does the department accept or reject the criticism in the GAO report?
MR. MORRELL: We're always looking for ways to improve the auditing process. We want to make sure that the taxpayer is getting as much bang for his buck as possible. And so we are always open to ideas on how to do that.
Even before the GAO process was under way, I can tell you because I've been in them, there have been meetings in this building on how better to run this program. So we're constantly in pursuit of a better program.
Okay. Thanks so much.
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