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DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
March 11, 2009
             MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. I actually have a 12:30 meeting I got to get to, so let's get right to it.   
 
             I have nothing to start. None of the wire services represented today, not that I've noticed. So let's start with Stars and Stripes. 
 
             Q      (Off mike.) 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Hey, Jeff. 
 
             Q     It seems like -- thank you. It seems like the Defense Department is working on two projects that are essentially doing the same thing. One is the JLTV and the one is the MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle. Why does the Defense Department need both? 
 
             MR. MORRELL:  Well, the MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle is an immediate need that we have, the idea being that the MRAPs that we've produced, initially primarily with Iraq in mind and the IED threat that we confronted there, were primarily heavier vehicles, larger vehicles, that have been less advantageous for the terrain we find ourselves in in Afghanistan.  
 
             The Category I vehicles are usable in Afghanistan and have been deployed. We now have nearly 1,800 of those vehicles fielded to our troops in Afghanistan, 1,787, to be precise, as of March 5th.   
 
             But there is still a demand there for a vehicle that can perform better off-road, so there is an effort under way to quickly develop a vehicle that can be deployed to theater as soon as possible that would have, in an ideal scenario, the same protective capabilities as the other MRAPs which we have in service while also being light enough to be effective off-road. So that is what the MRAP All-Terrain Vehicle is all about. 
 
             Now, as you know, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle has been a long-term objective of particularly the Army's as a humvee replacement down the line. That is still a desire of theirs. But that is looking farther down the road than the M-ATV.   
 
             And I think ultimately what you'll probably see in the motor pools of the Army and the other services is an array of vehicles, that there may not ultimately be a one-for-one replacement of humvees with JLTVs. I think that's a determination that has to be made, but I think in light of the conflicts that we've been in I think it's become clear to everybody that you need to have vehicles that have heavier protective capability such as the MRAPs, but you also need vehicles that are lighter and more agile for the fact that you find yourself often off-road or in situations where you need to move faster. 
 
             So those are decisions that have to be made, but I think it's fundamentally where we are in terms of those vehicle developments. 
 
             Luis? 
 
             Q      Geoff, last night Judicial Watch has come out with some FOIA documents regarding air travel by Speaker Pelosi in regards to congressional delegations. They kind of paint a picture of excessive demands being placed on the DOD in order to accommodate requests. Are those demands excessive or is this just par for the course here? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I really have nothing for you on it. I mean, we provide air travel to a number of people. We provide aircraft for a number of government officials. That's how we've done things for years. That's how we continue to do things. I know of no one rendering a judgment on whether there is excessive use of those aircraft. We provide them. We do so according to the protocols of -- that have been arranged. And that has been the case and it continues to be the case. But I have no -- I have really nothing for you beyond that. 
 
             Yeah, Mike. 
 
             Q      But Geoff, following on that same topic, in some of the e- mails, it's alleged or documented that the speaker or staff would cancel trips at the last minute, giving little notice to military workers where food has been made, fuel has been put into aircraft. What kind of impact does that have on crews? I mean -- 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I have -- Mike, I have no idea. I have no visibility into how that air wing conducts their operations in support of government officials.   
 
             All I can tell you is that they do it; they have done it for years; we continue to do it; we continue to do it according to protocols that have been prearranged. And I have heard -- I have heard no complaints about how it's going, so I really -- I don't have anything for you beyond that. 
 
             Yeah, Joe. 
 
             Q      We heard yesterday -- 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Mike, you can ask a follow-up, but I really -- I don't have anything for you. 
 
             Q     Let me just ask this, quickly. Do you think congressional members should be a little more sensitive on how they arrange these flights? We're kind of in a budget crunch time. 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I assume that everybody is very conscientious about the requests they make to use government aircraft, to use military aircraft. I have no reason to assume that they aren't very conscientious about it and they don't factor all those things into their decision-making. I have no reason to believe that they haven't been so. I have heard no complaints at any level about this.   
 
             So I don't have anything for you. I've seen the stories. I've seen the headlines. I understand what you all are trying to do. It's not something that I care to get involved in. 
 
             Q      But on a -- 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Excuse me. I'm calling on -- 
 
             Q      Okay. I just want to -- 
 
             MR. MORRELL : I'm calling on Joe. 
 
             Q      Okay. (Off mike,) 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Joe. 
 
             Q      Geoff, we heard yesterday Vice President Biden talking about negotiating with moderate elements within the Taliban. I would like to know from you how the Pentagon sees this issue. And who are these elements, these moderate elements? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Well, I heard the vice president yesterday as well. It is consistent with things that the president has said and it's consistent with things that the secretary of Defense has said for -- really for months now. We are fully supportive of any efforts undertaken by the government of Afghanistan to try to reconcile with members of the Taliban who are -- who are willing to accept the democratic will of the people of Afghanistan, which has elected this government, and who are willing to work with that government, who are willing to put down their arms, or at least turn their arms away from that government and our forces there who are there to support that government. And under those circumstances, we are fully supportive of reconciliation efforts, of efforts to try to work with members of the Taliban. 
 
             I don't know how -- I don't -- I'm not sanding up here, Joe, with a definition of what would be a moderate -- what would be considered a moderate Talib, if you will. 
 
             But I would presume that -- that those are people who are willing to meet the criteria that I have essentially laid out to you: that there has to be a willingness to work with the government, to respect the government, to turn your arms away from Afghan national security forces and ISAF forces and U.S. troops that are there, and begin a process where they can figure out how to reconcile those groups. 
 
             I mean, obviously, I think that there are some people in the Taliban and other extremist groups in Afghanistan who are so radicalized that they simply will not -- that they are irreconcilable. And I think we've made it clear before. For example, people have asked about Mullah Omar, do we envision a scenario in which you would, you know, go about a reconciliation effort with Mullah Omar. I don't believe that anybody in this building -- although ultimately, this is the decision of the Afghan government -- but anybody in this building would support the notion of reconciling with people who have that kind of blood on their hands, the blood of American citizens. 
 
             And so -- but short of that, short of, you know, avowed al Qaeda and Taliban who supported their efforts in Afghanistan to launch attacks on the U.S. and our allies, if the Afghan government wishes to undertake a reconciliation process with them, that's a decision for them, and one which we would support, clearly. 
 
             Q      Geoff, if I could follow up on that, whenever you answer that question, you always make a point of saying -- of putting the Afghan government in the lead. 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I hope I do that, Julian, on every question regarding efforts in Afghanistan, because fundamentally, we are there to support them. This is not -- this is not a unilateral U.S. undertaking. We are there to deny a safe haven to the terrorists and to help the Afghan people bring a measure of peace and stability such that terrorists can't reassemble there and launch attacks on us and our allies. 
 
             Q      If you look at the experience in Iraq with reconciling with former insurgents, it was the U.S. military forces that took the lead, and then brought the awakened Sunnis together with the Shi'ite majority government. 
 
             Do you hold the door open in the future for the U.S. to do the same in Afghanistan; i.e., reconcile with these sort of militants, and then bring the Afghan government onboard, as opposed to having the Afghan government say you reconcile with -- 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Well -- yeah, well, I think -- in this case, I don't think it's necessary, because I think that the Karzai government has made clear for some time that this is something they wish to pursue. 
 
             I think it's been pursued in fits and starts in the past, and there's been attempts, and perhaps not the follow-through that they or others would like. But this is -- this has been and continues to be, it seems to me, an Afghan initiative.  It's not something where it requires necessarily encouraging for them to pursue it.   
 
             But -- so I don't that as being necessary in this case, and I think that if there were to be a scenario like that, I think that fundamentally those kinds of questions, Julian, are being addressed in the Afghan strategy review, which, as you know, is under way. So I wouldn't be in a position to tell you if there's sort of thinking under way about whether we should do this independent of whether there would be Afghan support for it. I just -- I doubt that, because I think the Afghans have been vocally supportive of it, and we'll follow their lead on this matter. 
 
             Tony? 
 
             Q      A question about Pakistan  
 
             MR. MORRELL: Anybody else on this? 
 
             Okay. Tony? 
 
             Q      I have question about Pakistan and the crackdown on opposition party groups and lawyers going on right now, the turmoil kind of rolling -- roiling the country. How concerned is the Pentagon that the government crackdown and the ensuing turmoil is or will affect counterinsurgency operations again in the FATA region? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I think for questions regarding sort of internal domestic unrest in Pakistan, I'd refer you to the Pakistani government or perhaps to the State Department. If you are going to press me on this notion of, well, if it were somehow to impact the Pakistani military's ability to continue their efforts in the FATA or the North- West provincial territories, I would say to you I have not heard anybody in this building express concern about that scenario distracting Pakistani forces.   
 
             Clearly there has been concern in this building about the Pakistani military's focusing -- drawing resources away from the western border and focusing on their eastern border because of the tensions that have come up in the wake of the Mumbai attacks.  
 
             But I have not heard concern about any of these protests involving the fired attorneys in any way distracting the Pakistani military. 
 
             Q      (Off mike) -- because it's just starting. Is it fair to say that the Pentagon's going to be keeping an eye on that -- 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I think it's fair to say, Tony, that the Pentagon and really almost every department in this government keeps a close eye on virtually everything that goes on in Pakistan these days. It is an area of very real concern for us, the country as a whole and the challenges they and we face there. So we keep a close eye on almost everything that goes on there.   
 
             Q      Well, I mean, but you've got India, concerns with India; you've got the Swat Valley -- (inaudible) -- and now you've got this. I mean, is it fair to say that you're -- the Pentagon will be monitoring to see whether there is a ripple effect on diminished counterinsurgency operations, that just -- specific question -- 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I mean, we look at -- yeah, sure, we are constantly looking at where the priorities and the focus of the Pakistani military are, and looking at ways that we can continue to assist them in manners that are -- that they are comfortable with. And you know, you saw General Kayani was here a couple of weeks ago. We once again reiterated our desire to support them in any and all ways that they needed and are comfortable with it to take on this terrorist threat that exists primarily on the western border with Afghanistan. And we are hopeful that we can find new ways to support them. 
 
             Yeah. Al? 
 
             Q      On China, Admiral Blair said yesterday this is the most serious -- the ship incident was the most serious incident since the Hainan Island incident. Does the Pentagon see it as a serious incident or just more of a minor irritation? And has the Navy taken any steps either to change their procedures or practices in that area or to provide additional protection for the ships involved? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I don't know that I'm in a position to characterize it -- serious, unserious, degrees of seriousness. It's serious enough that we have reached out to our counterparts. And our Defense attaché in Beijing has been talking with the Ministry of Defense. These Chinese defense attaché here in Washington has been talking to the Pentagon. 
 
             So it's serious enough that we believe it requires face-to-face talks to find out what was going on here and to ensure that there are no further incidents of this nature in the future. 
 
             We believe firmly that what that naval ship was doing in those international waters is not only fully consistent with international law, it is common practice. And we hope that the Chinese would behave in a similar way, that is, according to international law. 
 
             I would say that, furthermore, that this incident is not at all consistent with the expressed desire of both governments to build a closer relationship, particularly a closer military-to-military relationship. So at this point I think we remain hopeful that our face-to-face dialogue in Beijing and in Washington will go a long way to clearing up any misunderstandings that there may be about this incident and ensuring that there is not a repeat and that the productive military-to-military talks that took place, I think, last week will -- can be built upon in a positive manner going forward. 
 
             Q      Have there been any higher-level contact than the attaché level, use of the PACOM hotline or ambassadorial or ministerial? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I don't believe at this point that we have had contacts at the combatant command level. And I can't say that there won't be at some point. But thus far, my understanding of the communication lines is they have been face-to-face in Beijing and in Washington, involving primarily embassy staff and the ministries. 
 
             I think the Chinese would -- I think have said they believe this to be primarily a ministry of foreign affairs matter, and so perhaps you want to follow up with the State Department today, because I think the minister of foreign affairs is meeting with Secretary Clinton today. So they may have more for you on that. 
 
             Q      It was reported yesterday that this ship was listening for submarines. Can you confirm that?  
 
             And would the U.S. tolerate the Chinese listening to subs within the economic zone of the United States? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I would just tell you that the USS -- USNS Impeccable, as far as I know, is a surveillance -- or surveying ship. It's a ship that does primarily mapping and surveying. I can't tell you what specifically they were looking for on this day in that area, but that's their function. 
 
             And I think our attitude is that if you are lawfully operating in international waters, that that is legal and permitted, and there should be no, you know, reason to interfere with those operations. 
 
             Okay. Any follow-up on this?   
 
             Okay. 
 
             Q      Is the -- is there any plan to change protocol in terms of the way the Navy protects that ship, to send other ships with it? And is that ship still in the same general area doing the same thing? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I'd really refer you to the Navy on that. I haven't heard any -- of any efforts under way to change the way those kinds of ships operate. It's -- frankly, it's never been an issue before, as far as I know. So hopefully this can be resolved without us having to change protocols.   
 
             And I think by being involved in this face-to-face dialogue with the Chinese, hopefully we can put this incident behind us quickly, and operate safely in the future without fear of any repeats of incidents such as this one. 
 
             Q      And where the ship is now? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I don't know. I'd refer you to the Navy on that. 
 
             Let's mix it up a little bit. I'll come back. 
 
             (Donna ?)? 
 
             Q      Geoff, yesterday -- (off mike) -- Secretary Gates talked a little bit about the so-called two conflict strategies and talked about the QDR addressing that. Now, this has been -- for the better part of some years been bounced about. What is his sense about what the QDR will address and why the time is right now to revisit -- (off mike)? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I really -- I think it's best to let his comments stand on their own. So I'd refer everybody to the transcript of his NPR interview yesterday afternoon. But I think -- why now? I think every four years we are involved in a process where we look at, you know, strategy. And this would be the appropriate time to look at things such as that.   
 
             I don't think he's saying necessarily there will be a change to that. He's saying it's something that should be looked at in the context of the QDR evaluation that's about to begin. But I don't think he was making news there in terms of this is a prescribed way we are necessarily going to go. But I think he is one who likes to raise questions and challenge assumptions and this is one such area. 
 
             Q      He seemed to believe pretty strongly -- at least it came across that he believes that it is outdated and needs to done away with. Can you offer some of what his thoughts have been on that? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Well, I think he's -- you know, whether it be -- whether it be the series of speeches he's given over the need to sort of think in a more perhaps modern way about how we prepare for potential conflicts, he is constantly pushing this building to think less -- perhaps be focused less downrange to near-pier conflicts that may or may not be a threat down -- decades down the road and to balance that necessary planning with the need to also recognize that we are involved in two very real conflicts right now and one of which, I guess, has been an all-in effort, historically, with Iraq and the other may have fallen more into the traditional mold of sort of holding to some degree and -- until you can apply all your resources.   
 
             And I think he is trying to look at that more fully in the context of the QDR, but I don't know that he has come to any firm position himself on where we should be on this yet. 
 
             Justin? 
 
             Q      Geoff, I wanted to go back to the Pelosi G-5 issue and just ask you, in broader terms, is it the DOD's assessment that there's still a need to shuttle around the House speaker in these current -- 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I don't think that -- 
 
             Q      -- based on current --  
 
             MR. MORRELL: -- I don't think -- I don't -- Justin, I don't think the DOD makes assessments of that nature. 
 
             We -- 
 
             Q     Well, it all started after 9/11. 
 
             MR. MORRELL: But I don't think this department makes assessments about those things. I think these are based upon agreements between other people within the government, other agencies within the government.   
 
             Q      (Off mike.) 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I think you'd have to talk to the Congress, talk to Congresswoman -- to Speaker Pelosi. You can talk to the White House, you can talk to others about this arrangement. As far as I know, we provide -- we provide the planes and we follow the protocols that have been developed. 
 
             Yes? 
 
             Q     Geoff, do you know, has the secretary expressed any concerns recently about the possibility of American troops being subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I have not heard him on that subject, no. 
 
             Q      Do you know if there's been any discussion on that at all? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Not that I know of. 
 
             Q      The human rights groups are making allegations that the Pentagon had somehow undermined the executive order on Guantanamo and the military commissions, and that they're demanding that the process be halted altogether and be a clean break, charges withdrawn, instead of some kind of a continuation of the cases that are in the military commissions. What's the Pentagon's response? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Are you referring to the release of the court filings? 
 
             Q      They made that accusation yesterday over that document, but they've made that accusation over some other instances where they accused the judges of somehow not respecting the order to halt the procedure. 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I think we would respectfully disagree. I mean, I think there is no attempt by this department or anybody who works for us to in any way circumvent the president's executive order. It very clearly states that military -- that judicial proceedings should be suspended, halted, while this review is under way. And that is what we have done.  
 
             I don't believe that filings, such as the ones that were made and then released, would constitute a proceeding in any way. And so I don't think we believe that we are in any way violating the executive order. I don't believe the White House believes that we are violating the executive order. And I think that's sort of where we are on this issue. 
 
             Q     They are also making this demand that somehow the charges just be withdrawn altogether so there's a clean break and those proceedings just end against some of those -- against those detainees. 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I think there was a judgment made that this was the proper way to go. And so we have basically frozen things where they stood.  
 
             We are not, obviously, filing new charges against anyone at this point, but the cases that have already been filed I think are frozen or suspended, pending the outcome of the review. 
 
             Q      Okay. 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Yeah. Well, let me get this gentleman in the back. 
 
             Q      Thank you. 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Yes. 
 
             Q      I'm Takasho Obari (sp) of Yomiuri Shimbun, and my question is about North Korean possible missile launch. Your scenario with the U.S., it affects North Korean ballistic missile or satellite. In other words, would the U.S. still intercept the launch its missile or satellite, if likely towards -- towards the Pacific Ocean? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I appreciate the question, but unfortunately, I'm not going to take the bait. We just don't talk about -- you know intelligence or operations matters. 
 
             Obviously, we've seen the press reports about the North Koreans preparing for some kind of what they describe as a space launch. We, of course, you know, monitor the situation closely. And I think the State Department has weighed in on this, saying that whether it's a space launch or a missile launch, it would still be in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution -- I believe 1718 -- which would prohibit them from doing so, primarily because it's indistinguishable to anybody in the world looking at -- at an episode like this, what they were undertaking. 
 
             This involves parts that could be used -- launch vehicles that could be used for either. It's dual-use technology primarily, and so because it is unclear, I think it is in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution. But I wouldn't get into what, if any, preparations we make to deal with that possibility. 
 
             Okay, I've got to just do one more. And is everybody gone? So I'm going to come back to Louis. 
 
             Q      Geoff, there's a report of an Afghan detainee at Guantanamo who was released in December 2007, who is now a major operational leader in southern Afghanistan. Can you confirm that's the case? And was he on your list of those Guantanamo detainees -- on the recidivism list, I guess? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I wouldn't -- I'm not going to comment on whether or not -- I've seen those reports, Louis, and I just don't have anything for you. 
 
             I'm sorry. 
 
             In light of that being a very short one, I'll try one more. 
 
             Q      What -- on the aerial-tanker question, where is the program today? And has the White House formally requested the Pentagon consider delaying the tanker (contest ?) by five years? 
 
             MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into, Tony, what's been requested of us.   
 
             I will tell you this, that there -- I mean, I've seen these reports out there that there were some suggestions made, from OMB, with regards to options that we would look at in the budget process.   
 
             I think it's fair to say that this is -- there's nothing new or different about that, that they provide options -- they provide suggestions, as do a number of people -- but they should not be confused with a directive of any kind, and that decisions about all these programs, as we've said a number of times, will be made in the context of the budget as a whole.   
 
             That is still very much -- we are still very much in the midst of that process. I can assure you that no decisions have been made, about any one of the programs that are under review, and that if you hear contrary, you're hearing false information. The secretary, as he said, is going to wait till the very end to make these very consequential decisions.   
 
             Q      You're implying that the tanker could be delayed.   
 
             MR. MORRELL: I'm not implying anything. I'm recognizing the fact that there have been suggestions, options, advice given, and that it should not be confused with a directive, and that we are in the midst of this budget process. And the secretary is going to make his decisions based upon what is in the best interest of our nation's security.   
 
             He will make recommendations to the president according to that fundamental tenet of this process. And ultimately it's up to the president and the Congress to decide if they want to adhere to his advice.   
 
             Q      Is there still -- does this building still see buying new tankers as a priority?   
 
             MR. MORRELL: Tony, all these -- every program imaginable is subjected to this very, very harsh scrutiny that is under way right now, as a part of the budget process. I wouldn't distinguish one from another.   
 
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