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DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
March 25, 2009

                MR. MORRELL:  It's Old Home Week here at the Pentagon. (Laughter.)  Good afternoon.  Great to see you all today.   

 

                I will get to your questions in one second, just have a quick readout, if I could, on the secretary's meeting this morning with Prime Minister Rudd of Australia.   

 

                As you may have noticed, the prime minister was welcomed to the Pentagon not just with an honor cordon, but with the playing of the Australian and U.S. national anthems.  This was the first time in his, I guess, 27 months in office that Secretary Gates has accorded a visiting dignitary that particular honor.   

 

                It was not merely a sign of respect for the prime minister, but a measure of our appreciation for Australia's contributions on the battlefields of Afghanistan.  Their forces have fought bravely, at great cost, and are wholeheartedly committed to improving the security situation in the difficult southern province of Oruzgan. 

 

                In fact, two Australian soldiers were killed in fighting there this month.  The secretary offered his condolences to the prime minister as well as to the families of the fallen.  He reiterated his gratitude for Australia's unwavering support of the mission in Afghanistan, and then they talked at length about the situation on the ground there and in neighboring Pakistan, as well as the progress of the president's policy review for both those countries. 

 

                The secretary was also very interested to hear from the prime minister his views on China and North Korea.  Mr. Rudd is, after all, a China scholar and a former diplomat in Beijing, so the secretary finds his insights are particularly worthwhile. 

 

                And with that, I'll take your questions.  Lita. 

 

                Q     Geoff -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Andrew, I had -- (off mike). 

 

                Q     Oh, I agree -- (off mike).  I don't take it personally. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Okay. 

 

                Q     Thank you. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Lita. 

 

                Q     Since I know that many of my colleagues are going to ask about the China report, I'd like to just pursue one thing that you just said about Pakistan.  You said that they talked about further enabling Pakistan.  Can you provide -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I don't think I said that.  I said that I think they talked about the situation in Pakistan and the president's policy review. 

 

                Q     You also -- I believe you used the word "enabling."  But is there -- can you provide any more context to what the discussions might have been about how the U.S. can further engage with Pakistan and encourage their efforts to fight terror along the border? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I'm not going to get into the particulars of their discussion.   

 

                I mean, in -- but I could refer you to how we have typically spoken of this.  And that is, very simply, we are ready and willing to help the Pakistani government, the Pakistani military confront the terrorists in their midst.  We will do so with whatever means they feel comfortable.  We are still trying to determine a way that is both effective and comfortable to them beyond what we are already doing, but we stand ready and willing. 

 

                Q     You can't provide any more insight on their discussions on -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  On Pakistan?  No.  I mean, other than the -- than it is the constant -- it is a constant refrain when we engage with people who are involved in the mission in Afghanistan that this is a problem that obviously does not end at the Durand line, at the border with Pakistan, but one that has to be dealt with holistically.  And so we are constantly engaging our allies and our partners to try to figure out additional ways that we can work with the Pakistanis to help them confront this problem. 

 

                Yeah, Andrew. 

 

                Q     Geoff, you also mentioned North Korea in your introduction. Can you comment on the secretary's current assessment of North Korea's intention with regard to the satellite launch that it's talked about undertaking early next month?  And, specifically, there are reports now that there is a missile on the launch pad at the site in North Korea.  Can you comment on that and get any -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I mean, given that the secretary's assessment of the situation is rooted in his reading of intelligence, I'm not comfortable speaking to that.  Obviously, we do not speak to our intelligence on this matter or others.   

 

                And all I can really tell you is -- and unfortunately it's what I've shared with you before -- is that we continue to monitor the situation closely.  We are very interested in it, following it very closely.  And I think that's where I want to leave it at this point.   

 

                I mean, we've reiterated -- I think the State Department has made this clear whenever they've been asked about it, and we've said it here -- that whether it is a space launch or a missile -- whether it is a satellite launch or a missile launch, either way, this -- even though the North Koreans have made a public declaration that this is a  space launch, it would be in violation of the U.N. Security Council resolution, 1718, and therefore we would, of course, oppose it.   

 

                But -- and then the reasons there are obviously because the technology used for both is the same.   

 

                It is a dual-use technology.  It is not clear to us what the intentions are, because it is dual-use.  But anyway, I think that's sort of where we stand right now.  We continue to watch it closely, but I'm not prepared to offer you the secretary's assessment. 

 

                Q     Well, when you say we would, of course, oppose it, does that mean possibly by military means? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  No, I'm not going to get into the means by which we would do -- at this point, we have -- I think the State Department has made it clear that this is in violation, despite the public declarations of the U.N. Security Council resolution, and we voiced our displeasure with it. 

 

                Q     Following the same subject -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, let me -- there may be some others following up here.  Anybody following up? 

 

                Q     On opposing it, so to speak, Admiral Keating last week was asked by Senator Lieberman about his confidence level in the U.S. missile defense, the ground-based system, to shoot this -- the North Korean missile down, if it came to that.  Keating said it would be a high probability of success.  How does that square with the test record here?  And does the DOD agree with that assessment, that it would be a high probability of success?  And I have a follow-up. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I -- I have no reason to take issue with anything that secretary -- or that Admiral Keating testified to with regards to the probability of success.  And I think there are others who testified in that same hearing who offered a similar endorsement of the probability, including the director of DTO&E. 

 

                Q     He wasn't at that hearing. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Okay.  I think he testified on another occasion, too. 

 

                Q     I think the -- indeed, the director of testing here, in layman's language, said that testing to date doesn't give a high confidence level in the limited capability of the ground-based system. And I'm asking you to square "high probability of success" with the tester's conclusion that there's not a high level of confidence in its limited capability, based on tests to date. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Which director are you quoting? 

 

                Q     It's the operational test and evaluation director, in the annual report -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, this is Dr. McQueary.  I have -- my understanding of Dr. McQueary is that he has pointed out the system actually may have more capability than demonstrated in the testing to date.  He does mathematical, statistical analysis which leads him to make some judgments about probability.  The numbers say one thing.  He thinks they may be underestimating the likelihood of success. 

 

                All I can -- all I will point you to is the fact that Admiral Keating was asked about this directly.  He offered some comments.  He said that he had -- he had confidence that there would be high a probability of success.  I have no reason to take issue with anything he shared with the committee. 

 

                Q     On page 241 of the annual report -- and I won't belabor this, but it says here -- testing to date will not support a high level of confidence in its limited capabilities.  This is from the test report, versus Admiral Keating.  So the record is out there. Folks can ask -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I'm going to -- I'm going to stay with Admiral Keating on this. 

 

                Q     Okay. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Okay? 

 

                Yeah, Steve. 

 

                Q     On the China report -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Let me -- I promised him that if it -- we keep this line of questioning I'd go to the back. 

 

                Q     The officials that have commented in public in some of these hearings about their view that North Korea made their announcement of what they intend to do, and they -- these U.S. officials have said they expect them to go through with it.  You have no -- you have no new assessment that would contradict that, is that right? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I'd -- my assessments would be based on intelligence at this point, but I don't think our -- you know, what I've said from this podium and what the State Department has said from theirs has not changed, as far as I can tell, over the weeks -- over the last several weeks.  So if that provides you any indication, you can infer what you like from that.  But I'm just not comfortable getting into what our intelligence is telling us about this. 

 

                Q     And on the confidence, just one follow-up on that.  The confidence that's been expressed in the ability to respond to what -- to the missile launch, does that extend also to your partner in missile testing, Japan, and its capabilities if it should use -- choose to use them? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Yeah, I'm not prepared to speak to you about our level of confidence about Japanese capabilities. 

 

                Yeah, (Justin ?)? 

 

                Q     I think the larger point here is that Keating's remarks created some tension with the North Koreans, them saying that this would be an act of war if we chose to shoot their launch out of the sky, whatever it may be.  Can you assure us that there would be no other reason to shoot this thing out of the sky unless it posed a threat to U.S. interests at home or abroad? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I mean, it would be prohibited, as I understand it, from doing so.  I mean, I think that space -- that satellite launches are, in some -- are protected by law.  But you'd have to talk to the State Department, I think, for the particulars on that.  But I think  it -- you know, we will -- we will -- I think Admiral Keating and others have made clear that we take our responsibility to protect the American citizens seriously, and we believe we have a capability to do so, and that's where I'll leave it at this point. 

 

                Yeah, Al. 

 

                Q     On China? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Sure. 

 

                Q     Does the Defense Department believe that China already today has the ability to deter, delay or deny any U.S. effort to come to Taiwan's aid in the event of a Chinese attack? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I'm going to let David Helvey, who's going to speak to you with greater clarity about this, I believe later today, address this. 

 

                But, I mean, I can speak to you generically about what this review has found.   

 

                This, as you know, is an annual assessment that is mandated by Congress.  This one, as it's been described to me, it was a -- provides a very professional, factual description of what we see of the Chinese military.  It provides some new details, some additional specificity, but there are no new major strategic insights revealed or capabilities revealed.   

 

                Of course, we acknowledge we can't see all, so we have advocated time and again for more dialogue and transparency in our dealings with the Chinese government and military, all in an effort to reduce suspicions on both sides.  The objective is to give a clear -- the objective of this report is to give a clear and factual description of Chinese military capabilities.  Our view of the -- of Chinese strategic intentions is largely analytic.  Obviously, we don't have -- have clear insight into them because of the lack of transparency, so we have to infer, or deduce, if you will, speculate to some degree on what their intentions are.   

 

                But I think all -- the report will point to or will back up the call from the secretary, and now President Obama, for deeper, broader, more high-level contacts with the Chinese, more mid-level contacts, for that matter, more contacts, period, with the Chinese.  The more dialogue, the more interaction we have, really at all levels of the military, the better chance we have to come to an understanding of what our intentions are, both from a military buildup perspective, force projection perspective, and so that we can reduce or hopefully eliminate the possibility of any misunderstanding or miscalculation between us. 

 

                Q     How soon -- or is China already -- is China already or how soon could it be a significant threat to U.S. forces in the Pacific?  

 

                MR. MORRELL:  If the report speaks to that, I'll have your briefer answer that question.   

 

                I think, with regards to this notion of a threat or an adversarial relationship, I'd point you to the secretary's previous comments on this, which essentially are that there is -- you know, we could become adversaries if we allow ourselves to go down that path. I think he shared this with you at the Carnegie lecture.  We could become adversaries if we allow ourselves to go down that path.  The key is to prevent that from happening, and military -- enhanced military-to-military relations, enhanced engagement, more dialogue, greater transparency is the key to avoiding that path.   

 

                So he continues to advocate it.  In fact, there's reason for optimism.  Despite the Impeccable incident, there -- our talks, our military-to-military talks with the Chinese, have progressed faster and better than the secretary had expected when he first introduced the notion of establishing a strategic dialogue between Washington and Beijing, between the Pentagon and the PLA. 

 

                So we are committed to pursuing a more robust dialogue, enhanced engagement, all to the end of avoiding any misunderstandings and building greater trust between us. 

 

                Q     Since you say there's some level of speculation involved here, what do you speculate they might be up to? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  That's a broad question. 

 

                Steve. 

 

                Q     In terms of Taiwan, is it solely defensive, as they claim, or could they make some kind of move at some point? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, again, I'm going to have our expert speak to you about this.  I mean, I think generally we've been pleased to see, with the change of leadership in Taiwan, a lessening of the tensions between -- across the straits.  So that has been encouraging.   

 

                And so I think that the fact that Chinese -- the Chinese continue to build up their arsenal across the straits is somewhat confounding,  given the fact there has been a lessening in tensions between the two governments post-the elections in Taiwan.  But I'm going to let our expert speak to it, because I'm simply not equipped to go much beyond where I have with you already.   

 

                Yeah.   

 

                Q     (Off mike) -- e-mail sent, from the Obama administration to Pentagon officials, about using the phrase the global war on terror, to using overseas contingency operations --  

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I'm sorry.  Say it one more time.   

 

                Q     (Off mike) -- e-mail sent, from Obama administration to Pentagon --  

 

                MR. MORRELL:  (Off mike) -- global war on terror directive that was or wasn't a directive.   

 

                Q     Yes.   

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I've never received such a directive.  I think the White House and OMB for that matter have been very clear about this as well, that they have never issued such a directive.   

 

                I think they've explained that perhaps somebody within OMB may have been a little overexuberant and done so.  But I can just tell you, I'm the one who speaks publicly about these matters.  And I have never been told which words to use or not to use.  So I don't think there's anything to the story.   

 

                Q     You still use the phrase.   

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I think I have used it.  I think I have.  I don't avoid it.  I don't seek it out.  If it's appropriate, I'll use it.  I could be wrong, but I think the president has used it.  But, so I don't -- I was surprised to see that story, as well, because I know of no directive prohibiting the use of that term.   

 

                Q     What's your preferred nomenclature?   

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I don't really have one.  I mean, I don't think a whole lot about it.  I think that we are involved in global operations to protect the homeland and the American people.  And a large part of that is going after terrorists, seeking them out, wherever they are, wherever they're plotting, wherever they are training to launch attacks against us.   

 

                So --  

 

                Q     (Off mike) -- GWOT, global war on terror, lumps together an entire -- you know, the entire Muslim faith and an entire region.   

 

                Do you see that as a concern?   

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I don't think there's anything in that term that identifies any particular faith or ethnicity.  I mean, there are terrorists of all faiths, of all colors, of all races and ethnicities. And so perhaps a better -- another way to refer to it would be, you know, a campaign against extremists who wish to do us harm.   

 

                I mean, there's a variety of ways to describe this.  But I don't -- the point is, there has been no mandate from anybody as to how we should talk about this.   

 

                Q     How do you feel about overseas contingency --  

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I think that is -- that is -- the new way of referring to war spending is that overseas contingency -- it's still new to me, so let me get it right -- overseas contingency operations budget.   

 

                So. 

 

                Q     So more of a budgetary term, would you say, than a kind of broader term of the administration to describe the military campaigns and -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  No, this is a budget term.  I mean, this is -- this replaces supplementals.  But it's not just a -- this is not a matter of semantics.  There is a difference here.  And the difference here is that the overseas contingency operations budget will be sent to the Hill with the DOD base budget and considered with it so that the Congress will be able to assess it together and make determinations together with the base budget.  So I think there is -- even though it is above and beyond the base, it is coupled with the base, it's part of the president's budget, it goes up there packaged together and they will consider them together. 

 

                Q     Will the '09 supplemental be going up separately? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  The '09 supplemental is still a supplemental.  It's the second tranche of the '09 war funding.  And I think it's still to be determined, Tony, when it goes out.  There's been some dates that have moved.  I don't know if it's moving still.  But the hope is to get it up there, I believe, soon, but I think OMB would probably offer you some more direction on that. 

 

                Q     Congressman Murtha today, after a hearing, said that he was told by the Pentagon that Secretary Gates may make his major programmatic decision announcements later next week.  Is that accurate? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I think we are still working.  So it's yet to be determined precisely when he would make these decisions and then communicate them to the White House.  You know, we've made it clear that he's not going to Strasbourg for the 60th anniversary NATO summit so he can continue to work on this.  So that remains the only guidance I can give you at this point, which is it won't be before the NATO summit, because he's not going so he can continue to work. 

 

                There is a lot here, and it wouldn't surprise me if it took some additional time. 

 

                Q     Is it fair to say, though, that he will make an announcement on programmatic decisions before the detailed '010 budget goes up to the Hill, that there will be two separate events? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I don't think it's fair to say that at this point. 

 

                I think there are discussions under way as to how this will take place. 

 

                Yeah.   

 

                Q     Mexico. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I gotcha. 

 

                Q     Can you give us any sense of what, if any, new directions the Pentagon has received when it comes to assisting the Mexican government in fighting these drug cartels and this violence along the border?  What's wrong with the -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I mean, as you saw yesterday, Bryan (sp), the -- Secretary Napolitano and the State Department announced a series of new initiatives that they're undertaking to get additional resources to the border to try to stem any spillover violence from Mexico.   

 

                I can just tell you that the secretary has been in really very frequent communication with Secretary Napolitano about this issue.  At this point it's regarded as primarily a law-enforcement matter, but we are continuing to look at ways above and beyond, of course, what's in the Merida Initiative to see how we could provide assistance.   

 

                I think where it stands right now is where the president left it last night, which is essentially that we are hopeful that the steps that were announced yesterday will go a long way towards combating this problem, but if they don't, there will be another evaluation, and additional resources could be applied.  So I think that's where we are right now.  I don't have anything concrete to announce here, other than the fact that, you know, we continue to work with DHS to see how they're handling the problem and what, if anything, additionally is needed. 

 

                Q     And "additional" would be -- (off mike) -- National Guard type of -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I mean, the president was asked about this last night.  I mean, there clearly have been governors who have raised the prospect of deploying Guardsmen.  I just don't think we're to that point yet.   

 

                But I think the president left it where he wanted to leave it, which is, we've taken some steps; we hope those steps work; we'll  reevaluate it if they don't and look at -- apply -- at the prospect of applying additional resources if necessary.  But I don't have anything to announce with regards to the possibility of Guardsmen. 

 

                Yeah. 

 

                Q     On -- back to the missile defense, is the current ground- based system deployed over Pacific, is it solely aimed to address the North Korean missile threat?  Or is it targeting at some other threat? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Is the -- are -- our global missile-defense system? 

 

                Q     Pacific system. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I don't know that we're going to speak to what exactly our targeting objectives are for our missile-defense system. 

 

                Q     (Off mike) -- talking about -- when you're talking about the European system, your own view said -- you repeated -- the U.S. government is explaining it's solely targeting Iranian threat. 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I think what we say is it targets rogue nations with -- with the capability to deliver a weapon.  And obviously, Iran would be our foremost concern there. 

 

                Our foremost concern in the Pacific is clearly North Korea.  I don't think there's any -- there is any -- any getting around that. That is -- that is -- 

 

                Q     I'm just wondering if that threat is addressed in some other -- by some other way, would the need for the missile defense over the Pacific -- would this disappear? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I think what we've offered in Europe is the notion that if the -- if the Iranians were to abandon their pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles or a nuclear weapon, it would to some degree obviate the need for a European missile defense. 

 

                Have we made similar statements about the North Koreans abandoning their pursuit of a larger nuclear arsenal and a missile system?  Not that I know of.  But that clearly is the foremost concern of this government in the Pacific, is Kim Jong Il's determination to build a nuclear arsenal. 

 

                Yeah? 

 

                Q     A follow-up on the Chinese.  Has there been any indication from the Chinese about when they might be ready to resume a military- to-military dialogue?  And are you concerned that this could --  

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, we've resumed -- we've resumed military-to- military dialogue.  We had defense talks last month in Beijing with our -- 

 

                Q     I'm sorry, I could be wrong, but I thought in terms of the -- that's at the ministry -- 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Oh, at the -- you're talking about the military -- I'm sorry, yeah, yeah.  I think at that conversation -- I apologize, yeah.  I think at that conversation, they made it clear that they are willing to pursue military-to-military talks.  I think -- I don't want to get ahead of myself, so I'm not going to identify this person, but I think we have somebody traveling over there in the -- in uniform, very shortly.  So follow up with me afterwards.  I'll see what our -- what we can say about that at this point.  But I think the intention  was -- expressed at that meeting, was for us to restart those talks, those engagements.  And I think one is in the works right now. 

 

                Q     Are you concerned at all that this report, which usually gets an angry Chinese reaction, could set that process back at all? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  I don't think so.  I mean, I think this is a -- this is a very straightforward, fact-based report.  There is nothing inflammatory, derogatory -- or derogatory in it.  And I think this is, actually, we hope a step -- another step in the right direction, in terms of fostering greater cooperation, greater understanding, greater transparency between our two militaries.  So it should be viewed, I think, as a positive step, not one that is in any way threatening or aggravating tensions that some may feel. 

 

                Q     Can I ask, about initiatives to improve relations with the Chinese military and government, will this building be more -- (inaudible) -- scrutinizing any arms deal -- arms sale requests from the Taiwanese government, to ensure that they don't roil the Chinese -- our relations with China, that they are needed?  Is that part of the mix at all? 

 

                MR. MORRELL:  Not that I know of, but you can address that question when you get another briefing this afternoon. 

 

                All right?  It seems like everybody's run out of steam.  Thank you all.

 

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