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DOD News Briefing with Gen. Fraser from the Pentagon

Presenters: Commander, U.S. Southern Command Gen. Douglas Fraser
January 13, 2010
                MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us. 
 
                It's my privilege to have the opportunity to introduce to you General Douglas Fraser, who is the commander of U.S. Southern Command, and by circumstance happened to be in Washington, D.C., when the -- when the earthquake hit Haiti. As most of you in this room know, as the commander of U.S. Southern Command, he will be the person in charge of the DOD effort as we provide support and assistance to Haiti. 
 
                And he has to get back to his command to oversee that effort, but before he left, he has offered to give us about 30 minutes to answer some of your questions. 
 
                So with that, general, thank you for taking the time. I know you're very busy. We appreciate it. 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Thanks very much. It's a pleasure to be with you. 
 
                First, I want to reiterate just from the United States Southern Command standpoint and the Department of Defense standpoint, our prayers, our condolences go out to the citizens of Haiti and to all of the other partners who are there. It's a horrific event that they've suffered through. And we're working every effort that we can, and pushing and leaning as far forward as we can, to support the life- saving measures initially, do an assessment, and then look beyond that into the humanitarian disaster-relief support that we can give, as we work in a very integrated fashion with USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] and OFDA [Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance] and the entire government. 
 
                We have a very robust effort headed in that direction. The initial requirements -- because there was very difficult communication last night, and so we really only had a couple of land-line capability. There wasn't a lot of ability to get around Port-au-Prince, so it was very difficult to understand what the situation was on the ground. We didn't understand what the situation in the airport was, and when we would be able to get in there. So more information is starting to come out on that. 
 
                We've put together various contingencies as we worked through the night, to work and adjust to whatever the situation we found as we got more information out today. So we have really principally -- because we have small forces, about 60 -- just a little over 60 U.S. military personnel in Haiti, primarily focused on the military liaison group, and then a small contingent supporting the U.N. Mission there. 
 
                So we're focused on getting command and control and communications there so that we can really get a better understanding of what's going on. MINUSTAH [United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti], as their headquarters partially collapsed, lost a lot of their communication, and so we're looking to robust that communication, also. 
 
                We're also sending in assessment teams in conjunction with USAID, supporting their efforts, as well as putting in some of our own to support their efforts. 
 
                We're moving various ships that we had in the region -- they're small ships, Coast Guard cutters, destroyers -- in that direction, to provide whatever immediate assistance that we can on the ground. 
 
                We also have a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, moving in that direction. It was at sea off of Norfolk, and so it's going to take a couple of days for it to get there. We need to also just resupply it and give it the provisions it needs to support the effort as we look at Haiti. And then we're looking across the international agencies to figure out how we support their efforts as well as our efforts. 
 
                We also are looking at a large-deck amphibious ship with an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit on it that will be a couple of days behind the USS Vinson. 
 
                And that gives us a broader range of capability to move supplies around, to have lift capability to help support the effort there also. 
 
                So bottom line to it is, we don't have a clear assessment right now of what the situation on the ground is, what the needs within Port-au-Prince are, how extensive the situation is. 
 
                We also, finally, have a team that's headed in to the airport. From my understanding -- because my deputy commander just happened to be in Haiti when this situation happened, on a previously scheduled visit. He has been to the airport. He says the runway is functional but the tower doesn't have communications capability. The passenger terminal -- has structural damage to it, so we don't know what the status of it is.   
 
                So we have a group going in to make sure we can gain and secure the airfield and operate from it, because that's one of those locations we think we're going to have a lot of the immediate effort from an international basis going into.   
 
                And then we're out conducting all the other assessments that you would consider appropriate as we go in and work this effort. 
 
                We're also coordinating on the ground with MINUSTAH, with the folks who are there. The commander for MINUSTAH happened to be in Miami when this situation happened, so he's right now traveling back through and should be arriving in Port-au-Prince any time now. So that will help us coordinate our efforts there also, because again, obviously the United Nations suffered a significant loss there with the collapse -- at least partial collapse of their headquarters. 
 
                So that's -- those are the initial efforts that we have ongoing And as we get the assessments of what's coming next, then we'll adjust as required.   
 
                The secretary of Defense, the president, have all stipulated that this is a significant effort, and we're corralling all the resources within the Department of Defense to support this effort. 
 
                Q     General, how concerned are you that the security situation there might be deteriorating and U.S. troops might be needed to provide some sort of peacekeeping force in light of the looting and a -- we heard a prison might have collapsed, as we were coming in here. 
 
                And also, are you considering Guantanamo Bay as a possible place to house refugees or jail inmates from a prison that may have collapsed? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Right now -- again, the assessment is very fluid there. From General Keen, who is on the ground there, he says the situation is calm within Port-au-Prince, and so that's what we're expecting.   
 
                I think it's also important to understand that the United Nations mission was there primarily on a security role. They have forces throughout the country. They have done a significant job in sustaining and maintaining stability and security within the country.   
 
                That I don't think has changed to a significant amount. I don't know the answer to it directly. So we will work with MINUSTAH and get assessments and figure out what the security situation is and then decide what to do from there.   
 
                So I'm still trying to understand what the situation is on the ground. But I'm really going to rely on the support of MINUSTAH, because they're familiar with the situation that they've been dealing with for quite a while.   
 
                Q     And is Guantanamo Bay a possibility? Is it a resource that's available to you, if you want --  
 
                GEN. FRASER: It's a resource that's available if we need to take advantage of it for various reasons. So we're looking across the region to just understand what the possibilities are there.   
 
                Yes, sir.   
 
                Q     General, you talked about a large-deck amphibious ship if possible.   
 
                GEN. FRASER: Right.   
 
                Q     Can we assume that that would be a Marine expeditionary unit?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: Yes.   
 
                Q     Out of North Carolina?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: Well, it will be from the East Coast. So yeah, probably out of North Carolina.   
 
                Q     And also -- probably out of North Carolina?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: I don't know the specifics of that right now. We're still working the details.   
 
                Q     Also the hospital ship Comfort -- do we expect that to get under way, to get --  
 
                GEN. FRASER: It is a consideration right now. But I think as we look at our efforts to do humanitarian assistance throughout the region, we have traditionally run a hospital ship down there for about a four-month period. The Comfort was down there this last year.   
 
                On the alternate years, we use a large-deck amphibious ship, because it has a very similar capacity to what the Comfort has. So the fact that we're sending that large-deck amphib down there will give us a very significant medical capability on the ground.   
 
                And so we'll have to look into the future, as we get an assessment on whether or not we need the Comfort.   
 
                Q     Lastly you said the runway seems to be intact. But the tower of course has lost communications.   
 
                Any sense of when you're going to start rolling in C-130s?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: Well, the C-130s are what we're using right now to help that out. What the weight of effort and what are the needs that are there, that's what the assessment is going to be. That's in coordination with USAID, OFDA, all the national and international organizations to figure that out.   
 
                I don't have good answers for you right now.   
 
                Q     Sir, you mentioned at the State Department that an Army brigade had been put on alert. Can you tell us who that is and what the conditions would be that you see they would be actually called?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: Well, there has been one. It's a brigade up at Fort Bragg. But as to the specifics of what we're going to need and how we're going to need it and the evolving situation, I don't have a specific on that right now, because we don't understand what the situation is on the ground.   
 
                We don't understand where the capacity of the Haitian government is, and MINUSTAH. We're just putting -- and giving ourselves options for the future. So that will evolve. 
 
                Q     Is that a brigade -- is that a brigade, the 82nd? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Yes. Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     The Haitian government said on CNN a short time ago that the death toll may be in the hundreds of thousands. Do you have an initial sense from your folks on the ground if that appears to be in the ballpark of what you think the death toll will ultimately be? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: I really have no good sense to be able to tell you. You've heard reports of collapsed buildings. But I -- there's been very limited communications. There haven't really been assessment teams that have been out there. A lot of the organizations are just focused on recovering their own people and their own family. So we don't have a good sense of what that equates to right now.   
 
                So I think there will be significant loss of life, though. But I can't tell you that for certain. 
 
                Q     A quick follow. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, you had a bunch of other countries, fairly quickly after, start rolling out their plans to begin relief flights and sort of what their aid packages would be. It's taken the U.S. seemingly a bit longer to assess and to say what we'll do. What accounts for the difference between other countries' doing it sooner and on this end doing it seemingly a bit slower? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: From practice, we've found that the assessments are critical to making sure we get the right equipment in there and make the recovery efforts and the life-supporting efforts as efficient as possible. So the worst thing that we can do is put a lot of equipment forward that we don't know whether or not we'll need. And so that's -- what we're doing right now is focused on getting our assessment teams in there. We're moving assets to prepare for moving additional assets in there. So that's where the focus of our effort is right now, on that life-saving effort. 
 
                Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     Two questions. One, has the diplomatic formalities of the request from Haiti come up through the State Department and then down to your command yet? And secondly, can you go into more details about what capabilities the Carl Vinson brings to Haiti when it gets there? What will it be used for? And will there be additional ships that are normally part of its battle group with it when it arrives, or is it going alone? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: From the Carl Vinson standpoint -- well, first, from the State Department, I have not seen a formal request, so I'll ask you to ask the State Department if they've seen a formal request. We just understand that it's a dire situation, and so we're leaning forward. I know that the president unofficially has -- the president of Haiti -- has asked for assistance. But official documentation, I have not seen that yet. 
 
                Q     (Off mike) -- not let the paperwork get in the way -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Exactly.   
 
                And so from the USS Carl Vinson -- it happened to be a ship that was available; it had a very small complement of aircraft on it when it was at sea, so we're going to -- as we -- it passes through or by Mayport, we're going to provision it with as much capability as we can, primarily looking at helicopter capacity in that, because we need to be able to get around the country, and we don't understand what the needs of that are yet.   
 
                And then it will have whatever we can provision. As we get better understanding of what the capabilities and capacities are and needs are, then we can use that as a staging base, if you will, to move equipment, move resources in and around Haiti.  
 
                We're trying to give, again, ourselves options, because the only airfield within Port-au-Prince is a single runway, and so it will have limited capacity. So we're trying to give ourselves options to get as much capacity down there to be able to flex as we need to. 
 
                Q     And will other ships in the battle group be with it, or -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: There could be another one. We're looking at how, where and what to do to replenish it, to make sure we get it there with whatever assets we do. So it's still a fluid situation right now. 
 
                Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     Can you tell with more specificity what some of these teams -- when some of these teams are arriving? What's happening today? We've heard -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: These teams are going in this afternoon. So they will be arriving this afternoon from our ability to manage the airfield, our command and control capability, our headquarters complement, our comm gear -- that's all coming in this afternoon. And then we're looking, based on assessments, on what else is needed to go in there, and in working that in, again, conjunction with USAID. So this is a multiple effort. It's not just the DOD doing that. 
 
                Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     You have said that the mission is going to be on an international level. Have you had so far any contacts with military leaders, foreign military leaders, to coordinate the efforts of the mission? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: I have not personally had those conversations. There is an organization within my command, Joint Interagency Task Force South, who has a lot of liaison officers, who also are represented in U.N. mission in Haiti. And so they are coordinating all those efforts right now, and so that's one of those things, as I get back to my headquarters, I'm looking to do, is contact those military leaders.   
 
                Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     General, what have you heard about how many Americans may need to be evacuated? And are you hearing any numbers there? And is that a top priority for your mission?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: Well, you heard from the State Department that there are around 45,000 U.S. citizens in Haiti. I don't have an answer for you on what the immediate needs are. The embassy has ordered a -- an evacuation of their families, dependents. So that's an issue that we're working right now to make sure -- 
 
                Q     (Off mike) -- issue -- is that something that you're -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: It's a government issue, so we're looking to try and figure out what's the right assets to do that. So right now we're coordinating with U.S. Coast Guard C-130s. They look like they'll have the most immediate capacity to meet that need. 
 
                Q     (Inaudible) -- and what's the assessment about what trouble they'll have getting into the airport there? Have any landed there? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: None have landed there yet, so I don't have a good assessment. Roads are passable. It depends on where you are and what's going on. So I really don't have a good assessment of where roads are passable, where they're not and how people are moving around. 
 
                Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     Yeah. Can you maybe clarify a little bit about what the Coast Guard mission is down there? You said the ships are kind of small; they're going to offer any help possible. What can they offer -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Well, part of it is vertical lift. So they have helicopters on a lot of their medium-endurance Coast Guard cutters. So that's what the capacity that we're looking for there. They also have some small stocks of humanitarian assistance relief. So we're looking for whatever we can do. 
 
                And the Coast Guard mission that's been down there traditionally for us is focused on a counter-drug mission that -- the monitoring and -- detection and monitoring of traffic through the Caribbean. So that's where they are, and then, just providing that normal assistance. So we're orchestrating that, changing that, and moving them towards Haiti to support that effort. 
 
                Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     Can you just give me a sense of the number of people involved in the assessment teams, and give us some sense of kind of how they do their work? I mean, I assume they kind of prioritize in kind of a triage situation. But can you give us some sense of the number, the scope of the teams, but also kind of what they will do? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Well, there are going to be various teams. From a Department Defense standpoint, we're moving a small headquarters element down there. It's going to be about 25 people, plus 10 to 15 additional experts from around the staff, engineers, medical professionals. And so they're going to assist the USAID efforts in coordination as we get down there.   
 
                There is a USAID rep on the ground. They're going to have the lead for this effort in conjunction with the mission down there. And so we're going to support the embassy's effort to go wherever they need us to go to do those assessments of where damage is so that they can report out and understand what we need to get down there. 
 
                Q     So they bring their own transportation, like some kind of -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: No, this is -- this is very light. This is an immediate capability to get people and equipment and their communications equipment, primarily initially relying on the assets that are there on the ground for movement. 
 
                Q     Okay. Just a clarification on the Comfort. You said a decision has not been made to send the Comfort? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Correct. It's -- we're looking at it as an option. But again, we have similar capability, as we put a large-deck amphibious ship down there with the medical capacity that it has. 
 
                Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     General, if the -- if the numbers are right -- what the prime minister said, possibly hundreds of thousands killed -- are there -- are you also looking at helping out with morgue facilities so -- with the spread of, you know, disease, which is going to come within days?   
 
                Are you looking at or supplying anything -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: We're looking across the board of the humanitarian disaster-relief needs that will be there and then working that in conjunction with USAID and OFDA to figure out what are the right capabilities to put in there. So all the resources of the Department of Defense we're looking at to understand what's the best capability to put in there. 
 
                So yes -- are we looking at it? Yes. Do I know if it's a need yet? No. 
 
                Q     Does the U.S. military have the capabilities for something that large? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: We have -- I can't answer your specific question. I got to go back and ask to get the answer to that specific question. 
 
                Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     Whether it's the MEUs at Lejeune or the 2nd of the 82nd at Bragg, it's going to take them some time to get there if needed. Wouldn't it make sense to deploy them now and then turn them back if they don't need it -- if you don't need it, so they would be right there if it turns out you need them? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Well, we are pursuing moving large-deck amphib with a MEU embarked now. So that effort is ongoing as we go down there. And so then we just have to understand what MINUSTAH has on the ground, what kind of capability they have -- because they're the experts on the ground there. And then we'll make the decision on how to -- and who to move beyond that. 
 
                Q     I just called Lejeune and two MEUs are ready but they haven't received any deployment orders. That's why I said, wouldn't it make sense to get them moving now? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: We're working -- we're working to push on the capabilities and capacities we have to go down there. So we're working the capabilities and capacities we need to get down there. And we'll continue to evolve that as we get better understanding of what the situation is on the ground. 
 
                Yes, sir. 
 
                Q     General, along those lines, it seems to be that time's of the essence here. You talk about trying to assess a situation, but we've been told that, you know, Fairfax, Virginia, is sending in rescue teams; California's sending in rescue. 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Right. 
 
                Q     Do you have that capability, and are you sending those types of assets in? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: We're supporting the lift of those -- or of those teams in -- 
 
                Q    Civilian teams? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Yes. Yes. 
 
                Q     But you don't have those -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Those specific capabilities, no, we don't have on a routine basis. 
 
                Q     So we're talking about -- how many civilian rescue teams, like Fairfax, California, are heading that way? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: There are two teams that are heading that way, one from Fairfax, Virginia, one from California. They're 72-person teams with their equipment, each. And then there is another FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] capacity down in Miami that we're looking to push one of those, again, in supporting -- 
 
                Q     How many folks are there in the -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: I don't know the answer to that. You'll have to ask USAID. 
 
                Q     Again, if reports are correct and hundreds of thousands are dead, then clearly tens if not hundreds of thousands are wounded or trapped. Do you expect to send -- support more rescue teams heading down there in the next 24 hours? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: We will support whatever the requirements are to move in there. So I -- again, I just don't have -- it's a fluid situation; I don't have a good specific answer for you yet. But we are massing our forces -- 
 
                Q     But those rescue -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: -- to provide as much support as we can as quickly as we can get them there.
 
                Q     The rescue teams you were just talking about, we expect them to get on the ground today? 
 
                GEN. FRASER: Yes. One of them today; one of them will be early tomorrow. 
 
                Q    Are they flying down on U.S. military aircraft? What kind of support -- 
 
                GEN. FRASER: It's a combination. There's U.S. military aircraft involved with supporting them. There's also commercial air that's being -- supporting them also, to get them down there. 
 
                So again it's a whole-of-government effort to support Haiti. It's not just the Department of Defense. And I think as we look at this and we look at the efforts that are ongoing there, DOD has a portion of it. But there's a much larger governmental effort that's being undertaken to support this.   
 
                Q     Lastly do you know -- Fairfax and California -- do you know if other fire departments, rescue departments around the country, were called?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: I don't. Well, again, it's not us who's calling those. So USAID is in charge and leading this effort. And so they're the ones who are pursuing that.   
 
                Yes, ma'am.   
 
                Q     General, you said that there are about 60 members of the U.S. military in Haiti right now.   
 
                Do you know the exact number? Or even more than -- better than -- more specific than just about 60?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: Well, our assessment right now is, there are 63.   
 
                Q     And are they all accounted for?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: We're still in the process of, like MINUSTAH is, making sure we can account for everybody.   
 
                Q     And then I know that we've harped on this, the Haitian prime minister's statement about hundreds of thousands dead. But our understanding is that the majority of the damage is in Port-au-Prince, in and right around Port-au-Prince.   
 
                So given the fact that it's, you know, about 20-plus hours out and there's been quite a bit of assessment, surveillance, I mean, is that even a plausible assessment that there are hundreds of thousands dead?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: I really can't speculate on that. I really don't know what the answer to that is. All I know is, and I have the same information that you have, there's been just an initial assessment from an aircraft flying over that the damage appears to be mostly centralized around Port-au-Prince.   
 
                I don't know that for certain. I don't know how much that aircraft went out and surveiled other parts of the country. So I'm hesitant to say exactly what the situation is on the ground and what we're going to find, as we go forward.   
 
                So that's why we're looking for all the options we can put on the table, to move forward.   
 
                MODERATOR: We've got time for maybe one or two more. And then we all have to go.   
 
                GEN. FRASER: Sir.   
 
                Q     The Haitian government, current Haitian government, do you believe that it is, as badly hurt as it is, stable? Do you believe that when this is all over with, the same government will still be in power? Or are you worried that this could lead to some of the problems we've seen in the past in Haiti?   
 
                GEN. FRASER: I'm not going to speculate on the future. We've got a very precise focus right now. And that's the disaster that Haiti has suffered.   
 
                We're focused on the life-saving measures that we need to do there -- the assessment, the emergency response -- and then looking at what the humanitarian and disaster relief requirements are and providing international support to Haiti, to help them through this significant disaster.   
 
                MODERATOR: All right, thank you very much.   
 
                GEN. FRASER: Okay, thank you very much.
 
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