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DOD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell
June 27, 2011

                 MR. MORRELL:  Well, good afternoon.  It's great to see so many of the Pentagon press corps out in force today.  Thanks for coming to my final briefing.  And thanks to so many of my colleagues, I see in the back there, for showing up as well.  What a treat.  Even my family, over here to the right, is here.  It's an extraordinary honor to have all of you here, and a bit humbling, I must say. 

                Of course, I will have to be on my best behavior this afternoon, because both my mother and actually my mother-in-law is also here.  My wife, unfortunately, is stuck on the subway, but she should be here -- it's a long opening statement, so hopefully she'll be here by the end. 

                I know that it may be a disappointment, to those of you who usually enjoy the sparring, that they're here and therefore I'll be on my best behavior, as, maybe, the fact that I am not planning on this being a very newsworthy news conference.  I do have a few scheduling announcements to make, but I really want to use this opportunity to express my appreciation to so many of you. 

                First off, as you all know by now, this is Secretary Gates' last week on the job and there are quite a few farewell events planned, culminating with the armed forces farewell tribute on Thursday morning.  That special ceremony, to which many of you are invited and all of you are welcome to cover, includes remarks by Chairman Mullen and Secretary Gates.  And the secretary is very honored that President Obama is also scheduled to attend and make remarks on Thursday. 

                Of course, later that afternoon the secretary will fly home to Washington state, where he will once again try his hand at retirement.  After a couple of notable failures, he assures me he is determined to succeed this time. 

                So Friday marks the beginning of a new era here at the Pentagon.  That morning Secretary-designate Leon Panetta will be sworn in as the 23rd secretary of defense by General Counsel Jeh Johnson.  That is expected to take place in a small, private ceremony, I believe in his office, that morning. 

                So with a new SECDEF should come a new press secretary, as well.  So I plan to relinquish my responsibilities on Thursday and will leave the Pentagon for good in July to focus on considering what comes next for me and my family.  But you will be in excellent hands with the team here at OSD-PA, led, of course, by Doug Wilson, Bryan Whitman, Colonel Dave Lapan and a new, yet-to-be announced Pentagon Press Secretary.

                At this time, if you'll indulge me, I would like to offer a few thank-yous.  First of all, to Dan Bartlett and Nicolle Wallace, former White House communications directors.  I can't thank you two enough for recommending me to your boss for this job.  Thanks to President Bush for having the confidence in me and giving me the opportunity to serve in this administration.  Also would like to thank President Obama and his team for retaining confidence in me and allowing me to continue serving in this position after they took over.  

                It has quite simply been the most professionally rewarding four years of my life.  That is largely due to the fact I have been able to work closely with one of the great statesmen and public servants of our time.  You all have gotten to know Secretary Gates very well, especially those of you who travel a lot with us, but I cannot tell you how much of an honor and privilege it has been for me to be a part of his team as he has dealt with some of the most challenging and consequential security issues our nation has seen.  

                I am forever in his debt for the access he has given me, the faith he has shown in me and the wisdom he has shared with me.  But most of all, I am appreciative of the friendship we have developed over long days in the office and long trips around the world.  

                I am just as honored to have been able to work closely and develop friendships with so many outstanding men and women in uniform.  As some of you may remember, I arrived here in June 2007 full of excitement and raring to go, but overwhelmed by all I had to learn about the military and this place they call, aptly, the Puzzle Palace.  To my surprise, despite the fact I had been a reporter and never served in uniform, the troops were welcoming of me from the get-go and bent over backwards to help me learn everything from their distinct culture and traditions to military strategy and weapons acquisition.  It has been my supreme honor to help explain their mission, give voice to their concerns, and at times, from this podium, fight for their cause.  

                I have been blessed too -- I have been blessed to do so with a tremendous group of civilian colleagues, of policy, personnel and procurement experts who have patiently tutored me over the years lest I make a mistake that makes their already difficult jobs even more so. 

                No one has been more helpful to me in that regard than the public affairs professionals who work in this department.  Led by Doug and the others I mentioned earlier, they have kept me on top of the issues and largely out of trouble.  I can't thank them enough for their support, their patience and their friendship. 

                Of course, you all know the one person without whom I could not have succeeded in this job.  That's right:  Tara Napier-Harrison.  As all of you can attest, she is the true MVP of our little team.  She is unfailingly pleasant, patient as a saint and more capable than most people twice her age.  My wife says she doesn't know what I'm going to do without her once I leave so I just may have to take her with me.  That's also on my July to-do list. 

                Finally, I would like to thank all of you, the members of the Pentagon press corps.  Collectively, the reporters who cover this building have long been considered the best in Washington, and I believe that is still the case.  Your commitment to this huge, complicated beat is without parallel.  Your ethical standards and professionalism are the best in the business.  And your dedication to covering the wars we are fighting is appreciated by all Americans, chief among them those in uniform. 

                Like they, you travel great distances, endure long separations from family and friends, work in extremely difficult conditions and do so at great personal risk.  Now, I know I have not always -- we have not always agreed on how stories regarding this department should be covered.  But I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank you all for covering them, especially during these difficult times for the news business. 

                I know too that I have been at times tough, even combative in my dealings with you all, even though it was usually motivated by my desire to ensure accuracy.  I apologize if any of you all took offense at my directness.  That said, I truly believe we have had, on the whole, a very productive working relationship. 

                As a former reporter, I came to this job knowing exactly what you needed in order to tell a story, and I worked hard inside this bureaucracy to try to help you get it. In doing so, however, I quickly discovered that I would never be as expert on military matters as those who have long worked here.  But I could provide you with something none of them could:  a clear understanding of where the secretary was leading this department.  

                With that in mind, I set out to help you get to know him better.  Whether here in the briefing room, during sit-down interviews or our many travels together, including more relaxed settings, as some of you may be familiar, I have tried to expose you all as much as possible to the man I know. 

                As my wife can attest, I've tried to make myself available as well, at least via BlackBerry, seven days a week, providing everything from occasionally colorful quotes to off-the-record guidance.  I've always tried to be a straight shooter, whether in giving you a credible steer, telling you when I just don't know something or that I simply cannot help because an issue is too sensitive.  These ways and many others, I hope that I was able to provide as much valuable -- value to you as the Pentagon Press Secretary as I have tried to. 

                I leave this job with the utmost respect for all of you and will continue to follow your stories closely.  In fact, don't be surprised if you get an email every now and again with a thought or two about what could have been better.  (Laughter.)  It's only because I care. 

                With that long good-bye and public thank-you out of the way, I'd be happy to take a few, preferably non-substantive questions -- (laughter) -- and I just remind all the Morrell’s over there, you will not be recognized for any questions.  All right?  

                OK.  We can cut the cake. 

                Tony. 

                Q:  I have one substantive and one -- a journalism question.  Will Mr. Lynn, Ashton Carter, Michele Flournoy and Bob Hale, will they all be staying after the secretary leaves? 

                MR. MORRELL:  I think those are questions -- those are decisions to be made by the incoming secretary.  The outgoing secretary has no plans to make any changes to senior personnel.  I do not, frankly, know what Secretary Panetta's plans are with regards to his team.  I have not heard of any changes in the offing, for whatever that's worth. 

                Q:  Question two was, you came in as a reporter trained to pry information out of institutions.  Now, four years later, can you give any sense of whether this building -- the cult of secrecy and over-classification in this building is just too great and they need to loosen up both mind-set-wise and release authority-wise? 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, it's funny.  When I took the job and I met with my -- with my predecessors, whether it be the late Ken Bacon or others -- they all had one shared bit of advice, and that was to retain your reporting skills, because the information does not naturally flow to this position, ironically.  So you really have to work the phones and work your sources and get what you can on your behalf.  I think that is true. 

                So I don't know.  I think this building is at one time, very difficult to crack, and yet somehow you all have done a magnificent job of finding out lots of things we would have preferred you not to find out.  

                So I think there is -- I mean, we know -- we sometimes have this both ways.  I know the secretary laments leaks that sometimes jeopardize things that we're trying to do, but at the same time he commends you all, as he did with the USA Today this morning with the fact that they brought MRAPs to his attention, or the fact that you all exposed some of the poor outpatient care at Walter Reed.  And had you not shined a light on those things, they would not have been apparent to him, and he could not have enacted the changes that have been, I think, to the benefit of all of our troops. 

                But I think there's a give and a take in this relationship.  I think there's a -- is a nice, healthy tension that exists between this building and the press corps.  We try to be forthcoming with what we have, we try to do it, we should do it in a more timely manner, probably, than we do, but there clearly is a need for operational secrecy in order for us to do all the things that I think the American people wish for us to do to keep them safe in their homes at night. 

                Q:  Good luck to you.

                MR. MORRELL:  Thanks Tony.  Lita? 

                Q:  First, Geoff, we just want to say, thank you very much.  We appreciate all the hard work that we know you've done over the last four years.  And I think we all appreciate the access that we have had and the consistent briefings and things that you have done, and we hope that the next secretary and others keep this up so that we do have routine access to -- (inaudible). 

                MR. MORRELL:  I think you all -- thank you, Lita.  I don't think you'll have a problem with Secretary Panetta.  I think he knows many of you, and I think he enjoys engaging with all of you. 

                Q:  And on a more substantive note, you know that Congress is doing a number of these Libya discussions, resolutions, et cetera.  I'm wondering if you could just talk a little bit about what, if any, impact any of these may have on the operation itself, and whether or not the secretary is doing -- the secretary or any other people here within the Defense Department are engaging members on the Hill to talk about what impact these things may or may not have, particularly the discussions about hostilities and whether or not the U.S. is involved in hostilities there or not.   

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I think to that question, I mean, the secretary has been on the record on this issue at a number of times in a number of places, most recently, I think, the Sunday shows a week ago this past Sunday.  So he is on the record on that issue, so I'm not going to elaborate on that. 

                But with regards to the impact of, for example, an amendment that would have defunded the operation, that is obviously something that we -- I think I first spoke out against that when we were in Shangri-La several weeks ago.  I think the secretary's belief on that is, you know, once we are committed to a military mission, it is not wise to pull the rug out from under our forces by defunding that operation.  That's not helpful; that's counterproductive.  And so he's very much opposed to that. 

                I don't know how that's been communicated to the Hill.  I assume that there have been senior-level communications from this department up there.  I think, thankfully, that resolution failed in the House, as best I can recall.  But I don't think the secretary himself has been -- has made any calls on that matter that I'm aware of, but there may be some at levels below him. 

                Yeah, Barbara. 

                Q:  Housekeeping question, a substantive question on housekeeping -- if the new secretary gets sworn in Friday morning, is that, in fact, when it's -- for purposes of continuity of government, is that when the actual transfer of authority happens, or does that happen sometime overnight on Thursday? 

                MR. MORRELL:  No, it's my understanding that it would take place, I believe, when he is sworn in.  I mean, the secretary -- one of the reasons he is flying out, I believe, on military air is that he still has the responsibilities for that day.  And not until Secretary Panetta is sworn in will he assume them. 

                Q:  I'm sorry, go back a minute -- Gates flies out on Thursday? 

                MR. MORRELL:  Thursday afternoon. 

                Q:  With full military air and full communications? 

                MR. MORRELL:  Correct. 

                Q:  And my other question is, what have you heard the secretary say now since the president spoke about the Afghan withdrawal plan?  Now that we know General Petraeus and Admiral Mullen say it was more risky than what they would have wanted and proposed, what is the secretary's view on that, especially in light of his remarks to Newsweek that he has a sense the U.S. is headed to not being the automatically pre-eminent force anymore?  I'm paraphrasing his words, I acknowledge. 

                MR. MORRELL:  Yeah, well, I think he -- I think he said that's a possibility, one that he certainly hopes does not -- see happen.  

                With regards to his views on this, again, he's -- we've done a number of these exit interviews over the last few days.  I think you've heard more of the secretary over the last few weeks than you've ever heard from him.  And he's been, I think, pretty clear on this subject -- that this was a decision that was driven not just by the conditions on the ground, but it had to be also at the same time politically credible, that there is a war-weariness in this country that needs to be recognized, in whatever the decision the president was to make, in order for this to be a sustainable mission.  And so all those things were factored in when this decision was made.  

                And I think the secretary is very comfortable, as you stated, with the fact that we will get basically three-quarters of the second fighting season with these additional -- with the preponderance of the surge force, with 23,000 additional forces, which will mean that this surge, in all, is almost, I think, a year longer than the surge in Iraq lasted.  So I think he's comforted by that fact, but he also recognizes the fact that we need to be able to show a dividend for the success that we've had and that we need to recognize the fact that after 10 years at war, the American people want to -- want to be able to see that we're making progress, but also that that progress involves bringing some of our troops home. 

                Q:  So in fact, you're saying, then, the secretary feels political consideration did play a role in the final decision. 

                MR. MORRELL:  He has always said, as I just mentioned, Barbara, that this must not just be driven by the conditions on the ground, but that the strategy has to be politically sustainable.  And so he understands that the president has to take into regard, how do you keep the American people, and the Congress for that matter, on board, especially during a time of enormous fiscal pressure. 

                Q:  Thanks.

                MR. MORRELL:  Yeah.  And those are considerations frankly, Barbara -- you mentioned the chairman and General Petraeus -- those are -- those are circumstances that they should not be considering as commanders or as military advisers.  They are there to provide their best military advice.  The secretary obviously is the civilian head of this department, but he is also cognizant of what it takes to keep this mission going. 

                Q:  And to echo Lita -- 

                MR. MORRELL:  Is that the Morrell section? 

                Q:  It is.  This is --. 

                (Cross talk.) 

                Q:  The overflow seating section -- 

                MR. MORRELL:  OK.  (Laughter.) 

                Q:  -- and standing. 

                Q:  But so if it weren't for the November elections, could get that full second fighting season in, instead of the three-quarters fighting -- 

                MR. MORRELL:  No, I -- you're the one who suggested it's being driven by the electoral season.  What I said, it's being -- that there -- that the political sustainability of the mission is a factor that the -- that the secretary deems is more than appropriate, considering that we have to keep the American people on board.  And we're talking about spending, as you all know, you know, upwards of $10 billion a month on our efforts in Afghanistan.  That's a considerable sacrifice for the American people. 

                Q:  $6.2 billion [a month]. 

                MR. MORRELL:  What's that?  If you Tony -- tell me that the -- of our -- we're going to spend I think it's almost $110 billion on this.  But we'll go check on it. 

                All right. 

                Q:  Geoff, has there been any more discussion, considering the stalemate in Libya, of lethal aid provide -- the U.S. providing lethal aid to the rebels?

                MR. MORRELL:  Not that I'm aware of. 

                Yeah, Dan. 

                Q:  Yeah.  And thanks for your remarks, by the way. 

                MR. MORRELL:  Thank you. 

                Q:  On Afghanistan, you've often clarified or explained sometimes the secretary's role in discussions and deliberations.  Can you -- can you explain just a little bit in this case, was this -- was this a situation where he was giving his own sort of amendment or compromise proposal that kind of brokered the final decision in those deliberations? 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I've seen stories out there that have characterized it in that vein, that this was sort of the "Gates compromise."  I don't know.  I don't think he's characterized it in that way.  I think he was asked directly about that by Jim Lehrer last week, and I think he -- I think he backed off from answering that.  So I think out of deference to him, I won't -- I won't take the bait either. 

                Q:  And then -- can I have a two-part, since this is my last opportunity with you? 

                MR. MORRELL:  Yeah, please.  Please. 

                Q:  On the budget, there's now the story now with some of the Republican lawmakers saying they're now perhaps more open to cuts in the defense budget, in these deficit talks.  Does that raise alarm bells within the building and with the secretary about kind of math -- what you call mathematical cuts there -- (inaudible) -- cuts? 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I mean, I saw that story.  And I don't -- I mean, to me, I didn't see anything new or particularly alarming in it.  I mean, I didn't see any -- you know, a particular number of targets.  I didn't see any sort of suggestions that this should be done in an unwise fashion.  

                I mean, I think the reality is, is that, you know, Secretary Gates saw this -- saw this storm cloud, as I referred to it, forming on the horizon many, many months ago, going back to May of 2010 when he first went to Abilene, Kansas, and gave the lecture at the Eisenhower Library about how we've got to do some internal work to make sure we are best prepared for the fiscal austerity that we're likely to be facing in the future.

                So I think he has been well aware of what the climate is, both economically and politically, for a while.  And we've done a lot to prepare ourselves for that. 

                As you know, we now are being asked to find another $400 billion in this department over the next 12 years.  That is a significant sum of money, one that, if not handled very, very carefully, could be devastating to this department.  And so he is determined -- he has set about a process to do this in a very, very measured and deliberate and careful way, making sure that there are not across-the-board cuts that would hollow out the military, a la the '70s and '90s.  And I think, from everything I understand -- is that Director Panetta is very much onboard with that process and shares some of the same concerns the secretary does in this regard.  But this ultimate will be his to work out in the coming weeks and months. 

                Yeah, Phil. 

                Q:  And thanks again for being responsive to all of us with your BlackBerry, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

                MR. MORRELL:  [Motioning towards his wife in the audience.] See honey?  (Laughter.) 

                Q:  Very quickly, on Pakistan, you know, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week said that there -- she suggested there could be reductions in aid, military aid to Pakistan, if they were to take some steps.  You talked about political sustainability.  Does the secretary believe the current levels of aid to Pakistan are politically sustainable, given U.S. sentiment toward Pakistan in the wake of the bin Laden killing?  And are there areas where the Pentagon is prepared to start reducing aid to Pakistan? 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I think -- I have not heard the secretary in the last few weeks -- actually, since the bin Laden raid -- I don't think he's been asked directly about the levels of aid, per se.  I think what he's said and what he continues to believe is that we need each other.  This is a complicated relationship.  It requires effort on both of our parts.  We both have a huge interest in the outcome of the terrorist problem on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  But fundamentally, he believes that we've got to work together. 

                And I don't -- I have not heard him being an advocate for reducing our level of involvement or commitment to Pakistan.  I mean, he obviously shares some of the frustration Secretary Clinton and others have mentioned.  But ultimately, you know, he was there when we walked away the last time, and he -- and he saw the tragic consequences of that.  And I think he's been consistent on this over the past four years, that we just can't repeat that mistake. 

                I know that's not precisely what you're looking for from me, but that's -- 

                STAFF:  Geoff, we have time for two more questions.

                MR. MORRELL:  All right, two more.  Let's do Mik.

                Q:  OK.  Wherever it is you may go on your next endeavor, are you going to take Tara with you, or are you going to let her remain here with us? 

                MR. MORRELL:  This is -- this is typical of Mik.  (Laughter.)  He comes in after the opening statement -- (laughter) -- 

                (Cross talk.) 

                Q:  This is the first time you've ever been on time to a briefing.

                MR. MORRELL:  I had to -- I had to impress my family.  What are you talking about?  No, I mentioned that if -- that I've got to figure out how to live without her, or I need to take her with me.  I've got to figure it out in the month of July. 

                Q:  Well, we'd like her to remain, of course.  (Laughter.) 

                MR. MORRELL:  I know you would.  You would have liked her to remain and me to leave years ago.  (Laughter.) 

                Courtney. 

                Q:  Geoff, first of all, I think that's the first goodbye speech I've ever heard where you apologized for your behavior.  (Laughter.)  Thanks for that. 

                MR. MORRELL:  Where anybody has probably apologized for their behavior.

                Q:  Yeah.  But thank you for that.  Thank you for your words.  And if I could ask you one last time for old time's sake -- (laughter) -- how many MRAPs does the U.S. in fact deploy? 

                MR. MORRELL:  Well, I never thought -- 

                (Cross talk.) 

                MR. MORRELL:  Is this the rumor monger?  (Laughter.)  Rumor doctor?  No, we have -- we've bought 27,000 of them, right?  Right, Vandenbrook? 

                Q:  Yeah, about 27 -- (inaudible). 

                (Cross talk.) 

                MR. MORRELL:  At a cost of $45 billion. 

                Hey, listen, seriously, thank you all so much.  It's been a true, true honor to work with all of you.  And I hope we get to stay in touch and maybe work together again in the future.  Take care.  (Applause.)

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