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DOD News Briefing with George Little and Capt. Kirby from the Pentagon

Presenters: Pentagon Press Secretary George Little and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Media Operations Capt. John Kirby
December 08, 2011

            GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon.  Just a couple of announcements before we throw it over to questions. 

            The White House announced today that on Saturday President Obama, Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden will attend the 112th edition of the annual Army versus Navy football game at FedEx field.  I wanted to let you know that Secretary Panetta will also attend. 

            CAPT. JOHN KIRBY:  Otherwise Navy versus Army. 

            MR. LITTLE:  (Laughs.)  More information will be forthcoming as it is available. 

            Also, the Air Force, at 4:00 this afternoon in the briefing room, will conduct a press briefing on issues related to Dover and other Air Force matters that you may want to ask about. 

            With that, I think that's it. 

            Lita. 

            Q:  Acknowledging that this video only just came out and that you're probably still looking at it, can you give us at least an initial assessment as to whether or not the aircraft in the video is legitimately -- could be a Sentinel or not?  And if so, can you give us any idea about whether or not you agree it could have landed somehow -- or somewhat intact? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  No.  (Chuckles.)  No, we're just not -- we've -- certainly we've had a chance to look at the images, and there are folks looking at them.  But we're not going to comment beyond that. 

            Q:  But -- 

            Q:  Do you -- do you believe the Iranians have the drone? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Just -- we're not going to comment about this particular topic. 

            Q:  But you did put out a statement last week saying you'd lost a drone, and you thought this might be it. 

            MR. LITTLE:  We said, you know, all week that, you know, we did have a UAV go missing.  But you know, when it comes to sensitive reconnaissance missions, we call them sensitive for a reason.  So we're not going to add to what we said over the weekend. 

            Q:  But don't you think you at least owe the public at least a general assessment as to whether we should reject out of hand that this is -- you know, that this is -- this could be one of these aircraft, if it's -- looks like a mock-up or a model or -- shouldn't there be at least some truth-telling here that would at least put some reality to the claims? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have anything to add to what John said. 

            And that is that we're not going to comment one way or the other at this -- at this stage. 

            Q:  But to be clear on that, you're not -- you can't call this a fake; that you can't say categorically what the Iranians have put out is a fake. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not commenting at all. 

            Q:  John, when you said that you have people looking at it right now, what exactly are they looking for?   

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I just mean folks are -- you know, folks are obviously looking at the imagery as well, but -- and we certainly wouldn't even -- no matter what you might end up thinking about the imagery, I don't think you're going to -- you know, you're going to get confirmation one way or another here.  I mean, we're just not going to talk about these kinds of missions and these kinds of capabilities. 

            Q:  Why are military personnel looking at Iranian video of a CIA mission? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I think it's -- I wouldn't characterize it just as military personnel looking.  We've seen the imagery.  There are folks that are looking at it.  But again, we're just not going to get into the specifics of these particular kinds of missions.  We're just not. 

            Q:  You did acknowledge that a drone went missing in Iran.  Was the president -- 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  No, we did not. 

            MR. LITTLE:  We acknowledged that a drone went missing. 

            Q:  OK.  Was the president ever briefed on plans to retrieve or destroy the missing drone? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to comment on -- on that either. 

            Q:  Is the drone you reported missing still missing? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  We haven't recovered the drone that we believe is missing. 

            Q:  Have you asked anyone for it back? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm unaware of any request for the return of a UAV that went missing. 

            Q:  On that missing drone, what kind of latent data are you concerned that it possesses? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to comment on the specific capabilities and technical aspects of platforms that are tied to sensitive reconnaissance missions. 

            Q:  Do you think that it might get in the wrong hands, the U.S. technology? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Technology falling into the wrong hands?  Well, separate and apart from this specific instance -- I'm not confirming anything -- when U.S. technology falls into the wrong hands, it's always a concern. 

            Q:  Without giving us too much on the technology, can you say if this is a bigger deal than what was lost in the bin Laden raid with the helicopter tail?  Is this more sensitive? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to make that kind of characterization here. 

            Q:  And just a follow-up of that, Iranians have also claimed that this drone was used for a key -- (inaudible) -- raid.  Do you have any comment on that claim? 

            MR. LITTLE:  No. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  No, we don't. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Next. 

            Q:  Different question, on China:  China's president has said that he told his navy, get ready for a war in the South Asia Sea -- so there might be strikes somewhere in the region.  And many countries are now worried.  Do you have any comments on that? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I think if I read his comments correctly, it was, you know, making preparations to be ready for combat and operational necessity.  I don't think we read this as, you know, get ready for war.  And as I said the other day, nobody is looking for that kind of conflict with China.  We -- Undersecretary for Policy Michele Fluornoy is over there now in defense consultative talks, which have been going in a very positive direction.  This is a -- this is a country that we have been trying very hard to develop a good, constructive military relationship with.  And we are -- we're taking steps in the right direction, and it is moving in the right direction. 

            And it's also a very big country, an economic power. 

            And the peaceful rise of China is not only good for the region, it's good for the world.  And this is -- this is a country that we want to have a good, constructive, productive relationship with. 

            Q:  Are you alerting any of the countries in the region or your allies because of Chinese -- these comments and also military buildup? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  No, there's been no alerting of our allies and partners of these comments. 

            Look, I mean, navies exist to protect, you know, national security interests of their countries.  That's what they do.  All navies have to be ready for operation.  Our navy is ready for operations.  We certainly wouldn't begrudge the Chinese government from wanting to ensure that their navy was fit for sea. 

            Q:  If I may have one more in the region, as far as Pakistan is concerned, are you concerned about Pakistan's president?  He has gone to Dubai.  And now do you see any internal situation, any kind of --  

            MR. LITTLE:  When it comes to reports of the health of the Pakistani president, we're certainly not going to comment for the government of Pakistan.  If he is suffering from illness, we certainly hope that he recovers, and we wish him well. 

            Phil.

            Q:  Just back to China for a second.  Does this -- do these ongoing talks mean that the flap over the Taiwan arms sale is now behind the U.S. and China?  And there apparently were several meetings that were -- that were canceled or suspended or postponed or something because of this flap that we didn't know about beforehand.  Have those been rescheduled or will they be rescheduled? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Certainly encouraged that these talks went on.  And the reports that we've gotten back, you've seen that they've been -- they've been good.  Secretary Flournoy described them as candid and productive.  So we certainly hope that that kind of dialogue can continue. 

            And as for decisions that the Chinese government may or may not have made as a result of ire that allegedly they expressed as a result of the Taiwan arms modernization decisions, you'd have to talk to them. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I will note that the Chinese vice president will be visiting the United States next year, and we're looking forward to that visit. 

            Courtney. 

            Q:  Was Secretary Panetta briefed on these new allegations that more than 270 -- remains of more than 270 service members were actually dumped in a landfill?  And was he briefed, and when?  And can you tell us about his reaction to this story? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary is aware of today's report, and he's aware of the various investigations and reviews that have been attached to lapses at Dover Port Mortuary.  He is committed, obviously, to the principle that our fallen heroes and their families deserve the very best in the way that they are treated.  And he has asked that an outside experts panel, headed by General Abizaid, take a look at practices at Dover.  And General Abizaid has begun his work, and the broader panel will soon begin its work.  He has asked Secretary Donley to review the disciplinary actions in this matter, and there's also the ongoing Office of Special Counsel Investigation. 

            So there are a variety of factors in play here.  And the secretary, at the end of the day, is committed to doing all he can to protect the important principle of remaining true to our fallen. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  And I think he -- also safe to say, he fully supports the policy that's been in place since 2008, to dispose of these remains at sea -- burial at sea, with military respect and honors paid to them. 

            And I think it's also important to remember that it was -- it was employees at the Dover Port Mortuary who, on their own volition, came up with that suggestion, that recommendation, to make that policy change back in 2008. 

            That wasn't something imposed upon them.  It wasn't the result of some IG report.  They came up with this on their own. 

            And I'm not saying that press reporting has been malicious or anything like that, but I want to make sure that people understand the folks that work there are proud of the work they do, and they take it very seriously.  And I think -- I think we do owe them a debt of gratitude for the very hard, grueling, tough work that is and the fact that they themselves recommended this change back three years ago. 

            Q:  Did Secretary Panetta express any concern or even anger about the fact that he wasn't briefed specifically about this landfill issue during the Air Force briefings before the OSC report came out?  When the Air Force came to him and was explaining this whole investigation, did he express any anger at that, that he wasn't told? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I guess I would reiterate what John said, and that is that the landfill policy ended in 2008.  The Air Force investigation into lapses at Dover covered instances post-2008, as I understand it. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Yeah. 

            MR. LITTLE:  So the secretary supports the recent Air Force investigation, and he wants to see all this move forward in a way that allows the Air Force to do its work and to avoid the kinds of lapses that we did witness.  And those lapses were regrettable. 

            Q:  Does he support the Air Force's decision not to notify the families of the 274 fallen service members whose incinerated remains ended up in the landfill? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Does he -- 

            Q:  The Air Force has said they're not going to notify these families that -- almost 300 troops, their remains ended up in a landfill.  Does he support that decision not to tell the families? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I think he understands the difficult position that the Air Force is in in this regard. 

            As you know, Craig, from your own reporting, that the families make a determination about what's to be done in the case there are remains that turn up after they have been -- after they have received the remains of their loved one, if there's anything extra beyond that. And they make -- the families make a determination about whether they want to be notified of that and whether they want to be in charge of the ultimate location and treatment of those remains.  And so he understands that there's a limit to how much the Air Force can on their own go out and reach out to these families.  There's real constraints on them. 

            I would add that they do have a call center set up so that families who, in the light of the reporting that you all have done, do have concerns can reach out.  And I think you're going to hear more about that this afternoon.  I don't think, you know, it's for us to get into too much of the details here, but they do have the ability now to reach out and get information if they want it. 

            Q:  But understanding these constraints, I mean, these families did ask the military to make appropriate disposition should any remains be recovered later on, but obviously none of them knew these would end up in a landfill.  Don't you think -- or does the secretary think the department has an obligation to inform these families that these remains were treated in this way? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I think the secretary is comfortable the way the Air Force has handled this.  And I'd also add that -- and he said this for himself very well -- that his thoughts and condolences go to all these families who have lost young men and women in the last 10 years of war.  I mean, this isn't about not showing respect and sympathy for the extreme sacrifice that they have suffered.  It's about making sure that the remains of the fallen are treated as respectfully as we can do. 

            And again, I -- you know, I go back to what I said before.  I mean, the folks there at the mortuary recognized that the procedures in place at that time were not appropriate, and made the recommendations and the changes on their own. 

            Q:  But can't they -- Congressman Rush Holt and other critics have come out today and said the Pentagon just doesn't get it, and talked about the insensitivity and the dishonor involved in this and the series of revelations, the kind of whiplash of new information. How do you respond to critics like the congressman? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I don't think there is another federal agency in this town, I don't think there's another institution in the country that doesn't understand more than we do about how to properly treat the remains of our fallen troops. 

            Q:  We're not -- we're not questioning your attitude, Captain. We're questioning the institutional -- 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I'm answering for the institution. 

            Q:  Can I just clarify just -- on what you said -- George about this? Was the secretary aware of the -- I guess the extent of the number of remains that had been disposed of at the landfill prior to today's reporting?  And I guess, so, is there a concern as to whether or not the Air Force has been up front with all of the information that it needed to be early on, or is it just -- is there a concern that they haven't been up front until pushed by other organizations? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary feels that the Air Force has been forthcoming with information related to Dover.  They're continuing to look at practices and policies there.  And he looks forward to receiving regular updates. 

            Q:  So was this a surprise this morning or not? 

            Q:  Yeah. 

            MR. LITTLE:  The -- 

            Q:  Did he know the number before today's reporting? 

            Q:  Was Craig's story a surprise to the secretary or not? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I have not put that specific question to him. 

            Q:  In his brief today, though, he said specifically that he -- that he was aware of -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  He was aware of the -- but he was aware of the story. 

            Q:  Another subject? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yes. 

            Q:  What's the latest on the ISAF NATO -- including U.S. forces -- supply routes from Pakistan?  And how long ISAF, including U.S. forces, can survive if it is shut down? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The war effort in Afghanistan continues, of course. And we're well-aware of the closures and potential impacts.  To date there's been no significant impact to our ability to provide for the war effort.  That being said, we do believe that these are important supply routes, and we hope that in the near future they can be reopened. 

            General Allen and ISAF have, you know, made -- you know, there are always contingency plans, as you would expect for logistics efforts.  And their planning continues.  But again, we hope that these supply routes become available to us once again. 

            Q:  If I could follow up -- 

            Q:  According to the -- just to follow up, according to the statistical -- (inaudible) -- 40 percent -- more than 40 percent of your supplies come through that route.  So how long can you sustain, and what is the -- your plans -- (off mic) -- 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  It's actually only 30 percent of supplies come through those two routes.  And as I've said before, General Allen is comfortable that right now he has what he needs where and when he needs it.  And so there have been no major muscle movements to alter the flow of logistics. 

            But as George said very well, you know, logistics is about redundancy and it's about having alternatives, and we certainly have those.  But that doesn't diminish the fact that, you know, we would certainly like to see those gates reopen.  That's a decision that obviously is up to the government of Pakistan. 

            Q:  Have you -- 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  And the other thing I'd add is, I mean, again, this is a war, so we're going to make sure the troops get what they need when and where they need it. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Spencer 

            Q:  On that same subject, has the secretary or has General Dempsey been in touch with any of their counterparts in Pakistan this week to see what they can smooth over or heal?  Have the Pakistanis made any additional requests for getting U.S. forces for and support the embassy or something out or close any additional bases?  And if you're in the process of closing anything, like Shamsi, or vacating, where does that stand? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't think we're -- we're not going to comment on Shamsi.  But a number of U.S. officials since the recent tragedy on the border have reached out to Pakistani officials -- Secretary Clinton, Chairman Dempsey, General Allen.  Secretary Panetta has obviously been monitoring the situation closely.  He has not reached, to this point, to Pakistani officials, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility that he'll do that in the near future. 

            Q:  Have there been any additional requests to vacate? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm sorry? 

            Q:  Have there been any additional requests of U.S. forces to vacate any other areas that they're -- 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Not that we're aware of. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Not that I'm aware of, yeah. 

            Tom.

            Q:  (Off mic) -- on the distribution question. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  With the two gates from Pakistan closed, obviously the northern distribution route becomes even more important.  No surprise to you that President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have not been saying the nicest things about America and its policies lately.  Have you all gotten any indication from the Russians that they are taking another look at access to the northern distribution route? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I think we've seen those press report -- those press reports to that effect, Tom, but we haven't seen any movement in that direction, no. 

            Q:  (Off mic.) 

            (Cross talk.) 

            Q:  Last week, we talked about the Border Coordination Center since -- and the Pakistanis' participation -- continuing participation; since then, apparently they've pulled back.  How is that affecting the coordination on the -- on the border for the U.S. and Afghan? And have you been told when they're going to come back? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know specifically when personnel have been pulled back will return, but they're not entirely vacated.  That's an important point.  Naturally, we would like for the Border Coordination Centers to be fully manned.  The whole purpose of these coordination centers is to try to avoid the kinds of incidents that we saw.  So the Pakistanis can certainly move personnel if they wish, but we would like to return to business as usual in the coordination centers. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  It only serves everyone's interest to have them fully staffed. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Mike. 

            Q:  Is there any discussions either in this building or in the administration as a whole about the potential for changing the mission in Afghanistan next year post the surge of troops all coming out? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The focus right now and the state of policy of this administration is to support the war effort, to transition to Afghan lead responsibility and to take our surge forces down by the end of the summer.  That's what our focus is.  It's on supporting the Afghans and going after the enemy.  And we believe that effort is going very well.   

            Challenges remain.  The secretary has very strong confidence in General Allen and what he's doing, what he's pursuing on the military front and how he's engaging the Afghan partners and our other partners in the coalition. 

            So that's where the -- that's where U.S. policy is at this stage. And it's important to note that we're in an ongoing series of discussions with the Afghans on the nature of a -- of a long-term strategic relationship, and we hope to move forward with the Afghans on that front. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I'd just add that the mission hasn't changed, and I can tell you that the troops over there are focused on the mission they've been assigned.  That's what they're doing.  But in any kind of a conflict like this, a counterinsurgency, you know, you -- if you aren't changing over time, you're not doing it right.  But there's been no decisions made and no directives to the commanders in the field to change what they're doing and the orders that they've been given. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Tony

            Q:  Any -- (off mic) -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Hold on. 

            Tony.

            Q:  Yeah, I wanted to ask you a more domestic question.  The secretary was supposed to visit the F-35 test center yesterday, the most expensive weapons program in your portfolio and in history, I guess.  I want to ask you, has the secretary been briefed on a new quick-look report that was prepared for Kendall last week that laid out 13 major test issues with this plane, and it suggested that this building give serious reconsideration to the procurement and production planning rate?  Has he been briefed on it, and what's his reaction to it? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary is aware of the report.  The -- and he looks forward to returning to Patuxent River, by the way, sometime early next year.  He believes that the F-35 program is important to pursue, that it will give us capabilities that we need to maintain our edge in certain areas. 

            So, you know, again, there may be issues regarding the F-35 program.  Any large weapons program generally has issues from time to time.  And we are aware of certain issues with the F-35 program, but we believe it's important to continue to invest in the program. 

            Now, when it comes to the budget, look -- and this is where I think you might be headed, Tony -- no decisions have been made with respect to anything on the budget.  And I would just -- I want to make that clear. 

            Q:  Well, I think this report lays out a lot of heretofore undisclosed issues with the airplane that you -- your organizations haven't acknowledged before.  Is the report being looked at and taken into consideration in budget planning when you're going to increase production from 32 airplanes to 42 to 62 to 108 by 2016.  Is it being looked at, factored into discussions on the budget? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Look, we're taking a look at the budget in a very strategic manner. 

            Q:  I know that. 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK?  Yeah, what capabilities do we need to support the strategy that we're developing?  And we'll have more insight into that strategy in the coming weeks, OK?  So this is not about any one particular program.  We obviously have to look at large programs like F-35. 

            Q:  So that's where the money is, is Willie Sutton said. 

            MR. LITTLE:  All right, OK, and, no, I got it.  We're the sports, I guess, today. 

            Q:  He is. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yeah, yeah.  (Laughs, laughter.)  And we understand that F-35 is a large program.  We believe that it's important to retain the F-35 capability, OK. 

            Now, you know, in the context of the budget, I'm not ready to make any announcements, but -- go ahead, John.  You want to add? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  No, I just think it's safe to say that we're going to -- as we make decisions on any program -- and you're referring to decisions that, frankly, you know, we're not prepared to be talking about right now.  But as we make decisions on any major program, you're going to make those decisions based on as much information as you -- as you can and as you have -- as you have available to you. 

            STAFF:  (Off mic) -- go ahead. 

            Q:  Iraq:  Prime Minister Maliki coming next week -- is Secretary Panetta going to be meeting with him; general Dempsey going to be meeting with him?  Are there any plans for any sort of follow-on agreements with Iraq on -- related to any sort of military support the U.S. might provide related to air defenses or even exercises and so on?  Can you fill us in on the plans for that, please? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  There are no plans right now for either the secretary or the chairman to meet with the prime minister.  And I'd refer you, really, to the White House on comments for how that trip's going to unfold and what the -- you know, what the specific parameters are. 

            We certainly are glad that he's coming.  This is an important country and an important part of the world that we want to have a good strategic partnership moving forward on, and all that kind of dialogue helps contribute to that. 

            We've got time for just one more, guys.  Kevin. 

            Q:  On authorization, has the secretary done any kind of outreach about the detainee language and the veto threat?  We heard that McCain heard from FBI Director Mueller, and so have several of the GOP members.  Any anger at all, or any reaction to the -- McCain's comments that there could be room for changing the language actually? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get into a lot of specifics on pending legislation, but we made our clear -- our views known.  The secretary's been clear, in writing and otherwise, when it comes to some of the provisions in this legislation.  And I would simply point you to what we've said before about the need to retain flexibility when it comes to dealing with suspected terrorists and other detainees. 

            Q:  (Off mic.) 

            Q:  Could I ask you to clarify just one thing you said on Dover? When you said that the secretary feels the Air Force has been forthcoming with information, we're you talking specifically forthcoming with him, or with the public that the Air Force has been forthcoming with the information? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think he -- certainly your question was directed at him, I think, and whether he feels like the information that has gone to him has been -- has been accurate.  And he feels like the Air Force has been forthcoming with him. 

            MR. LITTLE:  That's right, yeah. 

            Q:  Does he feel the same, that they've been forthcoming with the public and with the families about the information? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary, I think, feels, you know, as if -- and the Air Force is going to share more today.  That's part of the process, right, of sharing more information about Dover with the public.  The secretary, you know, has confidence that the Air Force can deliver the appropriate amount of information both to families and to the public.  And he's committed to that principle. 

            Thank you. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Thanks, everybody. 

            Q:  John -- (off mic) -- (laughter) --

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