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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
March 21, 2012

            GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon.  

            I have one brief scheduling announcement to make before taking your questions.  On Monday, March 26th, Secretary Panetta will travel to Ottawa, Ontario, to meet with Canada's Minister of National Defense Peter MacKay and Mexico's Secretary of National Defense General Galvan and Secretary of the Navy Admiral Saynaz.  This is an historic meeting, the first time that secretaries of defense from the United States, Canada and Mexico will meet together to discuss continental defense issues such as counternarcotics cooperation, support to humanitarian assistance and disaster response operations and trilateral support for North and South America's defense institutions.  

            Following these meetings, the leaders will answer questions from the media, which I'm sure will exclusively be focused on hemispheric defense progress.  

            Our host nation, Canada, will provide further logistical information later this week.  

            And with that, unless John has something to add, we'll go ahead and take your questions.  

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- a couple of questions on the Robert Bales matter.  Can you give us any indication of when charges will be filed? And secondly, Secretary McHugh on the Hill today said that he has directed the Army to review all the Army's mental health programs in light of the concern about wartime stress.  Is Secretary Panetta considering any kind of a military-wide review of those programs?  

            DR. LITTLE:  On the issue of charges, I don't have a specific date or time when they may be filed.  On the broader issue, though, of whether -- of how this department is viewing mental health and stress on the force, this is something that, separate and apart from any specific instance, is a priority for us to look at.  

            And the secretary is fully aware of concerns that have been expressed about stress on the force.  He talked a bit about this last week in Afghanistan.  And it's something that he's kept his finger on the pulse on for some time.  So I -- I'm unaware of any review that has been launched at this time.  But it's something that we're bearing in mind.  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  And he's fully supportive of what Secretary McHugh is doing.  

            DR. LITTLE:  Sure.  

            Q:  As far as the review by the Pakistani parliament is concerned, did you receive officially any copy of the number of controversial demands they are asking?  One is that -- (inaudible) -- drone attacks must end immediately, and also, second, that U.S. must apologize to the Pakistanis for killing those 24, among other things, before they even talk to the U.S. and open up the doors of the supplies -- routes. 

            DR. LITTLE:  I'm unaware that the Pakistani parliamentary review has been completed.  And it's probably -- it's an ongoing process.  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  It hasn't been completed.  So there's -- it's an ongoing process, as far as we understand.  

            Q:  Today's Washington Post has already reported, and Pakistani media has already been reporting.  And the review has already been finalized, and the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan was already handed over with a copy of the review.  

            DR. LITTLE:  We always, as a matter of course, welcome dialogue with our Pakistani partners.  As we've discussed on many occasions, we realize that there have been bumps in the road over the past year or so.  This is something we want to get beyond.  And we believe that we can enhance cooperation.  

            Look, we're cooperating every day with the Pakistanis on a number of fronts.  

            We share common goals and common interests, particularly when it comes to the counterterrorism efforts.  

            So this is a critical issue for us.  We are obviously willing to discuss with our Pakistani partners the outcome of the parliamentary review at the end of the day, and we'll see where that goes.  But it would be premature for me to speculate on what the Pakistani parliament may share with us. 

            Q:  But I think, just quickly -- follow quickly -- let's say whatever review and whatever official statement you get from them, or a copy, what they are saying is -- or I'll ask you -- as far as drone attacks are concerned now inside Pakistan, it's because there are still -- you believe there is still terrorism or al-Qaedas are still there?  

            And second, since Pakistan has not apologized to the U.S. for keeping Osama bin Laden and helping and keeping those terrorists and al-Qaedas inside Pakistan -- now they're asking you to apologize for these soldiers' killing -- are you willing to -- any kind of adjustment there?  Or are you still asking the Pakistanis -- they should apologize for keeping Osama bin Laden?  

            DR. LITTLE:  Let me try to unpack that a little bit.  The United States and Pakistan have a common interest in thwarting terrorists. It's important that we work together to fight al-Qaeda and its militant allies.  We believe that American counterterrorism operations in the region are important to taking al-Qaeda and other terrorists off the street.  

            There has been great success, and we've had great success working with the Pakistanis in going after terrorists.  It's important to remember that the terrorist threat is not -- that emanates from that part of the world does not involve solely threats against the United States.  Pakistanis have borne the brunt of terrorism.  Pakistani blood has been spilled.  And we recognize that this is a common fight and we have to work together.  

            And we're going to continue to pursue that cooperation, especially in the counterterrorism realm.  

            Q:  Could we go back to Bales, please?  There's been some reporting out of the region, out of Kandahar, that some residents of one of the small towns there -- they're alleging that after some sort of an attack on U.S. forces in early March, some American soldiers, and maybe some Afghan soldiers as well, lined up a bunch of the men in the village and threatened them.  And said, you know, we're going to retaliate because of what happened.  

            Is there any -- is there -- does the U.S. military, or ISAF, anyone have any evidence that there was, number one, an attack in that area of Panjwaii against U.S. military vehicles, convoy, anything in early March that would have prompted that?  And is there any reason to believe that they did this to these villagers?  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  We're aware of the reporting that's come out of Kandahar, these press reports.  And I know ISAF is looking into that and of course investigators are certainly looking into a whole realm of issues regarding this case.  What I can tell you now is that we don't have any indication that either the attack that's being described occurred, and certainly no evidence that there were any threats of retaliation by U.S. soldiers.  But investigators are looking at everything right now.  

            Q:  Can I follow that?  There were reports as well, coming from his -- Bales' attorney that Bales may have witnessed a fellow soldier badly injured the day or days before the murders happened.  Have you guys been able to establish whether or not any other soldiers from that base were injured in the days prior?  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Certainly can't -- certainly can't rule out that something like that might have happened.  But again, investigators are working through the whole realm of facts surrounding this case.  

            And we're just not going to get out ahead of that work in terms of trying to investigate here in a public forum what may or may not have been motivations.  

            Q:  But we're not asking specifically, in this instance, about -- take it separate and apart from the investigation.  Can you report that there was any attack or anything like Larry was talking -- (audio break) -- U.S. military was injured?  There was one report that someone had lost their leg in an attack in the days -- I mean, just separate and apart from that, is there any operational reporting that proves there was an attack like that in the days leading up?  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Well, I'll just say it the same way.  I can't rule out -- I can't rule it out right now for you that this individual IED incident occurred or didn't occur.  I can't rule that out.  We're taking a look at the whole realm of issues and incidents in the days leading up to the murders.  And so I just -- I can't rule it out for you.  

            I can also tell you, on your other -- on your other question about the vehicle IED attack that's alleged and then the follow-on claims of retaliation by soldiers, we don't have any indication that there was that sort of a vehicle IED incident and certainly no evidence to support that soldiers were involved in threats of retaliation.  But again, we got to let the investigators do their job. That's what they're trying to get answers to.  

            Q:  So can I -- could I just follow up on that?  I mean, so are you saying that you've checked with ISAF; they've gone through the SIGACTS reports and are saying that in the days before the incident, there were no vehicle IED attacks in that vicinity?  I mean, just so I understand.  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I've been as clear as I can be, David.  I'm not going to -- you know, I'm not going to go through chain of custody here.  We just -- we've -- we're certainly interested in these reports too, these press reports.  It's not like we ignore them.  And we're just -- we just don't have any indication right now that those -- that what's being claimed happened, happened.  

            Q:  But you can't say the same thing about the other events, that you have any indications -- that there's no indication of that?  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I can't -- as I said, I can't just -- the one that Larry was asking about -- you can't rule that out, but --  

            Q:  You're sort of ruling out the other one by saying there's no evidence it happened, so I'm wondering why they can't make a similar judgment on the other one. 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I can't -- I'm not going to go any further than I just did.  

            DR. LITTLE:  Dan.  

            Q:  Do you have anything further about these reports that this shooter in France was arrested or detained in Kandahar previously, several months ago, and do you have anything on that?  

            DR. LITTLE:  We don't have any information at this point that there's any link such as that.  Given, though, the media reports, however, we are looking into it, and if we have an update to provide on that, we'll let you know.  

            Q:  And then separately on Afghanistan, what is the latest on the -- on the future of private security contractors?  And there's a lot of people expressing concern that this will affect NGOs and a lot of nonmilitary operations that are crucial to the whole mission.  Do you have any more clarity on what's happening at this point?  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  No.  

            Q:  Are you concerned about the effect it has on all of the work, the development work that gets done, that it may not get done if there isn't security for those NGOs?  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I think we're working -- we're working closely with the Karzai government here on moving ahead.  And we -- this isn't -- this isn't -- you know, the original forces were couched as an ‘extension’ of some sort.  It's really less that than an indication that the -- that the process of transition to Afghan lead for security for these companies is at work.  And we're confident that we're going to get there over time.  

            I mean, obviously, you -- individual companies or groups have got to make decisions for themselves, but we are -- we're very confident that it's moving in the right direction and that -- and that the Afghans will be capable of providing adequate security for these folks.  

            DR. LITTLE:  Let me just make a broader point on Afghanistan.  I mean, the fact that we're having these discussions with the Afghans about detention facilities; we entered into a detention facility MOU with them recently.  We're discussing night operations.    

            As the secretary said last week in Kabul, he's confident that we're going to reach a strategic partnership agreement.  This reflects a strong partnership with Afghanistan, strong dialogue with our Afghan partners and is part and parcel of the strategy that we've been implementing for some time.  The whole goal of what we've been doing with the Afghans and our coalition partners is to transition over a period of time so that the Afghans can assert responsibility throughout their country for their own security and to govern themselves.  

            So I think that the discussions, whether it's over private security contractors or night operations or detention facilities, this is a sign of progress.    

            CAPT. KIRBY:  (Inaudible.)  

            Q:  Quick question on the budget:  House Republicans have mentioned that in the FY '13 cycle they plan on making requests for certain weapons and programs that could potentially be used in an action against Iran.  They've been pushing for it pretty hard on the Hill.    

            What I wanted to ask you is as the department sort of starts putting together these new program requests, starts moving them to Congress, can you give me an idea of what kind of programs are going to be included that could fall into that category?  We've heard some Air Force folks talking about something like the massive ordnance penetrator, the MOP, as a weapon that could be used in those operations.  Can you kind of put a little more meat on the bones with that?  

            DR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to comment specifically on the classified reprogramming requests and media reports that are attached to them.  We regularly engage with Congress to look at the reprogramming across a wide variety of needs throughout the Department of Defense, and I will leave it there.  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  (Not enough meat?).  

            Q:  What --  

            DR. LITTLE:  Kevin?  

            Q:  What about -- (off mic) -- topic?  

            DR. LITTLE:  All right, OK, sure.  

            Q:  On BRAC, we've already got now members in both houses, both parties, strong opposition to the BRAC idea and, just this morning, the authorizing subcommittee chair and ranking member all came out in saying they're -- they will not support it for 2013.  So -- and one of the reasons they give is because of the European and Asia basing hasn't been settled yet.   

            So, two questions:  One, what is the status of the Pacific realignment, which has to come first, the -- with getting -- (inaudible) -- plan?  And secondly, how much does the Pentagon have to fight for BRAC in 2013 as to -- part of the budget plan that you submitted or is there already -- or, is it already time for Plan B?  

            DR. LITTLE:  Well, again, BRAC was not part of the $487 billion proposal that we made to the Congress, but we thought it was a responsible thing to do, given the budgetary pressures that we're all under.  We were really trying to exercise good fiscal discipline, and we thought it would be important to at least put BRAC on the table.    

            And we maintain that view.  We believe that it's important for us to look at our military infrastructure, to see if additional -- call it, savings, can be achieved.  So, I think that's where we are on BRAC at this -- at this stage.  Kevin?  

            Q:  Can I follow up on that?   

            Q:  (Off mic) --  

            Q:  You know, there's been -- some of the DOD officials testifying on the Hill have said that they can go ahead and shut down or downsize bases, but what -- they don't get BRAC authorization. Well, the 1977 law that, you know --   

            Q:  Right.  

            Q:  -- that basically set up the need for a BRAC limits to your ability to do anything that affects more than 300 civilian personnel. So how much can you really do without -- you know, without a congressional authorization?    

            DR. LITTLE:  Well, as we've seen through previous BRAC processes, this is a conversation that needs to take place not just inside the Department of Defense but with the Congress and with local communities.  We're aware of the concerns raised by BRAC.  But again, as a -- as a fiscal matter, we think it's important to at least look at additional cost savings through this process.    

            Kevin, did you have a follow-up?  I'm sorry.  

            Q:  Yeah.  I mean, it sounds like this is just a suggestion by the Pentagon, an offering, versus, you know -- you know, the -- all the DOD officials here today, we're saying that bringing down 72,000 in the Army and all the other -- and all the rest of it not only is -- you know, not only would it be nice to have a BRAC but would require pulling down, you know, all these facilities and billions in savings.    

            So is there any type of -- you know, is there -- do you guys have any kind of timeline of when this needs to happen or what -- you'd want to happen?  Or is it really just that you're saying, as you seem to be saying --  

            DR. LITTLE:  I'm not suggesting that this is just a notion or an idea.  This is an actual proposal that we're making that the Congress consider a BRAC process, because, as you rightly point out, it's not just about reducing the strength of the -- or the size of the force. There is a great deal of infrastructure that supports the force, and if we're drawing down the force, it makes sense to look at that infrastructure to see where cost savings can be achieved.    

            So I don't have a particular time frame for you at this stage, but certainly we think it's important to look at BRAC in the coming years.     

            Q:  George, I apologize if this came up during his trip, but did Secretary Panetta support the public release of the joint ISAF-Afghan investigation into the Quran burning?  

            DR. LITTLE:  The decisions on release of investigations connected to the Quran burning -- those decisions have been -- not been made yet.  At some point in the future we do expect that the findings will be released.  

            And he supports release of the findings.  And we'll have to work with our Afghan partners on that particular investigation.  Of course, we have our own U.S. investigation into what happened.  

            This is a very serious incident.  You heard the secretary's words and saw them as well when it occurred.  And it's important that we get to the bottom of it.  

            Q:  So what's the status of the U.S.' own investigation?  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  It's ongoing.  

            DR. LITTLE:  It's ongoing.  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Investigator's still -- he's still doing his work. It's not been submitted up the chain to General Allen yet.  

            MR. LITTLE:  John?  

            Q:  Yesterday the president of South Korea said that his government is in talks with the U.S. about significantly extending the range of South Korea's surface-to-surface missiles so that they could cover all of North Korea.  Can you confirm that those talks are taking place?  And if so, would you be inclined to support that, or do you think that that action could be destabilizing?  

            DR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get into reports of private discussions with our Republic of Korea counterparts.  But it is always a goal with our Korean partners to ensure that we do everything we can to maintain the defense of South Korea and to promote stability on the Korean Peninsula.  And anything that harms that prospect is troublesome for both of us.  We have an unwavering commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea, and we're not going to back down from it.  

            Q:  But these aren't reports.  I mean, the president of South Korea said that these talks are happening.  So why can't DOD --  

            DR. LITTLE:  We're always in dialogue with our South Korean partners on a wide range of issues.  We have a large military presence, as you know, in the Republic of Korea.  And we're always looking for ways to enhance defense cooperation and ways of promoting enhanced stability of South Korea and stability in the region.  

            John, anything? Jennifer?  

            Q:  Does the Defense Department wish that the Haqqani group be listed as a terror group?  And -- on the website of the State Department. And if not, why not?  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I don't -- I don't think that we have a position to state on that today.  And so I wouldn't -- I'm not going to -- I don't have any comment for that on -- today.    

            What I will tell you is that military commanders in the field and certainly leaders here in the Pentagon view the Haqqani network as a significant threat to our efforts in Afghanistan and to the region writ large, but specifically to the coalition and to Afghan forces. And we continue to hit them hard every single day, particularly in RC East.  But I'm not going to -- I don't have any comment on the designation.  

            DR. LITTLE:  Courtney --  

            Q:  I have another Bales question.  His defense attorney has said that either he or some members of his staff may try to go to Kandahar themselves to investigate the scene.  Would the U.S. military provide security for them on a trip like that?  Is there any responsibility -- (off mic) -- or --   

            CAPT. KIRBY:  No idea.  We'll have to get back to you on that.  

            DR. LITTLE:  Yes.  

            Q:  Thanks.  It is reported that the United States has a -- has a plan to send an inspection team to cover -- recover the remains of U.S. soldiers in North Korea.  Can you confirm that? 

            DR. LITTLE:  That we have a team in --   

            Q:  Yeah.  

            DR. LITTLE:  -- in North Korea?  

            Q:  Inspection team.    

            DR. LITTLE:  To --   

            Q:  (Inaudible) --   

            DR. LITTLE:  -- to recover remains of our -- of our fallen in North Korea?  We have suspended that effort for the moment.  

            Remains recovery is obviously a top priority for this department.   

            We have thousands of service members who are unaccounted for.  This includes service members from the Korean War.  

            We have suspended that effort because we believe that North Korea has not acted appropriately in recent days and weeks and that it's important for them to return to the standards of behavior that the international community has called for.  We do hope at some point to be able to re-engage the effort.  As I said, this is a top priority, but it's suspended for now.  

            Q:  Do you have any time frame for the -- (inaudible)? 

            DR. LITTLE:  I do not have a time frame for you.  

            Q:  Is this inappropriate behavior related to the discovery of remains, or are you talking about --  

            DR. LITTLE:  More broadly.  More broadly, David.  

            Q:  Talking about the rocket launch, (maybe ?)?  

            DR. LITTLE:  Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, for instance, there, you know, are suggestions that the North Koreans might launch ballistic missiles.  That would be in contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and that is unacceptable behavior.  

            Q:  George, can I follow up on that?  I mean, you had meetings in Thailand specifically to reopen this operation in North Korea.  And it was very involved.  I mean, are you saying that there is linkage between all of this in the past, that -- because in the past this was seen as being separate.  Now you're linking them.  Is that what you're saying?  

            DR. LITTLE:  Well, North Korea -- as I said, we hope to engage with them on remains recovery efforts.  That's important.  But when there are suggestions that they might launch ballistic missiles, when they make bellicose statements about South Korea and engage in actions that could be construed as provocative, we think that it's not the right time to undertake this effort.  So we're hopeful that we will get past this period and that we can continue the remains recovery effort.  

            But it is on hold for the moment.  

            Q:  Have they been informed of that?  

            DR. LITTLE:  They're aware.    

            Q:  George, does that also mean that the delivery of food aid, which was promised just less than a month or so ago, is also on hold?  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  Look, fundamentally, this is about them meeting international obligations, which if they conduct this launch they said they're going to conduct, violates those obligations.  And we have to hold them account -- to account for that, and we are.  And I believe there will be other repercussions as a result of their continued pursuit of this particular launch, which could include that.  

            Q:  (Off mic.)  

            DR. LITTLE:  Oh, I don't have any specific date.  We can get back to you on that, Courtney.  

            Q:  This team was supposed to be in the North Korea in March. Can you confirm that they were never actually physically in North Korea, or were they -- and were they told to come back to the U.S. when they were physically on the ground?  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I don't think we know the exact disposition of the team, where and when they are exactly.  I mean, we can find out for you.  The bigger point is the one George made, which is that it's an important priority for us as a department to account for those mission service members and that North Korea now has an opportunity to meet its obligations and its commitments.  It's -- you know, you this is -- this is their choice.  And we call on them to do that.  

            Q:  It'll be sometime next month, something?  

            DR. LITTLE:  We don't have a time frame for you.  Joe?  

            Q:  Yes.  On Syria?  

            MR. LITTLE:  Yeah.  

            Q:  Do you have any information about the latest suicide attacks in Syria?  I mean, lately we heard DNI James Clapper accusing al-Qaeda of being behind those attacks.  

            Do you -- do you -- do you think al-Qaeda still is responsible for conducting these attacks? 

            DR. LITTLE:  I wouldn't contradict what the director of national intelligence has said.  We are concerned that al-Qaeda has had a hand in at least some violence in Syria, and that's deplorable.  

            Again, with respect to Syria, we think that it's important that the regime stop its violence and brutality against the Syrian people. We believe that the Syrian people deserve much better than what they're getting from their own government.  And we continue to, with international partners, put significant diplomatic and economic pressure on the Syrian regime, and, you know, we believe that that can have an impact.  But the Syrian regime must stop what it's doing.  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  I think we have time for just one more. 

            DR. LITTLE:  Yeah. 

            Q:  (Off mic) -- topic?  

            Q:  Can I ask -- (off mic) --  

            Q:  (Off mic.)  

            Q:  OK.  Thank you very much.    

            DR. LITTLE:  Sir?  

            Q:  The defense minister from the Republic of Armenia is in the United States right now, and he's in Kansas today, and he'll be back to Washington on Friday, I believe, and he'll -- met Secretary -- will meet Secretary Panetta.  My question is, can you comment on this?  How also would you describe the Armenian -- U.S.-Armenian military cooperation?  The Republic of Armenia tripled its peacekeepers in Afghanistan last year.  So if you have any status update on this. Thank you.  

            DR. LITTLE:  Sure.  I don't want to get -- out ahead of what the discussions between the minister and Secretary Panetta might be, but they look forward to a good discussion on regional security matters and on the prospects for a greater cooperation between Armenia and the United States. 

            Q:  And in Afghanistan, do you see our cooperation as solid on -- (inaudible)? 

            CAPT. KIRBY:  We’re grateful, very grateful.  

            DR. LITTLE:  Really very grateful for what Armenia has contributed to the mission in Afghanistan, and that's a message of gratitude that I'm certain will come from the secretary himself.  

            Thank you.    

            Q:  So first of all, the president is paying a visit to South Korea.  This weekend he's going there, the 24th and 25th.    

            (Cross talk.)  

            CAPT. KIRBY:  (Inaudible) -- talk to the White House about the presidential schedule.  

            DR. LITTLE:  Yeah -- the White House about the presidential trip.  

            Q:  What I'm asking -- do you think things will change as the North's behavior is concerned?    

            DR. LITTLE:  I think we really need to leave that to the White House.    

            Thank you very much.  

            Q:  Thank you, sir.

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