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DOD News Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon

Presenter: Press Secretary George E. Little
May 29, 2012

            GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon, and happy Tuesday.  It's good to see everyone today, and I hope that you all had a restful and relaxing Memorial Day weekend. 

            As much of the nation took a break to honor America's fallen heroes, our service members fighting in Afghanistan maintained their focus and their relentless pace of operations.  As a result of their efforts alongside their coalition counterparts, they achieved a significant operational success in Kunar province on Sunday with the death of Sakhr al-Taifi, who was al-Qaida's second-highest leader in Afghanistan. 

            Sakhr al-Taifi was responsible for commanding foreign insurgents and directing attacks against coalition and Afghan forces.  He frequently traveled between Afghanistan and Pakistan, carrying out commands from senior al-Qaida leadership.  He also supplied weapons and equipment to insurgents in the east and managed transport of insurgent fighters into Afghanistan. 

            After identifying al-Taifi and an additional al-Qaida terrorist and taking careful steps to ensure no civilians were in the area, our forces engaged the targets with a precision airstrike.  A follow-on assessment determined no civilians were harmed in this operation. 

            This operation is another example of our ongoing efforts to degrade and weaken al-Qaida's leadership and a reminder of the mission we are pursuing to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for al-Qaida and or its militant allies.  Despite the unprecedented pressure we have applied, al-Qaida remains a threat to our forces and to our homeland, and we will continue to -- continue to pursue our goal of dismantling and ultimately defeating them. 

            With that, I'll take your questions. 


            Q:  General Dempsey yesterday in an interview said that he supports the Senate committee resolution on Pakistan, cutting aid to Pakistan subject to because (off mic).  Is that his personal view, view of the department of defense? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'd have to go back and take a look at precisely what he said.  I'm not sure that's accurately characterizing what General Dempsey said. 

            Q:  (Off mic) -- what is department's view on the Senate committee because they shouldn't just put conditions on Pakistan and cutting aid to Pakistan? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to comment on pending legislation.  But what I can say is that we are very concerned about this doctor who played a role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  I would make the point crystal clear, yet again, and that is that he was not directing his efforts against Pakistan.  He was directing his efforts in support of the United States against al-Qaida, and there's a clear distinction. 

            Q:  But -- (off mic) -- but do you support the move of the Senate committee to cut aid to Pakistan because he's -- he has been imprisoned for 33 years? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to comment on discussions that are ongoing in the U.S. Congress at this point.  That's a matter for the Congress to weigh, and I wouldn't offer a position of the department at this time.  

            Q:  Yeah -- (off mic) -- this is what General Dempsey said yesterday -- (off mic)? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Again, I'm not going to parse what General Dempsey said.  I think he was very clear in his interview in expressing concern about various issues related to the Pakistani relationship.  He's also said, at various points in his public comments that we believe that we need to work through these issues with the Pakistanis.  There are a number of issues, even as we continue to cooperate with them that require us to engage aggressively to try to put this relationship back on track. 


            Q:  But the Afridi family has asked for help from the U.S. government -- legal help and possibly asylum.  Are there any plans to help the Afridi family and is there any plan to put any further pressure on the Pakistan government to release the doctor?  And second, as far as you know, are there plans to now list the Haqqani network as a foreign terrorist organization?  Is that something that is imminent? 

            MR. LITTLE:  On the Haqqanis, I don't have any knowledge myself of moves afoot to place them on a terrorist list. 

            When it comes to Dr. Afridi, the secretary and -- the secretary of state have made the position of the U.S. government known.  And the Pakistanis are well-aware of our concerns.  Again, this is someone who was supporting efforts to pursue the world's top terrorist.  He was not stealing Pakistani secrets.  He was helping the United States go after Osama bin Laden. 


            Q:  George, there's reports out now that there's another virus that's going around attacking targets in North Africa and, I guess, the Middle East that's similar to Stuxnet.  The reports say that it looks like that it could be something that's sophisticated enough to be created by the U.S. or Israel.  Anything you can comment on? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have anything for you on this.  I've seen the same media reports.  My understanding is the Department of Homeland Security is fielding questions about this and has the lead for assessing this particular computer virus or whatever the technical term is.  Pardon me, I'm not a technical computer expert, and that probably shows every day. 


            Q:  There are some media -- one media report out today quoting Army Brigadier General Neil Tolley as saying that the U.S. military has been parachuting special forces into North Korea to carry out reconnaissance missions.  Can you please respond to that? 

            MR. LITTLE:  My understanding is that the general's comments were contorted, distorted, misreported and that, you know, there is in no way any substance to the assertion.  Again, it was misreported that there are U.S. boots on the ground in North Korea.  That is simply incorrect. 

            Q:  Can you tell us what the general did say? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have the transcript in front of me.  But I would refer you to USFK for more specifics, Barbara. 

            Q:  Can I follow on that briefly? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  Last month the secretary said that it was his belief that there was a need for more or better intelligence.  I think he was specifically speaking on North Korea's mobile ballistic missile capability.  In general, is there -- is the department increasing its efforts to assist, enable the development of that intelligence in regards to North Korea's capabilities? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We work closely with our Republic of Korea allies on a regular basis, on a daily basis, to develop all the information we can to assess North Korean intentions and capabilities.  That is a fundamental responsibility we have.  Again, we're working closely with our Republic of Korea allies.  That's very important, and we'll continue to do that. 


            Q:  Just back on the Flame virus? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yes. 

            Q:  Does the Department of Defense view the Flame virus as a threat? 

            MR. LITTLE:  This is something that I think the Department of Homeland Security will have to address.  I don't have an analysis or an assessment of this particular virus to offer, not at this time, Dave. 

            Q:  And are you willing to say that it is not a product of the United States government? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have anything for you at all on this, Dave.  I think the best place to go is DHS. 


            Q:  Could you comment on the report that the U.S. is moving ahead with providing Italy the capability to arm their drones that they've gotten from the U.S.? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I saw that media report today, and I wouldn't comment directly on that claim.  As you know, when it comes to foreign military sales, there's a formal notification process to Congress. 

            I'm not sure that that formal notification process has taken place on this or any other reported arms sale when it comes to Italy.  I would make the point that Italy is one of our strongest partners and NATO allies, and it's important for us, for a variety of reasons, to share technologies and capabilities with them for purposes of burden-sharing and to enable them to better protect themselves and, by extension, to protect the United States and our other allies.  

            So the -- and as you know, just to -- as a general rule, when it comes to foreign arms sales, there is a pre-notification process that does take place with arms sales, and that's to ensure that we address any concerns that members of Congress may have with prospective arms sales. 

            Q:  So is -- I'm not -- to make clear, the department is in favor of this going ahead or what -- what's the -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not commenting specifically, as I said, on this particular media report.  But I will say more broadly that, when it comes to foreign military sales to Italy, that they're a strong partner and a strong ally.  We're going to follow the FMS process, which of course is a State Department-led process, not a DOD-led process, and we're going to continue to look for ways, working with our Italian partners, to shore up both of our nations' capabilities.  

            Q:  But is the department concerned about this technology proliferating, getting into the wrong hands?  Right now the U.S. has an edge in this technology.  Is there a concern here that sharing it could create a problem? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We, as you know, believe that remotely piloted vehicles are important in our tool kit, and we're going to continue to look closely at improving our capabilities in that arena.  You're right:  The United States does have a superior edge right now in this arena, and we're going to continue to sustain and maintain that edge.  

            When it comes to sharing that technology with other countries -- and again, I'm not going to comment on any specific country -- we would do so within the confines of American law and policy, and we would do so only when it's in U.S. interests to share such technology. 


            Q:  If I could keep following up on this, I mean, Italy seems kind of an unusual partner to do something along these lines –accept for -- maybe they -- are they going to take on a role maybe in Afghanistan with drones, or is this going to be a NATO partner-sharing deal that was kind of brought up at the NATO conference?  It is kind of an unusual country to arm their drones when they're not really -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Mike, you've used two phrases there that I think I would take issue with; one is unusual country and -- to do business with; and two is unusual partner.  Italy is anything but unusual.  They're a very important partner to the United States.  They play a critical role in NATO.  They've played a critical role in places like Afghanistan.  And we're going to continue to work closely with them to develop capabilities that can enable both countries to better protect themselves and protect one another. 

            Q:  And that's where I was getting to:  better protecting themselves.  Maybe the language wasn't the best for you there, but -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  I just wanted to clarify that. 

            Q:  Yeah. 

            MR. LITTLE:  As you know, Italy has a very important place in this department.  (Laughs) 

            Q:  (Inaudible.)  But does this mean they're going to take a larger -- a larger role in operations in Afghanistan or for future operations where NATO might need drones? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, any one arms sales doesn't necessarily suggest a broader trend about anything else.  So I'm not sure that I would attach any particular significance to one arms sale as signifying anything more than it's an arms sale.  So that's where I leave it on this point and would reaffirm our important and not unusual at all partnership and alliance with the Italians. 


            Q:  Can you bring us up to date on negotiations to reopen the ground supply (relines ?) -- man, I mangled that word -- supply lines from Pakistan to Afghanistan? 

            MR. LITTLE:  It's a good question, Jeff, and I've mangled those words myself, so don't worry.  

            The ground lines of communication remain very important, we believe, to reopen.  We continue to discuss the possibility of reopening them with our Pakistani partners.  We continue to have a team that's in dialogue with Pakistani officials.  We're not over the finish line yet, but we hope to get there in the near future. 

            Q:  Well, just to follow up on the RPA question, there was an article recently it's conceivable that one day RPAs could be targeting and killing targets by themselves, using artificial intelligence.  Would the Pentagon ever consider building autonomous machines that can kill by themselves? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The answer is right now we have a very important human tail that supports the deployment and use of these capabilities.  I'm not going to speculate as to what the future might hold in terms of the -- but there is absolutely no imminent deployment of a totally unmanned system.  All these systems -- and I would take issue with the use of the term "unmanned," because in reality, they are human-controlled.  They are human systems.  There may not be a pilot sitting in the cockpit, but they are supported by human beings who do very important work.

            They work long hours.  They are very good at what they do.  And I don't see that changing in the near future. 

            Q:  OK, because if we learned one thing from movies it's that putting computers in charge of nuclear weapons is a bad idea.  I just want to make sure that the Pentagon sees that too. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I -- (chuckles) -- 

            Q:  Since you mentioned the (war thing ?) -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Right.  (Chuckles.)  I wouldn't offer a commentary about movies from this podium unless they involve the Department of Defense.  But yeah, there's a lot of science fiction out there, that's for sure. 


            Q:  George, has the Pentagon been given authorization to conduct drone strikes on suspected terrorists even if they don't have an actual name, as they have been in Yemen?  Have they been given that authorization in other parts of the world?  And if not, what is so specific about Yemen to have that authorization there?

            MR. LITTLE:  Thanks for the question, Chris.  The use of these weapons is something I'm not going to get into the particulars on.  But I can tell you that they're extremely precise, they're lawful, and they're extremely effective.  And that is something that we're going to continue to try to make sure we ensure happens; that they are precise, that they operate within the confines of American law and policy and that they are effective. 

            When it comes to Yemen, I wouldn't get into the particulars of our CT operations.  But we're working closely with the Yemenis to pursue the CT (sic) threat and to try to thwart it, especially from AQAP. 

            Q:  Can I follow up on that?  What's the justification -- you say they're precise, but there seems to be absolutely no question that civilians do get killed in these strikes.  So what's the justification in the department's mind, in the administration's mind for this type of killing of civilians? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, again, I have to operate within certain parameters here, Barbara.  But I would take very strong issue with any suggestion that these systems result in widespread civilian casualties. 

            Q:  Well, I didn't use the word widespread, of course.  But the point is now it -- I mean, it's out in the open from many, many government officials, including Mr. Brennan at the White House that these strikes occur.  And yet the administration continues to say that the number of civilian casualties are small, if at all.  But it doesn't seem to hold water.  So -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know what you're comparing, but I can assure you that the number of civilian casualties is very, very low. 

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- can you describe what you mean by that?  Or you're -- in Pakistan and Yemen, where these strikes are now -- and Afghanistan, where these strikes are now public knowledge, acknowledged by the White House, can you describe what the level of civilian casualties is, especially in Yemen? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The specifics I can't get into.  But I can provide you and the American public assurances that we take every step possible to avoid civilian casualties in all of our operations, military and counterterrorism alike. 

            Q:  But you don't have boots on the ground, though, in Yemen.  How -- many people might wonder -- (off mic) -- that the level of civilian casualties -- people might just be curious how the government can come to that statement. 

            MR. LITTLE:  The -- again, without getting into particulars about sources or methods or intelligence operations, we have very good means of assessing the extent to which our weapons platforms for military or CT operations result in civilian casualties.  And we're very confident that the number is very low. 


            Q:  On Syria, could you give us the latest thinking on how this department views what's going on there and the idea of a possible military option?  I know that there's always planning going on; I'm not asking you to repeat that. 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK.  All right.  Thank you. 

            Q:  What General -- (chuckles) -- what General Dempsey said yesterday, which seemed to suggest that if violence continues -- and he referred to atrocities -- that that might make a military option not a remote prospect -- can you comment on the thinking?  Now it also -- that it seems that the department now views the opposition there as more united, less divided than it was before. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think General Dempsey was absolutely correct.  What we're witnessing in Syria are atrocities undertaken by the Assad regime.  There's no doubt about that.  We've seen that very recently.  That kind of violence by the regime needs to stop.  We've been clear about that.  And the policy of the United States remains to focus, with our international partners, on applying diplomatic and economic pressure on the Assad regime to try to convince them that they are pursuing a reckless, inhumane and deplorable course of action. 

            When it comes to military options, again, the focus remains on the diplomatic and economic track.  But at the end of the day, we in the Department of Defense have a responsibility to look at the full spectrum of options and to make them available if they're requested. 

            Q:  Has -- (off mic) -- seriously discussed the idea of going beyond nonlethal aid to the -- (inaudible)? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Right now our focus is on humanitarian aid, nonlethal aid, and you know, I'm not going to speculate as at where the future might take us. 


            Q:  (Off mic) -- exactly what Dan said.  And again, to give you the caveat, of course you plan. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yeah. 

            Q:  But there seems to be a toughening of language.  Are we hearing that correctly?  Do you think that this building, the secretary and the chairman feel that it's moving toward the requirement for a military option? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm the son and grandson of English teachers.  It doesn't always come out in my press briefings, and I do get corrected from time to time by my very astute mother who, with the rest of you, does tune in from time to time -- not always, I might add.  (Chuckles.)  Semantics, I think, aren't something I'm going to get into.  The rhetoric, I think, has been pretty consistent over time though.  I wouldn't call it "rhetoric"; I would call it assessing the situation in Syria the right way. 

            What we're seeing is brutality.  We're seeing inhumane acts perpetrated by the Assad regime, and we've been very consistent in this government about calling a spade a spade.  And that's exactly what's happening on the ground in Syria, and it needs to stop. 

            Q:  Then why did General Dempsey take it a step further then with his -- you know, if we're talking language, he very -- he chose his words apparently with some care and specificity, and he certainly took it a step further in terms of going down the road towards military options.  I mean, he made no bones about it.  

            MR. LITTLE:  Again, General Dempsey's comments -- and I would associate myself with them -- were entirely spot on.  What we're talking about in Syria are atrocities.  

            Do we plan for just about everything in this department?  Yes.  Do we have a responsibility to provide options?  Absolutely.  And we will continue to develop those options in case they are requested. 

            Q:  Has anything been requested yet? 

            MR. LITTLE:  No. 

            Q:  Beyond the -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Beyond the requirement for humanitarian and nonlethal aid, which, of course, is the responsibility of the State Department, not to my knowledge. 


            Q:  Beyond internal discussions and planning, what sort of discussions and planning is under way with U.S. allies, and particularly in the case of Russia, for example? 

            MR. LITTLE:  This is probably the province more of the State Department than of the Department of Defense, Mik.  But we have been in regular contact with our international partners, countries in the region, to express our collective dismay at what's happening in Syria and to try to see if there are things that we can do to bring pressure to bear on the Assad regime to stop what they're doing against their own people.  That's something that we're going to continue to do, but I think a lot of this is being pursued along the diplomatic track, and so that's where I need to leave it to my State Department colleagues to elaborate further. 

            Q:  Is the U.S. taking the lead in possible more aggressive steps even beyond humanitarian aid, nonlethal aid, or is it being dragged along into it? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I would refer you to the White House and to the State Department, but this government takes its decisions very seriously and with U.S. interests in mind.  So bear that in mind as you pursue your reporting on this, Mik. 

            Q:  Well, let me ask you, what is the U.S. interest? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We share the shock over the atrocities that we're seeing in Syria with our international partners.  And we have an interest, of course, in stability in the region.  That's a U.S. interest.  This is a very tough neighborhood, as you know.  And we have played a key role in trying to provide peace and stability and security for that region for decades. 

            So when there is a crisis like this that erupts that has the potential to cause not just humanitarian disasters, but also could cascade outside of Syria potentially, that's a concern to countries of the region and to countries, like the United States, outside the region. 


            Q:  On the same topic, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has accused Iran and Hezbollah in having a role in the atrocities in Syria.  Do you have any information on that? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have any information to suggest that.  But I'll come back to you if I do learn of that kind of role.

            Yes, in the back.  And then I'll come back to Thom. 

            Q:  I do understand there's a very important military base of the Russians in northern Syria.  Is that maybe a concern of the Russians for any military -- U.S. military action or international action? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The importance of such facilities to the Russians -- I need to leave it to the Russians to assess and to answer that question.  I wouldn't get into that kind of speculation on their behalf. 

            Chris, then Thom. 

            Q:  There was some suggestion that the Russians felt that they were sort of sold a bill of goods on Libya, that there was this announced plan to protect civilians that quickly turned into more of a regime change operation.  Has there been any outreach in terms of military-to-military to try to bring them more into the loop on what's going on in Syria, strictly from a Pentagon perspective, talking to your Russian counterpart? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The focus remains on the diplomatic track, Chris.  That's the best way I can answer that.  And I would take issue with your characterization of the mission in Libya.  It was a mission undertaken by NATO to protect civilians that were being attacked by the Libyan regime.  This was about protecting the civilian population inside Libya. 


            Q:  (Off mic) -- tentative new strategy rolled out by the secretary and the chairman is empowering allies and partners -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yes. 

            Q:  -- to deal with security problems, what are discussions under way with allies and partners around Syria, some of whom have voiced a stronger desire for military action? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Discussions in this arena, Thom -- and I would pardon myself for -- or pardon me for repeating myself -- the focus remains on the diplomatic and economic track.  This is really something that the State Department should answer, that I should not answer from this podium at the Pentagon. 

            A couple more questions?  Yes. 

            Q:  Last week there was a report of the Iran navy helping a U.S. flagged cargo ship that was reportedly attacked by pirates, and now we're seeing reports that this may have been actually an attack that was staged by the Iran navy itself.  I'm wondering if you know anything about it. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm aware of the media reports on this alleged rescue attempt.  I can't confirm that this attempt actually took place or this rescue actually took place at this time.  We're continuing to look into it.  But I'm not sure there's any there there at this point. 


            Q:  Thank you.  I was struck by something that you said when you said it's U.S. policy -- (inaudible) -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  You're among a very small group of people who's ever uttered that phrase, I think.  (Chuckles.) 


            Q:  All right!  Elite. 

            When you said the U.S. policy is to convince the Syrian regime that its policy toward its own people is reckless and inhumane, don't take this wrong way, but the Assad regime is a bunch of sociopaths.  Why should they listen to reason? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I wouldn't get into that kind of characterization of a -- of a foreign regime, but the acts that they are undertaking are tremendously problematic -- problematic for the Syrian people.  It's a very sad situation, and the actions of the Syrian regime are only making a sad situation even worse. 

            Q:  And can I just follow up? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  You said a couple of times the focus is on diplomatic and economic. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yeah. 

            Q:  Did you mean to say, then, that the United States is now not talking to our allies about possible lethal or kinetic or military means in terms of solving -- (inaudible)?

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get into the specifics, Mik, of our discussions with our foreign partners, allies and other countries about what's going on in Syria.  But we're in discussions with them about the full range of potential options that could be used to bring pressure to bear on the Assad regime.  And that's, of course, the prudent thing to do when you see a crisis like this in a very important region of the world. 

            Q:  (Off mic) -- is this a sad situation, as you just said, or is this a destabilizing situation?  Because this has been going on for a year.  I'm trying to understand if something has changed in the thinking about this department. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'll allow a few more questions to go on.  Hold on, Barbara.  I'll get to you in a second.

            It is a sad situation.  We are seeing civilians killed.  That is problematic.  And I am -- don't think I'm alone in conveying that view of this government. 

            Is it destabilizing?  It does have potentially destabilizing effects in the region.  This is a very tough part of the world where tensions can run high, and sometimes on short notice. 

            So we would be remiss if we didn't continue to closely monitor the situation, if we didn't work closely with our allies to see if there's a way out of this crisis and to take steps, again, to try to persuade the Assad regime to stop doing what they're doing. 

            Finally, Barbara. 

            Q:  You said, if I heard you correctly, we're in discussions on, quote, "the full range of potential options."  That includes military action. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to -- let me be very clear. 

            Q:  Well, what else could you have possibly meant, George? 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK, let me be very clear, Barbara.  The focus of the United States remains on diplomatic and economic pressure.  Would we be having discussions about options, just as we do options in development inside the Department of Defense?  We of course have those discussions.  I'm not trying to imply anything different than what our current policy is, and that is to try to take those diplomatic and economic steps to help stem the crisis. 

            Q:  But you said "full range of potential options." 

            MR. LITTLE:  Don't read, Barbara, too much into what I said.  I just characterized what I said for you and would be happy to do it further.  Don't read what I said about any -- about the full range of options as imminent -- as conveying a sense of more steps toward imminent military action in Syria. 

            Q:  (Off mic) -- I'm very -- I am not saying that you said "imminent military action."  I am asking you to clarify that -- just to make sure I'm not misunderstanding, when you said just now, "full range of potential options" -- I'm not discussing imminency or any of that -- but that full range of potential options includes military options, correct? 

            MR. LITTLE:  When it comes to discussing with our military, security, diplomatic partners, the full range of options does come up.  And there has been talk by some countries out there about taking more aggressive action.  You've seen that publicly.  I am not saying that the U.S. is becoming more involved in that kind of planning, but have some countries out there raised the possibility?  Yes.  And that's been clear from open press reporting. 

            All right.  Thank you. 

            Q:  Thank you.

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