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DOD News Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary George Little
July 19, 2012

            MR. GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon.  It's nice to see a full house.  Just a couple of brief announcements. 

            First, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter had a very productive series of meetings with elected officials in Guam today.  He will meet with military leaders and tour facilities in Guam tomorrow before heading to Japan for the next stop on his trip.  He will arrive in Japan Friday afternoon.  After completing his visit to Japan, Dr. Carter will go to Thailand, India, and the Republic of Korea.  We will post readouts of his meetings on our website. 

            This afternoon at 4:15, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey, will deliver remarks at the Military Times Servicemember of the Year recognition ceremony.  That's taking place in the Caucus Room in the Cannon House Office Building. 

            And finally, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the outstanding service of one of the top leaders inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, and that is Jim Turner, who's over here to my right.  Jim has spent 41 years in federal service.  He spent three years on active duty in the Army, before joining the civilian ranks in federal service.  He has been part of this office since 1981 and has done a terrific job.  So congratulations to him, and we wish him and his family all the best.  Thank you, Jim. 

            All right.  With that, over to you. 

            Bob? 

            Q:  I wonder if we could draw you out a bit on Syria, either on the events of yesterday in terms of who was behind the attack, how it may have been carried out, and maybe the relative standing of the rebel, the opposition forces in -- that are now reacting inside Damascus, the kind of gains they're making, that sort of thing. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure.  I don't have -- good question, Bob.  I don't have any more specifics to add on the attack yesterday in Damascus.  But on the whole in Syria, what we're seeing is quite striking. 

            The Assad regime, it's clear, is losing control.  There's momentum against Assad.  We're seeing that with increased defections, a strengthened and more united opposition that is operating across the country.  Many formally pro-regime Syrians view Assad as the problem and not the solution, and the regime's financial struggle continues. 

            We're looking at what comes next, along with the international community, and that should be a political transition in Syria.  This crisis must end. 

            Q:  You say you're looking at what comes next.  Does that include any sort of contact, assistance, or interaction with rebel forces? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The Department of Defense does not have contact on a regular basis with opposition forces.  This is a State Department-led effort.  As you know, our focus remains on diplomatic and economic pressure.  But clearly, we are working with our interagency partners to monitor the situation in Syria and to explore our options. 

            Justin? 

            Q:  George, I was hoping -- unless you're continuing on Syria I was going to change the subject. 

            Q:  (off mic) 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK, Syria, Joe? 

            Q:  (off mic) 

            MR. LITTLE:  No.  Nothing on Syria, OK, all right, OK.  (Laughter)  Joe and then David, all right.  

            Q:  Is it fair to say that this administration is paying close attention to Syria in terms of chemical weapons?  And can you confirm, as per a New York Times report, that the DOD has been in touch with Israel regarding a possible role for them with destroying, maintaining control of the Syrian chemical weapons? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in Syria have been a concern to the United States and our international partners for some time.  This has been the topic of conversations with some of our partners, to be sure.  I'm not going to comment directly on the New York Times report, but it would be in our estimation irresponsible not to surface this issue in our conversations with our close counterparts. 

            The onus when it comes to chemical stockpiles security in Syria is on the Syrian regime.  They must protect these stockpiles.  

            David? 

            Q:  On that, I mean, I believe you acknowledged the other day that -- that you were aware of Syria moving some portion of their stockpile.  Do you have any better clarity on what they were doing?  There was -- there was at least some speculation they were doing it to protect them from falling into the hands of the rebels.  Given the situation now, I'm wondering whether you have any clarity on what they're -- what they were doing in moving them. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, with respect, David, I don't think that I spoke to that specific issue that I believe surfaced first in a Wall Street Journal story.  I don't have any comment on that story today.  I would repeat what I just said, and that is that the onus is on the Syrian regime to protect these stockpiles and not to use them. 

            John? 

            Q:  And just -- could I just follow up on that? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Please. 

            Q:  Is the U.S. contemplating any -- is the Department of Defense at this point preparing for or contemplating any sort of participation in any kind of multinational force, stabilization force that might, you know, be authorized down the road?  I mean, I know that's potentially a long way off, but I'm wondering whether any planning is being done along those lines. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I wouldn't speculate on potential scenarios that may be developed inside the department.  But needless to say, we're monitoring the situation closely. 

            John? 

            Q:  George, you said that DOD doesn't have any contact with the rebels on a regular basis.  It was my understanding that in the past you had no contact with them at all.  So has there been some contact recently? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, let me -- let me resolve that.  I didn't mean to suggest that there's been a change.  This is really a State Department-led effort, not DOD. 

            Q:  So DOD hasn't had any contact at all with the rebels? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I am not aware of any DOD contact with the rebels.  Again, State Department-led effort. 

            Q:  And are there any CBRN teams in the region, U.S. teams, that could potentially deal with loose chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know and would have to get back to you on that, John. 

            OK, Barbara? 

            Q:  You said -- two questions, one Syria, one not -- but you said that onus was on the Syrians to protect their chemical weapons.  What responsibility -- what global responsibility does the U.S. military have at this point to also be able to do that, to be prepared to do it?  Does the U.S. military have any responsibility here? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The United States military is a part of our larger national security establishment.  And we have a job to support United States policy, as defined by this administration.  And our actions and the steps that we take, the options we explore, are done consistent with that policy.   

            Q:  Can I ask you a different question, then?  Do you have anything on the reports out of Bulgaria that it was a Guantanamo Bay detainee released back to Sweden named Mehdi Ghezali who was responsible for the bombing of the bus in -- in Bulgaria? 

            MR. LITTLE:  This was a tragic and deplorable attack that occurred in Bulgaria yesterday.  And the United States government condemns it in the strongest possible terms.  I'm aware of reports that are recently -- we're recently seeing out of the region.  I can't confirm those reports at this time. 

            Q:  (off mic) 

            Q:  (off mic) 

            Q:  My follow on that was to ask if the Bulgarians have reached out to the U.S. at all to confirm or talk about the identity or the claim that it's Ghezali?  Have they asked for DNA, anything like that? 

            MR. LITTLE:  It's a good question, Justin.  This is late-breaking.  I don't know. 

            Q:  (off mic) what part can you not confirm, that Ghezali was -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  I cannot confirm, Courtney, reports that this individual in media reports is, in fact, a former Guantanamo detainee.  I can't rule it out, either.  I'm simply saying we don't know at this stage.  I'm not in a position to confirm whether or not this individual was at Guantanamo at one time. 

            Q:  Because there's a roster that lists someone with the same name and born in Stockholm, same age, as the guy in the video, the guy that the Bulgarians are saying was -- was the suicide bomber.  So I guess back to Justin's point, have -- is the U.S. going to offer any help with Bulgarians in determining whether it's the same guy?  He was also later allegedly arrested in Pakistan.  Are you reaching out to the Bulgarians to help? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Again, I can't confirm anything with respect to this specific individual.  Obviously, we will work closely with Bulgarians to assist them in any way with their investigation of this terrible attack. 

            Q:  So you will, but you're not yet -- not helping in any way? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not aware of any particular conversation that's taken place on this issue. 

            Q:  And do you have anything -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Again, it's late-breaking. 

            Q:  Do you have anything on the status on the Mehdi Ghezali who was at Guantanamo at one time? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't. 

            Q:  Staying on the same topic, does the Pentagon have any information that Iran or the Hezbollah could be behind the attack in Bulgaria, I mean? 

            MR. LITTLE:  This is obviously a key question, and, again, a very good one, Joe.  I don't know that anybody has assigned attribution for this cowardly and tragic attack that occurred in Bulgaria.  This is something that I know the Bulgarians are exploring and investigating, but I don't know that they've reached a final conclusion. 

            Yes? 

            Q:  (off mic) police chief today said that the U.S. Navy did not issue warnings to the Indian fishermen.  This is quite contrary to what Department of Defense has been saying so far.  So can you -- can you say something on this? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I would, again, express regret for the loss of life in this incident.  It remains our belief at this stage that warning measures were undertaken before shots were fired in this incident.  The incident remains under investigation, and we need to await the outcome of that investigation before reaching final conclusions. 

            Q:  Do you have any -- any reasons for this belief that warnings were issued?  Do you have any proof to tell -- tell the Indians about it? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I wouldn't get into specifics.  This is under investigation.  But we firmly believe at this point that the USS [sic USNS] Rappahannock did employ a series of warning measures to alert the oncoming vessel. 

            Q:  The chief minister of the state, Indian state of where these fisherman are is demanding compensation for the fishermen.  Is this something which the Department of Defense is considering (off mic)? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Really calls for speculation at this time -- naturally, we would be pleased to update our Indian counterparts as we learn more through the investigation. 

            Q:  George, can I follow up on that for one moment? 

            Q:  Do you know when? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, let me -- I think he’s got one more follow-up, and then I'll turn it over to a couple of others. 

            Q:  (off mic) when this investigation would be over? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know the precise time.  Thank you.  

            Barbara, on this -- it's on this issue?  OK. 

            Q:  Yeah, but I have to follow up on the Indian issue.  In -- very typically in these incidents in the Gulf, there are either audio recordings to the bridge from a security team or there is actual videotaping of these incidents.  So can you tell us or can you find out, are there any audio or video recordings that would demonstrate the Navy crew did conduct non-lethal warning measures? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know, Barbara. 

            Q:  Can you take that question? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I will take the question.  This is under investigation, of course, as I said. 

            Q:  (off mic) just asking if you recorded it. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I understand.  I'll -- and I'm sure that this is the kind of question that the investigators will ask. 

            Q:  To follow up on that -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK. 

            Q:  -- I think that the Dubai police chief indicated that this was potentially a criminal investigation from his point of view.  Is the -- is the -- when you say this is under investigation, is this under investigation by the Navy?  Are they working with Dubai?  Or are those two totally separate tracks?  Who is the investigators? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) and NAVCENT (U.S. Naval Forces Central Command) are probably in the best position to answer that question specifically.  But I know that NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) has been part of the investigation, as you would expect. 

            Tony? 

            Q:  A question on another Middle East country. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  What's the rationale for the Pentagon resuming 1206 counterterrorism funding to Yemen? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The -- let me get the budget points out, so I'm very clear on this for you, Tony.  Yeah.  What did you say again?  As you know, funding was suspended last spring as a result of political turmoil inside Yemen.  Funding was resumed after the situation in Yemen stabilized.  

            On June 7th -- again, I'm speaking specifically here to counterterrorism funding -- a joint secretary of defense, secretary of state written certification stating that providing CT (counterterrorism) assistance to Yemen is important to the national security interests of the United States -- and that's in quotes -- was submitted to Congress. 

            The third tranche of Section 1206 programs for FY (Fiscal Year) 12 has been sent to the Hill.  I don't have any specific details to provide at this time, but should be able to later this month. 

            Q:  Well -- (inaudible) – thing yesterday, I had it yesterday.  It's -- there's like $23,000 -- $23 million for airplanes and $14 million for special operations enhancements, lots of sensitive materials, like sniper rifles and night-vision goggles.  Is the -- is the Pentagon -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  You have those from us, Tony? 

            Q:  I got it from somebody in here, yeah. 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK. 

            Q:  That's irrelevant, but the point being -- (Laughter) -- is the Pentagon confident now that that kind of sensitive technology won’t be lost to insurgents, Al Qaida, or sold on the market over there? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get out ahead of the consultative process with the United States Congress on 1206 funding. 

            Q:  You can't get a little bit more leg on this? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not able to provide any additional detail.  I'm sorry. 

            Q:  Can I ask you sequestration follow-up from the other day? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'd be delighted to answer questions on sequestration. 

            Q:  (off mic) You said that the -- this is relevant, because the House appropriations bill is going to be passed today -- you said that all -- all 2013 funds would be subject to sequestration.  Did you mean to say that unobligated funds -- those that are not put on contract by January 2nd under '13, would be subject to sequestration, but obligated funds would be safe? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think I made the distinction with respect to FY 12 funding.  With respect to FY 13 funding, as I recall my answer from the other day, it was all funds. 

            Q:  All funds (off mic)

            MR. LITTLE:  Right. 

            Q:  I think I -- you might have been less than clear.  I think obligated funds from '13 would also be subject to -- would be safe in sequestration.  I just wanted you to clarify that. 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK.  Obligated funds in terms of -- 

            Q:  (off mic) anything put contract by January 2nd. 

            MR. LITTLE:  (off mic) OK, all right. 

            Q:  I understand that they would be safe, but I want you to confirm then if that's true. 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK.  Let me elaborate on that.  It's my understanding that sequestration goes into -- would go into effect, in theory -- we have to avoid it, of course -- January of 2013.  So obligated funds to contracts would be funded between October and -- and the -- entering into force with sequestration. 

            The remainder of the fiscal year would -- with respect to those funds -- involve I think a larger proportion of cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year.  Does that make sense? 

            Q:  You’ve clarified it. 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK. 

            Q:  Because basically it's an important question, because -- I ask it, because a lot of companies are planning -- unlike the Pentagon -- in terms of what will happen.  And if they get contracts with 2013 money through January 1st, you know, they provide some buffer.  There's planning going on there, if not here. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, we're aware of the concerns of our industry partners.  And they're rightly concerned about the prospect of sequestration, as are we.  Joan? 

            Q:  Is there anything more you can tell us about the U.S. military helicopter crash in Oman? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have any more specifics to provide on that, Joan, today. 

            Q:  And can you tell us anything about the meeting today with Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey on the Hill regarding impact on operations from national security leaks? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I was not there, but it's my understanding that it was a very productive conversation with members of the House Armed Services Committee.  I believe the upshot was that both members of the committee and Secretary Panetta and the chairman are one mind, and that is that they're all concerned about leaks of classified information. 

            The unauthorized disclosure of classified information is truly disturbing.  It's of concern to the secretary.  And I think members on the Hill expressed similar concern.  And the secretary is clearly prepared to try to address the problem inside the department. 

            Q:  (off mic) what is the practical outcome of all this concern (off mic)? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think we're considering some additional steps.  I wouldn't get into specifics at this point, but this is an issue that we've had to confront from time to time, more often than we'd like to, and it's something that we need to try to address in a very strong way.  And that was a message that the secretary delivered on the Hill. 

            Q:  Do you think it's going to be, like, more investigations, harsher punishments?  And do you have any idea? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have any specifics at this time, Courtney, but there might be more to come on that later. 

            Q:  Can I ask a Syria question, too?  Also, back to what -- the chemical weapons, you know, we've been hearing that it's up to the Syrian regime to keep them secure.  That's sort of been the line for the past couple of days.  Is there -- so does that mean that there's no concern that the Syrians will actually use them?  It seems as if that's pushing towards the speculation that they would be -- they were moving them to keep them safe from the opposition or from insurgents or whatever.  Is there no concern that they would actually use them on their people at this point? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I can't speculate on Syrian intentions.  That being said, we've seen the reckless, depraved and deplorable behavior of a regime that's inflicted terrible violence on its own people.  So we can't rule out the possibility that they might resort to the use of such weapons.  But we've been very clear about our feelings on that issue.  And use of chemical weapons would be extremely problematic and would take this conflict to a place that I don't think anyone wants it to go. 

            Q:  George -- (inaudible) -- follow up on that same point, is there indications that the opposition forces are trying to get their hands on any of those weapons? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't -- 

            Q:  Actively trying to get them? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I am unaware of any such activity, but, you know -- I mean, this just highlights the need, all of this discussion, to try to reach some kind of resolution to this crisis.  When we're talking about violence against civilians, when we're talking about stockpiles of chemical weapons, when we're talking about unacceptable behavior by an illegitimate leader, this highlights the need to move to a new stage for Syria and for the Syrian people. 

            Q:  (off mic) 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK. 

            Q:  (off mic) OK.  All right.  Since the start of this whole conflict, you and other government officials had said Assad will fall.  You said earlier that his regime is losing control.  Would it surprise you to see his regime fall this week, next week, this month?  Are we -- are we that much closer to that point? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm smiling only because it's always hard to predict precisely what the timing might be on these events.  I don't have a precise timetable for you, Justin.  It's a legitimate question.  But I wouldn't offer a precise prediction. 

            Joe? 

            Q:  Same topic, quick question.  Do you know if President Assad is still in Damascus after -- after the -- yesterday's attacks? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know precisely where he is, Joe, but I know precisely where he should be, and that is out of power. 

            Q:  When you say the regime is losing control, is there evidence -- more evidence of that in the last day or so?  Have you seen more military units changing sides, more defections?  What's the basis for that statement? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think we've seen over some period of time high-level defections.  We've seen the opposition become emboldened.  They've made inroads.  They have maintained their resolve against the regime.  They have, in the face of superior firepower in some cases, continued to fight persistently.  And I think all of those factors contribute to our belief that we are seeing some shifts in momentum on the ground in that country. 

            Are we leaving Syria?  OK, all right.  Another round?  Barbara? 

            Q:  Two things on Syria.  You say you can't rule out the possibility he might use chemical weapons.  The fighting coming now to Damascus, to the center of power of the government, how has that development increased your concern about the potential use of chemical weapons by him?  And it sounds today like you're saying that the U.S. is sort of really past Assad now.  You're looking ahead.  Your working assumption now is he's gone or going. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I can't draw a line of causation for you, Barbara, between yesterday's events in Damascus and the potential use of chemical weapons in that country. 

            Q:  (off mic) fact that the fighting has come to the center of the power of government, cracks in the center of power.  Does that raise your concern that he is going to get desperate?  And I don't mean it hypothetically, because you say now you cannot rule out the possibility. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, we've never been able to rule out the possibility.  These are existing weapons stockpiles in Syria, Barbara.  I wouldn't speculate as to a particular trend line on this particular kind of weapon to which the regime has access. 

            The fighting around Damascus and yesterday's events does suggest that we are seeing the regime lose some footing.  And I think it's a noteworthy point in time.  I don't have precise timetables.  I can't speculate as to what might happen in the days and weeks to come.  But we hope, at the end of the day, that the violence ends and that a peaceful political transition occurs. 

            John?  Maybe one or two more? 

            Q:  George, there's been some shake-up in the North Korean leadership in the past few days, and I think Kim Jong-un just assumed a new military title.  Has DOD seen any military movements on the North Korean side or any indications of upcoming provocative behavior, like missile launches or nuclear testing or anything like that? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm unaware of any, but I would refer you to USFK (U.S. Forces Korea). 

            And finally? 

            Q:  George, just wanted to follow up on the counterterrorism funding to Yemen.  Were there any concerns expressed by lawmakers during -- I think it was a hearing a few weeks ago with Secretary Vickers and Secretary Sheehan -- was there any feedback coming from Capitol Hill that either concerned with or opposed to restarting support?  And if not, what were some of the concerns that were voiced during that hearing? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We're in the consultative process with Congress at this stage.  I wouldn't get into those -- details of those conversations right now.  But we're committed to working closely with the Congress on this matter.  And we're committed to exploring every way possible to assist the Government of Yemen, as they pursue an enemy that threatens both Yemen and the United States, and that is Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. 

            Q:  When can you talk?  When will the consultation -- this comes up every two or three years.  You guys are in a consultation process for ad infinitum. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think we'll be able to provide more specific details next week, certainly by the end of the month. 

            Q:  What's that -- now, what's the magic next week? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, we're in process of notifying the Hill.  And there are certain timetables associated with that notification process.  And I don't want to get outside that process. 

            Q:  (off mic) 

            MR. LITTLE:  OK, all right.  Thank you, everyone.

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