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DOD News Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon

Presenter: Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little
September 25, 2012

            MR. GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon.  Let me start by providing an update on the department's ongoing efforts to prevent sexual assault.  Secretary Panetta has repeatedly stated that there is no place for sexual assault in the military or at the Department of Defense.  Sexual assault is an affront to basic human values.  It is a crime that hurts survivors, their families, their friends, and their units.  In turn, sexual assault reduces overall military readiness. 

            For those reasons, the secretary has taken a number of steps since assuming his position to ensure the department is doing all that it can to prevent sexual assault, to ensure a climate that supports victims' ability and desire to report this crime, and to hold perpetrators determined to have committed a sexual assault or other offenses appropriately accountable. 

            Recent steps have included:  elevating disposition authority for the most serious sexual assault offenses; working with Congress to establish special victims unit capabilities in each of the services, so specially trained investigators and prosecutors can assist when necessary; implementing an integrated data system called the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database for tracking sexual assault reports and managing cases while protecting victim confidentiality; establishing a new policy giving servicemembers who report a sexual assault an option to quickly transfer from their unit or installation as a way to protect them from possible harassment and to remove them from proximity to the alleged perpetrator; establishing a sexual assault advocate credentialing and certification program aligned with national standards to enhance the quality of support to victims; issuing a new policy requiring the retention of sexual assault records for a period of 50 years; and enhancing training for investigators and attorneys in evidence collection, interviewing and interacting with sexual assault survivors. 

            These steps are in addition to a number of other changes that have been put in place over the past year to prevent sexual assault across the military.  The goal of this department is to establish a culture free from the crime of sexual assault and one that deters potential perpetrators and supports survivors. 

            One very important part of that process is ensuring that commanders and senior enlisted leaders are properly trained to set the right tone in their units and respond appropriately to any instances of sexual assault within their commands and organizations.

            As a result, in January of this year, Secretary Panetta directed a review across all services of pre-command sexual assault prevention and response training.  Earlier this year, the secretary received that report.  Based on the results of that review and consistent with the missions of each of the services, the secretary today directed each of the service secretaries, as well as the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, to take a number of additional steps, including the implementation and development of standardized core competencies and learning objectives applicable to such training in order to improve the awareness and response of prospective commanders and senior enlisted leaders. 

            At the same time, it is clear that the department must do -- continue to do more to prevent sexual assault, especially in initial military training environments.  Our newest servicemembers are the most vulnerable and most likely to experience a sexual assault.

            Accordingly, as part of the department's comprehensive sexual assault prevention and response program, the secretary today also directed the services to conduct a thorough review of the policies and procedures related to all military training of enlisted personnel and commissioned officers.  That review will assess initial training in several areas, including the selection, training and oversight of instructors and leaders who directly supervise trainees and officer candidates, the ratio of instructors to students, and the ratio of leaders in the chain of command to instructors. 

            Additionally, the review will consider the potential benefits of increasing the number of female instructors conducting initial military training.  The review is to be completed by February of next year. 

            The bottom line here is that all members of the military in this department must have an environment that is free from sexual assault.  The department remains strongly committed to providing that environment and ensuring the safety and security of those entrusted in our care.

            With that, let me open it up to questions.  Bob? 

            Q:  Question for you on Afghanistan. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  General Allen recently issued this directive which had the effect of placing certain restrictions on partnered operations with Afghan -- certain Afghan forces.  I'm wondering whether the secretary has been given any indication of whether -- to what extent this has reduced the number of operations or delayed operations and when it might -- this restriction might be lifted. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Let me be clear.  This was a temporary and prudent measure instituted to provide for the security of our personnel in Afghanistan.  The secretary strongly supports General Allen's decision to undertake this decision and this action.  This is a temporary measure.  And let me be clear, as well, that operations with our Afghan partners continue. 

            The real change here is that decisions on those operations are taken to a higher level.  So that's where the center of gravity on this action is.  It's not about the principle of partnering.  We continue to do that with our Afghan partners.  We continue to make progress with our Afghan partners.  And this action was a prudent one, taken in part in response to the recent video and to insider attacks. 

            The protection of our personnel is paramount.  And we will continue to make adjustments as required over time to ensure their security. 

            Q:  I'm just wondering whether it has actually, in effect or in reality, reduced the number of operations to any extent at all? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have the number for you.  I don't have a specific quantity.  But it's our very strong sense that our efforts in Afghanistan continue, we continue to make progress, our operations are successful, including partnered operations with the Afghans, and that the transition strategy that we've been -- embarked upon for some time is working and continues.

            The secretary has said that the transition strategy is on track, and I would repeat what he said. 

            Q:  Just to follow up, when you say temporary measure, what do you mean by that?  Is it -- is it a question of days, weeks?  How long this could last?  

            MR. LITTLE:  This is really not a decision for me to -- to make.  This is something for our commanders in the field, General Allen and others, to make.  So I don't know if there will be a change in the next day or week.  That's really something for our commanders in Afghanistan to decide. 

            Dave?

            Q:  As I understand it, the directive basically said that all partnered operations below the battalion level had to be approved by the regional commanding general. 

            MR. LITTLE:  The RC commander, that's right. 

            Q:  So have any operations below the battalion level been conducted? 

            MR. LITTLE:  As I understand it, yes.  There have been operations below the battalion level that have been conducted. 

            Q:  Partnered operations? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Partnered operations.  Partnered operations continue. 

            Q:  George, two questions, one on Afghanistan, one on China, secretary's visit.  As far as Afghanistan is concerned, this video, this is not the first time as far as video, cartoons, and all those what they call anti-Islam or anti-Muslims and, unfortunately, may not be the last one.  Have you -- or what department is doing in Afghanistan for the future or in the future that whatever happens like this, any steps being taken in the future?  What's the best way that violence doesn’t occur or there needs to be some kind of understanding by the secretary, any message in the region to those who understand that these -- (inaudible) -- are being maybe misled or they don't know what they're talking about as far as what things happen in the past or in the future? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The president earlier today in New York spoke to the video and was -- expressed our concerns about its content.  Images and videos sometimes can incite violence, and that is obviously of deep concern to us, especially in Afghanistan. 

            When objectionable content -- and, of course, this video falls into that category -- we reject its content -- when these videos are made, they can incite violence.  The chief concern that we have is that any expressions that -- of concern by the general public, whether it's in Afghanistan or elsewhere, be done in a peaceful manner.  That's the best way to get through these kinds of problematic videos. 

            Q:  And if I may, on the secretary's visit in the region to China, there's a triangle now as far as defense ties are concerned. The Chinese defense minister was in India recently, secretary was in India not long ago, secretary was in China, and Pakistan's General Kiyani was in China, and also in Moscow. 

            My question is that, what -- did they discuss anything?  Because since U.S. and India is going to be one of the major defense ties and China is worried -- (inaudible) -- you're expanding in the region, if secretary had discussed this issue with China, because Chinese are also trying with India defense ties? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, the top goals of the secretary's recent trip to the Asia Pacific region was to explain in more detail our rebalancing strategy.  And with respect to China, he explained very clearly to our Chinese partners that we believe that China can play a very constructive role in the Asia Pacific region and be a player in the region that promotes peace and stability.  That is the message that the secretary delivered. 

            That was the focus of his discussions in private with Chinese officials.  And he welcomes their actions in the future that -- that support greater peace and stability in the region. 

            Q:  And, finally is that standoff between China and Japan, is it really concern for the department or in the region? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary addressed this on multiple occasions last week while in the region, both in public and in private.  He was very clear that the United States does not take a position with respect to this territorial dispute over the islands.  He also called for the peaceful resolution of this dispute.

            Q:  Thanks. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Justin? 

            Q:  Thanks, George.  Have you linked former Gitmo detainees bin Qumo or Mullah Zakir to either the attack in Benghazi or to the attack on Bastion/Leatherneck?  And what do you make of the fact that these former detainees have gone on to lead terror groups in various countries, Yemen, groups elsewhere?  Does this -- does being released from Gitmo give them sort of a higher status among -- among these terrorist groups, do you think? 

            MR. LITTLE:  It's really too early for me to tie particular individuals to particular attacks.  I think you can understand that I don't want to get out ahead of any investigation that's ongoing.  

            With respect to former Guantanamo detainees who have been sent elsewhere, to other countries, some may be given higher status in some terrorist groups, but I'm probably not in the best position to accurately characterize that.  I think it's probably safe to say that some of them probably do acquire some degree of status, but I'm not sure that it's widespread. 

            Q:  Do you have any insight into the investigation so far?  I mean, the president made a big point of addressing this off the top today in New York.  Is there -- are you any closer to identifying anybody linked to this attack in Benghazi? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The attack in Benghazi against the U.S. consulate there was deplorable, and our hearts go out to the -- to Ambassador Stevens, his family, and the other American patriots who -- who died in Benghazi. 

            I'm really not in a position to comment from this podium or from this building on the investigation.  We need to let the FBI pursue its investigation.  And that's where I need to leave it. 

            David?

            Q:  Did the Chinese officials advise Secretary Panetta last week that they were going to commission this aircraft carrier so quickly after his visit?  And do you see that -- or does the Pentagon see that as an escalation of the whole islands dispute?

            MR. LITTLE:  We are aware that China commissioned its first aircraft carrier today. Over the past several months, they've conducted sea trials for this carrier, and we continue to monitor China's military development, so this wasn't a particular surprise, David. 

            The United States remains committed to building a healthy, stable, reliable, and continuous military-to-military relationship with China.  And as the secretary indicated last week, increased contacts at the senior levels will help foster that kind of relationship and hopefully narrow differences, promote mutual understanding, and expand new areas of cooperation. 

            Q:  His question, though, was, was the secretary made aware that this was going to happen when he visited last week.  Was he? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We, to my recollection, didn't have a specific discussion on this carrier.  But we don't take that as a sign one way or the other of the possibilities for the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship. 

            Q:  Also, on that very issue, does the Pentagon know if China has any carrier-capable aircraft or pilots to man this aircraft carrier? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't personally know -- that's probably a question best addressed to Beijing. 

            Q:  Two different questions, one on Iran, which test-fired four anti-ship missiles today in the Strait of Hormuz, right in the middle, during this countermining maneuvers.  And I'd be interested in your take on that. 

            And the other one on Mali, which formally requested the U.N. to authorize a West African-led operation to seize back its territory from northern Islamists.  What kind of support, if any, does the U.S. intend to provide? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We are aware of the Malian request.  I don't know that any decision is made to this -- has been made to this point about whether or not to provide assistance.  I think that, at this point, the focus is assistance through regional bodies in West Africa. 

            With respect to your first question, any provocative action undertaken by the Iranians is obviously of concern.  The Iranians continue to flout their international obligations, and it is obviously problematic whenever they undertake actions that could be viewed as provocative. 

            Q:  Do you view that as provocative? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I don't think that this particular event is raising -- or ringing major alarm bells at this stage, but we take it seriously nonetheless.  And I would simply appeal to all parties in the region to not engage in provocative actions or actions that could be construed as provocative. 

            Chris? 

            Q:  On the sexual assault directives, is the -- is what the secretary has ordered today different than what the Air Force has already been doing?  Is it a different kind of review of training that he's looking for? 

            And then, second, the directive relating to training for commanders and upper enlisted, could you give a little more detail on that? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We can provide you a little bit more detail on these announcements later.  I would say that this is an important announcement, because it carries these initiatives across all of the military services.  The Air Force, as you rightly indicated, has taken steps, in the wake of the events at Lackland Air Force Base -- Air Force Base to shore up their sexual assault response capabilities. 

            And this is an ongoing concern for this secretary of defense.  He's made health of the force a major priority.  And this is one element of health of the force, addressing the problem of sexual assault in the military.  He's also taken on the issue of suicide prevention and other issues that contribute to other problems that are associated with this category of issues.

            Suicide prevention and sexual assault are important.  We have a zero tolerance policy for sexual assault.  We have a long ways to go before we get to zero, unfortunately, in the military.  But we need to keep our eye on the ball here and stay focused on it. 

            Julian?

            Q:  Is it fair to say that the additional actions that you are announcing today in regards to sexual assault are in light of or because of the revelations at Lackland?

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think that the revelations at Lackland certainly contributed to his thinking on these announcements, but he's been concerned about this issue for some time.  And training is a very important element when it comes to sexual assault response and prevention.  We must hold perpetrators accountable, and we must do everything we can to prevent it in the first place. 

            Q:  Is this department considering ordering or recommending the services go to all-female drill instructors for initial -- basic initial training across the services?

            MR. LITTLE:  I have not heard of that kind of a move.  I'll let you know if that changes in the future.  At this point, the focus is on ensuring that we do everything we can to provide complete and comprehensive training with respect to the problem of sexual assault, that we create a safe environment for our servicemembers, especially when they enter the force, but, of course, throughout their careers, and on ensuring accountability.  And that accountability is really most appropriately driven through the chain of command, and that's where the secretary's mindset is on this.

            Yes? 

            Q:  Back on Iran, early this week, an official -- an Iranian official reportedly said that they would -- they could retaliate for any kind of strike on the nuclear facilities by targeting U.S. and military bases.  So I wondered if that changes not just, you know, the -- the ever-changing timeline or never-changing timeline, but does it, you know, even change the option of a military strike from the U.S. perspective, given -- given those statements?

            MR. LITTLE:  Incendiary rhetoric is never helpful from the Iranians.  We view it as rhetoric at this stage.  Obviously, we stand ready to protect American personnel in the gulf region.  At this stage, I would simply reiterate that rhetoric of this sort is just unhelpful, and hopefully it gets ratcheted back. 

            Q:  Can I follow up?

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure.

            Q:  Can you shed any more light on the report of Panetta's visit with the GCC later this week, you know, the intents and purpose or message? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I'll probably have more later in the week.  I wouldn't want to get out ahead of the meeting.  But he is -- but he is planning on joining a GCC meeting in New York on Friday.

            Q:  George, just wanted to see if you can provide an update on the Marines that are in Libya and -- and Tunisia.  Any -- any word on, you know, what types of operations they're -- they're coordinating out there or performing?  And is there any discussion as to when those troops will eventually be pulled out?

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have a timeline at this stage.  And I don't have any updates on the missions that they're performing.  I would probably not venture into that area for obvious reasons.  They are performing security for our embassies, and I think they're doing it well.  And we stand ready to support additional requests if they come through.  I'm not aware of any that have been made. 

            Q:  Just a quick follow-up.  And if the timeline hasn't been set, are discussions starting to sort of percolate as far as when those -- when those soldiers could start -- or Marines will start cycling back in the Pentagon or at State? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not aware of any discussions at this point.  But if we have updates, I'll let you know. 

            Okay, yeah. 

            Q:  (off mic) you said the secretary sees the mission moving forward in Afghanistan.  Just kind of been a tumultuous couple weeks here.  What are the metrics of success that you guys are most impressed with?  What are the things that tell you that that's the case? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, partnered operations continue.  Overall levels of violence are down.  We see Afghans more and more in the lead for their own operations and for their own governance.  That is the goal here.  That is what we're trending toward.  At the end of the day, that's how success is going to be defined.  It's whether Afghans can provide for their own security and govern themselves. 

            If anyone thinks that the metric of success is a surrender ceremony on the deck of a ship, they're wrong.  The metric of success in Afghanistan is enabling the Afghans, Afghan political institutions, and the Afghan national security forces, to create a brighter future for Afghanistan.  That is the point and that is the goal of our strategy. 

            John? 

            Q:  George, U.S. forces and Japanese self-defense forces are conducting a joint exercise on Guam, simulating the defense of a small island against an unnamed aggressor.  Does this have anything to do with the recent tensions between Japan and China over the Senkakus? 

            MR. LITTLE:  This is merely an exercise, and I wouldn't tie it in any way to island disputes. 

            Q:  When was this originally scheduled? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have that, but we can get it for you.

            Q:  George, what you said on Iran here, have you delivered that message or has the administration delivered that message to Iran privately in those words or other words? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Which message was that?  

            I wouldn't -- I wouldn't get into discussions that we may or may not have had with the Iranian regime.

            Justin?  And then we'll wrap it up. 

            Q:  Iran says it's built -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  Oh, okay.  We'll add that -- sorry, we'll add one more question after you. 

            Q:  Iran says it has built and deployed a reconnaissance drone, the Shahed 129 they're calling it.  It says it doubles the range of previous drones, and they say it's like the RQ Sentinel drone that went down in Iranian territory in 2011.  Are you aware of this drone, of this -- of this deployment?  Can you verify it in any way?  And are you concerned about it in any way? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not in a position to verify that claim one way or the other.  I think that we have the most sophisticated, elaborate remotely-piloted vehicles in the world.

            Q:  Is it plausible to suggest that it could be in any way similar to the highly classified stealth drone that went down? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I can't verify the claim, so I wouldn't be able to respond to part two of the question. 

            Q:  George, having the Marines train the Japanese on how to hit the beach and take an island, how does that jibe with the overall position stated that the U.S. does not take a position in these island disputes? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Repeat the first part of your question for me. 

            Q:  The Marines are training Japanese how to hit the beach to take an island. 

            MR. LITTLE:  The Japanese are our allies.  We work with them on a daily basis.  We have -- we have bases in Japan.  It's natural for us to help the Japanese and to exercise with them.  I wouldn't construe this particular event as in any way tied to the island dispute. 

            All right.  Thanks, everyone.  Have a good day.  No one asked about the NFL.  I'm kind of disappointed.

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