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DOD News Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon

Presenter: Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs George Little
October 02, 2012

            MR. GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon.  With absentee voting underway for the November election, I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight the department's efforts to encourage servicemembers to vote and to provide them with the resources and assistance they need to help them do so.           

            Secretary Panetta believes, along with the rest of the department's leaders, that it is vitally important for our servicemembers and their families who have made great sacrifices in defense of this democracy to have their voice heard in this election.  To that end, the department is implementing a robust Federal Voting Assistance Program, including measures mandated by the Congress.  

            Let me provide you with a few examples of precisely what we're doing.  We've established more than 200 installation voter assistance offices.  In addition, there are thousands of voting assistance officers available to every unit and every service all over the world, including in Afghanistan and aboard deployed ships.  

            Between the installation offices and these unit-level voting officers, the department assisted more than 500,000 servicemembers in the first six months of this year alone.  Absentee voters can see their unit voting assistance officers, contact their state board of election, or reach the Federal Voting Assistance Program through the web at www.fvap.gov or by phone at 1-800-438-VOTE. 

            We have personnel standing by to talk absentee voters through this sometimes complex process, and we're also undertaking an unprecedented social media campaign to inform absentee servicemembers and overseas citizen voters of these resources.  To date, there have been nearly 600,000 downloads for absentee voting registration materials from the Federal Voting Assistance Program's website.  

            The assistance we provide is completely nonpartisan.  The Federal Voting Assistance Program strives to ensure that every absent military and overseas citizen voter has the tools and resources to receive, cast and return an absentee ballot and have it counted. 

            With that, I'll take your questions.  

            Lita? 

            Q:  George, can you clear up some of the questions about the Iraq funding?  Several questions.  Has there been funding that has been identified in order to not have the trainers come home?  How many trainers are we talking about?  And is counterterrorism training included in this, or is it not included? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Today, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved Central Command's request for $1.7 million through the Combatant Commander Initiative Fund.  The funding is effective as of yesterday. 

            The CCIF authority in funding allows OSC-I personnel to continue to train and provide military education to the Iraqi security forces.  This is a temporary bridge while we seek the longer-term way ahead for OSC-I in the F.Y. '13 National Defense Authorization Act, which we expect to be taken up by Congress later this year. 

            Q:  Is it 90 days?  And is the counterterrorism effort included in this or not? 

            MR. LITTLE:  As with a number of other countries, we do work with Iraq closely on CT efforts.  So the answer is yes.  And you're correct that this is for a period of 90 days. 

            Q:  And -- I'm sorry, George, a follow-on on that. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay. 

            Q:  What -- what was the reason that Congress didn't fund this?  Why are you having to bridge this?  Was this an oversight?  Or was this sending some sort of message? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I don't have that specific answer, but the important thing is that we have found the money, we're going to continue this effort with our Iraqi partners.  It's an important effort, and we have found the money to bridge to legislation. 

            Q:  (off mic) why they didn't fund it for you?  I mean, you're already on a tight budget.  Why should you be having to move around your budget to it? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, this is really a question best addressed to Congress. 

            Yes? 

            Q:  (off mic) voting issue, does the department have any explanation for why the absentee voter requests are down so dramatically, if you've made all of these efforts? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Down according to whom? 

            Q:  According to the -- the Military Voter Protection Project, the group that put out this report, that there's a huge decrease in the number of requests for absentee voter ballots, and so all of the efforts that you've taken apparently aren't working. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, let me make two points on that score, Larry.  It's a good question.  First, we would take strong issue with the report you referenced.  The data in that report, we believe, is quite old and doesn't take into effect recent developments that we've undertaken. 

            Secondly, they did a compare and contrast between this year and 2008.  And it's important to remember that there -- the number of deployed servicemembers, especially in the warzones, has declined significantly. 

            So just as an example, the Virginia National Guard, as I understand it, has all units home for the first time in 10 years.  We have ended the war in Iraq.  We have drawn down in Afghanistan.  And it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. 

            Tom? 

            Q:  Yeah, can I go back to the Iraqi security funding? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  In an era of tight budgets, that $1.7 million wasn't just lying around doing nothing.  Can you tell us what Central Command or the military won't be able to do now that it is having to be this bridge fund? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know that there was a zero-sum trade, Tom, for this specific funding.  We can certainly try to sort that out, but the important thing we have found the funding, and this is an important initiative.  We want to work closely with our Iraqi partners, and that's why we have found this bridge. 

            Yes? 

            Q:  George, thank you.  Two questions.  One, Afghanistan's foreign minister is in town, and do you know whether he's meeting anybody in the building?  And, second, when the secretary visited China and in the region, and he discussed, of course, about India and the Chinese military build-up and all that, my question is that, what role you think in the new Afghanistan building up India will play from -- secretary had discussion -- anything about India's role in the future? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Good questions.  I don't have any knowledge of meetings between the Afghan foreign minister and department officials. 

            On the second question, China, we believe, is a very important partner in terms of our defense relationship.  And as the secretary articulated in the region and has articulated since, China has a very constructive role to play, and we encourage them to do so. 

            India is also a very important player in the region, and the secretary has recently visited there, as has Deputy Secretary Carter.  We look forward to growing the defense relationship with both countries, and where it's possible, all three of us will work together to try to advance peace and stability in this very important part of the world. 

            Q:  George, back to the voting issue, you take issue with the MVPP, but what about the DOD I.G. which actually supported their findings, that there were, you know, something like 90 percent fewer absentee ballots that were being downloaded for certain states?  Do you take issue with the I.G. report? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to take issue with some of the findings of the I.G. report.  We've been very clear about what some of those issues were and how we have redressed those problems.  I think you had a recent briefing from the head of -- our Federal Voting Assistance Program, and she very articulately addressed how we were going to after some of the problems addressed in the I.G. report. 

            But I think a half a million number is a significant number and shouldn't be discounted.  This shows that we have applied significant energy and effort to ensuring that our servicemembers can vote, can participate in this election, and we will continue to do so consistent with the law and the parameters of this program. 

            Q:  So you're saying a half a million absentee ballots were -- have been downloaded through which period? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Let me just repeat what I said earlier, if I can sort out my paper here.  The department has assisted more than 500,000 servicemembers in the first six months of this year alone.  So that's no small feat, and we'll continue to press ahead.  It's important that every voter, including our servicemembers, be helped. 

            Q:  So -- (inaudible) -- does that mean helping them with the absentee ballot or just answer some questions about voting? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think both are important, and we have -- there's a range of assistance that we've provided, and obviously, servicemembers can choose different ways of trying to register to vote.  We have made our resources readily available.  There has been an aggressive effort on the part of this department and the services to ensure that our servicemembers are aware of the resources at their disposal to be able to register to vote in this election. 

            Tom? 

            Q:  George, on Afghanistan, I -- my attention drifted away momentarily.  Are you expecting General Allen to come back to the administration with a recommendation for troop levels for next year?  And did he do that and I missed it? 

            MR. LITTLE:  He has not done that to my knowledge.  He is prepared at a certain point to provide ISAF's independent analysis of what he believes the troop levels should be.  Ultimately, this is going to be a decision that is made by the president of the United States in consultation with the secretary of defense.  It could be later this fall.  I don't have a precise timeline. 

            Q:  The second question is, I noticed that both General Allen and General Terry had some fairly pessimistic things to say about a tax on U.S. and coalition forces by insider attacks and also IEDs, which are up significantly.  So after a decade of war, it appears to me that the military has been unable to subdue either of those threats.  And I wonder if -- how the building looks at the war at this point, whether you believe you're winning or holding or not winning, or how would you characterize it? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, we have not eliminated entirely the insider attack threat or the IED threat.  That being said, we have made substantial progress in Afghanistan.  The secretary and General Allen have discussed this on repeated occasion, and let me reinforce some of the points of progress that they have previously discussed. 

            Number one, the surge, which we just recovered, worked.  Its violence levels are down.  We have trained up a much more highly capable Afghan national security force of some 350,000 Afghans who are taking back security for their own country. 

            The transition process, which began a few years ago, is proceeding the way we expected it to.  We are now dealing with an Afghanistan that has some 75 percent of the Afghan population under Afghan security lead.  These are markers of progress.  We are making progress.  The strategy is effective.  Yes, there are challenges along the way. 

            As the secretary has said, this is a war.  And we will continue to fight it and fight it aggressively with our Afghan partners and our ISAF partners.  But to judge progress of the war by one or two simple measures I don't think paints a true picture of what remarkable progress our men and women in uniform have made over these past 10 years. 

            Our country is safer because of their efforts, and that is one of the key touchstones of progress that I would point to.  

            Barbara? 

            Q:  I'd like to follow up on Afghanistan.  Then I really want to ask you a North Africa question.  On Afghanistan, is it correct that at this point you believe the attack in Wardak on Saturday came from multiple members of an Afghan military unit that essentially Americans were attacked by an Afghan unit of soldiers?  And then I want to ask North Africa. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure.  I appreciate the question, Barbara.  I know that the details have been a little murky coming out of this particular incident.  And I would really defer to ISAF on the particulars of this incident.  I don't want to get out ahead of what they're looking into, in terms of what happened in this particular event. 

            Q:  But I was pressing you on the point, but I mean certainly the Defense Department has some fair idea at this point where that investigation into how two Americans died is leading you. 

            MR. LITTLE:  We take these investigations very seriously, especially when servicemembers are killed.  I'm not going to get out ahead of the process and speak prematurely about what the conclusions might be.  We're looking into what happened, but I don't have the definitive conclusion to report to you today. 

            Q:  If I could just ask on North Africa, can you provide some clarity about all of this?  The -- Africa Command, the secretary's level of concern about the growing Al Qaida threat in the Maghreb, about the Al Qaida threat and affiliates across North Africa, and where he sees it going, what kind of information he's getting from Africa Command?  Do you see more drone operations?  Do you see boots on the ground, more intelligence, ISR?  Where do you see this all going? 

            MR. LITTLE: Well, first, the secretary has been very clear.  His role as secretary of defense and in his prior position as director of the Central Intelligence Agency that he takes the Al Qaida threat wherever it emanates extremely seriously and with great concern. 

            The important thing to remember when it comes to Al Qaida is that we have bitten into their leadership, we have helped decimate the top tier of the group, and at the same time, we recognize that they remain a serious threat.  

            They have over the past few years set up shop in other places, to include Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen, and we have been very clear that we are concerned about Al Qaida in North Africa and affiliated groups. 

            So the overall trend line is very positive.  We have disrupted much of Al Qaida's network, but we had more work to do.  When it comes to AFRICOM, the secretary is very confident in -- what General Ham and Africa Command has been doing to track this and other threats in the AFRICOM AOR and is regularly briefed on what AFRICOM finds. 

            With respect to what we're doing today in what our focus is in Africa, there are no plans at this stage for unilateral U.S. military operations in Mali or in the region.  As always, we're paying very close attention to the situation in the region and stand ready should our partners in the region and regional actors such as ECOWAS request our assistance.  But at this time, that's where we are. 

            We continue to focus very much on partner capacity-building and working with countries in the region and with regional organizations such as ECOWAS to build their capacity and to help them address their security challenges.  That is our current focus. 

            Q:  Can I just briefly follow up and ask you, at this point, do you see AQIM as potentially heading down a road maybe five years or whatever from now as being as powerful and strong as Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula came to be?  To what extent is your focus looking at where AQIM is right now and making sure it does not grow to that point? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We're working very closely with our interagency counterparts, including the intelligence community, to assess AQIM on a rolling basis.  I can't project precisely where AQIM will be in five years, but if we do our job right, they won't be in a very good position, Barbara. 

            Q:  (off mic) sequestration.  In light of Ashton Carter's memo last week to kind of proceed as normal and not on the assumption sequestration is going to happen, what detailed planning is the comptroller's office either starting right now or will start in the next couple weeks to have in the hip pocket, basically? 

            MR. LITTLE:  There is no hip pocket planning going on that I'm aware of.  With respect to sequestration, we're still in the same place.  We are not planning for sequestration.  The secretary has been very clear that he wants to avoid it.  And I would repeat his call to Congress to remedy this problem as soon as possible.  This was a mechanism established by Congress so that it could be defeated by the Congress.  

            Q:  (off mic) 

            MR. LITTLE:  That's true.  But hopefully before January, when sequestration technically takes effect, we can overcome this problem. 

            Q:  Hope is not a strategy, as Secretary Clinton once said when she was a senator under Rumsfeld.  How do you deal with your workforce and the uncertainty that they may be furloughed, you know, for a day, a week, an hour? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, it's October 2nd by my calendar.  We have some time before January.  We're not planning at this stage.  If it gets to a point where we have to plan, we'll ensure that our employees need -- have what they need to deal with the situation, but hopefully it won't come to that. 

            Q:  And a classification issue.  What's the latest thinking in terms of the SEAL book, "No Easy Day," in terms of punitive actions against the author? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure.  I have no update on this particular book, Tony. 

            Q:  I have to ask you.  There's a new book out called "The Endgame," Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor.  They quote repeatedly -- and almost brag about the access they've had to troves of secret documents, classified documents, some still secret.  Has the department looked at the book and its vetting process and your unauthorized disclosure review to see if whether a leak investigation should be convened? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I wouldn't get into reviews of this kind, Tony, with all due respect.  What we're talking about here -- and this is apples and oranges, to use another metaphor -- we take very seriously the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.  The difference here, of course, is that "No Easy Day" was written by a former employee of this department and the book that you referenced was written by an outside author. 

            Now, there may, in fact, be -- I don't know for sure -- but there may be classified information contained in the book.  And if so, then that would be of serious concern.  But where we go from there is really not something I would discuss publicly. 

            Q:  It's not apples and oranges.  They're bragging in their prologue about the unauthorized disclosure of Petraeus to Gates, secret documents that haven't been out yet. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Again, I would say that we deplore the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.  We take all of these disclosures very seriously.  And I'm not going to get into what process we may or may not invoke with respect to books written by outside authors. 

            Q:  (off mic) are you going to at least review -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  It sounds like we're having a good discussion about it. 

            Q:  (off mic) the SEAL is going to get crucified by this agency possibly, and you've got authors bragging about their access to unauthorized documents.  There seems to be an inconsistent policy here. 

            MR. LITTLE:  We have a very consistent policy.  With respect to our employees, our employees are not to disclose classified information.  They supposed to honor their nondisclosure agreements with this department and submit their materials that relate to national security and the U.S. military and intelligence for prepublication review.  Outside authors are not necessarily encumbered by the same obligations. 

            And with respect to unauthorized disclosures that take place inside those books, I'm simply not going to discuss publicly what avenues we may or may not pursue. 

            Q:  Okay.  

            MR. LITTLE:  Chris? 

            Q:  George, the NATO secretary general has said that green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan have negatively impacted morale.  I wanted to ask, does the Defense Department share that view?  And how is that manifesting itself?  And, secondly, he also kind of hinted that the timeframe for withdrawal could possibly be speeded up.  Are you doing any kind of planning for that, contingency plan -- 

            MR. LITTLE:  This is the secretary general? 

            Q:  Yes. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay.  My understanding is that the press report is incorrect.  I would refer you to NATO and my colleagues there to clarify that press report.  My understanding that it is -- that the secretary general is, in fact, committed to the timeline that we're all working toward and that there is absolutely no daylight between us and the secretary general on the Lisbon strategy. 

            Q:  (off mic) 

            MR. LITTLE:  And on -- let me -- pardon me? 

            Q:  That would be a big screw-up for (off mic) 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I -- 

            Q:  (off mic) pretty precise what he said.  I mean they have recordings (off mic) 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I -- all I -- all I can say is that -- my understanding is that -- and I'm certainly not in a position to speak for the secretary general, but I'll tiptoe into it just briefly.  My understanding is that that is -- the way his comments were construed was incorrect.  But please check with NATO, and if I'm incorrect, I'll let you know. 

            Q:  The subject of morale, you know, was -- was he misquoted on that, as well? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I think -- you know, I can speak for U.S. military morale in the region.  And, look, I'm not dismissing the impact of insider attacks and IEDs.  This is war.  And when you have incidents like this, there may be an impact from time to time. 

            But, look, our -- our men and women in uniform are doing incredible work every day, including partnering with their Afghan -- the Afghan security forces throughout Afghanistan.  And if you judge morale by the outcome of their work, then you have to say that morale is high. 

            I don't know what the right morale barometer is.  This is a question in -- that comes up from time to time in this town, and how do you assess morale?  I assess morale by results.  And our men and women in uniform are achieving results, and by that standard, morale is high. 

            Yes? 

            Q:  Question about Afghanistan and Pakistan.  You know that -- (inaudible) -- they are going to sign a partnership, you know, strategic partnership documents soon, next year.  Do you think that they're going to be useful to solve this problem between Afghanistan and Pakistan?  And also -- (inaudible) -- Pakistan to Afghanistan -- (inaudible) -- and Pakistan and Afghanistan -- (inaudible) -- they discussed that they are trying to stop. 

            MR. LITTLE:  It's difficult for me to comment on prospective agreements that may be entered into.  And as I've said before in this very room, we take border incidents very seriously.  And these incidents are something for the Afghans and the Pakistanis to sort out. 

            A couple more questions. 

            Q:  Back to counterterrorism efforts in Africa, what assistance have your partners in the region requested?  And is expanded use of UAVs part of that assistance? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The United States military seeks to work very closely with a number of countries in the region to address counterterrorism and other threats.  With regard to specific requests, I wouldn't get into those in a public forum.  I'm not prepared to make any announcements today.  But we continue to assess their needs and, where possible, appropriate, we will work closely with our partners in the region.

            Finally? 

            Q:  Yesterday in Okinawa, three Osprey were seen transitioning over residential and school areas and were apparently violating the promise that U.S. made to only do so when it was absolutely necessary.  Do you have any comment on that decision or know why it was thought necessary to transition over those areas? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not aware of that particular report.  My colleagues are USFJ may have more detail than I do. 

            Q:  (off mic) quick clarification on your Afghanistan comment? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay. 

            Q:  You've been saying all week that the partnering efforts were well north of 50 percent.  Do you have an update on that?  Considering 90 percent was where they started before the attacks, do you have a sense of where they are at this moment? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have a precise figure for you today, Lita.  I will tell you that we remain far north of 70 percent.  I don't have an exact percentage for you.  I'm loath to get into precise numbers.  And remember that these partnered operations are approved on an operation-by-operation basis.  So today's percentage may be slightly off from yesterday's perspective.  So I don't want to in any way -- 

            Q:  (off mic) 

            MR. LITTLE:  Pardon me? 

            Q:  You just said far north of 70 percent? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Did I say far north of 70?  I meant 50.  My apologies.  Thank you for allowing me to clarify.

            Q:  But they're not back to the 90 percent they (off mic) 

            MR. LITTLE:  Again, I don't have a precise number for you. 

            Q:  George, has the administration given up trying to negotiate with the Taliban? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm going to close on this question.  And, look, we've said for a very long time that reconciliation in Afghanistan is an Afghan-led process and that it's not just a military solution at the end of the day that we seek, but it's also a political one.  And this is really for the Afghans to sort out at the end of the day.  Where possible and where appropriate, we'll stand ready to assist. 

            Thanks, everyone.  Have a good day.