GEORGE LITTLE: Good afternoon, everyone.
I'm going to lead again with a few announcements involving Secretary Panetta's upcoming overseas trip.
Tomorrow, Secretary Panetta will be departing on a week-long trip to Peru, Uruguay and Brussels.
As you know, he just returned from the Asia-Pacific region, and this trip will reaffirm the department's commitment to strengthening defense partnerships around the world, particularly in Latin America and Europe.
In Peru, Secretary Panetta will have the opportunity to meet with President Humala, and he will meet separately with Minister of Defense Cateriano at the Pentagonito.
Peru is one of the United States' strongest democratic partners in South America, and it is a country of growing regional importance. The U.S. cooperates with the Peruvian military on a range of activities, exercises and training.
During his visit to Lima, Secretary Panetta will convey our interest in further deepening the U.S.-Peru bilateral defense relationship in the areas of counter-narcotics, counterterrorism and humanitarian operations.
In Uruguay, the secretary will participate in the 10th Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas. He will have the chance to confer with counterparts from this hemisphere and meet bilaterally with defense leaders from seven nations, including Uruguay.
The emphasis of those discussions will be on strengthening partnerships and working with other nations to build their capacity to contribute to regional and international security efforts.
Secretary Panetta will also look to lay the groundwork for closer security cooperation with Uruguay on areas of common concern.
Given that schedule, it is fitting and timely that today the department is releasing a Western Hemisphere defense policy statement. The statement will guide our approach to defense cooperation across the region, recognizing that the Western Hemisphere nations have a growing capability and willingness to contribute to security efforts within and beyond their borders.
The statement also demonstrates the department's commitment to developing innovative, low-cost, small-footprint approaches to our shared objectives with Western Hemisphere nations.
For members of the Spanish-speaking press covering this announcement, I have a brief statement in Spanish.
(SPEAKING IN SPANISH)
On the second portion of his trip, Secretary Panetta will travel to Brussels for NATO meetings and consultations with European allies. This is the secretary's fourth visit to Brussels, and these meetings are an opportunity for the alliance to continue progress made in Chicago on NATO capabilities and for ISAF nations to come together for an update on Afghanistan.
Before taking your questions, I have one additional update on DOD support to the ongoing investigation of the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
At the request of the FBI, the department provided logistic and security support to the investigation team in order to conduct work on-site in Benghazi. DOD personnel completed that support earlier today and have departed Benghazi, along with the investigation team.
The activities of the investigation team and support provided by DOD were fully coordinated with the State Department and the Libyan government.
With that, I'll take -- I'll take your questions.
Q: Can you tell us more about that support team? Who were they? Were they Marines? What -- you know, who was doing that?
MR. LITTLE: This was a U.S. military support mission. I wouldn't get into the specifics on this small footprint of military personnel who accompanied our FBI colleagues on this investigation mission in Benghazi. I wouldn't get into the security dynamics surrounding this mission for obvious reasons. We may need to replicate it in the future, and I wouldn't want to tip off the -- the wrong people.
Q: Are they still there or is it just a --
MR. LITTLE: They have left.
Q: They have left.
Q: How long were they there?
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't get into the specifics, but it was a number of hours.
Q: (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: Right, within the last day.
Q: George --
MR. LITTLE: They left a short time ago.
Q: Excuse me, it's been more than three weeks. What was the delay?
MR. LITTLE: The U.S. military has been willing to consider requests at various points. This is really a question I think best directed to the State Department, FBI. I know that both the State Department and FBI have been anxious to move this process along, to move the investigation forward, and we stand ready to support them in whatever way possible.
Q: Well, you say they were anxious to do it, but a three-week time delay flies in the face of that. I mean, a Washington Post reporter was on the ground there yesterday and recovered sensitive documents that had been left on the ground there for three weeks.
There has to be some reason for the delay.
MR. LITTLE: Well, the U.S. government has been aggressively looking into precisely what happened since September the 11th, when the attack occurred on Benghazi -- or consulate in Benghazi. So, we've not been sitting around waiting, you know, for information to come to us. We've been actively chasing leads in various ways.
The intelligence community, the State Department, FBI, the full range of capabilities of this government have been used to try to determine what happened in this tragic incident.
So, I wouldn't read too much into time delays at this stage. The important thing is that the FBI team has been working in Libya and now has been on the ground in Benghazi. But the specifics of their investigation I would need to refer you to them.
Q: Has the U.S. military provided any other support in terms of what previous steps have been taken in an effort to find evidence or those responsible for this attack?
MR. LITTLE: Our mission, including this one today, has been focused primarily on security support. As you know, we had a FAST platoon that deployed to the Tripoli embassy shortly after the attack. We've deployed a FAST platoon as well to Yemen. And we stand ready to protect Americans wherever they may be threatened around the world.
Q: When you say logistic support, does that mean transport of this? And will you do the NATO announcement in French? (Laughter.)
MR. LITTLE: I'll be happy to talk French at any time. (Laughter.)
(SPEAKING IN FRENCH) (Laughter.)
Repeat the first part of your question again.
Q: The first part was, you said logistic support, and I'm wondering if you can describe that a little bit more, if that includes transportation or what?
MR. LITTLE: Without getting into the details of this security support mission, we did provide transportation to the team. I'm just not going to get beyond that in terms of precisely what that transportation was.
Q: But from Tripoli?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get into the specifics.
Q: Can assume it was airlift, helicopters?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get into the specifics.
Q: Why not? I mean, everybody on the ground there has seen what happened. They're gone. I mean, why -- why couldn't you share that information?
MR. LITTLE: Well, look, I really am loath to get into the details of a security support mission to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But it is reasonable to assume that we provided transportation support into Benghazi, and that transportation happens typically in one of two ways: on the ground or from the air. And so let me --
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get into specifics, but I will go so far as to say that we provided some airlift support for the --
Q: -- reason why you cannot provide us with information as to how they were transported in when everybody on the ground there, every neighbor has seen either they drove in or they flew in. I mean, I don't understand the reason.
MR. LITTLE: I think I just gave you a hint, if you just listened to me, Mick, and that was that I did go so far as to say that we provided airlift to the team. And I don't really want to get into the details of security support missions because we may have to do this again, and I don't want to tip off the other side, as it were, to what we may or may not do in the future.
Q: George, did these guys come from the Marine Corps, the Marine FAST [Fleet Antiterrorist Support Team] platoon in Tripoli? Did they just come from Tripoli?
MR. LITTLE: I'm, again, not going to get into the specifics of the composition of the team, but the focus of the FAST platoon has been on providing security support to the embassy in Tripoli.
Q: George, was there any attempt to recover sensitive documentswhile the team was at the consulate?
MR. LITTLE: Our mission was security support. For specifics with respect to the investigation I would refer you to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Q: George, when they -- when they came out -- when they came out today, did they come out with the FBI team? Is the FBI team still on the ground?
MR. LITTLE: To my knowledge, the FBI team has left Benghazi. And we provided the means by which they left.
Q: When was the request made to send them there? Was it after the Washington Post article appeared and it was apparent that there were still documents lying on the ground that nobody had bothered to pick up?
MR. LITTLE: I would not tie this mission to any particular press report. This has been something that we have been working on closely with the State Department and the FBI. All of us have obviously wanted to go into Benghazi to try to obtain as much information as we can, to learn as much as we can about what happened during this very tragic event on September 11th.
Q: Can you tell us, have any FBI personnel --
MR. LITTLE: That's for the FBI to answer.
Q: I guess one of the big questions here, there's so much secrecy about how you brought these people in, there's so many security concerns.
Do you have a greater level of concern for the security in Benghazi before -- before this incident -- attack -- you know, this attack occurred at the consulate?
I mean, in other words, if it's so dangerous now, wasn't it too dangerous for the ambassador to be there in the first place?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get into speculation of what security was like beforehand. All we can deal with is what we know now, Justin, and that is that a very tragic incident occurred that killed four Americans, four dedicated Americans who were working in Libya.
And given that situation, we think it's only prudent to take measures to protect our personnel who may be investigating what happened there. That's the bottom line.
Q: George, are -- (inaudible) -- Navy ships still off the coast of Libya? And if so, what are they doing there?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get into the location of our assets in the region.
With respect to security in the region overall, I would say that we stand ready to support security for American military and diplomatic personnel in the region. We have the assets in the region to do just that.
Q: George, there are some Turkish news reports from Istanbul that two people detained or arrested at international airport Istanbul related with the Benghazi attack -- attacks. Do you have anything on that? Turkish security forces are questioning them, two people. They're on the TV news in Turkey.
MR. LITTLE: I'm not aware of that report and I don't have any information on it.
MR. LITTLE: Okay. I don't have any information on that.
Q: George, as far as terrorism in the region is concerned, today State Department designate -- designate another -- (inaudible) terrorist group, organization operating in the Yemen and in Arabian Peninsula. Do they have any connection as far as in -- other than Yemen in -- (inaudible) -- I mean in Benghazi? And also, is there a connection in Afghanistan or Pakistan? And what role -- (inaudible) -- DOD play?
MR. LITTLE: Well, this is really a question best directed to the State Department. And as far as I know, the intelligence community and the United States government as a whole has not reached a final conclusion on precisely what happened in Benghazi and precisely who was involved in the attack.
Q: You know, what is the -- what is the sense of concern in this department over Wednesday's cross-border attacks between Turkey and Syria? And is there -- is there worry that the -- the attacks may escalate into a larger conflict that may involve the U.S. military?
MR. LITTLE: I'll take the second part of that good question first, and that is we hope that this doesn't escalate into a broader conflict. We hope that the situation de-escalates.
We are outraged by the Syrian government's actions along the Turkish border. We stand with our Turkish allies. It is absolutely inappropriate, wrong and deplorable for the Syrian regime to conduct this kind of activity along the border, which has led to the loss of life of Turkish civilians.
It is time for the Assad regime to step down. They continue to kill innocent civilians in Syria, and it's time for the Syrian people to be able to determine their own future in a country that is free of this kind of brutality.
Q: Was the Turkish response to that appropriate, proportional, or was -- did they counter-fire for too long? And did Mr. Panetta have any contact with Turkish officials over this incident?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary has not had any contact with Turkish officials, but certainly we respect the inherent right of self-defense displayed by Turkey.
Q: George, when was the last time the president spoke with Admiral Stavridis on the situation?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have a precise time for you, Christina. I'll see if I can dig that up for you. Sure.
Q: We were told they spoke yesterday or that he -- supposed to speak to him yesterday about it.
MR. LITTLE: I will check.
Q: As far as security in Afghanistan is concerned, what people in Afghanistan are asking really, one day they hear that progress is there as far as terrorism is concerned, and another day they see another terrorist attack and also they see that -- they hear from the U.S. officials everything is fine and going to be fine when they leave the next time in 2014.
So what -- they're confused. Do you have any real message for them what's their future as far as security in Afghanistan is concerned?
MR. LITTLE: Well, we think there are great opportunities for greater security in Afghanistan, and we're seeing that happen on a day-to-day basis. We're seeing the Afghans increasingly take the lead for their own security throughout much of their country.
Do challenges remain? Of course. We're not blind to those challenges. We understand that there are continuing incidents in the midst of a war.
We are going to continue to press the fight. We're going to continue to work with the Afghans to take the fight to the enemy. And we think that our transition strategy is effective and will produce the kind of lasting stability that we hope Afghanistan can achieve, and we're committed to that principle.
Q: George, on a different topic, the Pentagon and the military has had a longstanding relationship with the Sesame Street organization for many, many years, working on books, videos to help children and military families -- provide the materials on the children, on deployments, homecoming, how to deal with the wounding or death of a parent.
Now, quite seriously, this is part of a national conversation. Do you -- does this department feel that this kind of relationship is beneficial? Do you want to see it continue? Do you, you know, do you continue to support this kind of thing with the Sesame Street organization?
MR. LITTLE: Well, without getting into recent references in high-profile settings to Sesame Street, I will say that we've had a long-lasting and effective partnership with Sesame Street. They have supported military children. But I'm not going to get into politics here. I wouldn't want to ruffle any feathers, so to speak. (Laughter.)
Q: (off mic) (Laughter.)
MR. LITTLE: We do have big birds, but I'm not going to comment on Big Bird. Okay? (Laughter.)
Q: (inaudible) -- Big Bird?
MR. LITTLE: I am going to stay far away from that particular big bird.
Q: George, just coming back to Libya for a second, can you say when the State Department made the request to the military, so we can get a sense of the time lapse between when the request was made and when the operation was conducted today?
MR. LITTLE: There are -- there's obviously a series of steps they needed to go through. Need to work closely with the State Department; you need to work closely with the FBI. We need to make sure our folks are ready as well to go in and provide adequate security support. And of course we need to consult closely with the Libyans.
So this process has evolved over a matter of days. It worked rather quickly. And it took that amount of time to ensure that we could provide for the security of our personnel going into Benghazi and to develop the right investigation plan.
Q: George, on Bowe Bergdahl, recently Ash Carter said -- he was asked about this and he called it "our most pressing concern at this moment." And I wondered how you justify that statement with, you know, recent news that the U.S. is somehow backing off of hope for a negotiation with the Taliban because that was at the heart of getting Bergdahl released earlier this year and, you know, with the Karzai government kind of being in the middle of it.
Where is this department now? If we're not pressing for negotiations, does that mean -- how are you going to follow through on Bergdahl? And is it really your most pressing concern at this moment?
MR. LITTLE: Let me say that we remember every day Bowe Bergdahl. And we are taking steps on a regular basis to try to determine -- to determining precisely where he is and to secure his freedom.
We are deeply concerned about the fact that he's been held for so long, and our hearts go out to his family.
The effort to secure him is ongoing, and we will do everything possible to keep him at the top of our priority list.
With respect to reconciliation discussions and so forth, as I've said before, that's an Afghan-led process, and I'm not from this podium going to in any way, shape or form link the two.
Q: By several accounts, including the deputy foreign minister -- that -- that that's the problem, is that letting it be an Afghan process is holding up the release of an American soldier.
Is that how the Pentagon sees it?
MR. LITTLE: We are strongly dedicated to getting Bowe Bergdahl home, to his family in Idaho. We want to see that happen as quickly as possible.
Now, how that happens can be in a number of ways, and I'm not going to speculate on precisely how he can be freed and how he might come home. But I can assure you, Kevin, that we take his -- his plight very seriously and that we want him -- we never forget those who remain in the custody of those who should not be holding our soldiers.
Q: A minute ago -- (inaudible) -- you said, it was a matter of days from the time that the State Department requested and apparently the operation was conducted today to go into Benghazi.
Had the military previously, even before this attack, ever provided any kind of security assessment for the U.S. consulate there in Benghazi? Do you know?
MR. LITTLE: We are currently taking a look at -- with our interagency partners, the State Department and the FBI and others -- to see what role, if any, we had in the past. I'm going to wait to see where the information takes us on that particular question. It's a good one. It's one that we'll be asking ourselves.
Q: George, have the Turks requested any U.S. ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets to monitor the border situation with Syria?
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't get into those kinds of requests one way or the other. We have a very strong alliance with the Turks, and that alliance continues to this day.
Q: George, last week the secretary said there was -- that it was a bit unclear what may have happened with the movement of chemical weapons, suspected chemical weapons in Syria. Is there any more clarification on that, what their status is? Have they returned? Have you decided why they were moved or what was going on?
MR. LITTLE: I don't believe I have any further information beyond what the secretary said last week. He did indicate that some chemical weapons apparently have been moved, probably in many cases to ensure their security.
It is the responsibility of the Syrian regime to protect these stockpiles, and we think it's their obligation to continue to protect those stockpiles.
By and large, as he said, the major stockpiles there are secure, in our estimation, and that's where I'd leave it.
Q: George, you said "probably," though. That's a little --
MR. LITTLE: Okay, let me -- no, let me --
Q: You said the last time that they were moved, this building thought they were moved for their security.
MR. LITTLE: We believe their -- they have been moved for their security.
Q: George, if I can follow up in your response to Mick's question.
MR. LITTLE: Sure.
Q: You said you are looking at what may have been done in the past. What exactly do you mean by that? Is that a formal review, is it part of the ARB [Accountability Review Board] for the --
MR. LITTLE: It's not formally linked to the State Department process, but we're going to be taking a look, as we should. It's the responsible thing to do in a situation like this to see if we played any role at some point in assessing the -- the conditions on the ground in Libya. And that's where I'd leave it.
Q: Who is doing this look?
MR. LITTLE: We're forming a team of experts who will look into this and -- over the coming months.
And, look, it's important that we get to the facts here. The goal here is to help the entire government figure out how we manage the security for our personnel and diplomatic installations worldwide. And we play a role at some of those installations around the world, so to the extent that we can contribute lessons learned we will.
Q: So this is a review, an investigation, a task force? What exactly is it?
MR. LITTLE: I would call it a -- an internal look at anything that we may have done with respect to security in Libya. We announced a number of months ago that we had U.S. military service members on the ground in Libya to provide security support at the embassy in Tripoli. And we're going to take a look at what, if any, role we had to play in assessing security there and elsewhere in the country.
Q: Who's tasked with leading the internal look?
MR. LITTLE: I don't know that we have an official chair at this point, but we'll let you know.
All right, thanks, everyone. Have a good day .
Q: George, what is exactly the Pentagonito?
MR. LITTLE: That's the Peruvian Ministry of Defense.