GEORGE LITTLE: Well, good afternoon. It's nice to see a small group of you here today. As you all know, Secretary Hagel returned yesterday from a trip to Afghanistan, and he has a busy week ahead here at the Pentagon. This morning, Secretary Hagel met with the sultan of Brunei at Blair House and then joined the sultan in a meeting with President Obama in the Oval Office. Brunei is one of our closest regional partners and, as many of you know, is this year's ASEAN chair.
Under Brunei's 2013 chairmanship, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, also known as the ADMM-Plus, will conduct three multilateral exercises in the Asia Pacific region, and Brunei will host the ADMM-Plus Ministerial. The secretary looks forward to strengthening this important relation as we continue to deepen our engagement in a strategically vital Asia Pacific region.
This afternoon, the secretary will meet with the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, in their first meeting since Secretary Hagel's confirmation last month. This is ahead of their first joint V.A.-DOD meeting later this month. The two have known each other for more than a decade, and both served in the 9th Infantry Division in their respective combat tours in Vietnam. Secretary Hagel is eager to continue the progress being made on the many issues that impact the lives of our service members and our veterans.
On Thursday, Secretary Hagel will host his first quarterly meeting of the department's civilian and military leadership, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, combatant commanders, and under secretaries. The upcoming secretary's leadership council will focus on budget and strategy, and later that day, the secretary will be formally sworn in here at the Pentagon.
Q: Is that Thursday?
MR. LITTLE: Thursday. Let me turn to another matter that is of great concern to Secretary Hagel. He has made it clear in his earliest meetings under no uncertain terms to the Department of Defense's senior leadership that eliminating sexual assault from the military is one of his top priorities. He believes that sexual assault is a serious crime that has no place in this department, and he will not tolerate it. He also believes that any member of the military who is convicted of sexual assault, no matter the individual's rank of position, must be held appropriately accountable.
Concerns were raised when on February 26th, the convening authority and legal matter involving an Air Force lieutenant colonel exercised his Article 60 authority and dismissed a court martial conviction and the resultant sentence for sexual assault and conduct unbecoming an officer.
Secretary Hagel has directed two separate reviews to ensure our military justice system is appropriately protecting victims of sexual assault, as well as dispensing justice for the accused. First, the secretary has directed the secretary of the Air Force in coordination with the department's general counsel to immediately review this case, to assess whether all aspects of the Uniform Code of Military Justice were correctly applied and to make recommendations on how the convening authority’s decision in the case can be made more transparent. A report on the results of this review is due by March 20, 2013.
Second, Secretary Hagel has directed the department's general counsel to immediately undertake an assessment of Article 60 of the UCMJ, the article covering the actions of the convening authority. After consultation with the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, the general counsel will provide an assessment of whether changes should be considered for Article 60 or in the services' implementation of Article 60, and, if so, what changes should be considered. This assessment is due by March 27, 2013.
Secretary Hagel's determined to ensure that our military justice system works effectively and that the reviews he has called for find that, in this case, it did not work, and he is committed to making any and all necessary changes. Our service members must know that they are protected from criminal assault by a system of laws that function promptly, fairly, and justly.
The secretary is committed to doing everything he can to prevent sexual assault in the military, and this department will be taking further action in the months to come.
Let me shift to another matter. As many of you are no doubt aware, there has been considerable discussion about the recent creation of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, more specifically about its order of precedence relative to other awards and commendations.
Secretary Hagel consulted with the chairman, the Joint Chiefs, and the service secretaries, and those with the decision to establish the medal was carefully and thoroughly analyzed within the Department of Defense. That being said, in light of concerns about the medal's place in the order of precedence, Secretary Hagel will work with the senior leadership to review the order of precedence and associated matters, and the secretary has asked that Chairman Dempsey lead this review and report back in 30 days.
With that, I'll open it up to your questions, comments, concerns.
Q: George, on that medal business, the production of the medal has been stopped and will it -- are you considering changing the whole -- like, the name of the medal and all that sort of thing, to change its -- I don't know what the right terminology is. The word distinguished is -- makes it a certain category.
MR. LITTLE: All of the questions that you just asked I think will be addressed as part of the review that the chairman will lead at the direction of the secretary. The secretary has asked that this review be promptly conducted, and he expects to make a decision within 30 days.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) Secretary -- former Secretary Panetta about what his logic was or...
MR. LITTLE: Former Secretary Panetta has been advised of the decision to conduct a review.
Q: Didn't talk to him about it directly?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not sure if they've spoken directly about it.
Q: In connection with the Article 60 UCMJ review, I wanted to ask you, did you say in this case it did not work? But in what context? I'm sorry. I lost you there. Does the secretary believe it did not work or...
MR. LITTLE: No, we're simply reviewing Article 60 and the specific matter involved to see if Article 60 worked or it didn't. I'm not prejudging the outcome of any review.
Q: And does the secretary believe, as many on the Hill have suggested, that these prosecutions for sexual assault be removed from the immediate chain of command?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary has had extensive conversations inside the department already about the issue of sexual assault in the military. He hasn't arrived at any conclusions yet. He's still getting briefed up on all of these matters, but I sat in on several sessions within which this issue has arisen, and let me assure you that he is seized of this problem. He believes that it is an issue that we need to confront, continue to confront directly, and that sexual assault has absolutely no place in this department.
And I'm not going to prejudge anything he might do in the future with respect to recommendations or initiatives that he might implement, but he is making this a top priority.
Q: Just one last question. What is the process to change something like Article 60 of UCMJ?
MR. LITTLE: The legalities here of the UCMJ system I'm probably not in a position to comment on. As I've said before from this podium, it's a tribute to the legal profession that I'm not part of it. But if there are changes, that will be something that our general counsel working in concert with military lawyers would address.
Q: Do you not need congressional action to change the UCMJ itself?
MR. LITTLE: Again, I'm not going to get into the technicalities of changing the system. I'm simply not postured to be able to comment on how something might be changed in the UCMJ.
Q: Explain more, why this change now? Regardless of sexual assault, the concern is about the power of the convening authority, which has been a concern for a long time, going into major -- other cases, like Haditha, of murder, rape, all sorts of crimes, where convening authorities can reduce sentences, strike away completely convictions. This is, you know -- this is a product of a -- you know, a command climate of the military that you don't see outside of the civilian world.
So is this -- is this, you know, Hagel's personal thing, is this just a knee-jerk response to Claire McCaskill? Or is this -- you know, we didn't see this under Panetta. We didn't see this under Gates, a complete review of Article 60, the entire convening authority power?
MR. LITTLE: Let me be very clear. This is yet the latest step that this department's taken at Secretary Hagel's direction to review different aspects of ways of preventing sexual assault and then prosecuting them. Secretary Panetta implemented a range of initiatives with respect to the problem with sexual assault in the military, and Secretary Hagel, following in his footsteps, is also taking strong action to review all aspects of this problem in this department.
So I don't think this is knee-jerk reaction. This isn't some kind of spontaneous decision. This is part of a logical process for evaluating how best we can prevent this issue from arising in the ranks of our armed forces, and in holding those accountable, we deserve to be held accountable.
Q: George, could I ask you to clarify the scope of these two reviews? First on the medal, it's not just the order of placement that's being reviewed, but also potentially the name of the medal? And I think that you indicated that the production on the medal as it's currently designed has been stopped, so General Dempsey has been instructed to look at it a little more broadly than just the order of precedence?
MR. LITTLE: He's been directed to stand up a review of the medal. And I'm not going to define for General Dempsey what the parameters of that review will be. The fact of the matter is that production of the medal has stopped. No one has been nominated for this medal. No one is in training for this medal. So we do have time to make a final decision.
Let me make another point on the medal. Secretary Hagel has long had a history with the veterans service organizations. He's been a member of one. He headed the USO. He's heard their concerns. He's heard the concerns of others. And he believes that it's prudent to take into account those concerns and conduct this review. His style as a leader is to be a decisive leader and also to be a ready listener. And I think that contributed to the decision to initiate this review.
Q: And follow-up on the...
MR. LITTLE: On sexual assault?
Q: ...UCMJ review. That -- you're talking about it in the context of sexual assault, but the review that he's asked the general counsel to do is looking at the -- the UCMJ article in its entirety, basically, the convening authorities' authority, not just in sexual assault cases, but in all sorts of criminal matters, right?
MR. LITTLE: Well, I think that's -- well, the focus is on sexual assault with respect to Article 60. But if other parts of Article 60 need to be reviewed for other reasons, then I'm not sure that's going to be outside the parameters of this review.
Q: There are some -- there are couple of budget proposals on the Hill that would give the Pentagon transfer authority with some of your budget matters. I'm assuming that would make you happy. Can you comment on some of those proposals?
MR. LITTLE: Ah, sequestration and the budget and continuing resolutions. Thank you very much, I appreciate it. It's good to be here, I think. So what specific proposals are you talking about?
Q: The authority in and of itself, would that be helpful for you guys? Would you -- I mean, is that enough? Would you like to see those bills passed? Do you guys want...
MR. LITTLE: Within the context of sequestration and the continuing resolution?
Q: Of the 2013 budget.
MR. LITTLE: Right. Our desire, of course, is for sequestration to be halted. And I'm not going to comment on the tens, hundreds, thousands of ideas that are swirling around out there, whether on the Hill or elsewhere. The basic principle here remains, we're facing a tough situation here. We're walking soberly into the sequester period. We have to grip this and understand the realities of sequestration and where it puts us.
We've been very clear about impacts to readiness. The services are making decisions on a broad range of programs, and this is not what we like to do, but it's what we have to do. And that's where we are.
Q: On a different topic, the UAE [United Arab Emirates] ambassador in Washington just said at the Atlantic Council that if Iran does get nuclear weapons, many countries in the gulf would like to do so. Do you have any comment on that? And does the Pentagon believe that this would be part of the solution to counter Iran's nuclear threat?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to comment on the UAE ambassador's remarks. I simply haven't had a chance to review them. The important question to consider here is, should Iran have a nuclear weapon? And there is unanimity -- virtual unanimity, anyway, in the international community that they should not be able to attain a nuclear weapon.
And as we have said many times, they need to abide by their international obligations. They're facing biting sanctions because they're not willing to affirmatively say that they won't go forward with a nuclear weapon. And all options remain on the table for the United States in the event that they make that very unwise choice.
Q: So what was your take on Karzai's comments over the weekend about U.S. collusion with the Taliban?
MR. LITTLE: The secretary in Afghanistan and General Dunford, our new ISAF commander, responded to questions about President Karzai's comments. We, of course, take very strong issue with the notion that the United States is somehow colluding with the Taliban.
The important thing in our relationship with Afghanistan is to work together. We do have common cause here, and we need to work hand in hand to make sure the transition stays on track.
When issues arise -- and there are issues in any relationship -- with our closest allies and with some of our closest partners, to include Afghanistan -- and our belief is that we can work through those issues if we handle it the right way.
The secretary and President Karzai had a very frank and open discussion about a range of issues while the secretary was in Kabul, and the secretary looks forward to regularly engaging with President Karzai to talk about the transition process and to define in clearer terms how we can work together to ensure that we are taking the fight to the enemy, that we are addressing the challenges that confront us both, and that we note the progress that has been made after nearly 12 years of war.
Q: Did President Karzai give you any assurances that he wants to continue to work together, because that would -- that kind of comment on his first trip, I couldn't think of much -- you know, anything really more offensive to say and would suggest that he has no interest in working with Secretary Hagel.
I wonder if he offered any assurances to Hagel that I was playing domestic politics or, even if you were, that -- that would still be inappropriate. Did he privately give him any assurances that this relationship is healthy?
MR. LITTLE: The president noted that he has a very strong longstanding relationship with Secretary Hagel. They've been friends for a long time. And President Karzai specifically noted that friendship in their private meeting.
So there is the opportunity to carry the relationship forward. There must be that opportunity. And I think that Secretary Hagel is focused on the long view of this relationship.
We have 66,000 or so troops in Afghanistan. We have coalition partners in Afghanistan. We're fighting alongside Afghans, who are making great sacrifices to protect their own country.
So this is about a broader set of goals, and it's about U.S. interests, and it's about ensuring that Afghanistan never becomes a safe haven again from which terrorists can launch attacks on the United States homeland or U.S. interests abroad.
So there's work to be done. There are issues to be resolved. I'm not trying to discount the challenges that are ahead of us. But if we work together as partners, we can frame up a way to resolve those issues effectively, we think we can get through them, and then focus on the common cause that we both devoted ourselves to.
Q: The comptroller's office advised the services to consider significant cutbacks in tuition assistance. Now the Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force have suspended their tuition assistance programs for the remainder of the fiscal year. Is the DOD going to advise the services to consider these kind of -- suspending tuition assistance for fiscal '14, as well?
MR. LITTLE: Let me be very clear about tuition assistance. None of us like to have to make tough choices with respect to tuition assistance. We're here because of sequestration. The tuition assistance program is important to our department and, of course, to our service members. The program enables the professional and personal development of our service members and facilitates their transition to the civilian workforce.
These are tough choices for the services. And last week, our comptroller issued guidance indicating that the services should consider significant reductions in funding tuition assistance applicants, effective immediately for the duration of the current fiscal year, in light of the billions of dollars that we have to find as a result of sequestration and the CR.
As you know, each service is responsible for administering tuition assistance. Three of the services -- the Army, the Marine Corps, and Air Force -- have suspended tuition assistance. And the Navy is reviewing its tuition assistance program.
Let me be clear: We are here because of sequestration on tuition assistance. If sequestration were averted, we may be facing a different set of choices on these and other programs. These are the unfortunate outcomes. These are the tough choices that are being made. And that's the result of budgetary uncertainty and the need to ensure that we have the resources necessary, even in a terribly constrained and inflexible and uncertain budget environment, to respond to the crises that might crop up around the world, whether we know about them or not.
Q: Well, that's great, but I didn't hear an answer to my question, which is, is the DOD going to tell the services to suspend it in fiscal '14, as well?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to get out ahead of where we are right now. I'm not going to -- we're still dealing with fiscal '13, and no decisions have been made about fiscal year '14. That's the direct answer to your question.
Q: Looking at the current fiscal conditions, do you expect things to rectify enough in time for the services to implement tuition assistance in fiscal '14?
MR. LITTLE: I don't know. We're in a period of terrible budget uncertainty. And this is one of many programs that we're going to have to look at. This department is making -- the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the services -- every day multiple decisions that aren't exactly to our liking in some cases. But we're having to swallow bitter pills, not because we want to pop them, but because we're forced to make some very tough decisions. That's just the reality of it.
And we're being straightforward with the force about this. We're dealing with it. We're grappling with it. The secretary would like to have this all go away as a problem. But his very clear instructions have been for us to, in a very calm, cool, and collected manner, deal with the hand that we have been dealt, and it's an unfortunate hand that we've been dealt. And this is an expression of that problem which we've been talking about for a long time. We have been transparent inside this department and with the American people, especially through the media, about the consequences of sequestration. This has been a nearly two- year-long conversation. And it should come as no surprise to anyone that these kinds of decisions are coming down the pike.
Q: Yeah, can we go back to Karzai's comment? Is Hagel -- is Secretary Hagel worried about the morale on the ground among U.S. troops, who are there over there trying to train Afghan – the Afghan army and police, and yet they're also hearing the same things that Karzai is telling his own people, which is that you're working with the enemy? I mean, is that something that he's expressed any worry about, about whether -- what kind of effect that has on the 66,000 troops who are still there?
MR. LITTLE: Any time there are allegations made that have no basis in facts, it can have an effect in many arenas, to include troop morale. Of course the secretary would be worried about effects on morale, because of those claims or other factors.
But he saw firsthand in Jalalabad and in Bagram and elsewhere that our troops are deeply committed to this mission. They continue to take this fight to the enemy, and they appear to be unwavering in their dedication to the mission.
As you know, he did a troop talk in Jalalabad, and he thanked them for their service. I think it was very instructive that he didn't get many questions about the war in Afghanistan. He got a lot of questions about the budget and benefits and what happens to my family back home.
Troops down range shouldn't have to think about those issues. We should be thinking about those things in Washington in dealing with them.
Q: What's the U.S. timeline for transfer of business at Parwan to Afghans?
MR. LITTLE: As you may have learned over the weekend, there was a decision to delay the transfer of the detention facility at Parwan. We greatly respect Afghan sovereignty. Let me make that point first. Number two, we realize that the transfer is an important part of that commitment to our Afghan partners. We remain committed to the transfer of the detention facility. We're working through some technicalities in the agreement, and we hope to be able to transfer the facility to the Afghans as soon as possible.
Q: (Inaudible) what are those technicalities (inaudible)
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't get into the specifics from this podium. That's something we're working with our Afghan partners.
Q: George, can I -- can I follow on that, please? The task force at Parwan, ISAF, will not respond comment to how many prisoners we're talking about here. How many are being considered for transfer? And within that population, what I'm told out of this building is that there are foreign nationals that the Afghans will not accept. How many of those are we talking about? And what is their status? What will eventually happen to them legally?
MR. LITTLE: I don't have the precise numbers for you. That's really something that should be addressed by ISAF, and I'll see if I can get them to provide an answer to you.
Q: The only number I've seen is a report from the White House to Congress, it's a required report around Christmastime, and signed by the president, which said that there were approximately 948. Those numbers no doubt have changed since then, but there is a number out there, and no one will comment on how many prisoners we're talking about.
MR. LITTLE: (inaudible) I simply don't know. I'll see if I can get you an answer.
Q: Staying on Afghanistan, I wonder if you could respond to the DNI [Director of National Intelligence] world threat assessment out today. Afghanistan gets all of five paragraphs in the entire report. Cyber gets like 18 and is the number-one thing. So you guys just came back from there, and you saw -- you saw and had your assessment on the ground, but in this report, Clapper says that pretty much all the gains made since 2010 are fragile -- that's the word they're still using -- that the air force has made very little progress -- that's his phrase...
MR. LITTLE: The Afghan air force?
Q: The Afghan air force. The army and the police seem to be holding their own, but that the ANSF will require international assistance through 2014 and beyond, in five paragraphs. So I want to know, do you -- does the building agree with the assessment of the progress of the war itself and of the seeming low rank of Afghanistan and Pakistan as a threat to the U.S.?
MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to comment on intelligence community report, but let me give you our assessment.
MR. LITTLE: I understand. I understand. I'm -- we take very seriously the input of the intelligence community.
What I can tell you, our assessment is that the transition is on track, that the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] is growing not just in its capabilities, but in its will to pursue the mission, and dozens of Afghan fighters are casualties as a result. We believe that the Taliban have not been able to occupy territory that they once held.
Now, there are challenges, too. We have to make sure that the ANSF over time is able to maintain course and sustain the gains that have been made. That's the end game here. It's about not just the political will to ensure success, but the ability of the ANSF to provide for security throughout the country.
So after visiting Afghanistan over the past few days and receiving briefing from our commanders in the field, we believe that that will is there on the part of the Afghans to continue to grow their capabilities. That's our assessment. We believe it's on track. I'm not saying that it's a nicely paved road to the future. There are going to be potholes and bumps in the road and rocks and gravel. And we've got to be honest about that. But at the end of the day, we think that there's a very strong chance that the Afghan people will be able to secure for themselves a better future.
Q: George, yesterday North Korea announced that it was nullifying the 1953 Armistice Agreement. Has the U.S. military changed its defense posture on the peninsula or elsewhere in the region in the wake of this announcement? And also, have you seen any unusual North Korean military movements in the last couple days?
MR. LITTLE: I wouldn't comment for obvious reasons on the latter two parts of the three-part question. But let me say very clearly that North Korea's bellicose rhetoric and threats follow a pattern designed to raise tensions and to intimidate others. North Korea will achieve nothing by threats or provocations, which will only further isolate North Korea and undermine international efforts to pursue peace and stability in Northeast Asia. We continue to urge the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama's call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations.
Naturally, the American force in South Korea, United States Forces Korea, working closely with our South Korean allies, remains postured for any contingency. And we stand ready to protect U.S. and South Korean interests.
The important message that this government has sent to North Korea is that it needs to change its rhetoric and take the temperature down.
Q: Do you have any reason to believe or be more concerned about their rhetoric this time around? They're sort of going out a little farther than they have in the past with a nuclear threat on the U.S. And, of course, you're dealing with a new leader, Kim Jong-un. So is there a reason for more concern this time around? Or is it still a big yawn in -- like there have been in the past?
MR. LITTLE: Yeah, I'm not going to say this is a big yawn. I'm not sure that I can definitively draw historical comparisons, but the fact of the matter is that their rhetoric is bellicose and the rhetoric is a bit too high in that regard.
So let's take this down a notch, I would say to them, and engage the right way. They need to ensure that their behavior comports with what's demanded of them by the international community. Now, in the past, they haven't shown a great willingness to abide by their international obligations, and they continue to abrogate many of their obligations. The message from this government has been clear and consistent for a very long time, and that that -- is that that behavior needs to stop.
One or two more questions?
Q: Back to the first part of that question.
Q: Is it helpful...
Q: Back to the first part of that question. Has the U.S. military changed its posture in South Korea or the region? Or is it preparing to change its posture in the region?
MR. LITTLE: Not going to comment on what we may or may not do in response to North Korean rhetoric, but the point remains that we stand ready to respond to any contingency. That is our duty, and it's our responsibility, and it's our -- it's a very strong commitment to our ally in Northeast Asia, the Republic of Korea.
Q: Do you think Dennis Rodman's trip was helpful?
Q: (Inaudible) the Navy last week said -- said that there were no ship movements, that there was no -- I mean, that's a direct comment. So you can't say there were or were not ship movements or there is or is not an alert readiness difference?
MR. LITTLE: Our -- our ship movements -- yeah, I'm not in the business of talking about potential contingency responses. I'm simply saying that we stand ready to respond.
On Dennis Rodman, last time I checked, he's not a U.S. official. I'm not going to comment on basketball. I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not particularly well versed in professional basketball, and I'm not going to comment on his rhetoric.
All right. Final question.
Q: George, if I could switch to Iron Dome, the Pentagon, the Congress has supported Iron Dome funding, because it's been claimed to have a very successful intercept rate. There's a new report out that says that the 85 percent success rate being claimed by the Israelis is actually grossly inflated. It's actually five percent.
Where does -- where do you -- what does the Pentagon lie on this disparity here? And do you -- do you believe the Israeli numbers?
MR. LITTLE: We have very strong confidence in the figures that the Israelis have shared. The fact of the matter is that this system has been very effective, and that was proven in the recent crisis on the Gaza Strip. We're in regular contact with our Israeli allies about this capability and others, and we have confidence that they are portraying the success of this very important defense system for Israel in an accurate and transparent manner.
Q: Do you have independent confirmation of the numbers that they're providing to you? Because the disparity seems to be on the basis that the Israelis' calculation of what counts as an intercept is what's at stake here.
MR. LITTLE: The Israelis can go through their methodology. And I will leave it to them to describe it. I'm saying that we have very strong confidence, after close consultations with them, that the figures they're sharing are accurate.