REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. Just a couple of quick comments to start. As a veteran himself, the secretary has an especially personal commitment to ensuring we account for and bring home as many of our missing and fallen service personnel as possible.
Today, Secretary Hagel directed the Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Mr. Michael Lumpkin, to provide him within 30 days a plan to better organize the department to that end. Specifically, the secretary instructed Mr. Lumpkin to develop a plan that would, in essence, do two things. First, to clarify any and all changes needed to consolidate relevant department assets into a single organization with oversight of and accountability for the entire mission of accounting for our missing personnel and, second, to propose ways to increase the number of identifications, improve transparency for families, and expand our case file system to include all missing personnel, including those from World War II.
The secretary expects this plan to recommend changes ranging from civilian and military personnel to contracting, facilities, budgets, and oversight of laboratory operations. And he's also asked all services, combatant commands, and relevant DOD components to assist Mr. Lumpkin with anything he needs in this effort.
This effort is consistent with congressional legislation and will continue to be informed by analysis that we and other governmental agencies have conducted, as well as, quite frankly, suggestions and recommendations offered to us by both military and veteran service organizations whose thoughtfulness and leadership with respect to these issues the secretary greatly admires.
As I said at the outset, this remains a top priority for the secretary and for this department. In fact, we believe it's a sacred obligation. We take it seriously, and we're going to keep at it. We're going to keep improving.
Now, if I could just briefly turn to the violence in Ukraine, the secretary, like all Americans, is deeply troubled by the violence there and shares the outrage of so many over images of Ukrainian Ministry of Interior forces firing automatic weapons at their own people. He urges the Ukrainian armed forces to continue to refrain from participating in the conflict, a conflict that can and should be resolved politically.
The reports we are receiving right now from our embassy personnel in Kiev indicate that the armed forces are being used at this time to protect military facilities, including weapons and ammunition storage facilities, and are not involved in the violence against protesters. We certainly hope that remains the case.
We are continuing our efforts to arrange for the secretary to communicate directly with Minister Lebedyev, but so far, the Ministry of Defense has been unresponsive to our requests.
Thank you. Bob?
Q: What was that? You said they were unresponsive to requests for what?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: To communicate. To accept the phone call. We've been trying now for the past several days, as the violence escalated, to reach the Ministry of Defense.
Q: Has Hagel been trying for the last couple of days? Or have other officials in the department been trying? When -- when (OFF-MIKE) Hagel specifically been rebuffed.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Has Hagel specifically...
Q: In other words, there were -- there have been other calls from other layers of the Defense Department.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sure.
Q: When did he start...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Secretary Hagel -- Secretary Hagel has been trying himself...
Q: Since when?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: ... since early this week. I don't have the exact hour and date, but since early this week, since the violence escalated. And I would also offer -- I mean, he -- he last spoke to the minister back in December. I mean, so this isn't -- this wouldn't be like the first outreach effort.
Q: Thank you. What's the Pentagon comment or response on what a senior Taliban official who said that the U.S. has held (inaudible) talks with Taliban in Qatar for the exchange of five Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo? What's your...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, we're -- we're not in active negotiations with the Taliban right now. And we've long said that -- that the reconciliation process needs to be Afghan-led, that we would certainly participate in that, but we're not in active negotiations right now.
Q: But this is in regards to the U.S. soldiers who...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We're not in active negotiations right now.
Q: Back to questions on Ukraine. Given the firing of the head of the armed forces in the last days, is there worry now that the armed forces will change their position and potentially join the Ministry of Interior forces in the crackdown? Is that -- did the firing of the head of the armed forces cause worry in this department?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think we've generally had a concern about the use of -- the potential use of the armed forces against their own people in Ukraine. And that's been a consistent concern since this protest activity began, and it was something that the secretary discussed with his counterpart when they spoke before the end of the year.
So I wouldn't say that it -- that that -- that that concern was specifically elevated by the decision by the president to fire his chief of defense. We continue -- nothing's changed about our position, which is continue to urge the government not to use the armed forces against their own people. And that's -- and that's -- that message has and will remain the same going forward.
Q: Can I follow up on that?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sure.
Q: Has Secretary Hagel spoken to anyone who has gotten in touch with Ukrainian military officials? Has anyone spoken to them?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Not that I'm aware of, no. And to David's point, I know there's -- you know, I know it's not that the communication efforts are not just here at the Pentagon and not just from Secretary Hagel. I know European Command also, you know, has been trying, as well. I wouldn't speak for the -- for what level of success they have or haven't had, but, I mean, it's -- it's a concerted effort.
Q: Is there a stated reason for why they can't take the call?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, they haven't taken the call, so I -- I couldn't begin to -- well, we haven't talked to them, so, no, they haven't said why.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) get anybody in the -- you can't get anybody on the line?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: They have been unresponsive to our requests.
Q: Well, what does that really mean? I don't understand. Is it that somebody answers and says, "Go away," or that you dial a phone number and nobody answers?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We haven't been able to connect with anybody from the Defense Ministry there in Ukraine.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) pick up the phone?
Q: How many times have you tried?
Q: How long do you let it ring? (Laughter.)
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We've been trying pretty diligently. Here in the Pentagon, we've been trying to pretty diligently this whole week.
Q: How unusual is that, for the secretary of defense not to have his call taken?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'd say it's pretty unusual.
Q: I mean, just -- is there another case in where at least this secretary has been unable to reach his counterpart like this?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No. No.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) this is a diplomatic lead on Ukraine, but this building does have some levers, especially through NATO, Ukraine sought special relationship with NATO and all of that. Is the U.S. saying that unless this crackdown ends, that NATO at the U.S. urging might take punitive actions as far as their relationship with the Atlantic alliance?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I wouldn't speak for NATO.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) urging that (OFF-MIKE) ministerial?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I have no doubt that the topic of Ukraine and the violence there is going to come up next week at the defense ministerial. There's no question about that. But I don't believe anybody's ready to lay down an ultimatum right now with regard to that specific idea.
Q: Have -- well, I didn't understand the answer to your first question, so this one doesn't count.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: OK, let's try it again.
Q: On Ukraine and then a follow-up. Whether or not you have a request from the State Department, you generally don't wait to look at issues. So are -- is anyone in the United States military or Pentagon looking at what it would take to analyze, to evacuate Americans from Ukraine, if it came to that, if you got a request? Are you beginning to conduct that assessment? And then I have a quick follow-up.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: OK. So let me be very clear. There are no requests by the State Department for military assistance of any kind right now. But you know very well, we are a planning organization. That is what we do. Our job is to help provide options. And the European Command commander, General Breedlove, has -- as he has had military resources and assets available to him, should there be a need for that, but there's no need for that right now.
Q: What is it that you are assessing, then? I'm still not clear. Are you assessing what it would take for the United States military to evacuate American citizens out of Ukraine? Is that what you're saying?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, I'm not saying that. There's no -- there's no specific...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm going to -- I'll try to be as clear as I can on this, OK? There's no specific planning under -- being undertaken right now to evacuate American citizens from Ukraine. There is no request by the State Department for that assistance, as you very well know, that when -- if they ever do get to the point in any country where they need to evacuate, they have many options at their disposal. We are only one of them, and we are usually not the first one.
So there's no active planning going on right now. But as I've said before, we are planning organization. We -- we have to provide options. The general in -- in Germany, he has resources available, should they be needed. But is he actively putting pen to paper on evacuation plans for Ukraine? No.
Q: A clarification on that?
Q: You have two ships in the Black Sea, which could have been used in a contingency. One of them ran aground. Is there any thought of sending another ship there to have two available ships to respond to potential needs?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I mean, the question almost presumes that, you know, we had some sort of a force posture laydown of two ships, you know, like a 2.0 presence in the Black Sea, and that's not the case. These two ships had been -- planned to go there for a variety of missions. They are both still there. You're right. The USS Taylor is not available for tasking right now because of the grounding.
And, look, we're constantly taking a look at force laydown and posture throughout the region. And I'm not aware of any specific decisions to change that posture in the Black Sea. But this wasn't really -- I mean, this is -- this was two ships. It wasn't...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any specific plans right now to replace the Taylor in the Black Sea. And they're still assessing the damage right now, and I don't know how long it'll be before she's -- you know, she can get back underway.
Q: Secretary Hagel has said that next week's NATO ministerial is when he really needs Karzai to sign the BSA. If he doesn't get that by next week, is the Pentagon prepared to fully commit to a plan to withdraw by 2014, end of 2014?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I've said it just recently, say it again. We continue to believe it would be enormously helpful to have a bilateral security agreement as soon as possible. We've said that it would also be extremely helpful to have that bilateral security agreement by the time of the defense ministerials. That -- that meeting is next week.
Nothing's changed about our desire to get a bilateral security agreement, because without one, we're going to have to start planning for a complete withdrawal, but we're not at that point right now.
Q: So that's a no, you're not going to plan for it? So when's the next deadline you're going to push it to?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Not issuing deadlines, Justin. We've been pretty consistent. We want one as soon as possible because -- so that we can start to do proper planning for a post-2014 presence in support of NATO, but also so that our allies and partners can -- can appropriately plan for their own force posture throughout the rest of this year and then potentially into next.
Q: Admiral, can we stay with Afghanistan for a second? And do you have any response on the CNA report on Afghan security that concludes the Taliban insurgency will intensify after the NATO mission ends?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Thanks, Jim. We are in receipt of the Center for Naval Analysis report, just -- just got it. We're going through it. I would remind you that this was a report we asked for, so we're grateful for the work and the analysis that went into it. I'm not going to -- I'm not prepared to discuss any of the specific findings right now. We're still working our way through that.
But, look, one of the reasons why the alliance is interested in the Resolute Support mission post-2014 is to help improve the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces. It's a commitment we've made long ago. It's a commitment we're trying to make now on the ground in Afghanistan to improve their capacity and capability.
And I'd also remind you that they are in the lead. They are in the lead throughout Afghanistan. So we never take our eye off the Taliban insurgency or the threat that they pose not just to us and to our allies, but to the Afghan people. And, again, we just need to get through this report.
Q: John, on the same topic, one of the central conclusions of the report is that the Afghan security forces should be -- after 2014 should be much larger than is the slimmed-down version that NATO agreed to in 2012. Is the secretary of the view that that question should be revisited?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, the secretary's committed to the findings of the Chicago summit, which had, as you pointed out, a lower goal. But, again, he appreciates the work. We're going to work our way through it, and there's no doubt that the work that CNA has done here will help inform decision-makers as we get close to the end of the year.
Q: The U.S. Navy's director of intelligence and information operations is quoted as saying China is training for a short, sharp war against Japan. How concerned are you? And what signs are you seeing that the Chinese are, in fact, doing this?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think it was the director of intelligence for the Pacific Fleet, not the Navy's director of intelligence. And as I understand it, he was -- he was answering a question at a conference he was attending and that those were his views to express.
What I can tell you about what Secretary Hagel believes is that -- that we all continue to believe that the peaceful, prosperous rise of China is a good thing for the region, for the world. We continue to want to improve our bilateral military relations with China and that -- that we also think that a major component of that is increased transparency on their part about the investments they're making and the operations they're conducting. And that's where I'd leave it.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) Ukraine (OFF-MIKE) does the secretary intend on Monday to telegraph or preview parts of the 2015 budget?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to get ahead of the secretary's schedule, Tony. As you all know, we're tracking towards the president's budget being submitted to Congress here in the very near future. And, I mean, I'm not going to speculate about -- about the schedule before then.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) whether he's going to speak or not?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to announce anything from -- on the secretary's schedule here today. I have nothing to announce on that.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) Christine Fox is speaking on Tuesday and Wednesday at budget conferences. I take it she's not going to be speaking in a vacuum, that there's going to be some preview before she goes out there.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, that's another nice clever way to try to get me to answer the question. I'm not going to get -- I don't have anything to announce on the secretary's schedule today. You're right. Secretary Fox has some speaking engagements next week, and I suspect the budget will be -- a topic of discussion. And I think we should all just tune in and see what she has to say.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: You're welcome.
Q: I'd like to ask you about this Human Rights Watch report on the drone strike in Yemen from December 12th. They say that this JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] operation with the drone targeted a convoy of 11 vehicles and that civilians were killed and injured, including a bride. How does that reconcile with the president's guidance that civilians would not be targeted in drone strikes and that drones wouldn't be authorized to target and kill someone, if there were civilians in the vicinity?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: There's a lot there, Jen. So, first of all, we just -- just like you, we just got this Human Rights Watch report, and so we're working our way through it. I'm not going to talk about specific operations from the podium. What I can tell you is that, look, the guidelines are pretty clear about these type of operations and how we conduct them. If there are allegations or suspicions that civilians were hurt or injured in them, we investigate those thoroughly. And I can also tell you that nobody takes more care than we do to try to prevent unintended casualties when -- when any military operation is conducted, to include those kinds of missions.
The president was very clear back in his May speech about transparency and due care and due process in conducting these missions. And believe you me, we take that guidance very, very seriously here.
Q: So have you launched an investigation (OFF-MIKE)
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Whenever there are allegations regarding the -- the potential loss of life of civilians, we investigate thoroughly, and that's about as far as I'm going to go on this.
Q: Right now, you're saying that today was the first time that you realized that there may have been civilian casualties in this specific...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I didn't say that. I said we just got the Human Rights Watch report, and we're going through it. I'm also not talking about any specific operations here or that specific one that was written about. I would also point you to comments made by the Yemeni government itself with respect to that operation, that -- that they -- they believed very strongly and had reason to believe that -- that there were some pretty bad folks that were killed in that operation.
Q: Yeah, but 11 vehicles in a convoy -- are you saying that there was no suspicion up until now that there were civilians in that convoy?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: That's not what I said, Jen. I'm not going to talk about the specific -- specifics of any operation. So I'm just not going to -- I'm not going to go there with respect to the operation that was written about in the Human Rights Watch report.
I'd just reiterate what I said before. The Yemeni government itself said that -- that very dangerous individuals were targeted in an operation in December. And I'll -- and then separately from that, whenever we have reason to believe that we -- that we may have unintentionally hurt or killed civilians, we investigate thoroughly.
Q: Were you aware that the Yemenis paid blood money to the relatives of those who were killed?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to speak to the actions of a foreign government. Again, we're working our way through this Human Rights Watch report.
Q: Sir, do you have any concerns about the situation that is evolving in Venezuela? Have you received any telephone calls from your allies in Latin America in regards (OFF-MIKE)
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any. Let me take that question for you. I'm not aware of any communication with Venezuela.
Q: And also, can I ask you, what is the current relationship with the Mexican military? We have seen a very close relationship, what seems like maybe some change -- change -- some things have changed...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any changes. I mean, we value the relationship that we have with Mexico from a military perspective. Lots of common challenges. Lots of things we can learn from one another. And that continues. I'm not aware of any change.
Q: I want to go back to the Pac Fleet director of information operations. Is it appropriate for someone to wear a uniform, attend a conference, and give a speech that outlines a view of China and the conflict in East Asia that appears to be vastly different than the stated Defense Department view? I mean, you -- the view that you outlined of what Hagel has of a rise of China is vastly different in tone than what this guy does.
Is it -- and he kept using the words we in this speech. I mean, was this appropriate for him to do? Or was this a misjudgment?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think I'd let him and his command speak for his participation in that. And, again, I would just point you back to what I said about how Secretary Hagel views our relationship with China.
Q: Well, beyond that point, I mean, he -- again, I mean, are his views different than the ones that are -- that are presented by the department? Or is -- is it really an outlying perspective? Does the department believe that China is preparing for a short, sharp war with Japan?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think I've outlined pretty clearly what our posture is and -- about China and where our relationship is with that country right now. I'm not going to -- and it would be inappropriate for me to speak to the intentions or motivations of an -- of another foreign nation and their military.
I think -- I think -- and this gets to what I said before about transparency. It's for China to speak to China's intentions and motivations and their relations with their neighbors. And nothing's changed about our view here. And with respect to the disputes, the maritime disputes and the different claims, nothing's changed about our desire to see that those claims be -- be adjudicated peacefully, diplomatically, and through international norms.
Q: There were commentators in China who said this is a trial balloon for a tougher U.S. posture in the region. What would you say to that?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I would refute that. I would refute that absolutely, not a trial balloon.
Q: You began the briefing by talking about the efforts to find the missing. What is prompting this review? Is this something to deal with the JPAC [Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command] report from last year or new developments?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: It does -- it does have to do with the JPAC review, but it really -- but this is a topic that Secretary Hagel has been focused on for the whole time he's been in office. And some of these reviews are only just now being completed, for instance, one done by internal here at DOD by CAPE [Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation].
Because you know that the GAO -- GAO also did a report on the accountability mission, so this is something he's been focused on for a long time. It's not -- there isn't one sort of thing that -- that led to this. This is a -- this is an effort that he's been shepherding for a while. But the memo was signed just today, and we will make that available to you so you can see it for yourself. And, again, he's got -- he's given Mr. Lumpkin 30 days to come back with an implementation plan moving forward for how to conduct these organizational changes.
Q: OK, so there will be organizational changes based on these reviews? I mean, what...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I fully expect that there will be, yes.
Q: What did they find that basically is triggering this?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: What did who find?
Q: (OFF-MIKE) reviews that prompted...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I -- I mean, there were some similarities between GAO and CAPE and the -- and the studies that they conducted. One of them was, I think, a sense of redundancy of effort, that there's -- there's lots of folks involved in the accountability mission here in Washington, out in Hawaii, and sometimes doing the same thing doesn't need to be done by more than one agency. And I think there's just a sense that we can consolidate effort a little bit more. We can be a little bit more efficient and still be just as effective in getting the job done.
This is a hard mission. That's -- the secretary appreciates how difficult this is, obviously how important it is, but how hard it is, as well. And it's a global mission. And it's -- I know the JPAC is based in Hawaii, but as you know, it's a global mission. There are tens of thousands of remains around the world that we believe could be recovered, and, you know, that's going to take a lot of time and effort. It's going to take resources. He's willing to expend the resources to get that done, but he wants it done in a more cohesive, holistic fashion.
And the reviews that we've seen of this mission tell us lots of things. One of them is, it's not being done as efficiently as possible, from an organizational perspective.
Q: Will you release the CAPE report?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'll get back to you.
Q: And did you say in your opening statement that the secretary wants this to be consolidated into a single organization?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes, I did say that in my opening statement.
Q: (OFF-MIKE) DPMO [Defense POW/ Missing Personnel Office] or JPAC will go away?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Didn't say that. He does want it consolidated under one organization. It's -- the functions are still really important. It's how they're organized and who they report to that he wants to take -- that he wants looked at.
Q: Next week, U.S. military and ROK military will start a joint exercise in Korean (inaudible) that North Korea strongly opposed and called for stop (inaudible) exercise. So have you seen any change of the posture of the North Korean military in response to the exercise?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, first, we don't, you know, talk about intelligence issues here. I'm not aware of any -- any posture changes from the North. Again, this is -- these are exercises we do routinely with our South Korean allies. We look forward to these. We always learn from them. And we're looking forward to them this year.
Q: Back on Ukraine, this building has made it clear that if the Ukrainian armed forces were to take part in the crackdown, that would seriously damage the mil-to-mil relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine. Is the -- does the refusal of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense to take the secretary's call -- is that going to damage military-to-military relations?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, it's certainly not helping. It's certainly not helping.
Q: But, I mean, that's -- that's (inaudible) but is it going to have some concrete...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: And I'm not going to issue ultimatums or threats here today. Look...
Q: Has it had any concrete (OFF-MIKE)
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No. It hasn't. The refusal to take the phone call, as you put it, no, it hasn't.
Q: Is it something else?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, look, I'm not going to -- I don't want to get into hypotheticals here...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: ... and speculate about what will or won't. We've been clear -- I mean, obviously, we'd like to have this conversation and keep this dialogue going, I mean, a dialogue that did start a while ago. And we want to see the armed forces of Ukraine continue to refrain from participating in any of the violence against protesters.
And I -- you know, I -- I just don't want to speculate about what may or may not happen, should -- should the armed forces of Ukraine get involved. Certainly it's not going to be helpful to the defense relationship that we -- that we'd like to maintain with Ukraine.
Q: I thought you almost said that something had already happened, that -- to scale back, or in some way change the military-to-military relationship.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't -- I'll run the transcript back. I don't think I said that. I don't think that there's been...
Q: ... there's been no change...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: There's been no -- no change in our military-to-military relationship with Ukraine as of this afternoon. We'd like to keep -- we'd like to keep a dialogue open, and we'd like to see the armed forces of Ukraine continue to stay out of the conflict, a conflict that I said at the beginning should be resolved politically.
Q: You say he last spoke to him in December, is that what you said?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: Can I just go to Syria? There's -- there seems to be a divide or reported divide between who is really leaving the opposition now, whether it's General Idris, who was voted out, or this al-Bashir, and now some of the rebel leaders are backing General Idris, and so we've seen yet another split in the leadership of the Syrian opposition. Who is the U.S. military dealing with?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, the relationship with the opposition is being handled through the State Department, not the United States military, when it comes to Syria.
Q: Well, we provide non-lethal assistance or other types of assistance. The military doesn't have any communication with who would be in charge of handling...
REAR ADM. KIRBY: That assistance is being handled through the State Department. That's who's communicating with the opposition in Syria.
OK, thanks, everybody. And, again, we'll make this memo available to you publicly. Thanks.
View the Structure for Past Conflict Personnel Accounting memo here