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Media Availability with Secretary Hagel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
May 14, 2014

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good afternoon. I think we'll dispense with opening comments, statements. I know you all paid close attention to my statement, so why don't we just go to questions?

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Sir, we’ll start with Bob.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, an hour or so ago, when you were at the podium, you mentioned that (off mic) you agreed that aid to the rebels in Syria ought to be more closely coordinated. What kind of aid were you referring to? Military?

SEC. HAGEL: We were talking about non-lethal assistance and how we can coordinate our efforts more closely. There was strong agreement among all the participants that that was in everyone's interests. It's in the region's interests.

The moderate opposition should be our focus, how we can continue to assist them with -- with just not only a coordinated effort, but coordinate the assistance. And as you know, Mr. (Ahmad) Jarba was in Washington this week. I think he met with the president yesterday. They discussed some of this, as well.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Adam?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we've seen reports from the French defense -- foreign minister yesterday in Washington that there are -- there's evidence that the Syrians have used chlorine in a series of attacks in Syria. Can you tell us what the American government thinks is happening and whether those are regime tactics? And what does it mean in terms of the agreement to move Syria's chemical arsenal?

SEC. HAGEL: I'm aware of the French foreign minister's statement. We've not seen any evidence of the specifics of that statement. I know the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] is investigating it. They need to look into it deeply, because obviously, if there has been a continued use or any use of chemical weapons, that would affect the efforts that so far have been pretty successful in getting more than 90 percent of the chemical weapons and the precursors out of Syria. But I have not seen any of the evidence yet, OPCW, which we're cooperating with and our partners, in getting the facts.

QUESTION: Just to follow up, I mean, in terms of the 90 percent going to 100 percent, how confident are you that you're going to be able to get the last 10 percent out of there?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, it's our intention to get it all out. I think that was pretty clear in the agreement with the -- with the Russians and all the countries involved. And that is our intent, and that's still the objective.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Missy?

QUESTION: Secretary Hagel, Missy Ryan from Reuters. Just a follow-up on the Syrian opposition question. The Syrian opposition leader has asked the United States reportedly for MANPADS [mobile-portable air defense system]. Have you told the Gulf nations or has the United States told the Gulf nations that we support Gulf countries providing some weapons to Syrian opposition.

And on Nigeria, do you have any indication so far that U.S. air surveillance is making headway in the search for the missing girls in Nigeria?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'll start with Nigeria. You know that we are very actively involved in working with the Nigerians, and you know the assets and the teams that we have there now. We are now providing unmanned reconnaissance intelligence over Nigeria. And we'll continue to do that.

So we will continue to deepen and widen our efforts in assisting them to locate these girls. I have seen no intelligence come back that I'm aware of that shows that we've located those girls.

On your question about Syria, I'm not aware of any specific or what specific proposals were made or requests made of the White House or our government by Mr. Jarba. I did not say to the GCC -- and I'm not aware of anyone in our government that you, GCC members, should provide MANPADS or any other specific weapons to the opposition.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Ernesto?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, if I could ask you about Egypt, as you know, several members of Congress have expressed strong reservations about continuing our military cooperation as the administration would like. I'd like to get your thoughts on how significant those concerns are and what impact they're having on cooperation at the present time. How do you see this issue being resolved in the future?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, you're correct that there are issues that the Congress has brought up. The Leahy amendment is an issue. And we're working with the Congress. We listen to the Congress carefully. Many members of Congress have been in Egypt over the last couple of months and met with leaders.

So we are in constant contact with members of Congress. We always follow the law. And we'll continue to do that.

But I would say this. On the basis of what President Obama has authorized to go forward in his directives a couple weeks ago, Egypt is on track to continue to follow through on its commitments of a free, fair, open, democratic society. They did have a constitutional reform that was successful. They have a presidential election coming up. They have a long way to go in many areas. We know that.

But I think based on what they have done so far, the president, the administration felt confident that we could certify enough, not everything, not enough, but we have to see where this goes. We have to see if they continue on that road map to inclusive, peaceful, open, democratic society. That's not been completed yet. We'll see. So that's where we are.

QUESTION: How do you square that, though, with what we've seen in terms of crackdown in opposition groups, banning even non-Islamic opposition groups (off mic) imprisonment of journalists? It seems like you're being fairly generous in your characterization of where they stand on their democratic (off mic)

SEC. HAGEL: Well, we talk with the Egyptians all the time about this issue. That's not our definition of an inclusive, free, democratic society. And we have told the Egyptians that that has to change and they cannot continue to follow that path, recognizing the internal dimensions of their own security. And that's, of course, part of what this is about, in order to be able to fulfill and comply with an election that's free and fair, it has to be secure. And that's part of this.

But this is also what I was talking about here a minute ago. We got a long way to go. We are not -- the Egyptians are not anywhere near where they need to be eventually to fulfill the commitments that were made to work toward a pathway of a free, fair, inclusive, democratic society.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay, we've got time for just one more. Dave?

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, question on Ukraine. France said it's going to go ahead of its sale of warships to Russia. Just wondering, did you have concerns about that? Did you urge them not -- to put those contracts on hold at all? And do you see that at all as a sign of lack of resolve among allies in terms of any sanctions that may need to be imposed…

SEC. HAGEL: I'm well aware of the issue, but I did not hear that they had -- the French had gone ahead and confirmed the sale. What I had seen was that they were -- they had not made a decision, but maybe you have information that I don't.

But the bigger question is, yes, we work with our European allies, our NATO allies on all of these issues. And I think the French have got to decide, obviously, as any sovereign nation would, what's in their interest, but also what's in the interest of Europe, what's in the interest of an institution that they are a significant part of, NATO, the European Union, and is -- is Russia using its military equipment responsibly? So these are big questions and big issues that...

QUESTION: (off mic)

SEC. HAGEL: I have not spoken to the French government about it. But they know where our government is on this.

READ ADM. KIRBY: All right, I'll take one more. Justin, this is it.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, every day, there seems to be a new report or allegation of scandal at the VA health centers. Do you fear that there's a culture of corruption at the VA? And do you feel the VA is competent enough to investigate these allegations on its own? Or do you support some outside look or investigation into these allegations?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, where I start -- and I was asked this question over the weekend -- let's get the facts. And there's a hearing this week in Congress that'll begin that process. We do know enough that we're all concerned and disturbed by what we've heard, what some of the reports are.

But I think we have to find out, is this endemic? Is it bureaucratic? Is it, to your point, cultural? Is it widespread? Were there cover-ups, intentional efforts not to bring this upfront? I don't know if we've got all that information yet.

But you know that the secretary of veterans affairs, General Shinseki, has ordered an audit of every facility within the VA. And I think that was a responsible thing to do. But, again, before we leap out into the unknown here without the facts and knowing a lot more what we do, I don't have anything more to say about it.

It's disturbing, what we do know. It should not happen. There's no excuse for it. And I know that General Shinseki stands behind no one in wanting to get this fixed. This is an individual who's given most of his life in service to our country, either in uniform or out -- out of uniform, and I know he will do everything he can to fix it.

But let's see. We may need -- we may need outside help, but let's get the facts first.

READ ADM. KIRBY: Okay, thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.

SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.

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