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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Presenters: Presenters: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey
August 21, 2014

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good afternoon, everybody.

As the U.S. Central Command continues to provide regular updates about our military support to Iraq and Kurdish forces, this afternoon, I want to say a few words about what this assistance has accomplished over the last two weeks and what, based on the president's guidance, we can expect going forward.

Chairman Dempsey will give you a brief summary, including some numbers, on the U.S. military actions to date.

But first, let me offer my deepest condolences and sympathy to the family of Jim Foley, the American journalist who, as you all know, was savagely murdered by the ISIL.

As the Department of Defense confirmed yesterday, earlier this summer, the United States attempted a rescue of a number of American hostages held in Syria, including Jim Foley. We all regret that the mission did not succeed. But I'm very proud -- very proud -- of the U.S. forces that participated in it. And the United States will not relent our efforts to bring our citizens home and their captors to justice.

Jim Foley's murder was another tragic demonstration of the ruthless, barbaric ideology of ISIL. ISIL militants continue to massacre and enslave innocent people and persecute Iraq's Sunni, Shia and Kurdish and minority populations.

Given the nature of this threat, at President Obama's direction and the request of the Iraqi government, the U.S. military has provided assistance to Iraqi security forces in order to protect U.S. personnel and facilities and support Iraq's efforts to counter ISIL in addition to providing humanitarian assistance.

American air strikes and American arms and assistance helped Iraqi and Kurdish forces blunt ISIL's advance around Irbil, where American diplomats and troops are working, and help the Iraqis retake and hold-Mosul Dam. A breach of the dam would have threatened the lives of thousands of Iraqis as well as Americans at our facilities in Baghdad and prevented the Iraqi government from providing critical services to its citizens.

The United States led an international effort to address the humanitarian crisis that unfolded at Mount Sinjar. As there continues to be an acute humanitarian need elsewhere in Iraq, the U.S. appreciates the partnership of the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Italy and Australia and the United Nations in helping provide relief. I expect more nations to step forward with more assistance in the weeks ahead.

Overall, these operations have stalled ISIL's momentum and enabled Iraqi and Kurdish forces to regain their footing and take the initiative. As Iraqi and Kurdish forces continue to take the initiative, the United States will continue to support them.

But addressing the threat posed by ISIL to the future of Iraq requires political reform in Iraq. The country's peaceful transition of power last week was important, and the United States will continue urging Iraq's new prime minister to establish an inclusive government that is responsive to the needs of all Iraq's citizens. A united Iraq will be a more secure and prosperous Iraq.

Political reform will make it harder for ISIL to exploit sectarian divisions. The United States and the international community will increase support for Iraq in tandem with political progress.

The president, the chairman and I are all very clear eyed about the challenges ahead. We are pursuing a long-term strategy against ISIL because ISIL clearly poses a long-term threat. We should expect ISIL to regroup and stage new offenses.

And the U.S. military's involvement is not over. President Obama has been very clear on this point. Our objectives remain clear and limited -- to protect American citizens and facilities, to provide assistance to Iraqi forces as they confront ISIL, and to join with international partners to address the humanitarian crisis.

With that, I'll ask Chairman Dempsey for his comments and then we will take questions. Thank you.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

As most of you know, I just returned on Sunday from a trip to Vietnam. And, today, I have my counterpart from Singapore visiting. On Vietnam, it was quite remarkable to be in Vietnam 40 years after our departure from Vietnam to discuss opportunities for a new relationship, building on our historical investment and the incredible sacrifices of those who served there. My engagements in the region reinforced that we have our shoulder behind the rebalance to the Asia Pacific, even as our military confronts challenges in other parts of the world. In fact, on Sunday, I'll depart for Afghanistan.

Which brings me to Iraq. Under the command of General Lloyd Austin at U.S. Central Command, our efforts in Iraq have included to date seven humanitarian airdrop missions delivering 636 bundles of food, water and medical supplies, more than 60 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties daily, each day, and to date, 89 targeted airstrikes conducted by United States Air Force and United States Navy aircraft. These airstrikes have protected U.S. persons and facilities and helped prevent humanitarian crisis.

As Iraq's political future takes shape, I'd emphasize that enduring stability will depend on achieving a credible partner in the Iraqi government that must commit to being much more inclusive with all of its population than it has been thus far.

And with that, I'd be happy to take your questions.

SEC. HAGEL: Bob?

Q: Mr. Secretary, in your comments, you mentioned that ISIL's momentum has been stalled recently, and you said that nonetheless you expect them to regroup. My question is, why not go after ISIL where they started, which is in Syria? I know that you've described a strategy of enabling the Iraqis both politically and militarily to roll back their gains in Iraq, but they do have a sanctuary in eastern Syria. What is the strategy, if it's not to go root them out from, you know, inside Syria? Why not -- why not go that route?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, going back to your point about my statement on what our objectives are, which I just restated in my statement, I would also say, in addition to that, that -- and I think the president has been very clear on this -- that we continue to explore all options regarding ISIL and how best we can assist our partners in that area, the Middle East, and particularly in Iraq, against ISIL.

You all know that in the president's request in OCO for a $5 billion antiterrorism fund, it was $500 million in there to assist the moderate opposition. So that's what we're looking at; that's what we're doing. And we will continue to stay focused, as I said, on what we're doing now and exploring all options as we go forward.

Q: (OFF-MIKE) options that you refer to include airstrikes across the border into Syria?

SEC. HAGEL: Like I said, we're looking at all options.

Barbara?

Q: I wanted to ask both of you specifically on the hostage rescue mission. You both have talked extensively over the years about protecting classified information. Even if you (inaudible) were told that the news media was going to publish an article, which is what the State Department says, you revealed it because you thought the media was going to publish something. Why specifically did both of you -- please, both of you answer -- why did you think it was a good idea to officially acknowledge in detail classified information -- a classified mission about a hostage rescue when there are still American hostages there? Are you worried that this has risked other hostages' lives? We now have a leak investigation. And was this an intelligence failure, this mission? But why did you both think it was a good idea to do this? No one's ever seen either of you do this before.

SEC. HAGEL: Why did we think it was a good idea to...

Q: Publicly acknowledge a classified mission for a hostage rescue.

SEC. HAGEL: Well...

Q: The statement came out of this building about it last night.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, to start with, there were a number of news outlets that were aware of the action, of the raid. And it was a decision made by the administration, which we concurred with, to address the mission. Recognizing everything that you said, there's always risk, there continues to be risk in every action or inaction we take.

Also, the administration had informed the families of the hostages of -- of this effort. So it was the decision and it was unanimous that we should, in fact, acknowledge this effort without going into any of the specifics of it, which we, as you know, will not.

As to your question on was this was a failure of intelligence, no. The fact is, as you all know, intelligence doesn't come wrapped in a package with a bow; it is a mosaic of many pictures, of many factors.

The enemy always has a say in everything. The fact is that you have to always work that reality into any decision you make.

But the underlying -- underlining objective was to do everything we could, as the president has said, to rescue these hostages, knowing their lives were in danger, clearly in danger.

It's the responsibility of our government and our leaders to do all we can to take action when we believe there might be a good possibility, a good chance to -- to make a rescue effort successful.

This operation, by the way, was a flawless operation. But the hostages were not there.

So we will do everything that we need to do, that the American people would expect from their leaders, to continue to do everything we can to get our hostages back.

Q: (OFF-MIKE) do you think that -- do you have concerns that hostage lives are at risk? Was it -- was it a good enough reason that the news media was going to write an article about this and do you believe it was an intelligence failure?

GEN. DEMPSEY: The -- I provide military advice. The military advice that was rendered in response to your question was as long as sources and methods are not revealed, that it would be a policy decision on whether to release the information of the raid.

As to whether it was an intelligence failure, I -- I agree completely with -- with the secretary of defense. The mission was executed flawlessly after a significant period of preparation and planning and rehearsal. And the -- it turned out that the hostages were no longer at that location.

Q: You believe they were there at one point?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I do.

Q: What were the -- you both addressed this. Talk a little bit more about the long-term strategy against ISIS?

Secretary of State John Kerry said they will be crushed. The president calls them a cancer.

If that's the case, why are U.S. airstrikes so narrowly focused and so limited and why have you delayed providing heavy weapons to the Kurds? It seems the rhetoric doesn't match U.S. efforts to date.

SEC. HAGEL: First of all, we are providing a tremendous amount of military assistance to the Peshmerga through the Iraqi security forces.

It is one country and there's no question that we have been accelerated -- as a matter of fact, all year long, we have been accelerated -- all the requests made by the Iraqi government for lethal assistance and equipment and we continue to do that.

As to the comments made by Secretary Kerry and the president -- and we all share the same evaluation of ISIL -- as the president has said, I've said, the chairman said, Secretary Kerry has said, the -- the defeat of ISIL is not only going to come at the hands of airstrikes.

One of the things that I noted in my -- my comments here at the beginning of this press conference was an inclusive government in Iraq is essential as to how Iraq and the United States and all of our international partners are going to also have to deal with ISIL. Military kinetic actions, airstrikes are -- are part of that.

But it's -- it's bigger than just a military operation and our efforts, as we have executed the president's strategy on this, are specifically targeted, just as the president has said for the reasons he said.

But we are working with international partners, we're working closely with Peshmerga and the ISF. We are doing everything we can within the confines of our influence to assist and recognize, as we've said, to deal with ISIL there in the Middle East and also recognizing that it is a threat, just as we've all said. But it isn't going to just come as a result of airstrikes. Strategically, there are limits to how much you can accomplish with airstrikes. Tactically, you can accomplish a significant amount; I think we've seen that, I've mentioned in my comments here. So it's the broad scope of activity and actions that we take...

(CROSSTALK)

Q: ... I mean, the Peshmerga still say they haven't received the heavy weapons that they've requested. And you're creating a task force, I understand, on that?

GEN. DEMPSEY: A task force for the equipping effort with the Kurds? Yes, the secretary has a task force that oversees that. And they have begun to receive supplies, not just, by the way, from us or regional partners, but also from the government of Iraq, which incidentally is not to be discounted as a significant moment, with the possibility that there will be a single state of Iraq in the future. And we are providing, you know, the -- those that were conducting assessments in those joint operations centers have continued to evolve. So this isn't just about airstrikes.

SEC. HAGEL: Margaret?

Q: General, do you believe that ISIS can be defeated or destroyed without addressing the cross-border threat from Syria? And is it possible to contain them?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Let me start from where you ended and end up where you started. It is possible contain -- to contain them. And I think we've seen that their momentum was disrupted. And that's not to be discounted, by the way, because the -- it was the momentum itself that had allowed them to be -- to find a way to encourage the Sunni population of western Iraq and Nineveh province to accept their brutal tactics and -- and their presence among them.

So you ask -- yes, the answer is they can be contained, not in perpetuity. This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated. To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no. That will have to be addressed on both sides of what is essentially at this point a nonexistent border.

And that will come when we have a coalition in the region that takes on the task of defeating ISIS over time. ISIS will only truly be defeated when it's rejected by the 20 million disenfranchised Sunni that happen to reside between Damascus and Baghdad.

Q: And that requires airstrikes (OFF-MIKE)

GEN. DEMPSEY: It requires a variety of instruments, only one small part of which is airstrikes. I'm not predicting those will occur in Syria, at least not by the United States of America. But it requires the application of all of the tools of national power -- diplomatic, economic, information, military.

SEC. HAGEL: Karen?

Q: Talking about ISIL in Syria, my question is for -- both of you, Mr. Chairman and Mr. Secretary -- do you -- do you have any information that there is a link, a relation between the Assad regime and ISIL? As you may know, the Assad regime has been striking ISIL for the last few months. Do you see yourself on the same page with the -- with the Assad regime? And do you still believe that Assad is part of the problem or he might become part of the broader solution in the region?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, Assad is very much a central part of the problem. And I think it's well documented as to why. When you have the brutal dictatorship of Assad and what he has done to his own country, which perpetuated much of what is happening or has been happening in Syria, so he's part of the problem, and as much a part of it as probably the central core of it.

As to your question regarding ISIL and Assad, yes, they are fighting each other, as well as other terrorist groups, very sophisticated terrorist groups in -- in Syria.

GEN. DEMPSEY: He is absolutely part of the problem.

SEC. HAGEL: Kevin?

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you address the charges of mission creep with Iraq, going beyond helping humanitarian, beyond protecting Americans to directly going after ISIL, whether through the Iraqis or not? Does the Pentagon believe it has the authority? Have you talked to the general counsel for what you're doing now? Or do you need any kind of additional or different type of authority going forward for what you would like to be able to do?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, to start with, the president has been very clear on mission creep. And he's made it very clear that he will not allow that. This is why he's been very clear on what our mission is. We comply with the War Powers Act and informed Congress on how many people we have.

Of course, we consult with our counsel all the time on do we have the domestic authority, do we have the international authority on all actions, as we do on everything we do. But, again, I refer you back to the president's comments on mission creep. This is -- this is not about mission creep.

Tony?

Q: I want to ask you to prepare -- talk directly to the American public. Is the -- should the American public be steeled for another long, hard slog against ISIS? Mr. Secretary, in July, you painted them as an imminent threat. Not even George Bush when he was hyping the road to war in Iraq called Saddam Hussein an imminent threat. He called him "grave and gathering."

General Dempsey, you talked about defeating ISIL over time. Should the public start getting prepared for another long, hard slog, like Secretary Rumsfeld talked about, fighting Al Qaida, in the fight to eliminate ISIL?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, as to the comment about an imminent threat, I think the evidence is pretty clear. When we look at what they did to Mr. Foley, what they threatened to do to all Americans and Europeans, what they are doing now, the -- I don't know any other way to describe it other than barbaric. They have no standard of decency, of responsible human behavior, and I think the record's pretty clear on that. So, yes, they are an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it's in Iraq or anywhere else.

GEN. DEMPSEY: You've heard me speak, I think, about the fact that we've gone from a narrow focus on Al Qaida to the recognition that, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and these disenfranchise populations that I've described a lack of governance and sanctuary, failed states, declining nationalism -- you've heard me talk about all that -- that we actually have groups that now kind of are loosely connected, in some cases affiliated, that run from Afghanistan across the Arabian peninsula into Yemen to the Horn of Africa and into North and West Africa.

So, in general, the conflict against those groups, most of which are local, some of which are regional, and some of which are global in nature, that's going to be a very long contest. It's ideological. It's not political. It's religious, in many cases. So, yes, it's going to be a very long contest.

But when you ask me if the American people should steel themselves for this long conflict, there will -- there will be required participation in the -- of the United States of America, and particularly in a leadership role, to build coalitions, to provide the unique capabilities that we provide, but not necessarily all the capabilities, to work through this thing using three different military tools.

One is direct action. There will be cases where we are personally threatened, U.S. persons and facilities are threatened, that we will use direct action. If told to use direct action for other purposes, we'll be prepared to do so. Haven't been asked.

The second one is building partner capacity. And that's -- that's really where this has to reside. We've got to have them take ownership of this, because, frankly, if we own it, they're not going to be that interested in it.

And then the last one, of course, is enabling, which is to say enabling our partners, which is what you see us doing somewhat now in Iraq with both the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga, and I think you'll see that enabling function used, as well.

Q: Can I follow up on Tony's please?

SEC. HAGEL: Mick?

Q: You know you were talking about this threat and a war-weary America. And I think most Americans are asking, well, what is the ISIL threat to us here at home? Could either of you describe the terrorist threat that ISIL represents to Americans? And -- and should Americans -- again, to follow up on Tony -- should they be prepared for a perpetual war on terror?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'll take the first run at it, and Marty can respond as well.

Jim, what happened in this country on 9/11, 2001, when you ask the question about should Americans see this as any kind of a threat, imminent threat, or what's the -- what's the issue, this is in Iraq, I doubt if there were many people that would have thought there was much of a threat the day before 9/11.

Now, that happened a few years ago. This -- this country is far better prepared today, in every way for this.

But terrorism is not new to the world. The sophistication of terrorism and ideology that the general was talking about, married now, with resources now, presents a whole new dynamic and a new paradigm of threats to this country. The sophistication, technology, money, resources, all that is different.

And we can't ask the question of ourselves as leaders who have the responsibility of the security of this country, saying, well, is it that big a deal? I mean, they're far away.

We don't have that luxury.

Every day the intelligence community of this country and the leaders, regardless of who the administration is, or who the secretary of defense is, or who the chairman is, deals with this every day, that we don't want to face that again, ever, 9/11 or any part of it.

So we -- so we have to look at this, Jim, from the reality of what's out there, but also what could be out there and what could be coming.

And is this a long-term -- sure, it's a long-term threat.

Q: Is it the calculation, though, that ISIL presents a 9/11 level threat to the United States?

SEC. HAGEL: Jim, ISIL is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.

Oh, this is beyond anything that we've seen. So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it and-- and -- and get ready.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, the immediacy -- the immediacy is in the number of Europeans and other nationalities who have come to the region to become part of that ideology. And those -- those folks can go home at some point.

It's why I have conversations with my European colleagues about their southern flank of NATO, which I think is actually more threatened in the near term than we are. Nevertheless, because of open borders and immigration issues, it's an -- it's an immediate threat. That is to say, the fighters who may leave the current fight and migrate home.

Longer term, it's about ISIL's vision, which includes -- I actually call ISIL, here we go, right, ISIS, I-S-I-S, because it's easier for me to remember that their long-term vision is the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. And al-Sham includes Lebanon, the current state of Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Kuwait.

If they were to achieve that vision, it would fundamentally alter the face of the Middle East and create a security environment that would certainly threaten us in many ways.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: I know the president and you all talk about right now, it's Iraq's responsibility to take control of their own country, but isn't the U.S. already at war with ISIS?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Are you looking at me?

(LAUGHTER)

SEC. HAGEL: You're the general.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Do I -- do I look like a guy that would answer that question in front of the -- the declaration of war is a policy decision, not a military decision.

Jack?

Q: Is there any estimate on how much these operations in Iraq have cost so far? And considering you said ISIS poses a long-term threat, and we're gonna -- (inaudible) -- a long-term strategy, might you need to reshape your 2015 budget to accommodate for that?

SEC. HAGEL: Maybe. Well, depending -- first of all, go back to the OCO reference that I mentioned, that we've already asked the Congress in a separate fund, a counterterrorism fund for $5 billion, half a billion of that specifically for the moderate Syrian opposition.

So, yes, you're constantly shaping a budget to assure that resources match the mission and the mission and the resources match the threat.

And it isn't -- it isn't a process that is void of the dynamics of a changing, shifting world and requiring resources, as you plug those resources into your strategy, to assure that you can carry out that -- that strategy.

SEC. HAGEL: So, yes, you're shifting all the time on what you think is going to be required. I mean, we've had to move assets over the last couple of months, obviously, to accomplish what we accomplished in Iraq. That costs money, that takes certain monies out of certain funds. So it's -- it's a constant, fluid process as you -- as you plan for these.

General, you want to say anything?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, I mean, you know, this -- the adaptations we've made to our global posture and in particular, our regional posture in response to the tasks we've been given has been really remarkable.

It reminds me that -- never to miss the opportunity to thank those who serve in uniform for their incredible agility and courage in dealing with whatever issues confront them. And as you know, there's a lot of -- there's a lot of issues confronting us globally right now and we're answering a call and will continue to do so.

But we -- there may be a point where -- I think we're fine for Fiscal Year '14 and we'll have to continue to gather the data and see what it does to us in '15.

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