Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook and Acting Under Secretary of Defense Peter Levine in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook


PETER COOK:  Good morning, everyone.  Happy new year as well.  Good to see everyone back as we begin this new year.  And I hope you had a festive holiday chance to relax with your families.

I will be prepared to answer your questions on a range of topics in just a moment.  But I want to begin first of all with an important update on the situation regarding the California National Guard bonus issue.

As you recall, Secretary Carter directed back in October to suspend all efforts to recoup money from members of the California National Guard, based on eligibility issues to receive bonus payments for their service several years ago.  He also asked the department to come up with a streamlined centralized process to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of our service members and the rapid resolution of cases by January 1st.

That task fell to Peter Levine, who is performing the duties of acting undersecretary for personnel and readiness, and his team.  And they have met in fact the secretary's deadline and have developed a process to move forward.  And I've asked Peter to come here to spell it out for everyone.  And again, he will walk through it, be able to take your questions on that topic, and then I'll step back in and take your questions on other topics.

So without any further ado, Peter Levine, welcome.

ACTING UNDERSECRETARY OF DEFENSE PETER LEVINE:  Thank you.

So, I don't know whether anybody here is interested in good news stories, but the secretary did in his October 26th announcement direct the suspension of all efforts to collect erroneous bonuses from California National Guard soldiers.

And he directed that by January 1st, we would establish a streamlined centralized process to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of our service members in the rapid resolution of cases.  It being now after January 1st, Peter thought it would be good to provide you with an update, and the basic bottom line of the update is that we are on track to meet all of these objectives.

The process is in place.  We believe that we can complete all these cases well before the July 1st deadline established by the secretary.  The bottom line is that we have about 17,500 California National Guard soldiers who are facing potential recoupment.  We expect to initiate a detailed review by the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records for only -- for several hundred cases, less -- probably less than a thousand cases.

The majority of those -- the vast majority of those 17,000 cases we will be able to screen out and forgive debts or forego debt collection without the need for more detailed review by the BCMR.

So, in the course of the next month, we will be -- we will begin -- we'll be notifying people on a rolling basis, but we will begin notifying soldiers over the next -- over the next month that they -- that they are -- their cases have been dismissed, that they will not be -- there will not be any recoupment in their cases.

I'd like to just frame the issue briefly because recoupment is a fact of life in the military.  Recoupment sounds bad in this context because the specific cases that have been publicized are bad, but recoupment is a fact of life.  The Army is recouping -- has -- has about 100,000 recoupment actions ongoing at any given time.  Sometimes, the member makes a mistake, sometimes the -- the service does.

The classic case of recoupment is somebody gets a military education that has a -- or military training or something that carries a service commitment with it, they don't fulfill the service commitment and we expect them to pay the money back.  We don't give somebody a free education; we give them a free education in exchange for a service commitment and that's -- that's part of the bargain.

The cases in California are different for several reasons.  One is that the -- many of these service members fulfilled their obligation.  The error was an error on the part of the government as to whether they were eligible.  They may have been misled as to whether they were eligible.  And then the final -- the final touch is that because California National Guard went back and looked at these cases several years removed from when the error was made, they were in many cases recouping from members who had fulfilled their service -- service commitment.

So, they'd gotten a bonus in exchange for a service commitment then they fulfilled the service commitment, they served, they may even have been deployed, and then we came back and said, "By the way, you were ineligible, we're taking your money back."  That's what makes those cases unfair, not the fact that it's recoupment.  There's nothing wrong with recoupment in general.  But in these cases, we had a number of cases that were really very problematic.

But all recoupment cases are not alike and that's why we felt we had the obligation to go through and look at these cases individually so we could determine whether recoupment was in fact justified.

So, since the secretary's October announcement, I've been working closely with the National Guard Bureau, the Army -- Army Audit Agency, the -- the Army Review Boards Agency and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to set up a process so we can go through these cases.

Basically what we're working is a two-step process; one where we screen the cases to determine whether we can essentially say we don't need further information, this -- we don't need to seek a -- we don't need to collect a debt in this case, and then the hard cases which will then be put before the Army Board for Correction of Military Records for individualized review where the individuals will have an opportunity to make their case.

We begin with, as I said, about 17,500 cases.  We put those cases into two categories.  There are about 1,400 where the California National Guard already established a debt and referred them to DFAS for recoupment.  The remaining 16,000 the California National Guard flagged for review and notified soldiers, in many cases, of the potential that they would be facing in debt collection, but didn't take further action.  So those 16,000 essentially the Sword of Damocles is hanging over the soldiers, but debt collection hadn't been started.

We have different legal processes we have to follow if debt collection has actually been started, if the debt has been established.  So we review the 1,400 a little bit differently from the -- from the 16,000.  The 1,400, the Army Audit Agency and the Army Review Board Agency have already gone through and reviewed those cases, and I would say we all owe them a thanks, because while we were all home over the holidays enjoying ourselves, they were here reviewing California National Guard cases.  They've worked extremely hard on this.

Out of the 1,400, the basic criteria we've been applying in looking at those is:  Did this -- if the service member fulfilled their service commitment and there's no obvious reason to believe that they knew or should have known that there was an erroneous payment, then we don't need further review and we'll get rid of that case.

We think we can get rid of about half of the cases on that basis.  So half of the 1,400 we would expect to be notifying soldiers that they're being relieved of any debt.  And if they've already paid back, then -- if they've already been subject to recoupment, that we'll reimburse their funds.

The 16,000 cases, because debt hasn't been established, we have broader discretion.  And so we're looking at a broader category of factors.  So older debts, smaller debts, cases with people who are junior in rank who wouldn't necessarily be expected to know of eligibility, things like that, we're just -- we're not pursuing those cases at all.  

So of the 16,000 -- of the 16,000, we go through -- we're going through a screening process that will eliminate about 15,000 of the cases off the top.  We'll then put those cases -- the remaining cases -- the remaining 1,000 or so cases, 1,500, 1,000 cases, through the same kind of screening process that we put the -- the cases in which a debt has been established, and to determine -- so that only those cases in which the soldier -- soldier didn't fulfill their commitment or there's reason to believe that -- that there was fraud or knowledge on the part of the soldier will go before a -- a BCMR.

So, we expect to get rid of at least 15,000 of those 16,0000 cases, probably more than that, and to be notifying soldiers, again beginning in the next month, that they will not be subject to any debt collection.

The bottom line is, as I said, we expect a few hundred cases, several hundred cases, but in all likelihood fewer than 1,000, to go before the Boards for Correction of Military Records.  And in each of those cases, then, the soldier will have an opportunity to present their case and argue that even though there's enough to put it before a BCMR, there isn't enough to justify debt collection and the debt should be forgiven.

So, we are well along in that process.  We have established the process as the secretary directed.  We think that we have -- we have the BCMR staffed up.  They're prepared to hear the cases.  They have sufficient staffing to hear all the cases that we'll be presenting to them and to do that by the July deadline established by the secretary.

We think that the number of cases in which we'll be recouping will be a few hundred, as opposed to the many thousands of cases that are under -- under the Sword of Damocles, as I said, right now.  And that most of the cases in which we'll be recouping will actually be cases in which the soldiers did not fulfill their commitment.  There will be some cases in which we have fraud or evidence of fraud or knowledge or should've -- should've known.  But most of the cases in which we'll be recouping, we will be recouping because the soldier didn't fulfill their commitment.

There's been some interest in other states and whether other states are in the same position as California.  We've reviewed audits that were done contemporaneously.  We've reviewed -- there was a review conducted by the National Guard Bureau back in 2011.

We've looked at all those, we've looked at the follow-up from those.  And we've determined that -- that there was no other state in which there was the kind of -- of massive problem that there was in California, where there are as I said, 17,500 cases that were identified by the California National Guard for potential debt collection.

We don't see more than a few dozen cases in any other state, where we've had recruitment from -- from this kind of thing.  We believe that the National Guard Bureau and the Army have corrected the lack of internal controls that led to this problem in the first place.

And we are very hopeful that we will not have any kind of similar problem going forward.  So the bottom line is, we think we've met the secretary's goal of rapid, equitable treatment for our soldiers and that we have in place a process that will protect the taxpayers, but will also be fair to our soldiers in terms of collecting debts.

So with that, if there are any questions?

MR. COOK:  We'll go to Bob Burns.

Q:  Did I understand you correctly that the number of cases that then will be heard by the Board for Correction of Military Records total would be --

MR. LEVINE:  Several hundred.

Q:  Several hundred.  And they would be finished by July, is that the plan?

MR. LEVINE:  That's the plan, yes, we have the BCMR staff so that they can finish that -- those 700 cases by July.

MR. COOK:  Other questions for Peter?

Tony 
Q:  I haven't followed this issue at all, but you think, you've made the point here that the lack of internal controls in California led to all this.  What was -- and you -- you have a background in management, that  -- what was some of the major issues with the internal control --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. LEVINE:  There was a lack of -- there was a lack of internal controls in the -- in the bonus system nationwide.  There was an ability for a single person to sign off on the bonus and be the -- be the approval authority and the review authority.
And there was -- there was not -- there were not automated checks built into this system -- into the system.  So we've since automated it, we've required separate -- separate review cycles so that -- so that you don't have a one-person sign-off, but you have a separate review.

So we think we've addressed the -- the obviously -- the obvious internal control problems that -- that led to this.  Those internal control problems weren't unique to California, what was unique to California was that we had somebody who was convicted of fraud and we had -- we had -- there are two things that internal -- internal control leads to a vulnerability.

Then, the question is did somebody exploit their vulnerability?  What we had in California was the vulnerability was systematically exploited, that's why we had the problem there that we didn't have elsewhere.

Q:  By corrupt individuals?

MR. LEVINE:  Well, we had -- we had individuals who've been -- who have been convicted of fraud and have been disciplined, yes.

Q:  (inaudible) -- definition of corrupt individuals?

MR. COOK:  Okay, any other questions?

Yes, Louie 
Q:  Sir, how do you -- the NDAA language I think contains language that I think gave it across the board, forgiving --

MR. LEVINE:  The NDAA language required us to -- to conduct a case-by-case review of all these cases.  So we're already conducting that review, we believe that our review is consistent with the requirements of that language.

But -- it does not say it's across the board forgiveness, it requires us to look at -- at individual cases.  It does establish a standard which is -- which is very favorable to the soldiers.  But we were planning to lean in favor of those soldiers when in doubt, in any case.

Q:  I think the NDAA also had language that for fixing the credit reports of individuals --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. LEVINE:  Yeah, so when we forgive a debt, one of the things that we do -- this is -- DFAS is our central debt collection agency and when they forgive a debt, they -- they are -- they would notify the credit agencies automatically.  That's part of their process.

So, that is something that -- that the bill requires us to do that we will do.  I believe the bill also asks us to do -- to do -- to take steps, if we can, to adjust secondary effects, you know, somebody who lost their mortgage or something.

There's very little -- there may be little that we can do in those cases.  But we'll look at those and see if there's some -- if somebody comes to us and says that they -- that there was some secondary effect that -- that -- to their detriment.  We'll look at it and see if there's something we could do.

Q:  And do you have any initial estimate on the cost of the reimbursements right now?

MR. LEVINE:  The -- the cost to taxpayer's going to be minimal.  It'll be -- I think the total amount of recoupment in these cases was -- was -- was a few million dollars.  I think on the -- maybe -- may be as much as $10 million.

But -- but very little of that had been collected.  So the -- the exposure to the -- to the taxpayer is pretty minimal out of a military personnel budget of tens of billions of dollars.

All right, thank you very much.  Have a great day.

MR. COOK:  Peter, thank you.  Appreciate it.

Now, before I take your questions on other topics, I did want to update a few things with regard to the counter-ISIL fight.  And first of all, I wanted to extend and offer condolences on behalf of Secretary Carter and all of us here at the Department of Defense to the people of Turkey, and especially those affected by the cowardly attack in Istanbul on New Years Eve, as well as to the people of Baghdad effected by Monday's bomb attack there and the recent terror attacks we've seen in that city.

We have known for time that as ISIL loses ground in Iraq and Syria that it will continue to try and carry out high-profile attacks on innocent civilians.  Those attacks will not deflect us from our efforts.  And those efforts continue to bear fruit.

Iraqi officials report that two-thirds of east Mosul is now in government hands.  And the resumption of offensive operations since December 29th has resulted in steady progress against ISIL in Mosul.

The various access of advance into the city have begun to link their fronts which improves the ability of Iraqi forces to support one another and reduces ISIL's ability to cope with continuous pressure.  The coalition continues to provide critical support to the efforts, especially from the air.

Meanwhile in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces are also seeing significant results against ISIL in the drive towards Raqqah.  Key ISIL-held terrain near Topka is now under increasing pressure.  In all, they have captured more than 2,000 square kilometers of territory since their isolation operations began.

And that pressure will continue to build as we accelerate efforts on all these fronts, preventing ISIL from terrorizing those suffering under its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and reducing its ability to spread terror outside of its so-called borders.

And with that, happy to take your questions.  Back to Bob.

QUESTIONS:  Peter, Kim Jong-un says that they're getting close to having a ballistics missile of intercontinental range.  And my question is, what is this Defense Department's policy at the moment if North Korea were to test launch a missile of intercontinental range?

Would the federal government attempt to shoot it down?

MR. COOK:  Well, first of all, Bob as you know, multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions explicitly prohibit North Korea's launches using ballistic missile technology or further development of a ballistic missile program.  And we call on all states to use every channel -- available channel and means of influence to make clear to the -- to North Korea and its enablers that launches using ballistic missile technology or efforts to advance North Korea's ballistic missile capabilities are unacceptable.
We further call on all states to take steps to show that there are consequences to the DPRK's unlawful conduct.  And we call on the DPRK to refrain from provocative actions and to make the strategic choice to fulfill its international obligations and commitments and return to serious talks.  And we reaffirm our iron clad commitments to defend our allies to utilizing the full spectrum of U.S. extended deterrence capabilities.

Bob, these resolutions explicitly prohibit North Korea from engaging in ballistic missile tests and from developing this technology.  And we would once again call on the North Koreans to refrain from provocative actions.  And I'm not going to hypothesize on what could happen in the future, but we remain confident in our ballistic missile defense and in our defense of our allies and our defense of the homeland.

Q:  So you're saying there is no stated, explicit policy of contesting a test launch by shooting it down?

MR. COOK:  We remain confident in our ability to protect the homeland and I'm not going to get into hypotheticals.

Q:  Just to follow up on what Bob was asking.  Have you seen any evidence that North Korea is preparing for an ICBM launch?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into intelligence matters at this point.  Once again, there are ample reasons why North Korea should not carry out something of a provocative nature.  We've said that explicitly before and we'll say it again.  There are U.N. resolutions.  The international community has called on North Korea not to do these kinds of things, and I'm not going to get into intelligence matters.  But obviously, they've talked about developing this capability and it's something we're watching very carefully.

Q:  Has the U.S. delivered this message to North Korea in the last 24 hours?

MR. COOK:  We have delivered that message consistently for weeks, months and years.  And I'm doing so again today.

Q:  One of the sort of things the U.S. is doing is placing the missile system in South Korea.  Does this latest announcement make it more sort of -- does the timeline need to be closer?  Because I believe it's eight to 10 months right now.  So is there an effort to re-look at moving THAAD -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  We are working closely -- (inaudible) -- as you know, with the South Koreans to install and deploy that system as quickly and efficiently as possible.  And we'll do everything we can working with the South Koreans to do that.  We think it's an important part of our broader missile defense efforts in support of our ally and in support of the region as well.

Q:  Has the secretary spoken with his counterparts in Japan and South Korea after Kim Jong-un's latest -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  I don't have any calls to read out for you.

Jamie?

Q:  What is the state of U.S. ballistic missile defenses right now?  Is the United States in a position to shoot down an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile if it's perceived as a threat to the U.S. homeland?  Do we have interceptors and systems that are up and capable of carrying out that mission?  What's the state of our missile defense system?

MR. COOK:  Well, you know, Jamie, that this is a system -- this is an effort that we've been very active on.  Secretary Carter's been very active on for some time.  And there are layers in terms of our ballistic missile defense.  There are various aspects to it.  And that comprehensive defensive system we feel very confident in.

And there are aspects to it, again.  We mentioned the THAAD system.  Obviously, you're aware of our Aegis systems.  You're aware of the TPY-2 radars we have in the region, and also our -- our ground-based system.  And this is a system that we continue to work on; continue to develop, but we're confident in our ability to protect the homeland.

Q:  But does that ground-based system, the interceptors that are based in Alaska, does it have -- does it have the capability at this point of shooting down an incoming missile?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to discuss our capabilities, but we're confident in our ability to protect the homeland.

Tony?

Q:  I've asked you this before, but the last successful intercept test was in June of 2014.  What is the schedule for the next ground-based intercept test?  Those are the missiles that would knock down an ICBM, not THAAD or Aegis.  You know that.  What's -- what's the schedule going forward?

MR. COOK:  Tony, I'm not sure of the exact test schedule right in front of me.  We can take that question, if you want.  But again, this is part of our overall system and we feel confident in our ability to protect the homeland.  I'll state that again.  This is a system that we continue to work on; continue to develop.  And this has been an area of significant focus for the department, certainly for Secretary Carter and his career here at the -- at the department and one we'll continue to work on.

But this is a system that is in place right now and given all the aspects of our broader missile defense system -- our layered system, we feel confident in our ability to deter this threat and protect American citizens.

Q:  Even if you haven't had a test since June of 2014?  Why are you so confident if you haven't had a test since then that it would work?  I mean, it did -- it did work then.  There was two failures prior to that, but what's the basis of the confidence?  You know, in general?

MR. COOK:  Because we are not relying on any one thing to protect the United States.

Q:  (inaudible) -- protect the United States from Korea.

MR. COOK:  We have -- Tony, I'm just -- I'm not gonna get into details here about -- about our broader system, other than to say, that we have a layered defense and we are confident in our ability to protect American citizens.

Barbara?

Q:  So, none of this is actually hypothetical on the part of North Korea because they're already publicly shown they're working on all of these components.

Big picture, how seriously does the U.S. military take Kim Jong-un's statement that he will deploy an ICBM?  How seriously do you take this?  It's not hypothetical.

MR. COOK:  Well, again, Barbara, this is something they've been talking about for some time.  We've talked at length about our willingness, our ability to deter this threat and, more significantly than we have to take it seriously, the fact that they're trying to develop this.  And so that's what we're doing.  And you've heard multiple testimony on that front for -- for senior leaders -- from senior leaders from this building for -- for years.

Q:  And you have talked a lot about deterrence, but also not hypothetical because it's well known, what is the capability of the United States military to engage in preemptive action?  This has been contemplated before.

The weapons that you have to do this are public knowledge weapons, but you're only talking deterrence.  Would the United States take out a North Korean capability in a preemptive fashion or is the -- is the military strategy only deterrence?

MR. COOK:  Barbara, I'm not gonna talk about hypothetical situations, I'm not gonna talk about potential military action, I'm gonna talk about what we have in place, our commitment to our South Korean allies and our, again, vigilance on this issue against a provocative country that has shown disregard to the international community for its international obligations.  And we're watching this very, very carefully.

Q:  And I'd like to come back to Tony's question very quickly.  With a 50 percent success rate in your ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely in California at best, that's the last line of defense before something would hit the United States, so that is the most important.

Why are you so confident with something like a 50 percent success rate and no test in the last two years?

MR. COOK:  I will repeat what I just said to -- to Tony.  We have a ballistic missile defense, a missile defense umbrella that we're confident in for the region and to protect the United States homeland and we'll continue to be confident in it, given where we are today and the technology and the skill with which our forces are using the -- that technology.

Lucas

Q:  Peter, these U.N. resolutions did not -- did not stop North Korea from testing two nuclear devices last year, nor did they stop North Korea from conducting dozens of short- and intermediate-range ballistic missile tests.  Why should anything change now?

MR. COOK:  Lucas, this is -- once again, the international community is uniformly challenging North Korea to once again not carry out provocative actions.  This is -- this is a country that has demonstrated an unwillingness to be part of the international community, and we're once again calling on all players, all countries to use what influence they have to get North Korea not to -- not to engage in these kind of provocative actions.

And so again, this is -- this is something that the United States has spoken out forcefully on and other countries have as well.

Q:  Does Secretary Carter believe that strategic patience was successful when dealing with North Korea?

MR. COOK:  Listen, North Korea continues to be a threat to this country.  You've heard Secretary Carter talk about that at length.  It's one of the five challenges that we're dealing with on a daily basis and it's the reason we have more than 28,000 troops in South Korea right now ready to fight tonight.  This is a country that's clearly shown a willingness to threaten the United States, threaten our allies in the region, and we're going to continue to do everything we need to to protect ourselves from that threat.

Laurent

Q:  I would like to know how you qualify the -- the policy of the U.S. DOD, since it has become clear that North Korea is getting clearer and clearer to having a ballistic missile?  Would you say, for instance, that you have increased planning or that there are more and more people working on scenarios on North Korea?

MR. COOK:  We are, Laurent, dealing with North Korea.  This has been a recurring challenge for us and one we don't lose sight of every single day.  And we're constantly adjusting to the threat North Korea poses, and whether it's, again, their development of an ICBM capability which is something they've talked about, that's obviously something -- they're trying to do it.  They say they're trying to do it.  So accordingly, we are adjusting accordingly to that threat.

Q:  So it's business as usual?

MR. COOK:  It's business as usual every day for the Department of Defense to be ready to respond to the challenges and threats facing the United States and North Korea is one of them.

Yes, Ali.

Q:  Thank you.  Do you agree with president-elect's view that China is not doing nothing on North Korea issue?

MR. COOK:  Listen, I'm not gonna comment on the president-elect's views on this.  I can speak to what I said previously, that the United States feels that there are a number of countries -- calls on all countries to use the influence they have to encourage North Korea not to engage in provocative actions and to use whatever influence they have to get them to try and join the international community and -- and not threaten their neighbors in the region and beyond.

And so, again, we encourage every country that has an ability to influence North Korea to do that.

Q:  (inaudible) -- in December six ask secretary of defense -- (inaudible) -- to take steps to declare India the major defense partner.  This was (only announced by the White House when prime minister -- (inaudible).

But what steps secretary intends to take now or -- or advise his successor to take steps to -- for this?

MR. COOK:  Well, you know the secretary was in India not long ago where the the next steps in that process took place with Minister Parrikar.  And so the secretary's commitment to this is clear.  We think the defense relationship with India is on an excellent path and will continue to be so in the next administration and beyond.

Q:  There are critiques of this legislative process -- (inaudible).  They say this means nothing unless there are changing the export control laws of the U.S., which would help India acquire better defense and technology -- defensive —inaudible-- technologies from the U.S., which is not happening, there's no such move.

MR. COOK:  Listen, our relationship with India, you've seen the commitment made by this department and this secretary of Defense and -- and this administration to improving our defense relationship with -- with India.

And that's, obviously, there's several aspects to it.  There are limits on what we can do in terms of technology -- the export of technology to India or any other country.

And we'll continue to abide by -- by the law and to work with India in -- in places where we can, where it's appropriate for that kind of -- for specific technology to be exported.  Again, not just to India but to -- to any country, but we're gonna follow the law.

Yes, Jen 

Q:  Hi, Peter.

At the end of last year, a senior U.S. military official said that 50,000 ISIS fighters had been killed in the last few years by the U.S. military in Iraq and Syria.

I'm trying to understand those numbers, since the -- the Pentagon and other intelligence agencies have always estimated that there were only 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS fighters when the fight started and even, in subsequent months.

So where do you get this 50,000 figure and can you walk us through that number?

MR. COOK:  Yeah we've had that question a couple times and first of all, again, a senior Defense Department official provided you that number which was their prerogative to do.

It's not a number that we talk about publicly because it's a -- it's not a good metric of success and it's not an easy number to -- to determine for all the reasons you would think about.  This is a warzone, this is a conflict.

Much of our efforts are being conducted from the air, we don't necessarily have the ability to assess everything on the ground in the way we might like.  And so there have been a variety of estimates, I know the Iraqis have had some estimates, as well.

And so I -- there isn't a good number for us to -- to share with you because we don't have great confidence in that number.

Q:  Okay, so you would dispute that number, perhaps?

MR. COOK:  I don't know if it's right or wrong.

Yes?

Q:  (Off-mic.) has the U.S. coalition or U.S. aircraft supported Turkish operations in al-Bab?

MR. COOK:  My understanding that last week, there was a request.  When some Turkish forces came under fire for -- for air support and there was -- there were flights conducted by the coalition at that time.

But we continue to talk, constantly as you know, on a daily basis with our Turkish colleges about their operations in al-Bab and the serious fight.  And the serious effort that the Turkish force is there and the -- and the Syrian forces that are being supported by the government of Turkey are engaged in and the important fight that they have against ISIL in that area.

Q:  You mentioned as a -- as -- you mentioned as a flight, rather than a some kind of strike.  And we haven't seen any kind of strikes around al-Bab from the coalition data releases.  So is it just some kind of a sortie that you conducted down there or does the -- does the aircraft conduct in airstrikes?

MR. COOK:  My understanding of that was there was not a strike specifically, but there were aircraft involved in that effort, a visible show of force if you will, by coalition aircraft.  And we continue to talk with the government of Turkey about the appropriate level of support for the efforts there in al-Bab and that's an ongoing conversations, even happening today.

Q:  What's the point of talking when Turkey and the U.S. in depth --

MR. COOK:  Because we are coordinating carefully our effort against ISIL.  Our comprehensive effort against ISIL, we want to continue to apply pressure on ISIL on as many fronts as possible and we're trying to do that in the most efficient and effective way possible.  We're trying to de-conflict issues in the area as well, as you know.  And so we'll continue to have that conversation.  And we see the very significant efforts that the Turkish military is engaging in in Syria, the sacrifice of Turkish forces in Syria; the significant sacrifices.

And obviously, supportive of everything they're doing to try and take on ISIL.  And the coalition is as well.

Q:  Yes, but the -- (inaudible) -- I'm not understanding is -- (inaudible).  I don't understand -- (inaudible).  When it was Jarabulus, it was others -- and other parts of Syria -- (inaudible).  The coalition support was -- (inaudible).  And the talks didn't really last any kind of months.  But when it comes to al-Bab, there is a certain reservation by the United States down -- (inaudible) -- for this town, I believe.  Or is it correct?

Because we know talks have been continuing for -- for more weeks, and then Turkey -- Turks in the end just started to cooperate with Russians in the city against ISIS.

So do you -- don't you think that it's a failure of the United States just to keep partners together down in the fight against ISIS in Syria?

MR. COOK:  No, I don't.  We continue to talk every day with our Turkish ally about these issues.  And we continue to coordinate very carefully with Turkey on these issues.  And I'm not going to get into every private discussion that's happening there.  But one of the reasons we're able to feel confident about what's going -- what's happening and what's going on -- (inaudible) -- is because of that level of coordination at all levels with the Turkish government, including military to military on the ground.  And we'll continue to have those conversations.

Q:  What's the reaction to the Turkish and Russian cooperation in al-Bab?

MR. COOK:  I'm not aware of specific Turkish-Russian cooperation in al-Bab and I'll leave that to Turkey and Russia to speak to.

Q:  (inaudible) -- the coalition -- (inaudible) -- in support of Turkey in al-Bab -- (inaudible) -- al-Bab?

MR. COOK:  I don't know if it's the first time.  I've just pointed the most -- this happened last week, as I understand it.

Q:  Is there a request -- or just over-flight?  Or is there a request that you drop ordnance?

MR. COOK:  I don't know the exact details of it, but I know there was a request for support because of forces under fire.  And we responded to that.

Q:  Are you now supporting Turkey in the al-Bab operation?  Because I know previously you weren't.

MR. COOK:  As I said, we are working every day, including today, with all of our partners in Iraq and Syria with regard to the counter-ISIL effort.  And that includes Turkey in Syria and their efforts -- their substantial efforts against ISIL.  And we're going to do that in the most productive and efficient way possible.  And we are going to expend every effort we can to make sure that we're doing this in the most effective way possible.

Yes, Tony?

Q:  A transition question.  Under the rules of the road, nominees to head the department have to work with the general counsel's offices of the respective departments, file their financial disclosure statements.  Those statements once they're completed go to the White House and then to the Office of Government Ethics.

What is the status of General Mattis's discussions with the Pentagon Standards of Conduct Office in crafting his standard form 71 -- his disclosure form?

MR. COOK:  Tony, I'm going to refer you to General Mattis and to the transition team for the Trump folks.  That's a question for them to answer.

Q:  No, it's not.  It's a question that -- he has to work with the Pentagon -- the general counsel's office.  So it's a question for your operation.

MR. COOK:  Well, the submission comes from General Mattis and from the Trump folks.  I think it most appropriate for them to respond to whether or not he's provided any information.  I don't know if he has or not.

Q:  Can you check that?  I mean, he comes here, the action is with the Pentagon.

MR. COOK:  Have you checked with them?

Q:  They get the form completed here and then it does to the Office of Government Ethics and on to the Senate.  It's not the transition team that does it.

MR. COOK:  Okay.  I'll -- we'll take the question, but again, I would just refer -- defer to General Mattis and I would encourage you to reach out to them to see if they might be willing to answer your question more easily than I can.

Q:  We tried.  They said go to the Pentagon and try to ask them.

MR. COOK:  Okay.  So we'll take your question.  Okay.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. COOK:  Okay.

Yes, over here?

Q:  Peter, I'm Andy (inaudible)with Military Times.

MR. COOK:  Andy, how are you?

Q:  Doing well, thank you.

Over the weekend, we reported that a United States Marine was wounded in Iraq and I'm wondering if can provide any additional details about the incident surrounding that?

MR. COOK:  I can't, I'm sorry.

Q:  Is that because you don't have them or --

MR. COOK:  I don't have the information.  We, as you know, normally don't comment on -- on wounded service members and I wasn't aware even of your story.  So it's -- obviously concerned about any service member who's -- who's injured, but I don't have specific details to read out to you, here.

Q:  Can you talk about what the Marines -- specifically Marine Raiders are doing in Iraq at this point?

MR. COOK:  I know that we have a number of forces in Iraq, as you know, range of forces, including special operations forces.  And they're performing a range of things as part of the train, advise and assist mission and I'm not gonna get into the specific disposition of our -- particularly our special operations forces, but they're all doing significant work on behalf of the counter-ISIL coalition.

And -- and thank them first of all for their service and their sacrifice for what they're doing.

Carlo?

Q:  Peter, I just wanted to follow up on Kasim's question about al-Bab.  So if this is in fact the first time coalition air support has been provided for the Turks in that area, what's changed?  Because the operation's been going on for a while now and I know Colonel Dorrian and others from OIR have made the explicit point that we are -- that the coalition is not involved at all with the al-Bab operation.

So I'm just kind of curious, where was the --

MR. COOK:  I think it reflects -- reflects part of our ongoing conversation with -- with Turkey.  And again, the coalition's focus on ISIL and trying to make sure that we're keeping as much pressure on ISIL as we can.  And certainly, the Syrian forces that are there, the -- the opposition forces that are there and with the support of the Turkish military are -- are carrying out a significant effort against ISIL and we think that's a good thing.

And -- but we're trying to coordinate support in the best way possible, and that's part of the give-and-take that' going on with Turkey right now.

Q:  Just to follow up, you said the discussions were even going on today about, you know, further cooperation --

MR. COOK:  They're happening every day.  We have people on the ground working these issues.

Q:  Understood.  Are these conversations designed to just sort of maintain the status quo as far as the relationship between Turkish forces and OIR?  Or is the -- or is this al-Bab sort of development kind of, you know, driving towards a more -- like an evolution of these talks leading to possibly joint -- joint operations --

MR. COOK:  We've worked jointly, as you know, with Turkey in Syria.  They're a member of the coalition, a critical member of the coalition, and we will continue to work closely with -- with Turkey.  We're trying to deal with this situation in the most efficient way possible to keep multiple pressure on -- on ISIL and to do this in an efficient fashion.

And again, I'm not gonna get into every single discussion we're having with our -- with our Turkish ally, but these are extensive conversations at the highest levels and also obviously even on the ground, military-to-military.

Q:  So is the goal, then, to get Turkey involved in the coalition --

MR. COOK:  The goal is to defeat ISIL and it is a goal that we and Turkey share.  In the -- in light of ISIL's claim to be responsible for the terror attack on New Year's Eve in Turkey, you can see all the more reason why Turkey has a significant interest in this, why we would like to do everything we can to help Turkey in that effort and the coalition would as well.

This is about not only ejecting ISIL from Syria and Iraq, it's about protecting our homelands, and that includes Turkey and that includes the United States.

Barbara?

Q:  I would like to follow up on the gentleman's question from the Military Times on wounded.  You have consistently said from the podium that you do not discuss those wounded in action.  But of course, that -- with all due respect, that's not exactly true for the administration.

The White House, point number one, has publicly acknowledged when the president goes to the hospitals to visit recently wounded members.  You have a website that posts wounded in action, that your own staff says is not regularly updated.

So in the last couple of weeks before this secretary leaves office, I want to ask again if you wouldn't provide -- find a way to provide an accurate number of U.S. service members wounded in action in Syria and Iraq in the fight against ISIS.

MR. COOK:  We provide that update now.

Q:  Your own staff says that is not --

MR. COOK:  We provide that update now.  There are privacy issues, Barbara, and I'm going to -- our policy has been set and we're going to stick with our policy.  We provide that number -- we update that number on a regular basis.

Q:  Well, I think that's probably not a very regular basis.  So I am asking -- that's fine.  I'm asking now for an updated number of the number of American service members wounded in Iraq and Syria.  I would like an updated number reflecting the case that this gentleman is talking about; the most up-to-date information you have because you --

MR. COOK:  I will check with our team, with OIR and CENTCOM and we will provide you the updated number.

Q:  (inaudible) -- you say you don't acknowledge the wounded, but then of course there's all these ways in which you do.

MR. COOK:  I'm not talking about a specific instance.  There are privacy issues here.

Q:  I'm not violating anyone's privacy issue.  I am asking you, you say you don't acknowledge the wounded.

MR. COOK:  We do acknowledge it, Barbara.  We acknowledge it with an updated number that we provide and we will provide you that number.

Q:  (inaudible) -- have an absolutely up-to-date number if you wouldn't mind.

The other thing I wanted to ask you, can you take the question about this Turkish -- the mission to protect the Turkish forces.  You said that U.S. forces did respond.  Can you please take the question:  Did they in fact drop ordnance?

MR. COOK:  My understanding is -- from what I understand that they did not drop ordnance in this instance.  It was a show of force in response to forces coming under fire.

Q:  And my last question is:  Is it correct -- can you clarify -- is it correct, have U.S. forces now in -- at various points entered the city limits of Mosul?

MR. COOK:  I know this is a question you've had previously; other have as well.  We're not going to talk about the disposition of U.S. forces in and around Mosul specifically for understandable reasons, Barbara, because we don't want to give the enemy any more ability to understand where our people might be.

Q:  You've said in the past that it's up to General Townsend to actually make that decision.

MR. COOK:  It is.  As the forward line of troops moves, U.S. forces and coalition forces will adjust as well.  But I'm not going to tell you where they are at this particular moment in time.

Q:  I'm not asking where they are at this particular time.  I am asking whether or not there has been reason for them at any point to enter the city limits.

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to answer that question because I don't want to give our enemy any idea where those forces might be at any particular moment in time, whether it's today, yesterday or in the future.

Q:  And you said on North Korea that you were -- that the U.S. is adjusting -- that was your word -- to the ballistic missile threat.  So I just want to close that loop.  Is there anything you're willing to say about how you are adjusting to the recent ballistic missile threat by North Korea?

MR. COOK:  We continue to engage on a daily basis with our allies in the region.  We are taking steps to bolster our defensive systems in the region.  We discussed, for example, the deployment of the THAAD system to South Korea.  We've taken steps to bolster our Aegis presence in the region.  We have -- we mentioned before -- the radar systems that are now in place, and our efforts as well with the ground based system to update and advance those in addition.

We have 28,500 troops in South Korea right now on -- prepared to respond to the North Korea threat.  And we are constantly looking at the threat North Korea poses to the United States and to our allies in the region and are always prepared to respond accordingly.

This is an assessment that happens, as you know, on a -- practically a daily basis.  We have to be ready to respond to North Korea given its history, given its provocative actions in the past.  And we are prepared to do so.

Ryan

Q:  Given this provocative action by North Korea, as you put it, are you -- would you call on China to drop its opposition to the THAAD system?

MR. COOK:  There's -- we have said from here, and I -- I believe our South Korean allies have as well, that there's no reason for China to oppose that system.  This is a defensive system.  And there's no reason for anyone in the region to have concern about that.  Other than, perhaps, North Korea because this is a system that is part of our broader umbrella -- our defensive umbrella.

And we think an important step in bolstering the defense of our ally and, in fact, enhancing security in the -- the region overall.  And so, again, we don't see any reason for any country to have a problem with that deployment, except perhaps North Korea.
Q:  And just on -- on the al-Bab thing, just generally, our there any U.S. forces embedded with Turkish units right now in Syria?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to talk about our -- our forces right now in Syria.

So -- yes?  You've been patiently waiting in the middle.  Sorry.

Q:  On South China Sea issues, do you have readouts on the USS Cowpens deploying to the South China Sea later this week?

MR. COOK:  I don't have anything for you on that.  I can take that question.  I'm not sure if the Navy had something to say on that specifically.

Q:  (Off-mic.) any other information that you can share with us?

MR. COOK:  I -- I don't have any up here, but I'll take that question if you like.

Q:  So, do you have any comments on the ongoing --

MR. COOK:  And I would just say broadly, that we have a presence in the South China Sea and the Asia Pacific, significant presence at all times.  And it would not be unusual for us to have an aircraft carrier or any other kind of ship in that part of the world.  As you know we have -- have them deployed in many places in the -- in the Asia Pacific, including in the South China see and we will continue to do so.  We've done so for decades.

Yes?

Q:  Do you have any concern about the countermeasures from China about the deployment of THAAD in the few months later?

MR. COOK:  As I just mentioned, we -- the THAAD system is a defensive system that we've worked closely with the South Koreans to find a suitable location for it.  We believe this is important to the defense of South Korea and to promote security in the region.  It -- as we've explained publicly, that China's concerns with it, we feel, are misplaced given that this is a defensive system.

So, we would, again, encourage China to -- to look at this system carefully and to see what we've been making clear for sometime that this is a defensive system and that there's no need for them to have concerns about this system.

Q:  So, you don't have any concern about the countermeasures from China, right?

MR. COOK:  We -- again, this is something that we'll -- we think this deployment is important for the safety and security of South Korea and for our alliance relationship.  And we will continue to work closely with the South Koreans to address any issues with regard to THAAD.

Q:  Is there any discussion between U.S. and China during your transitional period -- I mean the cooperation in with the -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  I will leave it to the transition folks to discuss any conversations they may be having with the Chinese.

So -- yes, Joe

Q:  I wonder if you have more information, you could share it with us in regards to a coalition airstrike that took place today in Idlib Province.  Local reports are saying that more than 25 leaders from Nusra Front were killed in the airstrike.

MR. COOK:  Joe, I don't have any more information for you on that -- on that airstrike.  I'm not -- I'm hearing from you about this airstrike, so --

Q:  Thank you.

MR. COOK:  Lucas, you left and came back.  Hot off the teletype there?

Q:  That's right.  I'm just going to read this.  There's a second solo tweet from President-elect Donald Trump saying, quote, "There should be no further releases from Gitmo.  These are extremely dangerous people and should not be allowed back onto the battlefield."

I was wondering what your reaction is to that.

MR. COOK:  As we discussed previously here, we're going to carry out the appropriate policies as set forth by the commander in chief with regard to Guantanamo Bay and the secretary of defense and his -- carry on his responsibilities as secretary of defense, his unique responsibilities with regard to the review of people who have been previously determined to be eligible for release and he's going to continue to carry out his responsibilities as appropriate until he's finished as secretary of Defense.

Q:  Knowing the future commander in chief does not want some of these folks released --

MR. COOK:  There is one commander in chief at a time and the secretary of Defense will continue to carry out his responsibilities as he sees appropriate.

All right, Luis, and I'll come back to the front, then we'll be done.

Q:  So, based on the discussion we had earlier about North Korea and ICBM capability, North Korea's already conducted two long range satellite attempts that show their missile capability.  What would show their ICBM capability?  Can you explain to us what is the concern there?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into discussing their potential capabilities in the future.  We will -- they shouldn't be conducting ballistic missile testing of any kind given the resolutions in the United Nations.

The international community has called on them not to do this and we are doing so again.  We think their development of ballistic missile technology is destabilizing.  It does not promote security and -- on the Korean peninsula and in the region and we think it's harmful.

And we will make that point again and again and we will, in the meantime, be prepared to respond to North Korea and be prepared to bolster our allies in the region in their own desire to make sure that it is as safe and stable as possible in that part of the world.

Q:  Technologically speaking, just as a matter of definition, is there something different with regards to a, quote, "ICBM test" versus a long range satellite test?  What is -- what is different about it?  What makes it an ICBM test just as a matter of definition?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to parse technical definitions here, Louie, for you.  Again, this is -- whether it's those previous launches or any new tests that they conduct, it's in violation of U.N. resolutions and it would be provocative and counterproductive.  And we, once again, call on them not to engage in that kind of activity.  And we're not the only ones.  There are plenty of other countries in the world telling them exactly the same thing.

Q:  This last week, you were up here -- President-elect Trump has tweeted twice about the F-35, the Pentagon's largest program.  First he said costs were out of control and then he asked Boeing to come up with a competitor version of the F-18.

General Bogdan, the -- the joint program office director a couple of weeks ago said the costs are not out of control.  But what is the -- what is the DOD's current view of the program?  We expect Bogdan to say costs aren't out of control, but what's the DOD's view?

MR. COOK:  This is a -- Tony, as you know, a critical program to the defense of the United States.  This is a program that multiple services are counting on for the future.  This is the first -- (inaudible) -- generation of fighter and we think it's a critically important program that has had its problems in the past.  Secretary Carter has spoken to that in the past and has been one of those most responsible for getting it back and working -- running in the right direction.

And so we're confident in the capabilities of the F-35, and again, as others have spoken to, this is an aircraft that -- that the services are counting on, not just the United States is counting on but other countries as well.

Final question here unless -- (inaudible).

Q:  You mentioned in a statement previously that there will be an investigation on the USS underwater drone -- (inaudible).  Do you have any update on that?

MR. COOK:  I don't have an update for you.  My understanding is the analysis and assessment is ongoing, and so I don't have anything more beyond that.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. COOK:  Yes?

Q:  Is there any further talking with the --

MR. COOK:  You must have been on vacation.

(Laughter.)

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Is there any further talking between the U.S. and Chinese navy on the issue?

MR. COOK:  I don't have anything to read out to you specifically on that topic.  So --

Q:  Just one final one on Gitmo.  How many transfers can the American public expect before January 20th?

MR. COOK:  You can expect, Lucas, that -- again, the department will carry out its obligations under law, all the legal requirements involved, and we'll carry out those as the secretary of Defense deems appropriate between now and the end of his term.

Q:  Is it --

MR. COOK:  I don't have a number for you.

Q:  -- sixteen, 18, 20?

MR. COOK:  I don't have any number for you.  Those will happen.  There's a protocol and procedure for each and every one of those that we will follow to the letter and -- and that is no different than how we've been operating since Secretary Carter first took this job.

Okay.  One more over here.

Q:  The NDAA authorizes a military pay raise of 2.1 percent, which is about a half a percentage point above what the Pentagon had asked for and it's -- I think it's bringing military pay increases in line with private sector for the first time in about five years.  Would you say that this signals an end to the era of austerity as it relates to military compensation that we've seen?

MR. COOK:  Well, I've -- I'm not sure I'd characterize austerity as the word I'd use.  But obviously, this is -- it's important for our service members to -- to be treated in an appropriate fashion and to be paid for their significant service to the country.  This is a piece of legislation that the president signed and -- and we feel it's important for compensation -- for all service members to be compensated appropriately within the restraints of the budget situation that -- that we face as a country and as a government and we continue to face constraints going forward.

But it's appropriate for our service members to get a pay raise, given their significant service to the country and their sacrifice for the country, and this is a pay raise that we're comfortable with.

Q:  Do you imagine that future raises --

MR. COOK:  I'm not --

Q:  -- will keep pace with the private sector?

MR. COOK:  I'm not gonna be able to -- I'm not gonna predict future pay raises.  I'll leave that to the next administration to speak to.

All right.  Thanks, everybody.