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Press Gaggle by Secretary Mattis

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis
July 21, 2017
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS:  That one impounded net of mine?  I just know you sent me a text message like a week ago. 

Q:  Oh, wow.  OK.  You can still answer it.  I don't even know what it is about...  (Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't either.  

So, how you all doing? 

Q:  Did Donald Stratton, one of the Arizona survivors, raise with you the issue of recognizing Joe George, the sailor who saved his life? 

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  He told the story... 

Q:  He did?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  And you just imagine, hand over head, if you ever wondered why we need physical fitness standards in the military.  The only way they save themselves was going from one ship to another and it was 70 meters.  

If any of you have ever done this without you know a gym set means (inaudible) and you climb a mountain basically.  Your upper body strength is critical you know.  So, really it was a reminder of some enduring things.  

What an honor to meet the -- did you all get to meet him? 

Q:  Yes. 

SEC. MATTIS:  They're something aren't they?  Still got a twinkle in her eye after all they went through.  Sunday morning and Pearl Harbor, getting up and going for breakfast and getting chewed out by the senior chief for not going to church services.  Normal stuff you know, and kaboom.  

Anyway, what's on your minds? 

Q:  I got a quick question for you.  You got the authority to send troops to Afghanistan and haven't sent any.  And this long-promised Afghan review is yet to be -- culminate and be briefed to anybody.  What's the hang-up? 

SEC. MATTIS:  If you go back and you look at why did we win World War II, and then you look at what happened in Korea -- by the way, we're still at war, armistice, no peace treaty.  Vietnam, you know how that went.  You move forward, Iraq and what happened there.  

If you don't get the big ideas right, and this is not easy.  I've done tactics.  I've done operations.  I've done strategy.  

Strategy is orders of magnitude more difficult.  It's easy only for the people who criticize it from the outside and don't carry the responsibility for integrating it all together, diplomatic, economic, long-term views, short-term urgencies, that sort of thing.  

And so, as you put it together, it just takes time.  It just takes time.  

It wasn't that past presidents were somehow dumb or anything else.  This is hard work and so you got to get it right.  And that's all there is to it.  So, we're working to get it right. 

Q:  How far away do you think you are...

SEC. MATTIS:  We're close. 

Q:  ... from that? 

SEC. MATTIS:  We're close. 

Q:  How far away is close? 

SEC. MATTIS:  We're close. 

Q:  Have you been able to get additional commitments from NATO allies?  You said when you were last...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  We know there will be some allies who are willing to do -- to send more troops. We're aware of that.  But again, their troops are as precious to them as ours are to us.  We've got to get this thing right. 

Q:  We still have about 70 percent of the billets committed to? 

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't want to get into -- I can't -- I couldn't give you a number like that.  I'd prefer not to give you something off the top of my head. 

Q:  Have you presented it to the president? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon? 

Q:  Have you presented the plan to the president? 

SEC. MATTIS:  What you do is -- probably use the example before, I used Hagel's dialectic.  You know, here's the situation.  What's the problem?  You have to analyze the problems, break it down.  Then you have to fuse it back together, what the problem is and the solutions, line by line.  

You take it in.  You make sure you get agreement on the problem.  Then you make certain you get agreement on the lines of effort.  And then you look at what it takes for each of those.  Then you put that back together.  

So, you have basically a thesis, you know, on the problem.  You come back with people saying that's not the problem, the broader problem, it's the narrower problem.  And then you get a synthesis of that.  OK, fine.  

You get the problem statement, define one.  Then you look at what is the political, the policy end state.  Then you put the end ways and means together.  And again, I realize this probably looks easy, but it is not easy. 

Q:  Wondering, when you are done, will you -- how fully will you publicly describe what the plan is, what the numbers are, that sort of thing? 

SEC. MATTIS:  I think what we'll certainly give the framing principles wherever we can give the plan in a way that doesn't jeopardize the lives or the mission, we'll do it. 

Q:  Does that mean, for example will you say how many troops you are adding...

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't know if I want to tell the enemy that.  We may be able to, depending on what it will reveal.  If it's a gross number and they don't know, for example where we're sending them or something, there may be a way to do it.  

But I -- you know me, I'm always going to be conservative.  If it's going to endanger the troops, nope, not going to talk about it.  

Q:  Is there a way to get troops there this fighting season?  There were days that they were in the middle of (inaudible)... 

SEC. MATTIS:  There have been troops that have gone in there.  There have been troops that have gone in there.  You know, we will take troops all the time.  There're different organizations. We've moved some out that we don't (inaudible), put different ones in.  This -- it's not like we've just been stalled out here. 

Q:  You're adding troops?  You're saying you're adding to the two of them? 

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  I said we've changed what we're doing.  We've changed what we're doing.  There may be a few more troops.  But I don't think -- I've not used the authority that's been granted to me. 

I'm going to figure out before we -- last thing I want to do is send troops in there and find I sent troops in for something I've just canceled.  I mean, these troops go in harm's way, so you got to be careful about this. 

Q:  Sir, is there a heavy focus on ISIS and the strategy yesterday during your meeting with the president and the rest of the cabinet?  Is there a heavy focus on ISIS?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  That was part of -- you mean the meeting here in the Pentagon? 

Q:  Yes.  Yes. 

SEC. MATTIS:  I've done four meetings this -- (Laughter.)

Q:  I'm sure you're... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Make sure I -- one in the Senate, one in the House, one in the... 

Q:  President's...

SEC. MATTIS:  ... White House and one over here. 

Q:  The president's meeting, sir.  

SEC. MATTIS:  The one yesterday was a broader discussion of the security situation.  And that's why you saw the vice president with him.  And you saw national security staff members, White House staff members and that sort of thing.  Plus myself, Sec. Tillerson, Sec. Mnuchin.  You get a sense, just from who's there, it's kind of a broader appreciation.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, just to clarify Jennifer's sort of -- so I understand, have you presented any part of that to the president, sort of the matrix that you laid out, strategy on Afghanistan and South Asia? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, we have met repeatedly on this.  And I go back -- you recall, ladies and gentlemen, when I was told -- it came out -- was announced out of the White House.  

As a matter of fact, testifying I think up on the Hill a couple times that week, House and Senate.  While I was up testifying they said that the president has delegated force management level, which is what they're talking about is the number of troops being sent in, to Department of Defense.  

And what he delegated was a tactical decision about what forces descend.  But the strategic framework, you go all the way back to their -- we'd already met numerous times, even back, I think that was in what, early June sound right? 

Q:  Yes. 

SEC. MATTIS:  May even.  So, all the way back to there.  That was the end result of part -- of several of those discussions.  

He decided that the tactical -- he didn't want to get in a tactical -- he would stay with the -- he delegated not one bit of the strategy, by the way.  Not one bit of the strategy was delegated.  That is his and his alone.  

People start saying that generals are running things.  Well, you know, generals have always run tactical things until -- unless it's a -- you know, a different kind of administration.  Which up to each president runs it his own way.  But that's where we're at right now.  It goes a long ways back.  That answer your question? 

Q:  It does answer my... 

SEC. MATTIS:  OK. 

Q:  In these meetings is everybody on board with the fact that more troops are going to be needed as part of the solution?

SEC. MATTIS:  I owe confidentiality on that, you know.  But I will tell -- again, at Hagel's dialectic we walk in and we say I think we're all in agreement on this.  And we all nod.  We even fall back and argue about that.  And we get that part right.  

Then we come up with here's how we're going to solve it.  And then people discuss whether or not that's right, and are we giving enough attention to economic, well what about the diplomatic?  You know and this sort of thing.  Is it regionally begun so we don't try to layer on regional things like this sort of thing. 

Q:  You've also briefed about the counter-ISIL strategy on the Hill.  And some people have walked away from that briefing feeling like there's not much new, that it's just a continuation of the Obama policies.  Can you talk to us... 

SEC. MATTIS:  You think that was overall what the Democrats and Republicans walked out with?  Or was that a minority opinion, from what I read in the news? 

Q:  Well, that's why I'm asking you.  Maybe you can tell us exactly what is new...

SEC. MATTIS:  No...

Q:  ... in the strategy. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, for one thing, the president delegated many of the decisions down.  And why did he do this?  Because that's how you exploit or pick up the tempo of operation.  He did that in order to do what he said he wanted done, an accelerated campaign. 

Second thing is we wanted to take the time in the operations, not just keep pushing on them, but to actually envelope them first and then annihilate them so the foreign fighters can't get back home again to cause their mayhem.  

Third thing, let me think.  What else was there?  There was about four things.  Let me think what else here.  Oh.  

We expanded the -- working so that more internationals were involved.  And you'll see that in a couple different areas.  One is intel sharing.  One is the Defeat-ISIS Coalition, which is now up to 69 nations plus Arab League, NATO.  Who else is in there?  Interpol and European Union now.  

The Interpol piece especially important because we're trying to drive this threat down, cut its transnational linkages so the local law -- local being in our case national police forces, FBI, gendarmes, police.  Maybe in some cases like Mali with a lot of French and military help.  Maybe in most places, you know Belgium with basically very little military help and a whole lot of good police work can handle the threat.  

So, that was part of it.  And that also impacted on the Defeat-ISIS Coalition on Sec. Tillerson, who in March brought in all of his counterparts.  Sixty-eight were here at that point, plus Interpol and the others.  Not NATO at that one, they hadn't joined yet.  

And basically, we are right now not resource-constrained due to international donors in our efforts to help the people, for example, in Mosul and stuff.  That was -- those monies have been raised by the international coalition.  And so, carrying more of the burden internationally and enlarging this.  

And militarily we have more military help now from a number of nations.  I think it's 26.  The German Luftwaffe provides recon, aerial recon and refueling and something else, AWACS crewing.  The -- you know, there's 26 nations giving stuff, French, British, Hungarian, Australian are all on the ground, and many more.  All that's going on too.  

So, broaden the international coalition both in military and in donors, delegating and speeding up, accelerating the campaign, and surround/annihilate -- surround/envelope and then work to annihilate this enemy so they don't get home again with all the havoc they create.  

So, there's four areas.  That at least gives you something so you understand what changed. 

Barbara, you've been very patient back there. 

Q:  So... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Did I ever tell you she put me on the news every 15 minutes?  How many times I told you this? (Laughter.)

Q:  I'll start telling stories about you. (Laughter.)

Seriously, do you have any expectation, thoughts, anticipation that General McMaster could shift jobs?  That he could either... 

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  

Q:  ... go in to replace General.. 

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  I read that somewhere.  I'm not sure where I heard it. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  ... or special envoy? 

SEC. MATTIS:  He is the national -- I haven't heard anything of that.  I did read something in, in might've been CNN.  It might've been someone else in the news.  But... 

Q:  But that's not on the table in the discussion...

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  We love reading the news.  We love reading those kinds of stories going -- I'm amazed sometimes when I'm having a fight with and everything, somebody I haven't talked to in two weeks.  I'm having a fight with them.  It's good.  You know, it keeps us smiling. 

Q:  The other thing, Nick Grossman, out at Aspen, said -- and he said it.  He said his working assumption is that Baghdadi's alive.  He went back to the point had made that the Russian claim pretty much discounted by you guys.  

But you know, you take that one off the table.  And as (inaudible) said today, Baghdadi's alive.  Do you... 

SEC. MATTIS:  I think Baghdadi's alive.  I don't think that.  I think that he's alive.  And I'll believe otherwise when we know we've killed him.  But, we're going after him.  But we assume he's alive. 

Q:  OK.  Can I ask you how you make that -- and specifically, when you make that statement and that assumption - somebody else help me out here.  Somebody said the other day, an official, that you had no -- oh, I know who.  Sorry.  Anyhow... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Maybe I have to waterboard her. (Laughter.)

Q:  I thought you were opposed to waterboarding. 

Q:  That wouldn't break her. 

SEC. MATTIS:  I make exceptions for the press. 

Q:  Anyhow, that you had had no recent evidence that he had been involved in command and control or... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Who said that? 

Q:  The Pentagon. 

SENIOR STAFF OFFICIAL:  I did, sir. 

Q:  Sorry.  

SENIOR STAFF OFFICIAL:  That was a quote from my gaggle the other day.  

SEC. MATTIS:  That we don't know that he's made command and control decisions?  No, we don't.  

Q:  That you had seen no recent evidence.  I think it was...

SEC. MATTIS:  I think that's accurate. 

Q:  I think it was very caveated, in all due respect... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Maybe not.  Maybe not. 

Q:  That you hadn't seen any recent evidence he'd been involved in command and control, and in operations. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, ma'am. 

Q:  You buy that?  You... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I don't think I want to go on record with that, just because I'd have to go back and look -- frankly, I'd have to even look through my notes.  

Q:  But he...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  For obvious reasons, we're trying to track him pretty closely because he's declared war on us.  So, he's going to reap his reward for it, you know? 

Q:  Have you seen any evidence he's alive of late? 

Q:  Right.  What makes you think what you just said?  What... 

SEC. MATTIS:  I think he's alive.  And that means he would be -- have a role to play, obviously, in the organization that he leads.  To define that role, is it operational, is it strategic, is it propaganda, is it spiritual, is it physical?  I can't define it.  But until I see his body, I'm going to assume he's alive. 

Q:  And you haven't seen any evidence directly showing that he is?  Were you basing your belief that he's alive on? 

SEC. MATTIS:  I have not seen any evidence to the contrary, Tom. 

STAFF:  We're going to take...

Q:  Mr. Secretary...

STAFF:  ... one more question. 

Q:  ... could I...

SEC. MATTIS:  (Inaudible). 

Q:  Sorry. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes? 

Q:  There was a -- there's been a lot of speculation about the Afghan strategy review and the hang-ups might be mainly political.  There are people that are, you know, opposed to sending more forces to Afghanistan, and that that's the reason the meeting with Prince and the contractor issue.  Can you give us a sense?  Is that really what the debate -- is really the debate that there...

SEC. MATTIS:  OK.  Listen, the -- I hope it's a political decision.  You fight wars for a reason, OK.  You don't just fight wars -- I'm going to go fight a war now.  

There's got to be some end state to it, especially when you take a democracy who -- that does not want to go fight wars and have to be able to compel the people to think.  Maybe they got their act together here.  Maybe this makes sense.  So, you come up with a political reason for it.  

I mean, there was a political reason for going after Osama bin Laden.  He attacked New York City.  So, there's a decision at the political level.  We will not accept that, you know.  President at that time said the world's going to hear about this. 

So, I guess my point is that once you get done with that political rationale -- FDR talked about a day that would live in infamy.  In other words, we were going to do something about this.  President Lincoln went to war to save the union.  OK.  There's a political reason.  

Once you get the policy right, then you have to get the strategy right.  And that's when you come up with the -- you take the political reasoning, the policy, and you start making a political end state.  What do you want it to look like at the end?  Because if you don't know where you're going, good luck when you take off on your journey.  

You know, you wouldn't do that when you went on vacation.  You'd have an idea where you're going.  You wouldn't go out to the edge of your driveway say left or right...

Q:  You might. 

Q:  But are you saying no one has done that until now?  I mean, we're four years... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, you always have to go back through and review it again.  That's an obligation when you come in.  The American people vote in a new administration.  They assume they'll use their head and they'll do the rigor. 

If you want to see where it's done -- let me give you an example that I can always fall back on, kind of modern times.  Look at George Bush -- the first George -- President Bush.  And Kuwait's invaded.  And he says, this will not stand.  There's the political reason for war, OK, we're not going to allow it to stand.  

He comes up and he says we are going to evict them from -- that army from Kuwait.  That's all there is to it.  And then he put together the -- he started by you know his Rolodex every day, was calling people.  Remember those days?  And in front of the U.N. we go in and we get the U.N. with us.  And pretty soon there's donor countries and there's countries come in.  

You know who I fought alongside there?  Mujahideen from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabs.  And on my left flank was a Syrian Army division, on my left flank.  Think of those days.  That's part of the attack going into Iraq for Desert Storm. 

But there was also a diplomatic piece going on.  You remember our diplomats all around the world orchestrated things.  The Russians were giving us information on radars, their own radars, so we knew where to fly against them, that sort of thing.  

And we put all this stuff together diplomatically.  Economically, many countries helped us.  It relied on the oil that had been stolen.  And so, they were contributing money.  

Japan was a pacifist country with a pacifist constitution.  They could still send Toyota trucks and millions of dollars.  And we put it together.  

And then with a whole big military surge, all that was, was the front line of a whole lot of political decisions to various capitals that say we're going in.  That's how difficult this can be.  But that's an example of when it's done right.  Diplomatic, economic, military, there were covert things.  You know the spies went in ahead of us.  And that sort of thing.  

And then what you do is you take all those different means, and you know where you want to go, and you wind them together, at times in contradictory ways.  You know you're working now with a country that you've never tolerated before.  Not because you agree with their culture or their politics.  Because they -- we agree on a security issue.  This is very, very complex.  But that's how you do it.

Q:  On North Korea... 

Q:  Can I ask you a question on -- oh, sorry.  Just Pakistan and your decision that you -- it was announced, I believe today, about not solidifying the effort against the Haqqanis by the government.  Is this part of the administration's new tougher policy toward Pakistan, as part of... 

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  This is simply an assessment of the current state of play.  It's not a -- it's not a policy.  It is a reality.  You know, we're just defining the realities.

There was a question...

Q:  On North Korea.  Would you like to shoot down one of these North Korean missiles, Mr. Secretary? (Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS:  (Inaudible) to answer that.  You said it (Laughter.).  I can just read the headlines.  I ain't going to answer that one. (Laughter.)

I admire you.  You know, I admire a lot of your questions.  I won't answer many though, do I? (Laughter.)

Q:  Mr. Secretary, how about one more try?  In Libya, what can you tell us about the... 

SEC. MATTIS:  We'll give him a bye on that one. 

(UNKNOWN):  OK. 

Q:  What can you -- what can you tell us about the ISIS presence in Libya right now?  

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  ISIS presence in Libya.  It's there.  I -- it is not the most significant terrorist threat, but it is there and it warrants attention. 

Q:  Do you think they see Libya as a potential destination to take and move the ISIS capital to in the face of defeats in Iraq and Syria?  Is that something that they're eying? 

SEC. MATTIS:  It's an interesting question.  And if you'd asked me perhaps just a little while before I came into this job, at that period it looked like it might be.  I'm not so sure now. 

Q:  Is there a place that they're looking at as a potential... 

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't know.  I think what you're looking at right now is the Sunni, al-Qaida, Nusra, ISIS, the what I'd call the al-Qaida-associated movements, OK.  

From that, there's two brand -- basic brands of terrorists.  That one, I think we're approaching the time when there will be less centralized control.  And let me now put it in personize. 

Do you remember when Osama bin Laden was kind of directing things?  He could get money, put together teams, get them passports, get them over to America.  And three different teams coordinated, hit this building and two up in D.C., and they tried to hit the Capitol or wherever the other one was actually going.  

So, and you see centralized, I don't want to call it headquarters.  I don't want to give it quite that, but centralized, directed, OK.  

And then obviously Baghdadi.  And you've seen the attacks out of Raqqa that go through Manbij, the spoke they no longer control because we took it from them.  And they had Ankara, Brussels and Paris off of that spoke.  Multiple teams going in and operating. 

I think that as this goes down they may be less inclined to try to hold terrain.  Every time they tried to hold terrain, the Fatah where they've tried to hold terrain and they got shredded in the process.  

Then they went down to the Yemen effort to hold terrain.  That didn't work out so well.  They lost a lot of people and finally fell back to insurgency, you know not trying to hold terrain.  

Then they tried to hold terrain in Syria and Iraq, and they did it for a couple years.  It hasn't worked out too well.  I'd say maybe nine months ago it looked like they were doing exactly what you're talking about, Libya.  And I don't think they're doing that right now.  

Now, we hit them very, very hard there at the end of January.  They had unwisely concentrated and you know obviously we have our own agents, and we hit them.  And they have not fully recovered from that.  

So, I don't know that they would still be looking at that.  I also think there's a theme here that you may find less effort toward centralized control because remember, al-Qaida has no, and associated members, has no state sponsor, unlike for example Lebanese Hezbollah has a state sponsor, you know. 

Q:  At the risk of being (inaudible), then, how do they distinguish themselves from al-Qaida?  Because the distinction was ISIS had its own territory, had built a state, that was how they were able to break apart...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  They're associated, though.  I mean, they were an outgrowth of al-Qaida.  But I mean, they come from, I would call it the philosophically same oriented group.  Whereas Lebanese Hezbollah as very different orientation, OK.  

So, it's not fair, but just -- there're really two fundamental strains.  And then you see al-Shabaab sign up for one or you see you know, someone else sign up for the other.  That sort of thing.  You know, Houthis taking support from Iran.  

So, it's kind of -- it's not clean.  You'll also find where there's Sunni groups taking support from Iran...

Q:  So, last question...

STAFF:  You're going to get me in trouble (inaudible). 

Q:  Uh-oh.  (Laughter.)

But sir, you did refer to Russia.  And as the chief -- as the top national security adviser, were you comfortable when the president met with Vladimir Putin without a translator? 

SEC. MATTIS:  You mean at the dinner?  I've been to hundreds of these dinners, ladies and gentlemen.  And you just walk around talking to people.  You don't want to be bored sitting there, eating your pate de foie gras. (Laughter.)

Didn't know I knew that did you? (Laughter.)

No.  Yes.  I'd be -- I -- look, I'm not trying to make fun of you guys in the press.  But people do get up and go see their wife at dinner.  And if they're sitting next to the other country who just had a two-hour talk, whatever it was, of course they're going to talk.  You know what I mean?  I was almost breathless.  My God, he talked to Putin.  Give me a break. (Laughter.)

But I'm not trying to make fun of anybody here.  But, believe me, if you watched me at dinner, you'd find me talking to some ne'er-do-wells, you know?  Just the way I do business.  

You know, you talk to people who agree, but mostly you try and talk to people who disagree with you when you're in a social setting because that's when you can probably get into more than superficial things.  

You -- and plus, you have to -- you know, we're still human underneath those titles, you know.  And it's good to sit down and talk with people. 

And what is it, talky-talky is better than more war.  Isn't that what Churchill said?  

Q:  Jaw-jaw. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.  That's right.  

All right.  I got to run off.