SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS: Minister Lieberman, Ambassador, Chairman, good to see you both here in Virginia in the Pentagon with your delegation and your officers. Good to always have you here, and we enjoyed having your policy people here very much and maintaining the close collaboration, and we reaffirm our two democracies’ strong relationship. It’s that straightforward.
It’s what this represents every time we get together. Going back to – it’s good to go back to first principles sometimes, even for a young country like ours and a young country like the modern state of Israel.
In 1948, within hours of your declaration, President Truman said the United States recognized Israel. It’s good to remember these things as we go through all the current dynamics that the region is dealing us in our direction.
Since those days in 1948 is when the United States developed what President Reagan called an ironclad bond, one forged by shared democratic values and regional security concerns in an area (inaudible) today global security concerns because regional is global.
And you’re passing freedoms that we enjoy to the next generation, freedom from fear, freedoms from danger. Today is when the U.S. partners continue to confront a myriad of threats posed by nations in your neighborhood – in Israel’s neighborhood – who are wishing to foment instability, an instability that reverberates around the world.
And we appreciate those in the region who choose instead to promote stability. I think it’s critical today – probably more critical than ever – that we foster an integrated response to those threats, reinforcing our already robust collaboration on key security issues and to forming working groups that expand and deepen our relationship as new threats and new dynamics come into focus for us.
Today, we are going to discuss how we can further strengthen our security relationship, and, as always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the regional security situation and, of course, on the issues that concern us most. So, minister and members of the delegation, welcome. You are welcome here. Your ideas are welcome here. Minister, if you’d like to say a few words.
MINISTER OF DEFENSE AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN: Thank you very much. First of all, I am happy for the opportunity to exchange views on many, many items that we have (inaudible)
We appreciate our most important and our most reliable ally, and for us, the friendship with you, it’s a main – a main pillar in our strategic view, in our policy and now security.
We fully support the President Trump regarding Iranian threats and, of course, we think that it’s something very, very urgent and necessary to take for real (inaudible). And we are facing a lot of challenges in the Middle East, and the real division today (inaudible). It’s not between Jews and Muslims or Christians. It’s not between Shiite or Sunni, between different religions but between moderate and radical people.
And we’re also happy to see and we completely support your efforts to establish a coalition of moderate people.
I, of course, completely agree with you that it’s necessary to establish some working group and to discuss many, many issues in different time on the level of experts. (Inaudible)
SEC. MATTIS: Absolutely, minister. And as always, we’re on the same sheet of music. Ok, thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
Q: Mr. Secretary, can we ask you about the ambush in Niger? Was that an intelligence failure? What more could have been done to save American lives there, and was this something that could have been prevented?
SEC. MATTIS: We talked about it a little more broadly and narrowed down – first of all, our condolences to the families of the soldiers we lost. I just say we honor the troops, every one of them. Every life is critical. These young people look past the hot political rhetoric and sign up, volunteer for the Armed Forces. They’re part of the 1 percent that are willing to do so in our country, these young men and women.
We have been engaged with the French and African forces in the Lake Chad region for some time supporting the French-led and the African troops in the campaign to throw ISIS and the terrorists, the radicals, those who foment instability and murder and mayhem (inaudible)
The French, for example, maintain over 4,000 troops down there, where we maintain a little over 1,000 in support. Mostly, we’re providing refueling support, intelligence support, surveillance support. But also we have troops on the ground. Their job is to help the people in the region learn how to defend themselves. We call it foreign internal defense training, and we actually do these kinds of missions by, with and through our allies.
And the loss of our troops is under investigation. We in the Department of Defense like to know what we’re talking about before we talk, and so we do not have all the accurate information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it because we are very proud of our troops. As you know, we investigate any time we have our troops killed, whether it be in training accidents or combat. I don’t care if it’s in a car accident. In DOD, we investigate the circumstances surrounding and see how we can address the very questions you brought up about what can we do in the future.
At the same time, war is war, and these terrorists are conducting war on innocent people of all religions. They’re conducting war on innocent people who have no way to defend themselves. And I would just tell you that in this specific case, contact was considered unlikely. But there’s a reason that we have U.S. Army soldiers that are not the Peace Corps. Because we carry guns.
And so it’s a reality. It’s part of the danger that our troops face in these counterterrorist campaigns, but remember we do these kinds of missions by, with and through allies. It is often dangerous; we recognize that. We have been unapologetic about standing by our allies and certainly, the French, with 4,000 troops have been engaged down there for years and have lost many, many more troops.
This is an example of how seriously we take this mission that we put our troops in that position. And any time we commit our troops anywhere it’s based on answering a simple first question. And that is “Is the well-being of the American people sufficiently enhanced by putting our troops there?” that we put our troops in a position to die.
That is the number one question when I make the recommendation to the president. One point I would make having seen some of the news reports – the U.S. military does not leave its troops behind, and I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once. And I would also ask – don’t confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this.
The French response included fighter aircraft, armed fighter aircraft, armed helicopter gunships, medevac helo that lifted out our wounded. We did have a contract aircraft that lifted out our killed in action. And Staff Sgt., or excuse me, Sgt. Johnson’s body was found later by local nationals. And it says something that they would then endeavor to get the body back to us, which shows the relationship that we have in this area.
But a full investigation is underway – the sort of investigation we always conduct. We’ll certainly update you as we have information, accurate information, not speculation.
And I just close by saying that we need to stand together, united, this country, when these heart-wrenching times hit. Thank you.
Q: Mr. Secretary, would you take one more on Niger?
SEC. MATTIS: Sure.
Q: Given that it is possible that it was a pocket of ISIS there, or an ISIS affiliate, is the department considering changing its footprint in AFRICOM or adding additional protection, protective measures? And then, more broadly, you yourself have comforted families of the fallen. In the last week or so, Gold Star families have been brought into this larger fray. Does that anger you to see them dragged out into this?
SEC. MATTIS: As far as the stance we take, the tactical efforts we take, and the force protection efforts and the capabilities, I don’t telegraph that. I don’t want to tell the enemy what we’re doing, so I’d prefer not to answer that. And we honor our fallen in America, and that’s all more I’ll say.
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.