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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. in the Pentagon Briefing Room

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Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White; Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.
Oct. 19, 2017
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DANA WHITE:  Good afternoon.  

The secretary will depart this weekend to attend the ASEAN summit in the Philippines.  

You may have seen the news in the Philippines in the past few days.  The purported emir of ISIS in Southeast Asia was killed October 16, along with several other militants in a firefight with the Armed Forces of the Philippines.  We congratulate our Filipino partners for their success in eliminating the leaders of the months-long siege of Marawi. We will continue to stand with our Philippines partners, providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, as well as advice and training as they combat terrorists in Mindanao, and we will remain vigilant should ISIS and affiliate groups attempt to re-emerge.

The aspirations of ISIS to have a physical caliphate are crumbling rapidly.  From Mosul to Raqqa, where 90 percent of the caliphate’s claimed capital has been liberated.  To the Philippines and to Yemen, where a U.S. strike against ISIS earlier this week decimated many of its senior leaders.  

These events show that our fight against ISIS is global, and that other groups who align with them or adopt their brand will face the same dead end.

ISIS is on the run; it is losing credibility, resources and influence every day.

And our fight is not limited to ISIS.  In Somalia, we are assisting local forces in fighting Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate.  Earlier this week, October 16, U.S. forces conducted an airstrike in Somalia against Al Shabab.  U.S. forces will continue to use all authorized and appropriate measures to protect Americans and disrupt terrorist threats. 

Even as we are fighting and winning against ISIS and other terrorist groups, the threat remains very real.  We offer our deepest sympathies to the families of those valiant Afghan soldiers and police officers who died in the defense of their nation this week in cowardly Taliban suicide attacks.

And the attacks against the U.S. service members in Niger earlier this month is a reminder of that threat.  Four U.S. service members were killed in Niger during an advise and assist mission.  Additionally, two U.S. service members were injured and evacuated in stable condition to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.  The wounded have since been moved to the U.S., and are being treated.  

These service members were providing advice and assistance to Nigerian security forces' counterterrorism operations when they came under fire from hostile fighters.

The secretary is committed to gathering all the facts about this tragedy, and to learning from it.  He wants to ensure that our forces are postured to prevail always.  We are committed to a thorough and rigorous investigation without speculation.  We owe that to the fallen and their families.  We will be -- we will not be rushed, because we have to be right.

While we are still gathering facts and await the final investigation, we do know that the team came under fire and French helos and fixed-wing aircraft arrived to assist.  The wounded were airlifted out by the French and the service members killed in action were evacuated by contract air.

When the investigation is finished, AFRICOM will provide more details.  As always, we'll be as transparent when we know exactly what happened.

On a separate note, earlier this week, Secretary Mattis sent a letter to the chairs and ranking members of the SASC and the HASC outlining his key concerns with the FY 18 NDAA.  The secretary focused on issues that would impact his priorities of restoring military readiness, strengthening alliances and implementing business reforms.

The key items are: eliminating the BCA defense caps, concern with proposed cyber organization and with the -- I missed my place – cyber organization and support for BRAC round and concern with premature efforts to reorganize.

He also weighed in on a handful of other issues including Space Corps, TRICARE, military health system, relocation of Marines to Guam and military construction.  We'll make his letter available to you at the end of the briefing.

And with that, we'll open up to your questions.

Way in the back.

Q:  (inaudible) I have two questions.

One would be more for – well, both of them are for Gen. McKenzie.

First of all I wanted to know if by now the Army knows why one -- why Sergeant Johnson was left behind in Niger?  Because the corpse was found – they found him the following day.

And secondly, I would like to ask you, as a representative of the Army, how did you feel when you heard President Trump, the other day, saying that everything has changed in Raqqa because of his command.  I mean, you've been fighting there for years now.

I mean, what? Maybe the Army's not very pleased with that kind of information?

MS. WHITE:   Well, first I would say that we don't leave anyone behind, as the secretary said earlier. He was separated. 

And to your second question, 90 percent of Raqqa has been cleared and it's been liberated, but it's important to remember that the fight continues.  We're fighting ISIS around the world, as well as other affiliated groups.  So we will continue to fight, but ISIS is losing.

General, if you'd like to expand.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.:  I'll just amplify a little bit, the comment about leaving someone behind.  The secretary talked a little bit about it earlier this afternoon, and he expressed out position pretty clearly on it, but let me just give you a little bit of detail.

And this is about as much detail as I'm going to be able to give you, given the fact that there's an investigation ongoing first, and second, we never want to share our tactics, techniques and procedures where the enemy can learn about the way we approach these problems.

But I'll tell you categorically, that from the moment of contact no one was left behind.  Either U.S., our partner and Nigerian forces, our French forces were on the ground, actively searching for this soldier.

Now the fact of the matter is, it's a battlefield, we just had a significant engagement, it’s tough country, and it's out in the middle of nowhere.  So, it's not perhaps as clear as it might appear in the bright lights of this briefing room, but we spent a lot of the -- a lot of men and a lot of women searched very hard to find him.

It took us a little while to do that, we didn't leave him behind and we searched until we found him, and we brought him home.

Q:   (inaudible) 

MS. WHITE:   Let me get someone else, and we'll come back to you.

Bob.

Q:   I'll follow up on that point of your explanation, General. Ms. White said he was separated.  I'm just wondering what that means exactly?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  That's a distinction without a difference.  It's a complex situation on the ground. It was a fire-fight. It took a little bit of time to recover the soldier.

More details will come out as the investigation proceeds, and I'm really not going to be able to give you any more information about it.  But I do just want to emphasize that we -- the search continued until he was found.  And then they were left -- we never left the battlefield. We never stopped looking for him until he was found.

Q:  U.S. forces never left the battlefield?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  U.S. or Nigerian or French.

Q:  Could you give us a little better intel picture of what you saw on the ground at the time to help maybe illuminate why this was a successful ambush, why you didn't know more about what was there that they would encounter that day.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Well, I'm not going to be able to go into much detail with all of that because we're still looking at it very hard and if, in fact, we had a problem there then we'll make sure we investigate it and understand so that whatever advantage the enemy may be getting in this particular situation, he isn't able to learn and profit from the experience whereas we can.  So I'm not going to be able to give you any more information on that.

MS. WHITE:  Lucas.

Q:  General, when did the attack start?

MS. WHITE:  We're not going to get into details.  It's an active investigation.

Q:  Do you know when it started?

MS. WHITE:  Again, it's all under investigation and we will -- we'll give you details when we have more.

Q:  When did you tell the White House that an attack was underway right after it had started?

MS. WHITE:  Again, our communications with the White House are confidential.  The White House was briefed and understood.

Q:  This is very basic information -- don't you think you should tell the American people what happened to their soldiers out there?

MS. WHITE:  I think it's important to tell the American people the right information and when we have it all, we will let them know.

Q:  Is it still the position of the Pentagon that you have no information about the involvement of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq's capture of Kirkuk as Col. Dillon told us on Tuesday.  Is that still your position or you have new information?

MS. WHITE:  At this time, I would have to refer you to OIR and General, if you'd like to give us some more information.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  No, I think, well I'll stand pat with that.

Q:  OK, if I could.  Zalmay Khalilzad who once held a senior position in this building -- in an interview said that it was important for the United States to disable the tanks that the IRGC backed Shiite militias have got from the Iraqi government.  They're U.S. tanks, they were used in Kirkuk and he said it's important to disable them.  Are you considering doing that?

MS. WHITE:  I will have to take that and I will come back to you.  

Barbara?

Q:  Gen. McKenzie, I'd like to ask two questions.  I want to make sure I get both questions in and get answers to both of them before you move on.  So my first question is when you are -- talked about what happened, you said if we had a problem again on Niger.  If we had a problem, you want to know what it is and you want to address it.  This was an am—again, two questions, sir.

This was an ambush.  It seems self-evident that you did have a problem.  I don't think there's any question about that since you were ambushed -- since the troops were ambushed.  So my first question is you had last time referenced it was ISIS to the best of your knowledge.  First question is how is this not an intelligence failure?  

My second question is when you are asked by Bob Burns about the difference, what's the distinction between separated and left behind?  You said, I believe you said, it was a distinction without a difference.

So it's still very unclear to me what happened to this young soldier if you know he was separated.  Tell us how you know that.  Tell us what you know, then, about what happened to him because you are -- stating – your department is stating a conclusion he was separated.  So you must know something about what happened to him. So that and how was it not an intelligence failure?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  So Barbara, of course we do know a lot about what happened to him and I'm not going to be able to share that information with you.  At some point when the investigation's complete, conclusions have been reached, I'll be happy to share that information with you.  I'm not going to be able to share it with you right now.

Q:  Back to getting my question answered, I specifically was asking two questions.

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Every tactical engagement doesn't necessarily proceed from an intelligence failure.  We'll look at it and we'll come to conclusions about how intelligence could have supported adequately or inadequately the engagement that occurred.  But on a battlefield, the enemy gets a vote.  The opposition gets a vote.  We don't -- let me just finish, please.  We don't live in a perfect environment where everything is available and visible all the time.

It's a difficult environment.  Sub-Saharan Africa is a very difficult place to operate, so we'll investigate this.  We'll have conclusions, and those conclusions will be presented.  I'm not prepared to go further.

Q:  (Inaudible)

MS. WHITE:  We're going to move on.  

Dan Lamothe?

Q:  Sir, a question for you as well.  Related but different -- you elaborated a bit on the search and said that it never stopped.  That there's reports out that would suggest that additional resources were brought in.  Can you share with the American people at all what that search looked like, what sort of things were involved, and what the troops on the ground did to find this young man?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  Recovery of personnel is one of our most sensitive operational areas, so we never share tactics, any sort of procedures that are associated with that.  I will tell you that additional resources were brought in and it was searched very hard and that search never stopped until we recovered the soldier.  I think, probably, that's the most important thing the American people want to know.

MS. WHITE:  Hans?

Q:  If I could follow on the American, Nigerian, or French troops never leaving the battlefield.  Did I hear you correctly that American troops stayed on the battlefield the entire time until Sergeant Johnson's body was recovered?

GEN. MCKENZIE:  American troops might have been repositioned to operations in the immediate area, but I would tell you that within the battle space, either American or Nigerian or French and in some cases all three at the same time were engaged in active searches.  Once the investigation's complete, I'll be able to give you a more descriptive timeline, but we -- the sense that somehow it was a desolate site, we went back, didn't search for the soldier.

Nothing could be further from the truth and that's an important myth that needs to be corrected now, I think.

Q:  Just a quick follow up on -- because you talked about fighting ISIS across the globe.  

MS. WHITE:  Yes.

Q:  The Sahel, as well, what you're doing with Al-Shabab.  Obviously, American troops came under ambush.  You have assets in the region.  Will you be retaliating?

MS. WHITE:  We're not going to talk about future operations.  In the back.

Q:  On North Korea issues – North Korea (inaudible) Ambassador to United Nations said that (inaudible) talking about nuclear war may break out any moment.  In this regard, is North Korea preparing military actions to U.S. and South Korea?  What is your comment?

MS. WHITE:  The United States is always prepared to address any threat to us from North Korea or anyone else.  Right here.

Q:  As you mentioned Afghanistan's situation day by day get worse, and last week for three part of Afghanistan suicide attacks by the Taliban.  Do you think that after President Trump announced a new strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban threat will increase?  What is the reason?

MS. WHITE:  I think the Taliban is desperate.  I think you've also seen and the Secretary's mentioned that they've been trying to pull off a major offensive and they've failed.  So again, the Taliban is on the run and I think the fact that we've announced a strategy has -- has them on notice.  Right here.

Q:  Do you have anything to say about the situation in Kirkuk, Iraq?  And earlier today CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that they are aware of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the cult force that was present in that city.

Do you also share this - - what the CIA director had to say?

MS. WHITE:   I understand that there are reports and negotiations, and again, we encourage everyone, all parties to - - to - - to have a political solution.  And again, focus on defeating ISIS.

Q:   What about what the CIA director had to say about it?

MS. WHITE:   I'll refer you to the CIA.

Kristina?

Q:   Thank you.  Two questions for General McKenzie.

In general, what are U.S. Special Operations Forces doing to combat terrorism on the African continent?  And are any of them acting as advisers on direct combat missions?

GEN. MCKENZIE:   On the African continent, we're engaged with a variety of partner nations building CT capacity - - counter terrorist capacity.  Niger is an excellent example of that, we've had a long relationship with them.

There are a variety of nations there that we do that.  Our missions are advise and assist, we're not directly involved in combat operations.

Q:   Are any advising on direct action missions by partner forces?

GEN. MCKENZIE:   No, we're not involved in direct action missions with partner forces.

Q:   And secondly, have you seen that ISIS is trying to reconstitute itself in - - in Africa, because they're losing their caliphate in Iraq and Syria?

GEN. MCKENZIE:   So, this is a very difficult question.  What we believe and what we've talked a little bit about this before, that we're having great success against what was once known as the core caliphate with Iraq and Syria.

And now, we're actually beginning, I think, the end stage in the life of the caliphate as Raqqa.  We complete the reduction of Raqqa, as we move down the Euphrates River valley and operate on both sides.

I think that the physical core of the caliphate is going to go away.  I think that, however, through the Internet, through cyber, through broad information exchange, we're always recognize the possibility of self-radicalization across the globe, and ISIS has been pursuing that very aggressively. 

So, I think, we're going to continue to see pockets pop up in different places across the globe.  I would tell you to wrap the question back and come back to Africa.

What we actually seek - - and we recognize, we're never going to be able to completely do away with this problem, it's always going to bubble a little bit.  

But we want to get to the point where local nations, and Niger's an excellent example, local nations are going to be able to deal with the problem themselves, without large deployments of American forces. 

Perhaps with enabler support, perhaps with other niche support that we would give them, but that's an excellent example of what we're trying to do in Niger and other places across the world, as well.

MS. WHITE:   Ben?

Q:   General, question about the Niger troops.  Were all the troops that were involved in that patrol, have they all completed their requisite qualifications and training - - gone through the training pipeline?

Were they fully qualified to be out on the mission that they were on and the billets that they held?

GEN. MCKENZIE:   I'll take that.

MS. WHITE:   Go ahead.

GEN. MCKENZIE:   I'll have to get back to you on the specific details.  That'll be, obviously, a matter of the investigation we'll look at. 

I have no reason to believe that isn't the case, no reason at all to believe that isn't the case, but I just don't have that level of detail right now, as I talk to you.

Q:   One more.

Sen. McCain has said that he expects to see more transparency out of the Pentagon following all this, so has Sen. Graham.

Sen. McCain said he'd be willing to hold up nominees to do whatever -- to do sort of whatever -- whatever he needs to do, in order to get more information out of the Pentagon.  Do you have any response to that?

MS. WHITE:   So what I can tell you is that the Pentagon did notify the staffs of both the SASC and the HASC regarding the Niger -- the tragic events, and we have kept them up-to-date.

Of course, we will work with Senator McCain and his staff, to ensure they get everything that they need.  It is very important to the secretary, and he's personally dedicated to that.

Q:  Does it feel like it has the adequate level of transparency with the HASC and the SASC? 

MS. WHITE:  Well, I would say that we have done all we can and we will continue to strive to do as much as we can to ensure that Sen. McCain and all the members of the SASC and the HASC have exactly what they need when they need it.  All right, in the back.  

Q:  Yes.  Carlo Munoz with the Washington Times.  Going back to the situation in Iraq and Kurdistan.  Foreign Ambassador Jeffrey said yesterday that the ongoing events in Kirkuk and Sinjar prove that the coalition is really unable to keep all the partners in line with the mission to defeat ISIS and the department sort of repeated statements that the coalition is cohesive is quote unquote dangerous.  Can you -- is there any response from the department to those comments?  

MS. WHITE:  The coalition is very strong.  And again, I think the fact that we've worked very closely in Niger with the French to ensure the rescue of our service members, I think the relationship is very strong.  General. 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  No, I think we support a unified Iraq.  That's been our position.  We'll continue to support that.  We don't the recent election in Kurdistan was helpful toward that end.  But we believe there's still avenues ahead of us that will allow us to resolve this situation.  

MS. WHITE:  Tara?

Q:  To follow on the question about the Senate, a couple of lawmakers have said they did not know about these operations in Niger until this incident happened.  Has the Pentagon provided outreach -- had the Pentagon provided outreach in advance of this to notify lawmakers that this was going on?  And then I have a follow.  

MS. WHITE:  We did.  We notified both the HASC and the SASC leadership, their staffs on the afternoon that we knew of this incident.  And we also updated them via phone calls and e-mails throughout the situation.  And we also had a general who briefed today in a closed session to both the HASC and the SASC.  

Q:  Sure, but I think their point was that they did not know these operations were going on until this incident occurred.  And thus the push for more transparency from the Pentagon.  

MS. WHITE:  Again, we stay in pretty close contact with our -- both our authorizing committees as well as our appropriators.  Again -- again, I don't know necessarily at what level.  Sometimes it's staff, sometimes it's members.  But again, we will always stay in touch with them.  And if members have any sort of questions, we'll always be available to them.  

Q:  And then Gen. McKenzie, one on the accountability for personnel, did the forces on the ground realize immediately that one soldier had been separated or was this something that became clear -- you mentioned that, you know, there were U.S. forces or French forces on station throughout the entire time, but at what point did they realize someone had been separated?  

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I'm not going to go into any details on that.  I'll just lay it onto the little comment I made earlier.  It's a difficult fight, it's very confusing, being in an engagement like that.  But I'm not going to be able to give you any more details.   

MS. WHITE:  Stephanie?

Q:  Hi, Dana.  Stephanie Ramos with ABC.  We know there is an ongoing investigation, but does Secretary Mattis have a tick tock of the events of the ambush that took place in Niger now two weeks ago.  

MS. WHITE:  Again, we are gathering information from AFRICOM.  He has every confidence in the leadership of AFRICOM that we will get all the answers we need.  And that is ongoing, so …

Q:  So he doesn't have a tick tock of what AFRICOM has gathered so far?  

MS. WHITE:  I'm not going to talk about what he has or doesn't have but I will tell you that the team is working very hard to get him all the information that he needs and all the accurate information that they can provide.  

Q:  How soon after the ambush did Secretary Mattis receive those -- the details that have been gathered?  

MS. WHITE:  Again, I'm not going to get into the timelines of when he gets information, but I can tell you that the Secretary is in consistent communication with his commanders.  

Sam?

Q:  On Raqqa, for both of you.  Raqqa was liberated at the cost of millions of dollars of American taxpayers and also dedication of the U.S. service members who train the local forces.  But today, the YPG or the so-called SDF, on a live video, dedicated the victory of Raqqa to the leader of the PKK, another brutal terrorist organization.  

For you -- is it acceptable for you that a victory enabled by the U.S. is dedicated to a terrorist group that is designated by the -- Washington, as well?  What's your reaction to this? 

MS. WHITE:  We work with the SDF.  And we work to help them focus on fighting ISIS.  That is our sole responsibility.  That's our sole commitment.  And we'll continue to work by, with and through the SDF to ensure that we defeat ISIS.  

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Ma’am, we have time for a few more questions.  

MS. WHITE:  Way in -- way in the back.  

Q:  General, can you say -- why did you have to rely on a contractor for medevac in Niger?  And, if you can, who was the contractor? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  I’m not going to be able to share the details of who the contractor was.  We rely on contract support in a variety of places around the world, and I'm not going to go into any more detail on it than that.  

MS. WHITE:  Idrees. 

Q:  Has there been any patrol in Niger with U.S. soldiers since the incident? 

MS. WHITE:  I don't have any details on that. 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  That's an operational matter.  We're not going to be able to discuss that.

Q:  Have any changes been made to patrols in the region with U.S. soldiers in them? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  For the -- for the reasons that we sort of talked about at the beginning, I'm not going to give details on how we might change our tactics, techniques and procedures as we approach an enemy who's obviously out there to kill us.  

MS. WHITE: Tony.

Q:  On for -- The secretary, being in this press scrum today, said contact was considered unlikely.  General, can you flesh that out a little bit -- the backdrop of that comment?  It implies that many of these operations -- these -- had been going on with a -- in a routine basis, and this was kind of a bolt out of the blue.  

And, for Dana, one of the nagging, although less significant issues with Congress today is base closure.  Earlier this week, you sent a -- you, the Pentagon, sent up a report to Congress saying the military had 19 percent excess capacity.  This is based on 2012 figures. 

A lot of members want to know, what's the confidence level you have in that number?  You know, 80 percent confidence, 50, 10?  Maybe you're 100 percent confident that you have 19 percent excess capacity.  

But, General, can you field the mic for a second? 

GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  

So I think I stood here a couple of weeks ago and noted that, over the last six month, we -- six months -- we had conducted 29 partnered patrols in this general area without contact of any kind.  So that would lead you to reasonably believe that probability of contact was unlikely.  

Now, we will go back and do a thorough -- we are in the process of doing a thorough examination to see if we could have done something better, if we could have foreseen something.  And that will all come out when it -- when it -- when we have that information.  

MS. WHITE:  And regarding BRAC, in the secretary's letter to Congress -- to the -- to HASC and SASC leadership, he says that we could save as much as $2 billion annually with the new BRAC round.  So I'd say we're fairly confident that it -- that we could -- that we could save the taxpayer a great deal of money.  

For more details, I'll have to -- I'll have to refer you to my budget guy.  But we're confident that another BRAC round would save the department a great deal of money. 

Q: Well I understand that, but GAO, in the last two or three years, has seriously questioned a lot of your estimates of that excess inventory.  This is 2012 figures, so I'm just asking of you -- if you -- are you fairly confident that 19 percent is in the ballpark, or -- you know, it could be a lot less?

MS. WHITE:  I'm not willing to give you a certain number, but I will take it and I will come back to you.  

OK?  Thank you all.