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Media Availability by Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis
Jan. 5, 2018
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: So let's go around and try and take as many different people's questions as possible.

Q: Can you give us here some yesterday, they hadn't announced the decision yet on the Pakistan aid. Now that that has been announced, you were in Pakistan last month, can you give us a sense of what it is you want to see Pakistan do that will, I guess, resolve this situation? And what do you think the impact of this is going to be?

SEC. MATTIS: The -- what we've been working on with Pakistan, with the South Asia Strategy remember, it was a strategy that started with regionalization. It didn't start with Afghanistan. It started in the South Asia region, and it's how do we work together to take out the terrorists.

I think many of you are aware that Pakistan has lost more troops total than all of NATO, coalition combined in the fight against them. But we've had disagreements strong disagreements on some issues, and we're working those. The specific individual things we're doing are best handled in private, to ensure that we can be most productive. And that's what we're working now.

Q: Are you concerned about the ground lines, the supply lines to U.S. troops and coalition troops in Afghanistan? How will that be mitigated?

SEC. MATTIS: No, I'm not concerned about them.

Q: But how -- but the U.S. and coalition have relied upon access through Pakistan to equip, train, feed the troops in Afghanistan. Now what?

SEC. MATTIS: Not to train. I'm not concerned, no.

Q: Have you gotten some reassurance from Pakistan that none of that will be affected?

SEC. MATTIS: Let's keep going. I did this the other day, where I started taking just a couple people's questions, others didn't get a chance. And I don't like doing that --

Q: -- just, actually, to follow on -- kind of a follow on the same thing --

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, sure.

Q: -- I mean, have you gotten any indications from Islamabad that -- the G-locks and the A-locks that are perhaps going to be shut off?

SEC. MATTIS: No.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Do you believe that this move is one that is actually eventually going to benefit the U.S.? Or you -- do you have fears that we could end up being hurt by it?

SEC. MATTIS: Which move?

Q: The Pakistan move. The cutting off of the security aid. Is this something you were in favor of --

SEC. MATTIS: Well, I'm sure you --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS: -- yes, I see.

Q: -- case for why we -- why to do it?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, okay. I mean, I got it. As you saw in the statement, there were there were words very specific words used that said, we're still hopeful. I don't have the statement in front of me, but we're still working with Pakistan, and we would restore the aid if we see decisive movements against the terrorists, who are as much of a threat against Pakistan as they are against us. If you look at the checkered history of what terrorists have done along that border region.

How about the strong, silent side over here?

Q: Sir, do you believe that the civilian government is capable of doing what you want it to do in counterterrorism in Pakistan?

SEC. MATTIS: I would say the Pakistan government is capable of doing what we're trying to do together, yes. Absolutely.

Q: Mr. Secretary, on Iran, what realistically can the United States do to affect the course of events there, given that, you know, it's not some place we're going to be militarily involved? What can we do?

SEC. MATTIS: You know, it's interesting. You know, I enjoy reading history, just because I learn a lot from it. And, if you watch, when people confront tyranny and this goes back 1,000, 2,000 years, people eventually they get fed up with it. And, whether it be physical tyranny or mental tyranny or spiritual tyranny, they revolt against it.

I think it's very important that we stand up and say that we understand the Iranian people. Our beef, if we have one, is not with the Iranian people. It is specifically the same regime that the Iranian people, clearly, are fed up with as well.

So we may come from different directions, but ultimately, it's the same kind of tyranny. In their case, it's about their internal government, what it does to them; in our case, it's that, plus it's what that government has done to espouse or support terrorism, destabilizing activities, export of ballistic missiles, disruption of commerce. All these kinds of things.

So, while we come from different directions, we are both dissatisfied with the regime. Again, we do not have an argument with the Iranian people. So the most important thing, I think, is it's up to the Iranian people what form of government they have, and to say we believe that they should have the kind of government they want. And, right now, the regime senses that they've got a lot of people who aren't buying this revolutionary regime's act.

Q: One quick follow-up on Iran. Last night on the PBS NewsHour former Vice President Joe Biden was talking about the situation during the time he was in office when U.S. sailors were taken by the Iranians in the Persian Gulf.

SEC. MATTIS: Okay.

Q: And he mentioned that, you know that Secretary Kerry was able to call his counterpart in Iran and resolve the situation peacefully. And he questioned about whether you could do that today. If there was a situation where you needed to reach out and talk to somebody in Iran, is there anyone you could talk to?

SEC. MATTIS: I'd rather not get into hypotheticals over a case like that.

STAFF: Sir?

Q: Mr. Secretary?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.

Q: Sir, on Korea, General Brooks said yesterday he voiced some concern that the North Koreans, in agreeing to do whatever they're doing with the Winter Olympics, looking to drive a wedge between the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea. He said that that was a concern. Is this something that worries you that this thing is just a ruse?

SEC. MATTIS: I think what -- I'd have to look again at his statement. I saw it in the news this morning. I had no concern with his statement whatsoever. I think it was more that this might be the intent of the DPRK of North Korea.

Just as background, did we release anything on my talk this morning with my counterpart?

STAFF: We have not yet sir.

SEC. MATTIS: Okay. This morning, I spoke with my minister of defense counterpart in Seoul. I will tell you, there is not a one degree of difference on where we stand vis-a-vis the long-term defense of ROK, our ally, about the denuclearization. However, the discussion that's going to go on here shortly, which I think is your particular question --

Q: Yes.

SEC. MATTIS: -- is about the Olympics only. And it's that is the sum total of subjects that are going to be discussed. And this is by South Korean leadership telling us this, not just Minister of Defense Song, my counterpart, but others as well. So, no, we are not concerned.

The Olympics we, you know, the Olympics have had a long history of trying to be kept separate from politics. And this, as you know, has happened before where the North and South Koreans have marched together in an Olympics.

So the only thing they're talking about in this discussion coming up according to the South Koreans who will be engaged in directing that is the Olympics. There's nothing where they can drive a wedge at all.

Q: Sir, in your talks this morning with your counterpart, they've got another one after this Olympics.

SEC. MATTIS: (off mic).

(CROSSTALK)

Q: The Paralympics.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.

Q: And they go from like March 9th to March 20th. Are -- are --

SEC. MATTIS: March 18th, I think, yes.

Q: -- yes. Are you willing to, like, postpone Foal Eagle and the others that long?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, and we are going to deconflict with the Olympics, both the regular Olympics and the Paralympics as I said yesterday in here. I know you weren't here. The idea is that for logistics reasons to just to keep everything smooth there, we're not going to be running exercises, defensive wholly defensive exercises as always. They're not offensive. We're not going to run them at the same time.

There's enough traffic on the roads, enough people trying to get around the country to the various locations not to run truck convoys and military exercises and shut down roads -- all the normal things that are associated with military exercises. We will deconflict all the way through the Paralympics and probably not just to that moment but a day or so afterwards, you know, as people depart for home.

And then after that we'll work it out, ROK to U.S. government, and our militaries will work it out. They are the host country, and we have always done this sort of thing if they had something come up natural, you know, bad weather or whatever that caused them more logistics problems. This is not that unusual.

Q: But this isn't just coming up. I mean, the Olympics have been set for some time. Why is the announcement just being made now, just weeks before it would have been?

SEC. MATTIS: It's when South Korea and the United States decided to discuss it.

Q: There haven't been --

SEC. MATTIS: We're quite flexible on it. We don't need to talk about it six months in advance. If we needed to, we would have.

Q: There hadn't been any discussions about postponing it, prior to --

SEC. MATTIS: That we.

Q: -- the one with President Trump a day or two ago?

SEC. MATTIS: -- yes, we're constantly going through coordination. We meet daily, as you know. So this is, you know, you know, there's 100 things they're talking about every week up there. And that's when we knew that we wanted to make a decision at some point here. And this is probably when we chose to make it. I don't get involved in those things. There's a reason I have four-stars out in the field.

Q: Mr. Secretary --

Q: How should we be measuring progress against the fight against ISIS in Afghanistan? We would get regular briefings on Syria and Iraq --

SEC. MATTIS: In Afghanistan, ISIS?

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- Afghanistan, where ISIS, where there still, I think, the latest estimate is 1,000 ISIS fighters. Dropped the Mother of All Bombs last April, give us a status report and sort of what we can expect in 2018?

SEC. MATTIS: We'll fight them.

Q: How should how should we be measuring, you know, is it territory gained? Is it ISIS fighters killed? I remember when you were in --

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.

Q: -- Tel Aviv, you said, "I've got better things to do than counting, you know, while the fight's still going on."

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, we're not we're not going to get into that sort of thing. You'll know probably the most challenging part in assessing in combat to include specifically your question is that what counts most in war is most difficult to count to quantify, okay?

Morale, eventually, you'll see a lagging indicator. You'll see that not as many people want to be recruited into a force that's getting annihilated witness Syria. You won't see as many foreigners coming to join witness this. So you can kind of look at what's happened in Syria and say, "Wait a minute. They're not putting out squads to go blow off bombs in Brussels anymore." They can't. You know, this sort of thing.

So you get lagging indicators. You know, now, if there's already a team on its way to Brussels three months ago, and it's set off a bunch, well, you see, it's not they're not being thrown on the back foot. In fact, they are, but not always can you quantify where you're at at any one moment. But we'll fight them.

Q: Mr. Secretary --

Q: I wanted to follow up on your answer on Iran. Last October, you testified that you thought that the United States should remain in the Iran deal. The president might have to reconsider this as he considers the waiver next week. And I'm curious if your position has changed on whether the United States should stay in the Iran deal. And what impact, if any, have the protests had on your assessments?

SEC. MATTIS: Okay. The protests have had no effect on my assessment. My advice to the president, as always, I keep confidential. I owe that to him. I don't think -- I don't -- I just don't think the protests will have any influence over my advice to the president one way or another, you know, either direction.

Q: Is there anything that you've seen since October that would -- that we should be looking at in terms of any change in your assessment on the Iran deal and whether the president should sign the waiver?

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, that could -- now you're getting into what I would be looking at in my advice to the president. I'd prefer not to answer that. But I will tell you -- let me offer this -- that we watch all the time for the indicators.

You saw Ambassador Haley go out to Bolling Air Force Base where my guys had collected up stuff and laid it out. So if anyone thinks they're not exporting ballistic missiles or weapons or explosive boats, like, down to Yemen, there it is. We all know what they're doing in Syria. We've seen what they're doing well, from Bahrain, to the eastern province of Saudi Arabia.

So it goes on. And my intent is to show that, to the world, clearly the Iranian people aren't buying this revolution or export of their terrorism, or whatever the revolutionary regime people want to call it. They're not buying it there at home. We're not buying it internationally.

Q: Mr. Secretary?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.

Q: Going back to -- sorry, I'm a little sick -- going back to the Korean --

SEC. MATTIS: You need water?

Q: -- Peninsula -- no, I'm OK.

SEC. MATTIS: All right. It helps sometimes.

Q: I just wanted to -- it does.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.

Q: I was curious on your conversation this morning with your counterpart in Seoul. So you said the only thing that they're going to discuss on Tuesday is the Olympic situation?

SEC. MATTIS: That's right.

Q: Isn't that kind of a missed opportunity to discuss so many security issues that could be potentially discussed?

SEC. MATTIS: It would be if the other nations that are involved were in the room, but in fact they're not. This is simply South and North Korea. And so the right countries aren't in the room to go further. I don't think it's a missed opportunity.

I think it's an initial willingness to on the part of DPRK to discuss anything. You've seen them unwilling to discuss anything. So it's taken for what it is. And I think yesterday, and some of you quoted me on it -- what was it Barbara, "Not an olive branch" -- was that the -- I think that's the way you asked the question.

Q: We were talking about was it a real olive branch?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes. We don’t know. We're going to get in the room, and our South Korean allies and ally will get a full readout, I'm sure. And we'll see what they pick up. Right now, it's only about the games.

Q: They're not going to stress the need for denuclearization or anything? You didn't push them to do?

SEC. MATTIS: No, just the games.

Q: Did you request them not to raise issues other than the Olympic Games in your --

SEC. MATTIS: They -- we are in complete lockstep. I mean, you aren't --- it's almost like an old married couple, where we start the statement and they can finish it. You know what I mean? It's that tight a bond.

So it's -- we talk all the time. Our president has talked to theirs. Our secretary of state has talked to the foreign minister. I've talked to their minister of defense. There's -- doing -- you know, it just wouldn't even come up, frankly. We're on the same sheet of music.

Q: Is there any reaction from the, your Pakistani counterparts to the cutting off of aid?

SEC. MATTIS: I don't have any at this time, no.

Q: Can I ask one quick follow-up on?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, all right.

Q: Since we've hit so many different topics, I'm just curious now that we're starting 2018 what's your biggest military concern for this year?

SEC. MATTIS: I don't think I have any. You know?

Q: If you had to pick one, sir? (Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS: I'd be hard pressed. As you know, I don't have concerns, I create them. (Laughter.)

Q: Well, your office is concerned about budget, for one thing, and then --

SEC. MATTIS: Well, there's a number of things I work on, but -- you know, I think -- you know, this is the normal part of my job. You know, I kind of wake up in the morning and see what's in the newspaper, see what you all wrote and work it from there.

Q: Mr. Secretary --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS: Let me help you -- right with you. Okay, go ahead.

Q: On dealing with North Korea, again, we're talking about, you know, you're not going to continue with the exercises there. But yet our ships --

SEC. MATTIS: No, no, all we're doing is deconflicting. We are continuing. They'll go some time after the Paralympics.

Q: In other words, our ships are going to remain there, and we are poised and ready to act, if we should need to, correct?

SEC. MATTIS: We're always -- we're always ready to act if we need be. Yes?

Q: Mr. Secretary, on Iran's role in Iraq and Syria --

SEC. MATTIS: Who are you with? Have I met you?

Q: -- Wes Morgan with Politico. We've met a few times over the years. I used to work for Michael Gordon.

SEC. MATTIS: Okay.

Q: You once told me that you thought that I looked like a terrorist with my beard. (Laughter.) But you meant it in a nice way, I think. (Laughter.)


Q: A nice terrorist.

Q: On Iran's role in Iraq and Syria, do you believe that a land bridge exists between Iran and Syria through Iraq? And, if so, are you concerned about it? Is there anything the United States can do about it?

SEC. MATTIS: No, I don't -- I don't think there's a land bridge right now. There's still enough rough times -- you know, rough terrain, rough enemy units that haven't been cleaned up, and all the usual cleanup going on, and -- plus you've got the combination of where the people we're fighting -- advising and that sort of thing in Syria are abutting, in some cases, the Russian forces who are helping the regime, abutting the Turkish elements. There's -- I don't think there's a land bridge right now.

Q: Are there any measures that you're considering taking with the U.S. forces that remain in Syria to push back Iranian influence or roll it back?

SEC. MATTIS: Wes, they -- I -- you'll find, as you get to know this folks here, I don't talk about possible future operations. And please don't take that as --

Q: Sure.

SEC. MATTIS: -- a yes or a no, but I just don't talk about them.

Q: Sir, will you be rolling out the national defense strategy next week?

SEC. MATTIS: Is it next week I'm to do that?

STAFF: Yes.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes? Okay. I just got the word from my boss, yes. (Laughter.)

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, we'll bring it out next week. There will be a classified one that is relatively thick. There will be a shorter one that will basically lay it out, unclassified. And we'll get those copies to you.

STAFF: I apologize, sir. It's the 19th we're rolling it out.

SEC. MATTIS: Thank you. It's the 19th, okay. Yes.

Q: And, you know, given the southeast strategy --

SEC. MATTIS: South Asia?

Q: -- South Asia Strategy, and then the recent change in stance with the Pakistan aid, how does this all fit together to help secure -- better secure Afghanistan?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, how does the national defense strategy, or the South Asia --

Q: Well, how does the recent decision on the Pakistan aid fit with the national defense strategy, fit with the South Asia Strategy, as far as better securing Afghanistan?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I mean, there's a campaign plan now that starts regionally. So we started thinking about India and Pakistan and Afghanistan. We reinforced some of our forces there, because we found some forces didn't have the American advisers they needed, and the ones with advisers seemed to always win. The ones without them did not fare so well.

And then we're realigning the forces in country, and we are then going to really come on strong at the reconciliation effort because that's the way this is going to end.

So what we're doing with Pakistan and we've been engaged with Pakistan; secretary of state has flown there; I've flown there, as you know; the chairman has been there -- excuse me, General Votel has been there. And so this is the ongoing dialogue as we hammer this out. I mean, now that we've created the strategy, then you have to execute it. That takes time.

Q: But does the decision on the aid for Pakistan impact this strategy and how you had --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS: It's all integrated into the strategy. Yes.

Q: Cutting off aid was part of the strategy?

SEC. MATTIS: Everything we're doing is integrated into this strategy. Yes.

Q: So Secretary of State Tillerson is just saying that military action against North Korea is still a strong possibility. What would North Korea have to do to avoid U.S. military action?

SEC. MATTIS: Well, the diplomats have got to resolve this is the bottom line. And we've -- the same as China -- the PRC as China, South Korea, Japan, the United States -- it's the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. There are no nukes in South Korea. So that makes it rather clear what needs to happen.

Q: Would they be allowed to keep their ballistic missile program?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes -- again, this is a diplomatically led effort, and in that regard, I provide the backing for the diplomats.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can I go back to Pakistan? I believe you just said there was no reaction yet, but the foreign minister --

SEC. MATTIS: No reaction to what?

Q: -- to the Pakistan aid decision. But the foreign minister told the Wall Street Journal that he said this was basically, there is no longer an alliance. And I'm curious, what's your reaction to that?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I haven't read what he said yet. What I meant was, there had been no reaction about closing A-locks and G-locks -- I think is what I was referring to at that point. And, obviously, we'll continue talking with one another, as we are at all times. I think, yesterday, General Votel was on the phone with General Bajwa, the chief of army staff. And we'll continue to coordinate this.

It's going -- again, this is going to take time. It won't make your 24-hour news cycle or your -- whatever your close of business time is today. This is what happens. I mean, if we were holding this in 1942, you'd say, "Well, gosh, I mean you've been at war for, you know, at least 45 days, here, and, you know, nothing's happened, you know?"

It's going to take years for all of this to play out, because you can see the amount of disarray in the world right now, from Syria -- that's going to take time for the diplomats to patch up. The U.N. is working it in Geneva, as we speak. It's going to take time to for Iraq to recover from what happened to them. It's going to take time on the Afghan-Pakistan border. I mean, this is -- just takes time.

Q: Can I follow up on that?

STAFF: Sir, you have time for about three more questions.

Q: Just on the Pakistan -- in his statement, the Pakistani minister talked about all the things that they believe Pakistan has done, obviously, and things I'm sure they laid out for you when you talked to them.

Do you think there's a disconnect between what the U.S. is looking for from Pakistan, and what Pakistan is thinking they're doing? Is there either confusion or disconnect over what they think or don't think the U.S. is --

SEC. MATTIS: Well, I think --

Q: -- asking for?

SEC. MATTIS: -- it's natural that people looking at it from different perspectives would have a different appreciation to the situation. But, that said, we have been consistent for some time about certain terrorist groups that have had havens in Pakistan.

Now, people can look at the same data and they're not entitled to their own facts, obviously. I mean, I read in a news story, I think it was yesterday, day before, that the Taliban owns half of Afghanistan. I'm sure the Taliban would love to take credit for that, but they probably would be a little more realistic. They don't even own near half of Afghanistan.

So people have different perspectives, but when it comes down to certain things, I don't think there's any misunderstanding at all. That's when you come down to certain specific things that we're trying to work out between us.

Q: Mr. Secretary, as we wrap up --

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.

Q: -- the hot topic in Washington today is this new book, "Fire and Fury" by Michael Wolff, that purports to talk about what happens inside the Trump administration. You're mentioned in it quite a few times. Are you going to read it?

SEC. MATTIS: No. No, I'm a little busy, these days, actually doing my job, you know?

Q: It's a quick read. I'm already halfway through it.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, but you're one of those literate intellectuals. (Laughter.)

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Vast overstatement.

SEC. MATTIS: I don't think so.

SEC. MATTIS: No, I don't -- I don't -- I purposely don't read that. And, if it's a book with my name in it, the aide puts sticky -- double stickies over it, so I don't read about myself.

STAFF: (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS: And that's done with malice and forethought by my aide, okay? (Laughter.)

Q: Sir, just to go back to Pakistan --

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.

Q: -- do you worry that China will move in and take the place of U.S. in terms of military aid to Pakistan? We've already seen some signs. They have an old relationship. Are you worried about China moving into Pakistan?

SEC. MATTIS: No.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Can I ask you about Norway real quickly?

SEC. MATTIS: Norway?

Q: Yes. Earlier this week --

SEC. MATTIS: Thank you.

Q: -- yes -- they had come out and said that they were suspending some of their involvement in -- on behalf of the Saudis in the war in Yemen, because they were concerned that some of their supplies were being used potentially --

SEC. MATTIS: What supplies from Norway?

Q: -- I don't -- there was some suspension that Norway had done, because they didn't want -- they were part of the coalition and were worried that whatever they were providing could be used in such a way against civilians.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I really don't want to comment on that aspect of whatever your question is. I don't know the specifics to it. I like to know what I'm talking about before I talk about it. Okay?

Q: Okay. Well, I'm just curious, though --

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, go ahead.

Q: -- broadly speaking, there -- you're starting to hear increased concern about civilian casualties in Yemen. And, given that the United States provides intelligence and there are now allies expressing outward concern, is there any kind of request that you've made from Central Command, from anyone in terms of whether there needs to be a reassessment of how that intelligence provided, whether it's being used correctly and whether there is going to be any kind of reassessment on how the United States provides aid to Saudi Arabia?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, we assess constantly, when we're in these kind of situations -- not just that one, but any situation like this. The intelligence is designed to reduce civilian, non-combatant innocent casualties.

I cannot imagine reducing that at the very time people are concerned. I -- but, again, I don't know what Norway did. So I'm not commenting on Norway, specifically not.

Q: I understand.

SEC. MATTIS: But what we are providing, we'll constantly reassess. But what I won't do is do something that in any way endangers or adds danger to civilians.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS: Thanks very much everybody.