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
Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White; Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.
DANA WHITE: Good afternoon.
One of the secretary's top priorities is strengthening alliances and building new partnerships. Today, he has a meeting with the U.K. secretary of state for defense, Gavin Williamson. He will reaffirm our commitment to one of our closest and most capable allies.
Today is the launch of This Is Your Military. It's an outreach initiative to connect Americans with the military. 99 percent of Americans are not currently serving. It's an effort to introduce the American public to the 1 percent who serve. It corrects common myths about military life as well as provides insight into the lives of service members. You can join the conversation at #KnowYourMilitary.
Tomorrow, we will release the Nuclear Posture Review. President Trump directed the review to ensure safe, secure and an effective nuclear deterrent. It's aligned with the National Defense Strategy, which is nested in the National Security Strategy.
This is a strategy that requires an investment in a credible nuclear deterrent with diverse capabilities. It will confirm the importance of the nuclear triad.
The NPR relies on stable, predictable budgets and one week from today, the C.R. expires. So I trust that Congress will do their job and pass a budget and write the check.
So with that, I will open it up to your questions.
Q: Thank you.
Secretary Mattis recently has described the Turkish operation in Afrin, the Olive Branch Operation, as a distraction and a problem from the U.S. point of view.
Have you made any progress in -- in discussing it with the Turks to -- to either limit or to reserve the -- the moves they made? And has there been any sign of incursion into the Manbij area?
MS. WHITE: We are continually talking to Turkey. We have stressed to the Turks to limit the operation. It is a distraction. We've also asked them to restrain themselves and to avoid civilian casualties at all costs.
LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.: If I could respond to Bob, if I could just add a little bit to it, we view anything that takes attention away from the Euphrates River Valley and -- and operations against ISIS as a distraction. The degree to which it detracts from that focus is the degree to which it is worrisome to us.
We continue to engage Turkey at all levels. And we recognize that Turkey has legitimate security concerns that have to be -- that have to be dealt with appropriately. They're a NATO ally. We have a long history with Turkey. And we recognize that they have significant issues up in the area where -- where they're conducting those operations.
The last part of your question I will answer is there's -- there's no sign they're moving toward Manbij at this time.
MS. WHITE: Carla?
Q: Thank you. Good afternoon.
I just have two questions, one on Southeast Asia and the other on the Pacific.
First, there was a -- there was a bullet point on the president's policy on Southeast Asia that said "President Trump's conditions-based Southeast Asia strategy provides commanders with the authority and resources needed to deny terrorists the safe haven they seek in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Now, Pakistani media is interpreting this bullet point as saying the U.S. could possibly strike inside of Pakistan. Is this accurate? And can you explain that bullet point a little bit?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure.
I think you mean the Southern Asia strategy that we're -- we're talking about.
Yeah, we -- so we actually don't contemplate military operations inside Pakistan. On the other hand, we recognize, because the strategy is inherently regional and Pakistan is geographically located at a critical nexus of a lot of different things, Pakistan is a fundamental part of the strategy.
So through a variety of measures, we look to gain Pakistani cooperation and assistance as we pursue operations in Afghanistan.
But no, we're not planning to conduct military operations inside Pakistan.
MS. WHITE: Joe?
Q: And then to follow up on -- sorry. On the -- on the Pacific, there was the Missile Defense Agency -- apparently an Aegis Ashore missile defense test was conducted on Wednesday. Can you confirm that? And can you say whether or not this test was successful or a failure?
MS. WHITE: We can confirm it.
And it did not meet our objectives, but we learn something all the time with these tests and we learned something from this one. And we'll continue to improve our capabilities.
Q: Thank you.
Yeah, I would like to go back to Bob's question about the Turkish operation in Afrin. If you could give us more details why you are asking Turkey to limit its operation? What are the reasons you're asking that? Is it something related to civilian casualty or concerns to -- regards to civilian casualties? Or this operation could lead, like, to demographic changes in northern Syria?
MS. WHITE: We've asked Turkey to limit it -- its offensive because it's a distraction. They're a NATO ally and they have a legitimate concern. And the PKK the State Department has declared a terrorist organization. They have an active insurgency within their borders.
But the common threat is ISIS. And anything that takes away from that fight is a distraction. So that's why we've asked them to restrain themselves and to limit this offensive.
Q: -- just quick follow up.
When they that the PKK is related, is linked to the YPG, what -- how do you address this? We heard a lot of confirmations from the Pentagon, saying that the YPG or the SDF has nothing to do with the PKK, but the Turks are saying the opposite.
MS. WHITE: Turkey has -- has -- is a -- is a NATO ally and we don't always see everything the same but we work together. And we've worked with them with respect to the insurgency that's happening within their border and we'll continue to help them.
But we need all parties to focus on the defeat-ISIS campaign.
Q: Thank you.
There are -- there are reports that the Pentagon is considering banning smart phones from the building. Can you -- can you comment on those reports and -- and the thinking behind them?
MS. WHITE: So, it's important to know that the secretary's primary focus is the protection of civilians, of service members and their families. So the Strava heat maps provided an opportunity for us to see a possible vulnerability. So he's thinking about the totality of the DOD enterprise, so not just this building. We always are thinking about how do we enhance and adapt our security procedures. And that's what's happening now.
Q: And do we know when this review may be -- may be finished?
MS. WHITE: We are -- we are looking at it but I don't have a timeline for you right now.
Q: We just heard from the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee a little bit about what he talked with the secretary of defense about this morning at the GOP retreat.
I was wondering if you could more clearly and directly articulate what his message was to lawmakers. Especially because we almost certainly will not get a budget next week and we'll end up with another C.R. that could last for several more weeks, maybe longer.
MS. WHITE: Well, I'd like to be more optimistic that -- that they could pass a budget.
The secretary has outlined, as he has in testimony, that continuing resolutions are no way to run the military. It's a lot of uncertainty, it's wasteful, three weeks at a time, a month at a time, six weeks at a time. It's wasteful.
Our goal is to maximize every dollar that's entrusted to us. We can't do that on a continuing resolution.
So the secretary's message was, pass a fully funded fiscal year '18 budget.
Barbara, in the back.
Q: Two questions, one on the events in West Virginia this morning, and a follow-up on cell phones.
On the events in West Virginia, the secretary has repeatedly said he doesn't do politics. He's about the defense of the country.
He could have chosen to brief any lawmakers at any time here in Washington. Why -- was it appropriate? And why did he choose to attend a partisan event, a GOP Republican event, which was a political event? So that's my first question. Why not just brief them here in Washington in a routine secretary of defense, nonpartisan fashion?
On cell phones, even though the decision hasn't been made yet, we are hearing already from military families, from people who work in this building, that they have very fundamental concerns about being able to stay in touch with their families, with their children, during a workday; that they won't know if a school is trying to reach them because their children are ill; that they won't be able to be in touch with their family members.
How -- what kind of weight is being given to just very fundamental family concerns that people already have about this issue?
MS. WHITE: Let me take your first question.
With respect to the Greenbrier Retreat, the secretary was invited and so he accepted the invitation.
The secretary takes every opportunity to talk to congressional members on both sides. He also attended the policy lunches of both the Democrats and the Republicans.
National security is a bipartisan issue and he is open to talking to all members, whether they're on the Defense Committee, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, because this department requires the support of the American people and all lawmakers.
We need a budget. That's what he's advocating for and he will advocate for that on both sides of the aisle.
And with respect to cell phones, one, it's not just about cell phones. This is a comprehensive look at technology. Technology's very dynamic. It is important that we always adapt our security procedures.
With respect to the workforce, the secretary's primary interest is to ensure that we are all safe and we are all secure. Operational security is his priority. This recent incident, and others, has allowed him to take a bigger look at, what are we doing and how are we doing it?
So all of those things will be considered in his calculus, but -- but you have to understand that the secretary sees everything within that prism of, how do I protect the civilians, the service members, their families? And so that's how he will make his decision.
Q: What is the threat?
There are restricted areas in this building, classified areas, where no devices are allowed, and that's very clearly marked and understood.
For the workforce of some 20,000 people that come in and out of this building every day, two-thirds of which come by Metro and have no place to leave their phones and have fundamental family concerns now with no answers, what is the threat that a cell phone poses in this building not in a classified, secure area? What is the threat?
MS. WHITE: Again, it's not just about this building. I -- I want to be clear about that. It's not just about the Pentagon.
The secretary is across the DOD enterprise. That heat map brought up a potential vulnerability. So he's taking a comprehensive look at our security measures, what we can do, mitigating factors, and of course he will also consider the concerns of the workforce. But his top concern is to ensure that the workforce --
Q: What is the threat that cell phones pose --
MS. WHITE: Again, it's not about just cell phones. It's about electronics, okay?
Q: (Off mic) asking about cell phones, because this is a common consumer device that the work -- many, I would venture the vast majority of people at military bases and DOD buildings have.
What is the threat -- can you -- I'm just curious: What is the threat that they pose outside of secure, classified areas in what would be a very typical office environment? What is the threat?
MS. WHITE: I think, one, we have to talk about, it's not about just cell phones. It's about electronics. It's about GPS-enabled electronics. It's a wide -- a wide array of electronics that we're looking at.
You have to also consider the fact that we have been attacked. Bases have been attacked. Information is power and our adversaries have used information to plan attacks against us.
And so, no decision has been made yet, but we are looking at a comprehensive review of how we deal with electronics.
Q: Can I just follow that --?
MS. WHITE: Sure, Jamie.
Q: I'm just wondering why is it so difficult to provide some assurance to the workers in this building that among all the reasonable security enhancements that you'd be looking about with electronic devices, that among those is not likely to be a blanket ban that requires everyone to leave their phone in their car when they come into the building. So that they'll be able to do the things that Barbara talked about.
You know, I was in the building on September 11th when it was attacked, and I can just imagine being here without having any personal communication device. As I'm sure you know, phones aren't used for phoning, for calling people these days. They're used for everything else, including two-factor security verification.
And it just seems like of all the things that you could be looking at -- and I know you're looking at a whole range of things that many people would just see as perfectly reasonable. The thing that has people alarmed is that they don't have any assurance that among those is some draconian unreasonable ban -- blanket ban on cell phones. So why can't you provide some assurance to them that their lives aren't going to be turned upside down by some new policy.
MS. WHITE: Because we're -- it's all under review.
Q: Thank you very much, Madam. Two questions please.
As far as U.S.-India military-to-military relations are concerned, right now the Modi -- Prime Minister Modi's government just yesterday introduced a national budget including the defense budget. And recently Prime Minister Netanyahu from Israel was in India, and they have signed a number of security and counterterrorism issues between the two countries.
What is the role of the U.S. as far as India, Israel, and India and U.S. triangle, as they are fighting against terrorism or military-to-military relationship?
MS. WHITE: Well, I -- our relationship with India is multifaceted.
India is helping with respect to the South Asian Strategy. They've provided a tremendous amount of developmental aid. They've also offered to help with aviation maintenance.
So there's an opportunity. India's a perfect example of where the secretary wants to find and build relationships with partners, and so that's what we are doing.
And with respect to the South Asia Strategy, they are a key player in ensuring its success.
Q: And, Madam, my second question, please. Thank you.
Going back to Pakistan and Afghanistan, one -- Afghanistan's president and Afghans are blaming all these terrorist activities inside their country on Pakistan, because it's coming from Pakistan, and Pakis [sic] are targeting Afghans, as far as – whenever there is pressure from Washington, then all these terrorist activities have permission in Afghanistan.
And second, he has refused to meet the prime minister of Pakistan.
And finally, what Pakistan is saying, do you agree or U.S. agree that U.S. have failed in Afghanistan?
MS. WHITE: Tell me the -- say the last part. Has Afghan --
Q: Pakistan is blaming the U.S. that U.S. has failed in Afghanistan. That's why U.S. is after Pakistan.
MS. WHITE: We -- we've said many times that -- that Pakistan has an opportunity. It has had -- it has been a victim of terrorism, and it has supported terrorism. And we are looking for Pakistan to actively join -- it can do the things we need them to do to confront terrorism.
So it's an inflection point, it's an opportunity, and we hope Pakistan will take it.
Q: But, Madam, I'm sorry to interrupt you. Just -- can you clarify, please, if what they're saying, do you agree with them if U.S. have failed in Afghanistan?
MS. WHITE: We haven't failed.
Q: Thank you.
MS. WHITE: Ms. Pak.
Q: Thank you.
On North Korea, North Korea, we are told, are big military parade next week before the Olympic Games. Do you think is this threatening to United States, this -- this parade?
MS. WHITE: Well, North Korea has -- often has parades.
I think we are encouraged by the inter-Korea dialogue, and we encourage it. The relationship between Seoul and Washington has never been closer, so we look forward to more progress.
Q: But North Korea sold their ICBM in the market for weapons, and there 50,000 North Korea militaries, you know. Is that -- seems like threatening to the United States, or our alliance?
MS. WHITE: We're very capable of -- of countering any threat to the United States, its allies or its partners.
Right here in the middle?
Q: On the Nuclear Policy Review, will you be sending out any embargoed copies beforehand? And also, just any details -- what time is it going to come out? Will there be a briefing? Anything you can give us on that.
MS. WHITE: So, we will have a -- a press briefing tomorrow with the deputy secretary of defense, as well as the deputy of Energy and State Department.
Q: -- embargoed copies, can you get those?
MS. WHITE: I -- I will ask Colonel Manning. We'll see what we can do. But we'd like to roll it out, and -- and you can see it when the -- when the deputies unveil it.
Q: Thanks, Dana.
You're all quitting?.
Back to the missile test, have you been able to recover any of the components of the missile? And can you give us any sort of initial -- was the secretary briefed on the situation? And have you had any initial findings on what went wrong?
MS. WHITE: The secretary has been briefed.
And MDA is still looking at it. It's still under investigation. So they will release more information when it's available.
Q: Typically, though, one of the Navy ships that's nearby will recover elements of the missile. Do you know if that's occurred already in this case?
GEN. MCKENZIE: It's the standard practice. It's probably ongoing.
I can't give you the specifics of it, but it's been less than 48 hours since the test. So you're right, it is a standard process, so I believe it would be happening in this case, as well.
Q: And then, on a separate topic, NBC reported that the number of Taliban in Afghanistan is actually significantly higher than some of the initial numbers we got; as many as possibly 60,000. And I just wanted to, General, get your assessment on, what is happening in Afghanistan right now? Do you think additional pressure is needed if the Taliban has been able to increase ranks at such a pace?
GEN. MCKENZIE: So, I'm not familiar with the -- what the facts of the study that NBC is quoting, so I'm not going to be able to talk about that.
I would tell you that we're in the process of executing a new approach as part of the South Asia Strategy. As you know that -- we've flown additional forces in to a level of approximately 14,000. But actually more important than the numbers are the -- is the -- is the approach that we're going to use, which is to aggressively mentor, advise, assist and support our Afghan partners.
But the difference this time -- and I think it's a key difference -- is it is the Afghans who are doing the fighting. Americans are at risk, and unfortunately there probably are going to be continued American casualties in this campaign, and coalition casualties from our -- from our allies and partners. But the organizations that are doing the fighting are uniquely Afghan.
And that actually represents a substantive change over much of the last 16 years of -- of war in Afghanistan, so I think we've got to give it a little time to play out.
I recognize, as you do, the high-profile attack in Kabul certainly gets headlines, it certainly draws attention. But I would not draw any general conclusions from those attacks.
Q: So -- the number of Afghan fighters or -- excuse me, number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan be a metric that this department closely tracks as maybe a leading indicator of things going better or things getting worse?
GEN. MCKENZIE: It would be. I don't know that I'd agree with the number that you've -- that you've quoted.
Q: Is it a coincidence that this rise in attacks in Kabul happened weeks after the Pentagon decided to suspend $900 million in military aid to Pakistan?
MS. WHITE: The Taliban is desperate. They're murderous and they attack innocent civilians. As the general said, these were flashy but it shows their disparity.
Q: So there's no connection to cutting off the aid?
GEN. MCKENZIE: I -- I -- I -- pardon me.
MS. WHITE: No, go ahead.
GEN. MCKENZIE: Let me just tell you that for every attack that's carried out, many, many, many are stopped, many are prevented from occurring. So to think that you're going to have exquisite timing on when an attack occurs is probably a bridge too far for the -- for -- for the Taliban to have.
Q: And going back to Hawaii, last month there was a false alarm from the government of Hawaii sent out to over a million residents in Hawaii on their mobile phones.
Is the Pentagon doing any kind of review with Pacific Command? Maybe setting up some kind of hotline or maybe some kind of override button to prevent this from happening again, or at least taking so long to correct?
MS. WHITE: That was a uniquely civilian authority local government mistake. Our hotline and our coordination with the local government is sound. It was unfortunate, but that is for the state of Hawaii.
Q: Is there some kind of override button, where a false alarm goes out and you can quickly just put it to rest?
MS. WHITE: There have been no moves to do anything like that.
Q: Just a follow up on the general's comment about the Taliban, the strikes. You said you wouldn't agree with the 60,000 estimate. What number would you agree with? What -- what is the approximate number?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure.
I -- I think it's not just useful to actually give a number as to just talk about the degree of control of different areas of the countryside.
And we think that when you look at that metric, I think we're actually in a pretty good place. I think we'd say around 60 percent of the -- of the country is controlled by the -- by the government, a fraction of it's contested, and about 10 or 15 percent is possibly Taliban controlled.
So I think we can chase numbers and say it's -- it's 9,000 or it's 15,000 all day. But I don't think it's actually a terribly useful metric, when you measure -- when you think strategically about the problem. I think it's far more useful to look at how we operate against President Ghani's compact, against the 114 tasks that are laid out in that.
We actually have a lot better metrics than just looking at numbers, that -- and we can all agree or disagree on the numbers of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. So I don't think it's a particular good metric.
MS. WHITE: Jeff?
Q: Thank you.
Staying on the topic of Afghanistan, the BBC reported that the Taliban have a presence in 70 percent of the country. I understand you may not have seen this BBC report, but is that an accurate figure?
GEN. MCKENZIE: So, I've read -- I've read the article. I'd need to look a lot more at their metrics as described in the article, that -- because I couldn't completely follow their logic as stated in the article, which I just had a -- have just had a chance to take a look at the last day or so. Haven't seen the report yet.
Q: Sure. But I didn't hear an answer to my question. Is that an accurate figure?
GEN. MCKENZIE: I would say it's not an accurate figure. It's sort of wild variance from our own projections, so I would say it is not an accurate figure and we would challenge it.
Q: What would you put it as --
GEN. MCKENZIE: I just gave you the numbers here.
Q: Well, you said what is contested and --
GEN. MCKENZIE: So we think about 60 percent is under government control. We certainly don't think that the Taliban has a presence, to some degree, in 70 percent of the countryside. No, we would disagree with that.
MS. WHITE: Ryan?
Q: The Russia Ministry of Defense issued a statement today accusing the U.S. of flying too close to Crimea, which is what caused that intercept, which was judged to be unsafe.
You see a lot of activity in the Black Sea with the Russians. Do you think this is a strategic -- these unsafe intercepts are part of their strategic intent to kind of deter U.S. presence in the region? Will these flights -- surveillance flights continue despite this Russia -- latest Russia statement?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure.
So, we fly in international airspace. The Black Sea's international airspace. We had every right in the world to be there. Those flights will continue. It was an unsafe and unprofessional action by the Russians.
Q: Just one follow up on the cell phone issue. Can you actually – Ms. White -- clarify when this review took place into phones? Was it driven by the Fitbit -- or the fitness app thing or was this -- does this go back several months?
MS. WHITE: The current review was in part informed by the heat map from this weekend.
Q: We talked about Turkey a lot, but there -- there is a -- currently several rockets fired into Turkey from Afrin by the YPG and killing several Turkish citizens, as well as wounding many others. What's your reaction? Would you condemn those attacks?
MS. WHITE: General --
GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure.
We condemn any attack on Turkey. I'm not aware of the specifics that you're discussing right there, but if PKK attacks on Turkey, we certainly condemn and we work with Turkey to try to minimize those and in fact prevent them.
Q: And also, there was a -- the Pentagon has said before that the U.S. is going to recollect heavy arms and heavy service member-operated equipment from the SDF after Raqqa operation. Is it underway still? At what level is it? Have you collected any arms from SDF?
GEN. MCKENZIE: The intent would be to collect it after the conclusion of operations against ISIS, which, as you know, are still continuing down the Euphrates River Valley. And that equipment is being used to good purpose by the SDF.
STAFF: Ma'am, we have time for a few more questions.
MS. WHITE: Tony?
Q: General, on the SM-3 test, can you put some context in terms of where this missile stands in the -- in terms of defending the continent of the U.S.? In the many media frenzies of stories yesterday, there was linkage to the -- protecting the U.S. from North Korean ICBMs. Could you give us some perspective there?
GEN. MCKENZIE: Certainly.
The primary system that would be used to protect against a North Korean ICBM against the continental United States would be the ground-based interceptors, of which they're located at Fort Greely, Alaska and as well down in California. That would be the system.
That was not the missile that was tested today -- that was tested a couple of days ago.
Q: What's its intended target set?
GEN. MCKENZIE: I'm sorry?
Q: What's it intended to intercept?
GEN. MCKENZIE: The missile that was tested?
GEN. MCKENZIE: It could -- it could be used against a theater or shorter-range missile; might be used out in the Western Pacific.
Still -- still testing and evaluating, but it is not necessarily the first weapon we would use against an IC -- well, it would not be the weapon that we would use against an ICBM targeted against the continental United States.
Q: Why wasn't the failure acknowledged yesterday?
In the past, the Pentagon has done that. They've put out releases saying they succeeded or didn't -- or failed. Instead, you had a mini-scooplet that became followed by other organizations, and it blew the importance of the test way out of proportion. Had you said what you said today, I think you wouldn't -- wouldn't have that kind of reaction.
But why wasn't it released at the time, that there was a failure?
MS. WHITE: What we said was that we didn't meet our objective.
Again, we learned something from these tests. They're tests. It was the first time that this particular block was -- was used -- or the --
MS. WHITE: I'll -- I'll check.
But -- but this is a test, and we learn something from our -- from a test every time we do it.
So, MDA is still gathering information, and we will continue to be as -- we'll provide that information as quickly as we can, because it is important that we learn from all the information.
Q: -- you were forthright, and you said it didn't meet -- didn't meet objectives.
MS. WHITE: -- objectives.
Q: The MDA just put out a notice saying the test took place. This was after the story started coming out about failing. I'm just pointing out, why didn't you put out a release earlier yesterday just saying, "Hey, the thing didn't work, and we're looking into it"?
MS. WHITE: Well, I would refer you to MDA about what they released. But as I said, it didn't meet our objectives.
Thank you all very much.