Department Of Defense Press Briefing By Admiral Kurt Tidd
Admiral Kurt Tidd, Commander, Southern Command
STAFF: OK, ladies and gentlemen, Admiral Tidd.
ADMIRAL KURT TIDD: Well, good afternoon. It's great to see so many faces out here.
So last month I provided my third update to the Senate Armed Services Committee as the U.S. SOUTHCOM commander. Much of what I discussed with the committee members is also of interest to you, and to the public that we serve, so I consider this briefing equally important to informing American citizens, those who entrust us with our mission.
Now understandably, the threats that we and our partners face in the region are a chief concern to many. This year, I underscore the sophistication, adaptiveness and considerable financing leveraged by criminal and extremist elements. Drug traffickers, human smugglers, terrorist supporters, arms dealers and money launderers are not new to this region, but they operate in new and surprising ways, compared to years past.
Relying solely on what worked in decades past to find and disrupt them is not enough. Threat network enablers like facilitators, suppliers, recruiters and technicians provide criminals and extremist with unprecedented global reach, and the ability to operate stealthily in both the physical and the cyber worlds. Criminal networks leverage all means available to move lethal narcotics, people, weapons and dirty money into and out of Latin America and the U.S. homeland. Extremist networks like ISIS reach deep into our hemisphere, inspire would-be terrorists to conduct attacks in the region, or to attempt entry into the United States to do our citizens harm.
We also face the ever-present shared danger of natural disasters, which can lead to humanitarian concerns impacting millions in our hemisphere's citizens.
Additionally, countries with different interests and approaches, like China, Russia and Iran actively seek footholds in our hemisphere. They do not place the same value on the freedoms and principles that we share with democratic nations in the Western Hemisphere. Those freedoms and principles are what unite us, and we are watchful for attempts by China, Russia and Iran to erode those shared principles to threaten our interests, or undermine our partnerships within the region. These shared concerns are driving our efforts to continue building a network of capable partners across the Defense Department, the federal government, the Western Hemisphere, and ultimately, the international community.
Last year, we partnered with U.S. Northern command to cohost a Central American security conference with Mexico. In February, we hosted an opioid summit with our interagency partners to identify ways to unify our response to our nation's deadly opioid crisis. We are expanding our collaboration with the Department of Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security to deepen our intelligence sharing and analysis to better detect, disrupt and dismantle networks that enable threats to our security.
We're doing the same with our regional partners, and they are increasingly contributing to our multinational efforts. Last fiscal year, Joint Interagency Task Force South interdicted 283 metric tons of cocaine, thanks in large part to our partners in the region. Without our partners' support, 77 metric tons of cocaine would have reached the U.S. last year alone.
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused levels of devastation not experienced in a generation, we worked side-by-side with Caribbean and European partners to evacuate and deliver aid to thousands of victims.
Now, those are but a few examples of what a network of interagency and international partners can accomplish. We are going to continue building that network, ever expanding it by integrating our expertise and tools with those of committed partners to remain more adaptive and capable than adversaries who exploit or target our citizens. We will do it in concert with our trusted friends, and as partners, we agree a networked approach is the best response to today's regional security challenges.
We have long-standing defense and security ties with nations in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. They share our democratic values, and our commitment to work together for a stable and peaceful hemisphere. The long-standing ties that we enjoy with those nations should never be taken for granted. If we do not actively engage and work with these partners, others will.
Now, I know you're probably interested in these and other topics, so what I want to do is devote the rest of the time to the questions that you might have. And since normally, our friends from AP are not here, first question.
Q: Right. (inaudible). You started off by talking about how the enemies, if you will, are operating in different ways, and everything like that. I'd like to know, get an idea, what kind of different ways that you're saying. And also, as part of that, what do you need -- what do you have, and what do you need more of to, in order to combat this?
ADM. TIDD: So, the biggest challenge obviously is the ability to perceive the environment, and what's changing in the world today. In the past, that was a fairly straightforward, simple task of being able to physically see or by radar detect tracks that were moving through the area.
But in the modern era because of the ability of networks to be able to move relatively undetected through a multitude of different domains, most notably the cyber domain, that present some challenges. And so, our ability to be able to see and understand their ability to influence a variety of actors, hence the importance of our partnership with organizations like the Department of Treasury, to be able to understand how the flows of financing moving internationally can impact that.
Sir, from the Washington Post.
Q: I understand recently that you were in Colombia in the Tumaco region. Can you tell us if you think the Colombian government has turned the corner in terms of its ability to discourage the legal cultivation of cocoa? And if you could speak in terms of specifics, in terms of hectares, seizures, all of that? Have you seen the kinds of progress that this administration has been looking for in terms of the Colombian government's ability to get a handle on this very steep upward trend?
ADM. TIDD: Let me -- I think I would defer to the government of Colombia to make the assessment of turning a corner or not.
What I would say is it's very clear that the level of commitment is at the very highest levels of the Colombian government.
I had the opportunity to meet and have some fairly extensive conversations with the vice president, who has principal responsibility in working this area -- Vice President Naranjo. But also, to be able to meet with the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Defense, General Mejia.
There's no doubt in my mind in terms of the level of commitment, the steps that the security forces -- the army as well, as the armed forces, as well as the national police are taking; the level of interagency coordination that is required. But it should come as no great surprise as we observed a year ago, the signing of the peace deal was obviously an all-important first step, but it was only that -- it was the first step.
And so it is the achieving the peace, the winning that peace that ultimately is going to lead to the ability to bring back into the ability of the government to reach into parts of the country that previously had been under the control of FARC and of other criminal elements. This now, I think, is an area that they're committed to, and our responsibility is to continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with them and work very closely with our Colombian partners.
Q: A follow-up -- sorry. The president has said explicitly to President Santos that they want to see progress in this front. Have you seen that progress?
ADM. TIDD: I think we're seeing some significant progress, yes.
Q: Hi, admiral. I'm (inaudible) with (inaudible).
You mentioned in your opening remarks we have a network of capable partners. And I've been wondering, I put out a report earlier about how Argentina is seeking closer ties with the U.S. military. The thinking is your statement (inaudible). Is there a nation, or are there nations in South America in particular that the United States is now moving towards to sort of have a Canada-like ally on its north flank? Would there be nations down there that you see the capability of establishing them as an -- you know, an equal standing, go-alone type of ally? And if so, if you can mention them; if not, I understand. But could you just address that issue?
ADM. TIDD: Sure. You know, the challenge is, obviously, if you mention nations, you will leave nations out, and that will be misinterpreted.
Q: ... I understand. And that's why -- generally speaking...
ADM. TIDD: But let me -- let me just talk to -- there are a number of very capable, highly trained, motivated countries with security forces with -- whom we have worked with very, very closely over the years.
I've already spoken of Colombia, in terms of a significant strategic partner as we work together not just within Colombia, not just dealing exclusively with the issue of coca cultivation. But we work with Colombia across a wide range of hemispheric security challenges. So I would call them out.
But I would also point very, very clearly to Chile, a country very capable -- and, in fact, the Chilean navy will be exercising a position of significant responsibility in this year's Rim of the Pacific Exercise, where thy will be the maritime component commander for that exercise.
And so that -- that is a -- I think, a significant -- it's the largest -- the world's largest naval exercise. And so, to have a -- one of our South American partners participate as the maritime component leader, I think, is indicative of their -- the label -- level of capability.
Brazil, also -- very capable partner. We -- we see problems, I think, through a very- - a very similar lens. And so there are opportunities to be able to work closely together.
And now, as you mentioned, Argentina is a country that -- as a result of the recent elections, we are now able to once again resume a close and fruitful security partnership with them.
So those are examples. That's not all-inclusive. I will -- I will be in trouble for having neglected to mention some other close partners. But I would -- I would -- I would...
Q: (off mic)
ADM. TIDD: ... no blame. But it's -- I would just say those are examples of the kinds of committed security partnerships, based largely on the historic relationships where they send officers to study in our war colleges and our service schools. We have officers who study in their countries. So there is this deep and abiding understanding of having worked together, and it's -- and it -- and it continues to bear fruit.
Q: OK, General (sic), Hans Nichols with NBC News.
At the top, you talked a lot about extremists and ISIS. Just wondering what sort of evidence you have that either ISIS cells or networks are in your AOR.
ADM. TIDD: I think I would just point to a couple of the foreign fighters that have been very vocal in the past, speaking in English language in the -- in the ISIS fight in Syria, that originated in Trinidad and Tobago.
We know they came. We know that the government of Trinidad has spoken of 100 or so that -- foreign fighters that have gone to that particular fight. So that's -- I guess that would be the -- probably the best indicator that, yes, in fact, there are individuals who have been radicalized, who this pernicious method -- message is -- has taken root.
And so it's one that is of concern to the government of Trinidad and Tobago. They've -- they have focused on it. And so I think it's a -- it's an area that we all have to take into consideration.
Q: In terms of the smuggling routes, do you have any -- have there been any cases of ISIS potential sympathizers or fighters trying to come into the U.S. from the Southern Hemisphere?
ADM. TIDD: I think what I would do is leave that in law enforcement channels right now and not talk in any specifics. But it's an area that -- we work closely together, because we recognize that our law enforcement partners, our intelligence community partners, military partners, diplomatic community partners, as well as partner nations, all have a key role to play, working together as part of a team so that -- so that we are able to see if something like that were to occur.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hi, Admiral. Kevin Baron from Defense One.
Continuing on Hans's question, you said specifically extremist networks like ISIS reach deep into our hemisphere. So maybe give examples of that.
Q: And, on the foreign fighter question that you mentioned, too, a year ago, we -- the worry was of foreign fighters coming back through the Caribbean because they have lesser border control standards than the United States. What's the status of that? How's that come up, too?
To follow on after that, I'd like to ask about, you know, hurricane relief.
ADM. TIDD: OK. So I think I would -- what I would observe is that, because of the increased attention that has been paid and the successful efforts of the international community that have come together and are working to counter ISIS -- because of their efforts, the ability to detect the flow of fighters -- has had some success in keeping some of those returning individuals from coming back through into the region.
But I would just say, in my conversations with partners throughout the region in the past, I think there was an unwillingness to acknowledge that perhaps they had a problem with radicalization from these extremist messages.
Now, it's -- it is a matter of routine conversation that we have in which we recognize -- you know, as we saw in our own country, in San Bernardino and in Orlando; as we saw in Nice; and as we've seen in other countries, sadly, throughout Europe and the rest of the world, it's -- it's all too easy for radicalization to occur. And so it's something that we must have our eyes open to and be on the lookout for the signs of.
And then the second question that you had?
Q: Well, you're saying -- you say your real concern is on radicalization of people already in the region. It's not about foreign networks (inaudible) you're getting at.
ADM. TIDD: It's both. It's both, because -- I mean, it's the -- it literally is a -- it's movements of people, and as we increase and improve our efforts to prevent the movement of individuals, either to the -- to the battle zone, or to return, it is that movement of the message and the -- and the ability of radicalization to occur via the internet that, I think, gives us all some significant concern.
Q: OK. And, if I may, on hurricane relief, will you give us a status of what lesson is learned and things you need from these two extraordinary events, particularly with the strain of forces that were intended to go elsewhere and deploy and on the ability of the military to, you know, both -- I mean, the rapid and the middle -- the medium-term response that's all kind of been a little more difficult for the military, it's not really built to do.
ADM. TIDD: You know, it's -- the -- it -- this is not so much a lesson as it is -- it was yet another indication of, when a crisis occurs, the ability to respond rapidly with some immediate capabilities, and then to follow on with the subsequent capabilities that are identified.
And so, in the case of USSOUTHCOM and the countries that we work with, our closest partners -- USAID and Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, OFDA -- building and sustaining those relationships and understanding how do requirements get identified, how are they passed to us, what -- which of them are unique military capabilities that we can bring to bear.
And, oftentimes, it is our ability to -- to move things and people relatively quickly for -- over extended distances; in the case of SOUTHCOM, the provision of heavy lift helicopters to be able to move stores around, cut off areas, cut off islands.
And so it was the -- our ability to move to the Eastern Caribbean to initially -- our first work with Hurricane Maria was to be able to support our French and Dutch partners in St. Martin. That was where our efforts were largely -- were focused initially. And then, with Irma and Dominica, it was shifting and -- to be able to support the efforts down in Dominica.
ADM. TIDD: Interestingly, and, as I think probably wasn't well recognized, Maria also hit Miami and had an impact on us and our headquarters. And so our ability to conduct ongoing crisis response operations -- at the same time, our families are dealing with -- with -- with having to take measures to be able to -- to respond to -- to -- to the immediate impact in -- in Miami. Our Joint Interagency Task Force South, headquartered down in Key West -- As you know, the Keys were -- were pretty heavily hit. So it was being able to respond effectively at the same time we're dealing with the -- with the instance itself. So that's a -- that's a challenge, and I -- I -- it'd be one of those things I would just say that -- that we continue to demonstrate the adaptability and the flexibility of the -- the men and women assigned the headquarters.
Q: (inaudible) your request for them, more -- more heavy life, for example.
ADM. TIDD: We -- it -- it certainly is associated with how we -- how we continue to justify why there is a requirement to keep a certain amount in theater. And -- and -- and there's -- there's, I think, ample recognition that when a crisis hits, you can never have too much.
All right, sir?
Q: Hi. Lou Martinez, ABC News. So if I could just follow up on that, and another follow-up to Colombia, so, if you don't mind.
In -- in the -- when you -- when you respond to disasters like this, do you find frustration that your clock can operate faster than the clock by those who are the agencies that are the ones that could request your assistance, for example? Because it takes time for them to go out and -- and assess the damage, and to assess what's needed, when you -- your forces are pretty much poised to respond fairly quickly, but you have to wait until you (inaudible) that civilian.
ADM. TIDD: You know, I think -- I think none of our clocks move fast enough to meet the, you know, the -- the needs of the people who -- who are directly impacted. And so the -- and it's a -- We always have to keep -- keep that in -- in -- in mind, and -- and do everything that we can to -- to battle through the, I think just the -- the challenges of working in a system that, for all of the right reasons, has certain checks and balance placed -- put in -- in place, in order to make sure that -- that the right decisions are made.
At the same time, commanders are -- are -- are encouraged and in fact, expected to be leaning forward -- as far forward as we possibly can. And so there's always going to be a tension there. We'll never -- We will never be as fast as we certainly want to be. But we understand from experience how to get to the people who make the decisions in as rapid a possible -- period as possible, and -- and to be able to -- to paint the picture as clearly as possible, so that everybody has a -- a shared understanding of exactly where the challenges are, where the resources could best be applied, and then to -- to move out as quickly as possible.
Q: And if I could follow up on Colombia, real quick.
ADM. TIDD: OK.
Q: Can you tell us how many U.S. personnel there are there in Colombia right now? And what's their level of effort? Is it going to increase as the level of cocoa production has doubled over the last -- last two years, year upon year? Does that mean that your -- your forces there are going to be more actively involved in -- in the way they do things, or are there going to be adjustments made to how they do it?
ADM. TIDD: Yeah, I -- I -- I would -- I would say that the -- the activities and efforts of -- of our U.S. military people will continue to be what they have been, working very, very closely, and it's -- it is the -- the -- the redirection of efforts by the Colombian security services -- the police, the armed forces and other elements of the Colombian government, to apply greater resources on -- into -- into that -- that -- that particular mission. We will continue to work closely, but it's -- it's less at the, you know, kind of what I would say, the tactical level, and more at the -- the institutional, helping to provide some of the -- some of the conductivity, and some of the training and -- and sharing lessons that -- learned with -- with their forces.
But when we're talking about Colombia, we're talking about a very, very experienced military force, police force, and so our activities are probably more in the -- in the information sharing, making sure that -- that they've got the -- the best information available to us, so that as they build out their picture, they're able to -- to -- to apply their resources and forces as effectively as possible.
Q: And -- and the number of personnel there now?
ADM. TIDD: It's -- let me get back to you with on it, because I don't -- I -- I've got an approximate figure, and I'll -- I -- I don't want to -- to give you a -- a bad number.
STAFF: Right here.
Q: Sylvie Lanteaume, AFP. I would like to ask you a question about Guantanamo. You said recently that Guantanamo was open to receive new prisoners. What is the capacity, in terms of the number of prisoners you can receive? And also, would it make it necessary for you to request more resources?
ADM. TIDD: So without going into -- into the specifics, that -- that we have the ability to -- to receive more detainees, should the -- the decision be made to send them to us. We, I think, is -- it's pretty well understood right now. We have, in the -- less than 50 there right now, and that -- that number could probably go up. We could -- we could accommodate a small number without any additional resources. But then, as the numbers continue to go up, now we would require a larger guard force. I think that's probably the best -- And it's -- it's less the detention facility, as it would be to support all of the other, the Military Commission's activities, and the other sorts of things that -- that go on.
Q: Could it be a foreign fighter?
ADM. TIDD: You know, we don't get in the business of deciding who comes our way. We just are prepared to receive anyone that is ordered our way.
Q: More than 100, sir? If I could just follow on that. When you say smaller number, help us understand that.
ADM. TIDD: Yeah. It's, I -- I would say, probably, we could, without any additional resources, probably a couple of dozen, but not -- but beyond that, we would need to increase the size of the guard force. OK?
Q: Hi -- hi, Admiral. CNN. Can I ask you, I think you -- you mentioned a couple times a few weeks ago that you had some military families who have children that day at Stoneman Douglas High School. I don't know if they were military or civilians.
ADM. TIDD: Both, actually.
Q: Could you -- could you just talk a little bit, now that some time has passed, tell us any more details, in terms of the families -- how they're doing, you know, how many families, students, and if -- if, to any extent, you feel the incident has resonated throughout your military family community?
ADM. TIDD: You know, I -- I don't have anything new to give you on that. When it -- it's just a -- it -- We -- we recognized. We immediately reached out when -- when we heard of the incident. We knew that we had some people living in that area. I got a -- a quick headcount, and -- and -- and we were enormously blessed that -- that none of our people -- that none of the children were -- were more directly impacted. But I -- I really don't want to comment any further than that. I think that's a -- that's a local issue.
Q: Can I also ask you a different issue? The department has talked about the impact of the DACA issue on military families. Secretary Mattis has talked about it, in particular. And I just don't know -- Do you have any military, or again, civilian families?
ADM. TIDD: Let me refer you to OSD on that one. As a combatant commander, that really isn't an area that we get involved in. OK?
Q: Is MS-13 trafficking drugs to the United States, or partnering with DTOs in the region? Is there -- have you seen any change in their ability to smuggle narcotics in the United States?
ADM. TIDD: I -- I -- I think what we are seeing is a partnership of a variety of -- of -- of different criminal elements. And, depending on the country and depending on the entity, they engage in different parts of the mission set.
Sometimes, it's indirect. Sometimes, it's in the form of providing security. Sometimes, it's in the form of actual movement. Sometimes, it's directly in the trafficking.
So, without getting into kind of the -- you know, the specific details, I would refer you better to -- I think, to Department of Justice on what -- the specific activities that that entity is engaged in. OK?
Q: You mentioned, in the -- during your speech in the beginning, your comments about China operating in this hemisphere. Can you give me some examples of what you see China's doing? Is it more of an infrastructure thing? Is it more of any kind of military operations or anything like that?
ADM. TIDD: I would say largely categorized under economic competition -- engaged in very, very significant economic competition. And we've -- you know, the most noteworthy ones, I think, that have come about recently -- the significant investments that China's making in Panama.
And so both infrastructure and attempting to, I think, seal deals for -- in a variety of countries to -- for the I.T. infrastructure -- to install. And so it's just -- it's an area where, more and more, they are coming in.
The concern, obviously, that we point out to a number of countries is, with China, transparency of financial dealings is not always evident. And so, if you are concerned about how the banking deals are set up, what the terms are, what the -- whether they aide by all of the international norms and practices -- that won't necessarily be obvious, if you -- if you decide to deal with them.
So, you know, it's the standard case of -- understand, you know, who is probably going to be here long after other partners leave and make -- you know, every country is a sovereign nation and has the ability to make the best deals that they can for them. But just recognize that sometimes there's more involved than just the initial sticker price.
Q: Are you concerned with any kind of effort by China with infrastructure development it's doing in Panama -- (inaudible) something that would obstruct Panama Canal traffic or anything like that?
ADM. TIDD: I would defer to the government of Panama and to our embassy there.
STAFF: (off mic) time for one more question.
Q: I'd like to do, quick, two half-follow-up questions. (Laughter.)
One is on his question. Is there any consideration or fear, somewhere in your mind or your colleagues', of China trying to establish a base in your region?
And the second follow-up, with regards to the terrorism and the mix, you said something -- a really great quote about, you know, a kind of a mix of bad guys, of criminal elements, depending on the location. That area in South America, that triangle, that (inaudible) triangle that (inaudible) -- is it still a valid threat and concern?
ADM. TIDD: It certainly is a concern to the countries that border it. And -- that -- your first question?
Q: It's about China's influence. Is there any, really, opportunity for China to establish a military base?
ADM. TIDD: I would -- how about -- I would just say it's something that is always worth paying attention to, watching closely. We have seen China make some very interesting moves geopolitically and establish bases in parts of the world that, previously, there had -- was never any expectation that they might -- that they might be there.
So I would just say, you know, nothing -- we got to -- if we value this region, if we value our relationships, we must continue to pay very close attention to our relationships. We can't take them for granted. We've got good partners but -- but, ultimately, we -- we have to -- to be present in order to -- to compete.
ADM. TIDD: Thanks very much. Thank you all very much, I'll be back in a quarter.