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, everyone. 

First, I'd like to pay tribute to former First Lady Barbara Bush. Mrs. Bush had many roles with great significance to many people. To the military, she was a Navy wife, a ship sponsor, and a devoted advocate of the men and women in uniform whom she treated like family. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Bush family as they celebrate the life and memory of Mrs. Bush.

Today, I will discuss the Defense Department Cloud Initiative, and provide an update on Syria.

On the cloud, the current Department of Defense IT infrastructure is a federated legacy environment based on earlier technology. DOD's move to the cloud will rapidly deliver advantages to the battlefield by enabling new machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities. Transitioning from legacy systems to the cloud will improve security in data accessibility, affordability and performance for both the war fighter and business operations across the department. The department is best served by a highly competitive and innovative technology industrial base. We are looking for a fully-interoperable, user-friendly, affordable and secure cloud solution. 

Acquiring software is not like acquiring ships or planes, but we must adhere to the same acquisition language and laws. This contract is an example of how we are modernizing the department and reforming the way we do business. So I want to separate fact from fiction; what it is, and what it is not. 

We are conducting a full and open competition to acquire the best cloud capability for the war fighter. It is a single-award contract. It is not a sole-source contract, and is not designed with a specific vendor or company in mind. In fact, multiple vendors may form a partnership to offer us a competitive solution. It is a two-year contract with a -- with two option periods. That means the initial contract award is only two years. It is not a 10-year contract. 

The single-award strategy is appropriate today because of the current marketplace. After the initial two-year contract period, we will re-examine the marketplace and make a decision about the capabilities we need for the next option period. 

We are excited about the future of the DOD cloud. Forty-six companies have already responded to the draft RFP. We wanted competition and now we have it.

Ultimately we want the best cloud capability for the war fighter. 
On Syria, our strikes last Friday were successful in degrading Syria's chemical weapons, research and storage facilities, without a single report of a civilian casualty.

This is a testament to the professionalism and precision of the U.S., UK and French forces that carried out this mission. As we expected, Russia immediately began a misinformation campaign to hide its complicity by sowing doubt and confusion.

Following our operations, Russia falsely claimed Syria air defenses shot down a significant number of missiles, when in fact we hit all of our targets. Of the surface-to-air missiles that the Assad regime launched, nearly every one was launched after the last of our missiles hit their targets.

The Russian manufactured air defense systems were totally ineffective. Russia and the regime demonstrated the ineffectiveness of their systems against two days later when those systems engaged accidentally.

We have seen no indication the Assad regime is prepared to launch another chemical weapons attack. However, we remain vigilant. Yesterday we were disappointed but not surprised to see the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons team come under attack by small arms fire after arriving in Duma.

Assad must know the world will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances. What happens next is up to Bashar al-Assad. The strike last Friday was separate and distinct from our mission in Syria, which remains the complete annihilation of ISIS.

We remain committed to working by, with and through the Syrian Democratic Forces, who have proven the most reliable partners in the fight against ISIS. To set the conditions for local governance to take root and thrive in liberated territories.

Therefore we must maintain pressure on the remnants of ISIS in the middle Euphrates River Valley. We must also maintain the 70 nation defeat ISIS coalition in order to combat the violent terrorist group wherever it rears its ugly head.

Whether it's the Sahel, southeast Asia, Afghanistan, Europe or the United States. We will continue to support the United Nations-backed Geneva peace process and its Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. We support our diplomats who are working tirelessly to bring all parties to the table to negotiate a political resolution to the civil war that has cost far too many innocent Syrians their lives.

However, the process will continue to be stymied as long as Moscow thwarts its progress and fails to hold Assad accountable for his regime's atrocities. We call on Russia to fulfill its commitments as the guarantor of the Assad regime's obligation to abandon its chemical weapons.

And prevent the regime from ever using chemical weapons again. With that, we'll take your questions. 

Lita?

QUESTION: Two things. One, general, I was wondering if you could give us some more specific battle damage assessment (BDA) from the strikes. Dana mentioned that they did degrade chemical weapons. 

Were there chemical weapons in some of the storage facilities that you were able to assess? And do you have any further knowledge or convincing that there was sarin used as opposed to just -- what was said the other day, the suspected use of sarin? 

And then, Dana, can you tell us -- did the military and did the secretary argue for a more limited strike in Syria, with the knowledge that, perhaps, a more expansive strike might require congressional approval. 


LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.:  So I'll -- I'll begin by just referring you back to the photographs that we showed on Saturday. Those are -- those are pretty compelling, when you take a look at -- at the damage that we achieved against the three targets. 

So we assessed that the weapons hit the target, we achieved the level of success that we wanted against those three targets. We believe that there were -- there was probably some chlorine and, possibly, sarin at, possibly, all of the sites. 

As you know, we don't have access to that site. So it's hard to go in and do that -- and do that post-strike analysis, except from -- from a distance and with overhead imagery. 

So that's probably going to be an open question for a little bit of time, although we continue to look at those sites very closely through a variety of means. But I -- I would tell you, as we -- we really can't improve in the assessment that we gave you Saturday. And the image is pretty compelling, that those three targets were knocked out. 

Q: So you don't think you will have any greater knowledge or assurance that there was, indeed, sarin used (inaudible)?


GEN. MCKENZIE: You know, well, your question was, was sarin at the three sites that we struck. So we -- we believe that it probably was. We -- the careful weaponeering through plume analysis, through the modeling that we do within our targeting enterprise as we look at those targets, we're able to reduce the -- the possibility of that escaping to a very low level.

And we know, empirically, in fact, none did escape, just based on the fact there were no casualties around it. So that's sort of where we are. 

It remains -- you know, one of the targets is in downtown Damascus, so I doubt we're going to get much -- we're going to get much access to that in the immediate future, although we continue to look through a variety of means to follow up our assessment. 

MS. WHITE: And with respect to the secretary's advice and counsel, that is discreet and confidential between him and the president. However, what I can tell you is any option that the secretary provides to the president, he has confidence in. 

Ultimately, it is up to the president to decide what options we actually execute. So the secretary has provided options, and ultimately the president decided how we would do this. 

And -- and to remember, we also had two permanent members of the Security Council. This was a combined operation. And therefore -- and this was a successful mission. So the secretary's perfectly comfortable with the options that he provided. 

Jennifer?

Q: Just to follow up on Lita's question. general, you say that empirically, none did escape because there were no casualties. But couldn't that also mean that there were no chemical weapons at those sites? How do you know there were chemical weapons at those sites? 


GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. So based on all source intelligence, we assess there were some chemical weapons at those sites. None escaped that we can see. But certainly, we can't say with 100 percent certainty that that's the case. 

But we believe the absolute preponderance of the evidence is that there were chemical weapons at that site, to include -- to include elements of sarin, particularly at the Barza site. 

Q: OK. And then did Russian war ships threaten U.S. or British war ships at any time? Did you take threats from Russia seriously, that they could hit the (USS) Donald Cook? And is that why the Donald Cook wasn't used in this strike?

GEN. MCKENZIE: So at no time did the Russians threaten the Donald Cook. As you know, there were two Russian FFG, frigates, in the eastern Mediterranean. The Donald Cook was our only surface warship in the eastern Mediterranean. 

During the strike, we had a significant combat air patrol overhead of the Donald Cook, provided by U.S. European Command. So we didn't feel threatened at any point during that -- during that strike. And, in fact, no threats were conveyed by the Russians. Their activities were actually professional in that they observed the rules -- the rules of the road at sea. And the Cook was never threatened.

Q: And Dana, why was this not a NATO operation with the 29 members? Was that by design?

MS. WHITE: It was -- the fact that NATO SECGEN (Secretary General of NATO) -- there is -- we've had a lot of support from NATO. You've seen many NATO nations express support for the strikes. France and the UK were natural allies. Not only have we worked together for a long time, but we share common principles.

We had to move quickly, and France and the UK were obvious partners.

Q: But it was not because NATO allies didn't want to participate?

MS. WHITE: No, it had nothing to do with whether or not NATO allies wanted to participate. We had -- we wanted to react quickly, and the -- and UK and France were obvious natural partners. 

Tara?

Q: Thank you. (inaudible) their first question. At our briefing Saturday morning, you mentioned that you'd be monitoring the sites for any sort of -- maybe signatures of chemical weapons. Has the U.S. been able to employ any of its sensors to detect if there was any chemicals there?

And then secondly on the platforms that were used. Could we go back to the air platforms that were used? We're hearing reports that there were F-22's involved and that the JASSM's that were fired from that -- JASSM-ER'S, but ...

GEN. MCKENZIE: So let me work -- let me work backwards. The javelins that were fired were standard JASSM's. They were not JASSM-ER's. So I'd -- I misspoke when I gave that information the first time. And I think AFCENT actually clarified that and we went out and clarified it after -- after the press conference.

Any -- any U.S. fighter aircraft that were employed in this operation were employed as part of an integrated package and -- and -- and CENTCOM AOR for protection of the bombers. So no fighter aircraft penetrated further than where the B1's actually launched the JASSM's and then turned away.

So none actually went forward from that point, they were there simply as part of the integrated package.

Q: So just one quickly and then Dana, I have a question for you. But can you confirm at this time that Raptors (inaudible) provided protection for the bombers as part of that strike package?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure, I can tell you that U.S. fighter aircraft provided protection for the bombers. We'll get back to you on whether or not F-22's were used in that. I just -- I -- I just don't know that off the top of my head.

Q: And then Dana, we're hearing that one of the soldiers who has tried to join the U.S. military MAVNI program decided while waiting to be cleared for duty. And this brings up several questions about the numbers of potential U.S. soldiers who are waiting in this program to get security clearance.

Can you give us an idea of how many soldiers at this point are still kind of stuck in limbo as they wait for the different clearances, and what the department is doing to hopefully speed this process for them?

MS. WHITE: One, I can tell you that we need every patriotic heart to serve. The approximate number is around 10,000, but as you know, there were some significant security risks that were identified with the MAVNI program. 

But it's an important program, and it's important to ensure that we field the best for our military. So -- so we will continue to work with all of our partners to ensure that we can vet people effectively. And we're going to move forward quickly with respect to all of it.

Q: I just want to follow-up, the 10,000 I think is the number that have gone through since its inception in 2009. What about since the 2016 2017 members, particularly since the increase clearance procedures were announced last -- I think it was October 17.

MS. WHITE: Tara, let me come back to you on that specific window of dates. But 2016 to -- is 2016? '17.

Q: Yes, when the program was suspended and then the new rules in '17.

MS. WHITE: Absolutely. I will come back to you with that, absolutely. 

Jamie?

Q: You mentioned that the Russian air defenses were -- the Russian-made air defenses were ineffective. A point of clarification, and then -- and then a follow up question. Were they ineffective because the Russians chose not to engage them against the incoming missiles, their S-400 system? Or was it because it didn't work?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Well so -- in the attack on -- on Friday night, Russian air defenses were energized. They were scanning, they had a main state air defense aircraft up. They did not -- they did not choose to engage, so I can't speculate about why they did or didn't do that.

I can tell you though that the rest of Syrian air defense capability, which is completely Russian made, Russian designed, Russian -- Russian supported, engaged extensively and comprehensively failed. So I think -- so there's a distinction there, and I recognize that.

The Russians didn't do anything, although they're very closely allied to all the systems that the Syrians deployed to no effect.

Q: So that brings me to the policy question, which is what progress has been made in trying to convince Turkey not to go ahead with its purchase of Russian air defenses that would be incompatible with NATO and U.S. air defenses?

And find some other solution so that we don't have a situation where a NATO ally is -- is buying Russian defenses that perhaps aren't as good as ours.

MS. WHITE: Well we have talked to the Turks about the issue of interoperability. But ultimately the Turks have to decide what's in their best strategic interest, and that's for -- for Ankara to determine.

Q: ... still trying to get Turkey to not go forward with that purchase?

MS. WHITE: We continue to be in conversations about our concerns with respect to the interoperability with NATO. Right here in the middle?

Q: Hi, (inaudible) with CNBC. 

General, can you shed a little bit more light on how many aerial refueling aircraft were used, where the B-1B's deployed from, and how long everything was up in the air for the Syria strike?

And then a follow-up on North Korea.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. So we can get you the numbers on the tankers, I don't have them right now. But as you know, the way the strike starts, you watch the tankers first, you're going to build a tanker bridge. All those assets are going to be well forward.

I just don't have those numbers at the -- the tip of my tongue right now, but we can certainly come back to you with those numbers. The B-1's launched from where they're based in the CENTCOM AOR.

Q: And then on North Korea, does Secretary Mattis aware of Mike Pompeo's trip to speak to Kim Jong-Un?

MS. WHITE: As Secretary Mattis said just yesterday, it's best that the people who are dealing directly with those conversations talk to all of those issues. 

Tony?

Q: Statement about the cloud -- the cloud subject. I think -- I need you to clarify one thing, because I think you may be saying that you're signaling a major policy change here. You said the original contract -- the winner's going to get the first two years.

But if I heard you right, it's -- they're not necessarily guaranteed the second five year option and the third three year option. Am I hearing you right?

MS. WHITE: That's correct.

Q: Is there a change in strategy? Because the gestalt here was ten year, winner take all, it's in Amazon's -- they're going to get it kind of a ... 

MS. WHITE: So this goes -- so this goes back to we're doing things differently. As you know, you know, acquiring software is a dynamic situation. It's not the same as buying planes and -- and major weapons systems. So yes, that's exactly what it means.

For two years, the first two years, will be awarded as a single award contract. After those two years, we have the option to determine what happens next in that five year option period.

Q: So a second team could win the second -- the five-year option, the second -- the third year option?

MS. WHITE: That is possible. [Editor’s note: The option periods would not be awarded to a different vendor. If the department elects not to exercise an option period, then the department would determine whether a new contract action is appropriate.]

Q: For general, this is a non-cloud question. The other day you energized the world when you said that Syria retained its residual capability. It became Syria can still gas its own people. How large is the residual capability as it spread throughout the country?

And does the U.S. have a fairly good grasp on where the residual capability is located?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. So they do retain a residual capability. It is probably spread throughout the country at a variety of sites. It will be hard for them to continue centralized R&D, that facility now not existing. So their ability to -- to work and improve their product is probably going to be damaged. They're probably -- they will have the ability to conduct limited attacks in the future. We -- I -- I don't -- would not rule that out. However, as they contemplate the dynamics of conducting those attacks, they've got to look over their shoulder, and be worried that we're looking at them, and we'll have the ability to strike them again, should it be necessary.

Q: Has the -- has CENTCOM give -- been given the authority to preemptive strikes if they get intelligence they -- that there's a strong possibility, and another chemical attack using Sarin is imminent?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. I can't comment on future operations.

MS. WHITE: Joe?

Q: Thank you. In the last few hours, military officials from Iran, Russia, also from the Syrian regime met with the Iraqi -- met with Iraqi officials at the defense -- at the Iraqi defense ministry in Baghdad to discuss intelligence sharing. That's what -- that's what the statement says. I just -- I would like to know if the DOD has any comment on that. Among (inaudible) way the Iranian defense minister.

MS. WHITE: I -- I can come back to you on that, but what I would say is our priority in the region is to ensure that ISIS never reemerges. And with respect to Iran, as we've said, Iran, wherever you look, there is chaos that follows Iran. So we will continue to be vigilant, and we will work -- continue to work with the Iraqi security forces. But as far as that particular meeting, I'd have to come back you with any specifics, once I know more details about it. 

Jeff?

Q: Thank you. Has Secretary Mattis completed his review of the Niger investigation?

MS. WHITE: He has completed his review, and we are currently-- we are currently in the process of scheduling the next-of-kin notifications. [Editor’s Note: family briefings are being scheduled.]

Q: Is there any (inaudible)?

MS. WHITE: I cannot, because again, we -- we want to ensure that the families are fully briefed, and when that's complete, AFRICOM, General Waldhauser will come, as well as [SIC] MG Cloutier will also come to brief after congressional notifications and briefings have been completed.

Tom?

Q: General, can you give us a sense of what you saw through ISR and observation of the Syrian regime's movement immediately after the strikes? What -- what were they doing around the sites of the strikes? What did you see in terms of Syrian air offense coming from Russian bases, and so on?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. So it was -- I would characterize the Syrian response as confused and chaotic. They didn't -- they -- they -- they had no clear picture of what was actually happening to them. Over a period of several days, they returned to a relative state of normalcy. 

I would note that on the evening of the 16th, we noticed a spasm of Syrian air defenses where they again fired six surface-to-air missiles against no targets, and probably without any kind of fire direction, which means the missile goes ballistic, travels to either where it explodes in air, or continues forward. So that indicates a pretty serious dislocation of Syrian air defense. 

Now, I think that's a pretty consistent pattern with them.

Q: What do you think about the comparative normalcy? Does that imply that the strikes haven't actually changed anything on the ground?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, I'm -- no, I'm talking purely about Syrian air defense. I think there's -- We take a look at the targets that we hit. We don't have continuous observation on it. We -- we continue to assess. You've actually seen media just going out there and walked around the outside of some of those sites. We continue to look at the sites. We don't have a perfect picture of it, because we're not actually on the ground there. So there's not much more I can give you on that, except to tell you that as often as we can, given our ability to revisit, we look at those sites.

Q: So how -- how have the strikes changed the strategic balance of the Syrian conflict, or have they not?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I don't think we sought to change the strategic balance of the Syrian conflict with those strikes. We sought to send a lesson that it's bad practice to gas women and children. 

MS. WHITE: Barbara?

Q: I want to go back to Secretary Mattis' relationship with the White House. So yesterday, I think maybe for the first time, we saw the White House, Sarah Sanders, issue a statement about Secretary Mattis and this whole question of targeting in Syria. 

So that is sort of like the first fact on the table. We know the president wanted a strong response. He talked about, there could be -- this -- this could be the beginning of a series of responses to Syria. That from the president. 

We know that the president wanted public knowledge, quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and, going back several months, the president had publicly spoken about how he wanted quicker options from the U.S. military, respective to North Korea.

So the president has been out there several times, about the Pentagon in public. And if you go back to the statement yesterday, quite unusual. I don't think we've seen a White House statement that -- that felt -- where they felt they needed to come out and talk about the secretary. 

What's your view, Dana, on -- are the knives out for the secretary? Why are we seeing all these stories of his disagreements with the White House? What do you assess is going on? 

What's his -- can you tell us anything about his relationship with Bolton, now that they've had some time to work together? Can you give us a picture of what you see there? 

MS. WHITE: What I see is a very comprehensive review of decisions. And what the secretary has said, often, is that the president brings together people from different perspectives, and he challenges them. He challenges every assumption. And as far as his relationship, that the secretary has said, John Bolton is an American. And he can work with him. 

With respect to -- to this town, or speculation about, you know -- the secretary is focused on his three priorities. He is focused on the lethality of this force. He is focused on allies and partnerships. And he is focused on reforming how we do business. That is the secretary's focus. 

You know, he -- he believes in everyone's right to have an opinion and to write. But at the end of the day, that is his focus. 

Q: I understand that. But nonetheless, yesterday we saw the White House feel compelled enough to come out, I think, perhaps, for the first time, with a public statement on the secretary. 

So you say that the president challenges all assumptions. Is the secretary -- is the department getting its -- on these subjects, getting its assumptions challenged by the White House? I assume the answer is yes.

MS. WHITE: This department provides options. And we provide those options in a timely fashion. And every option that the secretary presents, he believes in. But at the end of the day, it's the president of the United States that decides. And the secretary has utmost confidence in all of the options that this department puts forward. 

With respect to Sarah's statement, I think that demonstrates that there are some things that are just false. The secretary's a very honest man, and we -- and he is -- he conducts himself in a very open and honest way. It simply wasn't true. And that -- and that, that is really all to it. It just wasn't true. 

Q: So the secretary has -- did present multiple options on Syria? Because the military typically would not present a single option. They would present a range of courses of action, and have the president decide. So he did present multiple options to the president.

MS. WHITE: The secretary presents several different options to the president on a number of different things.

Corey?

COL. MANNING: I think we have time for a few more questions.

MS. WHITE: Corey?

Q: Does Secretary Mattis support proposed cuts to the so-called Fourth Estate Programs that past-Chairman Thornberry has raised as a possibility? 

MS. WHITE: So we haven't -- so we are -- you know, it's pending legislation. But the secretary supports Chairman Thornberry's initiative to identify where we can find value, greater value for the American people. I think you saw our support when Congress decided to break AT&L. For many years, this department ignored that. It has shown to be a very effective way to better-manage the department.

So we'll continue to work with -- with HASC, and with the chairman to determine the best way forward. But we are going to do things differently, to begin with the cloud initiative. So -- so we look forward to working with the HASC.

Q: Were -- were Pentagon officials worked with before this was brought forward?

MS. WHITE: There is a consistent and constant conversation that goes on between the -- the staff, as well as -- here, as well as with the professional staffers on the HASC. 

Janey?

Q: Thank you, Dana White (inaudible). On North Korea, as you know, that North Korea cooperating with Syria to develop chemical weapons, then if United States and North Korea at summit talks is not working, then North Korea will be our next preceded strike?

MS. WHITE: So Janey, I -- again, I want to ensure that there's the best chance for these conversations to be successful. It's our diplomats and the White House that are leading these conversations, so I would prefer if all of these questions be -- be addressed to the department.

Q: Can you take two quick breaking news questions, things that have happened while we're in the briefing? One of them is, as the (Russian News Agency) TASS (inaudible)

MS. WHITE: Sure, Jamie. I'll take it.

Q: Well, for the general, it may be. Either one of you. But the TASS News Agency is reporting that Syria has turned over to Russia two unexploded U.S. cruise missiles that they say are in pretty good shape. Can you tell us if that's accurate?

GEN. MCKENZIE: News to me. I don't know.

Q: OK. And just one (inaudible) to you, too. But while we were in here, the president tweeted, quote, "Governor Jerry Brown announced he will deploy up to 400 National Guard troops to do nothing. The federal government will not be paying for Governor Brown's charade. We need border security and action, not words." Is -- is -- is it -- Does that mean that the Pentagon won't be providing federal funds for the deployment to California?

MS. WHITE: The -- the Pentagon will continue to support the Department of Homeland Security as they identify their needs and their requirements. We are in a support role. National Guard troops are under Title 32, and they are under the governor's command and control. The Department of Defense will stand ready to support DHS.

OK, thank you, everybody.