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Media Availability with Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis
April 30, 2018
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Good to see you all.  It's been a little while, right?

But not too long.  Some of you throw questions at me have been in the room.

We've actually had -- yes on the record.

Q:  OK.  

SEC. MATTIS:  And -- gosh, I got 32 minutes, 33 minutes or so.  What's going on?

Q:  Plenty of time.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  Could we start with GTMO (Guantanamo Bay, Cuba)?

SEC. MATTIS:  I just want you to know that I -- we have tried to set this up a couple times.  And bilaterals go long.  I don't mean by 10 minutes long.  I mean we had 45 minutes set up, and an hour and 20 minutes later we're still in the room.  

So we haven't been blowing you off.  Oh, I have, I guess (laughter) But you know things come up, OK?  Just bear with me.

So you want to start with GTMO?

Q:  Right.  Supposedly you were supposed to decide today on the policy -- new policies of bringing -- transferring people into GTMO?  

And then if you could discuss the 2,000 plus ISIS fighters who are being held by the SDF.  What's the fate of those people?  Are you just going to try to get them back to their home country?  Or are any going to come here?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, on Guantanamo, I've not seen anything come in to me today.  And usually we try to answer things in advance, so that on the day it's well resolved.  A couple days before we know where it's at.  So right now I'm not working that issue.  I'm not sure why.  I'll go back and look at it.

On the ones -- we actually -- I think the number of foreign fighters now is what I'm tracking, is well over 400.  Although, I don't even want -- they're not in our custody.  So I don't want to -- don't use that number as if it's carved in stone, OK?  I just know it's north of 400 foreign held fighters, foreign fighters who are held there by the SDF; Syrian Democratic Forces.

And those folks there we have been engaging with their home countries.  Home being the country they were a citizen of when they left to go fight.  Now, in some cases, those countries have stripped them of their citizenship, so they have a different view as far as what their status is today.  So this is not simple.  

Now that's being worked principally of course by State Department, and we're giving all the support that we can.  But so far they're all still in SDF custody at this date.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Just one more.

Q:  What about in principal on Guantanamo?  I mean, do you think it should stay open and maybe some of (inaudible) ...

SEC. MATTIS:  (Inaudible).  It's open.

Q:  Right.

SEC. MATTIS:  And I just say, it's open, and I am absolutely certain that there is not one thing going on down there that would not be in accordance with the international protocol -- the Geneva protocol.

Q:  Can we switch to ...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  (Inaudible)?

Q:  As you know ...

SEC. MATTIS:  I'll come back to that, OK?

Q:  As you may know, Secretary, last night we had two major airstrikes in Syria against -- near Hama and near Aleppo.  If you have any comment on who did that?

And also, if you have any reaction on what the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu just announced on Iran?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I'm coming straight out of a meeting.  I have not seen what -- I didn't want to take time to get briefed up.  I wanted to get down here or I was going to miss another one, because I've got one window here.

We did not make any strike into Syria last night.  Go ahead.

Q:  Did you assist with another strike?  Did you assist with any jamming of radars or any cyber ...

SEC. MATTIS:  We had nothing to do with the strike last night.

Q:  Sir, in Afghanistan ...

SEC. MATTIS:  Go ahead.

Q:  I was going to ask you about Netanyahu's presentation.

SEC. MATTIS:  He's pointing something at me, and in my line of work is (inaudible) ...

(LAUGHTER)

Q:  It's a hearing aid.  You know, I'm an old man, not like you.  But is there any -- has there been any progress in assembling some sort of ground force for Syria that would be able to provide stability after -- or whenever it is that U.S. forces draw down or even leave?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, right now, we're working with all the countries in the region that are engaged in trying to make stability a reality.

This afternoon I will meet with the United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, and at that point we'll be talking our way forward.  There's a lot of diplomatic aspect to this, as you would imagine, since that would be initially a head of state decision.  

So I'm working with Mr. -- Secretary Pompeo.  Who just -- you know, we're just getting back an account here shortly.  We'll sit down together on Wednesday morning for breakfast as we start that with them again.

But first I need to talk to Staffan de Mistura here in a couple hours, across the river and start sorting this out.

Q:  Just a quick follow up; you were questioned by Senator Graham ...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  ... during your testimony.  And he asked you about whether it would be a mistake to have no U.S. forces.  And you seemed to say that we would regret that if there were no U.S. participation in stability force.

Can you clarify that comment for us?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  Right now, again, what -- our forces are in Syria to fight under the authorization of the use of military force against Al-Qaeda and associated elements.  

And we all know that Al-Qaeda in Iraq morphed into ISIS and so it is directly under that authority and that authority alone that we are conducting Train, Advise Assist missions with the SDF. 

That said there's almost every nation in the region -- almost every nation in the region that is concerned with what Iran is doing.  And what we don't want to do, now that we are on the cusp of winning on the battlefield, in terms of taking down the physical caliphate, the geographic caliphate, we do not want to simply pull out before the diplomats have won the peace.

So you win the fight and then you win the peace.  And so we're going to be working again -- I'm meeting with Staffan de Mituras this afternoon and see where the Geneva process is and what we can do to assist.  And obviously it's mostly a diplomatic effort in Geneva, but it has a military element, which says we don't allow the ISIS to come back in the midst of all this.

So all of the -- again, this is the most complex security situation, fighting situation, whatever you want to call it, that I've experienced in several -- four decades of government service.  And so we're still working it.  And we're working it forward against the physical caliphate; at the same time, working it forward through the Geneva process.   

There isn't anything from the regime in Tehran -- the Iranian regime, that's in the best interest of the Syrian people.  I don't see them putting that as a priority forward.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Secretary, very quickly, just to confirm, you said that Iran is in compliance with JCPOA, right?

SEC. MATTIS:  Right now on JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) I'm giving my advice, as you know in the ongoing decision process that the president will come to closure on soon.  So I'd rather not go into details.  I will say that there are parts of the JCPOA that certainly need to be fixed.

Q:  On Iraq, the U.S. announced closure for CFLCC today, or earlier today.  I was just wondering what that means for U.S. troops that are currently serving in Iraq, and I have one follow.

SEC. MATTIS:  The task organization always adjusts to numbers of troops type mission.  So this is a military decision to make sure that the Command and Control element is fit for its current mission.

Q:  It doesn't indicate a reduction in force or a change of mission?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, what we do with a Command and Control element, you look at what is the mission, how many troops are there?  How much of it is from one service?  How much of it is from a multi-service?  How much is from an international effort, and then you organize the command and control accordingly.  And it's never frozen in time, it has to adjust if you -- those elements change.

Q:  And then, separately, the last time you were here you said that you would look into military spouses that are potentially increasing deportation?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  Did you get a chance to do that?

SEC. MATTIS:  They are -- we are looking at it.  We have not yet found a policy that -- that aligns with that and so, we're going to -- well, we are continuing to work it.  What's it's required us to do is go out to our forces and check, and some of that information's already been received.  Some of it, it is because there's not been a problem again , so there's a little bit of what are they talking about.  So, we're not taking that as a good answer.  We want to make certain we've got a real answer.  So that's still ongoing.  I'd been briefed and it's still ongoing, so we'll keep searching.

Q:  So can you talk about Afghanistan and this spate of attacks, especially in Kabul, and especially since General Nicholson said that Kabul was going to be a main concern as far as security as concerned?  It doesn't seem like anything has changed...

SEC. MATTIS:  So why is it a main concern in Kabul?  The Taliban, as you know, delayed announcing their spring offensive until very recently.  They were taken aback clearly by the combination of last August, say we're going to be staying .  

There have been strikes against their financial networks, and then President Ghani came out and said we're willing to talk, to negotiate and it put them on their back foot.  I think they're now trying to recover in the interim.

We anticipated that they would do their best to try to bring bombs right into Kabul.  They want them reported.  They need to international media to, basically, broadcast this going on so they can undercut through those kinds of attacks, what is -- what's obviously setting them on their back foot diplomatically, militarily.  So it's been anticipated.  There's been a number of those attacks that have been stopped.

Regrettably, they've gotten through on a few, noticed that in some cases they're targeting right down to the locations where the voting will either be going on or it's coordinating the registration.  They realize, the Taliban realize, the danger of the people being allowed to vote.

You also note that there've been a number of demonstrations from Lashkar Gah) to Kandahar to Kabul against of the violence of the Taliban, directly against them, and when you consider that, in these kind of situations, when they go out and they concentrate in a group like that, you know and I know they are vulnerable because it's impossible to always to have a ring of steel around them, or inside a protected place.  

I mean, they're actually putting themselves on the line trying to protest against the violence.  So all of this comes together and we'll have to continue to fight to protect the innocent people, as we have been, carrying the fight against the...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Can you talk about what -- what the U.S. is doing?

SEC. MATTIS:  Let me -- let me get someone behind me, OK.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, I just wanted to double check on your Guantanamo answer.  The president had given the defense department like three months to come up with a broader plan.  Are you saying that isn't -- hasn't -- isn't finished yet or...

SEC. MATTIS:  We'll get it done, okay.

Q:  No...

SEC. MATTIS:  We'll get it.  Listen, we're pretty good at getting things done, okay.

Q:  No, I know.  I wanted to make sure ...

SEC. MATTIS:  Go ahead.

Q:  What do you account for the high-profile ISIS attacks in Afghanistan?

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

Q:  ISIS attacks in Afghanistan?

Q:  Yes, today it was in ISIS.

Q:  What's the state of ISIS?

SEC. MATTIS:  (Inaudible) for ISIS.

Q:  Kabul, it was ISIS.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

STAFF:  When all of the journalists went...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  But ISIS also takes advantage of these -- it's not -- you can break them apart in terms of  what organization they're part of, but their goal is to destabilize the elected government and open the door -- and they're not all ISIS, by the way.  Some of the attacks have been Taliban -- for example, the one in Lashkar Gah, I'm pretty sure, was Taliban.  I'll check on that.

But no, this is the normal stuff by people who cannot win at the ballot box, so they turn to bombs.  I mean, this should be completely expected.  It's what they do.

Q:  Is -- I guess my question was that -- what is the state  of ISIS in Afghanistan?  Are they taking advantage of a weakening Taliban?  And why are they --

SEC. MATTIS:  In some cases, they're fighting the Taliban.  We've had very good effect on them here for several months, now, in a number of locations.  And so I can't give you a quantifiable answer, other than to say they've taken a pasting  here, for a while.  

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  On North Korea, what signs will you be looking for over the next two or three months to see basically if -- whether this scenario is going to play out?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, I mean, the -- what we would be looking for with our allies, the ROK and the sending states , is any indication, military-wise, if there's a lessened, you know, offensive orientation -- you know, just the normal stuff that we look for.

But, right now, I would just tell you that we see no indicators or warnings of an increased military readiness or anything like that.  You know, on both sides, it's pretty calm.  

Q:  Were you surprised at the announcements by the north and the south?  Or were you pretty much up to speed and you knew it was coming? 

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I don't keep a crystal ball.  Like, any -- none of us have one.  And so I just wait and see, see what happens.  And, so far, the diplomats in both countries seem to be in the lead, which I think is good, and our diplomats and theirs, as you're now aware -- now-Secretary Pompeo, but as director, he had flown in -- 

Q:  Right.

SEC. MATTIS:  -- to help set this up.  And, of course, obviously, I knew about that -- 

Q:  Sure.

SEC. MATTIS:  -- when it was being planned and when he flew in.  So, you know, it goes forward.  Like I told you before , it's diplomatically led, and it -- what I was  saying six months ago remains the case. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  -- when you look at the actions by Kim Jong-un in those meetings, and then you think about what he had done previously, with -- you know, kind of killing his own uncle with an anti-aircraft weapon or whatever -- however that happened, and then using a chemical weapon against his brother, how do you reconcile those two images of him?  

And do you -- do you think that there's a play here that's actually a play to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea or maybe peel away sanctions against China, and it's not so much about striking a deal with -- 

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Slow down.  You've been taking it too far -- (Laughter.) 

First of all, I don't reconcile.  I deal with how it's -- how it develops.  But there's no wedge between us.  I spent an hour on the phone -- I'm -- no -- nothing less than that -- an hour on the phone, Saturday morning, with my counterpart in Seoul, Minister Song.  

We -- and we have maintained that level of what I'd call collaboration or consultation throughout this period, where we're constantly getting all the details, both in advance -- what they're -- anticipate, and then what actually happens.  And we get that feedback almost immediately, by the way.

So the alliance is as strong -- if anything, the impetus of this, now, added to the military alliance, is actually strengthening the U.S. and ROK.  

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Mr. Secretary, ISIS has claimed these attacks in Kabul.  Do they have the initiative in Afghanistan?

SEC. MATTIS:  No. 

Q:  Sir --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  -- …I meanto set up a bomb among innocent people is --

Q:  But they keep managing to do it. 

SEC. MATTIS:  What would you suggest?

Q:  People care about what you think, not me.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Go ahead. 

Q:  Secretary, Turkish foreign minister was talking about an agreement between the United States and Turkey on model Manbij.  And then we also in the Brussels meeting, he also said that this Manbij model will be applied to the Eastern Syria as well.  Are you aware of any model? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, those negotiations are ongoing as we work with our NATO ally over an issue that we got differences of opinion on still going on, those are still going on.  And our -- I have -- I'll just tell you, I'm kept informed of how they're going, but I'm not prepared to talk about them. 

Q:  One quick thing on Syria, in the eastern part of Syria.  There was incident over the last couple days where Syrian forces attacked couple of villages, took them, SDF took them back.  And then the U.S., I'm told...

SEC. MATTIS:  It was specifically pro-regime forces.  

Q:  Were they Syrian forces or pro-regime?  What -- do you know?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Well...

Q:  Were they Syrian military or is it…  

SEC. MATTIS:  As I understand it, they were -- they were Assad's -- elements of Assad's effort.  Now, who they specifically were, were they Lebanese Hezbollah, were they Syrian Army, were they some other element of the Syria force?  I don't know.  But they were -- they were Syrian regime forces as I understand it right now.  

Q:  Right.  So they took a couple of villages, the SDF took it back. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes. 

Q:  And then I'm told the U.S. had to fire one artillery round basically, shot across the bow toward those Syrian forces to basically tell them to knock it off.  

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't know that that happened. 

Q:  This comes -- this comes -- this comes on the heels of what the Russian mercenaries did back in February.  And I'm wondering, are you concerned now...

SEC. MATTIS:  Well it's not really on the heel, like you say, it was back in February.  

Q:  Well, February. 

SEC. MATTIS:  And a long that deconfliction line on the ground, there's always some pushing and shoving that's happened, most of it relatively insignificant. 

Q:  But the question is as they -- these forces move more and more east, are you concerned them coming in contact with U.S. forces? 

SEC. MATTIS:  That's been a concern ever -- ever -- everyday in Syria for a year now, that I can speak to.  We always watch that closely.  And again, ladies and gentlemen, as you're aware, the deconfliction communication line between the U.S. and the Russian high command in Syria has remained up and operating.  And between our chairman, the Joint Chiefs and General Gerasimov.  These are -- these are open, never interrupted lines of communication.  That's the way we deconflict some of this.  

But at times too, you know, these things have happened repeatedly over the last year, I can speak to.  And we'll just have to watch them closely, concerned, no, but we keep a very close eye on them. 

(CROSSTALK)  

SEC. MATTIS:  OK, yes. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, thank you.  The -- the allegations against Rear Admiral Jackson, a lot of miscommunication there, a lot of uncertainty over what actually happened.  Does that need to go to DOD I.G. (Inspector Genreal) or has it? 

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't -- I don't know that right now.  And I should have known it.  Matter of fact, I was going to get briefed before I came down and I forgot because I was running out of a meeting.  I don't know right now.  There's a very set rule about any allegations against flag officers.  That's admirals or generals.  And I  just don't know where that stands.  And, Dana, if you could back down in a minute, come back up with me and I'll see if we can get answer for you.  OK.  I should have had that.  I should have known that. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, do you have any indication that President Trump wants to withdraw from Afghanistan?  

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  I mean, we're there to do a job.  We're not there to stay forever, but the job comes first.  The NATO mission is -- matter fact, we have a number of nations adding forces as we speak.  I think you're aware plus in Syria that the French added forces in Syria.  I mean, now the missions are on track. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, go ahead. 

Q:  At SASC (Senate Armed Service Committee) last week you asked for a national security waiver to the Russia sanctions law.  I'm wondering though, would you consider all the countries you listed were legacy, had legacy Russian equipment, would you consider granting such a waiver or would you be interested in one for Turkey if they asked (inaudible)? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Look, the question is, there was a law passed, it did not a have a national security waiver that said if a country buys significant Russian equipment, I forget the specific wording, then we could not sell any of our equipment there.  And I asked that a national security waiver authority be given to the secretary of state, not to me, so that there would also be an internal control over what I think ought to be done.  I would have to go across the river and I'd have to make the argument there.  

I think that's a health way to set it up to carry out the spirit of the Congress without finding ourselves basically painting ourselves into a corner.  I don't want to say which countries we would use or where we would we use  because there's a multitude of factors, where I could make a criteria and then I would violate that criteria because of the specific -- each -- each country would be an individual case.  So I really don't want to even speculate on that. 

Q:  OK.  So I'll follow up then.  Isn't that law kind of a helpful deterrent, another item in, like, the U.S. arsenal?  It's just swayed Turkey from falling through on that buy right now.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  Yes, I'd rather not, you know, go into.  Number one, I don't have the authority or authority hasn't been granted to Sec State.  And I've written to them probably, I don't know, couple weeks ago asking for it and then I brought it up publically there at the open hearing.  

Q:  Can I ask...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  In the back, all the way in the back, you've been very patient. 

Q:  Would -- do you think allowing Israel to (inaudible) a freer hand in terms of air strikes, military action in Syria would allow the U.S. to check Iranian sort of aggression in the country while still allowing U.S. forces to adhere to the AUMF standards? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, Israel makes its own sovereign decisions and I don't see us frankly having any role in that, those decisions.  

Q:  Can I ask you a (inaudible) question, sir. 

(CROSSTALK) 

STAFF:  Time for one more question.

Q:  Sir, can I just follow up with that, you met with the Israeli defense minister...

SEC. MATTIS:  I did, yes. 

Q:  ...last week.  Did he present any information that suggest would to you or any evidence that you found that the Iranians are not in compliance with the deal -- with the nuclear deal? 

SEC. MATTIS:  We -- the Israeli minister of defense and I discussed a host of issues, that was not one of them.  

Q:  Did you discuss any -- there -- anymore concerns that the Israelis have on the ground in Syria that Iran is...

SEC. MATTIS:  We did -- we talked about Syria at some length and what is going on there.  What Assad's doing to his own people and certainly what the Iranians are doing with their own proxy forces there.  So we -- we -- what I wanted to do is make certain that I was taking advantage of any appreciation to situate any assessment of the situation that they had to make certain I knew what I was reading was similar to what they saw.  And it was very, very much aligned. 

Q:  Was the minister concerned that they -- that the Iranians on the ground in Syria might start attacking Israel?  

SEC. MATTIS:  That's always been a concern.  But absolutely, the Iranian forces, you know, have (inaudible) or the proxy forces have tried to get down closer to the Israeli border, I mean, very close to it.  And you've seen Israel take action over that.  So yes, it -- absolutely.  

Q:  And do you believe that is a greater threat yourself reflecting on what they told you?  Do you think it's a greater threat?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I don't want to -- I don't want to put that -- those into words either way.

I think is we've got to look where Iran is, whether it be Yemen or the attempt to get explosives into Bahrain and the eastern province of Saudi, or it's up in Syria, or what they've done in Lebanon.  I don't think for example, as the Iraqi people come close to their election, I don't think the Iranian regime put any kind of priority on what the Iraqi people need or want.  They've got their own purposes for what they're doing.

Go ahead.

Q:  Are you satisfied the Iran nuclear deal can handle accusations that Iran is cheating?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  And do you see any evidence that Iran has been cheating on the Iran nuclear deal?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I don't want to go into details on that.  We're getting into the area where I give advice, OK.

Q:  But you are satisfied that deal is strong enough to be able to handle the, like, verification methods, accusations that Iran is cheating, it's strong enough to handle this?

SEC. MATTIS:  That's a good question.  I'm not going to answer right now.  I've read this -- I've just read it for the third time here about 10 days ago, and I've got a -- dog-eared a number of places where I'm going back through it.

Q:  On Capitol Hill you said it was robust, Mr. Secretary, I was just hoping…

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes. (Laughter.)  Yes.

Q:  Can I ask you a cell phone question, sir?

SEC. MATTIS:  All right.

Q:  You've been reviewing the cell phone issue for several, several months. (Laughter.)

This is something that's going to impact us potentially.  Have you decided which way you're leaning?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.

Q:  And is it something that security-wise...

SEC. MATTIS:  You know I'd never tell you where I'm leaning (Laughter.)

No, I've not made a decision on it, and I recognize, as a matter of fact, because of some of you who talked to me, we are going to consider your connectivity too as we make this -- yes, I wouldn't -- frankly, I think about other things generally.  I don't (Laughter.).  Sorry, but I don't (inaudible) -- but thinking of you, lovely people (Laughter.).

But when you all -- several of you saw me in the hallway about to explain the (inaudible).  We're going to take that into account.

Now maybe there's a way I can, you know, make sure that you got a way to, you know, use them inside (inaudible), when it's cold or raining or something, I don't know.  

But there's also a continuity of connectivity I recognize you need, so we're looking at that.

Q: But for the rest of the department, what kind of an impact could they see?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, I’m going to treat y'all the same (Laughter).

Q:  So we don't get a waiver (Laughter.)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, I've got -- I really have to get back upstairs now, or this (inaudible) my chief of staff won't let me come down.