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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Gen. Rodriguez in the Pentagon Briefing Room on Ebola Response

Press Operations

U.S. Africa Command Commander General David M. Rodriguez
Dec. 3, 2014
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GENERAL DAVID RODRIGUEZ: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm glad to have the opportunity to talk with you again on how the U.S. Africa Command is supporting the Ebola response in West Africa. As you know, the president's made very clear that containing the spread of Ebola is a national security priority, and we have made significant progress toward this end as part of a comprehensive U.S. government effort led by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

However, the mission is not complete, and we cannot afford to be complacent. While it is too early to declare success, Liberia has made encouraging advances in reducing the spread of Ebola. We think the biggest drivers of this progress have been the Liberian leadership in educating the public, as well as the health workers, safe burial procedures, rapid contact tracing, and the increased lab capacity to diagnose samples quickly.

From the U.S. military perspective, we have deployed to provide military support in areas like communication and coordination, engineering, logistics, and training. Our engineers are supporting the Liberians as they build improved infrastructure necessary for the response efforts, and we have transportation professionals and logistics professionals managing the movement of personnel and the delivery of humanitarian supplies.

Our military medical personnel are supporting the training of medical support staff for the Ebola treatment units, and the commanders of our military forces are assisting in Ebola response currently. Major General Gary Volesky and previously Major General Darryl Williams have ensured our servicemembers were taken care of before, during and after deploying to support this mission.

We continue to do everything in our power to address and mitigate potential risks to our servicemembers, civilian employees, contractors, and their families. In the end, our equipment, training procedures, and most of all, the leadership and discipline of our personnel will help to ensure that our team accomplishes its mission and keeps our nation and fellow citizens safe. I'm proud of the extraordinary men and women supporting this important mission, and I thank you. And I look forward to your questions.

Yes?

Q: General, do you anticipate having to mount similar operations in other countries?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Right now, USAID does not think we'll have to do that, but they're continuing to monitor that very closely. As you know, Sierra Leone and Guinea, of course, are two that are hard hit. And then there has been an uptick in Mali, so we're continuing to prepare to do those things, but as of yet, not required.

Q: What is different about those countries that would not require U.S. military assistance?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, it depends really on the international community's effort to do the things that are required. Much of it, of course, that where we provide the unique capabilities are in the communications and the coordination, as well as the logistics support and the things that we're doing in -- in Liberia.

Now, in Liberia, by the end of the year, a lot of that will start to get picked up by the civilian agencies, so we'll just have to continue to monitor that situation. And, again, USAID has disaster assistance and response teams in each of those countries, and as of today, they have not requested that support.

Yes?

Q: General Rodriguez, how have you adjusted your mission in Liberia, given the fact that rates are coming down? Will you not be building as many hospitals? How has it changed? What lessons learned, if you had to do this again in Sierra Leone or Guinea, what would you do differently? And finally, do you think that U.S. personnel still need to be quarantined when they leave?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: I think the -- as we look forward to have to do something in another country, as in Sierra Leone, I think those four things are what the international community believes are really the things that will make a difference, between a safe burial, the outreach to the people and the education and training of both the people and the health care workers, as well as the labs, so those are the things that are most important.

And, of course, the challenge to find and understand where there's a hotspot and then move the resources there quickly I think will be part of that solution. For our people, we're still collecting data. As you know, we've had several people go through the 21-day controlled monitoring, and we'll continue to watch that for the next 30 days probably, and then we'll take a look at that again to see if we have to continue to do that.

Okay? Yes, sir.

Q: General, when you were here about two months ago, you indicated that you saw the mission going about a year.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Somewhere around there, yeah.

Q: Have you revised that at all? Or do you feel like you're on track to maybe wrapping this up mid-2015?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, we could do -- we could do a little bit less than that. But, again, the challenge is, you just have to watch it very carefully and things -- either complacency or things that are not foreseen, which created the challenges in the first place, could come up again, but right now, I would say it would probably be a little bit less than that. But, again, it just depends on the situation and what is asked of us to do outside of Liberia.

Yes, sir?

Q: Excuse me. You mentioned the perhaps 30 days in review of the quarantine policy.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, there's -- yes, that was the original plan, was to take a look at that, and then 45 days into it, see how we're doing.

Q: Okay. Could you tell me what some of the criteria will be, as to whether it should be retained, modified, or just completely dropped?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's really based on the services and what they're able to do. We've had some of them go through, mainly in Europe. We have obviously the first ones back in the United States, but they haven't even been through the process and back to their homes yet, so it'll be about confidence and ensuring that the people who have had minimum risk or no risk to the disease, if they're able to do it without that.

Q: So if -- I mean, to follow up, if you found that there's been no exposure, no one has brought it back, that would be a reason to perhaps...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Then make a recommendation to take a look at it and say, yes, yes, that would. Uh-huh.

Q: General, you said a second ago you thought the timeline might shrink a little bit, depending on the breaks for this operation going forward.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

Q: Can you give us a sense of about the scale in terms of the number of people involved? How many troops are there today? And where could you get to at a potential peak down the line here?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, there's about 2,900 folks there today. That will probably be the peak. And the majority of the big engineering and logistic things in Liberia will probably, start to tail off in the end of the year January. That's when we'll, you know, again, start to send some of those people home. And most of that is about the logistics and the engineering.

Then, like I said, either we'll send them to another place if required or we'll start redeploying and send them home. Yes, sir?

Q: General, General Volesky said last month that he'd probably go to about 3,000 or thereabouts by the middle of this month.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, uh-huh.

Q: But you're saying now 2,900...

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's 2,900, yeah. Yeah, the -- yeah, he said about 3,000. It's about 2,900, and that's about the max, I think, that we foresee right now.

Q: And do you still foresee going to 17 treatment units, treatment centers?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No. Right now, they're asking for less. Again, as we have come in and done this, they have adapted the sizes, so many of them are now only 50 instead of 100, and we're down to building 10 units, instead of 17 right now.

Q: Ten instead of 17?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Ten instead of 17, based on the situation. Again, that's a decision that USAID, in conjunction with the whole international community, makes based on what they're able to do. So the intent to get in there and jump-start things is all moving in the right direction. And like I said, the World Food Programme is going to pick up a lot of the logistics here by the end of the year, and some of the other international organizations have built Ebola treatment units.

Q: You're counting on the World Food Programme? They're broke. They can't feed Syria now.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, it's a different place than Syria and everything, so they're doing all right. They have a significant logistics supply and contracting capacity to be able to pick up some of the logistics, yes.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: General, can you clarify? You said that you've gone now from 17 to 10. Are those 100 beds or 50 beds?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The first three were 100 beds, and the next seven, the last seven will be 50 beds.

Q: Okay.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Okay?

Q: General, if you'll forgive me, I'd like to take this opportunity to ask you about a different topic, which -- in your AOR -- which is Libya. I was wondering if you could give us an assessment on what's happening in the battle between General Khalifa's forces and Ansar al-Sharia. Can you give us a sense of how you see the area of particularly eastern Libya, who controls what, and what kind of grip ISIS and other extremist groups have in that part of the country?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes. The challenge in Libya, of course, is the multiple militias, the multiple governments, between the national convention, as well as the house of representatives and -- quite frankly, a lot of confusion on the ground about who's in charge and not.

The effort over there by the former General Haftar, who has been fighting in the east, as well as Ansar al-Sharia, as you said, you know, continues to go back and forth. It's about who controls the airport, who controls some of the checkpoints. That continues to go back and forth. He continued to control the airport out there.

And ISIL has begun its efforts over in the east out there to introduce some people over there. But we'll have to just continue to monitor and watch that carefully in the future to see what happens or whether it grows on unabated.

Q: Can I just follow up quickly? Control the airport, you're talking to Benghazi airport?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes. Yes.

Q: And one of the things that we've heard is that ISIS has started to move into western Libya around Tripoli. Is that something that you're seeing, as well?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: We're continuing to watch that. The intelligence community has mixed reports no that right now. But we're continuing to watch that. But most of it is over in the east right now.

Q: Can I follow up on all of that, please, sir?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Uh-huh.

Q: A couple of -- Libya, in the east. What's your assessment of how many, what kind of ISIL fighters you're seeing in the east? Do they have a network, like are you seeing command-and-control? Or are these stray people wandering in?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's mainly about people coming for training and logistics support right now. It's for training sites, and that's what we see right now. As far as a huge command-and-control network, I've not seen that yet.

Q: So you're seeing ISIS training sites in eastern Libya?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Uh-huh, yes.

Q: A -- a ballpark figure?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, the numbers are somewhere around a couple hundred is the estimate. But, again, we don't have a specific, precise assessment of that right now.

Q: Can we also get your assessment, as long as you're here, on what you're seeing going on with Boko Haram, as well as the Al-Shabaab? I mean, we're seeing a lot of violence from Boko Haram in the last several days. What do you think is going on with them? Al-Shabaab, as well. Where are they getting their support? Do you potentially see ISIS connections to either of those? Do you see new AQAP connections? Both groups, can you just walk us through your thinking?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The Al-Shabaab effort has continued to be the same as it has been with some from AQAP and mostly from the east, from that direction. They have continued to evolve their -- their tactics and techniques and procedures, so the improvised explosive devices and -- while the number's down, in the amount of attacks, the casualties are up, and they've, as you know, struck out at many of the troop contributing countries, of course, beginning with the Kenya effort in the mall, but also they have continued to make attempts at Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Uganda. And that continues to be the way that they are trying to respond to their losing of ground to the AMISOM efforts inside Somalia.

Q: And what about with Boko Haram?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Boko Haram continues to be the, you know, horrible attacks on the population in northeastern Nigeria. And, you know, we are working with both the Nigerians, as well as the surrounding countries of Chad, Cameroon, and Niger to help prevent that from continuing to grow outside the boundaries of Nigeria.

Q: Do you (off mic) connections coming in?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, the main connections there are very, very -- very -- very small and not -- most of it still continues to be local. You know, they've got a couple trainers from here and there, but there's no constant theme of, you know, who's actually supporting them.

Q: You said -- could I follow up, please? You said you were working with the various countries...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Around, yes.

Q: Doing what? Specifically...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: With help training their forces to counter Boko Haram, working with the people on the border and continuing to share intelligence of the Boko Haram threat that is spilling outside the borders, as in Cameroon and Niger and Chad.

Q: And if it was -- if it was stopped, excuse me -- I just didn't catch it -- but is the search from the air still ongoing for...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The search in the air is ongoing, and we continue to share the intelligence back with the Nigerian leadership, yes.

Q: And have they made use of it?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: They have not made much use of it. And there's not a lot of precision on where those girls are. There's just a couple of suspected areas, and it's pretty tough to get a good, solid fix on where they are, because they've been dispersed. They're in some rugged terrain. And we've just been able to get a couple, you know, probables. That's it.

Q: And what specific assets are still being used?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: We have both national assets, and we also have some manned and unmanned assets.

Q: General Rodriguez, can I just follow up on Libya? Do we -- does the U.S. have military personnel operating in Libya right now?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, we do not.

Q: And -- are you still continuing to search for any of the Benghazi attackers?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, we continue to search for the Benghazi attack network, yes.

Q: But without U.S. military on the ground.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: That's right, without people on the ground, yes.

Q: My train of though train of thought. I was going to ask you about Libya -- Liberia, excuse me, but Benghazi. Two years after the attack on the U.S. consulate, this has become still a major issue with the right-wing and Obama-haters, that the conspiracy theorists about why we didn't rescue. Two years later, what assets do you have at your disposal right now? Review the bidding. If something like that happened again, what do you have available?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: We have the FAST teams from the Marines. We have -- we have a commander's emergency response forces from the special forces. We have the special purpose MAGTF crisis response that's up in Moron, Spain. And then we have the East African response force in Djibouti.

We also have force-sharing agreements with European Command to be able to be much more responsive and quicker. And then we think we have developed an improved way to execute the indications and warnings with our interagency partners to ensure that we can move and reposition closer.

We have done that three times, for example, into Sigonella based on indications or warning. And then, of course, the reinforcement of the embassies, both by diplomatic security and the Marine security guards, as happened throughout the region, and we've done that in Libya. We've done that in Tunisia. We've done that in the Central African Republic and, of course, in South Sudan, between that time and now.

Q: You said you've taken the lessons -- the actual incident and you've kind of gamed in terms of how you do it differently.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, in coordination with the State Department, the intelligence community, and diplomatic security, yes.

Q: And on Liberia, back in October, the Army was trying to set up a communications infrastructure there, so you have a single operating picture for this desolate nation that had no communications infrastructure. Your CIO at the AUSA conference talked about sending his CENTCOM teams in there...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

Q: As non-technical as you can, what's the state of the communications there? And also, you would have an operating picture that allows you to move fast to the various locations.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's very much improved. We deployed some teams from the joint communications and support element initially, and then followed them up with communications element from the Army, and they have a very good network in there through the satellite communications now.

Q: What will stay in place after the Army's involvement...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It'll stay in place, again, as long as USAID needs us to support those efforts, and we foresee at some point in time the communication infrastructure of the nation will be able to handle most of that in the future. Okay.

Yes?

Q: Sir, I'd like to go back to something you said earlier to Jennifer about your investigation into the Benghazi attack.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It wasn't -- it wasn't our investigation. It was -- yes.

Q: The search for those who perpetrated the attack.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

Q: I wonder if you could offer some clarity, how is it you're able to go after them, given that nobody really controls eastern Libya, where the preponderance of those attackers were? There's a tit-for-tat battle going on. The Libyan government has no mechanism in place to go after those attackers and arrest them. And you don't have anybody -- troops on the ground. How is it that you're able to then go after them? And if you are going after them, it's a relatively small community. It seems that after two years there would be the capability to find and identify and bring those to justice. So I'm just having a hard time understanding...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Well, as you know, we've brought one back. And we continue to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in conjunction with the entire interagency and many international partners to continue to build the intelligence required to bring those people to justice.

Q: I guess I didn't ask it very well, but even with the ISR, even with the intelligence, is the challenge actually physically getting somebody, a suspect and getting them out of Libya, such that you can...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's hard to be able to find them at a place that we'd be able to do a mission to do it, yes.

Q: General, I want to clarify, when you say that it might be -- the overall duration of the mission might turn out to be less than a year. Are you saying that basically this summer the military mission in Liberia may wrap up?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: This coming summer you mean, yes. Yeah, it could be, yes. But, again, we're in a good position now. The trend lines are all moving in the right direction. And if that continues, as well as the international community's ability to pick up many of the missions, and the Liberian, you know, health system as it continues to rebuild itself and everything, yes.

Q: And can I -- just to follow up, so basically over the past two months, we're looking at fewer troops than initially discussed, which is the 4,000.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It was up to 4,000. And, again, as we moved in there now, you've got to understand, the situational understanding everybody had was not nearly as clear as it is now. And every day we get better at that, the whole international community effort to gain that situational understanding.

So as you know, we originally said somewhere around 3,000, could be up to 4,000. It ended up being, as I mentioned, about 2,900, and we'll continue to watch that carefully, as USAID tries to manage the effort across the entire region.

Q: Is it fair to say that as that situational understanding has grown, that this has proven to be a more manageable, less risky mission than you initially thought a few months ago?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, I don't think so. It was just really about the speed with which the international community could pick the things up that they were able to do. And what we were doing is really getting in there to help with the unique capabilities, with the speed and the ability to build stuff in places that are, you know, not in easy to get at, easily accessible areas, and then to get the logistics support out there to sustain those efforts. Okay?

And the same with the training. You know, when we went in to conduct the training, the training was conducted by many of the international organizations, and they were able to move out into the Ebola treatment units in those places, as we picked up the training. So it's just based on the situation, you know, how we're going to adjust over time and everything.

Q: General Rodriguez?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

Q: I'm unclear on the business about ISIS in eastern Libya. They're training -- receiving training or giving training there?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: They put training camps out there.

Q: Training? So these are ISIS training camps in eastern Libya?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

Q: You know, the president has said that borders are not going to be a constraint in going after ISIS, so are these potential targets?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: That policy discussion is ongoing, and we'll see how that goes. But, no, not right now.

Q: Have you recommended that you need troops or airpower to go after...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Not right now. No, we have not.

Q: So you don't think you need the troops or airpower...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: We're watching it very carefully to see how it develops and everything. Right now, it's just small and very nascent. And we'll just have to see how it goes. Okay.

Q: And I assume you're talking about recruiting and training, because there have been...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The flow of foreign fighters goes throughout that entire area. And we work with, you know, multiple combatant commands, working the foreign fighter challenges now.

Q: So are they Libyan militias that have sort of remade themselves as ISIS? Or are they people coming in from the outside, crossing into Libya who you believe are -- if you will, hardcore mainline ISIS fighters?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: I think it's just militias trying to make a name and trying to make a connection right now.

Q: So they're sort of renaming themselves...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Right.

Q: But do you take it seriously that they are adhering to ISIS?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: I don't think we have enough to make that decision right now.

Q: Do you have any approximate numbers, number of camps...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, I...

Q: ... number of individuals?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No.

Q: Do you see them migrating out of Libya once the training has completed to Syria, Iraq or anywhere else, or...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: I'm not sure we have the -- the understanding about it at this point. Like I said, it's very, very -- you know, a very nascent effort and a very, you know, not a clear understanding at this point yet.

Yes?

Q: Thank you, General. Can I follow up on Mick's question with Boko Haram? The government -- the U.S. military just stopped training on behalf of the -- request...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: At their request, yes.

Q: ... of the Nigerian government. And then you just mentioned that the ISR that you've been sharing is not really being used and they're not being very precise. How would you describe the relationship...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The ISR that we're flying doesn't give them...

Q: It's not giving them...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: ... a precise enough data to really go after it. So they'd have to continue to develop the situation further. Because of the isolated area and because of the challenges that they see with Boko Haram, they've not been able to develop that situation further. Okay.

Q: Is there a way to make this more precise and get the data to them and...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: It's a -- it's a mixture of everything, whether it be human intelligence, the image intelligence and everything, and in coordination with the Nigerian military, we have not been able to get the precise fix that, you know, they would -- they desire to take, you know, action.

Q: And there's been criticism -- the Nigerian government has wanted more from the U.S. military. What more have they been requesting? Is there more than can be given? Can you just describe the relationship between U.S. military and the Nigerian military?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The relationship between the Nigerian military and the U.S. is like many relationships in Africa. They ask us for what we need. And based on what we can provide them, we do. They have -- they have challenges, of course, with human rights that we have to watch very carefully, so the 143rd who we're training had been vetted and done all that, and everything. But it's hard to -- to get a unit that's properly vetted to really be able to help them. Okay.

Q: General, this has been going on for like seven months now, this search for...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes.

Q: You know, the American public is -- get the impression it's like a Tom Clancy novel. You could track them down after a while. Can you give a feel for why this is so difficult? I mean, the terrain...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: The terrain is tough. It's mountainous. It's very, very, you know, thickly vegetated. And, again, they're not in one place. They're in different places. They've been spread throughout the area. And so it really is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Q: Are you close at all to getting any.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Again, we have a couple places that we see that could have been, could be potentially where they are and everything, but they've been unable to get up there and develop that situation any further.

STAFF: We have just time for one more.

Q: Can I ask two quick follow-ups. When you talk about these training camps again in Libya, when we're talking about hardcore ISIS, are you seeing any Iraqi or Syrian elements...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No.

Q: ... actually going -- these are local homegrown who are bringing in and training other foreign-born jihadists or local jihadists?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, we don't know. Again, in Libya, you've got multiple Ansar al-Sharia strains. You've got the Elmor Batin. You've got a lot of different militias. You've got a lot of different organizations out there. And, again, I think what they're trying to do is, again, just work the label and get some kind of support and everything, but we don't have any precision on, you know, where the people are coming from that are being trained.

Q: And the second point is, much earlier, I mean, we're talking about not needing the full complement of troops for Liberia, you said they might be redirected elsewhere. Are you implying that they might be sent to Sierra Leone?

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, it's in the region. When we got the mission originally, it was to support the USAID in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, focus on Liberia first, see how it goes with the rest of the thing, and respond to USAID's efforts wherever they see fit.

Q: And are you seeing similar numbers of American troops in Sierra Leone or...

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: No, I think that would all be less than that 2,900 right now, because, again, the major efforts in Liberia for the military will end here in December, January, as far as the huge logistics piece and the engineering piece, which is taking most of the people. Okay.

STAFF: Okay, thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.

GEN. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.