Department of Defense Press Briefing by Rear Adm. Kirby in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. I do not have any announcements today, so we'll get right to questions.
Q: Admiral, can you bring us up to date on the training program for Syrian rebels in terms of when those 400 U.S. trainers would go, and which country they would go to, and the status of the vetting program?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: So basically everything.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: What I can tell you, Bob, is that General Nagata continues to work this very, very hard. I think what you can expect is several hundred U.S. troops being sent over there in a training capacity to the various sites that are still being established and prepared.
I think you'll start to see orders for some of those troops over the next four to six weeks. Some could be given orders very soon, perhaps as soon as within the next week or so. But they'll flow in, I think, over the next four to six weeks.
I'm hesitant to give an exact number on that because I think some of the sourcing solutions are still being worked out, but several hundred is about the right range. And they'll be spread out accordingly, apportioned to the different sites. Again, it'll depend on the requirements and the -- and the site preparations.
I think it's also important to note that there will be significant contributions from partner nations in this as well.
Now, I can't give you an exact number there. Each country's going to have to speak for that themselves. But in addition to some countries hosting the training, which again, we're grateful for, we expect that there will be countries that will also contribute trainers to this effort and -- and to complement ours. So, it's not just going to be a U.S. effort.
There will also be, in addition to, you know, back to the U.S. side, in addition to the several hundred trainers that we think we'll need to provide to this effort, I think you can expect to see there'll be additional U.S. servicemembers going in a support capacity, and what we traditionally call enablers, that kind of thing.
So, I don't know. Again, some of these sourcing solutions are still being worked. No orders have been cut as we sit here today, so I can't get into any specifics just now. But I think -- and as you know, we always do, as orders are cut and as troops are deployed, we'll make the appropriate announcements at the right time.
But the main -- the main point and to your question is that the progress continues on this. You know, we read out the meeting that General Nagata had in Istanbul with some of the leaders of the Syrian opposition. He -- his -- his takeaway from those meetings were that they were positive, optimistic. He felt he learned a lot about them and about their interest in this, and it was clear to him that they do have an interest in contributing to this, in other words contributing trainees to -- to this program. So there's -- there's interest on their part. And he's optimistic that -- that things are moving in the right direction.
Q: How far has the vetting gone?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The -- there has been no active recruiting yet.
That said, he has -- they are working with the Syrian moderate opposition leadership to identify potential Syrian moderate groups from which recruiting could occur, but no recruiting has actually yet started. No trainees have been identified and enrolled in this program just yet.
But again, he felt very optimistic that if everything stays on track, and that's a big if, that he believes that training could begin as early as this spring.
Yep. We'll go over here. Barb.
Q: Different subject. Is -- we've all seen what has unfolded in France and Belgium. What concerns does it raise now that by all accounts, we have now seen ISIS loyalists who have gone to Syria and in fact been able to make their way back into Europe, have gone to work with AQAP, and have made their way back into Europe?
What concerns does it raise for you that this reality has now taken place and in both ISIS and AQAP? Is there any thinking going on about whether you could -- you guys could do anything additional, different, to try to keep a lid on that threat?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, without getting into the specifics of two incidences which are either under active investigation or still being pursued by Belgian authorities. So, I don't have direct knowledge about the specific links between the perpetrators in those two incidents, or alleged perpetrators and AQAP or ISIL. In other words, I can't speak to the degree to which they did or did not get support, financed, resourced, directed.
All that aside, Barb, we've been very clear since the beginning of this that the -- the threat of foreign fighters, that threat that foreign fighters could pose to the homeland and to the homeland -- homelands of our partners and allies and Western countries remains potent and real. This ideology, particularly the ideology espoused by ISIL, is potent and very attractive to a body of young men in particular.
And we've never -- we've been very clear-eyed about that threat. Never tried to underestimate it. And it is -- it remains a serious concern.
And as you might imagine, we work every day. This conflict aside, we continue to work. And one of the 9/11 is that we need to continue to work closely with our interagency partners, particularly the Department of Homeland Security, to share information and to collaborate as much as possible.
The -- the threat of foreign fighters is not a threat that's going to be solved purely by military means. There are military components to it. There are some things we can do, such as fighting this enemy and helping our Iraqi partners fight this enemy over there. But it is something we're mindful of all the time.
Q: Is there a potential hacked tweet out there you want to address?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: A hacked tweet? Are you talking about the one about the USS George Washington? Yeah. I can -- I can assure you and everybody else that the George Washington is safe and sound in a dry dock getting some needed maintenance done. She has not been attacked by anybody.
Q: Admiral, just to follow up on that question. French President Francois Hollande said to the crew of the French aircraft carrier that's supplying right now that he indicated that the attacks in Paris are linked to the work that they're about to go and do. He said that the situation justifies their deployment.
I wonder if this building agrees with that logic, and whether there's any sense among American forces as well that the ongoing campaign in Iraq and Syria is -- is somehow linked to what happened in Paris.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Linked -- linked to what happened in the specific attack in Paris and the connection back to the campaign?
I mean, look, I mean, we don't know the degree to which -- or at least I don't know, and I don't have insight into the French investigation to the degree to which those individuals were directed or specifically resourced. I mean, I've seen that ISIL has claimed, you know, credit for this. I have not seen anything that indicates a direct link in that regard, a tangible link.
But I also think to some degree that discussion is fairly academic and -- and not -- and not completely relevant. The fact is that, or at least the evidence so far indicates, that at the very least, they were inspired by the ideology of ISIL. And we know that Al Qaida in particular, and I know that Al Qaida is considered a separate, you know, entity here. But we know that Al Qaida and other radical Islam -- Islamist groups desire to inspire and incite violence.
And so whether it was directed and tangibly resourced or whether it was simply an inspirational attack, you could argue that -- that Al Qaida achieved a goal, right? Because they got the -- at the very least, motivated them to do this.
So, I can also assure you that over the last 13 years, nobody in uniform anywhere in the world has ever forgotten what happened on 9/11 and the violence perpetrated by terrorists since then. And the linkage of that to what they're doing all around the world, particularly in the Middle East.
So yes, the short answer to your question is of course they see the connections between what happened in Paris and what potentially could've happened in Belgium to what they're doing in Iraq and Syria when it comes to fighting violent extremism, which we have been engaged in for, again, more than a decade.
Q: And just do you have any details on what the French aircraft carrier's contribution is going to be to the coalition effort in Iraq and Syria?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, we're certainly grateful to have it contributing to the effort. I -- I couldn't speak specifically to everything they'll be doing every day, but obviously an aircraft carrier can provide great agility, flexibility, and firepower from the sea. And again, we look forward to once again operating with our French allies.
And again, I think I'd point you to the French and the French navy to speak specifically to what the ship will be doing, but in general an aircraft carrier is a very potent military instrument.
Q: Just on the trainers. Given that you're also going to have enabling troops as well, is it -- is it pretty realistic then to expect about close to 1,000 U.S. personnel in the end in the training effort for the Syrian opposition?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Dan, I'm resident to -- reticent to give you an exact number. I think several hundred trainers. I think you will also look at -- it could be about a like number of enablers and support personnel. So all told, the number total for this mission could approach 1,000. It might even exceed that. I would -- I can't rule that out.
But again, let's -- we need to be careful about numbers here, because they will change. And again, the sourcing solutions are still being worked out.
And as -- as I said, as we -- as we get better fidelity on this, and as units get orders to go, we'll make sure that you know.
Q: And then just to follow up, how soon will then those moderate Syrian rebels actually be on the ground fighting?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: How soon? Well, we've said all along, this -- the training could take at least several months before they would be in a position to -- to head back into the fight. It's hard to say.
I mean, if the training is able to start in March, you could be looking at some opposition groups, you know, getting back into Syria and into the fight you know, before the end of the year. I think that's certainly a possibility, but we've got a lot of work to do before we're there.
Q: (off mic) Afghanistan. Could you please update about General Campbell, NATO commander in Afghanistan. There is a different report published about the ISIS. Some Afghan authorities say that yeah, they are sure, ISIS show up in Afghanistan. And the general said, no, he hasn't seen any evidence. In case of ISIS, do up in Afghanistan, what will be U.S. reaction? Because it's really big concern for Afghans.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't think General Campbell said no he hadn't seen any. I think he said it's something that they're watching and they're mindful of, and that -- I mean our assessment is that if -- and I have seen no evidence here that there is any significant ISIL presence in Afghanistan or a strong recruiting effort. But we can't rule that out either.
And that's what General Campbell, I think, was talking about. And we're certainly watching that very, very closely. This is a -- this is a group that has not only does it espouse a brutal ideology, but they're -- they're somewhat evangelistic about it, and they want to grow, they want to increase, they want to inspire others, so we couldn't rule it out that they might not -- that they might, that they wouldn't -- we couldn't rule out that they wouldn't try in some way to inspire or to attract recruits from Afghanistan or from -- from the Taliban.
But the general also said, and he's right, I mean the Taliban and their -- their ideology, if you will, is different from ISIL. They have a -- you know, they, it's a completely different strain. And they see themselves a part of the future of Afghanistan. They have wanted to govern Afghanistan since, you know, since they lost power in the early 2000s. It's a different mindset altogether, a different organization. But we can't rule that out, and I think that's what the general was referring to.
Q: Could you give us an update on the troops in Jordan? I think it was about a year ago we heard there was, I think, 1,500 troops and an Army headquarters unit deploying over to Jordan to help the Jordanians, maybe train some Iraqis. Who -- how many troops are still there and what are they doing?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: You're right, we have a great relationship with Jordan, as you know. That does involve cooperation with exercises and operations that -- that our presence in the region and in Jordan fluctuates depending on the requirements and the needs of these exercises.
I'm not at liberty right now to discuss the specific number of U.S. troops that are in Jordan. I think we're going to respect host nation sensitivities in that regard.
Q: Can you say what they're doing without the number? Are they -- are they training Iraqis? Are Iraqis being brought into Jordan to train with U.S. trainers there, or?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: There is an Iraqi training program in Jordan. But I'm not going to detail the specific numbers of U.S. troops in Jordan or detail specifically what they're doing. Again, we want to respect some host-nation sensitivities there.
Q: Admiral Kirby, in addition to what you said about training the moderate Syrian opposition, what is the number of the Syrian fighters who -- who will be trained in the beginning? Do you have any idea?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well Joe, we haven't even begun recruiting them. And so what the -- the program has been established. And General Nagata is pursuing it to achieve about a capacity of 5,400 trainees over the course of the first year. That's -- we've testified to Congress about that. Nothing has changed about that being the goal.
Q: In the same context, about Turkey's role, we heard many times in this building that Turkey is cooperating with the United States in countering the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and countering ISIS influence. Today, the Turkish prime minister blamed the French authorities for letting Charlie Hebdo publishing the cartoons.
I would like to hear from you, what's the Pentagon's position in regards to those comments. I mean, he said that publishing the cartoons has nothing to do with the freedom of expression. Does this building agree with Turkey in regards to what he said today?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well first of all, it's not the habit of the Pentagon to speak to state-to-state relations here. That said, nobody works harder, nobody sacrifices more than the men and women in uniform for the right of free speech and expression. It's central to who we are and why so many of us signed up to do this.
And we stand with the people of Paris and with France on this and will continue to do so. So no, we wouldn't associate ourselves with an opinion by anyone that would blame the publishers of Charlie Hebdo for what happened to them. We would find that sort of blame to be completely inappropriate, if not just downright wrong.
That said, everything you noted in the first part of your question about our relationship with Turkey is accurate. We are grateful for Turkey's contributions and for the contributions that they intend to continue to make to help us in this anti-ISIL campaign. And they've agreed to host a training site. They've agreed to contribute trainers to that effort at their site. And there's a -- lots of other ways in which we're working with Turkey against this very real threat.
So, while we wouldn't associate ourselves at all with that sentiment, it doesn't change the fact that Turkey is still a NATO ally and a close friend in the region, and a reliable partner in this effort.
Q: Can I ask you about Boko?
How would you characterize the relationship between the United States and Nigerian militaries? And is there a rift? And if so, how is that affecting the effort to reign in Boko Haram, particularly in light of the Baga massacre?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I wouldn't say at all that there's a rift, Helene. We continue to work with elements of the Nigerian military to improve their capacity to deal with the threat posed by Boko Haram wherever and however possible. So again, this is -- as so many counter-terrorism efforts are, I mean, it fluctuates over time. Intelligence changes over time. Your ability to assist one another ebbs and flows based on other requirements.
But nothing has changed about our commitment to continue to work with the Nigerian armed forces against this threat.
Q: But they canceled training exercises with the U.S..
REAR ADM. KIRBY: And we said we regretted that. And yep, we said we regretted that.
Look, I mean, this gets almost back to Joe's question. I mean, even friends sometimes disagree. So, while we certainly regretted that some of that training, you know, got canceled because we thought it would be useful, doesn't mean that you know, you -- you cast aside the entire relationship for that.
Q: Is it affecting the part for the effort to reign in Boko now? Do you feel like -- Boko now, do you feel that the U.S. military has enough visibility, are you getting enough cooperation from the Nigerians?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We continue to work at this relationship. We're satisfied that things are moving in a healthy direction. Doesn't mean that we don't recognize that things could be improved or could -- or could go better, that -- the training that didn't occur would've been helpful to have had occurred, but we're -- you know, this is a relationship, and you have to continue to work at it.
And we're committed to doing that.
Q: Follow up.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah?
Q: What's the Pentagon's assessment though, of the massacre, about this number of 2,000, and about -- just the general threat level now in the last week or two? There's a lot of -- a lot of questions of -- of --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah.
Q: -- what's the U.S. response, what's the Pentagon's response to the Paris attack?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I haven't seen any --
Q: I mean, that's kind of --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I haven't seen anything independently that would challenge the assessment of the scope of the massacre, and I wouldn't -- I don't know that it would even be appropriate to get into whether we think that that number is right or not. It obviously is violence on a horrific scale, which of course, we condemn.
And it's -- it's just a grim reminder, but a serious reminder of how important this relationship is and how much we need to continue to work at it.
Q: Is the U.S. paying enough attention to this? This group can conduct that kind of a level of massacre, and it's as serious a terrorism --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well the question --
Q: -- group as the U.S. claims --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, the question implies that -- that it occurred because we were negligent in some way, and I think I would take issue with that. I mean this is -- again, this is a relationship that's important. We continue to work at it. We have a counter-terrorism presence there. Again, it ebbs and flows. You want to do as much as you can to -- to stem this kind of violence and to prevent it when you can. It's not always possible.
Q: What has been the U.S. response out of AFRICOM, if any? What's changed? What's been moved? What's --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'd have to point you to AFRICOM on that, Kevin. I don't have any details since these recent events to -- to offer you in terms of anything that's changed. And I -- I wouldn't want to speak for them in this -- in this regard. But I'd point you to AFRICOM for more on that.
Q: Admiral, two quick follow-ups please on the Syria training mission. First, what steps are the troops you're preparing to send going to take to protect against insider attacks, because they're bringing in people off the street basically to give them weapons and train them to fight?
And two, I know you can't tell us about how many troops are going to go, but what kind of troops are going to go? Are these Army Green Berets?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No.
Q: Are they going to come from across the joint force? What is that force going to look like when you start to push it out?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay. Let me try to take the -- one at a time. First of all, I want to challenge your assessment that we're just going to take people off the streets. There is going to be a significant vetting program in place, multi-layered, and one that is implemented over the course of the training to make sure that we're dealing with -- with individuals and with units that are trustworthy.
Does that completely eliminate the threat of insider attacks? Absolutely not. Regrettably, we have quite a bit of experience at dealing with that particular threat. And without getting into specific force protection or rules of engagement with you, I can assure you that a component of the U.S. personnel that will be applied to this mission will be applied in a force protection capacity.
In other words, there will be trainers, but there will be force protection security personnel that will accompany and be along throughout. We've learned the hard way that you know, that's something we've got to be ever-vigilant on.
And I'm sorry, your second question? I knew I was going to forget it.
Q: What kind of troops are going? Will they be --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, yeah.
I think -- I think you can expect a mix, Phil. Again, we -- sourcing solutions are still being worked out, but I think it's fair to say that some of the trainers will be special operations forces. These are troops that are -- this is a core mission for them. They're very, very good at it, and it would be foolish and imprudent not to employ their skills in this.
But I also think you can expect to see conventional forces as well applied to the mission.
Q: How many training sites have been identified for this training mission? And why is this vetting process taking this long?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't know the exact number of sites. There are -- there are three countries that -- that we've talked about hosting sites. It is possible then, in one or two of those countries, there may be more than one site. I'd point you to CENTCOM for more detail on that. I just don't have that level of fidelity. And -- and we're looking at other sites in other countries in the region as well that -- that we're still working through.
So at the very least, we've got three countries that we know -- and that we can -- you know, and have publicly talked about supporting this.
As for your second question, this is hard stuff. First of all, the -- we need some of the authorities that -- that from Congress, which now we have going into the year. So, that was a little bit of a problem in terms of getting started.
General Nagata just met this week in Istanbul with Syrian opposition leadership. He also met with civil society leaders, which he found very, very useful. There's a lot of good people in Syria on the civil society front that are doing a lot of -- you know, lots of hard, dangerous work inside Syria.
But this was an introductory meeting. It was a chance to better understand the challenges that the opposition leadership is facing itself in organizing groups and units and a chance to wrap our arms around the scope of the recruiting mission and how difficult it's going to be.
But as I said to Bob's question, the general came away optimistic that the Syrian opposition leadership wants this program as badly as we do. They want to help us get the right groups and individuals into it. And he's confident that if things continue to move on track, the dialog continues as healthily that it has been, that we can do it this spring.
And I want to just -- I don't know if you asked about this, but I want to talk a little bit about vetting. And the vetting, as I said to Phil, it's not just a single pass and go. So, there'll be -- first of all, we're very good at this, because we've had to learn how to vet when we have trained other foreign military forces in the past.
But we're also going to rely on information and intelligence that are provided by the intelligence community and by partners in the region to include Turkey. People who know these groups as well and can provide good, third-party assessments of some of these opposition groups and some of these units, I'm sorry, some of these individuals that would participate in the training.
That's going to, you know, stitching together that network of information takes a little time, and you want to be careful. It's more important, and we've said this before, that we get this right rather than get it fast. There's -- there are significant risks if you get it wrong.
And the second point I would make is you can't look at vetting as a -- again, one and done. Okay, you're vetted, you're in. Have a nice life. They're going to be continually vetted throughout the process. The training will be not unlike the training regimen that's being set up in Iraq for Iraqi forces: a building block approach. Now, opposition members aren't a uniformed army the way they are in Iraq, so they'll -- the baseline will probably have to start at a much lower level of military skills and development, but it'll be a building block approach.
And as a unit or individuals or both process through, they'll be vetted again before they're allowed to proceed to the next level of training. It'll be very, very organized. We know how to do this.
And -- and what we've learned about doing this is it takes time and you have to be methodical.
Q: Do you have any idea of how many -- you said foreign military's going to be also participating in this training. Do you have any numbers on that and how many -- how many troops, foreign troops would be involved in this training?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No. I don't have the exact numbers now. That's all being worked out. I think you could be, you know, it could be in the hundreds from other countries. The -- the nations who have agreed to sponsor sites have also agreed to contribute trainers to it. The exact numbers are still being worked out, and there's a couple of other countries to that have agreed too, and I won't speak for them and their -- their commitments.
Q: How about the number of countries as opposed to the number of trainers. How many other countries besides the U.S.? 10? Five?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Right now, a couple.
Q: A couple?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah. Two others.
Q: Can I ask about Ukraine? The U.S. ambassador to OSCE said today or yesterday our information shows that hundreds of pieces of military equipment, including tanks and rockets, have flowed from Russia into Ukraine since the Minsk agreement. And he went on to say these events confirm what we've seen since January third, an increased push by Russia and the separatists. It supports to not only consolidate their territory, but cross the ceasefire lines.
Is there anything you can tell us from this building that you've been seeing?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I would tell you we wouldn't disagree with the assessment. I mean, we -- we've certainly seen an increase in violence over the last week, and we continue to see Russia ignoring the Minsk agreement and continuing to flow supplies, equipment, materiel to the separatists across the border.
Q: Heavy equipment?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes, heavy equipment. And that -- you know, Cami, that's been unabated. I mean, we've -- you know, we've talked about this for months and it continues.
Q: Same pace?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think it changes. I mean, I don't have -- you know, I couldn't give you a meter, day to day. I mean, it's not like every day is the same. But over time, over the last several months, it -- it has continued unabated, the support to the separatists.
Q: In the past few weeks, have you seen any change, specifically to that time period?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I haven't seen any. I couldn't speak to any measurable change one way or the other over the last several weeks: simply that it has continued. It has continued.
Q: The president spoke about the risks of military conflict with Iran, should negotiations fail. I'd like to take your thoughts on that, and also what it might mean for U.S. activities in Iraq and in Syria.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We've -- the effort to bring Iran to the table is a diplomatic one, not a military one. And I wouldn't want to speak to anything here from the podium that would -- that would in any way put those discussions in jeopardy. It's in no one's interest for there to be a military conflict with Iran over this or any other issue, and nor does it have to be that way.
We've been very clear about -- the United States government has been very clear about our policies with respect to a nuclear-armed Iran. The president as commander-in-chief has been very clear about that. And I think I'd leave it -- I think I'd leave it at that.
Q: Thank you.
To follow up on Cami's question, what if any additional consequences is the U.S. and NATO planning if Russia continues to go on the path that it's going that you're saying you're seeing? And then on cyber security, with President Obama meeting with congressional leaders and talking about beefing up cybersecurity, is the Pentagon planning any military-wide changes to beef up its cybersecurity?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I won't speak to hypotheticals on -- on future decisions that the commander-in-chief may make with respect to Russia or Ukraine. I think the president talked about today, the -- you know, the need to continue pressure, diplomatic and economic and otherwise on Russia.
Q: Is the pressure working?
Q: Well, I think -- I think if you look at what's happened to Russia's economy, absolutely. And Russia's continued isolation in the world, absolutely. And what -- and what Putin's actions have also done is certainly strengthened, bolstered, and I think given renewed emphasis to -- to NATO and to the alliance and to our -- our ability, our willingness to continue to look for ways to reassure our European partners.
It's in Russia's interests here to do the right thing, not just for the neighborhood, but for their own people. Their economy continues to suffer from these sanctions. But we've said from the very beginning, and Secretary Hagel's made it clear, there's not going to be a U.S. military solution to this issue.
Your second question?
Q: Was on cybersecurity, considering Obama wanting increased measures to improve cybersecurity, is the Pentagon planning any sort of military-wide efforts to improve its cybersecurity?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We don't talk about future operations. We certainly don't talk about future operations in the cyber realm. What I would tell you is that this is a -- this is a domain that we continue to pay a lot of attention to, and I think you're going to see just as concerted an effort in the future as we've seen in the recent past on -- on the cyber domain.
Q: Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we've heard repeatedly from U.S. officials that the focus remained on AQAP, and yet publicly available records show that the number of strikes between 2012 and 2014 dropped by half. I was wondering if you could give us -- help us understand that.
How -- how that focus remains, even though the number of strikes happening in Yemen has --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I mean the question presupposes that the -- the way you measure intensity and focus is through airstrikes, and that's just a false metric. I don't -- I have to -- I don't have the math in front of me, Nancy. So let me just for argument's sake assume that you're right and that they decreased over some -- some proportion.
Q: That's safe.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Is it?
Q: To assume that Nancy's right.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Safe to assume you're right.
Okay, so let's assume you're right. Doesn't mean that we've taken our eye off AQAP as a threat or that we don't continue to look for opportunities to stem their growth, their development, and to -- and to thwart attacks that they might be in the process of planning.
I think it -- if you go back over the last 10 years and you look at everything that the U.S. military has done to contribute to counter-terrorism and -- and counter-terrorism operations, you'll see that we have been very active indeed, and very effective at -- at getting these guys where they are and -- and trying to get ahead, getting to the left of attacks that they might be planning.
Doesn't mean it's perfect. It doesn't mean that every now and then, one of them gets away. It doesn't mean that you can stop every single attack. But we've got a pretty strong track record of taking it seriously, and I can -- I can assure you that nobody here is going to let their foot off the gas when it comes to AQAP.
Q: And I wanted to ask, given that the U.S. has been a leader in terms of -- of striking against AQAP, and it has now claimed responsibility for the attacks, has there been any outreach by the French requested? Any military assistance for potential strikes in Yemen on -- on some of those targets that might have been involved? Has that discussion happened?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Again, I don't -- we don't talk about future operations here. I would never get into hypothetical discussions about that. Separate and distinct, I can tell you that there's been no specific request as a result of the investigation in Paris of the military. As you know, secretary Hagel spoke to Minister Le Drian on Friday. It was a very good discussion. There was no specific request by the French military for a U.S. military assistance with respect to this particular attack.
Q: Admiral. At the end of the proverbial day, after these Syrian opposition fighters have been trained, who is going to be -- who are they going to fight? Are they going to fight ISIS? Are they going to fight the Syrian government troops?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: You know, we've talked about --
Q: And how do you -- and how do you ensure that -- that they will stay on the mark?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We've talked about this before.
There'll be sort of three purposes here, to the training. One, to get them prepared and able to defend their own communities and their own citizens and go back to their own towns and cities and help defend their neighbors.
Two, to eventually go on the offensive against ISIL inside Syria. And three, to help work with political opposition leaders towards a political solution in Syria. That's -- that's what we're getting them ready to do.
You talk about, "now who's going to be watching them?" Part of what the purpose of this training is to develop leadership of their own: good, competent military leadership of their own. There is any range of good leaders inside the opposition, and some not so good. So part of this -- part of the purpose of this, basic military schools -- I'm sorry, basic military skills, unit -- small unit leadership skills that they will be -- that they'll be trained to do.
So, the idea here is to train themselves to lead themselves.
Q: Yeah, but how do you actually get them to conduct operations against ISIS as opposed to Syrian military facilities, for example, or --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, your question, you're thinking about this the wrong way. It's not like we're going to be directing them from the -- you know, from inside the theater.
Q: Turkey has made it very clear that their main enemy is Assad. They -- the only reason I can imagine that they would agree to hosting training or even to allow trainers would be because there's been some understanding that those forces somehow will not be necessarily directed primarily at ISIS. I may be wrong.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: The purpose of the -- of the training is to get them to defend their communities, to go on the offensive against ISIL, and to help work towards a political solution in Syria. That is what they will be trained to do.
Part and parcel of that training will be good military leadership. Their military leadership. We've talked a lot about, you know, boots on the ground. Indigenous boots on the ground matter the most. And so we want Syrian moderate opposition to be trained for those three purposes and to lead themselves to those ends. That's the purpose.
Q: I know you addressed this earlier about this tweet with the USS George Washington, but is there concern that these kinds of incidents, I mean, these kinds of misrepresentations, these kinds of misreporting, could lead to some kind of actual miscalculation involving operational assets?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Look, I mean any time there's bad information out there, you've got to be mindful of the repercussions. That's why, you know, we check and double check and triple check.
It's -- there's no overriding concern here about a false tweet leading to some kind of armed conflict, no.
But obviously, we're going to, you know, we check and recheck information sources from all different strains.
Q: And following up on that, the U.S. and China were supposed to have developed some kind of methodology to prevent this kind of thing from, you know, miscalculations in the Far East. How is that coming along?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We do -- we do have avenues of communication with the -- with the Chinese leadership. Chairman Dempsey has a -- I wouldn't call it a hotline, but he has a way to communicate directly with his counterpart in Beijing. And we have other avenues, obviously, through other agencies: particularly the State Department.
I can tell you, nobody got ramped up about this tweet on the -- on the -- about the USS George Washington. Social media is a great leveler. And it's a terrific platform to share information. It's also, regrettably, a platform for foolish people to do foolish things. But we're not going to overreact. We have ways of checking and rechecking. In this case, it was a fairly simple thing to knock down, since the ship is in the dry dock.
Q: Admiral, you were talking about Syrian rebels and a political answer is you're -- we're going to be training them to help solve the issues politically. How can we prepare them with political responses? Is it through an arms race? Is it by giving them more weapons, means that they're going to have more respect or power? Or how are we going to be training them politically? I don't understand.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, it's not training them politically. It's training them to help play their part in seeking a political solution inside Syria.
Q: How do they do that? I don't -- how are we going to help them do that?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Helping support political opposition as they continue to exert pressure on the Assad regime.
Q: I want to try the Iran question again from a different vantage point.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Because you didn't like my first answer?
Q: No, it was eloquent, but not enough. (Laughter.)
REAR ADM. KIRBY: That's what I'm striving for every day. Insufficient eloquence. (Laughter.)
Q: You were here between 2009 and 2011 when Admiral Mullen was the joint chairman. And he and Secretary Gates were asked several times about the efficacy of airstrikes against Iranian facilities. They both said at best, airstrikes, military action could only set back Iran one to three years.
Now the president today, ever gently, resurrected the military option issue again. Can you check to see whether the Pentagon still holds to the view that military strikes would only at best delay Iran's nuclear program by one to three years? You may not know that now, but I'd like you to check that.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yeah, I think nothing would change about the belief that a military action would simply delay. I'd have to get -- I'd have to go back and look and see if our estimate is still one to three years, but I think certainly nobody would challenge the presumption that -- that military action would simply -- or would probably only delay the inevitable.
Q: A bomber question then, not related to Iran.
At Whiteman Air Force Base this week, the secretary gave a very enthusiastic shout-out to the Air Force's new long range bomber program. The Air Force has classified most of the details. They've put out incomplete cost information on the bomber's individual price tag.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Incomplete?
Q: Incomplete. They've put out -- well, I don't want to get into budget figures with you, but --
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Okay.
Q: They've put out a $550 million bomber figure, which is woefully incomplete. Here's my question though. What's Secretary Hagel's level of confidence that the Air Force is properly managed so that the next secretary of defense and the next after him won't inherit an overpriced and behind schedule weapons program?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Tony, I think the secretary appreciates all the work the Air Force has done in preparing this program.
He knows that they have priced it out -- it's like $550 million per copy.
Q: That's in fiscal '10 dollars. That's very -- it's just an incomplete figure. But go ahead.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: He's comfortable that they've done the homework to come up with that estimate. It's an estimate based upon multiple reviews of the program and not a single source. And he's comfortable that they are going to proceed to develop this in the most cost-efficient manner possible.
One thing I would plead, and a lot of the public would, too. If you can get the Air Force to declassify some more information about this, they're going to pick a contractor this year at some point. It would be good to get enough more information about the program that they keep classified.
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I know many details of the program are classified. I suspect rightly so. But I will duly pass on your concern to the United States Air Force. (Laughter.)
You're welcome. Dan?
Q: Just to follow up on the training again. The U.S. military trainers will then take over the smaller program that the CIA has been carrying out? Will they merge, and the military will oversee the whole thing, or would that CIA program just continue on?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to speak for another agency, Dan. I can only talk about what we're doing.
And this is a new program that is being established, and part of, you know, to get to Bill's question, it's we want to get it right more than we want to get it fast. It's a program being established, created from the ground up by General Nagata, and he's working very, very hard at this.
And again, I think he's optimistic and should everything continue to go as well as it is going, I think we'll start to see this training get in place early this spring. But I won't -- I mean, I can only speak for what we're doing.
Q: And then just on Syria.
Q: But can you say there is a decision on that?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm sorry, you are?
Q: Justin. (Laughter.)
Q: Can you say if there's any decision? Is it -- if you can't say -- can you say that they -- this has not been decided yet, whether to merge these programs?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well Justin, what I can tell you is General Nagata is working on this program. He's building it from the ground up. It's a DOD program. And I'm not -- what I -- what I will say, and I alluded to this earlier, is that in the vetting process, we're going to pull on resources that already exist and what -- and that already -- that already have information about some of these groups to include information and experience provided by our own intelligence community.
Okay, I've got --
Q: Could clarify that? You said he's with personnel?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to -- I can't -- I don't think I can characterize it any more clearly and succinctly than I just did. We're going to pull on the information and the knowledge that other agencies and other governments have about these groups.
Q: But not the personnel?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: This is a DOD program.
Q: The Syrian fighters associated with any theoretical other programs that might have taken place at some time?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: We're going to do our own recruiting and our own vetting.
Q: So just to clarify that, the third step of the program you outlined involves uniformed U.S. servicemembers training Syrian militants in how to seek political solutions within their own government, or within their own political environment, is that correct?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think I answered it pretty well. First of all, we wouldn't classify them as militants. These are Syrian moderate opposition members.
Number two, one of the things they're going to be trained to do is to help support the political opposition against the Assad regime. But their -- but their primary -- the primary goal of this training is to get them capable of defending their citizens, their communities, and to go on the offensive eventually against ISIL. That's the main goal.
Okay guys. It's been a long time. Got to go.
Jen, do you have one?
Q: Just a quick one. Can you react to the developments in the 'Fat Leonard' case? How -- what changes have been made to contracting so that you're sure that that kind of case is not going to happen again?
REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'd have to point you to the Navy, Jen. And again, it's an on-going investigation, so I'd be loath to talk to you much about detail.
But that's really more of a Navy question.
Q: Thank you.