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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Press Operations

Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook
Feb. 23, 2016
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MR. COOK: Good afternoon, everybody. Busy day here at the Pentagon.

As you saw in the statement this morning, you heard directly from the president, the Department of Defense today formally submitted the administration's plan for closing the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay to Congress. As the president and Secretary Carter have made clear, responsibly and securely closing the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay is a national security imperative.

The successful closure of these facilities will enhance our security by eliminating a rallying point for jihadi propaganda and strengthening our relationship with allies, key allies, and counterterrorism partners.

It'll also save the American people money. At least $335 million in net savings over 10 years and up to $1.7 billion in net savings over 20 years.

The plan has four primary tenets: securely and responsibly transfer to foreign countries detainees who have been designated for transfer by the president's national security team after a thorough review; continue to review the threat posed by those detainees who are not currently eligible for transfer through the periodic review board, or PRB; identify individualized dispositions for those who remain designated for continued law of war detention, including possible Article III, military commission, or foreign prosecutions; four, work with Congress to establish a location in the United States to securely hold detainees whom we cannot at this time transfer to foreign countries or who are subject to military commission proceedings.

Secretary Carter remains firmly committed to ending detention operations at Guantanamo Bay, and strongly supports the administration's plan to do so in a way that is consistent with our interests, laws and values. He also believes it is important to resolve this issue before the next administration takes over. He looks forward to engaging with Congress and believes this plan provides a path forward for Congress.

Finally, Secretary Carter expresses his deep gratitude to all of the service members who have contributed to and carried out the exceedingly difficult mission at Guantanamo Bay for so long with professionalism and dedication, including those service members who are there even today. With that I'd be happy to take your questions. Lucas, you're in the front row today all by yourself.

Q: Thank you, Peter. It is a little lonely up here. Will the Pentagon close Guantanamo Bay if Congress doesn't pass a law?

MR. COOK: We are beginning a conversation here, continuing a conversation with Congress, Lucas. We see this as an opportunity to work directly with Congress to try and resolve these issues. It will take Congressional action for these detention facilities to close in a responsible way and to find a location here in the United States to house those detainees who the secretary and -- feels are not appropriate and the national security review shows are not appropriate to be transferred to other countries.

Q: Is the Pentagon prepared to follow an illegal order?

MR. COOK: The Pentagon is prepared to work with Congress to resolve this issue, responding to a request specifically from Congress for a plan, a request we've honored today. And we will continue to work collaboratively with Congress to try and resolve these issues and, again, move this process forward.

This gives Congress a path to achieve the responsible closure of these facilities and once again do something that will bolster American national security, at the same time save taxpayers money. We think that's -- it's a conversation that Congress would like to engage in going forward.

Q: Peter, the majority of Congress has rejected the Pentagon's plan.

MR. COOK: We just submit it up there, Lucas. We look forward to hearing what Congress has to say as we begin this process with them, this deliberative process. We believe there are members of Congress who share the secretary's view, the president's view that responsibly closing Guantanamo Bay is an appropriate thing to do, particularly before the next administration takes over. And we'll begin that conversation with the submission of this plan today.

Q: Peter, it's just a fact that a majority of Congress rejects the plan. And is the Pentagon prepared to go forward with a -- with a plan to close Guantanamo Bay when Congress has not signed off on it?

MR. COOK: Lucas, again, we have submitted a plan today to Congress. We look forward to getting the feedback from Congress. We'll be briefing members of Congress on the plan. We look forward to engaging with Congress going forward. This is what we're focused on, is getting this plan moving forward and, again, getting input from members of Congress so we can shape this plan and move this process along.

Q: If the president --

MR. COOK: I'm going to have to go to someone else. I'll come back. Yes.

Q: Peter, the -- what -- the focus is on the detention facility at GTMO, but Guantanamo Bay is a long-existing Naval facility that we use for logistics and other purposes. Is there any -- I didn't see anything in your plan that covered the overall Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

MR. COOK: This plan covers the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. There is no plan to change the status of the naval base at Guantanamo. Yes.

Q: Peter, can you give us some more information about -- between the U.S. and South Korea postpone -- (inaudible) -- of THAAD missile?

MR. COOK: I'll take that question for you. I'm not aware of a delay. As we've discussed, there are going to be ongoing conversations between the United States and our South Korean allies with regard to the deployment of the THAAD system, and have every expectation that we'll have those conversations. But we'll take that question. If there's a -- been a delay that I'm unaware of for some reason. Yes.

Q: The Turkish prime minister accuses Russia and Syria along with Daesh and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters of attempting to form a quote-unquote "terror belt" along its border with Syria and says Turkey won't let it happen. First of all, do you agree that all these forces that were mentioned, minus Daesh of course, are trying to create a terror belt along Turkey's borders?

MR. COOK: We've talked at length about Turkey's a NATO ally, close friend of the United States. We'll continue to work closely with the Turks in the fight against ISIL and, of course, their own security situation. It remains an ongoing topic of conversation.

And again, we -- our focus is on the fight against ISIL right now, and Turkey is part of that fight. And that's where our focus remains. And so I'm not sure exactly of the comments you're referring to specifically. But we remain engaged with Turkey about these issues. I understand the sensitivities of the border situation there. And -- but our focus remains ISIL and that remains the focus of the coalition.

Q: But what do you -- what do you think about this statement in light of coming from -- this is not the first statement. Turkey indicated that it's going to continue going after Syrian Kurds in Syria, despite the U.S. saying stop. What do you think about this in light of the U.S. and Russia now working to stop hostilities in Syria?

MR. COOK: Again, the cessation of hostilities has nothing to do with our fight against ISIL, first of all, and we have had conversations with Turkey at length about the situation in Syria specific with the Kurds, and again, we've expressed our support for groups on the ground that are taking the fight to ISIL. That includes some Kurdish groups, and on this issue, we will continue to disagree with -- with Turkey with regard to -- to that particular issue and -- and our support for those particular groups that are taking the fight to ISIL, understanding their concerns about terrorist activities.

And so we will continue to work with the Kurds on this issue and make clear our views on this as we continue to work with the Kurds.

Q: But with those -- Turkey is attacking in Syria are not terrorists in view of the U.S. and the international community. If Turkey continues military action in Syria, would this undermine the efforts that the U.S. and Russia are now making to achieve cessation of hostilities?

MR. COOK: Again, we -- the cessation of hostilities focuses specifically -- does not include ISIL. That is what is most important to us right now in terms of the effort. I understand…we're going to continue working closely with -- with our Turkish partners. They are coalition partners. We will continue to work with them and have a dialogue with Turkey about these issues. And again, we will -- we're confident we can continue to work closely with the -- with the Turks with regard to these issues.

Jim?

Q: The United States and Russia set up this committee to monitor the cessation of hostilities. Do you foresee how this might potentially lead to a broader cooperation between the United States and Russia over combating the Islamic state in Syria?

MR. COOK: Right now, this is -- our military-to-military cooperation has been limited to the Memorandum of Understanding. We are playing a supportive role to the State Department in these ongoing negotiations, but I would not anticipate that there's going to be further military-to-military cooperation. We obviously are supporting what Secretary Kerry is doing, the effort to try and bring some ease to the suffering of the Syrian people. But we do not anticipate further military-to-military cooperation with the -- with the Russians.

Cami?

Q: Can we switch to Ukraine?

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: There's been an uptick in violence in Ukraine. By one report, some of the fiercest hostilities since last summer. This comes at the same time that the U.S. had just graduated the first class of Ukrainian soldiers that troops were training in western Ukraine. Is this building tracking that increase in hostilities? And do you have anything on that?

MR. COOK: Yeah, we -- I mean, I know the secretary continues to closely monitor what's happening in Ukraine. Obviously, we have concerns as others in the international community do about the level of violence there. We have not taken our eye off the ball in Ukraine and I think the training being conducted of Ukrainian forces is an indication of our commitment to -- to Ukraine, and we'll continue to follow this very, very closely.

So beyond that, Cami, again, it's a situation that remains an area of focus for the Department of Defense, for the secretary and has been for some time.

Q: Has this building been watching the border area? Has -- have you seen any sort of build up on the other side or anything that you could independently confirm?

MR. COOK: Nothing I can from this podium. I can't get into intelligence matters here. I'll just convey to you that we're watching the situation very closely.

Q: Are you concerned that you're training Ukrainian soldiers, sending them immediately back out to the front, and perhaps they're being attacked because of that training?

MR. COOK: Again, we're doing this -- working with the Ukrainian government, so we will continue to work closely with the government of Ukraine as to what support we can provide to them in this effort. So I can't speak directly that that's the case, that these trainees are going into this particular situation. You -- I know you were there recently.

We will just continue to work closely with the Ukrainian government, provide the support we can. This training was requested by the Ukrainian government, so in that sense, again, we'll just continue to partner with them and provide the kind of assistance that we feel is appropriate at this time.

Yes, Louie?

Q: Back on Guantanamo real briefly, why did it take so long to come up with this document?

MR. COOK: This is a complicated situation for a variety of reasons. You know the secretary's been engaged since he started here, but this predates his arrival. There are complicated matters of both law and cost. There are some restrictions put in place by Congress that make this a more difficult challenge. This is not easy. This has been an ongoing debate in this country for sometime.

And this represents what we think is the best opportunity, the best pathway forward at this moment in time to try and resolve this issue in a way that maintains U.S. national security, saves taxpayers some money in the process, removes a propaganda tool for jihadists around the world and also takes a step that we believe will be welcomed by our partners and allies around the globe.

Q: There were indications last fall that this document was going to be produced at that time. Why the delay since then?

MR. COOK: There are a number of factors. Again, some of them I just detailed. Legal questions, budget questions about making sure the numbers that we're able to provide are as accurate as possible. So -- but in the bigger sense, we were asked by Congress to -- to meet this deadline. We've met this deadline today. We believe this plan offers a pathway forward.

And -- and again, if this was easy, this would have been solved a long time back. This is a complicated, difficult situation and it's clearly something where not everyone is going to agree on the best path forward. We believe this creates a starting point for conversation for members of Congress, both parties, people with different views on this issue where maybe there could be some middle ground solution that allows this to move forward.

Q: Will you be releasing the names of the additional facilities -- the military facilities that were surveyed as possible site alternatives?

MR. COOK: We did not disclose those in the plan. Through the course of our conversations with Congress it's possible those names could come out. But that will be, again, to some extent a decision for Congress because these are conversations -- some of the information might be classified and so these are conversations Congress is going to have to decide on the path forward and that could open up the number of locations that could be considered.

We don't preclude the notion that one -- it could be a location beyond the 13 that are identified specifically in this plan. At this point, we don't anticipate releasing those names publicly, in part because this conversation has just begun with Congress, but it could be something that comes up during the course of those conversations.

Q: Switching to South China Sea, there's new satellite imagery -- commercial satellite imagery showing that there's been construction of long-range radars in one of the Chinese -- (inaudible). What's your viewpoint on that? (inaudible) -- that you're seeing there?

MR. COOK: I understand Admiral Harris may have been asked about this today. Again it represents another step, we think, by the Chinese that is only escalating tensions in the region and isn't helping stability in the -- in the Asia Pacific. We have urged all claimants to halt reclamation, to halt militarization in the South China Sea and we would reiterate that now. This is inconsistent, we think, with the aspirations for peace and stability in the region that the Chinese themselves have suggested they'd like to pursue.

Gordon?

Q: (inaudible) -- two questions. One is, given the late arrival of this plan on closing GTMO, is -- is there even time --

MR. COOK: The deadline was today.

Q: Correct. However, is there even time to do the necessary construction that would be required to transfer these particular kind of detainees into a facility in the U.S. if you add the -- got the permission to do that from the law at this late date, A? And B, on South China Sea, our two -- it's been reported that the Pentagon's planning to conduct roughly two FONOPs a quarter in the South China Sea. Is that enough?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to get into the specific operational details of the U.S. Navy's operations in the South China Sea or anywhere else. We will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows and we've demonstrated that and we will continue to demonstrate that.

On your other question about GTMO, we think it is possible that you could, this year, move this process forward. We -- it's certainly going to be challenging given the calendar, given the situation right now in Congress and the debate over this issue, but we think it is possible that you could, in fact, move forward before the end of this year.

Challenging? Absolutely. But yes, we do think it's physically possible.

Q: Move forward or move forward to the point where you've clear out GTMO and actually closed it by the end of the year?

MR. COOK: This is -- this depends in large measure on Congress and how quickly they want to act based on the plan we've now presented. But the folks at the DOD who have assessed this situation think it is -- it is possible to be able to achieve this goal, but certainly challenging given the calendar, challenging given the debate over this issue, but now we think we've presented a plan that would at least open that door.

Q: Let me just -- let me just try one more -- but let me just try one more time because had this plan been presented earlier, months earlier, potentially, you know, this effort on the part of lobbying Congress and getting them onboard could have begun months earlier and potentially maybe change the calculus and allowed enough time for the construction and all the logistics that would need to occur.

MR. COOK: We can -- we can only present this plan when we had a level of detail and understanding about these issues that we were comfortable with, that the president was comfortable with in terms of cost and other issues. We've presented this plan now, we've met this Congressional deadline and we believe there is an opportunity to sit down and work these issues out, to negotiate with Congress, hear Congress' input, hear their input about the best location, for example, some other aspect of this.

It's really important. There are details here that matter, and we want Congress' input on issues about whether a remote location or locating a facility like this on an existing DOD property, whether or not there's a preference there. These are things that adjust everything that happens here, decisions on how you house inmates specifically, could we do things differently. These are things we want Congressional feedback on because they affect not only location but they affect the price, they affect the design dynamics.

There's still specific questions that we need to try and answer from members of Congress. We want to hear their input, and to some extent on some of these issues, given the limitations put in place on the Department of Defense, those are things we haven't been able to get to the granular detail that we'd like to be able to get to for members of Congress. Jacqueline.

Q: Following up on that, given that the report doesn't recommend a specific site, that's a decision that you would expect lawmakers to make, that would be left to Congress?

MR. COOK: We expect this -- Congress is going to have to decide ultimately how this -- whether this plan moves forward and in what shape, but we think we've presented with them a pathway, a range of options, if you will, cost options based on a DOD facility, a greenfield facility, a facility perhaps that's not at a DOD location.

We've given them a range here, but until we get some of these other detail design questions answered and we get input from members of Congress, that's, you know, prevented us to some extent from being able to provide a specific recommendation.

Those input points will now allow the Department, working with Congress, to advance this further. But absolutely, Congress will have to have a -- will have the ultimate say in this, and we look forward to that. We look forward to engaging, and I think the secretary feels like this will get a fair shake up on the Hill now that it's been presented.

Q: Do you think it's problematic to leave that decision to Congress, given that no lawmaker seems to want it in their home state?

MR. COOK: This is a difficult issue. That's been clear from the start.

But ultimately, this requires congressional say. And so we think the input that we're going to get from members of Congress on these issues is critically important. And we'll decide whether or not this moves forward. So we look forward to working with Congress on that front.

Q: (off-mic.)

MR. COOK: Lucas, you left and came back. Quick.

Q: When you say that Congress has the ultimate say on this, since the majority of Congress has rejected the Pentagon's plan and these congressmen represent --

MR. COOK: You keep saying that, Lucas, but we just presented the plan. Did they vote this afternoon and I missed?

Q: Well, a number of congressional staffers have said that the plan did not, as you've heard, say give one location. Why did the Defense Department not provide Congress with a concrete plan, a specific plan? You've been accused of keeping the plans purposefully vague.

MR. COOK: Again, Lucas, as I pointed out, there are design criteria that we still need to get detail on that we need the input of Congress to be able to move forward. This will present Congress with the opportunity to weigh in on these critical issues. I mentioned a couple of the factors here before, remote location on site at an existing DOD facility. These are critical issues that until we get that level of detail, it's hard for us to present a final recommendation, if you will.

This is going to be an ongoing process. This is an ongoing process. We have come back with a plan we think represents a path forward, a chance for Congress to move this forward, to take this off the plate of the next administration, which we think is something both Republicans and Democrats up on Capitol Hill would support. And this gives them a fair shot to be able to do that and the secretary feels confident that the department has presented something that Congress can work with.

Q: Two more. The --

MR. COOK: I'm keeping a tally here.

Q: There's nobody in the front row, so I'm asking --

MR. COOK: I know. Apparently, they've got other things to do today, so.

Q: The Chinese foreign minister was supposed to come to the Pentagon today. Can you ask (sic) us why that visit did not take place? Was it the Chinese or the United States government who canceled the visit?

MR. COOK: I understand there was a schedule issue. I'm not aware of anything beyond that.

Q: A schedule issue?

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: (inaudible), Chinese foreign minister visit the State Department and talked with Secretary Kerry, and then he suggested a peace treaty with the United States between U.S. and North Korea. What is the U.S. position of -- (inaudible) -- North Korea?

MR. COOK: I would -- if it's a treaty question, I would strongly recommend you check with my colleagues at the State Department who handle treaty -- treaty matters. So I'm going to defer you to the State Department on that.

Q: Any -- any answer can answer that --

MR. COOK: I'm going to defer that to the State Department, given that engagement was -- was at the State Department.

Barbara, welcome.

Q: Yes, thanks. What is the secretary's level of confidence right now that the Russians will comply with the agreement for the cessation of hostilities? And the Russians have announced they're going to establish a -- essentially what appears to be a command and control center in Syria to monitor it. How will the U.S. military communicate with the Russians on that? But what's his -- starting with what's his level of confidence that the Russians will comply?

MR. COOK: I think from the start, the secretary has judged Russia by their actions, not their words, and nothing has changed. He will wait to see whether not they comply with the agreement that they have signed up with, here. And -- so I think there's a certain dose of skepticism, and again, the secretary will be watching like every one else to see what -- whether or not Russia complies with this agreement, whether others comply as well. So I don't think his view on that has changed.

Q: So the secretary is skeptical of Russian compliance going into this?

MR. COOK: Again, the secretary will judge Russia on their words --

Q: (inaudible) -- dose of skepticism.

MR. COOK: Okay -- yes, based on -- based on past history, based on what Russia has said it would do in Syria previously. But again, the secretary will be watching like everyone else. There's an opportunity here for Russia to abide by its agreement. We certainly hope they do.

Q: And what is the secretary's thinking about -- since he's already skeptical, realistically skeptical perhaps -- about follow-on steps that he is considering to further support the opposition in Syria against the regime and against the Russians. What other thoughts does he have?

He has talked about accelerants. Does he have any accelerants that he can suggest to bolster the opposition further at this point?

MR. COOK: The secretary is always looking to accelerate the campaign against ISIL, and we're going to continue to do that. That -- the fight against ISIL does not stop with the cessation of hostilities, and I think we'll continue to look at every opportunity we have, both in Iraq and Syria, to do that. And that has not stopped and it's not altered by the cessation of hostilities.

Q: So I guess what I'm really asking, though, in his -- in his view, or in the Pentagon's view, is there a Plan B, if you will, to the cessation of hostilities agreement or is it all or nothing with the agreement? Or do you have a Plan B?

MR. COOK: This is -- we -- Barbara, you and I have talked about this before, this is a planning institution. We're always looking at contingencies. We will evaluate the cessation of hostilities as it plays out to see if it's being complied with, and will adjust if need be.

Right now, we are looking to Russia and the other signers onto this agreement to abide by it, and that's where we are right now. We're not going to get into hypotheticals about the future.

Q: My last question then. Again, the Russians said today that they're going to set up a center to monitor all of this on their side. What communications capabilities or links are you setting up with the Russians to communicate on the agreement as it goes into effect and is implemented and carried out over the future? What are the mechanisms of coordination and communication with the Russians on this?

MR. COOK: I'm not aware of any communication we're going to have with the Russians in this particular cell that you're talking about. And this agreement itself is -- falls under the U.N. umbrella. The negotiators who put this together, as I understand it, have spelled out the compliance and how it's going to be monitored. And so I'll leave it to the negotiators, the State Department in particular, to walk you through those. It's in conjunction with the U.N., and so we don't have a particular role in that.

Q: Did the Pentagon come close to withdrawing its military advisers at the negotiations?

MR. COOK: We support Secretary Kerry and have in his efforts here. And we'll continue to support him.

Q: (off-mic.) to withdrawing them?

MR. COOK: We -- our folks were there at the side of the State Department the entire time, and we'll continue to support the State Department in whatever way we can. Secretary Kerry is trying to resolve this, trying to end and ease the suffering of the Syrian people, and that is something this department will continue to support.

Q: Thank you.

MR. COOK: Louie and then one in the back and then I might pull the plug at that point.

Q: Peter, just following up on Lucas' line of questioning from earlier and the other --

MR. COOK: Which one?

Q: Well, actually, this is going to encapsulate a couple of them. Secretary -- Senator McCain seems upset that the 13 locations were not named publicly in the report. He was -- he's quoted as saying that now the president sends over what he described as a Chinese menu, "13 different possible sites, that's a recommendation?" he asked rhetorically. He was -- when asked if that was a starting point, he said, "Of course not."

What is your reaction, given that everything you said today is counter to what he has just said?

MR. COOK: Again, we believe that this plan presents a pathway and opportunity for members of Congress, including Senator McCain, to -- to move this process forward. We know that the detail in this plan does give insight to members of Congress as to what the options might be going forward. And with regard to a specific recommendation, we think there is the opportunity to engage with Congress now, consider what these options are, what the costs are, what the benefits are, what the potential negatives might be with regard to each and every one of these potential locations and that that will present an opportunity to -- to be able to advance this.

And we think that there are members of Congress who are willing to have a conversation. The secretary certainly believes that and that has been even the sense he's gotten today in his engagements.

In the back, you had a question?

Q: Hi. I'm -- (inaudible) -- for Kyodo News from Japan. I have -- I have a question about Okinawa issue. So PACOM Commander Harris said at a hearing today the (appraisement ?) of -- (inaudible) -- will come out 2025. So do you have same view with him?

MR. COOK: I didn't hear Admiral Harris' -- all of Admiral Harris' testimony today, but we continue to believe and support the idea of opening that facility as quickly as possible, working closely with the government of Japan, and that remains our view.

Okay. Thanks, everyone.