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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
Sept. 15, 2016
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PETER COOK:  Good afternoon, everybody.

 

      I do not have anything off the top, other than just a reminder that the secretary is looking forward to welcoming the Japanese minister of defense here to the Pentagon in just a short amount of time, 2:30.  She'll be arriving, and there will be an honor cordon, and of course, a meeting upstairs -- bilateral conversation where they'll be discussing a range of regional security issues, and of course, key defense issues with our -- with our ally, Japan.

 

      So, with that scheduling matter out of the way, I'm happy to turn to your questions.

 

      Bob?

 

      Q:  Peter, on the subject of the prospective joint implementation center that would be arranged, will Secretary Carter submit a waiver to Congress to get away from the legal ban on military discussions with the Russians in this context?  And has he done that yet?  Or does he need to do that?

 

      MR. COOK:  Bob, first of all, the joint implementation center has not been stood up, as you know, so there is no coordination at this time.  But we fully anticipate the Department of Defense, as always, will adhere to the law.  And if it's determined at some point that there needs to be some engagement with Congress, you can be sure that we're prepared to do that.

 

      Q:  Will it be necessary in order to discuss these issues with the Russians, to set up the center, and to execute -- implement the --

 

      MR. COOK:  If there's any reason to believe, from a legal standpoint, and these are questions that we're, of course, as part of our due diligence we're going through ourselves.  If at any point it's determined that --

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      Q:  -- yet that there is a legal requirement for a waiver?

 

      MR. COOK:  For the -- if the JIC is established, I think, Bob, we're putting the cart before the horse.  We're not there yet, so --

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      Q:  If it comes to pass in a few days, it's not like it's a month off or something.  But --

 

      MR. COOK:  Yes, and as I said, if we -- we are still waiting, of course, for -- for compliance to the terms of this arrangement that lead potentially to the formation of the JIC, and so that's where we are right now.  And before we talk about a legal move that might be required to establish a JIC, we want to make sure that the terms themselves are complied with , but we are absolutely prepared.

 

      We understand the restrictions that are currently in place and are prepared to address those in close consultation with Congress as required.

 

      Q:  That has not happened yet, then.

 

      MR. COOK:  No, it has not happened yet.

 

      Yes?

 

      Q:  A couple of quick questions.

 

      Firstly, the Russian defense ministry put out this statement-- the United States –was using a verbal smokescreen, and not really separating the moderate rebels from militant groups.  Do you have a comment on that?  And have you worked towards separating moderate rebels from Islamic State or other militant groups?

 

      MR. COOK:  (inaudible) -- this is more a question specifically for the -- for the State Department, the negotiators for the terms of this.

 

      But, as I think you've heard Secretary Kerry indicate, there are -- one of the requirements here, one of the steps that will be taken will be to encourage opposition groups not to associate themselves with Nusra.

 

      I'll leave this, again, to the State Department to discuss.  That's more their lane.

 

      And again, that's their -- the terms of this arrangement, there are terms that the United States needs to comply with.  And again, I'll let it to the State Department to characterize where those conversations have -- stand at this point.

 

      But my understanding is Secretary Kerry has talked about this publicly.

 

      Q:  Secondly, there's a bit of confusion about whether the Syrian army has started to withdraw from Castello Road.  Some people say that they have; others don't.

 

      From your understanding, have they started withdrawing from Castello Road?  Because that's an important part of the agreement.

 

      MR. COOK:  I -- I do not have right here, sort of, intelligence and -- and facts right now that would say one way or the other whether or not they've -- they've done it.

 

      We are certainly aware that not all the terms here, including most specifically the delivery of humanitarian assistance, have been met at this particular moment in time.  And -- and we think there's obviously an obligation for the Syrian regime -- which as I understand from the U.N. envoy, Mr. de Mistura, has indicated that they are serving as an impediment to the delivery of that humanitarian assistance -- that they have an obligation to of course allow that assistance to flow.

 

      And certainly we would look to the Russians, given their leverage over the regime and their communications with the regime, to as quickly as possible remove those impediments and allow that humanitarian assistance to flow.

 

      Which is, of course, one of the key goals here is to reduce the suffering of the Syrian people and allow for this humanitarian aid to come to people who have been in a horrific situation for too long a period of time.

 

      Q:  Have -- have the deals of the agreement been shared with other members of the coalition?

 

      MR. COOK:  We will continue to notify members of the coalition as required.

 

      Q:  Because the French foreign minister has come outand said they haven't been notified, and it could cause problems with them striking militants because they don't know whether they're militants, or whether they're moderate opposition.

 

      MR. COOK:  We will do everything necessary, obviously, to keep our coalition operations not just updated, but we want to -- we will maintain the pace of our coalition operations against ISIL throughout this.  And that includes keeping those members of the coalition appraised of what's happening with regard to this particular arrangement, and what, if any, impact it could have on our operations.

 

      Q:  Has any one of them been notified as of now?

 

      MR. COOK:  I -- I'm not going to get into our discussions with each and every coalition member.

 

      Q:  Any one of them -- has any one of them --

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      MR. COOK:  Again, I'm not -- I haven't personally done that notification, so I cannot say who's been notified -- (inaudible).

 

      But I think it is fair to say that we are in daily contact with our coalition partners.  We are operating with them in our air operation center, for example.  We have ample opportunities to engage with them.  And you can be sure we are doing that.

 

      At this time, as we do, every aspect of this campaign has been a coalition effort.  And so they'll be apprised of everything that's happening along the way.

 

      Lucas

 

      Q:  Peter, speaking of the terms of the deal, does the Pentagon want to see a cease-fire in Syria, or just a reduction of violence?

 

      MR. COOK:  Well, Lucas, what we want to see here specifically, and the goal that's been articulated by Secretary Kerry and supported by Secretary Carter, is an easing of the suffering of the Syrian people.  And the -- finally, some delivery of humanitarian assistance to people who are suffering.  And -- and this test to see if we can get that -- and ultimately, let me add, a path to a political resolution of the situation, the Syrian civil war.

 

      And the test right now to be able to see if we're on that path is to see if we can get this reduction in violence and if we can get, as well, the delivery of this humanitarian assistance.

 

      So I think nobody's expecting across the board a complete cessation of violence.  What we're seeing right now, is that the cessation is largely holding.

 

      But we have other questions about, again, the delivery of humanitarian assistance and whether or not all the aspects of this arrangement are being complied with.  And we'll continue to -- to evaluate it very carefully.

 

      Q:  Doesn't that make it hard to come up with the terms of an agreement if -- you mentioned delivery of humanitarian aid.  Is it one truck, 10 trucks, you know?  How do you quantify all this if it's just an overall reduction when, you know, weeks, months ago, the goal was to get to a cease-fire, a cessation of hostilities.

 

      Today, it seems like the goal posts are being moved, that it's just a reduction of violence or getting in some humanitarian aid.  How do you measure that?

 

      MR. COOK:  Again, I'm gonna leave that -- the State Department's lead the negotiations here.  The U.S. government will continue as a whole to be evaluating the situation on the ground.  We will carry out our responsibilities as the Department of Defense in terms of our requirements as part of this arrangement.

 

      And like every one else, we're watching very carefully.  We're watching very carefully Russian compliance.  We're watching very carefully regime compliance, as well.

 

      Tara?  Tara, sorry.

 

      Q:  That's okay.

 

      Based on what DOD has observed, have U.S. and coalition forces kept to the terms of the cease-fire?

 

      MR. COOK:  Again, I will defer to the -- to the State Department that's negotiated this initially.

 

      My understanding is that there have been -- there's been -- it has not been a complete cessation of hostilities; that there have been some activity.  But it is certainly at a significantly reduced level.  So I cannot tell you exactly where those violations came from.

 

      And there also have been questions about, again, the delivery of the humanitarian assistance.  And again, we would expect the regime and the Russians to comply with the terms of this arrangement.  Likewise, the United States, we need to meet our requirements, as well.  And that's what the Department of Defense will be doing.

 

      Q:  Just to follow-up on that, based on what you observed, have the Russians and the Syrian regime adhered to the terms of the cease-fire?

 

      The first question was just about U.S. and coalition, just to clarify.

 

      MR. COOK:  I -- I'm not aware that every aspect of this arrangement has been honored so far certainly by the regime, with regard to delivery of the humanitarian assistance.  We understand that they are the major impediment to these aid trucks rolling.

 

      Again, I'll leave that to the State Department which has been point on those negotiations.  And -- so that's a key part of this.

 

      So from that standpoint, again, I defer to the -- to the State Department.

 

      But we have not seen that happen yet and we certainly will be watching that closely.

 

      And with regard to individual violations of the cease-fire itself, I'm not in a position to read out each and every one of those violations.  The one thing I can say is that that we do agree that the cease-fire is largely holding and we think that's a good thing.

 

      Yes, Gordon?

 

      Q:  Peter, the secretary's long since had concerns about any kind of a deal with the Russians, and even in the last couple of days the public statements indicated that there's maybe some slight distinction between where he stands and where others in the administration stand on this issue.

 

      Can you -- A, has he articulated his concern?  I assume he has.  And just tell us where he stands today in terms of how he thinks this deal could even occur?

 

      MR. COOK:  I think the secretary spoke to this yesterday in Austin.  He was asked about it.  He absolutely supports Secretary Kerry's efforts to reduce the violence here, to try and bring some ease to the suffering of the Syrian people.  That's what Secretary Kerry's been working on.  You've heard the secretary say that multiple times.

 

      And the secretary absolutely supports that.  The Department of Defense is prepared to carry out its responsibilities as part of this arrangement.  You've also heard the secretary voice his skepticism in the past about Russian activities in Syria -- not just skepticism, but criticism of Russian activities in Syria.

 

      And now the open question is whether or not Russia will start doing the right thing in Syria.  And the secretary would be the first person to welcome that.  He has expressed that skepticism in the past, and now the test is up to the Russians and the regime as well, to start doing the right thing in Syria.

 

      Q:  Was he a hold-out on this deal?  Did he suggest this should not be undertaken at this time?

 

      MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into the secretary's private conversations with the president.  The president has made a decision here.  There is an opportunity to reduce the violence.  We're seeing that right now with this cease-fire.  There's an opportunity as well to get humanitarian assistance to Syrian people who desperately need it.

 

      And the secretary and the Department of Defense will do everything they can to support that.

 

      Yes, Christina?

 

      Q:  Hi, Peter.  Thanks.

 

      The talks on the JIC, would that begin after the seven days of cease-fire?

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      MR. COOK:  We've said that there would need to be the sustained period with the reduction in violence, with the terms that would need to be complied with.  And we haven't seen that yet.  We're talking about some of the issues right now that we're seeing that continue to be a problem, specifically to humanitarian assistance.

 

      So there will be no military coordination until those terms have been met.  And so I can't predict exactly when or if that's going to happen, but we're not at the stage yet where coordination has begun.

 

      Q:  And is it your understanding that the seven days are not necessarily consecutive?

 

      MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into clocks and discussions of that.  We are evaluating the situation on the ground right now.  And we are prepared to carry out our responsibilities if it's been determined that the terms have been complied with.  And we're not at that point right now.

 

      Q:  Okay.  And what are you calling the JIC -- the joint integration center?

 

      MR. COOK:  Joint implementation center.  That's the last I heard it was referred to.

 

      So, yes?

 

      Q:  The Russians are saying that the U.S. are not fulfilling their obligations in this agreement for a truce in Syria, because they are saying that the U.S.-led rebels keep attacking in Syria.  So, do the U.S. have any leverage on the rebels in Syria?

 

      MR. COOK:  As I spoke to earlier, there are requirements for the United States as part of this arrangement.  The Department of Defense will have certain responsibilities.  We'll carry those out.  I'll leave it to the State Department to characterize the engagement with the opposition.  But certainly, we would expect to honor the terms of this agreement.  But likewise, we expect the Russians and the regime to do the same.

 

      And so, we're at a point now where we're evaluating where things stand on the ground, both in terms of the reduction in violence, the cessation of hostilities, whether or not that's being honored and respected by everyone.  And also whether everyone is honoring the commitment to deliver this humanitarian assistance.

 

      And that's what we're looking at right now.  So I don't want to characterize what the people on the ground are doing because I don't know their specific activities.  But I would defer to the State Department which has had the lead in terms of communication with those opposition groups.

 

      Q:  Is DOD involved into this engagement?  I mean, does -- has the DOD the responsibility to do something inside this agreement?  Or is it only diplomatic efforts or only the state or?

 

      MR. COOK:  Well, we obviously have requirements with regard to if there is a need to establish the joint implementation center, and we're fulfilling our responsibilities and everything, all the due diligence you would expect us to do to carry out that as the secretary said, with the accustomed excellence people expect in the Department of Defense were doing.

 

      Q:  So when the -- when the Russians say the U.S. are not fulfilling it's obligations to DOD does not feel --

 

      MR. COOK:  That's -- I'll leave it to the State Department to -- they've been negotiating with the Russians in terms of -- of the terms of this arrangement and I think it'd be most appropriate for them to respond to that.

 

      Yes, (inaudible)?

 

      Q:  (off-mic.) North Korean (inaudible) has they created a -- the anti-nuclear attack to United States and South Korea.  How -- the United States can expand on this?

 

      MR. COOK:  I'm not aware of the specific statement or the latest statement that you're referring to.  But I would just make the point as the secretary has himself, as the president has, that we will continue to take the steps necessary to protect the United States from the threat posed by North Korea.  And we will continue to take the steps necessary to make sure that our allies, as well, have the adequate defenses to deal with the threat opposed by North Korea.

 

      And there continues to be an opportunity for North Korea to lower the tensions and to lower the -- or end the provocative actions and words that -- that they've been employing recently.  And we think there's a good opportunity for that and we'll -- in the meantime, continue to do everything we need to, to maintain our current posture and be prepared for whatever threat the North Korea may oppose.

 

      And I would just point specifically the secretary's conversations today, with his Japanese counterpart, I'm sure that North Korea will be one of the topics of conversation and we stand shoulder to shoulder, of course, with our Japanese allies as we do our South Korean allies.

 

      Q:  But United States continued to place three strategic weapons in Korea -- South Korea.

 

      MR. COOK:  I'm not gonna get into our strategic decision-making or disposition.

 

      Q:  They're head of the B-1B was there and but still had more coming, so.

 

      MR. COOK:  I'm not gonna get into our strategic and tactical position at this point.  You saw flight of B-1 -- two B-1s the other day.  And again, that's just one indication of the deterrence of posture that we have at this point.  But it's certainly not the only thing that the United States is prepared to do to defend our South Korean ally and our allies and partners in the region.

 

      Yes?

 

      Q:  Can you talk a little bit about the military's role in tracking violations of the cease-fire?  I mean before, when there've been air strikes not in with the U.S. involvement, there's been a hesitancy to say who was responsible for it.  So is there gonna be a shift in terms of resource of ISR and things like that to ensure -- to see who's making these violations?

 

      Or who's responsible?  Or is it gonna -- is it gonna maintain the current level of -- is the DOD the leader in terms of observing violations and things like that as far as the U.S. is concerned?

 

      MR. COOK:  Listen, I'm not gonna get into details of that.

 

      The U.S. government will be in a position to assess what's happening on the ground; we're doing that right now.  The Department of Defense will do our part, but we're not alone in that effort.

 

      And again, we're evaluating the situation closely.  It is a complicated picture in Syria, as you all know.  And the one thing I can tell you that's not going to happen, is that it's going to be anything to slow the pace of our operations against ISIL.

 

      Those continue and we continue to make -- again, to gather momentum in the fight against ISIL.  And we're not going to take our eye off that ball in any way.

 

      There are still operations under way in Iraq and in Syria.  Preparations for, we believe ultimately, the collapse of ISIL's control over Mosul and ultimately Raqqah as well.  And those continue a-pace.

 

      And we continue to see gains on the ground by our local partner forces.  And we continue to work closely as a coalition to achieve that goal, even as we deal with this current situation with regard with this arrangement with Russia.

 

      Q:  Peter, on the Philippines, has anyone from the department had any communication this week with the Filipino government on the Filipino military?

 

      And does the secretary have any thoughts or concerns about the new Filipino president's remarks that he wants to have U.S. troops out of the southern Philippines, and joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea and start buying weapons from Russia and China?

 

      MR. COOK:  To my knowledge, Andrew, we have not had any official contact from the Philippine authorities.  In recent days we've had informal -- I'm sure, we talk to them all the time.  This is a long-time ally.  But I'm not aware of any official contact with regard specifically to the things you just mentioned.

 

      More broadly, you know the secretary's been to the Philippines recently.  This is, as I said, a long-standing ally and the secretary believes that this is one of the most enduring relationships in the Asia-Pacific region and will be for some time to come.

 

      And he's confident, given our mutual security interests in the region, that any concerns that the Filipinos might have -- that these are issues that can be resolved and worked out.

 

      And certainly our defense ties have been strong for some time and he's certainly believes that there's no reason that they can't continue to be very strong.

 

      Yes.

 

      Q:  Couple of questions.

 

      For the Mosul, is there a potential that there could be an increase in the number of additional troops, troop cap, for Iraq, based on that pending operation, later this year, early next year?

 

      MR. COOK:  Secretary Carter and General Votel have both spoken to this, that if there's particular capabilities that might be required in the fight to liberate Mosul, that that would be considered at that time.

 

      But it would be based specifically on needs and capabilities that might be required and it would be something that we'd be doing close consultation with the government of Iraq.  So, I -- there've been no decisions made at this point.

 

      You know that we had -- (inaudible) -- increase, and that accounted for what's been going on most recently in Qayyarah, and with the retrofitting and improvements being made to the air base there.  So, at some point, there could be additional capability needs and at that point, of course this is something that we'd be closely consulting with the government of Iraq, and to see what would be necessary and specifically what capabilities would be required.

 

      But there has been no decisions made.

 

      Q:  (inaudible) -- does that mean a recommendation has been made from in theater and for CENTCOM for additional (inaudible)?

 

      MR. COOK:  I'm not aware of anything at this point specific to the effort going forward.

 

      These are consultations that the secretary will continue to have with commanders on the ground, with other coalition members, I should point out, who also may be in a position to provide capabilities that could be required for Mosul.

 

      We've had several coalition members who, of course, have stepped up and made additional contributions which have been key to this campaign.  And if they can deliver some of these capabilities that may or may not be required in the future, certainly we would be open to that as well.

 

      Q:  (inaudible) -- this week, the Marines -- or last week, the Marines released a report about abuse of some Marine recruits at Parris Island.  There have been reports this week about in particular the targeting of one Muslim Marine recruit and how he was treated by his drill instructor, placed in a clothes dryer.

 

      What -- has the secretary been made aware of this report?  What are his concerns that he has about the overall Marine investigation's conclusions that things had to be fixed there at Parris Island?

 

      MR. COOK:  First of all, the secretary, of course, is aware of this report and has been made aware of it by the Marine Corps, and has been tracking the situation closely.  There's only so much that I can say right now because it is an ongoing situation.  There's follow up actions, adjudication that could be required.  So the secretary is limited in what he can say at this point.

 

      Let me just say more broadly about this, just without talking about any specific situation, any specific case, that the secretary, of course, expects that everyone within the Department of Defense would conduct themselves in -- with the highest standards of conduct, and that discrimination and physical abuse are things that, again, he would not expect people, particularly in positions of leadership, to engage in within the Department of Defense.

 

      And so, with that broad, again, assessment of what his expectations are, we're -- the secretary is watching this closely and he has been notified by the Marine Corps.  And I think the secretary certainly understands the Marine Corps leadership is taking this very, very seriously, and he believes that's appropriate.

 

      Barbara?

 

      Q:  Just to go back over a couple of quick points.  On the possibility of more troops, you're not at the top of the FML right now -- the top personnel ceiling for Iraq, so you could theoretically put additional troops in northern Iraq, in Mosul, without having to make an additional notification.

 

      MR. COOK:  I'm not sure exactly where we are at this particular moment in time.  But if that's the case, then, yes, you're right.  We may not need additional --

 

      Q:  You can just add more, move some around, or send more.

 

      MR. COOK:  It depends on the capabilities, Barbara.  As you know, everything we've done with regard to specific numbers of Americans in Iraq has to do with capabilities and that those people are serving a particular purpose, whether it be training of Iraqis; whether it be with regard to engineering or logistical requirements that may be needed going forward.

 

      And so we just have to look and see what the picture looks like going forward, not just at this current moment in time, but in the future.

 

      Q:  (inaudible) -- work as advisers for the Iraqi forces trying to retake Mosul?  What is the department's assessment about the additional dangers or risks that they will face, because they will be further out in the field?  Many officials are saying that.  Do you have any assessment on that?

 

      MR. COOK:  I'm not sure who the "many officials" are that you're referring to.  But first of all, the secretary has made clear that our forces in Iraq are in harm's way.  Everyone who is serving there is in a dangerous situation.  That is crystal clear.

 

      And so we're doing -- part of these numbers, anything we do with regard to our current forces there, will always be force protection, to protect those Americans who are conducting training, for example.

 

      But I -- I don't believe the Secretary thinks that the nature of what's to come will expose Americans to any greater risk than they're in right now.  They're at risk at this moment, as we've painfully seen in recent months.

 

      But with regard to training and things like that, that is conducted behind the forward line of -- of troops and in positions -- in locations, you know (inaudible), you know al-Asad, you know places like Makhmur.  These are locations where we're confident the force protection can be established that those Americans who are conducting the training can do so in a -- in as safe as fashion as possible.

 

      Q:  Can I ask you very quickly on the agreement.  You mentioned that you believe the cease-fire is largely holding, but then you also mentioned that you're waiting for compliance with the terms of the arrangement.

 

      So, is the compliance you're waiting for -- (inaudible) -- the allowing of humanitarian assistance into this area?  And can you tell us your- -- the assessment by the U.S. government of that compliance with allowing humanitarian aid in?

 

      MR. COOK:  I think it's been pretty clear.  I think we heard from the U.N. today that -- that we have not seen trucks moving in.  I'm not sure if that's changed in the last few hours.

 

      But that was the last check I had, that the trucks had not moved.  And I would defer again to the U.N. which is organizing those aid deliveries to characterize exactly where that stands.

 

      But that's certainly the understanding we have at the Department of Defense that those aid trucks have not yet been put in position to deliver the assistance that we think is critically required.

 

      Q:  (inaudible) the assistance is not delivered, can there be compliance?

 

      MR. COOK:  It's -- it's in the terms of the -- it's -- it's in the terms of the arrangement right now.  Defer to the State Department on -- that  negotiated this.

 

      But at this moment in time, we have not see the assistance (inaudible), and we've -- again, watch that very, very carefully, just as we are watching the activities of -- of the players on the ground with regard to honoring the cessation of hostilities, and the reduction of violence.  We have seen that largely hold.  We have not seen the assistance moving.

 

      Yes -- (inaudible)?

 

      Q:  (inaudible) -- again today, there are a lot of reports circulating Turkish media that the YPG is flying the -- a U.S. flag in Tell Abyad.  And pictures also --

 

      (CROSSTALK)

 

      MR. COOK:  In where, I'm sorry?

 

      Q:  In Tell Abyad -- in Tell Abyad, northern Syria.  Last time, you know, what happened I asked the question here, you said it -- it's not a coordinated effort -- coordinated action by the SDF.

 

      Have you -- have you told SDF, as your special forces are in direct communication with these guys, that not to use American flag in this kind of controversial battlefield area?

 

      MR. COOK:  I -- I can't read out every single conversation we've had with our partners on the ground.  I -- I can tell you that we -- I -- I'm not aware of this particular report.

 

      But, I know in the past we've -- as we've said, we would call on our partner forces not to fly the American flag on their own, certainly.  And so, I -- I would imagine that that would be communicated if indeed that's taken place in this instance.

 

      I'm not aware of this particular report, so -- Tony?

      Q:  A couple things.  One on Iraq.  We haven't heard anything about the Expedition and Targeting Force in months.

 

      How active is the force?  Has it been assisting the U.S. Air Force in targeting ISIL individuals?  And has it captured many ISIL -- any ISIL personnel?

 

      MR. COOK:  Tony, I'll just -- because we don't talk about special operations activities, as you know, I will just say broadly that the ETF has been conducting its work in Iraq.  It has been helping the coalition effort, and will continue to provide a -- a key capability and continue to play a key role in Iraq as it has since it was first deployed.

 

      Q:  Is it helping target -- the Air Force target individuals?

 

      MR. COOK:  I'm -- again, I'm not going to get into specific details about the ETF and its operations.  I don't think that would be appropriate.

 

      Q:  North Korea -- you've said a couple of times the threat posed by North Korea.  The nuclear test last week again raised the issue of whether they are mounting -- miniaturizing it to put on a missile that could hit the United States.  We know they have short range and we know they have medium range.

 

      Does the U.S. currently assess that North Korea has the demonstrated capability to hit the continental U.S. or Hawaii and Alaska with an ICBM?  Or is that capability yet to be demonstrated?

 

      MR. COOK:  Tony, our position has not changed.  They have not demonstrated the capability to be able to pose that kind of threat to the United States at this time.  But that does not prevent the United States and the Department of Defense from doing everything we can, given the pace with which they are trying to achieve those capabilities, that we do not do everything we need to do in order to protect the United States against that threat.

 

      And that's what we're doing.  That's what our commanders in the region are doing.  That's what our umbrella defense is intended to do.  The secretary spoke about this when we were in Norway, was asked about this.  We need to stay a step ahead of the threat, and we're continuing to do that.

 

      Q:  So, they do not have -- they're not -- (inaudible) -- an ICBM at this point that could hit the United States with a nuclear weapon.  That's the current --

 

      MR. COOK:  That's -- our view has not changed on that.

 

      We'll go back -- round two -- we'll go to Lucas and then Gordon.

 

      Q:  Gitmo, Peter.  There's a new report out today from the director of national intelligence that says in the first half of 2016, two Guantanamo detainees have returned to the battlefield.  Does that bother the secretary?  Is he very concerned about that?

 

      MR. COOK:  Of course, the secretary is concerned by reports of anyone who is posing a threat to the United States, and anyone who may be engaged in -- in terrorist activities.  I -- we don't talk about individual cases specifically, but the secretary as secretary of defense is, of course, worried about anyone who may have -- have an intent of doing harm to the United States or to our allies and partners and our friends in the world.

 

      Q:  Is there any plan just to slow down with the brakes, or tap the brakes on these transfers?  Maybe conduct some kind of safety stand-down to reevaluate, re-look?  This is now nine detainees since 2009 that have returned to the battlefield -- maybe reassess this whole process to reassure the American public that when these terrorists, these detainees are transferred off Cuba, that they will be locked up and not return to the battlefield?  Any plans to slow them down?

 

      MR. COOK:  Well, you know, Lucas, the process and the rigor with which these decisions are carried out by this secretary of defense.  And of course, he's been reviewing these cases since he became secretary.  And each and every case is reviewed rigorously by the secretary, only after it's been determined through an interagency process that these people have been deemed eligible for release, and the secretary takes that responsibility extremely, extremely carefully.

 

      And he will continue to do so.  So there is going to continue to be an effort here to evaluate those people who have been deemed eligible through that interagency process for release.  And the secretary -- among the factors the secretary considers is, again, the likelihood that they may threaten the United States in the future, and also the steps that can be taken by host countries to minimize that risk.

 

      Q:  So given that these nine individuals have returned to the battlefield since 2009, is there any plans to go back, maybe a lessons learned, reevaluate, look at their files and say why did they go back?  So that this doesn't happen again, or maybe slow down this detainee transfer program right now?

 

      MR. COOK:  You can be sure, Lucasthat again, I'm not able to talk about individual cases.  But every aspect of a transfer -- including what happens to that person after their transferred -- we will remain in close discussion, the United States government will be with the steps that are being taken by those host countries to minimize the risk of exactly what you're talking about.

 

      And in those cases, where additional steps could be taken, I'm sure that's -- that is in consultation, we'll continue that with those host countries as part of a -- our relationship with those countries.

 

      Q:  The secretary satisfied that the numbers five percent evaluated from ODNI that five percent or 5.6 percent of detainees that have been transferred during this administration have returned to the battlefields.  Is he okay with that number?

 

      MR. COOK:  Lucas the secretary's not -- would prefer that nobody out there in the world is threatening arm against the United States or anybody else.  He has his responsibilities here, he has carried those out, he has no reason to question the -- the work done by ODNI in terms of evaluating this information.  And we will continue to ply here, the Department of Defense, the secretary will.

 

      The very high tests that he sets, for determining whether somebody can be released and that will not change.

 

      Q:  (off-mic.)  different subject.  There's a number of air strikes going on throughout the world, the U.S. military's targeting terrorist groups in six different countries.  Does the secretary think that terrorist threat overall has increased recently?

 

      MR. COOK:  I haven't asked him that question specifically, but I don't think it's a metric whether it's increased or decreased slightly.  The secretary of defense has identified the challenges that we, as a department, need to confront.  And one of those five challenges, is of course the threat of -- of terrorism in many parts the world, in many forms, coming from a host of different organizations.

 

      And that remains, obviously, one of our top priorities here, something that he spends much of his time devoted to.  We just need to look right out at the ISIL fight and he received updates today on aspects of that fight.  This is incredibly important to the Department of Defense, protecting the American homeland and will continue to be.

 

      And I don't think he measures in that way, he thinks it's a major threat that he's identified as one of the prime challenges -- one of the five challenges that we as a department need to confront in the short term and of course, over the medium-term and the long term, as well.

 

      This is -- this is a fight that's gonna be going on for some time and he wants to make sure this department's prepared for it.  Not only while he's secretary but while his successors have to continue that fight.

 

      Gordon?

 

      Q:  Two quick ones, first North Korea real quick, is I know that the Pentagon wants to get the THAAD system to South Korea as soon as possible, that's what you guys have stated.

 

      But I mean is there any specific things, efforts underway to accelerate the deployment of the THAAD to South Korea and B, can you just give us an update on the -- on the air strikes in Libya and has the Wasp been extended, where is that?

 

      MR. COOK:  First of all, the THAAD system, I can't give you an update other than we're trying to work as quickly and efficiently as we can with our South Korean allies to be able to deploy that system in the most appropriate way possible.

 

      And so there's no real change in that, we're not -- there's nothing specifically being done to alter that.  We're moving as quickly as we can and obviously, working very, very closely with the South Koreans to make that happen.  This is an alliance decision we'll continue to be at every step of the way.

 

      With regard to operations in Libya, again, the GNA forces, GNA-allied forces continue to make progress in Sirte.  They're still fighting in basically a specific neighborhood in Sirte.  They continue to make slow but steady progress, is my understanding, and there do continue be air strikes conducted by our forces there.

 

      I think at last check the number was we -- over 150 air strikes have now been carried out and -- and we continue to conduct operations against -- again, conduct air strikes in support of GNA-allied forces.  Okay?

 

      Q:  (inaudible) -- are they being -- (inaudible) -- clarify the answer?

 

      MR. COOK:  We're -- we're conducting air strikes ,as you know, from a ranges of platforms, but I can tell you that the Wasp is continuing operations.

 

      Yes -- (inaudible).

 

      Q:  About the -- the agreement between Russia and the U.S. (inaudible) Syria, once the conditions are met on the ground, how long will it take to set up the -- (inaudible)?  Will it be a matter of days or -- or a matter of weeks?

 

      MR. COOK:  So the Department of Defense, as I mentioned before, we will continue to do all our due diligence and  carry out our responsibilities as required.  We will be prepared if and when the determination has been made that the terms have been met and the -- (inaudible) -- is -- does -- will be established.  We're not at that point yet, but certainly Department of Defense will be ready  at that time.

 

      I cannot tell you exactly what the timeline will be at this point, nor can I tell you the timeline for what will happen after that point.  These are things that need to be worked at, not just within the Department of Defense, but something that -- this is something we haven't done before, so  I would imagine that there are going to be questions and processes that  need to be ironed out.

 

      Q:  Is there any indications on the location where this (inaudible) might be -- (inaudible)?  I mean, might (inaudible)?

 

      MR. COOK:  There -- I don't have anything at this time to -- to announce as to where it might take place.  We haven't established it yet.  We still are waiting for the regime and the Russians to comply with the terms.  We're evaluating compliance overall and so we're not at the point and until we are, I think it best just to -- to watch closely what's happening on the ground there and we'll continue to do that.

 

      I have to get to the meeting with the Japanese minister of defense.

 

      (inaudible), if it's really quick.

 

      Q:  Yes.  Will the -- (inaudible) -- have any say on whether the Russians are complying or not in setting up the -- (inaudible) -- or is it just a decision from the president and State Department?

 

      MR. COOK:  I'm sure that the -- the department will, of course, have input into what's happening on the ground.  We, along with others within the U.S. government, are evaluating things there and it'll be a -- a decision made, of course, with the president's national security team evaluating it.

 

      So, thanks, everybody.

 

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