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

PETER COOK:  I apologize for being late.  A few things going on today.

First of all, good afternoon, everyone.  Good to be back with you after the secretary's two-week trip around the world.  A productive trip, and the highlight for the secretary and for all of us was seeing so many service members deployed around the world and serving with such skill and distinction.  It was great to have a chance to engage with so many of them on the -- over the course of the trip.

I have updates on a number of issues before I take your questions.

First off, I want to say that we are aware of the situation in Turkey and the shooting of the Russian ambassador, and we condemn this act of violence.  Our thoughts are with the victims and their families.  I know my colleagues at the State Department may have more to say on this situation later today.

Now to the latest on our unmanned underwater vehicle that was illegally seized by a Chinese naval vessel last Thursday.

We continue to engage with Chinese officials on the details and timing of the safe return of the UUV.  Those conversations are ongoing.

And I have an update for you with regard to the counter-ISIL campaign.  Several updates in fact.

As you saw over the weekend, the Government of National Accord in Libya announced the successful conclusion of its campaign to liberate the city of Sirte, which ISIL has sought to use a stronghold in North Africa.

As you know, this has been a tough fight and we congratulate the GNA-aligned forces for their courage and determination.  We are proud to have supported this campaign to eliminate ISIL's hold over the only city it has controlled outside Iraq and Syria.

AFRICOM carried out this mission with particular skill, especially limiting the risk of civilian casualties in conducting airstrikes in Sirte.

We will continue to keep a close eye on the remnants of ISIL in Libya and remain prepared to assist the GNA as appropriate going forward.

In Iraq, Iraqi security forces continue to degrade ISIL in Mosul, where the ISF has clear approximately 20 percent of the city.  Secretary Carter was able to meet with Iraqi forces during the course of his trip, as well as Peshmerga fighters, conducting this campaign, to thank them personally for their courage and determination in what has been, as expected, a challenging fight in dense urban terrain.

In Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces over the weekend accomplished a significant milestone in the drive to isolate and eventually liberate Raqqa, ISIL's self-proclaimed capital.  SDF forces driving south have reached the Euphrates River northwest of Raqqa, which will help to isolate ISIL forces on that side of the river.  Importantly, as they continue this isolation of Raqqa, the SDF is continuing to attract Arab fighters for future operations against ISIL.

And finally, an update on our counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan.  We previously announced on October 23, precision air strike that we assessed killed Faruq al-Qatani, the al-Qaida emir for eastern Afghanistan.  The department has now determined that the same strike killed two additional senior al-Qaida leaders; Bilal al-Utabyi, al-Qatani's deputy, and Abd al-Wahid al Junabi, a senior al-Qaida explosives expert.  All three were actively involved in carrying out and planning terror attacks inside and outside Afghanistan.

The deaths of these three senior al-Qaida leaders will significantly disrupt the ability -- the group's ability to threaten the United States, our interests and our allies, and highlights our continuing commitment to the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan.

This strike is further evidence that those who seek to do us harm are not beyond our reach. And we will have a statement on this strike later after this briefing.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.  Thomas?

Q:  Hello, Peter.  Can you talk to us a little bit about the handover of the -- of the underwater probe?  I believe it's gonna be given to a destroyer, a U.S. destroyer.  What kind of military --

MR. COOK:  Well, you know more, Thomas, than I do from this podium.

Q:  What kind of military posture will there be?  Will -- will this be a -- will this be a -- you know, how will the drone actually returned?  Will it be small craft to small craft?  Or will it --

MR. COOK:  Thomas, these are -- the -- the conversations that are ongoing at this time.  We're working out the logistical details with the Chinese through appropriate channels.  And when we have more to announce, we will.

Q:  Okay.  What do you say to the -- to the Chinese response that the drone was posing a hazard to -- to shipping, and so they took it to have a look at it and get it out -- out of the way?

MR. COOK:  We have used these vehicles around the world previously.  We're confident they were being used in an appropriate fashion, and I'll leave it at that.

Q:  Is this the first time that one of your U.S. Naval underwater probes has been taken?

MR. COOK:  I'll check with you on that.  This is the first time we've had an incident like this with the Chinese navy, to my knowledge.  And obviously, this is a situation that we had concern with as to how this played out.

This was an underwater vehicle doing something that we've done before.  It's an unclassified program.  And we want the vehicle back and we're working to arrange that.

Q:  Okay.  And when you -- when you do -- when you do the handover, will it be -- will it be in international waters?  Like, in other words, even waters that are claimed by China, sort of outside of the Nine-Dash line?

MR. COOK:  We were gonna -- we will conduct this in an appropriate and professional fashion.  And we're having those conversations right now about how to execute that most efficiently.


Q:  Peter, these talks that are underway, who is doing them?  Is it through U.S. military and Chinese military channels?  Or is the State Department involved?

MR. COOK:  I think it's fair to say there are multiple channels, including military-to-military conversations.

Q:  And you said in your opening statement that the probe -- that the drone had been illegally seized.  What was the Chinese reaction to that statement?

MR. COOK:  I'll leave it to the Chinese to -- to respond to it.  They've spoken publicly about this incident.  Our view is that this was seized illegally, and again, we seek its -- its return, and that's what we're trying to execute right now.

Q:  Were there any indications that this device was being returned to China or somewhere else?

MR. COOK:  I don't have any information for you on that.  We're working to seek the return of this vehicle as quickly as possible and we're trying to execute that now.  This is a vehicle that should never have left U.S. possession.


Q:  Peter, switching gears to Raqqa.  Last week, General Townsend mentioned that he plans to quote, "check back in" with his Turkish counterparts once the envelopment of the city was complete.  He also mentioned prior to the SDF's operation, he -- he and his staff had reached out to Turkey as far as their possible participation in the advance to Raqqa.

Now, from the podium in the past, you've mentioned, you know, you welcome any support Turkish forces can provide in the fight against ISIS, but the Pentagon was not quite prepared to sort of cross the line and do open coordination with Turkish forces in either Iraq or Syria.  Does General Townsend's comment mark a shift in policy now regarding the Turkish involvement in either Iraqi or Syria?

MR. COOK:  We've had close coordination, Carlo, with our Turkish counterparts at every step of -- of the ISIL fight.  They're not only a NATO ally, they're a member of the coalition, and so I don't think your characterization is -- is an accurate one.

We have continued to consult on a regular basis, a daily basis with our Turkish counterparts and we'll continue to do so about every aspect of this campaign.

Q:  Peter, understood as far as close coordination and support throughout the campaign, but as far as actually having Turkish forces either flying or fighting side-by-side with American forces in Syria or Iraq, that's what -- from my take, that's what it seemed that General Townsend was indicating.  Is that a correct read on that?

MR. COOK:  We have -- we have been supporting, for example, the efforts long Turkey's border with Syria, the operations in northern Syria, the taking of Dabiq, Jarabulus.  These are activities that we have actively supported and these are obviously operations in which the Turkish military has played a role alongside local Syrian fighters as well.  And so we -- we have done that up to this point and are prepared to continue to collaborate with -- with our Turkish -- our Turkish allies.

This is something that we're carefully coordinating, carefully discussing.  You know that there are tensions with other groups on the ground there and that is one of the roles we're trying to play as a member of the coalition, other countries are doing the same, to try and make sure that those tensions are -- are addressed and that everyone is transparent and everyone is focused on the -- the singular goal of trying to eject ISIL from Syria, which is a goal we all share.

Q:  At some point in your future during the Raqqa campaign, could we see Turkish fighters providing air support for SDF troops moving towards the city?

MR. COOK:  I'm not gonna get into hypotheticals, Carlo, and I'm not gonna speak for other governments and their operations of their military.


Q:  On the shooting of the Russian official in Turkey, has there been any discussion, granted tensions are high, of potential sharing of intelligence with Russia on potential connections between that shooter and international terrorist organizations?

MR. COOK:  I'm not gonna get into intelligence matters from here.  This is a tragic event that's just happened in -- in Turkey, and we'll wait to see what -- what comes of the investigation.  The Turks will obviously lead this investigation, and if there's a role for the United States to play, I'll leave it to my State Department colleagues to speak to it.

But this is obviously something -- an act of violence that we condemn.

Am I done?  Yes?

Q:  Anything on Vincent Viola as the selection for Army secretary, especially given the fact that he's had heavy involvement with West Point, especially in cyber, some of those issues that have been priorities for the department?  Is there any reaction sense of whether he might be friendly to continuing some of the -- again, the technology initiatives -- (inaudible).

MR. COOK:  I think it probably best for us not to comment specifically on -- on selections by the next administration in terms of -- of nominees, other than to say we'll be supportive and as helpful as we can be in terms of the transition.  To the extent that there are folks who are appointed to positions or named to positions that have a good understanding of the issues confronting this department, and in particular the Army, we think that's a good thing.


Q:  Follow-up on the transition, how would you describe the process right now with the transition?  I mean, do they come -- the -- the Trump transition people come in routinely?  Do they operate here inside the building?  Has the secretary had any initial meetings -- any other meetings with them since the initial drop-by?

MR. COOK:  The impression I have -- and granted I've been away for two weeks -- is that the transition continues to operate smoothly.

There are members of the Trump transition team who have been here in the building getting updates from a variety of DOD employees and units within the Department of Defense.  I'll leave it to them to speak to the pace of those briefings and what else they may be seeking to learn, but we've been trying to be as supportive as we can be.

And, again, the secretary's been gone as well for two weeks.  And he remains prepared, would like to see this operate as smoothly and efficiently as possible.  And from our vantage point, that's certainly what we're trying to do.

Q:  I think in -- during previous transitions, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has at times met with the incoming president.  Are there plans for General Dunford to meet with President-elect Trump at some point?

MR. COOK:  I'll leave that to Chairman Dunford to -- to speak to and the transition team.  The joint staff may have something for you on that.

Q:  Has General Mattis been to the Pentagon recently as part of the transition efforts?

MR. COOK:  I have not been in the Pentagon for two weeks, so I -- I will leave that to General Mattis and the -- and the Trump transition team to speak to his activities.

So, anything else?  Okay.  That was quick.  Again, sorry I was late.