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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. in the Pentagon Briefing Room

DANA WHITE:  Good afternoon, everyone.


               I have a few items I'd like to update you on.  First, today marks the 1,025th day the department has been operating under a C.R.  We're looking forward to Congress getting back into the driver's seat and passing a fully funded F.Y. '18 budget before the current C.R. ends on December 8th.


               Secretary Mattis is in Tampa for meetings with General Votel of Central Command and General Thomas of Special Operations Command.  He will conclude his trip in Miami, where he'll meet with Admiral Tidd of Southern Command.  The goal of his trip is to talk to commanders about how we are carrying out the ISIS campaign and South Asia strategy with our allies and partners.  At SOUTHCOM, he will discuss opportunities to build and foster greater partnership with our southern (inaudible). 


               On ISIS, they are getting desperate.  Civilians are running towards the Iraqi security forces and Syrian democratic forces, because they know they are the good guys.  Thousands of their fighters are surrendering because they know ISIS can't win.  Coalition forces supported Iraqi forces as they liberated Hawija and entered the final phase for Raqqa.  More than 6.4 million Iraqis and Syrians have been liberated from the grip of ISIS, a territory about the size of California.


               The coalition will continue to strike ISIS wherever they are found.  Local forces in Iraq and Syria have fought valiantly to liberate cities from ISIS.  It is because of their efforts and their tremendous sacrifices that I can say ISIS is on the run.


               So with that, we'll take your questions.




               Q:  Yes, thank you.


               Question about the release of the Coleman family from captivity in Pakistan.  Did the U.S. military play any role at all, either in their release or their transport to Islamabad?  And will they be transported to Landstuhl for any kind of de-compression or medical evaluation?


               MS. WHITE:  So, we're not going to talk about any of those details, but we will say that we thank the Pakistani army for their assistance, and that this definitely represents an opportunity to work more closely with the Pakistanis on counterterrorism.


               Q:  Can you say whether there was any kind of a firefight with U.S. forces involved in any way in the release?


               MS. WHITE:  We're not going to talk about (inaudible).


               Phil, did you have a question?


               Q:  I was just going to ask, I know that there limitations on what you can discuss on the raid or the operation, if there was one, but we're all a bit unclear about what actually happened.  What did the Pakistani army do?  What are we -- what is the United States congratulating the Pakistani army for having done?


               MS. WHITE:  Well, I think the president's statement was very clear.  He appreciate the help that they did that was in conjunction with the U.S. government.  And again, it represents what we hope is an opportunity to work more closely with the Pakistanis on counterterrorism.


               (Stephanie).  Hi.


               Q:  A couple of questions.  So, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly today said that Americans should be concerned that North Korea has developed ICBM facilities.  What can you tell Americans in order for them to feel safe?


               MS. WHITE:  We can tell Americans that they should feel very confident about our ability to protect the homeland and our allies against any threat from North Korea.


               Q:  Today, as were getting updates on the DOD response to relief efforts in Puerto Rico, the commander in chief is tweeting that the military and FEMA can't stay there forever.  Does the DOD have some sort of a timeline to get units out of Puerto Rico?  Is the clock ticking (inaudible)?


               MS. WHITE:  I think -- I think Chief of Staff Kelly had a great answer.  I mean, first responders and military, we want to work our way out of a job.  So we'll continue to help and we'll continue to support FEMA as long as we're requested. 




               Q:  Hi.  Thanks, Dana.


               Secretary Mattis and General Dunford testified before the Senate Armed Services hearing on South Asia, and they said the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency had clear links to terrorist groups.  Do you still believe -- does the Department of Defense still believe that groups like the Haqqani Network have a close relationship with elements of the Pakistani security service?


               MS. WHITE:  I would say yes, we still -- per their testimony -- yes, I think we still believe there are close ties. 


               General, would you like to (inaudible)?


               LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH F. MCKENZIE JR.:  I would just add to that that the new South Asia strategy, one of the elements is the regionalization of the strategy that the secretary has been talking about.  We would view this actual recovery of the citizens in Pakistan by Pakistani forces as a very favorable development along that line.  We view this as a very positive thing that Pakistan has done moving forward. 


               Q:  To follow up really quickly, we don't believe there was any quid pro quo in this exchange?  Is there evidence that other -- that other prisoners released from Afghanistan, perhaps members of the Haqqani Network, in exchange for this?


               MS. WHITE:  I think it's important to remember that we still have American hostages held by the Haqqani Network.  And so again, this was a good development and we thank them for it.  But it's a good sign for the future.




               Q:  Hi.  Thanks.


               Just to follow up on Stephanie's questions.  There are no plans at present right now to (inaudible) National Guard forces or active duty military out of Puerto Rico?  Correct?


               MS. WHITE:  I'm not aware of any right now.




               GEN. MCKENZIE:  I'd just pile onto what the chief of staff at the White House said earlier.  Our goal will be to work ourselves out of a job.  There's still plenty of work to be done there right now, and we see that as a critical task.  And we're doing good work down there.  So not in the immediate future.


               Q:  Just to follow up on that, though.  There are still FEMA officials on the ground dealing with New Orleans from Katrina, and in New York and New Jersey from Hurricane Sandy.  So is it premature even to think about pulling out so early after Puerto Rico?


               MS. WHITE:  I think you mentioned FEMA.  And again, the goal is to help that community stand itself up, and then take over the tasks. 




               Q:  There are reports that a British ISIS recruiter has been killed in a drone strike in Syria (inaudible).  Can you confirm (inaudible)?


               MS. WHITE:  We have no details about those reports.


               Q:  Just to follow up on the North Korea question.  Weeks ago when North Korea fired a missile over Japan, could the United States have shot that down?  Do you have the ability to have shot down that particular missile that flew over Japan?


               MS. WHITE:  We have the ability to protect the homeland and our -- and our -- and our allies, so I'll leave it at that.


               Q:  Specifically that missile, the KN-17 that flew over Japan.


               MS. WHITE:  We are very confident in our ability to address any threat from North Korea.  (inaudible)


               Q:  General McKenzie, can we go back to Puerto Rico for a minute?  You talked about, you know, they do it with military, hoping but trying to work itself out of its job.  So when you say that, what is the measurement?  What is the metric, when the U.S. military will know that it is out of a job; that it's done.  Can you -- it's -- tell us what it means in terms of the people of Puerto Rico having sufficient water, food, power, medical care?  What are the metrics that you know it'll be time to go?


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  The U.S. military provides certain specific unique capabilities.  Broader capabilities are provided by the rest of the -- by the U.S. government.  I think right now, one of the things that we're assisting (out ?), for example, is electric power generation, and that's a key -- that's a key thing that we're going to work on.  It's going to take a little while to get that back to where it was before the storm hit.  I don't think you're going to see U.S. military units be down there until that time, but I think there are some key things we can do to assist both forces -- elements on the ground, as well other elements of the U.S. government that are flowing there to get electrical power generation started.


               Another specific discrete thing that the United States military is able to do is in the case of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, take a look at the dam that was threatening to -- that -- that appeared to be threatening to fail.  We have unique capabilities to assist, assess, and help in that area.  So we came.  That action's been completed, and -- and we're -- we're actually not doing that anymore, because we're not needed there to do that.


               Q:  OK, but my question is -- and you mentioned electric power, so there's a specific.  What is the metric?  What is the measurement by when the U.S. military will say, "We found a way (inaudible) on electric power."  How much restored?  How much -- how many people of Puerto Rico will have sufficient food, water, shelter, medical care, and electric power, all those metrics, when then you -- the U.S. military is able to say, "OK, it is now time for us to go"?  What is the measurement?


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  Well, it won't be the U.S. military that says that.  We'll be -- we'll -- we'll be -- we're part of a larger process, so that decision won't be a military decision.  That'll be a decision well -- made well above our level, from a totality-of-government approach.  I would actually think the people who could probably best answer that question for you would be FEMA, who has sort of the total picture of the response.  So I would -- I would say they'd be the people to go to.


               MS. WHITE:  OK, let me -- let me get to one -- one more person. (inaudible)


               Q:  Thank -- thank you.  Can you -- can you tell us what Secretary Mattis thinks about the JCPOA?  Is -- should America walk away from -- from that deal?  And secondly, if I may, just going back to the -- the freed couple, can you confirm that there is a -- a U.S. military jet on the tarmac somewhere in Pakistan that's ready to -- to bring them home, but they haven't yet actually gotten on it, for whatever reason?


               MS. WHITE:  So again, we're not going to talk about anything with respect to the family.  But what I will tell you is that the decision, with respect to (inaudible) is with the president.  He has not yet made a decision, so when he's made a decision, he will let us know.  Right here in the center.


               Q:  Yeah, first of all, (inaudible), can you confirm reports that the secretary is going to go to South Korea later this month?


               MS. WHITE:  We don't generally talk about his future travels, but when we are -- release those details, we will let you know.  (inaudible)


               Q:  Does the department know how much money the three hurricanes have cost us?


               MS. WHITE:  There is an approximate number.  I -- let me -- let me get back to you, because it's broken up in different buckets.  But I'll come back with you with a -- a -- an approximate number.


               Q:  (inaudible) limit spending with no hurricanes' big response like this the year before.  Does it need Congress' approval to actually repay itself for -- get the money to pay -- to pay for all this?


               MS. WHITE:  Well, I understand there is -- there was a disaster relief bill put forward, so again we -- we are always ready to do what we need to do.  It's a sizable amount of money.  I will come back with you about the actual details.


               Q:  1,028 days (CR ?).  What is that one point -- what's your metric for that?  There have been CRs for, you know, decades, they have been...


               MS. WHITE:  Nine fiscal consecutive years.


               Q:  In history?  OK.


               MS. WHITE:  Yes.


               Q:  I have -- thanks.  I have just two quick follow-ups on Pakistan, and General, I'll have a quick one on you -- on Afghanistan for you. 


               Because I didn't hear the -- quite the answer, so whose custody are -- is the family in now?  Are they in U.S. custody?  Are they in Canadian custody?  Are they in Pakistani custody?


               MS. WHITE:  I would refer you to the State Department for more details about the family. 


               Q:  OK, and then the second one on that -- Were there any hostages exchanged?  I didn't quite get a -- an answer on the quid pro quo.  Did the Pakistanis or the U.S. military exchange hostages for the -- the family?


               MS. WHITE:  It's -- again, we are very -- we were very appreciative that the Pakistani army participated.  We see this as an opportunity.


               Q:  Did the U.S. give any hostages?  Can you at least talk to the U.S. side?


               MS. WHITE:  I'm not -- I'm not going to give you any more details.


               Q:  OK, and finally, I'll ask (inaudible) real quick.


               MS. WHITE:  OK.


               Q:  General, the (inaudible) service of Voices of America has noted there's been an uptick in the amount of strikes in the past two weeks -- more than 70, I think, in the past two weeks.  Can you explain why this is?


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  Well, dictated by the requirements of the battle, the battle space.  I can assure you that any strike that occurs is in full compliance with the Law of Armed Conflict, and is actually conducted with a pretty strenuous eye toward minimizing civilian casualties, women, children, and other innocent people there on the ground.  So it's driven by the dictates of what's going on in the fight.


               Q:  (inaudible) Kurdistan.  So I have a couple of questions about the tensions between Baghdad and Erbil.  The Kurds have warned of a possible, quote, "major attack" from Baghdad and Shia militias on them in Kirkuk.  I just want to know if they have informed you about this, (inaudible) the Pentagon, and whether you are concerned that might, you know, cause some security concerns for that -- for your troops there.


               MS. WHITE:  Well, as the secretary said, we want all of the parties to focus on the common threat, and that's ISIS.  So anything that -- that distracts from defeating ISIS, we want all parties to resolve politically.  So we would encourage all parties to find a solution, and get back to the business of defeating ISIS.


               Q:  (inaudible) quote, a quote, "major attack", have you been notified by the Peshmerga there about this possible major attack?


               MS. WHITE:  I don't know about inter-country conversations, but -- but we are -- I am aware of the reports, and like I said, we would encourage all parties to come to resolution, a political resolution.


               Q:  Some witnesses have told local press in Iraq that those forces were exercising -- engaged in a military exercise on the Iran border, were Shia forces and they had U.S. weapons with them.  Do you deny or confirm these reports that Shia forces in Iran use U.S. weapons to engage in a military exercise? 


               MS. WHITE:  I don't have any details.  General?


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  No.  I've got nothing for you on that.


               MS. WHITE:  (inaudible)


               Q:  Thanks, Dana.  General, last week we spent a fair amount of time about ambush in Niger.  Since then, the (inaudible) is that ISIS was behind it.  At the time, they thought they were in a quiet environment.  I was just wondering if you can update us on the threat that you perceive from ISIS; if you're going to have to reconfigure the entire threat assessment for Niger and the rest of Africa; and where you think ISIS's strength in West Africa is coming from.


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, obviously, the patrol that was attacked last week had actually done 29 patrols without contact over the previous six months or so; no indication that this was going to occur.  I would say that what was actually very positive about it was the fact that they were able to have close-air support overhead, about 30 minutes after first contact, which is pretty impressive.


               What's even more impressive is the fact that that was our French allies that were able to provide that air support. 


               To the last part of your question, clearly I think we believe there's probably some form of ISIS affiliation with the group that we're talking about there.  We're still looking into the specific details of that.  I would further note, though, that as we examine that problem, we'll look at -- we'll look at what we do in order to support forces that are still going to go out and train with our Nigerian partners, and we'll pre-position in order to take into account this new factor in the theater.


               The last thing I would simply say is that this is all, I would argue, a -- a natural product of the fact that they're being crushed in the core caliphate; trying to go to other places; trying to find the cold corner of the room.  And so I think this is -- while this particular instance is tragic, it's also illustrative of the general success of the campaign.


               Q:  Are you seeing them shift either resources or people from the caliphate to central Africa?


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  One of the key aspects of our strategy is to prevent their ability to shift resources and people.  So it's easier to actually stop resources than it is people.  I think we're having significant success doing that; probably not perfect because perfection is probably not an attainable goal.  But we strive very hard to prevent that.


               Now, what you can't prevent is local franchisement.  You know, self -- self-enabled radicalization.  That's a harder task to prevent and we're going to continue to work at that.  But I think that we're not seeing a lot of flow out of the core caliphate because most of those people are dead now.


               Q:  OK.  Help me understand, just a quick followup.  You said the "cold corner of the room" -- they're going there, and then at the other moment you said that they actually -- you aren't seeing personnel move. 


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  No, I'm saying that -- I'm sure some personnel have moved.  We're able -- we're stopping I think the vast majority of that.  I'm not going to tell you that we're going to be able to stop everyone.  But, you know, if they go to the cold corner of the room that will rapidly become the hot corner of the room, we'll turn the searchlight on them, and they'll have the option of either surrendering or dying in their new franchise.


               It's all the same to us.


               MS. WHITE:  So, (Tim ?)?


               Q:  Following up on this question about the 30-minute response time of French close-air support.  I'm curious, was that part of that patrol's contingency plan, also known as a PACE plan? 


               And second, you said again the half-hour time, how fast were the wounded and dead taken off the battlefield?


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  So, 30 minutes I think is pretty good time by anybody's -- by anybody's standard.  Patrol is not designed to be a combat patrol.  Patrol is designed to be a partner patrol that was going out actually doing outreach.  Obviously, there was a pretty good level of planning, if you can produce CAS overhead in about 30 minutes.


               I'm not going to go further into operational details on that.  I would say that we were able to get casualties and ultimately fatalities out quickly, but I'm not going to give you the specific timeline for that.  We're still investigating and coming to a final conclusion on those details.


               Q:  Did the U.S. contract the two aircraft in that area for those kind of situations?  So I'm curious why and how the French were involved?  Was that a favor that they (inaudible) to the United States because they were in the area?  Or that was part of the mission plan?


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  So, we work very closely with the French in the Chad Basin.  The French have about 5,000 forces up in the Mali area.  We have about 1,000 forces distributed over the Chad Basin, most of them in Niger, but not all of them.  I think it's -- I think it's a good alliance story, to be honest with you.  I don't think anyone was doing anyone else a favor.  I think you had two -- two partners that were working closely together and this was an opportunity for the French to be helpful.


               MS. WHITE:  (Margaret? ?)


               Q:  Sir, can I just follow up on two things.  You mentioned two things about this episode that you thought were positive.  You said close-air support.  I have always understood close-air support largely to refer to the dropping of weapons in support of troops on the ground.


               Our understanding has been, and please correct me if I'm wrong, that the French did not drop any ordnance because there's no permission from Niger to drop ordnance.  So my first question is, good news -- I'm not really clear where the good news is if they didn't -- weren't able to drop any weapons to protect the troops on the ground.  So please clarify that.  The second -- about close-air support.


               The second thing you mentioned is that it was a positive development, indicating that troops have left the traditional caliphate.  I am confused.  Are you saying that the attackers -- ISIS attackers in Niger were foreign fighters coming back from Syria and Iraq?  Or were they in fact home-grown -- pardon me -- self-radicalized locals from the area?


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  I'll take the second part of your question first.


               Don't know for sure.  I'd be very surprised if they were foreign fighters that came from Syria into -- into sub-Saharan Africa.  So...


               MS. WHITE:  Let -- let him finish.


               Q:  If I could just clarify, Dana.  I'm not -- I'm not understanding where you come up, all due respect, where you come up with that being a positive development if they're self-radicalized fighters...




               GEN. MCKENZIE:  Sure.  So I think we just have a different view of the subject.  We view it as a positive sign that -- that the core caliphate is being -- is actually being crushed steadily every day.  They're unable to manifest the former activities they did to try to pose themselves as a state.  That means that people are going to go to ground.  Some of them are going to go to ground.  Some of them will surrender.  Some -- some...




               GEN. MCKENZIE:  Let me just finish, please.


               Some of them are going to surrender.  Some of them are going to be killed by us.  They still have a powerful message in the cyber world.  Self-radicalization occurs around the world.  That is an enduring problem, and I don't want to minimize that problem.


               So if I had to guess, and I'm guessing, because I don't know -- I would say these are probably self-radicalized.  But there is also some minimal flow of people across the divide.  I think it's much -- much, much, much less than it was a year ago, and much, much less than it was two years ago because a critical part of our strategy is preventing that flow.


               So I think I'm being consistent.  You may see it differently, but I believe I'm being entirely consistent in what I said.


               Now, as we go back to the actual CAS engagement, I would just say this.  I don't want to get into particular details of it.  But the aircraft appeared overhead.  It was effective, we believe, in bringing the engagement to an end.  The tactical decisions on the ground may have been not to employ the aircraft.  I don't know the answer to that because it's still under investigation.  So I'm not actually prepared to go into any more detail on that.


               Q:  Appreciate it.


               MS. WHITE:  Tony?


               Q:  (inaudible) going on in the world right now involving Japan's biggest steel company.  The Department of Defense uses lots of steel.  This Kobe company has acknowledged that some of its employees have falsified data on components.


               Is the Pentagon in its initial reviews of the steel products it buys, is there any concern at this point that...


               MS. WHITE:  I don't have any details on that right now.  But Tony, I will get back to you on that.


               Q:  Is the department at least looking at your industrial base people and maybe the services at large looking into this (inaudible)?


               MS. WHITE:  We are likely looking into anything with respect to a commodity like steel.  But I will -- I'll come back to you with your details.


               Q:  Let me ask you something else, too.  What prompted the secretary's attack on the NBC report yesterday, that statement?  Was that self-initiated?  Or was that White House pressure that forced that?


               MS. WHITE:  There was no White House pressure.  It was -- it was a false report.  So (inaudible).  I mean, there was -- there were reports that happened about -- a meeting that happened in this building that just weren't true.  And the secretary has a great deal of integrity and it just wasn't true, so he said as much.


               Q:  And is it true in the July meeting -- he's had many meetings since then, what steps did he take to talk to the participants, read notes, transcripts, to put his reputation on the line by...


               MS. WHITE:  The secretary was in that meeting in July. 


               Q:  Did he refer -- did he look at notes or anything to refresh his memory about what was said? 


               MS. WHITE:  Again, I think the secretary's statement speaks for itself.  He was actually in the meeting.  I can't verify anything about the unnamed sources that were in that story.


               STAFF:  Ma'am, we have time for a couple more questions.


               MS. WHITE:  Okay.


               Q:  Yes, thank you.  My name is Gregori (Balishkin ?) from Russian News Agency.


               so I have two questions regarding U.S.-Russia relations.  So first, Russian Defense Ministry early today stated that U.S. has deployed 2nd Arm and Brigade Combat (Team ?) in (full ?) in violation of NATO-Russia Founding Act.  So what is your response to these allegations and do you have any concerns that Russia can deploy additional missile systems in (Telliride ?) region in response to this NATO move?


               MS. WHITE:  The United States and NATO, we maintain a ready postured land, air, and sea.  Our presence there is defensive.  We're very transparent about our -- our presence there, and so we'll continue to support our NATO allies.


               Q:  So but you don't consider this move as a violation of NATO-Russia Act?


               MS. WHITE:  Like I said, we are in those places just as a defense and defensive posture.  And we're very clear about that and anyone who sees anything differently would be wrong.  Tom?


               Q:  Thank you, just going back to Afghanistan, actually.  General, perhaps you've got this one, how would you rate the performance of the Afghan air force?  There's been a lot of talk about the -- the seven year modernization that's gone on but also the UN mission there is showing that this year there's record number of civilian casualties caused as a result of Afghan airstrikes.  Yes, so what's your assessment of their performance?


                GEN. MCKENZIE:  So I think as we implement the new South Asia strategy going forward as we're able to increase the number of trainers and advisors associated with the Afghan air force, the Afghan air force is only going to improve.  It has struggled through a period of lengthy material deficiency made even more pronounced by a precipitous withdrawal over a couple of years ago as we drew back and our support for them.


               Now we are rebuilding that now and we're doing it at the lowest possible level, at the flying squadron level where trainers and advisors will be.  So I think the actual picture going forward for the Afghan air force is -- it's not going to be easy because that's a tough place to operate aircraft, it's a tough place to maintain aircraft and I don't want to minimize those difficulties.  But I think we're on a positive trajectory.


               Q:  In terms of the actual civilian causalities, the numbers are at record level, so how -- what's your response to that? 


               GEN. MCKENZIE:  I would say that every strike that's conducted is conducted, that we are aware of, that we are (witting ?) to, is conducted in compliance with the law of armed conflict and I think we've been the most scrupulous adherent to that really in the history of modern warfare.


               MS. WHITE:  Thank you all.