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Off-Camera Media Availability with Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: Merry Christmas in case I don't see you next week and -- and thanks for what you've done.  You'll only irritate me about once a day, so we've gotten much better, you know? (Laughter)

SEC. MATTIS:  Now, what's on your mind? Idris, you always are right up front. (Laughter.)

Q:  Well let me ask you something we've talked about before.  On the plans of Myanmar, we've talked about it on the past.  Earlier this week, two Reuters journalists were arrested in Myanmar while they were covering the Rohingya.

SEC. MATTIS:  I was not aware of that.

Q:  Right.

SEC. MATTIS:  For what?

Q:  They were covering the Rohingya, Muslims, their situation, what's going on.  Let me ask you two questions, firstly, do you think it's appropriate for Myanmar to arrest journalists?  And secondly, the U.S. does provide training and education on human rights to Myanmar military.

Do you think it's being effective, given the arrests of the journalists and the ethnic cleansing that your government says is happening?

SEC. MATTIS:  First of all, I don't know about the arrests.  Anytime journalists get arrested for reporting, we get concerned right up front.  As much as the time -- I won't say that (Laughter.)  I'm on the record.  

Secondly, we don't expect when we start talking to a military that has not had the training before that suddenly in the first year or two there's a traumatic change.  Human rights inside any military is a cultural thing.

And you have got to work it forward and create a culture of respect for it.  So what we don't want to do, I think, is overreact to it not being effective if that is the case.  And I'm not willing to say it at this point because how many officers have we trained, how many NCO's, how many units have been through?

I'd have to look at all that.  But the whole point is to try to move people to a -- to a sense they don't serve in the lighter scheme of things, they don't just serve a leadership, the military serves the people.  That is the kind of the cleavage plane.

When militaries only do it one and not the other, we get concerned.  Part of bringing them together -- I'll give an example.  We have a program where we bring young Burmese, young people from Myanmar to the states and we teach them about democracy and all.

It happens here at D.C., and then some of the students go down and we show them America.  Whole bunch of them year and a half ago, they're sourced for this with Peter Berkowitz over here at Hoover Washington D.C. office.

He has a whole bunch of them down in Texas.  They're going to a rodeo, and we're showing them how people, police -- they see police and military not in the same way.  They see a great big strapping Texas Ranger or Deputy Sheriff at the rodeo.

And so they're all looking at this guy, they want to know if they can talk to them.  And so pretty soon they're all going over and getting their picture taken with this guy.  This is the way -- it's not like you give one class somewhere, they've got to see it in action, too.

So, it takes a while to make this thing work.  We are alarmed by what is going on there in the -- with the Rohingya.  And Secretary Tillerson obviously speaks for us on foreign policy, we stand behind his statements.

Q:  Do you consider it genocide?

SEC. MATTIS:  We stand behind Secretary of State's assessment.  And I think you know what he said about ethnic cleansing and genocide.  So we stand right with him on his statement.

Q:  Secretary Mattis, there was a very serious piece of journalism in the Washington Post this week about -- about the Russian investigation, and how the president doesn't like his intel officers, or his national security advisors to bring up Russia in any form with him.  And so, intel at the daily briefing, the intel briefing, and other members of the National Security Council, they tend to not raise the Russia issue with him.  Do you find yourself having to not raise issues when Russia is belligerent to the U.S.?  And do you, because there continues to be this -- this debate within the administration about whether Russia interfered in the election.  Did Russia interfere in the U.S. election?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I have no reservations, nor has the president ever evidenced any pushback when I bring up Russia in a national security context.  And obviously, this has come up, whether it be in Syria, or NATO, and all the other places where you've heard me speaking about this.  

The intel people have not seen this shyness, including over at the White House in the SIT room.

Q:  With regards to the -- the Russian interference, did Russia interfere in the U.S. election?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I believe they did.

Q:  National Security strategy comes out from the White House on Monday.  Broadly, what are some of the themes that drive the DOD's missions over the next couple years?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I'm going to wait until it comes out officially up there.  H.R. McMaster, I believe, national security advisor, has spoken about it; about the four pillars, as he calls them.  I will just tell you that we have worked very closely with Dr. Nadia Schadlow, who kind of had the lead for it, and the others around it -- Ms. Dina Powell and others.  

And we have, in each case, looked for how we fit to it, and brought the military factors into it.  It was very collaborative.  We had an open invitation to be there.  We took full advantage of it, giving our inputs, and now our National Defense Strategy, which will come out within -- I just need to see the final version of this.  Then we'll say we've been doing a lot of work on ours, and I've got to make certain were dovetailed in.  Within a month we'll have ours out, and it'll show that we're integrated and aligned with it.  But I'll let them come out Monday and give more detail to it.

Q:  You can't give one area where you -- broadly, an area that's going to impact your mission?

SEC. MATTIS:  I think -- Well, I mean, obviously, we provide the military, the security factors that the military provide has -- but I just can't recall off the top of my head which of those four pillars that we're under.  But certainly, the -- even the economic pillar we're under in terms of protecting certain technologies, you know, that sort of thing.  So I can probably answer you better by Tuesday.

Q:  That's fine.

SEC. MATTIS:  You know...


Q:  Sir, we're about the two weeks away -- sorry.  Hello.  We're about two weeks away from the first transgender enlistees joining the military, if they're allowed through the ongoing appeals.  Could you talk about, is this going to be a big deal?  And is the White House prepared for, if the courts say no, to allow them?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I've got to wait until the court issues are resolved.  I don't want to say something now, you know, obviously, that we have an independent judiciary, and I've got to leave them independent for right now, until they get done, and then I, you know, again, will be able to answer a question like that with something more than -- than kind of vague generalities.

Q:  Can I ask you a Syria question?


Q:  The recent encounters with Russian aircraft.


Q:  What's -- what's going on there?  Do you think it's just a...

SEC. MATTIS:  I wish I could answer.  

First of all, the deconfliction line is still up.  It has never broken down, and it was working.  But this lasted a while, and I don't know if this is a mistake, if this is simply a lack of prior deconfliction, and so we were scrambling to deconflict it as it was happening.  I don't know if this was just some pilot's dangerously feeling their oats.

Q:  More than one, right?  I mean, there's been more than one incident.  Eight times a day, sir...

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

Q:  It's been eight times a day flying over the deconfliction line, according to Central Command.

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, OK, but they're not -- the -- the incident I'm referring to is one that was dangerous.  Not all of those -- I mean, when you're turning a supersonic aircraft in tight space, you can float over it slightly and come back in.  I'm not going to say all eight of those were dangerous, or that they weren't all coordinated, you know, that sort of thing, or...

But it's -- it's not -- I don't expect perfection, but I don't expect dangerous maneuvers, either.  And so we'll sort this out.  But right now, I cannot tell you if it's sloppy airmanship, or a rambunctious pilot, or people who are trying to do something that was very unwise. 

Q:  I get to bug you twice in the same day.  On Somalia, the State Department just announced the majority of the aid to the military was going to be on pause, and suspended because of corruption, and not being able to account for the aid.  How is that going to affect the U.S. mission against al-Shabaab and against ISIS?

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't have the details that this is -- I was aware of what was going on.  We have a good relationship right now with President Farmajo and his administration, but as you know, he inherited a very difficult situation.  So, it's a little bit like what Idris asked about.  It takes some time to change a culture of corruption.  And look in our own country, where every so often, the FBI seems to go through and harvest a whole bunch of people, and put them in jail, you know, in certain locations.  And seven years later, they're back there again.

So we're working something in that unfortunate little country that's finally got a president we're supporting.  And we'll see, you know. I'm sure we can get this thing under control, even if it's not for the whole, but for -- for parts of it.

Q:  If the State Department budget is cut, will more troops be required to help with (inaudible)


SEC. MATTIS: I don't want to -- I -- I don't know where they're at.  I'm -- one reason I haven't seen much of you all -- that I've been working very hard on our budget side of it, and I know Secretary Tillerson's doing the same on his side, and I don't know what the current state of play is on that.  What I'll say, that what I've read in the paper about is budget cuts, is accurate.  It might be, but I just -- I just don't know that right now.  I don't know the start point.  But I'm very confident Secretary Tillerson's a forceful Texan, and he's fighting for his budget.

Q:  On North Korea, real quick.

SEC. MATTIS:  (inaudible)

Q:  You've often said that you're always willing for conversation with the North Koreans, but this...

SEC. MATTIS:  No, for diplomacy.

Q:  For diplomacy, right.  And so Secretary Tillerson was saying today, like, they have to earn their right back to a table of talking over diplomacy.  Do you agree with that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, that's what we've been saying all along, that we're going to have to know when the time is right.  And you've seen Secretary Tillerson, again, this is a diplomatically-led effort by him and the president, and you've seen him come out with what are some of the conditions that have to be met.  Diplomacy continues.  You see it up in New York constantly on DPRK.  There were meetings on DPRK.  I know yesterday or -- and two days ago, by our U.S.-U.N. mission with other nations.  And it continued to be a diplomatically-led effort.  

When we're ready to have conversations as you put it dialogue, that'll be up to the president and secretary of state.

Q:  Is there a rethinking about what conditions, can you ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Not that I'm aware of.  As far as I know it's the same conditions that they've expressed -- that State Department's expressed before.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can I ask you about ... 

SEC. MATTIS: I've got one over here I promised him.

Q:  Specifically -- when we met last time, you said that the U.S. presence in Syria is going to be conditions-based and you would expect something to come out of Geneva.  But the eighth round of Geneva talks seems to fail, to create conditions for a solution in Syria?

What's your reaction regarding that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  So right now, clearly ISIS is getting broken.  I think there's still problems, the fight is not over with them, don't believe it when somebody says that ISIS is completely down.  We're continuing to fight them, they're on the run, they can't hold against our alliance at all.

And obviously the regime and the Russians are moving against them on their side of the river.  But the bottom line is we are trying to set up Geneva and the diplomats under (inaudible), the United Nations effort to resolve this thing.

And that of course, it doesn't happen overnight.  But it's underway and we support it, the U.N. effort.  And we'll just continue to work ... 

Q:  Yes, hi.  Iran, yesterday Ambassador Haley came out and presented the fragments of two missiles.  Can you just tell us, like what's -- what's the end game here for the U.S.?  Are you -- are you -- are you starting a long sort of series of evolutionary exhibits that you can show?

To what end?  What do you hope to accomplish by doing this?  Because specifically the nuclear doesn't cover the ballistic missile activity, anyway.  So why are you doing this now?

SEC. MATTIS:  Because what they're doing right now is illegal.  It is contributing to the deaths of innocent people and to expose what they're doing is helping put international communities for their awareness of what's going on there.

I guess that's the best way to sum it up. 

Q:  Afghanistan, please.  Russia want to be incorporated with the United States to -- Russia, yeah, to stop Afghanistan.  Are you optimistic?

SEC. MATTIS:  I hope Russia wants to cooperate on Afghanistan, I can only leave it at that.  But I hope so.  That's a good one.

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  Can I follow up on Tom's question?  Did the -- a kind of -- the deputation that we saw from Ambassador Haley was about Iran's support for regional arms groups.  As head of the U.S. military, what does that mean for our military posture in the region and for our support for allies in the region?

Are there any changes that given this -- the alleged growing role that Iran is taking in supporting groups like the Houthis and groups in other countries?  What do you think needs to be done, if anything different?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well I think what we're trying to achieve is a stability in an unstable region right now.  And we find Iran actively engaged in keeping Assad in power, despite the murder of his own people on the industrial scale, including the use of chemical weapons.

We see what they've done with Lebanese Hezbollah in Lebanon and the threat to peace and the support they've given to Assad and the threat to Israel, for example.  

We look down at the Houthis, which Ambassador Haley as you mentioned, you know was revealing evidence, physical evidence, debris that we got our hands on that shows that they have been providing ballistic missiles to the Houthis.

And everywhere you find turmoil, you find Iran's hand in it.  And she's simply exposing this, and what we are doing in that region is standing by allies and partners and we're on one hand exposing, on the other hand helping them build their own capability to reject Iranian influence.

Q:  But she was saying that this document, the growing -- the expansion of the Iranian role and the fact that the weeks coming were more emboldened in their military transfers.  Do you think that requires an expanded or more emboldened response from the United States, to try to contain that activity?

SEC. MATTIS:  Not militarily right now, no.

Q:  But does this -- growing evidence, is this a way of accumulating evidence in order to back up what could be a military action in the future?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, this is the reason Ambassador Haley was there and not one of our Generals, is this is a diplomatically led effort to expose to the world what Iran is up to.

STAFF:  Sir, you have time for one more question.

Q:  So the moving effort embassy to Jerusalem, do you think that puts U.S. troops and U.S. citizens in greater danger in the Middle East?

SEC. MATTIS:  Hasn't proven to at this time.

Q:  Did you advise against it?

SEC. MATTIS: I always keep my advice to the president confidential, I owe him that.

Q:  The North Korean ICBM.  Do you know more today than you knew a few weeks ago?  Because you've originally said it was higher than any -- that it indicated a fully capable threat to the United States, a re-entry vehicle, miniaturized warhead, guidance system.  Or is that yet to be determined?


Q:  "No" what?

SEC. MATTIS:  Not yet.  

Q:  So, it did not achieve re-entry.  

SEC. MATTIS:  I didn't say that, it is not yet shown to be a capable threat against us right now.

Q:  Is there a time frame -- and to your -- I know you don't like them.

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

Q:  I know you don't like putting timeframes, but not yet means not yet?  We're talking ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  We're still examining -- I talk with my hands. (Laughter.)

We're still examining the -- the forensics -- we're still doing the forensics analysis.  It takes a while.

Q:  Are you going to the Olympics?

SEC. MATTIS:  No I'm busy, I've got a job. (Laughter.)