SECRETARY JAMES N. MATTIS: Yes. Yes, understand. Understand. (Laughter.) Good to see you all, and thank -- for those of you who have been here for the last year or the last 15 years.
I took Bob Burns on a trip down to Gitmo and Mayport, Lejeune and Bragg. Took the small plane. Then the reason why is I didn't want to show up and “doomsday” and -- excuse me -- and basically have troops who would otherwise have been on leave and everything to -- it's a big group coming and a lot of press -- and everybody show up.
So he said it would be best if I announced coming down in advance to you all, instead of just showing up. The problem with that is that, if I do that and tell you in advance, and then something comes up and I don't show up, then that becomes the story, you know?
But I will try to announce it in advance. You just have to understand, there are times when other things come up that intrude on my schedule. And it's like anything else on my schedule. I may just dismiss the forward officers who spent two weeks preparing the brief for me because something's come up and I've got to go over to State Department or need to run out to some other place.
So -- but I will try to give you at least a day's notice, since apparently that helps you, Bob -- I pushed back strongly, and Bob pushed back on me, and we're on a little, tiny airplane, so we had to come to agreement, like Sitting Bull and Custer sitting there together. (Laughter.)
So, finally, Bob prevailed. But just bear with me if we tell you I'm going to be here and I don't show. But we will try to keep to a schedule of some time. It will generally be later in the week, it’s because Monday is when I have the least control of my schedule, and it actually gets better during the week. But, if something goes on in Korea or something like that, then things change. That's the way it is.
So, anyway -- but thanks for covering us for the last year. I was reminded, as I wandered around on Christmas Day, seeing people in op centers -- all happy-go-lucky, by the way. I mean, it was amazing to me how many operations centers we have around this town in itself, from national military ops – and you know that one, those of you who have been here a while -- to the anti-air defenses that went in around the city after 9/11, to the ready crews, and that started this -- how many people, even here in D.C., which is far from the fleet Navy or the field Army -- how many people are still on duty.
So thanks for telling their story in your own way. They are the ones who matter. I know you get caught up in a lot of other stories, too, but those are the ones that matter.
Anyway, what's one your minds?
SEC. MATTIS: This will be on the record, okay?
Q: Okay. I wanted to ask you about Syria.
We had a briefing the other day with Major General Felix Gedney, the number-two officer at OIR. We were asking him about the way ahead, and he said you're going to clear out the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: -- of the remaining ISIS. Then we asked about ISIS fighters heading west toward Palmyra, maybe on to Damascus. And we said, "Well, you going to go after those guys, because you're there to crush ISIS?" And he said, "No, we're not heading over that way to --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: -- "take on ISIS. That's up to the Syrian regime, up to the Russians."
So walk us through the way ahead here --
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.
Q: -- once you clear out what's called the MERV, will you just allow the ISIS fighters to scoot west and just not deal with them? Or what's the future here?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes. We deal with -- we deal with reality. I hope it doesn't miss anything here, you know? We deal with reality. We told you that the caliphate was going to go down. Well, there were numerous people who thought perhaps the strategy was wrong when it was initiated by the last administration -- thought it was too slow when I came in, thought there was this complexity with Turkey or that complexity with the Russian regime or the Iranians.
We sit here today at the end of 2017 -- the caliphate is on the run. We are breaking them. Their capital was Raqqa. They constructed attacks through Manbij -- that spoke was taken down. Tabqa was the defensive perimeter for Raqqa. They -- Tabqa fell. Raqqa was surrounded and taken down.
Some people escaped. That's what happens in war. They moved, clearly, into the Middle Euphrates River Valley. We are in the process of crushing the life out of the caliphate there, while trying to keep the innocent people safe, which is very hard with this group.
We recognize that there's a deconfliction line that runs down the river. It has held, pretty much. There have been problems with it, but we've resolved those problems, generally, day by day, over the -- never has it gone down, the deconfliction line between us and the Russian forces. Never once have we called, and it not been answered. Never once have they called, and we not answered.
So the demarcation line that keeps our forces deconflicted leaves that side of the river, which, granted, was not the heavily contested side -- I mean, they fought most for Raqqa, their capital -- our side. They shifted the capital to Mayadin -- now, heavy fighting down in that area.
So, those who are fleeing somewhere else -- we -- I mean, this is the normal thing that happens. I mean, it's not a big issue. They'll have to be hunted down. But I seriously doubt that Assad sees this as a positive on his side, either.
Q: But Gen. Gedney said that they could mount a counterattack -- those heading west. I mean --
SEC. MATTIS: Pardon?
Q: -- they could mount a counterattack.
SEC. MATTIS: Well, they could -- they could -- they mount counterattacks every day, right now, against us, they'll be (inaudible).
Q: So just -- Mr. --
Q: But, as far as -- let's say Palmyra -- he said, you know, they could head there, they could head elsewhere. They could potentially create some sort of a safe haven, or coalesce there.
SEC. MATTIS: Oh, it's only a safe haven if people make the decision to give them one. And I think what you saw in Russia, here, this last weekend -- I think it's very clear that, even among nations that have got disagreements on any number of issues -- that ISIS or terrorists going after innocent people are not to be tolerated anywhere.
And so just -- we'll just watch as it develops, but I'm not seeing right now that there's some concentration, where they're going to come up big and have a safe haven. I've not seen any indication of that.
Q: And, if that does occur, what happens then?
SEC. MATTIS: I'm not going to speculate.
Q: Sir, at this point, would you go into Syrian regime-held territory to target ISIS?
SEC. MATTIS: There's no need for us to do that.
Q: On North Korea, Mr. Secretary, what should we make about the seizure of a Hong Kong-flagged vessel doing an illegal transfer at --
SEC. MATTIS: Who seized it?
Q: The South Koreans are saying they did. And are we going to be seeing more of this? Is the U.S. Navy going to get involved? And does this amount to some kind of naval blockade?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I don't speculate, as you know, about future operations by our forces. But with three U.N. Security Council resolutions in a row, unanimously adopted, that -- each one has put significantly more pressure on the North Korean regime for its provocations, for its outlaw activities. I think you will see increased pressure. What form that pressure takes in turns of physical operations is something that will be determined by the Congress and government.
Obviously, if a government finds that there's a ship in their port, conducting trade that was forbidden under the U.N. Security Council resolution, then they have an obligation. And, so far, we've seen nations take that obligation seriously.
Q: Is the United States closer to going to war with North Korea?
SEC. MATTIS: You know, I provide military options right now. This is a clearly -- a diplomatically led effort with a lot of international diplomatic support. It's got a lot of economic buttressing, so it's not like it's just words. It's real activities.
And, as you know, secretary of state will get together in Vancouver, British Colombia, co-hosting (inaudible) with the foreign minister of Canada, here in mid-January. And that shows we still have the diplomats in the lead to solve this.
Q: Will you be encouraging U.S. troops to attend the Olympics next month in South Korea?
SEC. MATTIS: I don't -- I'm the Secretary of Defense, I --
Q: Mr. Secretary --
SEC. MATTIS: What they do on their free time --
Q: I'm sorry, could you come back to Syria, though, for just a minute? Which -- you said they entertain a large concentration of ISIS returning, but there are signs of pockets emerging. The government of Kirkuk has talked about it. We've seen assassinations in -- (inaudible). You mentioned foreign fighters leaving. Can you help me understand?
You said that you haven't seen a large concentration, but are you seeing evidence of them trying to re-constitute? Or are you worried about them coming back in some other form? Do you see those pockets as isolated, or is there the potential for them to re-emerge in the next few months in some other form?
SEC. MATTIS: The only way they would emerge in some other form -- if you're referring to a stronger, maybe more cohesive form -- in other words, they've been shattered, and then the remnants gather somewhere, which is what we expect them to do -- and so we said, as you know -- we have repeatedly said in this room, the war is not over. There's these people running around, talking about victory.
Okay, they've -- for example, in Iraq, Prime Minister Abadi led a concerted campaign with enormous casualties, both heavily civilian, but also as military, to break up all of the hold on land. But he's under no illusions. We're continuing to work with him, and over with the SDF on the other side, as we hunt them down, as they re-concentrate and concentrate. It may be a dozen guys who finally find each other, you know, and they get together and they start living in one house, they start licking their wounds, say, "What can we do?"
So, what we want to do is drive this down to a point that it can be handled by local authorities, by police and that sort of thing. But, for right now, it's still very much a military intelligence operation as the police try to set up local security, whether it be in Raqqa or Mosul, that sort of thing. Eventually, it will be the rule of law, and local security forces have prevented exactly what you're talking about. But the -- the hunting down of these guys is not over, as you quite accurately point out with your question, and it continues right now.
Am I worried about it? Not in the least. These guys have not proven they can stand against the Iraqi security forces. They cannot stand against the SDF. Their best bet is against unarmed men, women, and children, and once they're confronted with this, it's mostly an intelligence fight. Once the intelligence fight is won, once we identify where they're at, it's just a matter of can we surround them so they don't get away to fight another, and then kill them. It's not who's going to win.
Q: That's --
Q: And you talked about that drop of lower forces -- lower number of forces --
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.
Q: -- depending on Iraqi forces. Does that, then, in your mind, equate to a drop in U.S. forces there? Can we anticipate that, as you determine that the Iraqi force is able to handle it -- that there will be, in response, a drop in the U.S. force posture in Iraq and Syria, for that matter?
SEC. MATTIS: We'll work that out. It's -- I would -- it's almost two different situations. In Syria, it's how do we ensure that the diplomats can solve this and we don't walk out -- that's something -- the conflagration start again that some of you referred to -- and then wonder why the diplomats are left holding something they can't, you know, basically resolve. The -- so, we're going to have to do whatever is necessary to keep the diplomats in a position to resolve it. So that's on Syria side.
On the Iraq side, that's a decision to be worked out by the Iraqi people, the Iraqi government and the American government, if -- how many troops remain, how do we maintain a training relationship. NATO has come online, saying that NATO wants to be working with Iraq. The Iraqi government said they want a relationship with NATO – a training relationship with NATO.
And so I'm sure something will be worked out, but this is -- this is something that goes over, again, to the diplomatic side. But my job is to make certain we help prevent any enemy from disrupting the sovereignty, in this case, of Iraq, so they make their own decisions on it.
Q: Mr. Secretary, on transgender, the administration has not appealed the circuit court's decisions, and come Tuesday morning, barring any sort of 11:59 p.m. appeal, there might be some transgender recruits that are seeking to enlist. Do you have a message to them?
SEC. MATTIS: No. The -- I don't single out anyone. Right now, the -- we'll obey whatever the law says -- excuse me -- we'll obey whatever the law says.
STAFF: I didn't want to short-circuit that question, sir.
Q: Yes, we finished that, and then I have a second -- a follow.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes. Go ahead.
Q: So -- you don't have a specific message to transgender, other than that they would be welcome, as the law allows?
SEC. MATTIS: No. I'm not going to get into this right now. It's a court case right now. The Department of Justice is handling it. If they're not appealing it, we'll be notified of that. And I don't get into singling out and welcoming this group or that group or that gender or anything else. That's not my role.
Q: Okay. Separately, on readiness --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: -- it was one of the very first challenges you addressed, as your first message as secretary of defense.
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.
Q: We've seen readiness continue to struggle this year, particularly with the number of training accidents and whatnot. What is your plan for next year, given all of the budget challenges, given the extended operations? You know, what can -- how do you plan to really up readiness for the military in the next year?
SEC. MATTIS: The readiness is upping, as we speak. I don't announce all that, because I see no need to tell the enemy in advance where we're at in certain areas. But we'll continue what we've been doing. It is very specifically run -- from specific things we're doing with the numbers of troops and Army brigades to the specific munitions that we're working to max out the production capabilities. All that stays on track.
So far, the C.R. probably has not extended the problem, thanks to the additional monies we got last year. Those monies have been spent, and so productions are still going, but we've got to get a budget by January, or there would be an impact.
Q: More broadly, on ISIS, you're pretty clear that the fight is going to remain in Iraq and Syria. Across the globe, in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, how do you see ISIS presenting, and what sort of threats do you see them presenting in 2018?
SEC. MATTIS: It's a brand threat, I think, more than anything else, that can inspire lone-wolf attacks. It can inspire other groups. But it's less inspirational when they've lost their physical caliphate. It's less inspirational, as the stories of what it was like living under their rule come out.
These things can be passed through social media, and I think it's a brand with a diminishing appeal. But the appeal is still there for people who are attracted to the sort of thing they stand for.
Q: In terms of casualties and combat fatalities this year, there have been, all across the globe, an inordinate amount or a higher percentage within Special Forces. Do you expect to rely on Special Forces as much in 2018?
SEC. MATTIS: What we do with the assignment of missions is we look toward what forces can do a certain job. And I anticipate more general purpose forces being used for some of the missions. In the past, we used only Special Forces for it.
The reason is that, in the years since 2001, the general purpose forces are what we call those forces, basically, that can do "any of the above," except for nuclear. Those are special -- you know, specially assigned forces.
So the general purpose forces can do a lot of the kind of work that you see going on and, in fact, are now. You see the casualties -- you're quite accurate about that. That has to do with -- the breaking up of the physical caliphate cost us some of those, and of course what's happened in a couple of other areas.
But, by and large, for example in Trans-Sahel, many of those forces down there supporting the French-led effort are not Special Forces. So we'll continue to expand the general purpose forces, where it's appropriate. I would see -- I anticipate more use of them.
Q: Is there anything new on the Niger investigation?
SEC. MATTIS: Any what?
Q: Anything new on the Niger investigation?
SEC. MATTIS: Not yet. I'm still waiting on it.
Q: Mr. Secretary, on Yemen, yesterday, the U.N. came out and said that the Saudi-led coalition had killed 100 civilians in the past 10 days. I know how you feel about the Houthis and everything that they have done wrong, but the level of civilian causalities being brought upon by the coalition -- Saudi-led coalition is far higher than those being killed by the Houthis.
The U.S. does provide intel and air refueling. Are you considering re-looking at that --
SEC. MATTIS: No.
Q: -- given just the civilian casualties there?
SEC. MATTIS: The civilian casualties is why we have gone in to be very -- to be helpful where we can in identifying how you do target analysis and how you make certain you hit the right thing.
Q: That doesn't seem to be working.
SEC. MATTIS: So our effort is -- based on what?
Q: Based on the 100 civilians killed in the past 10 days.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, but that's your call.
Q: Well, I mean, the U.N. is saying it.
SEC. MATTIS: That's -- and that's fine. They probably know more about the war than some other people, then.
Q: So are you okay with that level of civilian causality?
SEC. MATTIS: I'm never okay with any civilian causality. Don't screw with me on this.
Q: So are you -- are you looking at -- I mean, how are you talking to them about reducing civilian causalities?
SEC. MATTIS: How do you think we are?
Q: I don't know.
SEC. MATTIS: I just told you, we're showing them how to use intelligence so that you very precisely try to miss killing civilians.
Q: I wanted to close the loop on the U.S. troops in Syria. Now, after the MERV is -- you know, the ISIS fighters are pushed out of the MERV, what will the role of the U.S. troops be? You say kind of supporting --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: -- the diplomatic part. What will they be doing, actually?
SEC. MATTIS: Great question, because what we will be doing is shifting from what I would call an offensive -- shifting from an offensive, terrain-seizing approach, to a stabilizing -- making certain the diplomats -- you'll see more U.S. diplomats on the ground, for example.
How are they allowed to do their job to get the -- I mean, just clearing these areas of IEDs is an enormous undertaking. So we're going to be training people how you clear IEDs. You don't want amateurs doing this thing. It's terribly dangerous, because of the way they've constructed them and where they put them.
So what we'll be doing is -- the people have got to be gotten back, and if you take a look at east Mosul and compare it to west Mosul right now, you can see -- get an example of what will happen there. You go -- you get the enemy out, and then you get the IEDs out. You get the rubble removed, this sort of thing.
We've got a lot of money coming from international donors for this, including Syria. And as you get that done, you're trying to set up, whether it be chlorinated water that prevents cholera, for example; schools open; that sort of stuff. And so it's what I would call the initial recovery.
The longer term recovery is going to take a lot of effort and a lot of years after what they did, because they forcibly kept innocent people in the midst of the combat zone, and that meant the residential areas took damage, the public areas -- everything took damage. Schools were damaged.
On the east Mosul side, kids are in school, families going out to restaurants at night, on the west Mosul side is still -- it's still a mess, and there's still many people living in refugee camps, internally displaced, that sort of thing. So you're seeing -- you can actually see it in slow motion there -- what it's going to look like over like in Syria. Tabqa, for example -- there's been a lot of repair work done, Raqqa. It's going to be a long time, because they really mined that place.
Q: So they'll be assisting in clearing IEDs?
SEC. MATTIS: Not themselves doing it -- training people for it, bringing in the contractors for it. We'll be working with local police forces to help train those so they can take over, again, so you don't get the return of ISIS that's going to put us in a position where you've got to go back in with heavy forces again, that sort of thing.
Q: You said more diplomats coming on this one?
SEC. MATTIS: Oh, yeah.
Q: In Syria?
SEC. MATTIS: In Syria.
Q: Expand on that -- what is the plan? I mean, how --
SEC. MATTIS: Well, when you bring in more diplomats, they're working that initial restoration of services. They bring in the contractors, that sort of thing. There's international money that's got to be administered so it actually does something, it doesn't go into people's -- the wrong people's -- pockets. You need people to monitor that. That's a diplomat's job.
The military would move them around -- our diplomats around, make certain they're protected. You know, they've got bodyguards around them, and there's still bad guys out there, as you all know, that sort of thing. So it's an attempt to move towards the normalcy. And that takes a lot of support.
Q: But, if I'm Assad, I'm looking at this and I'm going to move my troops further east and try to disrupt that or take --
SEC. MATTIS: That would be, probably, a mistake.
Q: Why is that?
SEC. MATTIS: We've got a demarcation line, and that's the way it is right now. And Assad’s record in this civil war is pretty well known – set the conditions, in many ways, for the disarray that allowed ISIS to rise. And this is why the diplomats in Geneva have got to get this thing resolved.
Q: Secretary, could I talk to you --
SEC. MATTIS: And it all contributes to that. Remember, it's all in support, now, of what the United Nations are trying to get rolling there in Geneva.
STAFF: Sir, you've got time for one or two more questions.
Q: You spoke about the demarcation line. Does it mean that you are -- the plan is to dismantle Syria into several different countries?
SEC. MATTIS: No.
Q: Was that a warning to Assad not to cross the demarcation line? "That would be a mistake," was your quote.
SEC. MATTIS: Well, right now, it's a mistake if somebody does it. So it's not a warning to anybody. This is the demarcation line, and we've said that we will operate on one side, the Russians on the other. And we're still taking ISIS down. Nothing has changed.
Q: Will U.S.-backed forces engage Assad forces if they cross that demarcation line?
SEC. MATTIS: It hasn't come up.
SEC. MATTIS: They're not even trying it. So I'm not concerned.
Q: Mr. Secretary, could I -- could I just ask --
Q: Could I -- the line between general purpose forces and Special Forces seems --
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.
Q: -- to be blurring. You’re -- you're getting ready to release the National Security Strategy. Is that something that's going to be inculcated in with that?
SEC. MATTIS: Not -- I don't think it's part of a strategy document. It has to be -- and let me explain the difference. If we have a policy, for example, that says we're going to support democratic, bilaterally -- allies or NATO allies or something, that -- that's a policy. And then I put together the military strategy that assigns officers to NATO, or whatever.
Whereas -- down below that, a level below, when I get done with this, I'll tell the chairman, "There's what I want as the civilian overseer." That's what you target on. He will decide how to employ the force. That's a uniform-wearing military person.
Q: I mean, which forces you'd want to have --
SEC MATTIS: So, in his documents, he will do things that allow -- excuse me -- he will -- that will allow the -- that will enable the employment of those forces to meet our needs today. But, if I was to put it in philosophical terms, you want a force that can deal with today's challenges, and not be dominant in yesterday's challenges and irrelevant today.
So the general purpose forces are going to have to have some of the capabilities you and I used to associate only with Special Forces. But we already have this capability. I mean, there was a time when the only people who ran drones were the Special Forces. And you look at the U.S. Army -- when was Sadr City? When -- Sadr City was 2007?
SEC. MATTIS: Somewhere around there?
Q: Well, it was -- 2004 was the first time. 2007 was another one.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, it was a -- I think, by 2007, you saw the Army brigade -- regular Army brigade, with a captain in the Army having a feed in front of him from a drone overhead, and a U.S. Navy airplane ready to strike with an Army -- Apache gunship. At the same time, a CIA guy was in his headquarters, talking to one of his agents (inaudible) -- that's in an Army brigade. This -- that's not what the Army brigades did in the Fulda Gap and Desert Storm.
So the change happened because war initiated these changes. Those are now -- those are common capabilities. If you go out to Fort Irwin and watch them go through their paces now, as some of you have been able to do, you will see them using capabilities that were never there before. And so they're now capable of doing it.
And when the chairman gets my note, he'll know he'll have to use general purpose forces. And it wouldn't go -- I don't think it would go into a strategy document.
SEC. MATTIS: -- more into the immediate strategy as ends, ways and means. He has the means, so he'll adapt it in imaginative ways to -- carrying out the --
Q: (inaudible) -- one of those SFAB units is actually headed to Afghanistan next year -- one of those new --
Q: Okay, is that a question?
Q: -- hybrid Special Forces. Could you talk, one, a little bit about Afghanistan before -- the way ahead there, before --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, we're going to be -- sure. We're going to be putting more American forces, advisers, in the more conventional force in the Afghan army. As you know, they have not had them, and they've not -- they were not ready to fight in the way we want them to.
As you know, it takes a lot longer in Wheeling, West Virginia to train a policeman than it does a criminal. So, as you put together an army that's going to try to restore some degree of normalcy and protect, you know, people -- and that's when it takes time to do it.
They don't use violence willy-nilly, this sort of thing. So, as you put the Americans down there, you'll see more out with the Afghan force -- the regular forces, the ones that have not had mentors before.
The Afghan Special Forces that have had mentors basically always win, when they're in the fights. They always win, to the point they've been probably, again, in that case, overused. So our point is to make their general purpose force more capable.
Q: Have you been impressed with the gains --
SEC. MATTIS: Let me -- let me --
Q: Quickly, on North Korea, can we expect to see a pause in military exercises with the Olympics coming up?
SEC. MATTIS: A pause?
Q: In military exercises, joint exercises with Japan and Korea.
SEC. MATTIS: No.
Q: Have you been impressed with the gains North Korea has made in its missile program over the past year.
SEC. MATTIS: Nothing impresses me. (Laughter.)
Q: Going back to the exercises, so – Foal Eagle -- specifically the one in February -- is that not being delayed until the Olympics are done?
SEC. MATTIS: That'll be announced by the U.S. and ROK government. ROK is the hosting government. And what will happen is -- we always adjust exercise dates. There's reasons for it, because we have ships available at certain times and there's political considerations or there's local holidays and this sort of thing. We do this all the time, and I honestly don't have the answer to that question right now.
Q: That "no" is not specifically to the exercise in February, then?
SEC. MATTIS: I thought the question is, are we going to pause exercises? We may schedule -- I don't consider rescheduling to be pausing them. Okay, I see what you mean. Yes, it -- the rescheduling of the exercises will be, as always, subject to both countries, the military -- all the different things that go into it. They're not -- if pause is -- I'm pausing them for a period of time because of -- how to explain this -- because of a diplomatic issue or something, no. I don't anticipate that right now.
Q: Sir --
SEC. MATTIS: No, I've got a -- I've got a --
SEC. MATTIS: (Laughter.) I've got a call with an ambassador here in a few minutes. I can still take a couple more, okay? It's not a set time, he just knows it's before 10.
Q: Separate issue -- on the freight reassignment.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: We have an approval, after many months of discussion on what to do with heavier lethal aid. How do you see that going? What practical effect would that have? And do you see any evolving U.S. military role in Ukraine?
SEC. MATTIS: No, I don't see an evolving U.S. military role in Ukraine. Right now, as you know, we have some trainers there helping to train their army to NATO standards, you know, to -- and that has a lot to do with making certain it serves the needs of the Ukrainian people, you know, the way democracies' armies do. And so, no, the U.S. military role remains the same.
Q: Is it about the same number of trainers as it has been, or is it fluctuating?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, the only reason it would fluctuate is if they have more troops going through the training -- (inaudible) -- we need a few more. But I don't think it's -- I don't think our number has fluctuated in six months, and it's not planned to be now. There's no plans to change that number at all.
Q: What effect do you think the weapons will have?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, as long as no one wants to invade Ukraine, hopefully won't have any big impact. They're defensive weapons.
Q: Can we go back to civilian casualties for a second?
SEC. MATTIS: Barbara, there you are. I was looking over here for you earlier, you know? (Laughter.) I tell you, CIA.
Q: On civilian casualties in both Yemen -- (inaudible) – well, first of all, in Yemen, yes, the United States has been trying to train the Saudis, but this has been going on for years now. This is not new. And either the training or the help that you're giving them is not working, or they're not listening, or something.
So what is going to happen? What are you going to do to reduce civilian attacks, and Saudis, who's conducting operations that result in civilian casualties? Because this is not new. The training does not appear to be working. I must say --
SEC. MATTIS: That's your call. That's not mine. Just so long as you're aware of that. But go ahead.
Q: Well, let me rephrase it. Very bluntly, what are you going to do that is going to reduce civilian casualties --
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.
Q: -- conducted by the Saudis? And my second question on civilian casualties --
SEC. MATTIS: Well, let me answer that one first.
What we're going to do is we're going to continue to train them how to do target identification, try to get their capabilities up in those areas. We're going to continue to work with their pilots in explaining how you do bombing runs, that sort of thing -- anything we can do to limit the civilian casualties, we will be doing.
Q: Are you saying --
SEC. MATTIS: At the same time, for the Houthis to put weapons in the residential areas -- and this has been shown not just by us, but by other people -- that doesn't help, if they're sincerely concerned about civilian casualties.
We are -- we acknowledge that civilians have died. We do not want to see this happen. We have been trying to get this to the U.N. resolution -- the negotiating table for years now, and that's probably the bigger effort -- is to end the fighting there.
But, in the interim, we're going to try to make that army, that military of the Saudis more capable of carrying out what they find to be their military necessity, without killing innocents. And many of you in this room have watched as the U.S. military has become so good at this that, even when we do it, it's suddenly, "How could this happen?"
And I would just tell you, this is the first time in the history of warfare when we've had this level of precision that we've achieved. Not all nations can be held to the standard that we've achieved, and I think it would be -- if you just take a look at when the last administration went into Libya, and you saw immediately that NATO was unable to do the level of precision fighting without the Americans being there --
SEC. MATTIS: -- it was not that we were going in, but -- just bear with me for a minute, Barbara, because what you're driving at is a much larger issue, and people are being held to a standard today that warfare can seldom permit achieving.
And, in this case, you're seeing what happens when those who aren't as good as us are caught in this situation of trying to attack -- military necessity, in their minds, when the enemy is in among innocent people. And you simply -- it's a tragedy every time.
If I was to tell you that costs of war -- as much as we have lost our troops, as much as armies have always lost troops -- the costs of war throughout history -- and it has not changed -- are more heavily borne by civilians, as far as I'm concerned, in almost every war in history. And anyone who thinks that, in our own Civil War, the South didn't -- the people of the South didn't bear a heavier price than the armies themselves -- we only have to look at the people who lived in Vicksburg or Richmond or Atlanta to -- in order to carry that thesis forward. The civilians always carry a disproportionate burden.
Our aim is to bring them -- just bear with me, Barbara. Our aim is to bring that number down to the absolute humanly possible minimum. That's what we're trying to do, okay?
It's not working -- if we were not doing it, what would the numbers look like? Anybody tell me? No, you cannot, because you can't tell me what it looks like where we've been successful on many, many occasions. So the fact that we're not perfect -- I leave perfection to God. We're going to do our best to reduce the numbers and try to get this thing to the U.N.-brokered negotiating table, if that puts it in a broader context.
Q: Sure. And my follow-up question -- given the fact that you are talking very warmly about the U.S. effort, right, to help train the Saudis, what is your assessment, what is your judgment about -- how do I ask this -- whether it's working? Are the Saudis learning?
SEC. MATTIS: I'm not -- Barbara, I've already answered that. How do I point out the number of times that civilians did not die because of what we've been doing, because of systems we've put on the airplanes over many years that allow them to be more pinpoint?
I can quite assure you that, at the same time, we're rightly, rightly concerned. We're working with them. We've got the U.N., we've got the diplomatic effort going. We’ve got the military effort. We've got training efforts. We've got people teaching them how to do target analysis. It's not perfect, I understand all that.
How many of you are writing, right now, about what's going on in Syria at the industrial level that would dwarf this from any measure, any objective measure?
Q: And, sir, what do you mean by the industrial level?
SEC. MATTIS: I mean the killing tens of thousands of people by the Assad regime, of their own people. And it's as if that gets a bye because, well, we can't influence them. Meanwhile, down here, where we're having some influence, some success, because it's not getting the level that we would all love to see, which is not one innocent person -- not one innocent person killed or wounded or traumatized -- that we're not successful. That becomes the story.
What about those countries, even NATO, that couldn't even go into Libya without our help and do this right? And I would just ask that you look at this with somewhat of an open perspective to look at what you're -- where you're at. You're -- all this is going on, and we don't even address it anymore. We just expect Assad will drop barrel bombs on people on purpose. Down at Saudi, no one's saying they're doing it on purpose, or if they are, it's usually someone who's an advocate for -- whether it be the Houthis, or whatever.
Q: Well, since everyone's using tape recorders, I will take the point of saying, I think every news organization represented in this room has significantly covered --
SEC. MATTIS: They have.
Q: -- casualties in Syria.
SEC. MATTIS: They have.
Q: -- just to clarify.
SEC. MATTIS: They have. But, right now, it is going on, and we're focusing most of this discussion here today.
Q: Well, my follow-up question actually was: what is your --
SEC. MATTIS: Okay, but our discussion here today is about what we're not getting right down in Yemen. And, there, you don't find Saudi Arabia fighting the -- thank you. Yes -- (Laughter.) -- I got in a good workout this morning, and I must have dried myself out.
Q: Well, we're sort of crowded --
SEC. MATTIS: That doesn't -- that doesn't bother me, Barbara. I consider you friends.
But we're -- what we're talking about is where we're not -- where we're not getting what we want to get to. I don't even see others trying it, or in Libya -- the case there -- others able to do what we do. And we take it for granted.
Believe me, Eisenhower would've loved to have not killed tens of thousands of French citizens when he landed at Normandy. He was unable to do it, and it wasn't because the Americans of the greatest generation didn't care about liberating France. And this is all part of this.
You can only dismiss these parts of the continuum of war to the point of not fairly addressing what's going on today. We are being held to a standard -- "we" being us and anyone associated with us -- that has never been achieved before in warfare.
Q: Are you satisfied with accuracy of the civilian casualty estimates that you see being assessed and hosted by CENTCOM? Do you feel you're getting a totally accurate picture? Because I think that's part of what this --
SEC. MATTIS: And -- as accurate as we can get it. CENTCOM has been very candid that, when they can't go on the ground because it's in an enemy-held area -- you know we've intercepted enemy communications about everything from setting off explosives to using human shields to try and create this, because I know it's a good story for them. And so we've also got to be careful about accepting which organizations remotely take in reports, and then condemn us for it.
CENTCOM, I know, is working hard. They re-examine things, they go back on new information and they'll notify. By the way, we had reported this two months ago: We are now looking back at something because camera footage that we had not reviewed -- we were not aware another nation had an airplane there at that moment. We're now reviewing that, and we're going to update you. And so they're -- it's not even -- but we're doing the best we can, but it's not -- none of us are -- would say that it's completely accurate. It's the best we can do.
Q: Okay, so how's the first year been? How do you -- how do you feel after the first year? Tell us --
SEC. MATTIS: I don't have any feelings.
Q: Even with all these tape recorders running? Come on, how's the first year gone? What's been -- what didn't you expect? How do you --
SEC. MATTIS: I'm just --
Q: -- How do you feel your relationship with the news media is going? What's --
SEC. MATTIS: -- I don't have a problem with the news media. You know I'm up front with you; what you see is what you get. It's not like I go back to my office and with Dana and I say something different. You know, the -- I think -- I'll just tell you that I think that I don't have any problem with the press.
Q: How do you feel -- what's been unexpected for you in this past year? What has surprised you the most? How's it going with the White House?
SEC. MATTIS: I mean, I -- go there, I'm over there a couple of times a week. It goes fine. I say what -- I give my recommendation. No one elected me, but I get a full hearing, whether it be with the national security staff, or the fellow Cabinet members or the president, the vice president. So yes, it's going fine.
Q: How about looking forward into next year? What concerns you? What do you hope to focus on? What do you see happening in 2018?
STAFF: What will you be forced to focus on?
STAFF: What you will you be forced to focus on, do you think?
SEC. MATTIS: It's just the defense of the country and about the time -- I say I think it will be, you know -- when I came in, I knew that I was told, during my prep for confirmation, that Korea would be the big one. The intelligence briefers were 100 percent right.
Syria -- two things that struck me then that I wasn't prepared for -- one was the fear of the foreign fighters returning to Europe, to Africa, to Middle East, to Asia. And the other one was the speed of the operation; it seemed like it could've been accelerated. We accelerated, we surrounded, and we, by and large, have done a pretty good job of not having the large influx of foreign fighters returning back home so far, knock on wood.
And so, as I look toward the future, I'm sure there'll be some things that will surprise you. But, by and large, I think I've got more of the understanding of the world situation that I'd happily left somewhat behind when I was out on the west coast at a university.
It's a good question, though, about what surprised me most. One thing I'd heard about -- there were problems inside the military. And one thing is, even as I went down to Guantanamo, which gets resupplied once every two weeks with a landing craft full of food and other things out of Florida, was just the morale of them. I mean, you all have been out there. And we have reenlistment rates that are good. We have enlistment rates that are going well.
The morale of the force is probably, considering everything that's gone on over this long war -- I mean, I saw one of my first lieutenant aides from 2004 that was wounded. He's a lieutenant colonel -- I saw him this last week, down -- and he was horribly wounded, terribly wounded. And he's in great physical shape, and he's a lieutenant colonel. He was an artillery officer, and today he's a Cobra pilot. And so it's been a long war.
So it's not like that guy is kind of new and a recruit or something. And he tells me his wife is with him all the way, which is always the concern. I have more concerns, frankly, about the families and what they've had to put up with all these years. And I am a bit surprised at the morale and the steadfastness of the force and the young people who are joining.
I went out to give an award to a Desert Storm Marine, that David Martin actually met back – it was in the last millennium, for you young guys and gals here -- and David Martin had met many years ago with my battalion -- and 25 years later. How's that for why I put out my first admonition/direction -- was that awards for valor will be moved every week, or 10 days, from one level to another.
And the drill instructors, who are very -- they're unimpressed by anything too, you know -- and they told me the average physical fitness test score of recruits, now, probably partly because they're in the delayed enlistment program, is 270, average. We've never had that quality -- we haven't raised the standard, but we're getting in people who are more physically fit. And, by the way, the percent in the top medal groups has gone up, as well. We haven't raised the standard; we're just getting more who are higher.
The expert -- because of the simulator that we use, now, the expert rifleman qualification is now at 70 percent; this is with iron sights at 500 yards. We've never had this. I mean, the quality of the force coming in, the standards they are meeting. This is something we couldn't have dreamed of 15 years ago. So that's a bit of a surprise, this long into a war covered by CNN every day.
Q: You've talked about it a little bit in the past, but when you -- everything you say about morale and the troops -- do you see indications that they are holding -- that the hyper-political environment is affecting the military, is impacting recruits, is impacting their thinking about joining? Do you see any impact of the hyper-political environment on the military?
SEC. MATTIS: I haven't seen it in the recruits. I have gotten more questions when I'm out and about. You know, our troops are very forthcoming. They do not hold back, and I have had more questions about the -- I would call it, almost, a sense of friendliness here in America towards one another.
The -- you know -- and it comes up, not when I've got all the troops around like this, but, like, when I fall in with somebody in the Pentagon hallway, or I'm out at San Diego and, you know, a drill instructor says, "You know, we keep getting these kind of kids in. They'll do anything for you." That's what he calls them, because they're so young, you know? But he says, "What is it with the country that they don't pull together the way we do in the military?"
I had an Army special forces major say -- you know, he said he'd been off on some detached duty prolonged -- he said, "It's really different outside the military, isn't it?" And I can't really -- I don't know how to put it in words, because I was on a college campus, and even I sensed there -- I was on dozens of college campuses in those three years, over 30, and they don't seem to have the degree of almost casual respect for one another. It's just a -- in -- an in-bred thing.
And so it's -- I don't know if it's the hyper-politicization. Is it some kind of alienation in the Western -- in post-industrial societies, where we're all reading these things anymore? I can't tell you what it is, though.
Q: I was wondering what you think is causing this.
SEC. MATTIS: I don't know. I'm not sure that it's -- I'm really not sure that's its politicization, or politicization isn't also one of the symptoms of whatever is underlying it. But, I mean, I noticed, driving through some neighborhood recently -- I forget where I was going – and, you know, I just sit in the back, you know, and look around, you know. And I noticed there was no kids out playing. It's almost like you're going through neighborhoods and there's -- every time you see a car pull into a driveway, the garage door opens, car pulls in and it shuts.
It's just -- I grew up where you'd have to slow down on the streets, because they were playing baseball in the streets and all that sort of thing. I don't know if people are just more isolated today, more reinforced by selecting what they're going to listen to on TV, rather than challenged. I don't know what it is, but there -- in the military, it was -- it was -- it was very welcomed to be back around people who are so casually greeting each other, but the respect is there.
There's little regard for gender/race -- I mean, it's a casual interest. It's just not a big deal. And in other places -- and it seems to be something that's on the news all the time, and stuff.
Q: Looking ahead, do you see yourself staying the whole four years?
SEC. MATTIS: I don't -- I take it one day at a time.
Q: (inaudible). (Laughter.)
SEC. MATTIS: I really owe this guy a phone call, here.
Q: You mentioned Gitmo. You were down there recently.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: The president said he wants to fill the place with bad dudes. Do you expect any more detainees heading into Gitmo?
SEC. MATTIS: You know me. I never speculate. I never speculate on our operations. Well, happy -- Happy New Year.
Q: Thanks for coming down.