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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Feb. 22, 2018
Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White

DANA WHITE: Good afternoon. 

The adjustment Congress made to the defense caps for FY '18 and '19 in the Bipartisan Budget Act puts the department back on track to rebuild and restore a more agile and lethal force. The bipartisan measure will allow Congress to appropriate DOD funds at the level requested -- requested by the president for both FY '18 and '19.

One of the secretary's top priorities is reforming the department. We want to maximize the value of every tax dollar we receive. Two senior officials who are central to this effort assume their positions this week, following Senate confirmation: Jay Gibson, DOD's first chief management officer and third in command, [and] Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. Their arrival marks the largest reorganization of the department since the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, a key step in our reform efforts.

On transgender, the secretary will provide his recommendation to the president this week regarding transgender individuals and military service, and the president will announce his decision.

For those of you following the Winter Olympics, we are proud of the department's athletes competing on Team USA. There are seven athletes and two coaches, all U.S. Army and Army National Guard soldiers: Capt. Christopher Fogt, bobsled; Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Weber, bobsled; Sgt. Nicholas Cunningham, bobsled; Sgt. Justin Olsen, bobsled; Sgt. Emily Sweeney, women's singles luge; Sgt. Taylor Morris, men's singles luge; Sgt. Matthew Mortensen, men's doubles luge; Capt. Michael Kohn, bobsled coach; Sgt. Shauna Rohbock, bobsled coach. And Sgt. Cunningham and [Sgt.] Olsen will complete this Saturday in the open four-man bobsled competition. 

These athletes and coaches qualified for Olympics -- for the Olympics under the Army's World Class Athlete Program. We applaud them for their courage, resolve and fighting spirit on and off the battlefield. Their participation further proves our service members are warriors. They are also leaders and athletes.

To learn more about these soldiers and other service members, visit and join the conversation at -- with #KnowYourMil.

So with that, I'll open it up to questions. I don't have Bob or Lita. Where do I begin? 


Q: Hi, Dana. So this is my question is regarding National Security Adviser McMaster. Is the Pentagon considering options that would allow President Trump to move Gen. McMaster out of his national security adviser role and back into the military?

MS. WHITE: Gen. McMaster works for President -- for President Trump. Any decision with regard to staff -- the White House will make those determinations.

Q: And I've just got a Syria question for you. There was a Bloomberg report yesterday that -- saying that the administration was considering saying that the strike on Russian mercenaries in Syria was intentional, quote, "evidence of the president's tough stance," perhaps. Can you rule that out? Was that intentional?

MS. WHITE: The strike in Syria -- our strikes were done out of self-defense. We were very clear about that. We saw those -- that group moving towards us. We still don't know, and I won't speculate, about the intentions or the composition of that group.

What it -- what I can tell you is that we used our deconfliction phone line, and we -- we used it before, during and after the strike. And we were assured by the Russians that there were no Russians involved. And so those are all of the details that I have.

Q: So it’s purely self-defense? The U.S. forces were defending themselves...


MS. WHITE: That was purely out of self-defense.

Q: Thank you.

MS. WHITE: Joe, in the back.

Q: I would like to ask you about the ISIS foreign fighters who are being detained in -- by the SDF in Syria. If you could give us an update on their status, how many they are and what the DOD is planning to do to hand them over to their countries if there are innocents?

MS. WHITE: Well, the issue of foreign fighters held by the SDF is challenging. We -- but it's not just a DOD, or even just a U.S. government decision. It's something that we have to work with the coalition, as well as with other nations, to deal with and to take responsibility for these individuals.

This will be a whole-of-government approach, not only for us in terms of justice, but other -- other countries will also have to engage other elements of their governments. 

So it's long-term, but it's something that we are actively addressing. The secretary addressed it at NATO last week. And we will continue to look for solutions in a holistic way.


Q: Well, with respect to…

MS. WHITE: Sure, Joe. No, go ahead, Joe.

Q: ... while you look for solutions, does the Pentagon consider to move some of them to Guantanamo if there are arguments that they have conducted attacks against the U.S. interests in the region or elsewhere?

MS. WHITE: Currently there are no plans to move anyone to Guantanamo.

Q: Dana, to follow that quickly, he -- in his first part of that question, he used the term, "send innocent people back to their countries." As I understood what Secretary Mattis said, on his trip to -- he was talking about all nationals going back to countries of origin. Could you clarify that for me, please?

MS. WHITE: So -- he did. He talked about -- this is about going -- countries taking responsibility for their nationals who are held -- currently held by the SDF.

Q: Whether they're innocent or not? That remains to be seen?

MS. WHITE: Exactly, exactly.

Q: OK.

MS. WHITE: Tara?

Q: Thank you, Dana. 

Back to McMaster, would the Pentagon welcome General McMaster returning here in any sort of capacity, whether it's with one of the services or in a joint role?

MS. WHITE: General McMaster is serving the president of the United States, and he has a very distinguished career. Any decisions that will be made with respect to any changes or decisions will be the White House.

Q: And this has been a heartbreaking week out of Parkland, Florida. There was a -- a pretty wide-ranging conversation yesterday, both at the White House, and then the town hall with the students.

I was wondering if the White House has reached out to DOD for any sort of options? Maybe having the National Guard be used as a way to help secure schools.

MS. WHITE: I'm not aware of any taskers that have been sent to us.

Q: Does Secretary Mattis believe the AR-15 should be allowed to be purchased by a civilian?

MS. WHITE: I don't have -- I don't have -- I have not asked him that question.

Q: Does he have any thoughts about what happened in terms of gun control in this nation?

MS. WHITE: Our task and the secretary's focus is the three parts. It's lethality, to ensure that we're the most lethal force in the world. It's building our partnerships and alliances. And it's reforming this department. 

And so he's very happy that we have two new senior executives that are going to help us do that. That's his focus. 

Carla -- Carla, let me -- let -- Carla.

Q: On transgender, I know you said the president's going to be providing his recommendations to the president this week, but we're already halfway through Thursday. Tomorrow is it. 

Can you give us some more insight on when this recommendation is going to fall into the hands of the White House? And can you talk why the delay? There was a self-imposed DOD deadline that -- he was going to send his recommendation yesterday. So why the delay?

MS. WHITE: This is a complex issue. And the secretary is taking his time to consider the information he's been given. It's an important issue, and again, he sees all of his decisions through the lens of lethality. 

And I'm -- and it -- as you said, it was a self-imposed deadline. But I'm confident that the president will give him the time necessary to provide him with a thoughtful recommendation.

Q: Did he... 

MS. WHITE: Tom. 

Q: ... did he ask the president for an extension?

MS. WHITE: There was no extension. Again, we're anticipating that this will -- will hit the White House this week.

Q: And is the secretary reviewing what the panel recommended to him -- the guidance and the recommendations? Is he going to alter that?

MS. WHITE: The panel's recommendations were just that -- they were recommendations to the secretary. The secretary considered those recommendations and his own thoughts, and -- and he had his own conversations. And now, he's prepared to provide his recommendation that's been informed by that conversation and those conversations to the White House.

Q: So he could reject what the panel recommended?

MS. WHITE: The secretary could decide to do whatever he likes with respect to his recommendation. The guidance was his recommendation to the president. The panel provided him advice and guidance. 


Q: Thank you, Dana. Hundreds of pro-regime forces came to the rescue of the YPGs in -- in Afrin these last days, and they about (inaudible) welcome by the YPGs. Does it make U.S. an ally of the pro-regime force now?

MS. WHITE: I'm not aware of those reports, so let me come back to you about that.


Q: Can I come back to two things that were different subjects that were just brought up? And -- and the first one is on the gun issue. 

And, quite seriously, given the fact that three of the young victims in Florida were members of the Junior ROTC, and given the fact that young people in America, of course, are the prime group in America that would be recruited into the U.S. military.

And -- you're not the first -- the Pentagon has always stayed out of this civilian gun debate. But, given the emotion in the country, the president's involvement and that -- the fact that three Junior ROTC young people were victims, can the Pentagon -- and it does involve recruiting young people into the military, can the Pentagon really continue to stay out of the gun debate in this country, realistically?

MS. WHITE: Our mission is to defend this nation and all American citizens. I think that we have to remember that the tragic events in Florida and gun control, those are issues for political leaders, those are issues for local government, those are issues for our Congress and for our president. And it's really their responsibility to determine how we move forward with respect to all of those issues.

Q: Again -- and I do want to come back to the foreign fighter thing in one second. Again, there is a sense that this is a subject right now that has grabbed the national conversation. I'm not sure anybody would dispute that. And young people who might want to be recruited -- people who might want to consider the military certainly are watching this. We have seen junior ROTC people in this situation. No one is suggesting that the Pentagon would have the solutions, but do you stay out of the national conversation, given the fact that the U.S. military most certainly involves the young people of this country?

MS. WHITE: Absolutely. We are very proud of the young people of this country, and we're very proud of those who are competing for us on Team USA. 

We have to defend the country; our mission is that. The secretary has three priorities. I think the conversation happens around our dinner tables, it happens among our civic leaders, but it is a political issue, and that's something that our political leaders have to be responsible for, and ensure that we do have that conversation. 


Q: Just a follow-up on this, because you know, the president directly tweeted this morning the idea, though, that former -- or the teachers who have former military experience could have guns in the classroom, so the military could have a very central role in this if we're looking at former service members or reserve members if other people are brought up. 

So are those conversations going to happen? Do you plan to have a dialogue between the White House and the Pentagon about how service members and the military can play a role in gun control?

MS. WHITE: Currently we haven't been given any tasker with respect to that. But we are always having a conversation. We are always open to any conversation that the White House wants to have with us. We serve at the pleasure -- the politicals -- we serve at the pleasure of the president. So we are absolutely open to those conversations. But again, issues of gun law are issues for the Congress and for the president, and it's a conversation that needs to happen, but it's a political decision. 


Q: Thanks. I have a couple of detainee-related questions. Per the executive order that was issued on January 30th regarding detainees, tasked Secretary Mattis to come up with recommendations within 90 days regarding the disposition of suspected militants caught on the battlefield, including Guantanamo -- the possibility of putting them in Guantanamo. 

Can you just tell me where does that stand? Is that something that Secretary Mattis is considering, or are there internal recommendations that are still working their way up the bureaucracy to get on his desk? 

And secondly, there was a deadline or a milestone this week reached with the case of Ahmed al Darbi, who is a Saudi detainee at Guantanamo, and under his plea deal he could be repatriated this week to Saudi Arabia. 

According to the DOD, the military is ready to send him back to Saudi Arabia as soon as there are security guarantees from the Saudi government. Does his repatriation at all conflict with the apparent position of the president, which is not to have prisoners leave Guantanamo Bay? This will be the first transfer since his presidency began. 

And thirdly -- sorry -- can you just give us a status update on the American that's being detained in Iraq? What -- what's going on with him -- by -- detained by the military in Iraq?

MS. WHITE: OK. Regarding detainee policy, we are still staffing that. There hasn't been a consolidated recommendation put in front of the secretary yet, so that's still working. 

With respect to al Darbi, we anticipate the transfer soon. But it is important to understand that the -- February 20th was the beginning, per his plea agreement, that it was after four years of -- he had served. This decision is not a unilateral decision. This is a -- the State Department has a piece of this, and we're working with our Saudi counterparts.

So, while we are working it, it's still something that's in discussions, and we hope to solve it relatively soon. 

Q: And that last -- the American (inaudible)?

MS. WHITE: Thank you. 

Regarding the American, we are still working with our colleagues at the Justice Department. This individual has had access to an attorney, but as -- but it is still being -- it's still in discussions (inaudible), and we're working with Justice to resolve it. 


Q: Thank you, Dana. 

On the resumption of the United States and South Korea -- the joint defense military exercises, did you make any decisions of timeframe or -- and when we'll be starting this?

MS. WHITE: We deconflicted the exercises with the Olympics and the Paralympics. Any decision that we make will be an alliance decision, and so, when we're ready to make that decision jointly, we'll have more details for you.

Right now, we don't have any details to share.

Q: (off mic) any schedule or notes of suspension

MS. WHITE: No. We will -- we will have more details once the Olympics are over. And then there'll be alliance -- an alliance decision about how and when we move forward.


Q: One of my questions, I feel, was covered by Sylvie, so I'd appreciate it if you'd include me to the response.


MS. WHITE: Absolutely.

Q: And the other question was the Manbij mechanism that was discussed between Secretary Mattis and Minister Canikli in Europe, near Brussels. Can you update us what's going on with this mechanism? Or has the work began regarding the mechanism that the United States and Turkey are planning to deal with the presence of YPG in the -- Manbij city?

MS. WHITE: Well, I can tell you that the secretary's meeting was very positive, and it was a very open discussion. Obviously, we want Turkey to focus on the common threat, and that's defeating ISIS. But we recognize that Turkey has legitimate concerns, and we're helping them to address it.

So we will continue to have that dialogue, but it is important that all parties -- this is a very complicated battle space, and it's important that all parties understand that the common threat is ISIS and that fight is not over. 


Q: Thank you. Photos have emerged that purportedly show a Russian fifth-generation fighter over Syria. Does the Defense Department believe this is an escalation on the Russians' part?

MS. WHITE: Jeff, let me take that. I've seen some initial reports, but I'd like to get back to you with more details regarding.

Q: And, on a separate (off mic), you've mentioned Secretary Mattis sees issues through the lens of lethality. Does the secretary believe that, in order to make the military a more lethal force, it's time to replace the M4 and the M16?

MS. WHITE: The secretary considers all of his decisions through that lens of lethality. I have not asked him about that specific question, but I will be happy to come back to you. 


Q: Thanks. 

There was a report this week that the investigation into the Green Beret who was killed Mali last summer has prompted a broader investigation into misuse of funds -- alleged misuse of funds by members of SEAL Team Six. Can you tell us whether that's accurate, whether there is such a second, wider investigation?

MS. WHITE: I can't confirm that there's a second, wider investigation. I know there is an ongoing investigation, and I'll be happy -- when we have more details, I'll be happy to share those. 


Q: ... Madame two questions, please. This week, Pakistan have voted against the U.S. resolution as far as Afghanistan and terrorism is concerned and State Department acted yesterday.

My question is, does the secretary still have faith and trust in Pakistan, that they are doing what they're supposed to do to help the U.S. and their allies in the region to bring peace and stability in Afghanistan?

And, finally, because there was a meeting between the Generals from the U.S. and Pakistan on this issue -- that Pakistan will do more.

MS. WHITE: The secretary believes that Pakistan has an opportunity to do more with respect to regional security, and that it's in its interests to do more with respect to regional security. It's an opportunity, and we would welcome Pakistan's involvement.

Give me your second question again.

Q: Two generals, U.S. and Pakistani generals, met on this issue, despite what president said -- for (inaudible), Pakistan to do more. But, still, there was a meeting between two generals that there might be a resolution between the two countries on the peace and stability of Afghanistan.

MS. WHITE:  Well, I -- with respect to the -- we have the South Asia strategy, and the South Asia strategy is a regional approach. And, therefore, it requires that we have a conversation within the region. And so we are ready to continue those conversations, and we will keep having those conversations because it's in everyone's interests to defeat terrorism.

Q:  (off mic) as far as U.S.-India military-to-military relations are concerned today, where -- where do we stand now? Are there any back-and-forth, any high-level meetings are going on? Or when the secretary will welcome here the new defense secretary -- defence minister of India?

MS. WHITE: I'm not aware of a scheduled visit. I will tell you he enjoyed meeting the minister while he was in India. But relations -- India has been very supportive, and they've pledged additional developmental aid in Afghanistan. They've been willing to help with aviation maintenance.

All of that is very helpful in ensuring, again, that this regional approach works. And India is an important part of that. 

Q: Thank you.

MS. WHITE: Right here.

Q: Thank you. Can I follow off the question about Afrin? You say that you are not aware of what is happening in Afrin now, but I want to ask you...

MS. WHITE: Well, I didn't say I didn't know what was happening in Afrin. With respect to this particular instance, yes.


Q: ... this particular question, the -- actually, did you see the footage from Monday that the YPG or SDF is welcoming the pro-Assad fighters and Iran-backed militias? 

These are both the enemies of the United States. United States wants to break the Iranian influence in the region and wants to throw out of the Syrian future Assad. But, in that situation, the U.S. allies on the ground allied themselves with the enemies of the United States.

So what does the Pentagon think on this?

MS. WHITE: As we’ve said, this is a complex battle space. And it's why we've said that we need all parties to address the common threat, which is ISIS. The fight is not over. Anything that is not directed toward the fight against ISIS is a distraction.

And we encourage all parties to focus on that, because there's still work to be done. 


Q: Hi, going back to the question about the attacks, the (inaudible) attacks on February 7th and 8th. Again, go back and (inaudible) reports of the U.S. bombing Russian mercenaries. This isn't the first time that U.S. forces have conducted self-defense attacks. I think, I believe in southern Syria there was a -- multiple bombings against Iranian-backed militias, something that the U.S. coalition could verify within days. Coming on two weeks on this attack, and you continue to say that you don't know who you struck with a number of aircraft. 

So I'm wondering, is there an intelligence failure here? Are you not trying to find out that you killed around 200 Russian mercenaries? It's just -- it seems to be taking a while. 

MS. WHITE: It's just a matter of the fact that it's a complex battle space. What we did was out of self-defense, regardless of -- of the composition. And I won't speculate about the full composition of those forces. 

STAFF: And we have time for a few more questions. 

Q: Could we just get quick clarity on al-Darbi? You -- you said that the Pentagon intends to release him both "soon" and "relatively soon." I just want to make sure that it is the Pentagon's intent to release him, and you want to -- could you clarify what you mean by "soon" and "relatively soon"?

MS. WHITE: I -- I can't qualify "soon" or "relatively soon." There are other factors, there are other parties, there are other agencies involved in this conversation. So -- but it is our hope that this will move forward soon. 

Q: Does that mean that it's been -- he's been cleared for release by the Pentagon and you're waiting for State and other agencies...

MS. WHITE: Again, this is not a unilateral DOD position; there is a holistic approach. It'll be a U.S. government, and then we're also working with partners. So it is our intent to try to move this forward. But, again, we have to work with our interagency partners. 


One -- one second. 


Q: (Inaudible) question. Should -- should we expect that -- that -- that you all will not reach clarity about who was among the dead in the February 7th attack? I mean -- are -- or is intelligence analysis still being conducted? 

MS. WHITE: We're always conducting analysis, and things change. And, again, this is a complex battle space. I just won't speculate now about what the composition or the motivation of that particular force was. 

Q: (Inaudible) let us know? Can you let us know -- it's a request. Can you let us know when you all reach certainty or relative certainty about what...?

MS. WHITE: If -- if we have more details that we can release, I will certainly provide those details. 


Q: (Inaudible) any evidence that the Syrian regime is using or has used chemical weapons in the -- in the attacks against the eastern Ghouta -- Ghouta in Damascus, some of -- some of -- in the suburbs of Damascus? 

MS. WHITE: We have seen the reports from various people on the ground, to include NGOs. We haven't concluded or seen the evidence of that ourselves. However, we are looking for it. 

Right here. 

Q: Regarding the attacks in eastern Ghouta, have -- has there been any communication with Russia about the bombings that have been taking place, and maybe a possible cease-fire? 

MS. WHITE: Our conversations with the Russians with respect to Syria happen, primarily, on the deconfliction line. So we use that line frequently. It's never gone down. And it's worked. And so we continue to have those conversations. 

What's important to know is that our focus is D-ISIS. It's to defeat ISIS. We want to ensure that that is where all parties are focused. And so, insofar as we talk to the Russians, it's to ensure that that is our priority. 

I'll take one more. Over here.

Q: Thank you, Dana. 

Going back to the (inaudible) issue, the other day it was published that when President Trump first announced that he was continuing (inaudible) transgender people in the Army, Dunford -- you know, Dunford -- was not consulted at all. I wanted to confirm if that's -- that's true, and also if, in this case, apart from Secretary Mattis, any other people in the Army have been consulted to -- to know -- to find out their opinions on the issue.

MS. WHITE: The president is the commander-in-chief, and he makes decisions about how things move forward. The president speaks often and frequently to the secretary, and to members of -- of military leadership. Where we are now is that the secretary -- he asked the secretary for his recommendation, and the secretary has taken his time to consider all aspects through that lens that he sees all decisions of lethality, and he will make his recommendation this week.

Q: How about Dunford? Can you confirm that he was not consulted?

MS. WHITE: Again, the -- the president consults with his military leaders often. Thank you all.