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Media Availability with Secretary Mattis En Route to the USA

March 15, 2018
Secretary Of Defense James N. Mattis

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  We're heading back in to Washington, D.C.  I would term it a successful trip.  That's probably an understatement.  The collaboration and the spirit of shared understanding and unity was what I come away from.  As you know, I met with several different nations, military and diplomatic representatives in Afghanistan.

In Oman, I met with our ambassador and, of course, the sultan and his government.

In Bahrain, I saw the king and his security officials -- crown prince and his security officials and met with our Navy, Marines, soldiers, Airmen, Coast Guardsmen there in Bahrain just a few minutes ago.  Over a thousand troops in the room.  Well over a thousand troops in the gymnasium there.

Good questions.  A lance corporal not old enough to drink adult beverages questioned me about the sufficiency of the National Defense Strategy in regards to shifting to great power competition.

SEC. MATTIS:  At the same time having to fight the violent extremists and how do you balance it.

That's from an E3 in one of our services. So, it says something about quality of the troops we have today.  I can't imagine when I was his age having that sort of understanding or being able to give that sort of a challenge.

Afghanistan, the Government of National Unity has been through some tough times and I think they've got -- internally they have overcome some of those challenges and are continuing to move forward.

And in terms of the reconciliation process and the detail I was briefed on, those were very heartening to see that sort of progress at the same time we've basically driven the -- I apologize.  I'm a little tired this morning.  What's the word I'm trying to use?

We're intensifying -- as you know, with the realignment and the reinforcement -- we're intensifying the military campaign but it's for a political purpose, reconciliation.  And that internal National Unity Government effort is critical, as is having a reconciliation process along the lines of what came out of the second Kabul peace conference.

So, I see more of an alignment now military with non-military aspects of the campaign than I've seen in the past, going the right direction.

Let me talk about Manama, because I've actually talked with you coming out of Afghanistan. They were very, very productive meetings where we're looking at what are we doing together with Bahrain to interdict any kind of terrorism support coming into their island kingdom there. 

We discussed in detail our already strong defense relationship and everything they're doing themselves and with other allies in order to make this relationship work; we talked about the GCC unity and the need for it right now in very open terms back and forth. What are the obstacles?  What has to be overcome?  Got a lot of good advice from them -- particulars, not generalities.

Of course, I told them about our appreciation for the support they give our troops.  As you know, this has been the home base of Fifth Fleet and its predecessor units since just after World War II.  They have stuck through it -- stuck with us through good times and bad. 

I also met, of course, with our NAVCENT and MARCENT -- Navy Central Command, Marine Central Command leadership; very detailed discussions about where we're at, where we're going, answered their questions. 

And then I met with all the personnel in the auditorium -- just really to pay my respects to them, say thanks for what they do and to give the guidance in response, largely, to their questions. I probably spoke for no more than about 15 to 20 minutes, and then went into Q&A for the rest of the hour.  A little more than an hour I spent with them, very good questions from them.

They referenced in the briefings how they're taking our National Defense Strategy and putting it in action.  But, again, like I led off with, I was amazed at how some of the youngest sailors and Marines in the room know the Defense Strategy, were reciting parts of it and asking for more clarity in how we're going to execute it.  So it was very heartening, actually.

You know, one thing that came through loud and clear is the suspicion of Iran and the evidence of Iranian destabilizing efforts.  And this is -- you know, I heard it when I was up in Afghanistan.  You know what's going on with Iran's support to Assad.  Now, Iran is following Russian's example of mucking around in Iraq's elections. 

Down in Yemen, you know, our purpose is to drive that to the U.N.-brokered negotiating table.  Down there, you can look at the Bab-el-Mandeb -- that is the strait between the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea -- as the Aberdeen Proving Ground for the Iranian military. 

It's where you find their radars, their ballistic missiles, their anti-ship cruise missiles.  We found their mines, their explosive boats all being tested, increased capability being demonstrated down there.

Interestingly, in the Gulf itself, they are not coming as close to our ships.  The provocative actions in the Gulf seem to have relented somewhat.  They're not doing as many bellicose confrontations and that sort of thing. 

So you've got the support, you know -- and it's reported on widely -- in Syria and what's going on.  Even in Afghanistan, we find Iran doing things that are not helpful as we try to reconcile and end the war.

We drop down to Yemen and you see what I just described.  You move over to Bahrain and the challenges they faced and the explosives that they have captured, they have intercepted in the city at raids -- it was just brought home to me again that they are not changing their behavior.  They're continuing to be a destabilizing influence.

One thing -- I just received word this morning that the chairman expects to send me his endorsement, his memorandum sending the Niger investigation up to me.  And, in that regard, I will read his work.  There's a couple of things I've asked questions about already -- I've been reviewing it, of course, so I'm not waiting until I get his to begin reviewing it.

So what I will do is get answer to the question I've already asked, take -- I will study what the chairman has sent me, and, once I'm ready, I'll have my endorsement ready, and then I'll brief you in much more detail than I can do right now.

What else?  You know, for the last several months at the Pentagon, I just got a note on this, too -- we've been going through without a doubt the largest reorganization of the Department of Defense since Goldwater-Nichols in 1986, I believe -- even before your time in the Pentagon.  That's a long time ago, Bob.

And so now I have a CMO, a chief management officer, and basically that means, in OSD, I run OSD at the top.  I've got a deputy, and now I've got a chief management officer.  That is new. 

It was directed by the Congress.  I think it was the right thing to do and we're very happy.  He's been confirmed in the job now.  That's done.  But even more -- that's where you add someone in in order to speed processes and smooth out process. 

The other one, of course, is where we took AT&L -- Acquisition, Technology and Logistics -- broke it into Acquisition and Sustainment under Ms. Ellen Lord, and now I've got one person -- an undersecretary for research and engineering -- which means all these various things we've done, from DARPA, to R&D and service and all, I now have one person who will be integrating, coordinating and setting the pace and the direction so the current readiness, in terms of sustainment, is under one person, and future readiness is under another.

This was something, frankly, forced on the Department of Defense by the Congress.  After reviewing the problem, as I told some of you, we believe that Congress did the proper problem definition, and this solution has been embraced.

We've got two first round draft picks to lead these two efforts.  And, with the chief management officer in place, we are basically through it.  I expected, just because it's a large organization, to run into more friction points.  There have not been friction points. 

I'm sure, down below, as people sort out reporting chains, the usual challenges exist.  But it has been amazingly smooth, for a reorganization on this scale, and that has gone very well.  

With that single accountable official for the future, now, when I drill down two levels, I'll also know there's a way to integrate whatever we're doing across that whole enterprise.  There's a lot of money going into this, for those of you who have studied the budget.

So I want to make sure that we had that at least in process.  I didn't think we'd be at this level of progress this fast.  And we are, and I couldn't be happier.  

I think that's all the stuff that's been on my mind the last 24 hours.  So what's on your mind, might I ask?  Well, wait a minute. I learned to put Bob) -- you're number two, okay?

Q:  I'm number one?

SEC. MATTIS:  I've got to let the protocol down a bit. Dean gets the first question.

Q:  I wanted to ask you just a point of clarification on what you said about the Niger investigation.  And then I have a question for you about Saudi Arabia.  

Did you say that General Dunford is sending you a, like, a recommendation report?  Or no?


SEC. MATTIS:  For what?

Q: That you've already read the investigations?

SEC. MATTIS:  I have been, the investigation is very thick.  So, knowing he would be sending -- obviously, as the president’s primary military adviser, I have been reading the report myself.  

I don't want this to be dragged out.  I wanted to be reading at the same time.  And I have several questions from that, as well.  And I'll get those answered.  Hopefully, they'll be waiting for me.  I said I wanted them by close of business tomorrow.  So I'll have them tomorrow.

Hopefully, I'll get -- if not, I'll have them by Monday, for sure.  And then he is going to send me, soon -- I'm not sure when, but I understand he's going to be -- I got notified he'd be sending his endorsement on it.  

So now I will take his advice; I'll continue doing my review, put the two together and see where I'm at.  Does that answer your question?

Q:  Yes, it does.


Q:  So, on Saudi Arabia, there's been some reporting about your letter appealing to members of Congress on their proposal to penalize the Saudis for their involvement in Yemen.

SEC. MATTIS:  Involvement in Yemen, I've got you, yes.

Q:  Could you explain what your thinking is on that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, thanks for bringing it up.  And I probably should've mentioned it.  I was supposed to testify on this, and they moved the testimony up, or they moved up the vote.  For some reason, it had to happen, and I'd already committed to be in this region, and a lot of effort had gone in with other governments to be out here. I think we are either on our way, or pretty close to being on our way.

So my undersecretary of policy went in to do the testimony and I didn't want him going in without me weighing in.  So I sent a letter to, I think, the Senate majority leader and ranking member, as I recall, giving our rationale why we believe this is the best way to continue pushing this to a U.N.-brokered negotiation.  And so I sent a letter in along those lines, and that's where I stand on it.

Q:  What was the gist of your rationale?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, the letter's out there.  I mean, I'd prefer to let the letter stand as it is.  I've got a copy in my briefcase, actually -- my copy of it.  

But the bottom line is we have been driving this towards the U.N.-brokered negotiations, you know, for years now.  And we've got, you know, from the human factors -- cholera breaking out, to the terrorists taking advantage of the chaos -- I mean, we need to get this to a negotiated settlement.  

And we believe our policy right now is correct for doing this.  And that was the gist of my letter, so that my undersecretary had me on the record there and he wasn't carrying the water alone.  

Yes, sure.  Go ahead NuNu.

Q:  Can I get you on the record on Tillerson?  When did you find out -- on Secretary Tillerson -- when did you find out?  How did you find out?  And what's your reaction?

SEC. MATTIS:  You know, I'd prefer not to answer that.  You know, it's interesting.  We had the word in Afghanistan.  I think you heard it while we were still in Afghanistan.  

I have been with the embassy staff there and the international diplomats, as well, the NATO ambassador, for example, to Afghanistan; and I've been with the troops.  

And then I came down to Bahrain.  I've been with our embassy here and the ambassador and his staff; then with the king, last night, for a long dinner with the crown prince and the national security officials; then with over 1,000 sailors and Marines this morning, plus the leadership.  It's interesting, it has not come up a single time.  

And I recognize this is a big story in Washington.  But I was thinking, as I was driving out here today, you know, what I was going to say to you all, I meant to bring this up, actually.  Thanks for asking.

The durability of our relations with these countries, with the United States having very strong institutions, go beyond personalities.  My job at the Department of Defense is to ensure that our diplomats -- our ambassador in Bahrain, our ambassador in Afghanistan, and in Oman -- always speak from a position of strength, of support for international law, this sort of thing.  

So DOD -- we stay focused on defending the country.  We're obviously, we work very close with any intel agencies that are not part of DOD, as well as our own, and we stay in a reinforcing role with our State Department and our diplomats, who lead the way on the foreign policy of the United States.

And that has been uninterrupted.  This issue has not even come up, other than with you all.  And I understand why you're asking, but I'm just pointing out that, in most parts of the world, this is a Washington, D.C. story.  

It's not about whether or not the United States is still an ally to the countries I've been in or the countries I've been talking to.  I've signed letters while I've been out here -- the normal coordination.  The job goes on to other allies, informing them of things, requesting things.  The work goes on.  


Q:  Secretary, you were out here, in part, to talk to the different Gulf Nations of GCC -- the Gulf Nations and try to kind of -- I assume -- help them mend some of this rift with Qatar and all that.  Can you give us the state of play there?  Like, how did it go?  Yes.

SEC. MATTIS:  What I needed to come back out and better understand what is the problem.  I mean, I was thinking about that when I left town --  that, when I come back, I can better define the problem.  

That's going to be better for State Department, for the NSS and for the president, because the unity of the GCC right now, I think, is essential as a stabilizing force.  And I think I mentioned I got some very particular points, for example, last night, from the king, who I've known for many, many years, and the crown prince.  And part of those particular points were what are the sticking points or friction points for this.

So that’s what happens?  You don't go in and solve things overnight in these kind of jobs.  But at least I have a better grasp from different perspectives, Oman and Bahrain.  

I've been to UAE a number of times.  I've been to Kuwait.  I've obviously been to Saudi Arabia.  I wanted to hear from these two.  Both have strategically wise leaders.  I'll just put it at that.  And it was a big help.

Q:  Do you think you can help bring them closer together?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm sure we can help, but we really need to understand what the problems are that need to be addressed.  You can't just bring them together because you want to bring them together.  You got to address their concerns.  So I wanted to make sure I had those, and I'd not been to these two countries yet.

And, in both cases -- with the sultan, I was with him for an hour and 10 minutes alone, and, between the crown prince and the king, hours there yesterday.  I think I saw you as the elevator door was closing last night, right?  He looks like you were dressed more casually than me.

But the hours were well spent and, again, this goes back NuNu, a little bit, how I responded to your question.  Having known these gentlemen for a long time and having many times shared strategic perspectives, you don't get superficial stuff from them.  You know it was very helpful.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, in the last 24 hours or so, we've seen legal action against the CEO of Theranos.  I know you were on that board.  I know you advocated for that technology.  Do you have any reaction?

SEC. MATTIS:  Let me read -- I just heard that a minute ago -- that it had come up.  I have not read anything.  Let me see what you're talking about here.  


Q:  You mentioned earlier that, in the Persian Gulf, you've seen the Iranian vessels coming less close the U.S.  What do you --

SEC. MATTIS:  Iranian Republican Guards (sic) and Iranian Navy.  There's oftentimes been a difference.  Right now, both of them appear to be less -- they don't seem to be engaging in the same provocative behavior as before.  

And this isn't just a subjective analysis -- number of incidents, and how far are they staying from the ships -- specific distances.  So that's why we can say that right now.  I don't know why, but that's what's happening.

Q:  So you've got no read on what you can attribute that change in behavior to?

SEC. MATTIS:  We cannot.  And that's especially so in light of what's going on in Iraq and Syria, Bahrain, western Afghanistan, and certainly in the Bab-el-Mandeb and in the Red Sea area and the missiles being fired into Saudi and that sort of thing.  So, now -- it's like an outlier, and I don't know why.

Q:  Can you talk to us about the flow of munitions, if there any, from Iran to Yemen?  What's the current status of that?

SEC. MATTIS:  We have no doubt that they continue to provide ammunition, explosives, that sort of thing in Syria, in Yemen.  They've uncovered some in raids in Bahrain.  It goes on.

STAFF:  We're about out of time.

Q:  (inaudible) -- you mentioned before that the Iranians were mucking around in the Iraqi elections.  Could you elaborate a little bit on that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  We have worrisome evidence that Iran is trying to influence, using money, the Iraqi elections.  That money is being used to sway candidates, to sway votes.  

It's not an insignificant amount of money, we believe.  And we think it's highly unhelpful.  Iran should leave the Iraqis to determine their own future.

Q:  Do you think that Abadi is being undermined by this Iranian meddling?

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't know.  I don't want to speculate on that.  I don't know the effectiveness of it.  We know they're trying.  And we know they're trying to influence the election.  

Yes, I don't want to speculate on which direction they're going, because it would be more speculation, and I don't engage in that.  But we know the money's going over.  We know that they're doing what they can to impact the elections.  

And we don't like it in our country, when it happened, Germany doesn't want it their country, and we don't want to see it in Iraq, either.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, as recently as November, General --

SEC. MATTIS:  (inaudible).

Q:  As recently as November, General Nicholson characterized the situation in Afghanistan as a stalemate.

Q:  Do you see it as a stalemate today?

SEC. MATTIS:  Okay.  I don't want to characterize the military campaign right now.  The ingredients have changed, as you know, on the Taliban side.  Some have indicated a willingness to talk.  On the NATO side, we now have, I believe, a dozen nations that have added forces.  We have two more coalition nations.  All of this is going into a mix.

So you will have to watch what happens as a result of the political process, reconciliation with Taliban, the internal dynamics of the unity government -- are they coming together strongly at this point? -- And then the added troops and the realigned troops with NATO.

So far, though, you'll notice that the Taliban has basically ceased, now, for months, making gains.  And that's pretty clear.  Can they set off explosives in places?  Absolutely.  If you can't win at the ballot box, you try bombs.  So they're doing that.

Can they attack places?  Of course.  That's -- the tactical fight goes on.  But we'll have to watch how this unfolds here in the weeks ahead.  We are going after their sources of income, and we know we are having an effect there.

Q:  So would you describe it as progress on the part of the coalition?

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't generally find it helpful to do that.  I'd rather let the facts speak for themselves than try to give words in a very complex situation that would appear to give more clarity than a very complex fight deserves when you try to describe it.

Right now, it's clear the wind has gone out of the Taliban's sails some months ago.  That is -- that, I can show you objectively.  But I don't like using the words that may apply in one area, and not in another.  

The good thing is that, for the first time in over a decade of war -- well over a decade of war, we saw, here, several months ago, all six Army (Afghan) corps on the offensive.  That's never happened before.

We've used one corps, maybe a second corps, not often a third.  And now, all six are on the offensive, and I believe you'll see more of that, due to the realigned NATO forces, the train, advise, assist.  

And, of course, the additional air support means that more forces can be in contact and not worry about who holds the high ground.  We'll always hold the high ground once we have people on the ground who can call the NATO support in.

STAFF:  Okay.  We're out of time.  Thank you very much.

Q:  Thanks.

SEC. MATTIS:  All right.  Thanks, you guys.