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Department Of Defense Press Briefing By Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White In The Pentagon Briefing Room

DANA WHITE: First, I want to extend our condolences to the loved ones of the nine crewmembers who died in a C-130 crash yesterday in Savannah, Georgia. 

I also want to share our thoughts and prayers with the family, friends and comrades of Specialist Gabriel Conde of Loveland, Colorado. Specialist Conde was killed in action on April 30th as a result of enemy small-arms fire in Afghanistan.

These deaths are a somber reminder of the tremendous risk our servicemen and women take every day to defend our nation at home and abroad.

Yesterday, Secretary Mattis hosted Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton at the Pentagon for an early morning breakfast. This is the beginning of a rhythm for the three leaders to engage regularly. They are committed to forging a close and continuous relationship, to collaborate and carry out the president's national security agenda.

Following breakfast, Secretary Mattis departed on travel back home to Washington State. Today, he will speak at the Tri-citian of the Year Awards Ceremonies. He will emphasize the importance of community service, highlighting how Americans look out for each other and work together to make our communities better. He will also underscore America's fundamental unity and the importance of service before self.

On Saturday, Secretary Mattis will attend a Columbia Basin College Veterans public forum. The purpose of the forum is to give tri-city veterans and their families an opportunity to hear from him, and ask questions of Secretary Mattis regarding matters of concern, especially the civilian-military relationship and the challenges and opportunities veterans encounter during the transition from military to civilian life.

On Cyber Command, last week, the Senate confirmed Lieutenant General Nakasone to be the next chief of CYBERCOM. The change of command ceremony is tomorrow at the Integrated Cyber Center Joint Operations Center at Fort Meade. Deputy Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan will preside over the CYBERCOM portion of the ceremony. General Nakasone will pay -- will play a critical role in everything from training our cyber warriors, and advocating for more cybersecurity resources, to planning and conducting cyber operations.

This change of command is noteworthy because it signifies the elevation of Cyber Command as our 10th combatant command. Last year, Secretary Mattis announced the elevation of Cyber Command, acknowledging that a new war fighting domain has come of age. The cyber domain will define the next century of warfare. Just as our military must be prepared to defend our nation against hostile acts from land, air and sea, we must also be prepared to deter, and if necessary, respond to hostile acts in cyberspace.

MS. WHITE: With that, I'll take your questions. 

Q: Speaking of Afghanistan, the past few weeks have been particularly bloody for the country. What's your assessment of the ANDSF, and how they're progressing to (inaudible) troops, in particular (inaudible) recorded a sharp drop in -- in their numbers over the past year.

MS. WHITE: So what I would say is that we're working by, with and through our partners. That, as the secretary said earlier this week, these are desperate attempts. 

We have to remember that our goal is to force the enemy to a political solution. And we're going to do that. But the enemy gets a vote. We will continue to work. We're there to stand with the Afghan government. 

And as -- and this will happen. This isn't easy. But we're committed to ensure that there's ultimately a political solution. 

Q: (inaudible) adjustments, making (inaudible), kept making changes to the way they're developed and their trained?

MS. WHITE: Right now, we are satisfied that we are working very hard alongside our NATO partners to ensure that they get the training necessary to ensure that they can -- ultimately, they take the fight to the enemy. And then push this to, ultimately, a political solution. 

Q: (Off mic) ... response to reports that Chinese military personnel have used lasers to, in fact, affect U.S. military planes in Djibouti, and how serious were these incidents? How often is it happening? What message do you have to the Chinese at this moment regarding that?

MS. WHITE: Sure. So they are very serious incidents. There have been two minor injuries. This activity poses a true threat to our airmen. 

We have formally demarched the Chinese government, and we've requested that the Chinese investigate these -- these incidents. 

Q: Follow-up. The Chinese have also put some surface-to-air missiles and -- and cruise missiles on the Spratly, I believe it is, out in -- in -- in -- yeah, sorry. Spratly's -- sorry? 

MS. WHITE: South China Sea.

Q:  South China Sea. But what is your reaction to that? They installed them recently. What will the U.S. do about it?

MS. WHITE: Well, we've been very vocal about our concerns about them militarizing these artificial islands. 

China has to realize that they've benefited from the free navigation of the sea. And the U.S. Navy has been the guarantor of that. 

We will continue to -- to do our operations and ensure that the Chinese understand that they cannot, and should not, be hostile and understand that the Pacific is a place in which much commerce goes through. And it's in their interest to ensure that there's a free navigation of international waters. 

Q: (Off mic) ... did they demarche them for this addition of the anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles?

MS. WHITE: I'm not aware of any demarche, but I would have to refer you to State. 

Right here in the middle.

Q: Congress appears ready to become involved in the review of the aviation mishaps. Yesterday, Congressman Turner put out a statement, saying he's not certain the service branches are adequately identifying the source and causes fast enough of the crashes to remedy them. 

Do you think a department-wide review is warranted at this point, something the SecDef would -- would run instead of having individual services branches investigating? 

MS. WHITE: I would tell you that each of these incidents, each service takes very seriously. Each one is unique, and the services are the lead. And the secretary has the utmost confidence in service leadership to ensure that whatever steps are taken, and that they have thorough investigations, because one incident is too much and we have to ensure that we learn from them.

So ultimately, these are service responsibilities, but know that the secretary of defense will hold everyone accountable, to ensure that we learn what we can to ensure that we prevent any other incidents...

Q: So no discussion yet of a holistic review, like a department-wide review?

MS. WHITE: I'm not aware of any, at this time, department-wide review.


Q: Just one on North Korea and one on the border, if I may. 

On North Korea, on the Korea situation, there was a report last week saying that the president discussed a full withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from the Korean Peninsula, in February, I believe it was.

Is there any -- has the Pentagon received any instruction to plan for that, or take that seriously?

And then I have a follow on the border, very quickly.

MS. WHITE: This department has not gotten any word on that. Our posture remains the same.

Q: And then on the border, I believe it -- the request from the Customs and Border Patrol for about 2,000 personnel, to cost about $182 million for the securing the southern border operation.

Where is that money going to -- can you confirm that number as being true? And where is that money going to come from?

MS. WHITE: So, I can confirm that that is the estimated cost for what has been promised thus far, which is about half or so -- $182 million. And that money is coming from the Guard's O&M and as well as personnel -- military personnel accounts.

Q: Are there any concerns that taking money out of O&M could affect readiness of those forces?

MS. WHITE: Right now, that is not a concern.

Again, these are funds that are for training. And so, we'll use them. But at this time, there are no concerns.

Q: Thank you.

MS. WHITE: Joe in the back?

Q: Thank you so much.

I would like to ask you if you could give us an update about the current SDF operations against ISIS in eastern Syria?

And also, if the Pentagon -- if you have any information about the size of how many ISIS militants are left in the area close to -- to Bukamal near the Iraqi border? Are we -- the last numbers we heard from the Pentagon was around 3,000. Is this number still accurate?

MS. WHITE: I'll have to come back to you with respect to the exact number. Obviously it's a dynamic situation.

I will tell you that we are encouraged by the fact that the SDF has resumed active offensive activities with respect to the MERV. So that is a welcome change.

And to the second part, I will come back to you about particular numbers.

But the fight continues on, and so I think it's very important that we recognize that the SDF has become reengaged, so that we can finally finish what is left of ISIS in Syria.

Q: In regards to the U.S. change mission in Iraq, what's the current size of U.S. troops in Iraq right now?

MS. WHITE: So -- so, the number remains around -- our numbers in Syria -- in Iraq are about 5,000. Let me...

Q: In Iraq?

MS. WHITE: You said Iraq.

Q: Yeah, you're right.

MS. WHITE: So -- so that's where we are. It's a -- you know, it changes, but it's approximately that.

Q: (inaudible) this number is going to be decreased?

MS. WHITE: The number is approximate, as we've said in the past. That -- those -- the composition of those forces will change. They may go up and they may go down. But the approximate number is still the 5,000.

Q: Thank you.


Q: If I could just go back to the laser incident, in -- in Djibouti. How confident are you that the Chinese that are pointing these lasers? And you said two with minor injuries. Can you give us an overall total of how many incidents there have been?

MS. WHITE: I don't have a total number, but I will tell you those -- those were two minor injuries. It's enough that we're concerned, that we demarched them. So -- and we've asked them to investigate it. It's a serious matter. And so we're taking it very seriously.

Q: And you're confident it's Chinese nationals that are doing this?

MS. WHITE: We're confident. Tom
Q: Two questions. One -- and I'm -- this is not being snarky, despite my reputation. What does "minor injuries" mean? Is that anything like "slightly pregnant," or -- and also, could you refresh our memory? My memory, anyway, on the objections the Pentagon may have placed with the Djibouti government when China announced it wanted to relocate -- China wants to locate its first overseas base near the U.S. base.

MS. WHITE: So with respect to the two minor injuries, I will have to come back to you on the...

Q: Thank you.

MS. WHITE: ... the specifics of that. In terms of objections, these are -- these are sovereign questions. The Djibouti government is free to work with who they want to. 

Our concern is the safety of our service members. And so we raised the issue with China, and we expect China to -- to investigate it thoroughly. 

Q: Thanks.

Q: Thank you, madam. Two questions, please. One, what is the future of two-plus-two between U.S. and India? It was canceled or postponed.

MS. WHITE: So it was postponed. And so we will work with State, now that Secretary Pompeo is in the seat, to look to reschedule that in the near future. 

Q: And second question, actually, going back to Afghanistan. Bombings keep going on there and people are still scared, and they don't know what's in their future in Afghanistan. 

My question is that Afghan government and people still keep blaming Pakistan as far as terrorist activities are concerned there. How much, now, do you think Pakistan is cooperating with the U.S. in Afghanistan? 

MS. WHITE: In Afghanistan, one, we have to remember that the Taliban and ISIS, their motive is to scare people. It's fear. And they are purposely targeting voting registration. That is what they're doing in order to ensure -- because they can't win at the ballot box. 

So with respect to Pakistan, we have opportunities with Pakistan. We think Pakistan can do more, and we'll look to them and work with them to find opportunities to further regional security. 

Q: And then, madam, do you have any new direction as far Afghanistan is concerned, to bring the situation under control, compared in the past? Anything new?

MS. WHITE: We've been doing this for nearly 17 years. This is not an easy part of the world. But we are committed. The president showed his commitment by us announcing the South Asia Strategy. 

We have regional partners who are leaning in, to include India, to help. And so we will continue to work by, with and through our partners to secure the area. 

But we are here to help the Afghan government stand up and secure their own territory. That's our role. 

Q: I was going to ask, as far as the role of India, what role you think you want India to play now?

MS. WHITE: We'll continue to want India's developmental help, and diplomatic support as well.
Q: Thank you. 


Q: How many U.S. troops are there in Saudi Arabia? 

MS. WHITE: I don't have the exact number. But as you know, the United States has had a long history of mil-to-mil relationships with Saudi. We have a number of forces that are there who are helping.

We've talked about -- in the past about refueling, with logistics, with intel-sharing. That support continues. That support continues, focused on border -- helping them secure their borders.

Q: Why wasn't the deployment of Green Berets discussed or announced publicly?

MS. WHITE: Well, as is policy, we don't discuss the different compositions of our forces.


Q: Thanks, Dana. On Monday, Secretary Mattis came in and spoke to us and said that he had sent direction to the services to look at the number of military spouses, potentially, that are facing deportation hearings or deportation fears. However, we've heard from the services that no such direction was received.

Can you confirm that he did direct the services and whether that took the form of a memo or was it informal, just verbal? How extensive is this scope of looking into this issue going to be?

MS. WHITE: The secretary has directed that. I'll have to check if there's an actual memo. He did just speak to you on Monday.

But there is -- there is a policy in place (inaudible) in place, and that allows military spouses to stay, as well as other dependents. It's only contingent on criminal investigations.

So there is a policy in place.

With respect to the exact number and whether or not the services have provided that to the front office, I'll -- I'll come back to you about that, Tara.

Q: OK.

And similarly, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released their quarterly data, their first set of data since the October 2017 memo that Mattis put out with the increased security screening for potential non-citizen soldiers who want to be naturalized. And the naturalized numbers are down 65 percent since the memo, both in applicants and people that have been approved.

Is this -- do you think this is just maybe a bureaucratic thing, where, you know, there's new procedures in place because of enhanced screening?

Is it the department's intent to continue to recruit non-citizen soldiers who fought for the nation for decades?

MS. WHITE: It's still our intent to recruit every patriot who qualifies to serve.

But yes, with the enhanced vetting, there is -- there is a process that we -- and that process has to move forward. So there may be a bit of a delay because of that, but we also need to ensure -- because we did identify a problem -- a security problem, we do need to ensure that we vet these people thoroughly.

Way in the back?

Q: Just want to get a clarification on a department statement regarding Guantanamo.

The statement said that the secretary had passed along his policy guidance to the White House regarding the criteria that will be used in the future by service members to determine whether or not, you know, detainees would be moved to the facility.

I guess my first question is, like, can you give us a, sort of, idea of what those criteria are? And two, does this open the door to Guantanamo accepting new detainees from other parts of the world?

MS. WHITE: With respect to his policy, he did submit it. Right now -- and ultimately the White House will decide how we move forward with the policy and we'll make those announcements.

But as it is, our policy is that we are trying -- and we are trying to encourage countries to take back their citizens. We will continue to push that, because it's important that we have a coalition. Violent extremism is a global problem, and we need global action. And therefore we need nations to accept their citizens back.

Q: (inaudible) regarding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, recently Secretary Mattis mentioned that there was possibility of discussing about withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.

Is that true?

If his treaty talks -- after peace treaty talks between North and South Korea, what is the U.S. position on this issue?

MS. WHITE: Well, the secretary has said that it is -- he's cautiously optimistic by what we've seen in the last week or so.

But our mission remains the same, our posture hasn't changed. We are in a position to ensure that our diplomats can achieve the president's goal, which is the irreversible, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

But believe the president said stay tuned, so I will also stay tuned.

Q: (Off mic) DOD have a role to play if those American hostages are released from North Korea?

MS. WHITE: Again, I think we have to let our diplomats lead. We will support the State Department in any capacity that we -- that they ask. But again, I think we have to wait and see.

Q: Thank you.

The secretary said earlier this week that the Taliban is on its back foot. Can the Defense Department provide any data, any metrics to show that the Taliban has lost ground in the past year?

MS. WHITE: The Taliban has lost ground. And I believe General Nicholson has talked about that and -- about the losing ground, as well as all of the sights, as far as resources, financial targeting that they've done. 

So they have lost ground. And I think you can see by the fact that their attacks have been more spectacular and they've killed more civilian innocent lives, shows that they're desperate.

So I think there's plenty of evidence, and there's been plenty of evidence in the last year, that things are moving in the right direction.

Q: If I could follow up, the Defense Department has characterized these attacks as acts of desperation. What made you conclude that, as opposed to the Taliban and ISIS adopting a more effective tactic?

MS. WHITE: I say that because they're losing ground. The number of provinces that have governance is increasing. 

If you are to -- we say that they're desperate, because people take drastic measures in which you're killing innocents, you're targeting people who are simply trying to vote, because you don't have another method.

So as the secretary said earlier, they need something spectacular so that media shows it, so that they can get attention. Because they're not capable of convincing the people that they are a viable option.

Q: Just to go back to Djibouti for a second, I know you said you didn't have the exact number of incidents on hand, but is it safe to say this is more than a one or two incidents?

MS. WHITE: It is. I'd say a small number. There have been separate incidents. We can get you more fidelity. But it's -- I would say probably more than two, less than 10. But we can get you more fidelity.

Q: And how long has this been going on for?

MS. WHITE: I don't have the exact number, but these recent incidents have been in the last few weeks.

Q: But the recent -- in the last few weeks, have there been cases where this has happened previously?

MS. WHITE: I believe there have been cases where this has happened previously.

But what this started was these last few weeks had us -- we decided to become very serious about it, and we have demarched the Chinese. And we've asked for the investigation.

Q: But because of the injuries, or because the rate has increased (inaudible)?

MS. WHITE: Both.

Right here.

Q: Thank you. Is the Pentagon concerned about the -- an escalating conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria? And, if so, what would the U.S.'s role be?

MS. WHITE: We are concerned about the fact that Iran continues to be a malign influence in the region that Iran continues to destabilize the region, that it uses its proxies -- forces to undermine stability in the region. And that's whether you're talking about Hezbollah, or whether you're talking about the Houthis.

That is our concern. Wherever Iran is, chaos follows. And so, therefore, in Syria, it's a complex battle space. And what Iran continues to do will continue to be a concern.

Q: What would the U.S. What would the U.S.'s role be in that if -- if the conflict escalates there, between those two...

MS. WHITE: I'm not going to, one, the United States and its coalition partners always reserve the right of self-defense. But, in Syria, our mission continues to be to -- the lasting defeat of ISIS.

STAFF: We've got time for one more.


Q: Do you have any idea of what the -- China's motivation is for directing these lasers on U.S. aircraft? Is it just to disrupt operations? Or is there something else going...

MS. WHITE: I'm going to have you ask the Chinese about their motivations. But it's serious, and we take it seriously, and it's why we demarched them.

We have one more? Way in the back.

Q: Thank you. Going back to the crash that happened yesterday, can you talk with me about what the Pentagon's doing in terms of investigating things like this?

Because we've seen -- is it a maintenance issue? Is it a training issue? Or is it something that you guys are looking at from different aspects?

MS. WHITE: We're -- we're -- with this particular incident, we're looking at all aspects. And that's what we do for any of these incidents, whether it's training or mechanical. And that's our responsibility.

So this is still under investigation, and so, once we know more, we can provide more details.

Q: Just a follow-up on that?


Q: (Off mic) crashes over the past month, killing 16 American service members. How concerned is Secretary Mattis? Doesn't there need to be some kind of blue-ribbon panel to investigate all these crashes?

MS. WHITE: The secretary is concerned about any incident in which a service member's life is lost. We -- each service and each of these incidents are unique. You missed this earlier, but each incident is unique, and unique to the service. And so -- and the platform. And so it's very important that we think about it in that regard.

Does it concern us? Listen, we lost a lot of time, being on C.R.s for several years. And you can't buy the time back. And that -- you can't buy the training hours back. You can't buy the maintenance time back. You can't do that.

And so that's why it's all the more important that we ensure, and we're appreciative of, the fact that Congress gave us a two-year deal for $700 billion and the $715 billion. But stable budgeting is key for us.

You want to follow up -- yeah.


Q: You say -- you say they're all unique, but, over the past month, there have been seven crashes. Doesn't this point to something more, like a crisis?

MS. WHITE: This is not a crisis. But it is a crisis for each of these families. And we owe them a full investigation, and to understand what's going on. But these are across services, and these are different individuals and different circumstances.

And I can guarantee you, each service and their secretary will deal with their own investigation, ensure that we're doing everything we can to ensure this doesn't happen.

Thank you, thank you.


Q: ... follow on that.

Q: ... another question, please? Do you mind if I have another?

MS. WHITE: Yes. OK. One, yes. (Laughter.)


Q: Thank you so much. Do you know what's the -- the number of U.S. special forces inside Yemen? And if you have any comments on the New York Times story that U.S. commandos, Green Berets are helping the Saudis to counter rebels inside Yemen?

MS. WHITE: One, we won't talk about whether the composition of our forces -- that I -- as I said. The mil-to-mil relationship between U.S. and Saudi Arabia is robust. And we are there and we are helping them with securing their borders.

That is -- that is our mission, and that's what we will continue to do. Thank you.