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Press Gaggle at the Pentagon with Secretary of Defense Mattis

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: So we start on the record for a little bit, and I do have to get rolling here.  I've got meetings I've got to go to, and they're outside the building, so I've got to get outside again. 

So Barbara, you asked a question earlier.  Did I answer it, about the remains?  You -- you looked still quizzical.

Q:  No, I'm -- but I do have other questions.

SEC. MATTIS:  I tell them -- oh, I'm sure you do.  I just wanted to make -- I kind of cut you all off out there when they started driving up.

SEC. MATTIS:  So -- yeah, go ahead.  Give us your other question?

Q:  Well, I want to talk to you both about Russia and Iran.  So now, there's further discussion.  President Putin has invited the president to come to Moscow.  You have been very specific about Russia's adventurism.

SEC. MATTIS:  Putin's invited the president to Moscow?

Q:  I believe that is accurate.  "Under conditions," he said, whatever they are.  He -- I don't believe he specified.  You are someone who's been very specific publicly about your views about Russian adventurism, Crimea, Ukraine, Eastern Europe, NATO, Syria -- just about everything.  What -- two questions.  What are your views about is it time to sit down and talk to the Russians again, not about deconfliction in Syria, but what is the value, what would you want to talk to the Russians about right now, if you were doing it?

My second very quick question is on Iran.

SEC. MATTIS:  Let me answer that one.  I'll give you another question, OK?

Q:  OK.

SEC. MATTIS:  First, I -- I don't -- that would be advice to the president on what I think they should talk about, what issues I would proffer, and I, as always, I keep that private.

But your larger question is, you know, based on my long-standing, you know, stance on protecting America from whether it be conventional attack, nuclear attack, cyber attack or anything else, I have a responsibility portfolio to carry out there.  I have always been in favor, in fact, promoted the idea that we talk with one another, and I've even said in this room, or with some of you on the plane, that even when we had nuclear missiles pointed at each other -- and right now, as you know, they're pointed to open ocean. 

Both of us have them there.  But even in the worst days of the Cold War we had head of state, the head of state discussions, and I believe that we have been way overdue for that.  And this isn't about this administration, and this goes back years now, many years.

And so I'm all for reopening communications at the top line.  It's essential that leaders talk with one another.  It's most important that we talk with those countries that we have the largest disagreements with.  I mean that's how you repair those disagreements.  It's not to say that it's going to be easy, or it's going to be short-term, or something like that.  But not -- I find nothing inconsistent with protecting this country, but engaging diplomatically, literally around the clock.  I've always said diplomacy leads our foreign policy.  This is diplomacy in action.

Q:  On Iran, but also, I want to get your view on whether you're ready to meet with your -- your Russian counterpart.  Could we get that, and then, can I ask a quick Iran question?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, all right.  And then three strikes, and you're out.

Q:  Yup.

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm considering meeting with my counterpart, but there's been no decision.

Q:  On Iran, you've now seen the Iranian-backed Houthis attack oil shipping off of Yemen.  It seems like it might be a test of chokepoint operations by the Iranians.  Tell people, if you can explain, what your current level of concern is about Iranian rhetoric about trying to potentially shut oil shipping in the Persian Gulf.  If the Australian report is wrong, fine, but that doesn't really take away the Iranian threat that you might be looking at, and your concern about it.  So can you talk to us about that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz.  They've done that previously in years past.  They saw the international community put -- dozens of nations of the international community put their naval forces in for exercises to clear the straits.  Clearly, this would be an attack on international shipping, and -- and it would have, obviously, an international response to reopen the shipping lanes with whatever that took, because of the world's economy depends on that energy, those energy supplies flowing out of there.  

But Iran has simply got to find that it's got a better path forward for its people by not being the one to export insecurity.  They've got to start living by the international rules, and we all know what they've done to keep Assad in power.  We all know what they've done to provide missiles and other support to the -- the Houthi -- to the civil war in Yemen, to one side of the civil war in Yemen.  And I can go on -- what they're doing to destabilize Bahrain, what they're doing in Lebanon -- I mean, this is -- this is all well-known, so I don't need to reiterate it.  They are the exporter of instability across the region.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, on Syria, the Russians say there has been in agreement to work on humanitarian efforts, and also, to return Syrians to their homes.  Is that true?  And do you think you can work with the Russians on these issues?  And secondly, the American military over there says it's imperative that they stabilize northeast Syria after -- or while they're defeating ISIS.  $200 million has been frozen in stabilization aid.  How important is it to get -- to get that unfrozen?

SEC. MATTIS:  What we're trying to do in -- in Syria is to get this to the Geneva process.  I -- I mean, let's remember what our objective is.  As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, "Keep your eye on the ball," OK?  So the objective is to get it into the U.N.-brokered peace negotiations, OK?  

As you fall back from that, there are some nations that have kept Assad in power.  We know which ones they are: Russia and Iran.  Our job is to try to find a way in the midst of this chaos to help the innocent people who have carried, by far, the heaviest burden in this war, as generally happens, the more the civilian, the noncombatants do.  But in this one, it's been especially ghastly -- what they have had to go through.

So we are going to continue to work, as we have, to get stability in northeast Syria.  That starts with destroying ISIS.  They are not destroyed yet.  I still remember going back to last April and May, when it was looking very good.  We were (inaudible).  It's not over yet.  It's going to be a lot longer, tougher fight.  

That fight goes on.  Dashisha fell a week ago, or some -- some days ago.  It fell with the support of the Iraqi security forces from their side of the border, the American -- Americans and Coalition allies supporting SDF that have carried the brunt of the fighting responsibilities overwhelmingly.  They're the -- they're the defeat mechanism.  When it fell, we're now reoriented to their last bastions.  As that falls, then we'll sort out a new situation.  But what you don't do is simply walk away and -- and leave the place as devastated as it is, based on this war.  You don't just leave it, and then ISIS comes back.

So that will involve immediate restoration of drinking water, for example, clearing IEDs and those kind of things.  It's not only our money; there's significant international money for that.  Additional money for the complete rebuilding of Syria most likely awaits Assad's leaving.  

Q:  But is there an agreement with Russia?  The Russians say there is an agreement on those two issues, humanitarian aid, returning people to their...

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, there may be a confluence.  Right now, I -- I -- you'll have to ask State Department.  It's USAID and State that would handle those issues.  

My job is to destroy ISIS and to make certain, what we put in place, then -- local security force, train them up so ISIS can't get back in.  So please ask them for those kind of details. 

Q:  About an agreement? 

SEC. MATTIS:  About any -- I mean, you know that we deconflict with Russia all the time in the military.  My portfolio is the military realm.  I'd prefer to speak to what I'm responsible for. 

Q:  How would you describe the U.S. military policy right now vis-a-vis Iran?  What role does the U.S. military have in this -- kind of this new -- this new campaign that's being articulated by Secretary of State Pompeo on Iran, if anything?

SEC. MATTIS:  Nothing -- nothing has changed.  Nothing has changed for us.  We work very closely, as you know, with -- within the combined 5th Fleet.  

And remember, the U.S. 5th Fleet is the combined 5th Fleet.  That means it's not just U.S.  It's got Kuwaiti, it's got Bahraini, Saudi, Emirati.  Routinely, Pakistan has elements operating under the 5th Fleet that are out conducting counter-piracy patrols. 

So all of these things continue on. 

Q:  So there's no regime...

SEC. MATTIS:  On -- on the chaos -- pardon? 

Q:  There's no regime collapse or regime change policy that's been instituted that you're supporting?

SEC. MATTIS:  There's none that's been instituted. 

Q:  On the remains...

SEC. MATTIS:  We need them to change their behavior on a -- on a number of -- of threats they can pose with their military, with their secret services, with their surrogates, with their proxies. 

And that includes -- that threat includes basically five, one of those is delaying the nuclear threat. 

Q:  On the remains transfer, sir...


Q:  You said earlier today that there's a possibility U.S. teams may eventually go into North Korea to look for additional remains.  Does that mean...

SEC.  MATTIS:  That would be the work -- be worked out.  It's certainly something we're interested in exploring with the North Koreans, yes. 

Q:  Does that mean that, for the foreseeable future, there will be no joint war games with South Korea as the U.S....


SEC. MATTIS:  No, it's unrelated to that.

Q:  They're unrelated? 


Q:  Can I follow on there? Also, since you are the head of the Pentagon, what does it mean to you, something that we've been working on, years and years, to get the remains back. 

What does that mean for you personally?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Ah.  Thank you. 

Q:  And then secondly, what's the next step after... now that we've got these remains? 

SEC. MATTIS:  What -- what it means for us.  We have families that, when -- when they got the telegram, have never had closure.  They've never, you know, gone out and had the body returned.  

So what we're -- what we're seeing here is an opportunity to give those families closure, to make certain that we continue to look for those remaining. 

And by the way, you noticed there was a U.N. blue flag on each of the boxes.  Many of the U.N. nations with us also have missing.  

We don't know who's in those boxes.  As we discover it, they'll be returned and they could -- and they could go to Australia.  They have missing, France has missing, Americans have -- there's a whole lot of us.  

So this is an international effort to bring closure for those families. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Thought you had another question. 

Q:  What's the next step, now that -- now that this first...

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, we'll have to sort it out.  Yeah.  I mean, obviously, we want to continue this sort of humanitarian effort. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary?  

SEC. MATTIS:  Please (inaudible).


Q:  Follow up on the Korea story? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah. 

Q:  Two years ago, the North Korean officials offered to the U.S. to repatriate 200 corpses or remains. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Mm-hmm. 

Q:  So why only 55 caskets are coming back home? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  It's a good question.  We can't go back in and verify what the number they had was before.  We know what they said.  But for us, we'll simply say this is obviously a gesture of carrying forward what they agreed to in Singapore, and we take it as such. 

We also look at it as a first step of a restarted process, so we do want to explore additional efforts to bring others home, perhaps to have our own teams go in.  They've been in there before, by the way.  And so we're -- we're looking at all this. 

But, you know, this is a first step.  In this (inaudible)...

Q:  Do you think that these are the -- that these are really the remains? 

Q:  Do you think it can -- it can be a way of prolonging the negotiations?  You think...

SEC. MATTIS:  No, no.  It's -- it's separate from the negotiations. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary?  

Q:  (Inaudible) on Turkey, given -- given some of the tensions with Turkey and the threat of sanctions from the president, are you seeing any impact on operations at Incirlik or any of the U.S. operations in Turkey?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  We've had no impact on U.S.-Turkey relations, military operations at this time.  We continue to work very closely together. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, could you clarify something you said on Iran?  You said, "Nothing has changed for us."  Are you talking strictly militarily? 


Q:  And -- OK.  And do you...

SEC. MATTIS:  Strictly militarily. 

Q:  And do you anticipate, then, out of the principles meeting yesterday, will we see things like more sanctions?  What sort of changes...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I -- I would never talk about something that would be a benefit to a nation that's obviously carrying on its destabilizing activities. 

Q:  Well, but can you help us understand?  Because one of the things that John Bolton said a few weeks ago on one of the Sunday shows is that he suggested that the U.S. military wouldn't be leaving Syria unless ISIS was defeated and Iranian expansion had been halted. 

And so what we're trying to understand is, how do you foresee doing that and where does the U.S. policy come into play and -- and what is the link between Iranian expansion and the U.S. military presence in Syria? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Well I think in Syria, you see how much Iranian presence and support has been committed to keeping Assad in power.  So as you watch us take down ISIS and establish security in the area -- again this will be by, with and through others, we're not going to put U.S. troops in to provide the security -- then our whole design is to go towards Geneva. 

That process will hopefully remove not just the terrorists that we've removed physically or we've killed or incarcerated -- they're under SDF incarceration -- but also move foreign forces out of -- out of Syria. 

That's part of a process, and that's not something that I can forecast by -- on a crystal ball. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, have -- have the North Koreans provided any evidence that the remains that they provided to the U.S. are service members and not, say, North Korean remains? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Good question.  What happens now -- the reason those remains aren't on their way back, for example, to the United States right now, is that they're first going to be reviewed. 

Initially, they're in Korea.  And we'll look for -- for any anomalies, where they're not what we think they might be.  And then the forensics will begin when we land them in Hawaii where the laboratory is.  And then I can give you a better answer. 

But, no, we have no indication that there's anything amiss.  But we don't know, we can't confirm it one way or another.  That's why we go through all the forensics. 

Q:  And unrelated, the Senate is trying to hold up sales of the F-35s to Turkey.  How do you think that affects the alliance with Turkey? 

SEC. MATTIS:  We've had no effect.  As I was saying, we've had no problem, military to military, with Turkey and we continue to work together with the NATO allies. 


Q:  Can I follow up on...


STAFF:  We have time for one more question.   


Q:  Can I follow up on Turkey please?

Q:  Go ahead. 

Q:  Just on Turkey, the U.S. has been moving towards working with Turkey on joint patrols on -- in and around the border. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, thanks.

Q:  Can you tell us where that stands and how far along you think that's going to be before that actually happens, the joint patrols...

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, it’s already happening on opposite sides where the two of the patrols go along, and they get to certain points, they wait for the other one to get there.  If somebody gets there first and then they do recognition signals back and forth and they move onto the next one.  So those patrols are already going, but they’re separate.  In other words, they’re on their side, we’re on our side.  We’ve put together all the planning.  The planning went very well.  The equipment has landed in Incirlik.  The training equipment has landed in Incirlik and the combined training, I’m not sure when it starts, but we had to get the gear in first.  

So all the conditions are being set for it to go forward.  I can’t give you a hard and fast timeline, but it’ll be good training and we’re both on the Turkish side and on the Coalition side we agree that this is necessary to make sure that what we do with these patrols is stabilize the line and not inadvertently rush forward into it and you don’t have trained people, so it’s going very, very well.

Q:  But you think relatively soon we should see something soon?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  I mean, you got to do the training, but I wouldn’t – I think that we’re talking about weeks.  I don’t know how many.  Two, four, six, but I don’t think we’re talking months.

Q:  OK, I’m sorry (ph).  Did you hit your head?

SEC. MATTIS:  It was a bad (inaudible).  No, I... 


... I can’t say that.  All right, we’re off the record.

Q:  Sir?

Q:  No, on – well, on the record before we talk about that if you would...


Q:  Can we get your reaction to recent attacks on the press particularly in the wake of the VFW meeting where the president talked about press’s fake news and then members of the VFW booed the press.  What is your reaction to that?

SEC. MATTIS:  You know, the Department of Defense swears an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.  We live in a raucous democracy.  That’s what we defend, and we will continue to defend the Constitution, uphold the Constitution, and we continue to carry out our duties to protect the country.  That’s our job.

Q:  And when you say the Constitution, that includes the first amendment?

SEC. MATTIS:  Come on.  Last time I checked.


I’ll have to go back to my seventh grade civics history book.

Q:  That is the key part of the Constitution that we were referring to.

Q:  Sir, do you want to go off the record now?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, off the record.