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Off-Camera Press Briefing in the Pentagon Briefing Room

ACTING SECRETARY OF DEFENSE PATRICK SHANAHAN:  So, I think this is technically my first month in this acting role.  I think we're going to do this on the record, right?  Isn't that what we want to do?

STAFF:  Correct.

MR. SHANAHAN: First of all, I think, Barbara, you said last month, why don't we use the nice room that we have to conduct and hold these meetings?  So we'll do that.

And I think one of the other things that we talked about doing as well is setting up some smaller sessions for you so we can go into some deeper discussions on a number of either policy areas or, you know, subjects that are getting lots of attention.  So what I thought I'd do today is maybe make a minute or two of remarks and then we can do Q&A.

So first of all, it’s day 29.  The terrain is not different or new.  I spent the better part of 18 months, if you will, sitting in the right seat of the cockpit with Secretary Mattis in the left seat.  So most of the material, the subject matter and the interactions are with people and subjects that are very, very familiar.

What's probably different is, you know, to a certain degree, much more interaction with Cabinet members.  I see Chairman Dunford quite a bit more.  Certainly more interaction with the president.  And then a lot of discussions, and you know, some bilateral, but a lot of phone calls with my counterparts, whether it's in Europe or Asia.

No change to the priorities, no change to the strategy.  It's really, you know, go faster on the implementation and the execution.

If there's a benefit of transitioning from the deputy role into this acting role, it’s that in the deputy role, I was able to see some of the seams in the organization.  And in this role, as I kind of rebalance my time, I think what you'll find is I'll probably travel less, but I'll look to shore up some of those seams and drive more integration between the services and the combatant commands, and then how we balance our time with Russia and China.

So maybe I'll stop and we'll do some Q&A.  Lita?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, thank you.

You, sort of, mentioned something about going fast.  I'm wondering if you could bring us up to date on the withdrawal plans for Syria.  We were told a while back some equipment has come out, but things seem to have slowed and stalled.  And can you just tell us what that picture looks like --


Q:  -- have troops or are they about to start coming out?

And then just a quick -- a quick other thing, are there other plans to send any troops to the South America region in or around Colombia, Venezuela?  Or have you gotten any direction or have you heard anything about doing that?

MR. SHANAHAN:  Good, Good.

So let's talk about Syria for a couple of minutes.

So, you know, maybe the way I'd frame that is in terms of the withdrawal, early stages, okay.  So we are on a deliberate, coordinated, disciplined withdrawal.

And then when you think about Syria -- I would segment it, there's lots of pieces there, but it's really northeast Syria, and the MERV.  If you'll let me just talk about the MERV portion of this first and then we'll characterize the more complicated piece being northeast Syria.

But, you know, just in terms of things that are happening or not happening, so ISIS is no longer able to govern in Syria.  ISIS no longer has freedom to mass forces.  Syria is no longer a safe haven.  We've eliminated the majority of their leadership.  We've significantly diminished their financial capabilities.  So when you look at their -- you know, used to be their much-vaunted social media, that's been decimated.  And, you know, if you look at the activity online there's a lot of confusion.  They no longer hold key territory.  And they no longer control significant population centers.

If we wind the clock back two years, I'd say 99.5 percent plus of the ISIS-controlled territory has been returned to the Syrians.  Within a couple weeks, it'll be 100 percent.

The way I would probably, you know, characterize the military operations that we've conducted in Syria is that the risk of terrorism and mass migration has been significantly mitigated.

Now, there's more work to do, but let me maybe shift to comments on northeastern Syria, a complicated border.  On one side of the boarder you have about 3.5 million refugees.  On the other side you have significant internally displaced people.

The lots of mil-to-mil conversations, State Department conversation -- I think Ambassador Jeffery is in the region as we speak.

The mil-to-mil conversations have been very strong with our coalition partners.  Those conversations have translated into discussions with their senior diplomats and politicians, and there are very important dialogues going on in major capitals in Europe about support to that portion of Syria, as well as some very important discussions with our SDF counterparts there in northeastern Syria.

The discussions hold real promise.  Underscore the "real" part.  Obviously lots of contentious issues, but, you know, the people that are working them, I have high confidence in.

Now, you know, maybe just kind of leaning forward, like, what's next?  I mean, there's obviously more work to do.  The phase that this moves to is, how do you sustain local security?  You know, that's where the support of the coalition, that's where these partnerships are so critical.

You know, long term, eradicating extremism.  I mean, that's hopefully in my lifetime, we'll be able to say that we've achieved that result.

And then maybe if we just shift to Venezuela, obviously, State and Treasury are taking a significant number of steps to recognize the National Assembly and President Guaido.  We are supporting, we're monitoring the situation very carefully and we're watching.  And we are working very much in real time, so.

Let me -- Barbara?

Q:  I want to ask -- I have a question I want to ask, but first --


Q:  -- may I just ask you briefly what you meant by "the Pentagon is supporting"?  What are you doing?

But then I have --


MR. SHANAHAN:  Yeah, no, no.

The supporting role is, as you can imagine, the interagency, led by the National Security Council and Ambassador Bolton, created a number of options.  We support them with their policy development.

And as the situation in Venezuela evolves, we're there to give them advice and counsel and support.

Q:  I wanted to ask you, in your opening remarks, you spoke about how you spend more time with President Trump now.  And I wanted to ask you about that relationship.

We all know that there is a broad policy that the U.S. military does not engage in partisan political activity, that you are shielded from that.  We know that as a broad policy.

But when President Trump came here several days ago, he made some remarks that got attention, when he engaged in partisanship before a military audience here, saying that the party -- meaning the Democrats -- and I'm quoting, "have been hijacked by the open-borders fringe within the party, the radical left becoming the radical Democrats."

As secretary, is it appropriate for the president to engage in that kind of partisan rhetoric before a military audience?  How do you then lead the policy that the military should not be involved in partisan activity?  Are you prepared to say to the president, "Don't do it in front of a military audience"?

MR. SHANAHAN:  You know, I think all of us and I include every one of us in this room -- it's been a longstanding responsibility of the department as well, is to not politicize the military.

And why that is so important is that we recruit from all parts of the United States.  I mean, this is an all-volunteer force.  So, yeah, I take your comments seriously, that we work to keep this a non-political environment and stay focused on our job of defending the country.

Q:  But as we enter a political cycle with the 2020 election and the president engages in that in this building and you had someone wave a red hat, are you prepared to say --

MR. SHANAHAN:  I don't recall anybody wearing --

Q:  There is videotape.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Okay.  I --

Q:  Yeah.  But nonetheless, I think people --

MR. SHANAHAN:  I think we're --

Q:  When are you prepared to, perhaps, say to the president, "No"?  Are you ever prepared to do that?

MR. SHANAHAN:  I'm always prepared to give the president feedback.

Q:  On this subject?

MR. SHANAHAN:  I'm always prepared to give the president feedback.  That's what he asks me to do.  That's my job, okay?

Where's Mosheh?

Mosheh, how are you, sir?

Q:  Good.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Good morning.

Q:  Good morning.  Could you give us an update on where things stand in Afghanistan?

MR. SHANAHAN:  Sure.  Absolutely.

How are we doing so far?  Everybody okay?  Good?  All right.

So, let's see.  Afghanistan.  You know, first, maybe a shout-out to General Miller, the coalition forces there and then the Afghan National Security Forces.  I mean, they have been doing a tremendous job.

I would say there's no change to the 4R-plus-S plan.  Remember?  Realign, reinforce, regionalize, reconcile -- I think that's what we're seeing now, the reconcile piece -- and then, obviously, sustainment.  I just emphasize no change to the 4Rs-plus-S.

I'll say a change recently has been the discussions between Ambassador Khalilzad and the Taliban.  Obviously State has the lead there, and -- and we're supporting.

Yesterday I said, you know, the talks were encouraging.  I would just add to that, that we have to give people time.  So I'm -- you know, there's -- you know, I picked up the newspaper today and it was all, well, "Here are the things that can't happen."  I think we have to look at it as, "What are the possibilities?"

You know, there is, a new level of energy.  There's -- the reconciliation portion of our 4R-plus-S is working.  Now we need to give the diplomats time and space to advance those conversations.  I don't think there's any magic there, but it's time and it's space.

Q:  Mr. Secretary?

MR. SHANAHAN:  Yes, sir?

Q:  I want to ask you about troops along the Mexican border.  Adam Smith, the congressman, the Armed Services Committee chair, is holding hearings this morning on that issue.  He said using active troops is not a good idea along the border.  And your reaction to that.

And also, we keep hearing that thousands more active troops will be heading to the border to complete the efforts to shore up the 160 miles of fencing.  If you could comment on that.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Sure, absolutely.

You know, I've had lots of conversations with Chairman Smith.  I think -- I mean, I know, you know, the conversations have been this way.  He wants to ensure that there's transparency and oversight in his role.  He also has emphasized the importance of really being able to understand the policy behind the movement of people to the border, the role of the military in support of the Department of Homeland Security.

So when we look at the role, it is a support role.  So it's not about undertaking a law enforcement position.

Our activity to date has really been, you know, logistics, medical.  Some, I'd call it construction, but the laying -- the installation of the concertina wire.

Then there's what I would consider, you know, more of a traditional capability of monitoring, surveilling and detecting.  So this is the enhanced capability that we provide to DHS.

Most recently, DHS has asked us to support them in additional concertina wire, and then expanded surveillance capability.  And we've responded with, you know, "Here's how many people it would take, and this is the timing we'd be able -- timing and mix of the people to support that."

Q:  How many people (inaudible) --

MR. SHANAHAN:  Several thousand.  I'll leave it at that number.

Q:  And just quickly on Adam Smith, he's questioning whether active troops should be used at all.  He's saying it's just not a good idea.

MR. SHANAHAN:  I, what, you know, he's been asking is, "Help us understand the policy."  And the policy gets at, I think, what you're describing at, does it address border security?  And I think at 10 o'clock, Secretary -- Under Secretary Rood and Admiral Gilday from the Joint Staff will be up to answer questions.


Q:  (inaudible) question?


Q:  If a national emergency is declared for the border, how would that affect DOD?

MR. SHANAHAN:  So I would ask all of you, maybe, to go back and do some homework on this.

We've declared, you know, for the last decade or so, a number of national emergencies.  So it's not that this is something that's unique and unprecedented.

How it affects us is that, the president would declare a national emergency, and then we would do the planning and make a recommendation as to how the military could support the request.

It's really, what is -- what is the military response?  And I think this goes back along the lines of, what are things that we're inherently good at?

I mean, obviously we have capacity when it comes to, you know, aviation or medical.  But it's really around this mission of monitoring, surveilling and detection.

Now, if we detect activity, then that's when we notify Customs and Border Patrol -- or Border Protection.  And then they do their apprehension -- perform their apprehension responsibilities.

Q:  But what about -- if I could just follow up -- Jamie McIntyre with the Washington Examiner -- what about the use of military construction funds that would normally go to other important projects, being diverted to -- for construction of border barriers?


So in -- if a national emergency is declared, there is a section, 2808, and within that is language that says -- and I'll paraphrase here, but the language is pretty simple.  I wish I had it in front of me.  But it basically says, you know, to enhance the capability of the military, military construction funds can be utilized.  It's really basically that simple.

So if the military was deployed and there was an ability to enhance their capabilities, then military construction funds, there's authority to utilize them.

Q:  Do you have several billion dollars that you could reprogram for that purpose?

MR. SHANAHAN:  The money that we have assigned for military construction was appropriated for specific tasks.  So those have already been allocated and assigned to certain missions and requirements.

Q:  Hi.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Let me just (inaudible) -- hold on, I want to let -- we'll come back to you.

Sandra?  Where's Sandra?

Hi, Sandra?  How are you?

Q:  Thank you.

MR. SHANAHAN:  You wanted to talk about space.  I know you guys were just dying to talk about space.


Q:  Well, tell -- can you give us an update on Space Command?  Have you made a decision on where it's going to be located, who's going to be the commander, all those formalities?  Has that been decided?

MR. SHANAHAN:  So we do have a person that we're going to move through in terms of who would lead the Space Command.  I'm not going to mention the individual's name, but that -- that is moving its way through the process.

I think if I was to give you an update, I will -- you know, because I won't be traveling as much, when I think about using my time, the space effort is an area where I'll continue to work with Secretary Griffin as well as Dr. Wilson.

And just -- just so you can get a sense of what the -- I think the --  you know, major discussion points or issues or, where the focus will be, internally, it's how do we go faster with delivering capability?  That part's been pretty consistent when we've had these conversations.

When I go up on the Hill and talk to members about, you know, where they have concerns or where their interests are, they're very focused on how do -- and this is where their expertise is -- how do we not grow a bureaucracy?  How do we not generate unnecessary cost?

And so when we talk about the Space Force, and I think about the discussions we're going to have over the next, you know, five, six months, it's going to be small -- as small as possible footprint.  That's why it's -- you know, recommended it sits underneath the Air Force. But then how do we go faster with the development and leveraging of commercially available technology, okay?


Q:  Two follow-ups, actually.  Afghanistan and then Venezuela.

On Afghanistan, for years we've been told and we've heard it's going to be an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process.  What's happening now excludes the Afghan government.

And so I was wondering if you could help us understand this apparent about-face and why so much trust is now being placed with the Taliban in these negotiations.

MR. SHANAHAN:  You know, I'll give you an unsatisfactory answer, in that let's let Ambassador Khalilzad roll out his framework and strategy.  And, you know, this is really State-led.

I'll go back to the earlier point.  There are some very encouraging possibilities.  But we need to -- we need to give them time and space before we, in our rush to close certain doors.

Q:  Okay.  And then if I could just follow up on -- on Colombia.

Yesterday, Ambassador Bolton had a notepad that said, "5,000 troops to Colombia."  Can you -- is -- is --

MR. SHANAHAN:  I didn't bring a notepad today.


Q:  You did?

Is one of -- you earlier mentioned that, you know, the -- I think you mentioned the Treasury and State Department, obviously, leading.  But is one of the options that you've presented the NSC or the president, a brief deployment of troops to Colombia in a support role?

MR. SHANAHAN:  Yeah, I haven't discussed that with Secretary Bolton.

Q:  There's no plan to send thousands of troops to Colombia?

MR. SHANAHAN:  I haven't discussed that with Secretary Bolton.



Q:  On Afghanistan --

Q:  Did you discuss it with someone else?

MR. SHANAHAN:  Tim, first, Tony?

Q:  You're not ruling it out.

Q:  (inaudible)

MR. SHANAHAN:  Yeah, sure.

Q:  Does the title of "acting" impose a burden on your credibility, that you would have to diminish?

And I had a second one, you're seen in some quarters as the man from Boeing, and that this company's well-positioned.  You call the F-35 -- P.G. version -- "fouled up" --


Q:  -- and that Boeing could have done a better job.  Can you just address both of those issues?

The acting, and the man from Boeing.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Yeah, no.  So far, at least in the interactions I've had, "acting" hasn't made a difference.  And then I -- you know, and part of it is, a lot of the people that I've been working with have been in a previous capacity.  So, they know that I'm more than capable of, you know, doing the work and making the right kinds of decisions.

In terms of, am I -- you know, still wearing a Boeing hat, I have enormous confidence -- and this is back earlier, some of the, you know, comments about the -- you know, our ethics agreements and ethics offices.  I think that's just noise.

Q:  Well, could I ask you --


Q:  -- what is your current view, though, on the F-35?  That -- that came up as an example of you being biased toward Boeing.

MR. SHANAHAN:  Oh.  I am biased towards performance.  I am biased towards giving the taxpayer their money's worth.  And the F-35 unequivocally I can say has a lot of opportunity for more performance.

STAFF:  So we've got time for just one more question.



Q:  Mr. Secretary, I wonder, are you operating under the assumption that you're going to stay in this job indefinitely?  How are you thinking through limits on your (inaudible) position?  And do you believe -- some people say you can only stay in the position without being nominated for 210 days.  Do you subscribe to that?

MR. SHANAHAN:  I haven't spent any time thinking about, you know, some of those either rules or constraints.

I mean, my mom sends me this little pray icon in the morning.

It's really whatever the president of the country would like me to do, that's what I'm prepared to do.  And every day, I get up and focus on the task at hand.

STAFF:  Thank you all.


Q:  -- not ruling out the Colombia issue -- the Colombia thing, though?  I want to make sure we understood you.

MR. SHANAHAN:  What I want to do is close with Jeff.

Q:  Thank you very much.  I appreciate it.  Thank you.

I was just hoping to get some clarity on your answer about Colombia.  Are you saying that is not an option on the table?

MR. SHANAHAN:  I said that I didn't speak with Secretary Bolton about it.


Q:  Did you speak with someone else about it?

Q:  You're not ruling it out?

Q:  You're not ruling it out?

MR. SHANAHAN:  I'm not commenting on it, okay?  All right.


Q:  Can I make one quick thing, (inaudible) for doing this in the briefing room.  But on behalf of TV, if you would consider on-camera in the briefing room?  I know this is your first one, but if you'd consider on-camera --


MR. SHANAHAN:  -- you know, I think what -- what Barbara asked us to do, like we have a room.  Let's use the room.

I -- what I'd -- where I'd like to be is, on a regular basis.  And then we can bring in, also, experts.

I mean, look, you guys have an important job to do and we want to help you do that job.  And I think it's my responsibility to make sure, in this department, we learn how to communicate.

There's going to be, you know -- it's tricky.



MR. SHANAHAN:  You suggested -- you know, believe it or not, I -- I listened quite well.  But --

Q:  Did you tell other people?


MR. SHANAHAN:  (inaudible), look, I'm very sympathetic to the -- to the important job that you have.

We want to tell our story.  It's important we learn how to do that.  And we'll work harder.

I'd like -- my mom would prefer to do it on camera.

Q:  Mom's always right.


MR. SHANAHAN:  Thank you, all.  Very much.  Thank you.