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Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary Conducts an Update for Reporters

Feb. 26, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby; Lynn Rosenthal, Independent Review Commission On Sexual Assault In The Military

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Well, good afternoon, everybody. Sorry we're a few minutes late here today.

As you're aware, President Biden ordered a 90-day commission to pursue solutions to sexual assault in the military. To carry out the president's direction, Secretary Austin ordered the establishment of a 90-day independent review commission on sexual assault in the military -- we refer to it as the IRC -- to review department policies and processes as directed by the president.

The secretary has designated Lynn Rosenthal, formerly the first-ever White House advisor on Violence Against Women, and a longtime advocate for survivors of gender violence, to lead this commission. In a moment, I'm going to turn the podium over to Lynn to walk through some of the specifics of the IRC's structure and goals and then to take some questions.

In addition to the Independent Review Commission, the secretary directed immediate actions to bring the department in compliance with evidence-based practices to ensure accountability of sexual assault and harassment efforts at every level of the total force.

The secretary also pledged on day one that countering sexual assault and harassment in the military is a top priority. Keeping with that pledge, the secretary participated in a virtual roundtable just this last Tuesday, with Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough and sexual assault survivors and advocates.

This engagement informed ongoing work to review and improve our approaches to countering sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military, and to caring for survivors during transition and beyond. The meeting reaffirmed these leaders' commitment to these shared priorities, and they solicited participants' perspectives on the way ahead.

Every member of the total force deserves a workplace free of sexual assault and harassment and personal fear. We must commit ourselves to eliminating this illegal and corrosive behavior.

And with that, I'm going to turn it over to Ms. Rosenthal to address the independent review committee activities specifically, and then she'll stay up here and we'll take some questions on that and then we'll get into the regular briefing later.

So with that, Lynn?

LYNN ROSENTHAL: Thank you.

Good afternoon. This effort, this commission is dedicated to those service members who suffered from sexual assault, both those who have come forward and shared their stories at great personal cost, and those who suffered in silence and who continue to suffer in silence, alone, and also at great cost.

The trauma and life-altering effects of sexual assault are devastating in any context. What I'm struck by here, as I listen to stories of military survivors, is what -- how much their service meant to them, how their life was about this dream of serving in the military. And this dream was a part of their identity. And for many, their dreams were shattered by the trauma of sexual violence and sometimes retaliation for coming forward. This must end.

I'm grateful for the leadership of President Biden and Secretary Austin in establishing this independent review commission. As both the president and the secretary have said, all options must be on the table.

The most pressing task facing this commission is accountability for those who have committed sexual assault. But I want to be clear that that is not the only task. We will also look at climate, culture and prevention.

One of the hardest things to hear when you listen to survivors talk is how hostility was conveyed by their attackers, this hostile approach to them, as a part of the sexual assault. And that approach was to the victim, "you don't belong here, you don't belong in this military. No one will believe you if you talk about what happened, and you will be blamed."

This commission says to that service member, you do belong in this military. You belong. And it's our job to make this climate safe for you to be here.

 I know firsthand from my work that there is tremendous capacity in this building and in the force, there's capacity that there are best practices that are in place. And this commission will build on that knowledge, but we will also consult outside experts and stakeholders. We want to hear a diversity of views from every level of the services and in civilian society, and we will take all of those views into account in our deliberations and our recommendations.

So more to come on our process and our membership, but that's where we're starting today. So thank you so much.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you, Lynn.

We're going to go to normal policy practice here, we'll go to the phones first and then into the room, and we'll go one for one. So I would ask you to limit your questions, for this part of the briefing, to Ms. Rosenthal and the work of the Independent Review Commission.

And with that, Lita, did you have a question?

Q: I'll pass, thanks.

MR. KIRBY: In the room? Tara?

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this, Tara Copp with McClatchy. What we've seen in past sexual assault reporting incidents is that sometimes the very people on base that these victims are having to report to are sometimes the ones perpetrating these attacks. And there's been a call, time and time again, for there to be a counselor on-base or a civilian on-base, an independent civilian for military personnel to report to. I'm just wondering if that will be one of the things you take into account.

MS. ROSENTHAL: I think we'll look closely at that, and I've seen that recommendation from the previous reports, so I think that's what we mean by all options are on the table. We want to think creatively about that, and we want to hear from service members about what it is that they think would make the climate safer for them.

Q: So will your work result in actionable recommendations for --

(CROSSTALK)

MS. ROSENTHAL: Absolutely.

So we have a 90-day commission and we're working on the charter now, working with the deputy secretary's office on what our charter will look like. Within 60 days, we'll have some initial recommendations, particularly on the accountability issue, and within 90 days we'll complete the work of the commission.

But I also know that that's just the first step for the secretary. I think the secretary is our greatest asset in fighting this problem. He gets it so deeply, he cares about it so much, he cares about his service members.

And so the commission ends in 90 days, but the implementation of the recommendations will certainly continue.

STAFF: In the back here.

Q: Hi there, Nick Schifrin from "PBS NewsHour."

Can you talk a little bit more about the commission itself? I know it's early, but are your members going to be from this building or are they all going to from outside, and to Tara's point, one of the main things, as you know, that advocates call for is the removal of commanders from the adjudication process. Is that idea just an option, or is that idea part of the charter itself?

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, the president and the secretary have said that all options should be on the table. I don't think we have a predetermined outcome of this question which we must very carefully examine. And the membership of the commission will be made up of military leaders, former leaders, sexual assault advocates and sexual assault experts, so it'll be both internal and external, and we hope to have a very dynamic process. And I don't think we need to be afraid of a diversity of views. That is part of this conversation, and we need not fear it, and especially because the secretary has invited that kind of inquiry.

MR. KIRBY: On the phones, Aaron Mehta, Defense News.

Q: Hi. I've got nothing for this one, but one for later. Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. In the room. Yes, ma'am.

Q: Hi. Caitlin Kenney with Stars and Stripes. I know this is very early, but I have a question to follow up. For the secretary, do you believe that he may be taking some of the recommendations that you may have along the way, like, immediately, or do you think he's going to be waiting until the recommendations are all out there? Do you think that he'll actually take what you guys come up with and immediately act on it?

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, he's already taking immediate action, so I know that's the case, and I think if we identify something that needs to be fixed right away -- and those may be out there -- where we feel that service members are in jeopardy, I think he would take immediate action. I mean, I can't speak for him at this point, but I think that he's so devoted to making sure that we're protecting service members that if something needed to be done right away, he would make sure that it happens.

Q: Okay, and I guess after this commission, I know you talked about it's -- this is a first step. How do you make some of these recommendations part of the military culture, a movement for everyone from, you know, the basic trainee all the way up to the secretary, I guess?

MS. ROSENTHAL: That's the core question. That's what the commission will be charged with. That's a great way to put it.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Lara Seligman, Politico?

Q: Hey, John. No questions on this, but I'll have a question later. Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Meghann, in the back.

Q: So as part of the commission, is there going -- are there going to be teams traveling around and doing sensing sessions or doing interviews with service members? Will there be a place online where someone can put in their suggestions or share their stories? How can service members get to you guys and tell them -- tell you what they want?

MS. ROSENTHAL: That's absolutely what we want to do, so we're working on what that process would be now. So I envision that part of it will be online. We want to hear from as many people as we can about their experiences, so we're working on that process now. And I'm not sure -- I think that there will some travel because there are places we're going to want to go and visit and see, particularly if we identify something that's really working, where the metrics show that they're moving the needle. I think we're going to want to go see that. So I think we'll do all of what you just described.

MR. KIRBY: Okay, any others? Yes, Helene? 

Q: Will you be -- are you going to be talking to Kirsten -- Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's office? As you know, she's pushed very hard to have this taken out of the military chain of command and the -- the Pentagon has pushed in the other direction, but there a lot of critics who think you can't really do anything about this until you at least do that. Where do you -- A, are you going to be talking to her, including her office in this commission? And B, where do you stand on that?

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, we're absolutely engaged in outreach to members of Congress, and particularly, Senator Gillibrand, who has so much capacity and thinking about this. And I've spoken with her about it over the years, so I'm very familiar. And as I described, we don't have a predetermined outcome.

I think that accountability is critical. I absolutely believe that. I also believe that these pillars intersect with each other, so without a clear pathway for accountability, the work we want to do on prevention will be completely undermined. And by the same token, we could address that one issue of the chain of command, and if we don't do all the other things, that's not going to work, either.

So I believe this, and I've expressed this view before; that all of this travels together. So I think we're going to -- we're going to look with an open mind and diverse views on this question of the chain of command, without a doubt, and the secretary has said that himself.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. Any other questions in the room?

Okay, ma'am.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: We'll cut you loose.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you so much.

Thanks. 

Okay. As we announced yesterday evening, military forces conducted an air strike against infrastructure utilized by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria. The strike was authorized in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq and to ongoing threats to those personnel. We recognize the significance of this operation as the first of its kind under the new administration.

And so while I typically am loath to get into operational details, given that this has the interest that it does, and it is the first one that President Biden has authorized, I can offer a little bit more detail than I would typically be comfortable sharing at the podium.

Two F-15E Strike Eagles dropped seven precision-guided munitions, totally destroying nine facilities and partially destroying two facilities, making them functionally destroyed. The structures were located at the Abu Kamal terrorist entry control point located near the Syria-Iraq border on the Syrian side. This location is known to facilitate Iranian-aligned militia group activity.

We have preliminary details about casualties on site, but I won't be able to discuss additional details at this time because our battle damage assessment is ongoing.

This response was conducted together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners. The department notified congressional leadership before the strikes. Administration officials have been briefing at the member and staff level today, and there will -- and there will be a full classified briefing early next week.

As we made clear last night, and I think through President Biden's order, he made clear that the United States will act to protect American and coalition personnel and our security interests in the region.

Moving on, today, Secretary Austin spoke with Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, H.E. Sheikh Hamad Jaber Al-Ali Al-Sabah to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Kuwait. The secretary acknowledged the Kuwaitis and Americans who have bravely fought side-by-side to restore Kuwait's territorial integrity and respect for its sovereignty alongside of the largest coalition the world had seen since World War II.

We also underscored that 30 years later now, the United States and Kuwait maintain a strong bilateral partnership. The United States and Kuwait remain committed to a close defense partnership that brings peace and prosperity to the Gulf region.

On other news, we're excited to announce the 2021 Department of Defense Warrior Games will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando from September 12th to the 22nd. This annual event brings together hundreds of wounded, ill and injured service members from the U.S. military and our allied nations as a way to enhance the recovery and rehabilitation of Wounded Warriors by providing them exposure to adaptive sports. This is the first time the Warrior games have been held at this location and in coordination with Disney and we're grateful for that coordination and -- and opportunity.

As we prepare for this event, we will work closely to obviously ensure the health and welfare of all athletes and spectators involved. More information and all of the COVID measures are available on the Department of Army's website.

Now, I also know that many of you are interested in the training materials we provided to the services and to the force for use during their stand downs -- the extremism stand down that the Secretary ordered a couple of weeks ago.

I'm happy to inform you that we've posted all of this material and it's available on our website, defense.gov/newsrooms/publications, if you want to look at it. The materials are consistent with the Secretary's approach to his priorities and provide enough guidance to facilitate these important stand-down conversations.

It is not meant to be prescriptive; it is not meant to be all-inclusive. We want the services, we want commands, we want leaders to conduct these stand downs in the way they see best fit for their schedule, their operations, their culture, their people. Services and components are and will continue to provide additional information to enable commanders to address this issue in greater detail with their units.

I can also announce that our new Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks will join the Twittersphere today and her handle is @DepSecDef -- D-E-P-S-E-C-D-E-F. So please feel free to follow her on Twitter.

And finally, I need to correct something that I said during the Tuesday press gaggle. There is no change to U.S. policy regarding the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands. As President Biden underscored in his call with Prime Minister Suga, Secretary Blinken reaffirmed in his call with Foreign Minister Motegi, and Secretary Austin further reaffirmed in his call with Defense Minister Kishi, the United States is unwavering in its commitment to the defense of Japan under Article 5 of our security treaty, which includes the Senkaku Islands. The United States opposes any unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo. For further discussion on U.S. policy, I would of course refer you to our colleagues at the State Department but I do regret my error the other day. That was on me and I apologize for any confusion that that caused.

Okay, let's get to questions. Lita?

Q: Hi, thanks. John, a couple of questions on the strikes. Can you say whether or not there was any imminent threat coming from those facilities that were hit versus just a -- sort of a retaliatory strike against something they had?

There's been some reporting that there was trucks hit. Was it just buildings and was it, like, a weapons -- were there weapons or something there that -- for -- to prevent future attacks? And then just one quick thing on Congress -- you mentioned that there was some congressional notification. There's been some complaints that there was no congressional authorization and questions about the legality of the U.S. making a strike in Syria. Can you address that? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: So there's a lot there, Lita. I won't get into -- as I think you can imagine, I'm not going to get into specific intelligence assessments. The purpose for striking these targets was twofold -- one, clearly to -- to try to make an impact on these groups and their ability to conduct future attacks, and -- and two, to send a very clear signal that the United States is going to protect its people and it's going to protect our interests and it's going to protect those of our -- of our partners in -- in the region. So this was a -- these targets were chosen carefully, very deliberately and struck in exactly the same manner.

And I'm sorry, Lita, your second question was -- I think it was on notifications?

Q: Right, notifications to Congress. There's been some complaints that Congress was not able to provide any authorization for the strikes and questions about the legality of striking structures in Syria. Can you address that?

And I guess just jumping back to your previous comments, can you say if there were weapons at all in any of the structures that were hit? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: On the second question -- I'll try to -- not to forget now the other one -- but on -- on the issue of weapons, again, our battle damage assessment is ongoing and I don't have any more information than what I've been able to provide you today. I've -- I've gone as far as I actually can, based on what we know.

And to the degree we are able to share additional information, you know, we will but I also caution you to -- to -- to understand that there's going to be a limit to how much more information we may be able to provide.

On the legality, there -- there are -- are two frameworks here, which clearly define the legality of this strike. One is Article 2. The Commander in Chief, under Article 2, has not only the authority but the obligation to protect American forces in combat theaters and in operations -- military operations. So clearly, under his constitutional -- under U.S. constitutional authorities, this was -- this was right -- right there.

And then second, under Article 51 of the United Nations international law, it gives nations involved in operations the right of self-defense. And as I said at the very outset, this really was a defensive strike meant to help protect, in the future, American forces and coalition partners.

Given what we knew those -- those structures were used for, right there on the other side of that border, to -- to -- to provide throughput for these groups and their activities inside Iraq -- so very much was a -- a -- a defensive operation to -- to protect our troops and our coalition partners, as well as, as I said at the outset, to send a strong signal about our resolve.

Does that answer your question, Lita?

Q: Sure. I -- I -- I guess it -- you're sort of saying that it was to protect troops and throughput but you're not saying that was in any of these multitude of structures, that I think --

MR. KIRBY: So much as the detail, we're confident that these were legitimate targets that were utilized by groups associated with these recent attacks -- structures, housing, capabilities that they -- that they utilized to help perpetrate attacks on our troops and on our coalition partners in Iraq. We're confident in that. I'm not going to get into the specific intel of that.

And as for the -- again, you know, your question about were their weapons hit. Again, our battle damage assessment's ongoing. I'm just not going to get ahead of that. And to the degree we are able to provide more context, in time, when we know more, I certainly will.

Tom?

Q: Hi, John. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 17 were killed in this operation. I know you're still doing the BDA, but does that sound way off the mark from what you know right now?

And also, did you communicate at all with the Russians, did you deconflict with them before this operation?

MR. KIRBY: On the -- on the casualties, I've seen those press reports, Tom. As I said in my opening statement, we received preliminary indications of casualties on-site, but I don't have more detail right now in terms of numbers.

Q: Multiple casualties?

MR. KIRBY: We have preliminary indications of casualties on-site, I'm not going to go any further than that.

The Russians were contacted just prior to the strike, using the deconfliction mechanism that is in place. Yeah.

Dan?

Q: At what point did it become clear who was behind the rocket attack in Erbil? And -- and then how -- how long did it take you to sort of decide on the target and carry out the operation? And also were the other rocket attacks at Balad air base and in the Green Zone afterward, were those also linked to those same groups?

MR. KIRBY: Well, when we refer to -- when we refer to the justification for the strikes, we talked about recent attacks. So I'd leave it at that, but that -- certainly you can take away from that that -- this structure was hit because we know it was utilized by groups that were responsible for -- for these recent attacks, not just Erbil.

And as for the tick-tock that you're asking, I don't have that level of specificity except to say that -- and you heard the secretary talk about this last week -- that our Iraqi partners were conducting an investigation, and he said last night that some of the information they gleaned, what they learned from that certainly was of significant assistance in our ability to develop this target set.

So that process evolved over the last couple of weeks, since the attack in Erbil, when their investigative and intelligence efforts began. So it sort of was evolving over the last couple of weeks.

I don't know, I can't give you a date, certain, Dan, when you know, when all of a sudden, the -- you know, the light bulb went on and we knew, you know, this is -- this was the -- these were the groups and this is what we were going to -- what we were going to do. But I can tell you that the -- the president himself authorized this yesterday morning.

Let me go to the phones. Luis Martinez, ABC?

Q: Last night on the plane, Secretary Austin talked about the importance of having the Iraqis conduct the investigation, he talked about encouraging them to conduct this investigation. Can you talk -- can you address that, and also the level of involvement that the U.S. had in narrowing down the linkage between these militia groups and these attacks? And how much was relying on the Iraqis, and how much was relying on U.S. intelligence? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: It was very much a team effort, Luis. The secretary was very sincere when he praised our Iraqi partners for their investigative and intelligence work that they did. I won't speak for them, that wouldn't be appropriate. But -- but there was some very good work done on the -- on the intelligence side that helped lead to this -- these successful strikes.

And as I think he said, we offered support and assistance. We were able to provide some information to their investigative process that -- that helped. I won't get into the details of that, but it was -- I think it's safe to assume that while it was an Iraqi investigation, clearly, I mean, there was some assistance provided by the United States to help with the information-gathering and the intelligence assessments.

But that is not unusual, Luis. You know that throughout our mission there in Iraq, at the invitation of our Iraqi partners in this counter-ISIS effort, that sort of information-sharing is a fairly routine process between us and our Iraqi partners.

Lucas?

Q: Can you clear something up, John? The Iraqi military is saying today that they did not help in these U.S. strikes in eastern Syria, that they only help the U.S. military when it comes to striking ISIS. Who's right here?

MR. KIRBY: There's not -- I don't think there's a split here, Lucas. It is true that the -- the mission inside Iraq is a counter-ISIS effort. This mission didn't take place in Iraq, it took place in Syria. And as the secretary said last night, the Iraqis were critical, Iraqi and Kurdish partners were critical in -- in their investigative process and the things they learned and the intelligence assessments that they were able to provide to the -- to the process in terms of assisting our targeting.

Q: So when the secretary says the Iraqis were, quote, "very helpful to us," that's the investigation into the rocket attack --

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: -- not in the targeting --

MR. KIRBY: That's correct, that's correct.

Q: -- in eastern Syria?

MR. KIRBY: That is correct, yeah, thank you for clearing that up.

Nick?

Q: Can I go back to attribution? I've been told that it's been made more difficult since Soleimani and al-Muhandis' death, these groups are a little more gray in terms of who they are and their control. So can you just go into a little bit more detail on why you're so confident that these group or groups or what was behind it, and that Iran is behind those groups.

And then, following that, what is the message this strike sends to Iran?

MR. KIRBY: So, Nick, on -- this will be a fairly unsatisfactory answer. I'm not going to get into the specifics of -- of the intelligence any more than I already have. And again, I want to credit our Iraqi and Kurdish partners for some terrific intelligence work that they did to lead us to the degree of confidence that we had that these two groups were responsible.

And -- and have actually been responsible even prior to these three most recent attacks. And it's been no secret that -- that they do have ties to Iran. That's -- that's a -- I think a longstanding understanding that we -- that we have.

And I'm sorry, you had another one?

Q: And what's the message this strike sends to Iran?

MR. KIRBY: I think the strike sends a message to anyone in the region, to all adversaries in the region, people that -- organizations, people, leaders that are operating in ways that are inimical to security and stability of the region, and to our interests and to those of our partners, that we will defend ourselves, that we will protect our interests. We're certainly going to act to protect our people and our -- and the forces of our allies and partners.

That is an unambiguous, clear message to anyone in the region about what the stakes are if you're going to continue to conduct attacks on our people and the Iraqi people.

Let me go to the phones again. Idrees?

Q: Hey, John. Just wanted some clarification on the Iraqis and what role they played. So I might have misheard, but I think you said they helped sort of – with some targeting data but -- but the Iraqis say they didn't exchange any information about the targets within Syria.

So could you just again help me explain what the Iraqis exactly did with regards to the strike?

MR. KIRBY: It's that they helped with targeting data. In fact, my answer to Lucas was -- to -- quite -- quite to the opposite point. I -- I did not say that they helped with targeting. What I did say and what the Secretary said last night is that through their investigative process and through their own, good intelligent -- intelligence work, it -- it was able to help us better determine who was responsible for these attacks, what groups were responsible for these attacks, and then that helped us -- that gave us, you know, the ability to -- to do the targeting process and to determine what would be the -- the best set of targets for this particular circumstance, for these strikes.

But they -- you know, I -- I -- there -- there was -- they -- they -- they're -- they're correct when they say they did not assist in the targeting process. Kristina, good to see you.

Q: Hi, good to see you too. So two questions, one Iraq related, one non-Iraq related. First, can you explain the thinking behind striking in Syria versus Iraq, where the rocket attacks were believed to have come from?

And -- and I'll -- I'll address the second one later.

MR. KIRBY: So I think I'd worry less about the geography and more about the function, right? And these -- these -- these structures, again, we had information that -- that -- that we believe gave us confidence that the -- the -- these structures, this site, this compound -- cause all the buildings were on a single compound -- were being used by these groups to facilitate the movement of resources, material and weaponry into Iraq to conduct the attacks.

So it was really more that than -- you know, than the -- than the map. Do you have another question?

Q: Yes. The second one -- has Secretary Austin had a chance to consider the Medal of Honor nomination for Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe or has it not risen to his level yet?

MR. KIRBY: I'm going to take that question. I don't believe it is -- that that package has gotten that far in the process but I don't know that for sure so let me take that question. Dan Sagalyn on the phone?

Q: No, I'm good, Nick asked a question for us.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. I guess I should've thought of that. Sorry, Nick. Missy Ryan, Washington Post?

Q: Sorry, I had a hard time unmuting myself. Thanks, John. I just want to go back to the -- the role of these particular facilities at Abu Kamal, and I just -- I just want to make sure that I'm understanding what you're saying. You're describing these as way stations kind of that are used by these specific militias -- Kata'ib Hezbollah and Kata'ib -- the KSS -- as moving militants from where to where?

And -- and also are you saying -- are you saying that the Iraqi government didn't help the targeting but they ID'd KH and KSS as behind the Erbil attack? So I just want to make sure that I'm understanding what you're saying.

MR. KIRBY: Again, I'm loathe to get into too much more detail than what I've said thus far, Missy. It is -- what -- as we get -- back to my answer to -- Lucas, our Iraqi and Kurdish partners were helpful in helping gather the information and the intelligence which gave us the degree of confidence that these two groups were responsible for recent attacks.

And as I said at the outset on this -- on this structure, this compound, Abu Kamal, "entry control point" is -- is the way I described it, located near the Syria-Iraq border, and I think I tried to describe that as best I could, as a sort of -- a -- you know, a way for them to throughput into Iraq.

You called it a way station, I don't -- I don't think that's necessarily a -- a bad way of putting it but, I mean, we know that this compound was used by these groups to help resource and help facilitate their ability to conduct the -- these kinds of attacks in -- inside of Iraq.

And again, this is not something that I think is all that new to many of you who have covered this region for a long time, that that area of -- of Syria, it's not uncommon for -- since it is largely unpopulated, very austere environment, that -- that groups like these and in fact -- and ISIS used to significantly use that area of -- of Syria as a -- as way stations, training facilities, weapons caches, places to make possible the attacks that they were doing in Iraq. And again, I think that's a -- that's in keeping with what we understood about -- about this compound. Yeah, Joe?

Q: Thank you, John. I would like to ask you if the Pentagon is concerned about the mil-to-mil relationship with Riyadh in the aftermath of the release of the Khashoggi report by the DNI?

MR. KIRBY: I think the Secretary -- we addressed this when the Secretary -- when we offered a readout of the Secretary's call with -- with the Crown Prince. I mean -- and -- and I -- I don't -- I'm not going to speak to the specifics of this report. That's outside the lanes of the Defense Department.

But Saudi Arabia remains a strategic partner in the region. We have to be courageous enough as friends to speak candidly and -- and to make clear our concerns about the rule of law and about civil and human rights, even with friends and partners.

And I'll leave it to my State Department colleagues to -- to speak to that. From -- from a military -- military perspective, as I've said many times, we take seriously our security commitments to Saudi Arabia, with respect to their ability to defend themselves, and they do need to defend themselves, particularly along that southern border, and -- and it's important that we continue to be able to have frank and candid conversations about how that relationship should go forward.

Again, I won't speak for the broader government on this but from a military to military perspective, we recognize our commitments and those requirements and we also respect our government's right and responsibility to make clear the -- the broader context of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Abraham?

Q: Thank you. You described the -- these Syria strikes as defensive and known, so then why wait until American service members and diplomats are endangered by rockets to strike these facilities? And is the Defense Department ready to finally lay blame on Iran as ultimately responsible for these strikes?

MR. KIRBY: I -- I take issue with the premise of the question, Abraham. You said, "Why wait?" I mean, we've talked about this many times. I can't speak and I won't speak for what the previous administration did or the speed with which they acted. What I can speak for is this administration, and this administration took these attacks very seriously and wanted to make sure that if and when there was a response, it was the appropriate response and done at a time and a manner and a place of our choosing, and that is exactly what we did based on collaboration and information that we got from our Iraqi and Kurdish partners, which gave us a high degree of confidence that we were -- that we were going after the -- the right groups here.

And I -- I -- I know it may seem like this is a simple thing to do. You get hit, so you hit right back. But we wanted to be absolutely certain about what we were doing, when we were doing it and who we were doing it against. And we make no apologies for the fact that we took the time and we allowed our -- our Iraqi partners to take the time to get this right.

And then your second question was --

Q: Are you ready -- is the Department of Defense ready to -- to lay blame on Iran as ultimately responsible?

MR. KIRBY: I -- I think we have been very clear since -- since the beginning about our concerns over what Iran has been doing in the region and their malign activities, and -- and to include their support for these militia groups who continue to attack our interest and our people, as well as the other things they're doing in the region. There's been no walking back from them.

Let me go to the phone here. Lara, you had a question, Lara Seligman?

Q: Yes, I did, thank you, John. So two related questions. One, can you talk a little bit more about what other options were considered. Were -- was it discussed targeting additional facilities? And what was the reason for not going with -- for a more aggressive response? And then also, can you respond to the criticism from lawmakers, particularly from Senator Sanders about the administration interpreting War Powers authorities too broadly, and putting us on a path to continuing forever wars? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. So your first question, again, I won't get into discussing here from the podium the decision-making process and -- and the range of options that the commander-in-chief had -- had before him to choose. What I will say is, as I said at the outset, we believe that this was a deliberate and proportionate attack, a -- a strike on -- on infrastructure that we know was being utilized by the groups responsible for these recent attacks. There was a high degree of confidence that those were the right groups, and the that -- that -- that hitting this compound was -- was the right approach. There's -- but I won't get into speculating about other options that might or might not have been considered.

As for the comments about the War Powers Act and forever wars, I think President Biden has been nothing but clear, as Secretary Austin has been nothing but clear that we -- that we know we want to end these, quote/unquote, "forever wars"; and specifically, that oftentimes refers to Afghanistan, even though I know we're not talking about Afghanistan right now. I mean, they -- the -- the leadership has been very clear that it is time to do this. But it is also time to do it in a responsible and sustainable way, and it is also incumbent upon the secretary and the president, in keeping with his duties as commander-in-chief, to protect our people and to protect our allies, and this was a defensive strike that went at their ability, these groups' abilities to do just that -- to attack our -- our -- our people.

And as for the legal authorities, again Lara, I'll go back to what I said that the -- the outset: There are two primary justifications where -- where the president was well within his legal right to order these actions. One is Article II under the Constitution, his duties as commander-in-chief; and two, Article 51 of the United Nations, which makes it clear in international law that nations have the right to -- of -- of self-defense.

And then the last thing I'd say is that there was congressional notification prior to the strike, and as I also said at the outset, congressional briefings and the provision of information, including a classified briefing, will be done later this week. That's ongoing. So Congress will be kept informed as much as possible here, going -- going forward. But there was congressional notification beforehand.

Let's see -- Tony Capaccio?

Q: Hi, John. John, hi. Can you hear me?

MR. KIRBY: I can, yes, sir.

Q: Okay. I have an -- I have a non-strike question. You mentioned that Hicks was going -- that Ms. Hicks was going to go on Twitter this week. Can you talk a little bit about her February 17th memo to the services on her reviews for the '22 budget process? Does this essentially kick off the -- the '22 process for the -- for the Austin Pentagon? When does she expect these reviews to be completed? And does the memo actually constitute a -- a Hicks hit list of programs likely to be -- be reduced in the '22 plan versus the current budget plan left by the last administration?

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Tony. I -- I think you can understand I'm not going to speak to -- to internal pre-decisional documents, regardless of the fact that some of them have found them -- found themselves in the public domain, counter to what their purpose is. All I would say, Tony, is the deputy does remain, and has since literally her first day in the building, has remained focused on preparing the department's F.Y. '22 budget submission. OMB controls the timeline for that. You know that better than anybody, Tony. I'm not going to get ahead of any specifics, and I'm certainly not going to preview any details inside that budget, in terms of, you know, programmatic decisions. Just to say, again, that -- that the deputy secretary is focused on this in a very concerted way. She's already had several meetings with -- with key leaders here in the Pentagon, and I think you're going to see that energy continue here throughout the spring. And when we have something that we can speak to specifically, you know, we'll -- we'll do that. But right now, for this administration, the process is in its nascent phase, and I want to respect the secretary and the deputy -- deputy secretary's ability to make decisions on -- in their own time.

Jennae?

Q: Thanks, Mr. Kirby.

I have a question about the North Korean nuclear issues. Recently, Secretary of State Blinken has mentioned that the priority is to resolve North Korea issues as much as missile launches and also WMD, weapons of mass destruction in North Korea. Will the DOD, Department of Defense, implement a strong policy toward North Korea or will it be concerned with diplomatic support? Which one you are -- DOD is – is it?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I -- and I won't get ahead of the State Department and -- and -- and their approach. As Secretary Austin has said literally from even before he was confirmed, that he believes our job here at the Defense Department is to support the work of diplomacy, and the President's been very clear that he wants diplomats in the lead and we're supportive of that here at the Defense Department.

But North Korea's continued development of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction represents a threat to U.S. interests and the security of our allies and partners. We anticipate a review of the U.S. government's entire approach to North Korea, and of course the Department of Defense is going to support that review. We'll have a role in that, we'll have a voice in that and we'll take that seriously.

In the near time, we're going to work in close coordination with our allies and partners to seek to deter negative behavior from -- from North Korea. And, you know, as you and I have talked about many times, I mean, that -- that includes strengthening the alliance with the Republic of -- of Korea, which we believe is a linchpin of security in the region, and that also means working closely with our South Korean allies on making sure that our two militaries have the -- the capabilities and the readiness to -- to defend our interests on the -- on the peninsula.

Okay, I have time for a couple more. Yeah, Caitlin?

Q: Were the strikes -- was, like, the goal of it in terms of taking out this specific location? Was it trying to stop that capability from ever being used again? Was it trying to really set back those groups from operating or was it just -- when did you accomplish that goal?

MR. KIRBY: So the -- the battle damage assessment is ongoing but as I said in my outset, I -- I -- of the nine structures destroyed, we're pretty confident that even the ones that weren't totally destroyed are going to be extremely difficult for these groups to use again and many of them, they won't be able to use again.

So in -- but again, I don't want to get ahead of the -- the battle damage assessment. We'll learn more in coming hours and -- and days. But to your broader question -- and I -- I -- I apologize if I didn't make this clear at the outset -- but this was very much about hitting a compound, structures, facilities that we know belong to these two groups or that they used these -- that these two groups used those facilities to -- to enhance and -- and enable their operations inside Iraq.

So it very much was about taking away a capability, and now we're going to -- you know, obviously we'll see how, you know, if the -- we'll see to -- to what degree there's a reaction to that but this was a very deliberate strike on a very deliberate set of targets that we believe were valuable to these groups.

Q: Okay, and then on the -- I guess is -- what I'm getting at is, like, does -- is this a -- was this trying to just stop these facilities from being used or was this trying to be a bigger thing of really stopping the future actions of this group, like, for -- for several months, for years? Like, what was, like, I guess the overall goal? That they will never, ever be able to operate again or --

MR. KIRBY: Fair question. Look -- look, the -- it's -- I don't think anybody would argue that this compound alone is the only facility that these two groups have or have access to. Our desire was to remove it from their inventory and to send a strong message about future attacks.

Clearly we want there to be a deterrence message here, delivered straight to them, about the repercussions of going after our people and our Iraqi partners and our facilities inside Iraq. Now, we'll have to see, but that was the intent. One more. Go ahead.

Q: Do you have anything on that explosion that hit the Israeli ship in Gulf of Oman?

MR. KIRBY: I do not, no.

Q: Nothing?

MR. KIRBY: Paul Shinkman, are you on the phone still?

Q: Yeah, hi, John. Thanks for taking my call. So there's -- going back to the question about geography, there's been a lot of discussion about the strike being in Syria and not in Iraq, is that there was an intention not to give Shia militia in Iraq something to rally behind and to incite further violence.

So I suppose my -- my question is the U.S. more willing to strike these kinds of facilities in Syria than it is in Iraq? And then separately, going back to the question about informing foreign countries, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said this morning that -- I think he said that Russia was given four minutes notice before this attack took place and that that was negligible, given that -- I think his phrasing was that the strike was already in the air and that that would endanger it. Do you have any response to that?

MR. KIRBY: On the first question, again, I -- I -- as I've said before, we believe this target set was relevant to -- to damaging these groups' abilities to operate in -- inside Iraq, and I won't speculate at all about future operations or future decisions with respect to protecting our -- our troops and our people in Iraq. I just won't go there.

We are confident that this was a -- a -- a purposeful set of targets that -- that did -- to Caitlin’s question, accomplish two things -- removed those facilities from their ability to use them as a way station, as an entry point, if you will, in -- into Iraq, and -- and clearly to send a very strong message about how we take the attacks on our people -- how seriously we take the attacks on our people and -- and Iraqi partners, and I'll just leave it at that.

And as for Foreign Minister Lavrov, I won't get into the specifics of exactly the -- the timing that was involved here but I'm -- I'm grateful to see that the Foreign Minister confirmed what I've been saying for the last couple of hours, that they were, in fact, informed through the deconfliction channel. So I'm grateful that -- that he was willing to confirm that.

And again, we did what we believe were the proper amount of notification before this, and I think I can -- you know, without getting into the details, it shouldn't come as a shock to anybody that we're going to -- we're going to do what we have to do to notify but we're also going to do what we have to do to protect our -- our forces, and in -- in this particular case, the air forces that were conducting this strike. There's a -- a matter of operational security that we take very seriously.

Okay, thanks, everybody.

Q: John, does Iran --

MR. KIRBY: You always get the last one, you always jump in right at the end.

Q: John, does Iran control the militias that you hit last night?

MR. KIRBY: We know that these groups have been and continue to be supported outside -- out of Iran.

Q: And what is the definition of extremism?

MR. KIRBY: Oh my goodness, Lucas.

(Laughter.)

Let's -- let's have this -- let's -- come to my office later today and we'll have a conversation about that. All right, thanks, everybody. Have a good weekend.

Q: Have a good weekend.