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Pentagon Press Secretary Holds an Off-Camera Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Okay, three, two, one. 

I don't have a topper, so Bob, we'll go to you.

Q:  Hi, John.

MR. KIRBY:  Hello, sir.

Q:  A question about the recent blockage of the Suez Canal.  I realize that's ended now but -- and I don't know if this is -- you've reviewed this previously but is -- has -- did it cause any operational issues for the U.S. Navy, including the movement of a carrier from the Med to the CENTCOM area?

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, Bob, we talked about this a little bit yesterday.  I'm -- I'm not going to speak to specific operational impacts.  The only thing that I would add is that -- what I said yesterday, is that we always have – as a part of routine planning, we always have alternate methods and means of meeting mission requirements and -- and we're comfortable that -- that the forces assigned in both European Command and -- and Central Command have been able to meet their mission requirements.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Okay.  In here?  Lara?

QUESTION:  Yeah, I know you guys just had your extremism training, so I'm wondering if you could tell us anything about that?

MR. KIRBY:  We -- we did.  The -- the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, we -- we just completed our extremism stand down.  I -- you know, only speaking for our world and the -- what -- and -- and not -- and not the department writ large, we -- I just finished -- we just wrapped up literally a half an hour ago.

We -- we had some terrific guest speakers, somebody from the FBI and somebody from our intelligence directorate here at -- at -- at the Pentagon who did terrific presentations about the scope of the issue and the reality of the threat, outside and inside the workforce, and that led to some, I think, very good questions by the people in my workforce, asking more detailed questions about what -- what these experts had to say.

Then we broke up into four small groups and -- different parts of my organization, where they were able to have more intimate discussions with their immediate leadership about their experiences and their thoughts.  I was able to migrate to all four small groups and I was impressed by the candor of the session, the forthcoming nature with which people spoke about the -- their -- their views on this issue and -- and some of the experiences that -- that -- that they had with extremists over the course of -- of their years of service.

So I was quite pleased with the level of engagement, very grateful for the experts that were giving -- so freely gave up their time to -- to come speak to us about their area of expertise, and it was -- I think it was -- it was a great learning experience.

Q:  But was it part of the stand down that DOD is doing?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.

Q:  Okay.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  Okay, let's see.  We'll go to Jeff Schogol.  What do you got?

Q:  Hey, thanks for doing this.  There's only 32 days left until May 1st, and I just wanted to see, is that enough time to get all of the troops and equipment out of Afghanistan if the -- if the President decides to withdraw?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, the -- the key point -- key part to your question, Jeff, is the "if."  The President hasn't made a decision, so we're obviously not going to get ahead of him on that.  He -- I would point you to what the Secretary -- oh, sorry, what the President said himself, that -- you know, that -- that it would be tough but I would also point you to what the Secretary said when we were in Kabul a week or so ago, that -- that if there's a decision to leave, that he's confident that General Miller and General -- General McKenzie will be able to do that in a safe, effective and -- and orderly way.

Q:  Well, at this point, would that require destroying equipment rather than trying to take it out of country?

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, Jeff, I just -- I'm not -- you know, we don't have a decision right now, and so I'm -- I'm not going to engage hypotheticals or speculate about what a withdrawal is going to look like. 

In the room, Mike -- Meghann?  See?  I went right to you this time.

Q:  Listen, I've not heard about it so it's okay.  So I wanted to ask if in your stand down, anything -- any kind of pushback came up, questions about what's considered extremism, what kind of groups and ideologies are considered extremism?

And I ask because I'm wondering if after this, after the review, after the feedback that's collected, if there's going to be a push to put out an instruction, some sort of guideline that has more clear delineation of we know you can -- but at this time, at least, it seems like you can belong but you can't be an active member, there are questions about, like, is being MAGA considered, you know, an -- a -- a -- a extremism, like, is Black Lives Matter an extremist movement?  And so I think there's going to be a lot of -- you know, there's a lot of desire for a more clear delineation, so I'm wondering where you guys are with collecting what -- how you're going to put that definition together and what it may look like when you've completed it.

MR. KIRBY:  Well, -- so I -- as I said, we're going to be informed by the stand down across the force.  That will help inform the direction the Secretary wants to go.  I don't want to get ahead of him on this but I do think you'll see, as -- after this stand down, I think you will see the Secretary make some decisions about how he wants to approach this going forward.

It is, as he has said -- and I suspect no matter what he decides to do, you'll see this reinforced for him -- it's going to be a daily task.  It's not going to be -- and we never thought the stand down would be one and done -- he wants this to be considered a -- an ongoing, enduring leadership issue, and I think you'll see that reflected in whatever decisions he makes -- and again, I won't get ahead of that.

I didn't sense any pushback from the folks in our stand down about the definition of what is or isn't and maybe that was because one of our briefer, our FBI briefer, had -- provided some very good structure about what they consider to be extremism and broken down into various categories.  I found that very interesting.

So, that might be why, I can't speak for every employee, but I didn't sense any anxiety or angst over the definition of it.  And again, we'll get on the other side of this stand down.  The secretary will get feedback from the services and then I think you'll see more clarity from the department on how we're going to proceed. 

OK, Missy, Washington Post.

Q:  Hi John.  I just have a follow-up on the extremism question and then a question about the -- a nomination question.  So on the -- on the extremism thing there was a recent hearing on this and I -- and there was skepticism expressed by some Republicans about how much focus there should be on the issue of domestic extremism in the military, especially because as the department has acknowledged you guys don't have great stats on how widespread the issue is.  And I just wanted to ask if you could address that notion or that concern.

And then it -- has the secretary done anymore outreach regarding the Colin Kahl nomination?  Since we heard about his conversations a while ago before the committee vote.

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not sure I understood your first question. 

Q:  The first question is, some Republicans in Congress, with the hearing last week and they were saying why is the Defense Department -- why are we talking about this issue?  Why are we making this sound like it's a big problem when the department itself doesn't have data to confirm that it is a widespread problem, so we should look at other issues.  That's the criticism of --

MR. KIRBY:  Oh, I gotcha.  OK, I'm tracking you.  On the -- on the second question I'm not aware of any additional outreach by the secretary with respect to Colin Kahl.  We were pleased to see him voted out of committee and we're certainly hopeful and look forward to his ultimate confirmation and to getting him here in the building.  He's an imminently qualified individual with significant and deep policy experience and the secretary looks forwards to working with him. 

On you first question, it is precisely because we don't have a complete granular body of knowledge about the full extent of the problem that we wanted to conduct this stand down and why the secretary wants to take the issue so seriously.  I don't know that you have to have a specific set of data in front of you to know enough that you've got a problem.  

And as the secretary said himself, the scope of the problem is probably less than the headlines would suggest and certainly more than we're going to find ourselves comfortable with.  It's somewhere in between and we owe it to the country, the tax payers that fund us and support us to get a better sense of this.

We've also said and -- actually not we -- the secretary has said, every time he talks about this, that the vast majority and I think he's used the phrase 99.9 percent in his mind are serving this country, whether they're military or civilian, contractor or in uniform, they're serving this country with honor and character and dignity and they uphold the values that we espouse.  They certainly uphold their oath to the Constitution. 

Nobody has suggested that this problem is widespread across the force.  We -- while we don't have perfect data we know that it isn't.  That said, even small numbers can have an outsized impact and that's what concerns us. 

So, we're taking this seriously, but we also do it with a view towards understanding that the vast, vast majority of men and women in this department are serving with honor and character.


Q:  One on extremism, a follow-up and a different subject.  You had the briefing in this room, right?  Right here in the briefing room?

MR. KIRBY:  I had -- yes.  For some.  Maybe not everybody could do it.  We had to have some on --

Q:  (Inaudible) occur here.  And since this is not a classified space I want to make the request, could the Press Corps get the same briefing from the two people you had that you speak so highly of that have a top level view of the problem?  Can we request --

MR. KIRBY:  I can ask them if they'd be willing to talk to you.  The briefings they gave were not classified, obviously. 

Q:  I'll be the one to say on behalf of the whole Press Corps, can we get --

MR. KIRBY:  I will ask them if they'd be will to speak to you about what -- about their expertise.  I have no problem asking that question.  But, I can't make them do it.

Q:  No, but what they briefed you on.  No, it's just -- I don't want to hear about their expertise.  I'm assuming that --

MR. KIRBY:  No, I understand the question.  I'll ask.

Q:  Did they -- did they offer a list of extremist organizations?  Is it just specific organizations?

MR. KIRBY:  They had some examples.  But did they offer an exhaustive list?  No.

Q:  All right.  So, I'd like to request we get the same briefing.  The other question --

MR. KIRBY:  Barbara, just -- I will ask the question, but to remind, one of the briefers was from the FBI and I can't speak for that organization.  And the other one, although it's a Pentagon office, I would have to secure their agreement to do this.

Q:  Right.  I'm just asking.

MR. KIRBY:  Right. 

Q:  (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY:  I will ask the question.

Q:  Right.  I endorse what I just said.  My -- but my actual question is this.  I wanted to just make sure I asked about Myanmar.  We've seen the international letter from maybe 9, 10 Chiefs of Defense staff condemning military action there.  The situation's pretty dire.  I understand the departure -- order departure or voluntary departure of America is a State Department issue, I fully understand that.  What I'm curious about is in this department are you -- what level of concern or what concerns are there about the security situation that you might have to be ready for if there is any sort of departure of Americans?

MR. KIRBY:  Well so you're right, that's an if.  And that's a decision that the State Department makes.  I certainly won't get ahead of --

Q:  And you plan for everything.

MR. KIRBY:  I think, look, in general I would point you to the letter that these Chiefs of Defense, including our own, General Mark Milley, wrote that I think speaks to the concern that we all have here about the security situation in Burma. 

I won't speculate about potential future operations one way or the other and I certainly won't speak to State Department equities with respect to the presence of their personnel or other American citizens on the ground.  That's really a -- that's a decision for them and only they can make.  And so, I think you realize that we -- in terms of this department I mean I'm not aware of any specific planning efforts one way or the other.

Q:  And can I just also ask, quick update - the SOCOM diversity chief, is he - they tell us he's been reassigned but since the Secretary's being kept up to date on that situation, any update on the status of that?

MR. KIRBY:  No, I don't have any update.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Yep.  OK, Caitlin Kenney, Stars and Stripes?

Q:  Hello.  My question is when is DOD going to release its current vaccination numbers and rates for each installation?  I know some of us have been waiting to see that data.  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah, we're working real hard, as I've said before, to get you guys some more granular data on that.  I - I don't have a specific date certain that I can guarantee its release but we're - we're getting there, we're working real hard on it, and I - I think we'll be able to, you know, post more - be able to post more data in - in coming days, but I - I just don't have a - I couldn't give you a date certain on the calendar.

Q:  A quick follow up, can you, I guess, explain kind of how that data is collected and then, like, what is kind of behind the scenes on, why it's kind of taking a little bit longer, just so that we have an understanding?  Thanks.

MR. KIRBY:  I - I - I can't tell you how it's collected.  I'd - I'd really have to point you to the experts on the COVID task force in terms of specifically, you know, the - the - the pencil work that goes into getting it.  What we're trying to do is get you more granularity from a - a service level.  So I would suspect that that - the - the data we're talking about is coming from the - the services.

And as for, you know - you know, what - what's taking this a while is we want to make sure we get it right.  We just want to make sure that if we're going to roll out more data for you, that it's data you can rely on, in a format that's easy to understand and to comprehend and that's useful, and, you know, we're still working on that. 


Q:  Representative Charlie Crist has introduced legislation to make the commandant for the Coast Guard a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Is that being discussed or planned at all here?  And more importantly, is the table big enough, since you keep adding people to it, like, every couple of years?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't know the size of the table in the - in the tank.  I'm - and I won't - I won't speculate about proposed legislation.  I've seen the press reports of it but we're not going to get ahead of proposed legislation. 


Q:  Yeah, thanks.  I've got two questions - like, update questions and then a - something specific about the extremism stand down.  Anything new to report on the HHS request for site visits?  Anything new to report on the requests when General VanHerck was here and he mentioned that there was a request out from DHS to DOD to - to extend the border support?  So is there anything updating either of those two outstanding requests?

MR. KIRBY:  As far as I know, there was an additional site visit to Camp Roberts, which is a National Guard base in central California, for the potential use of the federal part of the land of that - of that site.  I don't know how that site visit went or whether or not our HHS colleagues are inclined to want to use it, so I won't get ahead of that.

We - I can tell you that we don't have - as of right now, we don't have a request for assistance for additional sites from HHS.  I - I - I think we are prepared at Bliss to receive - they are prepared to receive, at Fort Bliss, some number of children, as perhaps early as today.  I would again refer you to HHS for specifics about that but that's my understanding, that - that HHS is - that - and - and - and Fort Bliss is prepared but again, this is an HHS mission - mission, so I'd ask you to talk to them for more details.

On your second question - was that about the border mission?

Q:  Right.

MR. KIRBY:  Well - well ...

Q:  When General VanHerck was here, he mentioned that there was an outstanding request from DHS to - to extend that mission, which expires at the end of the fiscal year.

MR. KIRBY:  I - I don't have any updates on that.

Q:  OK, and then I ...

MR. KIRBY:  I - I can actually - we can take that question, though.  I think that's a fair question.

Q:  And then on the extremism stand down, just so I understand sort of how this works - across the whole force, the request went out to just sort of have a discussion, right, but no data was collected and passed to DOD, to Secretary Austin?

And then Secretary Austin's going to be briefed from the service secretaries and then the - no data has been collected.  And then will there be data collected or what's the next step?

MR. KIRBY:  Abraham, I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of what the stand down was inclined - was intended to do - is not - it - it - it was not, and as I stood here at the podium and briefed - it - it - it was not a data collection exercise, it was meant to do two things - to reinforce our values, and specifically the importance of the oath that everyone takes here to the Constitution and what that oath requires of you.  There are active verbs in that oath that matter - and it was - it was - it was a - it was a chance to revisit what we've all promised to do and what we've all promised to serve.

And then number two, to listen, to get a sense from the men and women of the work force about how they view this issue, if they have any lived experiences that they would be willing to share, and to - to solicit their ideas and thoughts.  That is exactly how we conducted our stand down today, it was exactly that.

In addition to our two speakers, we did have a small session dedicated just to the oath and - and - and a chance to revisit those words, as the Secretary encouraged everybody to do in that video that he produced.  So it was not a data collection exercise.

And as I said and have said many times, we - we don't have perfect understanding of the scope of it but I - I think we want to get a better sense of it.  And the stand down was just the first step in doing that, and we've said that before too - it's just a first step.  Not meant to be a panacea, not meant to solve all of the problems, just to reorient everybody to the importance of service to this country in the Defense Department and a chance to listen to them.

Q:  So does the secretary have next steps in mind?

MR. KIRBY:  As I said to Meghann, I'm not going to get ahead of the secretary.  The - he - he will get briefed by the services on their view of the stand down and feedback that they - that - that they received and that they're willing to pass on to him, and then I think, as I've said, he's going to make this a concerted leadership issue every day that he's the Secretary. 

How that manifests itself, what decisions he might make as a result of what we're learning, I'm not - I'm - I'm not going to get ahead of, but I do think you'll hear more from him in - in coming days and weeks.

Q:  Great, thanks.

MR. KIRBY:  Yep.  Let's see - Jeff Seldin, VOA?

Q:  Thanks very much for doing this.  The SDF is now about three days into a - what seems to be a pretty massive operation to try to suppress and root out ISIS in the al-Hol displaced persons camp.  Wondering if - if you could share anything about what the U.S. and what U.S. forces are doing to support that operation, and also how worrisome is it?  The SDF says that they've already captured 53 suspected ISIS operatives, five cell leaders.  How - how worrisome is it that ISIS was able to establish that type of presence in al-Hawl, in an area controlled by the SDF - SDF, with the help of the coalition?

MR. KIRBY:  Well you're right, the Syrian Democratic forces did initiate an operation over the weekend to degrade and disrupt ISIS activities inside the Al-Hawl IDP Camp.  That operation is ongoing. As of Sunday, there were nine individuals, including one ISIS leader detained by the SDF.

As it is an ongoing operation that the SDF is conducting, I am not going to speak to the specific details of it, except to say that, again, the purpose of the operation is to remove ISIS elements from Al-Hawl in order to bolster the safety and security of the camp as has been recently advocated. 

I would remind that in this year alone, 2021, more than 40 residents of the Al-Hawl Camp have been murdered, so maintaining security in and around Al-Hawl remains essential to facilitating humanitarian access and safeguarding innocent civilians that are there.  So, I think that's about as far as I'm going to be able to go on that.

OK, here in the room.  Lara, again?

Q:  Yes, I wanted to ask about Afghanistan.  I just wanted to get you on the record again.  Are the Taliban meeting their commitments to the deal?

MR. KIRBY:  We are still reviewing the Doha Agreement, which includes reviewing compliance.

Q:  Because in January you said that they were not meeting.

MR. KIRBY:  We are still reviewing the Doha Agreement and that includes examining compliance. 

Q:  So you’re not willing to say what you said in January?

MR. KIRBY:  I'll just ping back to what I just said. 

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  Looks like I got more here on the page than I have in the room. 


Q:  Hi John.  I had a couple of Secretary Austin questions.  Does he have any plans in the works to have a full conversation with his PLA counterpart, the Minister of National Defense?  And I have a follow-up. 

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have any discussions to announce and speak to at this time.

Q:  Can you take it for the record in terms of whether he's planning or trying to schedule a trip -- to schedule a call?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have anything to speak to at this time, Tony.

Q:  OK.  On the FY'22 budget, how would you describe his role in the preparation of it?  Is he fairly hands-on, hands-off until he gets a full briefing?  Or how would you describe it?  His role.

MR. KIRBY:  He's been -- he's been kept briefed and apprised of budget preparations that the Deputy Secretary has been leading.

Q:  OK.  Is there any particular program or area he's focused on?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to get ahead of specifics on the various programs in the budget, Tony.  We'll have much to say that when it's the appropriate time.

Q:  Fair enough.  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  OK.  Nothing in here.  OK, Kristina Wong, Breitbart.

Q:  Hey, thanks for doing this.  Great to join you by Zoom.  On COVID, some soldiers and family members have reached out, saying that they're concerned that there's been (inaudible) can't visit the DFAC or gyms on their installation without showing their vaccine card. 

So, I guess they're upset because they say the vaccines are not mandatory and they feel that they're getting forced or pressured to get it.  Otherwise they can't visit the gym or the DFAC or whatever. 

So, my question would be, what do you tell those folks who don't to get the vaccine but feel that they're being sort of unfairly pressured to, otherwise they can't use base services?  And is this a DOD policy or is this sort of installation specific? 

MR. KIRBY:  Kristina, this is the first I've heard of this.  And so, I can assure there's no DOD wide policy governing that.  I would point you to the individual installation commanders to speak to their -- their policies.  This is the first I've heard of that.

But more broadly, what I would say to the men and women of the workforce, what the secretary has said is, that he wants them to be as informed as possible about the safety and efficacy of these vaccines, and to speak with their physicians about what's the right decision for them and for their health, and for the health of their families and, quite frankly, for the health of their teammates.

Q:  Yes, thanks.  I think -- I think some of them are -- are also expressing some concerns about not being able to deploy without getting the vaccine, which I think you've discussed before is -- is a policy, right?

MR. KIRBY:  I -- I'd have to look at the specifics on that. 

Q:  Probably need to.  OK.

MR. KIRBY:  No, I -- I would need --  I'd need to look at that.  I -- I -- I -- I'm -- you know, let me get back to you on that one.

Q:  OK, thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Thank you. 

Aaron Mehta?

Q:  Hey, thanks, John.  So today is the three-month anniversary of the last time any nominees for top politically-appointed, Senate-confirmed jobs were announced.  Those obviously, Deputy Hicks and Colin Kahl.  So a few things on this:  first, are you expecting nominees to be announced in the next couple of weeks?  Two, has the secretary reviewed potential nominees and given his feedback to the White House?  And just more broadly, is there any concern that the slow pace of getting these nominees announced is going to cause people to drop out of consideration for jobs?

MR. KIRBY:  So there's a lot there, Aaron.  I -- I would say that the department continues to work with administration officials to identify for nomination talented individuals for these vacant jobs.  We very much understand the importance of filling these national security jobs with professionals fully qualified, able and willing to do the task.  There -- we -- we -- we understand the importance to national security of these -- of these jobs.

That said, I would tell you that of the approximately 350 appointee jobs here at the -- the department, we have to date filled about 97.  I just checked this morning -- 97 of the 350 or so.  Obviously, that there -- there is more work to be done, and we -- and we recognize that.  But we are focused first and foremost on identifying and nominating the -- the best, the most talented and most qualified people for these jobs, and not necessarily fixated on a predetermined timeline of how to do that.

And the last thing I'd say, Aaron, is that -- and you know this.  I mean, the -- the -- the nomination process does -- does not belong to us.  It belongs to the president of the United States, and -- and we respect that.  Our job is to -- is to help the -- the administration identify these individuals and recommend for nomination, but the nomination process is -- is done out of the White House.

I think I've got one more, and that's Dan De Luce.

Q:  Hey, thanks.  Just a couple of questions.  Do you have anything more on what the U.S. military is doing to help the government of Mozambique after that attack?  Obviously, there's some small-scale training that's been going on there, but I'm wondering if the U.S. is in discussions with the government there, or -- or offering any -- any assistance or support.

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not aware of any specific offer or request for support.  As I said yesterday, we remain committed to working together with the government of Mozambique to counter terrorism and violent extremism.  The training that you suggested is -- is a routine counterterrorism training, and is not related to the -- the events in Cabo Delgado.

Q:  And then separately, the -- China -- Chinese, the military's flown 20 aircraft into the air defense zone on Friday around Taiwan.  They flew eight more aircraft, I think, on Monday.  What's the department's view of -- of this activity there?

MR. KIRBY:  The -- the -- sorry.  The overflying of what?

Q:  China has been flying military aircraft into the air identification -- air defense identification zone around Taiwan, and 20, it was -- on Friday, it was 20 aircraft, and yesterday it was, I think, about eight, you know, fighter jets and other military aircraft, and I'm just wondering what the department's view of this pattern of activity...

MR. KIRBY:  This is not activity that we haven't seen before, Dan, and -- and I think we need to, you know, be mindful of that.  Again, nothing is changed about our commitment to aiding Taiwan in its self-defense.  I think that's about as far as I'd go on that today.

OK, thanks, everybody.