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Pentagon Press Secretary Holds an Off-Camera Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: All right just a couple things to top with then we'll get at it. Earlier today I think you saw our readout, the secretary spoke again with Israeli Minister of Defense Benjamin -- Benny Gantz. The secretary underscored his continued support for Israel's right to defend itself, reviewed assessments of Israel's military campaign in Gaza and urged de-escalation of the conflict. 

Also today the secretary co-chaired the fourth North American Defense Ministerial Meeting hosted by Canadian Minister of National Defense Harjit Sajjan -- I'm sorry Sajjin. This ministerial meeting is the defense component of North American regional cooperation efforts along with his Mexican co-chair Secretary of National Defense Luis Cresencio Sandoval Gonzalez and the Secretary of the Navy Admiral Jose Rafael Ojeda Duran.

The secretary and Minister Sajjan noted the increasing importance in institutionalization of the trilateral defense framework especially in light of the challenges presented by COVID-19. 

Lastly, as you may have already heard, the retired Army Colonel Ralph Puckett, Jr. will receive the Medal of Honor from President Biden at a White House ceremony on Friday. 

President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea will join in this ceremony. Colonel Puckett will be awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless and heroic combat actions with the 8th Army Ranger Company at Hill 205 Southeast of Onsong, Korea, on November 25 to 26, 1950. For his actions Puckett was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross on March 5, 1951. Now 70 years later that award is being upgraded to the Medal of Honor.

And with that I'll take questions. 

It looks like, Bob you're on the phone.

Q: Yes, thanks John. Regarding the phone call between Secretary Austin and Minister Gantz, you said that Secretary Austin had urged de-escalation. Did he specifically urge a ceasefire? And also, given that he had just spoken to him the previous day was -- has there been some new development -- had there been some new development that caused him to call again? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: That spurred the phone call, Bob?

Q: Yes.

MR. KIRBY: And I won't get into more detail than what I gave in the read-out. But clearly the secretary maintained again today that we want to see a de-escalation, we want to see the violence come to a close. That the secretary shares the sentiments that you saw expressed by the president and the read-out that the White House offered after the president's call with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And certainly the secretary expressed again our deep concerns over the loss of innocent lives.

Did you have a second question, Bob?

Q: Yes, well did the secretary come away with the idea that this -- there will be no immanent de-escalation? 

MR. KIRBY: Again, I don't want to speculate or get ahead of things. That's really for the Israeli Defense Forces to speak to. But again, he reiterated our concern over these civilian lives lost and wounded. And urged a de-escalation of the tensions and the -- and the conflict as soon as possible.

MR. KIRBY: Yes. Here. 

Q: Thank you. Does the secretary believe that Israel achieved its goals by degrading the rockets launcher of Hamas, hit enough tunnels, then there is a deterrence or at least a period of calm that's going to come, then we have to stop this? 

MR. KIRBY: Yes. It's not our place to assess their military operations. That's really for the Israeli Defense Forces to speak to. The -- Minister Gantz did provide the Secretary his assessment but I'll leave it to Minister Gantz and his staff to -- to speak to details on that. 

Q: In other words, if you don't mind, John. If -- if we assess that they achieved their goals, then calm is coming, then it's OK, but if we still believe that Hamas is -- still has rockets and still able to attack Israel, as -- as if we are saying that it's OK to live with this continuous danger?

MR. KIRBY: Nobody, Pierre, is saying it's OK, the -- to live with the -- to have -- to have, you know, the -- the violence continue, and I think, again, that was the message that the Secretary conveyed again today. We want to see the -- the conflict end.

Q: ... That’s why I called it threat, not only the violence.

MR. KIRBY: That's why you called it what?

Q: ... It’s a threat -- I mean, with Hamas having 15,000 rockets -- that's an estimate -- then at any time, this whole cycle is going to come back, if there is no solution.

MR. KIRBY: Well, certainly we don't believe that violent conflict there is in anybody's interests, and we've said -- to your point about Hamas and rockets, we said that -- and continue to say again today that we recognize Israel's right to defend itself and its citizens against these threats, which obviously are still persistent, but we also would like to see the violence come to an end, the tensions to de-escalate, and, you know, the loss of innocent life to -- to stop, OK?

Q: Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: I lost my list. John Ismay from New York Times?

Q: Yes, Mr. Kirby, does Secretary Austin believe that the Al-Jalaa office building in Gaza was a legitimate military target that was properly attacked by Israeli forces, in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict?

MR. KIRBY: John, I'm not going to get into an -- an -- an assessment of that kind in -- in this forum and I'm certainly not going to speak to intelligence matters, that’s something the Israelis will have to speak to, and I think I'll leave it at that.

Q: Well, do you expect that the Golden Sentry Program at the Defense Security Cooperation Agency will be investigating possible end use violations? That's certainly a DOD role and function.

MR. KIRBY: I’m not aware of any such investigation. Yeah, Richard?

Q: Yeah, Admiral, I was going to ask -- Senator Peters today sent a letter to Secretary Austin. It's about the bad paper discharge reviews, and talking about logjams and what's holding it up. I'm understanding you may not have received it yet but nevertheless, this goes to a -- a longstanding issue. 

There was a law passed in 2017 that -- there was supposed to be reviews for those who could show that they were -- they were suffering from PTSD or TBI when they received other than honorable. There are class action suits on this.

The question, then, is -- you know, is Secretary Austin aware of this? Is he in contact with the -- the discharge review boards or the – of the various services to see where they stand? And Senator Peters is asking lots -- lots of nuts and bolts -- how many reviews have you received, how long are they taking, this sort of thing. So does -- is the Secretary aware of this?

MR. KIRBY: I'll have to take your question, Richard. Let me -- let me take it and see if I can get back to you on that. Jeff Schogol?

Q: Thank you. CBS recently ... 

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, you still there?

Q: ... recently did a -- an episode (inaudible) aliens. Hello?

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, I -- I lost you at "aliens." Actually, I lost -- "aliens" is when you came back in, so you're going to have to -- if you could, repeat your question again.

Q: Sure. 60 Minutes did an episode of unexplained aerial phenomenon. I just wanted to make sure -- well, let's talk brass tacks. Are these things aliens?


MR. KIRBY: Jeff, I -- I think you know that -- you know, that we're -- we take reports of incursions, whether they're by known aircraft or unidentified aerial phenomenon, very seriously, and the safety and security of our personnel and of our operations that they remain paramount.

So to protect our people, maintain those operations and safeguard intelligence methods, we're -- we don't publicly discuss the details of these unexplained aerial phenomenon observations or the examinations of the UAP Task Force.

We did establish that task force to gain some knowledge and insight into the nature and origins of these incursions into our training ranges and designated airspaces but -- but we're not going to get into more detail than that. 


Do you have a question, Mike?

Q: Yes, sir.

MR. KIRBY: Go ahead.

Q: On a less happy note, this -- I wanted to talk about this letter. (Inaudible) from Mike Rogers, the top -- top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee and a bunch of other Republicans who are saying they're concerned about this appearance of political bias within the Department of Defense.

I know you've said that there is no purge of conservatives within the military going on now but it -- I mean, if you look at some of these examples, like Colonel Lohmeyer for the Space Force and the chaplain who got this career-ending letter of reprimand -- I think Army Times wrote about it -- is -- are -- are subordinate commanders reading the tea leaves and knowing how the sort of -- the -- the -- the inclination of this administration and, you know, dropping the hammer on some of these people for things that would not have been, you know, questioned or, you know, been that controversial in the past?

MR. KIRBY: There's no tea leaves to read, Mike, and there's no effort by senior Defense Department leadership to -- to purge people from the service, based on their political or religious beliefs. So there's -- there's no tea leaves to read.

And the -- the Secretary leads the department, a -- a department that he grew up in and knows is, by its very nature, an apolitical institution, and he's -- he's making decisions based on his sound judgment and years of experience in the -- in the military and not through any kind of partisan or political lens. 

Jeff Seldin, VOA.

Q: Hey John, thanks for doing this. Two questions, one Afghanistan, and one on Israel, let me ask the Israel one first. Is the Pentagon concerned at all by what you're seeing from Hamas and its capabilities, and what that might mean for Iranian involvements with Hamas and in the region? And then I'll ask the one on Afghanistan after. 

MR. KIRBY: I mean, we -- separate and distinct from what you're seeing over the last days here in Gaza. I mean, we're mindful of the threat that Hamas continues to pose in the region, and of the support they've -- they get from other actors in the region and their capabilities, and -- and the potential there is -- is not insignificant, so we are -- we're certainly -- we're certainly mindful of the threat that that Hamas poses. 

Q: Thanks, and then Afghanistan, with the updates we've been getting, it seems like every time the percentage in terms of the completion almost doubles. I'm wondering is that something you expect will be sustained and the pace will continue like that, or is the -- are you expecting that the withdrawal may be completing much sooner than September?

MR. KIRBY: It's a great question. So let me -- I'll break it down in a couple of ways. First of all, as I said yesterday and is true today is that the retrograde does continue apace. The president's orders were very clear that he wants the retrograde completed by early September. I won't get ahead of a process here. That's the mandate, and we know we have to achieve that. 

So we're -- we're focused on making sure that we meet that deadline, at the -- at the very -- at the very least, and again, things are going at pace. So I can't -- I can't predict what next week's update from CENTCOM is going to look like that. You're right, I think they said they're up two -- , I think they gave a range, but it was up to 20 percent complete yesterday. 

We'll see what -- what happens over the next five, six days and what they end up reporting next -- next Tuesday. I'd be careful to extrapolate, you know, one week to the next in terms of well they, you know, they went from 3 to 5, 3 to 6 percent from then to, you know, up to 20 percent and sort of, you know, trying to extrapolate that next week will be the same amount accomplished because obviously events are dynamic there. 

And the retrograde plan itself, while it is timed out and fazed and deliberate, is affected not only by what's going on the ground but affected by weather and -- and all manner of other factors that -- that we have to figure into military planning, so I -- I don't know that it's a linear extrapolation going forward. 

I -- I do think that as we get closer to the -- as we get closer to the end of the retrograde, you should expect that we're going to be even more circumspect than we already are about the kind of information we're to be able to provide because as the capabilities in Afghanistan dwindle, the kenetic capabilities that we have dwindle. 

In order to maintain force protection, you know, we're going to have to be very mindful about preserving our freedom of -- of maneuver and freedom of operation. So I guess what I'm trying to tell you is that -- that I -- I can't predict that the kinds of updates you're going to be getting in out weeks is going to look exactly like what you're getting now. 

So not only are the number's not linear, but the kinds of information that we will be able to provide you might change over time. And I think you can all understand that in the -- in the -- in the -- in the realm of operational security. That was a very long answer, but it was a very good question and I hope that I tackled it. Is was on the phone, right? Is anybody here? 

Yes, Oren.

Q: We've seen -- back in the Middle East, we've seen some incidents on the Lebanese border and -- and I think one on the Syrian border as well. How great is the concern that the Israel Gaza fighting spreads wider in the region, and does that appear imminent?

MR. KIRBY: I won't -- I can't speculate about whether it appears imminent, but clearly we don't -- it's in nobody's interest. We don't want to see the conflict expand or -- or get more intense, either in and around Gaza or elsewhere in the region. 

Q: Any request from Israel for more ammunition as there was in 2014?

MR. KIRBY: No. Okay, Sylvie?

Q: Hello. Hello, John. I have a -- I would like to go back to the call to the Israeli defense minister. The readout says that the secretary reviewed assessments of Israel military campaign, and you urge de-escalation. Does it mean that the secretary, after reviewing assessments, came to the conclusion that Israel has reached his military objective in Gaza and should now stop? 

MR. KIRBY: As I said before, Sylvie, we'll let -- we'll let the Israeli defense forces speak to their assessments of their progress. We don't speak for other militaries. And yes, they're -- the readout said that, but what -- what we were trying to convey is that -- that Minister Gantz reviewed his assessments with -- with Secretary Austin. 

Secretary Austin was in the receive mode of -- of what Mr. Gantz was saying about how -- how it was progressing and -- and getting his assessment of -- of how well they believe that they're meeting their objectives. And again, I won't speak to that. That's for them speak to. 

Q: Okay, thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Thanks. Yes, Abraham.

Q: Okay. So looking ahead to the -- to the Moon Summit, Korea, Secretary Austin has already visited Korea, he's already expressed sort of his hopes to strengthen that alliance. I wonder if you could speak a little bit to -- if he's going to be participating in the summit as well, right. 

So I wonder if you could speak a little bit to what are his hopes for training and readiness of U.S. forces in Korea and restoring full training to the level before the Trump administration change scaled down? And also what are his hopes for Korea acting to -- as other allies in the region to deter Chinese aggression? 

MR. KIRBY: Two very different questions. So you heard him talk about this when we were in Seoul, the -- the -- the training and readiness of our forces there on the peninsula are always of paramount concern to the secretary. And he had terrific discussions not only with his South Korean counterparts about this but also with General Abrams, the U.S. Forces Korea commander.

The training events are constantly assessed and reviewed and modified as appropriate. And without getting into specifics, I can assure you that the secretary believes that we are maintaining the training and readiness of our forces and that they are, as we like to say, ready to fight tonight. But it is a -- it's a dynamic process. Whenever you look at training and readiness you're constantly assessing and -- and reviewing and making changes as appropriate.

Your second question was about the -- I think China.


MR. KIRBY: I think -- well, look, our main -- our main security commitments with the Republic of Korea are obviously tied to our treaty alliance of -- of self-defense. And our -- not self-defense but our -- our -- our treaty commitments to the Republic of Korea with respect to defending them and -- and our interests there on the peninsula. That was predominantly the realm of the discussions that we had in Seoul.

And one of the things that we talked about in Seoul, we talked about this in Tokyo is trying to explore better opportunities for better trilateral cooperation between the United States, Japan, and South Korea, because there's a lot of potential there for better cooperation in -- in the security environment and because both countries also are mindful of the Chinese growing influence and power in the region.

But it wasn't so much about what they will do or what we think we can do together against China. It was about what together the -- the three of us can do just for the -- you know, for broader security commitments inside the region and for, you know, better interoperability, better cooperation in the -- on the security front.

Q: Can I ask you for clarification on the training answer where you said we are maintaining the training and readiness? Does that imply that there's no need to restore the full training that was prior to --

MR. KIRBY: No, I -- that wasn't making any such implication. I was saying that the training events with our Korean allies are something we constantly assess and review. It's a dynamic structure. You know, yes, as you've seen, I brief on Defender Europe all the time. There are -- there are some exercises that -- that occur on a frequent, recurring basis and some don't. And even the ones that recur on a frequent basis we change over time, they're not always the same. 

I mean, one of the ways you preserve readiness and improve it is to constantly improve the way you train and change it. So we're constantly looking at the training regimen there on the -- on the peninsula to make sure that it's -- it's appropriate to the task and -- and to the threats.

And as the secretary came away from Seoul believing that -- that -- that the alliance is strong that -- and that General Abrams has terrific relationships with his counterparts there in -- in South Korea, and that -- that he's comfortable that -- that the -- the training we're doing is -- is appropriate to the task, and that we're not afraid to look at it all the time and modify it as appropriate.

Q: Thank you, John.

MR. KIRBY: Meghann?

Q: I want to follow-up on the DHS request to extend the border mission past September. How many troops is DHS asking for? Is it more or fewer than are there now? And can you confirm General Hokanson's statement that there's a discussion about whether to send active-duty troops instead of purely National Guard?

MR. KIRBY: So I won't -- I'm not going to get ahead of process here, Meghann. The request is -- we're aware of the request. We're assessing that request just like every other RFA we get here -- request for assistance that we get from outside the department. 

And it's going through analysis and the assessment now, so I -- I won't speculate about what the answer to the request will be or how it will be sourced. I think as you know, the sourcing comes later in the process. We have to assess the validity of the request. So just got it, we're working it now. And as we get more answers about the degree to which it's going to be sourced or not and then how, we'll certainly keep you guys up to speed.

Q: But did they put a number level in the request or do you guys get to determine that --

MR. KIRBY: I would -- I think I'm going to let DHS speak to that. And as you know, we don't speak to the specifics of the requests we get. The requesting agency, we always refer to them.

Q: Right. And another thing, is there a ballpark for the figure or ballpark, like, timeline to get the figures back about how much money you guys think you might be able to recoup from cancelling border projects?

MR. KIRBY: I don't know. Let me take the question, Meghann. I'm not sure if there is a timeline on that. But it's a fair one and I'll ask.

I think I have Wafaa on the line.

Q: Hi, John. I know you said you won't speak for the Israeli military, but after reviewing the assessments and the so-called achievements -- achievements of this operation, did Secretary Austin have a sense about Israel's intentions regarding these operations? 

Also, can you tell us what was Gantz's reaction or response to Secretary Austin's call for de-escalation, especially that the Israeli readout did not mention any call for de-escalation?

MR. KIRBY: The -- the two know each other quite well from the secretary's time in command of Central Command. So there's a -- there's a good personal relationship there. But I -- I won't speak for Minister Gantz and -- and how he might have taken the -- the -- the secretary's message. And I -- you -- you had another question upfront that just flew past me.

Q: I'm sorry. You didn't hear my question, the first one?

MR. KIRBY: I got the second part, I forgot the first part.

Q: It was about -- about -- about the sense that the minister -- Secretary Austin has after reviewing the assessments and achievements of this operation. Like, how is Israel will -- like, what are his -- its intentions regarding this operation?

MR. KIRBY: If you mean his intentions of Minister Gantz, again I'd let Minister Gantz speak to that. 

The minister did provide an update and an assessment to the secretary. And again, I -- I won't go into greater detail than what I've already done, but I would reiterate that the secretary was -- was very clear that we want to see this -- these tensions de-escalate. We want to see the violence end.

And we certainly want to see no more loss of innocent civilian life and -- and again, that was in our readout. The secretary was -- was clear about that. Yes, Mosh.

Q: A quick one about National Guard. Do you have updated numbers on how many guard are still protecting the Capitol and is that mission still planning to end I believe this weekend?

MR. KIRBY: So there are, as of today, 2,149 guardsmen currently in the DC area for that -- for that mission. The operations are expected to wrap up on Sunday, May 23. And we have received no request to extend it. Yes, sir?

Q: Quickly on Israel and Palestine. Has the DOD seen any indication that other groups or actors besides Palestinian groups within the Gaza Strip are looking to exploit the conflicts to further their interest and has that raised any concern?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any reports of that nature. Lucas.

Q: John, Newsweek is claiming that the largest undercover force the world has ever known is created by The Pentagon over the past decades; some 60,000 people belong in this secret army. Can you describe more about this organization?

MR. KIRBY: I've seen the article, Lucas, but I don't have any additional detail or context to add on that one 

Q Can you confirm this?
MR. KIRBY: I've seen the article, I can't go beyond that. I've -- I've read the article, I don't have additional context to provide on it right now.

Q: This is real or not real?

MR. KIRBY: I'm --- I'm not saying that, Lucas, I'm saying I don't have any context to provide you right now.

Q: And back to the border mission, why are soldiers more needed on the border? 

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I think -- look, it's -- it's important to remember what -- what they're doing there in support of DHS and Customs and Border Patrol. They are providing enabling capabilities that allow Customs and Border Patrol agents to do their job.

They are not involved in law enforcement; they're not involved in -- in immigration processing. They're providing some logistical and engineering support, providing some command and control capabilities. The kinds of things that -- that need to get done but free up our -- the CBP officers to do their jobs.

Q: DHS wants them to stay longer? How longer?

MR. KIRBY: Well, again, to Meghann's question, there is a request end of the building for an extension. And I'm -- I'm just not at liberty to go into more detail right now about what -- the parameters of that.

We are evaluating it and assessing it and as soon as we can speak to it one way or another we will. 

Q: So does that mean things are getting worse down there?

MR. KIRBY: I would let DHS speak to why they -- why they made the request. I mean clearly they're -- you know they're -- they believe there's still a need for these enabling capabilities. And again, how they came up with that I think is really for them to speak to. It's not unlike the request that we get and have received -- although we haven't received any recently from HHS about the -- the temporary housing of unaccompanied minors.

I mean the agency requesting it really is the right agency to speak to the need and the requirement and why they have it. Our job is to analyze that request. And then if we source it, to be able to you why and how we sourced it the way we did. OK. Yes?

Q: Thank you, sir. For the past four months we've been hearing a lot about the DOD is after to eradicate extremism and then military sexual harassment in the military. But I think just this week, maybe I missed it, there was something about initiative to tackle suicide among military personnel and veterans.

Is this a priority with the DOD because that's like the first time I heard about it. Maybe I missed it?

MR. KIRBY: I'm actually surprised that you -- that it's the first time you've heard that we're concerned about suicide prevention because it's sadly -- all too sadly it's a perennial issue that we've been dealing with for a long time.

Q: (Inaudible) counseling resources or?

MR. KIRBY: There's already a lot of effort that -- that we're -- that we're expending to try to get -- to try to get better at suicide prevention and getting more awareness of the indicators. And part of that and you heard the secretary, I think I -- I told you guys about the suicide prevention conference that we co-hosted this week with -- with the VA. And we posted the secretaries remarks. 

I encourage you to go on and look at them. You can also see the VA Secretary Denis McDonough's remarks as well. We're working closely with the VA to try to come up with better initiatives to get at this problem. But this is a -- again, sadly it's an issue that is not unfamiliar to us inside the department and we know we got to do better.

And part of that is -- and you heard the secretary speak to this, if you haven't seen his remarks that is really trying to get at the stigma associated with seeking help from mental health issues. And that's still a problem inside the military.

Q: (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: Well, there's a lot of reasons why. It's not just -- and it's not just men. The -- you know the kinds of stressors and the kinds of issues that -- that drive men and women to suicide are varied and complex. I won't -- I don't want to simplify that but it isn't just men that are affected by this stigma of seeking help and being willing to go find the help that you need, as the secretary said that seeking mental health assistance is a strength, not a weakness.

But we know we have more work to do in terms of making sure everybody can see it that way. But it is not -- not something new, and sadly not something (inaudible). OK. Thank you.