Transcript

Air Force General Glen D. VanHerck, Commander, U.S. Northern Command, NORAD, and Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Press Briefing

Aug. 27, 2021

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: OK. Good afternoon, everybody. We'll get started here as we talked about earlier. Today we're delighted to have join us General VanHerck, Commander of U.S. Northern Command, NORAD. The general has some opening comments about the efforts that Northern Command is expending to help our interagency colleagues process Afghans in the special immigrant visa program and get on to their new life. I'm going to turn it over to him for just a second. He'll have some opening comments then we'll go to Q&A.

Just like we've done all week, I'll moderate. I'll call on you. Please when I do before you ask your question of the general identify yourselves and your outlet so he knows who he's talking to. And then we do have a hard stop in 30 minutes at 4 o'clock. So with that, General, can you hear me OK?

GENERAL GLEN D. VANHERCK: John, I have you loud and clear. How me?

MR. KIRBY: Good, sir. Good. Thank you so much. Thanks for joining us, and General, I'll turn it over to you, sir.

GEN. VANHERCK: Yes. Thank you very much, John. It's great to be with you and the press corps there today. Before I go on I just want to remind everybody to keep those warriors and heroes that lost their lives yesterday in our thoughts and prayers along with their families and for the folks that continue to serve in Afghanistan and around the globe doing our nation's business. We should keep them in our thoughts and prayers.

You know, less than a month ago I was with you there in the room talking about our Global Information Dominance Experiment 3, and today I'm here to discuss U.S. Northern Command's support to Operation Allies Refuge.

In addition to our no-fail mission of defending the homeland, United States Northern Command provide Defense Support of Civil Authorities or DSCA. Today our DSCA operations range from providing COVID medical assistance, relieving pressure on the overburdened medical systems in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama currently while simultaneously supporting wild land firefighting in the western United States.

Additionally, we're providing support to the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection by conducting detection and monitoring and transportation support for the southwest border mission.

We're also ready to conduct hurricane relief efforts if required. And of course, U.S. Northern Command's providing support within the continental United States for Operation Allies Refuge.

On July 14, the White House announced Operation Allies Refuge, which provides eligible Afghan nationals and their immediate families with support of the U.S government the opportunity to relocate to the United States. 

The Department of State subsequently activated the Afghanistan Coordination Task Force and requested the Department of Defense provide temporary support for up to 3,500 Afghan special immigrant applicants.

On August 15, the Department of State requested and the Secretary of Defense approved additional support for Afghan special immigrant visa applicants and other vulnerable Afghans. 

In response to this request, the U.S. Northern Command, we're providing temporary housing, medical screening, transportation, and other services for both Afghan special immigrant visa applicants and at-risk Afghans.

U.S. Northern Command has been tasked to build capacities to support up to 50,000 Afghans. To do that, the Department of Defense under U.S. Northern Command has established task forces at Fort Lee in Virginia, Fort Bliss in Texas, Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.

And on August 25, the Secretary of Defense authorized three additional military installations to provide support inside the United States for Afghan special immigrant visa applicants, their families, and other at-risk individuals. This including Marine Corps Base Quantico and Fort Pickett in Virginia and Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

As of today, Fort Pickett has a capacity of 1,000 Afghans, and we're working with the other two installations, Holloman and Quantico, to finalize their final respective capacities.

Additionally while not a task force, U.S. Northern Command is supporting Operation Allies Refuge with services and additional forces, including assisting with managing the flow of evacuees at Dulles Airport and the Philadelphia International Airport in Pennsylvania. That airport is opening up today. Additional sites are possible.

Here's a snapshot real quickly of some of the numbers that you'll see at the task forces. So Task Force Eagle at Fort Lee, Virginia stood up in July and currently has a capacity for 1,750. To-date Task Force Eagle at Fort Lee has supported 1,647 Afghan special immigrant visa applicants and their families, nearly half of whom have completed the process and have moved on with the support of the Department of State, non-governmental, intergovernmental organizations, and volunteer organizations. 

Task Force Bliss at Fort Bliss, Texas currently has a capacity of 5,000 and received first flights with vulnerable Afghans on Saturday, August 21. The base has supported to date 2,160 Afghans housed in a mix of hard and soft structures. Final capacity's expected to be at least 10,000.

Task Force McCoy, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin currently has a capacity of 10,000 and received their first flights with at-risk Afghans on Sunday, August 22. To-date Task Force McCoy has supported 2,383 Afghans who are being housed in hard structures with shower and bathroom facilities located in each building.

Task Force Liberty at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey currently has a capacity of 3,500 and received its first group of Afghans Wednesday, August 25. To-date Task Force Liberty has supported 1,192 Afghans who are being housed in a mix of hard and soft-sided structures. Final capacity at Task Force Liberty is expected to be at least 10,000.

So today our total capacity at these four installations is approximately 21,000 and growing. We're steadily working to increase capacity to the 50,000 number by September 15.

The number of military installations supporting this effort could increase in the future. The request for assistance from the State Department specifically requested that the Department of Defense provide culturally-appropriate food, water, bedding, religious services, recreational activities, and other services such as transportation from the port of entry to the location of accommodations -- and some medical services as well. 

My team of military, civilian, and contract personnel are working closely with the numerous agencies both government and nongovernment to ensure further requirements and additional capabilities are available for vulnerable Afghans. 

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security is working to conduct a screening and security vetting for all Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other vulnerable Afghans in the fastest way possible consistent with the dual goals of protecting national security and providing protection for vulnerable Afghans who supported the United States. That process involves biometric and biographic screenings conducted by intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals from across the interagency community. 

We are working around the clock to vet all Afghans being evacuated before allowing them into the United States. During recent visits to Fort Lee, Fort McCoy, and Fort Bliss I saw the operation firsthand, and I proudly watched our U.S. personnel operating with compassion as they helped Afghans and their families who have done so much for the United States and our allies through two decades of conflict. 

I also talked with some of the Afghans in each location. During a conversation I had with one Afghan family, I asked if they had what they needed, if they were doing OK, getting enough to eat, and getting enough to sleep. The father thanked me, saying they had what they needed, and that it was the first time in a long time that he has slept without being afraid for his family's safety. 

So, thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines are working across the United States to complete this incredibly important mission to provide our Afghan colleagues a safe harbor while they finalize their immigration process. 

I'm also grateful for the support of the communities surrounding each of our bases, and for the volunteers and others who are aiding in all of these efforts. Together we're honoring our commitment to our Afghan partners and their families, and I look forward to taking your questions. 

Thank you. 

MR. KIRBY: Thank you, General. 

We'll start with Lita. 

Q: Hi, General. Lita Baldor with the Associated Press. I have one quick numbers question for you, and then a second. Can you tell us how many evacuees have gone through Dulles? The governor said today the number is 14,000. We were told earlier there was about 7,000 SIV. Can you square those numbers for us? And then I have a follow-up. 

GEN. VANHERCK: Lita unfortunately I don't have a specific number for you. State Department would be best to answer that. I can tell you what has come to us, and that's 6,578 at four separate locations. I will tell you what we're seeing is of those that do arrive at Dulles, about 40 percent or so have been coming to us -- others have been AMCITs and in other status such as having a green card already where they can move on from Dulles. 

Q: Thank you. And my follow-up is, can you give us an assessment of both the security risks as well as the COVID risks as you're doing -- and everyone is doing these screenings, what security risks are you seeing? Are you seeing a number of people who are showing up on lists? And then, what about COVID? How is that testing going, and what are the threats at the bases for COVID? 

GEN. VANHERCK: Thanks, Lita. So for security, I would defer to DHS who runs that operations. I am very comfortable, we've worked to streamline that operation. As I said in my opening comments, we're doing biographical and biometric testing across the various agencies of the interagency, to include our counterterrorism and intelligence communities. What we're seeing is folks coming across cleared by that process, which I am comfortable with. 

With regard to COVID, the Afghans coming from the Middle East into our locations that we have stood up are all being tested, actually multiple times. We test them 100 percent upon arrival at each location. They're getting tested at Dulles as well, and en route they get tested. 

I'll give you some numbers. We are seeing -- so far to-date, when I was at Fort McCoy on Wednesday only three out of more than 1,300 had tested positive. When I went to Fort Bliss the same day, one out of more than 1,200 had tested positive for COVID. I hope that helps. 

Q: Thank you. (Inaudible) 

MR. KIRBY: One out of 1,200. 

Jen? 

Q: Hi, General Vanherck, it's Jennifer Griffin with Fox News. I just want to go back a little bit to numbers, what percentage, would you say, of the people who are processing onto these bases are SIV holders or applicants? Or are you also housing people who applied for refugee status? Just trying to understand the breakdown of who is on these bases. 

And then secondly, there are reports from Dulles that some of those -- some of the commercial flights that have come in have had to keep people on the tarmac, onboard planes for up to 10 hours while screeners come onboard. Is anything being done to rectify that? Is that a DHS issue? Are you aware of that issue at Dulles? 

GEN. VANHERCK: Thanks, Jennifer. On the SIV numbers, I'd defer to the State Department. I don't have that exact number in front of me. What I would tell you is the SIV numbers have not been in excess of 50 percent, but I don't have the detail right now. 

With regards to the problems you're describing at Dulles, I am aware of the longer waits that you describe. We worked very hard over the last couple days to make the process as efficient and effective -- when I say we, DOD worked with the process owner, DHS, to streamline this -- specifically customs and border protection, along with TSA who owns that process, if you will. 

Some of the challenges were being -- use of the proper vetting authorities, if you will, to ensure that we looked at the same ones and that they were coming across, we knew exactly who was certifying that -- and that's customs that was certifying it across to the other side. What was happening is, if the improper system was utilized they were being flagged as red on the receiving end at Dulles. 

That should actually give you comfort, Jennifer, that we're not leaning towards more conservative and pushing them out, but actually ensuring verification. That led to the delays that you're talking about. When I took the brief this morning, we had no airplanes on the ramp waiting at Dulles for processing through customs. And I don't have an update for you right now, but I believe we're in a good position, Jennifer. 

Q: Thank you. 

KIRBY: Tara. 

Q: Thank you general. Tara Copp with Defense One. Following up on Jen’s question, can you talk about the challenges that you've had with the DOD and DHS systems -- the biometric systems actually being able to pass that information in a timely manner? And explain a little bit more about how all of the different flagging red that you've seen because names are passed through different systems? 

GEN. VANHERCK: I really can't answer that question. That's a question for DHS, and I apologize. I just don't have that information. 

Q: To follow-up a little bit more, humanitarian -- with all of the thousands of Afghans that are going onto these bases, many of them left their country with very little, and probably have different levels of needs to start life over here. 

How long is DOD prepared to house and feed these refugees? 

GEN. VANHERCK: So, we're prepared to house them and feed them as long as it takes to get them through the process, and as long as the Secretary approves that. I agree with you, they're coming here starting over with what they bring with them. 

We've been incredibly well supported by the local communities, the nongovernmental organizations, et cetera that have jumped in to help these families with things of need such as diapers, formula, clothing -- you name it. You see the gamut when you're talking these large numbers, and we've just been tremendously blessed to have great support. 

Q: (Inaudible) willing to host as they go through the process, what do you mean by the process? If they don't have a place to go, how long can they stay on base? 

GEN. VANHERCK: Well, they'll stay on base until they complete the Special Immigrant Visa processing process, which is owned by the State Department with the support -- we provide medical support, we provide contract medical support as part of that. 

So each of the applicants will go through a screening process -- such as screening for diseases, vaccinations -- if they need vaccinated, we'll have the International Migration Organization come in toward the end of the process and work with them on where they need to be relocated. Many of them have family already here in the United States, or they'll be relocated to places where there's already Afghan populations, et cetera. 

What we saw at Fort Lee, with those that already had some type of a Special Immigrant Visa processing is that was taking about five to seven days. We won't know exactly how long that's going to take until the State Department and everybody is on the ground full-up, and we're ready to begin processing. And remember, we've only been at this for a few days. And so at each location we're going to spin up rather quickly here and begin the application and the process for special immigrant status. 

MR. KIRBY: Oren. 

Q: Oren Lieberman, CNN. The SIV application process -- the screening process is a long process, what happens if at some point while somebody is on a military base they fail that screening? Are they going back to Afghanistan, or what's the plan there? And then, John, are you also taking questions? 

MR. KIRBY: Later. 

GEN. VANHERCK: I would defer you to Department of State for that, that's really their area of expertise. We're prepared to continue this support until we get through this process, in support of the State Department. 

Q: There must be a plan here, if somebody fails a screening process and is already on a U.S. military facility? 

GEN. VANHERCK: So let me go back, Oren. So they have gone through the screening process before putting feet in the continental United States from a security perspective. When they are through customs they are paroled into the United States of America. And if they have relatives -- theoretically they can go with those relatives. 

What we're doing is helping them get through the screening process. And so we provide all of the governmental organizations to support that, the medical process, et cetera. And so, we are not doing security screening in support of State Department. This is part of the application for Special Immigrant Status. I hope that clarifies it. 

MR. KIRBY: Tony. 

Q: Hi sir, Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg News. Do you have a breakdown by gender roughly of how many women, girls, boys and men have been processed by DOD? It begs a lot of questions in terms of separate facilities. And then I have a second question about culturally appropriate food? Are we talking MREs or humanitarian MREs, or local kitchens being hired to cook? 

GEN. VANHERCK: Hey, thanks, Tony. So, we're seeing about 50/50, male female. That can change back and forth, we're seeing about 15 percent with children, we're seeing a lot of, of the females who are pregnant. So, I don't have a specific detail for what you asked about for the total number with children, male, female, et cetera. 

But that gives you an idea. We're seeing right now 513 children at one location for a total of about 30 percent of that the location. With regards to your second question, we contract to provide support of, you know, meals, multiple meals for large windows. 

So, for example, we'll provide a breakfast meal for Halal for their culturally appropriate for a three-hour window. We'll shut down for a second. And when I say we, it's the contract support at each location. 

Then we'll spin up for a lunch meal and we'll do the same for the dinner. Most locations I believe will have or do have a 24-hour grab and go. Culturally for the Afghans as well. I hope that answers your food question. 

MR. KIRBY: I'm going to go to the phones here. Lara Seligman, Politico.

Q: Hi John, thanks for taking my question. I wanted to ask, first of all, Ned Price earlier said that he didn't know how many SIV's have been evacuated. Can you square that, General, with the numbers that you gave earlier? 

Is there a discrepancy between the ones that have been evacuated and the total number of people that have come to the United States? What is -- what is the difference there? And what is it that we're missing?

GEN. VANHERCK: Lara, you need to ask the State Department. I don't have that data for you. That's a question for them. 

Q: And are that as a follow up? Are there -- how many SIV's and other Afghans do you estimate are still at the Kabul airport awaiting a flight out?

GEN. VANHERCK: I'll defer to General McKenzie and the forces forward. I don't know that answer. The State Department or CENTCOM may have that answer for you, Lara. 

MR. KIRBY: It was about between three and 5,000 earlier today. But as we've talked about before, this is a snapshot in time. And it literally changes by the hour but the last thing that I saw was somewhere between three and 5,000. And again, changes hour to hour. Courtney.

Q: Hey General Vanherck, it's Courtney Kube from NBC News. I just have a couple of clarifications. So, when you talk about how they -- these individuals have already gone through the screening process before they even set foot here in the United States. Does that mean that their names have already been run through the National Counterterrorism database?

GEN. VANHERCK: Courtney, thanks. It is my understanding that each one of their names and their biographical data and their biometric data has been run through the established databases.

Q: Second, you also mentioned some of the medical support that the military is providing, including vaccinations. Does that include COVID vaccines at the bases? Are those mandatory or optional?

GEN. VANHERCK: The vaccines are offered to them. They're offered at Dulles. We offer them as well at the task force locations, they are not mandatory. We see many of them are taking the vaccine if they've not already had it.

Q: One on the paperwork, that they're getting assistance for their SIV paperwork. Is there any U.S. military component? Like do you have any military members who are assisting with that paperwork?

GEN. VANHERCK: So, the paperwork on our end for accountability purposes where they arrive at the task forces. We absolutely are part of that paperwork process to ensure accountability to provide security et cetera for them. At each of those locations prior to arriving at our task force locations. We are not directly involved with the paperwork process. I don't know the role in CENTCOM of any of their forces. I'd defer you to General McKenzie. On questions for any DOD members forward.

Q: General, this is Meghan Myers from military times. I wanted to ask why these particular bases were chosen for SIVs. Was it because of faith reasons hard and soft? You know buildings or was it because of proximity to Afghan communities in the area where some of them might end up being resettled?

GEN. VANHERCK: It was not necessarily for the specific location to an Afghan community. The department took a look at each location to ensure that had sufficient capacity. That there was capability in the region to support that. The limits of readiness and training for the local in – infrastructure and the bases was also a consideration. 

Those were all provided by the services. The services provided within the recommendations for the department, they took a look at each location and offered up those installations for approval by the department. 

MR. KIRBY: We'll take one more than let the General close it out. Terace.

Q: Hi, General Vanherck. My name is Terace Garnier with Newsy. For the children that are on base. Are there any educational classes being provided for them? If not, are those children able to go to the CDC on base to help kind of with babysitting and kind of educating them on American reasons and what not?

GEN. VANHERCK: That's a great question. So, to answer the last part first. Currently, I'm not aware of any of them using CDCs on base. But what I will tell you there's an outpouring of support in the local areas, local communities, organizations non-governmental that have showed up at each location to provide them coloring books, books to read, educational opportunities, sports. 

At Fort Bliss, when I was down there, the soldiers had built soccer goals and set up soccer areas for them to practice and play soccer. To keep them occupied. So that's a great news story. 

MR. KIRBY: OK, General. Sir, I'm going to turn it over to you for any closing thoughts you might have. 

GEN. VANHERCK: Well, thanks, John. And for everybody in the room and on the phones, it's a privilege to talk to you today. And it's really a privilege to be executing this mission for those that have helped us for oftentimes, a couple of decades. We continue to look forward to supporting them. We're prepared to do this, as long as it takes to ensure that we get them settled here back in the United States of America. 

I'm really proud of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, Coasties. I've got Coasties here working for us, guardians, you name it. We're working very hard. Every time I look them in the eye, and I talked to them. You cannot imagine how proud and privileged they are to support this mission. And they tell me that all the time when I've been out on circulation. 

I feel the exact same way. And we look forward to continuing to make this a successful operation. So, thanks for letting me tell the story. 

MR. KIRBY: General I appreciate your time this afternoon. OK, I got time to take a few on my own. 

Q: Just a few quick things I think popped up on social media in the past hour, or so. Firstly, have the Taliban entered or taken control of any parts of the military section of HKIA that you're aware of?

MR. KIRBY: The Taliban are not in control of any part of Hamid Karzai International Airport. I saw that report too. It's false. 

Q: Including any of the gates?

MR. KIRBY: They are not in charge of any of the gates. They are not in charge any of the airport operations. That is still under U.S. military control. Lita. 

Q: John, can you give us any further details on the attack at this point? Anything about whether the Marines noticed the attacker coming? Anything about the firing of the shots? Has any of that kind of cleared up at this point?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any additional details from what General McKenzie laid out yesterday. Again, we're going to do the forensics on this. And try to learn as much as we can. And when we have some verifiable context to be able to talk to you about that, we'll do it. But we're still digging into it right now.

Q: Just one other thing. Do you have any timing on when you believe the aircraft with the remains will arrive at Dover? 

MR. KIRBY: I don't. And as you might imagine, we're -- in the services are in contact with the families and they'll notify the families through their Casualty Assistance Case Officers. And I think I want to respect that process. As you know, sadly, from covering this for so long Lita. I mean, it doesn't -- usually it the process doesn't take that long. 

Q: Will the President and Secretary go to Dover to meet the families of the fallen?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not -- I don't have any schedule announcements to make. But we're all mindful of the importance of any return of fallen members. And certainly, these included. But I just don't have any things to announce from the schedule perspective. Tony.

Q: Do you have any status report on the 17 wounded at Landstuhl in terms of whether they're mostly stable or out of danger, or?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have an update on the wounded. The last count I had was at 20 of them have gone to Landstuhl. The remaining -- there were some additional wounded, but that they were treated on site and returned to duty. 

I don't know what the status is. And as you know Tony, we don't usually get into the details of, of wounded even anonymously. We just don't typically talk about that. 

Q: Is it useful if you get a sense of whether most are stable or (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to promise that Tony. And we just don't talk about the status of wounded as I think you can understand I mean. There's real privacy issues there that we want to be mindful of. 

Q: OK.

MR. KIRBY: Yes. OK. Thanks. We'll see you -- I'm planning to do this again tomorrow morning. So, I'm shooting for around 11 o'clock in the morning tomorrow for a regular update with General Taylor. And then we'll see what the rest of the weekend looks like. 

Alright, thank you.

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