Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Sept. 20, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. Just a couple things at the top here. Today, I think you saw the Secretary issued a statement recognizing the 10 year anniversary of the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The repeal eliminated a significant barrier to equal treatment, in an effort to pursue a more equitable, diverse, inclusive and accessible Department of Defense -- I might also add "a more effective military."

As the Secretary said, by insisting on standards of merit, allowing all of those who are qualified to serve in uniform, we avail ourselves of more talent, better leaders and innovative solutions to the security challenges that we face around the world.

The repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell improved the diversity and equity and inclusion across our force and it makes us more representative not only of the nation we defend but wiser and stronger, and without question, better able to defend this nation.

On a personnel note, excited to welcome our newest member of the Public Affairs team here at OSD (Office of the Secretary of Defense). Melanie Fonder Kaye joins us as the Deputy Assistant to the Secretary for Strategic Engagement. She -- her first day was today. She comes to the team after founding and leading the strategic communications firm MFK Strategies.

She previously served as Director of Communications to Dr. Jill Biden, where she developed the then-Second Lady's communications strategy, which included joining forces, encouraging all Americans to support service members, veterans, military families and caregivers, among many other initiatives.

Melanie will have a robust schedule of office calls here as she settles in and we'll circulate her contact information as soon as she's up online. As I -- as far as I know, she doesn't even have a e-mail account yet but we'll get that fixed soon.

With that, we'll take questions. Bob?

Q: Thank you, John. A couple of quick questions on -- do you have anything on a -- on an airstrike in northwest Syria today?

MR. KIRBY: I have seen a short statement by Central Command. I think they've put that out, that -- and I can just read for you what I've got -- I don't have more details than this, though -- a strike near Idlib, Syria on a senior Al-Qaeda leader. Their initial indications are that they struck the individual that they were targeting and that they don't have any indications at this time of civilian casualties but they continue to look into that, of course. I don't have more detail than that.

Q: OK. The other question I had for you was whether you could discuss any further the question of accountability for the Kabul strikes that General McKenzie describes on Friday. He -- he mentioned very briefly that there would -- that there was accountability aspect to the investigation. Could -- is Secretary Austin involved in some way? Can you elaborate? 

MR. KIRBY: Sure. The -- the Secretary has asked the Secretary of the Air Force to task a senior flag -- or general officer at the rank of three star or above to conduct a review of the Central Command investigation, the same investigation that General McKenzie read out to you guys on -- on Friday.

Part of that review will be to examine the investigation itself, the thoroughness of the investigation, to study the degree to which any policies, procedures or targeting mechanisms may need to be altered going forward, if any, and of course to then take a look at what levels of accountability might be appropriate, and if so, at what -- at what level.

So that'll be part of this review and the Secretary's asked for the Secretary of the Air Force to -- to nominate somebody for that and then to have that review done within 45 days of the tasking of the individual reviewer.

Q: So is that -- on the question of accountability, does that three star or above officer have the authority to initiate action, or only to recommend? 

MR. KIRBY: It -- it would be -- it would be to review the investigation and to make recommendations based on that review, not necessarily to take action. This would be a senior Air Force officer. So if there's accountability to be held, you know, the -- the decisions about who and -- and -- and what would -- would be done would be a separate consideration.

Q: OK, thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. Jen?

Q: John, I'm still trying to understand how the U.S. military followed a car for eight hours and took a -- fired a Hellfire missile when a car was pulling into a driveway, not even pulling out of the driveway, en route to the airport. Why was the decision taken? As we've now learned, there was another surveillance drone showing that there were kids or individuals on the ground. But I'm still confused, with that car pulling into the driveway, why was that the moment that you would strike?

MR. KIRBY: Well, Jen, I think you can understand now that we're going to review this investigation. I really am not in a position today to re-litigate the tick tock of -- of what happened and in what order. General McKenzie, I thought, did a -- a very fair contextual job on Friday walking you through almost minute-by-minute what they were seeing and -- and -- and the decisions that they made in the moment.

And so I think I'm just going to leave it the way General McKenzie left it on Friday and then let the reviewer of this investigation come to their own conclusions about this.

Q: And can you explain to us how these drone strikes, when they take place in a place like Afghanistan, at what level is the targeter -- what -- was the targeting team at the airport? Was it sitting in -- at CENTCOM in Tampa? Was it at Fort Bragg? Was it out in Las Vegas? Where -- at what level was the decision being made?

MR. KIRBY: The decision was made in Kabul, by the strike cell commander in Kabul.

Q: And lastly, is there any plan to evacuate the remaining members of the family? They are doing interviews saying that nobody's reached out to them for payments and they want to be moved to the U.S. cause they feel their lives are in danger now that they've been outed as having had family members who worked for the U.S. government.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I've certainly seen those comments. I don't have anything to confirm or speak to today in terms of the physical movement of the family members but we know that Central Command is working through how best to reach out to them for the -- for the issue of payments but also to determine the validity of this interest in -- in moving out.

And I don't want to get ahead of -- I -- I certainly don't want to speak for the family and I don't want to get ahead of where CENTCOM is in that process.

Q: But the Defense Secretary would support removing that family, if they want to come ...

MR. KIRBY: I believe the Secretary of Defense would absolutely support -- if the family wanted to leave Afghanistan and come to the United States, I believe he would support that, assuming that, you know, all of the proper legal hoops were -- were worked through. I mean, I don't want to get ahead of a process or a decision that hasn't been made yet, but I think he would absolutely consider that.

Yeah, Janne?

Q: Thank you, John. Was it South Korea issues? As do you already know that South Korea successfully test-fired SLBMs, submarine launched ballistic missiles. 

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: As an ally, the United States, how do you view South Korea's successful test fire of SLBMs?

MR. KIRBY: I would simply say that we continue to work closely with our allies in the Republic of Korea on making sure that we have complimentary military capabilities and that we keep those capabilities ready and prepared and -- and capable in a way commensurate with the continued threats that we see on the peninsula.

Q: Do you think that this will help deter North Korean provocation?

MR. KIRBY: I would like to think that the alliance itself and the strength and the unity of the alliance itself would be an appropriate deterrent capability. That's certainly one reason why we work at this alliance so hard and why it matters so much to us and -- and to the region. But you've heard the Secretary talk about something called integrated deterrence. He mentioned that the other day, in context of -- of the meeting with the Australians at the State Department. Integrated deterrence is not just something that he's looking at from a United States perspective.

It certainly does cut across the Joint Force, and it does cross many domains of warfighting. From space and cyber, maritime, and air, and, of course, ground. But in the Secretary's mind, integrated deterrence is really about netting-in and integrating the capabilities of our allies and partners, particularly in that part of the world. And, of course, there's no stronger ally than the Republic of Korea.

Q: Thank you very much.

MR. KIRBY: You're welcome. Terace?

Q: Yes, hi, John. I have two questions. First one, did Secretary Austin give the Secretary of the Air Force a deadline for choosing the person that's going to do the review of the investigation?

MR. KIRBY: No.

Q: OK.

MR. KIRBY: But I don't think this is going to be a task that's going to take an exorbitant amount of time.

Q: Well, once they're selected, it will be 45 days. 

MR. KIRBY: Well, once the individual has been named by the Secretary of the Air Force, the Secretary has asked that the review be completed in 45 days.

Q: Gotcha. And then my second question is, what is the military going to try to mend relationships with allies in the Middle East following the drone strike?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not sure what you're getting at in terms of mending relationships. So, we have very strong relationships in the region as it is. And I would point to the Secretary's travel just the week before last to visit some of our Gulf allies in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. That was very much part and parcel of thanking those strong allies and partners in the region for the support that they -- that they continue to give us with respect to this at this -- these evacuees.

Yeah, Travis?

Q: Thanks, John. I wanted to ask you about Afghanistan as well. And I know that the Secretary has talked a little bit about this. He had mentioned a possible resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. But I'm wondering if he is concerned that we could have a similar situation to what we saw in Iraq and Syria in 2011 to 2014 with the Islamic State. Could we see something similar to that in Afghanistan? And how are we better prepared to deal with that kind of threat today than we were, say eight years ago?

MR. KIRBY: The -- the Secretary has -- has said that -- that given the rapid collapse of the Ghani government, and the rapid ascendancy now to the power of the Taliban, that he believes it would be prudent to reassess his previous assessment of medium risk in terms of the -- the -- the return of Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan to a level commensurate with, you know, an ability to threaten the homeland. The way they did in 2001. That doesn't mean that -- that he -- we don't already recognize. And we have recognized that they -- they do exist in Afghanistan. And then they -- they do continue to pose a threat but a threat rising to the level of a -- of a possible attack on the homeland. So, he believes that given recent events, we need to reassess what our view is in terms of how and to what degree they could reemerge at that level.

And then to your second question. And we've talked about this quite a bit. I mean, we are not the same country that we were on 9/11 in terms of our ability to defend ourselves from these kinds of attacks. The intelligence communities are much more networked now and coordinated. We have far more capability in -- in space and in cyber, and -- and certainly in the aviation realm than we did in 2001 to try to keep eyes on and to -- and to be able to gather and analyze intelligence. We also have just better kinetic capabilities than we had. We didn't have in 2001 anywhere near the unmanned aerial capability that we have now. So, we have advanced a lot. It doesn't make you perfect. It doesn't mean that you don't still have to work hard to make sure that you get it right. But we have definitely advanced our CT capabilities around the world.

Q: I guess I was asking about the lessons learned by the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the in-between period. U.S. troops largely left around 2011, and there was a period...

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: ... the Islamic State grew, metastasized, and then they took over a huge swath of territory, including Mosul. So, I'm wondering, are there any lessons learned in that fight that we could apply to Afghanistan so we don't end up with a similar situation?

MR. KIRBY: Well, we're certainly going to stay vigilant watching the threat in Afghanistan. There's no question about that. And as I said, the Secretary believes it's prudent to reassess what we think we know about Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan and where they might go. I would tell you that as we speak today when you talked about the metastasization of a -- of a threat, we have seen it metastasize outside of Afghanistan to other places. You mentioned Iraq and Syria, but also Yemen, Somalia, the Levant.

There are -- we do not hold there to be an existential threat of terrorism from Afghanistan right now. But again, we're going to stay vigilant, we're going to watch it, and we're certainly going to be willing to -- to reassess what we -- what we know today. We do have -- and we do have the capability to -- to keep eyes on.

Q: If I could, just one quick follow-up. Any future military action inside Afghanistan would be done under the authority of the existing 2001 AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), correct? That's the authority that you would be using?

MR. KIRBY: I -- you know, I -- the -- the 2001 AUMF exists. We would like to see a new AUMF written to address the kinds of threats that we face now. I'm not going to talk about specific authorities for any specific military action that might or might not occur there or anywhere else. But again, the Secretary is supportive of -- of -- of the administration's approach to seek a new and more accurate, more clearly defined AUMF.

Dave?

Q: Is this reassessment of the threat from Afghanistan? Is this a formal reassessment or just people we think.. 

MR. KIRBY: He has not tasked a -- a formal reassessment. He believes it's warranted.

Q: So, does that mean there's going to be one?

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Tom?

Q: Thanks John. You often said up there that, you know, you want to be as transparent as possible. Bearing that mantra in mind, yesterday at Lackland Air Force Base, a reporter on the public roadway was taking photographs of the entrance side to Lackland. The reporter was covering the larger Haitian deporting issue. Base security came out, escorted the reporter onto the base, took the reporter's driver's license, and called the local sheriff. They would not release the reporter until she turned over her photographs and tape recording. I'm wondering if you know about this incident? If not, how do you feel about it?

MR. KIRBY: I don't know about it. I'm gonna have my staff look into it as soon as the briefing is over. I think that's the best I can do right now. And I'll find out what -- what actually happened.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: And I appreciate you bringing it to my attention.

Let me go back to the phones here because I haven't gotten to the phones at all yet.

Sylvie?

Q: Hello, John. I would like to go back to Bob's question about the strike in Syria. You don't have any more details; where was it exactly? And who was the Al-Qaeda operative that was -- was targeted?

MR. KIRBY: Sylvie, right now, I can just tell you, it was near Idlib, in Syria. And as Central Command said in their brief statement, it was a senior Al-Qaeda leader. I don't have more detail than that right now.

Q: OK. Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: You're welcome.

Phil?

Q: Hey, John, two quick follow-ups. One, and then I'll -- but I guess I'll fall back for that. One, when you said it was a three-star or who's going to be potentially reviewing this whole review, what does that say about accountability? Does that say that the accountability here, if there were to be any, would be for people that three-star below but not higher? What does that say to you?

And then -- and then I guess the -- the other follow up I had was on -- on the -- the strike itself, I realized that you don't want to re-litigate details the strike, but I mean, aren't -- aren't certain elements of -- of what happened still within, you know, the public's right to know? I mean, I realized that you know, that the review of the review has to conclude, but it could be. We have no timeline on that.

MR. KIRBY: Well, Phil, as I said, the only thing holding up the review -- it's not even holding it up, is just the selection of -- of a reviewing officer. And then, once that officer has been chosen, the Secretary expects the review to be done in 45 days. I don't think that's an exorbitant amount of time to -- to treat with seriousness and with some sense of gravity this particular investigation. As for the tick-tock of the events, I thought General McKenzie did an excellent job Friday, walking you through the thought process and as much of the targeting process as he could. He is far -- he and his staff are far more able to do that than I am from the podium.

And so, if there's an additional set of details that you think you need, I would encourage you to reach out to Central Command. As to your other question about the -- the accountability and whether a three-star, you know, sends some sort of negative message, I will remind you of two things. One, the tasking memo to the Air Force says it -- it -- it just needs to be an officer at O9 or above. So, that's either a three or a four-star. And we don't know who the Air Force is going to choose.

And it also says in the memo, and I failed to mention this earlier, that if the invest -- if the reviewing officer believes that there should be a level of accountability at someone at a higher rank than he or she, the reviewing officer needs to make a note of that to the Secretary of the Air Force and to the Secretary of Defense so that that's made -- so that that's made clear.

Yes, Kristina?

Q: Well, I have a big picture -- kind of a big picture policy question about freedom of navigation in the Asia Pacific, and the impact of AUKUS (trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) on that short term. And then over the longer term, how DOD is maybe thinking about that as an -- as it might impact things like budding democratic ambitions in Taiwan, as -- as they look to move closer to the global community of democracies.

MR. KIRBY: So, what's the question?

Q: How's the DOD thinking about that? That's why I said it was a big policy question.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.. I mean, there's an awful lot there. First of all, there's no change to our One-China Policy. So, we'll just lay that flat right now. We continue to maintain a strong belief in international norms that exist in that region and around the world. 

And in abeyance to those norms and orders to include the right of navigation in international waters, and international airspace. Freedom of the seas doesn't just apply to whales and icebergs. It applies the navies and ships of all nations. And we're going to continue to exercise that right, lawfully and appropriately as we can.

Q: And do you think that AUKUS will assist in that? Over the longer term?

MR. KIRBY: I think it's important to remember that AUKUS is not some sort of new alliance. It is a new defense security partnership that has been put in place. And the first element of it. The first initiative of it, is to help Australia acquire nuclear powered submarines.

Which as the Secretary said, last week, we believe will be an additive component to something akin to integrated deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region. It'll improve the Australian Navy's reach and their warfighting capability, their defensive capability. And that's all to be welcomed in that particular part of the world. Given the dynamic, intense security environment that exists.

Jen.

Q: John, can I ask you about the flights from Ramstein and when they're going to resume? It's my understanding that there have been about 9,000, MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccines that have been administered. And so, the reason for stopping those flights you still have about 10,000 people at Ramstein. When are they going to start up again? And why is the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) still halting them? I guess.

MR. KIRBY: I don't have an update. They are still halted, and your question is much better put to the CDC about when they can be resumed. We are - just like we do here at home with respect to COVID. We comply with CDC guidelines. And I would refer you to CDC for more detail on that. OK, I get a couple more and then I'll let you all go. Jared.

Q: Hi, Mr. Kirby. My question has been answered.

MR. KIRBY: OK. Kim Dozier.

Q: Hey, there thanks. Two questions. Can you give us an update on the Afghan casualties who were taken to Landstuhl or other U.S. medical facilities from Abbey Gate bombing? And also, what guidance Are you giving U.S. military personnel who are trying to shepherd along their Afghan interpreter or other threatened Afghan cases? Mainly in the P-2 category.

As I've heard from people who are worried that they hear state talking about American citizens and legal permanent residents. And it feels like the P-2 category is just dropped off the map. And they want to know if the Biden administration is still trying to get threatened Afghans out?

MR. KIRBY: I can't help you on your first question, Kim, but I will take it and we'll see. I can't promise I don't know how much we're going to be allowed to speak to the wounded of another nation. But I will - we will certainly look into this and see if we have something for you. I just wasn't prepared today to have any detail on that.

On your second question. Again, the questions about visas and how they're being processed is better put to my state department colleagues. What I can tell you is that we have been already talking to veterans' groups quite frequently. About their concerns over specific individuals and or specific families.

Many of us here in the building also have, you know, friends and coworkers and teammates that we know of. And so, we, you might have seen General Milley tried to help put together a process by which these veterans' groups. Whether they're formal or informally developed. A process by which they can communicate directly with the department, about individuals and family members that they want to make sure are on our radar screen.

And so, we're going to continue to try to improve that process and improve that communication. So that we can continue to help as many people as possible. Another flight left, yesterday. With, I think, more than 20 American citizens on it. So, as we said earlier, though, the military component of this effort has ended.

It doesn't mean that the DOD or the interagency or the administration is going to turn a blind eye. To the effort to continue to try to get American citizens out of Afghanistan. And continue to help those Afghan allies who helped us so much over the last 20 years.

Q: Has it been formalized at all that process?

Q: Any detail, you can offer about DOD and Transcom (U.S. Transportation Command) assistance to DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection) at the border at Del Rio? And a different subject entirely, a clarification question. Servicemembers who were discharged, dishonorably discharged under sexual orientation or gender identity.

Have they always had access to full VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) benefits? Or is there a change in policy or process? That now makes it easier for them to get full access.

MR. KIRBY: I'd refer you to VA on that one. I don't I'm not an expert on their processes. But I did. You saw - I hope you saw on the Secretary's' statement that he encourages those individuals who were discharged under other than honorable circumstances. Because of this, because of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy.

To reach out to their Boards of Corrections for their individual services and to try to get their services amended, appropriately. But as for the VA benefits, I'm just not an expert on that. On your other question, I can confirm that the department has received a request for transportation support. From the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Service.

Under this request, the department would provide contracted air transportation for Customs and Border Patrol on a reimbursable basis. To temporarily supplement CBP efforts to move non-U.S. citizen migrants from Del Rio Texas to other domestic CBP Processing Facilities.

And this support will conclude on or before October 20 of this year. And it can be provided with minimal risks to current DOD missions. I would just again, highlight contracted air. We're not talking about military aircraft right now. And on a reimbursable basis.

And to be provided at minimal risk to current DOD missions. I don't have more detail than that the request really has just come in. So, we're doing the same thing we would do with any RFA Request for Assistance. We're examining, reviewing, and determining the best way forward.

Yes, Ryo?

Q: I have a quick question. I'm wondering how important Australia is for the DOD processing to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait? Are you going to discard the COVID operation planning or contingency in the Taiwan Strait with Australia in the future?

MR. KIRBY: I wouldn't get so specifically to talk about Taiwan here. Again, nothing's changed about our One-China Policy. And what I would tell you though, is that Australia is a key ally. Been an ally for 70 years. And a country that is all by itself vital to Indo-Pacific, prosperity and security.

And obviously a good friend and a partner. So, we were delighted to be able to enter this new defense relationship with them and with the United Kingdom. And we look forward to, as the Secretary said last week. Just looking at ways we can broaden that with additional capabilities. With additional rotational deployment opportunities.

And with additional potential access to Australia, and to Australia's training ranges as well. So, there's a lot here to grow. And Secretary, looks forward to doing that. OK. Thanks, everybody.

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