Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Sept. 24, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon everybody. Just a couple things to start out with here. OK, I would like to take a moment today to announce that Secretary Austin has approved the next round of DoD advisory boards and committees for resumption of operations. And I'll list them. They include the Air University Board of Visitors, and we can get this list to you if - so you don't have to write everyone down.

Advisory Committee on Arlington National Cemetery, the Advisory Panel on Community Support for Military Families with Special Needs, the Defense Advisory Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, the U.S. Military Board - sorry, U.S. Military Academy Board of Visitors, National Defense University Board of Visitors, the U.S. Air Force Academy Board of Visitors, the U.S. Naval Academy Board of Visitors.

Positions for these boards will be filled in the coming weeks and we look forward to them continuing their important work. In fact many of you have been or have seen last week that Deputy Secretary Hicks swore in former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James as the Chair of the Defense Business Board. It's great to have her supporting the department again.

Additional information about the Defense Business Board and its members can be found on their website. That's dbb.defense.gov. These boards and committees that have been and will continue to be a valuable resource as we defend the nation, take care of our people and succeed through teamwork. Our leadership team looks forward to working with them in the future.

Now on a separate note, earlier this week we welcomed Randy "Church" Kee, a retired U.S. Air Force Major General as the new Senior Advisor for Arctic Security Affairs to assist with establishing the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies. The Ted Stevens Center is the Department of Defense's sixth and newest regional center. Mr. Kee is responsible for supporting the establishment and early operations of the new DoD institution with a mission to engage in regional and global security issues through research, communication and education.

He'll also work with partner nations to ensure a stable rules based order in the Arctic that will benefit the United States and all Arctic nations.

And then finally on a schedule note, next week, on Monday, the Secretary will visit Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey to take a look at the facilities that are supporting the Department of Homeland Security's screening and resettlement efforts for Afghan evacuees. As you know, this is one of the eight approved locations where the department is providing temporary housing and sustainment to Afghan evacuees.

While there, the Secretary will visit the various facilities being provided and he'll have a chance to talk with troops and other departmental personnel who are supporting this important mission. And I think he'll also have an opportunity to speak with some of the Afghans who are now in the middle of their processing and on the journey to a new life here in America.

And with that, we'll take questions. Bob.

Q: Thank, John. On that same note about the Afghan refugee camps, I was just wondering as a update is Secretary Austin taking any steps to inquire further about conditions at Fort McCoy and the problems that were described there?

MR. KIRBY: He has stayed in touch with General VanHerck throughout this. So they have a regular dialogue about how each of the task forces are doing. What the capacity is. What the population is and any concerns. So he's in regular touch with General VanHerck and of course Chairman Milley about conditions at all eight bases.

What I would tell you is and we looked into this too. There's never been a time that the billeting at Fort McCoy was not heated. And Fort McCoy was selected, I think as you know, as a location to support Afghans because of its very mature training infrastructure. They train routinely more than 125,000 joint service personnel throughout a given year.

They did not have to construct any additional billeting or dining facilities, recreational facilities, religious areas or any other structures to support what is roughly now a population of about 13,000 Afghans. And I would also point out that our own service members, because this is such a big training base, our own service members stay, live in the same building that these Afghan evacuees are staying in.

And, look, I mean one of our top priorities in this whole operation is providing shelter and security and we're going to stay focused on that going forward.

Q: So there were no shortcomings that -- were they exaggerated? or were they --

MR. KIRBY: I don't know, I mean I can't -- I can't speak to the specific claims other than I said yesterday or the other day that we're aware of it, we take them seriously. But we did look into it and at no time was there no heating.

Q: No heating ?

MR. KIRBY: No heating, I mean -- and we know that there are lots of aid groups, and communities locally and not just in Wisconsin. But at all the other facilities too, that are contributing winter weather clothing and other items. Donating other items, comfort items, to the Afghans.

And so, we're working closely with the private sector and the nonprofit sector to make sure that that kind of material gets to the Afghans as well.

Q: Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Yes. Meghann.

Q: I'm looking ahead to over the horizon strikes in Afghanistan. Is the airspace over Afghanistan being considered sovereign Taliban airspace? Are there going to be coordination's for permission to fly in to do strike? How's that going to work?

MR. KIRBY: What I will tell you, Meghann, is that we retain all necessary authorities to execute over the horizon counterterrorism operations. And we remain confident in these capabilities moving forward. 

Without speaking to specific rules of engagement surrounding airstrikes, there is currently no requirement to clear airspace with the Taliban. And we do not expect that any future over the horizon counterterrorism strikes would hinge on such a clearance.

Q: Is there any concern about the Taliban not knowing what's going on? Trying to shoot down drones or anything else?

MR. KIRBY: I would just in general say that in the conduct of any operation, we factor in all manner of force protection. Into the actual execution of it. And that would be no different here in Afghanistan.

Go ahead, Jen.

Q: Let me ask about Havana Syndrome. Have there been any more U.S. military personnel who've been affected by Havana Syndrome?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any additional data. We continue to get reports. And we continue to investigate them. I couldn't give you a number today. But there have been, there have been additional claims of those kinds of phenomenon over recent months. And we look at each and every one of them. And we talked to every individual, some of them are inconclusive to be honest, about whether it really was AHI. 

But I think you saw that just recently, the Secretary put out a memo to the entire workforce. That he too wants them to take this seriously. And to make sure that if they believe that they have fallen victim to this health phenomena that they report it.

Both through the medical service providers as well as their chain of command. So, we can, you know, log it in and again, investigate them.

Q: Which regions where you're hearing complaints the most?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have a breakdown of the regions, Jen.

Q: And there were complaints the State Department officials were not allowed to use Walter Reed and the National Intrepid Center of Excellence for their traumatic brain injuries resulting from Havana Syndrome. Is that because Walter Reed has restrictions the Pentagon has restrictions, or the State Department has restrictions? Who's denying them that ability?

MR. KIRBY: Well, as you know, Walter Reed is designed for active-duty families and of course, veterans. So, it's a military hospital, and it provides care to military and veteran populations. But let me take your question. I'm not aware of this issue complaint. So rather than spit balling here, let me find out for you and we'll get back to you.

OK. Yes, Christina.

Q: Hi. Thanks for taking my question.

MR. KIRBY: You bet.

Q: Just want to clarify something from recent briefings. On Monday. You said the decision to conduct the August 29 drone strike was made by the Strike Cell Commander in Kabul.

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: And McKenzie said on Friday. General McKenzie said that the Target Engagement Authority is held by the Over the Horizon Strike Cell Commander who's forward in theater. So, I'm just wondering if there's -- if that's the same thing?

MR. KIRBY: No, it's not. I was in error; the Strike Cell Commander was not in Kabul. As I understand it, the Strike Cell Commander is in was in another country in the region. So, I -- I'm pretty sure you're right. That's exactly what I said. And that would make me wrong.

Q: OK. We don't know what country the Strike Cell Commander is in?

MR. KIRBY: No, I do. I just not at liberty to discuss that.

Q: And then just one more thing. The President has vowed to hunt down those responsible for the August 26 strike that killed 13 Americans. Or is the Pentagon still planning to do that? Are we still looking for those who conducted the strike?

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: The suicide bombing?

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: Follow up on Meghann's question about airspace. And I'm wondering what the situation what is with Pakistan. And the U.S. using Pakistani airspace for operations inside of Afghanistan. Do you have a standing agreement with them that you can come through their space? Or is that something that's under negotiations with?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I would -- without getting into the details of it. I mean, obviously, we continue to communicate with Pakistan about the range of threats there in the region. Particularly in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And it's a shared interest for both of us.

And I don't think it will be useful here at the podium to talk about all the particulars of how bilaterally we think, going after those threats. It can be done in the most effective way.

Q: So, you said the Pentagon has all the authorities that it needs at this point. So, the Pakistani airspace is not a concern.

MR. KIRBY: That was -- the question was asked about Afghan airspace.

Q: John. About Havana Syndrome do you have a number of U.S. troops effected by it?

MR. KIRBY: I do not have a total number, no.

Q: Also, what's the level of concern within the department with this?

MR. KIRBY: Significant concern. The Secretary wouldn't have sent a memo to the workforce, advising them to take it seriously if he didn't take it seriously.

Q: And also, a separate question. President Ergodan today said the United States has increased its support to terror groups. Apparently was referring to the SPF, the YPG in Syria. Is there a new kind of supply of equipment or financial support to the groups...?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have anything to speak to today about that? Yes.

Q: Thank you. I have two questions. First, the US has launched AUKUS last week, and the President is holding -- hosting the Quad Meeting now at the White House. I'm wondering if there is a policy coordination -- policy cooperation between the QUAD and the AUKUS in the future?

MR. KIRBY: I think fundamentally, these are two different arrangements. They're not alliances. The AUKUS is a new defense relationship forged between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. And the first effort of that new defense relationship is going to be to pursue a nuclear submarine capability for the Australian Navy.

The Quad is an arrangement of our four countries across a range of issues, not just security related. So, I wouldn't conflate the two and try to read more into these two separate arrangements then there is. The big takeaway is that we are very focused on the Indo-Pacific region. And on making sure a free an Indo, a free and open Indo-Pacific region is the outcome.

And there's a lot that goes into that, Ryo. It's not just about security equities, or just defense equities and capabilities. It really goes to all of the levers of power, government's power and influence.

Q: OK. A quick follow-up, is the US, open to expanding AUKUS to include other, allies and partners in the region moving forward?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any effort to change this new defense relationship that we just announced last week. And that really would be more of a question put to the State Department. Our focus is on the arrangement as it is now. And on helping the Australian Navy obtain this nuclear submarine capability.

That's what the department's going to be focused on right now. As well as and you heard the Secretary say this, a week or so ago, in fact, almost a week ago today. That we're -- we also intend to work with Australia bilaterally, to improve capabilities between our two countries. To include, you know, greater access to parts of Australia and to pursue bilateral capabilities as well: Aircraft and missile defense. Yes.

Q: Does the requirement to clear air space with the Taliban depend on whether or not the U.S. recognizes to Taliban as legitimate?

MR. KIRBY: There's no requirement to clear space with the Taliban.

Q: Does depend on whether we recognize the Taliban as legitimate?

MR. KIRBY: I mean, that's a hypothetical, David. That would that about speculation whether they're going to be recognized. That's not a call that the Defense Department makes.

Q: Why is there no requirement?

MR. KIRBY: There's no requirement to...

Q: Why is there no requirement now?

MR. KIRBY: Because we have the authorities that we need to be able to defend ourselves in the skies above Afghanistan. In terms of the counterterrorism capability.

Yes, Meghann.

Q: Is that because the Taliban have given you the authorities or because you've given them to yourself?

MR. KIRBY: We have the authorities we need. OK.

Jeff Schogol.

Q: Thank you. If the United States defaults on its debt, how would that affect the Defense Department?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, Jeff. I think that's a question really better put to other agencies then than us. We're focused on executing the budget that we have. Certainly, focused on obtaining the budget for next year. And making sure that we can defend the nation.

Q: But will troops still get paid?

MR. KIRBY: We -- well look nobody wants to see a shutdown. And obviously, we -- I would point you to OMB for any specific guidance about that. But as you have seen in past shutdowns, people have continued to particularly our troops if continue to get paid. And I wouldn't expect that there'll be any change to that going forward.

Mike.

Q: When you talk about helping Australia with its nuclear sub capabilities. Are we talking about selling them some old Los Angeles class subs? Are we talking about having Electric Boat, build some for them? Or helping them start their own capability in Australia?

MR. KIRBY: As I understand it, this is...

Q: Has there been a plan …

MR. KIRBY: Well, the Navy will be working closely with the Australian Navy. To work out what their requirements are. But I think you heard the CNO Admiral Gilday talk about this. During their Sea Power Symposium up in Newport. This is really about helping them construct and build a new nuclear submarine. Yes.

Q: When you talk about authority to conduct counterterrorism operations, are we just talking about Afghanistan? Or any place in the world? Like, which...

MR. KIRBY: A question that Meghann asked was about Afghanistan and that that was the question I responded to. We conduct over the horizon strikes elsewhere around the world. And we do so with the proper authorities to help defend our interests and our people. 

Q: One more question is that evaluation of the Aug. 29th strike that the ODIG has conducted. Is it different from the review of the CENTCOM investigation that Secretary Austin order?

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: Last week is different?

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: Final question, if I could. Can you confirm that that Secretary Austin received a letter from Congressman McCaul requesting the release of intelligence reports related to the withdrawal from Afghanistan?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I can confirm we received the letter. We'll reply to the Congressman in due course and appropriately, just like we do all members of Congress.

Q: … in the Pentagon to release such reports?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to reply to the Congressman here from the podium. We've received the letter we'll reply appropriately. Yes.

Q: Can I ask for clarification? To your response to her previous question. About the other day you said that Secretary Austin had asked for a review of the CENTCOM investigation of the August 29.

MR. KIRBY: Right.

Q: Then the Air Force said that their IG was doing. I thought they said they were doing that. But you told her that that was different than what...

MR. KIRBY: It is.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: A separate or a DODIG?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, Department of Defense IG has opened up an investigation on this. I can't speak to that; they have to speak to that.

Q: Sorry.

MR. KIRBY: But that's a separate process than the one that the Secretary asked the Secretary of the Air Force to assist with.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yes. Yes. OK.

Tony Capaccio.

Q: Hi, John. A quick one on the two investigations. And then I had a follow up. Why would two investigations be going on the same attack? It seems counterproductive.

MR. KIRBY: Well, I can't I -- to Bob's question, Tony, I can't speak for the Department's Inspector General. That is an independent body. So, I would point you to them to speak to what prompted them to launch their own investigation. Again, it's not appropriate for us to speak to. All I can speak to is the review that Secretary Austin ordered to be done with respect to the Central Command 15-6. He asked the Secretary of the Air Force to nominate and to name a three- or four-star officer to conduct that review of the Air Force. Secretary Kent of the Air Force. Kendall named Lieutenant General Said the Air Force Inspector General to run that review. And he is hard at work on it right now. That's -- we can speak to that. And that's what we're focused on.

Q: Alright, I have -- my main question is this. It's on mergers and acquisition that businesses a department. What is the status of the Defense Department's review of the Lockheed-Aerojet merger? Is it in the end game? Or are you still mulling? And fact-finding in terms of what to recommend to the FTC, Federal Trade Commission?

MR. KIRBY: What I can tell you, Tony is the investigation is ongoing. And the department continues to work closely with the Federal Trade Commission, who is the lead agency for that investigation. So out of respect for that process, I'm not going to go into more details here. In the department, mergers and acquisitions fall under the Industrial Policy Team in our Acquisition and Sustainment directories.

Q: Is Ms. Hicks -- is Deputy Hicks, still involved in the review? We've heard that.

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any more information than that, Tony.

Q: OK, thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Let's see Jeff Seldin VOA.

Q: John, thanks very much. Two questions. One, how concerned are you about the reported deal between the interim government of Mali and Russa's Wagner groups bring in about 1000 Russian mercenaries to the country? And is the feeling at the Pentagon any better following the visit of AFRICOM's commander to Mali yesterday?

The second question, U.S. intelligence has talked that they're already seeing early signs of would-be foreign fighters already picking up and heading to Afghanistan with your over the horizon counterterrorism capabilities. Are you seeing any indications that any of those foreign fighters are reaching Afghanistan and boosting either Al-Qaeda, ISIS, or other groups in the region?

MR. KIRBY: I'm gonna have to take your first question, Jeff. And on your second question, I won't speak to intelligence assessments one way or the other. All I can tell you is that we -- we have, and we will continually try to improve our counterterrorism capabilities, be they over the horizon or otherwise, and we're not going to lose focus on the terrorist threat as it emanates from Afghanistan or anywhere else. And I would remind that -- that we have largely seen that the terrorist threat metastasized outside of Afghanistan into other places, so we're going to stay vigilant on it, we're going to stay focused on it, and we're going to continue to try to improve our capabilities.

Yeah, Luis?

Q: John, General Milley gave an interview to traveling press where he spoke about possibly broadening military-to-military contracts with -- with Russia. Is that something the Secretary supports, General Milley...

MR. KIRBY: I don't know that he and his chairman have talked about that idea in particular. I think, as you know, the department's suspended military cooperation with Russia, both as a matter of policy and as a matter of law as a result of Russian -- Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine. So, our communications with Russian military counterparts are limited to just over a dozen engagements that reduce the risk of miscalculation or de-conflict military operations, and such senior leader discussions as -- as in Syria, for instance, where the U.S. led coalition maintains air and ground deconfliction channels with the Russian military.

Q: Since those contracts are limited, as you just laid out, is there something that within his own purview, General Milley might be able to -- to broaden contacts within his structure?

MR. KIRBY: I am confident that General Milley well understands what these limits are by both, as I said, stated by policy and by law, and he understands those limits. And -- and we have every confidence in -- the Secretary has every confidence that -- that -- that the chairman will continue to communicate and de-conflict with the Russian military as appropriate inside those limits.

Q: Separately, Senator Inhofe sent a letter as well requesting a long list of requested items. Is everything that he requested, is -- is everything on that list -- can you deliver all of those items that he has requested?

MR. KIRBY: Well, we -- we have the letter, obviously, from the senator. We take all congressional correspondence seriously and will respond appropriately. We also, as you know, will be testifying in -- the Secretary will be testifying in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, and he's looking forward to that opportunity as well to talk about operations in Afghanistan to include the retrograde and the evacuation and -- and to -- and to be able to answer some of those very questions.

And back there?

Q: Hi, Mr. Kirby. Did Chairman Milley speak with General Gerasimov on Syria during their meeting, and do they speak on anything beyond deconfliction?

MR. KIRBY: I would point you to the Joint Staff and Chairman Milley's spokesperson for that. I -- I wasn't -- we're not -- we weren't part of that meeting, and I think they offered a readout of it. I certainly would point you to that. I couldn't go beyond it, and I'd recommend that you talk to the -- the chairman's staff for that.

Jen?

Q: John, what's the punishment for Navy SEALs or any active duty service members who go on television and talk about not wanting to take the vaccine? And there have been some recent incidents, and I just wonder if that's risen to the level of any sort of punishment here?

MR. KIRBY: I know of nothing that's risen to the level of the -- of the -- at the Secretary's level in terms of reaction to this. I mean, Jen, a couple of thoughts here. One, the Secretary's made it clear that this is a lawful order to -- to receive this vaccine; it's mandatory now. That said, he's also made it clear to the entire department that he wants this lawful order to be executed in a fair-minded, compassionate way. And that he knows that commanders have a range of tools available to them, short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice, short of disciplinary action, to help individuals make the best decision, the right decision for themselves, for their families, and for their teammates.

And that's how the Secretary wants to see this -- this order executed. In a compassionate way, in a thoughtful way. And he knows that there are other tools available to them. But look, it is a lawful odor. And -- and one of the tools that commanders have available to them is -- is the -- the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

And there's a range of things inside that, Jen. Let's just take the COVID vaccine out of it for a second. So -- and oh, by the way, I mean, we're at 93 percent of the active-duty force, with one dose. I mean, it -- we are seeing, as we expected to see, our troops do what is expected of them.

But take -- take the vaccine out of it for a second. Violating a lawful order doesn't automatically jump you to a dishonorable discharge. I mean, it depends on the order, it depends on the circumstances, and quite frankly, Jen, it depends on the -- the unit commander, the chain of command to make a rational decision about what's the appropriate form of discipline to apply when somebody doesn't obey an order. And so the Secretary, as a former soldier and commander himself, understands those -- those rules and responsibilities very well and has every expectation that commanders at local levels will make these decisions based on what's best for -- for them and for their units.

I'll take a couple more from the phone. I haven't been good about that. Tara?

Q: Hey, John, thanks for taking this. Yesterday, the -- the White House began advising agencies to begin preparing for a potential shutdown. For the Department of Defense, what does that look like? What is DOD in case there is a shutdown, you know, in the next couple of weeks?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. So, I mean, obviously, we hope that Congress will prevent a costly shutdown. The administration's efforts remain focused on preventing a shutdown and a catastrophic default. In the meantime, OMB is preparing for any contingency as is consistent with long-standing practice across multiple administrations, and certainly, I'd point you to -- to them for more information on that. As for how it would have impacted the Department, determinations about specific programs are being reviewed, consistent with long-standing practice across, again, multiple administrations. Our efforts remain, again, on trying to prevent a costly shutdown. And we obviously will take seriously, as we always do, and as I think you've seen through previous shutdowns, should there be one, that we have to continue to defend the nation, and we have to make sure that -- that the capabilities, the resources, the people are in place to continue to look after our national security interests.

And so, we're working our way through that right now.

Q: And just to follow up on that, in previous shutdowns there -- there's been a lot of hand wringing or work on who is an essential government employee, who is furloughed? Are -- is DOD doing a kind of deep scrub on who would really be asked to come in and who would potentially be furloughed?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, we're working through that right now, Tara. I don't have any specific details for that -- for you today. But we're working through all that, as you would expect we would, and have done in the past. Again, hopefully, there won't be one. Nobody wants to see that. And the administration is working hard to try to prevent that. But this -- the core essential task of the department will -- will carry on, and that is to defend the nation.

Q: I wanted to follow up on the earlier vaccine question. Do you have any updates on the requirement for civilian DOD personnel to be vaccinated? Are you telling them that they need to be vaccinated by the White House's November 22 date? And have you come up with an enforcement mechanism for that? How...

MR. KIRBY: No, that's a -- that's a great question. We're working through that right now, Travis, we don't have implementation guidance out to the force yet, but we expect to be able to do that pretty soon.

OK, thanks, everybody. Have a terrific weekend.

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