Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Oct. 25, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Hey everybody. I will do you a favor today and not lead with an opening statement. So over to you Bob.

Q: So, when the Secretary was in Brussels he was asked about Afghanistan in terms of the evacuations. And he said something to the effect that the U.S. is not finished yet, it can continue to get people out that we can. I'm wondering what it is - what was he referring to in terms of the U.S. military role?

SEC. KIRBY: He was really referring to the U.S. government role. The interagency effort to continue to work with veteran's groups and other private organizations to find ways to continue the flow of American citizens and SIVs out of Afghanistan. But he wasn't speaking to or alluding to a specific military role other than our current liaison with these ad hoc groups.

Q: Right, so not directly involved in getting people out of the country, but...

SEC. KIRBY: No.

Q: ...military assets?

SEC. KIRBY: No change to the - no change there. He wasn't trying to signal a change to the current way in which we're trying to help get Americans out of Afghanistan, which is not through U.S. military means.

Q: A related question real quickly on Pakistan. Has there been some sort of arrangement made with Pakistanis on overflight, something related to Over the Horizon operations in the future? 

SEC. KIRBY: I don't have any arrangement to speak to Bob. As you know, we continue to have conversations with neighboring nations and partners in the region, to continue to explore opportunities for over the horizon capabilities and support. But I don't have anything specific on any front to read out to today.

Q: Thank you.

SEC. KIRBY: Yes. Tara.

Q: Follow up on Bob's questions, what is the DOD effort and liaison with these veterans' groups? And in some of the meetings that are taking place, are you providing advice? Are you providing logistical ideas or support? How are you contributing to that?

SEC. KIRBY: These are fairly informal discussions. And, as far as I understand it, they are happening almost on a continuous basis. And we aren't the only participants here, I mean, the State Department is included here. But these are, it's more of sort of continuous communication, about information on certain individuals or certain groups of individuals that they can bring to our attention. And we can begin to work - continue to work with the Taliban to make arrangements to get them out.

Q: Can you give us an update on how many Afghans are now at U.S. military bases, and kind of the throughput of that?

SEC. KIRBY: Yes, actually, I can. So, in the Central Command area, there are just over 3000 Afghan evacuees. In the European Command area, there is 463. And then here, at CONUS, bases under NORTHCOM’s authorities, there are 53,157, at eight locations. Thus far 6689 of them have been released for resettlement. And they're on their way to their new lives. We can get your breakdown by base, if you want, in terms of how many are at each base, but there's 53,000 plus here in the States.

Q: As far as continuing to be in shelter Afghans through the winter, the families that are there. Are having to ask for any sort of budget increase to do that. And are these private organizations that are volunteering to feed them? How is this working?

SEC. KIRBY: I know of no budget requests that is looming. As you know, we are doing this mission on a reimbursable basis. But that hasn't been worked out, and then we're working closely with nonprofit organizations, humanitarian organizations, I should say the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department are, in terms of how they're resettled. 

And that's not a departmental responsibility here at the Pentagon. That said, a lot of local aid organizations and frankly, just citizens that live outside these facilities, these eight bases, are donating all kinds of things, largely clothing and toys for kids. So, there's been an outpouring throughout the country, particularly in these communities outside these bases of support for these people. Yes, Lucas.

Q: John, there's news for another hack today, Microsoft says the Russians continue, I was wondering what is U.S. Cyber Command doing to thwart these attacks?

SEC. KIRBY: I don't have any particular knowledge of this latest report Lucas. So, I'd refer you to the more appropriate authorities on that. And obviously, we don't talk about what we do in the - in cyberspace, with the - much aggressiveness. But what I can say broadly, is that the Secretary is very focused on making sure that we have in place the cyber capabilities that we need to defend - our ability to defend the nation, and to try to contribute to overall governmental efforts to protect critical infrastructure. 

We take the threats in cyberspace seriously, the department, writ large gets attacked thousands and thousands of times a day. And so, we're, obviously, we work very hard to make sure that we can build our resilience against that those kinds of attacks. 

And that we have the capabilities that we need to protect and defend our own critical infrastructure here inside the military.

Q: Any recent intrusions in some of those attacks you just mentioned?

SEC. KIRBY: I won't get into details. But obviously, you can imagine that our networks are under siege every single day. 

Q: Is this just like Cold War spying? Is this is how adversary spy now, it's on internet?

SEC. KIRBY: Again, without pointing to specific motivations and intent here. I mean, there are lots of reasons why actors, malign actors in cyber, want to launch operations against the department, against the United States government. 

Some of it is for the extraction of material and information. Some of it is to be disruptive, and there's a broad range. And what we're focused on is making sure that we're as resilient as we can be. 

Yes, Wafaa?

Q: On a different topic. What's the Pentagon’s assessment of the situation pm the ground in Sudan? And what are the consequences on the future military cooperation or relationship with Sudan? 

SEC. KIRBY: Well, I think you've heard the State Department speak to this, we share their deep concerns with the Sudanese military’s takeover of the transitional government and the intent to maintain power until democratic elections are held. These actions are counter to the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people. 

They contravene the constitutional declaration there, and they undermine the Juba Peace Agreement. We call on the military to unconditionally release and reinstate all detained civilians in order to allow the civilian-led transition to continue its progress toward elections. And we also call on the Sudanese security forces to respect the right of the Sudanese people to peacefully protest. 

There is no U.S. military footprint on the ground in Sudan, and there's no training, it's not like this disrupted some sort of training, partnership or relationship. There's no - we don't have a U.S. military presence on the ground to those ends.

Q: Can you just explain the term that military takeover? Why we're not calling it military coup?

SEC. KIRBY: I don't have a - I mean, it wasn't, I don't think we're parsing words here, it was a military takeover of the transitional government. And it is a transitional government. And I’ll just leave it at that.

Q: One point - broader question. Do you have concerns over the instability in Sudan and maybe its impact on the whole region?

SEC. KIRBY: Obviously, again, without trying to speculate where this is going to go. I mean, when you have a situation like this, which can be destabilizing, certainly inside, is destabilizing inside Sudan, we obviously have broader regional concerns about the impacts that that could have, larger, in the region. And that's again, why we are joining our State Department colleagues and -- and urging that -- that Sudanese security forces turnover authorities to the transitional government and allow the -- the will of the Sudanese people to be -- to be seen, to be -- to be achieved. 

Pierre? 

Q: Are there any ministry-to-military relations with the Sudanese? 

SEC. KIRBY: There's -- there's -- as I said, to Wafaa, we don't have any training presence on the ground. There's no -- there's no -- right now, there's no U.S. military cooperation with Sudanese security forces. 

Let me go over to this side, in the back there. 

Q: Thank you. The Defense Department's chief for responsible artificial intelligence, Alka Patel, departed at the start of October. Can you provide any update on who is or will be serving in that capacity? As well as in her absence, what efforts are going on with what she was leading for drafting guidelines on implementing DoD's ethical AI principles? 

SEC. KIRBY: I do not have any personnel announcements to make at this time. I think you've seen the Secretary talk about artificial intelligence and his strong desire that -- that we advance our capabilities in AI, but that we do so ethically and responsibly. And those efforts will continue. There is a -- obviously, we have a team of experts here at the Pentagon that are working inside the interagency and with partners -- allies and partners around the world. And the Secretary is comfortable that we'll -- we'll be able to continue to do that work. And I just again, I don't have any personnel announcements to make. 

Q: And there's no one serving in the interim in that capacity? 


SEC. KIRBY: I don't have any personnel announcements to make today. I -- I can take the question on an interim person. I just don't -- I don't -- I don't have that level of detail. 

Yeah, Travis? 

Q: Hey, thanks, John. I had a question about the budget for Afghan refugees at bases. You said it would be paid back on a reimbursable basis. I'm just wondering if there's any indication at this point that those expenses could affect other military operations. Is there any concern about that? 

SEC. KIRBY: One of the things that you've heard the Secretary talk about is that we want to make sure - We obviously, take this mission very seriously. And -- and we're very proud of the role that we're playing and of the terrific job, the compassion, that our men and women are showing every day. Not just here, at home, but overseas and making sure that these evacuees have a safe and secure environment to -- to live and to -- and to work on their process of towards citizenship. 

But obviously, we also have a commensurate responsibility to defend this country. And one of the things that we're constantly reviewing is the degree to which our readiness to do that is being affected by this fairly sizable mission set. And we don't believe now that at this time, that -- that our readiness to defend the nation is being adversely affected. But clearly, there are assets, resources, time, that has -- that are being devoted to this, that -- that are in some cases not being devoted to other things. And so we're watching that very closely. But the Secretary is not at a point now where he would say that our readiness to defend this country is being adversely affected. 

Q: You said it's still being worked out, the reimbursable portion. But is this something that Congress would need to be involved in? That you would need Congress to reimburse this money or would it be... 

SEC. KIRBY: I don't think we're -- I don't think we're at that stage right now, Travis, to have all of that detail worked out. 

Kristina? 

Q: Oh, thanks. Welcome back from the trip. 

SEC. KIRBY: Thank you. 

Q: So some Republican lawmakers are warning that the vaccine mandate will lead -- will hurt morale, lead to separations. Is this something the Department is concerned about? And do you anticipate any discharges or separations from it? 

SEC. KIRBY: Well, I would tell you that the Secretary's view is that one of the best ways to make sure that the force is able to do its job, to defend the nation, is to -- is to make sure that they're protected against this virus. We would agree with people that argue that it's a national security issue. And our view is that one of the best ways to be able to preserve our national security is to make sure that our men and women are protected against this virus and therefore are healthy and able to do their jobs to defend this country. And we believe that the vast, vast majority and the numbers are bearing that out, of our men and women understand that too, and are getting the shots and are getting themselves protected so that they can also protect their families and their units and their communities. 

Q: And then also, could you tell us more about the Afghan evacuees that are in Kosovo? What happened to have them sent there? How many are there? What is going to happen to them? How long will they be there? 

SEC. KIRBY: Yeah. So what I can tell you is we've surged resources, and we've deployed some additional personnel from relevant departments and agencies overseas to Camp Bondsteel to effectively vet individuals who require further processing before onward movement. And there are a range of Afghan evacuees at Bondsteel to include many Afghan families, women, and children, who've we've definitely prioritized being able to keep them together. 

I think it's also important to remember that all individuals have to pass our security screening and vetting process and receive the necessary vaccinations before proceeding with their onward travel to the United States. So per our agreement with the government of Kosovo, we will we relocate Afghans that are housed at Bondsteel to the United States or a third country within 365 days. And again, for more questions on that, I'd point you to the National Security Council. 

Let me get to some of the phones because I haven't done that. 

Jeff Schogol? 

Q: Thank you. Can you say whether China tested a fractional orbital bombardment system in August? And if so, does the United States have its own fractional orbital bombardment system? 

SEC. KIRBY: I don't have anything to confirm on that, Jeff. I'm certainly not going to talk about intelligence issues here from the podium and, I think it would be important for the PRC to speak to the capabilities that they're trying to advance. The bottom line is we know that they're trying to advance military capabilities, capabilities that we believe are only going to increase tensions in the region and beyond. And that's the reason why the Secretary has called the PRC our number one pacing challenge, and that's why we're going to stay focused on that. 

Q: Well, if I could follow up. The PRC is press-shy, unlike the Pentagon. Is there any way to describe what is this thing that the Chinese have launched? And do we have one of our own things? 

SEC. KIRBY: Yeah. And that's nice -- a nice way of asking the question again, Jeff. I'm not going -- I'm not going to speak to Chinese-specific capabilities. Press shy or not, I think it's important for them to be transparent with the international community about what they're doing and what they intend to do. And so I still would like to see you get your question answered from them. And I'm not going to talk about our capabilities in return. 

What I can say, again, is that the Secretary takes very, very importantly, his responsibility, our responsibility, to defend the nation, and that is why, in many respects, he has called the PRC our number one pacing challenge, and that's why we're going to stay focused on making sure that we can do -- that we can work towards a free and open Indo Pacific, and that we're going to continue to -- to stay focused on -- on the challenges that -- that China poses to us. 

Yeah, go ahead, Carla. 

Q: Thank you. John, on the al-Tanf attack, who's responsible for that, last week? 

SEC. KIRBY: Yeah, I'm not in a position to get into attribution at this point. We have seen these kinds of attacks in the past from -- from Shia militia groups, which we know are backed and supported by Iran. But I'm not going to talk to specifics on -- on this particular attack. It was -- it was complex, it was deliberate. And -- and thankfully, no U.S. service, we don't have any indications right now that any U.S. service members were -- were hurt. 

Q: Is it safe to say that -- can we assume it was a Shia militia group, or is that... 

SEC. KIRBY: I said we've seen those kinds -- we've seen these kinds of attacks before; I'm not going to get into specific attribution on this one. 

Q: And on the number of rockets. Do we have any more specifics on that? We were told two drones and a number of rockets. Are there any...

SEC. KIRBY: I don't have an update for you on the munitions that were -- that were used. We believe it was a complex, coordinated, and deliberate attack. 

Q: And is it -- last question. Is it possible that this was a state-sponsored attack? 

SEC. KIRBY: Again, I'm not going to go any further on attribution at this point. We're still working our way through. 

Yeah? Go ahead. 

Q: OK. Thank you. I want to ask you about the military cooperation between China and Russia. That last week, the Chinese and Russia conducted the first-ever joint patrol in the western Pacific. How much is the DoD concerned about this joint activity in terms of peace and stability in the region? 

SEC. KIRBY: Well, look, for one thing, I'd refer you to Russia and China to talk about their exercises. Generally speaking, we don't have an issue with military exercises; we do it all the time. And they're -- they're obviously had decided they need to operate together and to exercise together and I think they should have to speak for that. What I can tell you is that we're going to continue to improve our own capabilities, we're going to continue to work with our allies and partners in the region, and we have a lot of them, and we believe those alliances and partnerships are a real unique strengths that the United States has in the Indo Pacific. 

Q: John, thank you, sir. I'm going back to South Asia, China. Many nations in the region are concerned: extension and expansion of the Chinese military in the region, including India, Japan, Korea, and of course, Taiwan. What do you think what the DoD or Pentagon are doing as far as stopping the Chinese threat to these nations and many more? 

SEC. KIRBY: Well, I think in some ways, my answer to Ryo kind of gets at this. I mean, you -- the Secretary's first trip was to the region, with Secretary Blinken; we have put a real premium on bolstering and reinforcing our alliances and partnerships in that area. And making sure that we have the proper defensive capabilities in place to deal with the -- the challenges, the security challenges that exist out there. There's no question that China continues to bully its neighbors to try to coerce them into behavior that is more in keeping with China's national security or economic interests, and we don't believe that that is conducive to, again, a free and open Indo Pacific. So we're going to continue to work this as very -- as hard as we can. 

Q: And John, finally, there is a border issues are going on and off every day between China and India. Threats are going on every day. And you think anybody or Secretary is in touch with the Indian authorities or military to the military as far as China and India's disputes are going on every day and threats from the Chinese. 

SEC. KIRBY: I don't have any conversations to read out today, Goyal. We're certainly mindful of the tensions there along the -- along that boarder and I think it -- obviously nobody wants to see the situation become more tense or certainly more violent than it has in the past but I think I'd let Indian authorities speak to the conversations and how they're dealing with the tensions. 

That's probably a better -- better thing for us to do. Let me go back to the -- actually, you know what, Meghann, I'm sorry. I'll go to you first.

Q: So the countering extremism working group had a report due in July. What's the status of the report? 

SEC. KIRBY: The report is nearing completion and it is largely now in the coordination phase, staffing phase and I suspect we'll be able to talk about it pretty soon.

Q: So do you have any idea of when the Secretary will get to see it?

SEC. KIRBY: I don't have a date certain on the calendar. As I understand it, again, largely the work is complete. There's some coordination that is being done right now and I do expect that he'll be able to see it soon in the incoming days and weeks. 

Q: And is the delay like the sort of few months, does that push back any sort of timeline for the rest of their activities for their other goals that they're supposed to meeting?

SEC. KIRBY: No, as you know they -- they have set up processes, inner agency -- inner departmental processes. They have to continue to work on this. And one of the things that they already said they were going to try to do was another study on extremism. So the work continues but the working groups read out of their -- of their initial tasker, that's -- that's what we're waiting on right now and I think it will be out fairly soon. 

And it will -- as we've talked about, it will include a new definition set of what extremist activity comprises. 

Q: Thank you.

SEC. KIRBY: Yes, in the back there.

Q: Hey, John. With the vaccine deadlines fast approach I just want to ask you why is it -- is it important that service members are allowed to apply for religious exemptions if it's so important to military readiness to receive those vaccines?

SEC. KIRBY: Well, because -- and it's not just -- it's not just with COVID. I mean there's been a long standing policy in the -- in the military where if you have a significant religious based concern over a medicine or another vaccine that -- that you have the ability to state your concern and to ask for a waiver to get exempt because we want to respect people's religious beliefs in the military.

I mean one of the things that -- one of the -- one of the freedoms that we fight for here in the military is -- religious freedom. And so it's keeping with our values as an institution to allow people who are concerned from a religious perspective to be able to state that perspective and to have that worked out. 

The numbers are very, very small and, writ large. I don't have the numbers for COVID. I'd point you to the services. That's -- that's really their bailiwick. But in general, numbers of religious exemption request for any vaccine or medicine are typically very small.

We believe that -- and you've heard the secretary say this. The vaccines are safe. They're effective and they are really the -- one of the best ways we can preserve the readiness of the force to make -- to make sure there are men and women are healthy and vibrant and able to do their jobs and we believe that the vaccines allow that.

And so we're absolutely committed to the -- to the notion that everybody should -- everybody who can, you know, unless -- and there's also medical exemptions but everybody who can should be vaccinated. 

Q: Right. So if they have religious convictions that keep them from that, would that -- that then make them unfit for service then?

SEC. KIRBY: Well, so there's a process. You have -- you have to ask for the waiver. Each service handles those differently. Some -- some waivers are granted, some are not. And that's really up to each individual service to decide what they're going to do. Now an unvaccinated member, could there be ramifications for their deployability, absolutely there could be.

But again, I would refer you to the services to speak to that because each service, and this is why the secretary wanted each service to handle the mandatory vaccine in their own way, they all have different operational deployment requirements, they're in different communities around the country, there's a lot of service specific concerns that the -- that the military departments have to deal with.

But yes, could -- could there be an effect on somebody's ability to deploy and to participate in an exercise or an operation because they're not vaccinated, absolutely that could be the case but it would be really decided by the unit and by the service. OK. Janne.

Q: Thank you. On the North Korean submarine launches, South Korea and Japan are making different claims about the SLBM launches by North Korea last two weeks. South Korea claims that North Korea fired the one missile but Japan claims two missiles. What does the United States clear position on this?

SEC. KIRBY: Well, we've already made it clear that -- that we've -- we've noted with deep concern the recent ballistic missile launch. We've referred to it as a singular launch. 

Q: On to China and North Korea, China and North Korea are cooperating with each other to increase arms. How do you comment China and North Korea increase military powers? 

SEC. KIRBY: I don't have any specifics about what the Chinese and the North Koreans are doing with respect to increasing military capabilities. I think again, to Jeff's question, that's an excellent question that should be posed to the leaders of those -- of those nations. 

What I can tell you is that we know China has influence in Pyongyang. And that -- that influence could be important to helping us all achieve the denuclearization of the peninsula and -- and we certainly would like to see China be more cooperative and more helpful in what would -- what one would imagine would be a mutually shared interest that -- that the peninsula be denuclearized for security and throughout the region.

Q: What makes you think China will help North Korea denuclearize?

SEC. KIRBY: China can help by enforcing the sanctions that have been in place. China can help by using their influence in Pyongyang to -- to help the regime make the right decisions with respect to security in the peninsula. There's a lot -- China has influence and there's no question about that.

Q: Doesn't China and the North Korea, they've cooperated the increased arms and also they -- the last August the China, hypersonic missile launches, and similarly North Korea also, you know hypersonic missile launch and SLBM, they cooperated. Why do you think the Chinese can help denuclearize --

SEC. KIRBY: I can't speak to -- I can't speak to this cooperation. I can't. I mean obviously what we want to see is security and stability on the Korean peninsula and we believe that a big way to achieve that is the denuclearization of the North. And China can play a positive role in that if it chooses to do so because they do have influence in Pyongyang.

Now if they're cooperating in ways that militarily are decreasing security and stability, then that's a concern, but I don't have the details of what you're telling me they're doing, and again, I would simply say that what we'd like to see is China use their influence in a positive way for security on the peninsula.

Q: Kim Jong-un is a Chinese baby, OK?

(Laughter.)

So I don't think he can have this.

SEC. KIRBY: I'm going to go to Jared from Al-Monitor.

Q: Hi, Mr. Kirby. Thank you for taking the question. I'm just wondering if you can confirm whether DOD received prior warning ahead of the attack on the al-Tanf garrison in Syria last week, and will there be a U.S. response?

SEC. KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about intelligence matters, Jared, on that or on any other operation. And I think you've heard us say before that the right of self defense and the protection and security of our troops overseas remains a paramount concern for the Secretary, and that if there's to be a response, it'll be at a time and a place and a manner of our choosing, and we certainly won't get ahead of those kinds of decisions. In the back there.

Q: Thank you John. So we're hearing reports of relatives of service members in Afghanistan being targeted by the Taliban. Is the Pentagon working to protect them?

SEC. KIRBY: To Bob's question, there's not an active military role in Afghanistan, present in the country, and I don't see that changing. But as I said, we continue to work closely with the State Department and with veterans groups. Some of them are more formal, some of them are informal, to help try to identify and to secure their safe passage out of Afghanistan. We obviously take our obligations to American citizens and SIV applicants very seriously.

Q: Are you aware of any relatives of current service members in danger?

SEC. KIRBY: I don't have any specific case information here. I mean, I've certainly seen these kinds of reports, but all Americans and SIV applicants we take that very seriously, and I just don't have anything with - you know, specific to talk to you about family members.

Q: Just lastly, would the plan be changing at all from here just with the concerns from foreign ministers of Afghanistan nearing a collapse? So is there any change to any planning or are you preparing for like...

SEC. KIRBY: I'm not sure I follow your question.

Q: Is the Pentagon working to get both the relatives and the other Americans that still remain out if there's this concern about a collapse of Afghanistan?

SEC. KIRBY: We are aware of concerns that some of our members have about their family members, absolutely. And we are certainly aware that there are still American citizens in Afghanistan. Some of whom, not all, but some of whom want to leave. So we are still very committed to working inside the U.S. government interagency effort to find safe passage for these individuals to the best of our ability, but I don't - there's not at this time envisioned any U.S. military role specifically in bringing that about from a tangible, practical perspective, OK?

Ellen from Synopsis?

Q: Hello sir, thank you so much for doing this. Back to the vaccine issues, has the Secretary's office been guiding any pushback from contractors who are also required to have a vaccine mandate? And where's the situation with civilian employees getting vaccinated?

SEC. KIRBY: I'm not aware by any pushback by defense contractors with respect to the mandate. I don't believe we've polled every contractor and have a sense of what they're hearing from their employees, but we obviously support the president's decision and his order that those who are working on our programs contractually are safe and secure and have been vaccinated.

I don't have an update with respect to the civilian - let me see. I think I've got something in here. Hold on.

I know we've recently issued implementation guidance that governs civilian vaccinations and how that's - how that's going to transpire. We owe the workforce additional context about actual implementation on their part, and we'll be having that out pretty soon. OK.

Q: Thank you.

SEC. KIRBY: Thank you.