Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Nov. 1, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. Just a note up at the top -- I think you probably know November marks National Veterans and Military Families Month, when we take some time to recognize and celebrate military families and the important role that they play in supporting the force.
Our nation's service members do not serve alone. Alongside them are the dedicated members of their families whose commitment and resolve absolutely strengthen our nation and our ability to defend this nation. Our military families are therefore critical and the Department of Defense recognizes the important role they play in the lives of our service members and our transitioning veterans, as well as the individual achievements that they have accomplished.
For that reason and many more, we are grateful for all that they have done and continue to do to support those who keep the nation safe, and I know many of you, who have covered the building for a long, long time, have seen it firsthand, just how absolutely critical our families are to our ability to get the job done. So I'm sure you share our appreciation for military families.
With that, Lita?
Q: John, the vaccine deadlines are obviously pretty much upon you. Can you -- the other day, you said that obviously any decisions on vaccine exemptions or refusals is up to the services, but is there a broader concern across the Defense Department that you could get into situations where there are unequal punishments or unequal actions taken against service members, based on commanders' individual actions? And then do you also have any update in numbers?
MR. KIRBY: So on the first question, I mean, I think the Secretary's been very clear with the leaders of the military departments that he wants them to execute the mandate with a sense of compassion and understanding.
And -- and it's his expectation, as well -- and I know he's made this clear to them that he knows, as a former commander himself, that leaders have a range of tools available to them to help troops make the right decisions for themselves, for their units, for their families, short of using the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- therefore, short of punitive measures, and I think that's -- it remains his expectation today, that commanders will do that. But clearly, it's a lawful order, and so he also trusts that commanders will ultimately do what they need to do for the readiness of their unit, and if that comes to doing something of a punitive nature, they certainly have that right and that authority. It's just that the secretary wants them to exhaust other measures before having to do that.
Now, as for uniformity, I mean, the reason the UCMJ is set up the way it is is so that there is a menu of options for how commanders can deal with offenses against the UCMJ for a violation of lawful orders, and each service, each unit within each service has a different set of operational requirements and demands, deployment schedules, the op tempo, and the secretary very much doesn't want to be in the business of telling commanders at local levels exactly how, if they have to resolve themselves to using administrative or punitive measure, how exactly they should do that, because they're the ones who would -- they've been placed in a position of command. That's a position of trust and confidence, and he wants to respect that trust and confidence of commanders to do what they believe is in the best interest of their unit, and frankly, you know, with the individual member.
So can we promise you that there'll be absolute uniformity across the board? No, and we wouldn't want to promise that because it wouldn't be the same way we handle orders violations for other offenses, as well.
But again, I want to go back to the beginning, which is his expectation that this mandate will be handled in a compassionate way and an understanding way, and that due counseling will be provided, both from a medical perspective and from a leadership perspective, to members who are declining to take the vaccine.
Now, I would tell you that as of today, 97 percent of the active-duty force has had at least one dose. This would include 99 percent of active-duty sailors, and with active airmen closely behind it, around 97 percent, and the Marine Corps is at 93 percent with one dose, and the Army also is in the 90th percentile. So just in terms of first dosage, there's been a lot more progress, and we continue to see the men and women of the force doing the right thing, which is getting vaccinated.
Q: Well, just a follow-up: This is also going to be an issue with civilians. Has there been additional guidance put out on civilians about how -- you know, who's going to be the deciding authority, and who's -- how is this going to happen for military commanders who have civilians working for them?
MR. KIRBY: That's a great question, and we're still working on some additional implementing guidance for the civilian workforce, and we know we owe that to commanders, and I think you'll be seeing more guidance coming out from the leadership here at the Pentagon very, very soon on that. That's a fair question, though.
Q: Has there been any discussion of updating the vaccine mandate to include boosters? Is the Defense Health Agency putting out guidance for servicemembers about boosters, or is it just are boosters available, you know, as they would be for anybody else?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have a good answer for you on that, Meghann. I'd point you to DHA if they do, but I'm not aware of any imminent guidance right now coming out specifically about boosters. But obviously, we continue to encourage those who qualify for them and need them to get booster shots.
Abraham, do you have your hand up here?
Q: I've got two questions, John. First off, does the secretary believe that unvaccinated service members are deployable? And then I have another question on that.
MR. KIRBY: The secretary will delegate that specific decision down to commanders at the appropriate level, because when you say "deployable", what does that mean? They’re different units. Different services define deployments differently, and so he wants to let the services manage that decision-making process for themselves, and commanders specifically.
MR. KIRBY: Obviously, though, he wants as much of the force as possible vaccinated because he still believes that a vaccinated force is a more ready force.
Q: John, then a separate question; does Secretary Austin have any kind of reaction to the meeting between President Biden and Turkish President Erdogan, where they discussed F-16 acquisition and getting kicked out of the F-35 program?
MR. KIRBY: Well, as you know, Turkey was removed from the F-35 program back in July of 2019, following their acceptance of the S-400 air and missile defense system, and the Department of Defense remains in consultation with Turkey to address remaining issues resulting from their removal from the program. With initial discussions -- I think we talked about this last week -- occurring in Ankara just on the 27th of October.
And then just in terms of the F-16s, as a matter of policy -- and I think you know this, Abraham -- those issues, foreign military sales issues are conducted by the Department of State, and the Department of Defense won't comment or speculate about potential FMS going forward.
Q: Thanks, John.
Q: I have two questions, too. First, can you confirm that Russian troops are building up at the Ukrainian border?
MR. KIRBY: What I can tell you is that we're aware of public reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine, and we're going to continue to consult with allies and partners on this issue. I can't speak for Russian intentions, but we are certainly monitoring the region closely, as we always do, Sylvie. And as we've said before, any escalatory or aggressive actions would be of great concern to the United States.
We continue to support de-escalation in the region and a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and you heard the secretary address that exact issue when we were over there just a week or so ago.
Q: And my second question is about the meeting that President Biden and President Macron had last week. And there was a statement, a common statement at the end. And in the statement, it's said that the U.S. has committed additional assets in the Sahel to support counterterrorism efforts led by France. What kind of additional assets? Is it -- is it troops, or is it equipment?
MR. KIRBY: So actually, the secretary and his French counterpart, Minister Parly, talked about -- the Sahel as one of many things they talked about when they met on the sidelines of the Defense Ministerial in Brussels a week or so ago. And we have, in fact, committed to continuing to support French operations in the Sahel, operations which we believe are vital to helping to deal with the terrorism threat in that part of the world.
I'm not going to -- I don't have any announcements today, nor am I going to get into specifics about what those assets are, but I would disabuse you of the notion that it's all about hardware when we're talking about helping our French allies in that part of world. Yes, there will be some material support, some of that in the realm of helping them with ISR. But it also will involve some additional training and that kind of thing. So it's not all about just additional hardware. I know when we see the word "assets", that's what we tend to think, but it's really more comprehensive than that. And it's really a continuation of the kinds of things that we've been already doing to help the French operation there.
Q: So no troops?
MR. KIRBY:  I don't have any announcements to make today with respect to what that support will materialize. But at this time, it's really more about helping them in a comprehensive way. I don't have any to pronouncements to speak to. 

Yes, Ryo?
Q: Thank you. I want to follow-up about Sylvie's question about the U.S. press, a joint statement. The statement also said, the U.S. will increase the support and material of contribution to the (inaudible). Deployment of military assets to the Indo-Pacific region. So, what support and material contribution will the U.S. increase to help them deploy warships or aircraft to the region?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, I can, I think it's going to be a range of support that we can help provide over time. And it's going to be a function of bilateral discussions that we have with the French, we know they have significant and real security interests in the Indo-Pacific. For instance, we supported France’s Rafale Deployment across the region back in July, which we're very proud to do. And we have a long history of mil-to-mil cooperation, and I think you're just going to see that continue to mature as we go forward. OK, yes.
Q: John, on the meeting in Ankara, will you just give us more insight into this meeting. What are the points of discussion? What is the dispute currently between Turkey and United States?
MR. KIRBY: I wouldn’t characterize it as a dispute. I mean, we had a discussion back in late October, just a week or so ago about the process of, you know, the decision, the removal, which is done, and sort of what does that mean bilaterally for us going forward? So, it was a very productive discussion. That wasn't -- it wasn't anything other than professional and tone. NATO, I'm sorry, Turkey remains a valuable NATO ally, with whom we share lots of common interests and we want to continue to make sure that, from an alliance perspective, that we can continue to work with Turkey on shared security interests going forward. But the meeting was really about the F-35 Program, and the removal process itself. It doesn't mean that bilaterally, we aren't going to still look for ways to work closely with Turkey.
Q: And just on that point. I know you won't talk about the Turkish requests for F-16s, but Turkey is putting a discourse saying that, actually, this request, also is not only important for the Turkish national security, but also the security and capability of NATO. Do you think that a viable Turkish air force should be there for NATO?
MR. KIRBY: Again, I'm not going to get to the specifics of potential foreign military sales. That's the realm of the State Department and would be inappropriate for us to talk about. But I will go back to what I said before, they are a valued and important NATO ally. And in the context of our alliances, and quite frankly, in the context of the bilateral security relationship, it's important to continue to have discussions with Turkey about how to move forward. And we're going to do that, but I'm not going to speculate one way or the other about the F-16s.
Q: Just one last question. In Syria, Russians have deployed SU-35s to Qamishli, that is Eastern Syria close to the U.S. forces. Are you concerned about it or have you discussed with Russians?
MR. KIRBY: I don't I can't speak for Russian deployments inside Syria. As you know we have a deconfliction channel with the Russians which does work, and we do use it, to make sure that there isn't miscalculation, and unintended consequences. And we're going to continue to use that deconfliction channel.

Q: So, if about 3 percent of the Air Force hasn't been vaccinated yet, as of this morning, that rough math is about 10,000 if I'm not mistaken. So, what happens tomorrow morning to those 10,000 when they show up at work? Are they already -- are some people already in counseling? Does some sort of process already begin right away for -- to get them to?
I mean, because presumably, many of them already have made clear that they don't want to get vaccinated. They already may have had some sort of counseling. So, what happens? I mean, it's solid, I know, it's a small percentage, but it’s a lot of people.
MR. KIRBY: I'm not disputing your math Court, but that's really a better question put to the Air Force. Again, the Secretary trusts the military departments to deal with this mandatory vaccine in the way they deem best fit. And I think the Air Force has received and has granted some exemptions administratively, and from a medical perspective.
So some of that number is definitely going to be inside approved exemptions. The rest of them, again, I don't know what the exact figures will be. But the Air Force is the best place to go in terms of what their plans are post the deadline.
Q: What qualifies as an ‘administrative exemption?’
MR. KIRBY: Sometimes it could be somebody who they plan on retiring in a month or so, or they're going to separate. That could be an administrative exemption.
Q: What about religious, does that fall under administrative? And have any religious exemptions been granted?
MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to speak for the Air Force and their specific.
Q: Are you aware of any religious exemptions?
MR. KIRBY: I do not have direct knowledge of religious exemptions from the services. Again, I'd point you back to them. They handle that process. My understanding is that in some of the services, they do count religious exemptions as part of administrative exemptions, but it's not uniform across the board. So, I'd point you back to the services specifically for that. 

Q: Couple of questions- One, I heard the White House, Sunday afternoon, put out an executive order that gives the Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment release authority for the National Defense stockpile. I already thought -- I thought they already had that authority. Can you give a sense of whether this was a turn of the screw or some significant executive action?
MR. KIRBY: I wouldn't describe it as a turn of the screw. I think it's a decision that the President felt was important to make given the supply chain problems that we have in the country.
Q: What was the system before Sunday in terms of the way national stockpile materials were...
MR. KIRBY: I'm going to take that question, Tony, because I don't know exactly how the defense -- this is the defense stockpile, National Defense Stockpile, not the strategic stockpile, which deals with medical things. This is really about rare earth minerals and that kind of thing. So let me take that question for you. Because I don't want to guess on exactly what the process was before the EO.
Q: Second question, General Hyten last Thursday before the Defense Writers Group, bemoaned the classification system. He says we're going to have to change the classification structure that we have. Not to declassify everything that would be foolish, but it's so highly classified now that you can't talk about anything, and that's a mistake. What's your reaction as someone who's been in the building on-and-off for like 20 years?
MR. KIRBY: I think the -- achieving the proper balance between operational security, protecting information of a national security nature, and the absolute commensurate requirement to be as transparent with you and with the American people as possible, is a balance we're trying to strike every day. And there's absolutely no question that there's times when we don't get that balance right. When we could be more transparent in some cases, than we are.
I mean, I'm not going to stand up here and say that we always -- that we're always as far forward-leaning as we should be. But it is, to be fair, it's a struggle that we're constantly dealing with, this balance between OPSEC and transparency.
Q: Well, how successful have you been in the last -- since you've been in office, pushing back striking the balance more of a side of transparency than suppression?
MR. KIRBY: I mean, I can't speak for every office here in the Pentagon, Tony. Me personally, I mean, I can tell you that I certainly do the best I can here from the podium. And the Secretary's guidance is to be as forward leaning as we can be. But again, I also have a commensurate requirement to protect information of a national security nature. And so, we do that.
I mean, I'm sure that if I went back after today's briefing and your question and graded myself that I would not be getting an A plus. I admit that. But I can tell you that we constantly try to be as forward leaning and as open and transparent as we can be.
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Yes. Yes, hang on. Just second, I need to get to phones. And then, Nancy, I'll come to you. And then over to you. 

Jeff Schogol, I think you're here at the top of the list here today.
Q: Thank you very much. And thank you to your staff for being so helpful on the question of DVIDS taking down pictures and videos from Afghanistan. I was wondering if you could address why the defense department didn't publicly announce when it took down so many pictures and images from Afghanistan, why it was doing so and the criteria it used in order to remove those images?
MR. KIRBY: Good questions, Jeff. So let me level-set for everybody in case you don't understand what Jeff has asked -- asking about. Throughout the course of the evacuation in August, and then well into September, and this gets to Jeff's question, of you know, why we didn't announce.
What we did was, and in order to protect the identities of Afghans who worked for us and Afghans at the time we were still trying to get out of the country, and frankly, still are today. We did not delete, but we took off publicly-accessible platforms and archived for future re-publication at a later date, we removed 1000s of still imagery and videos that would show the faces or any other identifiable information about many of the Afghans that we have worked for, and we've supported and who have supported us over the last 20 years. It was a mammoth undertaking, and it took us a long time, almost two months. And the reason why I didn't announce it was because we were in the middle of it. And it wouldn't make much sense to tell the world that we were archiving these images before we were done archiving them.
And because it is still an ongoing effort, frankly, this is not the kind of thing that I wanted to be able or have to talk about, because we are still trying to get many of these Afghans out of the country. So, we did it out of an abundance of caution out of respect for the obligation that we have to these individuals and to their families. And at the right time, when it's appropriate, we will absolutely re-publish those images. They haven't gone anywhere. They're archived, they're safe and sound, and we'll put them back in a public domain when we think it's the right time to do that.

Q: A couple of clarifying questions, and then a question (inaudible). On Tony's question about the Executive Order, can you find out for us if there's any limitations on that? Because the person who's delegated to do that it's in an acting capacity. And I'm curious if that limits it anyway, her ability to carry out that order. And what the status is on naming someone in a permanent position?
MR. KIRBY: I know of no limitations on acting officials to execute this EO, none whatsoever. I don't have an update for you from a personnel announcement perspective, as I've said, before, we understand the criticality of this position. The Secretary's certainly focused on making sure that we get the best talent here at the Pentagon. And when we have personnel announcements to make, we certainly will.
Q: And then...
MR. KIRBY: In this case, the President will, but you get the point.
Q: And then to Jeff's question, can you give us a sense of how many 1000s were taken down? Was there a specific threat that led to this and who made the determination of taking them down? The criteria for taking them down, and what would then allow them to be republished?
MR. KIRBY: There were approximately 124,000 photographs, still images and about 17,000 videos that remain unpublished. I delegated. It was my decision. And I delegated it to the leadership at the Defense Media Activity to use their best judgment.
My guidance was, I want any imagery that could be used to identify individuals and or family members over the last 20 years of war- I want it to be unpublished for a temporary period of time, and it is temporary. And it was done out of an abundance of caution.
Q: It was not spurred by a specific threat or reference to any photos that were used to target an Afghan?
MR. KIRBY: No, we had reason enough to believe Nancy, and you know this from covering the evacuation that the Taliban were going -- we were concerned that they were going to seek out people who helped us over time, or relatives and families. And I think those concerns were valid, and we make no apology whatsoever for making this decision.
I still believe it was the right thing to do. And at the right time, we will absolutely republish them. Nothing's been deleted from the record. It's simply being archived until we believe it's the appropriate time to put them back up.
Q: And then I wanted to ask you about a statement that OSD put out on the 15th about a call between Doctor Colin Kahl and the head of the NGO or Mr. Ahmadi who was killed on August 29th. In that statement, OSD said that there was a commitment from this department to offering condolence payments, including and working with the State Department to help support his family members who are interested in relocating to the United States. It's been about two weeks since that statement was released. I was wondering if there was any update on either condolence payments, or helping them leave if they choose to?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have an update for you. We are working closely with the State Department to both ends. If there is something to update you with, we will absolutely do that.
Q: Can you give me a sense then. Is there, you know, one of the concerns that the families have expressed is because they've gotten so much attention that they're increasingly targeted or could be targeted by the Taliban? Is there a timeline with which the department hopes to either get payments or get them an answer on evacuation?
MR. KIRBY: We're working through the timing of the ex-gratia payment issue now, as a matter of fact. And as far as I know, the exact timing and delivery method has not been solidified. As for relocation, as you know, the Secretary fully supports that. And we've said that numerous times and obviously we're going to do everything we can to support the State Department as they try to affect the relocation of the family members.
Q: If I could just make a request that if there's any update we can get on where it is in that process, you talked about timing, I’d really appreciate it.
MR. KIRBY: If there's a tangible update to give you I absolutely will. But I do not know that they have -- I have anything tangibly today to add to the discussion. 

Let's see Jared Szuba, Al Monitor?
Q: Hi, Mr. Kirby. Thanks. I'm just wondering if there's a date set for the next round of dialogue with Turkish officials on the F-35 Resolution?
MR. KIRBY: Not that I'm aware of Jared. But you know what, we'll take the question, it’s a fair one, and I'll see if we have anything to add. But I just I don't know that there's a there's another discussion on the schedule. 
Q: Thank you John.
MR. KIRBY: Fadi?.
Q: So there has been -- there have been speculations about potential Turkish military operation against SDF forces in Northern Syria. Today, Sputnik News Agency had a report quoting unnamed source that -- basically proclaiming that the operation is going to happen on Tuesday.
So, my question is this. Have you seen any movement on the ground that would indicate such an operation is imminent? Are you in touch with Turkish counterpart on potential operation? And what's the department position about such a military operation if it happens?
MR. KIRBY: You're asking a lot of ifs there Fadi, a lot of speculation on military operations that, you know, are beyond our control here at the Pentagon. So, I don't have anything on these reports. And even if we did, I doubt that we would use the podium to speak specifically about what another nation state military might or might not do operationally.
Members of the Syrian Democratic Forces are our partners in the fight against ISIS in Syria, we take that partnership seriously. We continue to work with them, specifically and solely on the ISIS threat in Syria. And it's our expectation that, that kind of cooperation and those operations will continue. As for what the Turks might or might not do, I would suggest you talk to the folks in Ankara about that.
Q: But would such an operation put U.S. soldiers and in danger or the cooperation with the SDF on ISIS. Would it...
MR. KIRBY: Are you suggesting that they're not in harm's way now? I mean, operating in Syria, helping the SDF against ISIS, because they very much are. And we take that very seriously. And just like anywhere else, our troops are involved in operations, they have the right of protection and self-defense, and they will absolutely, it's our expectation that they will execute that right and responsibility as appropriate. But I don't want to speculate about something that is in Sputnik News by an unnamed source. I just don't think that would be a valuable use of time today.
Q: We see statements coming out of Turkey, basically about Sputnik.
MR. KIRBY: I'm just not using Sputnik News as a as a valid source of information. And I would suggest you don't either. I think this is, these are questions that are fair, but probably better put to officials in Ankara.
Q: I wasn't suggesting that the U.S. troops are not in danger. But added danger, if such an operation happened.
MR. KIRBY: I think they're well aware of the dangers within which the environment they're operating. 

Q: When asked about Iran yesterday, the Secretary of State did say that all options are on the table. Should we understand that the military option is an option for the President to use and you are ready for?
MR. KIRBY: Our job is to make sure that the President always has options.
Q: Does it mean that the military option is part of the options?
MR. KIRBY: Our job is to provide the Commander in Chief options Pierre, and I'm not going to go beyond that. 

Q: Two questions, your decision to pull the video and the images, was that related or coordinated with the State Department's request?
Q: OK.
MR. KIRBY: It was, the decision was fully coordinated inside the interagency with the National Security Council Staff and the State Department. Absolutely, 100 percent, we made no secret of the fact that we felt this was the right thing to do.
Q: And second question, at what point does the Secretary comment or confirm or acknowledge the Chinese hypersonic test? You keep saying they’re the pacing challenge, and yet, we've heard no confirmation of one of the latest examples that makes them the pacing challenge.
MR. KIRBY: I have nothing to add to that today Oren. 

Q: Two questions, the first one is a follow up on Tony's question. Does an overly strict classification system sometimes make it difficult for the Defense Department enterprise to acquire the most cutting-edge technology. (Inaudible) 
MR. KIRBY: No. I mean, we can work, we have a long history of working with our defense industry colleagues, and that requires communications of a classified sensitive nature. And we still are able to do that.
Q: My second question is about the First Lady's visit today, earlier today, to military support activity, and...
MR. KIRBY: In Naples, she was going to a DOD school. 
Q: Could you talk a little bit about some of the unique challenges that the families living overseas might face?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, in fact, I myself was stationed at that base in Naples. I lived just a block away from that school where she's visiting. Look, overseas assignments, it'd be easy to say that they're all hard, there's a difficulty about that, there's no question about it. You're removed from your normal environment, and you're plopped down into a new culture.
And, you know, you still you still have a network of friends and colleagues that you can work with, and your kids can engage with and go to school with every day. But you're still in a foreign country, and there's lots of learning that's required for that. But I think anybody who has served overseas permanently -- I'm not talking about deployments, I'm talking about permanently stationed overseas, in a country of like Italy, or Japan, South Korea, you know, an ally and a partner will tell you that there's awful lot of reward too. To learn a new culture and immerse yourself in a new environment, maybe learn a language, and really opens up your perspective on the importance of what it means to be in the armed forces of the United States. So yes, it can be stressful, because you are, again, going to literally a foreign land.
But boy, there's an awful lot of benefits too. And with the Secretary, and it just gets to the thing I opened with today, what the Secretary wants to make sure that we are staying mindful of the challenges and the stressors on our families, here and abroad, and that we're addressing them as best we can. And so, we're enormously grateful that the First Lady's taking time out of her busy agenda, to visit with the DOD school at Naples, Italy.
And having again been stationed there, and that was a while ago, but that is a fine educational institution. And I know that the teachers there who were, all our DOD teachers who worked so incredibly hard, will be very grateful for her visit as well, the students and the families. 

OK, I got one more, Tony?
Q: The example of the pulling, temporarily pulling, the videos and pictures and stills, is that an example of this balancing act between transparency, the classification that you so eloquently talked about?
MR. KIRBY: Thank you for the eloquent comment, but no. Actually, I don't consider that so much a balance between classification and transparency. For us, and for our interagency colleagues, this was very much about helping protect, as best we can, the identities of our Afghan friends and allies. It wasn't -- and the photographs were not classified, nor were the images and they will get republished, absolutely. They have just been temporarily archived.
So, it's not really the same balance about classification and transparency. This was an abundance of caution that we felt was necessary in keeping with our obligation to protect the identities of our Afghan allies and partners. And again, when we don't feel that, that need is there, then we will absolutely republish them. But it's not about classification, because there are unclassified images.
They were up on DVIDS for a long time, some of them for you know, more than a decade, and they'll get back up there. We promise that.

OK. Thanks everybody.