Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Nov. 8, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: OK, so just quickly, I think you're tracking that -- that Deputy Secretary Hicks is on -- on the road here this week for a short trip. She's in Detroit today, then she'll be heading to Quonset, Rhode Island, Groton, Connecticut later, where she'll be meeting with lawmakers, Defense Industrial Base partners and military leaders to deepen our relationships and discuss department priorities, to address future warfighting needs. She'll reinforce the importance of manufacturing renewable energy and green technology to U.S. national security.

And today, I think it's fairly obvious that we're pleased to welcome our new Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Media, Operations, and that's Todd Breasseale. 

Todd's no stranger to all of you. I think -- you know he retired from the Army in 2014, after service as Director of the U.S. Army's Entertainment Industry Liaison Office in Hollywood -- tough duty -- the Director of Media Relations for Coalition Ground Forces in Iraq, the Deputy Public Affairs Officer and Director of Media Relations for the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan. Todd also served in the Department of Homeland Security as the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and then joined the team at Facebook, where he was responsible for messaging around its community partnerships programs.

In 2019, Todd moved to Microsoft as the Director of Public Affairs and Communications, and we are just absolutely thrilled to have him on the team. He's an old friend of -- an old shipmate. I've known and worked with Todd a long, long time and I just can't tell you how pleased I am to -- that he was willing to come back into public service and to come back here to the Pentagon to help us with our communication efforts. So Todd, thanks. Great to have you on board.

With that, I'll take questions.

Q: Hey, John. The Republican Congressman McCaul and Rogers have written letters to Secretary Austin and Secretary Blinken, asking them that they release the questionnaire that was sent to U.S. allies on nuclear declaratory policy, as part of the Nuclear Posture Review, and I'm -- my question is whether Secretary Austin supports releasing that information, not just the questionnaire but the response to it?

MR. KIRBY: I don't know – I am not aware of the letter, Bob, so let me take the question. I -don't think we've seen that letter. If we have, it hasn't -- I'm certainly not aware of it. So let me -- let me take the question and get back to you.

Q: A related question would be whether -- to what extent do the allies' views on these questions about sole purpose or no first use? To what extent are they taken into consideration on the Nuclear Posture Review?

MR. KIRBY: I think across the review itself, our -- the views and perspectives of our allies and partners are important and consultations with them and hearing them out in their perspectives. That has been and will continue to remain important as the review continues down the path. And as I said last week, I'm not certainly going to speculate one way or the other about policies inside that review and what that's going to look like. 

But I will tell you just two things, it has been and remains an inclusive, comprehensive process that's looking at the broad swathe of our strategic deterrent capabilities here in the United States. And number two, any policy decision of that nature is going to ultimately be made by the President of the United States.

Q: Are other aspects of the review being also either briefed to the allies are consulted with them on specific aspects of the review? 

MR. KIRBY: Well, without getting into specific details, I mean, for understandable purposes. What I can tell you is that we are as appropriate, consulting with allies and partners in the course of this review, and certainly remain open to listening to and hearing out their perspectives. Yes, Travis? 

Q: Thanks. Is there any update on civilians and COVID vaccinations? Do you have any sense of the numbers and is the Secretary concerned at all, it could be a significant number, who refuse the vaccine? And finally, those who do refuse a vaccine without an exemption? Will those civilians be fired? 

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I'm not going to speculate about future administrative or disciplinary actions. I mean, they haven't -- the deadline isn't really until the 22nd of the month. We have laid out expectations that all federal civilians will get vaccinated. We've also given them guidance on how to attest to that vaccination. Today that attestation starts. And we have given them guidance on how to -- that they can get exemptions if they want, and how to file for those exemptions. 

As of today, more than 333,000 DOD civilians have been fully vaccinated. Now, we know there's a lot more to go, but again, they have -- we have until the 22nd. And I just don't want to speculate about what it's going to look like day to day from between now and then. The only thing I leave you with is what I've said before that the Secretary believes very strongly that these vaccines are safe and effective. And that he wants the entire workforce to be vaccinated against it.

Q: Can I just follow up on though on that number. You said 333,000. That would be less than half of the total civilian workforce is 700 some. right? But are they at the point where they would have to be...

MR. KIRBY: But...

Q: ...When you say fully vaccinated, you mean plus the two doses?

MR. KIRBY: Fully vaccinated that we know of through the military treatment facility, and I should have made that clear. Some civilians can get vaccinated on their own by going to a local drugstore. And we wouldn't have that in this number, this number as of today, but of course, today is the deadline for attestation. So, we are encouraging all our civilians to be able to come forward and, display their proof of vaccination. 

But these numbers are the numbers we're tracking inside the military treatment facilities. But civilians have other options available to them, and we understand that. So, we'll get a better sense over the next couple of weeks. Travis, it's a little too early to say with certainty what the total is and where we're lying. Tara.

Q: Hi, John a couple questions for you, as USNI first reported, China has apparently built mockups of the U.S. aircraft carrier and some other warships to practice bombing runs. How concerned is the Pentagon about this? And this is just another sign of escalation of you know, potential conflicts that -- with China?

MR. KIRBY: I’ll tell you what we're concerned about Tara is the increasing intimidation coercive in behavior of the Chinese military in the Indo-Pacific. And also, the coarse of tactics they're using, even using economic tools around the world, to bend other nations to their, to their will, or their view of what's in their best interest. We are in full support of a free and open Indo-Pacific. And we're going to continue to work towards that goal with our network of alliances and partnerships. 

And again, you've heard the Secretary talk about this many times he holds the PRC is our number one pacing challenge. And what we're focused on -- I haven't seen these images, and then they can speak to what their bombing runs look like that's for them to speak to. What I can tell you is we're focused on developing the capabilities, the operational concepts, making sure we have the resources and the right strategy in place, so that we can deal with the PRC as the number one pacing challenge.

Q: One follow up on a separate topic. I mean, but doesn't the Pentagon find it concerning that there's a very active now visible, kind of practicing, again, you know, for a potential future conflict? Or do you treat this is just another maybe -- their version of a tabletop wargaming exercise?

MR. KIRBY: Again, they could speak to their exercises and what they're training against. It's been pretty, fairly obvious, and we just released the China Military report a week ago. I think makes it very clear what our understanding of their intentions are, and their capabilities are. And how they're developing those capabilities and to what ends. 

And clearly, they have invested a lot and particularly air and maritime capabilities that are designed largely to try to prevent the United States from having access to certain areas in the Indo-Pacific. What we're focused on is that pacing challenge and making sure that we maintain the right capabilities and the right operational concepts to meet our security commitments in that part of the world.

Q: I want to ask about Ukraine. Ukraine now says it assesses that there's 90,000 Russian troops at the border. Does this match with the Pentagon's own assessment and how worried is the Pentagon about this buildup?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into intelligence assessments are on the podium, particularly in quantifying this. We continue to see concerning movements by the Russian military around in their western areas and around Ukraine. We continue to call on them to be clear about what their intentions are. What they're actually doing. And to abide by the Minsk Agreements and to respect the territorial sovereignty -- the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. 

Q: But do you disagree with the Ukrainian assessment? Or...

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to be able to qualify the assessment. I'm just not going to speak to intelligence assessments here from the podium. Yes, Meghan.

Q: So, we're about into the fourth year of the border mission. The National Guard working along the U.S. Mexico border?

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: Is the Secretary in discussion with DHS about what they're doing there? Why they continue to be needed? Is there an endgame or a point at which he would want to pull troops back or not grant the next request that DHS sends over?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any conversations or recent conversations to read out to you today, Meghan. This is something that he has remained in touch with. He has had frequent interactions with the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security on. They've had multiple conversations, since they've both been in office about that mission, what it's designed to do, and what it's going to look like going forward. But I don't have any announcements to make today, no changes to speak to today. 

I would remind you that the troops that are there are there in a manner of support to our Immigrations and Customs Officers. They are not conducting Immigration and Customs or law enforcement activities, they are providing additional capabilities to free up those agents. So that they can do the hard work of border control.

Q: So, in those discussions about what this mission is? And what they wanted to look like, what endgame have they discussed? 

MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean, there I can't speak to a specific end game, Meghan. But what they have talked about is what specific needs are still required by the U.S. military to support the border control work. And over what period of time and with what level of support. But nothing to speak to specifically. The Secretary still believes that the work they're doing down there is needed. 

It's a valid requirement. And then we'll continue to have these iterative discussions with DHS going forward about whether and when that support might be able to change. That answer your question? OK, Pierre.

Q: Thank you, John. McKenzie today talked a little bit about the attack in Baghdad, on the residence of the prime minister of Iraq. Are you in a position to attribute the responsibility, say, who was responsible for what happened?

MR. KIRBY: No, I'm not in a position to speak with specific attribution Pierre.

Q: Any position on what happened?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean, obviously, we, and you've heard the President speak to this, as well as our colleagues at the State Department. I mean, we certainly condemn this attack on the Iraqi Prime Minister. And I, you know, that you heard this President talk about this as well, that this kind of violence needs to stop. But I don't have anything specific on attribution to speak to. Yes, in the back there.

Q: Are you guys reaching out to the Iraqi counterparts in terms of assisting them in the investigation that they're carrying out?

MR. KIRBY: You heard the Secretary, I'm sorry, the President made clear that, should there be a need for assistance, we would absolutely do that. I know of no such request for assistance by the Iraqi Government. At least not from Department of Defense perspective. Yes.

Q: Just following up on Tara's question on the China report. Do you have a direct response to China on this? And are we doing the same to our adversaries as well?

MR. KIRBY: I think I answered your question by my answer to Tara. They can speak for their military exercises and their training. What we can speak to is the capabilities and the operational concepts that we know we need to have in place to maintain our readiness against what the Secretary has made clear. Is our number one pacing challenge in this department.

Q: I just want to follow up to that. Is the speed and sophistication in which China has developed a concern for the Pentagon?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, of course. And it's all laid out in the giant military report. We've been nothing but transparent and clear about our growing concerns over the kinds of capabilities that the Chinese military is -- continues to develop. Yes, Oren. 

Q: John, can you update us on DOD efforts to help service members get their family out of Afghanistan? In light of NBC News reporting that DOD policy is essentially gathering information or creating a database of those family members? 

MR. KIRBY: So, we put out a memo last week, yes. Our policy shop put out a memo to the services. To let them know that the immediate family members of our service members -- immediate family members that are in Afghanistan are eligible for facilitated departure. And it lists who that -- who they are, and also encouraging military personnel and DOD civilians, quite frankly, with immediate family members, they -- to contact the Office of Policy here at the Pentagon. 

And to make it clear that we would facilitate passing that information on to the State Department Action Group that's working this. Their care team, so that we can nest all that into an integrated interagency effort to help these people get out of the country. 

Q: Any idea what kind of numbers you're looking at in terms of how many dozen...

MR. KIRBY: No, the memo to the services just went out on Thursday, Oren. I don't have here on a Monday -- I don't have updated numbers on that. And it might be some time before we're able to do that. But I think it's safe to say I mean, that we would expect dozens of service members would have concerns over family members. And again, the reason we put the memo out was to encourage them. 

If they have family members that they believe qualify that we want them to come forward. Let us know who they are, give us as much information as we can. We'll nest that into the interagency effort. OK, let me get to the phones here. Sylvie.

Q: Hello. Hello, John, I have a question about Ukraine. You said the movements, the Russian movements are concerning? Are they more concerning than they were in April?

MR. KIRBY: I don't think that it will be useful for me to make historical comparisons back to the spring. They are concerning, and we're watching them closely. And again, we call on Russia to be more transparent about what their intentions are. Jeff Seldin.

Q: John, thanks very much. Two questions. First, on the assassination attempts against the Iraqi Prime Minister. To the extent that you can did the attack cause any changes in force protection or precautions for U.S. forces in the area? And how many groups are there in Iraq that are capable -- that have the capacity and the capability of carrying out that type of coordinated drone attack?

MR. KIRBY: On your first question, we obviously don't ever talk about the specifics of force protection, Jeff, so I won't do that here. I can just assure you that on any given day, our commanders have the right and responsibility to protect themselves and their troops. And to help defend our Iraqi partners and enforce protection measures change with the environment, because it's a very dynamic security environment. 

And we rely on our commander's good judgment to be able to handle that the best they can. As for groups, I couldn't give you a list of them right now, Jeff, and I don't have a number. But we know there are multiple groups operating inside Iraq that are that are backed by Iran, who are capable of these kinds of attacks. Again, I'm just not able to get into attribution at this time. 

Again, we condemn the attack. And we're going to continue to do what we need to do to make sure that our troops are protected, and our facilities are adequately defended. 

Any more in the room here -- Janne?

Q: Thank you, John. Because I'm taking something, I hope you're understanding. I'm getting dental treatment now. So...

MR. KIRBY: Ouch.

Q: Are...

MR. KIRBY: Are you in pain? 

Q: Yes, in pain.

MR. KIRBY: And yet you still came to the briefing? 

Q: But it's OK. Because I can -- I'm speaking slowly.

MR. KIRBY: That's...

Q: I take the antibiotic for two weeks.

MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry to hear that.

Q: It's OK.

MR. KIRBY: Best wishes for speedy recovery, whatever this is.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

Q: On the North Korea. North Korea criticizes that recently joined to U.S. in South Korea there were exercises. And it was reported that North Korean army has recently conducted a largest care, artillery exercises. What is your comment on this?

MR. KIRBY: I haven't seen the specific reports of these exercises. And I think you know, what I'm going to say here. That we -- we're mindful of the threat that North Korea continues to pose to the South and to the region, quite frankly. And that's why we're going to stay committed to our alliance commitments there on the peninsula. And to making sure that our readiness is not diminished.

Q: Also, North Korea announced today that it will continue to strengthen Strategic and Tech Cooperation with China. What is the United States' view that North Korea is not interested in talk with the United States? But is further strengthen cooperation with the human relation with the China and Russia?

MR. KIRBY: But I think we'd let North Korea speak to their bilateral relations and in the way they seem -- they deem fit. I would just tell you a couple of things. One, the Biden Administration has made clear that we want to pursue dialogue and diplomacy with North Korea. To find a diplomatic way to end or to denuclearize North Korea and the peninsula. We made that very clear. 

To date, there has been no interest shown by Pyongyang to move in that direction, and that's regrettable. In the meantime, as I said before, we have a security alliance with the ROK that we have to respect, and we do respect. And we're going to make sure we have the capabilities in the region and on the peninsula to make good our security commitments in that alliance. And then the last thing I'd say is with respect to China, and I've said this before. 

China does have influence in Pyongyang. And we all the international community would like to see them use that influence in a constructive way. To put some bite into the sanctions that are already in place under the U.N. Security Council. They have influence and they should use that influence to help steer North Korea towards a diplomatic solution to this. And the denuclearization of the peninsula, which one has to assume is also in China's interest as well.

Q: But China never say anything about the reason to the eight times North Korea fired the missile, the SLBMs. China is so quiet, but never saying, you know, never convincing North Korea. How do you think China can help North Korea?

MR. KIRBY: They can because they have because they have significance. There's a long border there, they have significant economic influence inside Pyongyang. They're the neighbor and they are power. And they can have a role in influencing Pyongyang's behavior. I'm not suggesting they have absolute control. I understand that there's some tensions there too. 

But they have not used to your point exactly. They haven't used the influence they to try to steer Pyongyang to a better, more sustainable path here. A path towards diplomacy in the denuclearization of the peninsula. 

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: You're welcome. Tom Squitieri, I think you have one. 

Q: Hey, John, thank you. Today, the strategic board game risk was one of the 2021 inductees into the Toy Hall of Fame. However, the game battleship was once again rebuffed. As a former Admiral, what's your take on this? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: I'm shocked and outraged. And I'm afraid that I'm going to leave the briefing and go write a letter. A really mean nasty letter. 

Q: Thank you. 

MR. KIRBY: That's a great game actually, by the way.

Q: It is.

MR. KIRBY:  Any other questions? Yes, Christine.

Q: The Stockholm Security Conference got underway today. And one of the things that they're talking about is how the battlespace is changing. It's becoming not just a simple battle as well, it never has been, I guess. But between space, cyberspace, and now also the mind, and it's moving closer to populations in their -- in the thinking, the forward thinking that they're doing in the conference. And the question would be, how do you prepare for that in terms of training, a force? Looking ahead.

MR. KIRBY: Training -- I'm sorry. Preparing for what?

Q: For a battlespace that is evolving based on a fast-moving technology. That combines space, cyberspace, and mind and then moves closer to the actual population, the urban population?

MR. KIRBY: Look without getting -- I'm certainly no expert on this. But I mean, a few months ago, we rolled out JADC2, which is a terrific joint concept for exactly that. For helping us integrate and be more networked when it comes to advanced technologies. And how do you net those together to have the most effect in the battle space. 

And it is a battle space that is much more dynamic than it was before, no question about that. And you've heard the Secretary talk about integrated deterrence. And I would encourage you to go look at some of the things he's written instead about that. Since he laid that vision out in Hawaii earlier this year. For the Secretary integrated deterrence isn't just about netting technologies together, and weaving in advanced technology, some of them that don't even exist right now. 

It's about netting the capabilities together not only at the joint force, but a combined forces, allies and partners as well as the capabilities across the U.S. Interagency. So, we're very much focused on this dynamic changing battlespace. And rapidly working very hard to develop the kinds of capabilities and concepts that will allow us to prevail in that dynamic battle space. OK. Thank you, everybody. I appreciate it.

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