PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: OK. Good afternoon. Just a couple of things at the top.
I think you saw the secretary joined the first lady today at a Joining Forces event over at the White House, and he was honored to do that. Joining Forces, as you know, does a lot of wonderful things to try to help stitch together communities with the -- with the military and veteran community, particularly families not just to -- to improve their lives and to look after their needs, and -- and today, he was proud to be up there with the V.A. secretary, Denis McDonough, to honor children particularly, who are in families that are basically caregivers for -- for their loved ones, for their -- for -- for the veterans and the -- and the former troops in -- in the household. So just a -- a terrific experience.
On that note, as you know, tomorrow is Veterans Day. The secretary will be participating at Arlington National Cemetery in a -- a -- a wreath-laying event there, and there'll also be a -- a joint service honor procession marching through the cemetery -- again, will evoke the memory of the Unknown Soldier funeral procession. And just as a reminder, today is the second day now where the public will be able to actually walk right up to the Tomb of the Unknown and -- and lay flowers as well, and we encourage people who are in the Washington, D.C. area to -- to do that.
And then, of course, a happy birthday to the United States Marine Corps. November 10th is their birthday, and we wish them well; thank them for all that they do to continue to defend this nation, as well as Marine Corps families who -- who are very much serving as much as their -- as their Marines are.
And with that, we'll take questions. I think I've got Lita on the line, yeah?
Q: Yeah, thanks, John. Can I just -- first, I have a quick follow-up from the other day. The Afghan pilots who left Tajikistan, can you give us an update on sort of their progress and whether -- my understanding is they're coming to the United States. Do you know how or when that's going to happen and anything on, kind of where -- if they've left UAE at this point? Thanks.
MR. KIRBY: (inaudible) in Abu Dhabi and then they arrived very early this morning. My understanding is they are still there. The Operation Allies Welcome Task Force at the -- and the embassy is registering today to begin the processing for their eventual admission to the United States as parolees. This remains a State-led effort, of course, so I'd refer you to the State Department for more detail.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah? Joe?
Q: Ah, I would like to follow up on many questions you have received from the -- over the last two days about the attempt of assassinating the Iraqi prime minister.
MR. KIRBY: OK.
Q: I was wondering if you have any updates on that topic.
MR. KIRBY: No.
MR. KIRBY: No.
Q: Could you tell us why the Pentagon is reluctant in accusing Iranian-backed militias of launching those UAVs? When -- when we heard General McKenzie saying that -- he -- he accused them directly, that Iranian-backed militias were behind the -- were behind the assassination, the attempt of assassination.
MR. KIRBY: There's no reluctance here, Joe. We want to be judicious and -- and careful about what we're saying here from the podium. I've said I don't know how many times over the last couple of days that these attacks are certainly in keeping with the kinds of tactics and tools and -- and procedures that we have seen militias backed by Iran use in -- in Iraq, but I am in not -- not a position now to speak to a specific attribution, and I'm not going to go beyond that. It is under investigation by our Iraqi partners, and I think we need to respect that process and allow the Iraqis to speak to this when and -- and -- and how they're able to.
Q: But don't you think those attacks against the residence of Prime Minister Koizumi are similar to the attacks against Afghan in -- in Syria? What's -- what's the difference? When we heard the statement from CENTCOM, in regards to attack -- attacks, accusing the Iranian-backed militia, why not now?
MR. KIRBY: Joe, I -- I'll go back to what I just said before -- I think we're talking past one another. As I said before, we have seen these kinds of tactics, these kinds of tools -- UAVs -- used by Iran-backed militias in -- in Iraq to target our people, to target our facilities, and of course to target our Iraqi partners.
I'm not walking away from the similarities here, I'm just saying that I'm not prepared to get into specific attribution at this time, nor would it be prudent for me to do that while the Iraqis are investigating this.
MR. KIRBY: Yeah?
Q: So -- so I guess the -- the bottom line here is the department is not speaking and/or sending the same message here? We have the highest general in the region saying one thing. You're not saying totally something different but not the same way he was more -- I wouldn't put it like "forthcoming" but he was -- he was not prudent as much as you are.
So why -- why -- why is this -- why is this different? It's the same department, it's the same military.
MR. KIRBY: I -- I -- I think -- I -- I don't think there's a lot of difference here, (Fabian ?), and I think honestly you guys are making much more out of this than you need to. We have all seen the militias operating in Iraq, that are supported by Iran, use these kinds of tools and tactics. We're deeply concerned about that.
And what's more important is not whether I'm going as far as the General's going, in terms of what we're saying about it, it's what we're doing about it and how we're working with our Iraqi partners to do what we have to do to protect our people and our -- and our facilities and drawing a -- a bright line around the threat that we're still under inside Iraq, because of these militias backed by Iran.
I mean, that's what really matters here, not whether there's a nuance change between what General McKenzie said the other day and what I'm saying here. We're all -- all of us, including General McKenzie, are fully focused on the threat that our people and our Iraqi partners are under inside Iraq, by these militias, which we know are backed by Iran. That's where the focus is.
Q: Is -- is the -- does the discussion extend to what the U.S. can or the department can provide in order for Mr. (inaudible) or any other Iraqi official within -- inside the green zone can have the systems that can deal with this type of threat, which is -- we're talking about drones. Have the Iraqis asked for assistance in that?
MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any specific security assistance request by the Iraqis along those lines, along force protection lines, no.
Q: Any other assistance request?
MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any, no.
Let's see. Paul Shinkman?
Q: Hi, John, thanks for doing this. I'd be interested to ask you about some tensions along the border with Russia. So in addition to the concerns about the migrant flows from Belarus into Poland, we've seen Russian [sic] fly nuclear-capable bombers in Belarusian air space.
And then separately, we've seen what Russia describes as a significant increase of NATO flights over the Black Sea, some of which it's deployed its fighters to intercept. And then there's the ongoing ground buildup along the Russian border with Ukraine.
So I wondered, do you -- do you see any of these things as linked? Does the Pentagon have any concern about them collectively? And then specifically, can you comment on the significant increase of NATO flights over the Black Sea? Does that match your understanding of NATO's recent missions? Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: For the alliance, Paul, I'd refer you to, you know, Brussels to speak to specifics with respect to any NATO-led operations. I can tell you that as a -- a NATO ally ourselves, and certainly unilaterally -- and you've seen us do this -- I mean, we will continue to fly, sail and operate in international air space, in international waters, as appropriate, and we're going to -- we'll continue to do that. There's a couple of U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea as we speak. And -- and we believe that's -- that's an important principle to stand up for.
As for your other question about linkages, I mean, I -- I can't -- I don't -- we're not seeing specific linkages between all these different operations that you just out -- outlined. What we -- what we continue to see is unusual military activity inside Russia, but near Ukraine's borders, and we remain concerned about that.
And it's not exactly clear what the Russian intentions are. We obviously would like to better understand that. And we don't want to see any action further destabilize what is already a very intense part of the world. And we urge Russia to be clear about their intentions and to abide by their Minsk agreements.
And as you heard Secretary Austin say many times when we were in Europe just a couple of weeks ago, our support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine is -- is unwavering.
Q: When you say from this podium publicly that you see unusual Russian military activity in an area, what is it that you are seeing?
MR. KIRBY: We've talked about this many times, Barb, and I've used the word "unusual" quite a bit in the last few days. It's -- an -- without getting into specific assessments here, I would just tell you that it's unusual in its size and -- and scope, and I'll leave it at that.
Q: When you say that, do you include the kinds of units that are there? Is that what concerns you, the kinds of weapons? And it's gone on for so many days and weeks now and you have had -- the U.S. government's had interactions directly with the Russians -- what -- why can't you come to a -- an assessment of what they're up to?
MR. KIRBY: We are monitoring this very closely, Barb, and we're -- we are -- we are certainly doing what we can to better come to grips with it and to understand it. I'm not going to get into intelligence assessments here. I think you can understand that.
And I'm not going to speak about specific units and -- and capabilities. I'll go back to what I said before -- it's unusual because of the size and the scope, and it's got our attention, no question about that. What I find -- let me put it a different way -- I would like to see the folks in Moscow get asked these kinds of questions and answer them honestly and transparently. That's not happening, though, is it?
So we'll do the best we can to be as transparent about what we're seeing inside the appropriate lines of classification, but we're watching this and we're watching it closely and we urge Russia -- back to what I said before -- to be transparent with the international community about what this means, what they're doing, and to respect the international community will that -- about Ukrainian sovereignty and territory integrity.
Q: Just very quickly, even -- I understand you do not want to get into intelligence assessments but do you -- can you say that the U.S. government, the Pentagon at least has theories about what they're up to? Because it seems like you just indicated perhaps this is aimed at a Russian challenge to, as you just said, Ukraine's sovereignty.
MR. KIRBY: No, I wasn't signaling that kind of an aim. We're watching this closely.
MR. KIRBY: We're watching this very closely, Barb. And -- and we certainly want to better understand it. That understanding would be exponentially assisted by more transparency coming out of Moscow. I'll leave it at that.
Q: Thanks, John. Yesterday V.A. Secretary McDonough talked about their COVID-19 vaccine mandate. And he said that religious waivers for their staff would be self-executing, meaning that they would be automatically approved except in some circumstances like an oncology department or very frail veterans are involved. Can you talk any more about is that going to be the case with DOD civilians where they also will be self-executing or is there a process for those religious exemption requests at this point?
MR. KIRBY: We have provided -- we have provided guidance to DOD civilians about the exemption process. They can apply for exemptions. They don't all have to be religious in nature, so that they have been informed about that process. What we owe the workforce is a -- a more clear sense of how those exemptions will be adjudicated. And we're working on that right now. I -- without getting ahead of that process, I don't believe the intention is to conduct those -- to adjudicate those exemptions in the same way that the V.A. director -- V.A. administrator indicated that he would.
Q: But we don't know at this point whether they would be anything close to self-executing or whether there would be a review process?
MR. KIRBY: I believe there will be some sort of review process and adjudication process, yes. And, again, we owe some greater clarity to the workforce on that. We have given them guidance on -- they can file an exemption request and it doesn't just have to be religious-based. So they know they can do that and there is a process for that. What we owe the workforce is greater clarity on how those exemption requests are going to be adjudicated. There will be a process for that. I think that answers your question.
Q: Thanks, John. The climate talks in Scotland, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared to agree with the comment that the U.S. military is a, quote, "larger polluter than 140 countries combined." Do you agree with that statement?
MR. KIRBY: I haven't seen the comments by the speaker. We have been nothing but honest about the fact that we are the largest emitter here in the federal government. We know that. And that's why we're taking the climate -- one of the reasons why we're taking the climate crisis so very seriously, because we are -- we are a contributor to those emissions and we know that. In fact, the deputy secretary was just on a trip domestically this week to Detroit and then to New England where she had a chance to look at some of this new green vehicular technology that we are -- that we are hoping to bring on-line that will reduce dramatically, just on a daily basis, our mission. So we're taking it very seriously.
The other thing, Lucas, and you didn't ask this but it's important to remind, I mean, we -- we believe that climate change is in fact a national security threat because not only the damage that can be done to our own facilities, but the instability and insecurity that it will cause in other places around the world which will no doubt require U.S. military assistance going forward.
Q: Is the deputy defense secretary, when talking about those (inaudible) talk about their importance, how long before the U.S. military has battery-operated fighter jets or warships?
MR. KIRBY: Oh, jeez, Lucas, I don't have an answer for you on that one.
Q: And which is a bigger threat, the climate or China?
MR. KIRBY: I think we get paid to examine all the threats to our national security. And I don't know that it does anybody good to put some sort of relative analysis assessment on that. You've heard the secretary talk about the climate as a -- a real and existential national security threat, and it is, not just to the United States, but to countries all over the world. And we considered China as the number one pacing challenge for the department. Both are equally-important. Both are -- are challenges that the secretary wants the senior leadership at the Pentagon to be focused on, as well as many others, too.
Q: Does China take the climate issue as much as the administration...
MR. KIRBY: I think it was disappointing that we didn't see China show up at the COP -- a missed opportunity because -- because they are a huge emitter as well, and a contributor to the kind of climate change that we're seeing. So the short answer to your question is, they didn't show the sort of leadership on climate that they could have and should have.
Q: So if you were to rank the two, climate or China, which would be first?
MR. KIRBY: Lucas, I think I answered your question.
Q: So the SDF leader, Mazloum, talked to Al-Monitor -- the General Mazloum -- and said that the U.S. has officially given them assurances against the Turkish operation in Syria. Have you given the SDF any assurance against Turkish operation?
MR. KIRBY: I -- I -- I don't know anything about this conversation that you're -- that you're reading out to me, so I don't have any -- I don't have any Defense Department communications to speak to with respect to this, which is the first I'm hearing about it. I -- I just -- I know you get tired of me saying this, but it's important to say it: Our partnership with the SDF in Syria is based on one thing and one thing only, and that's going after ISIS, and that partnership continues because that threat continues.
Q: And -- and another question -- sorry. During the same conversation, he says that he -- that the ideology of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan inspires him and his group in governing this whole area. How could a U.S. general -- you know, top military ranking -- top-ranking military leaders of United States shake hand with such a person saying that he is inspired by the ideology of the terrorist group? Is -- isn't it a problem for the Pentagon at all?
MR. KIRBY: Look, again, you're asking me to comment on a conversation and comments that I -- I have -- I haven't seen, and I'm not going to validate here from the podium for the first time. I just, I'm not going to do that. Our focus work -- working with the SDF is -- is about the -- the ISIS threat that remains in Syria. We're going to continue at that work. That's important work, and I'm not -- I'm just not going to speculate about -- about this conversation.
Q: So the DOD I.G. today is supposed to release a report that shows a massive number of sexual assault cases did not have trained, specialized -- special victims prosecutors assigned to them as they are supposed to per the regulations. Has the secretary seen that report? And if he has, is there an opportunity for department-level oversight on something like this, or will it be up to the services to fix their own issues?
MR. KIRBY: I'd point you to the DOD I.G., Meghann. They can speak to their -- their reports and how and when they're going to release them. The secretary has not -- he has seen press reporting around this report. He has not seen the report itself, so I just don't want to get ahead of that.
The only thing I'd say -- it -- it won't satisfy you completely, of course -- is that obviously, the secretary takes very seriously the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment inside the force. On his first full day in office, as you remember, he tasked the services to come up with an -- an assessment of how they're doing and -- and ideas for how they can improve it, and shortly thereafter we launched the IRC and -- and we have a range of reforms that we are working through on this implementation roadmap. So we take the issue extremely seriously, and -- and the secretary has made clear that we've got to stop kicking the can down the road on this. It's time for innovative solutions.
So should there be a report by the I.G. on that issue, as -- as you've indicated, I can assure you, the secretary will -- will read it and take its findings very, very seriously as well, because it's a -- it's a high priority for him.
Q: And would he potentially consider what he could do from his own office outside of further I.G. evaluations to (inaudible)?
MR. KIRBY: He -- he is always open to new and innovative ideas to get at this problem set, and if there is something that -- that he believes is important outside what the IRC has come up with, he absolutely will consider that.
Q: Thank you, John. On the transfer of wartime cooperation considered to South Korea, (inaudible) reported that -- that there was a difference of view between U.S. and South Korea on the transport of the OPCON. What difference of view did it have?
MR. KIRBY: What difference of a view?
MR. KIRBY: So the question assumes there's a difference of view here. Look, I -- I -- I would just say this about OPCON and -- and we -- that we remain in -- in conversation with our ROK allies about OPCON. The decision on the timing for any final operational capability, that's -- that's going to be an assessment made inside the alliance. Neither Secretary Austin nor his counterpart in Seoul have made any decisions on the timing for that kind of an assessment.
The other thing that -- important to remain -- remember is that the -- the OPCON transition is going to be conditions-based in accordance with bilaterally-agreed-upon conditions inside the OPCON transition plan, and we're -- as an alliance, we're making strides in that direction and we still have some work to do.
Q: Do you think the -- excuse me. Do you think that the condition for the transfer of OPCON to South Korea are in place?
MR. KIRBY: As I said, we are working inside the alliance on -- on progress towards those conditions.
Q: But you still need some more exercise between U.S. and South Korea, so you need more, you know, sufficient training?
MR. KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to -- you're asking me to assess, now, progress towards OPCON, and I'm not going to do that. As I said in my very first comment, this is something that the alliance has to decide, and -- and the secretary and his counterpart have not made any kind of decisions on timing right now. It's a conditions-based process. We're going to continue to consult with our ROK allies as -- as we move forward on that.
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: OK? You're welcome.
Q: John? Afghanistan?
MR. KIRBY: Can I get to somebody else just in case, since I already -- nobody? All right, go ahead.
Q: You can go.
MR. KIRBY: Lucas, you've had, like, seven. Go ahead.
Q: John, can you please update us on -- on the number of immediate family members of U.S. service members in Afghanistan?
MR. KIRBY: Update you on the number?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have a whole number on that, no.
Q: OK. So, I mean, the withdrawal ended on August 30th, and it's -- today is November 10th. I mean, how is it possible that -- that the department doesn't know how many immediate family members are still left...
MR. KIRBY: I didn't say...
Q: ... especially in Afghanistan?
MR. KIRBY: I -- I didn't say we didn't know; I said I don't have a number for you. We believe it's certainly most likely in the dozens, but one of the reasons we put the memo out last week was to encourage service members to come forward.
It's a dynamic thing, Fadi. I mean, you make it sound like a snap on a chalk line, and boom! You've got to know all the -- you've got to know every number. That's not even true for American citizens, as other -- as American citizens in Afghanistan continue to come forward, because maybe they've changed their mind. Maybe they didn't want out by August 30th, and maybe now they do. And so the number has -- is changed a little bit.
We're working this as hard as we can. We take the obligation seriously to our people and to their families. And we're -- and that's why we put the advisory out to the services last week, to give them a place, a portal where they can go to put information on -- on -- on there that we can then share with our State Department colleagues to get them out. We're going to stay at this.
I've said it before but I think it bears repeating -- the military mission in Afghanistan is over but the mission itself, to continue to -- to get our people out -- out of Afghanistan and back home or to their new homes in the United States, is not over, and we're going to continue to work inside the interagency to do that.
Q: I understand and appreciate all of that but my question remains -- these are -- these are the immediate family members of U.S. service members in Afghanistan. While many Afghans who have no relatives in the U.S. were evacuated a long time ago, the department, up until last week, did not issue a memo or considered this issue. I mean, don't you think it's...
MR. KIRBY: That doesn't mean...
Q: ... it's late in the process...
MR. KIRBY: So...
Q: ... you shouldn't -- don't you think this should have been the priority to begin with?
MR. KIRBY: It was a...
Q: ... talking about...
MR. KIRBY: Fadi, let me answer your question, please.
Q: No, no, I'm just -- I -- I...
MR. KIRBY: I -- I know that, I get it, but we did take it as a serious priority back then. We were working it. Just because there wasn't a memo on the streets doesn't mean that we weren't focused on it or that we weren't talking to people about it.
But more and more people were coming forward and wanted help for how to organize this effort, and now that the State Department has set up a -- an interagency process over there, we now want to more discreetly, more carefully funnel these requests and that information to the care coordinator, as appropriate.
So it's an ongoing process, it's somewhat iterative, we're getting better at it over time, and the fact that -- you -- you -- you know, you're -- you -- that we didn't issue a memo earlier doesn't mean that we weren't thinking about it, weren't focused on it, weren't hearing from troops or concerned about family members.
I mean, I -- I have to take issue, I think, with the tone of your question, which seems to be that we just didn't care until last week, and that's just not true.
Q: Yeah, but the facts remains that we're talking about that issue still now.
MR. KIRBY: And you know what, Fadi? We're probably going to be talking about that issue for some time to come, and that has to be OK. It doesn't mean that we're not taking it seriously. In fact, quite the contrary.
Q: Are -- are they -- are there -- is there any concern about their safety in Afghanistan?
MR. KIRBY: Of course there is -- of course there is.
Q: (Inaudible) so what I'm curious about is it seems that when there's a memo like that that comes out, that you guys do want out, that you give it to the media, but the only reason that that one came out is because somebody reported on it.
So it -- what -- I mean, is -- is -- I -- that's -- it just begs the question, you know? When -- when the COVID mandatory vaccines came out in that memo, you guys gave it to us, provided it to us. So is this something that there really was an interest in telling members of the military "hey, this is the consolidated list or database or whatever you want to call it of people," then why wasn't it publicized by OSD Policy?
I mean, how -- how do people even -- how would people even know and service – service members without it being reported by the media, that this is even an option for them?
MR. KIRBY: It went to the military departments who own the troops and -- and their family -- or not own them, but you know what I mean -- are responsible for our troops and families, and we felt that that was the -- the best communication vehicle.
I'm sorry if you don't appreciate the way we did it, and if you think it -- we -- if you think we could've done it better -- but -- but -- but...
Q: I'm not -- I'm not -- I'm not criticizing it, I'm asking a...
Q: ... specific question -- I -- it's -- which is when there's something that you guys want out in the past, and there's a memo like that written, we often get the memo. It's "hey, we're changing the policy on this and we're providing this" and you guys provide it to us and then we put it out there. It's -- it's, you know, service to the public, right? Like, we're reporting, we're providing information to public -- the public, but that wasn't the case in this.
So I -- that's just my question, is was this something -- an effort that you really did want publicized? And if so, then why wasn't it?
MR. KIRBY: I would just say we handled the memo in -- we handled the memo in the way we -- we thought was -- was appropriate and -- and got it to the leadership of the military departments who are responsible for -- for their individual troops. We -- we believe we handled that appropriately.
Q: Chinese forces are conducting large scale exercises near Taiwan, as this U.S. congressional delegation visits the island. What's your reaction to that?
MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry, the -- the...
Q: Chinese forces are conducting large scale exercises near Taiwan, as a U.S. congressional delegation visits the island. Do you have any reaction?
MR. KIRBY: I -- they -- look, I've talked about -- I talked about the delegation yesterday. These are -- these are not uncommon. This is the second one this year alone. And I'll let the Chinese speak for their exercises and for their training.
What we're focused on is continuing to support the One China Policy, in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, and -- and as you heard the Secretary say in -- in Brussels, nobody wants to see cross-strait tensions come to blows or come to a conflict, and there's no reason that it -- it should.
And so nothing's changed about our policies.
Q: Have you seen anything unusual about these exercises, in their size or what they're doing, the Chinese?
MR. KIRBY: I -- I'm not going to -- I -- I'll let the Chinese speak to their exercises. I mean, we -- we're -- we monitor things as best we can. They can speak to their exercises.