Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds an Off-Camera Press Briefing

Nov. 16, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Hey, just a couple of things to -- to top with, and then we'll get after it.

I think you probably know this -- I said it yesterday -- but the Secretary's hosting his Norwegian counterpart at 2:30 today, so just in about 25 minutes from now.

USCYBERCOMMAND's Cyber Flag 21-1 exercise is taking place this week in Suffolk, Virginia.  Defensive cyber teams from 23 countries, including Canada, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Lithuania, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom will use a virtual training environment to detect enemy presence, expel it and harden the network.  Cyber Flag 21-1 will bolster the international community of defensive cyber operators and improve the capability of the United States and its allies to identify, synchronize and respond to malicious cyber space activities.

And the -- on a -- on a separate issue, the Secretary of the Navy and the chief of naval operations will be in Newport, Rhode Island tomorrow attending Global 14, which is a wargame focused on the Pacific.  And then, and I'll refer you to the Navy for more information about that.

And then lastly, the Secretary will depart on a trip Thursday evening, tomorrow evening to meet with...

Q:  Is it today or tomorrow?

MR. KIRBY:  Tomorrow's -- I'm sorry, Thursday.  Thank you.  Thank you, Tom.

Q:  (inaudible)...

MR. KIRBY:  No, no, I'm glad you did.  In my mind, it's -- I'm already getting on the airplane.

(Laughter.)

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  Let me try it again.  On Thursday, the Secretary will depart to a trip to the -- to the -- on a trip to the Middle East.  He'll meet with government and military leaders in the Kingdom of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.  While in Bahrain, the Secretary will also deliver remarks at the Annual International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue.  He's remarks will reaffirm the U.S. resolve to advance and strengthen enduring defense partnerships and our commitment to long-standing U.S. leadership in strengthening regional security and stability.  In both locations, the Secretary will take the opportunity to visit with troops deployed and stationed with the U.S. Naval Force's Central Command and Air Force's -- U.S. Air Force's Central Command.  We'll have a chance to thank them for their service, sacrifice and dedication, and of course, wish them a happy Thanksgiving week.

So with that, we'll take questions.  I think I've got Lita on the phone.

Q:  Hi, John.  Thanks.  Two follow-ups from yesterday.  You had mentioned that the Secretary might be talking to General McKenzie about the -- the Syria strike.  Do you know if that has progressed at all, or have they had a conversation, or has the Secretary asked for anything more on that?

And then secondly, do you know, whether the Secretary intends to respond to the Oklahoma Governor, or if he has already, or does that issue get kicked to sort of the -- the National Guard Bureau?  Or where does that stand?  Thanks.

MR. KIRBY:  General McKenzie did brief the Secretary this morning on the Baghuz strike of March, 2019; walked the Secretary through the circumstances surrounding that strike and the actions that Central Command took.  So he did take that briefing just this morning.  I have nothing additional to offer with respect to what, if anything, might occur going forward, but that briefing did occur.

The Secretary has not replied specifically to the Governor of Oklahoma, and I'm not going to get ahead of -- of communications in that regard one way or the other.  We have made it clear -- I made it clear yesterday, and I'm happy to do so again today, that it is a lawful order and a legal requirement for the Secretary of Defense and his authorities to require that the force be vaccinated against COVID-19, and that includes the National Guard.

OK, in the room?

Q:  (inaudible) Can I follow up?

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.

Q:  So just to follow up on the National Guard question, and I know you don't like hypotheticals.

MR. KIRBY:  But you're going to ask one anyway.

Q:  Yup.  So let's say if this isn't a vaccine issue.  Let's say this is a politically-unpopular deployment -- just using as a hypothetical, where a Governor doesn't want troops to be sent.  At what point does -- what -- does the federal authority override state authority?  Say a Governor in a hypothetical says, "I am not going to allow you to take troops to do 'X'."  Would federal authority supersede that?  (inaudible)

MR. KIRBY:  Tara, I'm not a legal expert on this one, so I am going to take this -- a -- a wide berth on that one.  I -- I -- I am not able to entertain that kind of a hypothetical not just because I don't like hypotheticals, but I'm also mindful of the limits of my legal knowledge here.  Again, I just want to -- it -- it is a -- it -- the Secretary has the authorities he needs, obviously, to set mission requirements for -- for defending this nation, and -- and the vaccine mandate is within those authorities.  It's -- it's the right thing to do for each individual member, as well as their units -- heck, their families.  It's the right thing to do, and as you've heard him say many times before, a -- a vaccinated force is a more ready force, ready more to -- to meet the -- the demands that the nation puts on them.

Q:  And just to follow up on the space (debris?), anything else today?  Any developments today, and anything defense-related today with the -- the ASAT test (inaudible) with the Russian side?

MR. KIRBY:  No.  No communications to speak of and no additional context to offer.  I mean, we still obviously are concerned about the effect that the debris can have up there, but I don't have anything additional or specific to say today.

Courtney?

Q:  So there was a statement that the Oklahoma National Guard released that said Oklahoma Guard members are not mobilized on Title 10 orders, the only entity that can give you a "lawful order," that is an order backed by an authority of law, is the Governor and his designated state chain of command.  So I don't understand -- I mean, I'm really lost on like -- I understand that you're saying this is a lawful order, which it is, I get that, but what I'm -- I don't understand if the Pentagon actually has the authority to enforce it when the members of the National Guard are on Title 32 status.  That's the place it's just -- I don't get it.  Can you -- can you shed some light on this, this disparity?

MR. KIRBY:  All service members in the active and reserve components, including members of the National Guard, must meet medical readiness requirements established by the Secretary of Defense.  Continued service and participation by all service members requires that they meet such medical readiness requirements.

Next question.

Q:  (inaudible) the law?

MR. KIRBY:  It's...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  I'm serious, is it like the code -- military code or is it Congress passed that law?

MR. KIRBY:  It's -- (Tom ?), I don't know.  I don't -- I don't have a specific citation here for you.  It is -- it is a fact -- it is a legal fact, and is in the Secretary's authorities and -- anyway.

Q:  And I just want to be clear, at this point Secretary Austin has not had any outreach, you said, to the Governor of Oklahoma, but also -- he has not spoken to the TAG or the -- or anyone about this specific issue?  He has not reached out to anybody?

MR. KIRBY:  No.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  (Fadi ?)...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  Go ahead, Fadi.

Q:  ... any other statement...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  Fadi, go ahead.  We have a question, please.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Have there been any other states that have this (inaudible)?

Q:  OK...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  (inaudible) question?

Q:  Should I -- I'm sorry.  Sorry about this, but, John, can you give more details about the Secretary's visit, especially on the bilateral meetings he might have in Bahrain?  And I'm sure Iran will be a subject of discussion.  Can you give more context on -- on his message regarding -- regarding Iran if possible?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't want to get ahead of his remarks, Fadi.  I think you can fully appreciate that -- that Iran will be on everybody's minds and he will certainly address the continued malign activities of Iran and the ways in which Iran continues to threaten security and stability in the region.  I won't get ahead of his remarks.  He will have a series of bilateral discussions with counterparts throughout the day on Saturday.  We'll read each one of those out as they occur.  But they will be obviously -- chances -- each one will be a chance to discuss more specifically bilateral issues between the United States and our -- and our partners in the Middle East.  There will be a whole series of -- of what we call bilats that day.

Q:  And want to switch to another topic.  There was at least one media report about Russian special forces troops deployed to the northern borders of Belarus.  Did the department detect any such movement?  And or have any...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, again I'm not going to talk about intelligence assessments and specifically what we're seeing.  I think, again, we call on Russia to be transparent about what they're doing and what their intentions are.  And obviously they're not willing to do it.  But it wouldn't be right for us to speak to that from here.

Q:  Not about Ukraine.  I'm talking about Belarus.  So, the --

MR. KIRBY:  No, I'm sorry.  I misunderstood.

Q:  -- the report about the deployment of U.S. -- sorry, Russian special forces to the northern part of Belarus, the reward is not clear whether these special forces came from outside Belarus or were stationed inside the country.

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have anything on that.  I'm sorry.  No.  Mike?

Q:  Yes, John, has other states other than Oklahoma signaled their intention or stated their intention --

MR. KIRBY:  Not that I'm aware of.  Yes, Tom?

Q:  There was a report yesterday, John, about a Chinese company that acquired drone manufacturers in Italy and there was a concern that the drones made in Italy, the technology then would be available to the Chinese and they could use it either to reprogram it for their own use or to (inaudible).  Are you aware of this report?  OK.

Does the U.S., without revealing any security or anything like that from the non-podium, can you tell us did the drones used by the U.S. military we're -- they come from -- they're U.S. built?  They're not Italian built?

MR. KIRBY:  To the best of my ability -- to the best of my knowledge, yes.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  (Karla Babb?

Q:  Hey thanks.  Courtney actually asked my question, but I do have another one.  Do you have any comment on the Navy's statement today that they're going to be releasing those who refuse to get the COVID shot?

MR. KIRBY:  As you've heard me say before the Secretary delegated to the services the authorities to run this mandatory vaccine program in the way they deemed best fit for their service requirements and operational needs.  And he did that for a reason, because they know very well how to best look after their force.  So he's aware of the Navy's decisions and he supports them. Oren ?

Q:  Two different subjects.  Can you give us an update on Camp Bondsteel, the number of Afghans there?  Whether there's a possibility of an extension of the one-year agreement and what happen if they don't pass security clearance?

MR. KIRBY:  I -- there's no extension that I'm aware of Oren and I'm not -- I'm not able to speak with detail about how many people are there.  It's a -- I think it is important to remember it's not -- that there's a range of different Afghans there, including women and children and family members.

And the NSC is really the best place to go in terms of adjudication of those cases.  But I know of no intention to ask for an extension beyond the 365 days that we already negotiated with Kosovo.

Q:  And what happens to Afghans who don't pass security clearance there?  Who don't pass security --

MR. KIRBY:  That's a question for the NSC and for DHS.

Q:  Another topic or another question.  In regards to Ethiopia, is DOD planning for the possibility of a neo there as the situation deteriorates?

MR. KIRBY:  So we're not receipt of any request or demand signal for that.  And I think you heard my colleague at the State Department speak about this pretty concisely yesterday, urging Americans to leave.  There are -- there area multiple ways for Americans to get out and the State Department believes that it's the prudent thing for them to do to start thinking about that right now.

Yes?

Q:  Thank you.  On China, the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said yesterday the president throws up a need for (inaudible) (strategy ?) (inaudible) with China in his (March ?) meeting with President Xi.  Could you give us a sense of the priorities being told (strategy ?) (inaudible) from the (inaudible) perspective?

MR. KIRBY:  No, I think I'd leave this one for the NSC, (Rio ), to talk to.  OK, yes.

Q:  A great effort by both leaders yesterday in the summit to kind of tamper down conflict.  To say that they're going to work to try and better -- I guess not let competition lead into conflict.  But how does that affect the Defense Departments' ability to talk about where it needs to go in the future with weapon systems to talk about a threat.  I guess I'm just asking with the Defense Department be able to use the same type of language it has been using that China's (inaudible).

That there's worrisome this, this and this if the messaging from the White House is very much -- we want to cooperate, we want to have competition and not conflict.

MR. KIRBY:  I don't think there's any dissidents there, Tara.  And we don't -- we don't talk about the pacing threat we talk about the pacing challenge.  And the Secretary still believes that the PRC does represent the pacing challenge for this department and they are still developing capabilities that threaten the security and stability of their neighbors in the region and the region itself and in fact globally.

And so we're going to stay focused on making sure that we can meet that pacing challenge with capabilities or our own and operational concepts and capabilities as well as strengthening the already strong network of alliances and partnerships that we have particularly in that part of the world, so all that's going to continue.

That we, at the Defense Department, consider China pacing challenge doesn't mean that that's in dissidence with a larger effort by the administration to also look for ways that we can cooperate with China on climate, for instance.

I mean competition does not necessarily have to mean conflict and we're not chasing conflict. In fact we'd like nothing more than to be able to deter any conflict or miscalculation.

Q:  Do you think China's actions match what was said last night.  Like, for example, were there any (inaudible) in (Persians ?) in Taiwan -- over Taiwan during the time period?  Or did -

MR. KIRBY:  During the summit?

Q:  Yes.

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not aware of any.  I'm not aware of any.  OK, Dan Lamothe?

Q:  Yes, thanks, John.  New documentary by ABC's News (inaudible) last week raised some questions about the accuracy about AFRICOM investigations in Niger a couple of years ago and also about how the Gold Star families involved were treated.  Do you have any reaction to that?  Do you anticipate the Secretary or anyone on staff maybe taking another look at that?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't know of any efforts on the part of the Secretary or the department to relitigate that.  So I don't really have anything new to provide.  Obviously we're aware of the documentary about those tragic events.  And quite frankly the bravery and heroism that was shown by soldiers on the ground that day who died truly valiantly in service to the country.

As you know those events were investigated with an independent review that Acting Secretary Shanahan at the time accepted back in June of '19.  So I know of no efforts right now that would change those outcomes or those findings.  And the only other thing I'd say, Dan, to the families of those whose lives were lost obviously we continue to express our condolences to them and -- and our debt to them, and the -- that -- that we will live up to that debt as best we can and -- and you know, going forward, to be completely forthcoming and supportive of their needs as possible.  I can't speak to actions before this administration, but I can assure you that Secretary Austin feels deeply his commitment to -- to them and -- and -- and to the losses that -- that they've had to endure.

Yeah, Megan ?

Q:  OK, I'm going to try to follow up on Courtney's question, and if this is just a legal matter that you guys are sorting out, like, you can just say that.  But...

(Laughter.)

Q:  What the Oklahoma Guard seems to think is that this building has no bearing on them unless there's Title 10 involved.  What you said yesterday -- what you clarified yesterday is that a drill weekend is a federal Title 32 event, and therefore, there is DOD precedence there.  So who's confused?  Who is wrong?  And is this a matter of not being able to mobilize, or not being able to go to schools if you are unvaccinated, or is this a matter of not being able to drill if you are unvaccinated?

MR. KIRBY:  In order -- again, I'm not a lawyer and I'm not going to try to pretend to be here, Megan .

Q:  I think just the answer that would help us would be we -- we're working it out with the lawyers.  That's what we all assume is going on, but we're not getting that from you.

MR. KIRBY:  We have been in touch with the general counsel, as well as the general counsel for the National Guard Bureau, who informed my answers to the questions yesterday.  I didn't just wing it.  It is -- the -- the Secretary has, as I said, the authorities to set mission requirements for our troops.  The National Guard counts as part of our troops.  Yes, they report to the Governors.  We're not -- nobody's disputing that, that the Governor is the commander-in-chief of his or her National Guard in that state.  Absolutely true.  But in order for the Guard to operate, it also has to be able to meet federal mission requirements.  So to go to school, official training or whatever your skill set is, to -- to train, to -- to contribute to national missions, to deploy -- all of that is in a federal status.  And so again, the Secretary can and has made a legal requirement for Guardsmen to get the vaccine.

Now, like other members of the force, you know, they have a choice that they can make.  They can choose not to get the vaccine, and therefore, will have to face consequences for that decision that are within the department's authorities to enact, whether it's not allowing that individual to attend training, not allowing that individual to mobilize, not allowing that individual to -- to go to a school, for instance, which then also has repercussions on that individual's potential career track.

So there are consequences, just like there is for the active force.  Different arrangement, no question.  But there's still legal consequences, and -- that -- that a Guardsmen or Guardswoman would incur, should they choose not to take the -- the vaccine.

Q:  So overall, a federal event that one might be able to work around.  But the question is, if you are considered activated under Title 32 when you go to your drill weekend, is that not also something that you might not be able to do if you're not vaccinated?

MR. KIRBY:  I -- I -- I don't want to go any further than I did yesterday, when I said that, you know, when -- when I said that the -- that the -- the Secretary had authorities even under Title 32.  I think I'm just going to leave it at that for today.  OK? 
Yeah?

Q:  John, today, Khalifa Haftar announced that he's running for president in Libya, of course, after Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.  How the department is monitoring the situation in Libya?  Do you have concerns over the security, maybe the deterioration of the situation there?

MR. KIRBY:  Obviously, we're watching events in Libya closely, (inaudible), but I don't have any DOD equities to speak to about that today, and I'd refer you to the State Department for a more general sort of administration view over what's happening in Libya.

OK?  Thanks, everybody.