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Transcript

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

Dec. 21, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Okay, just a quick scheduling note. The Secretary will be making holiday calls to troops deployed around the world starting tomorrow and into Thursday. He will call a -- members of the -- the Army's 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, their -- the -- this is the Florida National Guard folks that are in Ukraine. He will call Marines that are attached to Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365. He'll call some sailors from the Harry S. Truman. He'll make a call out to an -- an Air Force squadron, which is based at Al Asad. And -- and then some -- some Space Force -- the 10th Space Force -- 10th Space Warning Squadron based in, I believe, North Dakota.

So we'll have, obviously, photos and readouts of those calls but this is a chance for him to say thanks to men and women who will not be able to spend the holidays with -- with family and friends, and we're grateful for that.

I also want to make note of another item on the calendar. I have been informed that today is the 20th anniversary of Barbara Starr's role as CNN Pentagon Correspondent. And so, Barbara, on behalf of OSD Public Affairs --

MS. STARR: This is why I was asked if I was going to be here today?

(LAUGHTER)

(APPLAUSE)

MR. KIRBY: 20 years that is a long time coming in this place. You have sat through many a gaggle, many a briefing and we appreciate it.

MS. STARR: Thank you kindly.

MR. KIRBY: Okay, I'm told that the Associated Press does not have a question to open up with so I'm happy to take questions. Yeah, Meghann?

Q: So in July, the -- I believe the Deputy of Manpower for the National Guard put out a memo saying that the DODI on Extremist Activity only applied in a Title 10 status. There's nothing in the DODI that says Guard or Reserve specifically. So I'm wondering if someone can clear up whether this is the department's understanding --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- only a Title 10 status thing or if it applies to anyone and any status?

MR. KIRBY: The DODI, Defense -- Department of Defense Instruction, affectionately known as the DODI around here, refers to all uniformed personnel. What it doesn't actually cover is civilians and contractors, and we will be working on additional policies for extremist activities that take place in the civilian ranks but we don't have that laid flat yet. But it's all uniformed personnel.

Q: You haven't heard anything from the reserve component trying to clarify that? That was something that came up.

MR. KIRBY: I am not aware of any -- no, I'm not -- I'm -- we're -- I'm -- we're not aware of any concerns that have been expressed by the reserve component or the National Guard. It -- if -- if you read the instruction, it very clearly relates to all uniformed personnel.

Q: All right. And on -- no, I want to --

MR. KIRBY: Do you have a hand up? Oh.

Q: No, I had -- I want to --

MR. KIRBY: I keep seeing your hand going up over there. Somebody -- okay, I keep seeing something going up over here.

Q: No, no, no. I had a taken question a couple of weeks ago, similar Title 10, Title 32 issue about how -- if you have a non-compliant chain of command in Oklahoma say "how are you going to make sure that the processes for separation are -- for flagging are carried out if they're not vaccinated?" and I didn't get an answer on it. So I'm still wondering how the services, from this level, can make sure that that process is happening?

MR. KIRBY: The -- it's not like -- so, Meghann, I mean, it's -- again, it's not the kind of thing that the -- the -- it's -- it's not the kind of action specifically that the department, at this level, would -- would take, given, you know, in your hypothetical of a commander or a superior officer refusing to -- to abide -- to enforce the -- the orders.

So -- but -- so without getting into, you know, a specific scenario-based answer, it is a lawful order, it is a valid military requirement to get the vaccine, and it does apply, as we've said before, to members of the National Guard.

If a --

Q: (Inaudible) enforce it.

MR. KIRBY: I understand, I'm getting there. If the -- the -- individual National Guardsman or -- or -- or woman who refuses to take the vaccine without approved exemption can face repercussions and consequences as a result of that decision, to include loss of pay, loss of ability to train.

Q: I get that but the way that this works --

MR. KIRBY: I understand --

Q: -- is that your chain of command holds you responsible. If your chain of command --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- the Governor and the TAG, how are you going to be sure that battalion commanders are going to be enforcing the mandate and starting the paperwork?

MR. KIRBY: It's our expectation that the chain of command for every Guardsman, just like the chain of command for every active duty member of the armed forces, that that -- that -- the chain of command will manage the mandatory vaccine requirement appropriately, and if they don't, then they too can be held to account under the UCMJ for failure to obey a lawful order.

Q: But who is going to go to Oklahoma and check all their records and make sure that they're --

MR. KIRBY: -- I think the Secretary actually addressed this. It's not about going and checking and -- and -- checking the orders. In -- in the -- in the normal course of business, they're going to have to show that they've been vaccinated. So when they show up to drill, for instance, or they're sent to a military training course, they'll have to prove that they've been vaccinated, and if they can't prove that they've been vaccinated, then -- then they won't be able to drill or they may not get paid or -- it'll -- it'll be -- it'll come in the normal course of events. It's not -- because the Guard is a different -- if it -- it's a -- a different organization than active duty, where you're -- you know, you're mustering every single day.

Q: Sorry to filibuster this, but again, the -- the hitch is that Oklahoma, the Governor believes Title 32 is his purview, not yours. So why, at drill, would -- would those lower level commanders be starting the paperwork and flagging people if their commander in chief at the time has said they don't have to?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Meghann, I -- I -- I think I've done the best I can with this one. I mean, I can -- I can point you to the National Guard Bureau, who might have --

Q: They're saying they're not going to do the right thing.

MR. KIRBY: Well, then that's a decision that they -- that these individual officers or leaders will -- will be making and they will have to be held to account for that.

All I can say is it's a valid military requirement. And as the secretary made clear in his letter to Governor Stitt, it applies under Title 10 and Title 32. There's no distinction between the two. I mean, Title 32 by dint of being Title 32 is a federal -- is a federal law.

Q: But he's now suing you guys to -- over this. So again, I'm failing to see how you think Oklahoma is really going to enforce this.

MR. KIRBY: I -- I -- I can't -- I don't think I can answer the question any more than what I've been -- done.

Q: So the answer is you don’t know.

MR. KIRBY: No, it's not that I don't know, Meghann. It's not -- it is that the chain of command's responsible for enforcing the vaccine mandate. If they don't, then the chain of command, too, can be held to account. And -- because --

Q: But who is going to hold them accountable?

MR. KIRBY: -- because they're National Guardsmen, the National Guard Bureau would probably be the one at the senior levels to make the decision about how they'll be held to account. They're National Guardsmen. It doesn't -- you know, they're -- they're still accountable to their own National Guard chain of command and to the National Guard Bureau under -- under Title 32 as National Guardsmen.

Q: So, a very concrete follow up to what Meghann is asking, as of what date do they -- do these National Guard need to have been vaccinated? And has there been any drilling since then? And has anybody allowed drilling to take place with people who are unvaccinated?

MR. KIRBY: In the Army National Guard, the deadline's not until June of '22.

Q: But in the Air Force --

MR. KIRBY: In the Air Force it --

Q: -- it is next week.

MR. KIRBY: -- Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Yes, but the -- on the Army -- the Army National Guard is by far the largest. And they have until June of '22. So again, and we've said this before, there is plenty of time here for these Guardsmen to do the right thing.

Q: But will they be submitting the names? Let's say the -- the -- the deadline comes, the Air or Army National Guard is going to drill, do they have to submit to the federal National Guard the certifications.

MR. KIRBY: You'd have to -- I'd have to check -- you'd have to check with the National Guard Bureau. I --

Q: Do you think that was a fair question?

Q: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: I'm not saying it's not a fair question. I'm not saying it's not a fair question --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: I'm not saying it's not a fair question. I'm just saying there's -- that, you know, it's a valid, lawful order and the National Guard is not exempt from executing lawful orders any more than any other branch of the service. And there are -- there are protocols for when a lawful order is not obeyed.

Q: But they think they only have to follow your orders in a Title 10 status. That's the point.

MR. KIRBY: But the secretary made clear that that is not the case.

Q: Who's going to go down -- who's going to march down there and enforce it? That's my question --

MR. KIRBY: Mike?

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Does the Pentagon not believe that the -- the position of the state governor as, quote/unquote, "commander in chief of the forces" is valid?

Q: Right, exactly.

MR. KIRBY: No, we're not saying that, Mike.

Q: Does it mean, by commander in chief that would set -- definitely that -- that would -- then that would imply that the governor has the ultimate authority. Just as the president is commander in chief of the federal -- military forces in a federal capacity that the governor is commander in chief under his capacity, outranking the secretary of Defense?

MR. KIRBY: We've had this -- I mean, we've had this discussion so many times before, Mike. We're not challenging that at all. We're not challenging anything. We're not challenging anything. We're not --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Mike.

Q: So they're challenging your authority now.

MR. KIRBY: We're not challenging anything, Mike.

We're -- there is a valid military medical requirement to get the vaccine in the United States armed forces, one. Two, the National Guard is part of the U.S. armed forces. And the Secretary under Title 10 and Title 32 has the legal authority to establish valid military medical requirements. This is one of them.

So as -- as we have said over and over again, it's -- you know, a -- a National Guardsman or woman -- they have -- they can make this decision. If they choose not to take the vaccine, to not abide by a lawful order, just like in the active ranks, there will be consequences for that.

Q: Would it -- been -- wouldn't it have been simpler just to say -- you know, to activate the troops under federal status so you can get the shot done and then call them back out? Rather than this kind of thing with lawsuits and accusations flying back and forth between here and Oklahoma.

MR. KIRBY: I -- I think it's -- that it's pretty -- that the requirement's pretty simply laid out as it is.

Barb?

Q: I wanted to ask you a couple of Russia questions, but first, are you able to yet -- maybe too early in the day -- tell us anything about the plan to mobilize 1,000 medical troops for assistance to the states with COVID -- assistance to hospitals or medical treatment for COVID cases?

MR. KIRBY: The -- I mean, you've seen the -- the White House has announced that the -- the President has tasked us to prepare for deployment, 1,000 military healthcare professionals. I don't want to get too far ahead of where we are right now and certainly not get ahead of -- of -- President but we are working through the proper sourcing solutions for that. I don't have details for you on where these folks are going to be coming from and -- and where they're going to be going. We'll work with FEMA, we'll work with HHS, we'll work with state and local authorities as appropriate to identify the right locations, the right hospitals that they need to go to, and then, of course, we'll do the sourcing solutions and back that up, in terms of what the teams are going to look like, how many per team, where they're going to be coming from.

The -- the plan is for them to -- to be -- to come from the active duty ranks.

Q: And when they talk -- the White House says "mobilization," is it your anticipation they would be put on mobilization orders with some type of timeframe -- "be ready within three days, five days, 10 days"? How will -- how will that work?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I mean, we'll do this the way we -- we did it earlier in the year. I mean, we'll -- first, you -- first, you have to source the requirement. So you get the requirement, where -- where do they need to be and how many does X hospital need? Then, you back that up -- okay, so where's it going to come from? How many are you going to -- how many are you going to source to that requirement? Where from? What unit? And then, you have to then put that unit or that team on an alert. So you give them standby orders so that they have time to prepare.

Q: So it's not that you're starting by putting 1,000 on mobilization as a first step?

MR. KIRBY: Right now, we're still sourcing the requirement and we're working with the interagency to do that appropriately, and then, of course, warning orders and alert orders will go out to the services, and -- and more specifically, as we get further down the sourcing process, to the units themselves and the individuals themselves, as to where they're going, when they need to leave and make sure that we give them enough time to prepare for that.

Q: Can I also quickly ask you a couple of Russia things? Cause they said -- the Russian – various Russian government officials said some interesting things today. Are there -- is there U.S. -- they talked about military and security talks underway in Vienna with the U.S. Are U.S. military personnel in Vienna, to the best of your knowledge right now?

MR. KIRBY: Not to the best of my knowledge.

Q: And the other thing -- I'm not sure if you saw it -- but the Russian state media is quoting Defense Minister Shoygu as saying that "private military companies have shipped chemicals into Eastern Ukraine to commit provocations." Do you -- does the U.S. have any indication that private military companies are shipping chemicals into Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: Those -- those statements by Minister Shoygu are completely false.

Q: How do you know that?

MR. KIRBY: They're false.

Q: Has it -- does the Secretary have any plans, or has he yet today or in the last couple of days, talked to Shoygu?

MR. KIRBY: He has not talked to Minister Shoygu and I don't have anything on his calendar to announce today. Jeff Schogol?

Q: Thank you. January 6th marks the one year anniversary of the Capitol riots. What steps is the Defense Department taking to make sure it is ready if there is another coup attempt?

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, I would say firstly we see no indications that such will -- would be the case, coming up on the anniversary, number one. Number two, you know, we're -- as -- as you might imagine, particularly in the wake of -- of -- of this year's events on the 6th, we're constantly trying to learn from that and to -- to make sure that the 6th, aside -- aside from the -- the anniversary, that we're -- that we're as prepared and ready as we need to be, if in fact we have to assist local authorities. I mean, you -- you saw well into the spring that we maintained a -- a Guard presence at the Capitol Hill Complex for quite some time in a security role.

So we will be ready and prepared, if -- if there's a need, but again, I -- we see no indications that -- that there's going to be a -- a need, and certainly nobody -- nobody would want to see a -- a repeat.

Q: Thank you. Can we get an update of the number of active duty service members, Reservists, National Guardsmen and veterans who took part in January 6th?

MR. KIRBY: I do not have that, Jeff, and -- I mean, I can probably pull the number of -- of active duty that we know and the -- and the -- and reserve component. I don't know that I would be able to credibly -- did you ask for -- you didn't ask for veterans.

Q: I did but I meant, sorry, active duty, Reserve and -- Reserve and Guard. My apologies.

MR. KIRBY: It wouldn't be appropriate for me to speak to but -- but I'll see if we have a -- an updated number on -- on active duty and reserve component that -- that have the -- you know, that have been arrested in -- in connection with -- with January 6th. I think that's probably a gettable number, I just don't have it handy.

Q: Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: -- you said that you have no -- you do not anticipate a problem on January 6th --

MR. KIRBY: So we have no indication --

Q: Indication -- but yet, you say you are preparing and will be ready. So what is this scenario you plan to be ready for? You must be planning against.

MR. KIRBY: Barb, we -- we prepare against all manner of contingencies and -- and -- and certainly there were lessons learned as a result of the 6th. I won't go into detail about -- about specific planning. We are not -- again, we -- there's no indication that there's going to be a need, but should there be a need we will have learned from last January's events and we'll be ready to support as required whatever -- whatever local -- whatever local needs might be, local and civil needs might be.

Q: And that's the Guard or are you including active duty in what you're saying?

MR. KIRBY: I'm -- I'm -- I think I've gone as far as I'm going to go on this. I don't want you to come away from this discussion thinking that there's -- there's some large expectation here. That the -- that the -- that the -- we're actively planning for U.S. armed forces personnel to be out in force on the -- on the 6th of January.

I -- as I said, there's no indication that that's going to be the case. Nobody wants to see that be the case. But it would be -- it would be irresponsible for us if we didn't try to learn from what happened last year or earlier this year.

And to make sure that we've thought through and that we are ready if we're needed. It's no different than how we try to be ready for contingencies all over the world, not just here in the -- in the country.

Q: You haven't received any requests?

MR. KIRBY: No.

Q: Just to follow up on the extremism report yesterday. You said there were about 100 extremists who were found in the last year. Can you make their names available? And you were going to get back to us about the breakdown of the types of groups.

MR. KIRBY: We're still trying to flush out the -- the degree in which we can break out the data for you. I don't have an update for you, Jen. I don't know that we'll be able to get down to names. I mean, there's probably privacy considerations here. But I'll -- we are still working to see whether there's a way we can provide a little more context on the -- on the number.

Q: Would -- could we assume that those 100 extremists have been kicked out of the military?

MR. KIRBY: Again, I think each case would be different. And it would depend on the circumstances for the individual. I know for a fact that some of them, for instance -- and this is to Jeff's question -- some of them we know are counting in that number were involved in January 6. That is a -- that is a very specific type of extremist activity. I can't speak for every other case and what level it was and what the disposition was.

Q: If they were involved in January 6, you can assume that those people have been kicked out of the military or not?

MR. KIRBY: Well, there's ongoing cases right now. So, I -- I don't -- I mean, again, I don't have -- I don't have final conclusion on every single case and what happened to them.

Q: Other than January 6, can you be specific about the types of extremist behavior fall under that category of 100?

MR. KIRBY: Again, we're trying to work, see if there's a better break out we can give you. I don't have it today. But we're going to see if we can. I can't promise you that we're going to be able to get much more detail on this, but we'll see what we can do in terms of providing some additional context.

Q: John, I want to go back to Ukraine. Can you update us on the posture of Russian troops around Ukraine borders?

And can you clarify something? When different officials in the administration talk about future talks with Russia that seems to going to take place probably in January, they talk about de-escalation should happen before these talks don't take place or for these talks to be productive. When you talk about de-escalation, are you talking about referring to statements coming out of Russia or military movements around Ukraine as well?

MR. KIRBY: I think I'll leave that question to our diplomats to answer. I mean, we continue to see a significant force presence near and around the Ukraine border. It continues to be concerning. We still don't know the full intent here. And there's no indication that President Putin has made a decision one way or another.

So, we still believe that there's time and space for diplomacy and discussion to achieve a result that does not increase the instability or violates the territorial integrity of Ukraine. That's where -- as an administration that's where we're focused but as for the discussion themselves, I mean that is really a question better put to the State Department.

Q: (inaudible) From the DOD --

MR. KIRBY: You're asking what -- what actions do we want to see as destabilizing, again, I'd -- I'd leave that to our diplomats to speak to.

Q: De-escalation -- de-escalation I'm talking about -- so, the term that is used as de-escalation, there should be de-escalation?

MR. KIRBY: Well, we've already, I mean, one big way to de-escalate would be to move the forces away from the border. And that has been a repeated call from not just the United States but from the international community. That would be a significant de-escalating step that we'd all like to see.

Q: Thank you, you just made a headline. Appreciate it.

Q: I have another headline question. Admiral Grady, who was confirmed, is that the last now of the uniformed individuals who have to be confirmed by the Senate? He's the vice chair --

MR. KIRBY: He's the -- I --

Q: There's no more vacancies in other words of the uniformed personnel that has to be confirmed?

MR. KIRBY: Not that I'm aware of.

Q: And to follow up on the extremism issue. You mentioned yesterday, John, the -- that database collection is something that's going to take place. That there's different databases of extremism. That's a step that's going to be taken in the future, correct? Did I hear you correctly on that?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, we're going to try to improve our data collection systems.

Q: So, one of the listeners this morning asked beyond that, what else is the Pentagon planning to do in regards to identifying extremism in the ranks and dealing with it?

MR. KIRBY: I would encourage your -- your listeners to take a look at the report that we just posted online yesterday because it lays it all out there. Six steps that we're taking going forward to include training, education programs over the course of someone's military career.

Streamlining the questionnaires for the recruits coming in, making sure that there's transition training for soon-to-be veterans so that they know how they might be recruited by extremist groups when they -- when they leave service.

We talked about the data collection and making sure that we're doing a better job with internal collection systems as well as external and marrying that data up. We are going to -- we have commissioned a new -- a study on extremism in the military that has already gotten underway. I mean, there's -- it's all in the report.

So, there's -- there's lots of very specific steps we're taking. In addition to the instruction, which also laid out some new guidelines for members of the armed forces. And, again, it's all -- it's all right there.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yes. Paul McCleary?

Q: Hi, John. Twenty-six Navy SEALs have filed suit in Texas over their wish to receive religious accommodations for the COVID vaccine to not get the shot, and about 47 Republican lawmakers filed an amicus brief yesterday. Is there any concern about Congress getting involved here? And -- and -- and do you have any update on -- on where that case is and -- and DOD's role?

MR. KIRBY: No, I don't, and I wouldn't talk about ongoing litigation one way or the other.

We certainly respect the oversight role of -- of -- of Congress.

Again, this is a valid military medical requirement. A vaccinated force is a more ready force. These vaccines work and we continue to believe it's in the best interests, not only of our people, our units and our ability to defend this country, but to the American people themselves that -- that the -- the men and women of the armed forces get vaccinated.

Q: (inaudible) not a religious -- why a religious exemption would not be applicable in this case, from the Pentagon's point --

MR. KIRBY: You'd -- you'd have to talk to the individuals. A -- a religious -- I mean, I -- there's no way I could answer that question, Jen. A -- a -- a religious exemption is really an individual decision to seek one and -- and it's -- and the decisions are made individually. The -- the -- they're not made en masse. Each -- each exemption asked for -- for -- on religious grounds is evaluated by a chaplain, by a chain of command, by medical experts and is given quite a lot of thought, and they're all decided case by case individually.

Okay, thank you.