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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

MR. KIRBY: OK. Well, welcome back, everybody. I hope everybody had a good holiday season. And Happy New Year to you. My new year's gift to you is no opening statement today. So we'll get right to the questions and I think we have Bob on the phone. 

Bob, are you there? 

Q: Yes, thank you, John. I've a couple of questions, COVID-related questions. Do you have any update on Secretary Austin's condition? Is he able to work a full schedule from home? Have there been any other senior officials who have tested positive since he did? And, lastly, do you have any comment on the preliminary injunction that was granted by the judge in Texas in the Navy special operators case? 

MR. KIRBY: OK, Bob. On the secretary, he obviously remains home in quarantine. He is still exhibiting symptoms. They are still mild. And he continues to work from home. In fact, he has attended two meetings virtually today. And I think there will be another one this afternoon that he’ll be participating in as well with senior staff. Very much in line with the same battle rhythm that he has had when he has been in the building. The meetings, these are in some cases daily and/or weekly meetings. So he continues to participate remotely from home. I myself attended one of those meetings with him this morning and he was very much engaged in every bit of the discussion. 

But he is still exhibiting mild symptoms and he is following his doctor's directions, which is to stay home for those five days in accordance with the CDC guidelines. I'm not aware of any other senior officials here at the Pentagon who have contracted COVID. We understand obviously our obligation to be transparent with you if and when that happens. 

And then lastly on the injunction, there's not a lot I -- I can say about an issue which is under litigation, Bob. But as I said last night, we are aware, of course, of the injunction and we're reviewing it and in discussions with the Department of Justice as to what options might be available to us going forward. 


Q: The coalition in Iraq and Syria has just issued a statement about the strikes in the vicinity of Green Village in Syria. Can I ask you some details? What kind of strikes did the coalition launch against these suspected sites? Was it U.S. strikes? Were U.S. forces at risk? And who do you believe the adversaries were? Were they regime forces? Were they Iranian-backed militia? Were they ISIS? Can you tell us any more about this? This statement is not very... 

MR. KIRBY: I don't have a lot of satisfying detail for you, Barb. And I would certainly point you to Central Command to provide more information. My understanding is that these strikes were not air strikes, if that's what you're asking. Your second question about were troops at risk—I assume what you mean is, were they put at risk in the conduct of the strikes? But they clearly are at risk in the region. I mean, one of the reasons why these sites were hit was we had reason to believe that they were going to be used as launch sites for attacks on Green Village. So clearly our men and women remain in harm's way and we have to take that threat very seriously. We always have the right of self-defense. I'm sorry, and you had a third? 

Q: And then I do have a different quick question. Who do you believe the adversary was? 

MR. KIRBY: I am not in a position now to get into specific attribution. That said, we continue to see threats against our forces in Iraq and Syria by militia groups that are backed by Iran. But, again, I don't specific attribution on who was responsible for these specific sites. Again, this is all just recently happened. I'm sure more context will be available as we -- as we learn more. And I absolutely refer you to Central Command for any additional detail that I don't have today. 

Q: Different subject, very quickly, we have all watched the images of this incredible traffic jam, if that's what it is, on I-95. Not that far from the Pentagon where many military people commute up and down, stranded overnight, some getting out but many still stranded. I think a lot of people might be curious whether the Pentagon, the Defense Department, has offered any help, has been asked for help. A lot of -- you have a Marine Corps base right there. People are wondering why the military can't lend a hand. 

MR. KIRBY: Well, first of all, as so many of us here at the Pentagon are commuters and commute along that stretch of I-95, we're all watching it with the same interest that everybody else is too. And our thoughts and concerns go out to all those who remain stuck on the highway with these weather conditions. I know of no -- well, let me put it this way, there has been no request made of the Pentagon, of the active duty military to respond in any way to this -- to this jam on I-95. And I know of no overt efforts here at the Pentagon to make an overt offer or to get involved in any way. I think the governor of Virginia addressed this this morning when he was specifically asked about whether he was going to call the National Guard out. He said he did not see a need to do that at this time. What I am aware of is that the Virginia National Guard, their leadership has been in touch with state and local authorities, emergency authorities to have that conversation. But as far as I know, there's been no demand signal by the state of Virginia for any military assistance whatsoever.

Yes, Pierre?

Q: I think we are starting a new chapter in Iraq and there is a new mission for the soldiers. How concerned are you that those soldiers are under attack from militias that are pro-Iranians?

MR. KIRBY: We have consistently been concerned about the threats to our forces in Iraq by militias backed by Iran. That is not a new concern. And I think we've seen in just the last few days that there have been acts perpetrated by some of these groups that validate the consistent concern that we've had over safety and security of our people. 

But you're right, the mission has now formally changed to one of advise and assist, as we promised and as we worked out with our Iraqi hosts. And we still believe it's a valid mission and we look forward to continuing to conduct it. 

But to my question -- to my answer to Barb, I do want to just foot stomp one notion and that is that our commanders have the inherent right of self-defense. And we don't stay at this mission -- this new mission -- with any illusions that our people are under any less threat by these militia groups.

We're going to stay focused on that threat as we stay focused on the mission at hand and make sure that we're doing everything we can to protect our people.


Q: Thank you. I think you know already that President Biden signed the Defense Authorization Act on the 27th last month, which includes maintaining the current status of USFK. How might this affect the U.S. defense budget for year 2022?

MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry, can you repeat the ... 

Q: How might -- might this affect the U.S. defense budget for year ... 

MR. KIRBY: You mean ... 


... '23, the one that we're putting together? I've -- I’m steadfastly not going to speculate about budget discussions for the next fiscal year. Those budget discussions are just beginning, as you would expect this time of year, and -- and when we can talk about it with more specificity, we will.

The only thing I'd add is that we're certainly grateful for the authorization act and the funds that go with it so that we can continue our critical missions here in this fiscal year, and some of that obviously includes our commitments to the ROK and our alliance on the Korean Peninsula.

Q: I have other questions -- you may have seen this report -- General Abrams, former Commander of the U.S. and ROK Combined Forces in Korea, said that -- interview last week that the new strategic plan agreed to by the U.S. and South Korea, should include countermeasures against China, as well as North Korean threat. And regarding the General Abrams mentions about China, South Korean Defense Ministry Spokesperson immediately responded with displeasure to this. Why is the South Korean Defense Ministry reaction on that? Do you have any idea why -- why they -- reaction -- not Chinese?

MR. KIRBY: Why they reacted ... 

Q: ... yeah, reacted about the -- you know, General Abrams mention about Chinese ... 


MR. KIRBY: I would not venture to speculate or speak for the South Korean Ministry of Defense and their reactions and I'd refer you simply to General Abrams for his comments and to our South Korean allies for theirs.

What I can tell you from our perspective is that, you know, we'd ask you to take a look at the language on operational planning in the 53rd U.S.-ROK Joint Communique, as well as the Secretary's comments back in early December, when we did a joint press conference in Seoul, where we -- you know, both sides pledged to continue to develop the alliance, which we continue to believe is the linchpin of peace and stability on the peninsula and in the region, in a mutually reinforcing and future-oriented manner. And we regularly conduct combined planning with our ROK ally on a range of security issues, and of course, as you know, as a general matter, we don't discuss the specifics of details with respect to operational planning or sensitive security matters.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: You're welcome.

Let me go back to the phone. We've got a lot of people on the phone today because we're all being conscious of proper COVID protocols here. So I don't want to forget all of the people that dialed in. Sylvie from AFP?

Q: Hello, John. Happy New Year. The President said that U.S. will deploy more troops in Eastern Europe if Putin invades Ukraine. So does it mean that U.S. would send more people from U.S. in Europe or they would only displace some people who are already deployed in Europe? And also, does -- would it include missile defense?

MR. KIRBY: So the answers to -- the answer to both your questions, Sylvie, is it depends. As we've said before, should there be another incursion and should some of our NATO allies request additional capabilities, we would be positively disposed to consider those requests.

Neither of those two contingencies have happened. So it's a -- it's really not possible for me to answer your questions with great specificity. I would -- the only thing I'd say is to remind that we have a very large and robust footprint in Europe as it stands, under General Wolters' command, as well as NATO countries who have sizable capabilities of their own throughout the continent.

So there already exists a lot of capabilities, and some of those capabilities could be moved around if that was, in fact, the request and was -- and was decided that would be the most prudent thing to do.

So there are lots of options that -- that we have available to us, that the President has available to him and to his decision making. I certainly won't get ahead of that.

Q: And what -- what about the missile -- missile defense?

MR. KIRBY: Well, again, I'm not going to speculate about specific capabilities, Sylvie. There's been no request for changes to posture or requests for additional capabilities by our NATO allies. Again, as you heard Jake Sullivan say, you know, if there was another incursion and if there was a request for additional capabilities, we would positively -- we'd be positively disposed to consider those requests. We're just not there right now, Sylvie, so I really don't want to speculate about specific capabilities when we haven't really been asked to augment any of the existing ones that are already there on the continent.

Q: OK, thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Tara Copp?

Q: Hey, John, Happy New Year. I wanted to follow up on the announcement that you made shortly before the end of the year about a shift of the command structure for the National Guard in DC. And was hoping you could elaborate a little bit for us. What was the significance of moving it to the Secretary of Defense, particularly since the Secretary of Defense is also a -- a politically appointed position? Was there any concern that this would keep -- you know, from optics reasons, if the Commander in Chief doesn't want the Guard deployed in Washington, would the Secretary of Defense necessarily then deploy them? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Well, obviously we all work for the Commander in Chief. And -- and no decision about deploying the National Guard inside the Capitol would be made without consultations and coordination with the Commander in Chief, of course.

But just to answer your -- this was really about streamlining the decision-making process. And so yes, it got brought to the Secretary of Defense's -- into his authorities to grant or to refuse requests by local authorities for National Guard presence inside the Capital region. He is in the chain of command and I think this is something that sometimes gets lost. I mean, he is -- as we speak, in the -- the physical chain of command already, in terms of ordering both active and reserve troops around the world and around the country. So, that -- there's a certain logic there.

Number two, and I think some of this got missed a little bit is that we have designated in this new arrangement his executive secretary as the single point of contact now for those kinds of requests. And that wasn't the case before.

So, now, again, we're trying to streamline the way requests are made of the department to make the decision-making more efficient and hopefully more effective.

So, there was also a bit of administration movement in here to try to -- to try to get the requests funneled in a -- in a more direct manner to the secretary for his decision-making process.

Q: Was there any thought to shifting that over to the chairman of the joint chiefs? That authority?

MR. KIRBY: No, Tara, as I think you know, the chairman of the joint chiefs is not in the chain of command, and has not been. And is not -- as it's laid out in the law his position is not to be in the chain of command to order forces. That is not part of the chairman's mandate. And, again, that's -- that's laid down in law.

The chairman of the joint chiefs is the principal military advisor to both the secretary and to the president of the United States. And that's his responsibility. Now, obviously, just as in any set of orders that Secretary Austin issues to troops and units around the world, he consults with Chairman Milley and absolutely make sure that the chairman has a vote, has a voice, has a chance to affect the decision-making process. And that will always be the case.

Whether it's – we’re talking about the National Guard inside the capitol region or a Navy aircraft carrier strike group anywhere around the world. The chairman's advice and counsel is very important to that process and will remain so. 


Q: Thanks. Just ahead of January 6th I was wondering have there been any requests for the National Guard on the -- to be at the Capitol?

MR. KIRBY: No. Carla Babb?

Q: Thanks, John. Happy New Year. I have a couple questions. I know you weren't able to talk about the responsibility for that -- that rocket strike or that rocket launch site that we struck in Syria today. But what about the two drone attacks out of Iraq? You kind of hinted into it in another question.

But can the U.S. confirm that those drone attacks that were stopped and yesterday were indeed by Iranian-backed forces? Or Iranian forces? There have been some in Iran that have been tying the anniversary of the Soleimani killing to revenge on the United States.

What more can you give us on those two attacks? 

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I have one other detail in terms of attributions for those. As you rightly pointed out, Carla, they're pretty recent, just occurred. So, I'm not in a position to provide specific attribution of a group or an organization.

But, and I've said -- as I said to -- to Barb, I mean, these kinds of attacks are very much in keeping with the kinds of attacks we've seen from Iran-backed militias in Iraq and in Syria.

And so, obviously, our working level assumption is that such groups were responsible for these. But I don't want to speculate beyond that. It's in keeping with the kinds of tactics, techniques, and procedures we've seen from these groups in the past.

MR. KIRBY: Eleanor Watson, from CBS?

Q: Hey, John, can you still hear me?


Q: Oh, sorry. I have one more follow on "The New York Times" report about airstrikes done -- conducted by the U.S. military. They had some accusations, and they were saying that the civilian casualty cell that was responsible for following up on civilian casualty -- civilian casualties wasn't always prepared for the job and didn't always find things that "The New York Times" reporters found really easily.

So, my question on this, and you may have to take this, but my question is what changes has the U.S. military made in order to better seek out civilian casualty reports? And assess those -- those allegations?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I think the Central Command spokesman was quoted in that story and I think he provided some context about -- about the process itself. So, I'd refer you to Captain Urban to address this more specifically in terms of what they're doing right now.

I think you saw in that -- in his response that he made clear that they choose assessment team members from a broad range of skillsets. And they try to do the best they can to make sure that the skills that are most needed are represented in those assessment teams.

That said, and you heard the secretary talk about this not long ago, we are absolutely interested in constantly improving our processes and our procedures. And without getting ahead of the secretary I know he's taking all this news coverage seriously.

As well as his -- his own curiosity in terms of how we are looking at the issue of civilian harm and how we are assessing ourselves, how we are trying to improve our capabilities in that regard.

And he's working his way through recommendations that he has received from both the Central Command commander as well as Special Operations Command commander. And if and when we've got some new policies and procedures to speak to we'll certainly -- we'll certainly do that.

But it -- civilian harm is something that we do take seriously, and as the secretary said himself, we do recognize that we've got to do better. And so, we're going to continue to -- to stay focused on this and -- and as we make improvements, as we make changes we'll certainly be transparent about that. 

Eleanor Watson, CBS ?

Q: My question was answered. Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you. Let's see, Mike -- Mike from "Washington Times?" OK, Mike, I'll come back to you at the end. 

Meghann Myers?

Q: You said that there haven't been any formal requests for guard assistance in DC on the 6th. Have there been any phone calls, meetings, correspondence either with the DC mayor or the Capitol Police, you know, opening the groundwork for that sort of thing?

MR. KIRBY: I wasn't trying to be cute there, Meghann, I'm not aware of any formal or informal efforts to look at a guard presence on -- in the Capitol region on the 6th. That said, I would refer you to the National Guard Bureau here to see if there's -- if I missed something or if they've had some kind of informal, low-level conversation.

I'm not aware of any and I wasn't -- I can understand the way it came across when I said no formal request. And I was trying to be -- maybe parsing it too closely, that is not -- that was not my intent. I'm simply not aware of any -- any active discussions between the department, the National Guard, and DC local authorities.

But, again, I'd point you to the National Guard Bureau, perhaps they are aware of something at a lower-level that they could speak to.

Q: Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: OK. I think we're good, all right. Happy New Year, everybody. Welcome back. And...

Q: Happy New Year.

MR. KIRBY:'ve seen -- you've seen we've instituted some -- some new policies here. And we're going to continue to monitor how we're doing with respect to COVID in the building. I appreciate everybody's flexibility. Actually, good to see that we had more questions on Zoom than -- than folks in the room.

I think that shows how seriously you guys are taking it too and hopefully we'll be able to get back to normal sometime soon but I do appreciate your forbearance and your understanding. We want to make sure that we can continue to brief you but also make sure that everybody stays safe. 

So with that we'll see you a little bit later this week.