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

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for being late. I really have tried to be more punctual but I was in a meeting that I could not leave early. So poor excuse but an excuse nonetheless.

Just by way of opening, I think you may have seen the State Department's announcement about the U.S.-Japan security consultative meeting, otherwise colloquially known as 2+2. Secretary Austin looks forward to participating in that meeting later this week.

And as you know, it's been a high level forum for U.S.-Japan foreign and defense policy cooperation. There is a lot to talk with respect to the Indo-Pacific region. So they look forward to having productive discussions with our strong ally and friend, Japan, about ways we can strengthen that alliance, to continue to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region as well as addressing the continued global challenge of COVID-19, climate change, as well as other global challenges. So there will be a lot on the agenda.

As I understand it, their opening comments are going to be livestreamed, so you'll be able to log into that and get the opening statements from all foreign ministers, and then I believe the State Department has put out additional information about how they're going to communicate the results of the 2+2. But the Secretary's very much looking forward to participating and it will be virtual, of course, and it was going to be virtual anyway, regardless of the Secretary's diagnosis.

So with that, I think we'll start with questions and I think I've got Lita here on the line. Is that right, Lita?

Q: Thanks -- I'm here. Thanks, John. So a couple things. One, can you just bring us up to date on the Secretary's prognosis at this point? What is the length of time you expect he will stay out of the building? Is it like five days -- or can you just give us a better timeline of when he may be back in the building and what is this based on?

And then secondly, the attacks in Iraq and Syria -- is there any belief that these are coordinated but they're all the same people who are conducting the attacks or who are responsible for the attacks? And can you provide any more details than you could yesterday? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. So on your first question about the Secretary, he obviously remains ill with COVID but the symptoms continue to be mild, as I mentioned earlier, of an upper respiratory nature -- congestion, that kind of thing, mild cough.

But he's in good spirits. In fact, meeting that caused me to be late to speak to you was a virtual one with him and some other staff members. So he is staying very much engaged, and as I said, he'll be participating virtually from home in the Japan 2+2 later this week.

As for time out of the building, he wants to subscribe to CDC guidelines, which recommends five days, and that clock started on Sunday when he got his diagnosis. So you advance forward five days, you're -- again, you're -- you're looking at the end of the week, at the very least Friday.

And again, for the 2+2 on Friday, he will be participating from home virtually. So I would not expect him back in the building before the end of this week. He will consult with his physician as appropriate at -- well, he's been consulting with his physician throughout but he certainly will towards the end of the week to determine what the proper next step is going to be.

I think it shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody that knows him that he obviously wants to get back at it as soon as possible but he also doesn't want to do it in an unsafe way, putting anybody else at risk and/or putting his own personal health at any greater risk.

So he's going to subscribe to the CDC guidelines, he's going to consult, as he has been, with his physician, and they'll make the most appropriate decision at the right time. So I couldn't give you a date certain for when he'll be physically back in the building.

On the Syria strikes, Lita, I really don't have a lot more context to provide. I know you've seen OIR has put out some additional release about strikes they took and strikes that they also responded to over the last 24 hours. I would refer you to them for more tactical level detail.

I don't have specific attribution either today, in -- in terms of a particular group by name or groups who might be responsible for this, but as I said yesterday, I stand by what I said, which is these sorts of attacks are very much typical of what we have been seeing in recent months, even years by militia groups that are supported by Iran. And so that remains our working level assumption, that these are in fact Iran-backed groups.

And -- and a matter of fact, I could be wrong about this but I think OIR went so far as to make that very clear, as well. So that's the working level assumption and I think it makes eminent sense that it would be those kinds of groups that'd be responsible for this.

But in terms of specific, like, the name of a group or groups, I don't believe we have that level of detail. But I certainly would encourage you to reach out to OIR if they have anything additional. They're much closer to it than we are here at the Pentagon.


Q: If I may, the issue is the -- the attacks have been, like, more frequent over the last 24 hours, since we talked last time --


Q: -- especially in Iraq. Are there any steps to stop those attacks, to deter those people from continuing what they are doing?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I -- as we've said before, our commanders have the right of inherent self defense and they maintain that.

And as we talked about yesterday, you know, that even corresponded to a preemptive set of strikes against sites because we had seen enough activity around those sites to surmise that attacks were coming. So it wasn't just in reply, as we've seen over the last 24 hours, but it was actually to try to prevent and preempt strikes that we saw coming.

So the short answer to your question is yes. I mean, obviously we're very mindful of the threat environment. And it is very dynamic right now. And our commanders have the right of self-defense. They have the capabilities and they're obviously clearly not afraid and certainly not being encumbered about using the capabilities at their disposal to protect their people.


Q: A couple of follow-ups. Will you hold Iran responsible if any U.S. service members are killed in any of these attacks that you are calling Iranian-backed?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I won't get into hypotheticals at this time, Jen, I don't think that would be helpful. 


Q: -- a warning to Iran that if this continues, you've made -- the president and others have made it clear that Russia will pay certain consequences if they move into Ukraine. Why not do the same with Iran and --


MR. KIRBY: I think without getting into specifics, I think we've been eminently clear with Iran about how seriously we take the safety and security of our people and our mission in Iraq and Syria.

Q: Okay. And then in terms of the secretary, has he visited Walter Reed in the course of this COVID diagnosis, has he gotten the monoclonal antibodies?

MR. KIRBY: He has not gone to Walter Reed. He has been recuperating at home since the diagnosis.

Q: And what are the rules in terms of meetings in the building? I just walked past the tank, and it looked like an in-person meeting of the Joint Chiefs. I'm just wondering are people being tested every day here who are at the leadership level, or what are the rules?

MR. KIRBY: I can't speak for the Joint Staff, but for those of us that are on the secretary's staff, we're tested regardless of your comings and goings, every week and then as appropriate, depending on whether we're having an outside meeting outside the building or for instance all of us had to get tested before coming back to the building, or if not being tested before you entered the building, after holiday leave, which is what I did. First thing I did coming back yesterday was immediately got a test and didn't participate in meetings until I knew that I was negative.

So there are protocols on the secretary's staff about proper testing on a routine regular basis and certainly now -- level setting after the holidays. I can't speak for each of the military departments. But everybody is mindful of the increased challenges that we're having now with the transmissibility of the Omicron variant. And as you have seen, even me putting extra restrictions on my personal staff, our OSD Public Affairs as well as on recommendations with all of you in concert with the Pentagon Press Association leadership about being more mindful of how we're conducting these in-person gatherings.

So, everybody is mindful of that, Jen. I suspect the military departments have their own procedures. And I can tell you that the secretary is laser-focused on this, even aside from his diagnosis. That he is mindful that Omicron is much more transmissible. And we're going to constantly look at the protocols in place here at the reservation but also around the force to make sure that we're reacting and responding appropriately.


Q: A couple of things. Let's go to back to Iran/Syria first. One, do you have anything on a very recent, in the last couple of hours, another attempted attack at al-Asad?

MR. KIRBY: I do not, no.

Q: Nonetheless the pace has picked up. So, what is the assessment on why is this happening? Militias or Iran, why the sudden rise? Is it all about Soleimani? Or could it be something else?

MR. KIRBY: It's difficult to know with great specificity and certainty, Barb, what accounts for the frequency of these attacks. And I think it would not be prudent for us to try to get inside the heads of these militia group leaders, and their Iranian supporters.

To try to say definitively that we know this is the reason why these attacks seem to have stepped up. It is certainly possible that it could be related to the anniversary of the Soleimani strike. It is certainly possible that it could be related to the change in mission.

And the fact that on the 31st we officially transitioned to, of course, we had really done it before then, but officially transitioned to an advise and assist mission inside Iraq with our Iraqi security force partners.

And you saw in the weeks prior to that some militia groups claiming that that wasn't good enough, that any presence beyond the 31st would be responded to. So, it could be the result of that as well. The truth is we just don't know for sure. And it's entirely likely, Barb, that it's a confluence of those things.

It's maybe it's not either-or, maybe it's both. And maybe there's other factors at play here. Bottom line is, we had been thinking and preparing for the possibility of stepped-up attacks at the end of December.

It would have been irresponsible for us not to consider the significance of those two dates. And we are taking very seriously our responsibilities for force protection.

Q: Very quickly, could you give us any additional information about what you assess North Korea fired yesterday?

MR. KIRBY: What I can tell you -- I'm sorry?

Q: What kind of ballistic missile? Short-range? Or --

MR. KIRBY: Yes, we actually don't have a greater level of detail about this particular launch other than that we have every reason to believe it was a ballistic missile launch. Which, of course, is a violation of various U.N. Security Council resolutions.

But I don't have additional detail to offer at this time. I mean, it just happened last night our time. I just don't have additional level of detail about what it was that was launched. Let me get to the phones. Rio ?, I did not get you yesterday, so, I'll start with you today.

Q: Oh, thank you, John. I have two separate questions about Japan. First, on the 2+2 meeting, do you expect some progress or agreement on steps that U.S. and Japan will take to maintain peace and civility over the Taiwan space? And I have a different question later.

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to get ahead of the agenda. I think as I said in my opening statement, you can expect a full range of alliance priorities to be discussed at the 2+2 and again, our position has not changed.

I cannot speak for the Japanese, we obviously, do not want to see the status quo changed in a unilateral way, certainly not by force. And there's no reason, as the secretary has said many times, that it needs to be.

Nothing's changed about our One China Policy and nothing has changed about our continued intent supported in a bipartisan way by Congress over many, many years to help Taiwan continue to defend itself.

Q: Oh, thank you. I have a second question. In Japan, there are more and more COVID-19 cases found recently in the U.S. military bases now in Japan. Often around claims the U.S. military's mishandling of those cases around the Omicron Variant. 
I'm wondering if the U.S. military could or should have done differently to avoid a outbreak? And if this COVID comes up in the 2+2 meeting, what would be the secretary's message to Japan?

MR. KIRBY: Again, I'm not going to get ahead of the specifics on the discussions. As I said in my opening statement, we absolutely anticipate talking in broad terms about the COVID pandemic, and its effect on both our countries.

As for the concerns you mentioned now in Japan, I would refer you to the U.S. Forces Japan commander to speak to the measures that they have taken out there in Japan to try to stem the virus' spread. I'm not privy to the specific actions that they'd taken.

I can just tell you that the secretary remains very focused on making sure that we are doing everything we can to limit the spread of this virus and to get our troops vaccinated. And to make sure that we maintain combat ready, and this is for him a readiness issue.

And he has made that clear to the service secretaries, to the service chiefs, and to all his commanders. We've got to continue to get people vaccinated and to do everything we can to stem the flow of this virus. And that is, again, something that he's communicated at every level of the chain of command.

Jared from Al Monitor?

Q: Hi, Mr. Kirby. If I could bring it back to these rocket and drone attacks in Iraq and Syria. We've seen, particularly with rocket attacks, we've seen these incidents become deadly in the past.

I'm wondering if you could comment on, you know, how prepared U.S. and coalition forces are to defend themselves against these attacks compared to say a year or two ago? How confident is the Defense Department in their ability to, you know, knock down these projectiles?

MR. KIRBY: We don’t take anything for granted, Jared. I think clearly we have increased our focus on this particular threat, and I would remind you it's not just rocket attacks, it's also, you know, we've seen an increase of drones, the use of drones by these Iran-back militia groups.

And they have become over time increasingly precise and increasingly lethal. So, the threat is growing in specificity and precision, and our commanders have maintained a strong focus on that. But I wouldn't go so far as to say that, you know, that we're -- that we're -- we're not afraid to continue to look for ways to improve and increase force protection measures and the ability to deal with these attacks and these threats. It's a dynamic situation, as I said earlier, and our commanders are living and breathing that dynamic situation, and are encouraged, and we're seeing them do this to change their own tactics, techniques and procedures as appropriate, and they have the support of the secretary and the department in terms of helping apply resources and energy that they need to improve their own defensive capabilities.

Okay. Well, we'll move on then. Tony?

Q: Hey, John. I'm here. Happy New Year to you, man. I wanted to check: Can you chart out the next few months in terms of the release of a new National Security Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review and other major initiatives? You know, just give us a -- a semi-calendar item breakdown, if you can.

MR. KIRBY: I can't right now, Tony. I mean, first of all, the National Security Strategy is the purview of the National Security Council staff, and I -- I wouldn't get ahead of them, and likewise, the Nuclear Posture Review is -- is a true interagency review. It's not just in the purview of the Defense Department. So again, I don't have any date certain to speak to. Both of those processes continue.

What I can tell you here from the department is we are hard at work on a new National Defense Strategy, and obviously, as we work through that, it's being closely coordinated with the National Security Council staff, understanding that they are also working on a new National Security Strategy, so we're staying nested and in tight coordination with them as we proceed. But it's a very active effort here at the Department of Defense to draft that National Defense Strategy. Again, I don't have a date certain on the calendar to lay out for you as to when that would be released. I think as you know, it is a byproduct of the National Security Strategy, so we're certainly not going to want to get ahead of that timeline. But I can assure you that the good folks in OSD Policy, working in close coordination with the services and the Joint Staff and the combatant commands are working very, very hard on the draft.

Q: So can I ask quick, has Austin canceled any overseas trip to Asia because of his COVID diagnosis?

MR. KIRBY: I mean, there had been some planning done for a trip in mid-January to Southeast Asia. That trip was not announced. It had not been finalized, but before the secretary's diagnosis, we had already decided to postpone that trip because of the spreading virus around the world, and the Omicron variant and how fast it's being transmitted around the world. So a decision was made preemptively postpone a trip to Southeast Asia. But again, that was a decision that was made before the secretary's diagnosis just based on COVID precautions around the world and our desire to make sure that we, in our travel we weren't putting anybody, either us or our potential hosts, at any greater risk. We just deemed it was the prudent thing to do to -- to not be heading out on international travel right now.

And -- and --

Q: (inaudible) --

MR. KIRBY: And I say "postponed", and I mean that. I mean, it's the secretary would very much still like to get back to that part of the world and and revisit some of these places and these countries, and we'll get it back on the schedule just as soon as it's practical and it's the right time to do it.

MR. KIRBY: Would Mike from the Washington Times like a question?

Q: Yeah, I do. Kazakhstan -- any Pentagon news in connection with the unraveling situation there? Is the secretary in contact with his counterpart? Is anybody, you know, ramping up or --

MR. KIRBY: No, I have no communications from the Department of Defense to speak to with respect to what's going on in Kazakhstan right now. That's probably a better question put to our State Department colleagues.

Q: Right. Okay. Also, any comment on the Texas attorney general is also filing a lawsuit similar to the Oklahoma suit.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: Any comment on that, or do you assume it's -- I mean, he's making the -- they're making the same argument that Oklahoma made.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I would say the same thing that we talked about with respect to the court order that was about the Navy SEALs. I mean, we're aware of this most recent suit. We're reviewing it and speaking to the Department of Justice about options going forward. And I it wouldn't be prudent for me to talk about potential litigation any further than that today.

Q: All right. Just to make -- I mean, they're making the same claim about command authority in the --

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: -- with the Texas -- do you --

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: So obviously, it's still -- I would assume the Defense Department's position is still same position it had --

MR. KIRBY: That's correct.

Q: -- that -- that the --

MR. KIRBY: That’s correct. I mean, again, without speaking to the litigation and I think you saw this in the secretary's statement on Sunday when he announced that he had COVID. It remains a military medical requirement to get the vaccine, and the secretary has the authority to set those military requirements for the active and reserve, which includes the National Guard.

Q: Just, do you think, is there any way to get around this sort of problem with these dual level of a command structure, or is it just sort of baked into the system, and --

MR. KIRBY: Well, that's a very academic question for which I'm probably not qualified. But as I mentioned, I think, the last time you and I spoke, I mean, there's no confusion --

Q: Right.

MR. KIRBY: -- certainly not on our part, in terms of the chain of command and what authorities the secretary has.

Okay, Mike Brest from the Washington Examiner, are you there?

Q: I would love an update on the Ahmadi family in Afghanistan, to hear if the Pentagon has made any progress in getting them out of Afghanistan.

MR. KIRBY: What I can tell you is we're -- and I appreciate the question -- we remain in close touch with NEI, Mr. Ahmadi's employer, to continue to try to get Mr. Ahmadi's family members out of Afghanistan. I don't have an update for you specifically in terms of progress today but this is something that Undersecretary Kahl remains very, very focused on and is personally managing that effort.

But we continue to work with NEI to do the sorts of things, complete the paperwork that needs to be completed to get those folks safely out of Afghanistan. The Secretary remains personally committed to this.

Q: Could you address a little bit of what goes into this type of negotiation? It's been four months and there really haven't been many updates. So anything you could provide I think would be insightful.

MR. KIRBY: I wouldn't call them "negotiations," Mike, so much as just trying to do the proper homework. And a lot of that is a product of discussions that we're having with NEI, Mr. Ahmadi's former employer, because they are representing the family.

And so we're trying to continue to work through them to make sure that we have a common understanding of who comprises the family, right, who qualifies for consideration of relocation, and then making sure that the proper documentation is in place so that they can be relocated safely and efficiently, and, you know, understanding that there's going to have to be work on that end with the Taliban authorities, to make sure that the paperwork is unassailable, in terms of its credibility and authenticity so that we can, again, you know, get the right folks out of the country.

For us, and I take your point about the four months. Believe me, if the Secretary had his way and if, you know, we would've had the relocation done much sooner -- obviously we all want to see these family members reach safety as soon as possible. But safety is the key and making sure that it's done in a way that is safe for everybody.

And so while we would certainly love to be able to go faster, it's more important for us to go safe -- to go safer. And so that's what's really the nub of it, is the interplay with NEI, to make sure that we're doing this the right way so that we can get them out safely and efficiently and get them to their new homes here in the United States.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Sylvie?

Q: Hello, John. There was an investigation that was launched after, you know, some flight -- U.S. flights that left the Kabul airport during the beginning of the evacuations, when the airport was flooded by the -- the crowd and -- and some people fell from planes.

So what happened with this investigation? Do you have any result?

MR. KIRBY: I believe the Air Force has spoken to that. I would refer you to the Air Force. They investigated, as they have to, when you have death and casualties with respect to an Air Force mission.

And I'd refer you to the Air Force, Sylvie. I just -- I don't have more granularity on that today. But I'll tell you what I will refer you to the Air Force but we'll also take that question and talk to the Air Force ourselves. But I do know that they investigated it. What they found, what the outcome was, I just don't have that handy right now.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Idrees?

Q: Hey, John. So the -- going back to Syria -- the OIR release specifically says the attacks or indirect fire were carried out by Iran-backed maligned actors. So do you agree with that assessment and attribution?

MR. KIRBY: We have no reason -- as I said earlier, we have no reason to suspect that this wasn't -- that these weren't perpetrated or planned by militia groups who are backed by Iran.

Q: All right. And then just a separate topic. Yesterday, you were asked about the Navy SEALs and the federal judge with their ruling. Do you have any update on what impact that will have for the department and those not wanting to get a vaccine?

MR. KIRBY: No. I mean, again, we're still reviewing the injunction and we're still in discussions with the Justice Department about what the options are going forward. So again, I don't want to get ahead of that clearly, since we're talking about a court order.

But as I mentioned to Mike and as you saw in the Secretary's statement on Sunday, the vaccines remain a military medical requirement for the active and Reserve components, and they're still mandatory across the force.

Alex Horton?

Q: Hey, John. Thanks. Going back to the extremism guidelines that were released earlier, I was curious if there was a living document that will be updated cause, you know, some of the criticism we've heard is, you know, it's -- it's not specific enough, it's -- the policies are reactive and, you know, you're asking basically unit commanders to take a Rorschach test of what they think is extremism behavior on what they see and hear.

So, I mean, we know that there's going to be education for what kind of behavior is tolerated and not tolerated but, I mean, is there any kind of more clear guidelines for commanders to be more proactive rather than reactive?

And separately, can you guys give us sort of a refresh of troop levels in Iraq and Syria? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: On the troop levels, the numbers have not changed in any significant way. There's roughly 2,500 American troops in Iraq and less than 1,000 in Syria.

On your first question, Alex, I'd like to challenge a little bit of the assumption of -- in the question -- and I'm not suggesting that your question's bad, it's a very good one but I think you’re in your question, reflecting some criticism that have been leveled at the department as a result of it.

First of all, we believe that the instruction provides commanders much better guidance than it did before.

One of the things that the secretary heard directly from the service secretaries and from the Joint Chiefs of Staff was how much they appreciated the level of investment and responsibility at the commander level for dealing with issues of extremist activity in their ranks. They felt that that was a notable and important improvement over the previous instruction.

And then, number two, I think if you look -- I've heard this argument before that it's not specific enough. We also hear some people saying, well, it's too specific.

But if you look at the list of what we consider extremist activity and then look right below that in the instruction about what the list of what active participation in that activity looks like, it's a two-part test.

In other words, for an individual to find themselves at odds with the Uniform Code of Military Justice on this issue, they will have had to have met both tests: A, the activity is considered extremist and, B, they were actively participating in it.

And so, I -- I, with respect, would push back on this idea that it's a Rorschach test. It's a two-part test and it's all laid out in the instruction. And we're proud of the specificity in those articles of the instruction about what is and what isn't extremist activity and what is and what isn't participation.

So I know of no changes to the instruction. I mean it just got issued, so I wouldn't be looking for changes to it anytime soon. That said, I mean, look, we're an organization and an institution that constantly tries to self-improve.

So as we now implement this instruction and as the commanders now have this more specific guidance, should over time we find that the feedback from the fleet and the force is that revisions need to be made -- I mean, it is an instruction, they can be revised -- there's certainly no effort, no plan right now to do so.

Q: Well --


MR. KIRBY: I'm going to have to leave it at that. I'm already, now, going to be late for my next meeting. But I appreciate your time today and we'll see you guys soon. I think Friday's the next briefing day. We're going to let everybody off the hook tomorrow.

So thanks, everybody.