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Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Afternoon everybody.  Let me just get organized here for a second.  I actually have glasses so I could probably use them that would help.  OK, if I could just come in at the top, I think you're all aware but due to the recent increasing spread of COVID 19. 

As you know, this morning the Pentagon officially went to HPCON Charlie to protect our workforce, their families, our communities, and our support to the absolutely critical mission of this department.  We are monitoring the conditions in the areas surrounding the Pentagon and any change in HPCON level will be based of course upon an analysis of those conditions. 

This is no different our change to Charlie.  We continue to encourage all DOD employees and their eligible family members to get a booster shot and obviously to get vaccinated -- to get fully vaccinated.  Of course, as you know the requirements under Charlie are more significant.  You can see that here, just in the briefing room. 

We went down to, I think, eight seats.  But we continue to, you know, require people to wear masks as appropriate and social distance.  And all the -- following all the other CDC guidelines as well.  OK. 

With that, we'll start taking questions.  Bob, I think you're on the phone.  Yes?

Q:  Thank you, John.  Yes, I am.  I have a question connected to the talks did today in Geneva, on the Ukraine crisis, and so forth.  After the talks, Wendy Sherman said that the U.S.  raised a number of ideas, including one related to missile deployments. 

She said to quote her, "the United States is open to discussing the future of certain missile systems in Europe along the lines of the now defunct INF Treaty." So, my question is, given that, after the U.S.  withdrew from the treaty and began work on development of new INF range missiles. 

How would Secretary Austin feel about returning to a ban on such missiles, given the current work that is going on with those missiles right now?

MR. KIRBY:  Bob, I think we're just not at the -- at a point here either in the and on the capability side, or in the certainly in the discussions with the Russians for the Secretary to stake out a hard position one way or another on that. 

Separately distinct from the continent of Europe, work continues on those kinds of capabilities.  And then when you start to fold in the talks here, again, I won't negotiate here from the podium, and I certainly won't get ahead of our State Department colleagues in Geneva.  And as they move on now to Brussels as their next stop. 

But we were certainly aware and supportive of the effort to be able to talk about missile capabilities on the European continent as one thing that the administration would be willing to look at.  Assuming, of course, and this sometimes gets lost in the discussions about what's going on in Geneva.  That there was -- there would be some level of reciprocity by the Russians in return for that.  So, look, I again, I -- kind of backing out broadly here. 

As you know, we have a couple of delegates from the Department of Defense accompanying Deputy Secretary Sherman , General Mingus, from the Joint Staff and Laura Cooper from the OSD staff.  We're very much in support of diplomacy, taking the lead here to try to find a way to de-escalate the tensions and to get to a better outcome. 

We're fully in support of that in diplomacy being the lead element here.  And in the department, doing what we can to help foster more fruitful negotiations.  But again, I don't want to get ahead of it.  Janne (ph).

Q:  Thank you, John.  On the North Korean missile launching last week.  What is the United States assessment of North Korea's claims that its fired hypersonic missile last week? 

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, I've seen the claims.  We're aware of the claims.  We don't have any updates to an assessment about -with more specificity as to what was fired.  We've called it a ballistic missile.  And we are still assessing the details of it. 

And as you know, ballistic missile -- a Ballistic Missile Program them firing ballistic missiles continues to be in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions.  And we certainly call on the DPRK to abide by those obligations and those responsibilities and to look for ways to de-escalate.

Q:  Alright.  And secondly, at the Two Plus Two meeting the.  U.S.  and Japan has agreed to join in to develop hypertonic missiles as part of Japan's' (ph).  Can be seen as sending a strong signal to China and North Korea?

MR. KIRBY:  I think the development of advanced capabilities and certainly the development of advanced capabilities inside the rubric of the alliance with Japan.  Really speaks to the growing tensions and challenges from a security perspective that we see in the Indo Pacific region writ large.  There's -- and look, they talked about a lot of these security threats and challenges last week at the at the Two Plus Two. 

You mentioned one North Korea, and they're advancing nuclear ambitions and their Ballistic Missile Program.  And of course, we continue to see as the Secretary said in his opening statement, the coercive of aggressive behavior out of the People's Republic of China.  There's no shortage of things for the United States and Japan, to want to continue to talk about and improve about our alliances and our capabilities. 

You know given the tensions and the challenges in the Indo Pacific right now. 

Q:  Thank you. 

MR. KIRBY:  You're welcome, Tom.

Q:  John, any update what the Pentagon will do with the judge's ruling and the COVID case involving the Navy SEALs, will you guys appeal?

MR. KIRBY:  We have not come up with a strategy going forward here, Tom.  We're still in discussions with the Justice Department about what the proper next steps are going to be.  I would only remind, as I've said multiple times.  The vaccine is a military medical requirement that remains in place.

Q:  And as far as the -- I've been off for a while.  So maybe you've already addressed this.  As far as the governor's with their state guards.  Has their Secretary written to each of those governors basically saying you know you have to take the vaccine?

MR. KIRBY:  We have not replied to the spat of letters we got a couple of weeks ago before the holidays.  We're working up the appropriate responses to that.  But there's been no official reply yet.  Again, without getting into publicly addressing these issues -- that the issues put forth in the governor's letters we'll reply appropriately. 

Again, the vaccine remains a valid military medical requirement for unit readiness.  The Secretary continues to believe strongly, particularly after his own bout with COVID that the vaccines really do work.  And it really is when it comes down to it's a readiness issue.  Let me get excuse me, to the phones. 

As we got, as you might imagine a lot more folks on the phone here than we have in the room.  Carol Rosenberg, New York Times.

Q:  Thanks, Admiral.  We're being told that a Somali detainee got a visit in his cell at Guantanamo this morning.  And was told he's approved for release with security arrangements.  Can you confirm that and say how many detainees have been so notified?  Sounds like others got notices recently.  A sister of another forever prisoner, a Yemeni announced his release decision on Facebook.  So how many are there?

MR. KIRBY:  Thanks, Carol.  I actually, I can't confirm those reports.  Carol had no transfers out of Guantanamo to speak to today.

Q:  To follow up, this is not a question about a transfer.  It's a question about approval, but the periodic review board.  Which is I guess based in the Pentagon and under OSDPA.

MR. KIRBY:  I'd give you the same answer right now Carol.  Again, I've heard those rumors, but I really don't have anything to speak to in terms of review board approvals or decisions.  I just don't have anything to speak to about today.

Q:  Any chance you can (ph) take it?

MR. KIRBY:  Thanks, Jeff Shogel (ph).

Q:  Thank you can OSD say why booster shots are encouraged but not required for servicemembers?

MR. KIRBY:  Jeff, no thanks for that question.  We are still in discussions here at the Pentagon about the booster shots and there's been no decision made about making them mandatory.  They are still not mandatory.  But as the Secretary has said many times to the force that has in fact, I think I just did. 

That if you're eligible, and you meet the criteria, we absolutely encourage those members of our workforce to get the booster shots, because it really does help lessen the effects if in fact, one contracts the virus.  So, no decision yet, we're still talking about that. 

And obviously if there's a change to the current posture with respect to boosters, will certainly let you know.  Carla Babb.

Q:  Hey, John, thanks for taking our questions.  Going back to Russia and Ukraine.  According to Wendy Sherman, Russia has claimed that it has no intentions to attack Ukraine again.  So how confident is the U.S.  military in such a statement by Russia?  And has the Pentagon seen any decrease in Russian military presence around Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY:  See no major the changes to the force posture by the Russians in the border areas around Ukraine.  There continues to be a sizable element there.  So, nothing specific to speak to, at least in a macro sense. 

And I would just refer you back to what Deputy Secretary Sherman said when asked about those comments.  I mean, she was very clear that if the Russians are serious about de-escalating, they can start by starting to remove some of those troops or decreasing some of that forced posture.

Q:  You said no major reductions.  There have been some reports that some of the Russian troops around Ukraine have gone up to Kazakhstan.  Have you seen any indications?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't know that that's true.  I've seen those reports too.  What I can tell you is and again, we've been very careful not to get into a day-by-day sort of blow-by-blow analysis of what they have around the eastern part of Ukraine. 

What I can tell you with confidence is we have not seen any decreases.  They continue to have a sizable, forced posture, right to the East, to the North, and even to the South.  And we've seen no major changes to that.  So, I wasn't trying to get hung up on the word significant. 

I was -- I guess I was trying to nod to the fact that we aren't going to get into a detailed assessment one way or the other.  But the situation remains that they have a sizable force posture there.  Yes.

Q:  So, Guantanamo Bay Detention center is turning 20... 

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.

Q:  ...tomorrow.  President Biden has promised to a close the prison...

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.

Q:  ...New York Times reported late last year that the Pentagon is building a second courtroom (ph).  Can you highlight or update us on any steps that have been taken by the DOD or the administration in general, towards fulfilling that promise?

MR. KIRBY:  I would say the administration remains dedicated to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.  There's nothing -- nothing's changed about that.  We are in a review right now about the way forward there, so I won't get ahead of that. 

And but to that end, as the National Security Council staff continues to work closely with us here at DOD with the State Department, with the Justice Department, and other departments and agencies across the Federal Government about what that's going to look like going forward.

Q:  When is that review...?

MR. KIRBY:  I would point you to my colleagues at the National Security Council staff.  They're running that process.  But we continue to be committed to closing down that facility.  And of course, to -- that means whittling down the population, which is very small right now, I think there's a less than -- yes, less, just over three dozen detainees remain from the nearly 800 that were there at its peak. 

So small number, not surprisingly, they are the hardest cases to deal with and to adjudicate.  And so, we're working our way through that right now.

Q:  So, but up until this review is over, no steps have been taken?

MR. KIRBY:  Again, I don't want to get ahead.  No, I wouldn't.  You're asking for concrete steps to close it.  Well, that's what the review is about.  Is helping us find out what the best concrete steps are for.  In the meantime, though -- in the meantime, again, without speaking to Carol's question specifically.

I don't have any to announce or speak to with respect to that today.  But in the meantime, we continue to look and have looked for ways.  To the Review Board process to transfer and relocate detainees outside of the facility.

Q:  And you can you say how many might be eligible for relocation?

MR. KIRBY:  So, I would tell you 13 of the remaining detainees are eligible for transfer.  The diplomatic processes underway to work to transfer repatriate them as appropriate.  14 are eligible for a periodic review board.  All of them have undergone a review since the start of this administration.  10 are involved in the military commissions process with charges pending or a trial or pre-trial proceedings that are underway and two detainees have been convicted in military commissions (ph). 

Q:  So, 39 in total, right?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes. 

Q:  Thank you.  Thank you. 

MR. KIRBY:  You're welcome.  Let me get back to the phones here, Tom Squitieri.

Q:  Hi, John.  Good afternoon, thanks.  I have two questions emanating from Ukraine.  One is the over the last couple of weeks Swedish or Swedish Defense Ministers have been very strong their language is support of NATO and a strong position on Ukraine. 

Likewise, Finland has said, you know, if Russia pushes it, it could consider joining NATO.  What are the advantages of having Sweden and Finland in NATO?  That's my first question, please.

MR. KIRBY:  Tom, that's a question really put to NATO officials in Brussels and to the governments of those two countries.  As you've heard us say many times before NATO membership is between the individual nation wanting to join and the Alliance. 

And any decision one way or another are going to be made by those two parties.  So that's really a better question put to those two governments.  I would not even begin to speak for the sovereign governments of Sweden and Finland.

Q:  Alright, fair enough.  My second question is, over the weekend, British defense officials raised the concern of Russia.  They cut the cables -- the undersea cables and they considered such an act an act of war.  Given your knowledge of the law of warfare would the Pentagon consider such an action an act of war? 

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not seeing those reports Tom one way or the other.  So, I think I'm going to decline to speculate on what is or isn't an act of war when it comes to undersea cables.  I have not seen the British comments, so I think I'm going to take a pass on that today.

Q:  Alright, thanks for your time.

MR. KIRBY:  You bet.  OK, Mike Brest of The Washington Examiner.  Mike Brest?

Q:  Thanks Mr.  Kirby question was actually already asked and answered.

MR. KIRBY:  Thank you, Mike.  Tony Capaccio.

Q:  Hey, John, sorry, I muted myself.  Tony Capaccio.


Q:  Hi, John, I muted myself accidentally.  The DOD assessment team that visited Ukraine lately -- recently.  Have they produced any recommendations for the types of weapons or equipment the Ukrainian military may need?  Or is it still crafting a recommendation to the interagency? 

MR. KIRBY:  You know, they were largely looking at air and missile defense, as I understand it, Tony.   That and they've been back a while.  I'll take your question to see if there was some sort of more formal recommendations made.  I'm not aware of a formal report that was issued. 

They just took a look and consulted with the Ukrainians about what they believe their air defense needs were.  I would just tell you that, you know, we have, and we will continue to provide security assistance to Ukraine as appropriate going forward. 

We remain committed to helping Ukraine be able to defend itself across a range of capabilities, quite frankly.

Q:  Can I ask you, are Stinger missiles, though, one of the weapons that the team is eyeing to recommend?  That would be a major escalation of our weaponry to the Ukrainians if we gave them Stinger missiles. 

MR. KIRBY:  Yes, again, Tony, I've got nothing specific to speak to in terms of future capabilities, or the -- or whatever the assessment team, you know, learned.  I just I don't have anything specific for you on that.  I mean, what I would again, tell you is we have in the past, and we will continue to provide articles which will allow Ukraine to better defend itself. 

Q:  OK, please give me a written again -- give us a written answer if you can.  And put Stingers in there or not.  Thank you. 

MR. KIRBY:  I'll do the best I can, Tony.  But again, I don't want to get your hopes up on a whole heck of a lot of specificity here. 

Q:  Sure, think thanks. 

MR. KIRBY:  Heather from USNI.

Q:  Hi, thank you so much for taking the question.  When it comes to religious exemptions, given the Navy and the Marine Corps and the rest of the branches, lack of exemptions.  Is the DOD policy in good faith when it comes to the religious exemption process?

MR. KIRBY:  Can you repeat that last part I didn't understand.  Can -- the DOD policy on what?

Q:  On religious exemptions for vaccines.  Is it still in good faith?  Given that there hasn't been any exemptions and the Navy hasn't been any exemptions in the past seven years?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  Look, the short answer to your question, Heather is yes, of course it's in good faith, no pun intended.  The -- but the process by which religious exemptions are reviewed and adjudicated, and ultimately decided one way or the other is controlled by each of the military departments.  The Army, the Department of the Navy and Department of the Air Force, Space Force.  So that's all Department of the Air Force, I apologize. 

They are in charge of adjudicating those exemption requests and making those decisions.  But in terms of your broader question, which is I think, you know, when -- does DOD still believing in the value of a religious exemption process for this or any other vaccine.  The answer's yes, we do.  We believe that there should be a channel vehicle through which men and women of the workforce who believe they have legitimate religious exemptions to seek on their behalf. 

That they have a process to make that request and to have that request treated seriously.  I would remind that again.  I understand the numbers are zero right now in terms of COVID.  But even the services will tell you they still have a backlog of in some cases thousands of additional religious exemptions requests to work through.  So, this is ongoing process, yes. 

Q:  Thank you. 

Q:  Thank you, John.  Last week, you said, that U.S.  expected the increase in the level of attacks on Iraq and Syria, and also, it's maintain, of course, the rise of self-defense.  My question is, if the department will stay on the defensive side or position there, or if it maybe -- or it's considering a plan to maybe intervene in the future to prevent such attacks?

MR. KIRBY:  I would tell you that we retain the right of self-defense, to protect our troops.  And you saw in Syria a week or so ago, that Inherent Resolve Commanders actually took some steps preemptively.  As they saw launch sites being developed around Green Village to strike those sites before rocket attacks came in. 

So, protecting the troops means doing what you have to do with the information you have available and your authorities to protect the troops.  So, I don't know.  I mean, I understand the nature of the question offense versus defense.  They have the right of force protection, self-protection, self-defense, excuse me. 

And we expect commanders to act on those authorities and those responsibilities in the way they seem -- that they deem best fit, given the threat that they're facing.

Q:  But in Iraq, where the mission is different now.  We still have the same capability to self and protect your troops?

MR. KIRBY:  We are in a different mission, advise and assist.  That is true.  That officially changed over at the end of the year.  But that doesn't mean that our commanders have any less ability or less responsibility to defend themselves and defend their troops.  And as well as our Iraqi security force partners.  Caitlin from Stars and Stripes.

Q:  John, thanks.  Hey, on Friday DOD announced it had awarded 50 some million-dollar grants to purchase at home COVID tests to support the President's mission.  Wondering how many COVID tests that helped or that got purchased?  And also, why it was DOD that made that purchase and not another agency that's more interior motivated?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't know that I have an exact number of how many tests that that got, Caitlin.  So why don't you let me take your questions and get back to you rather than spitball from up here.

Q:  OK, thank you.  But again, I'm...

MR. KIRBY:  Christine.

Q:  Christina Anderson?

MR. KIRBY:  Sorry, Christina.  Yes.

Q:  Great.  Thank you for taking my question.  The OSCE special monitoring mission has reported change in level of ceasefire violations from both the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  I wondered -- there's a big increase is the upshot of it.  Would you like to comment on that?  Is there anything -- any conclusions we should draw?  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  I'm sorry.  Can you repeat it again?

Q:  The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, which patrols the line of demarcation in Ukraine's Crimea area has just reported today uptick in ceasefire violations in both Donetsk and Luhansk regions.  That's pretty significant, from 152 violations in the Donetsk region to previously it was only 85.  And Luhansk it's gone from 58 to 791.  I was wondering if you might have thoughts about that.  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  The OSCE report certainly, I'm not refuting it at all.  I just haven't seen it.  I would just tell you that -- but as we've said before, we want to see the tensions de-escalate.  Certainly, want to see the violence stop.  It is clear that Ukrainian troops are in a hot war every single day in that area in the Donbass region. 

And as we have said many times, it's important for the Russians to observe by -- observe the Minsk Agreements to pull back, and to cease the violence.  We've been very clear about that.  But again, I can't speak with specificity on this exact OSC report.  I just haven't seen it, Christina. 

Q:  Thank you. 

MR. KIRBY:  OK.  And looks like last one for today, Abraham.

Q:  Hey, John, can you hear me? 

MR. KIRBY:  I got you. 

Q:  Yes, sorry about that.  OK, I muted myself.  Any indication from the White House, John, when the budget will be released?  And this delay if it runs into late March, April what does that delay mean for DOD?  Thanks.

MR. KIRBY:  It's actually an OMB is the right agency to talk to you about this, Abraham.  In terms of timing, I don't have any indication right now what budget release timeframe is going to be.  As you might imagine, we are hard at work on starting to build out the 23 budget. 

As you would expect, we would do after the holidays.  That's the normal process.  And we're going to continue to do that the Deputy Secretary is leading that effort.  And it's a very active effort, as you might imagine.  But in terms of specific timing, I just don't have it for you. 

Now, to your second question.  I mean, obviously, in a perfect world, you always want to get that laid out as early in the year as possible, to allow for the legislative process to continue so that you can get the funding on time.  It was late last year, not -- lots of reasons.  And some of it being that you know, it had a new administration coming in.  So, we're going to keep working at it. 

So that whenever it's decided that there's a budget release date that we're going to be ready for that to execute as quickly as possible.  OK, thanks, everybody.

Q:  Thanks, John.

MR. KIRBY:  Appreciate it.