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Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh Holds an Off-Camera, On-the-Record Press Briefing

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SABRINA SINGH: Hi, everyone. OK? Good morning. Happy Monday. A few things at the top and then we'll -- be happy to take your questions.

So as many of you know, Secretary Austin and his team departed today for Ramstein, Germany, where he and Chairman Brown will host the 20th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. The Secretary and the Chairman will join ministers of defense and senior military officials from nearly 50 nations from around the world to discuss the ongoing war in Ukraine and reiterate the coalition's support for Ukraine against Russian aggression.

Switching gears, on Niger, last week, a high-level U.S. delegation traveled to Niger, which was led by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Dr. Celeste Wallander, and the commander of U.S. Africa Command General Michael Langley.

The delegation conducted meetings with the CNSP and also met with civil society organizations and diplomats from other partner nations and international organizations. The U.S. delegation met with a CNSP delegation led by the Prime Minister and several Cabinet ministers, as well as technical experts and advisors. Dr. Wallander and General Langley also had a separate meeting with the Chief of the General Staff of the Nigerien Armed Forces.

The lengthy and direct discussions included an exchange of views on how to chart a new path of cooperation forward, emphasizing the importance of respecting Niger's sovereignty and concerns from both sides.

We are aware of the March 16th statement by CNSP announcing an end to the status of forces agreement between Niger and the United States. We are working through diplomatic channels to seek clarification. These are ongoing discussions and I don't have more to share at this time.

And with that, I'd be happy to jump in and take questions. Tara?

Q: ... do you take it that this wasn't a hard get out, that maybe there's some wiggle room for U.S. forces to stay in Niger?

MS. SINGH: So we're -- I mean, we're aware of the statement that they issued over the weekend. We remain in contact with the CNSP. We're continuing to conduct those conversations at a diplomatic level. So I don't have a timeframe of any withdrawal of forces. We're -- those conversations are ongoing.

Q: But is there any DOD planning going on right now to have forces withdraw?

MS. SINGH: I'm just not going to get ahead of any of those conversations.

Q: OK. And then on the drones over Langley, can you give us any sort of sense of were these big drones? Were they -- they obviously were low altitude. Did they actually start concern here at Pentagon?

MS. SINGH: It was something that we were monitoring but I think the -- Langley Air Force Base does have a statement, or should have more for you. I direct you there for more information.

Q: OK.

MS. SINGH: But yeah, it was something that we were monitoring here. Great, no more questions? Perfect. Done. OK. Oren? Yeah.

Q: Are U.S. forces out of Niger conducting any missions, whether ISR or otherwise?

MS. SINGH:  The only missions that are being conducted with ISR are for force protection only. There have been no counter-terrorism -- either unilaterally or with the Nigerien government since the July coup.

Q: And just to be clear, you have not, since the March 16th statement, which was ... 

MS. SINGH: Two days ago ... 

Q: ... two days ago ... 

MS. SINGH: ... yeah.

Q: ... withdrawn or retrograded forces ... 

MS. SINGH: That's correct.

Q: And then one more question. You said a new path of cooperation forward. It -- is there -- I mean, has the previous framework of cooperation broken down, or why a new path?

MS. SINGH:  Well, it's a new path in that it's a new government that took over in July. So we are -- the department and the State Department, through this delegation that was led last week, is trying to find a way for the path forward, what that looks like for cooperation between the U.S. government and Niger, and that's something that's continued to be worked through. But again, I just don't have more for you at this time.


Q: Just a couple quick ones. Why is DOD seeking clarification if it was pretty clear that they said "the SOFA is over, we want you to leave"?

MS. SINGH: Because we have different lines of communications at all levels of government with Niger and our government. And so we're keeping those dialogues open. And so we're seeking further clarification for what that means -- what that statement means. Again, we want to see our partnership continue if there is a pathway forward, and I'll just leave it at that.

Q: And is there anything the U.S. can do, if it does leave, to prevent the $110 million airbase from becoming, say, a Russian airbase?

MS. SINGH: Again, I'm not going to get ahead of any conversations or discussions that we're having. Right now, we continue to engage with the CNSP, and when I have more to share, I'll -- certainly will.


Q: How many American troops are in Niger right now?

MS. SINGH: Approximately 1,000.

Q: OK. And what are their -- what's their mission set right now?

MS. SINGH: Right now, they're still there doing what they were doing post-July, which is, you know, they're there consolidating from -- as we did from 101 to 201. Their mission of course remains counter-terrorism but we haven't been able to do that since the July coup. So anything that we're doing there is just for force protection.

Yeah, Courtney?

Q: I don't understand, was the meeting last week because there was concerns that the leadership in Niger was going to kick the U.S. out or did they decide to kick U.S. out at -- cause of something that happened in the meeting?

MS. SINGH: I'm not going to get into too many details of the meeting, but the U.S. delegation was there to raise a number of concerns that we've been having from State and DOD. We were troubled on the path that Niger is on. And so these were direct and frank conversations, to have those in-person, to talk about our concerns and to also hear theirs.

Q: Did the U.S. go into the meetings though with the understanding that Niger was getting ready to boot you out? I mean ... 

MS. SINGH: I don't -- I'm not going to get into more details of the conversation. I can tell you that the purpose of why the delegation was there -- was to have this in face-to-face conversation, to discuss what a possible path forward could look like, and we certainly welcome that these conversations, post that March 16th statement, continued to be ongoing -- or are ongoing.

Q: And one -- one more -- since the U.S. hasn't been doing counter-terror missions there, operations there, has the budget changed? I can't believe I just asked a budget question, by the way.

MS. SINGH: I'm not aware of any changes to the budget but, you know, we are going into budget season and we'll be submitting our new budget, as you saw us roll out, I guess -- I think that was last week, but I just don't have any updates on that.

Q: Quick follow on that, on Niger if I could? You said that you were troubled -- or the DOD was troubled about the path Niger is on. What specifically was troubling the DOD? Was it increasing ties with Russia or something else?

MS. SINGH: U.S. officials expressed concern over Niger's potential relationships with Russia and Iran.


Q: Yeah, thank you. How many Americans did we -- back in July, remember there was, like, some kind of a -- in the dozens or something is what it was.

MS. SINGH: Like with contractors and others? I would have to refer you to our statements back in -- I don't have those exact numbers in front of me.

Q: ... shift in the -- the size or the scope ... 

MS. SINGH: We did consolidate and pare down some of our forces from what the original footprint was, and we consolidated from 101 to 201. That force posture right now is approximately around 1,000. I don't have more -- I don't have those numbers.

Q: ... I mean, what was it? Because 1,000 sounds a lot like what it was back over the summer.

MS. SINGH: I don't have those specific numbers from July. I'm happy to take that question. We did put out -- when we were repeatedly briefing over the summer and had those numbers, I know we did consolidate, there were contractors that did leave, but right now, it remains around approximately 1,000.

Q: And last one -- the Nigeriens, they've mentioned publicly that, about the Iranian deal with Iran specifically, is that obviously (inaudible) and they said that the deal was actually  eventually worked out. So if it wasn't worked out, what were their concerns going in?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I don't have more specifics. And again, not going to get into more details on the conversation that was had with the U.S. delegation. All I can tell you is that we raised our concerns in a direct and frank manner. And just leave it at that. 

I'll go to Nick and then I'll come over here. 

Q: Sorry I was late. Just a couple on Niger and one on Haiti. 

MS. SINGH: Sure. 

Q: -- so, can you confirm -- alluded to this, but the junta has asked that the U.S. to leave -- the acting prime minister sounds like is asking to stay. Is that -- can you just kind of confirm kind of that divide between the (inaudible)?

MS. SINGH: Yes, I'm not going to get into specifics and speak for their government. What I can tell you is that conversations remain ongoing between us and the CNSP. 

Q: Okay, good. And can you confirm there is contingency planning that you're giving authority notice -- contingency planning if the United States government decides that it has (inaudible)?

MS. SINGH: We're a planning organization. There's always plans for every type of scenario. That's what makes us so great at our jobs. And I'll just leave it at that. 

Q: All right. And then on Haiti, so -- the new (inaudible) weekend was obviously done by State. The next step it sounds like, whether it's helicopters or not, would be done by State. But what is the military goal if the State Department executes another evacuation, especially if that includes helicopters going to Port-au-Prince, essentially entering a war zone, even if the gains aren't necessarily (inaudible)?

MS. SINGH: So, I think what you're referring to is the chartered flight -

Q: Right. 

MS. SINGH: -- that State had over the weekend. So, would direct you to State for more specifics, but I wouldn't call it like an evacuation. It was a flight, to my understanding, that was offered to American citizens who could not find a way through regular commercial means, as there is a less availability of fights. So, I direct you to State for that. The U.S. military no role in that, our presence there remains just at the embassy for security purposes only.

Q: But can you just talk at all about if State does a further evacuation and a further charter -

MS. SINGH: Yes. 

Q: -- they'd be helicopters landing at the embassy trying to get people out. Surely the military has a role in security, planning, (inaudible) can you talk at all about. 

MS. SINGH: I'm not aware of any discussion about that. Wouldn't get into a hypothetical. But again, that's something that State would arrange if they requested assistance. Of course, we'd be willing to help. But I am not aware that they have. 

Phil, and then over here. 

Q: Well, Nick asked my question, but I'm just curious on Niger. So, the U.S. presented a flight ultimatum to Niger about U.S. presence, if there was a deal in Iran and Russia, and then -

MS. SINGH: I'm not going to get too far into the conversation that was had between the delegation and the CNSP. I wouldn't say it was an ultimatum. We had direct conversations about some of our concerns, about some of their, you know, pursuing relationships with Russia and Iran. But I wouldn't say it's an ultimatum. Ultimately, we want to see what our relationship could look like if there is one to pursue going forward. 

Q: Did the U.S. add -- tell them that the U.S. wouldn't be able to have military troops present if with -- if they went ahead with those agreements with the (inaudible) Russia?

MS. SINGH: Yes, appreciate the question, just not going into further specifics on the conversation. 


Q: following up again on Niger, earlier today the senator -- the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee told reporters that he saw the developments in Niger as the result of Russia trying to insinuate itself in the region and try to cause trouble for the U.S. To what degree does the Pentagon agree with that assessment? And since you are a planning organization, how quickly do you have an alternative basically stood up to take over the counterterrorism mission that may have to be abandoned in Niger?

MS. SINGH: So, on -- you said it was the Chairman of SASC?

Q: Jack Reed, yes. 

MS. SINGH: Okay. So, I haven't seen his exact comments, but I wouldn't dispute, we know that Russia has, certainly, a presence within the region from, you know, they continue to pursue ties to African nations to deepen their security cooperation. We've seen that before in other countries. I haven't seen the exact comments, but again, that is something that we have raised our concerns over and that was something that was spoken about in the meetings.

And then I'm sorry, your second question?

Q: How quickly could an alternative base for counter-terrorism be set up if U.S. forces -- since you're a planning organization and you've been planning presumably since around last July, last August, how quickly could something else be set up and get up and going?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, so I'm not going to preview what things could look like in the region. I can tell you that General Langley is certainly engaged with other partners there. The Secretary is continuing to get briefed by General Langley and his team. But I just don't have anything to announce today on that.


Q: Thank you. I have -- sorry for the follow-up. Back a while ago, the White House had reported there was 648 troops in Niger, and you had said there's roughly 1,000. So does that 1,000 include civilians and contractors or is that ... 

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I believe that's total.

Q: So 648 troops and the rest are contractors and civilians?

MS. SINGH: I can just tell you that our force posture is approximately around 1,000.

Q: And including contractors?

MS. SINGH: To my understanding, yeah, that's right.

Did I see another -- yeah, Kelly?

Q: I just wanted to follow up on the port for Gaza and just the U.S. personnel off-shore, just the concerns for safety of them, you know, going forward.

MS. SINGH: Sure. Was there a question?

Q: Just if you have any updates on that or just kind of the comments that are coming out from some on the -- on Capitol Hill, that they're concerned about their safety?

MS. SINGH: Got it. So it's obviously something that we take very seriously. We are -- of course the Secretary wants to make sure that our people are taken care of when it comes to securing their -- the port and ensuring security around for our forces there -- and I should say -- correcting myself, the floating pier and the causeway. That's something that's still being worked through with partners in the region, including the IDF. When we have more for you on that, we'd certainly share it, but that's not something that I just have more to share at this time.

Q: OK. And then no updating on timing or anything like that?

MS. SINGH: No. I mean, we're probably around 50 days from -- I want to say 50 or high-40s from when we first announced this mission. And so we're about, you know, around 50 days from when it'll be operational, when we'll be able to be able to get food from the floating pier and causeway into Gaza, but that's about the rough timeline that I have.

Q: OK.

MS. SINGH: Yeah. Did I see more over here? No? Yeah -- oh, Luis?

Q: Following up on Phil's question, when you responded to his question about an ultimatum, you said that one of the things that was discussed essentially was whether to see if a relationship could be pursued in the future. If there is a relationship pursued in the future, it kind of indicates that one of the things discussed was the U.S. presence and not being there any longer? Can you kind of expand on that?

MS. SINGH: I don't have more to expand on. Again, I'm not going to get into more details of the conversation. It was -- you know, the delegation had very direct and frank conversations with the CNSP about what mil-to-mil -- a relationship could look like, but we have our concerns. We expressed concern over the direction that Niger is going. And so that's what those conversations are for. But again, I'm just not going to be able to get into more details of anything else that the delegation discussed at this time.

Q: And when you say that if there is a relationship ... 

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I'm just going to leave it at ... 

Q: ... possibly pursued, it indicates that it's not firm right now. So, I mean ... 

MS. SINGH: Well, we -- it hasn't been firm since July. We haven't been able to conduct our counter-terrorism operations that we used to do with the Nigerien military since the coup happened in July. That was something that we suspended. We also had to change what our footprint looked like and consolidated that from 101 to 201. So yeah, I mean, we are open to pursuing, you know -- to continuing the dialogue with the CNSP, but right now, I just don't have more to share with you from what else the delegation discussed.

Anything else?

Q: Just a quick question on ... 

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: Is the consolidation from 101 to 201 complete or do there remain U.S. personnel at 101? I feel like we know this and I just forgot.

MS. SINGH: I'm not aware that there is a heavy presence at 101. I believe, like, the -- it's been consolidated to 201.

OK, all right, thanks, everyone.

Q: ... give you a timeline, say you have to be out by a certain date?

MS. SINGH: No. And you can -- I'd refer you to their statement too. They didn't indicate a timeline.

Q: Sabrina, has the junta communicated privately the same thing they're communicating publicly or (inaudible) the same message?

MS. SINGH: We always continue to engage through diplomatic channels, both publicly and privately, but the -- I mean, they obviously made their very public statement on March 16th. I don't have more for you there.

Thanks, guys. All right.