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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Rear Adm. Kirby in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Aug. 26, 2014
Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody.

Shortly you're going to see a statement that we're going to issue about Secretary Hagel has -- will be issuing on the progress made in international efforts to support Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. As you may recall, and I talked about this before, a couple of weeks ago, Secretary Hagel commissioned a U.S.-led working group, a task force to accelerate resupply efforts.

In addition to support from the United States and the central government of Iraq and Baghdad, Secretary Hagel will announce today that seven additional nations -- Albania, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom -- have committed to helping provide Kurdish forces urgently needed arms and equipment. Operations have already begun and will accelerate in the coming days with more nations also expected to contribute.

 The secretary is grateful to each of these allies for working alongside the United States military. This multinational effort, which is being coordinated with the government of Iraq in Baghdad, will greatly assist Kurdish forces in repelling the brutal terrorist threat that they face from ISIL. And as Secretary Hagel has made clear, the determination of the Iraqi people and the international community to counter this threat is only going to grow. And the United States looks forward to working with our friends from around the world to assist in that effort.

And with that, I'll take some questions. Bob?

Q: Admiral, could you be a little more specific about -- I think you used the word munitions -- what type of munitions you're talking about?

ADM. KIRBY: And this is an important point, Bob. I mean, what's great about this effort is many of these partner nations have in their stocks more than we do the kinds of equipment that the Kurdish forces use, which isn't necessarily just American-made material, so it covers the full range, small-arms ammunition and other personnel served weaponry, but I don't have a complete inventory for you.

Q: If I could change the subject very briefly, could you confirm the reports of Egypt and the UAE carried out the airstrikes in Libya and that the U.S. tried to warn them against it?

ADM. KIRBY: Well, we do believe there were airstrikes undertaken in recent days by the UAE and Egypt inside Libya. And I would refer you to those governments for any further details. And as for our knowledge of it, I won't get into discussing the specifics of our diplomatic discussions.

Yeah, Craig?

Q: Has the secretary had any conversations with -- or any of his deputies -- any conversations with people in those countries, in UAE or Egypt, in recent days?

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

Yeah, Jen?

Q: Admiral Kirby, if the U.S. sends surveillance drones into a country that it is not currently at war with, for instance, Syria, is that an act of war? And if not, why not?

ADM. KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to talk about hypotheticals, Jen.

Q: No, I'm just talking about the law. The law.

ADM. KIRBY: I'm not an expert on international law, either, Jen. I would -- what I would tell you is that -- and the president's been clear about this. Secretary Hagel's been clear about this. This is a serious threat from a serious group of terrorists. And we need to stay mindful of doing what we need to do to protect American citizens at home and abroad.

And as has been stated before, we're not going to hold ourselves to geographic boundaries in order to accomplish that job. So without getting into international law, for which I would be ill-educated to speak to you, I can tell you, we'll do what we need to do to protect Americans.

Q: For instance, there's an operation that you have talked about, which is the special operations rescue mission that failed in July. Is that considered an act of war, when we send special operators into a country you're not at war with?

ADM. KIRBY: That was a rescue attempt. And we only divulged it because we were forced to because of leaks. There was never an intention to talk about it. No, it was not an act of war. It was a rescue attempt of Americans that were being held hostage by terrorists. And I also would like to just push back on this idea that it failed. OK, it wasn't successful in terms of we didn't get them, but it was executed very, very well, very professionally.

Q: And just one last question. Can you characterize the relationship between the U.S. and Qatar right now? Because, obviously, Qatar was very instrumental in securing the release of this hostage yesterday, American hostage, but at the same time, there are so many reports that Qatar is supporting Nusra Front, as well as other Islamist groups in Libya and elsewhere. How would you characterize the relationship between the U.S. and Qatar?

ADM. KIRBY: We continue to have a solid military-to-military relationship with Qatar. As you know, Secretary Hagel has spent a lot of time with the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] nations. We were just there a couple of months ago. And we want to continue to broaden that military-to-military relationship, and that's our focus, is on the military relationship.

Putting that aside, obviously, we don't encourage any support by any nation for terrorist groups and extremists, particularly in that part of the world.

Q: Are you concerned that Qatar had supported terrorist groups?

ADM. KIRBY: I've seen those reports. And if the reports are true, absolutely, it's concerning.


Q: (OFF-MIC) did the president authorize -- the White House or did the Pentagon -- authorize the Pentagon to conduct surveillance missions over Syria? And what comes next?

ADM. KIRBY: I don't talk about intelligence matters, Tony. I'm not going to start doing that today. We're a planning organization here. We have to be prepared for all kinds of options. And with respect to providing military options, we're going to be ready to do that. But I'm not going to get into the details.

Q: Intelligence normally is -- sources and methods, you know, the James Bond world, this is -- we're talking about airplanes now. You can't confirm that you were authorized to fly aircraft over Syria?

ADM. KIRBY: I am not going to talk about intelligence matters.

Q: And one final thing.


Q: Last year, this very week, the world was consumed with potentially bombing Syria with Tomahawk missiles to get them to give up their chemical weapons, and there was discussion about Syria's air defense capabilities. Last year, it was characterized as dense and sophisticated and integrated. One year later, is that still the case with Syria's air defenses?

ADM. KIRBY: There has been no change in our assessment of Syrian air defense capabilities.


Q: Back on the surveillance questions in Syria, is the U.S. flying any surveillance missions in Syria? And before you say that you can't talk about it, I just want to point out that -- how many times we've been told how many missions are flying every day over Iraq right next door.

ADM. KIRBY: Sure, sure. Not going to talk about it, Courtney.


But I appreciate the warning as you asked it. No, but let me -- but there's a -- the difference here is that, in Iraq, we were specifically asked by the government of Iraq to come in and assist them with an ISR effort -- it was an overt ask, and so we accommodated that request, and we continue to accommodate it today. That's a -- you know, that's a different situation than the one you're hypothesizing about now.


Q: Admiral, there's been a couple of members of Congress yesterday and today who have said they believe the president should go to Congress and ask for an authorization if he decides to order military actions in Syria. What is Secretary Hagel's view of that question? And more generally, does he feel the Pentagon can operate under the existing authorization of military force? Or would Congress have to change it some way if the president gave that order?

ADM. KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to speak to a question that's better posed to the White House, Phil. What I can tell you is, we are operating inside Iraq, given the authorities that we've been given by the commander-in-chief, and we -- not just -- not just the Defense Department, but the U.S. government has kept Congress informed of what we're doing. The president's filed, I think, four War Powers Resolution letters in response to -- or because of what we're doing inside Iraq. So there's been a concerted effort to keep Congress informed.


Q: Admiral Kirby, does -- do you know if the Pentagon have -- has enough information, a clear picture about ISIS size, ISIS capabilities inside Syria?

ADM. KIRBY: The way I would put it to you, Joe, is we -- we've been watching ISIL for many months now, and we recognize that their development, their growth, the increase in their capabilities, it hasn't happened overnight, and it has happened regionally, that they -- that they operate pretty much freely between Iraq and Syria.

Do we have perfect information about them and their capabilities, whether it's on the Syrian side of the border or the Iraqi side? No, we don't. Now, we're gaining better knowledge in Iraq because we have been flying more surveillance flights over the country since we were asked by the Iraqi government to do so and because we're in better and more frequent contact now with Iraqi and Kurdish forces. So I think there's a growing sense of knowledge there on the Iraqi side, but it's -- but it's mixed.

Q: Just -- (inaudible) -- question. How many flights have you contacted over Iraq since the beginning of the operation?

ADM. KIRBY: I don't have -- I'd have to get -- point you to CENTCOM...


ADM. KIRBY: I'd have to point you to CENTCOM, Joe. I haven't been tallying each and every flight. As Chairman Dempsey said to you last week, we're up over about 60 ISR flights per day in Iraq, but it varies. Some days it's more; some days it's less. And I don't have a total for you.

Yes, sir?

Q: Sir, the head of Air Combat Command recently said that he wouldn't fly A-10s over Syria. And this would obviously extend to some other platforms, like, say, the Predator. You know, how are you possibly conducting these operations without some sort of coordination with the Syrian government?

ADM. KIRBY: Well, the question presumes that I'm going to talk about, you know, operations being conducted, and I'm not going to do that. I just said, I'm not going to talk about intelligence matters here. And I haven't seen the comments from the ACC commander about the A-10, so I wouldn't have any comment on that.


Q: Admiral Kirby, back in June when things were really heating up in Iraq, you all announced that you had moved the George H.W. Bush carrier group into the Persian Gulf. Have any additional forces along those lines been added either to the Persian Gulf or to the Med in recent weeks? And also, did you ever get a response from the Chinese about that barrel roll incident?

ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any additional naval assets. That said, Jon, you know this, naval forces come and go, routinely swapping out on deployments, so I would point you to the Navy for any update on what the naval laydown looks like in the Med and the Persian Gulf. I'm not aware of any major muscle movement changes such as a carrier battle group, if that's what you mean. The Bush is still the only carrier that we have available in that part of the world.

All I saw from -- in terms of a Chinese reaction was public -- public comments they made through their media that they -- that they did acknowledge -- at least publicly acknowledged that there was an intercept, but stressed that -- in their view -- that it was done at a completely safe distance and with professional demeanor, and we obviously take deep issue with that characterization of the incident.

Q: Is the secretary meeting with Chinese officials in the building here later this week? And do you know if that topic will be discussed?

ADM. KIRBY: I understand that the Navy is having some discussions this week with some of their Chinese counterparts. I'd point you to the Navy for details on that. I would also, from what I gathered this morning, John, this was something that was long-planned, long-scheduled, sort of routine staff talks kind of thing. And the degree to which this incident will come up, I'd -- again, I'd point you to Navy.

I already got you, Phil. Nancy?

Q: I want to follow up on the UAE flights over Libya. Last week, out of this building, from the Joint Staff and from OSD, you said repeatedly that the U.S. didn't know who was responsible for those flights. What is it that you were able to learn in the last few days to then say that those flights were being flown by the UAE? And why couldn't you say so last week?

ADM. KIRBY: I couldn't say so last week because I didn't know. And now we know. And so now I'm able to acknowledge it. I mean, I don't think it's worthwhile going through all the mechanisms through which we -- you know, we learn information. There were more than -- last week, there was -- I think it was the first such strike, and it was unclear as to who conducted it. All I could tell you for sure is that we didn't.

We've since gained more information, and in light of this second strike over the weekend, we've been able to ascertain that -- that we know it was conducted by UAE and by Egypt in some fashion. But, again, I'd point you to those countries to talk about that.

Q: I guess what I'm having a hard time understanding is that the U.S. had discouraged them from conducting those flights. How do you then not know that they had done them?

ADM. KIRBY: I did not say that we discouraged them from -- from conducting these strikes. What I said was we don't talk about our diplomatic discussions.

Q: And is it the position of this building that you welcome that the UAE and Egypt are trying to tackle the terrorism problem independently, without U.S. help?

ADM. KIRBY: Our position is the same as the United States government's position, which is we want the issues solved in Libya to be done peacefully and through good governance and politics and not violence and that we -- we discourage other nations from taking a part in Libya's issues through violence. That's our position.

Yeah, David?

Q: (OFF-MIC) will these weapons deliveries that you've talked about from the coalition begin?

ADM. KIRBY: They've actually started to begin. And, I mean, I can get you a better sense of that later.

Q: And who's delivering it?

ADM. KIRBY: I know Albania and the U.K. have already started to deliver, but, again, I'd have to get you some more fidelity on that. It's just -- this is an effort that's really just starting. And I'd also point to -- and we've said it before, but it's worth reminding -- we, too, have taken part in some of the delivery of equipment and personnel -- I'm sorry, equipment and materiel to Kurdish forces, helping the Iraqi government conduct that resupply, using some of our aircraft.

Q: And another question on Iraq. Where does that request from the State Department for additional security personnel stand?

ADM. KIRBY: Still reviewing it. Still looking at it. That I would sort of remind you that -- that we get many requests for forces here in the Pentagon. Some come from the State Department. Some come from combatant commanders. There are many options in how you address those kinds of force requirements. We're working through those options right now.

Yeah, Phil?

Q: On UAE and Egypt on the strikes in Libya, why wouldn't that be seen as something that would be helpful, if the United States wants allies to -- to step up in its support against militant threats? Why wouldn't it be seen as something helpful? Why wouldn't the United States be applauding that?

ADM. KIRBY: We -- what we don't want is more violence on top of violence that's already existing inside Libya. It's already a tenuous enough security environment as it is. And we do want to see that resolved. We do want to see a peaceful, stable future for Libya and for the Libyan people. It's not just good for them; it's good for that part of the world, which has already got issues of security as it does. So -- but adding more violence on to it we don't believe is the answer.


Q: (OFF-MIC) seems so obvious to Iraq, where we're accepting airstrikes, that's violence on violence as you described. Could you describe maybe what differentiates the two situations?

ADM. KIRBY: Sure, sure, yeah, absolutely. First of all, we're there at the request of the Iraqi government. This wasn't some unilateral decision by the United States to -- to strike targets inside Iraq.

Number two, we are there -- we are -- the construct under which we're conducting airstrikes are being done very -- in a very limited, targeted, discrete matter to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, to assist the Iraqi security forces as they go after this threat inside their country on behalf of their people. And then, two, to help contribute to any humanitarian missions that might evolve, like we saw happen on Mount Sinjar a couple of weeks ago. There's a big difference there.

But the biggest difference is we're there at the request of the Iraqi government. Yes?

Q: Along those lines, would the DOD consider any role as part of an international force in Libya?

ADM. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any such consideration.


Q: (OFF-MIC) two questions. One, as far as these -- this (OFF-MIC) ISIS concern, where do they get financing, training, and military equipment or weapons?

ADM. KIRBY: We've talked about this for a long time. They're well resourced. They get -- they get money from donations. They get money from ransoms. Frankly, they get money -- I mean, this is a group that tries to develop their own revenue streams. It's why they take over facilities. It's why they wanted to control the dam. I mean, they actually grab ground and try to keep it. They're selling oil on the black market. So they have many revenue streams, and they're well funded. They get a lot of their sourcing and their training and their sustenance from across that border in Syria, which is one of the reasons why we've got to take a regional approach here, but we've talked about this before.

Q: And, second, if I may...

ADM. KIRBY: OK, but this is it. This is your last follow-up.

Q: Thank you. Yesterday, there was talk about as far as Osama bin Laden got -- got from Pakistan, what I'm asking you, one, are you watching situation right now what's happening in Pakistan? And, second, do you still believe they have still training centers or -- for the terrorists, which they used to have before?

ADM. KIRBY: Who has training centers? Pakistan has training centers for extremists...

Q: Do you believe they still have?

ADM. KIRBY: I've talked about this again, too, before, but it's a complicated relationship, right? And we want to continue to work with Pakistan to deal with what we believe is a common challenge and a common threat faced by both our countries and by Afghanistan, as well. And that's extremists and the safe haven and the sanctuary that they continue to enjoy in Pakistan, but the Pakistani military has taken action against some of those extremist threats inside their own country. They've conducted operations not too long ago, just this summer.

And it's important to remind everybody that they, too, have taken casualties in that fight, so it's a common threat. We don't always see eye-to-eye on how to address it. That's -- that remains to be the case today. But what's different today is that we -- we have better vehicles for dialogue and cooperation with the Pakistani military that -- that we continue to enjoy and want to and continue to improve.

Q: Thank you.

ADM. KIRBY: OK, you got it. Yeah?

Q: Thank you, admiral. Regarding the interception that your counterpart spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense did respond and while the U.S. stressed that the P-8 was in international airspace, that the Chinese government, the Defense Ministry, mentioned that the mission of that flight was to -- was to tracking Chinese submarines and other military activities. So in order to build a better military-to-military relations, that the U.S. needs to reduce this kind of number of flights and or stop even.

And also from the Pentagon's perspective, I mean, the two leaders of the two countries are calling for a better military-to-military relationship. So from the Pentagon's perspective, how realistic it is to build such a relationship with all this going on in South China Sea and East China Sea?

ADM. KIRBY: It's important that we continue to work at this relationship, absolutely. That is not made easier by incidents like we saw with the intercept of our P-8 patrol aircraft, which was on a routine mission in international airspace. And under no circumstances and under no rubric of military relations is it acceptable to fly a jet fighter around a reconnaissance airplane the way that was done. That said, that doesn't mean that the relationship isn't still worth pursuing, and we continue to look for avenues to try to increase the dialogue and the cooperation and the understanding and the transparency between our two countries. But, again, that incident did nothing to help that along.

I feel like you've got a follow-up. Go ahead.

Q: So -- so -- and the U.S. will still -- will continue to conduct those reconnaissance flights in that specific...

ADM. KIRBY: We're going to continue to fly in international airspace the way we've been, just like we're going to continue to sail our ships in international waters the way we've been. The United States is a Pacific power. We have responsibilities, five of seven treaty alliances in the Pacific region, we're going to meet those security commitments. We want to do this in an open and transparent way. We want to share as much information with our allies and partners and with China as we can, and we want to do that. But none of that cooperation is aided along by that kind of reckless behavior, by that particular pilot.

Yeah, Joe -- Julian?

Q: In the strategy that you sort of outlined for Iraq in response to Kate's question was very -- the strategy against ISIS was very Iraq-focused, but you and others always call this a regional problem. How do you square that? How do you -- how do you address a regional problem with a very country-specific response so far?

ADM. KIRBY: Well, kinetically, you're right. It -- most of the action has been inside Iraq. But -- but even before we started conducting airstrikes inside Iraq, we -- we had a regional approach. We took -- we were studying and trying to monitor and gain information about ISIL from a regional approach.

I mean, it's no different than, you know, the way we tried -- and we continue to try to get at the extremist threat in -- on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to my -- to my previous answer. There's a regional threat there, too.

But you can't -- you know, you -- where we are authorized to act from a military perspective, it's inside Iraq, and that's what we're doing. But it doesn't mean we're turning a blind eye to the regional threat that they pose. And, quite frankly, we're not turning a blind eye to their global aspirations, as well. You know, much has been made about, you know, the threat they pose and how imminent it is, and you don't need to look any further than the recruitment of foreign fighters and the degree to which not just the United States government, but many Western governments are concerned about these foreign fighters leaving their shores, going over there, getting radicalized, trained, and then coming back and executing attacks, which is not out of the realm of the possible.

So we are taking not just a regional approach, but a -- but even a -- you know, a global approach to how we're trying to look at what they're trying to do. So I don't know if that answered the question or not, but...

Q: You mentioned the foreign fighters. NBC reported that one of the American fighting with ISIS has been killed. Do you know anything about that?

ADM. KIRBY: I don't. I mean, I've seen the press reporting just recently, but I don't have anything to add to that right now.


Q: What can you tell us about an encounter with U.S. maritime forces and the Iranians in the Persian Gulf?

ADM. KIRBY: I don't have a whole lot on that, Barbara. As I -- and I can point you to the 5th Fleet on that.

As I understand it, a Coast Guard -- a Coast Guard cutter, the small boat crew off a Coast Guard cutter in a routine maritime security operation approached an Iranian dhow. The Iranian dhow pointed a machine gun at the -- or a small arms weapon at the boat crew. They fired a shot back. I know whether the shot was just a warning shot or it hit the dhow.

In any event, the dhow pulled away and nobody was hurt. And the Coast Guard cutter retrieved the boat crew. That's all I know. I'd point you to 5th Fleet for anything more on that.

Q: Can I just ask you, was it that they planning to board the dhow or seeking to board the dhow?

ADM. KIRBY: I don't have more details than that, Barb. I know there was one shot fired. Nobody hurt. Both the cutter and the dhow parted ways and there wasn't more to it than that. I'd really point you to the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain for more details on that. I just don't have it.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Thank you.

(OFF-MIC). On North Korea, recently, a North Korean (inaudible) to United Nation had mentions at the news conference in United Nation North Korea urge it to stop ongoing U.S. and South Korea joint military exercises and North Korea also wanting (inaudible) to U.S. and South Korea.

How does the U.S. -- (inaudible)?

ADM. KIRBY: I haven't seen those comments. Our security to -- our commitments to the security of the peninsula and to our treaty allies in South Korea remain steadfast, as they always will. Our exercises will continue and we continue to call in the North to meet its international obligations.


Q: (inaudible) -- mentioned about the preemptive strike to the Korean Peninsula...

ADM. KIRBY: I would just say that our commitment to the security on the peninsula and to our alliance with South Korea is ironclad.

Yes, Phil?

Q: You said a couple of times today that American airplanes are operating over Iraq at the invitation of the government there.

Is there anything about that agreement that restricts their ability to, for example, surveil over the border into Syria?

ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to talk about -- I'm just not going to go beyond the mission that we're conducting inside Iraq. I mean, that's -- we're there at the invitation of the Iraqi government to do a couple of things to help -- to help -- and mainly to help Iraqi security forces combat this threat by ISIL. And we do that through surveillance flights, but also through airstrikes from combat aircraft. And that's really the limit that I can talk about today.

Q: Were there any restrictions?

ADM. KIRBY: I'm not -- I'm not going to get into ROE [rules of engagement] from the podium here, Phil. We're authorized to conduct air operations over Iraq for two main purposes and I've talked about that and that's as far as I'm going to go.

Q: The U.S. doesn't recognize Assad as a legitimate leader in Syria. So by that logic, the U.S. could never fly surveillance missions because you're never going to be -- the government of Syria that the U.S. does not recognize would never invite them to fly surveillance. Right? So...

Q: Can you rule out coordinating -- (inaudible)?

ADM. KIRBY: We are not coordinating with the Assad regime on the operations that we're conducting in Iraq or the operations or any efforts to combat ISIL.

Q: Does the border between Iraq and Syria still effectively exist from your perspective at the Defense Department? General Dempsey said last week there basically is no border.

So is there...


ADM. KIRBY: Well, I mean, there's a border. If you look on a map, there's a border. What we're saying is that it's porous to the degree where it, in all practical purposes, doesn't exist for ISIL because they flow freely back and forth.


Q: But it still exists for the Defense Department?

ADM. KIRBY: Of course it still exists for the Defense Department. I mean, we recognize there's an international border between Syria and Iraq. What we're saying is ISIL treats that part of the world as if there is no border for them.

I got time for one more.


Q: CENTCOM said that it's OSD's responsibility to calculate the cost of the Iraqi airstrikes.

Do you have a cost yet and will we have to wait for a comptroller's request before we hear any...


ADM. KIRBY: Who said it's our responsibility?



ADM. KIRBY: Look, right now, what I'd tell you is that funding for the operations we're conducting in Iraq are being absorbed through current year allocations that Central Command has.

The chairman and the secretary both said that we're OK in '14. And if operations continue, we might have to take a look at '15 to see in there is a need to request more. I don't have an estimate for you specifically day by day. But it's being absorbed through current allocations that Central Command has at their disposal and through -- and the services have at their disposal because, I mean, the services are really the force providers.

OK. Thanks, everybody.