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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Hagel and General Dempsey in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Oct. 30, 2014
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin E. Dempsey


Let me make a few comments about the campaign against ISIL, as well as DOD's contributions to help stop the spread of Ebola. Then I'll ask Chairman Dempsey for his comments, and we'll go to questions.

First, I want to note the transfer Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion last weekend from NATO's International Security Assistance Force to the Afghan nation security forces. That was significant and important. And I want to thank, especially our Marines -- for many years, their contributions that they've made, all our forces who have served in Afghanistan, who still serve in Afghanistan.

And I also want to thank our ISAF partners for what they've done, and in particular the Afghan national security forces as they have continued to make progress -- significant progress in defending their country.

As you know, last week I spoke with the new Iraqi defense minister, and we discussed Iraqi force preparations to take the offensive against ISIL. Over the past week, we've seen Iraqi and Kurdish forces begin to do that. And they've made some gains in both northern and central Iraq.

Their initial progress is encouraging, but these are just first steps in what we have said will be a long and difficult multi-year effort against ISIL by the local Iraqi forces on the ground; support from the U.S, as well as coalition partners.

Tomorrow, the 1st Infantry Division's headquarters will take command in Baghdad, coordinating all U.S. forces in Iraq. But our military campaign is only one part of the broader comprehensive strategy required to defeat ISIL. Choking off its resources and recruits and supply lines and delegitimizing its murderous ideology are just as important as Prime Minister Abadi's efforts to build an inclusive Iraqi government that must earn the trust and confidence of the Iraqi people.

On the Ebola virus issue, federal and state authorities continue working to prevent additional cases here at home. Earlier today, I met with Dr. Jeffrey Gold, chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which as you know has successfully treated two Ebola patients. As a Nebraskan and a former United States senator from Nebraska, I'm particularly proud and particularly appreciate the efforts of Dr. Gold and his team at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

The Department of Defense remains focused on helping contain the disease at its source, with over 13,000 cases and some 5,000 deaths in West Africa so far. Halting the spread of Ebola at the center of the outbreak is the most effective way to keep the American people safe here at home.

Working with USAID, the Defense Department is continuing to deploy up to 4,000 troops to provide command and control, engineering, training and logistics support. About 1,100 DOD personnel have already deployed to West Africa, and they're making progress despite difficult weather conditions and rough terrain.

They're making a difference in Liberia with the construction of up to 17 Ebola treatment units, the first of which will be completed over the weekend. The second is on track to be completed by mid-November, with a third and fourth units being completed before Thanksgiving.

They are in the process of more than doubling their mobile laboratory capacity, going from the current three labs to a total of seven. They began training Liberian health care providers in Monrovia this week, which will scale-up as they fully establish their training site. The 25-bed hospital they have been building in Monrovia will be fully operational next week. And troops in Senegal are supporting all these efforts by coordinating the flow of supplies, equipment and personnel.

Throughout these deployments, DOD will remain vigilant to protect its troops, our families, and their communities. That's why in response to a recommendation from the Joint Chiefs, I directed that all military personnel returning from Ebola-responsive efforts in West Africa undergo a 21-day controlled monitoring regimen. I made this decision in light of the unique role and responsibilities of our military, the scale of their deployments, and DOD's responsibility for the health of these servicemembers and their families.

We will continue to review this policy as conditions on the ground evolve.

At the request of the Department of Health and Human Services, DOD is also taking steps to be prepared in case federal health officials request our help in responding to Ebola cases here in the United States. Earlier this week, our 30-person expeditionary medical support team finished training at Fort Sam Houston. And as of this past Tuesday, if needed, they are ready to deploy within 72 hours.

I want to thank the men and women who serve our country -- serve our country all over the world in so many capacities, and their families for their sacrifices. Just before coming over here, I spent some time with the Vietnam War Commemoration Advisory Committee. I issued the first Vietnam veteran pins. As you know, we have issued, since World War II, pins recognizing veterans of the World War II, Korea, Vietnam for their service.

I want to take this opportunity to recognize Vietnam veterans and their families, over the years, for their service and the sacrifices they made for this country in a long ago war.

Before I ask General Dempsey for his comments, and we'll take questions, I want to be the first to wish all of you a happy Halloween.

General Dempsey.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Well, thank you for that, Mr. Secretary.

As you know, I recently met with my counterparts from 21 nations to discuss coalition efforts in our ongoing campaign against ISIL. This was part of a continuing dialogue on our common vision of defeating ISIL, and validation of our long-term commitment to stand united against this group of terrorists.

Meanwhile, roughly a third of our planned military force is on the ground in West Africa, executing the mission as part of the U.S. and international response to the Ebola outbreak. In addition to the team right here domestically mentioned by the secretary of trained military experts who we have on standby in the event that they're needed to assist civilian professionals.

As we work together to stem the tide of this crisis, the joint chiefs and I take seriously the obligation to protect our men and women in uniform and their families. The approach we're taking when they return from this mission is consistent with the way we adapt our reintegration processes, based on the environment in which they have been serving. We'll continually assess and refine our procedures to include the controlled monitoring period as the mission evolves.

I'm proud of the dedication and skills of all of our men and women, and confident in their ability to make a difference. In Afghanistan this week marked an historic moment and a step closer to transitioning toward the resolute support mission at the end of this calendar year.

We want to thank all of our 50 plus coalition partners for their continued commitment to the future of Afghanistan and to the South Asia region.

Lastly, as Veterans Day approaches, I want to highlight that our military tipped off a commitment to service partnership with the National Basketball Association. Last Friday, servicemembers within the Washington, D.C. area worked side by side with athletes from the Washington Wizards to prepare more than 1,000 meals for local families in need.

This was just the first of many service activities around the country that will be part of this commitment to service campaign.

This initiative is about creating stronger bonds among veterans, athletes, citizens, and the communities in which we live and serve and to determine what we can do together for our nation.

With that, we'll be glad to take your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, clearly you've got some concerns about the current Syria policy, from what we've heard. Do you think the U.S. should be more aggressive, either diplomatically or financially through sanctions in order to put more pressure on Assad, or should we be -- should the U.S. be more aggressive both militarily in backing the moderate opposition?

And, Mr. Chairman, for you, can you give us an update on where the train and equip mission stands for the moderate Syrian opposition, whether or not the vetting, that's begun or not?

SEC. HAGEL: Lita, to answer your question; first, the interagency, all of the agencies relevant to national security in this government, are working on the Syria, ISIL, Middle East, Iraq issue. Certainly, the Department of Defense, is a key part of that. But the Syria equation of this bigger issue of stability in the Middle East, as the president has said, is going to require a diplomatic political solution.

That said, the realities of what ISIL is doing, control of vast areas of Syria and Iraq, are forcing all of this -- you know, a coalition of over 60 countries, that come together to deal with this immediate threat. The future of Syria, which the nations of the Middle East have a significant investment in that stability, is gonna require all elements, not only of our government but all of the countries in the Middle East and others working together to find a solution to bring peace in Syria, stabilize that region of the world.

And we are constantly assessing and we are constantly adapting and we are constantly working through different options.

This is complicated, as we've said, it's long term. There's no short-term easy answers to it.

So, your question about should we be more aggressive? Well, we look at every option. That's why we meet so often on this issue and this is why we are building and continue to build an effective coalition in the Middle East to deal with these issues.

GEN. DEMPSEY: On the training and equipping of a moderate opposition, the command-and-control apparatus is in place. The sites have been selected, and the reconnaissance conducted to determine what infrastructure we'll need to accomplish the mission.

Coalition partners are beginning to contribute trainers to the efforts. The recruiting and vetting has not yet begun.

Q: General Dempsey, a recent article about your limousine ride with the president suggested that was the only way you could get to see him and that weeks go by without you having a face-to-face with the president.

So my first question is, how often do you have face-to-face meetings with the president? And in that particular case, which did occur in an atmosphere of crisis, how close was ISIS to posing a real threat to the American consulate in Erbil?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, first of all, the limousine is not that comfortable, I want you to know that. It's actually a pretty rough ride.

And, secondly, I don't know where that came from, that I don't have access to the president. In fact, I think in the last three weeks I've probably spent more time with the secretary and the president than I have with my family.

And on that particular occasion, the reason I was invited to ride with him in the limousine was that I was at an African leaders conference with him, and we were gonna walk into a meeting and he wanted to have me share my thoughts with him prior to the meeting.

But there's -- I don't have any difficulty whatsoever gaining access to the president when I need to have it.

What was the second part of the question?

Q: How close a call was it in Erbil?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, well, it was close. I mean, it was close in the sense that there was one defensible terrain feature. The distance doesn't matter. It's what you can do in the distance between the threat or the enemy and the facilities.

So there was a river on which the Kurdish forces were defending. And if that river had been breached then the issue would have been much more difficult to resolve. So, in the sense that they were pressing on the river and the defenses along the river, it did have urgency.

Q: Was there as sense that this had been left to go too long?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Was there a sense that it had been let to go too long?

Q: That you were late to the game on defending that river?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, that river was being adequately defended by the Peshmerga. And they hadn't given us any indication that they believed that they would -- they are about to fall, until they gave us an indication that they were -- believed they were about to fall.

So, if there was a timing issue, it was in the communications between the Kurds and us.


Q: I wonder if you could stay on Syria for a second. I was talking with Fred Hough. He used to do Syria policy in the State Department. And he said the situation in Syria now is the U.S. is bombing ISIL, Assad is bombing the moderate rebels.

The moderate rebels want air drops of ammunition like you do the Kurds. They want more training. They want airstrikes against Assad.

Assad is essentially in a better position now than he's ever been in because both of his enemies are being destroyed, some by you, some by him. He's in a better position, isn't he?

You talk about diplomatic solutions, why should he -- why should he even talk with you? What leverage do you have for him to come to the table and talk, if all his enemies are being destroyed?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, the complications of Syria, you have just noted some, in particular, as we and the coalition go after ISIL to help the Iraqis secure their government, but also the Middle East, yes, Assad derives some benefit of that, of course.

But what we're talking about is a longer term strategy that's effective and doing what we think, and the people of the Middle East, as to what's required to stabilize and secure that part of the world in effective and inclusive governments.

Now, the fighting can go on for years and years, to what end? How does that bring a resolution to the objective of what the people, the governments of that part of the world need? It's in our interest not to have an unstable Middle East, not to have countries end up, unfortunately, like some where -- Libya is in almost ungovernable state. So we've gotta manage through the realities of what we have in front of us with some longer term strategies and objectives as to how we eventually get to where we think we need to go.

Q: (off mic) policy that he still must go?

SEC. HAGEL: That's the policy of this administration.

Q: Where's the pressure on him to -- to go --

SEC. HAGEL: I'll go to another question here, but I'm sure there will be more on this.

Q: Mr. Secretary how concerned are you about former GITMO (Guantanamo Bay) prisoners showing up on the battlefields in Syria and Iraq?

And, General Dempsey, how many former GITMO prisoners have you -- do you estimate have shown up on the battlefield in Syria? And is this causing you to rethink the policy of trying to close Guantanamo Bay?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, we know that some of the detainees that have come out of Guantanamo have gone back to the fight, to the battlefield. We're aware of that. And we think that overall the policy of getting to close Guantanamo is clearly in the interests of the United States, as the president has articulated, which when I was in the United States Senate, I supported it.

It's an imperfect world. It's a dangerous world. This is why we pay so much attention to getting commitments from host countries in securing those commitments and doing everything we can within our power to assure that those commitments, not to allow those detainees to go beyond what is required in order to secure them in these different host countries that take them. But we do know that some have joined the fight.

Q: Does the recidivism concern you?

SEC. HAGEL: Yes, of course it does.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, and to my part of the question, we believe that the recidivism is a relatively small fraction of those detainees, which have been placed into conditions where their risk -- where their risk of recidivism is mitigated.

But even one would not make someone wearing the uniform very content. So we -- I provide my advice in every case to the secretary of Defense who, as you know, is the certifying official. And the exact number is actually being assessed inside of the intelligence community, so I can't comment on that.

Q: (off mic) waited for release, would you still recommend releasing those 80?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Under the circumstances as they've been defined, which is to say that they -- they pose a low risk of -- to our national security and that their ability to become recidivists is mitigated.


Q: (off mic) for Secretary Hagel, Chairman Dempsey, there have been some reports that Iranian military personnel, including possibly the head of the Quds Force, were on-site during a battle southwest of Baghdad this week at Jurf al-Sakhar. Can you confirm that?

And secondly, the Islamic State appears to be systematically executing Sunni tribesmen in western Iraq. How do you expect that will affect the hoped-for tribal uprising that you'd like to see against ISIS? Thanks.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, on the first question, I can't confirm that information.

But on the second question, this is the reality of what we're dealing with, which is not new. The systematic execution of Sunni tribesmen, by ISIL and the brutality, that's what we're dealing with. And this is why bringing a coalition together, this is why engaging the Sunni tribesmen in a reformed Iraqi security force where they have some confidence in that security force and they have some confidence in the government of Iraq, all of that has to come together.

SEC. HAGEL: So yes, these things are happening. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, we're dealing with it.

But I think progress is being made. We know progress is being made.

Lloyd Austin just returned last night from two days there and gave the chairman and I a briefing on what he saw.

As I said in my comments, and I know the chairman did as well, progress is being made, but it's just the beginning. As, again, I have noted today, this is a long-term effort. This is difficult.

But the Sunni tribes are going to have to be part of this as we think through short-term, long-term, national guard concepts, allowing the tribes to have more say in their own government, their own areas.

But security is critical to that, and we've got to stabilize -- help them stabilize those areas with some security, or -- or it won't make any difference. There will be no government.

GEN. DEMPSEY: As to the presence of Iranian advisers, I read the same open-source report about Suleimani himself being present. I can't confirm or deny that.

But the presence of Iranian advisers was documented in the assessment we did, going back several months ago, so it's not surprising to me, especially south of Baghdad, you find the presence of Iranian advisers and Shia militia.


Q: (off mic) speaking about the Abu Nimer tribe, tribal leaders tell us that 400 of their people were killed in the last 48 hours in addition to the 45 who ISIS photographed after they were killed and other found in the grave.

Iraqi forces, as I'm told, requested a humanitarian aid drop on Monday, which the U.S. delivered. Did Iraqi forces request any military support to protect this tribe, which has risen up against ISIS, which is exactly what the coalition wants. Did the request any air support?

And are you aware of any efforts by Iraqi security forces to take military action to protect this tribe, which was facing, really, a massacre?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, look, the Iraqi security forces in Al Anbar Province are in defensive positions and would be unlikely to be able to respond to a request for assistance for the Abu Nimer tribe.

We could, with our air power, if we had the proper ISR at the point when it was requested. I am not aware that they made a request of us. I can't speak to whether they made a request of the Iraqi security forces.

What I can say is that's why we need to expand the train-advise-and-assist mission into the Al Anbar Province. But the precondition for that is that the government of Iraq is willing to arm the tribes.

By the way, we have positive indications that they are, but we haven't begun to do it yet.

Q: (off mic) the Yazidis, they were facing massacre, there was a massive effort to save them, and here, you have a group that is literally risking their lives, right, in a way that the coalition is frankly desperate for, and yet, no one came to their aid except an air drop of meals.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, remember, the Yazidis were embargoed, if you will, on top of Mount Sinjar, which provided a standoff with the ISIL forces trying to assault the ridge line. So it was a much cleaner separation between friend and foe.

And I've said all along, it gets more and more difficult when forces are intermingled.

SEC. HAGEL: Jim, I would just add that this is just another one of many daily dimensions of what's going on over there. And we are dealing with all of this and working our way through it and managing it, but as we've said before, the brutality of ISIL and what they're doing has to be stopped.

It's imperfect, but in order to do that, we're going to have to do as much as we can with as many of the different components of the players in Syria as well, and it gets back to some of the complications of Tom's (Bowman) question. It is all interconnected, and it is probably as complicated as a set of dimensions as we've dealt with, at least that I'm aware of, in a long time.


Q: If we could turn to Ebola, Mr. Chairman, can you talk about some of the specific items that the chiefs were talking about when you made your decision for the 21-day quarantine? And then -- and did the medical science ever factor into the decision? And just the fact that the majority, the vast majority, if not all of the U.S. troops who were down there are not going to be any kind of contact with Ebola -- was that ever factors in before the decision was made?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, so let me tell you the thought process. First of all, the men and women we've deployed over there are there in larger numbers than any other group. As you've heard the secretary say, we anticipated we'll probably reach 4,000.

Secondly, they'll be there longer than anyone else. These health care workers come and go because it's such an intense environment for them. You know, they may go for, you know, 30 or 60 days, and then leave the -- leave the area because of the intense pressure they're under. We're going to have our young men and women there for six months at a time. That's the duration of our deployment -- not in direct contact with Ebola, but they're there longer.

So more of them, there longer, and we're not health care workers, by the way. You know, we're infantrymen and we're supply clerks. And so when you add those things together, here's what I would tell you. We did factor in science. Physics is the science we factored in. You know, when we do -- you know, this is not about small groups of people who are transient. There's protocols for that. It's also not about health care professionals in direct contact with Ebola. There's protocols for that.

This is about a major military operation and big things on a global scale. And so we took a conservative approach and we'll assess it in 45 days. But we're going to keep them safe.

SEC. HAGEL: And the other thing I would say about that, the science -- science does dictate that there is a 21-day monitoring period. So, and I asked the same question when the chairman and the chiefs came to me with all of this. And this was thoroughly reviewed by health care professionals in each of the services in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Q: Mr. Secretary, were you at all concerned that by signing off on this that it would have a larger societal impact in the U.S.? Or it would drive other governors and states and what not to --

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'm not unaware of society. Yes, but I have one responsibility and that is the security of this country. And that means the security of our men and women and their families. That's not unmindful or disconnected from the good of this country, of course not. It can't be. But I thought it was a smart, wise, prudent, disciplined, science-oriented decision based mainly on what the chairman just articulated, but also the reality of what else is going on.

The other thing I'd say about this, Ebola is one of those issues that everyone is paying attention to. There is disagreement across the board on every decision, every issue, and every part of that by decision-makers. So, I get all that. I'm from that arena at one time. I was in that political arena. I've never had a decision made by anybody that everybody just things is exactly right.

You have to analyze it based on what you think is the right thing to do for your people, and that's the decision we made and why we made it.

STAFF: Time for just one more question.

Q: Just very quickly. The New York Times said you wrote a memo that was sharply critical of the Syria policy. Without getting into the memo itself, do you have reservations about the Syria policy? And could you just expand on the idea of expanding the advise and assist mission in al-Anbar?

SEC. HAGEL: I think I've said quite a bit about the Syria situation. But I would just add to what I've already said in answer to your question. First, again, baseline is this is a complicated issue. We are constantly assessing and reassessing and adapting to the realities of what is the best approach -- how we can be most effective.

That's a responsibility of any -- of any leader. And because we are a significant element of this issue, we owe the president and we owe the National Security Council our best thinking on this. And it has to be honest and it has to be direct.

So, I would just add that to what I've already said.

GEN. DEMPSEY: There's three components to the train-advise-assist mission. Initially, the Iraqi security forces, and I include in that the Peshmerga, so north and south, mostly oriented around Baghdad and Erbil, and then there's the issue of the tribes and trying to find a way to engage and power -- or enable them.

And that's what we're now beginning to explore. We've got a program in place where we're beginning to restore some offensive capability and mindset to the Iraqi security forces. We need to think about how to do that with the tribes. We also need to make sure that the Iraqi security forces are not spread out in ways that prevent them from supporting each other.

Like, Al-Assad is sitting out there, somewhat isolated. 7th Division, 9th Division in Taji is somewhat isolated. So, we need to help the Iraqi security forces: help in the sense of help them plan and enable them to execute, to link these groups up who are currently isolated.

And then, I think that becomes a platform for reaching out to the tribes.

And then the third one is this national guard concept, which, if the Iraqi government takes a decision to form it and passes a law, it would probably begin to be implemented sometime in the new calendar year.

You need all three of those eventually. Right now, we're focused on the Iraqi security forces.

STAFF: Thanks, everybody.