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

Jan. 27, 2015
Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody.

Just a reminder at the top that tomorrow at 4 p.m. Secretary Hagel will attend the armed forces farewell tribute being held in his honor just down the road at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.

The president, the vice president, General Dempsey and Secretary Hagel will all be delivering remarks.

We look forward to honoring Secretary Hagel and his family for their service and commitment to the men and women of our armed forces.

And, as I've noted before, the secretary will continue to carry out the full responsibilities of his office right up until the time his successor is confirmed and installed.

I also want to just, right off the top, there's been lots of speculation of -- and I've gotten lots of e-mails and questions today about the fate of the case of Sergeant Bergdahl.

So let me just put a fork in this right now, if I can. No decision has been made with respect to the case of Sergeant Bergdahl. None. And there is no timeline to make that decision. And General Milley is not being put under any pressure to make a decision, either way.

It's certainly not on any timeline. So, I just want to make that very clear.

There's a process here. Where we are in the process is that General Milley, as a general court martial convening authority, has the investigation. And he is going to be given the time he needs to decide how this case ought to be disposed. And as I checked on this not long ago -- he is still in very much in a deliberative process here of working his way through the investigation that General Dahl did. And has come to no conclusions and he has made no decisions. So --

Q: John, just to clarify, he has not been charged at this point?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Sergeant Bergdahl has not been charged with any crime.

Q: Well, about the Japanese issue, as you know, that one Japanese hostage has been murdered by ISIS. What is the U.S. plan for the military action to help to Japan?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, first, let me offer again our thoughts and condolences to his family and to the family of the other hostage that they are holding. We know all too well -- and too painfully here at the Pentagon and in the United States how hard this is for them. So, our thoughts and prayers go out to them.

We also, as Secretary Hagel made clear, stand shoulder to shoulder with our Japanese allies in this, their struggle against ISIL now. And we would also note that they have been a major contributor of humanitarian aid to the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government as they continue to fight ISIL.

Whatever decisions the Japanese people make about how they are going to move forward with respect to their -- the second hostage -- that is for them to make. And there will be no judgments cast from the Pentagon about that. We -- Japan is a strong ally and a very close friend. Secretary Hagel's offered any support that we can to help them. As far as I know, there's been no request for such support. And, again, all these decisions belong to the Japanese government and the Japanese people to make.

Q: What is the U.S. position of prisoner exchange that ISIL wanted?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I can't -- again, I won't speak for the Japanese government. I don't know how they're going to deal with this latest ultimatum by ISIL. In the United States, our policy is not to pay a ransom and not to espouse exchanges of this sort. But, again, this is up to the Japanese government.

Q: The proposal of ISIS in the striking to (inaudible) the Jordanian pilot. So, do you think in this type of incident, in a hostage-taking case in the Middle East could affect the unity of the coalition against ISIS?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: The -- what would affect it?

Q: My question is, in this kind of hostage cases, if it follows -- if (inaudible) additional a (inaudible) situation...

REAR ADM. KIRBY: We're -- we’re not looking at this, or any other hostage situation as -- as some sort of litmus test or barometer for the strength of the coalition. The coalition is very strong as it is -- more than 60 nations. Japan is contributing, as well.

I think everybody in the international community understands the real threat that this group faces -- continues to face -- and the length and the difficulty of the struggle ahead of us, and are committed to it. And nobody is looking at a particular hostage situation as some sort of way of measuring that commitment or fostering or engendering stronger commitment by -- by any country in particular.

That said, I mean, this situation, as other hostage situations, do -- does demonstrate the brutality of this group and what they're capable of, and reinforces all too grimly what a significant threat they remain.


Q: Sorry, just to follow up -- is that - are you concerned that this is an attempt by them to sew disunity, to break the coalition on that kind of...

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I wouldn't begin to try to understand what's in the minds of these people. Their motivations are for them to speak to. So, I don't know, Dan.

Q: John, there also are new reports suggesting that the Bergdahl decision -- the Army will come out with the Bergdahl decision in the coming days. Are you refuting that report, as well?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't know what timeline will eventually pan out here. What I can tell you is, General Milley has not been given a deadline. He has not set forth to anyone in Army leadership or here in the Pentagon his expectation of timing. So, I think it is extraordinarily premature for anybody to say that they know what General Milley is going to decide and when he's going to decide it, and when he's going to transmit that. We're just not there in the process.

Q: You sat in when General Dahl briefed Secretary Hagel about the findings in the 15-6. From your point of view, is Sergeant Bergdahl guilty of desertion, from the evidence that you heard?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think you can understand why I'm not going to talk about the specific details of that briefing, Jen.

Q: Can you explain why Secretary Hagel was briefed, if he's not really in the chain of command in terms of the decision- making?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I dealt with this at the time back in December. The Army Secretary McHugh and General Odierno offered him a briefing and he accepted the offer and sat in on it. It was an informational brief. It was not a decisional brief. It is not, as you correctly point out, the secretary's place or responsibility to offer guidance or changes or any new tasking as a result of that, nor did he. He simply was in the receiving mode and was very appreciative for the information.

Q: Has the president been briefed on the 15-6?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I do not know.

Q: Admiral Kirby, just to follow up again. Can you just say whether Sergeant Bergdahl has been presented with a statement of charges?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, as I said at the outset, he has not been charged. There have been no charges. There have been no charges preferred against Sergeant Bergdahl.

Q: If he were to be charged with desertion, what sort of -- what process would that kick into place?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm not going to speculate because we're, you know, we're going off, you know, anonymous sources that claim to have information that frankly I don't think is accurate. So I'm not going to speculate about what's going to or could happen to Sergeant Bergdahl.

We have a process. We need to let that work its way through. And right now, where we are in the process is the general court martial convening authority is reviewing the investigation, and then he will have to, when he's done with that, make certain recommendations about disposition of the case. And frankly, Jamie, one of the things he could decide if he wanted to is no action at all.

Yes, it could go, you know, from no action to a general court martial. But even if it's referred to a general court martial, that doesn't mean -- you know, it depends on what he -- what the charges would be, depending on -- I don't know that court martial would, you know, would play out. So, I don't want to get into speculation about this.

So separate and distinct from Sergeant Bergdahl, there are -- there are different categories of desertion, of varying severity. And depending on what one is charged with and one is found guilty of, punishments can be, you know, can be less or more severe. They can come with -- they certainly could come -- a guilty finding in a case of desertion could certainly come with lengthy prison time.

Q: And just to be absolutely crystal clear, and I know you've said this a couple of times already, but just to be clear. There has been no decision made yet on whether to charge Sergeant Bergdahl.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: That is correct.

Q: Can you clarify something you said earlier? You said that the general hasn't provided a timeline to the Army or OSD in terms of an expectation of when he would make a decision.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: That's my understanding, yes.

Q: But as I understand it, he doesn't have to go to the Army or OSD. He can just give forth his decision. Is -- is
that a requirement that he go (inaudible)?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, absolutely not. Look, but -- but the issue of some of the media coverage is about coming, you know, coming in the next few days. So, I didn't make it an issue today. Reporting made it an issue today. But you're right. General Milley doesn't have to tell anybody when he thinks he's going to be ready to make a decision. He can make a decision and -- and he'll inform -- he has to inform his Army leadership what his findings are and his recommendations going forward or what his plan is. Of course, he has to do that.

But he doesn't have to, you know, give everybody a warning signal or shoot a flare up and say, "Hey, I think I'm going to come to you tomorrow with, you know, with what my findings are."

Q: And at that point -- at that point, Army leadership would have to keep hands off. Is that correct?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: What do you mean "would have to keep hands off"?

Q: Hands off whatever decision General Milley makes?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: He is the general court martial convening authority. It's up to him to decide what the disposition of the case will be.

Q: And Army leadership has no authority over General Milley in that regard?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: No, not in terms of -- not in terms of what he decides he believes the disposition of the case should be. That is right. But I'm quite certain that General Milley will let Army leadership know at the appropriate time when he has come up with whatever disposition he wants to -- he wants to pursue and then we'll go from there.

Q: Can you say if -- big if -- if Bowe Bergdahl is eventually charged, does he then have the opportunity to seek less- than-honorable discharge? Do you know that?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, it would depend, Jim, completely on -- we're getting way ahead here. First of all, there may be no charges preferred. That's one option here.

So there's a -- there's a scope of hypothetical scenarios that we could discuss ad-nauseum today, but they're irrelevant until we know how General Milley wants to dispose of the case.

So I -- you know, could that be an outcome? Perhaps. But it would depend on if he's charged and what he's charged with. And how General Milley wants to pursue those charges. And, again, we're just not there yet.


Q: Can we change topics for a minute?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: That would be welcome. (Laughter.)

Unless it's something really hard. (Laughter.)


REAR ADM. KIRBY: I never thought I'd welcome a question on that.

Q: So, how important is it right now? What are you doing to help the Iraqis get ready to take back Mosul? What is the military action that's ongoing here? And how and why is it so important to get a decisive Iraqi victory, to get Mosul back?

And then I have a follow-up.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, we've said before, Mosul's key terrain. There's no question about that. Mosul remains in ISIL hands. We know that.

And I think everybody's mindful that eventually there's going to have to be a fight for Mosul. We know that.

When? I don't think you can predict that right now.

But it is fair to say, and I've got to -- I want to be careful here that I don't, you know, divulge planning efforts before they are ripe to be -- to talk about, but obviously we're working closely with the Iraqi security forces on helping them better understand the challenges with respect to any kind of campaign in Mosul and making sure this is part of the train-advice-and-assist mission, to making sure that they are as battlefield competent as possible.

Q: In doing that, what's your sense of it now, when you talk about advice and assist? Is it your sense it is just gonna be the reality that it is gonna take U.S. targeting assistance on the ground; it's gonna take some small number of U.S. personnel right there on the ground with them, that that's the only way that you're gonna really be able to pick out those urban targets and get to them?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: We haven't made that kind of an assessment to date, Barb.

Q: The other question, on a different subject, are U.S. military personnel in Yemen or -- rephrase: Are U.S. military personnel speaking and communicating directly with Houthis?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: There is -- just to be clear, there's no intelligence sharing regimen with the Houthis. There's no formal agreement to do that, and you need those kinds of formal agreements in order to be able to do that.

Given the political uncertainty, it's fair to say that U.S. government officials are in communication with various parties in Yemen about what is a very fluid and complex political situation.

It is also accurate to say that the Houthis, as participants in this, in these events, will certainly have reason to want to speak to international partners and the international community about their intentions and about how this process is gonna unfold.

Q: So, wait a second, so in fact, you know, one, are you -- not intelligence, I was asking about intelligence sharing -- are U.S. military personnel speaking to the Houthis? And you are strongly suggesting that U.S. government officials are speaking to the...


Q: What can you tell us?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I'm really not gonna go into more detail than I just gave you. As a participant in this process, it is -- it is a fact and it has to be assumed that the Houthis will have reason to and will want to have discussions with the international community about the way forward.

The U.S. government is participating in those discussions.

I just am not gonna go into anymore detail than that.

Q: Can I have a follow-up on that?


Q: It's my understanding that the agencies within Yemen that are in -- that did the targeting are controlled now by Houthis. And in order for our people on the ground to undertake any kind of operation, they're gonna have to have some kind of liaison, some kind of information sharing.

Do you have any information on...

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't -- even on the most clear of days, I don't talk about the specifics of counterterrorism operations. But I've said from here before, say it again, the counterterrorism operations continue in Yemen. We obviously have the right and responsibility to conduct those operations unilaterally if we need to. This is about protecting the American people against the very real threat of AQAP. We take that very seriously.

Q: But in terms of pinpointing targets...

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I am not going to talk about the specifics of counterterrorism operations. I just won't do it.

Q: Admiral, a quick follow-up, please, on Barbara's first question. There was a big political dust-up in Canada this week because Canadian special operators keep getting into firefights with ISIL guys in Iraq. They also
talked about how they call in airstrikes there which could be Canadian or could be American.

Do you have any information about other nations' troops on the ground calling in American airstrikes? And is that a way for the joint task force there to avoid the American (inaudible) going forward or the U.S. troops on the ground?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't have any specific information about that lash-up. But that aside, there's --, your question almost kind of presumes that, you know, we're looking for a way around, you know, some, you know, prohibition. And that's just not the case.

The truth is, and you know this, I mean, the -- the forward air controllers while useful, are not always completely necessary. And the large -- large bulk of the airstrikes that we've conducted in Iraq and in Syria have not -- have not needed them. Again, I'm not saying that forward air controllers aren't helpful and that there won't come a time when perhaps military leadership might want to recommend that. They reserve that right. Secretary Hagel has made it clear that if they get to that point where they feel like they should recommend it, they ought to. But we're just not there yet.

Q: Can you say how many airstrikes have required...


REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't know. I'd point you to CENTCOM and the Joint Task Force. I don't keep a tally on that.

Q: Is it a small number? Is it 1 percent? Is it...

REAR ADM. KIRBY: It's very, very small, but again, I'd point you to them on that.

Q: Can you say whether Canadian forces have acted as forward air controllers as has been reported?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I won't speak for another nation's military and what their contributions are. My answer to Phil was I can't answer that question. I don't know. I don't know what the Royal Canadian forces on the ground are.

Q: And you still say today that Americans have not acted as forward air controllers?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Yes, I can say that.

Q: Admiral, just one other thing real quick. Tomorrow on the schedule the joint chiefs are going up to the Senate to talk about the dangers of sequestration. Are they going to say anything new? There have been countless numbers of hearings in Congress. There's been hours and hours and hours of testimony from people -- from this department about how dangerous it would be. The message is loud and clear.

Are they going to say anything new or are they just going to restate this whole position about how perilous they say the budget restrictions are?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Let me answer the question this way. The secretary has made it clear and he's meeting with them today, as you know. He has them all here today to talk about many issues -- the upcoming budget certainly being one of them. And sequestration is obviously high on any agenda regarding the budget.

Let me just state very clearly, his expectation is that the chiefs be as honest and as candid and as forthright and as detailed as they can be and are willing to be about the specific dangers that sequestration will cause to their readiness and their capabilities.

Now, what specifically they'll say, we're going to have to all tune in and watch the hearing tomorrow.


Q: Admiral, getting back to Barbara's question. What kind of contact specifically are we -- have we had with the Houthis? And what are they saying?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think I've answered the question as far as I can go. That's as far as I'm going to be able to go today.


Q: Sir, could you give us an update on Kobani? Are airstrikes continuing? Have the Kurds recaptured the city? Have they reestablished supply lines with the Kurdish territory?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I think you saw the statement by CENTCOM yesterday that they -- they assess, Central Command assesses that the vast, vast majority of Kobani is now being held by anti-ISIL forces. And that a very small percentage, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10, I think, is still being contested by -- by ISIL.

And as for airstrikes, I mean, they'll continue -- we will continue to strike these guys when and where they present themselves. So I can't rule out potential future airstrikes in and around Kobani by coalition aircraft. But we do assess that the vast majority of Kobani is now in Kurdish hands.

Q: Have they expanded their territory?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Have who?

Q: The Kurds -- have they expanded their -- the territory beyond Kobani?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I -- I don't -- I don't know. I don't have an accurate assessment of -- of what territory Syrian Kurds have, you know, are in control of. I mean the fight principally in that part of Syria has been over this town of Kobani, because it mattered to ISIL, because they kept presenting themselves there and presenting targets.

Q: What tipped the balance in Kobani? Is that operation -- is that a template for how ISIL will be defeated in Mosul and other places in Iraq?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I don't think there was a single tipping point, Tony. This was -- you guys have been following this story for a long, long time. I think the airstrikes helped a lot. It helped when we had -- and we talked about this -- had a reliable partner on the ground in there who could help us fine tune those strikes. That was certainly an important moment.

It was an important moment when the Turkish government allowed resupply through Turkey to Kurdish forces inside -- resupply and actually additional resources in terms of manpower into Kobani. I think that was an important moment.

And I think it's -- you know, it's -- in -- I wouldn't say it's a template, because every situation is gonna be different. And Kobani's not Mosul, by any stretch, in terms of the scale, the size and the complexity of what that mission's gonna be like.


REAR ADM. KIRBY: Absolutely. It's a much different...


REAR ADM. KIRBY: It's a much different situation. But what I do think it shows is what we've been trying to pound home from here time and time again, is that this is going to be long and it's going to be difficult. And it's gonna take some time, and there's gonna be gives and takes. There's gonna be successes and failures.

And nobody is spiking any footballs, even around Kobani. Because they're still -- they're still presenting themselves there. And -- and for all intents and purposes, we still believe that they have intent on Kobani.

So, again, nobody's -- nobody's doing touchdown dances here. This is gonna be hard and long.

Q: Is this an example where airpower...

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Let me just -- I'm sorry, before I forget it.

The other thing it shows is the importance of a reliable, willing, capable partner on the ground. And that is gonna be key in Iraq.

Sorry. You had another one.

Q: Is this an example -- airpower advocates are gonna jump on this as, hey, airpower saved the day here. One could make the argument it was a major factor.

What's your take on that in terms of whether...

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Very little successful military operations in the last 20 years have been the result of the contributions of any one element or any one service. And I think even -- even advocates of airpower would have to acknowledge that you got to have good, strong partners on the ground, especially when you are talking about, in the case of Kobani and what we talked about before, elsewhere in Iraq, when it's a question of geography and terrain and control, right, because this group wants to govern, you have to have partners on the ground that can either retake and/or hold significant terrain.

And I think this was -- this was, like so many other successful military operations, a joint effort and in this case, not just joint, but coalition effort that was reliant, yes, on airpower, but also heavily reliant on ground power as well.

Q: Yeah, but, a question in India, there was the agreement signed between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi last week, and the Pentagon came out with a cryptic statement about some of the technologies and some of the advances.

And one of them was on codevelopment of an aircraft carrier. That was kind of unique. Do you have any insight into what contributions the U.S. would be making to an Indian aircraft carrier development?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Let me -- let me take that one for the record, Tony, and get back to you. I don't have any details on that today.

Q: As this war effort kind of takes more form, you're aware of the criticism that the command structure to run the war is, you know, comes from different directions. You have General Austin in Tampa, you have the general on the ground in (inaudible).

Is there a -- A, do you think there's -- this has made it difficult to actually do the mission? And is there talk of creating some kind of international kind of chain of command?

Mike Flynn, who, as you know, retired in August, said last night that he thought that this was paralyzing the war effort.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, I didn't see the general's comments. But I -- my understanding, and I think I'm safe saying this, General Austin believes that with the establishment of the combined joint task force there in the region under the command of Lieutenant General Terry, that the appropriate command-and-control structure has been put in place.

And I think we're all comfortable that General Terry is leading this effort aggressively, effectively, and in complete coordination and communication with coalition partners.

So, I think we would reject any notion that organizationally there needs to be major muscle movement changes right now. The whole reason we stood up the joint task force and put it under the command of a combat-proven three-star general is to make it more effective on the ground there.

Now, originally, as you know, it started out being run essentially out of the components for Central Command when it started, because it started fairly quickly. And General Austin has now migrated that to -- to a combined joint task force headquarters.

Now, he is still supported by the components of CENTCOM -- the land, air and maritime components still support General Terry, but it's under General Terry's command.

I've got time for just a couple more.

Q: Yes, thank you.

Are the U.S. military involved in any way, to the best of your knowledge, with the French in the search of (inaudible) in Syria, the woman who is involved in the (inaudible)?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Not to my knowledge.

Q: Admiral, to what extent is this storm in the Northeast affecting base closures or training exercises or other aspects of the U.S. military?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: That's a good question, John. I don't know. I wasn't prepared for that one. As you know, the National Guard is -- is helping out where they can under the dictates of state governors. I don't know if there's been any impact on training or operations.

Obviously, we want the same thing everybody else wants, which is for our troops and their families to be safe and not to take any risk. Let me take that back for you and see if we have any more detail on that.

Q: To follow up on Barbara's question and Tony's question, the Kobani action slowly unfolded over the course of weeks and weeks of airstrikes that changed the situation on the ground. You know, we got used to during the course of the Iraq war operations to take back Fallujah or to take some of the cities in the beginning, and were very quick, a matter of days.

We know that the Mosul operation is going to come up. Should the public be prepared for something that -- an urban battle that will take weeks and weeks like Kobani? Or is this going to be relatively quick like the battles during the Iraq war?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, first, it's too soon to tell, obviously. I mean, there's still a lot of work that has to be done to make sure that we are moving no faster than Iraqi security forces are able to go in terms of their planning and eventual execution. And it would be foolhardy for me to try to predict now here, you know, in late January what -- what that's going to look like and feel like.

What I will tell you, though, is that nobody's under any illusion about the difficulty involved in something like an attempt to retake Mosul from ISIL. General Austin himself stood right up here and told you, you know, he knows that ground very well, having served there himself. It's difficult terrain. It's a big city. And they entrenched there.

So, I don't think there's any underestimation of how hard this is going to be. How fast it's going to go is going to depend on a whole range of factors. And oh by the way, the enemy gets a vote here.

I'll take one more.

Q: Sir, there are reports that Germany is going to stop exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia, and that's where you guys are going to be training the Syrian moderate opposition to fight, you know, train and equip them.

I'm wondering, is there any concern about the stability of that country from this building? And is there any concern that opposing views among coalition members about the stability of Saudi Arabia might cause an issue with your train and equip plan?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, first of all, Saudi is -- Saudi Arabia is a close partner in the region. You know that. We have a very strong defense relationship with them. We have every expectation that that defense relationship will continue. We're grateful for the support that Saudi Arabia has already lent to this effort and is willing to continue lending in terms of support for a train, advise and assist mission.

And we're moving forward. We're moving forward.

Q: Going back to what you talked about -- the reliable partners, as you called them, the Syrian Kurds. Are there plans to continue working long term with these reliable partners, given that -- their success on the battlefield there in Kobani?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: Well, that's the whole purpose for the -- the Syria train -- Syria moderate opposition train and equip. We've said all along we want to have ready, willing, capable partners on the ground. And, you know, you're -- I don't want you to look at the population inside Kobani as some sort of, you know, permanent entity. They are all part of -- of a broader network of opposition groups inside Syria.

And as I've said before, we're -- General Nagata is working very, very hard to -- he's already identified some groups that -- that we believe merit further attention for possible inclusion in this. And he's, you know, we're -- we're getting that started.

Q: Does that mean that the Syrian Kurds are under consideration as part of the forces that could be trained by the U.S.?

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I won't speak for General Nagata and -- and what groups specifically he has identified as ones that merit, you know, further scrutiny. I don't know and I wouldn't get ahead of decisions he hasn't made yet in any event.

But again, what the -- what Kobani shows is that you do have to have reliable partners on the ground.

Q: But these Kobani veterans could be eligible, so he could -- he could have them as part of the pool when he makes his decisions, and then draw from that pool if he decides to do so.

REAR ADM. KIRBY: I think I'd refer you to General Nagata and Central Command to -- to characterize the groups that they're looking at right now. It would be inappropriate for me to do that now this early in the process.

Thanks, everybody.