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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Oct. 6, 2016
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook

PETER COOK:  Good afternoon, everybody.

I have a few announcements at the top to share with you before I turn to your questions.

First, I wanted to update you on the department's response to and preparations for Hurricane Matthew.  Secretary Carter has been receiving regular briefings on those efforts and he and the rest of the department will be tracking the storm closely and staying engaged in the days ahead as it threatens the U.S. east coast.

In response to the hurricane's impact in the Caribbean and a request from the U.S. Agency for International Development, Secretary Carter has granted approval for SOUTHCOM to expend up to $11 million of overseas humanitarian disaster and civic aid funds to provide disaster relief support, including transportation support in the Caribbean, airfield and port assessments, as well as airfield operations support.

And as Admiral Tidd pointed out yesterday in his briefing with you all, U.S. Southern Command stood up Joint Task Force Matthew to oversee U.S. military relief efforts in Haiti.  It is commanded by Rear Admiral Cedric Pringle.  Their team arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti just yesterday.

Meanwhile, NORTHCOM continues to coordinate with SOUTHCOM, FEMA, the military services, the State Department, east coast states and others to ensure that DOD is able to respond to requests for assistance from and support FEMA mission assignments as needed for east coast states, as well as the Bahamas.

In addition, NORTHCOM has identified four facilities as FEMA installation support bases.  These areas will provide staging areas for trucks, trailers, and other equipment and personnel.  They are North Auxiliary Field, which is north of Charleston, South Carolina; Albany Marine Corps Logistics Base in Georgia, as well as Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia.

The services continue to take prudent measures to protect their people and to position their platforms clear of the storm and its path.  As you know, the National Guard trains year-round to ensure that they are ready to protect and assist citizens during disasters and emergencies.  The Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina National Guard are prepared for mobilization, and all 4,500 Guardsmen have been mobilized by their respective state governors in preparation for Hurricane Matthew.

One scheduling note for you regarding the secretary.  This morning as part of his continuing outreach to the business and technology communities, the secretary met with representatives of the Aerospace Industries Association, the National Defense Industrial Association, and the Professional Services Council.  The meeting took place at AIA's offices.  It was a very productive session with some of the DOD's key industrial partners where the secretary discussed some of the nation's security challenges, innovation, the acquisition process, and other issues with those representatives from industry.

I also want to provide you with updates to two items that we discussed on Tuesday.  We have now determined that Egyptian national Abu al-Farai al-Masri, also known as Ahmad Salamah Mabruk, one of Al Qaida's most senior leaders, was killed in an American airstrike near Idlib, Syria on Monday.  His death is a significant disruption to Al Qaida's senior leadership, and again a blow to their ability to plot external attacks.

And finally, as you may have seen, the department released the name of the American soldier, Staff Sergeant -- Army Staff Sergeant Adam S. Thomas, killed on Tuesday in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan.  Staff Sergeant Thomas was the first American servicemember killed in a counter-ISIL operation in Afghanistan.

Secretary Carter and the entire department off their condolences to Staff Sergeant Thomas's family.  And even as we mourn the loss of Staff Sergeant Thomas, the United States will continue to lead the campaign to deliver ISIL the lasting defeat it deserves and to combat ISIL's metastasis everywhere they emerge around the world, including in Afghanistan.

And with that, I'd be happy to take your questions.


Q:  Peter, today the Russian Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that its air defense missile crews in Syria are either not able to or will not at any rate be participating in the air de-confliction process with the U.S. that the aircraft crews have, the implication seeming to be that any U.S. aircraft that are bombing Syrian targets could get shot down by these Russian SAMs.

I'm wondering if you have any comment about that or are taking any precautions?

MR. COOK:  Well, as you know, Bob, we are always taking precautions with regard to the safety of our air crews.  As I said to you all on Tuesday, this is something that is a top priority for us.  And not just for U.S. air crews, of course, coalition air crews.  We will continue to do that -- to take every step necessary to ensure that our air crews operate in as safe a fashion as possible over Syria.

That memorandum of understanding, that safety line of communication with the Russians, despite our differences with the Russians, has been effective in reducing risks to our pilots, to our air crews, as well as to Russian air crews.  It's been an effective means of communication to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation.  And we will continue to employ that line of communication in an appropriate fashion.  We would encourage the Russians to do the same.

Q:  Are you concerned that the statement reflects a threat to U.S. aircraft?

MR. COOK:  Well, again, I'll leave it to the Russians to describe what the purpose of that system -- those systems are for.  And I will highlight once again that their stated intent in going into Syria was to target groups like al Nusra and ISIL, and those groups do not operate aircraft.

And so we would continue to have concerns about what purpose they're serving in those locations.  And more importantly, we'll continue to conduct our operations as we have for months now over Syria, and we'll continue to do so taking every possible step we need to to ensure the safety of our air crews -- coalition air crews in Syria.


MR. COOK:  Yes, Joe, you clearly have a followup.


MR. COOK:  Sure, sure.

Q:  I want to go back to what the Russian minister said.  He said that it must be understood that Russian air defense missile crews will unlikely have time to clarify the hotline.  He's talking about the cooperation with -- with the United States.

Again, are you concerned about what he said?

MR. COOK:  I'd be concerned about any --


Q:  -- that the Russians have changed their line of communications with the United States?

MR. COOK:  Joe, as I said before, we have had this line of communication; the MOU has up to this point we believe served its purpose in avoiding misunderstanding and miscalculation; in avoiding potential problems in the air over Syria.  And it's been an effective means of communicating with the Russians at a time when we continue to have very significant difference with the Russians and their activities in Syria.  We continue to have differences with them.

But this is an opportunity, both that MOU and that safety line of communication, to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations on the Russian side as well as to explain and articulate what our folks are doing.  We'll continue to use that.  We'll leave it to the Russians to participate in that as they see fit.  We certainly would encourage them to continue to use that line of communication for its purpose of de-confliction.


Q:  Just following up on the Russian statement, they also implied that the strike near Deir ez-Zor that the U.S. conducted that may have killed some Syrian security personnel -- they implied that that may have not been an accident.

I know there's an investigation ongoing into what exactly happened.  Will there be any plan to share the results of that investigation with Russia at any point?

MR. COOK:  As you know, when we conduct these assessments and these reviews, we will share whatever information we get with, not just with you all, but with a wider audience.  We'll be as transparent as we can be, as we -- as we are with those investigations.

We're not, to my knowledge, planning anything special for the Russians.  If they have questions, we'll be -- make every effort to answer them as we've tried to answer other questions.

But there is an investigation ongoing and I don't want to prejudge the outcome of that investigation.

Yes -- (inaudible).

Q:  (inaudible) -- do you have an update on the situation in Kunduz?

MR. COOK:  Yes, my understanding is it's in a situation not unlike yesterday.  That the government continues to control Kunduz.  There is still sporadic fighting in certain locations.  And the bottom line is, the Taliban's tried to take the city of Kunduz and has so far been unable to achieve that objective.

Again, there's still isolated pockets of Taliban resistance within the city, conducting, as it's been described to me, sort of harassing attacks.  But the Afghan security forces continue to hold the city, continue to target as safely as they can within the urban confines of Kunduz those -- those Taliban fighters, being very cognizant of the risk of civilian casualties.

Q:  I mean, generally speaking now broadly, the United States has been in Afghanistan for 15 years.  They've lost thousands of soldiers, one earlier this week.   Many more Afghan soldiers have died.  Hundreds of billions have been spent.  And yet, you know, we're talking about urban centers in Afghanistan still being contested.

How is the military strategy, you know, anything but, you know, frankly, a failure at this point, where we're still talking about the Taliban holding positions?  How is that not a failure?

MR. COOK:  I think General Nicholson spoke to this quite clearly the other day, when -- when he addressed you all.

This is an effort, an ongoing effort, to allow the government of Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan to secure their own country, with the support and help of an international coalition, led of course by the United States, other NATO members.  We are doing what we can to allow them to take control of the security situation on their own.

What you're seeing in Kunduz, what you're seeing in other parts of Afghanistan is not a total surprise.  This is still part of the fighting season.  The Taliban would like to take population centers.  They've had a much harder time, as General Nicholson has pointed out, being able to take population areas.

And the Afghan government, the Afghan security forces are carrying out their own plan, their own campaign, to try and -- and prevent the Taliban from winning.  They have prioritized population areas over more rural areas in some instances, because of the resource they have at this particular moment in time, the capabilities they have.

We are working very aggressively to bolster their capabilities, to provide the support that they need to be able to do this on their own.

And what you're seeing in Kunduz is, yes, a challenge to the Afghan security forces posed by the Taliban, but also, as we talked about, the resiliency of these forces, the improvement of these forces to be able to do this in a way that they've been able to in the last few days, this is capabilities they didn't necessarily have sometime back.

So yes, it is absolutely a dangerous situation in Afghanistan, a challenging situation for the Afghan government, certainly for the Afghan forces who have sacrifice mightily to defend their own country.  But I think as General Nicholson has pointed out, in terms of being able to maintain and control populations areas, the Afghan security forces are doing a much better job, they're carrying out their campaign plan.  And if you look at where the Taliban has tried to strike, their ability to hold those population areas has not been successful in this most recent round of fighting, as challenging as it's been for the Afghan security forces.

Q:  One last question -- (inaudible).  I think about 40-odd Afghan troops in the United States have gone missing.  Could you talk about some of the steps you're taking to make sure that doesn't happen as frequently in the future?

MR. COOK:  Well -- (inaudible) -- as you know, because I know you spoke to some of our staff about this, all the -- those Afghan trainees who come to the United States first of all go through a -- a vetting process to be able to qualify to come here to the United States.

In those instances where they have gone missing -- and this has been something we've had to deal with over the years -- we've been training Afghans in this country for some time.  I think more than 2,000 have been trained even in the last few years alone -- there's a notification process that we go through, of course trying to determine where these people are. Of the people who have been missing in -- over the last two years or so, I believe the number that was provided to you was somewhere around 40 -- more than 40, individuals; 32, we understand the status of those people.

And again, every effort's made to try to determine where these people are going, what the reasons are.

In some cases they've gone home. In some cases there have been efforts -- as I understand it -- to go to Canada.  Some have sought to legally remain in the United States.

And so there are different explanations for each one of these circumstances.

But these are people who have been vetted.  And again, when there is someone who is officially considered absent without leave, there is a very formal process in which we notify not only the Department of Homeland Security but also Customs and Immigration Enforcement, certainly the Afghan government.  There are a range of steps that are taken in each and every case to try and determine the status of those individuals.


Q:  Just a follow-up; out of the 40-odd Afghans that are missing, how many have been found?

MR. COOK:  As I said, I think the number that I saw, since January of 2015 there have been more than 40 who have gone AWOL, and I believe 32 we've been able to determine their status.

Q:  When you say determine their status, that means you found them? They're here in America or Canada but you know where they are?

MR. COOK:  Yes.

Q:  (inaudible) -- on the storm, is -- is the secretary weighing holding back these ships before they deploy to Haiti just to see what kind of potential devastation happens here on U.S. shores?

MR. COOK:  Of course the secretary and, you know, the command leadership here -- there'll be -- decisions will be made as I think Admiral Tidd spoke to yesterday, depending on the needs going forward, exactly what impact the storm has not only in the Caribbean but also here in the United States.

Right now those ships -- one of our concerns, of course, is to get those ships out of the way of the storm.

And so decisions will be made based on what the greatest need is, and -- and capabilities that certain ships provide, if in fact they're needed at all.

And again, there'll be a myriad of factors that weigh into this, as I think Admiral Tidd weighed in yesterday.

Yes -- (inaudible)?

Q:  Has the -- the -- the government of Haiti asked for -- for -- for the help of these ships?  Because the Army folks are saying that the Haiti government has asked for help.

MR. COOK:  I know that we're providing help.  As you know, there are helicopters in Haiti right now.  And we're providing assistance.  We have the team on the ground in Haiti right now.  So we, the United States and Department of Defense, is providing assistance to Haiti as we speak.  And we'll continue to do so.

And I think the decisions will be made in coordination, of course, with our interagency colleagues and with the government of Haiti as our team gets stood up there.  And you know about the team that we have based in Port-au-Prince now, they'll be working with the Haitian government.

Q:  Is the government of Haiti asking for such means as such, as -- as -- as the one that ships, the three ships can provide?

MR. COOK:  I'm not aware of a specific request for a capability on board one of those ships.  I know that we're in coordination -- communication with the government of Haiti about providing assistance and we are providing assistance.

And of course, we'll review every single request made to see the best way for the United States government to be able to handle that, whether or not it's something that the Department of Defense does or perhaps again one of our interagency colleagues.

We'll be working closely with USAID, who obviously plays a lead role in all of this.  And we'll continue to coordinate closely with them.

Q:  Thank you.

On the storm, can you give us a breakdown of the U.S. troops that are in Haiti right now?  And who's expected to arrive in the next coming days?

MR. COOK:  Let me make sure I have the very latest, Carla.  So I'm going to take that question and get back to you specifically.  Because I -- I know there've some movements in the last little bit.

I mentioned the helicopters -- the team that just landed there.  I want to make sure I can give you specific numbers, exactly how many U.S. forces are in Haiti at this moment.  So I'll get that for you after this.

Q:  Thank you.

And on Somalia, with the strike on the 28th, do we have an update on the investigation?

MR. COOK:  I don't have anything.  Just that the investigation is ongoing and, you know, as soon as we have something we'll be happy to share it with you.  But I don't have anything since you and I spoke last.


Q:  There have been some reports coming from Iraq claiming that Colonel Dorrian called Turkish military presence in northern Iraq as evil and called Turks as invaders.

I got a statement from here saying that these are false, but I wonder about the Pentagon's general assessment -- of the Pentagon itself about Turkish armed forces presence in northern Iraq.

MR. COOK:  Again, you -- you -- my understanding is that the question about the words that were represented, that was not factually correct as to what Colonel Dorrian said.

Our views on this should be well known.  And this is something for the Turkish government and the government of Iraq to speak to.  And -- and we would urge them, those two governments, to speak to this issue and the presence of Turkish troops in Iraq.  This is something that we feel those two governments should be able to speak to most directly.

And the view of the United States has been that, of course, the sovereign territory of Iraq -- that the Iraqi government should be able to speak to foreign troops on its soil.  And that's something that -- again, this is a sovereign issue for the government of Iraq.

Q:  You -- (inaudible) -- some kind of -- by saying this is sovereign right of Iraqi government to, you know, to decide about foreign troops on its territories.

So do you imply that Turks are there without request or knowledge or consent of the Iraqi government?  Have you spoke to any of the parties about the issue?

MR. COOK:  This is -- this is an issue for the government of Turkey and the government of Iraq to speak to.  The government of Iraq can answer that question.  That's not something I can answer from this podium.  And again, we are -- the coalition of which Turkey is a member, is focused very much on -- on ridding Iraq of -- of the ISIL threat; Syria as well.

And that's -- will remain our focus and we think there's ample opportunity for the coalition to work very closely with the government of Iraq to achieve that goal.

Q:  Thank you, Peter.

For the North Korea -- (inaudible) – nuclear weapons.  It seems to be United States diplomatic option is -- looks like -- (inaudible) -- power -- (inaudible).  It looks like, you know, -- (inaudible) -- against the North Koreans.  What the U.S. will take -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  I'm sorry.  I didn't totally understand your question there.  Could you repeat the question?

Q:  What part of -- (inaudible) -- the U.S. State Department I asked -- (inaudible) – diplomatically solve this problem -- (inaudible) -- because there so many -- (inaudible) -- going on, but -- (inaudible).

MR. COOK:  That diplomacy has run its course?  Is that your question?

Q:  Yes.  So, what will the U.S. take military action to North Korea -- (inaudible) -- or any military -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  I think you know our position on this, and that the United States continues to work shoulder to shoulder with our South Korean allies, and our other allies in the region, to defend against the threat posed by North Korea.

And we and our State Department colleagues will continue to encourage the North Koreans to take the steps necessary to reduce the tensions on the Korean peninsula.  And in the meantime, given the actions we've seen from the North Koreans, we'll continue to take the necessary steps we need to to protect the American people and protect our allies in the region.

And I'm not going to get into military movements or decisions in the future, but this is the position we've had as allies of South Korea for years and we'll continue to stand by our allies in that part of the world.

Q:  Are there any scenario for beheading North Korean Kim Jong Un like beheading of – Osama Bin Laden?

MR. COOK:  I'm sorry.  This is a very serious topic, and again, I'm just going to reiterate our intention here, our goal has always been to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula; that there are steps that the North Koreans can take to do that.  We certainly encourage a diplomatic resolution of this situation.  And there have been ample opportunities for the North Koreans to pursue diplomacy, and there still are.

But in the meantime, the Department of Defense will continue to take the steps we need to to ensure the safety of the American people and also, of course, ensure the safety of our allies in the region.

Q:  Do you remember two days ago of vice president debates -- (inaudible) -- they mentioned about the preemptive strike in North Korea.  So -- (inaudible) -- special forces in South Korea, so you -- (inaudible).

MR. COOK:  I'm going to leave the political debate to the campaign season, and again, I'll leave it to the candidates to speak to their own views on this issue.  But I'll speak on behalf of the Department of Defense, and I think it's clear where we are with regard to this issue.

So, other questions?  Yes?

Q:  So, in the last couple of days, there have been a series of disclosures about the potential that another contractor who got access to highly sensitive material and removed it from the intelligence community network.  Is the department satisfied that its current safeguards against the insider threat are adequate?  And have there been new or renewed considerations on potential adjustments to the policy to protect against the insider threat?

MR. COOK:  You know, that because this is a law enforcement matter, I can't speak specifically to any individual case here.  This is obviously an issue that we take very seriously and that the government as a whole takes very seriously.  And there have been changes, as you know, put in place since the revelations from Edward Snowden.  And we believe those changes have made a difference and this is something we'll continue to watch very carefully.

Everyone in the Department of Defense needs to take the issue of the protection of sensitive information very, very seriously, and that is impressed upon everyone certainly within this institution and will continue to be.


Q:  One other question.  On the Major General Lewis, inspector general's report, I saw the statement from the secretary.  Is there concern that someone with such access to the secretary, such high-level access, would display such poor judgment?  Is this building concerned about that and kind of the vetting that went on?

MR. COOK:  You saw the secretary's statement.  There's a process that's in place here.  The Army will now consider this particular case and what happens, so the secretary does not want to say anything at this point that could in any way undermine that process.

I'll just go back to what the secretary said in his statement this morning, and that is he expects the highest possible standards of conduct by men and women in this department, especially those in positions of senior leadership.  That is an expectation he has set from the very start of his time here and it is something that is crystal clear to everyone who serves with him.


Q:  Going back to Russia really quickly.  Given the saber-rattling comments and the aggression and now the deployment of the S-300 and -400 in Syria, can the Pentagon state unequivocally that this will not have an effect on U.S. airstrikes and operations in the region?

MR. COOK:  Our operations will continue.

Q:  Edward Snowden is said to be one of the potential people to be awarded a Nobel Prize.  What is the reaction of DOD to know that Snowden is on such a short list?

MR. COOK:  I don't have a comment on that.


Q:  Did the secretary issue a statement after the identity of the Green Beret who was killed in Afghanistan was released?

MR. COOK:  Did the secretary issue a statement?  We just spoke here from the podium.

Q:  Is there any kind of protocol for the secretary to issue a statement -- a condolence statement when the name is released?

MR. COOK:  I'm sorry, Lucas.  Obviously, the secretary feels very strongly about this.  We spoke about this on Tuesday and Thursday, and he's expressed his condolences, as you just heard from me at this podium, to Staff Sergeant Thomas' family and to his teammates as well, and to all those who mourn the loss of a brave and patriotic American who was serving his country in Afghanistan.

This is something that this secretary takes this responsibility to put Americans in harm's way very, very seriously.  And the comments today should reflect


Q:  Is there any reconsideration into how he died?  You mentioned that there was an ongoing investigation, but can you say that he was killed in combat?

MR. COOK:  Lucas, you and I spoke about this before.  He was engaged in a -- not just in a combat situation.  He was, as we now understand it, there was fire coming at that time.  This was someone who was absolutely fighting on behalf of the safety and security of the American people and defending this country.

And he was, you can call it, it was absolutely combat.  And he was doing it in a way that, again, trying to take the fight to ISIL, where it has metastasized in Afghanistan; trying to protect the American people.  He should be honored for that sacrifice.  And certainly, the secretary of defense and everyone in this building, we mourn his loss.  We acknowledge the sacrifice he's made on behalf of this country.  And that is not lost on any of us, here in this building.


Q:  (inaudible) -- visiting delegation from Pakistan here in D.C. recently announced that the country would begin joint military exercises with Russia, and also re-start weapons buys from Russia as well.  And these officials noted that part of the motivation for this was the strengthening military tie between the U.S. and India.

Now, given some of the recent conflict in the Kashmir region going on, does this announcement sort of raise any red flags here in the building as far as relations between the U.S. and Pakistan militarily, and the ties between the U.S. and India -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  Carlo, I'm sure you've heard the secretary speak to this, that we don't -- we don't view these relationships as a zero-sum situation.  We have a relationship with India.  We have a relationship with Pakistan, longstanding relationship.  And there is security interests that we share with Pakistan that we also have separate security interests we have with India.

And we'll continue to look at the relationships in that light.  And so, that's the way we view this.  It is not a zero-sum situation.  We'll continue to have ongoing conversations, military conversations with the Pakistanis, particularly on the subject of counterterrorism, where we have a shared security interest.  And we'll continue to foster a strengthening defense relationship with India.

You have noted, of course, the engagements that the secretary has had with Minister Parrikar.  This is an important relationship, a growing relationship, and one we think is very important to the region.  And -- and will continue to be one that the secretary will be looking to develop in the months and years ahead.

Okay.  Thanks, everybody.