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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White and Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Oct. 26, 2017
Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White; Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr.

DANA WHITE:  Good afternoon, everyone. Secretary Mattis continues his trip to Asia this week to reaffirm America's enduring commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. Yesterday in Bangkok, he led the U.S. presidential delegation attending the royal cremation rites of His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, The late king was a stabilizing figure, as one of the world's largest -- longest-serving monarchs. On behalf of the American people, Secretary Mattis paid our respects, and expressed our condolences to the Thai people.

The secretary will visit Seoul next to co-chair the 49th SCM with his South Korean counterpart, Minister Song. The meeting is part of a consistent and robust collaboration between Washington and Seoul, and is further proof of our steadfast commitment to the alliance. The U.S.-RoK alliance is a linchpin of peace and security in the Asian Pacific region, and our commitment remains ironclad. As the secretary has said, the more we do together, the greater chance for a lasting peace.

Switching gears, I want to remind everyone that the department has been operating under a CR (continuing resolution) for more than 1,070 days. That's nearly three years. Secretary Mattis has said that continuing resolutions negatively impact the readiness of our forces and equipment. The longer the CR, the more damaging. We want Congress to be active participants in the budget process, not spectators of automatic cuts. We hope that Congress can pass an FY-18 budget before December 8, when the CR ends about six weeks from now, and for all you moms and dads, that's about eight weeks from Christmas. 

And with that, we'll take your questions. Jim.

Q: Thanks so much. Thanks to both of you, and I'll direct this question to either you, perhaps the general, but it's on Niger. The more we learn about this ambush, the more sophisticated it seems to be -- heavy weapons, mortars, heavy machine guns, RPGs. Have you -- in the investigation so far, has the military discovered any evidence that ISIS had advanced knowledge prior to -- of the U.S. presence prior to when they stopped at this village to replenish supplies?

MS. WHITE: So again, as the chairman said earlier this week, all of these questions are fair questions, but it is under investigation. So we will have more details when we have them.

Q: Is that going to be the case for all questions regarding Niger?

MS. WHITE: Well, you are welcome to ask whatever question you like, but again, we want to get this right, and we owe that to the families, and we will get this done as quickly as we can, but we have to get it right.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL KENNETH MCKENZIE: Perhaps I could just amplify a little bit. When the mission was conducted, where we thought contact was unlikely. It's possible that changed during the mission. We don't have an answer to that yet. We'll get that information in the course of the investigation. I think the chairman would prefer to provide a single consolidated investigation, rather than drip it out in dribs and drabs from unnamed sources. 

So we're going to work very hard to -- to do our work, so that when we bring a completed product in here, it's going to be one that makes sense and is knowledgeable, and I think it's going to answer many of the questions that you're very reasonably -- very reasonably posing right now. 

Q: I spoke to a number of senators leaving the classified briefing on the Hill regarding Niger this morning and -- and early this afternoon. And Senator McCain, among them, frustrated, still, with an understanding of why Sergeant La David Johnson's body was found some 48 hours later. 

I know that you want to delay -- you want to get final answers to these questions before you give a complete report, but on that particularly sensitive issue, have you discovered any more information that you can share now, as to why -- when and how he was separated from his unit and why it took so long to find him? 

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure, that's a very sensitive issue for us as well, but I really have nothing new that I can give you at this time. 

Q: Thank you very much. 

Raghubir Goyal, Asia Today and India Globe.

My question is that, now there are two prominent and most trusted and also powerful secretaries are in Asia, secretary of state and secretary of defense. Where do we stand as far as U.S. and India relations are concerned, as far as military-to-military relations? And now India has only female defense secretary -- defense minister on the globe? 

MS. WHITE: Well, I will say the secretary's trip to India was very successful. I was with him, and it was very good to meet his minister of -- the new minister of defense. I think it's a point of, we really are having a -- this is a moment of strategic convergence for the U.S. and India. 

Also, General, I'll let you speak to the mil-to-mil relationship. 

GEN. MCKENZIE: No, I think it's an important relationship for us, and we look forward to continuing it. I would just add, as you noted, the two secretaries are in the region. And, of course, the chairman as well, and that just goes to show the significance we place on the region. 

Q: If I may, one more question on Afghanistan. Thank you. 

As far as Afghanistan and Afghanistan people are still living and scary like ISIS and deaths are still going on, as far as common people or their lives are concerned. What role do you think you want India to play in Afghanistan? 

MS. WHITE: Well, the secretary was very heartened by the support that India has already shown, in terms of increasing development aid, possibly providing some training and assistance. So, again, we are -- we're very heartened by the commitment is playing. 

Again, the South Asia strategy is about a regional strategy. It's -- it's, so we need those partners and India's a key player in that. 


Q: Does the Department of Defense have a timeline on when it wants lethal drones in Niger? 

MS. WHITE: We're not gonna talk about anything that's pre- decisional. 

Over here.

Q: (Inaudible) from the Frontier Post in Pakistan.

I have a question regarding, there are reports that the ISIS fighters are being, dumped, might be the right word. I don't know -- a lot of them are being brought into the Tora Bora area. Are there any reports with you guys, with regard to that? 

MS. WHITE: I'm not aware of those reports. 


GEN. MCKENZIE: I don't have anything on that, as well. 

Q: And one, just, related question. Last -- a few weeks ago, when the secretary of defense was going to Afghanistan from India, that airport attack took place. Are there any investigations going on as to how did the Taliban know that the secretary was going to come to Afghanistan that day? Because that trip was a very secret and, uh, trip -- is there any investigation, as to...

MS. WHITE: There's no current investigation with respect to that. 

Q: Thank you very much. I would like to hear from you, more clarification about the meeting that took place on Tuesday, at Fort Belvoir more than 70 military leaders gathered with Chairman Dunford, maybe we could highlight this some details about the meeting?

MS. WHITE: Sure. It was 75 CHODs (chiefs of defense) and it was the emphasis and it's also important to remember that Brett McGurk was there from the State Department, he's the Envoy with regards to the D-ISIS Camp Coalition and the emphasis was really on how does the Coalition continue.

The Chairman has said that this is an inflection point in the fight, and so that was a conversation among those leaders to talk about where do we go from here.

As we've said, as we destroy ISIS and the caliphate there's also going to be follow-on activities so that was -- shows the commitment that the U.S. has with its partners because this is a global threat to all of us.


GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. I'll just add, just pile on to what Dana said, it's a global problem. It requires a global response. That's why you have that many CHODs. We all share a common sense of the threat that we face. And I'd go back to some points that the chairman has made, and I've also made in earlier briefings down here, what we seek to do is even as we crush and complete the end of the core caliphate, it's important to remove the connective tissue that -- the other spots across the globe.

And all of this is designed in concert with other elements of other governments. It's not only a military effort. It's got to be much broader than that. It's designed to work a strategy that will take us to that point.

Q: Quick follow-up please? If we go -- if we go into details as you -- as you may know, the Syrian regime is pushing towards the Iraqi -- the Syrian-Iraqi border and on the other side of the Syrian border the PMF (Popular Mobilization Front) also is pushing towards the Al Qaim.

In a way we can say that the Syrian-Iraqi border is about to fall into the hands of Iran.

Is this something that you have anything to say about?

MS. WHITE: I wouldn't say that.


GEN. MCKENZIE: I'm not sure I would agree with that characterization of it. We watch it very closely. Iraqi elements are going to push up from east to west up in Anbar province towards the border.

We'll -- we will watch very closely the composition of those forces but I'm not prepared to tell you right here, or agree with you right now that they're all PMF moving up to the border.

MS. WHITE: Sylvie?

Q: I would like to follow up on the question about the meeting of the CHODs. You said that it's about how that coalition continue.

Do you -- do you think that as it is the case in Afghanistan, NATO should play a role and put troops on the ground in Africa now?

MS. WHITE: Well, NATO is playing a role in that coalition and the French are in Africa, they led -- they are leading the -- they led the training, train and assist, campaign in Niger so...

Q: It is not NATO in itself?

MS. WHITE: Not NATO in itself but NATO is a part of the coalition to defeat ISIS.

Q: No. But I speak about -- in Afghanistan NATO is present with troops on the ground.

Do you think it should be the case in Africa too?

MS. WHITE: Why don't I take your question and I'll come back to you with more details about that.


Q: Quick question. One thing that the U.N. and the French are pushing for is for the G5 to help, or supposed to be enough, and offensive force led by the local country. Is this -- is the actions that have happened in Niger, has that sped up the impetus for the chiefs to push for supporting this this G5 proposal to strengthen the Sahel forces to make it so that it is in the hands of the Sahel countries rather than focusing on -- focusing on U.N. peacekeeping mission down there? 

How how has this increased visibility on that proposal? And do you think it's going to speed that along?

MS. WHITE: Please.

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. So I -- I think the -- the recent attack that just occurred certainly says the need for renewed emphasis on -- on -- on those types of operations, security operations. I just think it's too early to know the way we're going to go with the G5. I think that we've done a lot of great things, and beginning in the early stages, to stand up to that force. But I just don't have any information about how that might be changed as a result of this. I'm certainly, it's something that will be considered. I just don't have an answer for you about the way it might go forward, based on these recent changes.

MS. WHITE: Lucas.

Q: What are reporters getting wrong on the Niger ambush?

MS. WHITE: I think the thing that they got wrong was that we abandoned one of our soldiers. As the chairman said, there was always someone looking for Sergeant Johnson, so I think that's the thing that folks got wrong.

Q: What about, General, the high -- the search for a high-value target, that that was the mission?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I can't give you more than what we've already given you, which is that when the mission left, contact was considered unlikely. If, as we continue our investigation, if we discover that the mission changed, you'll know all that in -- in good time. 

Q: And one more. Why are three U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike groups heading toward the direction of the Korean Peninsula right now?

MS. WHITE: Well, this was a unique opportunity for -- to show that the U.S., the only power in the world that can demonstrate that kind of presence, and a unique, you know, opportunity for them to be together.

It's not directed towards any particular threat, but it's -- it is a demonstration that we can do something that no one else in the world can. 

Kristina? Oh, sorry -- please.

GEN. MCKENZIE: I would just -- I would just amplify a little bit. It's been long scheduled. This didn't arise overnight. But as Dana noted, it does demonstrate a capability that no other nation in the world can do. It assures our allies. The Seventh Fleet has had a presence in these waters for seven decades, so this is nothing new.

MS. WHITE: Kristina.

Q: Thank you. The president yesterday mentioned that his general is authorized to the mission in question in Niger. Can you talk about who he meant, and -- and what level? Was this the combatant command level, or another level? And do you consider that comment to be, you know, passing the buck for responsibility.

MS. WHITE: The president has given the secretary the authority to do what commanders on the ground need to do. That was fully within this department's authorities, and we -- and again, not every mission goes as we would want. But again, the president has given us the authority to do what needs to be done on the ground. General?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, there have been, I forget the exact number, but I want to say 26 or 27 missions in the general area before this -- before this mission went. This was an ongoing operation, series of operations, based on an assessment that contact with the enemy would be unlikely, but I don't want to paint it as, you know, friendly territory, or -- our soldiers were armed, we knew there might be problems. But these were local decisions made by the local commanders as part of an ongoing operation.

Q: Can you say what timeframe those 26 missions took place, then?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I want to say 26 missions over the last six or seven months in this area. There have been others in other parts of Niger, but I want to say it's about over the last six months, and not all of them to this particular spot on the ground, to the village up there. But I think 26 over the last six months is just about -- just about right.

Q: Was that an uptick in the last -- would you say, over the last year or so?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I couldn't tell you that. 

MS. WHITE: Right here. Right...

Q: General, you said they were armed. Did they have body armor?

GEN. MCKENZIE: I think that'll be uncovered as part of the investigation. As I stand before you right now, I don't know the answer to that question. 

MS. WHITE: Right here in the middle.

Q: Thank you. (inaudible) from Kurdistan TV. Iraqi forces and pro-Iranian Shia militia are using U.S. equipment to attack the Kurds. What is your response?

MS. WHITE: I'm not aware of that report so I will have to take it. 

General, are you?

GEN. MCKENZIE: No. I just come back to something we said earlier down here. We think a unified Iraq's the -- is the only way to go forward. We're not helping anyone attack anyone else inside Iraq, either the Kurds or the Iraqis. And I'm unaware of the specific report that you're referring to. 

MS. WHITE: And, remember, our focus is to defeat ISIS. 


Q: Yeah, same topic. With Secretary Tillerson recently, you know, calling for Iran to pull out and now Senator McCain leading -- lots of members of Congress, saying, the U.S. should say by -- stick by the Kurds, and that the U.S. is not. What is the Pentagon seeing? What could the Pentagon say that demonstrates the U.S. is sticking by the Kurds, especially militarily, and are you seeing any evidence of any Iranian withdrawal of, you know, either on-the-ground tactics or intel or any other way since Secretary Tillerson's...

MS. WHITE: Again, we are -- while we're supporting the ISF. And, again, we've encouraged all parties to settle long, you know, held disputes peacefully because we all have a common enemy and that's -- and that's ISIS. And that's -- that's our focus. 


Q: General McKenzie, on the carrier deployments. You said this is nothing new. It's the first time in a decade they've had three battle groups in the area. So that's kind of new. And you say it's been planned for a long time. Are we talking over the last month, or are we talking two or three months, as -- hostilities between the U.S. and North Korea have ratcheted up? Or the war -- the war of words, anyway. 

GEN. MCKENZIE: You're right. The last time we operated three carrier groups together is 2007. Aircraft carrier schedules, though, aren't created very quickly. This has been long building. I couldn't tell you the exact time that this -- this confluence came together, but it's certainly not in the last month. It's been planned for quite a while. And we might be able to come back and give you a sense of that a little bit later. I just don't know.

But I would say that I wouldn't read anything more to it than it's just an opportunity to exercise three carrier strike groups together. We always seek to do that when we have an opportunity to do it. It doesn't come along very often. But it does demonstrate a unique and powerful capability that has a -- has a very significant assurance effect on our allies in the Western Pacific. And we're...

Q: What would the message be to North Korea?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, I'm sure it demonstrates a capability the United States has. I wouldn't go beyond that. 

Q: And what capability would that be? 

GEN. MCKENZIE: It would be the capability associated with three aircraft carriers. 


Q: Today the North Korean leadership has threatened to carry out another nuclear test. What would be the U.S. response if they did so? And has the U.S. changed its nuclear readiness footing or put any new assets on alert as a result of the North Korean threat? 

MS. WHITE: Well, North Korea makes a lot of threats. And we are ready for anything that may come. We haven't -- to my knowledge, we haven't changed any of our status or our posture. But, obviously, we're looking and monitoring the situation very, very carefully. 


GEN. MCKENZIE: No, I'd just add that we don't discuss, you know, conditions of changing conditions of readiness. We watch it closely, we provide the president and the secretary with options all the time. And, obviously, the statement was very concerning but I wouldn't -- I don't have anything on it beyond that. 

Right here in the front.

Q: General, can you help me? This is a question about Niger but not having to do with the team that was attacked. You said that there were 26 to 27 missions in the general area. What can you say about the second team that was purportedly on the ground? And the orders they were given on that same -- within that same timeframe. 

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. I will say there are other teams that operate in Niger, there was one that had something to do with this operation but I'm not going to be able to give you any more specific details about what happened until we complete the process of the investigation. 

Q: Is that because it overlaps with the Niger attack? 

GEN. MCKENZIE: It's involved in the timeline and we just want to make sure that we have the opportunity to get it right and understand the totality of it before we bring it forward. 

Q: And can you just -- for those at home who are civilians, and they hear you say, you know, "This is not friendly territory, our soldiers were armed," but then they also hear "No enemy contact was expected," how do they reconcile those two things?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Sure. Well, you had -- that area of Africa is dangerous. We recognize that. As I think, maybe, the secretary said, that's why we had the U.S. Army there and not the Peace Corps doing these types of operations. 

But, at the same time, we make a professional judgment about the probability of coming into significant contact with an enemy force. It was the judgment of the commanders on the ground that that probability was unlikely. 

It wasn't zero. We don't plan for zero. We plan for the worst case. So those soldiers were armed for the type of mission they set out to do. In the course of the investigation that's underway now, we'll uncover further facts that may shed further -- that may shed more light on it. 

I just -- I can't speculate on that right now. I understand the interest; I clearly get that. But I think we're just going to be a little while before we have that information.

MS. WHITE: Tom, in the back. 

Q: Thank you for that good question. 

In the last four years, you've had more than 500 cases of serious misconduct among your most senior officers and civilian officials. Why can't the Pentagon get a handle on this? And what are you doing to address it? 

MS. WHITE: I think the secretary has been very clear that he has a zero tolerance for harassment and for -- and misconduct. You know... 

Q: Those numbers continue to stay at 100 or more every year. 

MS. WHITE: Again, we have a zero tolerance about it. And you'll also find that, a lot of times, people have also been held accountable for their actions. No one takes misconduct more seriously than the military. 

So, again, are there problems? Is it -- can we get better? Absolutely. But I would say that this Pentagon takes -- and the secretary takes all of these issues very, very seriously, and we investigate them and people are held accountable. 


Q: Dana. So we've been told that the soldiers in Niger were an hour into their -- the firefight before they called for support. General, given your military experience, does that seem odd to you? 

GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, so that's a matter we're going to explore. So there are a variety of reasons that could have happened. It may have been that they assessed that the situation was not significant enough to call for help. It may have been that they were under fire so intense they were unable to get to their communications equipment. I don't know the answer to that question. 

Q: (off mic)

GEN. MCKENZIE: We will -- but we will know the answer to that -- may -- it may have been the team leader was not in a position to make that decision and get to his communications teams to transmit the call for help. Don't know the answer to that. 

But I think we will know pretty thoroughly, by the time the investigation's complete, what happened during that hour. I would just tell you, having had some experience with this, it's hard to know. It -- you know, people -- and I would never want to second-guess those guys on the ground, because they were the ones being shot at. 

It was a dynamic situation. You got to make a lot of decisions in a very short period of time. And we will eventually know in pretty good detail what happened to our soldiers. 

MS. WHITE: Elizabeth.

Q: Hi, Dana. Quick question -- the South Korean media was reporting yesterday that the -- Defense Minister Song had asked Mattis to wear his Marine Corps uniform to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) tomorrow. Is the secretary considering that request? 

MS. WHITE: I did see that report, and I see no reason that the secretary would don his uniform. 

Q: Any idea why he would choose not to do that, if that was requested by the South Korean defense minister? 

MS. WHITE: It's a matter of -- it's a matter of policy, number one. But, again, I saw those reports, but I have no -- I have no reason to necessarily believe them -- that he will be in a suit and tie. 

Q: Did he pack his uniform on the trip? 


MS. WHITE: Pretty sure he has a couple ties. 

Q: He didn't bring his uniform on the trip, did he? 

MS. WHITE: I wasn't there when he packed, but I'm sure he has his ties. 


Q: Thank you. I just had a couple follow ups. One, on Hans’ question on the drones in Niger, you say it was predecisional -- that anything was predecisional. So are you saying that the military has not made a decision about whether or not it wants to arm...

MS. WHITE: I'm just saying no decision has been made, and we're not going to talk about possible initiatives that may be undertaken.

Q: OK, another follow up. 

General, you mentioned that commanders on the ground were making these decisions. Who is tasking this particular? At what level were the missions being assigned? I mean, this is not -- do you -- do you know that at this stage on the investigation? Would you know who had command and control over this particular...


GEN. MCKENZIE: We had a -- we had an A-team that was out there, probably talking back to their base camp. I don't have the details of exactly who they were talking to, but anytime you put a unit out there in place like this, you've got good communications and procedures, you've got a solid, thorough, comm plan that's been tested with backups; somebody's always going to answer the radio on the other end when the commander on the ground presses it. 

So beyond that, I just don't want to go into anymore details on that. We look at that hour pretty hard ourselves, but again, there are a lot of reason why that time could have elapsed like that.

Q: I'm sorry, sir. Following the ambush, actually, just assigning the mission tests, you know, giving the -- tasking this team before as they were setting out on patrol. Who would have been doing that? Would it happen in the base camp...

GEN. MCKENZIE: It would have been, and that's something that will come out pretty thoroughly in the investigation.

STAFF: Ma'am, we have time for a few more questions.

MS. WHITE: All right.

Right here.

Q: Hi, Wes Morgan with Politico. 

You mentioned that the U.S. military urges -- on Northern Iraq, urges all sides to you know, come to a peaceful resolution. I'm wondering if you can describe a little more the military's role in any negotiations over Kirkuk and K1 Airbase in the weeks that preceded the government's movement to Kirkuk, if there anything you can say about that.

MS. WHITE: Again, we were a part of no negotiations. Again, our position is that all parties need to focus on defeating ISIS. Right here.

Q: General McKenzie, you responded to Joe's question, saying that you won’t agree with Iran taking over Iraq and Syria border, but would you at least agree or acknowledge that Iranian influence currently on the Iraq's fight against ISIS is more than ever, and Iranian influence inside Syria is growing day by day as they are moving towards Dayr az-Awr?

GEN. MCKENZIE: Well, I'd agree there's a reigning influence operating inside Syria. We view it with significant concern, particularly down around Dayr az-Awr in the lower and in the Central Euphrates River Valley. 

So I'd agree with you. I think it's yet to be seen how that influence is going to be carried forward. I mean, there are several other players besides Iran that are there. There are the Russians. There's the regime itself, and there are partners that we are on the east side -- generally on the east side of the Euphrates River with. So I'm not -- I think we still need to see the way that's going to play out.

Now in Iraq, I do acknowledge there are certain Iranian -- there's a certain element of Iranian influence there, but at the same time, I'm not prepared to say that they control the border up around Al Qaim and up around the Euphrates River where it goes in. That's something we're going to watch very closely in the days ahead.

MS. WHITE: I'll take one more. 

Q: Can we just clarify the suit and tie part on the DMZ. Is that you confirming that Secretary Mattis will visit the DMZ?

MS. WHITE: What I'm confirming is that he will wear a suit and tie.

Q: When he visits the DMZ?

MS. WHITE: He'll be wearing a suit and tie, I promise you that. 


Q: Dana, can you confirm that discussions will take place about possibly returning tactical nukes to the Korean Peninsula? There was a report to that effect this morning.

MS. WHITE: I have no comment regarding that. Our goal is to have a denuclearized peninsula. That's the U.S.'s goal. 

All right, thank you all very much.