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En Route Gaggle by Acting Secretary Shanahan

Feb. 23, 2019
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan

ACTING SECRETARY OF DEFENSE PATRICK SHANAHAN:  I guess I'll get to work now.  Right?  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  So, you know, first of all I thought we had a good visit down there to the El Paso sector and Chief Hull.  And I just have to throw, you know, a big hardy thanks to him and his staff on such short notice to be able to support a -- a visit like this.  It was very insightful for myself and the Chairman to be able to spend time with him.  And you know, fundamentally, the visit was go lay eyes on the environment, but also hear directly from the people conducting the mission. 

Now we have amazing people down there doing a very, very difficult job.  So one of the take a ways was they really have a difficult job to do and the other one was DoD can really help and the part of my responsibility is to translate that we can help into a real work statement.  But, a number -- number things I took away with my conversation with Chief Hull, barriers work.  He implored me the importance of being able to put barriers in place where illicit activity, people and drugs can vanish and he -- he defined it as seconds to minutes.  Any place where someone can cross the border and disappear within seconds or minutes, that's where you need barriers. 

Then we went and looked at other areas where the time constant was really minutes to hours or hours to days and I think we got a better sense of hours to days when we were on the V-22 flight.  The Chairman and I had a number of discussions about how we might help in a more systemic way, Customs and Border Patrol from the stand point of things that we've been able to  -- to deploy in our other theaters.  In terms of doing monitoring and detection, that was predominately the conversation the Chairman and I were having on the -- on the fringes of the -- of the -- of the tour.  So we'll go back and examine some of those. 

The work General O'Shaughnessy is doing is to look at more holistically the -- the border where are their mission sets where if the Department of Homeland Security transferred that to DoD, might we be able to do it more effectively and free up resources so they could be more productive.  And the place that their most productive is on foot doing the apprehension and -- and Chief Hull was very clear to me, he said, “I spent a considerable number of -- amount of resource doing processing where I do -- I spend too much of my resource doing the monitoring and detection.”  If he can get offsets there, that's a real multiplier. 

It allows him to really do the apprehension piece.  So, that's part of the mission analysis work that the Chairman and the staff will be doing.  That's where we then marry up the resources of the department and in the Q and A we'll talk maybe more that might occur.  But, you know, my task now is, we spoke to this a little bit earlier prior to the declaration we put together a process.  So think of the processes being, this was the outline for action.  The process itself is now on the shelf.  It's really an execution to that process.  How do we now as John Wooden would say: “be quick don't hurry”?  

So, we're at the “be quick” stage.  I'll be meeting with the service secretaries this week talking about how they can contribute, the help that they can bring.  So I  -- you know, in regards to moving out this was, you know, the first chance I had being back at the office to really do a deep dive into how can we accelerate a response and build an actionable plan.  So that's -- that's where we'll go from here. We'll answer just maybe a couple other comments.  While we were -- we were here I've been monitoring the situation in Venezuela.  I have had contact with Admiral Faller who is the southern command leader.  He is closely monitoring the situation in Venezuela. 

There is -- there is no new news to report.  Our -- our focus is very much on the protection of American citizens that are in the country.  No change to our current plans but we'll continue to closely monitor the situation.  I'd be happy to take any questions.  

Q:  OK.  I'll ask you a question on the -- on your border.  Does it -- you mentioned that you wanted now to accelerate the, your response.  I'm wondering whether what you saw and/or heard today actually sped up your thinking, convinced you more on how to proceed more quickly?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  It did.  Bob, the way -- so as I -- as I tried to break the problem down and look at how the Chairman, myself and others who will be working on this.  There is first the question of -- and I think that each sector -- I didn't have the chance to go to the -- the Rio Grande Valley sector.  That -- that's where most of the illicit activity is taking place, the El Paso is number two.  Obviously, geographically are -- in terms of topology we are managed different but I got a good feel for the -- the -- the mission itself.  So number one is: how do we quickly address productivity or effectiveness of the border patrol?  So, can I supplement skills, the monitoring and detection mission?  

And -- and I think you recall there's a -- a request for assistance number four where we're deploying people.  You saw some of the equipment that they have.  That would be equipment that DoD would support and operate.  So part of this is like: “how do we make sure that is happening as quickly as possible?”  The part of the mission of the visit that we really helpful was this whole notion of the time constant.  So for the border patrol, any place where you have people that can vanish in seconds or minutes where there is a highway.  People can escape to or move into an urban area, that's where we need a direct barrier. 

So, how do we erect barriers more quickly?  So I want to make sure that General Semonite and the Army Corps of Engineers does not have any roadblocks, red tape, bureaucratic obstacles, signatures that are holding them up.  The process for selecting those projects and there's a lot of detail, I'll call it things we have experts to work through.  I want to make sure there are no roadblocks and that -- that gets accelerated.  The broader, I'll say, systemic solutions where we might be able to help Customs Border Patrol take a different approach, that's where the Chairman and I really need to sit down.  And the fundamental question there that this is -- this is what we walked away with  was different as in that mission, how long would that be?  Because if with the DoD's support it's too much we're going to recommend something different than if it's two years. 

And we really -- so this is kind of back to -- I haven't been thinking about it in that context before but both the Chairman and I talked about it a two-year, a three-year support results in a different approach and -- and how we undertake responsibility and the capabilities we would want to provide.  So that's -- 

Q:  So you're thinking about that?  You're thinking about making a commitment of two to three years? 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well I think this is -- this is along the lines of when we think about providing solutions to the monitoring and detection, you saw those -- those trucks there.  There're -- there're ways to maybe do that more effectively but you need to ask well “how long would you do that for?”  Or, you know,  -- and I think the Chairman said it this way: we need to come up with a U.S. government solution, not a DoD answer or a DHS answer.  So that's -- that was the bigger take away of go faster in these other areas.  We'll -- we'll push that but that was our step back to how should we think about that broader support. 

Q:  I just want to make sure I'm not misunderstanding you.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  It's -- it's -- 

Q:  You're thinking about the two to three-year commitment by DoD to perform some of these missions like the detection monitoring mission? 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  If we -- if we were asked to -- the question that came up to the Chairman and I when we were standing there is, how long do we provide this support?  Because we've -- we've really been responding right now to supplement DHS so now it's just paused, you know, and how long will we be -- right now we're literally supporting them for a task we asked us to do.  And this -- now you step back and ask the question, how long should we be performing that task?  

And in the context of that performing that task, should we do it differently?  Is there a way for us to be more effective?  But we'll be working on that, you know, this week and next week as we put together the response, you know.  We need -- we need a plan.  Now that we're in the execution mode of our process, what is it we're going -- we're going to do? 

Q:  I'm just going to ask you a similar question.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes. 

Q:  On the record that I got off the record.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.  Right.

Q:  It would be great to get on record of this.  So what is your approach to shepherding the department through this process that is incredibly, politically charged in a way that most of the foreign operational questions are not -- and where a lot of lawmakers and -- and many Americans believe that this is not -- that this should not be a corps of duty function of the Defense Department?  What's your approach to that?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well we're in a support role to the Department of Homeland Security and we're going to bring them solutions and recommendations that are really rooted in addressing, you know, this elicit activity.  What is the most effective way to help them do their job?  OK.  I think that's, you know -- the short answer is help them be more productive, effective in addressing all this flow of people and drugs. 

Q:  And you don't feel like it detracts from what the -- your other priorities in the department? 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well it's a priority of the Commander-In-Chief.  It's, you know, when you look at the DoD mission, it's not a traditional mission for us.  There's been a history over, you know, a number of Administrations where DoD supports DHS so it's -- it's not a new precedent.  I think, you know, for us and I --  why it's a really good question is, there are some real systemic flaws and when I -- I like to look at these kinds of problems and when we spent time and we walked through going from detection, monitoring, apprehension and then the processing.  The system doesn't work the way it should.  

There are -- there are -- there are procedural gaps.  There are legal loopholes.  There are technical approaches of doing things better.  We -- there's a wholesale redesign that has to occur.  I'm hoping that we'll bring -- because we operate at this scale at the Department of Defense.  I hope that we can bring a kind of broader approach to solving some of these problems.  In -- in -- in the end, it really needs to be about stopping the illegal trafficking.  The, you know, the -- this is about, you know, -- there are laws that are being broken and this is, you know, about stopping drug dealers, drugs.

Q:  I don't mean to belabor the point but it sounds like you're saying well the DoD's dealt with this in short spurts in the past -- 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.

Q:  You're looking at possibly making this part of what DoD does. 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No.  No.  No.  

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No.  No.  Yes.  I want to make sure that we don't confuse that part. 

Q:  Can you reconcile that -- 

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Absolutely.  I think, that's a good -- I'm glad you pointed that out.  Here's how I would draw the distinction and it's -- it goes back to that point I was making about what the Chairman -- when the Chairman and we were talking about how long is this mission and which problem are we trying to solve? 

Q:  Right. 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  To some degree, what we provide the resources, we're doing triage. 

Q:  Right.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  And if we're going to expend the energy, let's not do triage.  Let's really solve the fundamental problem but we can -- we can do both.  I mean, there's triage we have to do right now. 

Q:  To me, not doing triage is potentially a long-term commitment by DoD on border security issues.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.

Q:  And that's what I'm trying to -- 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.

Q:  --  reconcile. 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No.  No. I don't want to be in the long term -- 

Q:  So how do -- how should I explain -- how should I think about being non-triage to my readers?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well I -- I think of it as this is an opportunity as we're addressing this issue to recommend solutions that are systemic and major and not a -- a triage solution.  I don't want -- I'd prefer -- I want to be responsive.  These are hard working -- that's my take away.  These are hardworking people.  To the person, I mean, you saw that, I mean, these are great Americans and you could feel the pressure they have to do their duties.  I don't want to just add resources and not fix the problem long term. 

Q:  But are you envisioning DoD involvement in addressing those systemic problems?  And -- 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  If -- so let's use the -- well the simple one is contracting to build the barrier is not a systemic solution.  OK.  That's just executing work but when we look at some of the monitoring and detection -- 

Q:  Yes.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  All right.  We do that more effectively.  Those are some of the areas that I feel like we can maybe bring something that's -- because we're used to doing that in places that have much bigger geography, much more complicated threats and risks. 

Q:  So that might be something that DoD could do on a longer-term basis as part of this broader solution?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  In support -- in support.  OK.  

Q:  I hadn't heard that before from you.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well that was -- that was one of the -- the best part of these kinds of visits is you actually get to go down.  And the conversation that you have with the people that do the work is information that can never be put into a power point presentation or into a briefing.  And so we were on the helicopter, you know, you ask why 15 questions and now you get an insight at, you know, where are the trade offs?  And what are the dynamics?  What's a day in the life of one of these agents like?   

Get out of that 10 more questions come and it helps you better understand which problem we try to solve.  What's the core issue that has to get addressed so that the rest of, I'll call them secondary effects, the symptoms that you're treating?  How do we get out of treating the symptoms and get at the root of the -- the issues?  

STAFF:  So we've got one or maybe two more questions.  

Q:  And on Syria, I just want to ask you following up on the conversation earlier.  How do you as the principle interlocutor with allied countries, you know, the civilians, senior defense level…How do you try to get them to make commitments to a strategy that has been constantly changing in a very unpredictable way?  And they have said publicly sometimes on the record, sometimes not, that they have trust issues in commitment -- making, you know, commitments for their forces.  How do you deal with that?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Very easily.  Seriously.  Very easily.  Here's why.  We share common interest and values.  This is, you know, when I was there in Munich and we were having the discussions about how do we support Syria?  It really was how do we go address certain constraints?  They have legal issues, political issues, military -- they were all -- a whole bunch of dimensions but I didn't have to do any convincing.  They -- they identified some issues we had to go resolve.  They said we'd really like to be more coordinated with but there wasn't -- we're not committed to the mission. That never came up.  No, we're never did they push back and say we're not committed to the mission.  

Q:  So you don't think that your unpredictability as, sort of, zig zag in policy has an impact? 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I didn't -- I didn't say that.  You were -- you were asking the question about where the allies are?  

Q:  Yes.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  They're with us and -- and they're unwavering in that.  How we navigate changes and I mean that's -- that's where we have to stay very, very coordinated.

Q:  Can I ask one thing about Venezuela?  You said there's been no change to the current policy. 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Not policy. 

Q:  No change in posture today. 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.

Q:  Can you speak a little bit to what you will anticipate over the next couple days?  And has the president directed any kind of preparations of the Department of Defense in anticipation over the violence there? 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I haven't received any change in guidance.  The -- in terms of activity, it still remains a diplomatic mission, a humanitarian -- you know, providing humanitarian aid, you know, for us to really – it’s very situational.  All right?  But that doesn't mean we're doing, you know, some different type of...We're staying well coordinating with Colombia, Brazil, and then all of our other partners in the region. 

STAFF:  Thank you very much. 

Q:  I want to -- if you could just indulge me for just a minute.  

STAFF:  This is going to be the last one. 

Q:  One of the things that we keep hearing is the Pentagon won’t put out troop numbers in Syria.  And I -- I was wondering why?  Because the White House is putting out numbers.  This idea of not putting out numbers is a pretty recent things and it's -- and it seems that the American public has a right to know roughly about how many -- 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.

Q:  How many troops are there?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.

Q:  It’s operation security mission may concede them -- 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Right.  No absolutely.  But two things.  One, you know, we -- he didn't get a chance to go with us on our -- on our trip.  We talked about the -- we weren't going to talk about troop numbers or troop movements, part of it is for operational security reasons.  The other is there's sometimes too much variation in the number because of the movement and we spend all of our time trying to reconcile that and then trying to reconcile because there really is a lot of movement.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  That it looks like we don't have a plan.  So I think it's important to be able to tell people, you know, what our posture is, what we're doing in terms of -- of sizing.  But I want to really want to get out of this thing of like, did you say 200 or did you say 300?  Or is it 250 or 275?  But there is not a -- the Pentagon will be transparent.  The Pentagon isn't trying to, you know, keep something from any of you or the American people.  Now we have to figure out to start to communicate that in a way that gives you confidence but at the same time I'm not giving this elaborate accounting – where I’m trapped in this -- this, you know, gyration where --

Q:  I appreciate the argument but the U.S. military is such a public face of the U.S. standing in the world.  But I just think the public -- we're not asking for minute by minute, day by day.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.

Q:  But some sort of system once a month -- 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Sure.

Q:  -- some kind of update because what I can't reconcile is if it's operational security why is the White House releasing it and the department isn't.  And the department was releasing two years ago, three years ago. 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Right.  Yes. Yes.

Q:  And throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I will tell you, I love the input.  We'll work on getting the kind of information so you have that understanding. 

Q:  That's all thank you.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Thanks for your time. 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Thank you.