Transcript

Media Availability by Acting Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan at the Pentagon

May 3, 2019
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan

SEC. SHANAHAN:  You know, maybe -- first of all, sorry we didn't get to pull our trip off.  We -- I was really looking forward to seeing General Scaparrotti.  I mean, after 40 years of service and what-not, it was a real chance to honor him and thank his family.

But the events of Venezuela and, quite frankly, the border really drove me to stay back.  And when I say that, you know, I'm a real operations person.  So whatever is the priority is really where I spend my time.  And that was the primary motivation for the change.

I get really 72 more hours in the office to work on both of those subjects.  And we can-- when we do the Q&A, kind of get into that.  But maybe just as -- in order to kind of speed up the Q&A.

Yesterday, I was over in the White House with the president.  We were giving him an update on the border and some of the new changes that we're bringing to the plan there.  Kevin McAleenan joined us for that briefing.

And it was to give him an update primarily on, progress on the barrier.  And then support that we're providing to the Department of Homeland Security.  You know, in our case, principally Customs and Border Protection.

And they're, as probably all of you are tracking, you know, we've responded to a request for assistance.  And kind of walk through -- you know, "These are the resources."

And then we spent time -- I don't know if you know this person, General Ricky Waddell.  But we've assigned him to DHS to co-lead some of the integration work, to make sure that we're addressing a lot of the support that's being brought to the Department of Homeland Security, making sure that the whole-of-government or interagency is even tighter.

Military planners are some of the best.  He has, a strong background in that area.  So we were really talking about the things in two phases, is what we talked about.

How do we get more badges -- when we say "badges," those are CBP personnel -- to the border.  Because right now, the manner in which they have to deal with the processing and what have you has been consuming critical capacity.  Why that's so important.  Badges to the border is about how do we get control of our borders.  And so that was -- that was one element.

And then it was, how do we develop more capacity -- partner capacity with Mexico and the Northern Triangle.  So more to follow on that as we kind of give you future updates on the border.

And then today, I'd invited Admiral Faller from SOUTHCOM up here to Washington, D.C., given this week's events in Venezuela.  I wanted him to brief a number of us on some of his observations.  Then he spends quite a bit of time in the region, Colombia and Brazil and the status of some of those discussions.

And then we went through a number of the, you know, options that we have.  And part of, you know, when you think about the planning that we do here as conditions change, we make modifications and adjustments.

That was -- today was, you know, we had Secretary Pompeo over, Ambassador Bolton and a number of different folks, just so we kind of all stay stitched together in real time.

You know, these discussions really are more so that just as things happen -- I mean, it's convenient that we're all here in the same real -- you know, same time zone and almost the same zip code.  So we can just converge, update everybody and then we'll probably get together in a few more days.

Q:  Was this a decision-making meeting today?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No.  When we say -- Bob, maybe let me caveat that as, we make decisions in all these meetings.  So some briefings are like information only, and then some are decision.  I think mainly the way you were asking the question, is like, this major decision or minor decision?

So these were, like, decisions on our planning and some of the recommendations, just so that we're in alignment.  So think of it as interactive and agreeing to things around assumptions and activity.

Q:  But not decisions to take action of some specific nature?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  There are -- yeah, I want to be careful how I answer that question.  We always make decisions on how to take action, but we -- timing of actions is always kind of the question, right?  So this was really a true review.  And then making sure that we're all in alignment.

Q:  Well, on that topic, sir, because you tweeted that "all options were on the table."  Can you just walk us through what you can say about some of the things that you're considering that are -- that are realistic?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah.  No, Helene, I thought about this before this briefing.  Because what would be ideal is for your readers to be able to say, you know, "There's A, B, C, D, E, F, G."

Q:  Yeah...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  And -- well, you would want to know that, you know?

Q:  Sure.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  And...

Q:  But you're not going to telegraph, "We're about to send..."

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Right.

Q:  But is there -- I mean, can you talk in a more general way, just about what kinds of things we can do?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah.  I -- that was part of my, you know, kind of thinking through how to answer the question.  We have a comprehensive set of options tailored to certain conditions.  And I'm just going to -- maybe just leave it at that.

Q:  Would it include kinetic action?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I'll leave that to your imagination.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We have -- all options are on the table.

Q:  Some experts mentioned the possibility of a naval deployment.  Is it something that you are thinking about?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  All options are comprehensive.  But there's a lot of water nearby.  Yeah. (Laughter.)

And then -- I'm not trying to be smug or anything, but I'd love to be able to narrow this down.  But the...

Q:  Can you see the headline, if we run the "Defense Secretary says There's a Lot of Water Nearby"?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Right.  Yeah, yeah.  (Laughter.)

You know what I mean?  That's why I said I'm not trying to be smug.  But the fact of the matter is, we really did want to keep everybody together.  Because, there were a lot of changes this week.

Q:  How are you thinking of options for how to protect the tens of thousands of U.S. citizens that are in the area?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We have a full range of capabilities that we can provide.

Q:  Do you feel comfortable about where you're getting your intelligence from on Venezuela?  Because there seems to have been a miscommunication with what the NSC- what Bolton was putting out a couple of days ago, when he named three specific people who are close to Maduro who didn't flip.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah.

Q:  I mean is this -- that immediately raises the concern that we're in another 2002, 2003 Iraq situation where the opposition is telling us what we want to hear and we're paying attention to that and not --

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yeah, no I -- that's a great question because what you really want to do is have multiple sources, so we have multiple sources that we constantly sample, and then we have all sorts of other ways of doing collection.  Then you look at-  do they correlate, right?  So you want to validate.  So I feel very confident in the quality and the accuracy of the information that we're getting.

And as you know there's variation and so what people have to do -- and that's why we have experts that they can take that intelligence then derive- this is what it really means.  But I don't feel like we have an intelligence gap, I think we have very good reporting.

Q:  Are you speaking for the NSC as well when you say that?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I'm report… -- I'm speaking for the U.S. government.

Q:  Lindsey Graham actually just tweeted, "the U.S. should send a carrier to Venezuela."  Obviously we- it’s not going to get in to specifics but is that within the range of options that are being considered, additional assets to the region?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  All would include all.  You know, I'm just -- I'm trying to avoid walking in to a- “well we could do this or we could do that.”  I mean, what people should feel confident about is that we have --

Q:  Sorry.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  That's OK.

Q:  Was trying to get the recorder --

SEC. SHANAHAN:  But there's depth to these plans.

Q:  And if I could ask, these issues, you talked about the reasons for cancelling the trip, the border featuring equally as prominently as Venezuela, are you having issues with -- obviously assigning General Waddell to DHS, has there been concerns with how DHS is producing its RFAs is there you know -- is it a little too ad hoc, are you trying to streamline that process?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I didn't think -- I don't think anybody thought it would be this bad.  The situation would deteriorate like it has, and that distress would be as high, on those front-line employees.  And so part of this is as they're having to deal with that crisis, we need to supplement them with management talent so that they can have some bandwidth.

I mean this is purely like if you were having a challenge, we'd -- instead of watching you struggle and be critical, we'd say let's send our best and they’ll work side-by-side.  They'll still have their responsibility but it's really giving them more capacity to think about things, you know a month from now -- two months from now, as well as dealing with today's issues.

Q:  And then also, in the border barriers you talked about -- you discussed the progress (inaudible).  It's my understanding that DoD version of that had been held up for some protesting contractors or something like that.  I mean, are these some challenges that you're working through?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I can tell you from the contracts that we do in the Department of Defense, it's routine -- the protests.  So I think they've moved past that.

Q:  I have a question, going back to Venezuela and just the backdrop to this whole discussion, in consideration of what to do in Venezuela.  Clearly obviously, it's a question of instability, humanitarian concerns, and so forth- political instability.  In your view, does Venezuela pose a national security threat to the United States, that would justify military intervention?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Depends on the conditions, right?  I mean, you've got the Russians there, you've got the Iranians there, you've got the Chinese -- so, those are all considerations, right?

Q:  But under current conditions, current considerations, would you say it poses a national security threat to the United States?

SHANAHAN:  Right now, it's about Maduro and his illegitimate regime, and Guaido and making sure that the people of Venezuela, the environment and the conditions, to correct for all these humanitarian shortcomings.

QUESTION:  Have you done much planning for what comes after such a transition might happen?  What -- I mean what role would the U.S. play in that?

SHANAHAN:  So lots of criticisms of things that have occurred in the past, because we haven't thought about, you know, day one, right, and - and beyond.  So that's a serious part of our effort, too, is - and it's not just U.S.

Think about their neighbors there, Columbia and Brazil and potential refugees.  And how do you flow the right kind of humanitarian support?  And it's all those things.  But yes, that's - that's part of our activity.

QUESTION:  What are the options that you're looking at, specifically, for after?

SHANAHAN:  What's that?

QUESTION:  What are the options that you're looking at specifically?

SHANAHAN:  When you say options, I mean there's the - it's not really like options as theres the… think of it as a – menu’s it's not the right - there's many different things, whether it's medical, whether it's training.  I mean there's a broad spectrum.  I mean, to the extent - you know, economic.  There's just a variety.

So it's - again, these things are situational, and depending on the conditions, then the available options sounds like it's a - it's more like scenarios versus you've got a number of tools that are available to you that you can apply, given the situation.

QUESTION:  And does our - does the U.S. responsibility to or contribution to that effort change, or increase, if we intervene, militarily, in any way?

SHANAHAN:  I think there's worldwide support to aid Venezuela.  And right now, flowing that aid is very difficult to do with Maduro.  Posturing and positioning the aid is critical.

QUESTION:  What is your assessment of the capability of Maduro regime's military? And do you see them as - as posing a significant threat, or are they - or are they kind of a hollowed-out force?  And what is your kind of assessment of that?

SHANAHAN:  Well, they're not comparable to the United States, that's for certain, right.  I mean that's an easy, easy contrast.  They're just - Maduro is an illegitimate regime, and presumably, the good people in the military will make the right decision about the future of Venezuela.  That's what important.

QUESTION:  Sir, can I ask you about a debate that's going on now in the administration about the Muslim Brotherhood?  I understand that the State Department is going to be making the designation.

SHANAHAN:  Yes.  Right.

QUESTION:  But the White House has now said that they're pushing to this, and they've not acknowledged, publically, that they - they want to - to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

In the same vein as Bob's question about a national security threat to the United States, as the acting secretary of defense, do you think, A, that the Muslim Brotherhood is a national security threat to the United States, and do you think designating them as a terror organization is a good step for the United States?

Or do you see - are you concerned at all about the complications that that could bring forth for American troops in all of these different regions where you have Muslim Brotherhood within parliaments...

SHANAHAN:  Right, right.

QUESTION:  ...or in -- in governments of the allies of America?

SHANAHAN:  The way I would answer to your question is I'm looking forward to sitting down with Secretary Pompeo and hearing his proposal and his thoughts. I mean, you bring up a number of, you know, important points.  I think until we sit down and have that conversation, it'd be, premature for me to express a view.

QUESTION:  Have you not had a conversation with him about it at all?

SHANAHAN:  I haven't on this subject yet.

QUESTION:  Can we go to Turkey?

SHANAHAN:  Sure.

QUESTION:  You were supposed to speak with your NATO colleagues during this trip, and I suppose Turkey will have been a subject of discussion.  Where are the relations with Turkey right now, relative to the S-400?  Did you get to an agreement with them?

SHANAHAN:  Well, we haven't gotten to an agreement, and maybe I -- I would say lot -- always having lots of conversations with Turkey, because simultaneously we're working with them on Syria.  So what's, I think, important for people to understand is we can have multiple conversations going at the same time and making progress forward or backwards at a variety of levels, but still be strategic partners.  And -- and I think sometimes when people just know one issue, it might look like the relationship is getting worse or better.  But I'm just saying, that relationship and the communication and coordination, I feel like it's better today than it was two months ago, or you know, four months ago just because of the frequency of the communication.  But more specifically, to answer your question, our position hasn't changed.

And I did meet last week with leadership from Lockheed Martin and United Technologies Corporation.  Because if the – if we can't get a resolution to the situation, then we need to execute our plans, in terms of moving the work.  So I went through the -- just like in our previous discussion, you know, we have plans, right?  You don't know if you have to execute the plans, but you want to make sure they're really good plans.

So in this case, I went through, OK, I want to see the detail.  Don't tell me you have plans.  I want to walk through the details, and so I did that last week.

QUESTION:  And is -- proceeding without Turkey, you mean that the program...

SHANAHAN:  Yeah, if Turkey decides that the S-400 is a decision they want to go forward with, and we have to move work out of -- out of Turkey.

QUESTION:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  What is the drop-dead date by which you have to decide that?

SHANAHAN:  There's no drop-dead date.  I mean, look, there -- the only drop-dead date is the delivery of the aircraft, right?  But if you're going to do something, you might as well be serious about it and put your plans in place, and...

QUESTION:  So those plans are in place now?

SHANAHAN:  Not -- so they have plans.  This is like, lots of people have plans.  I want air-tight plans that have near-zero execution risk so that we can flawlessly deliver on all the other F-35s to, you know, our other customers.  So part of me going through there is -- and meeting with folks is like, show me where the risk is.  Let's talk about what kind of decisions we have to make to mitigate that risk.  But at the same time, we're talking with Turkey.  Working, working through.

Q:  And did you feel during your talks with them that they were ready?  Or it's -- or they are not...

SEC. SHANAHAN:  It's complicated for them.  It really is.  So, I mean, I'm sympathetic and just -- look, making the decision is a big decision.  And if we stand there and pressure them, it probably adds a level of complication they don't need.  But we have a plan.

Q:  Are you concerned if we do end up cutting Turkey out of the F-35 program, that they will retaliate in some way or restrict access to Incirlik, something like that?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No.  I mean, it's a -- one of the things that Minister Akar and I continue to reinforce -- and you'll see it when I talk about our relationship -- they are our strategic partner.

And that's what's important.  People… you have to look at this as a long-term relationship.  There are bumps along the road.  Now, S-400s and F-35s don't go together.  That's a big bump. (Laughter.)

And we're prepared, you know?

Q:  So is the Muslim Brotherhood.  And so is the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party).

SEC. SHANAHAN:  So -- right.  No, I know.  I know.  And so, you know, it's like on -- you know, working with them on the border.  We're working -- we're making progress.  So I -- but it's a big one.

Q:  Did you dump on Lockheed Martin when you talked to them last week? (Laughter.)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I -- no, no.  See?  You know, this is (Laughter.)


SEC. SHANAHAN:  (inaudible) working on this?  But it still costs too much, right?

Q:  Sorry, that was too easy.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No, no.  But I dump on myself.  So, yeah.  Bias for performance.

Q:  No.  My favorite part, that whole report, was I didn't say the F-35 was (inaudible) out.  The F-35 program...

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Program.  Yeah, yeah.  That was good. (Laughter.)

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Hey, sorry we didn't get to the trip.  I mean...

Q:  Thank you.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  ... but seriously, I just felt being here, you know, getting that extra 72 hours on these other issues was way, way more important.  And I think what you'll see here, too, is whether it's Border Patrol or on Venezuela, we get everybody here.

So it's not like they're just inside, doing our own thing.  It's, "OK.  You guys understand.  Here's how we see things, and we think we can do these things."  And then everybody -- you get the head nod, you don't end up with, when we leave the building, people talking about different things.

I think the cohesion, keeping people connected, whether it's on the border or Venezuela, is really important.  We don't always agree on -- on everything.  But, you know, working it as a team is really important.

Q:  Have you spoken to your new U.K. counterpart yet?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I haven't.  I've done a little bit of research on her.  And hoping to get some time.  That was a big surprise.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Yes, yeah.

Q:  What would it have been like if we had gone?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We would have been hanging out.  London is a fun town. (Laughter.)

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  But next time, right?  So.

Q:  OK.  Thank you very much.

Q:  Thank you