Transcript

En Route Press Gaggle by Acting Secretary Shanahan

May 29, 2019
Acting Secretary Of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan

ACTING SECRETARY OF DEFENSE PATRICK SHANAHAN:  Welcome, I hope everybody is having a good trip so far.  Some of you that have been on these trips -- remember last time we said, "What are some of the things we can do to make them better and improve?"  I think we keep getting it better.  

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes, so just anything you can think of -- because we want you to write good stories, get good backdrops, all of those good things, just make a note and then we'll fold it into the next trip.  We'll try to -- continuous improvement, so, all right.  

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Good.  Ready?  

(UNKNOWN):  Are you ready?  

Q:  Yes, ready.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Good.  Hi.  Are you the senior person?  (Laughter.)

Q:  Possibly.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.  

Q:  Probably.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes, so should we... should we start...  

Q:  We won't -- do you have opening remarks you want to make?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We could do that, opening remarks.  I think this is going to be a good trip.  I'm excited to be able to spend some time and Asia is one of my favorite places to spend time.  My -- I spent a lot of time in Asia in my previous life.  The value of these trips is really to go spend time on the relationship.  We'll have lots of dialogues.  We'll give speeches, but it's the bilateral exchange and more importantly it's identifying things that are priorities that we can work on.  

To me the most important thing we can do with the National Defense Strategy is execute at this point.  So good touch point in Indonesia, longstanding relationship.  The dialog in Singapore will go quickly, the -- we have some important decisions and a real body of work to -- that we're going to conduct with the Singapore government.  And then just the flurry of activity at the Shangri-La Dialogue.  

So that's just going to be a power-packed couple of days and then I'm super excited to go to Korea and then I love Japan.  That'll be a power-packed visit as well, so this is going to go by pretty quickly.  

Q:  I'll guess I'll start off.  Just one quick question on Shangri-La and then one follow up. First, you're going to be meeting with your counterpart from China at Shangri La.  What is your -- going to be your message to that -- during that meeting, particularly considering the backdrop of everything that's gone on?  And then I have a follow-up.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Sure.  So it'll be another opportunity to meet with General Wei.  He was in Washington, D.C. in November.  The nice thing about being able to meet face-to-face is we'll probably be able to talk about how do we really have an ongoing dialogue.  To me an ongoing dialogue communication is very important.  

Q:  (off mic) 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Oh, we got -- are we good?  OK.  All right.  That's OK.  But the -- to me, it's not a long meeting.  It's -- I want to identify areas where we can cooperate.  What are the things we can cooperate on.  And then we'll probably talk about the things that I think are important for us to be transparent and candid about, but we'll save those for later.  

Q:  Secondly, on Iran, obviously one of the biggest issues that you're leaving in Washington.  Several days ago you said that the threat against U.S. service members and interests was on hold.  Very shortly after that you improved a number of more troops to go to the region and other military assets.  Where does the threat stand now over the last several days and can you provide any additional proof, evidence or even a discussion that will convince people in Congress that this threat actually exist?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.  So let's -- it's been a pretty tense month of May and I'll just go back maybe a little bit in time.  So as everyone would imagine, we operate in a high risk environment.  We get intelligence consistently that speaks to the threats in the region.  This was an anomaly and I think you saw the response in which how quickly we responded when sending the carrier strike group and the B-52s is really reflective of our confidence in the intelligence.  

And I understood your question about what more can we reveal and I wish I could just hand over to you all of the information and that you would feel very good about it.  The thing I would offer is it was so credible that we moved back quickly and it was a matter of hours.  I would make the argument.  It deterred attacks on our people in Iraq.  All right?  

But then like the last time we were together, we talked about on hold relative term.  I think what we're really talking about is that there was not an attack.  Since that time, we've had additional intelligence which is the normal part of operating in Iraq and in the region.  And there are ongoing conversations between the leadership in country, General Mackenzie, and then the chairman.  This is on a daily basis.  

Unfortunately, there's not an instrument that says what's the right level of risk to maintain because there's always going to be a higher risk.  And that threat or that risk remains based on the conversations between General McKenzie and the chairman.  Because the chairman, when you think about his role, he's looking at what resources exist in the world that are available to shift.  

And so he brought to me a recommendation and he said, "Look, we want to increase the force protection."  We want to be more conservative and it was in four areas.  Increased ISR, so coverage for our men and women there.  Increased air support in the event of an attack.  Increased missile defense and then an engineering battalion so we can harden the facilities more.  

That was the recommendation that the chairman made and I approved it.  

Q:  You said the thread remains, what is the thread specifically?  Because, obviously, the comparisons to Iraq all three are pretty vivid given what happened in 15 years ago now.  So what makes you so confident?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  They're just not comparable, so I would just start there and it's -- they're not comparable.  

Q:  Why is that?  I mean there's a lot of similar actors, a lot of what's happening seems to be credible, real threat.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I don't know the exact circumstances 15 years ago, so I'm not going to try to draw contrasts.  But I have very high confidence in the reporting.  

Q:  Here is an opportunity cost to everything that you do as you know, right?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Absolutely.  

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  If this is a protracted period of tensions, how are you going to make sure it doesn't affect other areas whether it's China, or Russia or the National Defense Strategy?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I love that question because that's what -- the chairman constantly solves for -- it's -- the issue that I have to kind of always manage like how do you spend your time.  Two thoughts that goes along there.  We have spent the last several years generating readiness, so we have significant readiness and that translates into the second piece because we have a lot of capacity.  I don't want to draw on that capacity unnecessarily.  

So we have the capacity to spin a lot of plates.  I'd prefer that that risk was retired, situation de-escalates.  We've stayed focused on ensuring that we minimize risk miscalculation.  (Inaudible) miscalculation some might say U.S. calculation, but it is about mitigating that risk.  

Q:  Sir, can I talk on the Iran issue -- and I know you're a student of history, so I know you understand one of the reasons we keep coming back again to the (inaudible) is because of what happened in Iraq.  There's no way to get around it.  That you have (inaudible) because of what happened in Iraq.  How much does that bother you, and how much time do you spend thinking about how do you bring the American people along (inaudible) what's happening in Iran?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes, absolutely love your question, because I spent a lot of time thinking about what's the best way not only to communicate with the American people, but Congress?  They -- the Congress, we spent last week briefing in the Hill and that was our question.  Share with us, be transparent to the best of your abilities.  Give us the insights.  We have the confidence of what -- in what you're doing.  

And so I spent a lot of time trying to balance how much can be shared and how much to protect.  In a perfect world more is better, but I really need to protect the sources.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you said that attacks on Americans have been prevented.  What can you tell us about Iran's behavior?  Have you seen a shift in recent days on how the Iranians have lost it themselves?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I don't see a change in any behavior.  I think the situation is still remains tense.  It's a high-threat environment, but I haven't seen a change in the last few days.  

Q:  (off mic) 

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Where the what?  

Q:  Where these additional 900 troops are going.  We're told it's not Iraq and Syria.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No, they're in Saudi Arabia, in Qatar.  

Q:  (Off mic)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Which order is this?  

Q:  There were plans to take Marine service members from Europe to the Middle East, even a lower number for Iran.  Why didn't you go with a smaller package for (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well, the package I went with was one that the chairman and I discussed.  We didn't really discuss a higher number.  

Q:  (Off mic) in the global economy.  What is the U.S. commitment to protecting that strait?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well, our commitment has been steadfast and longstanding.  And I'll just maybe hit four points here.  Our focus in the Middle East remains on freedom of navigation and flow of energy through the Strait of Hormuz.  The counterterrorism against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the defeat of al Qaeda in Yemen and then security for Israel and Jordan.  

We have the ability to defend ships in the Straits of Hormuz and we've seen changes in Iranian posture, which I really won't go into.  

But you know, this is really about how do we de-escalate the situation and really what we want to get to is how do we address Iranian proxies and the terrorism that goes on in the Middle East.  And even more broadly the prevention of nuclear weapons in Iran.  

Q:  Just a follow up on (inaudible). (Inaudible) I mean, Iran, I mean, that seems to be main threat to American forces?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  We're doing -- as you know, we're doing a lot of things in the Middle East, right.  

Q:  And just to verify really quickly because you just told him, sir, that you would see changes to Iranian posture, but then when I was asking you said you had not seen changes.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  To the threat.  To the threat.  

Q:  Just to the threat.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.  Yes.  

Q:  I just wanted to clarify.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Just -- like think about it this way.  Every single day there's lots of movement and so that's how you try to discern.  Well, what movement is important is the movement -- replenishing of supplies, it just acts as a posture to do something different.  So that's what we monitored based on that, then we can gauge the threat or the risk.  

Q:  Would you still say that China is your top priority?  You said that a couple of weeks back.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  China is the -- well, the implementation of the National Defense Strategy is my top priority.  China is the priority within the National Defense Strategy.  

Q:  We are going into the Shangri-La meeting (inaudible) going to say (inaudible) national security (inaudible).  But it's like the (inaudible) keep sucking us back.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Like there's what I feel good about, I do spend quite a bit of time on China, part of our portfolio and the Russian part of the portfolio.  This is where I'm extremely disciplined about.  That part of managing my time and the department's time.  So you have this strong view, that leadership casts a long shadow, so I spend appropriate amount of time, others will too and I create a lot of the forums that draw people into doing that.  

And if you don't have the discipline, you won't be able to do that.  Because this is work that requires years.  The situation the Middle East will consume time and there are other places like North Korea that will consume time, but we can't let China and Russia and -- because this gets back to modernization.  This gets back to the alliances and the relationships that we want to forge and they don't happen in weeks or days or months.  It really takes years and it's that dedicated time that allows those things to happen and I invest that time.  

Q:  Can you finish that sentence though.  You said the situation in the Middle East was sort of tied, then you said but we can't let China and Russia, but then you stopped.  Can you finish that?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Right.  We can't -- you have to maintain your focus and your time and attention on the priorities.  This is maybe how I would differentiate the two.  There are -- there's strategy and strategic priorities and then there are operational priorities.  And you have to be able to do both.  It's easier to get -- devote time and attention to the operational ones than the strategic, but it's the discipline to focus on a strategic that allows you to really implement a strategy, and I'm wedded to the implementation.  

Q:  (Inaudible) what do you expect to achieve during the Asia (inaudible)?  What is your goal?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Personally, the thing I get the most out of these trips is I actually get to hear what our allies and partners are saying.  It's -- when you're in the region, you get to -- it's more than just the hearing you develop a real ear for what are the issues and it's being able to invest the time.  In Washington, D.C., I might get an hour to when they come to visit.  This will be a week just solely dedicated to the issues of the region.  

But to me, it's more about the listening and being able to hear from the allies and partners.  Kind of the nuance and their voice, the nuance of the issues is for me extremely educational.  

Q:  (Off mic)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Well, we'll always have a dialogue, which to me is two ways.  It's -- I'm not there to sell.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary, back to your...  

Q:  Earlier you talked about threats Iranian proxies.  You talked about the nuclear weapons program as a threat.  I'm trying to understand what is the threshold that you are looking at using U.S. troops or resources to -- what is the Iranian that you're trying to answer with U.S. military action?  Because I don't quit understand it.  And it's strictly about force protection, or is it (inaudible) about Irani (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No, this is about force protection.  

Q:  So those other countries you talk about, what is -- where is the response?  You mentioned Iran and threats.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I didn't really mention anything about our response to those threats.  What I was saying is that -- what I characterizing is the Iranian activity in the region around their proxies, disruption in the Straits of Hormuz, ballistic missile programs, nuclear programs, I think those have been well discussed.  Those are the basis for the pressure campaign.  The response we've taken is a threat to the flow of energy and a threat to our men and women and our interests there in the region.  

Q:  There are two (inaudible), force protection and...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.  One with a big 'T' and one with a small 't' and the small 't' is the energy flow and our people in the region.  The broader threats are really what the maximum pressure campaign is addressing.  

Q:  And then earlier President Trump seemed to contradict the national security adviser on the response to Iran, the response to North Korea.  And I'm curious how unified the message there is (inaudible).  There's probably concern that there seems to be a (inaudible) toward Iran, toward North Korea, where the president himself is saying he doesn't (inaudible) parts of the security apparatus are responding.  You saw that again with Iran last week, having come out and saying, I don't want a war with Iran.  They're seems to be some disconnect within (inaudible).  So I'm just curious is you can address why -- why that disconnection, and why the president is having to come out and say what his policy is, that goes against what (inaudible) parts of his national security team (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I'm not sure I understand your question.  

Q:  Well, it just seems -- well, the president is out here saying, I don't...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  When the President says he doesn't want a war with Iran, I think that's pretty clear, right?  I mean, I don't think anyone wants a war with Iran.  I don't think you'll find people in the National Security at preset who wants a war with Iran.  Nobody wants a war.  The President is very clear.  

Q:  Even the national security adviser?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Nobody wants a war.  

Q:  Can I follow up on what Nancy...

SEC. SHANAHAN:  No, no, no, hold on, hold on.  

So I don't think there's any inconsistency.  I think different things get reported, but there's strong alignment around the maximum pressure campaign and then our job in the Defense Department, I kind of highlighted our role in the region, but it's also to set the conditions for diplomacy, but our job is not in this -- in essence to set that foreign policy.  

Q:  Mr. Secretary.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.  

Q:  Can I ...  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Hold on.  Hold on.  

Q:  I just wanted to follow up on her really quickly.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Are we good?  

Q:  Yes.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  All right.  

Q:  Yes.  So what she's also talking about is for Korea, for example, you have the President saying that he's not bothered by these recent missile launches.  And then you have the State Department coming out today saying that it is a violation.  And the Japanese said that this is a violation of the U.N. Security Council.  So why are we sending these messages to our allies?  Is it fair to send these types of mixed messages?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I think it goes back to the question you were asking.  We're still aligned around full denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.  There's been no wavering on that, right?  No wavering.  

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Let me just to finish -- the short-range missile, is that a violation?  Yes.  All right.  Our job in the Department of Defense enforce sanctions.  We'll continue to enforce sanctions.  Our job in the Department of Defense be ready in the situation that diplomacy fails.  So my focus is on readiness.  So sanctions enforcement and readiness.  So I think we're very, very consistent, very aligned there.  

Q:  (Inaudible) you do view the short-range testing by North Korea as a breach of the U.N. Security (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  The short-range testing, yes.  

Q:  (Inaudible) but the president though (inaudible) yesterday (inaudible) and said, I don't see this as a big problem.  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.  I -- let me just be clear, the short -- these were short range missiles and those are a violation of the UNSCR.  Yes.  

Q:  Can I ask a question about trade?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Sure. 

Q:  So since you're coming to this region where maritime stability, sea lanes, economic powerhouses, the fact that the U.S. and China are in the middle of a trade war and they're the two biggest economies, do you foresee discussing this or creating any instability in the region and specifically talking to your Chinese counterpart about intellectual property theft, (inaudible)?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.  I think that the two are separate and we can have very candid discussions around intellectual property theft or militarization of the South China Sea or pick a whole host of subjects.  And I think that's the value of having these dialogues.  The trade runs a separate track and they'll solve that.  It's too important not to solve, but those are difficult negotiations, but I don't believe they'll spill over into our dialogue and discussions on defense.  

Q:  Can I ask a quick...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  (Inaudible) is there any (inaudible) that all the focus on China and Iran are taking your eye of Russia?

Q:  Can I ask a...

STAFF:  One last question.

Q:  ... quick...

Q:  (Inaudible) the U.S. now has the (inaudible)...

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Let me just go back.  The reason I -- and I wasn't trying to be glib there, we've got a lot of capacity and there are -- it's a big department.  The leadership and we're all -- we do a lot, a lot of work.  We have great people that are working on so many of these issues and they just do an outstanding job.  So I never want to take away from that work that's in place.  

Q:  China has been chipping away slowly at America's military capabilities or capacity in the South China Sea.  Do we have -- is there the capacity to deter Chinese military operation (inaudible)?  (Inaudible).  What is our position with China?  Everyday there seems to be a (inaudible). Are you concerned about our relationship (inaudible)?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Look at our presence and look at the investment that we're going to make in capability.  So I would make the argument that the things that we'll be able to do in cyber and in space and with missiles will give us the capability we need in the future to compete.  

Q:  Can I ask a clarification question?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Sure.  

Q:  You had said the Iranian thread still remains.  So you're supposed to be talking about the Iranian thread from IRGC and proxy forces against U.S. forces that interest in the region, right?  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  The Iranian threat to our forces in the region remains.

Q:  So IRGC plus proxy force?

SEC. SHANAHAN:  I would just say the threat remains.  

Q:  Well (inaudible) were pretty specific during the briefing on Friday that the (inaudible), the IRGC (inaudible).  

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Who is this?  

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. SHANAHAN:  OK.  

Q:  Admiral Gilday.

SEC. SHANAHAN:  All right.  I would never refute anything that Admiral Gilday says.  Yes.  

Q:  (Inaudible) very specific about the threat from proxies as well as the threat from the IRGC (inaudible).  (Inaudible) just want to make sure you're -- that's what you're talking about (inaudible).

SEC. SHANAHAN:  Yes.  OK, good? 

Q:  Thank you.