Transcript

Press Gaggle by Secretary Esper

Nov. 11, 2019
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

STAFF:  This is on the record.  Only have about five minutes or so (inaudible).

Q:  All right, well to kick it off, one of the big things this week is going to be this trip by the President of Turkey to Washington.  There’s been some discussion about a second letter from the president -- to President Erdogan asking him not to activate the S-400 as a way to maybe get back at the F-35 program.  Is that something you're looking at right now or?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Well I -- I actually not been tracking the events from this week because I'm taking off on Wednesday morning very early.  So I'm really focused on what's ahead of me, but I haven't heard anything about that, that doesn’t mean it is or is not, but I've been very clear in my last meeting with Defense Minister Akar in Brussels I said once again, “You can't have the S-400 and continue with the F-35.  And so it’s too much of I think the threat to the F-35 -- and by the way, all of our NATO allies agree with that, particularly those who are purchasing or trying to have the F-35.

Q:  And what is the retention, I mean there haven’t been any CAATSA sanctions yet against Turkey?  What message does that send to other countries like India?

SEC. ESPER:  Well I think -- you know, it's a situation of each country is unique, and so you have to address each on its own terms.  And so we will address the sanctions case with countries each on its own, and obviously with the State Department lead in that regard, State and Treasury.

Q:  Alexander Vindman has been in the news.  A lot of service members are going to be wondering if his career is toast after testifying?  Should I take the risk of whistleblowing if I am witness to fraud, waste and abuse?  What would you tell them …?

SEC. ESPER:  You know, DOD has protections for whistleblowers.  They're guaranteed law, and -- and he should have no – shouldn’t have any fear of retaliation.  That's DOD's position.

Q:  He meaning Vindman?

SEC. ESPER:  He and anybody, any other whistleblower, right?

Q:  Right, so you're going to -- are you going to be reinforce that message periodically?

SEC. ESPER:  I've already spoken to the secretary of the Army about that.

Q:  You have?

SEC. ESPER:  No retaliation.

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SEC. ESPER:  Absolutely.

Q:  OK.

SEC. ESPER:  That's law -- that's the law.

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Q:  (Inaudible) through somebody...

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SEC. ESPER:  Look, there's no retaliation, right?  It's that simple.  There's no retaliation for a -- a whistleblower.

Q:  Do you consider him a whistleblower?

SEC. ESPER:  Well now, that's -- that's Tony's word.  I have to study the case.  I don't know what he's reporting on.  I don't -- I don't know whether it's -- how much is fact, how much is not fact -- I don't know any of that, so I'm not going to pass judgment.

All I'm saying is if you come forward with information that you feel that it's -- if you feel that you are a whistleblower then you're protected.  I'm not -- I'm not putting any type of noun or pronoun on him ...

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Q:  The testimony has been released (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER:  Do you think I'm reading testimony; I'm just trying to read about what our troops are doing around the world, I'm evaluating the fourth estate for reform, trying to figure out my trip to Asia when I meet with a number of defense ministers.  I'm not reading testimony.

Q:  But in general, just that leaves out there, is his career toast?

SEC. ESPER:  No, those are you -- why do you keep saying that?

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SEC. ESPER:  No, nyet, nein -- what language works for you?

Q:  You brought up that fourth estate review that you directed as soon as you came in.  Can you share with us any personal goals you have for that and what are the findings that have been realized thus far?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, you know, it is the third line of effort, reform, and I said I wanted to create a timeline to get manpower to put back in the lines -- lines of effort, number one, and. two, which is lethality and then of course improving our partnerships.  And so, my goodness, we've gone through how many weeks now, 12 weeks or so?  I've been to meetings -- I spent two hours a week.  Last week I think I spent six hours going through it.  And the aim is to free up billions of dollars so I could put that back into, again, those lines of effort.

And so I think we're making good progress.  I suspect we're going to have to start again next -- next year early.  Because right now, my focus is to free up dollars for F.Y. '21 for our budget.  And come January, we're going to start a different approach where we've got to do much more of a blank-sheet approach.

And again, it's not just fourth estate, it's all of the -- all of the services need to go through this so we can focus on the National Defense Strategy and get rid of legacy -- get rid of legacy programs and activities, and pivot toward the future.

Q:  We should expect to see some major program cancellations and such?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not -- I -- it's hard for me to recall off the top of my head.  It's -- nothing jumps to mind, but there's a lot of trimming, you know, reducing, some elimination, then we'll go through that.

And then, you know, there are a lot of -- a lot of parts in the -- in the fourth estate that are -- that are in law, and we'll -- we will probably have recommendations for Congress to consider as we get ways to find efficiency to help us pivot towards the National Defense Strategy.

Q:  Specific follow up on Vindman, do you think ...

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Q:  No, I get it, I get it.

Do you expect him to stay at the White House though, does he finish his thing there, or is he sort of...

SEC. ESPER:  I don't know.  That's not my call.  That's the national security adviser's call.  I will say the national security adviser, Ambassador O'Brien's been very clear -- what he's trying to do -- God bless him -- he's trying to shrink the National Security Council back down to the size of what it was many, many years ago, before what I remember of the Bush administration, less than 100, so I don't know who is all part and parcel  of that.

I wouldn't read anything into that.  O'Brien announced that a long time ago, well before I think any of this other stuff came out.  So, and I hope he does.  I think the National Security Council staff needs to shrink and focus on coordinating between the departments.

Q:  (Inaudible) General Milley said yesterday, he said around 500 to 600 people would stay in Syria.  When do you expect to reach they'll reach that -- that point?  Is that months away, or///

SEC. ESPER:  No, what -- what he should have said too -- I mean, that's roughly the number, but we're still wait for the commander's going to come back and brief me sometime soon on the specifics that he's  seeking, and I'll have the chance to look at that, and with general military -- General Milley's advice, either, you know, make modifications or simply affirm them.

Q:  OK, so not necessarily set in stone either?

SEC. ESPER:  No, these will -- these -- you know, when you're talking about deployments, people coming in and going out day after day.  So that's why Milley said 500 to 600, that's right; 500ish, 600ish, that's about right.  I think on any day of the week, anybody that serves in the military will tell you that your count changes every single day.

Q:  Sure.  So I mean -- but I mean you're not going to get -- that number may not be (inaudible) for weeks or months right?

SEC. ESPER:  No, we're still withdrawing people from northeast Syria.  So that's -- that's ongoing.  That's going to take probably a couple -- a couple weeks or more.  So we'll be drawing down.  We'll update -- whoever these reports from senior anonymous defense officials are saying we're going to 950 people is not accurate, and I don't know why -- who's saying that or why people print that that, but that's not accurate.

Again, Milley's number is roughly right, but we'll see.  Based on what the commander says, it could be high or it could be low.

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SEC. ESPER:  I'm not worried about it.

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Q:  A lot of people are wondering about that, though.

SEC. ESPER:  What's that?

Q:  A lot of people are wondering about the retaliation aspect.

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