Transcript

Press Brief by Secretary Esper and General Milley

Jan. 8, 2020
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark A. Milley

STAFF:  All right, guys.  So on the record, off camera, do some questions, and then we'll see where we go from there.  We’ll probably have some more information afterwards; I'll be able to provide an update on some other stuff.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Yes, so thanks for assembling real quick.  You guys are like the 82nd Airborne Division Ready Force here, in terms of your ability to assemble and marshal. 

(Laughter.)

I just wanted to give you a quick update.  I got back from the Hill where the national security team and I have briefed members of Congress in both the House and Senate.  Both briefings went long, longer than expected, but that was a very good discussion.  We covered a number of issues in both the House and Senate, everything ranging from authorities and imminence, all the way through force posture, next steps, et cetera.  So a very good discussion, a very robust discussion, and I thought it was a good chance for all of us to kind of share our views --  and  to consult; and to consult on next steps.  I made that clear in -- in my remarks.  It was a chance to hear from members of Congress what they think with regard to the situation and what we should do. 

On that matter, you know some the facts already.  Last night Iran -- from Iran, at least three locations launched 16 ballistic missiles.  We believe they were short range ballistic missiles, we can get you the details as we have numbers and designations and nomenclatures.  Those landed at least two spots: two Iraqi bases that hosted American and coalition troops, coalition troops of at least a dozen countries.  I think of the U.K., Denmark, Canada, some of those countries.  The missiles impacted at least 11 at al Asad, which was the one location impacted, and the second one was Irbil, where at least one impacted.  The current BDA is, if you will, again, we can get you details, things like tentage, taxiways, the parking lot, a damaged helicopter, things like that; nothing that I would describe as major, at least as I note at this point in time.  So that's the state of -- of the attack at this point as we know it.

Most importantly, no casualties, no friendly causalities, whether they are U.S., coalition, contractor, et cetera.  With regard to where we stand today, you all saw the president's press conference.  He gave a very -- a robust discussion about what happened and where we are, announced additional sanctions on Iran as of this morning.  And clearly for us, from a DOD posture, we remain poised and ready, we -- protecting the force and at the same time, ready for what other contingencies we may be called upon as things -- should things development -- develop.

We've had at least two meetings with the president, the national security team has in the past 24 hours now, to discuss the situation and next steps, and we take it, you know a day, a hour at a time and so more to follow on that front.  Lastly, as I said yesterday, I just want to reassure the American people that we have the best military in the world.  They stand ready to defend us globally and in particular this part of the world, defending our interests, helping reassure our friends and allies, and making sure we can reestablish deterrence with Iran and deal with whatever comes our way.  So -- and I also want to thank our men and women in uniform and our diplomats for their service.  So I will stop there and take some questions.  Yeah?

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  You mentioned that the damage does not appear to be major; do you -- do you think that based on what you know, that that was deliberate?  And can you also talk about the discussion about whether the U.S. and Iraqi governments were tipped off that it was going to happen, and therefore minimized the damage and that sort of thing?

SEC. ESPER:   You know, one thing I'll -- I'll say a couple things. I'll let the chairman speak to some of the damage.  First of all, when the attacks first started and we had impact, I want you to know that I immediately called the chairs and rankings of the Defense committees, Deputy Secretary of Defense made some calls too, so we were quick to inform Congress of what happened.  And then, the team was quick to inform many of our allies and partners of what was underway to make sure they were aware and they could take appropriate actions, too. 

With regard to -- with regard to the -- the attacks, my assessment is that they were intentional, given what was hit, the aim points, et cetera.  That remains to be determined, though, and I'll let the chairman talk here; he has his own views as well, as a professional military man. 

Chairman?

GENERAL MARK A. MILLEY:  Sorry for getting here a little late, traffic and all that.  The...

(Laughter.)

The -- I don't know what you've covered in terms of numbers of missiles and all that.

SEC. ESPER:  I did; I covered all of that. 

GEN. MILLEY:  OK, so, bottom line is, in my professional assessment, is at al Assad, there were, as you know, there were 16 missiles, 12 impacted, 11 landed at al Asad.  The points of impact were close enough to personnel and equipment, so on and so forth, I believe, based on what I saw and what I know, is that they were intended to cause structural damage, destroy vehicles and equipment and aircraft, and to kill personnel.  That's my own personal assessment, but the analytics is in the hands of professional intelligence analysts, so they're looking at that. 

And the one round that landed up in Irbil, there is no way to determine it, because it landed right outside.  It's only one round; there's not enough data to know for certain.  So we'll -- we'll -- we'll find out in the coming days from professional intel folks in various agencies. 

Q:  Did you have a heads up?  Did you have a heads up that it was...

SEC. ESPER:  We had a heads up in the sense that our warning systems and all those things were activated and watching and were able to give a sufficient warning. 

I'd commend the commander on the ground for all the appropriate defensive measures he -- he took to minimize the effects of those missiles, and I think that testimony to that is the fact that we had no causalities. 

Q:  Can I ask...

(CROSSTALK)

STAFF:  We'll -- can come back.  Courtney and (inaudible).

Q:  (Inaudible) short.

(Laughter.)

Q:  So can you say you believe that it was intended to kill?  Why -- how did they launch 16 missiles and no one was killed?  Can you talk a little bit about your opinion about how that happened? 

GEN. MILLEY:  I think that's a -- yes, I can.  I think that's explained by a little bit of early warning.  And as you know, most of you have been in the theater one time or another; you know that there's sirens that go off on these bases and so on and so forth, you know that there's bunkers and there's Jersey barriers and there's places to go hide and all that.  You know that we have various levels of protective gear, and we have various scatter plans to do certain things.  They're all tactics, techniques and procedures, normal defensive procedures that any military unit would do that would come under rocket attack, indirect fire, mortars, large-scale missiles, et cetera. 

So in this particular case, al Asad is a big base; they put 11 large rockets, 1,000, 2,000 pound warheads in it. But we took sufficient defensive measures that there were no casualties to U.S. personnel, coalition personnel, contractors, or Iraqis.

Q:  Early warning, can you say how much early warning, and is that...

GEN. MILLEY:  I prefer to not give out specific details on our early warning systems and how we know that, so we'll just leave that to be ambiguous, but I think it's best not to discuss.

(CROSSTALK)

STAFF:  Hang on (inaudible).  We'll come back.

Q:  I'm sorry, a coalition source, non-American, said that because of the joint operations command, which I think there's still at least two, perhaps Baghdad and Irbil, the Iraqis were given a heads up, therefore very quickly the Americans were given the heads up in that sense.  I'm not talking about at the actual bases, in terms of any warning system.  Can you discuss that at all, was there verbal heads up given?

GEN. MILLEY:  I don't have any personal knowledge of that.

SEC. ESPER:  I know we tried to give them a quick heads up...

GEN. MILLEY:  We did, from here.

SEC. ESPER:  I can't -- I don't know about the rest of your statement.

Q:  May I stay with the rockets...

(CROSSTALK)

STAFF:  I want to keep this orderly guys; we'll get around to everyone.  We'll go to Kristina. 

Q:  Yes, were all the missiles intended to kill units (inaudible)? They -- there was structural damage, but were all of them -- and then you mentioned three locations.  Was it Camp Taji?  Was that one of them?

SEC. ESPER:  No, no, I said they were launched from three locations.

Q:  Oh OK, launched from.

GEN. MILLEY:  Launched from three, impacted two.

SEC. ESPER:  And the intent thing is -- is obviously the chairman's professional assessment, my assessment, and we've got to wait and see the analytics, right? 

GEN. MILLEY:   We don't -- I mean, intent has to do with reading someone's mind, what they wanted to do.  All I can tell you is factually, they landed at certain points in a -- in a populated camp and they did certain amounts of damage and there were no causalities.  Why there were no causalities, in my estimation, from what I know now, I think has more to do with the defensive techniques that our forces used as opposed to intent.

STAFF:  Going to go to Tom, then Helene, then Phil.

Q:  This may be hard to answer, but judging by the fact you think it was intent to kill, in looking at the damage done, do you think had there not been an early warning, had they not gone to bunkers, judging from the damage, you would likely have seen people killed?

GEN. MILLEY:  I think that's a reasonable conclusion.  Sure.  I mean it's -- I mean, you never know what you don't know.  But you know as well as I do...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  ... (inaudible) damaged, would likely would have been people in that...

GEN. MILLEY:  Less so from what's damaged as the points of impact and the explosive power and the bursting radius and the kill radius of these weapons.  So I think the obvious conclusion to your question is, yes, in my judgment. 

STAFF:  Helene?

Q:  Sir, for both of you, we've been -- it feels like we've been down this road before and I woke up this morning thinking we would -- maybe because there were no American killed -- Americans killed, we would be at a moment now where both sides would sort of look for an off-ramp.  I didn't seem to hear that; President Trump repeated the same things he's been saying for the past two years about Iran and sanctions and policy, and we're hearing the same thing from the Iranians.  So what's to stop us from returning to this spot three months from now?  What do you tell the American people about the path we seem to be on?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, I think -- I think the key thing is restoring the proper level of deterrence.  This is a big part of the conversation we had on the Hill this afternoon is clearly that the Iranians thought that our line was somewhere different than where it was.

We saw it over the proceeding years, certainly 12 months and double certainly in the last three months, where we've seen this escalation in terms of size, scale, scope of attacks, resulting in the death of an American, the wounding of others.

Then when we responded the siege of our embassy, all orchestrated by Soleimani.  So obviously there was a few that our level -- our line was -- was somewhere different where they thought.

I think at this point with the strikes we took against KH in later December and then our actions with regard to Soleimani, I believe that we've restored a level of deterrence with them. But we will see.  Time will tell.  We -- we are assessing the information we have before us now. 

The intelligence -- the national security team will continue to apprise the president on next steps.  And in the mean time we will maintain a robust force protection measure and we will continue to ensure we have the capability to do whatever we need to do next, if it comes to that. 

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. MILLEY:  Part of our job is to create space for diplomacy.  And there may -- there may or may not be an opportunity right now.

Q:  You feel optimistic about that now?

GEN. MILLEY:  I'm neither optimistic nor pessimistic about anything.  I'm just realistic and...

SEC. ESPER:  But our job is always to create maneuver space, create options for the president so he can make the best decisions. 

GEN. MILLEY:  And then maybe some options.

STAFF:  Can we do Phil, then Jennifer.

Q:  Well just a quick -- quick housekeeping (inaudible) -- three locations, can you give us any information on those locations that they'll -- that the missiles were launched from Iran ...

SEC. ESPER:  I don't know that I can, but we'll take that back ...

Q:  ... or a region or how far apart?  Any kind of detail; no detail is too small.

GEN. MILLEY:   We know there were three locations inside Iran.  The specifics of which we prefer not to indicate.

Q:  And then can you just give a sense, since the missiles were intended then to kill personnel and the personnel weren't -- personnel were not killed, do you believe that Iran is done, or do you think they're going to look at this and think that this is an incomplete mission?

GEN. MILLEY:  I think it's perhaps too early to tell.

SEC. ESPER:  I think we got to -- I think we just got to again, assess the situation.  Let's see what they are saying publicly, see what they are saying privately.  Look at our intelligence.  All those things.  We have to -- we're not going to do anything imprudent.  I think we need to take this -- these are serious times and we take things one step at a time.

STAFF:  Jennifer.

Q:  I guess this is to follow up on what Phil is asking.  How can you say that deterrent has been restored if they were intending to kill Americans, but they missed in that sense?

SEC. ESPER:  I said we -- we -- we believe that likely may have been restored.  But we got to see.  Time will tell.  We got to see what happens in the succeeding days and weeks.  This is always a subjective thing.  I had this exact discussion with a member of Congress today about trying to restore a level of deterrence, which clearly there had been some erosion, at least by examining Iran's and of course the proxy groups, all of which were orchestrated by Soleimani.  What they viewed it was; there was some erosion and our aim here is to restore that.  And that's where we got to create the space to make sure that we -- as we assess that, we either need to do more or pause where we are.  All those things have to be teased out.

Q:  In terms of Congress, the Democrats who came out of those briefings, as well as two Republicans, didn't seem to buy the explanation or intelligence that an attack was imminent and that Qasem Soleimani's death was justified.  They came out pretty fired up.   Can you explain what happened during those briefings as to why they didn't believe you?

SEC. ESPER:  Yes.  Look, there's -- on any issue you're going to always have folks on all sides of this.  You have a sample of a few.  I thought Director Haspel and ODNI Maguire gave very good briefings, very extensive.  I thought they gave a compelling argument and rationale. 

And one of the challenges, of course, not everybody has -- in fact most members of Congress do not have access to the intelligence that I think was the most compelling.  That's just simply the nature of the intelligence, and it's restricted to the Gang of Eight, if you will.

And like I said, I -- I -- I could sample a different group of members that would say quite the opposite. That's just the nature of things.  So we will continue to work the issue and advise and work with Congress appropriately.

STAFF:  We'll go to Tara, and then Caitlin.

Q:  Thank you.  For you both, could you give us additional clarity on what the red line is in this new kind of off-ramp situation.  We're hearing that there was another attack on the international zone, but likely a local attack, not -- not what we saw last night. 

But at what point do these proxy attacks maybe edge up to the point of a red line.  And what confidence do you have that Iran can actually control all of these proxy groups, that you don't end up getting pulled into a bigger conflict anyway?

SEC. ESPER:  I think we got to make the distinction between Iran on one hand and the militia groups on the other.  And clearly there's a relationship between the two.  I mean, Iran has been funding, supporting, directing them, et cetera, for years and years and years; principally through Soleimani, who is now no longer on the battlefield to do all that.

So look, we have -- we should have some expectation that Shia militia groups either directed, or non-directed, by Iran will continue in some way, shape, or form to -- to try and undermine our presence there, either politically or, you know, take some type of kinetic actions against us, or do Lord knows what.

Our challenge will be to, again, sort through that, understand who's doing it, who's motivating it, react forcefully, act forcefully to make sure that we keep that level of deterrence raised high. 

The commander on the ground has all the capability and authority he needs to do that.  So that again, will remain our challenge going forward, I believe.

STAFF:  Now we'll go to Caitlin, Stars and Stripes.

GEN. MILLEY:  For me it -- I'm an adviser, not a decider so to speak, right.  I always think discussion -- public discussion of red lines are not particularly helpful.  And -- and I also think that they oftentimes prove untrue sometime, you know that kind of thing.

So I'd steer away from those discussions personally of, quote, unquote, red lines.  But with respect to Shia militia groups, I and those of us in uniform and those in theater fully expect Shia militia groups to -- to conduct terrorist operations against U.S. forces and coalition forces in Iraq and perhaps even elsewhere.  Syria or they could go in other different groups.

So that's all -- that's a very real possibility.  I think one -- someone just said a report of something that in the green zone or something like that that's -- that's a very real possibility.

Are they under the control of Iran?  We believe that these Shia militia groups have very, very substantial links to the Iranian special operation forces, the Quds Force.  And we believe the commander of that organization is now dead and that that command and control has been disrupted.

So things like weapons training, money, those are all the kind of support that they were getting, I think it'll take them a little bit of time to put all that back together again.  And I just think whatever near-term funds they had are now disrupted.  But I may be wrong.

STAFF:  And we'll go to Caitlin and then Jack, and then we've got to wrap up.

Q:  So in light of last night's attack on American military in Iraq and with the new troops that have been in the -- been deployed to the region, do you have like a specific timeline for how long they're expected to be in the region?

And if not, is there certain conditions or expectations you're looking for, for those troops to finally start coming home? 

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, no, I -- you know again, we're still in a -- we're still in a tense period, if you will.  And the troops will remain or continue to be repositioned as we need them based on the threats, based on things we want to do, et cetera, so there's no timeline with regard -- you know I get it, I understand, particularly for the families.

I -- I've been there, my wife has been there.  Certainly the chairman and his family have been there multiple times; but our service members are great patriots and they know when -- when there is a call of duty, they will be there, and while we want to give them some predictability, it's too hard to say how long this will -- will last at this point in time.  So we take it all a day at a time.

Q:  And a follow up.  And are you looking at potentially if it does extend to like six, nine months having to rotate forces in and out of theater until ...

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I mean, that's way down the road.  Look, you all know that my ambition is to implement the National Defense Strategy.

So what I want to do is look at each and every theater and figure out how I can free up troops, free up time, money, manpower, to redirect either back to the United States to get ready -- more ready, or to redeploy or reposition in the Indo-Pacific.

So this is -- these are considerations we'll continue to make and assess on a -- on a weekly, monthly basis.

STAFF:  We'll go to Jack, al-Monitor, then we have to wrap up.

Q:  Thanks, Mr. Secretary.  Did you have a chance to speak to your Iraqi counterpart.  Did you have a chance to speak to Prime Minister Mahdi yesterday, and has he changed his position at all about the U.S. potentially leaving the country after the vote...

SEC. ESPER:  I -- I did not.  We were trying to arrange a quick call, and then I think I was on the line with members of Congress, and I think somebody from my staff was able to connect with him instead.

Q:  Sir, the world wants to know whether the Ukraine -- any evidence that the Iranians accidentally shot down the Ukrainian airline?

SEC. ESPER:  I don't -- I don't; first of all, it's a tragic event.  I mean the lives lost is terrible.  When I woke up this morning and saw it, just you know you feel bad for obviously those who lost their lives, but all the families.  So I don't have any information on that. 

It's -- time will tell.  I know there's -- I thought I read where there's an investigation beginning already between the Ukrainians and -- so it's terrible.

Q:  But wouldn't you have a feel for that if they did shoot, given the ISR and the satellite ...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER:  I -- I have no -- I have no information.  I haven't looked at that.

Q:  OK.

SEC. ESPER:  It just hasn't been ...

STAFF:  We'll work on that ...

GEN. MILLEY:  The secretary and I have been ....

Q:  I know.

GEN. MILLEY:  ... you know, not making excuses, the Secretary and I have been zipping back and forth doing different things, hearings -- he has not had an opportunity to review any intelligence; neither have I.

SEC. ESPER:  I've been -- I only got in this building today a half hour ago.  I've been running around all day long ...

STAFF:  Thank you guys.  We appreciate it.