Transcript

Department Of Defense Press Briefing By Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Hoffman

Jan. 16, 2020
Jonathan Rath Hoffman, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs

ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JONATHAN RATH HOFFMAN:  All right, good morning.  Thank you guys for coming in this early today to be here.

I'd like to begin by offering the department's sincere condolences to the family and friends of Staff Sergeant Ian P. McLaughlin and Private First Class Miguel A. Villalon, the two soldiers killed in Kandahar province last week.  The soldiers were conducting operations as part of NATO's Resolute Support Mission.

Deputy Secretary Norquist attended the dignified transfer of their remains last -- earlier this week.

The department is also mourning the loss of a soldier who died in a training incident in Arizona, and we send our condolences to their family and friends.

The department continues to make strides in setting up the U.S. Space Force.  On Tuesday, Vice President Pence swore in General John Raymond as the first chief of staff of space operations.  In doing so, General Raymond became the first official member and leader of the Space Force, marking a historic moment for the department.

Yesterday, Secretary Esper and General Raymond briefed the president on progress in standing up Space Force.  We will continue to move out expeditiously on our plans, as it is a strategic imperative for our nation's security.

On Tuesday, Secretary Esper hosted Japanese Minister of Defense Taro Kono at the Pentagon.  They reaffirmed the strong U.S.-Japanese alliance and celebrated the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which marked the beginning of this alliance in the Indo-Pacific.

The U.S. and Japan continue to work together on a number of important security issues, including ensuring maritime security in the Middle East, the complete denuclearization of North Korea, maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, and maintaining a rules-based order in the East and South China Seas.

Finally, on Wednesday and Thursday next week, Secretary Esper will travel to Naval Station -- Air Station Pensacola and the SOUTHCOM headquarters in Miami, Florida.

In Pensacola, the secretary will meet with the base leadership and Navy -- Naval Station Security first responders, who bravely and heroically responded to the Pensacola shooting last month.  He will thank them for their leadership and courage on that tragic day.

The secretary will also provide an update to air station leadership on the new vetting and security procedures he is mandating to make our bases more secure.  We will announce these new measures shortly, which will include physical security procedures as well.

At SOUTHCOM, the secretary will meet with SOUTHCOM commander Admiral Faller, and be briefed on SOUTHCOM's progress in implementing the National Defense Strategy.

We share strong ties of democracy with our southern neighbors, and we look to strengthen those partnerships as global competitors who do not share similar values insert themselves into the region.

The secretary looks forward to a productive trip, his first of the new year.

So, with that I'll take questions.  Lita?

Q:  Thanks, Jonathan.

Two sort of quick updates.

The -- can you tell us what indications, if any, the Pentagon has gotten from the Iraqis about whether or not they are backing away from this request to have the troops withdraw?

And then secondly, you -- you mentioned Pensacola.  Can you just update us on where the training stands?  Is the training being restarted or is it -- has it been restarted already?  And have these new vetting procedures -- or has this actually started yet or is it just in process?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Okay, so with regard to Iraq, we're still with conversations with our Iraqi host.  We continue to want to be a friend and partner to the sovereign and prosperous Iraq.  At this time, there are no plans by the U.S. military to -- to withdraw from Iraq.

And I think it's been obvious -- and the secretary's touched on this a good bit -- that the consensus in Iraq seems to be that the United States forces there are a force for good.  Having the United States forces in Iraq allows NATO to be present, as well, to help with that counter-ISIS mission as well as the training mission, to support Iraqi Security Forces.

So we've -- we've continued to push forward with that.  We've gotten no -- no additional indications I can share with you right now but our -- our hope and our -- our -- our goal right now is for U.S. security forces to remain in the region and remain in Iraq in an effort to help continue to push forward with securing and making Iraq a prosperous country.

So with regard to Pensacola, obviously our number one concern is going to be the safety and security of our personnel, the students, other students in the -- the training program, as well as our base family members and the communities.

The tragedy in Pensacola has led to us to address the vetting.  Previously, vetting had been handled by the host -- by the -- the -- the home country of the students as long as -- as well as DHS and State Department.  So we've taken an enhanced look at that on how we can use our resources and information we have to do an enhanced vetting and look through that and that's what we've started to conduct.  We've also looked at physical security measures.

So I'm not going to get ahead of the announcements which should be coming in the next couple of days with regard to what those measures are but looking at ways to -- to ensure that students -- foreign students who have access to our bases, that we're -- we're taking all appropriate steps.  We owe that to our people, we owe that to -- to the families but we also want to ensure that this program continues.

We believe that the international military student training program is incredibly valuable.  We have seen over a million students from more than 150 countries over the last 20 years go through this program.  And so we see that that is -- adds value in that they -- whether it's learning English skills, improving the capabilities of their military so that when we are called to fight together that they have capacity that can assist us, but also in terms of building relationships between them so that they understand our culture, that they have relationships with our leadership, so that as they progress through their own military we have those -- those friendships that we can call on.

Q:  The training?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Excuse me?

Q:  The training?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So with regard to training, as we stated before, the training -- classroom training, it's still continued.  The question, I think, of yours is specific to whether the operational training is -- has resumed.  That's an announcement we'll -- we will likely have as to when that is in the coming days.

I would just point out that over -- over the holidays, much of the training was -- regardless was -- was in a -- I won't say recess but the -- the -- they're just -- but -- during the holidays, the training schedule was a little bit different.

So we're looking forward to turning that back on in the coming days but we should have an announcement for -- for you soon.  So, all right?

Q:  Thank you.  Last year, the department identified military construction projects that were having their funding diverted for the border wall and then explained that that funding would be backfilled later because some of those projects weren't going to be awarded until this year.

But now the president is reportedly wanting to get more military construction funds than he did last year.  What kind of assurances can you give that these projects, which the department said were important, will be funded and not just continuously delayed as more money is taken up by military construction?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I'd take you back to February of last year when the president declared that there was a -- a national emergency on our -- on our southern border.  So the department considers national security and border security to be one.  We have a long history supporting the Department of Defense1 in our border security efforts and we've been called on by the president to continue to do so.

So last year, as you mentioned, we reprogrammed funds under the 2808 and 284 to assist in construction of additional border wall so that it would help us with our forces that were deployed to the border to make our ability to do our job better.

So what we've seen is some of those programs, they're still fully authorized and we'll continue to try to find funds to pay for them.  Congress did not backfill some of those projects and therefore we're going to continue to look for them.

I can't give you any information on -- on any future budgeting decisions.  I'm not privy to what those decisions have been at this point but -- but as the secretary said the other day from the podium, we're prepared to support DHS and secure our border in any way we're asked to.  So, go ahead.

Q:  Thank you.  About those operations against Islamic State in Iraq that you just mentioned and the training operations you just mentioned, has the U.S. military resumed training operations in Iraq?  Have they resumed training -- counter-Islamic State operations in Iraq?

And then as a follow, an Iranian General said that the -- they are looking into the possibility that a U.S. cyber attack dislodged their radar system, basically blaming the United States military potentially for causing the plane crash.  What is the Pentagon's response?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So with regard to the -- the first question, I don't have any updates for you on the -- the training in -- in Iraq.  I -- I would just note that because of the likelihood of Iranian action, there was a -- a -- a pause that was implemented in Iraq.  Operations still continue to take place in -- in Syria.

In Iraq, we still continue to be co-located with them, we still continue to address operations matters, still continue to do planning, but specific field activities and operations do not take place.  At this time, we -- we are still looking at when we will fully restore those and we'll have an update for you at that time.

With regard to your -- to your second question and the -- the tragedy that took place in Iran, Iranian government is responsible for that tragedy.  They have acknowledged that it is their response -- their -- their fault and that it was a mistake that they made.

I'm not going to get into -- and I -- I would never talk about cyber operations from the podium.  That's -- that's not something that I can do and it's going to be a -- any cyber operations would be highly classified and I would not be a -- able to do so.

But to try to pin the blame on -- on something that is, from all appearances, appears to be a tragic mistake by the Iranian military on the United States is -- is -- is dishonest and it's shifting the blame for their own -- their own -- their own fault.  So, go over here?

Q:  Yeah, I wanted to ask you about base defense in Iraq.  When the missiles came into al-Asad, there were really no base defenses there.  You had to rely on an early warning system, soldiers had to go into shelters, kit up.

So do you plan on beefing up defenses at these air bases in Iraq and what about Patriots?  Would they be coming in as part of this defense?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So to talk about that -- and look at the whole region.  So with the Iranian ballistic missile program is one threat but you also have threats from -- from their proxies, their UAV programs, from -- as we've seen over the last six months, the continuation of Katyusha rockets to be fired into our bases.

So we have to look at a number of different threats.  The ballistic threat that I think you're referring to is just one part of it.

And you have to look at the -- how -- the range of where this goes.  So we have forces throughout the region, whether they're in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, that the -- the Iranians may choose to target.  And so we look at the different ways to protect them.

And in this case, what we saw is the commander implemented a series of defensive measures, taking into account the fact that we do have an early warning system that -- that proved to be rather effective, the ability to disperse individuals and to harden our sites.

So there's a number of things we can do to protect from the missile attacks.  You mentioned Patriot batteries.  That is one -- one system we have.  We have a limited number, so the commander on the ground makes requests for those, and then he makes a determination on -- on where to put those.

Some things we take into account as -- like we can do with individuals on a base; we can disperse personnel; we can disperse equipment.  There might be places where we have infrastructure where you can't move infrastructure and so you need a different type of -- of defensive asset there.

So that's going to be a decision made by the commander on the ground.  I have no announcements with regard to any changes to that.  But that would be -- that would be something that General McKenzie would make on it.

Q:  Can you at least say whether you will beef up defenses at bases in Iraq, that something will happen?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I would -- I would say that the -- the commander is constantly looking at the threat and ensuring that he has the force protection measures he believes are appropriate.

With regard to both al-Asad and Erbil, the commander and his team put forth a force protection plan that was executed incredibly well and ensured that there was no injuries and loss of life in that attack.  And I -- I can imagine and I believe that General McKenzie will continue with such thorough planning to avoid that in the future.

Q:  Jonathan, why were 21 Saudi pilots told to leave the United States and vacate their training?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I -- I would refer you back to -- to the FBI on their statements last week.  But generally, what I can just say is that there was seriously concerning behavior that came to light during the FBI's investigation that was passed to us.

We worked with the Saudi government, and the Saudi government made a decision to -- to withdraw those students and return them back to -- to Saudi Arabia.

I'm not going to say anything more than -- than what the attorney general had said on this matter, given that it ties in to their investigation.  But our goal is obviously to be able to vet and clear the students to ensure that they're going to be coming here to learn and that they will not be a threat or a risk of harm to other students, American soldiers, the -- the local community and, of course, our families.

Q:  21 pilots -- what percentage of the total of those training inside the United States?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I don't have an answer for you on that.  It's -- there's -- we have, I think, right now, there's something on the order of more than 5,000 international military students that are training at any one time in the United States.  So -- but I don't have the breakdown by country.

Q:  Saudi's the largest country to receive training here?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I don't know if they're the largest, but they're one of our larger partners.  I think, over the year, we've had somewhere in the order of 28,000 Saudi students go through the program.  And I'd just -- just remind people that we've been doing international military training for -- for years.  And since 2000, we've done over a million students, and we've -- and until the Pensacola shooting, we had never had a serious security-related incident.

Q:  Were these pilots good pilots?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I'm going to have to go.  I'm going to have to continue --

(CROSSTALK)

 

Q:  So the GAO ruled today that the withholding of aid to Ukraine was illegal.  What I wanted to ask you is, the department has generally said over the months on this that it was not aware of any political -- it was not aware of any political motivation to withholding the Ukraine aid.

So that said, now that it's ruled illegal and everything that has transpired, my question is what has DOD done, the secretary or the department, to ensure that it's better informed about what the White House is doing, that it is not caught up in this again or it's involved in something that is now ruled illegal that it did not -- it says it didn't know had these political overtones?  What have you done over these months now to improve the department's awareness of what the White House is doing in these types of areas?

My other very quick follow up, you also recently lost a U.S. service member in Kenya to an Al-Shabaab attack.  In Iraq, you had a contractor killed, which was given by the administration as one reason to strike back.  Why have we not seen a U.S. strike back at Al-Shabaab, given that a U.S. service member was killed?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So to -- to your first question, I would just take you back to the -- the Ukraine -- I think we've talked about this extensively over the last few months.  Our goal with -- with regard to Ukraine aid was and always continued to be to ensure that anti-corruption measures were in place and that the money would be well spent, to ensure that our European allies were additionally helping with it and to ensure that this assistance would be -- would be beneficial militarily.

So we went through that process to make a determination on -- on the aid.  We also looked to make sure that the aid was going to get out in the fiscal year, as required by Congress, and -- and for -- other than a very small part, that did happen and that the aid got out with no detriment to our national security.

I've been told all of the aid is -- is now obligated and out.  So we -- that was our goal with regard to the aid.  I'm -- I'm not going to get into what is obviously a highly politicized issue right now with regard to what others in the administration are doing on it.

Our goal is to work with Congress, to work with the White House and work with our allies and partners to provide aid and to ensure that those -- we do that -- it is an important avenue for which our allies and partners can bring some additional capabilities to the fight.

Q:  Is there anything you could point to that maybe you're doing differently, given the fact this turned out to be such a mess for the department?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I -- I believe that we were able to get the aid out the door, as we were intended to.  So I would not characterize it as a mess, we were able to get the -- as Congress requested and as we were instructed to do, the aid went out the door and went to Ukraine and is being available to the Ukrainian people in their own defensive efforts.

To your second question, with regard to -- to Kenya, there -- there were a number of reasons for -- for the -- for the strike on Soleimani.  You mentioned one of them being the -- the death of the U.S. citizen in Iraq.  We are continuing to work in Kenya on efforts against -- against Al-Shabaab and helping train them and -- and helping them push back on that.

Another part of the -- the -- the Soleimani strike, though, is to look back at that extensive history and also look at the fleeting intelligence and the intelligence we had at the time that enabled us to -- to act.  So I -- I -- I can't speak to future operations against Al-Shabaab but I know that right now in Kenya we are working with our -- our partners in Kenya and we're working with our forces there to -- to degrade that threat that -- that's faced by terrorism in Kenya.  So?

Q:  Thank you, Jonathan.

I have two questions, one on -- on Iraq and one on Libya.  So on Iraq, since the Iranian missile attack on Al-Asad, did you attract a change in the level of threats to U.S. troops and an interest in Iraq by Iran or the militias in Iraq?

I mean, are you assessing there are renewed threats or imminent threats for the -- for that matter?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So you're -- you're referring to since the attacks on the -- on the missile attacks?

Q:  Yes, that's one, and the second one on -- on Libya.  Today, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, and I'm quoting, "we are sending our troops to Libya."  Have you tracked any Turkish troop movement into Libya?  And is Turkey coordinating with the Pentagon, especially that you have operations related to counterterrorism operations in Libya?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So -- so with the -- the -- regard to the first question on force protection or threats emanating after the -- the strike, I think what you've seen after the Iranian strike, you've seen the international community call for de-escalation, you've seen the Iranians come out and say that, with varying degrees, that they're -- that they're looking to -- to deescalate.  Our position has been -- continuously been that Iran needs to go through a diplomatic path.  And so when they have economic or diplomatic concerns, they need to turn to a diplomatic path to address those and not to the military path.

So we're continuing to -- to push for that to happen.  We've seen the E3 make a similar call to do so but we've not -- we've not determined that -- that there is a lower threat and our -- I would defer you to CENTCOM, who's going to continue with our force protection posture, in case of -- of a follow up or additional attack.

We always, of course, are additionally concerned with not just Iranian state action but Iranian proxy action, with Kata'ib Hezbollah in Iraq and their continued -- I think there were 12 attacks since October of last year, rocket attacks -- Katyusha rocket attacks on our forces in Iraq.  And so we obviously have a high level of -- of awareness of -- of that happening again and we're taking force protection measures to deal with that.

With regard to -- to Libya, I don't really have any additional information for you on -- on -- on Libya.  I have -- that I can share right now, there's just nothing that I have on -- regard to troop movements with -- with that.

Obviously we would like to see the -- the issue in Libya take a -- a -- a peaceful turn with a -- a cease-fire and -- and a better outcome for the Libyan people.  So, go --

Q:  Thanks very much, Jonathan.  To try Iraq again, Adil Abdul-Mahdi said that no -- that he, as caretaker as Prime Minister, wouldn't make a decision about the fate of U.S. troops.  He said earlier that you're still in conversations with the Iraqi host.

Just a clarification, does that mean that you're talking to him and the current government, trying to convince them to announce that -- that you can stay or are you content to wait?  And then on the anti-ISIS training, I know that you don't have an announcement, but is there any assessment on the impact of the pause at all, whether that had any impact on -- on the mission?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So on the first one, just to be clear, we have conversations with the Iraqi partners daily.  We're co-located in many places.  General Miller2 on the ground is in constant contact with his counterpart.  So these are conversations that -- that are routine, are -- are -- are persistent with regard to what our force posture is and is going to continue to be.

And so I don't have any information for you on specific conversations with Abdul-Mahdi in that context but I know that -- that we and the State Department has had some comments, as well, about our desire to -- and a belief that the United States staying in Iraq is a force of good for the Iraqi people and that -- that that is the -- the path we -- we are looking to continue on, not only to help with the -- with supporting the Iraqi people and building their Security Forces but also on the D-ISIS mission.

And the second question was?

Q:  Was whether there's been any assessment on the pause, whether there was any impact on the overall mission, given the pause?  Even if you don't have an announcement that the pause has been lifted.

 MR. HOFFMAN:  I -- I don't have a -- whether there's been an assessment, I -- I -- I would say I think we still just need to look at the pause as the -- the result of this -- these Iranian attacks.

And so without those attacks, we wouldn't have been able to continue; without the threat of the Iranian ballistic missile attacks, we wouldn't have been able to continue our -- our D-ISIS operations there.

So I don't have an assessment on what the -- what the impact was.  But we can take a look at that.  Hopefully, we'll have an announcement soon on resumption.

Phil -- Courtney?

Q:  Just a quick one.  When you -- not asking about any kind of an announcement on the pause, but was there actually a joint U.S.-Iraq or coalition-Iraqi counter-ISIS op on Wednesday?  Is --

MR. HOFFMAN:  I have no -- I have no information for you I can share on that.

Phil?

Q:  One of the justifications for -- for killing Soleimani was that he was -- you know, he was -- the Quds Force was a terrorist organization and that there was another operation against a -- a Quds Force operative that many people in this room wrote about that was -- took place in Yemen, that didn't succeed.

And what I'm wondering is, are Quds Force leadership now considered legitimate targets by this building?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I'm not going to get into hypotheticals or broad justifications because we look at any operation, such as the operation against Soleimani is looked at on a -- on an individualized basis, based on intelligence we have at the time, based on legal review.

Every decision like that goes through a -- thorough legal review by our attorneys in the building.  And in the Soleimani case, based on Article II in the 2002 AUMF, made a determination.

I don't really have any more information for you on a larger legal footprint with regard to just general members of the Quds Force.

Q:  Okay.  And then one thing that I've seen in reporting in various outlets is that Iran gave warning to another country which passed on that warning to the United States.  But was any such warning passed on from Iran to another country that was then sent to the United States?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I think we've seen this reporting going forward and going around for a while.  And I think, from our view, we were made aware of Iran's attack through our early warning systems and our early warning intelligence systems.

I have not been made aware of it.  I've had conversations with our senior leaders here in the building and those in the region.  We're not aware of a third party that had made that.

I will be fair and say that there are places where, if there was some sort of warning given, which we're not aware of, that we do have, you know, junior forces co-located where something may have been passed.  I'm not going to dismiss that that could have happened.  I'm not aware of that.  No one here has been aware of that.  And we've asked that question.

So -- yeah, Tara?

Q:  Back to Pensacola, with the new requirements that will be put out by Secretary Esper, will that include physical security for other bases?

For example, Naval Air Station Key West has had a number of incursions by Chinese nationals who have gone onto the base, taken pictures of buildings.  So how comprehensive will this regulation be?

And then, secondly, on Iraq, under what current agreement are U.S. troops operating in Iraq?  Is it a signed agreement?  Was it a verbal understanding?

And so what -- you know, what are the steps forward for that presence to continue?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So the -- the second one's a little bit of easier question.  It's -- it's an exchange of diplomatic notes that has taken place.  I don't have the exact timing of when that took place, but there's an exchange of diplomatic notes that sets up the agreement for U.S. forces to -- to remain in Iraq and to -- to be in Iraq, to continue the counter-ISIS and the training mission.

So with the -- regard to Pensacola, the -- the measures that are going to be put in place with regard to both additional screening, vetting and physical, will be nationwide or bases around the world for U.S. forces.  So the issue in Key West I think was a little bit different, it dealt with more of just not somebody who was authorized to be on the base going to wrong areas or -- or something like that, it was individuals who had no authority to be there, who attempted to -- to either scale or circumvent our physical security measures and were apprehended.

So I don't want to get ahead of the announcements on what those physical security measures will be but I think that's a little bit of a different situation.

Q:  It will take those into account or -- that's what I'm trying to --

MR. HOFFMAN:  That's -- that -- those -- those are -- are measures where we've -- we've been looking at those and we have physical security measures in place to deal with situations like that.  And in those cases, we -- we did apprehend those people as they came around and -- and were able to turn them over to the proper authorities.

So, Jeff?

Q:  Thank you.

Does -- does the Defense Department have any evidence that Iran was behind the cyber-attack on troops and families with the 82nd Airborne Division?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I don't have any information for you on that, Jeff.  I can -- I can get back to you and try to get in touch with CYBERCOM on it but I'm not -- I don't have anything on that right now.

Q:  And the president then the president briefed on Space Force.  One of the issues facing Space Force is it needs an anthem.  Is there any chance DOD could have a contest in which service members could submit ideas for the new Space Force song?

MR. HOFFMAN:  That entire question makes me uncomfortable.

(Laughter.)

But I -- I'm -- I'm -- I will -- I'll check with General Raymond next time I see him on -- on the -- the anthem plans.

Go ahead, ma'am.

Q:  Thank you very much, Jonathan.  On the negotiations of cost-sharing between U.S. and South Korea, have you reached any agreement?  If you not -- you cannot be reaching any agreement, is there any --

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I would have to refer you to State Department on that.  So the negotiations on burden sharing with all of our allies, State Department has the lead for that, but we've -- we've continued to push on this since President Trump came into office and we've continued to see it, whether it's in the Middle East, whether it's in Europe, whether it's in Asia, that we expect our allies to pick up a little bit more of the burden.

And one thing I point out with -- with South Korea is much of the monies that are part of that cost-sharing actually go back directly into the South Korean economy in terms of -- of goods and services procured there, the hiring of -- of -- of foreign service nationals, who are able to -- to work on the base.

So we've been working with State Department but I'd have to refer you to that for any updates.  Go.

Q:  Thanks.

Q:  Yeah, so two questions.  First on the Space Force.

So there have been talks with other foreign governments about cooperation with the Space Force, particularly FYVES, so Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Canada, but what other -- what other progress have we seen in possibly including some of our other allies in the Space Force, specifically Japan?

I know that Secretary Esper and Minister -- Defense Minister Kono spoke yesterday.  Was there any discussion yesterday that possibly could be construed as a interest by the Japanese military to cooperate with Space Force or did Secretary Esper bring that up in any capacity?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I was -- I was in those meetings.  Space Force was not a -- a topic of discussion, there were -- there were a number of different issues that came up that were -- a little more pressing at the time.  We've got a lot of steps to go through with Space Force.  So Space Force -- we -- we just added our first Space Force member yesterday.  And so we've got -- we've got some steps to go through.

General Raymond's team has a -- a massive, incredibly well thought out and planned implementation process for whether it -- uniforms, pay, songs that they need to go through to -- to -- to get a -- a Space Force.  International participation is part of that.  I don't know where it is in the -- the timeline on it but we can probably get you guys an update on some Space Force-related issues in the near future.

Q:  And then just a -- sorry, a quick follow up on the 82nd Airborne.  So I've just been kind of curious on why the 82nd Airborne was chosen to be deployed.

MR. HOFFMAN:  That is very simple.  They were the -- the -- they were the immediate response force designated on -- and that is standing orders to prepare on a 96 hour deployment.  So the first battalion of the -- was -- it was selected to do that and then the rest of the -- of that -- sorry, the brigade was put on orders quickly after that to follow up.

Q:  And the -- I understand, like, where exactly they were deployed is sensitive but can you tell us that if they were deployed to a single location or multiple locations?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I don't have that information on me right now.  The general intent with the 82nd Airborne was that we had a number of threat streams indicating potential attacks on a variety of different diplomatic and military facilities in the region.

And given what happened with -- with the attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the secretary ordered the -- the movement of the Special Forces Marine contingent to the embassy.  And when you -- when you move your -- your response force, you reconstitute it with an additional response force.

And so the 82nd that -- battalion was moved into the region to prepare for that.  So -- but I don't have any update on -- on further movement but -- by then.  So we'll go back this way.

Q:  Thank you.  This is (inaudible) with (inaudible) Network.

I have two questions, one on Iraq.  You described a number of domestic threats that can be posed to your troops in Iraq, in addition to the ballistic missiles from Iran.  Have you considered moving your troops to a safer place in Iraq, such as the Kurdistan region, where you don't appear to have those domestic militia threats?

Secondly, on Syria, Russians appear to be sending more troops to the Hasakah Province where you have some troops stationed.  Is that coordinated with the United States?  And can you please update us what the mission of the United States is in Syria?  Thank you.

MR. HOFFMAN:  So with regard to Iraq, I think what you saw -- the commander on the ground make determinations on where he felt he could best protect his forces.  And so we did do some movement in the -- the previous weeks to both consolidate and disperse our people.  I know that kind of seems counter-intuitive, but to get them into safer areas and so that took place.

We'll defer question on where our forces will be in -- in Iraq to the commander on the ground and where he believes it's necessary to have our forces to be able to conduct both the training and the D-ISIS mission.

With regard to Syria, I have no -- no information for you on -- on Russian troop movements.  Our -- our mission in Syria remains the same, is to continue to -- to degrade ISIS ability to conduct operations in the region, as well as to fund further operations.

Q:  Thanks very much.  Yesterday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction had some pretty critical comments, talking about the military commanders in Afghanistan having an incentive to lie about progress there.

How concerned is the Pentagon about that criticism?  Is anything being done to -- to change the perception at least, that the -- there's that culture of misrepresenting what's going on?  And -- and what would you say to the American people about whether that goes beyond just Afghanistan?  Is that an -- an -- does that incentive exist in places like Iraq, as well?

And a second question, getting back to Al-Shabaab.  Back in November, the State Department had a D-ISIS meeting and it talked about focusing on Africa as the -- the next main target for -- for D-ISIS and anti-jihadist work.

`Given Al-Shabaab's resurgence, has there been any talk yet between you, the State Department, other partners who have been working in Africa, about ramping up that effort, given Al-Shabaab showing how potent it’s been?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So with regard to the -- the testimony yesterday and, I think, the reference to the Afghanistan papers, I would say you take a look at what those papers actually denoted and what were contained in those reports.

And that was a retrospective by senior leaders on the Afghanistan war, following their -- their term working on that.  So this was a retrospective, people looking back, saying "I wish I had known this," or "we were wrong when we thought x."

And I would also note that it was in report intended to be given to the United States Congress.  So this idea that -- that there were somehow mis-statements or lies just doesn't -- I don't think that really gels with the idea that it was these individuals giving their own recollection of their own actions to Congress for a public report.

Look, we have -- in the military community, we have people who are -- are working incredibly hard on incredibly difficult projects.  And when they're asked to take on a difficult task, they -- they look for ways to make it happen.  And so if our people are -- are being too forward-leaning and trying to be optimistic about what we think we can accomplish and to be honest and open with the Congress, we'll continue to do that.

The military has a -- has a great respect in this country, and part of that is because we -- we try to be as open and transparent as possible with -- with members of Congress.  Another thing I'd point out on that is you had members of Congress and many of you traveling throughout Afghanistan during this entire time.

So the idea that there was some, as some have implied that there was some effort to hide the truth or the reality on the ground just doesn't hold water to the reality of -- of all of the transparency and the investigative efforts of members of Congress, their staff and, importantly, the media that participated in covering that -- that conflict.

Al-Shabaab in Africa -- we're working with State Department.  I think many of you are familiar with the secretary has directed a -- a zero-based review of -- of U.S. forces.  We've been going through this for -- for many months now.  He's sitting down with each of the combatant commands to walk through what is the right force posture; what are our right goals; what are the right countries we need to be engaging; what are the right challenges; and where can our allies and partners participate more.

So we've been doing that, and we've been working with State Department and we're going to continue to do so.  That's a -- a near-constant thing that we do here in the building and -- and NATO, with our allies.  And so we will continue to -- to push forward on that and try to find some more partners for the region and try to find a -- more resources to help.

So all the way in the back?

Q:  Could you clarify, a little bit, what steps DOD is going to be taking to vet these foreign military students?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I -- we've already announced that we've -- we take vetting and enhanced information systems that we have available to us.  Previously, we allowed -- sorry, Department of State, DHS and the host countries to do vetting.  Our vetting was -- was less rigorous.  We've taken a look at additional sources of information that we have available to us and started going through those.

We're going to have a further announcement on the vetting procedures in the coming days.  So I'll hold off on that much for now.  But we'll be able to get you a lot more information soon.

In the back?

Q:  Can you tell us about the status of the Al-Tanf garrison, still -- still there?  Is that base considered more vulnerable now, since the situation with Soleimani?

And what is the strategic purpose of that base, given that ISIS has largely been wrapped up from that area?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I don't have an update for you on any change with the base.  I would just say that, you know, obviously the commander on the ground with regard to the Soleimani -- with the Iranian response, is we look at our force protection and the commander makes a determination, whether he believes his forces are in a place that we can provide that protection to them.

And their -- their mission is still to maintain and help ensure that ISIS does not resurge, and -- and we're going to continue with that, so.

Q:  Great.  Just for clarity, does the Pentagon accept or reject the GAO finding that in withholding the funds, it was party to law-breaking?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So the GAO finding came out 45 minutes ago, so I clearly have not had a chance to look at it, nor have I had a chance to talk to our lawyers in the building.  And once again, I'm not allowed to practice law from the podium.

So what I can tell you, though, is that our view of -- of the funding with regard to Ukraine was that we were intended to try to get that money out by the end of the fiscal year, and to do it in a way that would promote our objectives of empowering the Ukrainians to have better self-defense and to help U.S. national security, and that took place.

Q:  Do you think you could follow up with us once the lawyers have taken a look at it, and we could get an official statement on where you are on the GAO findings?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I'm sure we'll be looking at it.  And I'm sure I can -- I can take that question to -- to the lawyers.  Obviously, it's -- given the incredibly political environment on this topic, our comments, I think we've made have been very careful on how we're going to parse our words on this, so we'll continue to do that.

Go ahead, sir.

Q:  Paul Handley from AFP.

Along two weeks ago, a U.S. general in Iraq sent a draft letter to the Iraqi government, saying the U.S. was going to pull its forces out.  Can you say why that letter was ever drafted?  Who ordered it to be drafted?  And -- and give a little background about how that came about?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So if you look at the letter -- and I think that this was -- was not a draft that was shared as a, here's a final document and here's the position of the U.S. government.

Oftentimes, what you see in diplomatic situations, there's a sharing of drafts so that we can ensure that when things go through translation, that the intent is clearly understood.

I think if you look at that letter, there's some language in there that indicates there'll be troops coming in, there'll be troops going out, there'll be movement.  I think General Milley addressed this the day that letter came out, that some of the language in it was -- was clearly a mistake, and that the intention of it was to give the Iraqis notice that we would be conducting significant aerial operations to move troops around Iraq.

That was, with regard as we saw, given the strikes, an effort to put our people in a better force protection posture, preparing for the potential retaliation by Iran, and -- and the language, it was a draft.  The language clearly needed to be modified.  We came out pretty quickly and said that that was obviously not a final letter, and the position of the U.S. was not that we were withdrawing.

I think that that -- that there's a fair reading of that letter that -- that could be that we were just moving forces around, and that was clearly the intention of it.

Q:  Do you have an indication that -- to show that North Korea is preparing another provocation, like shooting a missile?

And second question is about a missile the Iranians fired to American bases and Iraqi people.  Do you have any information that Iran, the missile originated from North Korean missile technology?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So the first part of that, with regard to a North Korean test, we're continuing to monitor whether a test is going to take place or not, that -- the secretary mentioned this yesterday or the day before, that's completely up to Kim Jong Un and what decision he makes.

We're always monitoring it there, but I don't -- not going to share any intelligence, what we've seen or what we think is going to happen in the coming days.

 I don't have any information for you on -- on Iran -- or, sorry, North Korea missile technology in Iran.  I mean, Iran has an incredibly robust ballistic missile program.  It's one of the -- the three main things that we've -- we've highlighted as a concern with Iran.

And it's their malign behavior in the region of supporting proxies throughout the area.  It's their continued development of a nuclear program, and their use and development of ballistic missiles, so.

Q:  Thank you.

Secretary Esper says the U.S. will focus more on China, potentially redeploying troops from Middle East to Indo-Pacific region.  Does the recent events in Iraq or more serious situation in Middle East make it more hard -- or more difficult for the Pentagon to execute his agenda?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Well, if you -- if you read the NDS, clearly, the -- the main priorities are going to be China and Russia, and -- and our priority theater, the secretary has said repeatedly, is the Indo-Pacific.

A part of that, though, is we still see ourselves having to deal with regional issues -- North Korea, China -- I'm sorry, North Korea, Iran and others.  And so the secretary, like I said, we've begun the zero-based review to see where our forces can go.

The goal is, is that we need to shift our focus to the Indo-Pacific.  We need to shift our resources and our -- our eyes that way, but we've got to do it while still engaging with the current threats and the current crises.

So we're going to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but we're going to have to take a look and see, can we move some forces, how do we address some of the missions we have, how do we bring some of our -- our partners and allies in to -- to maybe take on some missions that we've historically had that they have the resources to do.  And part of this is our efforts to get our allies and partners to increase their funding so that we can maybe shift over to some different missions.

In the back.

Q:  On Libya, in 2016 and also '17, the United States was cooperating with the GNA to clear ISIS in the country and then they did a major operation, obviously, in the country together.  And in the last year in April, all of a sudden we see that the United States started to distance itself from the GNA and then move troops out of Libya and then distance itself from the entire conflict in the country.

What is the current strategy of the Pentagon toward Libya?  And is there a concern about a resurgence of ISIS in Libya right now?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I don't have any specific intelligence on what we think the resurgence of ISIS in Libya has been.  Our goal in Africa in general is going to be to the defeat of ISIS and preventing terrorist organizations from finding a foothold, finding a region where -- where they're able to -- to recruit, train, raise funds and deploy personnel.

What we see anywhere in the world is where there's an ungoverned space or a space where there's a lack of a government that can actually use the police force to -- to restrain terrorist activity, you see that grows.  Obviously, Libya's a concern to us.  But -- but I don't have an update for you on the intelligence on that.

STAFF:  Lara?

Q:  Thank you.

Given the -- that the U.S. killed General Soleimani, are you taking precautions in order to better protect the -- some of our four-star generals that go out into the region? Or McKenzie for example?  And what do those precautions look like?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So we always look at the security of our forces, whether it is a private in the field or a four-star general, and we take that very seriously.  And I think General McKenzie and his team have definitely looked at precautions that are needed with regard to military personnel overseas.

Obviously, I'm not going to get into any additional specific efforts that we've taken, but -- but we feel comfortable that our people are well-protected and that if there's any reason that we need to increase that security, we will do so.  It's -- our people are obviously our most important asset and we'll take every step necessary to protect them.

Q:  Just to follow up, if you could maybe say a few words about why the decision was made to go after General Soleimani under Title 10 instead of covert action that would not have had the U.S. taking the -- taking responsibility for that action and might have allowed Iran a little bit of wiggle room and not led to such an escalation.  Can you say what reasons there were for that?

MR. HOFFMAN:  No, I -- I wouldn't be privy to the conversations that would've -- that could've taken place at that.  I can just say very clearly is obviously Soleimani had a long history of -- of -- of maligned behavior dating back 20 years, including a -- a steady progression of attacks on U.S. forces in the region, destabilizing action against a number of different state -- state-on-state attacks on -- on infrastructure, attacks on U.S. aircraft and they have culminated in the death of an American citizen and an attack on the U.S. embassy.

So there's a long list of reasons there and then the fact that we had reasons to believe that there were going to be future attacks on U.S. interests, including diplomatic and military posts.  We felt we believed we had the authority under the president's Title 2 authority to take an action and we did.

I -- I don't know -- I can't speak to why a different route was not taken but we think that the -- the impact of it though and being an overt and being an attributable action is that the Iranians have had to recalibrate the -- the deterrence and that they now understand that there are some -- that -- that we're not going to allow a progression of attacks.  You're not allowed to just fire off 31 rockets at U.S. forces and -- and we're just supposed to consider it the cost of doing business.

We take it seriously that we're going to protect our people.  All right?

Q:  I was wondering if you could shed some light on what happened yesterday at the Space Force meeting, what progress specifically did General Raymond and Secretary Esper cite?  And is there anything that they raised, issues or roadblocks with the president, that they need something from the administration or Congress to help get the ball -- ball rolling?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Well, I -- I -- I think the -- the key part of the meeting is just to lay out what the steps are.  So like I mentioned, General Raymond has a -- a very specific, very thorough plan on things that need to take place -- you know, moving pay systems, assigning individuals to the Space Force, looking at basing and figuring out are we going to be transferring bases to the Space Force.

So these are all laying out for the president what the process looks like, what are the next steps, what are the things that are going to be happening over the coming months to give him an expectation -- this is something he's -- he's been very forward leaning on and -- and is something that he has been interested in.  And so we've been trying to keep him informed.  He has a -- a great interest in it and -- and -- and has a great interest in -- in -- in what -- what assistance we need and helping make sure that -- helping us make sure that it happens.  All right, go right here, we'll get a couple more.

Q:  Yeah, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that the U.S. was potentially considering cutting military aid to Iraq if U.S. troops are asked to leave.  Is the department considering any cuts to U.S. aid -- or to U.S. military aid to Iraq or any other retaliatory measures if U.S. troops are asked to leave?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I think that was a -- a -- a -- in reference to State Department funds.  I don't think it was in reference to DOD funds.  I'm -- I may be -- I may be wrong on that but I would refer you to the State Department on that.

Q:  Would you approve on such a -- do you -- do you -- would you -- does the  --

MR. HOFFMAN:  Would Jonathan approve?

(Laughter.)

Q:  You -- you're here as the spokesperson, right?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Look, we have -- we are -- I'm not going to get into what -- what steps we're going to take with the Iraqis.  We firmly believe that our relationship with the Iraqis and the Iraqi people is beneficial to Iraq.  We think that things are trending in a -- in a productive manner and that we're going to continue with this partnership that we have that has clearly and will continue to lead to increased security and prosperity for the Iraqi people.  Go ahead.

Q:  If I could follow up on Jack's question?

Even if the money is coming through the State Department, my understanding is the Defense Department acts as the implementer essentially of that aid in Iraq.

And so the -- a follow up question would be would it be possible for the United States to continue to provide the military aid if U.S. forces weren't there in Iraq to either oversee it, to help carry out programs that are funded under the military aid that is under -- is under discussion?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I would just -- seems hypothetical on how that would work, if our forces were not there.  Our forces are there, we have no plans at this time to pull our forces out.  So I can't really suggest how that would work in a -- in a different environment.  All right, right here?

Q:  Thank you so much.  On U.S. forces staying in Iraq, can you let us know if there's a plan or discussion underway to re-hat U.S. troops under NATO auspices or any other kind of bilateral or multilateral prospect?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I -- at this time, I don't believe that's something that we're considering.  I -- I don't think it would actually be necessary.  We have an agreement with the Iraqi government for U.S. forces to -- to be there and conduct these operations.

The president has noted that he would like to see increased efforts from NATO in the region.  I don't know if maybe some -- some different stories are getting conflated into what that looks like but right now our goal is to remain in the force posture we have there.  We may adjust it based on what the Commander tells us.  If the Commander says "I can do more with -- with less and maybe these forces are needed elsewhere," we might make an adjustment.  He might say "we need additional forces."  I -- I don't know where that's going to go.

A lot of what we're doing -- and we've said this repeatedly when people have questioned the number of forces that we're putting in the region -- a lot of it is dependent on our adversary and -- and what our adversary does.  We've had to put additional forces into the region over the last six months because we had an adversary that was taking shots at -- at -- at our -- our allies and taking shots at our people and we needed additional forces to defend them.

And so that -- that may change but I'm not aware of -- of any plans to -- to, you know, change the color of the patch on their uniform to meet some sort of Iraqi accounting goal.  So -- all right?

Q:  Afghanistan?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Sure.

Q:  Absent a cease-fire -- absent a cease-fire or a peace deal with the Taliban, is the plan to -- to pull some U.S. troops out of Afghanistan?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I think General Miller has -- has indicated previously that he believes that he could make do with a smaller footprint in Afghanistan.  I don't know if -- where we are on implementing that.  I think the -- the hope and goal is that the Afghan people will reach some sort of diplomatic solution.

Our -- our position for some time in this administration has been that the only path forward for -- for Afghanistan is a diplomatic solution, a solution that brings all parties to the table and we're hoping to see that happen.

At -- the State Department's deep in negotiations every day and we hope to get there but General Miller has indicated he could probably -- probably handle having fewer personnel there to conduct the mission.

All right, guys, thank you very much.

Q:  Thank you.

 

1[Eds. Note:  Department of Homeland Security]

 

2[Eds. Note:  Lt. Gen. Pat White is the commander of Combined Joint Task Force INHERENT RESOLVE.]