Transcript

Press Conference by Secretary Esper at NAS-Pensacola

Jan. 23, 2020
Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: OK. Well, good afternoon everyone. Thank you for joining me. As you know this is my first time visiting Pensacola as Secretary of Defense. I arrived early this morning. Had a great visit.

Had a chance to view training today, this afternoon, obviously right here. Had a chance to see young sailors training to be ordinance technicians. I also had the chance to walk through a couple houses to look at the status of homes on base.

And I had a chance to also get an update on the -- the investigation with regard to the Saudi national who committed that -- those tragic acts against our service members in early December.

And I had a chance to get an update as to what happened and also to share with the command decisions DOD and I had made with regard to improving our vetting procedures, credentialing differently our foreign students. Also a new weapons policy and other measures that we're taking to prevent such acts from happening again. 

So all in all, a very good day. I had a lot of good discussions with -- with the sailors, with the commanders, the chain of command.

I also had a chance to meet with German students, officers who were here training just now, have been here for many years. So it's another important -- and important aspect of the fact that DOD annually trains over -- thousands of students from over 150 countries.

It's very important to us building alliances and partnerships, all of which makes us more safe and more secure. And I'm thankful for it. So with that I'll stop and we'll take some questions. 

Q: What can you tell us about the changes to increase the (inaudible)?

SEC. ESPER: Yes, the -- the vetting changes will be far more comprehensive. It'll look at every aspect of their background, it'll look at social media, and it will also involve continuous monitoring once they're here in the United States.

So we've taken any number of measures like that to insure that we have a much higher degree of confidence with regard to each of the students.

Q: So you feel comfortable offering some assurances that procedures in place now will help implement security efforts and make things safer than they were ...

SEC. ESPER: Yes, I think much safer, much higher degree of confidence that we know who's here. We know who they are, what they're doing, et cetera. And again, not just Saudi students but all foreign students will undergo these -- these procedures.

Q: Mr. Secretary, how will you address the tensions here between U.S. military families and the Saudi students that remain?

SEC. ESPER: Yes, we had a discussion about that. I think it's -- it's something the command is working aggressively on. I think the immediate concern of both sailors on base and families is security and the command is taking some actions. We've discussed some additional actions improve confidence in security on the base until -- until we return to a more normal status, if you will.

Q: Such as?

SEC. ESPER: Well, we talked about maybe increase roving patrols, stationary patrols. Again, to give both students, permanent party, and family a greater sense of confidence that there's -- there's security that is in place and can be even more responsive than the -- the team that was there on the site.

By the way, I had a chance to meet with four of the responders today. Very courageous men. One was a woman, she wasn't there. But very courageous people who really did a great job. Responded very quickly to the shooter and acted -- ran to the sound of the guns to -- to take care of the problem.

STAFF: Let's go to Tara Copp.

SEC. ESPER: Yes.

Q: What do you think the (inaudible) will resume flying?

SEC. ESPER: Well that's going to be the call of the service -- of the service to determine when that is. I think we're making good progress in terms to getting to a higher degree of confidence. But Acting Secretary Modly will make that call.

Q: So it won't be a base commander decision it will be ...

SEC. ESPER: Well, obviously it's interacted between what the base feels, where the -- what their readiness to absorb -- to take the students back on to feel they’ve addressed it enough. So it's something that works up and down the chain of command. But it'll be the services’ call.

Q: The credentialing process you talked about ...

SEC. ESPER: (Inaudible.) ...

Q: Sorry. The credentialing process you talked about, is that -- are you talking like base access cards or ...

SEC. ESPER: That's right. Access cards so that access is only granted for places where students need to be, not everywhere.

STAFF: Now Phil.

Q: Mr. Secretary, how many confirmed cases of TBI are there from the ones attacked at al-Asad.

SEC. ESPER: I don't -- I don't have those numbers, Phil.

Q: I mean, the president said that the injuries appear to be not -- not -- didn't appear to be very serious. Do you have any sense of ...

SEC. ESPER: Yes, I just don't -- I don't know those numbers, right. So it's something we can track down for you. That's -- those are typically things we don't report. This is mostly outpatient stuff. So we can track that if -- if you're really interested in it.

Q: But none of the cases are serious enough to be considered TBI. I have a sense that…

SEC. ESPER: I -- I don't know. I'm -- I'm not a doctor and I'm not the ones evaluating them. Those are calls that would be made by the -- by the medical professions on hand that are doing those -- those examinations.

Q: The NAS Pensacola would enable museum and the national cemetery. Because they pose a unique security risk, are you taking any special precautions with the open nature of this space?

SEC. ESPER: Yes, we talked about that. That was -- you know I had a chance to drive past a cemetery. I saw the museum, things like that. It's a challenge. It's not unique to this base. There are other bases with other services that have that same challenge that -- that they're open or semi-open or aspects of them are open.

So it's one that each instillation has to address individually unique to the circumstances.

STAFF: You guys have got time for one more question.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I assume that Secretary (inaudible) was very involved in the decision making process over changes, as well as yourself. How much does this investigation and what the findings of this investigation appear to play. How big a role does that play in these changes that you're making?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I mean the investigation had a very important impact on -- on what we're doing. But I would say that within a day or so of -- of the events of December 6th, we had -- I had already flown the team to begin looking at vetting procedures, screening, stuff like that. All of the things we need to do to have a higher degree of confidence of the students. 

But we -- we learned a little -- little bit more, of course, or more I should say, in the wake of the investigation that was conducted by the FBI, NCIS, and others. I had a chance to meet with them today and there were some more lessons learned from -- being taken from that -- that session today.

STAFF: Thanks guys, we've got to run.

SEC. ESPER: OK. Thanks everybody. Thank you.