Transcript

Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan R. Hoffman Press Briefing

Feb. 3, 2020
Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Jonathan R. Hoffman

ASSISTANT TO THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JONATHAN RATH HOFFMAN: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for being here.  

On Thursday, Secretary Esper will deliver remarks and participate in a moderated discussion at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This will focus on the success of the National Defense Strategy in year two, as a guiding document for the department and where we are going with implementation of the NDS in the coming year. As part of this speech, he will also talk about the defense-wide review and the reforms he has implemented within the Fourth Estate. 

Next week, Secretary Esper will attend the NATO defense ministerial and the Munich Security Conference. While there, he will continue meeting with our allies and partners to discuss the enduring defeat of ISIS, burden-sharing and driving implementation of the National Defense Strategy. I know a number of you are going to be traveling with him, and others will meet him in Europe. 

Over the weekend, Secretary Esper approved a request for assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services for housing support for 1,000 individuals who may need to be quarantined upon arrival from overseas travel. The DOD will only provide housing support, while HHS will remain responsible for all care, transportation and security of these individuals. 

DOD personnel will not be in direct contact with these individuals, nor will they these individuals have access to the base facilities beyond their housing. DOD will continue to follow CDC guidelines and monitor the situation. 

The secretary will speak today with the NORTHCOM commander, Gen. O'Shaughnessy, to ensure he has the resources he needs to assist CDC and HHS, going forward. 

The department has continued to provide force health protection information to our forces overseas and domestically. The health and safety of our forces, their families and our base communities are our top concern with regard to coronavirus. 

So, with that, I will be happy to take questions. 

Bob?

Q: Jonathan, on that same topic, kind of struck by the fact that the secretary's speaking to the NORTHCOM commander about this topic. I'm wondering if the secretary is thinking in contingency terms, whether it's possible the military may be asked to do considerably more, become more active in countering and in some way dealing with this virus, if it continues to spread.

MR. HOFFMAN: Well, one of the key -- key capabilities of the Department of Defense is planning, so we're always planning for -- for eventualities and how we may need -- be asked by civilian partners to assist. 

And in this case, so far, we've been asked to provide assistance at March Air Force Base for a limited number of -- of U.S. citizens, diplomats and their dependents that have returned and are being quarantined for 14 days, and we've been asked to potentially provide assistance for up to 1,000 individuals, if necessary, in the coming days. 

So far, that's as -- that's as far as what we've been asked to do. The conversations the secretary's going to have with the -- with NORTHCOM commander is just to check in. This is a different, new mission that we've been tasked with recently, and he wants to ensure that all of the -- the support that the NORTHCOM commander has, he's getting, and that the -- generally, that the coordination within the interagency that has been going well so far, continues. 

Q: Yeah, where does this thousand people figure comes from? Is it something -- the maximum number you think can be quarantined, or is it -- is it something that you were asked specifically? 

MR. HOFFMAN: This was a specific request from -- from HHS and the CDC in their request for assistance. So as you guys are familiar with, we receive RFAs from other agencies on a regular basis, for -- for a number of different support, whether it's during a hurricane, we maybe receive a request for airlift, or with regard to the border, a request for assistance in securing the border. 

In this case, we were requested to provide housing for up to a thousand individuals that may need to be quarantined. So the -- the requirements were generally that -- in blocks of -- rooms of 250, so that can provide some sort of -- not overly dispersed, so that you have some sort of continuity of having enough support staff in the area.

That they have individual bathrooms, or at worst, Jack-and-Jill bathrooms, so that individuals can be quarantined, and then access to quality and -- hospital systems within the local community that the CDC and HHS have identified that can handle the potentiality of anyone who is -- comes down with the virus, in being able to be moved off to an off-base health facility.

So that's the request that we received, and that was the number that was -- was given to us, so. 

Q: Thank you. How many evacuees are being housed now? And how many are expected?

MR. HOFFMAN: So right now, at March Air Force Base, I think we have just under 200, I think its 198 individuals. So that is the only number that we have. I don't have an expected number, that is a question for State Department and CDC. We are just preparing on the back end to provide the housing if needed, the -- because the hope is, is that no one has to be quarantined, going forward. But -- but we're prepared to help if needed. 

Q: On the DHS RFA at the border, when is the secretary expected to make a determination about that?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't have an update for you right now. I would, given the conversations we've had in the last two weeks when we received the RFA, I would expect it to be coming in the next week or two.

Q: Should it be before the budget, after the budget?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't -- I don't have an answer for you on that right now. I'm not -- I'm not -- not sure what time -- what day it's going to come.

Hello.

Q: Hi. The president, on Friday, retweeted a report indicating that we believed that Qasim al-Rimi, leader of AQAP was killed in an airstrike. Can you comment on that, or give us -- provide us any more information?

MR. HOFFMAN: No, I have no additional information on that for you.

Q: Can you say that it was -- was or was not a Pentagon strike?

MR. HOFFMAN: I have no additional information for you on that.

Q: OK, well, since -- since you can't answer that question, a different topic.

MR. HOFFMAN: Third question?

Q: Last -- well, different topic. Last week...

MR. HOFFMAN: Third question, different topic, go ahead. Feel free.

Q: Last week several lawmakers threatened to end -- work to end the U.S. intel-sharing pact with the U.K. over Britain's decision on Huawei. Can you say whether you've been given any guidance to that effect, and what we can expect, going forward?

MR. HOFFMAN: Well, I -- I think you've seen a couple senior officials -- Ambassador O’Brien’s spoken about this, and I -- I believe Secretary Pompeo has, as well. The United Kingdom is -- is one of our -- our key allies and partners, and we're going to continue to work with them and find ways to work with them. We do believe that allowing Huawei in any form into their systems is problematic, and we are hoping that they will continue to look at this and -- and hopefully, reach a better decision. 

And we've seen other countries have to -- have gone through this process. I know Germany's in the midst of making this type of decision. The E.U. has had to go through this. Having -- allowing the -- Huawei and -- the company that is potentially directed by the Chinese government at times to provide information, have access to all of your -- your communications, your sensitive healthcare records, banking records, is problematic, and we're going to find ways to work with -- with the United Kingdom and with our -- with our Five Eyes partners. But it -- it is problematic, and we're hoping that they will choose a different path.

All right. Please? Jeff?

Q: Thank you. I -- I understand you can't comment on the reported strike. Can you say whether AQAP has, to put it politely, a job opening at the executive level?

MR. HOFFMAN: Like I said, I have no information for you on that topic. She got to ask three questions after asking this. If you have another one, feel free.

Q: I -- I'll pass, thank you.

MR. HOFFMAN: OK. Jennifer?

Q: Can you update us on the status of the Patriot missile battery that's waiting in Kuwait? Is it -- does it have permission to go into Iraq? Do you still want it to go into Iraq? And then a follow-up.

MR. HOFFMAN: OK, so I will -- I'll defer to the Joint Staff on -- on the current status of that -- that piece of equipment. I -- I'll just say that we are -- the commander on the ground has the authority and has the ability to move equipment as he sees fit. I know we discussed this a little bit last week, about whether it was going to be allowed into the country. I know we were working through that with the Iraqi government. My understanding is that conversation is still ongoing; that -- that we're still addressing that. 

All of our efforts inside of Iraq, all of our -- our even movement of equipment, is done at the invitation of the host nation and the Iraqis, and so we -- we appreciate that, and we'll continue having conversations with them to try to resolve them. And your follow-up?

Q: It's a separate topic. Can I ask a separate topic, or not?

MR. HOFFMAN: Sure.

Q: OK, all right, yeah. Since -- since you're waiting for Secretary Esper's decision on the RFA for money for the border, I wanted to follow up. We saw images last week of part of the border wall blowing over. Was that a section that was either built by the Army Corps of Engineers or -- or had DOD money attached to it? And why did it blow over?

MR. HOFFMAN: I'm -- I'm not familiar with that. I mean, I -- that would be a question I would -- I would direct toward DHS. But, yeah, I'm not familiar with it. OK?

Go ahead.

Q: Yeah. Mr. Hoffman, last week Adm. Davidson, INDOPACOM, banned travel to China and ordered all personnel -- civilian, uniformed -- in China now to -- to leave immediately. Can you say, how are they going to -- those in -- in China now, do you have any kind of a count on how many INDOPACOM personnel are in China? And how are you going to get them out?

MR. HOFFMAN: Well, I -- I don't have an -- a number on me right here. We can work with INDOPACOM to get you that number. But the admiral, the commander of INDOPACOM, had directed that there -- one is to cease travel to -- to China, whether it's TDY or -- or -- or voluntary travel by individuals. Obviously, we have members that are there, maybe on -- on tourist visas on leave -- and ordered people to return. So, as of now, there are still flights that are operating out of China, and that they're still able to -- to travel that way if they return back -- or, when they return back to their commands, they will be given a -- a -- a 14-day self-imposed -- I'm trying to think of the exact terminology that -- that we've used for it; but basically so that we can observe their status and that they can report back if they have any conditions or are feeling ill, that they're able to report to the medical unit to get additional guidance.

Q: So they're being asked to stay in quarters working there?

MR. HOFFMAN: They're being asked to -- to -- I can get you the exact wording from INDOPACOM, but they're being asked to -- to track their -- their health and report back if they have any conditions. But -- but as of right now, that's the -- INDOPACOM will be providing additional guidance to their forces as they go forward.

Q:  (inaudible) by this. What kind of guidance did you send to U.S. troops in South Korea?

MR. HOFFMAN: OK.

Q: Do you have any...

MR. HOFFMAN: Yeah, so the -- so last Friday the -- DOD's Health Affairs and P&R [Personnel & Readiness office] sent out a force health protection guidance to -- to the field. It listed out -- and I think you can find this on -- I think we've posted on our website, as well. But it -- it basically gives guidance on -- on what is coronavirus? How do you go about preventing, based on the information we know, and how do you -- how do you make yourself more resilient to it? So a lot of that is common guidance that you would find on the CDC or HHS websites.

And then also, you've seen -- we have some guidance from the commander on the ground with regard to travel and -- and instigating -- implementing travel restrictions for individuals. And so we've seen that take place in -- in South Korea. But at the time, we're going to take the guidance of State Department and CDC on this, and then working with the host countries.

Yes, sir?

Q: Thank you. Just one question, and then follow up on the Patriot missiles. So Secretary Esper said last week that the commander on the ground has said that it's required for those missiles to be in Iraq. Does that include the Erbil base, as well?

MR. HOFFMAN: I would have to get back to you on which -- where the locations are, but I can -- I can generally say I'm -- I'm not going to provide you locations of specific weapon systems. I can -- I can direct you to CENTCOM to have that conversation with them. But the commander has the ability to put the forces where he wants.

But I also want to take a step back. The missile defense systems are not the only defensive asset we have. It's not the only way we counter this threat from -- from Iran. So whether it's dispersal, hardened bunkers, whether it's early warning systems, there's a number of different threats, there's a number of different ways we -- we address them, but I'm not going to give specific locations of where -- where weapon systems are going to be going.

Q: And the follow up is, can you please clarify or explain why you need written permission from the Iraqi government to deploy these defense weapons? Is it outside the scope of the military agreement that you currently have with Iraq or, you know, the -- does the Patriot vary for -- within a different category of weapons or for every single piece of equipment, you need to get permission from Iraq?

MR. HOFFMAN: So generally the rule is that we are there at the -- the invitation of the Iraqi government and -- and while there -- there may be a set of standards for moving personnel that we regularly move in and out, or equipment that are in and out of the country on a regular basis, such as the C-17 or a helicopter system, we -- we like to give our partners, and we like to give our friends, a heads up on things that are coming and like to seek their permission.

And so in this case we're having that conversation, and hopefully we'll have that resolved in the very near future. So, go ahead in the back?

Q: Has the secretary talked to the newly appointed prime minister of Iraq or does he plan to this week?

MR. HOFFMAN: I -- my understanding is -- so backing up, he has not talked to him. I don't know about the -- the timing of a call, but my understanding is that there's some steps that need to take place with the -- the new Prime Minister in terms of building the government and -- and appointing ministers and some of the officials that we may interact with on a -- first before we get to that point, but I'm -- but he has not had that conversation yet.

Q: No talks between DOD and the -- the new government until there's a full government formed is your -- is your sense?

MR. HOFFMAN: Oh, no, I wouldn't say that. There might not be no conversations between the Secretary and -- and the full government, but we obviously have commanders on the ground who are there and are having conversations with their Iraqi counterparts on a daily basis, and we have our team -- are over there and our team at Policy do the same thing, as well, just speaking specifically to the Secretary's conversations, though. 

Q: OK

MR. HOFFMAN: (inaudible) There’s no one seated behind you. 

Q: Great, OK. My first -- I have a question, a follow-up. Do you know when we'll hear if the troops who were injured by the Iranian missile strike will receive Purple Hearts?

MR. HOFFMAN: So that's a question for each of the services of the affected members, and so I have not gotten an update of the timeline of -- of how that process is playing out, but they will each make a -- as we've talked about, there's the -- the standards that they all have with regard to -- from any action, a diagnosed case of traumatic brain injury, treated by a medical doctor and, in the case of a couple services, I believe there's a 48-hour missing duty status requirement.

So, that process is going to play out. Fortunately, as we've seen, all of the cases to date have been categorized as mild TBI, which is the equivalent of concussions, and that about 60 percent of them have already returned to duty, and we're hope -- optimistic that the rest will return to duty very soon.

Q: And when will the Pentagon press corps receive a briefing from the Resolute Support Commander?

MR. HOFFMAN: So I've actually had that conversation with -- with the -- the general. We're looking at trying to schedule a time when he's back in town, is -- is the goal, is to have him here in the room, as opposed to a -- a teleconference, and hopefully you're going to have that.

We've got a lot of people coming in town for posture hearings and budget hearings and things like that, and so we are working on -- on building a -- a very full schedule of briefings for you guys, and we're asking all of the commanders and a number of other people to be able to make time to -- to talk with you in a very comfortable setting.

Q: ... this month or next month?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't have the -- I don't have the schedule in front of me. So, all right?

Q: Given the increased troop deployment to the Middle East, has there been any discussion of making a supplemental budget request to Congress?

MR. HOFFMAN: I don't want to get -- talk about budget issues today, just because we're so close to the budget rolling out, and I know there's going to be a -- a healthy conversation about budget and numbers starting next week and I just don't want to get ahead of that.

Q: OK, but -- but I'm not asking about the '21 budget ... 

MR. HOFFMAN: Got it -- I got it, but it's all -- there's a lot of budget conversations we're going to be having over the next week, and I don't want to get ahead of or state something that would apply to the -- the budgets coming up soon. So, all right?

Q: I was wondering, can you tell me which combatant commanders were asking for a change in anti-personnel land mine policy?

MR. HOFFMAN: Sorry, can you repeat that? I can't ... 

Q: What -- to the recent change of policy on anti-personnel land mines, can you say which combatant commanders were asking for that change?

MR. HOFFMAN: I'm not going to get into the internal deliberations of an administration policy change.

Q: Also, the -- the cluster weapon policy and the -- anti-personnel land mine policies were studied concurrently, yet the cluster munition policy was changed back in November of '17. Can you say why it took so long between those for the -- the land mine policy to change?

MR. HOFFMAN: No, I -- I don't have any insight into why one was changed previously to the others. I just know that the -- the change that took place over the last week was the result of an extensive conversation within the department and the interagency to provide the commanders on the ground non-persistent munitions that are necessary for mission success in major contingencies in extreme or exceptional circumstances, and that we're -- we're comfortable that the protective measures that have been put in place with these, whether it's a -- a self-destruct or self-deactivation, remote on/off switch, a number of these other measures have been put in place to -- to make sure that these are used in a responsible manner. All right, I'll do a couple more.

Q: Mr. Hoffman, could you confirm that Secretary Esper will be meeting with Israel Minister of Defense Naftali Bennett tomorrow at the Pentagon? And if yes, could you provide us with some details about what they are going to discuss?

MR. HOFFMAN: So I don't have an update for you right now on -- on whether -- on what meetings are going to take place tomorrow, but if -- but I will talk to the policy people and I'll try to get something out to you in a little bit if I can.

Q: OK.

MR. HOFFMAN: OK. All right, right here, sir?

Q: Yeah, another land mine question ... 

MR. HOFFMAN: Sure.

Q: ... is there any concern that with the United States altering the policy, might result in other countries, including those who don't have the technical capability to make -- to make them more failsafe, decide, you know -- have -- spark some sort of land mine race?

MR. HOFFMAN: Well I -- I would -- I would point out that -- that if you're looking to the countries that already make use of land mines, and I think would be the ones that -- potential adversaries in the future that would be in a -- a -- making use of these, those countries already do not -- those countries already make use of land mines.

So it's -- it's had no impact on the policies of our adversaries. This goes back to a -- other weapons system changes or -- or their ability to use new weapons systems. We already see the Chinese, the Russians, North Koreans, Iranians making use of -- of these weapons.

What we have done is we've taken the time to find a responsible way to employ them and provide force protection for our forces and provide the commander a tool that our adversaries have that -- one that we can deploy in a more responsible, more effective manner. OK, thank you, guys.