Transcript

Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Jonathan Rath Hoffman Briefs Reporters on Department of Defense Operations

July 21, 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 afternoon, friends.  Dave, glad to have you back in the building.

So thank you for joining us here today.  I want to begin today by taking a moment to acknowledge the passing of an American icon, a hero of the Civil Rights movement, Congressman John Lewis.

Widely regarded as the conscience of Congress, Lewis marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for equal rights under the law.  He will be sorely missed by a grateful nation and a grateful department that strives to be a model for the values of diversity and inclusion that he fought for.  His work remains an inspiration and part of the foundation in our collective fight for racial justice and equality.

I'd also like to take a moment to thank Rob Hood, the assistant secretary for Leg Affairs, for his service to the department.  Rob's expertise and leadership has been instrumental in the department's engagement with Congress, particularly in the efforts to confirm a number of senior leaders in the department since he came here almost three years ago.

I don't have any further updates on -- on the timeline of that, but Rob -- or, who will be filling in for Rob.  But Rob's last day at the department will be on Friday.

I want to thank the U.S. Senate for confirming General Hokanson today as the Chief of the National Guard Bureau.  That transfer will take place in the -- the coming weeks, but we appreciate them taking action on that incredibly important position given the number, the tens of thousands of U.S. National Guardsmen who are deployed around the country, either dealing with COVID or civil unrest.

I also want to give an update regarding diversity and inclusion at the department.  Last week, the Defense Board on Diversity and Inclusion held its first meeting.  In addition, the Secretary released his quick wins memo on immediate action items to promote diversity and inclusion in the ranks.

These include obtaining and analyzing data on prejudice and bias within the force, developing educational requirements for the military to educate the force on unconscious bias, reviewing effectiveness of military service equal opportunity offices, and much more.

The memo and the full details are available on the defense.gov website.  We look forward to the continued engagement on this issue and the feedback we're receiving from across the force, as we saw from the Secretary's town hall last week.

Moving on to COVID-19, DOD personnel continue to be engaged in COVID response operations, particularly in California and Texas, where approximately 740 Department of Defense medical and support professionals are providing assistance.  We are currently in touch with FEMA, who's identifying mission assignments from additional -- from these states and the additionals.  Protecting our personnel continues to be a top priority for the department during the pandemic as we continue to fly, sail, and operate all around the globe.

This morning, Secretary Esper participated in the International Institute for Strategic Studies virtual dialogue with hundreds of policy experts and international journalists on the Indo-Pacific strategy and issues in the South China Sea.

In addition, the Secretary noted that he plans to travel to China later this year.  We'll have an update for that for you in the coming months as we firm those plans up.  The full video of this engagement of the Secretary's is available online and on social media.

This week, Major General Kenneth Ekman, Deputy Commander for Combined Joint Task Force OIR, is scheduled to hold a press briefing on joint and coalition operations in the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.  We expect that briefing to take place tomorrow.

Tomorrow, Secretary Esper will travel to Whiteman Air Force Base, where he will receive a briefing on how the crews of our most visible strategic defense assets, the B-2 Bomber, are staying safe and ready during the COVID-19 outbreak.  He will meet with airmen to discuss diversity and inclusion in the ranks, as he's done in installations around the world in the last month.

Finally, I want to take a moment to remember the lives of three service members who were -- we tragically lost this month.  First Lieutenant Joseph Trent Allbaugh, 24, from Folsom, California, Private First Class Alexander Blake Klass, 20, from Willamina, Oregon, and Specialist Vincent Sebastian Ibarria, 21, from San Antonio, Texas.  We are forever indebted to these brave young men and their families and we cannot forget their sacrifices and the commitment they made to our country.

At the same time, I also want to issue the Department's sincere condolences to the family of Specialist Vanessa Guillen and to her entire community, military community, and friends and family that support her.

So with that, I will open it up to questions.  We're going to go first to the phone.  I think Bob is on today?

Q:  Yes, thank you, Jonathan.

There's been a number of questions that have come up in recent weeks about U.S. force presence abroad, Europe as well as South Korea.  A question for you -- a couple of questions on the South Korea part of this.  Can you answer directly whether Secretary Esper has provided to the White House options for reducing U.S. troops in South Korea?

And could you -- in a similar vein, could you explain what he meant this morning when he was asked about this and he said that he would like to make more use of a rotational model?  How would that apply in South Korea?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I'll just start with the -- the big picture with regard to our forces.  So overall, with the global force posture, we've been taking a look at our lay down in Europe, CENTCOM, INDOPACOM, AFRICOM, around the globe in how our forces are -- are put -- put in place, because some have legacy missions and legacy efforts that they've been doing for many, many years, decades even, and so there's been an effort to look and see whether we are properly supporting the missions that we've been given by Congress and the President.

And so what we've -- what we're doing is we're reviewing that.  I think the Secretary's comments on -- on Korea were -- were pretty clear, that we're continuing – that’s a continuous process -- that we're going to do that.  We'll do that with -- in conjunction with our allies and we'll have recommendations that we may make in the future.

I think, as we've seen with Europe, we made an announcement a couple of weeks ago that the Secretary had made a recommendation to the President.  We hope to be updating you guys on that process in the coming days.

And then as you guys all know, that we've been doing the blank slate reviews with regard to AFRICOM -- is the -- the first one and then some others -- and we expect to have the -- the -- the readouts of what those have concluded.

With regard to rotational forces, the Secretary's goal is to remove some of the -- the footprint of having forces forward deployed that allow us to bring them back, work on readiness issues and be flexible and put us in more locations.

The -- the hope is -- and -- and we -- we can see this in Europe as well as in the Indo-Pacific -- it allows us to -- train in additional locations, train with additional ally countries. So instead of being in one country all the time doing much of our work there, we're able to rotate through and instead of having facilities or expertise in one area, we are able to -- to -- to build that expertise up and that practice in a number of different areas.

And it also gives us flexibility, it makes us a little bit more unpredictable, whether rotational or dynamic force employment.  And so I think that's -- those are kind of two of the goals the Secretary's been looking at, and I think that was what he was -- was leaning into in his comments this morning.

All right, we'll go to the -- the next one. Actually, we'll go here in the building. David?

Q:  Is the Pentagon concerned of the widespread perception that those federal agents in Portland are in fact U.S. military?  And has the Pentagon asked DHS to do anything to more clearly mark their agents as something other than soldiers?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So we – we saw this take place back in June, when there -- there are some law enforcement that wear uniforms that -- that make them appear military in appearance.  The -- the Secretary has -- has expressed a concern of this within the administration that we -- we want a system where people can tell the difference.

I -- I'm not aware of any direct conversations with -- with DHS on this particular deployment or their particular operations in Portland over the last week or so, but I can say that unequivocally there are no Department of Defense assets that have been deployed to or -- or pending deployment to or we're looking to deploy to -- to Portland at this time.

Q: Do you know if he's satisfied that the -- the agents in Portland are identified as clearly...

MR. HOFFMAN:  I have not talked to him about that.  I can follow up with him but I have not had that conversation with him, but I think he is -- he's satisfied of the fact that unequivocally we can tell the American people that the U.S. military has not been deployed to -- to Portland, Oregon, in any -- any manner at this point.

MR. HOFFMAN:  All right.  Jennifer?

Q: Jonathan, the President said he's going to veto the NDAA if the language including the naming of the bases named after Confederate generals is included in that.  Is that a good idea?  What impact will it have on this building, on the defense budget if it's delayed over this issue?  And where does the secretary stand on the Confederate base issue?

MR. HOFFMAN: So on the NDAA, the -- the issue is now clearly within the legislative realm. I think both the House and the Senate have included language regarding that.  The President has made his position incredibly clear on this.

And so from the department's perspective, we are confident that the administration and Congress will reach an agreement.  They understand the importance of the NDAA.  We're confident that there will be an agreement and that the NDAA will be signed and implemented on time so that we can have a budget for our forces.

Q:  Can I just follow up on Afghanistan?  Anything you -- can you share with us any new information on this issue of so-called Russian bounties?  Are you still investigating whether those Marines were killed as a result of Russian bounties or can you rule that out at this point?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So thanks for the question.

I think over the last few weeks we've had a number of our senior leaders talk about this.  I think the chairman and the secretary both were asked about this last week during the hearing.  And I know General McKenzie spoke about this earlier last week in an interview with ABC.  And -- and I don't think I can add terribly much to -- to what they covered.

I think the important things to remember with this is that everybody on our side that has talked about this has been the claim that there was a -- quote/unquote, "a bounty program" has been uncorroborated in the evidence that the Department of Defense has seen.

And that -- secondly that -- and General McKenzie is the expert on this -- is that when he was briefed on this early on, he and General Miller looked at it, they did not find that there was a causative link there.  I'm reading from his quote.

"I found it very worrisome, I just didn't find that there was a causative link there."

But at the same time, General McKenzie said that he, "Took measures because we have a very high force protection standard now and that force protection standard's going to continue into the future."

General Milley reiterated the efforts that the commanders on the ground had put in place to protect our forces.

And so I think the American people should have confidence that despite the inability to corroborate some of the allegations with regard to this, that the -- the commanders on the ground have taken every measure they think is necessary to protect our forces.

Q:  Can you rule out for the Marines?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Sorry, yes.

So with respect to that, I -- like I said, we've not found any corroborating evidence that would indicate that there was a -- a bounty program.  And therefore we do not have any proper evidence that indicate that there were any victims of an alleged bounty program.

So I believe that we've -- we've spoken about this before, that we're going to continue to examine any information that comes in on this.  We'll keep at it, as we always do, because it's important to ensure that we have the best information available with regard to our force protection.

It's also something that we have an obligation to the families of our service members and the service members themselves to hold to account those responsible for their deaths.

All right, can we go back to the phone for a couple questions here? So we'll go to Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg.

Q:  Hi, Jon, can you hear me?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Yes, Tony, go ahead.  (Inaudible).

All right. We'll go to Sylvie, AFP.

Q:  Hello?

Q:  Hello.  Yes, you know, I would like to go back to the announcement by the secretary about the trip to China.  I wanted to know if it's something that he agreed to with his Chinese counterpart, or if it's something he wants to agree to with his Chinese counterpart.

And also, I wanted to know if this is -- what is the objective? Is it to defuse tensions or is it to warn China even more?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I'm not going to characterize where we are in the negotiation process on this.  I know that this is something that has been talked about at the staff level.  And I'm not aware as to whether the secretary has directly spoken with his counterpart on this issue, but it's something that we've been looking at and anticipating doing at some point this year, looking at the calendar and where we can make that happen.

In terms of what the deliverables are from that trip, our policy team and Dave Helvey, our acting assistant secretary for IPSA, is going to be working on this.

But part of it's going to be, we seek to maintain mil-to-mil relationships with -- with China and Russia alike.  We believe that's incredibly important, to avoid misunderstandings in the future.  And so that's something that we work through with a number of different countries that are -- that are not necessarily allies or partners.  And so that will be a piece of it.

And part of it will be talking about some of the -- some of the issues.  Obviously, there are concerns expressed by the United States with the -- the Chinese activities in the South China Sea.  And the United States has made it very clear that we're going to continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.

And what we're going to do is talk to the Chinese, as Secretary Pompeo and his team have been doing around the world, about how there's an international order, rules-based order.  And that that is -- that is the system that had led to prosperity for millions and billions of people in the world over the last 75 years, that has grown out of World War II and has been helped in part by U.S. leadership.

And that rules-based international order has benefited China, potentially more than most any other country in the world in terms of its economic growth over the last 75 years.  And that we believe that China and the Chinese people are best served by embracing that -- that order as -- instead of attempting to replace it with -- with a different set of rules.

MR. HOFFMAN:  All right, we'll keep going on that.  So we'll go to Courtney?

Q:  Hi.  I want to go back to some – to one of Jennifer’s questions that didn't get asked -- or get answered.  And that's about, does the secretary support the language in the NDAA that mandates renaming the military bases?

And then on the announcement on the Confederate flag last week, I think there was a lot of -- there were a lot of questions after the memo came out.  Because it specifically lays out flags that are allowed, but it doesn't lay out ones that are not specifically.  So questions about a sports team flag, the pride flag.

So are you going to be offering -- will DOD be providing any additional guidance on -- on nonpolitical flags that can or cannot be displayed publicly on bases?  Or will that be left up to the services?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I'll take the first one, and I'm just going to reiterate that the view of the department is that the -- the issue on base names is clearly within the legislative realm, as they've -- they're continuing to debate those bills on the Hill today and this week and next week, and that we have confidence that at the end of the day, the President and Congress will reach an agreement that will -- will have the NDAA be signed on time and fully fund the department.

With regard to the Confederate flag memos, just a couple of things just to remember from that memo, like the intention of that memo is to -- to lay out a policy that is designed to unite everyone in the department under that one flag, the United States flag.

This represents all of us in the department; all creeds, religions, ethnicities, races, and sexual orientation of -- of the American people.

Second, the policy is intended to be apolitical.  It isn't partisan in any way and it isn't involved in supporting or opposing any political philosophy.  Instead it is intended to unify the DOD behind our common mission and oath to defend the American people represented by that flag.

It's prospective, so it's not just looking at things that are in place now, but things that could come in place or flags or symbols that could evolve in the future and the attention that's enduring, so that it could withstand legal scrutiny in a way that will allow us to have a -- a policy -- a unifying policy in place that's not going to be picked apart down the road.

So, to your point about what is included and what is not, the memo clearly outlines a list of approved flags, service members and civilian employees can display at DOD defense facilities, and so that's the American flag, the flags of the states and territories, military service flags, general officer flags, a number of other ones, the POW/MIA, ceremonial, flags of allies and partners.

So, it's generally flags that have a military nexus that can be displayed and meet those four parameters that the secretary laid about unifying, apolitical, prospective, and enduring.

So, with regard to implementation of this, a number of the services have already -- and I believe all the services have actually already issued GenAdmins (General Administration messages) how they are going to implement this.  There will be a period for implementation of this, if people have additional questions on -- on -- on how it's going to be implemented.

It -- obviously the first step is going to be their chain of command then working with the JAG through the services, but they will take the lead in putting this in place and provide any additional guidance if necessary.

MR. HOFFMAN:  All right, we'll go to Lara Seligman.

Q:  I don't know if you heard me, so just to be clear, so teams -- sports teams flags are no longer allowed to be displayed?  For instance in an office or in a -- in any kind of a public way on your car on base?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, the memo clearly outlines a -- a list of approved flags service members and civilian employees are authorized to display in the Department of Defense.  And so, I could go -- could go through them for you again, but it's going to be those flags that have -- generally have a military nexus that -- that are on that list.  So, I'll just leave it -- leave it there.

So, go back to Lara -- try Lara again.

Q: Hey, it's Lara from Politico.  So, I wanted to just go back to the issue of federal law enforcement troops in places like Portland.  I'm just wondering if the President has asked the Secretary to send active duty military or National Guard troops to enhance the presence of the law enforcement in these cases?

MR. HOFFMAN: The Secretary and I haven’t had a conversation about that.  OK, in the room, Ryan?

Q:  Actually that was -- my question was going to be about the -- the -- whether you included National Guard when you were talking about there had been no Department of Defense assets.  But you would include -- that does -- that does include National Guard, that there's been no discussion about sending --

MR. HOFFMAN:  My -- well, National Guard -- I'm -- if the National Guard was activated on behalf of the governor, I'm not necessarily -- I'm not a part of those conversations that the governor may be having with his own forces in the state.

I was referring to whether Lara’s question about whether the President had directed or had any conversations about that.

Q:  And then just to follow-up on David's question, I mean, clearly you've seen the photographs of these law enforcement personnel from DHS.  I mean, they're wearing the operational camouflage pattern.  I mean it's -- there's not -- I mean, something you haven't spoken to him yet.  I mean is it -- did you -- does he plan -- does the secretary plan to address this or issue a statement about this?  Is it -- I mean, is he -- how concerned is he?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, as part of the after-action review for what to place first week, last week of May, first week of June, the Department of the Army and the other entities doing the review is to look at some of the concerns we have and one of the ones I know the secretary did raise that he wanted to have looked at was the identification and how -- how visible and people’s ability to understand who is who.

I know he has expressed his concern then in some cases, law enforcement appropriately performing law enforcement duties were misconstrued with military personnel who -- who would not be appropriately doing those -- those roles.  And so, he has raised that.

I don't know where that is in the review, but I can -- I can get back to you on that.

Q: Thanks.  And just one last -- I mean, would the secretary like to see law enforcement personnel not wear the same camouflage pattern uniform as military personnel?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, I think that's -- that's going to be part of the question of the review.  I think that will be something we'll talk to -- to those doing the review, and then maybe have a conversation with the Attorney General and his team and -- and Secretary Wolf at DHS, but I -- I don't have a timeline on that and I don't have any guideline from the secretary on what that would look like.

But he has expressed an interest in the topic.

MR. HOFFMAN: OK. All right, Carla. Carla Babb?

Q:  Thank you so much for doing this.  Before I ask my questions, I'm a little confused about the exchange with Courtney Kube about the flags.  So, are sports team's flags not allowed on bases, because they're not military related?  And then I'll ask my question.

MR. HOFFMAN:  Well, I'm glad you've asked this question. So, I will give you the list of flags that are allowed. The American flag, the flags of U.S. states and territories and the District of Columbia-- I'm happy to read through the states, I have a list here.  Mississippi does not have a flag right now, so they're not included in that, but I have the other -- the other state flags.  The military service flag, the flags of general officers, presidentially appointed senate confirmed civilian flags, SES flags, military department specific SES flags, the POW and MIA flag, which is authorized by statute.  Flags of other countries for which the U.S. is an ally and partner or for official protocol reasons.  Flags of organizations of which the U.S. is a member, i.e., Nato, ceremonial command unit branch flags or guidons.

So, that is the list of flags that are allowed.  That memo is on our website, I encourage everybody to take a look at it.  It's intended to be pretty clear with regard to that. But, you had a second question?

Q:  So, on the situation with Iraq, the U.S.-Iraq was supposed to happen in a few days and it's becoming abundantly clear that that's not going to happen this month.  Can you confirm -- I know this is State Department led, but it's very heavily supported by DOD as well.  Is that pushed to August now?  And do we have a date?  And will that be in D.C.?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, I don't have -- I don't have an update I can share with you today, but I'll just note that General -- Major General Ekman will be briefing tomorrow and may be a more appropriate person.  But as you mentioned, it's generally a State Department issue, so I -- I would direct you to them as well.

All right, Nancy Youseff.

Q:  Thanks. I had a question about the NDAA.  As you know, it includes bipartisan measures that would prevent the administration from drawing down U.S. forces in Germany and Europe or completely withdrawing from Afghanistan, without first reporting to Congress and certifying that it would hurt U.S. or ally security.

The legislation also bars logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition for strikes in Yemen and denied funding for any nuclear testing in 2021.

I have two questions.  One, are there anything in the NDAA, the House version, that you consider problematic for the military or deal breakers for the administration?  And does the passage of this bill, which again is bipartisan, show that there's little support on either side of the aisle for the kinds of troop with -- draw-downs that the administration has discussed, particularly by this department.

MR. HOFFMAN:  Can you -- can you repeat that second part of that question there, Nancy?

Q:  Sure.  I'd like to understand from your perspective, does the bill's passage -- and again, with bipartisan support -- show that there's little support on either side of the aisle for the kinds of troop reductions that the administration – and Secretary Esper in particular have – have floated as possibilities?  I think you spoke earlier about rotating forces, for example.

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I -- so with regard to the provisions in the bill, I'm not going to mention specific provisions right now.  I know that there is a -- work on a potential statement of administration position, which would lay out concerns.

I know that Rob Hood and the team here and the -- the White House team have been having conversations with members and with the committees on -- on languages and provisions that we have concerns with.  I'm not going to -- I'm not going to negotiate the bill here from the podium today.  That's -- that's not my role.

So I'll -- I'll -- I'll leave that to -- to those statements or those documents when they come out.  I -- I will say I think with regard to the provision and the -- the movement or redeployment or right sizing of our footprints around the globe is something that is important to the department, it's important to the country.

It -- we have universal support on the Hill for the NDS, the National Defense Strategy, which makes it very clear that we have to have a pivot towards China and Russia.  So we hear often from members on the Hill and from staff that there's support for it, it was a bipartisan plan and -- and so you have members who -- who voice support for that but if we're going to support that, we've got to -- we've got to take some action. And some of that action involves moving forces from places where they are.

We understand that it's a -- it's a -- it's an issue where it takes time -- and that's why one of the big commitments the Secretary's had throughout his time here and why I know some people are frustrated that we haven't shared more information about the potential plans in Germany -- but the Secretary's got a commitment to brief the Hill, to have conversations and consultations with members of Congress about what that looks like and -- and to get their buy-in.

And so I think with -- with our -- our respect on -- on some of these -- these rotations is there may be some potential skepticism at the start but we are committed and -- and working to allay any concerns that members have to make our case for why this would put the U.S. military in a better position to respond to future threats and why this is the right move for the country at this time.

And so we'll continue to have those conversations with the -- with the Hill and we'll have those -- continue to have those conversations with our allies and partners, as well.

All right, so we'll -- we'll come back here to the -- to the room.

Q:  Thank you, Jonathan. On the relocation or redeployment of U.S. military, does there means that the reduction of USFK, South Korea?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So as I mentioned before, we're underdoing a global force posture review and -- and looking at what out footprint needs to be in the future.  I -- I don't want to add anything more than that to the Secretary's comments from this morning at the IISS summit where he was asked  the same question and I -- I think he -- he answered appropriately.

Q:  Will the United States and South Korea joint military exercise -- resuming next month, August, is normally resumption?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So we haven't -- we haven't stopped exercising and stopped operating or training with -- with the Koreans -- with the Republic of Korea throughout the COVID effort.  We've -- we've modified some of -- some of those efforts to reflect, you know, the -- the need for the restriction of movements or the -- the -- the footprints that we can have involved,but we haven't stopped.

So we're -- we're going to continue to -- to train, we're going to continue to exercise. Those may change and we may have additional plans and -- of initial announcements but I don't have any to make today.

Q: The last one, the -- U.S. strategic assets have recently gathering in the South Korea, they flow over to South Korea or -- and the aircraft coming.  What is the reason for the most assets come to South Korea?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Can -- can you repeat that?

Q:  U.S. strategic assets come to the South Korea.

MR. HOFFMAN:  What is the reason?

Q:  Yeah.

MR. HOFFMAN: Well I'm -- I'm not going to -- to talk about where our strategic assets are. I think you will see we often do a dynamic force employment around the globe to remain unpredictable for our adversaries and also to -- to build up the capability and the practice in having assets and having our forces practice in different areas of the world, if -- if needed.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. HOFFMAN: ... that's four questions -- that's four questions.  We'll go ...

Q:  I know the U.S. right now is either just wrapping up or in midst of operations with Australia, India, Japan, I think.  Is it -- have you heard of any maneuver -- any plans for similar kind of training with Vietnam since they're now being sort of pulled into this -- this sort of, you know, our interest as -- is countering China?

MR. HOFFMAN: So I -- I'm not aware of any -- any exercises. I think as everyone's aware, we had the -- the USS Roosevelt visit Vietnam this year, along with -- with the Boxer. And so that was a -- an important visit in building that relationship.

The Secretary was actually -- met with the -- the Vietnamese MinDef when we were in ASEAN last year and that conference is supposed to take place this year -- we actually visited Vietnam last year.  We have lots of conversations, this is an important partnership.  We hear from a number of countries in that region that are interested in additional exercises.  They all face the same concern and that is an unconstrained China operating in the South China Sea and taking extreme and excessive maritime claims.

And so whether it's the Philippines, the -- Vietnam, Indonesia and other countries in that area -- we've -- we've had interest from others in -- participate in FONOPs particularly and we encourage them to do so, we encourage them to -- to participate.

This last year, I think the Secretary mentioned, 2019, we had more FONOP operations than we've had at any point in the last 40 years.  And we have partners and allies participating in those every year and we would like to see more of that.

All right -- all right, we'll go -- go back to the phone.  Oh, Idrees?

Q:  I had a quick question about the memo Secretary Esper sent about all media engagements needing to be coordinated through DOD. Secretary (inaudible) talked about transparency, so I'm a bit confused, if he does believe so, why release the memo that sort of silences the Pentagon and the transparency that's been going on?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I think there's a couple -- couple things I think you got conflated in the coverage of -- of the memo that the -- the Secretary released.  So one was a memo on a -- on coordination of media activities and coordination of engagement activities.  That's separate from the OPSEC issue.

So as -- as many of you know, within the Office of Public Affairs over the last couple of years, we've built out a strategic plans and assessment team that is kind of a strategic comms group; and the intention was that that would help within the building, within the department ensure that whether we're doing announcements or rollouts or -- or big events that we were well coordinated as a department.

We've got three million people, we've got 5,000 public affairs officials throughout the building so it was an opportunity to try and say how can we better share a message? And just as an example, you know, when we have an announcement about Afghanistan, about the peace plan, that involves -- that involves the Commander on the ground in Afghanistan, that involves CENTCOM, that involves our policy teams here, that involves the Office of the Secretary, and that may involve other people in the building.  And so it's important to know what everybody's doing.

We've been pushing for that -- that group to have a little bit more visibility and to be used more regularly but during COVID, it actually was used very, very broadly because COVID affected the entire department; didn't matter where you were geographically, didn't matter what you were working on, the COVID messaging piece was something that everybody was dealing with from day to day.

And so I think what the Secretary saw, you know, through March and April was that we were relatively well coordinated on our messaging because it was important to make sure we had the right numbers out every day, it was important to make sure that we were -- the -- the right policies that were being implemented, everyone understood what was going on because it affected every member of the -- of the department and it changed on a regular basis.  And because of that, I think the Secretary saw the value in that -- that group being able to coordinate messaging.

So if you actually see the memo, it's -- it's not restricting anything to -- for the most part or -- or -- it's not restricting anything, it's saying "please coordinate."  And so what it is is for the -- generally for the services, the combatant commands, and for the Undersecretaries within the department to coordinate with Public Affairs on major announcements and policies.

So that's -- that's the intent of that memo.  I think that's been misconstrued somewhat but I can see how that -- that took place, given the fact that the other memos came out at about the same time, dealing with the operational security issues.

So separately, talking about the operational security memos, the Secretary is -- is concerned and rightfully so with the legal and inappropriate release of -- of a variety of non-public information without proper authorization.

And so while it is a crime to release classified information without proper authorization, it is important to remember it is also inappropriate and a violation of DOD employment requirements as well as potential laws, EOs, regulations, and government-wide policies to release unclassified information without proper clearance.

And so the focus on that was to -- one, to -- to reassure people in the building that they have a requirement to -- to safeguard classified information.  I mean, you guys see these memos on a regular basis, just to -- to re-up and -- and reinstitute the commitment of senior leaders to OPSEC and to ensure that there is a process for the authorized release of information.  And so to make sure that information that has been vetted is cleared with the legal team, with the policy teams, it contains the full context, is not pre-decisional, is not information that's going to cause confusion or -- or interference with some of our efforts.

So the -- I hope that helps.  There's a couple different things going in there.  There's a coordination memo, there's OPSEC with regard to criminal issues and classified information, there's OPSEC with regard to -- to unclassified information, as well.

So I have no doubt there's going to be a follow up to that one so Idrees, I'll give you the first crack at a follow up.

Q: Yeah, I was just going to say I appreciate the explanation but -- but do -- you can see why this may have a chilling effect and is there a way you can rectify that by making clear that there's not a blanket sort of ban on talking to the press?

MR. HOFFMAN:  It’s not a blanket -- or ban on talking to the -- to -- for authorized disclosures to the press, none -- not at all.  And it's not a -- and you guys will see the -- the coordination memo is not a -- you -- you cannot do things without authorization from -- from this office, it's -- it's, commanders are going to have this ability to go out.

I would just point you back to the Secretary's first -- one of his first, if not the first, memo he put out last year when he became Secretary was directing senior leaders to regularly engage with the media and I think that we've seen that take place.

He still has a commitment and I'll just, you know, read to you the last line of the coordination -- is -- memo is "the department benefits when we thoughtfully engage with the American public and the media in a well-planned manner and I want to encourage all of you to continue your public facing efforts."

And I would just further note, you know, the Secretary himself, he -- he testified to Congress last week in a public setting, he -- he participated in a town hall that included DOD personnel as well as questions from the general public, he participated in a think tank session today that included thought leaders from around the world, as well as media members.

So we're committed to being out there.  This is just an effort to -- to protect sensitive information in an effort to make sure the department's better coordinated.  

So we'll do a couple more and then we'll call it a day.

Q:  Hi, thank you for the briefing.  I am (inaudible) of the daily newspaper, I'd just like to ask one follow up question about South Korea.

MR. HOFFMAN:  Sure.

Q:  Yeah, I heard what Secretary Esper said this morning in IISS, but still there are speculations that there could be reducing that withdrawing the troops in peninsula and then -- so especially when both U.S. and Korea side can not reach the agreement in SMA.  So can you confirm that this issue is not leading to any kind of SMA negotiations or can you elaborate more on that?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Well I'm -- look, I'll -- I'll just once again say we're always looking at our force posture and the -- the department's commitment to the Republic of Korea is strong.  We've been allies and we've been there for -- on the -- on the peninsula for -- for decades.

The U.S. military is committed to the Republic of Korea, we're committed to being prepared to -- to fight tonight if necessary, we're prepared to -- with the OPCON transfer, we're working through the issues on that.

So the -- the relationship and our commitment to -- to the Republic of Korea has not changed.  Other than that, I don't have any information for you.  I think the Secretary answered this question directly this morning, though.

All right, Jennifer, one more ...

Q:  Can I just ask a quick question about this school memo, that – that says that the Pentagon will open schools on bases to kids.  Can you explain the policy and the -- in the event that those schools on bases where COVID is on the rise?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I -- I don't want to get ahead of -- of DoDEA (Department of Defense Education Activity) on this cause I know they're putting out information today and they're going to be talking to -- to parents and teachers and the school communities, so I'll give very broad brushes on this of my understanding, and that is remember DoDEA has schools around the world.

So if you look at DoDEA, they have schools in the Americas, in Europe and in the Pacific as kind of their three tranches. What they're going to look at is what are the conditions in the area and those DoDEA schools are going to be linked to the DOD installation HPCON (health protection condition) status.

So if the -- the facility is open for business as usual, then -- then the schools will be, as well, but the goal of DoDEA is to -- is to have in-person classes or make it available for having in-person classes and if not, to conduct virtual schooling.

So the -- the plan that I've seen so far has that -- of -- force condition A and B, the DoDEA students and teachers will be present in person in classrooms as social distancing but if it's HPCON C and D, DoDEA students and teachers will conduct virtual learning.

So that's the general framework of it. It's obviously going to be -- we've said throughout that a lot of the guidance with -- with regard to how the local officials and the local commanders will make decisions with regard to HPCON levels has been delegated down.

They know what the standards are for moving between the -- the B and C on the -- on the -- the security ladder.  It – it – part of it is, and  I just want to make sure I – I state these correctly, it's going to be whether there’s been a downward trend over the last 14 days, whether there's -- there's sufficient hospital bed space and medical care available, and whether -- and whether our forces are getting the -- have the care or access to the care they need.

And so the Commander’s will look at that. We've seen some places that initially went to green -- so they were all in HPCON C, they went down to -- to B, that have gone back up in some of these states where we've seen a -- a dramatic rise in the number of COVID infections and that's -- that's up to the -- the local commanders.

So -- all right, we'll go back to the phone.  I got a couple people.  Jeff Schogol?

Q:  Hey, thank you so much.  I'm a little confused in your answer to Idrees’ question.  On July 9th, the Secretary invoked OPSEC in talking about not releasing pre-decisional and unclassified information and he used the word "unclassified."

So can you explain how this memo on dealing with the press does not restrict information that gets to go to the press?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Sure. I mean, I'll -- I'll just tell you that right now, the memo on -- on public engagement coordination is -- is literally about internal DOD personnel coordinating their messaging campaigns. It's -- if you -- I don't know if you've -- you've read the memo yet, I'll be happy to -- to share it with you, as well, but it's just about the coordination of that messaging.

The Secretary -- like I said, there's -- there's additional guidance that was given on OPSEC and you raised one category of the OPSEC, which is -- which is the -- the sense controlled unclassified information (Sensitive Controlled Unclassified information), and then there's also classified information.  So there's two categories there that are -- that are important to note.

And the Secretary did mention and is -- is appropriately concerned with the unauthorized leaks of -- of -- criminal leaks of -- of classified information and the unauthorized leaks of controlled unclassified information.

So different issues.  I -- I understand the -- the -- the conflation of -- of them to -- to an extent, but I can just reiterate my commitment to you that we're going to be talking with you guys about issues that come up.  You're going to be able to have conversations with the PAOs and with senior officials and -- and others throughout the building.

And -- and look, if -- if -- if this is a -- is -- an implementation or a practice becomes an issue for you guys, please, my door's always open, I'm happy to talk to all of you about that.  I have made it very clear that my commitment to you guys on trying to get as much information out as possible -- and the Secretary has been driving that, as well, since his first day as Secretary.

So with that, I've got to head to a meeting in 10 minutes, so I appreciate everybody for being in the building today and taking time to -- to participate.

Thank you.