Transcript

ATSD(PA) Updates Reporters on DOD Activities

Aug. 6, 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 everybody, thanks for calling in or coming into the building today to do a quick press briefing.  First and foremost, I want to take a moment to echo Secretary Esper's sentiments and express the department's deepest condolences to the families of the nine service members who we lost last week in California.

Our prayers are with the family, friends and teammates of those brave young men.  We also want to express the department’s sympathies and mourning the lives of so many lost in Lebanon on Tuesday.  This is a horrific tragedy.  General McKenzie has spoken with the commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces and informed him of an impending delivery of three C-17 shipments of relief supplies, including food, water, and medical supplies.

The first of the Air Force C-17's with humanitarian aid has now taken off from Qatar bound for Beirut.  We will continue to coordinate with Department of State and USAID [United States Agency for International Development] on additional aid missions.

This morning, Secretary Esper had an hour and a half long telephone call with the People's Republic of China Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe.  In their discussion, the secretary called for greater trans -- PRC [People’s Republic of China] transparency on COVID [Coronavirus Disease], expressed concerns about PRC -- PRC destabilizing activity in the vicinity of Taiwan and the South China Sea, and called on the PRC to honor international obligations.  Secretary Esper also communicated the importance that the PRC abide by international laws, rules, and norms and meet its international commitments.

Finally, Secretary Esper affirmed the principles and importance of constructive, stable, and results-oriented defense relationship between the United States and the PRC.

This week, we had historic transitions take place across the department as we welcomed General Charles C.Q. Brown as the 22nd Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, and General Daniel Hokanson as the 29th Chief of the National Guard Bureau.

We want to thank Generals Goldfein and General Lengyel and their families for their distinguished service and express gratitude for their decades of commitment to our nation.  We wish them well in retirement.

We also saw significant progress this week with hearings for seven senior DOD [Department of Defense] nominees before the Senate Armed Services Committee for prominent positions such as the undersecretary of Air Force, General Counsel of the Army, and Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security.

We thank the Senate Armed Services Committee and the chairman and the ranking member for having those hearings this week and pursuing and moving this process forward.

So with that, I will take your questions.  So, first to the phone, Lita?

Q:  Hi, thanks Jonathan.  Two things on Lebanon, number one, is there any concerns about any of the aid ending up in Hezbollah hands?  Is there any precaution being taken in that regard, and is there any move to have the U.S. be involved in any type of investigation into what actually happened there?

And second, did U.S. generals give the president inaccurate information when he said that they told him that this was an attack, and have you been able to sort of get to the bottom of this?  Is there still any lingering thoughts among the military if this was an attack?  Thank you.

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, first obviously, we'll again reiterate our condolences for -- for the hundreds killed and the thousand that were injured in Beirut.  The investigation into the explosion is ongoing.  We're going to defer to and give the Lebanese government space to complete their investigation and reach their conclusions.  I'm not going to offer any -- any conclusions from the U.S. government or from the intel community today.  That's not my role, so we're going to work with them.  If they ask -- if they ask for assistance, the U.S. would be willing to provide that, but I'll defer to State Department into the coordination of what could take place.

Yes, I think your second com -- your second question was in regard to comments from the President.  I would just state that situation's been fast evolving, and that on Tuesday and Wednesday we saw different information come to light.

The President and Secretary have both been consistent that we've reached no definitive cause for the explosion and that information is still coming, and we're going to continue to assess it.

All right -- I'll go to -- right here, Meghann.

Q:  So last week the Secretary unveiled this plan to move troops out of Germany and back home, around other parts of Europe, and said that some of these units would start to making their moves within a matter of weeks.  Has there been sort of a call sheet of units that are going to be notified about those movements?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, I’d refer you over to EUCOM [United States European Command] and General Wolters and his team on the exact timeline of implementation for the -- the decision that was announced last week. Obviously, our commitment to NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] and the European community is ironclad -- and we're going to continue to bolster our NATO forces and bolster our deterrence for Russia.

But the timeline that those will take place -- obviously, this is something that's going to take a little while to implement fully, but as we mentioned last week was that there will be some elements that -- of advance forces -- that may be transitioning from one location to another -- to begin for further larger unit deployments.  But -- I -- like I said I defer you to EUCOM to get more details on that. OK.  All right.  We'll go to phone. Idrees Ali, Reuters.

Q:  Thanks, Jonathan. Two quick questions.  Has Mr. Tata started working in his new role at the Pentagon yet, and secondly, some Senators have called the move to install him without a Senate confirmation hearing and process a mockery.  So, for the Pentagon was this sort of a one-off -- not going through a confirmation process, or is that going to be the new norm going forward where someone is installed without going through a Senate process?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, as you're aware, Mr. Tata's been designated as performing the duties of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.  This is just a simple delegation that allows an individual to serve performing many of those duties, but it is not an acting role.  He is -- he does not have all the statutory responsibilities -- that he's just performing the duties of.  

I will note that this is not uncommon.  This is something that takes place in this organization -- others and in prior administrations.  I'll just point out that in the prior administration a current member of Congress was designated a senior -- senior official performing the duties of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy for over a year.

This is not unusual, so, this delegates -- like I said, it's a delegation -- responsibilities and not an acting status.  But as I mentioned we have seven individuals who are before the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that had hearings.  I think four of them had hearings on Tuesday and three more had hearings today.

So, the department is still committed to providing names that the President has appointed for consideration by the Senate, and hopeful confirmation and placement in positions within the department.

OK. So we'll go to the next one to Sylvie, AFP [Agence France-Presse].

Q:  Yes, hello.  Jonathan, you mentioned that this morning in the call (inaudible) General Wei.  I wanted to know if the Secretary discussed with the Chinese Defense Minister -- the visit he wants to make here to China this year, and if they decided on a date?

And also can you -- you didn't answer Lita’s question about to whom the aid is given in Lebanon.  Is it the government or is it NGOs [Non-Governmental Organization]?

MR. HOFFMAN:  OK, thank you for reminding me on that.  I did -- I did forget to respond to that.  So, right now I'd defer you over to the CENTCOM; obviously, this has been kind of a fast-developing plan with General McKenzie's announcement only a couple hours ago, and the first aircraft just taking off.

We're well aware of some of the concerns with -- with whom the aid would go to and ensuring that the aid gets to the people of Lebanon that need it most.  So, we'll work with State Department and USAID and take their guidance on -- on who deliver aid to.  I don't have additional information for you on that right now.  CENTCOM can get that to you or we can put you in touch with the right people over at State and USAID. 

To your -- your second question, don't have an announcement regarding the Secretary's proposed visit to -- to China.  We're still looking to have that complete this year to talk about, as the Secretary mentioned some -- or the Secretary discussed on his call today, some of these incredibly-important issues with a -- with an important nation in which we are working through a number -- a number of topics.

We'll just stay on the phones.  We'll go to Politico.

Q:  Hi Jonathan, thanks so much for doing this.  So, first of all, I just wanted to follow-up on the question about General Tata.  I don't believe it's normal to designate someone who the Senate has basically, essentially rejected at this point as performing the duties of, so can you just clarify that point? 

And then my second -- my actual question is just about Afghanistan.  Has the Pentagon received orders to go down to four to 5,000 troops in Afghanistan as the president said?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, with regard to your first one, I'm not going to discuss hypothetical votes in the Senate, but no vote on -- on Mr. Tata took place.  So, he withdrew his -- his name from consideration, and he was currently serving at the department, and based on his withdraw from consideration for the position of the Under Secretary for Policy, he was placed into a different position from the one he was being considered for.

I don't have the history of every single individual in the department who has been -- with names that are withdrawn from consideration for a Senate hearing.  But once again, the placing of an individual who is currently serving at the department into a PTDO [Performing The Duties Of] position is not unusual, and it's something that's happened repeatedly through this administration and previous administrations.

So, second question I think was on Afghanistan.  So, the president's direction on this has been very clear, and the department's moving to effectively implement that guidance in consultation with Congress and in coordination with our NATO allies. 

So, what's important to remember is that the Resolution Port Mission is a NATO mission, and so we -- we came to Afghanistan together, we fought together, and we'll -- we'll adjust together.  And if conditions are met we will -- we'll end up leaving together.

So, at this time, I'm not going to get into to -- to orders or -- or direction that has been given, but this is an ongoing process.  Planning is in place, and at the appropriate time we will -- we'll have additional information and updates for you.

All right, Lucas.

Q:  Jonathan, Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government.  Why -- what are you doing to make sure that they don't receive any of this aid money?

MR. HOFFMAN:  Just to go back, I don't think we specifically mentioned aid money.  We've actually mentioned aid in terms of food and medical supplies.  And so, with -- with that question, fast-evolving situation.  CENTCOM is going to continue to work with State Department and USAID to do what we can to make sure that that aid gets to the Lebanese people and those people that are suffering. 

We're optimistic and hopeful that this is an opportunity for all of those who -- who want to see a better outcome for the Lebanese people to come together and work for that.

Q:  So, you’re not concerned at all that Hezbollah gets some money?

MR. HOFFMAN:  I -- I don't have any input or insight into money going to Hezbollah in -- in this situation.  It's not coming from the Department of Defense.  The Department of Defense, I can kind of read off to you the -- the list of things that are traveling right now.

So, it's seven pallets of food, pallets of water, pallets of relief material that are moving out.  That's on that first aircraft.  There's two additional aircraft that are scheduled to depart Qatar for -- for Beirut soon.  [NOTE:  The first C-17 did originate from Qatar.  However, the base of origin for the second and third aircraft have not been identified but will be from within the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.]

Ryan?

Q:  I just have one follow-up.  Are you concerned at all about these -- the recent rocket attacks on you forces in Iraq and some of the supply convoys that have come --

MR. HOFFMAN:  We're always concerned about our -- our  -- our force protection efforts.  General McKenzie and the generals on the ground in Afghanistan and -- and Iraq will always take whatever measures they think are necessary to protect our people and our forces.  They have the inherent right of self-defense, and we've seen in the past that we are -- we will -- we will do what is necessary to take care of our men and women in uniform.

Ryan?

Q:  I have just one quick follow-up on the Afghanistan, I mean, the president said we're going down to 4,000 to 5,000 by the election.  Does that mean the conditions have been met to cut the U.S. troops by half?  You said it's conditions based, so I just want to -- have the conditions been met to do that?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, I -- I'll -- I'll once again state that the president's direction on this has been clear.  We've got an agreement with the Afghan Taliban -- with Taliban and how we will proceed in Afghanistan and where we want to end up.  It is conditions based.  We are going to be doing this in consultation with our allies and partners.  But, today I don't have an announcement for --for that timeline outside of -- of what things the president said previously.

Q:  And then -- and just on that point, I mean, you're -- DOD released a report last month saying they hadn't broken with Al-Qaida, the violence levels have remained high.  So, it doesn't appear that the conditions are currently being met.  Do you concur?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So -- so, I would say we're optimistic.  I think we have -- the Afghan government has a -- the government-wide meetings, the Loya Jirga, taking place and we're optimistic that that can lead to the start of an inter-Afghan dialogue that could advance the peace process.  We've seen the prisoner exchanges taking place. 

And so, we -- we have -- we continue to be optimistic; we continue to help ensure that there is a security environment.  From our side the -- the Taliban has abided by the reduction in attacks on U.S. forces, and they've followed through on some of the prisoner releases.  

So, we'll continue to push that with State Department, as State Department, the lead negotiator in this, to see that they -- they get there and to see that those inter-Afghan negations take place and that we -- we do reach a peaceful solution for the Afghan people. 

(Inaudible)

Q:  (Inaudible), Al Hurra.  Quick follow-up on Lebanon.  Do you have any concerns that the material exploded in Beirut is linked in any way to Hezbollah or Iran?  I'm asking this question, because we're seeing a lot of media reports on this issue. 

Also, do you trust an investigation to determine the cause led by the Lebanese government, given that Hezbollah is part of this government?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So we -- we will -- I'm not going to make any assumptions or assertions about the possible cause of it.  As I said, it's -- I'm not going to discuss our intelligence.  We are -- we're going to continue to investigation.  We're going to continue to watch the investigation that's conducted by the Lebanese government and -- and -- and help if necessary or if asked to get to a -- the conclusion about the actual cause.

And there's been speculation about whether this was a -- could have been a -- a weapons cache or could have been a -- some sort of an intentional device, or whether this is -- many people have posited an accident -- a terrible, unfortunate accident.  So, we're going to work with the intelligence community, and we're going to work with our allies and partners, and we're going to wait and see until we reach a conclusion about that, and then we will come forward with it. 

Go ahead.

Q:  (Inaudible) I have a two questions. One is South Korea, another one North Korea.  The U.S. and the ROK [Republic of Korea], the R.O.K. joint military exercise going on this month, do you have anything on that?  Is the scare reduced?  And the second one, North Korea, (inaudible) recently reported that Kim Jong-un killed 700 North Koreans includes coronavirus (inaudible).  Do you have any information about the North Korean (inaudible)? 

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, any information about the North Korean coronavirus data?  I don't have information on that that I can share in this setting, and I'm not actually familiar of what the numbers have been reported publicly on that, so I don't have much I can offer you there. 

With regard to exercises in the Republic of Korea, obviously we continually evaluate the situation with regard to COVID.  So where there were some changes or exercise in maneuver efforts during COVID. The commander on the ground, General Abrams has made determinations to continue, and we've never stopped training, we never stopped exercising. 

We're bringing back some, and we're adjusting our force training posture, but that’s going to be ongoing.  Part of it is obviously we're looking toward the OPCON [Operational Control] transfer, and we want to make sure we take the steps that are necessary to get to that place by ensuring that that capability is there for the Republic of Korea forces. 

Sir. 

Q:  Thank you. I want to follow-up, the Secretary’s (inaudible) to visit China. Did China show willingness or openness to host the Secretary’s visit (inaudible). 

MR. HOFFMAN:  So, I don't have any update on the visit from the call today to share with you, but as soon as we do have an update on either timing or location, or anything like that I'll be sure to share it with you guys. 

OK.  David? 

All right, we'll go back to the phones here.  So we'll go to Ellen Milhiser. 

Q:  Hello, Jonathan, thank you so much for doing this.  I'm going to go domestically, the COVID response, is there anything that the Pentagon -- that the military is doing domestically in support of the nation's pandemic? 

MR. HOFFMAN:  Now, we do have some forces that are deployed in California and Texas that are in place obviously additionally.  The president extended the National Guard funding opportunities for the next -- actually, for the rest of the year.  So those two actions are taking place. 

Third, I would include Operation Warp Speed, the efforts that we have underway broadly with regard to research and development of therapeutics and vaccines.  And General Perna's efforts as the COO [Chief Operating Officer] of Warp Speed, and helping marshal the whole-of-government forces to find a vaccine, manufacture and distribute it to the American people by the end of the year. 

So those would be the main ones that are underway.  And, obviously, we work with FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] on a daily basis, and as FEMA and HHS [Health and Human Services] identify mission assignments -- or states and counties come forward and identify a need for additional support whether it's for National Guard forces or active duty forces we'll work with them to staff those and to move personnel in to those positions. 

All right, we'll stay on the phones.  We'll go to Tony Capaccio.

Q:  Hi, there, Jon.  The -- the annual China report, when do you anticipate that coming out?  And secondly, what areas of transparency would the secretary like to see improved from the PLA [People’s Liberation Army]?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So I'll -- I'll get back to you on the China report.  I -- I haven't been tracking the -- the date on that.  I -- I think one of the -- the first ones that obviously is discussed is going to be on COVID.  We -- we've discussed that.  There are obligations that the -- the Chinese government is under responsibility for with regard to the WHO [World Health Organization] agreements, so they have a -- have a need to provide samples, to provide data.  That didn't happen, and we expect them to -- to continue to improve their information sharing in -- in regard of that.  So, that's one issue that was discussed.  I can -- I can get back to you on -- on a couple other ones, but that, with some of the China experts, but that was one that came up on the call today. 

All right, we'll go to -- back on the phone, we'll go to Jeff Schogol.

Q:  Thank you. 

MR. HOFFMAN:  All right.  Ryan, you had a...

Q:  Yeah, I just -- I do...

Q:  ... a follow up on the -- the National Guard.  The -- was the Pentagon -- did the Pentagon recommend that they fully-fund the Guard deployments, or did the Pentagon recommend the 75 percent funding level?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So the -- the -- the Pentagon's responsibility on this is -- you know how the system works, is with the funding, I think the exact wording is -- the -- the -- FEMA's responsible for the reimbursement and cost share assessments, and so that's FEMA's role in that process and working with the White House, and, so, the department, we advocated for the -- the deployment or the opportunity for the National Guard to be used by states to be continued.  We worked with the White House and with the other agencies on -- on a determination about the -- the cost share and the funding.  One hundred percent cost share is very-rarely-used tool, and in fact, this is a -- the only time where 100 percent has been used, at least that we're aware of, and the White House has shared that 100 percent has been used nationwide and every state and every county.  And, so, very unusual, and so the White House and the president made a decision to -- to roll that back to the more traditional 75/25 cost share.  But FEMA administers that, so I'd have to direct you over to -- to FEMA and the White House for the -- the actual final decision-making on that.

Q:  And -- and Florida and -- and Texas were given exemption, but they're similarly -- I know that it's been a while, but the rates -- in fact, you know coronavirus infection rates are going up in some states.  So, would there -- you -- but there was no Pentagon recommendation about how this should be done?

MR. HOFFMAN:  So -- so that wouldn't necessarily be our role, and I don't -- I don't want anybody to be -- misconstrue that the lack of a recommendation would not necessarily be our role.  As I said, FEMA has the responsibility on the -- the reimbursement cost share, and the White House works directly with states on that.  So I know from previous comments from others and from -- from the White House is that the president had direct conversations with governors and reached a determination where he felt the cost share assessment should be.

And look, we're just -- we've been very encouraged by the work that the National Guard has been able to do, and that they're going to continue to do.  So every state now continues to have the availability and access to National Guardsmen to help, whether it's -- it's testing screening, sanitizing, location support in food bank areas.  So, all of those resources are still available.  All of those National Guardsmen who are on orders will still continue to accrue the retirement and benefits.  There'll be no difference based on -- on what the cost share is, and that we'll continue to see -- see our people out there doing what they've been doing for six months.  They'll continue through the end of the year, and we'll make an assessment as to whether that continues.

OK.  All right, guys.  Thank you very much.