Transcript

Secretary of Defense Briefs Reporters on NATO Defense Ministerial and Ongoing Department of Defense Issues

Feb. 19, 2021
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III; Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I'm going to turn this over to the secretary in just a minute. He'll have a few opening comments and then we'll get to your questions. As you know, we're going to be doing questions from the phone and in the room, so I'm going to go two on the phone, two in the room.

The secretary has got 30 minutes, so we're going to try to move this crisply, given the restriction of time and his schedule, I'd ask you to limit your follow-ups, if you can. Meaning, limit them to zero.

So with that, Mr. Secretary, over to you.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LLOYD J. AUSTIN III: Well, good afternoon, everyone. And thanks to all of you for being here today. Before I start, let me just say that I deeply appreciate the work that you do on behalf of the public. I respect the way that you cover our military and I respect the role that you play in holding us accountable for how we defend the nation. And that is the number one job of the Department of Defense, to defend this nation and protect our interests.

As you know, I just wrapped up my first NATO Defense Ministerial meeting yesterday and it was a terrific couple of days and I want to thank Secretary General Stoltenberg for all his leadership in making that happen.

You all know that it's a little tougher to meet with people in a pandemic, and even though we met virtually, we still enjoyed productive discussions about a range of challenges facing NATO today and many that we are going to continue to face in the future, and they include a resurgent Russia, disruptive technologies, climate change, an ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the persistent threat of terrorism, and an increasingly aggressive China.

We were joined in some of those conversations by representatives from some of our most capable partners, including Finland and Sweden and the European Union, and we appreciated their unique perspectives, especially about China. Indeed, I applaud NATO's work on China and I made it clear that the United States is committed to defending the international rules-based order, which China has consistently undermined for its own interests.

We here at the Pentagon and the Department of Defense view China as our primary pacing challenge and we believe NATO can help us better think through our operating concepts and investment strategies when it comes to meeting that challenge.

But really, my first goal during the ministerial was to carry forward President Biden's message that strong alliances and partnerships remain vital to our collective security, and that foreign policy will be led by our diplomats.

I also stressed our ironclad –- ironclad commitment to the security guarantee under Article 5 of the national -- of the North Atlantic Treaty, and I don't use that word "ironclad" lightly. Our shared responsibility as allies, our duty, is to protect our populations and our territory, and to meet that duty we -- we require what the secretary general refers to as credible deterrence and defense, which I believe means that we must, each of us, do our part to procure, prepare, and provide ready forces and capabilities. And so I'm heartened to see that many of our allies meet or exceed NATO's 2014 Defense Investment Pledge, nine of the -- nine of them this year alone, in fact.

And now, we're into our seventh year of steady defense spending increases, and naturally, we want this trend to continue and we want to see every member of the alliance contribute their fair share. We recognize that this is -- this isn't always easy, but collective security rarely is. And neither are the missions that we're conducting in Iraq or Afghanistan easy.

We set aside a good bit of time to talk about those two places, and on Iraq, I reiterated our strong commitment to the defeat of ISIS and to supporting Iraq's long-term security, stability, and prosperity. That's a commitment that I made to my Iraqi counterpart and the Iraqi minister of interior just the other day after last weekend's deadly rocket attack in Erbil.

I also welcomed that expanded NATO mission in Iraq that responds to the desires and aspirations of the Iraqi government. With respect to Afghanistan, I walked our allies through our thinking as the new administration comes to grips with the reality on the ground.

The bottom line is this: we are committed to a responsible and sustainable end to this war, while preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups and -- and -- that -- that threaten the interests of the United States and our allies, and ensuring a just and durable end to the long-running conflict.

And so, to that end, we are conducting a rigorous interagency review of the situation, including all relevant options, with full consideration of the consequences of any potential course of action. We are mindful of the looming deadlines. But we want to do this methodically and deliberately, and I certainly won't get ahead of any decisions, nor will I preview the advice that I plan to give to the president.

Clearly, the violence is too high right now, and more progress needs to be let -- needs to be made in the Afghan-led negotiations, and so I urge all parties to choose the path towards peace. The violence must decrease now.

I told our allies that no matter what the outcome of our review, the United States will not undertake a hasty or disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan that puts their forces or the alliance's reputation at risk. At this time, no decisions about our future force posture have been made. In the meantime, current missions will continue, and of course, commanders have the right and the responsibility to defend themselves and their Afghan partners against attack.

As we move forward in our review, we will consult with our NATO allies, our Resolute Support partners, and of course, the government of Afghanistan, and there will be no surprises. We will consult each other and -- and consult together and -- and decide together and act together. And so that was my message over the last two days, and I think it was well-received.

Over the last -- for -- for this last 70 years, NATO has proven itself to be the strongest alliance in history, upholding our shared values of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. When Article 5 was first invoked, it was in our defense on September 11th, and the United States will not forget that, nor will we forget our own obligations to revitalizing this and all our other alliances. Collective security is, as I said, hard work, and we're ready to put our shoulders to the wheel.

And finally, I'd like to close by thanking the men and women of the Department of Defense who, as President Biden puts it, are often how the rest of the world encounters America. Because of them and their families and -- our nation will always lead from -- from a position of strength.

Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. We're going to go to Lita Baldor from AP on the phone. Lita?

Q: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, and it's -- it's been quite a while since we've been able to ask questions of the defense secretary in the briefing room. We appreciate it, and we hope that you are committed to doing this on a regular basis.

My question is on Afghanistan. During the NATO meeting, were the allies pressing you for timing on an answer? How long do you think the U.S. can wait before making a decision? And is that enough time, do you think, for the Taliban to measurably change either the violence or the negotiations? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks. I would just say that again, you know, we're going through a rigorous process, and our allies understand that, and they would want us to make sure that we're thoughtful about how we approach this and -- and -- and what we do. And so, you know, all of us are mindful of the time that -- that -- that's available, but we're really focused on making sure that -- that the negotiation process takes place as it should, and that, you know, hopefully, the parties will abide by their -- their commitments that they made at the outset of the -- the -- the negotiations, and the violence will -- we can bring the level of violence down.

But we're focused on making sure that we -- we make the right decisions, and we'll go through this process deliberately. Our allies understand that, and my -- my sense is that they did not fully expect that we would have a -- have a decision this early on in our -- in the -- this administration's tenure.

MR. KIRBY: Next question to Missy Ryan on the phone, Washington Post.

Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this, and echo Lita -- Lita. Hope to -- we could do this again regularly.

I have a question regarding the department's handling of sexual harassment and assault. I know that one of your first actions was this memo asking for initial input from senior officials by February 5th. I'm just wondering what you have learned so far and how that will guide your approach to tackling the problem of sexual harassment and assault.

And as a corollary, there was a video that went viral in the last 24 hours (inaudible) perpetrators retained by her commanding general. I was wondering if you have seen the video and if your office is looking into that? Thanks.

SEC. AUSTIN: So, Missy, there was quite a bit of feedback in the transmission there and I don't think I fully understood all of the question, but I -- what I think I heard you ask was, based upon what we received from our -- from the services, where are we in our efforts in taking on the sexual assault issue. And the second issue, as I understood it, was about the video.

First of all, you know, as I said in my testimony in front of Congress, I take this issue of sexual assault very, very seriously. And I know that the service chiefs and the service secretaries do as well. And so the collection of the data is a first step, but you can look for us to take additional steps in looking in detail at ourselves and what has worked, what hasn't worked, and what measures we need to take going forward to ensure that we provide for a safe and secure and productive environment for our teammates. I think any other approach is, in my view, irresponsible.

We have been working at this for a long time in earnest, but we haven't gotten it right. And my commitment to my soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, and dependents is we're going to do everything in our power to get it right.

Regarding the video, I found the video deeply disturbing, and I've asked my staff for additional information, and I'll leave it at that.

MR. KIRBY: Tom? Tom, Tom, Tom.

Q: Mr. Secretary, at your confirmation hearing a month ago, you talked about the problem of domestic extremism in the military. I am wondering now weeks on do you have any sense of the scope of the extremist problem in the military, any data, any numbers about who is kicked out, who is not let into the military, and if not, do you still hope to get some data?

And also, it's now prohibited under DOD regulations to be an active member of an extremist group but okay to have simple membership. Do you -- will you move to change that, bar all membership in such groups?

SEC. AUSTIN: So I think that was about six questions in one there, but, yes, let me --

Q: (inaudible)

(Laughter.)

SEC. AUSTIN: Let me just say a couple of words about that. First of all, I think this is a very important issue to us in the department. And I think it's an important issue because, as I said in my testimony, this tears at the fabric -- very fabric of cohesion. And it's important for us to be able to trust the men and women on our left and right.

I've asked for the services to conduct a one-day stand-down and take 60 days to do it. And then, as they conduct that stand-down, I have encouraged them to have a dialogue with their troops about our values, about the oath that they took when they came into the service, and about who we are and what we're about.

This is also a time for us to educate leaders in terms of understanding those signs and those -- those symptoms that can indicate that we could be developing an issue within our ranks.

But let me say up-front here, though, before I go one step further, that -- that I really -- I really and truly believe that 99.9 percent of our service men and women believe in that oath. They believe, embrace, the values that we are focused on and they're doing the right things.

But -- and I expect for the numbers to be small, but quite frankly, they'll probably be a little bit larger than most of us would guess, but -- but I expect for them to be small. But I would just say that, you know, small numbers in this case can have an outsized impact.

And when I think about, you know, the issue of extremism in the ranks, you've heard me talk about my experience with the 82nd Airborne Division, which I believe was -- is a great organization, and we have a lot of great organizations in the military, but you know the history of the storied 82nd Airborne Division.

And as we wrestled with this -- with this issue when I was a lieutenant colonel, we couldn't tell that story of what we were doing and how great we were because nobody wanted to hear it, they wanted to hear about the skinheads. And so that had an outsized impact on that -- on that organization.

And one of the things that sticks in my -- in my mind right now -- and General Milley will probably step on my toes for saying this -- but I have this image of Mark Milley, Lieutenant General Mark Milley, standing in front of a podium in Fort Hood, Texas, talking about the impact that was -- that was experienced by one of our members, who had become radicalized and killed a bunch of our soldiers that were preparing for deployment. That nearly crippled the organization for a period of time. So an incredible – an outsized impact on the organization.

I think that -- you know, our -- the American public has high expectations of its military, as it should. And the American public should -- should know and understand that we're not afraid to take a look at ourselves, and we're not afraid to -- to address -- if there are issues, to address those issues that -- that may be rising up in our -- in our climates and our communities.

And so we're going to learn a lot more. You know, we don't have specific data about -- about numbers right now, but -- but quite frankly, as I said earlier, you know, small numbers can have an incredible impact on a great force, and we have a great force, ladies and gentlemen.

MR. KIRBY: Jennifer?

Q: Mr. Secretary. Will any U.S. troops remain at the Capitol after March 12th? And what would you say to those who say that there is no credible threat to the U.S. Capitol and those troops should go home right now?

SEC. AUSTIN: Right now in terms of, you know, our expected stay, it is March 12th. And -- and we don't have an additional requirement or request from another federal agency to provide them support, so that's our focus right now.

But while I'm talking about them, let me just emphasize the tremendous work that our Guardsmen have been doing. And you've been -- you know, you've seen the weather that we've had lately, they are out there, on point, on guard, in support of -- of other federal agencies, protecting our lawmakers. And I can't say enough about them, and I'm really proud of what their -- what their leadership is doing also to take care of them while they're doing this tough work.

But presently, we don't have any additional requirements beyond the one that we just -- that we talked about.

Q: And credible threats?

SEC. AUSTIN: Jennifer, you know, I mean, it's probably not appropriate for me to talk about intelligence matters from -- from this podium, but I would just tell you that we will continue to assess the threats as -- as we go forward, and decisions will be based upon, you know, what we believe is credible or not.

I told them, when I went to see them the other day, that, you know, my plan is to not keep them there one day longer than is necessary. Having said that, they know and understand that if our lawmakers need -- need help, they need protection, they stand ready to provide that protection. But again, March 12th is what we're focused on now.

MR. KIRBY: Okay, I'm going to go to the phones. Phil Stewart, Reuters?

Q: Yes, hi, Mr. Secretary. On your call with your Saudi counterpart, what message did you deliver about the war in Yemen and how this administration and this Pentagon will approach threats to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia emanating from Yemen?

SEC. AUSTIN: Well, you know, I -- I certainly -- I consider that call to have been a good call. It was certainly re-establishing connectivity with -- with the crown prince, who was also the Minister of Defense, my counterpart.

As you know, President Biden has been clear about the fact that we will no longer support offensive operations -- the Saudis' offensive operations into Yemen. And so they've heard that message loud and clear.

And in terms of specific issues that I -- I would have covered with -- with the crown prince, you know, we provide a readout, but -- and I'm certainly -- I look forward to having issues -- talking about issues of substance in these conversations, but I certainly won't -- I won't provide details of the conversation from the podium here.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. Because of time, I'm going to go back into the room now. We'll go one-for-one until we run out of time.

Helene?

Q: Mr. Secretary, thank you for doing this. I have two questions, but they're connected. The first one is, you said that you found the viral video -- they're both related to females in the military. You found the viral video very disturbing, but in this video, this female Marine says -- and I quote -- "This is why females in the military kill themselves."

And you say that you're looking into this issue. She suggested specifically the commanding general, her C.G., saying that whoever the perpetrator is going to be retained in the military. How -- what kind of message are you going to be sending to sort of the -- the C.G.s, the captains, the brigade commanders throughout the military about how they deal with this issue?

And connected to that, my second question is on specifically the issue of Laura Richardson and Jacqueline Van Ovost. Your predecessor told us that he withheld their promotions because he was afraid of how President Trump would react to them. Are you going to be forward these promotions for these two women to President Biden?

SEC. AUSTIN: Helene, I think that was two questions, each with six parts.

Q: They’re connected!

SEC. AUSTIN: Yeah. On -- on the second question first, I -- I certainly can't comment on decisions that someone else made or my -- my predecessor made. I'll leave that to them to -- to explain their actions.

And I certainly won't -- won't comment on personnel actions from this podium, in this room. I don't think that's fair to the system, not fair to my boss, and certainly not fair to the people who are in the -- in the -- who are competing. I would just say that I've seen the records of both of these women, they are outstanding, and -- and so -- and -- and I'll leave it at that. 

On the -- on the issue of sexual assault and, you know, what's -- what is going to be done and -- and what I'm -- what -- what I'm going to emphasize to -- to commanders, I think we need to consider who I am and where I fit in the judicial process -- or -- or chain. And we want to make sure that, you know, I preserve my ability to -- to adjudicate or take action or whatever needs to happen.

But the first thing's -- first things first -- we have to get the facts, we have to understand what -- what just happened. And let me also say that -- that, you know, I care about each and every one of our -- of our troops, and certainly, you know, I'm going to ask that -- that her chain of command makes sure that someone is looking out after her needs and make sure that -- that we're taking care of her. So.

MR. KIRBY: Okay, back -- back to the phone here. Tara Copp from McClatchy?

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for doing this. I also have a question about the National Guard. A few weeks ago, the Adjutants General for the states of Washington and California said that the domestic demands on the Guard, whether they're wildfires or storms or domestic unrest, are expected to continue to -- in -- in future years, and what really needs to happen is we need to increase the end strength of the Guard.

I was wondering if you've talked to the National Guard about this and if you're considering requesting an end strength increase for Guard members to address these future domestic threats? Thank you.

SEC. AUSTIN: Again, I'm -- I'm really proud of our -- of the work that our Guard has done. I mean, it's -- it's -- and it continues to do -- we didn't talk about this earlier but I -- I think most of you know that there are over 20,000 Guardsmen out there right now around the country, helping out with -- with the COVID crisis and -- and helping distribute -- distribute vaccines and -- and that sort of stuff. So they are doing -- they are having a tremendous positive effect on our country and they're doing great work and I'm really proud of them.

In terms of end strength, that's a conversation that I've not had with -- with the chairman or the chief of the Guard and certainly I think when they feel that it's appropriate, if that's their concern, then they'll -- they'll bring it -- bring the issue forward.

But to answer your question, we've not had those discussions.

MR. KIRBY: The last -- last -- last question today is going to go to Tony, then we're going to have to wrap up.

Q: Can I have a -- can I have a question? I have a China -- I have a China question. Do you see any areas of cooperation with China? You talked about a pacing threat, a pacing challenge. This is four years we've heard the rhetoric.

What areas do you seek potential cooperation to lower the tensions between our -- our two nations?

SEC. AUSTIN: I -- I would say that -- that, you know, anything that we do will be based upon our best interests. And -- and so there no doubt are some areas where we -- we will see common interests and there may be an opportunity to -- to engage, but it will be from the standpoint of promoting our best interests.

Now, having said that, from a Department of Defense standpoint, as I mentioned earlier, you know, my number one concern and my number one job is to defend this country and protect our interests. And so we are -- in this department are going to do everything possible to ensure that we have the right operational concepts, the right plans in place, and that we have resourced those plans with the right capabilities to present a credible deterrence to -- not only to China or any other adversary who would want to -- want to take us on.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, everybody, we have to call it quits right there. Thank you so much. Thank you very much. Thank you.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. AUSTIN: Thanks, everybody.