Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary Updates Reporters on DOD Operations

Feb. 22, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. Okay, a couple of things at the top here and we'll get right after it. 

The Department of Defense through the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering has launched the DOD Aerospace Education Research and Innovation Center, otherwise known as AERIC, and we pronounce is "eric" here, at Tuskegee University in Alabama. AERIC will support two-year research projects in the areas of fatigue damage tolerance, experimental aerodynamics and the performance of materials and components under extreme environmental conditions. Tuskegee University is the number one producer of black aerospace engineers in the nation and we are very excited to partner with them as they host AERIC.

Today Secretary Austin participated in a virtual meeting of NATO colleagues from Canada, Lithuania, Poland, the United Kingdom and Ukraine. The meeting was hosted by the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace. All these allies are actively providing training and support in Ukraine alongside the United States and the meeting came on the heels of Secretary Austin's February 19th discussion with Ukraine Minister of Defense Andriy Taran, which focused on Ukraine's defense priorities, reform objectives, and of course, how the five allies can support Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic goals.

Now as you have been tracking, Secretary directed the force to conduct a one-day stand-down to deal with extremism in the ranks. To support this effort, we issued a video to the force with a message directly from Secretary Austin. It will be used alongside other training materials to facilitate a good exchange of ideas as commands work through their stand-downs and you can find that on defense.gov. It's on our website.

On the personnel front, we on-boarded another seven personnel today, bringing the total to 78. Today's additions include Spencer Boyer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO Policy; Milancy Harris, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations in Combatting Terrorism; Farooq Mitha, Director of Small Business Programs; and someone that you're undoubtedly going to get to spend some time with here, Jamal Brown, our Deputy Press Secretary, who is right there. Wave your hand there, Jamal. He just checked in today. 

Finally, Secretary Austin will be making his first trip as Secretary of Defense this week; he'll travel to Colorado on Wednesday to visit with the U.S. Northern Command and then to California to see the first active duty team supporting one of FEMA's mega vaccination sites, this one of course, in Los Angeles. He'll also head to San Diego on Thursday and while there he'll link up with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Gilday, as they visit U.S.S. Nimitz, as she begins to make her final preparations to return home after a 10-month deployment. He'll also have the opportunity to visit with two Navy vaccination sites on the base at North Island and see what the Navy's doing to make more vaccines available to sailors there and in San Diego.

Okay. With that, I think Bob you're on the phone, right?

Q: Yes I am, thanks, John. I have a question for you about Iraq. In light of today's rocket attack on the Green Zone and, of course, the recent attack in Erbil, wonder what you make of this resumption of attacks and whether this appears to you to be the work of the militias that have been a problem previously?

MR. KIRBY: Well, certainly we have seen attacks in the past from Shia-backed militias operating inside Iraq. I don't know of any attribution for the one in Erbil from last weekend; I don't think that's been finally determined and as for the recent attack, again I don't have any attribution on that either. It's difficult to say with certainty, Bob, whether there's a strategic calculation driving this uptick, this recent uptick in attacks or whether this is just a continuation of the sorts of attacks we've seen in the past. But obviously we're going to be working closely with our Iraqi partners as we have been on the attack last weekend in Erbil. We'll be working with them to get more context about this and try to place it in proper perspective but clearly, look, I mean, these are dangerous attacks, and as we saw in the one in Erbil, an individual lost his life and now a family is grieving. I would say again, that we're there to counter ISIS at the invitation of the Iraqi government and our commanders, just like the Iraqi commanders, have the right of self-defense. 

Let's see, go back to the phone again here. Dan Sagalyn.

Q: Thanks for calling on me. I have a question about the Presidential Commission on Sexual Assault that the DOD is putting together. Is DOD consulting with members of Congress on who will be in the commission, on the commission, or is DOD just picking whoever it wants without regard to input from members of Congress?

MR. KIRBY: Well, we're certainly going to consult with Congress as the plans for this commission come together, Dan. I can tell you that the Secretary met with the senior OSD leaders, senior leaders, here at the Pentagon, which included the Service Chiefs, to talk to them this morning about his feedback on their inputs to him. As you know, it was his first directive on his second day in office to ask the Services to provide him input on what they felt they were doing right, what they needed to improve, maybe ideas they have going forward and he had the opportunity to review that work and talk to them about that today. It was a good, productive discussion. 

He explained to them that he expects before the end of the week to formally announce the 90-day commission with more granularity and more detail; I'm not going to get ahead of that announcement here today. But to your other question, as I said at the top, he -- he certainly understands, respects and appreciates the interest that members of Congress has -- have shown on this issue, and will keep them fully apprised as -- as we move forward.

OK, in the room. David?

Q: John, when Secretary Austin talks about extremism in the ranks, he says, "It's probably more than we would like, and less than the media depicts it as." Is he expecting some sort of number out of the Services; somebody to tell him exactly how many extremists there are in the ranks?

MR. KIRBY: I think what the Secretary would like to do, David, is to see if there's a way to get a better sense of the numbers, if there's -- if there is a way to try to collect data on the extent of this problem. He is also mindful that that's a difficult task to undertake because it's -- it's largely, we get a sense of the problem largely driven by conduct and behavior, and it -- it's, you know, difficult to know, sometimes, even in conduct and behavior that is prejudicial to good order and discipline or a violation of the UCMJ. Often it's not -- it's not always possible to know what drives that, not to mention that some extremist behavior happens off base, off duty, and is -- is captured rather by civilian law enforcement -- not even federal, but maybe even local civilian law enforcement, and we may not have perfect insight into that database.

So would he -- well, I don't want to ask the rhetorical question. He, of course, would like to know with more granularity how big the problem is, and that would include, but not -- not -- not solely, but it would include getting a sense of the -- the numbers of people who are in the ranks who espouse these beliefs and are acting, or willing to act on them. But he's mindful that it's a difficult dataset to get to.

Q: I haven't asked today, but last week, when you asked the Services, "When are -- when are your stand-downs taking place?" the answer was "We're waiting for guidance from OSD." Are you supposed to deliver some guidance before it -- each unit has its -- its stand-down? And if so, when is that guidance coming?

MR. KIRBY: As I understand it anecdotally, some Services, some commands have already conducted their stand-downs, and we are in the process of -- of putting out -- and we expect to do it very shortly here -- some training materials for them to be able to use when they conduct -- to -- to conduct their stand-downs. And the video I referenced today which, again, is on our website, was a -- a -- a part of that training package. You'll see, when you watch the video, he was clearly addressing it to the force.

Q: And we can expect these training materials when?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have a -- a date certain for you. The team's working hard on that, and I think it'll be very soon that that stuff will be delivered.

Q: So go back to the numbers for -- for a second. The -- the Marines have said that in the past three years they had 16 incidents of extremist behavior, mostly online postings; no sense of how those cases were resolved. And last year, the FBI said of half the cases -- investigations they're looking at involving mostly former military members, some active, roughly half of those have to do with -- domestic extremism. So if you get those two, you know, data points, I mean, why can't -- why can't you guys get more? I mean, it's just kind of frustrating when we have this little information.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Tom, look, I -- I -- back to David's question, I think the Secretary very much would like to have a better sense of -- of the data. And if there are lessons to be learned in one of the Services, that -- that other Services could learn from or we could apply centrally here, I think he's open to that.

And I -- I -- I understand the frustration, I -- I do, and he shares it. I mean, we need to have a better understanding of -- of how deep and how broad the -- the -- the problem is. There are, as you know and we've talked about it -- I mean, there's First Amendment rights here too that also -- also have to be respected. 

This isn't about, you know, trying to, you know, get into the, you know, brains of an individual member of -- of -- of the military but rather to make sure that we have a better sense of who we're bringing in and that those who are in are ascribing and acting on our core values, the core values of the institution, and not some other group's core values that are inimical to what we're supposed to do for defense of the -- of the nation.

And then, the last piece is that they're not acting out on beliefs -- extremist beliefs that put good order and discipline in jeopardy, or worse, put their shipmates, their teammates, their colleagues in -- in jeopardy, as well, OK? 

Let me go back to the phones here. Sam LaGrone, USNI?

Q: Hi. To follow up on the pier side visit of CNO and SecDef Austin, one of the things that we're seeing with carrier deployments writ large is they're getting longer and longer and longer, in part with this commitment to having assets in -- in CENTCOM, and you're seeing double-pump deployment just start last week with Eisenhower leaving Norfolk. TR is out. It's a double pump deployment, or a -- a -- a deployment back-to-back without a significant maintenance period.

You know, given that Nimitz has been out for 303 days with those sailors and -- and Marines away from their families, what -- what is the Department doing moving forward to -- to see if you can balance the kind of demand signal for these assets? That, you know, we're talking about, like, in the last year, there's more carriers underway than since the Arab Spring. So, thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Sam, thanks. I mean, it's a good question and it's a fair one. I mean, I -- I think it's something that -- it's -- it's been a long -- a longstanding issue, this, balancing capabilities versus requirements, and there's a lot of requirements out there in the world for, in this case you're talking about, naval capabilities.

And the Secretary's certain mindful of the demand that's placing on the Service itself and, of course, on his -- on the sailors, and that's one of the reasons why he -- he wanted to go out to see Nimitz, as she gets ready to come home, to thank the sailors for -- for that extraordinary service and sacrifice.

He has also had, and I suspect he will continue to have, through the budget season and even beyond, discussions with the Chairman and the Chiefs about the resiliency of the force, the kinds of capabilities we're putting in the field, in the fleet, and the degree to which the requirements process is -- is being handled in the most effective and the most efficient way.

I mean, it -- there -- there -- there's always tension between what's needed out there and what's available, and he's mindful of that, having been a combatant commander himself and a -- a -- a -- the Vice Chief of the Army, he's been on both sides of that equation and I think he's uniquely qualified and -- and situated to -- to try to get the -- the balance better going forward. 

Idrees. Reuters?

Q: Thanks, John. So last week, NATO announced that it would up its presence in Iraq to about 4,000. I know you tweeted out last week, saying it won't include U.S. military personnel. If the number of troops -- NATO troops in Iraq does go up to 4,000, does the Pentagon believe that that allows the U.S. military presence to be reduced?

MR. KIRBY: So, what I said was that while we certainly support NATO's expanded mission -- the training mission in -- in Iraq and we recognize that there's a force generation process that goes along with that, there are no plans to put additional U.S. forces in Iraq to contribute to that expanded mission.

There are, as you know, many ways we can contribute to -- to mission sets without having to necessarily put more, to use the phrase, boots on the ground, that there are ways to contribute that -- that don't necessarily mean an increase in -- in footprint.

Q: Can I go back to Iraq?

MR. KIRBY: Sure.

Q: I have a question on Yemen, as well, but on Iraq, it's -- I mean, the attack today is one week since the attack on Erbil, and a group claimed responsibility for that attack, (inaudible) in reference to General Qasem Soleimani and (inaudible) -- and (inaudible).

Seen some analysis in the region claiming that U.S. is trying to play down these attacks to maintain a diplomatic opening with -- with Iran. We've seen the previous administration willing to use military action against such attacks when they happened.

Is this Administration trying to play down the -- these attacks or it's actually looking into military action to respond to -- you know, if they continue?

MR. KIRBY: We take these attacks very seriously, as I just said earlier, and that the President himself noted. When it -- if and when it's appropriate to respond, we'll do so at a time and a place and in a manner of our choosing and certainly in consultation with our Iraqi partners. Barb?

Q: ... on Yemen -- may I ask a question on Yemen? Thank you. So we're seeing that the Houthis are trying to advance on -- on Marib, a resumption of what's been described as the worst fighting since 2018, and this came at the heels of the decisions by the Administration to halt support to the Saudi coalition offensive operations in Yemen and revoking the global terrorist designation of -- of Houthis.

Do you think the Houthis are trying to kind of take advantage of these steps? Are they misreading the Administration's intentions in Yemen?

MR. KIRBY: I can't speak for the Houthis or what tactical decisions they're making and why. We've been clear that, in the decision to halt support for Saudi -- Saudi -- the Saudi-led coalition's offensive operations, that this was really about trying to get some space for humanitarian relief to get in there and to reflect our concerns over the precision, or the lack of precision, with which the coalition was executing their -- their offensive operations.

And -- but as for what's motivating the Houthis right now, you know, I -- I wouldn't begin to speculate. We want to see -- back to the bigger point -- we -- we support and we want to see a political settlement and an end to this war so that the people of Yemen can live in a safe, secure environment and -- and this humanitarian catastrophe can be ended. 

Barb?

Q: Two quick questions, different subjects. First, I was curious whether, following the United Airlines Pratt & Whitney -- Whitney engine failure, you're -- the Department, the military is taking any kind of -- although -- although they have different Pratt & Whitney engines ... 

MR. KIRBY: Right.

Q: Are they looking at or considering whether they need to have a look at the engines they do have, including Air Force One, to see if there's any commonality. 

And my other question. On the sexual assault commission, while that's going to be a 90-day process, if the Secretary's already beginning to hear what's working but also what's not working, can you give us any more on what his thinking is? Are there things that might be done before the 90 days are up? 

MR. KIRBY: So on the first one, I'm going to have to take the question, Barb. I don't have a good answer to a very fair question, so we will take that and we'll get back to you on that. 

On sexual assault, you've already seen him take some actions and I think you're going to -- you know, he didn't want to wait for the 90 days before he issued that first directive, and he did learn some things from the -- from Service input. 

Without getting ahead of him, I would expect that you will see him likewise take some immediate actions before the 90-day commission completes its work, somethings that I think he believes are warranted by what he's learned, and that he doesn't believe he has to wait for the 90-day commission to come back. 

But clearly, you know, the locus of the long-term strategic effort will be based on what they learn, and again, without getting ahead of the Secretary, I will tell you that it's his intent that this commission do a fair job of looking outside the lifelines, as we say, outside the Defense Department and consulting experts in the civilian community on -- on this particular issue. 

Let me go back. 

Lara Seligman from Politico? 

Q: Hey, John, thanks for doing this. I wanted to follow up on the question about Iraq actually. So there have now been three rocket attacks that endangered Americans in Iraq over the past week that are likely linked to Iran. So does the Pentagon -- have you -- or do you plan to communicate to Iran that killing an American is a red line, as the previous administration did? 

MR. KIRBY: We have made it perfectly clear our views about the malign activities that Iran continues to perpetrate throughout the region. As for these particular attacks, again, we haven't gotten into specific attribution, so I don't want to get ahead of the investigative process. 

Nick Schifrin? 

OK, thought he had a question. Jen, you had one?

Q: John, have you received or has the Pentagon received General Honore's report on Capitol Hill security that was commissioned by Speaker Pelosi? And have there been any new requests since Friday to extend the National Guard past the March 12th deadline? 

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware that we have General Honore's report, so I will take that question and get back to you. I don't know if that's here or not. 

And there's been no updates and no additional requests that have come into the building about either extending or changing the -- the number, the scope of the National Guard presence on Capitol Hill. It still continues; I think, today, we're down around 5,300. In fact, I can give you the exact number here, 5,279 as of today. 

Q: And how many states they're coming from? 

MR. KIRBY: I don't have that broken down for you. I'll see if we can get that, I don't know if that's -- if I have that. 

Yeah, Jenny?

Q: Thank you, John. 

MR. KIRBY: You're welcome. 

Q: You look nice today. 

MR. KIRBY: Thank you. 

Q: I have a question about US-South Korea, joint military exercises-- you need to comment on the president (inaudible) remark, about the South Korean president (inaudible) that listened to press conference, that he would make a decision on the joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, that he, after consulting with North Korea. 

As you know, it's a joint military exercise between U.S. and South Korea. Is there a work between our alliance and is there – I mean defensive against North Korea, you know that. 

And they -- it doesn't make sense, in consulting with North Korea (inaudible), North Korea is our potential enemy. I would appreciate your comments on this. 

MR. KIRBY: Well, I haven't seen the president's comments, so I'm not having seen them, I'm loathe to comment on that specifically. The only thing I would add -- and we've talked about this before -- is you're right, we do have a security alliance with Republican of Korea. It's a linchpin, we believe, for the region, that alliance, and we take it very, very seriously, our commitments to that alliance, we take very seriously. 

And as General Abrams had said many times, I mean, we do have to maintain a significant level of readiness on the peninsula, and the Secretary's confident that he, General Abrams, is doing all the right things to work with our South Korean allies to make sure that that readiness is preserved to the maximum degree possible. 

And there's lots of ways -- excuse me -- to preserve readiness and training, as we -- as we've seen. Even through COVID, there had to be adjustments made of course because of the pandemic. 

But again, we're confident that General Abrams understands those responsibilities and is working in lockstep with his counterparts in South Korea to make sure that that readiness is preserved and training is conducted and that the alliance is -- is as strong as ever, OK? 

Q: Thank you so much. 

MR. KIRBY: Sure, go ahead. 

Q: Thank you, John. As you know, Afghanistan situation gets worse day by day. This last Sunday, so many people, including civilian children, were murdered, have been killed. And nobody took the responsibility, Taliban and the government, they accused each other. 

And also Afghan people want to know how long it's going to take to review the Doha agreement between U.S. and Taliban. And from that, every day, people suffering a lot, a lot of people (inaudible).

And also, Russia wants to invite Taliban to continue the peace talk process. What is Pentagon's reaction on that? 

MR. KIRBY: We believe that -- well, let me back up. To your first point, I mean, we're certainly mindful of the suffering that continues to be experienced by the Afghan people. And as the Secretary said himself, when he was here -- up here Friday, the violence is too high and it needs to stop. 

The Administration is still conducting its review of the Doha agreement and the compliance mechanisms in that, so I won't get ahead of that. But again, as the Secretary said to you all on Friday, we are mindful of looming deadlines here. And we are certainly mindful of the suffering that's going on inside Afghanistan. 

We're also mindful of our obligations to -- to our Afghan partners, and to the Afghan government. It's important, we believe -- continue to believe -- that there's not going to be a military solution to this, it has to be done politically. And that means it needs to -- you know, negotiations in good faith have to bear fruit and have to be borne on the backs of a permanent comprehensive cease-fire. 

So, again, I won't get ahead of the decision-making process, but I can assure you that the Secretary and everybody here at the Pentagon are 100 percent committed to doing this review in a thoughtful, deliberate, but timely fashion. We understand that there's looming deadlines, OK? 

Let me go back to the phones…

Q: And my second question (INAUDIBLE) Taliban to talk about peace process?

MR. KIRBY: I don't -- I would refer you to our State Department colleagues on that. We, specifically, with the Russia piece, but as I said in my longish answer to you before, I mean, there is a peace process that has been undertaken already, an Afghan-led peace process. And that's what we continue to support, OK? 

All right. I think I got almost you all in the room here. Ellie Watson, CBS? 

Q: No question, thank you.

MR. KIRBY: OK. Christina Anderson? 

OK. Abraham from Washington Examiner. 

Q: Can you hear me, Christina Anderson? 

MR. KIRBY: Sure, go ahead. 

Q: OK. Yes, I'm interested in knowing whether there has been any review of the need for -- as expressed by the National Guard and Reserve, for military training and equipment that is much more up-to-date, and training also with their colleagues who are active duty? 

They feel -- some have expressed -- elements have expressed that they are concerned about training -- falling behind on the training. Thank you very much. 

MR. KIRBY: Well, let me follow up with you later about that, ma'am. I'm not familiar with those complaints, so I don't want to get into specifically addressing them when I'm not that familiar with that particular issue. So we'll follow up with you after the briefing to get more context from you. 

Again, just in general, back to what I was saying before when we were talking about the Navy, the Secretary understands as a former soldier himself the importance of making sure that our troops have the training and the resources, the equipment, the systems they need to get the job done. And he is always going to be interested in trying to close that gap to the maximum extent possible. 

Yes, over here. 

Q: Hey, John. 

MR. KIRBY: Hey. 

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: I didn't recognize you. 

Q: I know. I haven't been here for a while, so thanks. 

I wanted to follow on David's question. In a TV interview, the former chief of staff, Kash Patel took another view on extremism in the military and said the problem doesn't exist. And I was wondering if we could have the Pentagon's views on that. 

And then secondly, in these stand-downs and listening sessions that will happening across units across the Services, will there be any attempt to maybe summarize the conversations that are had or gather data from those individual sessions to at least start to get a bigger picture of, you know, how big a problem this might be? 

MR. KIRBY: That's one of the reasons, in fact, I would argue it's the chief reason the Secretary ordered the stand-down was to do exactly that, to listen to the men and women of the force about what they are feeling and experiencing out there, to get a better sense about the scope and the breadth of the problem. Will it lead to specific data, as David asked? I doubt that. I mean, it's not about counting heads in the process of the stand-down but clearly it's about trying to get a better grasp of the degree to which the problem exists.

And as for Mr. Patel's comments, I -- I would only point you to the fact that -- that the Department, under the previous Administration, in October completed a -- a report, asked -- asked by Congress, and you've seen some reporting about that but, you know, clearly it found that extremism is an issue in the United States military. So I find that a very interesting comment to make when they themselves studied this and -- and -- and came to the conclusion that -- you know, that it is an issue.

And look, you don't -- I don't -- I don't think the -- I -- I don't think it's debatable that it is or it isn't an issue. What we don't know is the extent of it and what we don't know is exactly and how best to -- to go about eradicating that and the behavior that -- that it inspires. That's -- that's the problem.

It's -- so it's a -- it is a -- it is a -- a dataset issue -- I think we do want to know more about, you know -- like -- as the Secretary said, it's -- it's probably more than we'd like it to be and less than the headlines would suggest but more importantly, how do we get our arms around that? And -- and that -- that's where the focus is.

Nobody's -- I -- nobody's debating whether it is or it isn't an issue, it's really just about to what degree. I've got time for just a couple more. Go ahead.

Q: I want to go back to Iraq. It is my understanding -- the U.S. military is conducting its own investigation regarding Erbil's attacks. So do you have any explanation how, after we -- still no indication at all about who might be behind the attack -- I'm not talking politics, just facts on the ground -- an investigation?

MR. KIRBY: You're asking me why we don't know now?

Q: Yeah, so now -- no indications at all. In previous attacks, we, like, heard from the CENTCOM just ... 

MR. KIRBY: I -- I -- I -- look, I -- I would -- I think it's safe to assume that investigators are still working on this and it could be that they have a -- a better sense. I'm not privy to the investigation, nor would it be appropriate for me to be. It's an investigation that is being conducted by our Iraqi partners. The -- the Secretary offered to -- to help them with that and -- and it was a sincere offer. 

As far as I know, they are still conducting this and when there's something to report out, we'll do that -- we'll do that. OK, one more -- last -- go ahead.

Q: On Yemen, Houthis are moving towards Marib. It may be a very serious humanitarian disaster. Is there any commitment from the U.S. military that they will not allow this to happen? Any commitment to help the government of Yemen to defend Marib or to change policy and go back and help? 

MR. KIRBY: Our military operations in Yemen are -- are designed to -- to go after ISIS. It's a counter-ISIS mission. We believe that there needs to be a political settlement to this war, so that humanitarian assistance can get to the people that need it but -- but our mission -- it's important for people to remember our -- our mission in -- in Yemen is one based on counter-terrorism. 

Thanks, everybody, appreciate it.