Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary Holds An Off-Camera Press Briefing

March 8, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: All right. Afternoon. I do have a hard stop. So we can do about 40 minutes here. Just a couple of things off the top.

Today, as you know, is International Women's Day, and the secretary and the department recognize the critical contributions of women to our collective peace and security.

Last year we released our first ever Women, Peace, and Security strategic framework and implementation plan, and the department has an active and robust network of women, peace, and security leaders and advisers at all levels.

We continue to work to ensure the department models and implements women, peace, and security principles and engages with partner nations to ensure that they do the same. To date, the department has engaged more than 50 partner nations on women, peace, and security to demonstrate the value of diversity and inclusion, so Happy International Women's Day.

This weekend, the White House announced - I think you saw - three outstanding flag and general officers to lead our combatant commands. Air Force General Jacqueline Van Ovost is nominated to lead the U.S. Transportation Command, and Army Lieutenant General Laura Richardson is nominated for appointment to the rank of general and assigned to lead U.S. Southern Command. Navy General John Aquilino is also nominated to lead U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

Additionally, I think you saw Navy Vice Admiral Sam Paparo is nominated for appointment to the grade of admiral and assigned to lead U.S. Pacific Fleet. We look forward to the confirmation process and hope that they will be able to serve in these critical positions.

On a personnel front, we onboarded five employees today bringing our total now to 87. Of note, we welcome the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, Richard Johnson. We welcome all to the team and we look forward to the contributions that they will continue to make on behalf of the department.

Finally, again, I think you know this- this afternoon the president, the vice president, the Secretary of Defense will deliver remarks on International Women's Day at the White House. The Deputy Secretary of Defense, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Van Ovost, and Lieutenant General Richardson will also be attendance at that ceremony.

And with that we'll take questions. Looks like, Bob, we got you on the phone.

Q: Yes. Hey, John. A couple things about the agreement with South Korea, that preliminary agreement with South Korea on posturing the troop's presence. Are you able to offer any details such as whether it is in fact a four-year deal? And although I realize this is -- the State Department is the lead negotiator, I'm wondering from the Defense Department's perspective can you say -- can you say – can you offer some thoughts on the significance of ending this source of frictions so early in the administration? And what does it say about the administration's approach to allies and burden sharing? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: So, Bob, we're pleased obviously that the United States and the Republic of Korea negotiations -- negotiating teams have reached consensus on a proposed text of a special measures agreement that we believe will strengthen our alliance and our shared defense.

The proposed agreement reaffirms that the United States-Republic of Korea alliance is the lynchpin of peace, security, and prosperity for Northeast Asia and a free and open Indo-Pacific region. Our two countries are now pursuing the final steps needed to conclude that agreement for signature, and entry into force that will strengthen the alliance and our shared defense.

I don't have and won't be able to offer more detail on that, Bob. That would really better come from -as you rightly pointed out -our State Department colleagues. But as to your larger question, I mean, I think that the effort that we've applied into this process just reaffirms what the secretary has said many times about the importance of alliances and partnerships, particularly in that part of the world, and I think this underscores the level of importance that we -- that we're lending to that.

Okay, in the room, Sylvie?

Q: Yes. Can you confirm that President Biden invoked temporary limits on the drone strikes outside of Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq? And what does it mean for the fight against Al Shabaab in Somalia for example?

MR. KIRBY: So what we've -- and you've heard my colleague at the National Security Council talk about this. What we're referring to is interim guidance that was issued to ensure that the president has full visibility on proposed significant actions, which the National Security Council will review.

It's all part of an effort, you know, with a new administration coming in to take a broader review of national security issues across the board, including the legal and policy frameworks that govern these kinds of matters and these kinds of operations.

So it's nested inside that desire to have a broader review. I wouldn't get ahead of that review process. It's I think too early to come to a grips with whatever the outcome of it's going to be, or the impact that it's going to have on specific parts of the world or on specific terrorist groups.

But the only thing I'd add, and you saw this in the interim national security guidance that was issued as well as the secretary's message to the force, we're clearly focused on the persistent threat of violent extremist organizations and we're clearly still going to be committed to working with international partners to counter those threats.

Q: So during this review they are suspended or they keep -- you keep doing your review?

MR. KIRBY: No, it's interim guidance about the -- about the authorities. It's to review -- to review the proposed actions at that -- at that level, at a higher level. And it's interim. It's not meant to be permanent. And -- but it doesn't mean a cessation. It just means that the authorities to conduct some of these operations in some parts of the world are going to get -- they're going to get visibility at the National Security Council level, okay? Does that answer your question?

Okay, Phil, it says you're here. But also it says you're here.

Q: Yes, I'm here.

MR. KIRBY: Okay.

(UNKNOWN): Okay.

MR. KIRBY: Go ahead.

Q: Real quick, Secretary Blinken's letter over the weekend, it's been kind of exposed now. Left open this May 1 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. And I realize you can't talk about the negotiations, that you're being led by others in government.

MR. KIRBY: Right.

Q: But, could you give us a sense of how realistic that is for the military give that we're already into March? And how long does it take the U.S. military to plan for a complete withdraw from a country where it's been engaged for so long?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I mean that -- it -- that's a question probably better put to the Central Command in terms of the details of that, Phil. I don't have the - I don't have a logistical train here with me. All I'd add is the review's ongoing. No decisions about force posture has been made one way or the other yet.

Q: Is there a date by which you say, well, we can't withdraw by May 1, we're already too far down the road?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have that, Phil. I don't. I think that's a better question put to the Central Command. Yeah, I think I'd just leave it at that.

Okay, Tara?

Q: Hey John, thank you for doing this. If you hear a car engine revving up it's my neighbor doing his thing. I have a question about the National Guard deployments at the Capitol.

As you know, the Michigan governor was in town this weekend and she's got about 1,000 troops there and saying that there's -- she's not considering extending. Is the secretary concerned that there will be this request to extend National Guard troops at the Capitol? And there will be the appetite from states to send them?

MR. KIRBY: Well, the request for forces or request for assistance is, as you know, we got that late last week. It's still being evaluated and assessed right now inside the building. Part of that evaluation is, as you know, evaluating the requirement as well as the potential sourcing solutions. And I don't want to get ahead of that process, that's ongoing.

But, clearly one of the things that they'll be looking at, if it is a mission that we -- or a request that we will approve, is how do you -- is how do you source that? And, of course, when you're talking about a Title-32 mission, such as -- such as what this has been, you're going need support from the governors. And all that's going to be factored into the eventual decision that gets made. But, I just don't know where that's heading right now.

Okay. Yes, Jenny?

Q: Thank you, John. I see you this morning -- it's a pretty color, your tie.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you.

Q: Okay. And so, you know that the U.S. and South Korea's having military exercises ongoing now. And what type of exercise is going on now? And is it like a field-training exercise or indoor exercise like computer simulations?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have -- I don't have an update on the training events that you're talking about.

Q: (Inaudible) yesterday (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY: I mean, as we've talked about military readiness on the peninsula is always a high priority and training events are a way to do that, to also ensure alliance readiness. Without getting into the details of it, because I think that's really a better question put to the U.S. Forces Korea about this particular training event, but the ones that we conduct are not provocative, they're defensive in nature. And again, they're intended to ensure alliance readiness and preparedness.

Q: (Inaudible) training conducted by command post exercises?

MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry?

Q: Is it command-post exercises?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any details specifically about these training events. I mean, you really should --

Q: (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: Thank you.

Q: (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: Thank you.

Q: (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: I appreciate that. Yes. No, I -- I'm going to point you to U.S. Forces Korea for more detail about that.

Q: I would say (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: What's that?

Q: General Abrams?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, General Abrams. Jeff Schogol?

Q: Thank you very much. Following up on my colleagues’ question about the withdraw, the United States Government has often said that the best solution in Afghanistan is negotiated in peace. But, given the conditions on the battlefield and the state of peace negotiations, can the Defense Department live with a Taliban victory in Afghanistan?

MR. KIRBY: What would I fear in Afghanistan, Jeff, is a negotiated political settlement to end the war there and a responsible and sustainable way. And we've long said that this has got to be solved politically, not militarily. It's about creating a future for Afghanistan that preserves many of the gains have been made -- the gains that have been made and allows for a secure, stable Afghanistan going forward.

Q: Does the U.S. military accept a Taliban victory?

MR. KIRBY: What we -- what we want for Afghanistan, Jeff, as I said, is a -- is a political settlement to end this war in a sustainable way. And there is -- there is a -- there are diplomatic efforts ongoing and have been ongoing to try to achieve that goal. That's what we're -- that's what we're after. And we've long said there's -- there's not going to be a military solution here.

Barb?

Q: I want to follow-up on both of those, and particular Phil's question. I mean, we are now not weeks, but literally days away maybe, I don't know, 60 days plus.

MR. KIRBY: Right.

Q: From what is supposed to be the American military full withdraw from America's longest war. So, it seems very likely that the Defense Department has some plan for that.

If you cannot give us an answer today on what you are doing to make that happen, the withdrawal -- which is what the -- what is required right now barring further developments. One, can you take that question? And two, you know, can we have or can you ask, can we have some kind of news briefing from General Miller if American -- if the American mission ends in 60 days, he's -- there will be nothing for him to command and he'll go away and we will have no idea for many, many, many months what his thoughts are.

 So, I'd like to, in particular ask, that we get some kind of news briefing from General Miller and hear his thinking about what that.

MR. KIRBY: Without committing the general to --

Q: (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: I understand. I'm not in a position to commit him to that kind of briefing. But, yes, I will ask.

As the secretary said, we're mindful of looming deadlines. Everybody's here is mindful of looming deadlines. And I cannot today sketch out for you what specific planning is going on when there hasn't been a decision made yet about future force posture in Afghanistan. Again, everyone's mindful of the deadline, and -- deadlines, and effort right now is very much still in the -- on diplomacy, on trying to get to a negotiated settlement here. But we're -- every -- you know, but there's been no decision made about future force posture.

Q: But hasn't there really been, after Doha? Otherwise, you're talking about --

MR. KIRBY: As I said before, we -- part of the review process is to -- is to review the Doha Agreement. So no decision's been made about force posture, and I couldn't begin to speculate here today, you know, the details of planning one way or the other. I think the effort is rightly on diplomacy, on trying to get to a negotiated political settlement, and I'm -- I would not -- I'm just not in a position, Barb, to speculate about military planning scenarios.

Q: But just about force posture means – you’re staying, otherwise, you'd be signed up for Doha --

MR. KIRBY: It does not mean that. It means no decisions are made about force posture.

Let's see -- Jamie McIntyre?

Q: Thank you. Hi. If I've successfully unmuted here, I -- I just want to -- I -- I can't help but following up on my colleagues’ questions, too. But while Barbara was talking about it, I was counting. By my count, it's 54 days before the deadline. I'm looking at the letter that Secretary Blinken sent to President Ghani, and he -- he talks about, the United States has a revised proposal for a 90-day reduction in violence intended to prevent the spring offensive by the Taliban. The fact that it's a 90-day timeframe, and it's -- they're just starting to negotiate it now, isn't that kind of a tacit agreement that just practically, it's not going to be advantageous to pull U.S. troops out by the May 1st deadline?

MR. KIRBY: Jamie, that's -- I -- I can't speak to the -- the correspondence you're talking about. That's a question for my State Department colleagues. I -- I can only say, again, the review is ongoing, and that no decisions about future force posture in Afghanistan have been made.

Meghann?

Q: So the Pentagon last week put online a study that had been sent to Congress about military recruiting and how background checks would weed out domestic extremism. There are a handful of recommendations in it. The only one the Pentagon isn't already implementing was a designator on discharge forms for domestic extremism. So I wanted to ask, is that still under review? Has anything moved along with that? And then I have a follow-up.

MR. KIRBY: I don't know. Let me take your question. I don't know that there's anything additionally under review on that.

Q: Okay. So then my follow-up is -- knowing that Congress has requested this sort of research in the past, there have been requests for numbers about discharges, numbers about investigations into extremism.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: You said from the podium that January 1st was an inflection point, was a wake-up call, January 6th, or a -- a wake-up call. Knowing all this research and all these requests have been going on for the past few years, where is the disconnect there? And is there an understanding now that you guys did know that this was something that -- that was going on, and was a concern. But it fell through the cracks in terms of the kind of action that you're taking on it now.

MR. KIRBY: You know, there's a lot in there, and -- and I -- I -- I obviously can't speak for what the previous administration did. But you've heard the secretary talk about this is an issue when he was a lieutenant colonel. It's not like it's a new problem. I think what January 6th brought to light -- and I've talked about this before -- is how much it is still a problem, and certainly, within the veteran community. And it gave us all pause here at the Pentagon to ask fresh questions about the degree to which it's a problem inside the ranks. And -- and that's what we're trying to get at.

But your question sort of seems to indicate that, you know, the -- that the -- that it wasn't always taken seriously, or balls were dropped. I can't speak for, again, anything other than from January 20th on. But it's clearly something that this secretary is -- is very focused on. He has not -- I mean, with stand-down processes still ongoing, we're -- we're beginning to learn from that. He has not made any specific policy decisions yet. This is something that he wants to have an iterative, ongoing discussion with the chiefs and the service secretaries about. And as he said to you -- I think said himself -- I mean, he's willing to -- to take a wide look here, and an open mind when it comes to what policies might be best -- best implemented. And that would include, you know, an openness to -- to considering ways in which we can do better vetting on the recruiting side; a way to -- to better get a handle on what's happening once somebody gets assessed, and the degree to which they are being radicalized or radicalizers are in the ranks and affecting their colleagues.

And then, of course, there's the -- you know, he -- I know he wants to take a look at how we're helping troops transition back to civilian life, and the degree to which we are educating and informing them about what's waiting for them on the other side, because we do know that some of these extremist groups are actively looking for -- for veterans.

So again, I -- we -- we -- and -- and I would only add, also, is I think, you know, we -- we made public the report that was done in the fall. I think we pushed that for you all to see. That has helped inform his thinking, and we think will help inform the thinking of the chiefs going forward. But it's something that we're -- we're taking very, very seriously, as he said himself. Though -- though the numbers may be small, that doesn't mean they're insignificant in terms of the outsized impacts that they can have. Okay?

Let's see. I probably should just use my glasses on my head here, rather than squinting.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I -- well, I -- I -- I'm going back and forth. I'm going back and forth.

All right, Jared?

Q: Hi, John. Thanks for taking my question.

Just wanted to bring it back to the Middle East for a second. We saw a series of projectile attacks on Saudi Arabia over the weekend, and then renewed US B-52 bomber missions to the region. My question is that given these recent attacks, is the deterrence -- are these deterrence tactics by the United States and its partners working as a platform to allow U.S. diplomats to, basically, do their jobs in the region to accomplish the administration's goals?

MR. KIRBY: Well, the -- look, the bomber task force missions are fairly routine. I think this was the fourth one done this year. And -- and they -- they certainly -- we want them to have a deterrence outcome, but we also want them to reassure partners in the region, and to train with partners. And it's -- it's also about exercising our ability to rapidly deploy these kinds of strategic assets. No question that the -- the region remains, you know, remains vital to our national security interest, and that there are persistent threats there.

Again, you -- back to what the secretary released last week in his message to the force. I mean clearly it's an area of the world where we're going to have to stay focused and we're going to have to continue to have a robust presence.

Whether that presence is more permanent based, as there also, also rotational in the bomber task force; that contributes to rotational force -- force posture that -- that I think you'll see continue. 

Jen?

Q: John, what can you tell us about the Fort Lee site visit and what the findings were in terms of placing unaccompanied minors there? There are reports that they're going to be placing many children there.

And what is the difference in what this administration is doing in terms of getting squarely in the middle of a pretty politically radioactive situation with regards to immigration just like the last administration found - put the Pentagon in the middle of it down at the border?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I certainly know that no desire to be -- to have this at all become political. As you know, Jen, this isn't the first time that military bases have been used to house unaccompanied minors. I think we did it in 2012 and again in 2017.

So across two different administrations. No decision has been made about Fort Lee. It was simply a sight survey visit last week. I don't know what they came away from after having that, that's really a question better put to HHS since they're the ones that will know what their requirements are. So I don't have any background on what they saw or what they came away from. 

But it was simply a sight survey visit that we supported. And again, we've done this is the past. The other thing I'd add is we don't have right now, a request for assistance from HHS to put unaccompanied minors on any military installation right now. All that happened last week was a sight survey visit. 

Q: In terms of National Guard and back to the Michigan governor being here, have you resolved the issue of food contracting and possible gastrointestinal problems for those members of the Michigan National Guard and what's being done about that?

MR. KIRBY: Yes - I had a chance to meet with General Hokanson, myself last week. And he and the National Guard leaders are taking very seriously the need to make sure that the troops have safe and nutritious food.

There's routine inspections. He himself goes down there multiple times a week to eat with the National Guardsmen to eat what they're eating. They're constantly looking at the food quality and making sure that it's up to -- up to par. And since January 6, there's been no National Guard members hospitalized because of illness from food.

Of the 26,000 who were deployed and the 52 -- actually its 5,100 now who remain, approximately 50 have been treated for gastrointestinal complaints. Six of them were treated as out-patients at military treatment facilities. Others were handled at aide station setup at a -- I'm sorry, at an aide station setup as part of the task force.

And again, the National Guard continues to closely monitor this. They're working with the contractors to address concerns. As they said, the chief of the National Guard Bureau himself goes out there several times a week to eat with them. We also go to their -- the contractors’ places of business. We spot check on meals for cooking temperature and overall quality. 

The vendor facilities have been inspected multiple times with no substantial -- no substantial issues having been recorded. So again, there's a lot of activity on this, a lot of visibility and rightly so. I mean they -- they take this very seriously. 

Q: Do you think it's been resolved, there's no change of contractors? 

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any changing contracts but that's something that, you know, is better put to the National Guard Bureau, not -- not -- I'm not -- but I'm not aware of any -- any of that. 

OK, let's see. My glasses. Let's see, Paul Shinkman, US News?

Q: Hi, John. Going back to the attack on the Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia. Do you have any more details about that that you can share? Was it both missiles and drones? And were the drones launched by Houthi -- from Houthi positions in Yemen? Do you have anything more on that?

MR. KIRBY: Don't have, actually, much more detail to -- to add to that. Obviously we condemn the attack, which we do understand was both drone and missile tech against the Aramco facilities in Dhahran and Ras Tanura. Locations also including Khamis Mushayt and Jeddah 

These attacks are unacceptable and dangerous, put the lives of civilians at risk, including U.S. citizens. We remain deeply concerned by the frequency of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, attacks like these are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace. And as you've heard us say before, we continue to maintain there's no military solution to end the conflict in Yemen.

We want the Houthis to demonstrate their willingness to engage in the political process, stop attacking, start negotiating. 

Q: A few follow-ups to that. Can you confirm that either in this case or in the past there have been Iranian made drones that had been launched from Yemen some skepticism about that during the last administration?

MR. KIRBY: About whether they're Iranian made or not?

Q: Yes.

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any specific detail on that, Paul, in terms of how they were manufactured. But clearly we know and we've said that -- that the Houthis have been supported by Iran. 

Q: And there was some reporting over the weekend that Saudi officials believe that the Houthis have been emboldened by the removal of the U.S. designation of that group as a terrorist group. Has the Pentagon seen any change in their activity, their behavior, level of violence since that designation was lifted?

MR. KIRBY: We don't have trend analysis on that, Paul, I mean obviously these attacks over the weekend were pretty dramatic. But I don't have trend analysis here in terms of what -- since the terrorist designation has been changed. I think -- I mean I can pull the string on that. We'll see if we can -- if there is any data that might support sort of what we're seeing in terms of frequency and scope and intensity.

I just don't have that right now. And again, to remind, the part of the calculus in that designation was not to -- not to condone or embolden or support the Houthis at all, but rather make it easier for the international community to try to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. 

Pierre?

Q: After the several attacks on Saudi, the Saudis decided to launch an attack on Sanaa specifically, trying to avoid further attacks on them. Do you think that this is legitimate that this is a -- something like a kind self- defense or do you disagree with that?

MR. KIRBY: I think as you've seen us say, Saudi Arabia faces genuine security threats from Yemen and others in the region. And the attacks of the weekend that put the lives of innocent civilians in danger underscore that security threat and the threat to regional stability. As part of our interagency process we're going to continue to look for ways to improve support to Saudi Arabia's ability to defend its territory and these threats.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit more about what you are looking for when you say that you are looking forward to help Saudi more and to helping them --

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any additional details on that. No.

Yes, sure. Joe?

Q: Thank you, John.

I wanted to ask about Syria. The Syrian state-run agency has said today that the U.S. Army has deployed additional troops and additional military assets into Al-Shaddadi airways in northeast Syria. Are you aware of that? Could you confirm anything?

MR. KIRBY: No, I can't. I don't -- I don't have any information on that.

Q: To follow up on this one, on the Syrian matter, is it fair to say that after the strike against the Shia militia in eastern Syria that the U.S. mission inside Syria has shifted towards countering Iran's groups or proxies inside Syria? Is it fair to say that?

MR. KIRBY: No, it's not fair to say that. The mission in Syria is as it has been, to counter ISIS and to work with our local indigenous SDF forces in doing that. That mission remains the same.

Q: Okay. Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: I am going to get this name wrong because Brook's handwriting really, really sucks.

(Laughter.)

From Al Hurra, Wafaa? Is that right?

Q: That's right. Hi, John. You got it right, actually.

I have a quick follow up on the B-52 mission. Did you hear me?

MR. KIRBY: Sorry. I stepped on you. That was my fault. What's your question?

Q: Okay. It's about the B-52 mission from yesterday. So it's unlike previous missions. Bombers were joined by jet fighters from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. So is this going to be like a part of a broader mission, a joint operation, maybe between Israel and Gulf countries? Do you have more on this?

MR. KIRBY: You're right. I mean, there were fighter escorts from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and as I said in a previous answer that I gave, that one purpose for these bomber task force missions is to reassure partners and to provide an opportunity for training.

And so, it's not uncommon that there are escorts from other countries, and I would expect that that will continue. 

We got time for just one more, then I really do have to go. Yes, ma'am?

Q: Thank you. I was wondering if you can confirm that any travel by the secretary to the Asia-Pacific?

(Laughter.)

-- and if so if you could provide (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: I cannot confirm travel by the secretary. When we -- if and when we have something to talk about I'll certainly let you know.

Q: (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: What?

Q: You know (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: You think I should know that, right?

Q: Yes.

Q: (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: Did he?

Q: Full schedule hour-by-hour.

MR. KIRBY: Really?

Q: Yes.

MR. KIRBY: He must have a great press operation. All right. Thanks, everybody. I do have to go. Appreciate it.