Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary Holds An Off-Camera Press Briefing

March 11, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Hello.  Sorry I'm a little late today.  See, I'm not really sorry.

Q:  No, you're not.  And you're late most of the (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY:  Okay, maybe like by four or five minutes, Meghan.  It's not like I'm chronically late.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.  In the Navy, I was brought up to believe if you are on time, you're actually late.

Okay.  Got a few things at the top, and then we'll get right at it.  Just make sure I've got this right.

Okay, a quick update on COVID vaccine distribution support.  Yesterday, COVID community vaccination centers in Chicago, Illinois and Greensboro, North Carolina began full operations.  We also achieved two milestones yesterday:  the first day with over 50,000 shots provided by DOD-supported community vaccination centers, and overall, more than 500,000 shots given at the 17 supported sites.

I think today, you may have seen Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks issued a memorandum to commanders of the combatant commands, defense agency and DOD field activity directors on the governance structure for deputy-secretary-managed processes.  The memorandum describes formal mechanisms that the deputy secretary will use to assist the secretary in advancing his priorities; specifically, Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks is establishing a new governance body, the Deputy's Workforce Council, to advance the priorities laid out last week in Secretary Austin's message to the force.

The council will -- examining -- work to create lasting institutional change around the department's policies and processes on critical matters.  These include sexual assault prevention and response, countering extremism, transgender issues, diversity, equity and inclusion, workforce development and talent management, professional military education, and leveraging technology in support of workforce goals.  And we're going to be posting that establishment memo to defense.gov later today, if it isn't already up.

And finally, I'd like to briefly address some recent comments made by the host of a popular cable show about who serves in the military, and what that service means.  I want to be very clear right up front that the diversity of our military is one of our greatest strengths.  I've seen it for myself in long months at sea and in the combat waged by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I've seen it up on Capitol Hill just this past month, and I see it every day here right at the Pentagon.  One of the best decisions I ever made was becoming a Navy spouse myself; married to a terrific young naval officer who gave birth to our first child, and then went right back to work doing civil engineering for an airbase in Jacksonville.

We are better and more effective not only when we represent the American people -- all the American people -- but also, when we have the moral courage to include other perspectives and ideas into our decision-making; perspectives that, as the secretary himself noted Monday, are based on lived experience.  It's that experience, and the professionalism and commitment of our people, that has always been our decisive advantage.

A major but specific contributor to that advantage are the women who serve, civilian and military alike, and today, they serve in just about every skill set we put to sea and in the field.  They're flying fighter jets and commanding warships.  They're leading troops on the ground.  They're making a difference in everything we do because of what they bring to the effort.

To be sure, we still have a lot of work to do to make our military more inclusive, more respectful of everyone, especially women.  We're proud that two great leaders like Generals Van Ovost and Richardson have been nominated to combatant command, but we recognize the lack of female leadership across the senior ranks.  We pledge to do better and we will.

What we absolutely won't do is take personnel advice from a talk show host or the Chinese military.  Now maybe those folks feel like they have something to prove; that's on them.  We know we're the greatest military in the world today, and even for all the things we need to improve, we know exactly why that's so.

With that, I'll take your questions.  Go ahead, Barbara.

Q:  On this subject, a number of follow-ups.

Is -- you haven't mentioned Tucker Carlson by name and I am curious why.

MR. KIRBY:  I think you know who we're talking about.  Yes, we're referring to what Mr. Carlson said in his monologue.

Q:  Thank you.

My second question -- two additional questions.  Does the secretary have a reaction to this?

And third, it's my understanding the Armed Forces Network does carry Tucker Carlson's show on your military broadcast distribution network.  Will you -- there is some social media discussion that is -- is opposed to the continuing carrying of that show by the Pentagon.  Will you continue to carry his show?

MR. KIRBY:  The secretary certainly shares the revulsion of so many others to what Mr. Carlson said in his opening statement.  And, yes, Tucker Carlson's show, as well as a lot of other programming, airs on Armed Forces Network.  As I think you know, by instruction, we are required to broadcast and to make available for men and women and their families overseas the same type of content -- news, information, and sports content -- that their fellow citizens can get, so his show is aired on AFN.

Q.  Thank you.

Yeah, Joe.

Q:  On a different subject, following the latest decision made by the administration in regards to supporting the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, I was wondering if you could provide us with the current assessment of the U.S. CT operations inside Yemen.

MR. KIRBY:  No, I'm not going to do that, Joe.  I'm not going to get into talking about specific operations here.  You know I won't do that. 

And we have a CT mission in Yemen that -- that remains important and critical.  And -- and it's still being implemented and executed by U.S. Central Command.  But I won't speak about the details of that.

Q:  Are you able to provide us with the number of U.S. special forces inside Yemen?

MR. KIRBY:  I'll have to see -- I don't know if that number's available.  I'll have to take the question and get back to you.  I don't -- I don't know if I have that.

Q:  Another quick question.  Today King Abdullah of Jordan denied permission for the Israeli prime minister to fly over Jordan on his route to UAE.  Jordan is close ally to the United States, as Israeli.  Are you concerned about the tensions between Israel and Jordan right now?

MR. KIRBY:  Those are issues for those two countries to -- to speak to and to address, Joe, and I'd think I'd leave it to the leaders of both those countries to talk about that.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Idrees?

Q:  Hey, John, if I could just change the topic quickly to the Capitol and National Guard, when was the last time the secretary spoke with the Capitol Police chief?  And has he conveyed to them, you know, what the Pentagon has said repeatedly, that the National Guard shouldn't, sort of, be a tool of first choice?

Because I think there's an increasing perception that the Capitol Police, you know, are very good at making requests, maybe not as good as making internal changes after January 6th.

MR. KIRBY:  I think -- I've talked about this before.  I mean, obviously the secretary has said and has continued to say publicly and privately that he doesn't want our National Guard troops up on Capitol Hill one day longer than they need to be.

I don't think anybody wants to see this become an enduring mission.  And by enduring I mean a forever mission.  At the same time, he recognizes that there is a legitimate need for them.  We talked about that yesterday, a valid requirement because of some capability gaps and capacity shortages right now that the Capitol Police are experiencing, as they adjust to a new post-January 6th environment.

And he looked at the request, determined it was valid, and we're going to source it.  But, of course, I don't think it's anybody's intention that this become some sort of long-term enduring mission for the National Guard here in the Capitol Region.

And I would just, lastly, because I don't think I answered your first question, he has certainly made those concerns well known to leaders here in the Pentagon.

Tara?

Q:  Thanks.  To follow up on Idrees' question on sourcing for the 2,300.  A number of units that I've spoken to have said they are coming home, they are not extending their mission at the Capitol for various reasons, whether it's they’re exhausted by the COVID response or they -- you know, natural disasters.

So when you say we're going to source it, can you update us on options that the Defense Department is considering, including the potential for involuntary activation?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm going to point you to specifics, to the National Guard Bureau, they are really the ones that will be much better able to answer that than I will.  But as I said yesterday, and it's my understanding that there will be a bit of a transition here between the Guardsmen that are supporting this current mission, which, as you know, ends tomorrow, and then the incoming mission, which extends out until May.

So we expect a certain number of Guardsmen that are on the mission now will stay in place to help with that transition, that turnover.  We also expect that some, and I don't know the number, I'll point you to the National Guard, but some Guardsmen have expressed an interest in volunteering to stay for the whole extension.

And then lastly, it's our understanding that for the sourcing of the new requirement, the extension, will be in -- will be tasked out, will be tasked to the governors to support.  And so we'll be looking at whole units coming in.  It won't be done in the same voluntary fashion that the current mission is being assigned.

And that's for a couple of reasons.  One, it helps protect these Guardsmen with their employment benefits.  And, two, it gives a greater sense of command-and-control because they'll be coming as whole units.  And so it will give the Guard a better ability to define the capabilities that the units have and that they'll come in complete with their command-and-control already built in as units.  That's my understanding.

But as for the details of that, how fast, from what states, and what that transition between the current mission and the follow-on mission, I'd point you to the National Guard.

Q:  Just as a quick follow-up, is there any concern in the building that by meeting the request through involuntary activations, that there'll be this perception of forcing troops to stay at the Capitol?

Again, following on the -- the line of questioning I had yesterday about, like, the optics of having service members come guard the Capitol and, you know, protect it instead of having it be open to all -- all of America who, you know, it used to be the people's house, could go in and -- it just seems like it, you know, there's been a lot of -- just there's been a lot of criticism that it's becoming more of a fortress rather than the open Capitol...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  Nobody wants to see it become or be seen as a fortress.  As I said, the secretary's made clear, he doesn't want Guardsmen up there one day longer than required.  Again, I think the decision for the involuntary activation makes sense on a couple of different levels, and that gets us to May, and there's not talk that I'm aware of or no speculation that we're -- that we're going to be looking at missions beyond May.

But as the -- as for your question about -- about the optics, again, this is -- this is a valid requirement that was analyzed here at the Pentagon, and the secretary's comfortable that -- that it's worth supporting, okay?

Yeah?

Q:  Thanks, John.  Can you address the significance of the secretary's first foreign visit, and what he hopes to achieve?  And what can you tell us about when he intends to visit the Middle East, and whether there are any plans that are being worked out towards that?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have any additional travel to speak to today.  I mentioned -- I talked about this yesterday, so I'd point you back to the transcript from yesterday.  But in essence, the secretary's very pleased to be able to make his first trip overseas, and to do so with the secretary of state, and to the Indo-Pacific region, which is such a critical part of the world.

And the main thrust of the trip is really to revitalize and to -- and to show our support to our alliances and partnerships over there, specifically our alliance with Japan and with South Korea, those are the two big stops there for -- for both Cabinet officials.

Q:  But for the Middle East, are there any plans...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  As I said, I don't have any travel beyond what we're doing next week, to speak to.

Q:  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah.

Abraham?

Q:  Thanks, John.  After the Guard presence and granting of that request from the Capitol Police, did Secretary Austin put any strings attached to -- to this Guard force to assure that there will be a transition to no more Guard after May 23rd, or did he just give a blank slate?

MR. KIRBY:  You saw the -- you saw the -- the authorization that -- that he signed and it makes clear what the expectations are for authorities, for these -- this additional extension, for these Guardsmen during this initial extension.  And as I said, he doesn't want the Guard to be considered an enduring solution here, and he doesn't want them to spend any more time up on Capitol Hill than what's required.  He believes that this is a valid requirement, and I won't -- I won't speculate beyond that.

Mike?

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  The secretary's confident, then, that there -- that after May 23rd, he won't have to re-up again?

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  I won't speculate beyond -- beyond this extension.  I appreciate you want to get us into hypotheticals beyond that, and I'm just not going to do that.  I mean, it is -- it is clearly not a mission that we want to see the Guard own forever, but there's a valid requirement, the secretary determined that, and so we're going to fill this extension request, and that's what our focus is on right now.

Mike?

Q:  I want to go back to the Tucker Carlson incident.  You and the secretary are both political appointees, so you're held to a different status.  But there are also -- there have also been a number of general officers who've gone onto social media to directly criticize/attack Tucker Carlson by name for -- for the piece that they didn't like.  Is that sort of a proper behavior for serving officers to -- to get that sort of deep in the weeds?  And is that some sort of new (CROSSTALK) --

MR. KIRBY:  If you're asking -- if you're asking, does the secretary have concerns about the fact that active-duty leaders are also expressing their revulsion to these ridiculous comments, no, he doesn't have concerns about the -- their -- their willingness to do that.

Q:  Okay.

MR. KIRBY:  Let's see, on the phone, Bryan Bender?

Q:  Thanks, John.  Different topic:  I'm wondering if you have any update on the status of the department's position on Colin Kahl and his nomination to be the policy chief, now that it looks like all the Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee are a no vote, and it's, obviously, seriously in doubt whether he can get enough support.

MR. KIRBY:  Bryan, as -- as we -- I said the other day, the -- the secretary fully stands by the nomination of Dr. Kahl to be the undersecretary of defense for policy.  He's exactly the right person to -- to head up that effort here at the Pentagon with vast and significant experience in the field of policymaking, and he looks forward to working with the -- the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate writ large in the confirmation process, and very much looks forward to -- to a successful vote, and to getting Dr. Kahl in the building.

Jeff Schogol?

Q:  Thank you very much.  Does Tucker Carlson owe every woman in the military an apology?

MR. KIRBY:  I'll let Mr. Carlson figure that out for himself, Jeff.  I think I've made our position quite clear here at the Pentagon.

Paul Shinkman?

Q:  Yeah, hi, John.  The Reagan Institute issued a call yesterday saying that public trust and confidence in the military is slipping.  It -- it's still high, but over a two-year period, it's pretty steadily trending downward.  How troubling are the result of this poll?  Do you believe it has anything to do with the fact that the military has been thrust into the political fray in recent months?  And is there anything that the military is doing to reverse this trend by their -- because of this poll or in general?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, we're still working our way through the survey, Paul, and I addressed this a little bit yesterday.  I -- I would note that still, the United States military is the most trusted institution in -- in America right now, and we're always mindful of the need to earn and to deserve the trust and confidence of -- of the American people.

As to why the numbers are the way they are, I would point you to the -- the -- to the Reagan Institute, who -- who funded and -- and put forth this survey.  Our focus here is on making sure that we continue to defend the American people against threats to their security, and that -- that we do so in a responsible, prudent, measured, deliberate and -- and effective way, and -- and that's -- and I -- and -- and that's really where the locus of our energy is.  Clearly, we want to make sure that as we do all that, that we retain the -- the trust and confidence of the -- of the American people.  But again, I'd -- I'd have -- I'd have the agency issuing the survey speak to, you know, the -- the data and how they -- and how they -- how they arrived at that data.

Anything here in the room?

Q:  Yeah, John, just --

MR. KIRBY:  Yeah?

Q:  Just -- just for clarification, that's -- for the COVID shots, there were 50K in one day, and 500,000 given, just less than a month that they've -- that this effort has established and ramped up, correct?

MR. KIRBY:  Yes.

Q:  What do you anticipate the number of shots in arms is going to be in another month?

MR. KIRBY:  I -- I -- I couldn't tell you, Jim.  I -- I don't -- I don't have a -- a projection of what that's going to look like.

Q:  You're going to get more teams out though, right?

MR. KIRBY:  Well, that -- it -- it's -- we are certainly prepared to do that.  You've seen that the secretary's authorized, I think, 35 total teams.  There are 17 in action right now.  We don't want to go faster than FEMA and local communities can support.  So the idea of authorizing them in advance is to make sure that they're prepared, they're trained, they're ready to go.  Their existing commands are -- are being made ready for their departure and for backfilling their capabilities so that readiness at our MTFs is not -- our military treatment facilities -- is not adversely affected, so -- affected.  So all that's a part of the calculus.  I -- I couldn't predict what the number of teams are -- on the ground is going to be next week or the week after.  We will -- we can only go, and should only go as fast as FEMA and local communities will allow us to do that.  So that's why it's impossible for me to extrapolate from this data what it's going to look like in a -- in a couple of weeks.  So we'll just -- we'll just see.  The -- the -- the secretary's been very clear that we're going to lean in on this, and we're going to do as much as we can to support these FEMA-led efforts around the country to -- to get vaccines in arms.

Q:  Okay.

MR. KIRBY:  Yup.  Sylvie?

Q:  Hello.  I have a question.  I would like to go back, actually, to China.  Some Democrat senators and representatives have said that it would be a good idea for U.S. to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.  I wanted to know if -- also, the position of the secretary.

MR. KIRBY:  It -- if -- is what the position of the secretary, Sylvie?

Q:  That it -- it should be -- it should be good -- it would be good to ratify this convention, U.N. convention.

MR. KIRBY:  It's -- we -- we continue to support the Law of the Sea Convention, and -- and we recognize the Senate's role in -- in ratifying that, and continue to be supportive of -- of a frank and candid discussion with legislators about -- about the -- what the Law of the -- the Sea affords us, and I think I'd leave it at that for right now.

Q:  You don't think it would help you in your efforts for a free -- free Pacific to, you know, to fight for the -- this principle? 

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY:  We essentially -- we essentially subscribe to the -- the Conventions of the Law the Sea as it is in practice.

Q:  Okay.

MR. KIRBY:  Stephen Losey?

Q:  You answered my question, thank you very much.

MR. KIRBY:  Okay.  Wafaa.

Q:  Yes, thank you, my question was answered.  Thank you.

MR. KIRBY:  Okay.  (Caitlin Kenney.

Q:  Hello.  Has Secretary Austin, Deputy Secretary Hicks provided any recommendations to the president about who he should look for, for any -- look at for any of the present military service secretaries?  And also, are they being consulted on this matter?

MR. KIRBY:  I won't get ahead of the decision-making process, Caitlin, as you know, that it's the president's prerogative as commander-in-chief to nominate individuals for service secretaries.  And that process continues.  I certainly don't have an update on it.  Everybody recognizes the importance of those jobs and how significant they are.  And I think it's important to the secretary to make sure that the recommendations he is making to the president, that he is making the best recommendations he can for the best possible talent to be the civilian heads of the services.

But I don't have an update on timing for you.

Q:  So you are saying that the secretary -- that Secretary Austin is consulting with the president about who he should look at?

MR. KIRBY:  I'm not going to get into private conversations or consultations between the president, commander-in-chief.  I think you can understand why I wouldn't do that.  What I am saying is that that he is aware of the need to fill those assignments and that when the time is right he will make the appropriate recommendations to the president.  And it ultimately is the president's decision to nominate individuals for those jobs.

Anything more?

Q:  Are there any updates on the attack on Al Asad?  Are the Iraqis making any progress in their investigation or did they share any useful information with you?

MR. KIRBY:  I don't have any updates on the Iraqi investigation.

Before I go, I want to go back to one question.  This was Jeff's question about whether or not Mr. Carlson should apologize to all women in the military.  Again, as I said, I won't speak for -- to that specifically, but I would hope that in the reaction he has seen, and hopefully in our reaction here today, that he'll realize the mistake he made and express some regret about the manner in which he essentially demeaned the entire U.S. military and how we defend and how we serve this country.

Okay.  With that, see you.