Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary and the Chair of the 90-Day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military Brief the Media

March 24, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby; Lynn Rosenthal, Chair, 90-Day Independent Review Commission On Sexual Assault In The Military

Presenters: Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby; Lynn Rosenthal, Chair, 90-Day Independent Review Commission On Sexual Assault In The Military

March 24, 2021

Pentagon Press Secretary and the Chair of the 90-Day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military Brief the Media


PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Okay. As you'll recall -- boy, there's a little bit of echo there, huh? The 26th of February, the secretary established the 90-day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military to take bold action to address sexual assault and harassment in the force. Since then, the commission has recruited high-level experts in the areas of accountability, prevention, climate, culture, as well as victim care and support. These experts are going to bring diverse perspectives with backgrounds in sexual violence prevention and response, the legal system, and of course, the military.

Today, the commission held its inaugural meeting to kick off their 90-day review. Their deliberations of -- over the course of that -- those 90 days will help inform recommendations that they will make to the president and to the secretary of defense.

And so I am pleased to welcome back to the podium the commission's chair, Lynn Rosenthal. She'll provide you a little bit more detail on the commission's membership and their actions to date, as well as where they're going in the future. We'll bring her up. She'll have a few opening comments, and we'll go to Q&A for Ms. Rosenthal. I'll moderate that, as I did before, and then once you've exacted your pound of flesh from Ms. Rosenthal, I'll come back up and we'll do our normal briefing.

With that, ma'am, over to you.

LYNN ROSENTHAL: Thanks, John. (Laughter.) Appreciate it. 

Good afternoon, today, as John said, the Independent Review Commission had its inaugural meeting. We were graciously welcomed by Secretary Austin, Deputy Secretary Hicks and Chairman Milley.

For the past three weeks, we have been working on three goals, so since we spoke last we've been working on three goals. First was to identify the best people to serve on the commission, bringing diverse views, expertise and voices to the table. Second was to structure the commission to ensure its independent deliberations and decision-making; and third, to provide the flexibility within this structure to leverage the knowledge and experience that exists within the department and across the services. I believe that we have achieved these goals.

The executive IRC team is made up of 12 highly qualified experts who you see here. This is the group that will develop recommendations for the secretary and the president. I'm happy to answer questions about them, but let me just say, this group is impressive. It's made up of two civilian prosecutors, including one who served eight years in the Army JAG Corps, prevention specialists, two West Point grads who have gone on to have distinguished careers in the service, civilian advocates, experts in gender integration, one of the first female Super-Cobra Attack pilots in the Marine Corps, and experts from the VA and the CDC.

So we took the time to get the right group of people to engage in these deliberations. You can find their bios on defense.gov. The IRC is standing up a website that you will find a link to on the spotlight on defense.gov. 

The Executive IRC, which are these folks -- so these are the folks who will engage in the deliberations and make the recommendations. So these are all of our independent, highly qualified experts. The Executive IRC is supported by advisory and consultative teams made up of senior leaders and subject-matter experts within the department and within the services. They will help the Executive IRC understand the context for their work and the current situation as it exists today.

But these service leaders and department officials will be challenged to think of new ideas, to envision what is possible to meet the secretary's directive that all options should be on the table. As I mentioned, the IRC has established a website to keep the public informed, and we will routinely update that website with the IRC's progress. We have also established an email for stakeholders and service members to submit information and recommendations, and I should say that we're particularly interested in the feedback from junior enlisted service members who we know face the highest risk of sexual violence. So we encourage them to use that process.

We have also created an opportunity for survivor input through the DOD Safe Helpline's website, and while we won't be able to respond to every story, we will be analyzing those submissions for trends that can help inform our efforts.

As I said a month ago or three weeks ago when I stood here, the lived experiences of survivors are the very foundation of the work of the IRC. The most powerful voices sadly come from trauma and from pain. These are the voices that we must hear in developing our recommendations and we are committed to doing so.

So with that, I'm happy to take questions.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you, Lynn. We'll start with Lita Baldor on the phone from the Associated Press.

Q: Hi, thanks. So you haven't had any meetings or anything yet, so you're actually only just starting? I just want to make sure that's accurate. And then just sort of more broadly, this has been a problem that the services have been attempting to deal with for decades, including what one might argue was a very concerted effort, at least over the past 10 to 15 years. What questions can you ask and where can you go that you believe hasn't already been tapped? Aren't you just going to tread over the same ground that everyone has already done? Thanks.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Thank you for the question and if I could share with you the words of Colonel Bridgette Bell, who is one of our highly qualified experts in our climate and culture pillar, she said this afternoon "let this be the last IRC on sexual assault in the military." That should be our goal.

I think what we'll be asking -- what hasn't been tried, what happens in civilian society that is a best practice that we could try on the military side, and then what are the unique attributes of the military environment that allows us to do things that we can't do on the civilian side? So I think that comparison is very important.

I think that to -- these folks that we're bringing in will be looking at this with fresh eyes. I also think that what's -- makes this moment in time different are the words of President Biden and Secretary Austin, who have both said that all options should be on the table, and one of those is carefully examining the role of command in decisions to refer cases to prosecution and we will be assessing that very carefully.

MR. KIRBY: Jen?

Q: So just to follow up with what Lita said, can you explain how the past reviews fell short? What were their failures and how would you fix that in your approach this time?

MS. ROSENTHAL: I don't know that we've had a past review with this particular group of people. If you'll note, you will see that there are more women than men serving on this panel, that there are experts in gender integration and to the forces serving on this panel, that there are civilian advocates -- for example, Indira Henard, who runs the D.C. Rape Crisis Center and is an expert at innovative trauma-informed care that hasn't really been tried within the services. Kris Rose, who is a government official who has got many years of experience in the Department of Justice but also in the civilian sector as a victim advocate. She'll be asking questions that haven't been asked. Colonel Bridgette Bell has never been asked to serve on one of these groups. She's an expert in trauma and suicide prevention and wellness for service members.

So these are folks that -- whose views, quite honestly, haven't really been solicited in this debate, and I think that's part of what's different -- new voices at the table.

MR. KIRBY: Okay, back to the phones. We'll go to Missy Ryan, Washington Post.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. I just want to ask if you could clarify, to the extent you can, about how -- just trying to -- it would be helpful for us to understand, you know, what the outcome of the IRC is going to be in terms of how detailed are its conclusions going to be, and should we understand these as recommendations to the DOD leadership or are these things that are going to be set one -- once they're -- they're sort of captured in what you guys think should happen? And what would be the steps after the -- after you guys wrap up? Thanks.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Thank you for the question. The -- the charge of the Independent Review Commission is to make this broad assessment and then make recommendations to the Secretary of Defense and ultimately to the President. So the body -- these people will be deliberating on those recommendations.

I don't expect a in-the-weeds view of 150 policies that should be tweaked around the edges. That is not what we are about. We are about looking at major shifts at big picture items that could really change the culture, improve care for victims, bring about evidence-based prevention, and hold offenders accountable.

So I don't expect that you will see that sort -- not that all of that shouldn't happen, it absolutely should, and I think that's a follow up to the IRC. So there is always a need for these ongoing bodies to talk about implementation, how do you operationalize these major shifts, but our commission is about identifying those major shifts that need to be made and that this is the moment in time to make them.

MR. KIRBY: Tom?

Q: Thanks.

Q: As you know, Senator Gillibrand has called for these issues to be removed from the chain of command and -- and put in the arms of an independent special prosecutor who has military experience. What are your thoughts on that?

And also, isn't the root of this problem commanders for decades just not taking this issue seriously and is that something you really have to look at, if some command has a sharp increase in sexual assaults or sexual harassment, remove that commander?

MS. ROSENTHAL: There are really great tools to do exactly as you just said, and that is command and climate surveys. So we have tools that can drill down on which commander is not handling these issues appropriately. So that's an issue that the department can certainly look at.

Q: Why hasn't this been done in the past?

MS. ROSENTHAL: I can only speak for the IRC that's here today and the leadership that we bring to the table.

Q: Anything on Senator Gillibrand's suggestion?

MS. ROSENTHAL: I've spoken with Senator Gillibrand, I'm very familiar with her view and we're very interested in diving into her recommendations and to carefully assessing this issue. I've always believed that this issue needed to be looked at very carefully, that we will evaluate pros and cons.

I think what's different today, quite frankly, is this is not a closed door. The Secretary and the President have said all options should be on the table, and that is different today. That is the kind of leadership that we have frankly not heard before. And so that provides us an opportunity to do just that.

And what's important about that, there's so much expertise within the services. Well, they've now heard the Commander in Chief and the Secretary of the Department say all options should be on the table. So we will be carefully assessing and we have folks on our body here who have a diversity of views on that very topic.

MR. KIRBY: Back to the phones. Barbara Starr, CNN? Barb, you there? Okay, we'll go to Nick Schifrin, PBS.

Q: I'm -- I'm on but I think Barb just fixed her microphone.

Q: Can you hear me now? I'm having phone issues.

MR. KIRBY: Let me go -- go ahead, Barb.

Q: Dr. Rosenthal, the Secretary's February memo called for an evaluation of high-risk installations. Is that part of what you will be looking at? He wanted a report on that by March 15 in terms of actions and milestones. What is your sense of what makes a high-risk installation? Will you eventually come up with a list of them?

MS. ROSENTHAL: The department has actually been working quite a bit on this issue of what makes a high-risk installation so we have a lot to build on. And, of course, most importantly the Fort Hood report where we see it in action. So it's about lack of leadership, it's about lack of resources, it's about lack of priority. Those are the three issues. 

How do we prioritize sexual assault prevention and response? How do we ensure that all the components, CID, for example, in the Fort Hood report and other components that were not properly resourced and we saw the outcome that. We saw decisive action taken. There are tools within the department to evaluate high-risk installations. And so it is a question for the commission what sort of emphasis will we be putting on that and what kind of recommendations will we be making to utilize those tools.

MR. KIRBY: Abraham?

Q: Yes, I was wondering if you could tell us how many of these leaders on the commission are active duty versus civilian, in DOD versus other agencies of the government? And what the thinking was in that kind of makeup of the active duty versus not? And how you're going to assure members of the military that you're not going to -- that the culture will be respected but the problem areas will be addressed?

MS. ROSENTHAL: That's exactly what we have worked to achieve in the structure of the IRC. So I can tell you that first we looked for people with expertise. There's actually no one on this commission that is active duty. So Cindy Dyer, for example, is a civilian prosecutor and was an official in the Bush Justice Department. General Schwenk, many of you may know who's a retired former JAG officer, former official here at the Department of Defense. Colonel Bridgette Bell is on an inactive status from the Army because she is in a Ph.D. program. So she's on an inactive status. So she's the only one that has a slightly different status.

Kris Fuhr, as you know, is an expert in integrating women into the services but she's a volunteer in that capacity now with the Army Ranger program and other programs. Ky Hunter is an Assistant Professor at the Air Force Academy and also is our Marine Cobra Attack pilot and really highly regarded in her work again of mentoring women into the services. 

So you can see by these people that we're taking a really direct square-on look at women in the services and what that means. Indira Henard, as I mentioned is a civilian sexual assault advocate; Kris Rose, Former Justice Department official and advocate on the civilian side; and then Kayla Williams who is Assistant Secretary at the Department of Veteran Affairs -- so none of these folks are active duty. 

Now under them it's -- this is the whole issue. This is why I spend so much time trying to get the structure right. So these are the deliberate -- this is the deliberate body. Underneath them are the consultative teams that are made up with senior -- of senior leaders and subject matter experts within the department and the services. So they'll be participating in the conversation but they are not the decision makers. 

But they will be informing what it is we're making decisions about. So they will be asked questions like, how do we get from here to where we want to go? What's possible? How do we vision this without being constrained by resources? Because as we saw in the Fort Hood report the lack of resourcing of these programs was a critical issue that was life threatening for soldiers. 

So that's how we structured it to do precisely what you just said. 

Q:  I have just a quick follow-up. So how many served in the military from this group right here? Like, I count maybe two or three from the list.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Oh, who served in the military? James Schwenk, Meghan Tokash, James Johnson, Colonel Bell, Kris Fuhr -- Kris and Bridgette Bell are West Point grads. Ky Hunter is our -- our Marine pilot. So of the -- oh, and Kayla Williams also served in the Army. So the majority of these people served but are not serving now.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. Nick, your turn.

Q: I sent the list to six very well known advocates this morning. And a couple of them praised your list, but I got some very specific criticisms that I'm wondering if you could respond to. There was one criticism that said none of the members that you've appointed have direct knowledge of current military sexual assault advocacy protocols. That they didn't – that, that the list doesn't include any military advocacy organizations -- that, I know you're familiar with. And that there's no male sexual assault survivors as far as they knew. Can you respond to those? Thanks.

MS. ROSENTHAL: Yes, those are -- that's excellent feedback. And actually there are a couple of people that we're still looking at, potentially, to start on this commission. We had a very short time frame to on board people. So I'm very aware of those categories and I think that we're quite interested in seeing what we can do.

I will say this issue of male sexual assault survivors has been very much on the table and our civilian advocates have also raised that issue. So we wanted to have a body that was the right size to engage in deliberations and bring as many voices to the table as we could. And there are still -- we still may be adding one or two people.

MR. KIRBY: Megan?

Q: So a lot of the progress and the programs that have been made on the SAPR front have come from congressional mandates. This is different. This is DOD taking a look at itself. Do you feel confident that Pentagon leaders will be able to take on some of those recommendations that might upend some long held military traditions without Congress' say so? And do you plan to read-in Congress so that they know which of those recommendations you think maybe need to be in a law?

MS. ROSENTHAL: I mean, certainly the IRC is hopeful that the secretary of Defense and the president ultimately will adopt our recommendations and -- but I can't say what the outcome will be. But I think that there is certainly a desire -- I -- this morning, we met with the secretary, the deputy secretary and Chairman Milley, and we heard really strong words about this issue.

And what I heard at that table that perhaps was different than what I've heard before is a really deep understanding about sexual assaults, particularly the chairman who expressed an understanding of the predatory nature of sexual assault. 

So I think what we are moving past is this idea that has been long-held -- not just here but in civilian society -- this long-held idea that sexual assault is just this confusion between two parties and somebody didn't quite understand if they had consent or not, we -- we -- that's a long-held rape myth. It's not just here, it's long-held in our culture. 

I heard Chairman Milley say this morning that sexual assault was about predators. And so that, for me, creates an opening to have this conversation. What ultimately happens with our recommendations will be up to the secretary of Defense and ultimately the president.

MR. KIRBY: Back to the phones. Terese?

Q: Yes, good afternoon. Thank you so much for taking my question, I actually have three. 

So to start off, in my experience with the Air Force -- I worked with SARC and SAPR to help survivors of sexual assault and I saw a lot of issues within both programs. And I also spoke with a lot of survivors and got feedback from them on ways that changes can be made to help them better. That being said, my first question is, are any of the members of this team survivors? 

And if not, why wouldn't you find individuals who were survivors to be able to help make recommendations? That's my first question. The second one is will they recommend a formula that will cover all the branches versus each branch having their own way to handle reports of assault? 

And my last question is, will they make recommendations to the military on making amends for all those survivors in the past who dealt with hazing, who -- you know, were told they were lying, who ended up getting out and getting different various mental health problems because of how they were treated after they had reported those instances? 

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well, ultimately, to take your last question first, this is about accountability for perpetrators, it is about justice and healing for survivors. And I know our commission will be looking closely at that because it's the experiences of survivors that are the foundation of our work. 

I would say that we will be looking closely, and I think it's an excellent question about standardization versus what the individual branches need to do to implement these recommendations. I think that's a good question. 

Right now I don't have the -- I don't know the predetermined outcome of it, but I think that we sometimes have seen really great DoD policies that translate differently in implementation than perhaps was intended within the services. 

So I think it's a really critical question, what's the same and what's different? Where should there be standardization and where should there need to be individual attention to the needs of the services? So I think it's a great question, and I think that's exactly the kind of thing that our independent reviewers will be looking at. 

Q: Also, are any of the reviewers survivors? 

MS. ROSENTHAL: There is a survivor who is serving on one of the consultative groups, and we're working closely with her now to determine the parameters of her participation for what is comfortable for her. 

Q: Is there any record of men in the military being sexual assault or only women? 

MS. ROSENTHAL: Oh, no. We have a significant problem with the sexual assault of men in the services, very significant. And it's an interesting question about what's the same and what's different, and how tied is sexual assault of men to bullying and hazing kind of behavior -- is it the same kind of thing? 

But you know, if you think about it in that way it's ultimately about power and control. Whether it's power and control from a gender standpoint against young women -- predominantly young women. Or is it about bully -- and is that same dynamic of power and control what we see in bullying and hazing situations where men are sexually assaulted? 

But we absolutely -- and it is not only in the military, although it may have uniquely military characteristics -- the sexual assault of men is a significant problem about which we don't raise enough awareness, or speak enough about, or highlight their voices -- but it's a very significant problem. 

MR. KIRBY: Okay, to Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose. Jeff, you there? Sounds like somebody is almost there. 

Q: I have a question for Dr. Rosenthal. The culture which you are up against is one in which survivors are rarely believed and you have this -- more concern about protecting people from false accusations. And I'm wondering how the commission can realistically come up with solutions that address that? 

MS. ROSENTHAL: I have tremendous faith in our climate and culture pillar, because that's really where that rests. And those are those rape myths that are prevalent here and also in civilian society. And so we will be turning to Colonel Bell, Kris Fuhr, Dr. Hunter to really carefully examine that question. That's exactly right, it's about climate, culture, rape myth, views of women, and deliberate misunderstanding about what sexual assault really is. 

MR. KIRBY: Tara, in the back? 

Q: Thank you for doing this. To what extent will the commission look at UCMJ enforcement and the different levels of punishment that some officers get versus enlisted and whether the services are applying this equally? Because it seems like not a week goes by that we don't see another headline about someone being kept in the service who was involved in a potential assault. 

MS. ROSENTHAL: Looking at the UCMJ is the primary task of our line of effort on accountability, so we will be looking at all of those issues. 

Q: What will you be looking at in that -- like, equal application among the services, or can you describe a little farther? 

MS. ROSENTHAL: Well we'll look at data that tells us more about this problem. We'll look at specific cases that tell us more about this problem, we'll look at dispositions that tell us more about this problem. So we will be carefully examining that question. 

MR. KIRBY: Fahd?

Q: Thank you, John and thanks doctor. Just by looking at the commission and you can easily see that -- I mean, it's 10 women to three men. But when you look at the leadership in the Pentagon you don't see that type of ratio representation. 

So my question is -- and it's two-fold. First of all, is there like an established scientific correlation between the makeup -- gender makeup of leadership and sexual assault within an organization? And are you going to be looking at the leadership makeup as well in order to try to bring in better culture or guidelines or recommendations?

MS. ROSENTHAL: That's -- we brought on our experts in climate and culture, and gender integration in to the services to -- exactly to address those questions, so we will be looking closely at that. I mean, there are -- I think it's 20 percent of the force are women, that's not a good mix, and we know that. And I think that's what these folks will be working on. 

And I mean, I think what's so important, as I said last time when I was here is that the women in the services when you hear their stories of sexual assault what's so devastating about them is how proud the women were to serve. How they felt that they were doing something important just by being in the services. That they were a role model for other young women to show that you can do this. 

And that when a sexual assault occurs where their very institution betrays them, it's devastating. And so certainly that's a very critical issue. And our composition here, we look first at expertise and what people brought to the table, and then we said this is predominantly women, and isn't that an okay outcome as well? 

I should also say that the men we have at this table, Neil Irvin is the Executive Director of Men Can Stop Rape, he's worked for many years on this whole question of how can men play a role in ending violence against women. How can we take, for example, what the chairman said -- those very strong words this morning and turn them into action and inspiration for all men to take a stand? So that's what Neil brings to the table. 

James Johnson is an expert in prevention, and he will be bringing that to the table. And of course General Schwenk has a long history of how you make big changes within an institution. So we didn't set out to say there would be this many women and this many men, we looked at our chart and said, that's where it is. That's where it landed.

MR. KIRBY: Oren?

Q: In -- in reviewing specific cases and looking back at the past, are you considering reopening any cases or re-interviewing witnesses or victims? And do you have the authority to adjudicate those differently based on what you find in the review?

MS. ROSENTHAL: No, absolutely not. We're not -- we're not undertaking individual case reviews for the purposes of changing the outcome. That's far beyond our scope. Those are legal matters, not policy matters. 

We're looking at cases to look at the trends and the issues that inform our policy deliberation. So we will not be, and this is important, we will not be reopening cases for the purpose of adjudication. We simply don't have that authority.

What we hope is to learn from those cases so that we can make a difference going forward.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. I think that's about it.

Q: Thank you.

MS. ROSENTHAL: I have to tell -- I'm not a doctor. I'm so sorry. My mother would have been very happy that you upgraded me but I'm not.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you so much, Lynn. I appreciate it.

Q: Thank you, Doctor.

MS. ROSENTHAL: No, no.

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Lynn. Okay. Thanks for that. Now look, I know that the one issue that is -- I still assume is of great interest to you is our support to Health and Human Services with respect to military installations. I don't have a lot to update you on, aside from what -- what I did yesterday. 

But I can tell you a couple of things. One; we're evaluating, as you would expect we are, this request for assistance with a measure of alacrity here. And I would expect decisions out of the Department in days, not weeks.

When we talked about Fort Bliss and I mentioned it was a parcel of land that was being looked at for potential use in this regard, what -- what I would envision that looking like is temporary structures on that -- on that land to house these unaccompanied minors.

Those structures would be, of course, funded by HHS, not the Pentagon. Although, it's possible that we would help provide some contracting support.

So it can be done in an expeditious manner. And there was a site visit today to Peterson Air Force base in Colorado, another one. So we're looking at an additional site potentially. I don't know the results of the site visit. So I don't want to speculate but just to let you know that there was another site looked at.

And then lastly I'm sure you're going to want to know what are the numbers that HHS is asking in the request and I -- I am not going to provide that information. I'm going to refer you to HHS for that. We will treat this like every other request for assistance and we'll do it, again, with a measure of alacrity here and seriousness. But I'm not going to be able to release the specific numbers that HHS is asking in terms of numbers of minors that each site would support.

We need to work through this process carefully and deliberately. We need to evaluate the request the way we would in any other one and I don't want to prejudice that process or get ahead of any decisions that -- that haven't been made. So with that, Jen.

Q: So can you explain why Fort Lee is no longer being considered and what specific challenges does housing minors at these military bases pose to the military. What -- what are the issues for you?

MR. KIRBY: Challenges? Well, so on Fort Lee, as I understand it, the infrastructure there just wasn't suitable for the -- for children. So that -- that site’s not an active consideration right now. I mean you -- we've done this before, as you know, Jen, in 2012 and 2017. And that said, we haven't done it in a pandemic.

So one of the challenges is going to be how do you deal with the potential for COVID and the impact of infections in the population of the children but also at the installation. So we have to factor in what's going on with the pandemic. That's a unique challenge that we haven't faced before with respect to this.

And then of course the other -- it's not really a challenge but it's something important for everybody to understand that the care of these children will be under Health and Human Services, not the military. The military's role is to provide the site. 

And as I said, there may be some -- some contracting support that we offer. Again, we haven't worked our way through that but it's not to provide for care or supervision of the -- of the children or -- or their meals, that kind of thing. Okay. Tom?

Q: John, you mentioned temporary structures. Will you also create recreational facilities of some kind like playgrounds, soccer fields, things like that? I think that's been done in the past, hasn't it?

MR. KIRBY: I don’t know Tom -- again, I think the focus right now is on housing structures. But I would assume given that these are children that should there be a need for us to assist in a contracting way the provision of recreational -- recreational facilities or recreational equipment, I mean, I think we would be supportive in terms of looking at that. But I just don't have that level of detail right now.

I mean we do need to remind ourselves that these are -- that these are children. Lara Seligman, Politico.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you if you have an update for us about Afghanistan? We're certainly hearing more today about -- from Chairman Adam Smith about how it would be really difficult at this point to withdraw all the troops we have there by May 1. Can you give us an update on whether you -- whether you share that assessment and when a decision is going to be made?

MR. KIRBY: I actually don't have an update from yesterday, Lara. I would point you back to what the secretary said when we were in Kabul. And that's that he has confidence that if a decision is made to withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan, he's confident that General McKenzie and General Miller will be able to do so in a safe and orderly effective way. But I don't have any specific updates. Yes, Pierre?

Q: Hey. A cease-fire is being offered by Saudi and Iran. You were already talking about the mission of the United States as a counterterrorism in Yemen. Does this -- something that you welcome and you think that it will open up for more focus on your mission of counter terrorism in Yemen? (inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: Well, so two thoughts there. One, obviously we continue to support the work of our diplomats and of course we'll support the U.N. effort to get at a peace settlement in Yemen. That -- that's a benefit to not only the Yemeni people but the region. 

And certainly the United States stands in support of finding a way to reduce the violence and to end the conflict there. No question about that. Our mission in Yemen, as you know, is arrayed against ISIS and that mission continues.

Okay. Tony Capaccio?

Q: Hi, John. Can you hear me?

MR. KIRBY: I can. Yes, sir.

Q: Hey, John. The Pentagon inspector general today issued a report after a two-year investigation on the Navy's former top auditor and they concluded the guy had a 20-year history of sexual harassment against women. And they called on the Navy to take appropriate action based on the report, I asked the Navy for comment today and they bounced me to OSD Public Affairs.

Are you aware of the audit and will Secretary Austin take a look at this -- this audit and press the Navy to take appropriate action? The auditor’s name is Ronnie Booth, he retired in September 2019.

MR. KIRBY: I'm aware of that report, Tony, I think, hopefully, as you probably surmised just from the last 30 minutes, the secretary takes the issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment very, very seriously but this is -- been referred appropriately to the acting secretary of the Navy and I won't be offering any further comment on this particular case.

Q: But you're aware of the report though, is that right? And the contents of it?

MR. KIRBY: As I said, we are aware of the report and the context of it but it's been referred appropriately to the acting secretary of the Navy and I really don't have any additional comment right now. Tara?

Q: Thanks, John. Back to the HHS request, have they given any sense of time frame that these DOD facilities would be needed? What's the long-term plan for these kids? Would they be held for months, for up to a year at these bases?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have a better sense for you, Tara, in terms of like when we will begin housing children there. As I said, from our perspective, we're looking at this request days not weeks to make a decision on these I would expect. I mean, certainly, we'll be transparent with you.

As I understand it, right now the -- these initial requests are for support through the end of the calendar year. That's as it stands now, but again, I'd point you to HHS for more detail on that. Let me go back to the phones here, Jeff Seldin from VOA.

Q: Hi, thanks very much for doing this. If I could just ask again about Afghanistan and the comments made earlier about the House Foreign Services Committee Chairman, Adam Smith, he said that it was -- his understanding based on conversations with among others the secretary of defense that the May 1st deadline was simply too soon. Is he accurately characterizing the thinking from the Pentagon right now? And if not can you update us on what the thinking is?

MR. KIRBY: Nothing more to offer, Jeff, than I did to Lara's question. Jenny?

Q: Thank you, John. It is reported that North Korea is preparing for the various type of artillery fire against South Korea now. Should the United States take diplomatic or defensive military approach to North Korea’s aggressive actions?

MR. KIRBY: They're preparing to do what?

Q: (Inaudible) I mean diplomatic or – artillery fires?

MR. KIRBY: Oh, artillery fires. I haven't seen that report, Jenny, certainly I'd leave the business of diplomacy to the diplomats, not -- not here at the Department of Defense. As we've said all along we want to see North Korea denuclearized, we want to see stability, and security on the peninsula and denuclearization is a key part of that.

But I don't have any specifics with respect to your reporting about artillery fires. Obviously, we called Pyong-Yang not, you know to -- to do things that would make things less stable on the peninsula.

Q: Really talking about last time North Koreans missile launches when -- when the United States know about North Korea's missile launch movement in advance? What actions did you get into and did you inform the Alliance, I mean our allies to North Korea's going to be missile launches? I think (inaudible) U.S. find that they're, I mean North Korea's missile launch movement?

MR. KIRBY: I --

Q: Do you have any information on that?

MR. KIRBY: Are you speaking to -- are you speaking to recent events?

Q: Yes, recent current events.

MR. KIRBY: And you're asking if we --

Q: (Inaudible) last Sunday?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any information about notifications that -- that might have been made with respect to that. I think you heard that -- from senior administration officials yesterday acknowledging that this was, for North Korea, in the realm of normal military activity. Okay.

Q: Normal military activity but the U.S. I think their intelligence find it out already one day before (inaudible) the day before they (inaudible). What actions did you…?

MR. KIRBY: I'm certainly not -- I'm not going to talk about intelligence matters here from the podium, Jenny. I do appreciate the re-attack though. Fadi?

Q: Thank you, John. I want to go back to Afghanistan and as I understand that the whole process is still under review and no decision has been made. But there's an input from the DOD and you're dealing with different scenarios but one of them is you might need to stay in Afghanistan beyond May 1st.

Is the DOD in favor in that case of having some sort of understanding with Taliban to extend the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan?

MR. KIRBY: I mean your question gets directly to the deliberations that are going -- ongoing right now and I hope you can appreciate that I simply won't get ahead of that process and I -- I certainly -- I'm not going to divulge conversations one way or the other here at the podium.

There's a review going on, the secretary's a participant in that review, part of the reason he went to Kabul was to help inform his advice and counsel to the president and as a participant in that review and I'm just not able to get ahead of that.

As I've said before in his discussions while we were in Kabul but also even before that he has confidence that if a decision is made to remove all troops from Afghanistan that he's confident that General Miller can do that in a safe, orderly, and effective way. And that -- I really just need to leave it at that for -- for today.

Q: One follow-up on that.

MR. KIRBY: Sure, Tara, go ahead.

Q: Thank you. If there is a decision made and troops are withdrawn by 1st or shortly thereafter will DOD need to go to Congress to ask for additional funds because flying out equipment can be so expensive, a rapid drawdown can be expensive? Are there already funds in the current OCO to accomplish that?

MR. KIRBY: I don't think we've reached that decision point right now, Tara. We -- we -- we haven't reached a decision point about this, the president gets to make that decision, and he hasn't made that decision. So, I think we need to let that process play out. And then I won't speculate about, A, what that decisions going to be and, B, whatever the cost might be. That's just a bridge that we're not ready -- we haven't even crossed yet. So, it's just premature to even entertain that right now. Tom, from Talk Media.

Q: Hello? Hello?

MR. KIRBY: I'm here, Tom.

Q: Thanks. Hey, over the weekend the Saudi Military Coalition carried out air raids in Yemen and they hit the Port of Salif on the Red Sea among other places. That port is part of the UN brokered agreement as a neutral zone according to an agreement signed in 2018 by the Saudis and the Houthi. Does the Pentagon see this as permissible under the ceasefire declared Monday by Saudi Arabia? And I know we've reduced our support to the Saudis but could you give me -- what specific support the Pentagon is continuing at this point to the Saudis? Thanks a lot.

MR. KIRBY: Tom -- on your first question, I'm going to have to take that. I've -- that's the first I've heard of that report and I would -- it -- it would be very irresponsible for me to begin to speculate about that right now. So let me take the question and see what, if anything, we can get back to you on.

On the second question, as -- as I've -- in the past, I've -- I'm -- I'm not going to entertain specific details about the -- the kinds of things that we do to support Saudi Arabia in -- in its self defense but we take that responsibility seriously and -- and we continue to -- to execute that responsibility, to -- to meet that responsibility, but the details of it, that's not something I'm going to get to -- into from the podium.

Q: Okay, thanks a lot.

MR. KIRBY: Yep, you bet. Abraham?

Q: Thanks, John. Two questions. One, is the Secretary aware of the letter from the Congressman from California, Panetta, to the President, asking that there be a waiver of informed consent for the COVID vaccine to members of the military and what does he think about that request?

And then secondly, there was a hearing in the House Armed Services Committee today, as you're aware, of extremism in the Armed Forces, and there were some concerns from members of Congress that there's no definition for extremism and no metrics. And wonder -- and so they're concerned that -- that members of the military would be targeted, their -- their First Amendment rights would be targeted, and especially Catholics and evangelicals.

I wonder what types of guarantees the Secretary is trying to put in place so that this extremism stand down and the review and decisions would protect those members of the military?

MR. KIRBY: So on your first question, let me take it, Abraham. I -- I don't know the answer to the question about the letter, so we will -- will check into that and get back to you. 

On -- on the second question, as I think we've said many times, this isn't about religion and it's not about politics. It's about extremist ideology that can inspire acts and behavior that actually prejudice good order and discipline, and the idea that -- the suggestion that this would have anything to do with the -- the God you worship or don't, is anathema to the whole effort.

This is about, again, ideology that inspires conduct that is prejudicial to good order and discipline and puts our teammates in harm's way.

Q: And the Secretary how can he protect -- 

MR. KIRBY: The Secretary said himself, Abraham, and you've heard him from this podium that he under -- you know, well aware of First Amendment rights and -- and free speech and freedom of religion and -- and part of the whole reason for the military is defend this country and to defend the ideals upon which this country was founded, including those constitutional rights, and they're rights, oh, by the way, that our service members also are entitled to, because they too are citizens of this country.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. Oren?

Q: There -- there are a number of contracts in Afghanistan and contractors obviously working under those DOD contracts with completion dates past May 1st. Is there any communication with those contractors on -- on what may happen under different scenarios and are those contracts simply truncated at some point?

MR. KIRBY: I -- I -- I -- again, I -- I think -- I -- I appreciate the -- the back door you're trying to open here, Oren. It's a -- 

(Laughter.)

I mean, that was creative. But I don't -- I don't have any updates for you on that. Yeah, I don't. Yes, ma'am?

Q: Yesterday, (inaudible) Africa, they celebrate over 30 years of the end of one of the greatest battles that took place in Africa. I don't know if you're familiar with this, it's called Cuito Cuanavale Battle, and they -- 

MR. KIRBY: No, ma'am.

Q: You know it?

MR. KIRBY: I don't, I'm not familiar with it.

Q: Oh -- oh, okay, because I know the U.S. also was (inaudible) part of -- of this a little bit. I would just ask you your thoughts about that but okay, if you don't -- if you're not familiar, my question -- second -- 

MR. KIRBY: I think I would be -- my response would be wholly underwhelming for you on that. I -- I -- I mean, I can -- we can -- if you want to, we can take the question and -- and see if we can help but I -- I'm afraid I couldn’t help today.

Q: But my next question is about the training that U.S. soldier are providing to the Mozambique soldier. Do you have any information how things is going on?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have anything on that. We'll take that question, as well. It's probably a better question put to Africa Command, but we will reach out to them and see if they can help get you an answer to that. That's a -- I -- I just -- I'm afraid I'm not prepared for that one today. 

I think that's it, unless there's anything else here in the room. All right, thanks, everybody, have a great day.

Q: Thank you.