Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary Holds Off-Camera Press Briefing

April 1, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY:  Hello, everybody. How are you? OK, I do have a fairly lengthy beginning here because I have three phone calls to read out to you, so -- did you just sigh? You sighed, didn't you? 

Q: Yeah, I did. Want me to do it again?

(Laughter.) 

MR. KIRBY: No, actually, I don't. 

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: As I said, I -- I do have some -- some phone conversations to read out to you. I will release these in text, as well, after the gaggle.

But this morning, Secretary of Defense Austin spoke by phone with his Ukrainian counterpart, Ukrainian Ministry of Defense Andriy Taran, to discuss the regional security situation. The secretary reaffirmed unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. He condemned recent escalations of Russian aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine, and he offered condolences to the minister on the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers on the 26th of March. 

He also reiterated the U.S. commitment to building the capacity of Ukraine's forces to defend more effectively against Russian aggression. I think it's important remind that since 2014, the United States has committed more than $2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, including a recently-announced $125-million package that featured defensive weapons and other key capabilities to enhance the lethality, command-and-control and situational awareness of Ukraine's armed forces. Minister Taran expressed his gratitude for the open dialogue and continued support.

He also spoke by phone this morning with his Turkish counterpart, the Turkish Minister of National Defense, Hulusui Akar, and -- I'm sorry, Hulusi Akar -- to underscore commitment to the U.S.-Turkish bilateral defense relationship and collective security through NATO. The secretary thanked the minister for the significant role that Turkey is playing as part of the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and in support of the ongoing peace process.

The two leaders also discussed the positive diplomatic developments and efforts to reduce all tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, where the secretary welcomed ongoing exploratory talks between NATO allies Turkey and Greece, and the commitment of both governments to this process.

The secretary also highlighted cooperation among allies and partners in the Black Sea, including recent exercises that included the USS Monterey and USS Thomas Hudner, as well as Turkish naval assets. Secretary Austin and Minister Akar discussed the instability along NATO's eastern and southern flanks, including challenges posed by Russia. The secretary noted the importance of working to strengthen U.S.-Turkey military-to-military cooperation and urged Turkey not to retain the Russian S-400 Missile Defense System.

Secretary Austin also spoke by phone this morning with his Greek counterpart, Greek Minister of Defense Nikos Panagiotopoulos to reaffirm the strong and deepening security partnership between the United States and Greece. He offered congratulations to the minister on the bicentennial of Greece's independence, which they celebrated on the 25th of March, and he thanked the minister for hosting U.S. forces -- bless you -- thanked the minister for hosting U.S. forces at Souda Bay in Crete. He expressed a specific appreciation for Greek prime -- the Greek prime minister's visit to the USS Eisenhower when she was in port there on the 23rd of March.

The secretary highlighted our strong bilateral defense cooperation marked by an expansion of the presence of the United States in Greece during the past year, with the home porting of the USS Hershel "Woody" Williams, an expeditionary mobile base at Souda Bay.

Bless you. You OK, Dan?

(Laughter.)

Secretary Austin noted that our deepening relationship is a dividend of the 2019 update of the U.S.-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement. The two leaders also discussed the positive diplomatic developments in efforts to reduce all tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, where the secretary welcomed ongoing exploratory talks between NATO allies, Greece and Turkey, and the commitment of both governments to this process. The leaders committed to being vigilant regarding threats to stability in NATO's southern flank, including from Russia -- Russian malign influence. 

The secretary noted Greece's consistently -- I'm sorry. Let me start that one again. Secretary Austin noted that Greece consistently exceeds NATO defense spending goals, which is a vital assessment -- investment to maintain a strong alliance. He mentioned the long-standing strategic relationship between our two militaries afforded by Greek investments in U.S. defense systems, and noted the Hellenic Navy's Frigate Modernization Program would be a generational opportunity to expand our naval partnership.

And with that, we'll take questions. Ms. Baldor?

Q: Mr. Kirby. One follow-up.

MR. KIRBY: I noticed you weren't taking notes, Lita.

Q: Maybe I will now. A follow-up on the call. What was the response to the secretary urging that Turkey not maintain the S-400? And my question is -- my second question is, is the U.S. pulling all or some of the Patriot missile batteries out of Saudi Arabia? Can you update us on whether the carrier is going to be withheld or whether it's going to go into the Middle East? And will there be any of the missile batteries maintained in Saudi Arabia, or is the decision to pull them all out?

MR. KIRBY: Boy, there's a lot there. I won't get into more specifics about the conversation with his Turkish counterpart, as I said. I can't -- I -- I can only speak for our side, and the secretary reiterated our opposition to the acquisition of the S-400 system in -- in Turkey as completely incompatible, of course, with -- with the F-35 program. And I would let the -- the Turkish side speak to -- to their reaction to that. But -- but his -- his focus was on reiterating our -- our objection to the acquisition of and -- and -- and delivery of that system. 

And you had so many others. Let me see if I can get through them.

Q: (Inaudible).

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, yeah. So look, I mean, I -- I think you guys recognize that the -- the staff here that works for the secretary, as well as the Joint Staff continually work with the combatant commanders to -- to help the secretary develop his best advice to the commander-in-chief about where we operate, what resources we have, what priorities we're trying to -- to meet and -- and the strategy ends that we're trying to achieve around the world. Without speaking to specific capabilities in any one country, I would tell you, we continue to take a strategic approach to the allocation of -- of our forces. And we routinely, as you know, make changes in that allocation for a wide number of -- of factors.

Now, as for Saudi Arabia, we continue to support the defense of Saudi Arabia in partnership with the Saudi military, including their abilities to counter inbound threats. And of course, we call on the Houthis to cease these attacks and to work to achieve a -- a political solution. I am -- am not going to get into specific capabilities that are in specific places, and for how long they will be. I -- I think I need to just leave it at that.

Q: Well, a quick follow-up: As you're aware, a lot of these efforts were added and shifted - particularly the Patriot missile batteries were shifted a little over a year ago in response to the threat from Iran, as well as the ongoing Houthi threats.

Does the administration and does the Secretary believe that the Iranian threat has reduced to the - to the extent that there is no longer a need for that level of defense in that region?

MR. KIRBY: Again, without getting into a qualitative intelligence assessment about the threat that - specifically about the threat that Iran poses, we recognize that Iran still poses a threat to its neighbors in the region and to our national security interests in the region.

Their ballistic missile program still exists and - and has improved. Their continued support for terrorist groups in the region still is a problem and has, in many ways, accelerated. So they continue to pose a - a threat to our interests and to the interests of our allies and partners in that part of the world and we take that very seriously.

Q: Could I very quickly follow up on that?

MR. KIRBY: Sure.

Q: The President said that, you know, they were no longer offering offensive capabilities to the Saudis in the war against Yemen ... 

MR. KIRBY: Correct.

Q: ... but would maintain defensive capabilities. So doesn't this undercut that pledge?

MR. KIRBY: Well, it - the - the - the question presumes that I'm going to confirm a press reporting. So I - I appreciate that - the - the - the question but I'm not going to do that, I'm not going to speak to specific capabilities in any one country, particularly in that part of the world.

We do take seriously our commitments to the defense of Saudi Arabia, and they are under attack, there's no question about that. I mean, you guys see that almost every day. And the Secretary obviously takes that seriously and he expressed that when he talked to the Crown Prince several weeks ago.

So again, without speaking to specific capabilities and where it is or how long it's there, we absolutely take very seriously our commitments to helping the Saudi Arabian people defend themselves against these - these attacks, which unfortunately still continue. Barbara?

Q: Going back to the Secretary's phone call with his Ukraine counterpart, you said that the Secretary condemned the recent Russian actions. Two questions - can you be a little more specific one more time about what he is condemning? And if he's condemning the Russians, does he believe their most recent statements today, including from Dmitry Peskov, that everything they're doing is just fine, that nobody needs to worry about what they're doing, there's no hostility intent, does he believe them and why would he?

MR. KIRBY: Well as I said in my opening - and it'll be in the readout - we're condemning the recent escalations on - in Eastern Ukraine. And of course that's round up in the deaths of these four Ukrainian soldiers recently. That's the specific that - in - in terms of the - the condemning.

As I said yesterday, I mean, we're monitoring the situation with respect to Ukrainian military reports of Russian military placements and forces along the border. We're - these are Ukrainian military reports. We're monitoring that very, very closely and we certainly call on the Russians to be more transparent about what this is about but we've learned from bitter history not to just take at face value Russian claims of their intentions. 

Lara?

Q: Hey, thanks for doing this. The President last week - is - during his briefing said that he had not yet been briefed on Secretary Austin's trip to Afghanistan. At this point, can you confirm that the Secretary has briefed the President on the trip? 
MR. KIRBY: I will not make a habit of discussing the Secretary's private conversations and advice to the Commander in Chief.

Q: At this point, it's been a week and a half. So - or, I mean, it would be great if you could ... 

MR. KIRBY: I'm sure that it would be great if I could, but no, I - I - I ... 

(CROSSTALK)

... it's not a - it - it - it just is - I'm not going to make a practice of advising the Secretary's personal conversations with the Commander in Chief and the advice that he's giving him. 

Dan?

Q: Going back to this discussion about resources in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, you've talked about China as the main challenge, and there's been a lot of voices in and outside the Pentagon, as you know, that have said the U.S. has moved too slowly to recognize the threat posed by China and still has too many resources tied up in the Middle East, including ISR, ships, even Patriot batteries, for example.

So is this - is - is what's going on now, what we're seeing, some kind of a beginning of - of, you know, a - a - a rebalance, a shift to Asia, or is that something you're discussing?

MR. KIRBY: Well again, I'm not going to confirm items in a press report but, Dan, I mean, it should be lost on nobody that the Secretary's first overseas trip was to the Indo-Pacific region and to meet with allies and partners - Japan, South Korea, India - about their perspectives on the tensions in that part of the world, tensions which are, in many ways, being propelled by China's aggressive activities and their excessive maritime claims and - and military modernization. No question about that.

He has a Global Force Posture Review ongoing right now, which we expect will wrap up in the summertime, and - and that will greatly inform him going forward as to what resources need to be allocated in all - around the world and what strategy we're trying to achieve.

And I think that's where the Secretary's head really is, is - is in terms of making sure that - that the - the force posture review is - is done completely and thoroughly with a global view about where we have troops, where we have assets, where we have systems and do we have the right strategies in place for the threats and challenges in those - in those - in those places around the world? 

Q: ... thinks the phone line is back.

MR. KIRBY: We do?

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Luis thinks it's back.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Go ahead, David.

Q: Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you.

Q: ... I - I - I walked in late when you were reading, I guess, the - the statement about his - his - his call with the Ukrainian Defense Minister. Does he have plans to call the Russian Defense Minister?

MR. KIRBY: I - I don't have any calls to announce today. Oh, I guess I should go to the phone. Tara? Give it a second. I know you have to, like, unmute twice or something, right? OK, Tara, we'll come back to you. 

Phil Stewart, you there?

Q: OK, I'm here now, sorry about that.

MR. KIRBY: That always happens every time I go to the next caller. 

Go ahead, Tara.

Q: Yeah, we're just messing with you.

(Laughter.)

Q: I -- I'm wondering whether you can confirm that Camp Roberts in California is going to be used as an additional HHS site to house migrant children. There's local news reporting that that has happened and the preparations are underway to get the base ready. And apologies if you said this at the top, a -- a bunch of us were having issues getting in.

MR. KIRBY: The technical issues? I did not talk about this yet. I can confirm that we have received a request for assistance from HHS for the potential use of Camp Roberts in California to house unaccompanied minors. I would let HHS -- as I have done consistently -- speak to the details of their request. But we are moving forward with analyzing that request for assistance right now.

Q: Can you confirm that it would be for approximately 1,500 migrant children? And do you anticipate that additional bases are going to be sought since the numbers coming across the border seem to be a lot bigger than anyone anticipated?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to confirm the number, Tara. I know that's a -- a very fair and legitimate question, but it's really one better posed to HHS. We're -- we make it a habit not to detail the specifics of -- of an RFA, a request for assistance. And we'd let -- we'd ask you to ask HHS about the specific numbers they're looking at. 

But we do have the request in the building. We are analyzing it, as we have the others. And as soon as we have something definitive to tell you in terms of where -- were we sit on our analysis of it, I'll -- I'll -- I'll do that. 

And I'm sorry, you had another question? Oh, about whether there's other ones. I know of no other potential requests for assistance that -- that we're waiting for or that we anticipate. But clearly, we're in constant communication with HHS. And you know, if they desire to request additional use of DOD installations, we will certainly entertain those requests going forward, as we have in the past and as we're doing presently. Okay --

Q: All right.

MR. KIRBY: Phil? Okay.

Q: Hey, John. Thanks --

Q: (OFF-MIC)

(Laughter.)

Q: (OFF-MIC) What happened to Phil?

MR. KIRBY: Goodbye, Phil. (Laughter.) All right, we'll get back to Phil.

(Ma'am ?)?

Q: So there were some satellite images of the Yongbyon plant in North Korea showing some activity. I was wondering if the Department's monitoring that and if you're concerned about activities there.

MR. KIRBY: We don't discuss intelligence matters.

Sir?

Q: Paul Handley from AFP. Sorry for coming in late. You keep saying that the assessments of what's going on in the Ukraine with Soviet forces depends on what the Ukrainian government is telling you, rather than saying this is -- you know, the U.S.'s own intelligence. So is -- what are they telling you and is it reliable?

MR. KIRBY: I did not say that. I did not put it the way you put it. I sad we are -- I said we are monitoring -- we are aware of Ukrainian military reports of Russian military actions along the border and we're monitoring that very closely --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Ukrainian military reports, do you have doubts about they are -- what -- what they say?

MR. KIRBY: I said we are aware of military reports and we're monitoring it very closely.

Q: Are they reliable?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to get into intelligence assessments here, sir. I'm not going to do that.

Q: And a -- one follow-up, is the status of European Command forces the same as it was yesterday when you said they're --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: We don't talk about -- we don't talk about threat condition levels for any combatant commander around the world. All our commanders have -- have it within their purview to adjust their force protection and their posture appropriately to the situation. And I won't talk to the specifics of that.

Q: But you confirmed yesterday that they were on watch? 

MR. KIRBY: I did not, no, sir. In fact, I scrupulously did not confirm press reporting that there had been a change in WATCHCON. What I did do was describe for the press that were in attendance yesterday, what WATCHCON means, the purpose of it, but I did not confirm anything. 

Q: Can I just follow up briefly? But you're going to some pains to avoid saying that the U.S. has any independent information. Why are you doing that? 

MR. KIRBY: I'm not going to pains to confirm that, Barbara; I'm simply...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: ... I'm simply saying, as I have said many times, that we're not going to speak to specific intelligence issues. We're monitoring this very closely, we're monitoring this very closely. 

Q: Is it fair to say if the secretary of defense of the United States is condemning something, he has good reason to...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: He was condemning actions in Eastern Ukraine. That's a separate issue than what we've talked about, what you guys have been asking about. We're monitoring this situation closely, and I think -- I think it goes without saying that when I say we're monitoring it, we're monitoring it. We -- we're watching this. 

OK, thanks everybody.