Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary Conducts On-Camera Press Briefing

May 24, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: OK, a few things to get through here at the top, so bear with me.

I think you saw just a little bit ago, the secretary released a short statement thanking National Guardsmen and women for their service at the Capitol complex over the last five months; truly extraordinary work, oftentimes in pretty extreme and nasty weather, but they chipped in and performed an invaluable service, and it was important for the secretary to -- to say thank you to them as they now begin to transition out of the area. Their mission is over. There's still about a thousand or so that are still in the Capitol area, but they're -- they're in the process -- their -- their whole effort now is just in the process of -- of -- of moving on back -- back home.

MR. KIRBY: As you likely saw on the news over the weekend, the United Kingdom's Carrier Strike Group 21, or CSG 21, got underway from Portsmouth. CSG 21 is a large-scale, multinational deployment designed to demonstrate expeditionary capabilities, operational readiness, and interoperability between the United States, the U.K., and other allies and partners that will highlight global reach and enhances the deterrence and defense capabilities of the NATO alliance.

In total, the strike group will include nine ships and approximately 3,700 personnel. Though it's a British-led, our Navy will be participating with the deployment of the Destroyer USS The Sullivans and a Marine Corps F-35B squadron that will be attached to the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.

In addition to the press coverage coming out of the U.K., our combatant commands and services will also be highlighting DoD's participation at various stages throughout this deployment. We're delighted to be under way and to be a part of it.

Speaking about being under way and a part of international efforts, Defender 21, the exercise in Europe, continues as scheduled. Over the weekend, the United States Army 2nd Cavalry Regiment Road March began. During the four-day march the unit will travel through Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, and integrate -- exercise immediate response later this week.

Also of note, Exercise Saber Guardian kicked off today, more than 13,000 service members from 19 nations will conduct live fire and air and missile defense operations in several countries, and will conduct a large-scale medical evacuation exercise in Germany.

On a separate topic, I think you saw that the earlier today the secretary spoke with his -- with Pakistan's chief of army staff, General Bajwa, to discuss shared regional interests and objectives. During the call, the secretary reiterated his appreciation for Pakistan's support for the Afghanistan peace negotiations and expressed his desire to continue to build on the United States-Pakistan bilateral relationship.

On to COVID, as part of the national response to COVID-19, the Department of Defense in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services signed a Defense Production Act Title III agreement with Retractable Technologies, Incorporated, to expand the production of safety syringes and needles. The amount of the agreement was $27.3 million and this investment will enable Retractable Technologies to install two additional automated assembly lines at the manufacturing facility in Little Elm, Texas. The full release on this agreement can be found on our web site Defense.gov.

And lastly, I think you probably saw, but for your planning purposes, as the White House announced today, the president will lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers a week from now in honor of Memorial Day. Immediately following that wreath-laying, the president will give a Memorial Day address in the amphitheater. Secretary Austin and Chairman Milley will also be in attendance and will provide remarks. The first lady, the vice president, the second gentleman, and Deputy Secretary Hicks will also all be in attendance. Due to COVID, this will be a closed event and not open to the public.

And with that, I will take questions. Bob?

Q: Another question for you connected to the disclosure last week that the Justice Department during the Trump administration had obtained phone and email records of Barbara Starr of CNN. And I realize that this was before Secretary Austin took office, of course. My question is, would -- what is Secretary Austen's view on the appropriateness of this sort of activity? Would the Pentagon under Austin cooperate with any Justice Department effort to obtain communications records of reporters who cover the Pentagon?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I certainly can't speak to this case in particular, and I would refer to the Justice Department to speak to that. And I don't think it would be wise for me to get into a hypothetical -- you know hypothetical cases going forward.

Now let me just say, Bob, the Secretary has enormous respect and admiration for what members of the media do and the contributions you make to informing and educating not just the American people but republics around the world, and he believes in fostering a healthy relationship with the media, particularly the media that cover this building, and -- and that includes, you know, enabling a -- a measure of trust and confidence in the kinds of communications that those relationships will foster.

Q: So he doesn't have a specific view on whether the Department should or could cooperate on -- on ...

MR. KIRBY: I think he would -- you know, the -- it would be -- it -- it -- you know, look, he is -- he -- he understands that you have a -- an important job to do and that you also have a duty, an obligation to protect the sources of information that -- that you need to do your job. He understands that. But I -- I don't think it's helpful for me to hypothesize or speculate with any great detail about -- about cases that haven't even happened, things that haven't happened or haven't been a concern.

Clearly, we have good interagency relationships here in town, and that includes with -- with the Justice Department, but I just don't know that it would be helpful to speculate about something that hasn't happened yet. He -- he does understand the importance of your work and the -- the way in which you need to go about that work.

Q: All right, thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Yep. Hey, can we go -- yeah, Abraham?

Q: Thanks. John, could you elaborate a little bit more on the -- on the Guard drawdown? Are they going to leave a residual force? Are they going to leave a QRF? Any capabilities, equipment, that type of thing? Are they going to get reimbursed for it? And then I have a second quick question.

MR. KIRBY: There's no reimbursal (sic) plan, Abraham, there's no plans for a Quick Reaction Force to be left behind. As I said, the 1,000 or so that are still in the Capitol region are preparing for departure. I don't have any additional requests or desires to talk to today by the Capitol Police for any residual capabilities. If that changes, we'll certainly let you know.

Q: OK, so nothing left behind? No equipment, no ...

MR. KIRBY: Not that I'm aware of. I would point you to the National Guard to -- for more specifics but I'm not aware of any residual equipment that's going to be left behind. Remember, most of these soldiers were essentially acting as physical and barrier sentries.

Q: Sure. And quickly, on Secretary Austin's call with his counterpart in Pakistan, did he discuss a possible basing agreement?

MR. KIRBY: I think I'll just leave it to the readout and the -- and the degree of specificity in -- in the readout.

Q: Very good.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. Tara?

Q: Thank you. Just to follow up on the question -- kind of (inaudible) was a recommendation from General Honore's review. Are there plans in place to set up a long term QRF for the Capitol? And then I have another question.

MR. KIRBY: I think we're still taking in some of the recommendations by General Honore and his team. No decisions have been made about any of the specifics with respect to those recommendations, and again, if that changes, we'll let you know.

As of right now, there's no -- there's no intention to have a Quick Reaction Force as a result of these Guardsmen and women leaving.

Q: It's maybe too in the weeds but is that something that we would see reflected in the upcoming budget request, whether or not a QRF was being funded for the Capitol, and would it come out of DOD or would it be part of a U.S. Capitol, like, legislative budget?

MR. KIRBY: I -- I don't have any details on that, Tara. I mean, I -- I -- you know, if it was to be -- if it was something we were going to pursue and we're going to pursue it out of our executable funds, clearly that would be something we'd have to budget to, but I don't want to get ahead of the budget, which obviously we haven't released yet. So I think -- I -- I think I would just stay tuned on that.

But again, no -- I know of no specific plans are -- that are in place right now to act on the recommendations. We're still going through that and -- in -- in concert with the interagency to see what capabilities might be best going forward, but I -- I wouldn't want to speculate right now.

Let me go to the phones. I haven't done that yet. Jeff from VoA?

Q: John, thanks very much for doing this. Two questions. First question, there were reports last week about the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau possibly after being captured by Islamic State in West Africa.

Does the -- the Pentagon have any assessment of those reports, and -- and based on -- on them -- those reports, any concern about the growing strength of ISIS West Africa? And then I have another question.

MR. KIRBY: I don't have anything specific to say with respect to that report. Obviously, we're well aware of the threat that Al-Shabaab continues to pose and we're certainly well aware of -- of the desire by ISIS to expand their footprint in places like Africa, but I don't have anything more specific than that.

Q: OK. And -- and second question, getting back to -- to Pakistan, its Foreign Ministry put out a statement today ruling out the possibility of any U.S. military bases for the post-withdrawal from Afghanistan counter-terrorism effort.

What -- is there anything that the U.S. is looking for right now from Pakistan in terms of what happens after the withdrawal is complete and is there any update on other possible basing agreements in the region for doing counter-terrorism operations, once the Afghan withdrawal is done?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have any specific updates in terms of the potential for overseas basing -- the -- there, after our withdrawal. These are obviously diplomatic discussions that are ongoing and are clearly not complete. We're -- we're exploring a range of options and opportunities to -- to be able to provide a credible and viable over-the-horizon counter-terrorism capability, and there's lots of ways you can do that. Overseas basing is just one of them. So nothing to report on that front.

And I certainly wouldn't speak to -- to, in any greater detail, with respect to any one country. Again, the -- the Secretary's discussion this morning was -- was -- was very useful and -- and -- and dealt with, as I said, a range of bilateral opportunities that our two countries have going forward. Lalit?

Q: A follow up question on Pakistan. It's -- the previous administration had to stop all financial aid to Pakistan because the previous administration believed they were not cooperating in the fight against terrorism. Is this new administration reviewing that policy or has it -- where -- where do you stand on that?

MR. KIRBY: At this time, U.S. security assistance to Pakistan is still suspended, and I won't get into speculating one way or another about if or whether that will change going forward.

Q: And according to India, the COVID assistance to India, do you have an update on that? Where do you stand on it?

MR. KIRBY: No, I don't have any up -- updates from -- from what we talked about last week.

Q: And finally, India's External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar is in town later this week. Does the Secretary have any plans to meet him?

MR. KIRBY: I don't have anything on the Secretary's schedule to speak to with respect to that right now. If that changes, though, I'll let you know.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yep. Lara Seligman, Politico?

Q: Hey, John, thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask you actually about the budget this week. Secretary Austin and General Milley are testifying on the Hill on Thursday about the budget, before the budget rollout, so what -- can you explain what the logic in this was? Will they be -- have anything to talk about?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I think there's plenty to talk about, Lara. Yeah, I mean, it was just a -- a scheduling -- it just, the -- the -- the way the sort of schedule played out both with the -- the subcommittee and with OMB. So you're right. The testimony will be on Thursday, the budget rolls out on Friday. So while they won't be able to get into too many specifics with respect to actual line items, there's certainly enough of a -- a broad take on budgetary requirements and the budgetary direction that they'll be able to address just in terms of the sorts of capabilities and operational concepts that we're going to be pursuing.

Q: And will there need to be a follow-up hearing that will actually dive into the details? Because a hearing before the budget details come out really doesn't get into any of the specific -- specifics that lawmakers need.

MR. KIRBY: Well, that's right. They won't be able to get into many of the specifics. As for whether there'll be a need for a -- a remedial session, that's really a question better put to -- to Chair McCollum and the ranking member, Ranking Member Calvert of the subcommittee.

OK, Pierre?

Q: Thank you. General McKenzie is in the area making some statements and talked also to the press. Reporting a piece from our colleagues from the A.P. leaves us under the impression that a vacuum is coming. Is the United States committed to the security and to help allies and partners in the area?

MR. KIRBY: Of course we are. Of -- of course we are, and we've said this time and time again, Pierre. Just because we are removing our troops and our -- and ending our military mission in Afghanistan doesn't mean that we're walking away from the region. Nothing could be further from the truth. There's still going to be a robust United States presence in the Middle East, in the Central Com -- Central Command area of responsibility. I think what General McKenzie was referring to was just that we need to be, you know, aware of the potential for other nation-states, with our absence from Afghanistan, you know, what -- what kind of actions they might take. But there's absolutely going to be no diminution of our commitment to our allies and partners in the region, none whatsoever.

Let's see, Jeff, Task & Purpose?

Q: Thank you. How many U.S. troops are in Afghanistan right now?

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, I think you know, we're -- we're not giving out exact numbers of our -- our troops there as we -- as we continue this withdrawal.

Q: Well, can we ballpark it? Can we say, you know, half have left, anything like that?

MR. KIRBY: No, Jeff, I'm -- I'm really not able to do that. We're going to confine our assessments to the assessments that you see every Tuesday coming out of Central Command. And I recognize that -- that you would like more data. I -- I do, and frankly, so does General McKenzie and his staff. But I -- I hope you also recognize our need to be somewhat circumspect in terms of the amount of information that we give out, particularly on a weekly basis so as not to violate operational security, so as not to -- to provide information that could actually put our people in harm's way. I know you share our desire to not -- to make sure that that -- that that doesn't happen.

And as I told you last week, and I'll reiterate it again that as the retrograde, the withdrawal continues and we -- and the capabilities in Afghanistan get progressively smaller, I -- I would expect, and you should expect that the -- the way we package the information and how much we give is also going to change, too, again, to make sure that we're not putting anybody in more harm's way than they already are.

Yes, ma'am?

Q: Any details or update on today's rocket attack on al-Asad in Iraq? Also, any update on the decision about the troops level there? Is there any change?

MR. KIRBY: About American troops in Iraq, no, there's been no change to their presence there or their purpose there, quite frankly.

I -- you may already have all this. This is what I have. If you already have it, I apologize, but at about 1:30 local time there the al-Asad airbase did experience one rocket round that landed on base. Initial reports are that there are no injuries, but the damage is still being assessed. As you know, sometimes initial reports change. That's what we have right now. The attack's under investigation by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, and I'd point you to them for any additional information. That's probably what you already had, but that -- that's what I've got for you.

Matt from ABC?

Q: Hi, John, thank you. On COVID, now that the CDC is looking into myocarditis, the heart-swelling issue and checking and seeing if they might be associated with vaccines, I know it was reported a few weeks ago that the DOD is maybe looking at some cases within its ranks. Is there any update on that? Is there any cause for concern at this point?

MR. KIRBY: Well, we're always monitoring the health and well-being of our people. I'm not, you know, Matt, I'm not going to speculate, so I'm going to take your question, because that is one that I want to make sure I'm crystal-clear and precise on. So rather than wing it here, let me take that question for you, if that's OK.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, you bet.

Ellen from Synopsis.

OK, go to you, Barb.

Q: I want to follow up on something discussed earlier. Last week, President Biden publicly said that seizing reporters' phone records was wrong, and it would not happen under his administration. He said that on camera. So not hypothetical, I didn't see you endorse that. Maybe it just didn't cross your mind at that very moment. The president says that he -- in his administration, reporter phone records will not be seized. Is that a policy now that Secretary Austin and this department, including the uniformed military, will abide by and agree with?

MR. KIRBY: Well, we absolutely agree with the president that -- that that's not appropriate behavior. I just didn't want to speculate about cases that haven't happened yet, and -- and you know, what results they might have for national security. That didn't seem like a wise thing for me to do. But of course, we agree with the president.

Yeah, Janne?

Q: Thanks, John. I ask about the lift of missile guidelines and the vaccine, provide the vaccine to South Korea. And last Friday, you had seen with South Korea summit. President Biden, President Moon has agreed to lift missile guideline to South Korea and provide vaccines to, I think, 500 -- 550,000 of South Koreans. So there's -- how do you, I mean, how is DOD’s assessments on this?

MR. KIRBY: What's our assessment of it?

Q: Yes.

MR. KIRBY: Well, obviously we support the president's direction here to provide vaccines to our ROK allies. I -- I think we're still working through the details of how that's going to occur. It'll come out of U.S. stock piles but the (inaudible) of it, the details on when, where how it get distributed, I think we're still working our way through that right now.

Q: Do you think the listing of the missile guidelines will help to defend enough against the threats from North Korea and China?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I'm not sure what you mean, the listing of missile guidelines. I'm not sure I understand ...

Q: There's like long-range missiles or mid-range missiles, whatever South Korea want. Is there any limits with that missile development?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I'm not going to get into specific capabilities here from the podium. But I'll tell you what, why don't -- why don't we follow-up after so I can get a better sense of what you're referring to. I'm just not aware of limitations on missile guidelines and where you're coming from on that. Some why don't we follow-up afterward and I'll see if can get you a better answer.

Q: OK.

MR. KIRBY: Does that make sense.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: OK. OK. Lee Sangmin?

Q: OK. I have a question about possibility that you guys considering redemption of larger scale field of basis, (inaudible) exercise.

MR. KIRBY: If I understood your question correctly, you're asking if we're considering the resumption of large scale exercises with South Korea?

Q: Correct.

MR. KIRBY: I won't talk to specific plans going forward. I mean obviously we've talked about this before but training with our ROK allies is a significant component of our ability to meet our treaty commitments to South Korea and we constantly assess and review what training events might be best and execute it in the -- in the -- in the most effective manner and we're going to continue that going forward.

But I don't have anything specific to read out with respect to a change in this or that exercise. Yes, go ahead.

Q: Yes, just a follow-up question. Thank you (inaudible) and what she said about missile is RMG, revised missile guidelines. And then the South Korea has had limitations when they develop missiles, it is 800 kilometers.

And last Friday, two leaders like terminated, all the limits about the missile, which was really important to Korea because it has implications that -- that we could now have a missile to attack China and Russia. So it has a -- I think that it has a large implications in Indo-Pacific strategy. So it was a little surprising to me that the DOD doesn't have a ...

MR. KIRBY: Yes, I understand. I -- thank you for the context. We'll -- we'll see if we can take the question and get you a good answer.

Q: I have a question about the Taiwan Strait. The two leaders as we saw that they agreed the importance of the peace and security of the Taiwan Strait and then they point it in a joint statement.

So that was another big headline for our Korean media because we had a lot of harsh responses from China. So can you explain a little bit more what implications it has in terms of military aspect defense? So what do you expect from South Korea when there is any kind of armed conflict in Taiwan Strait or things like that?

MR. KIRBY: That's for the South Korean to speak to. Not for us. Our approach hasn't changed. We obviously don't want to see any unilateral change to the status quo. We -- we will continue to assist Taiwan in its self defense as we have in accordance with the Taiwan Relation Act. The three communiques, six assurances. Nothing's changed with our policy with respect to Taiwan and I'd leave it to South Korea to speak to it from their perspective. Yes, sir?

Q: Thank you. There are reports that China has rejected the secretary's request to engage with the vice chair of their -- China's (inaudible) commission several times. Did the secretary make such request?

MR. KIRBY: All I can tell you is the secretary has not spoken to leaders in the people's republic of China. We look forward to being able to having a dialogue with them but I have nothing to speak to of this time of it.

Q: OK. Does the secretary think it is necessary to meet Chinese counterpart or speak directly to them in order to avoid their potential miscalculations?

MR. KIRBY: As I said, we look forward to having a dialogue with -- with them but I have nothing to announce or talk to at this time. (Inaudible). Yes?

Q: On Pakistan you said that the security assistance to Pakistan still remains suspended. We have seen the Secretary Austin and also sort of Ambassador Sutherland spoke to his counterparts in Pakistan. At least can you say that there is a discussion about the security assistance to Pakistan to be resumed or is it -- is it on the table or?

MR. KIRBY: I won't go beyond what I said in the question previous. Let's see, Laurie.

Q: Thank you very much, John, for doing this. I'll -- following up a little bit on a previous question to talk about the fight against ISIS and Iraq and Syria. General McKenzie was just there. Could you tell us both in Bagdad and North East Syria, could you tell us what he discussed and what the results were of those discussions?

MR. KIRBY: Actually, no, I can't, Laurie. I mean I'd refer to you General McKenzie's staff. These are recent discussions. I don't have a read out of how those discussions went. I think the best place to refer you to is Central Command.

Q: I'll do that. But -- but you did reaffirm your -- the U.S. commitment to fighting ISIS in those places?

MR. KIRBY: I -- I can tell you without speaking to General McKenzie's conversation specifically; we remain committed to coalition efforts against ISIS and Iraq and Syria. We still have troops in both places that are dedicated to that mission. We still have partners in the coalition that are dedicated to that mission and nothing's changed about it as of today.

But as to the specifics of General McKenzie's conversations, I think his staff is better positioned to give you that than I am.

Q: Thank you very much.

MR. KIRBY: You're welcome. OK. Thanks everybody.