Transcript

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby Holds a Press Briefing

Sept. 13, 2021
Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby

PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. Let me start with a couple of things, and then I'll get to you.

Last week, Deputy Secretary Hicks signed new guidance for the procurement and operation of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, in addition to ensuring the department's continued compliance with Section 848 of the Fiscal Year 2020 NDAA. This policy will allow the department to take advantage of rapid technological advancements of the commercial market. The guidance also continues the practice of not allowing Chinese-made drones for our military use, thereby taking action to safeguard sensitive information that could be collected by a UAS.

Also yesterday, I think you may have seen, the Missile Defense Agency conducted a successful test of a ground-based interceptor, or GBI, at Vandenberg Space Force Base. This was a non-intercept test, and the missile splashed down in a controlled area of the Pacific Ocean. MDA issued a notice to mariners and a notice to airmen in advance of -- in coordination with the Coast Guard and the FAA respective -- respectively. This was the first flight test of a three-stage booster operating in two-stage mode, meaning the third stage was not ignited, allowing early release of the kill vehicle.

And then on a schedule note, this evening, the secretary along with the first lady, Dr. Biden, Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex and the CEO of the Fisher House Foundation, Mr. Ken Fisher, will host a virtual event to honor Warrior Games athletes, their families and caregivers. The Department of Defense Warrior Games, I think as you all know, is an annual event first held in 2010 that celebrates the resiliency and the dedication of wounded, ill and injured active-duty and veteran U.S. military servicemembers. The 2021 Warrior Games were slated to begin this week in Orlando, but they had to be canceled to ensure the health and safety of the athletes and their families due to COVID-related concerns, and the secretary is delighted to be able to have the opportunity tonight to be able speak with some of the athletes, again, and their families and caregivers, even if it is remotely. He's looking forward to that.

So with that, we'll take questions. I'm sorry, I was distracted by my iPad, was -- I can't get it back to working here. Lita, we'll go to you first.

Q: Thanks, John. Two things: One, can you give us whatever update you may be able to on the flights of evacuees out of Europe and out of the Middle East, considering the -- apparently, the -- some problems with measles? Do you know what, if any cases there are and what -- you know, what -- what the process is at this point?

And then second, a -- a quick one. I realize you can't talk much about the investigation into the drone strike, but can you tell us whether or not the U.S. is able, as part of the investigation, to put people on the ground in Afghanistan, or if this will have to all be done remotely? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Lita. On the -- on your measles question, Operation Allies Welcome flights into the United States remain paused at the request of the CDC for at least seven additional days from today because of recent diagnosed cases of measles among Afghans who recently arrived in the United States.

And I think you asked about how many cases. There -- there have been five diagnosed cases of measles among new arrivals so far, and we are closely monitoring, just in case more emerge. We already announced one case that was confirmed last week at Fort McCoy, and three cases were confirmed on Thursday night among new arrivals who flew into Dulles Airport here in the D.C. area, and then one has been found at Fort Pickett. They have been housed separately and are receiving medical care, and the CDC is doing contact tracing, and we'll asked people to self-isolate as needed. And obviously, we'll share more information as soon as it becomes available.

On your second question, you're -- you're right. I'm not going to get ahead of what CENTCOM is doing with their assessment of that strike. I -- I don't foresee an option at -- at this point, and I'd certainly refer you to CENTCOM, but I'm not aware of any option that would put investigators on the ground in -- in -- in Kabul to -- to complete their assessment.

Yes, sir?

Q: Can you -- Travis Tritten with Military.com. Can you...

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. I know Travis.

Q: Thanks. Can you speak at all about the safety of folks who are at, like, Fort McCoy, Fort Pickett, and whether there's any danger to them with these measles cases?

MR. KIRBY: Well, we certainly are taking these cases seriously, Travis. That's why the CDC is involved and we've paused the flights coming in. We're observing all the CDC guidelines that need to be observed, and we'll be working very quickly on -- on the appropriate immunizations. So we're taking it very seriously, and -- and we want as -- that's why we're being as transparent as we can about this. We want the-- the -- the people who work on these bases and the families who live there to know how -- how seriously we're taking it, and -- and that we are separating these individuals from the rest of the -- the cohort there, and we're doing contact tracing right now so we can get a better sense of this -- of the -- of the scope of -- of possible infection.

Meghann?

Q: I just want to follow up on Travis' question. Are you saying that you guys are able to give MMR vaccinations to Afghans at the bases?

MR. KIRBY: We're going to -- that's -- hang on. Just let me make sure I get this exactly right so I don't -- so all arriving Afghans are currently required to be vaccinated for measles as a condition of their humanitarian parole, and critical immunizations, including MMR, are being administered for Afghans at safe havens and military bases in the United States. We will soon be vaccinating Afghans for MMR while they are still overseas. Does that answer your question?

Q: Yes. And my individual question -- sorry. To what extent, if any, is DOD participating in any sort of rescue missions or otherwise helping people who are still in Afghanistan who want to get out, get out, aiding the State Department or aiding any other organization?

MR. KIRBY: There's no active military role in the -- in these efforts. You've seen some private groups are -- are working towards this, and you probably saw last week we -- we've announced that we're going to start a -- a -- a more formal process of working with private groups as they continue to find a way out for -- for people. And of course, you've heard Secretary Blinken at the State Department talk about the continued communication that we have with the Taliban to get people out on charter flights, or even on commercial flights as best we can.

So just as we said before, while the military mission in Afghanistan has ended, the U.S. government mission to help Americans and -- and LPRs and SIV applicants get out of Afghanistan continues.

MR. KIRBY: But it -- it doesn't -- but it doesn't involve an active military component to it.

Q: Right. Is the Defense Department helping to facilitate or organize or to make connections?

MR. KIRBY: Well, we'll continue -- yeah, continue to have these conversations, but there's no active military component to the actual movement of individuals, if that makes sense.

Q: Yeah, thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, you bet.

Yes, Sylvie?

Q: Hello -- hello, John -- oops -- last week, during these (inaudible), the Secretary was supposed to -- was – do stopover in Saudi Arabia and it was canceled. So who was he supposed to meet and why was it canceled?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I would refer you to the -- the Saudis for -- for more specifics on that. It was -- the trip, as you know, was -- was planned pretty rapidly because we wanted to get over there to say thanks to so many of the nations that -- that have -- that are continuing to help us with these evacuations. And we certainly would've liked to have gone to Saudi Arabia -- that's a key partner in -- in the region -- but it -- you know, it just didn't happen and it didn't happen for some scheduling issues that we understood were on the Saudi side, and I would let them speak to -- to what those issues were.

Q: So does it mean that the Secretary was willing to meet Prince Salman?

MR. KIRBY: Yes, absolutely. I mean, part of our -- our -- our hope with the visit was to be able to meet with the Crown Prince. He is the Defense Minister for Saudi Arabia and we have a strong defense partnership with -- with Saudi Arabia so -- and so yes, that was -- that was part of the plan.

And I -- I would fully expect that we'll get a chance to get this rescheduled. It was postponed, it wasn't, you know, canceled forever. They're a key partner and -- and we fully expect to continue to -- to be able to foster that partnership and that relationship going forward.

Janne?

Q: Thanks, John. On the North Korean missile launch -- North Korea reported that it successfully test-fired a newly developed long range cruise missile on last weekend. Was the United States -- aware of that North Korean missile launch in advance?

MR. KIRBY: I -- I won't speak to intelligence activities, Janne, or what -- what we knew or what we didn't know. I mean, certainly we're aware of these reports of these cruise missile launches. We're going to continue to monitor the situation and we're absolutely consulting with our allies and partners in -- in the region.

I -- I think, without confirming specifics here, the activity itself certainly highlights the DPRK's continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that it continues to pose to its neighbors and to the international community.

And I think you heard Admiral Aquilino say pretty clearly last night that nothing's going to change about our commitment to the defense of Japan and South Korea, those commitments are ironclad.

Q: Do you think this is in violation of the UN Security Council resolution on sanctions against North Korea?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I think I'm just going to defer on that right now. I mean, we're aware of these reports and I'm not in a position to -- to confirm the reports with any great specificity at this time. But again, I would just say it just highlights again the -- the threat that the DPRK continues to pose to the region and to its neighbors.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, ma'am.

Q: Thank you, John. I know you may have been talking with generals involving in the situation in Afghanistan. Do you think that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan could represent any threat -- imminent threat for African countries?

MR. KIRBY: I think it's too soon to tell, it -- with respect to the impact in -- in Africa. I mean, what I -- what -- the only thing I would add is -- and you've heard Secretary Austin talk about this -- that -- that we have seen in recent years the terror threat to our interests metastasize out of Afghanistan and to other places, including in Africa.

And so we're going to stay focused -- the Secretary addressed this on Saturday -- we're going to stay laser focused on the threat as it metastasizes to other places, including Africa, which is why we're going to continue our -- our -- our counter-terrorism partnerships there.

Q: So do you have an idea of how -- what type of threat maybe African countries will be facing with the ...

MR. KIRBY: Again, I think it's too early to -- to -- to tell what the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan is going to mean for terrorism or counter-terrorism interests in Africa. I just don't think we're able to describe that with specificity right now.

What I can tell you, again, to reiterate what the Secretary says, is we're not going to lose focus on that threat and -- and where it's going and we're going to maintain a robust, over-the-horizon capability to -- to deal with it as needed.

Let me go back to the phones here. Phil Stewart?

Q: Hey there, I -- I -- just getting back to this whole New York Times story about the drone strike and questions about the drone strike -- are you able to confirm or will you be able to confirm at any point the people's names or identities of those killed in the two drone strikes targeting alleged ISIS militants in the last days of -- before the withdrawal was complete? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Hey, Phil, thanks. What I can say is I -- I cannot confirm them at this time.

Q: Is there any time in the future that you'll be able to do that?

MR. KIRBY: I -- I -- I just can't confirm them at this time, Phil. I think I need to leave it there.

Q: So I -- I was going to actually follow up on that question. John, in previous briefings, I asked you if you had the name of the ISIS operative that you killed in those drone strikes and you said "it's not the time -- appropriate time to do -- expose this."

Now The New York Times has revealed something that is incredible, that the -- the strike was actually -- the strike actually targeted a aid worker. Why is it not appropriate time to disclose, or is it ...

MR. KIRBY: Well, Phil was asking about the -- I think Phil was asking about the -- the -- the strikes we took on the 27th of August and I'm -- I'm not able to confirm the identities of the ISIS individuals that were targeted in those strikes.

Q: And also, on this measles -- the -- the -- the -- this is -- the measles and then the pause in these flights -- the seven-day extension, when did it started?

MR. KIRBY: Today.

Q: Today? From today.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah.

Q: Thank you -- thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. Tracey?

Q: I have two questions. So the first, piggybacking off of what he had just asked as far as this New York Times report stating that it was actually a civilian that may have been killed and that that vehicle may not have been carrying any explosives at all -- first and foremost, what is your response to these articles that were written?

And then also, if there's no longer a military on the ground, how is this investigation being conducted into the incident?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. So a -- a -- I would say that the assessment by the Central Command is ongoing and I'm not going to get ahead of that. The strike was taken to prevent an imminent attack on the airport.

And I'm sorry, you had another question?

Q: What -- is there -- on the ground, how are they able to conduct these investigations if there aren't any military members on the ground?

MR. KIRBY: Well, as they -- I think I mentioned to Lita's question -- I don't -- I don't -- I'm not aware of any plans to put investigators on -- on the ground. Central Command is still assessing the results of that strike and I -- and I -- they have a variety of means to do that and I'm just not going to get ahead of where they are in their -- in terms of the process.

Q: Do you feel a different party should actually be investigating that versus the military who actually conducted the strike?

MR. KIRBY: It is absolutely in keeping with past practice for the command and operational control of a strike to be the ones to assess the validity that strike. This is very typical. Nothing unusual about that.

Ma'am.

Q: Kaitlin Burke with CBN News. Have Capitol Police had any communication with the Pentagon regarding National Guard involvement ahead of this weekend's rally in support of January 6th rioters?

MR. KIRBY: I am not aware of any specific communications between the National Guard and the Capitol Police. I certainly would point you to the National Guard. You should certainly ask them about it. But I'm not aware of any direct communication. But we maintain constant inter-agency communication, certainly have since the sixth of January for sure. And I expect that that communication will continue. But I'm not aware of any specific requests or specific communications right now. Again, I would certainly point you to the National Guard. They would probably be a better place to go to.

Yeah, Abraham.

Q: I was wondering if you could update us on over-the-horizon capabilities, any progress to be made in the region, Afghanistan. And also, what was the DoD's role in helping the Afghan pilots get -- those who escaped to bordering countries to get out of those countries? And is there any interest in recovering the actual assets, the helicopters and planes that are there?

MR. KIRBY: Well, those are three of them. I'm going to see if I can do them without having to ask you to repeat them. On the over-the-horizon, as you know, we absolutely have robust capabilities. I don't have anything to announce a report to today in terms of additional capabilities or additional places where we might try to employ those capabilities. But we are continuing to have those conversations in real time. But I just don't have anything to announce today.

I'm not aware of any role by the DoD in terms of helping those Afghan pilots leave the countries they were in. I would refer you State Department for that.

And on your third question, I don't have any disposition decisions to speak to today about the -- about those aircraft and what might be their future. What I can tell you is that we're engaged in a conversation here at the Pentagon about -- and with neighboring nations about those aircraft. And I think I -- that's probably where we stay right now today.

Q: OK.

MR. KIRBY: Yes. Yes, I got all three of them.

Q: Thank you, John.

MR. KIRBY: Yes, sure.

Q: I just want to go back one more time to The New York Times story from Friday on the August 29th...

MR. KIRBY: Sure, right.

Q: I understand that CENTCOM is still assessing.

MR. KIRBY: That's right.

Q: But will this -- will the assessment take into consideration this story, especially that we're talking based on The New York Times story about 10 civilians who were killed, including seven children and the main target as reported by The New York Times is an aid worker who worked for an American organization. My question is, that's -- that's the first part, would you take that story into consideration? And is the deal...

(CROSSTALK)

MR. KIRBY: Let me stop you there, just so I don't forget. I would refer you to CENTCOM on that. They're the ones conducting this assessment. And what factors they're folding into that is really for General McKenzie and his staff to speak to.

Q: Is the DOD committed to, again, transparency and publicly revealing the outcome of that assessment and share it with the public?

MR. KIRBY: We will be as transparent about the -- the outcomes as we can be and we have tried to be since the strike was taken. And to the degree that we can with a due regard to operational security, mindful that ISIS-K still poses a threat that we will.

Tara Copp?

Q: Thanks John. OK, a couple on -- a couple of them. To follow up on Meghan's question, is the secretary glad that these veterans’ groups are continuing to try and get Afghan partners out of Afghanistan?

And when you say there's been discussions going on can you elaborate on what that means? Or is the Department of Defense offering any assistance in plans or knowledge of the train or knowledge of communications? And then I have a couple, but I'll stop there for a second.

MR. KIRBY: All right, well let's -- you asked is the secretary glad. I would say the secretary shares the same concerns that so many of these veteran groups and the individual veterans have for our Afghan allies that are still there and still want to leave the country. I mean, he shares that same concern.

And you've heard him say many times that we believe we have a sacred obligation to those who helped us over the last 20 years and nothing's changed about that. So, he shares their concerns and he welcomes their input.

And the department welcomes the opportunity to continue to communicate with them and engage with them and we're going to try to do something to more solidify those communications so that we can all work towards the same end.

And I'm sorry, you had a second question. I just completely forgot.

Q: Yes. I never even got to it, so you're that good. So the second question is on the drone strike. The investigation that's been launched is it actually a formal investigation such as a 15-6 where there's processes and steps that we can follow along the way or is it not as formalized yet?

MR. KIRBY: I would refer you to CENTCOM, Tara, for that. I -- I'm not in -- I'm not sure what the actual form of it is. I know that they're looking into this and they're taking it very seriously. But what format it takes is really a question better put to CENTCOM.

Q: OK. And then lastly, it appears that there has been a uptick in COVID cases at Al Udeid and I was wondering if the department's aware of this and what steps are being taken for the Afghans and for personnel that are based there?

MR. KIRBY: Let me take that question, Tara. I was not tracking reports of an uptick of COVID at Al Udeid. So rather than speculate and guess, we'll take the question and we'll see if we can get you a better answer.

Jeff Schogol?

Q: All right, thank you. Does the Defense Department have any indications how the Special Forces in Guinea were being trained by Green Berets slipped away from their base to launch a coup without the Green Beret trainers noticing?

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, there was no involvement, I think as you know, from U.S. forces with respect to the activities there. And we obviously share the U.S. government's condemnation of the -- of this -- of this coup in Guinea.

We're carefully reviewing the situation on the ground for any potential impacts on our military assistance. And until that review is complete there is going to be no further training or support to the Guinean Armed Forces.

The military seizure of power is inconsistent with U.S. military training and education. I think as you know we were engaged in a joint training effort with the Guinea Special Operations Forces four hours away from Conakry when separately in that city the military seizure of power occurred.

Q: Well were the Special Forces asleep at the time when the Guineans left for the capital?

MR. KIRBY: Jeff, I think I'm just going to leave my answer the way -- the way I did.

Eric Schmitt?

Q: John I want to come back to the drone strike one more time. The California-based NGO that employed the driver of the white sedan that was struck asserts that he was an employee of the NGO and had no connections whatsoever to ISIS. Do you have any reason to dispute the company in their assessment of their employee?

MR. KIRBY: Eric, I'm not going to get ahead of Central Command's assessment of this airstrike. I think I need to let them complete their work. As I said earlier, this strike was taken to prevent an immanent threat at the airport.

In the back there.

Q: Thank you. Two questions about North Korea. First, I want you to clarify you comment to Janne. Did you mean that DOD can confirm that North Korea launched something over the weekend but you are still looking into the specifics. Is that what you mean?

MR. KIRBY: No, I'm not confirming anything at this point. I'm saying we're aware of these reports and this sort of activity, that has been reported just shows the continued threat the DPRK poses to the region and to its neighbors.

Q: OK, follow up. When North Korea launched cruise missiles in March the president say that he not considers it as a provocation. Generally speaking, that the Biden administration don't consider North Korea’s testing of the cruise missiles as a provocation no matter how wrong (inaudible)?

MR. KIRBY: Well I think again I think I dealt with this without confirming specific press reporting here and getting into intelligence assessments, that the activity being reported, that we've seen reported certainly highlights the DPRK's continuing focus on developing a military program and them posing a threat to its region -- to the region and to its neighbors.

Let's see, Lara Seligman?

Q: Hi John, thanks for taking my question. I wanted to know, we know that General Miller is going to be testifying in a closed hearing tomorrow. Can you tell us why that is a closed hearing and why it's not open to the public? And then I have a second question.

MR. KIRBY: The request for a closed discussion with General Miller was made by the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Q: And will he be -- will General Miller be testifying publicly at any point?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not aware of any public testimony right now by General Miller. But that is a question obviously better put, Lara, as you know to the oversight committees, not to the department.

Q: Got it. And then on the news last week it was reported that the DOD I.G. is going to evaluate the screening of displaced Afghans. Can you say what role exactly DOD has had in this screening? And what is the status of that I.G. investigation? And what are some of the problems that led to it?

MR. KIRBY: I can't speak for the I.G. I think you know, Laura, that's an independent body and that -- and that they make their decisions on their own accord and I certainly am not going to speak to what they want to look at.

I think you've heard both General Milley and the secretary talk about -- and General Taylor when he was up here with me, talk about our role in the screening process which was largely from a biometric perspective.

So we are contributing to the types of data that we have collected on some individuals as part of a larger screening process that is really run by the Department of Homeland Security. We are part of that but it is a -- it is a screening process run by DHS and it's more comprehensive than just the biometric data that we provide.

Jim?

Q: OK.

Q: John, since the last month has been crazy and all sorts of changes have happened in the strategic world, is this going to delay the Global Posture Review in any way? And we talked -- you talked about Africa before and the possibility of threats to the homeland coming from Africa.

MR. KIRBY: Right.

Q: Does that mean that U.S. Africa Command could get more resources, especially after the last administration cut the resources to that command?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I don't want to get ahead of the Global Posture Review, which is looking at those sorts of questions. It is -- it is very much an effort on track. They are nearing the completion of their work, and I think in relatively short order we'll be able to -- to talk more about the Global Posture Review. But it is -- it -- it is pretty much on track and on schedule to be wrapped up here relatively soon.

Q: And John, a follow-up question.

MR. KIRBY: Sure.

Q: Do you know what is the reason why they cut resources to -- to the AFRICOM?

MR. KIRBY: Why who cut resources to...

Q: Well, you mentioned about some cutting on the...

MR. KIRBY: I think he was talking about the previous administration, and I'm not able to speak to decisions that were made before -- before this administration took office.

I just have time for just another one. Yeah, go ahead.

Q: Actually, one more about the missile test. How do you assessment about difference between cruise, long-range cruise missile and ICBM missile?

MR. KIRBY: What are the differences?

Q: Yes.

MR. KIRBY: Again, without confirming these reports, a ballistic missile can often travel much longer distances and at greater speeds than a cruise missile. It also -- ballistic missiles tend to pack a bigger payload -- they can pack a bigger payload than a cruise missile typically would. A cruise missile may travel -- there -- there's some cruise missiles and ballistic missiles that have roughly the same range, but typically, cruise missiles travel a shorter range than longer, like ICBMs. They pack a smaller payload, but they can be much more precise in their targeting because they're multi-directional. They don't just -- ballistic missiles, as you know, go up into the atmosphere and then sort of come back down on a ballistic trajectory. A cruise missile basically flies like an airplane, an unpiloted air -- airplane, and so it can -- it can zig, it can zag, it can do all kinds of different maneuvers before it -- it hits its target. Does that answer your question?

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, Luis.

Q: But there was, John, about 10 days ago, Secretary Austin or General Milley referred to the joint strike as a righteous strike. Did he share the -- the general's assessment at that point? And then I have a follow-up.

MR. KIRBY: I -- I think the secretary already spoke about the -- the need that we had to protect our -- our people at the airport. We -- we -- the department has talked about the fact that this strike prevented an imminent attack on those people, and I -- nothing's changed about that view at this point.

Q: So General Milley spoke about good intelligence, that he describes as very good intelligence that ISIS-K was preparing a specific type of vehicle at a specific location, and he talked about the secondary explosions indicating that there were explosives there. Does that information from 10 days ago still hold true, or is it something that CENTCOM is currently reviewing that -- that indicates that maybe things have changed since...

MR. KIRBY: I -- I have nothing to -- to speak today that -- that -- that alters the view. CENTCOM is conducting their assessment, and I think we need to let them finish that work, and then we'll -- you know, we'll be as transparent as we can at the end of it. But I have no additional context to offer today.

Q: So that information that he provided (inaudible)...

MR. KIRBY: I have no additional context to offer today.

Q: Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: OK, thanks, everybody. Appreciate it.

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