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Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room

July 14, 2016
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook

PETER COOK:  Afternoon, everyone.  I want to first welcome our guests who are here from the St. Albans School of Public Service.  Happy to have you all here, hope you enjoyed the tour and look forward to talking with you all afterward.  Got a large crowd over here, more than the reporters in the room I've noticed, so maybe that's a good thing, I don't know.

I do want to begin by recapping the secretary's very productive trip to Poland, Iraq and Afghanistan, and also updating everyone on our conversation with Congress regarding the NDAA.

Let me begin, first of all, with the trip.  On Friday and Saturday of last week, Secretary Carter joined President Obama at the NATO Summit in Warsaw, where the alliance moved forward on several key fronts, including taking the next steps to the shift from reassurance to deterrence in the face of Russia aggression on NATO's eastern flank, projecting stability to NATO's southern flank, particularly with respect to the fight against, ISIL, and a continued commitment from NATO members for the Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.

On Monday, the secretary, as you know, made a previously unannounced visit in Iraq to get a firsthand update on the progress that Iraqi Security Forces are making in the fight against ISIL with the help of the international coalition, including the United States.

The secretary met with commanders, including Lieutenant General MacFarland, where he received an operational update on the campaign both in Iraq and in Syria.  He also had very productive meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi, Minister of Defense -- and Minister of Defense Obaidi, where he commended Iraqi Security Forces for their substantial gains in recent weeks, most notably, the successful clearing of Fallujah, and the capture of the strategically significant air field at Qayyarah west, which will serve as a major logistical hub for the push to Mosul.

The capture of that airfield was identified months ago as one in a series of next plays in the military campaign plan for defeating ISIL that the secretary submitted to President Obama.

The secretary wrapped up his visit to Iraq by speaking with U.S. troops who are deployed there.  In that conversation, he announced the deployment of an additional 560 American troops to Iraq to further enable Iraqi Security Forces.  The primary mission of these additional forces will be establish a base of operations at Qayyarah west from which to support the envelopment and eventual collapse of ISIL control over Mosul.

Next week, the campaign will take another step forward when the secretary hosts the latest meeting of ministers of defense from coalition nations.  The gathering will take place at Joint Base Andrews on July 20th, and there will be a similar gathering of foreign ministers at the State Department the next day to discuss other crucial aspects of the counter-ISIL effort, including political and economic actions to stabilize areas recently freed from ISIL control.

The secretary wrapped up his trip with a visit to Afghanistan, where he met with our commanders, including General Nicholson.  He also met with Afghan President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah, as well as the Minister of Defense Habibi, and Minister of Interior Jahid during that visit.

These meetings were focused on the improved performance of Afghan national defense security forces and the implementation of President Obama's decision to adjust our troop level in Afghanistan next year, and the authorities that those troops are using.

The secretary ended that stop by talking to U.S. troops about the road ahead in Afghanistan, and the important mission they're carrying out on behalf of the American people.

Now, I would like to draw your attention to a letter that the secretary sent today to the leadership of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees for their consideration during their conference on the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.

The secretary makes clear in this letter our desire to work with Chairman McCain, Chairman Thornberry and other members of Congress on this important legislation, but he also spells out our concerns with the legislation under consideration.  I'd like to highlight three broad areas of serious concern on behalf of the department.

First, the House's bill's funding approach, which redirects $18 billion in wartime funding for the fight against ISIL and other operations, putting that money instead toward manpower and equipment the department has not requested and also does not provide the money to sustain those purchases.

And second, a series of provisions in both bills that in sum amount to excessive and unproductive micromanagement of the department, including for example the Senate bill's division of acquisition, technology and logistics functions into separate stovepipes.

And third, provisions in both bills that appear to ignore the constrained resource environment we live in right now, and reject critical savings and force posture updates that senior civilian and uniformed leaders judge have -- have proposed, while the bills at the same time include provisions that will impose excessive costs and reduce benefits for our military families.

Congress needs to join the department in making the tough budget choices that are necessary in this environment.

And we'll be happy to provide the full text of that letter to reporters at the conclusion of this briefing.  And again, it's important to note that Secretary Carter's message to Congress reiterates that if legislation in the current form of either the House or the Senate bill is presented to the president, the secretary will recommend a veto of that legislation.

And I also want to emphasize that the House's treatment of war funding is not the only serious concern we have with these bills.  The letter makes clear that there are many other issues in both bills that would generate a veto recommendation from the secretary to the president.

And with that, I'd be happy to take your -- take your questions.

Tara?

Q:  I'm sure you've seen that the media arm of the Islamic State is saying that Omar the Chechen was killed actually in Mosul and not in the earlier March airstrike, as the Pentagon reported earlier this year.  Could you, I guess, reconcile those two versions for us?  Was he killed in March?  Or do you now reassess that he actually survived that strike and was killed in Mosul?

MR. COOK:  Tara, let me tell you where we are on this at this point in time.

On July 10th, the coalition conducted a strike on an ISIL leadership meeting near Mosul, as you said, in which we believe that Omar Shishani was present, along with 16 other ISIL leaders.  We are still working to confirm the outcome of that airstrike.  But again, we do have indications that he was present.  

And again, we at the time of the original strike back in March, we made clear at that time that we were still assessing the situation.  And at that time thought that he had been killed.  And this additional information now has led us to this latest airstrike that took place on July 10th.  And what I think is important here, a couple of things.

One is that this is an individual who has been ISIL's minister of war, who is a key member of their leadership team.  And his removal from the battlefield is a significant blow to ISIL.  And it is a step forward for our campaign against ISIL, as we continue to target their leadership.

And also if he was in fact at this meeting, it is an indication of the importance that ISIL is now placing on this particular area of Iraq particularly with the Iraqi forces that have now taken Qayyarah west and the importance of -- that ISIL's attaching to it and certainly we take that as a sign of their -- the importance that they're placing on that particular part of Iraq and obviously this is an area of intense focus for the Iraqi Security Forces and it will be for the coalition as well moving forward.

Q:  Just a couple of follow-ups.  You said if he was at this July 10th meeting, is the Pentagon sure that he was at the July 10th meeting and was killed in that airstrike?

MR. COOK:  We are still working to confirm the details.  We're assessing the situation and I'm not able to confirm it at this time.

Q:  And then just one last follow-up.  The Pentagon had said in March that they -- it was certain that he had been killed after looking at the strike, I think about a week after it occurred.  When did it become apparent that he had survived the airstrike and got back on you all's radar screen?

MR. COOK:  The intelligence that we had at the time led us to believe that he had been killed.  We recognized at that time that our intelligence picture was incomplete, so we've been careful along, as we are with all these strikes, to indicate the possibility that -- that there could have been a different outcome that is a possibility in this instance, and I'm not going to get into other intelligence about what led us to believe that he may have been at this meeting.

But we did have an indication of that and that's one reason we carried out this strike and, again, there were other ISIL leaders, we believe, at this location at that time, and we believe this was a successful strike, but we do not yet -- are not in a position to be able to confirm that he was killed.

Barbara.

Q:  A couple of questions about Russia.  I want to make clear from the beginning, I'm not asking you about a hypothetical agreement that hasn't been reached yet, but does the secretary --

MR. COOK:  But you might be?

Q:  Could be.  Does the secretary now trust the Russian military, the Russian government, well enough to share targeting information, intelligence information and possibly engage in joint operations?  Does he trust them well enough to do that?

MR. COOK:  The secretary trusts Secretary Kerry and all those who are -- having a conversation with the Russians about their role in Syria to do everything they can to try and convince the Russians to do the right thing in Syria.  

The secretary has been quite clear that he believes that the Russian activities up until now, have been -- that they got off on the wrong foot, that they have not targeted ISIL as they said they were going to, and if -- he has always maintained, Barbara, as you know, that if the Russians were prepared to do the right thing, that would be a good thing.

Q:  Right.  But that -- with all due respect -- isn't actually the question.  He has said that exactly.  He has said that exactly what you've said before.  I mean, let's just cut to the bottom line here.  What is his position on his agreement with the Russians to share classified military information on targeting, intelligence and possibly engage in joint operations?  Is he in favor of it?

MR. COOK:  The secretary is in favor, as I said. Secretary Kerry is in Moscow, he's having conversations with his counterparts and the secretary supports Secretary Kerry's efforts and -- as he's -- but as he's also said that he's had questions about the Russian’s activities up to this point in Syria and if the Russians are prepared to do the right thing in -- in Syria, then this secretary of defense would be open to that conversation.

But we're waiting to see what's going on.  There's no indication right now -- you know, we're not conducting or coordinating any military operations with Russia at this moment. And it's not clear that we'll ever reach an agreement to do so.

Q:  So, open to the conversation he is not, I’m taking that to mean, Secretary Carter is not yet endorsing the proposal that is being presented to Lavrov by the State Department, he wants to see guarantees from the Russian military?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into any of the discussions of the negotiations that are going on. What I'm telling you is he supports what Secretary Kerry's doing. 

Q:  And he's open -- okay, but then you said he's open to the conversation on it, which suggests he's not yet ready to support an agreement. We don't want to walk out of this room with any misunderstanding of his position.

MR. COOK:  That's correct he's supportive of what Secretary Kerry is doing. And again Barbara we're not in a position right now to be able to tell you that we have any sort of agreement on that front to consider and so we're waiting to hear what Secretary Kerry's talks produce. So you're ahead the game here. 

Q:  So if in fact, as we know part of it is a U.S. proposal to go ahead and bomb Al Nusra targets, where does that leave the U.S. military and this department in terms of supporting opposition to Assad since Al Nusra would take away -- you know their fighting Assad, so you're going to bomb them and what should the opposition think about all of that? Aren't you really cutting off the moderate opposition inside Syria by doing this?

MR. COOK:  Well let me make clear that Al Nusra's been on our target list previously, Barbara. You know that as a remnant of Al Qaida its been on our target list as well, and so I don't, and will continue to be. So let's wait to see what Secretary Kerry, what his conversations produce. We will continue to support his efforts, and again we'll wait to see what the outcome is from his conversation.

Q:  Is the secretary of defense still skeptical about trusting Russia on all of this?

MR. COOK:  I think the Secretary of Defense has been clear that he has been skeptical of Russia's activities in Syria. And we have reason for that,-- there's plenty of reason for that skepticism, and I think he maintains that skepticism, yet at the same time he has always, in all of his engagements and discussions about dealing with Russia, whether it's in Syria or elsewhere, that if Russia can behave in a more positive fashion that we would be open to that conversation. This is a secretary of defense who has an extensive history dealing with the Russians, knows many of their top leaders personally and has again significant experience. And I think that experience lends him to both support what Secretary Kerry is doing, and also to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism on the Russian side.

Q:  Another one I'll be very quick. On Libya, do you now have approval and are you prepared, since the government -- the emerging political process in Libya appears to be getting closer to producing a viable entity you can work with, are you closer now to the possibility of airstrikes inside Libya, in support of the emerging government there, in the (inaudible) forces going after Sirte.

MR. COOK:  We continue to support the Government of National Accord there. We've seen the progress that the forces in support of the government are making in Libya. We see that as a very positive thing, and we'll continue our conversation with the Government of National Accord, but I don't have anything to announce from here. 

Yes, Andrew?

Q:  Peter, yesterday on Capitol Hill there was a top Army official talking about some Army plans to expand, or potentially expand the Army force in Europe over the next few years.  He talked about adding a fires brigade, division headquarters battalion, engineering battalions, ground element of aviation brigades, and some communications and logistics units.

It sounds like adding that up that he was talking about potentially thousands of more soldiers going over to Europe.  

Can you give us -- tell us what the secretary's latest thoughts are and conversations have been about potentially increasing the permanent force levels in EUCOM?

MR. COOK:  I think the secretary -- you've seen our budget submission.  You've seen the discussion about force levels.  And there's been no change in that assessment from here.  Obviously, we've got the steps that we've taken to move, along with NATO, in terms of this shift from reassurance to deterrence; the ERI initiative and the presence of U.S. forces that will be deployed on a rotational basis.

But again, those will be rotations of U.S. forces.  So, we're not talking about a permanent presence there.  Some of the -- I'm not sure of all of the deployment that he was discussing in that testimony, but we think they've been accounted for with the force structure that's been -- that's been identified.

Yes, David.  Welcome.

Q:  Thanks.  Can you -- do you have any information you can share with us about an airstrike over this week along the Syria-Jordanian border by the Russians that hit a camp, I think, and maybe killed 12 people?  

Was that a -- was that a -- were those U.S.-supported moderate rebels in that camp?  Or do you have any details about that that you can give us?

MR. COOK:  I don't have a lot of details.  We've seen those reports as well.  I cannot confirm with 100 percent certainty that -- that the Russians carried out those strikes, although certainly they have flown in that area before.  And as we've talked about from here, they've been -- they have carried out strikes in that area.

But our understanding is this was -- these were strikes that did hit moderate opposition forces, forces that have been fighting ISIL.  And once again, we think it's counterproductive to the defeat of ISIL to be striking forces that -- that are taking the fight to ISIL, and also there are some indications there may have been civilians killed.  And so we obviously have concerns with those strikes.

Q:  And were those -- were they U.S.-trained moderate opposition?

MR. COOK:  I know that these are forces that were in the fight against ISIL.  And -- and in that sense, they were a target that, again, this is counterproductive to this effort.

Yes?

Q:  -- (inaudible) -- with Seapower magazine.  

On your dealings with the Hill, both House and Senate chairmen have asked for additional funding to support the troops that you have added in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Does the department have an idea of when you need -- are you going to submit a request for supplemental funding for those?  Or do you think you can fit it within your budget?  How are you going to pay for those additional troops?

MR. COOK:  I think this is an area where we're going to continue to have a conversation with Congress about the resource needs with regard to the Afghanistan deployment -- the Afghanistan commitment.  This is obviously a mission that's been supported on both sides of the aisle.  And we'll continue to have a conversation with Congress and the administration will about the best way to fund those -- those forces.

Yes?

Q:  Thank you, Peter.

On United States THAAD systems deploying to South Korea.  North Korea -- (inaudible) – declaration of war against South Korea and the United States.  What is the U.S. position on their declaration of war?

MR. COOK:  I'm sorry -- U.S. position on --

Q:  Their -- their declaration of war against the U.S. and South Korea.

MR. COOK:  Well, we, obviously have seen provocative statements from the North Koreans in the past and provocative actions from the North Koreans.  And again, we would urge the North Koreans to take every step they can to -- to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

We continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with South Korea and with our allies in the region.  Deployment of the THAAD system reflects our commitment to the alliance, and -- and appropriate steps that we're taking with our allies to try and protect against those North Korean provocations. 

And so, we've seen rhetoric from the North Koreans in the past, we have seen actions that we think are counterproductive to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.  We would again, urge the North Koreans to conduct themselves and -- in a -- in a different fashion, and to do what they can to reduce tensions in the region.

Q:  –Yeah but if China continually opposes deploying THAAD into South Korea.  Does the United States -- (inaudible)?  What are you doing right now, what -- or going to talk to the Chinese --(inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  Well, I'm not going to -- I don't have particular diplomatic negotiations to read out from here.  But we've been clear, as I believe the South Koreans have as well, that the purpose of the THAAD system -- it is a defensive system.  It is intended to protect against the very real threat that we've seen coming from North Korea.  And that the Chinese and the Russians should not have concerns about that system, because of its -- because of the way it's designed and its purpose, which is again, to protect against the very real North Korea threat.

Q:  And timeframe for getting it -- deploying THAAD -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  We continue to work closely with South Korea, but we don't have a timetable for -- for final deployment at this time.

Carlos.

Q:  Peter, a quick question on Qayyarah West.  The secretary characterized this -- the base as sort of a logistical hub for the upcoming push against Mosul.

But there have been local reports that there is work ongoing with the runway, so as they can accommodate F-16s to conduct airstrikes, to expand the range of the fighters into Northern Iraq and possibly Syria.

Is that the case?  Is that -- is Qayyarah West expected to be used as sort of jumping off point for U.S. airstrikes further north?  And if so, how has that sort of been -- how is that approach change with Turkey's announcement that they will now begin allowing U.S. planes to fly from their bases?

MR. COOK:  Well, I think what the secretary said and what we heard from General MacFarland and what we heard as well from Prime Minister Abadi is that the Qayyarah West will be a -- a staging area, much the same way that we've seen Taqaddum play that role, Makhmur, as well.  

That this is going to be a staging area that we will, obviously, work to improve the runway, so that it can be -- both cargo aircraft and other aircraft can use the -- Qayyarah West as a -- a launching pad, if you will, for -- for the push towards Mosul.

But I think -- I don't want to get ahead of the operational situation in terms of the use of that -- the airfield.  But we absolutely, along with the Iraqis, intend to restore the airfield to a functional state, so that not only our aircraft, but potentially Iraqi aircraft as well can use that as a -- as a base of operations.

Q:  Would that include accommodating F-16s? 

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into what aircraft will be there or not, but we certainly will do everything we can, and we have.  And that's part of the 560 people who are deploying. 

These are people who have particular expertise and skill in exactly what you're talking about.

Q:  –Just a follow up on the Turkey side.  Is there any change -- there will be any change in the use of Incirlik Airbase in the near future?

MR. COOK:  I'm -- I'm not aware of any announcement.  I'll leave it to the Turkish government to announce anything on their side.  But obviously, Incirlik has been a critical part of our operations and will continue to be going forward.  But I'm not aware of any change at this point in terms of what operates out of there.

Q:  –I have another Turkey related question.  The Turkish president criticized recently the U.S. administration for delaying the deployment of the HIMARS to Turkey.  Can you give us an update about the ongoing negotiations with the Turks about this?

MR. COOK:  I'm -- I know that they are -- those -- the conversations continue and that the deployment is something we seek to work out as quickly as we can.  And that we just don't -- it hasn't been finalized at this time.

Q:  Next month maybe?

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to put a date on it.

Q:  The last question on Manbij.  Can you give us an update about the siege in Manbij?

MR. COOK:  Yes.  My understanding is that the -- there's been some pretty intense fighting in Manbij.  And the last update I had suggested again that some of the troops -- some of the forces trying to remove ISIL from Manbij have entered the center of the city and there's been some pretty intense fighting.  There's been a significant flow of civilians as well trying to leave Manbij. 

But in terms of the actual situation on the ground, there hasn't been too much movement other than some of those forces have again been able to enter portions of the city and continue to make progress, but it has not changed all that much in the last few days.

Q:  -- (Inaudible) -- Syrian-Arab forces make a deal with ISIL to leave the city without any clash –or any negotiations -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK:  I'll leave it to -- to those forces to describe any negotiations they may be having with ISIL.  But right now, what we see is fighting.  We see ISIL trying to retain that territory and devoting a lot of resources to it.  And likewise, the -- the Syrian Arab coalition continues to -- to push forward against that and continues to show a lot of toughness and resiliency in the process.

Q:  –How many civilians are leaving town, do you have an estimate?

MR. COOK:  I'll try and get a number for you.  So, we'll take that question.  I'll try and get you an updated number, because I'm sure the number has changed in the last few days.

So, yes, Courtney?

Q:  One more on Qayyarah.  Have any of the 560 troops arrived?  Are they there working yet?

MR. COOK:  I --

Q:  -–Other than that one team that went in for surveillance?

MR. COOK:  Yes.  I'm not -- at this point, Courtney, and I will double-check this, but my understanding is that those additional forces have not yet deployed, but it was going to be, as I think you heard from the secretary and General MacFarland on our trip, was going to be a relatively quick process. 

And again, the evaluation of the airfield and the steps to improve it, we're pretty confident that that will be able to happen relatively quickly. 

Q:  And then on -- on Russia, can you walk us through what it would take, since the U.S. suspended mil-to-mil with Russia in 2014, what would it take to change that?  Would that be a -- what would the Pentagon have to do?  Go to Congress for approval?  Or what legally needs -- would need to happen if there was some agreement?

MR. COOK:  I don't want to get ahead of things, Courtney.  I don't want to look at, again, a hypothetical situation.  We have --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  -- (Inaudible) -- trying to understand what -- I -- what -- what -- what would happen to re-set -- (inaudible) -- because that would be a reestablishment of mil-to-mil relations, right? 

MR. COOK:  We don't know, Courtney.  First of all, there is no agreement right now.  We are not cooperating with the Russians militarily.  We have a memorandum of understanding with regard to flight safety.  That is the extent of our relations with Russia with regard to military operations.  

And you know the purpose of that.  Nothing has changed.  That is our agreement.  And at this point, it's not clear that there will be -- there will be anything else for us to consider.

Q:  I think just more broadly, then, and -- what -- what does it take?  When the U.S. has -- has ended military-to-military relations with the country, what does it take to reestablish them?

Is it -- is that something that you have to go for congressional approval, or -- I mean, just asking, what's --

MR. COOK:  Yeah.  I'm happy to take that question, because it's more of a legal and legislative question.

But I know that we have the authority to enter into the memorandum of U
understanding with regard to flight safety, and that remains the single agreement we have right now with the Russians with regard to -- to Syria.  And there is no other agreement for us to consider at this particular moment in time.

And if that changes at some point, I'm sure that we will get the -- the legal and other review that would be required in order for that to happen.  But we're not there.  

And -- and so, I think that's -- that's looking too far down the road.

Q:  And if I can just -- one more about Shishani.  When you -- when you said that -- that the U.S. had reason to believe that he was at this location that was targeted -- the more recent one, not the March time where he was killed, but the more recent time when he was killed -- what -- how long had the U.S. -- had you been tracking him?

Or was there a belief for a matter of weeks that he was actually alive, and that was just never disclosed?

MR. COOK:  I'm not -- my understanding, Courtney, is that this is very recent information.  And that we did believe, as we reported in March, that he had been killed.

We had indications of that.  That was through the best intelligence assessment we had at that time.  And we -- there was this new indication that he was present at this location, and that -- my understanding was that very, very recent information.

Q:  The U.S. -- U.S. had not been tracking him for a matter -- for --

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into intelligence matters, but I'll just describe it in that way.  That we believed that the assessment in March was -- was correct, and obviously received indications that he may still be alive. 

This strike was carried out, and we're trying to determine exactly what has happened.  And we've seen, of course, the public reports that he has been killed.  But we're not prepared to -- to confirm it right now.

Q:  And so-- (inaudible) -- just to be clear, it's fair to say that he was the target of this most recent strike?  Is that fair?

MR. COOK:  Yes, that would be fair.

Yes, Christina.

Q:  Peter, thanks.  I hope this isn't redundant, since I came in a little late.

Yesterday, you announced there was a June 9th airstrike in Afghanistan that killed the -- Umar Khalifa.  The known terrorist leader with the Tariq Gidar Group.

The State Department considers a Pakistani Taliban-linked group.  But your statement said it was targeting an Islamic State Khorasan Province group.

So, I'm -- I'm just wondering, is the group Taliban-linked, or is it ISIS?

MR. COOK:  I believe the group is -- the group is Taliban-linked, as indicated, I think, by the the State Department.

This individual was with ISIL members at that time.  And whether or not they had a more extensive relationship, again, I'll -- that's not something I can get into from up here.

Q:  But the Taliban is not considered linked to ISIS, I don't think.  It's not considered a terrorist group.

MR. COOK:  This individual, again, was with those ISIL members at the time of this strike.  And the results of the strike resulted in not only his death, but the death of others.

Hold on.  I'll go to someone who has another question.  

Yes?

Q:  On Tuesday the arbitration court ruled in favor of the Philippines.  And China has previously said that they were not going to follow this decision.  

And has the U.S. Defense Department seen any recent Chinese activity in the South China Sea since the decision was made?

MR. COOK:  Have we seen any --

Q:  -- Chinese naval activities in the South China Sea?

MR. COOK:  I believe there is Chinese naval activity in the South China Sea on a regular basis, but I don't believe we've seen anything unusual.  But again, we have a presence in the South China Sea.  Lots of countries have a presence in the South China Sea.  

And again, on the decision itself, we would of course, consistent with our longstanding policy, support the peaceful resolution of these disputes, including the use of international legal mechanisms like the tribunal.  And we would hope that everyone in the region would abide by these -- by the results of that -- that ruling.

Q:  No kind of activity that you would characterize as raising tensions since the announcement was made Tuesday?

MR. COOK:  Again, we've seen from our standpoint normal operations in the South China Sea.

Yes, Cory?

Q:  Peter, just kind of going back to Shishani for a second.  I know you can't get into specific intelligence, but can you clarify broadly how you guys decide if somebody is killed in one of these strikes?  Because we -- we only have your, you know, what you guys tell us, and then we have this other strike the other day.  And, you know, you say he's dead, but, you know, how -- how do we know that two months from now he doesn't show up as alive again?  I'm just -- (inaudible).

MR. COOK:  There's a very rigorous process, Cory, that we go through in the selection of these targets, in assessing all of the circumstances that need to -- the test that needs to be met before carrying out that strike.  And likewise, there's an extremely rigorous process on the back side of the strikes as well in determining the outcomes.

And there is significant effort made to try and reach a determination as to whether or not that strike was successful.  Again, our intelligence at the time of the March strike indicated that it had been successful.  And again, we've been presented with indications perhaps it wasn't.  This additional strike was carried out.  

And what I think is, again, most important from our standpoint is that this individual was someone who was a key member of the ISIL leadership team, their minister of war, someone directly involved in their operations in Iraq and Syria.  And his removal from the battlefield we think is a significant blow.  

Courtney?

Q:  What does it say that it's -- he was reported dead in March, and now about four months later, he just came back on the grid.  I mean, is -- you had no indication in those four months at all that he might have still been alive?  

MR. COOK:  Courtney, I'm not going to get into all of our intelligence assessments.  But we -- again, the intelligence assessment made at that time was that he had been killed.  And that's the understanding that we've been operating under since that time.

And now we had a more recent indication that he was present at this location.  I'm not going to get into the details of exactly how we arrived at that.  But we reached that conclusion in March based on the best intelligence we had at that time.  And --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  And why didn’t you put out a statement this time?  Because you put out a statement obviously in March saying then that he was believed to be dead, and you didn't this time.  Was it because it was embarrassing –to have him killed twice?

MR. COOK:  Courtney, I'm standing here telling you I can't -- I can't confirm for you that he's been killed.  I cannot.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. COOK:  I cannot.  And I said that at the beginning of this briefing, the first time I was asked about this.  We had a conclusion reached in that first strike and I'm telling you now the latest information we have, based on, again, our assessment of the situation.

Q:  Can I ask you one other one about Iraq, too?  The -- the Iraqi national security adviser went to Damascus on Wednesday, and delivered a letter from Prime Minister Abadi saying -- declaring the Iraq's unity with the Syrians.

And it said -- reportedly, it said, "The Iraqi Army and the Syrian Army are one in our fight against terror," or something to that effect.  What -- what was Secretary Carter's reaction to that, that 24 hours after he met with Prime Minister Abadi, he dispatched his national security adviser to go and meet with the Syrians and declare unity with them, when the U.S. continues to say the Syrian regime must go?

MR. COOK:  I didn't ask for the secretary's reaction to it.  But I will just say this, about our conversation with -- his conversation with Prime Minister Abadi, that he believes the Abadi government is carrying out the fight against ISIL in an effective fashion, and we're supportive of that, supportive of Prime Minister Abadi's efforts.

And I'll leave it to the Iraqi government to describe their relations with other countries.

Q:  Did he -- during their meeting, did Prime Minister Abadi ever bring up -- or Defense Minister Obaidi ever bring up the idea that they were going to create some sort of an alliance with the Assad regime going against ISIS?

Was that a topic of discussion?

MR. COOK:  That was not a topic of discussion.

Okay, I've got time for two more.

Q:  Yeah, Peter, another question about one of the -- the leader's meeting in Syria –who was allegedly killed after an attack -- he’s One of the leader of PKK, he was allegedly commending the YPG forces –in some attacks in Northern Syria.  His name is (inaudible), -- (inaudible) -- another name.  And according to the press reports, he was targeted and he was killed or wounded.

Do you have any confirmation about this?

MR. COOK:  I don't have any confirmation on that.

Yes?

Q:  Going back to South China Sea.  Have you seen any indication on the side of China that they are (inaudible) or any expansion of the contracting (inaudible) activities and what -- on the (inaudible) islands?

MR. COOK:  I'm not aware of any indication at this point.  Obviously, it's something we'll continue to watch closely, and we would encourage all the claimants in the South China Sea, in the wake of this ruling, to conduct themselves without trying to provoke their neighbors and continue to conduct themselves in such a way that tensions over the South China Sea would be reduced as opposed to escalated.

And we would, again, urge that -- of all the claimants -- as you know, we don't take sides in these claims.  But we do support the peaceful resolution of these disputes, and we believe this ruling presents, once again, an opportunity for all sides involved in these disputes to try and resolve these in a -- and through diplomacy and in a peaceful fashion.

Okay.  I've got to talk to some high school students.

Oh, wait.  I have one final note for the press corps.  And that is many of you know my senior military assistant.  And Rich is moving on to -- to better things.  He has got a new assignment, and I just wanted to highlight for you that this is going to be his final day as my SMA.

I know he has been very helpful to you all.  Over the last couple of years, he has served three assistant -- to the secretaries of defense for public affairs.

And so, if you see him in the hallway, wish him well.  It's a tough loss for me.  I've got an -- an able replacement in Lieutenant Colonel Juanita Chang.  

But -- but Rich has been a -- Rich Spiegel has been key member of our team, and helpful, I think, to you all.  And so, I just wanted to publicly thank him for his work on -- on our behalf, and my behalf, especially.

So, thanks.