Department of Defense News Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon

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Presenter: Press Secretary George Little July 09, 2013

Department of Defense News Briefing with George Little from the Pentagon

            GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon.  Later today, Secretary Hagel will deliver remarks at the Military Child Education Coalition's 15th annual national training seminar.  In his speech, the secretary will highlight DOD's ongoing support for military children and families, even in the face of our current fiscal realities.  While the department cannot completely shield family support programs from the effects of sequestration, we believe they are critical to the health, future and strength of America's all-volunteer force.  The speech will be carried live on the Pentagon Channel at 3:30 p.m. today. 

            With that, I'll take your questions.  Lita? 

            Q:  George, just a quick -- has the secretary spoken to his Egyptian counterparts today at all?  And then just secondarily, I'm wondering if you can address the question about Afghanistan and whether or not the secretary is frustrated with the lack of progress on the bilateral security agreement.  And has that, indeed, given sort of new light to this idea that perhaps the U.S. would withdraw troops more quickly, realizing no decisions have been made? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary did speak with Minister Al-Sisi yesterday afternoon our time.  And I wouldn't rule out the possibility of future conversations between the two leaders. 

            On the question of Afghanistan, the president is still reviewing options from his national security team and has not made a decision yet about the size of a possible U.S. presence after 2014.  I would remind everyone that General Dunford has noted that we have time and space to make a decision on troop levels beyond 2014. 

            Any potential U.S. military presence beyond 2014 would focus on a few basic missions:  targeting the remnants of al-Qaeda and its affiliates; and training and equipping Afghan forces, our partners.  We are continuing our conversations with the Afghans on how we could carry out those missions, which is why we're in discussions about the bilateral security agreement, among other things. 

            The United States supports a full, fully sovereign, democratic, and united Afghanistan.  We're committed to peace and reconciliation in the country.  And we remain prepared to negotiate with our Afghan partners to conclude the BSA, one that supports our shared objectives. 

            Q:  Frustrated on lack of progress, no, yes? 

            MR. LITTLE:  On... 

            Q:  The BSA? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We continue to have regular dialogue with our Afghan partners on the BSA.  Secretary Hagel held a secure video teleconference with General Dunford this morning.  This was one of the points of discussion about the way ahead, and we will continue to work through these issues. 

            We still have time to enter into an agreement with our Afghan partners.  It's July of 2013, and our drawdown won't be complete until December 2014.  And, of course, we have a lot of intervening events and issues to grapple with in between now and then. 

            So I wouldn't say that we're frustrated.  We continue to work through issues.  We realize that there are going to be points of contention from time to time.  That's natural in any partnership.  But we think we can get through them. 


            Q:  You mentioned the two missions that would go on after 2014.  Has this department recommended against the zero option?  Does this department think those two missions are critical to the future of Afghanistan post-2014? 

            MR. LITTLE:  This decision at the end of the day is the president's to make, our enduring presence beyond 2014.  I'm not going to get into the specifics of our recommendations one way or the other with the White House, but we are in regular consultation with the White House on any number of issues regarding Afghanistan to include a potential post-2014 presence. 

            Q:  And just on the critical -- on your view of those two missions that you mentioned for post-2014 and their -- how important they are to the future or what role they would play in Afghanistan's future? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Assuming we have a post-2014 military presence in Afghanistan, those would be obvious points of emphasis.  Those have been for some time.  We continue to pursue the terrorist enemy in Afghanistan, and we continue to work hard to ensure that Afghan armed forces and their capabilities are well-equipped and well-trained.  

            And we're seeing progress being made by the Afghan forces.  They are making great sacrifices on behalf of their own country.  They have demonstrated great resolve to take the fight to the enemy, and we're impressed by what we've seen. 


            Q:  On Egypt... 

            Q:  Can we stay on this for just a moment, if you don't mind?  You mentioned... 

            MR. LITTLE:  It was your birthday yesterday, so I will go ahead and allow that.  

            Q:  There's plenty -- there's plenty of time and space between now and the end of 2014.  

            MR. LITTLE:  Correct. 

            Q:  But if the decision were made to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, doesn't that shorten somewhat that time and space factor?  And how much time would be needed in advance of that withdrawal to make that decision? 

            MR. LITTLE:  That really calls for a hypothetical on what our troop levels are toward the end of 2014, Mik, and I don't have that number right now.  You're aware of what the president has announced in terms of a drawdown between now and the beginning of 2014, but the numbers beyond that are still to be determined.  So I can't say for certain what would be involved, the level of effort, but getting people out is something that we had done in the past with relative ease, not complete ease, but relative ease, and we will ensure that whatever the decision is, that we complete the drawdown in an appropriate manner and that we adhere to whatever the president's decision is at the end of the day. 


            Q:  ... also on this topic, George, realizing that these are two different wars in two different countries, is the current situation in Iraq evidence of why the zero troop option really doesn't work that well?  In other words, Iraq is extremely violent right now, and it didn't do well with the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces.  Do you see that as something that could happen again in Afghanistan with a hasty withdrawal? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not going to get into comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan.  Our focus is on the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, our relationship with our Afghan partners, and what's right in terms of U.S. interests and Afghan interests going forward in Afghanistan.  This is about Afghanistan and not Iraq. 


            Q:  (OFF-MIC) on Egypt, a few things.  What's the Pentagon assessment right now in regards to the current situation in Egypt?  And do you know why the Pentagon is declining to call the governmental transition a coup?  And if you could just tell us, also, what -- how do you see the future of military aid to the Egyptian military? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The department supports overall U.S. government policy on Egypt right now and that we're -- and that is that we're committed to the democratic process in Egypt, and we don't support any single party or group and that we support a transition to civilian authority and to democratic principles, as defined by the Egyptian people. 

            We believe that the violence needs to be reduced in Egypt, and we hope that we see steps to work through this crisis and see a political process instituted in Egypt that is responsive to the Egyptian people.  That's our view. 

            With respect to questions about how to define what's happened over the past 10 days or so in Egypt, this is not a determination that's going to be made by the Department of Defense.  I would refer you to the White House and the State Department for a definition of how they're going to work through this.  But I would echo what my colleague at the State Department said yesterday, and that is that a determination is not necessarily urgent and that we have some time to look at all facets, what's happened in Egypt, and to reach the appropriate determinations. 

            Q:  Can I follow up on that, that issue? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  If -- if what happened would be labeled as a coup, how -- do you think that would be damaging in any way to the relationship between the Pentagon and -- and the Egyptian military in Egypt? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Because we haven't made a determination in this regard, I'm not going to speculate on what the consequences may or may not be.  Historically, the Department of Defense has had a close relationship with the Egyptian military, and we hope that, under the right circumstances, that can continue. 

            Q:  Back to Afghanistan... 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sure. 

            Q:  ... if we could. 

            MR. LITTLE:  You bet. 

            Q:  Granted, of course, that it's the president's decision, it has to be negotiated with an Afghan government that may have its own new president next year, but can you tell us, George, does Secretary Hagel believe that Afghan security, American security, and regional security would benefit by a residual American force after 2014? 

            MR. LITTLE:  This is a question that naturally comes up in policy discussions between the secretary and his senior national security counterparts.  I wouldn't characterize one way or another, the private advice and counsel on this issue that he's sharing with the president and others.  But he's fully engaged in this conversation and is prepared to work closely with the White House to work through a range of options. 

            Q:  And a follow-up, if I could, since we don't know the secretary all that well.  Since he's the president's senior civilian representative on this question, how do you think Secretary Hagel would view his role in representing the military point of view?  Because I think I'm not going out too far on a limb in saying that the military believes that Afghan security, regional security, and American security requires a residual force. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, the secretary has an outstanding relationship with General Dempsey and the chiefs.  He has great respect for General Dunford and General Austin, as well, and their views.  And he, of course, takes those views into account and has discussions with senior military leaders. 

            I'm not going to characterize one way or another, their views.  That's for them to do.  But he obviously takes the views of his senior military leaders into account, and that's a very important factor in his own thinking on these issues. 

            Q:  Thank you. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Mathieu? 

            Q:  On Syria, the Russian envoy at the U.N. this morning said that Russia had proof that the Syrian rebels had used sarin, and he also said that Russia handed over evidence to the U.N.  Does this department share the -- this assessment that rebels might have used sarin gas in Syria? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I just recently saw this press report, Mathieu, and I can't comment directly on it.  And I certainly cannot confirm this account that apparently comes from Russian sources. 

            What we are concerned about is the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons over time on any number of occasions.  The president has spoken directly to this and has said that that is totally unacceptable and crosses a red line.  But on this specific story, I don't have anything for you -- anything for you at this point. 


            Q:  On Guantanamo Bay, at his confirmation hearings to be FBI director this morning, Mr. Comey said that -- quite directly, when Senator Feinstein described force-feeding procedures to him, that he -- that he said, "I wouldn't want that done to me."  So you have, if confirmed, the new FBI director quite at odds with Secretary Hagel about force-feeding procedures at Gitmo.  And Senator Feinstein also expressed concern that Secretary Hagel has not yet answered her letter about force-feeding. 

            Is the secretary determined to keep with the force-feeding program, and why, in the face of the kind of concerns now expressed from the new director on the Hill? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have any direct response to what was said today on the Hill, but we have an obligation inside the Department of Defense, and that is to follow the law.  And we will continue to safeguard both the security and health of the detainees in our charge.  We will not and we cannot allow detainees to harm themselves.  

            Q:  The question then comes up, how did the detainee Latif die of a drug overdose inside Guantanamo with a scathing report from the government about the lack of following of procedures by U.S. military personnel that allowed this event -- this drug overdose, this hoarding of drugs to take place? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have the specifics to be able to respond fully to your question, Barbara, but we take every care possible to ensure the well-being of detainees in our charge at the detention facility at Guantanamo.  That's what we must do, and we're going to continue to follow the law. 

            Q:  Can I just briefly also follow up on Afghanistan?  You said at the very beginning that there is time and space to make a decision.  How much time?  How much space?  How do you define that now that you're -- you're saying that?  So how do you define it?  How much time and space? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have a specific timeframe to place on a decision.  That's the president's decision at the end of the day.  But I would, again, refer you to what General Dunford has said in the past, and that is that particularly at this point we can perhaps wait until, at a minimum, the end of this fighting season or toward the end of this fighting season to take stock of where we are and then to make recommendations from there. 

            Q:  So if you can't -- then the -- to follow up on Tom's question, how is -- I'm puzzled by your answer that it's hypothetical and you can't say whether Secretary Hagel supports keeping any kind of security force there.  We're not -- not asking -- I'm not asking you numbers, per se, but it certainly can't be hypothetical.  Either he supports keeping some force there... 

            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not sure that I said, Barbara, that his -- his views are hypothetical.  I didn't say that. 


            MR. LITTLE:  I said I'm not going to share his -- his private views or private recommendations that he's sharing with the president of the United States or other senior policymakers in this government.  I didn't call them hypothetical. 

            Q:  Okay. 

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary has a lot of views that we don't share publicly and that are best reserved to private discussions inside the Situation Room or the Oval Office.

             Q:  My apologies if I misunderstood, so let me just try and make sure I didn't.  Does the secretary support leaving any type of security force in Afghanistan after 2014? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think I answered that question.  That was the one that Tom, I believe, posed, if I'm remembering correctly, and I'm simply not going to get into the private recommendations that Secretary Hagel is sharing with the president or other senior policymakers. 

            Q:  Can I go back to Syria? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Let's give others a chance here, all right?  Go ahead, Tony. 

            Q:  What was your reaction and Secretary Hagel's reaction today when they saw the trial balloon in the New York Times, the issue here?  For the uninitiated outside of Washington who wonder about how this works, what was -- what was your reaction and Hagel's reaction?  Were you surprised at the trial balloon?  Were you given a heads-up on it or what?  Seriously. 


            MR. LITTLE:  I'm not aware that this was a trial balloon.  I can't say that for sure.  The content -- it is not surprising at all, and that is that all options are on the table.  The White House has made clear that there is a zero option on the table.  There are other options on the table, as well.  So I don't know that I can say that this is a trial balloon or pick your term of D.C. art. 

            Q:  Okay, were you, chagrined, surprised, gratified, when you saw this -- was this -- when you saw this story this morning?  Were you -- when you saw, what was your reaction?  What was your reaction?  What was Hagel's reaction? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, I'm not going to get into our reaction to specific media stories.  

            Q:  Well (OFF-MIC) 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, sometimes we do have a reaction, but in this case, we're aware of the public debate surrounding troop numbers, so it's unsurprising that we would see speculation in the press about what may or may not occur down the road.  So unsurprised, I guess is the way I would characterize our reaction.  Okay? 



            Q:  ... can... 

            MR. LITTLE:  Go ahead, Tony, all right. 

            Q:  Missile defense.  There was a major missile defense test... 

            MR. LITTLE:  Yes.

            Q:  ... that didn't go well on Friday.  A lot of the public is going to say, why are we spending billions on this "turkey," in quotes?  Can you give the public a sense of if you know what happened and is there a feeling of discomfort within this building that the system using the current warheads -- not the new ones -- didn't do so well? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The test on Friday was not a success.  And it's being reviewed as to what went wrong.  And we're cognizant of the need to get to the bottom of this. 

            But we maintain that we have a robust missile defense system in place to defend the United States and our allies from a range of threats.  And I would repeat what I shared yesterday in my office, Tony, with a number of you and say that you shouldn't necessarily draw conclusions about our entire missile defense system based on one single test.  We have a range of assets that can support American missile defense, and we are confident that we can defend this country from the missile threat. 

            Stephanie?  And I would wish happy birthday to you, as well. 

            Q:  Thank you.  

            Q:  Happy birthday to you. 


            MR. LITTLE:  It's birthday week here. 

            Q:  Is Secretary Hagel -- is he leaning towards or support in any way waiting until the end of this fighting season in Afghanistan to make any decisions? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I think he shares the view that I expressed, and that is that we have time to make this decision. 

            Q:  Can we go back to Syria? 

            MR. LITTLE:  All right.  We'll go back to Syria, all right. 

            Q:  (OFF-MIC) 

            MR. LITTLE:  And other parts of the world, too, if we want. 

            Q:  There have been reports that the administration decided to freeze any weapons shipments to the Syrian opposition.  Do you have something to share about -- about -- about this? 

            MR. LITTLE:  No.  I wouldn't comment directly on those reports.  But the administration has been clear that we're looking for ways to provide military support to the Syrian opposition.  I'm not going to inventory when and how that might be occurring, but that's the stated intent of this administration, and we will continue to pursue ways of doing that. 


            Q:  George, yesterday we asked you about that MIA/POW JPAC report.  You were going to look into that.  Do you have any comment on -- on the story that came out and the report that called the whole program dysfunctional and leaning towards failure? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We were concerned about the story and about the characterization of JPAC in the story.  Over the past day, this has sparked discussion inside the department, and the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy will take a second look at JPAC operations as a result. 

            We have a sacred obligation to perform this mission well, that is to perform remains recovery missions and to look for any POWs that might still be out there.  This is a sacred obligation of this department, and that's why a second look will be done. 

            Q:  So you're... 


            Q:  ... second look... 


            Q:  Wait a minute.  Wait a minute. 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't have the precise parameters of this review yet, but this will be conducted right now within the confines of the undersecretary of defense for policy which has oversight over this mission. 

            Q:  Just to clarify what you said, you're concerned about the AP story or the internal report that they reported on? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We're concerned about concerns raised in the internal report, and that's why a second look will be performed. 

            Q:  Well, it sounds, George, as if DOD doesn't have confidence in that first look.

            MR. LITTLE:  When concerns are raised, it's appropriate and often healthy to take a second look.  And that's precisely what we're going to do. 

            Q:  But wait a minute. 

            MR. LITTLE:  And that's the right thing to do. 

            Q:  (OFF-MIC) review, George, be looking at why JPAC just seemed to disregard this report, that they themselves sort of okayed, and then when they got the results of that report that were pretty damning, basically just pushed the report aside and said, "We're not going to consider this at all"?  I mean, is that going to be a key point of the review of how that happened? 

            MR. LITTLE:  This review hasn't even been initiated, but it will be started shortly.  And I would imagine that those and other questions will be asked as part of it.

            Q:  George, may I follow up?  

            MR. LITTLE:  We'll go from one CNN corner to the other. 

            Q:  (OFF-MIC) are you -- is the department -- is the secretary ordering this review now because of a news story?  Did you not know about the... 

            MR. LITTLE:  Let me be clear, Barbara.  The undersecretary of defense for policy has seen the report and initiated this second look.  And... 

            Q:  You said report.  You don't mean the news report.  You mean... 

            MR. LITTLE:  That's correct, the... 

            Q:  ... the report? 

            MR. LITTLE:  The report, that's right.  

            Q:  And so he is doing this on the basis -- his doing this has nothing to do with seeing an AP news story? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Sometimes media reports raise attention in a building of three 3 million people or a department of three million people.  So... 

            Q:  But did he know of what was in this government -- to make clear which report we're talking about -- did he know what was in the government report? 

            MR. LITTLE:  Did who know, the undersecretary for... 

            Q:  Whether his shop, his people, his staff -- did any of them know about this before the AP?  Or did they only find out about this potential problem because the...

            MR. LITTLE:  The answer is, I'm not sure.  But it certainly sometimes helps to have press stories shed light on issues that are out there. 

            Q:  And you said -- and only because this becomes a massive family issue whenever things are said about POWs or MIAs, you did say, George -- and I listened very carefully -- that part of this would be -- you're always concerned about what POWs may be out there. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, the -- this part of the department has responsibility for POW... 

            Q:  You have no... 


            MR. LITTLE:  I have no reason to believe that any POWs are out there.  We do have, as you know, a servicemember who is... 

            Q:  You're talking about MIAs now. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Right, exactly.  I'm talking about MIAs.  That's right. 

            Q:  George, could you explain what -- what you mean by going to review the report?  What are they going to do, read it again?  Or -- I mean... 

            MR. LITTLE:  Reviews -- let's be clear about this.  I think we all know what we're talking about, and that is that we're going to review the concerns raised in the report to see how JPAC is or isn't functioning well.  And if steps need to be taken to remedy what's happening inside JPAC, then we'll take action.  This is an important mission. 

            So this is not about reviewing a report.  This is about accomplishing a very important mission and objective, and that's remains recovery.  It's about ensuring that the remains of our fallen that haven't been recovered yet come home to the United States and to their families.  That's what we're talking about.  We're not talking about reviewing words on paper.  Words on paper are important, but ultimately it's about the mission. 

            Q:  And, George... 

            MR. LITTLE:  Does that make sense, Mik? 

            Q:  Okay, but why are you reviewing the report?  You don't trust the report?  I mean, if you trusted the report, why wouldn't... 

            MR. LITTLE:  We're reviewing the concerns raised... 

            Q:  ... you take action to correct... 


            MR. LITTLE:  We're taking a -- we're taking a second look.  Some of these concerns, quite frankly, didn't bubble up.  And it's important when these concerns are raised to take a look, so I think it's the prudent thing to do, if concerns haven't been raised to the appropriate levels, to take a second look and to ensure that we're performing this very important mission to the best of our ability. 

            Q:  Would -- would a commander like General Tom, would he have a power and the ability to sort of just squash a report without that report being flagged at a level above the individual command that it's reviewing? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know that this report was squashed.  I can't speak to where it went in the chain of command.  I simply don't know, Chris.  That may be part of this second look, so I can't speak with authority to your question. 

            Q:  Did it get to the undersecretary before the AP's report? 

            MR. LITTLE:  I don't know that it did make it to the undersecretary level.  I just don't know.  Okay.  All right.  Jon? 

            Q:  Going back to the missile defense test, you said that we shouldn't necessarily judge the system based on one single test failure. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Right.  Right. 

            Q:  But this is actually the eighth time out of 16 attempts that this system has failed.  So do you think the American people should be concerned that the system, which is designed to protect the nation from ICBM attacks, basically fails half of the time? 

            MR. LITTLE:  We're concerned when any test is unsuccessful, Jon, and we're concerned now.  But I would reiterate what I said earlier, and that is that these systems are not our only systems for missile defense and that we stand by our ability to defend the nation. 

            The -- there are going to be glitches from time to time, and clearly there are some glitches here.  And I'm not understating what happened on Friday.  We will get to the bottom of it, and we'll conduct a review, and we'll try to find the root cause of the problem here.  But we are confident in what is, I think, by any measure the most robust missile defense architecture in the world.

            Q:  Well, I want to -- on that issue, because the Pentagon in March, they said they wanted to expand the missile field from 30 to 44.  As clearly as you can, was there any link between the test failure Friday and the decision to expand to 44?  Will the expansion be derailed because of this failure? 

            MR. LITTLE:  There are no plans to change our expansion to 44 Ground Based Interceptors.  And as I understand it, we're looking at deploying a different kind of system, the SM3 (inaudible) system as part of the additional Ground Based Interceptors. 

            Q:  I don't want to correct you, but the issue is a new warhead on the -- that's got to be proven out.  The thing you just mentioned I think was canceled... 


            MR. LITTLE:  Okay.  Well, we're -- we're taking a look at another system, I think, and -- for the GBIs. 


            Q:  I just wanted you to be clear and the public to understand that this failure, while not good, doesn't have impact on the decision to expand? 

            MR. LITTLE:  No, it does not have an impact on the decision to expand.  There is no change in our decision. 

            Q:  Thank you. 

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay?  Any other questions today?  All right.  Thank you.