Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook
PETER COOK: Afternoon, everybody. Got a few items off the top before I get to your questions.
First of all, we've taken another step in our ongoing efforts to disrupt terrorist networks. I can confirm that U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike near Sirmata, Syria on November 18 that killed Abu Afghan al-Masri, a senior Al Qaeda leader, in Syria. Al-Masri, an Egyptian, originally joined Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, later moved to its Syrian affiliate. He had ties to terrorist groups operating throughout Southwest Asia, including groups responsible for attacking U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and those plotting to attack the West.
Al-Masri's removal from the battlefield represents another blow to Al Qaeda in Syria and demonstrates continued U.S. determination to target Al Qaeda leaders wherever they pose a threat to the U.S., our allies and interests.
Second of all, I wanted to provide you a readout of a call the secretary had earlier today. Secretary Carter spoke this morning by phone with Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani. They had a very productive call that was focused on the ongoing fight against ISIL. Secretary Carter thanked President Barzani for the courage of Kurdish fighters and for the KRG's close cooperation with the central government in Baghdad and the coalition in planning and executing operations to free Mosul.
For president -- President Barzani meanwhile thanked Secretary Carter for the coalition's continued support to Peshmerga forces. Secretary Carter and President Barzani pledged to remain in close coordination as the Iraqi-led counter-ISIL campaign progresses in Iraq.
And I do have an operational update for you with regard to that campaign. In Iraq, the Iraqi security forces continue to clear areas in and near Mosul despite significant ISIL opposition. The ISF continue to make progress while exercising commendable care to avoid civilian casualties. They've been dealing, among other things, with vehicle-borne IEDs and the use of human shields by ISIL.
In the last 24 hours, the coalition conducted nine strikes delivering 72 munitions to support operations in and around Mosul. This remains a tough urban campaign, though it will end with Mosul free of ISIL's rule.
Meanwhile in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces continue to seize and clear territory north of Raqqah in preparation for that city's isolation and eventual liberation. Those SDF forces are now 20 kilometers from Raqqah. The SDF has essentially closed a pocket of ISIL forces now encircled by their advance and they are clearing that pocket in preparation for future operations.
In the last 24 hours, the coalition has conducted 11 strikes delivering 35 munitions in support of the SDF's drive on Raqqah.
We continue to see indications that the simultaneous pressure on ISIL in both Syria and Iraq combined with relentless strikes on ISIL leadership is complicating ISIL's ability to reinforce and to command and control its forces.
MR. COOK: Lastly, as Americans prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday, just a reminder that around the world, our troops and DOD civilians are working to protect the nation. And as you might expect, the Department of Defense is working to provide as joyous a holiday as possible for those personnel who can't be home with their families.
That is no small task. This week, the Defense Logistics Agency will provide for deployed service members in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait the following: 34,760 pounds of turkey; 32,550 pounds of beef; 21,450 pounds of ham; 28,980 pounds of shrimp; 9,115 pounds of stuffing mix; and 879 gallons of egg nog.
Needless to say, we want to wish a happy Thanksgiving to our troops deployed around the world, as well as those here at home and to their families in addition, and a happy Thanksgiving to all of you as well.
With that, I'm happy to take your questions.
Q: Peter, I want to ask you about the letter that Senator McCain sent to the secretary yesterday in which he asked the secretary to suspend all the development of and implementation of all rules and regulations that would change policy at DOD. Has he in effect shut down the secretary's policy making operation for the two months left in the administration?
MR. COOK: The secretary will continue to carry out his responsibilities as the secretary of defense as he has up to this point, through the end of his term.
Q: Does he have policies in process that he's going to be rolling out between now and the end of the --
MR. COOK: The secretary will continue, Bob, to carry out his obligations as secretary of defense; continue to serve this commander in chief; and do what he thinks is appropriate and necessary for the Department of Defense.
Q: Is he rejecting the request that he suspend his policy making?
MR. COOK: I haven't seen the letter myself specifically. I'm not aware if the secretary has read it. But of course, we'll work in collaboration with Congress as the secretary always does. He has a good relationship with Senator McCain and the secretary is prepared to carry out his responsibilities as required and will continue to do so.
Q: Would those responsibilities to carry out include hiring and firing?
MR. COOK: The secretary of defense will carry out his obligations as required.
Q: You know, news over the weekend came out that the secretary recommended the dismissal of Admiral Rogers. So, apparently he's recommending that, but he's not prepared to act on it independently. I'm wondering why would --
MR. COOK: Phil, I'm not going to get into private conversations between the president and the secretary of defense.
Q: Does the secretary have the authority to do that on his own? Or does he need the commander in chief?
MR. COOK: Phil, I'm not going to get into personnel matters here, and I'm not going to certainly get into the conversations that the secretary has had with the president. And the president has spoken to this, and I think -- (inaudible) -- leave it to the president.
Q: Thanks, Peter. He did speak to the president about firing Admiral Mike Rogers?
MR. COOK: I'm saying I'm not going to discuss personnel matters from here. And I'm not going to discuss any of the private conversations between the secretary of defense and the president of the United States.
Q: Does he have the authority if he wanted to, to fire an admiral?
MR. COOK: Phil, I'm not going to get into personnel matters.
Q: (inaudible) -- mentioned -- (inaudible) -- big attack. Do you think that Daesh is a big problem then Taliban now in Afghanistan? And did the Daesh -- (inaudible) -- weapons -- (inaudible)?
MR. COOK: So, obviously, we're very concerned about any reports of violence in Afghanistan, whether it's from Taliban or ISIL in Afghanistan; and concern obviously for the Afghan people in light of this attack. I know that we've worked very closely with the Afghan government to look at the threat that ISIL poses in Afghanistan. We've taken significant steps in Afghanistan under the leadership of General Nicholson to address the ISIL threat and made significant progress working alongside Afghan forces with regard to that.
But it still poses, obviously, a threat to Afghanistan, the people of Afghanistan. We'll continue to stay very, very focused on ISIL wherever it rears its head, whether it's Afghanistan, whether it's Iraq and Syria, whether it's other parts of the world.
Q: What does the defense secretary -- what does Secretary Carter think about a four-star Marine, retired, possibly taking his job? And what does he think about civilian control of the military? And would it be appropriate to receive a waiver at this moment in time to have a retired four-star to take his position?
MR. COOK: I -- I know you're going to be disappointed to hear that I'm not going to weigh in on potential choices made by the next president-elect with regard to this department and the next secretary of defense. The president-elect will make his decisions and it would be inappropriate for me to weigh in on that.
Q: Does he have strong views about civilian leadership of the military?
MR. COOK: I think the secretary believes that the structure within the Department of Defense is a -- is a healthy structure and has served the country well. And again, not going to weigh in on who might replace him. It would be inappropriate.
Q: Why does Secretary Carter believe that the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command should be separated? What are the problems with having them combined?
MR. COOK: The secretary has said publicly in the past that it has been worthwhile to look at the structure in place right now to make sure that it is as effective as possible in dealing with the evolving threat this country faces, and that's a review that the president and others have acknowledged as well. And it's a -- I'll leave it at that. It's a question about looking at the most efficient way to protect the American people.
Q: What about it is not working right now?
MR. COOK: You haven't heard the secretary say that -- that it isn't working. What he said, and I think what the president has spoken to, is the fact that it's worth reviewing exactly whether or not this is the most efficient structure going forward.
Q: A couple of things. One, on the al-Masri hit, can you tell us roughly how many core Al Qaeda leaders now are thought to -- (inaudible) -- years as after 9/11? Do you have a rough order on that?
MR. COOK: Tony, I don't from here. I can try and take that question, but I think what we continue to demonstrate with this strike and with previous strikes is that we continue to target senior Al Qaeda leaders as they continue to pose a threat to the United States and that we've demonstrated a willingness to do that and I think this is evidence of that as well.
Q: Well, if you could find out. I mean, a few years ago, Secretary Panetta said it's something like 100 were in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda. It would be useful just for the record, 15 years after 9/11.
MR. COOK: We will try and get a number for you. It may be something that we look to our other -- the intelligence community as well.
Q: A couple of questions on Secretary Carter. When he came in office, he said he was a man in a hurry, a number of initiatives he wanted to get in place. He's in the end game now with the last two months. What are some -- what are the one or two must complete initiatives that he would like to get out before he's out the door?
MR. COOK: I think the secretary has carried out a number of initiatives on his watch that he feels very confident are not only in place, but will survive past his time as secretary. He continues to devote his efforts, of course, to the counter-ISIL campaign and making -- seeing that through to the end of his term and seeing that as successful as possible while he is in office and I think he feels good about where that campaign is at this particular moment in time, but knows that there's significant work to do.
We've talked at length about his innovation agenda, some of the things he's put in place with regard to that. We've talked at length about the Force of the Future initiatives, which are incredibly important in terms of not just for the here and now and for his successor, but for years down the road.
These are changes with regard to our men and women in uniform that will have an impact not necessarily immediately, but for years. And I think he feels confident that those changes are sound changes, positive changes, changes that will make -- ensure that the force of the future will be just as capable as the force he has today.
Q: The Force of the Future needs to be funded in the FY '18 budget. What is the status of that budget plan? Is it near complete? And is the Trump transition team now reviewing the budget -- the budget right now?
MR. COOK: Well, Tony, you're talking about a fiscal year '18 budget when we don't have a fiscal year '17 budget right now. So --
Q: -- being prepared?
MR. COOK: Well, let me just make the point that the secretary did the other day during our trip, that it's -- he's disappointed that we're once again confronted with the situation where we have to deal with a continuing resolution. The secretary's been very vocal in his call for budget certainty and the importance of budget certainty to this department going forward.
And that is a message certainly that he will continue to deliver in his final remaining weeks in this position. I'm not going to characterize where the fiscal year '18 budget is at this point. I'll leave it to the transition -- the president-elect's transition team to -- to tell you what it is the information they're seeking at this particular moment in time from the department.
Q: Because you know this thing has to be put to bed by December in order to come out at some reasonable amount of time next year. Is it near complete? Or is it still -- is there still back-and-forth with the services on it?
MR. COOK: Tony, again, we've been focused so much on the current budget situation that, yes, of course, work has been done towards the fiscal year '18 budget. But I'm not going to characterize exactly where it is at this particular moment in time, other than to say that the professionals within this department, including those responsible for the budget, are doing everything they need to ensure a smooth transition, to make sure that the certainty -- as much certainty as possible is put in place for the next administration and for our troops and men and women in uniform.
They deserve that certainty. They deserve a better situation in terms of the budget than what they're facing right now.
Q: Thank you, Cook.
On the exchange of military information between South Korea and Japan, South Koreans have signed a military information -- (inaudible). What is the U.S. position in this regard?
MR. COOK: We've been very supportive of efforts by South Korea and Japan to enhance their own security cooperation. We think this is an important step and a positive step. And of course, we encourage those two countries to continue their collaboration with regard to the security threats in the area.
Q: (inaudible) -- support -- (inaudible)?
MR. COOK: Yes.
Q: There was some confusion last week when there were reports on the death of the Al Qaeda leader you mentioned. Can you –say for instance that Al Qaeda leader you mentioned was someone who was close with Zarqawi And he was -- I also read things about the Al Qaeda being -- (inaudible) -- inspired Zarqawi and had really Egyptian -- (inaudible) -- inspiring Zarqawi. Is it the same guy? Or are we talking about a different guy?
MR. COOK: I want to be -- I don't want to provide information to you that I'm not 100 percent certain of. I know that, as it's been conveyed to me, this is a legacy Al Qaeda leader who's had a leadership role both in Afghanistan and in Syria. But as to his own people he's impacted or had direct contact with within Al Qaeda leadership, I'm not going to speak to that without knowing for certain.
MR. COOK: Yes, as I've pointed out, he was Egyptian.
Q: Back to NSA and Cyber Command. A lot of the congressional opposition to the split is based on the argument that Cyber Command doesn't have the capabilities and personnel it needs to stand on its own at this point. Does the secretary believe it does have the ability to stand on its own? And at this point, is the split off the table for the remainder of this administration?
MR. COOK: I will just repeat what the secretary has said before. He's -- he's been very clear about the importance of Cyber Command, the importance of protecting our own networks; about making sure that we are addressing the threats not only today, but the evolving threats of the future.
And this has been part of the ongoing conversation as we look at this structure. And I'm not going to predict the future as to what decisions the president might make. Ultimately, it's a decision for the president to make.
Q: You mentioned earlier your concern about living under a continuing resolution. Could you lay out some of the difficulties that creates or the particular concerns you have on a CR taking you into March?
MR. COOK: Well, the concerns that you've had -- you've heard from this secretary before. But every time we do a CR, there are implications for this department. It means that there are certain investments that are not being made; that are being funded at existing levels. And that does not reflect necessarily the changes and adjustments that this department feels are necessary in order to make sure we're doing everything for our troops, our civilian workforce, and for the nation's security.
There are questions, again, about particular programs that the secretary has spelled out our funding proposals for. And the fact that they are remaining at current levels, again, restricts in some respects our ability to exercise the policy decisions and the security of this country in the most effective way possible.
It is not the right way to do budgeting and that's been a point that this secretary and plenty of others have made previously. It is inefficient. It does more harm than good in terms of certainty and being able to put in place the national security structure that the secretary believes is the most effective means possible for protecting the American people.
Q: Just a quick follow up on Afghanistan. There were reports that the ANSF had begun I think for the first time to start conducting combat or offensive operations in the country during the traditional sort of winter lull. And from what I understand also it is to sort of kind of push back the Taliban's expanding footprint in Kunduz in the north and in Helmand in the south.
Is it the department's opinion that this effort or this move signifies a sort of an increasingly deteriorating situation in the country?
And I have a follow-up after this.
MR. COOK: I think, Carlo, what you've got is a situation in Afghanistan where they have set up a national strategy that General Nicholson has talked about, in terms of how to confront the Taliban -- the challenge posed by the Taliban. That strategy, as we've detailed on multiple occasions, includes ensuring that the Taliban is not able to take population centers.
They've been effective in carrying that out. And although it's been a difficult fighting season, they've been able in a resilient fashion to hold onto district centers, for example. They've also been taking the fight to the Taliban, and I think this is a reflection of the kind of capabilities that the Afghan security forces now have in which they're leaning forward and taking the fight to -- they're leading the effort to secure their own country.
And this is decisions made by the Afghans and by the Afghan leadership as to how to conduct -- how to operate their forces, particularly at this particular moment in time. I thin General Nicholson and the -- everyone at Resolute Support is supportive of what the Afghans are doing and we'll continue to support that effort.
Q: Can we expect an uptick in support -- support operations by U.S. and the coalition forces in countries?
MR. COOK: We stand prepared to support Afghan forces as needed and we'll continue the mission we have to -- the train and advise mission with the Afghan forces as we have been for the last couple years. There's no change in our role, even though the Afghans may be pushing, again, operations into the winter months, which may be unusual from years past.
Q: So back to the al-Masri hit really quickly, was he -- you said he was core Al Qaida, but is there understanding that he might have been dual-hatted with al-Nusra or the -- the regional branch there? Or is he kind of -- do we think he's separate? And was he active -- was there an idea that he might have been actively plotting against Western targets or -- or Western interest?
MR. COOK: This is someone, again, who's had a long history with al Qaeda, including in Afghanistan. And the reason he was targeted was, again, because of his role in Al Qaeda in years past and currently. And that's the reason he was targeted.
Q: Can I just follow-up on another question on Syria? You mentioned that the SDF was about 20 kilometers from Raqqah. Turkey today announced that they're going -- after they take al-Bab away from ISIS, they're gonna move on Manbij to target the YPG. Is there concern that Turkey's military efforts now might be detracting from the SDF's ability to capture Raqqah?
MR. COOK: I think this is something that you've heard Colonel Dorrian speak to, this recently. We remain very engaged with our Turkish ally. They're a member of the coalition. In terms of trying to best coordinate the fight against ISIL, we'll continue to do that. It's an ongoing conversation with them. They have legitimate security concerns, given the threat posed to Turkey by ISIL and we will continue to work closely with our Turkish counterparts with regard to that.
And there are tensions in the area. We understand those tensions. We understand the concerns expressed by Turkey. And we're going to continue, as the leader of the coalition, to work with our partners on the ground to try and deconflict operations as best we can and to try and address those tensions head-on and make sure that the focus stays directly on ISIL.
Q: Follow-up on Ryan's question. Turkey is citing YPG presence in Manbij for its plans to move to the city and we have heard months before that YPG elements -- (inaudible) -- from the city. And last week, we heard again that they are moving -- actually, last week -- they were moving last week. And Turkey is still claiming that there are YPG elements in the city and unacceptable for Turkey.
Do you -- could you confirm whether there is YPG elements still in Manbij or not?
MR. COOK: Kasim, as I think you and others saw this weekend, there was a very public announcement about YPG movement from Manbij to east of the Euphrates. As we've been saying all along, the leadership of the YPG had moved east of the Euphrates previously and we -- again, we have heard the concerns expressed by Turkey.
This is something we'll continue to talk directly with our Turkish counterparts and to hear their concerns about it. There is -- there are local forces in Manbij now that are securing Manbij against the threat of ISIL returning and we'll continue to address Turkish concerns about the makeup of those forces.
But we heard very publicly the announcement from the YPG that they were moving east of Euphrates. That's consistent with the commitment that's been made previously and we think that's a good thing. That's what we've called for and will continue to call for. And again, the vast majority of those forces for some time have been east of the Euphrates and we think that's a good thing, and again, consistent with the commitment that's been made to our leadership.
Q: President Erdogan said that United States failed to keep its promise of moving, withdrawing these forces -- (inaudible). Could you just say a -- tell us whether -- when this administration left the office and generally the withdraw of YPG from Manbij will be completed?
MR. COOK: Listen, I'm not going to predict the future in a dynamic battle space right now. You know as well as anyone, the tensions in the region, the different players on the ground there. What we do, what we have done as a leader of the coalition and as an ally of Turkey is try to be as transparent and as clear as possible with all of our partners about commitments made, commitments that need to be adhered to.
And we'll continue to do that. We'll continue to play a role to try and de-conflict concerns among our partners and allies about what's happening on the ground and keep the focus on ISIL. We've been successful in doing that so far, and again, we'll continue to have those conversations with Turkey, with our partners on the ground to try and keep that focus on ISIL and make sure that these tensions do not detract from the ultimate goal we all share, and that is to eliminate ISIL from Syria.
Q: Can you confirm whether still there are some YPG enemies in Manbij or not?
MR. COOK: I -- like you, I saw the announcement this past weekend. It's a commitment that we've heard previously and we think it's a good thing if indeed those forces have left. I cannot tell you with 100 percent certainty the disposition of every single person in Manbij and where they came from.
As you know, there are some Kurds from Manbij itself, and in some cases, it's the view -- as to who those local forces are in Manbij, there may be differing views as to who -- what groups they represent. So I'm not going to speak from here without being on the ground myself in Manbij able to identify everyone myself.
Q: Peter, thank you.
President-elect Trump said last night that he's going to ask the Defense Department and Joint Chiefs to come up with a comprehensive plan to protect the country's critical infrastructure from cyber attack. Does Secretary Carter think that the critical infrastructure is vulnerable to cyber attack right now? And if so, what needs to be done to protect it?
MR. COOK: So I applaud your efforts to try and drag me into the -- back into the campaign or into the transition. I'm not going to comment on specific things that the president-elect's talking about in terms of policy choices he may pursue when he takes office.
What I can tell you is that this is a secretary of defense who's been incredibly focused on the cyber threat facing this country. He's articulated a cyber strategy that he's detailed on multiple occasions. He has committed, once again, in terms of the top priority for our cyber strategy is to protect our own networks. And also, as we've seen in the ISIL fight, to use -- be prepared to use our cyber capabilities in an active area of hostilities in terms of confronting our enemies.
And I think the secretary feels good about the steps that we've taken to bolster our digital defenses. You've noted even yesterday the latest initiatives that have been taken with regard to following up to the Hack the Pentagon initiative; the ability to bring the private sector, the white-hat hackers to help us bolster our digital defenses.
These are steps that have not only been unprecedented for the department, they're unprecedented for the federal government.
And we think this is a very effective way to try and enhance our cyber security. But there is still work to be done to be sure. This is an evolving threat, a challenging threat. And one thing the secretary wants to make sure is that it's a threat that we continue to address and adjust our own posture accordingly.
Q: Has the cyber war against the Islamic state lived up to the secretary's expectations over the last half-year?
MR. COOK: I think the secretary would say that he still has the entire operation against ISIL right now, because it is still a work in progress. He's not satisfied with any of it. He'd like to see this done. He'd like to see ISIL defeated in Iraq and Syria. He'd like to see every aspect of the campaign enhanced and strengthened.
He's talked a lot about taking advantage of opportunities and accelerating the pace of this campaign. Phil, you've heard him multiple times. And I think it's fair to say that he has that view about the cyber operation as well.
Q: At what point will -- at what point will ISIL be defeated -- degraded and defeated? I mean, you guys have said this for two years now. The goal is to defeat and destroy. You're attacking Raqqah. You're attacking Mosul -- the two major capital areas. At what point will the secretary and you from the podium be able to say, "We've have militarily defeated them; now it's more of a counterterrorism campaign"?
MR. COOK: I think the first step, Tony, and you've heard the secretary articulate it, is obviously is to defeat them in Mosul and Raqqah, their so-called capital of their so-called caliphate. And that that will be a very significant step in terms of militarily defeating them geographically, and defeating the -- getting rid of the idea, the notion that there can be a so-called Islamic state in the first place.
And we're well on the way to doing that in both Mosul and Raqqah, with the help of those local forces; that we're in lead -- Iraqis and Syrians. But that is not sufficient to dealing with the ISIL threat. That's why we have to deal with the metastasis of ISIL in places like Libya, in places like Afghanistan. Elsewhere, it may pop up -- they may pop up around the world.
And so, I don't think the secretary believes that this is a fight that's going to be over anytime soon in terms of the threat ISIL will continue to pose. But it will be a different kind of threat, a different kind of challenge, and maybe less military at that point.
Q: At some point, will he be prepared to say, "We feel that we have militarily defeated -- destroyed and defeated ISIL"?
MR. COOK: I think he will be -- we certainly hope and expect to be in a position in the not-too-distant future to be able to point to Mosul and Raqqah, the two largest cities where ISIL maintains geographic control, to say that they no longer control those areas.
Just as they don't control Rutbah. They don't control Sharkat. They don't control Tikrit. A number of cities, locations, Ramadi, Fallujah -- these are locations that ISIL controlled not too long ago. They no longer control militarily. And that would be a very significant step, but the secretary has been abundantly clear that that will not be sufficient in and of itself; that there is an additional fight to come.
Q: Okay. The additional fight to come will be a worldwide counterterrorism campaign against their groups.
MR. COOK: And there may be, Tony, of course, pockets of resistance, ISIL resistance in Iraq and Syria that may need to be addressed as well.
Q: But do you feel you're getting closer to militarily defeating ISIL?
MR. COOK: I think the defeat of ISIL in Mosul and Raqqah would go a long way towards ending any notion that there is anything -- anything close to an Islamic State, the fiction that there's a caliphate out there, a geographic location for people to go to.
And -- but again, that is the first step in this, but there's still more to do in terms of dealing with the -- the threat that ISIL may pose into the future. But it would be a significant step, a major blow and one that the United States and the Department of Defense, along with our international coalition, but most importantly, those local forces on the ground that we've enabled will have achieved and it will be a significant -- significant achievement, but it is not enough. More needs to be done.
Q: On the al-Masri attack, was that a U.S. military attack or another agency attack?
MR. COOK: U.S. forces carried that out.
Q: U.S. military forces?
MR. COOK: Yes.
Q: And was it a drone or a manned aircraft?
MR. COOK: It was an unmanned aircraft.
Q: You said he was killed for his role in Al Qaida. Can you say what that role was?
MR. COOK: He had a senior leadership role in Al Qaeda and it's a role that -- again, he's been part of Al Qaeda for several years. Mentioned that it was back in Afghanistan as well. This is someone who helped organize Al Qaeda activities and was directly affiliated with senior leaders there as well and this is someone who's been on our radar for some time.
Okay. I think I've tired you all out. If I don't see you, happy Thanksgiving and safe travels if you're leaving the area.