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. Hope you had a good Thanksgiving break if you got the chance to get a break.
I got a couple of items before I take your questions, and I want to begin with some news regarding the budget.
A short time ago, Secretary Carter sent a letter to congressional leaders regarding the prospect of a continuing resolution. In the letter, Secretary Carter says that he is particularly troubled by information that Congress may be considering a CR through May of next year. A short-term CR is bad enough, but a CR through May means DOD would have to operate under its constraints for two-thirds of the fiscal year.
Now, in the secretary's words, this is unprecedented and unacceptable, especially when we have so many troops operating in harm's way. The secretary goes on to strongly urge Congress to reject this approach and limit the duration of any continuing resolution. And we can provide that letter for you after this briefing, if you're interested.
Now, one task that an extended CR would make more difficult is the fight against ISIL, which would be deeply unfortunate because we continue to achieve results in that fight. In fact, this morning, the secretary received an update from some of his commanders leading our effort against ISIL.
They reported to him that in Mosul over the last week, Iraqi security forces had made careful but steady progress in tightening the noose around the city and pressuring ISIL on multiple fronts. CTS continues to lead the way from the east of the city. As was expected and as we and our Iraqi partners have said many times, this is not an easy fight, but it is a fight ISIL is losing.
Iraqi forces during this campaign have exhibited extraordinary care in preventing civilian casualties, and we continue to work closely with Prime Minister Abadi and Iraqi commanders, remain closely aligned with the Iraqis in the execution of the campaign plan.
Meanwhile, over in Syria, the SDF is consolidating the gains it has made in the first phase of its drive towards Raqqah and the SDF continues its isolation of ISIL's so-called capital. The coalition continues to provide critical support to our partner forces in Syria and in Iraq, especially through the air, as we maintain maximum pressure on ISIL.
I also want to briefly address the results of the investigation into the September strikes in Dayr az-Zawr, Syria that you heard about earlier today from CENTCOM. As you know, CENTCOM released the results of their investigation earlier today. The investigation determined that although the strikes likely hit forces aligned with the government of Syria, the strikes were conducted under a good faith belief that the strikes were targeting ISIL, in accordance with the law of armed conflict and the applicable rules of engagement.
Secretary Carter has been briefed on the investigation. He is grateful for the hard work of the investigative team and the participation of our coalition partners. He also fully supports the efforts of U.S. Central Command, AFCENT, and the Combined Air Operations Center to implement lessons learned from this incident.
The United States is not only the most powerful and most precise military on earth. We are also the most transparent. When we fall short of our high standards, as happened in this case, we acknowledge our mistakes. We learn from it. And that's what we will do after this event.
And with that, I'm happy to take your questions.
Q: Coming to the CENTCOM report that you mentioned, Secretary Carter has been briefed on it. Is he satisfied with the way the officials -- the United States officials –on the ground handled themselves? Because there were clearly a series of errors that led to this.
MR. COOK: I think obviously the secretary is concerned by the report that we had ended up striking a target that did not end up being the target we thought we were hitting, the coalition, and he wants to make sure that something like this doesn't happen again. And that's what he certainly expects of the operations -- the air operations that will continue; that there will be lessons learned from this; and this sort of thing can be prevented.
And again, these are, as you heard today from the investigating officer who investigated this, this was a situation in which they had high confidence they were hitting ISIL, and it turns out that that was not the case; that they likely hit regime-aligned forces. But they had reason to believe that they were hitting ISIL. A number of factors contributed to this. We're going to learn from that, take lessons from it, and make sure that this sort of thing can't happen again, or certainly that the chances of it happening again are reduced.
Q: (inaudible) -- should be reprimanded? Or there should be some sort of impact on the officials because there were clearly some errors that could have been, you know, avoided?
MR. COOK: The secretary is confident that there will be lessons learned here; that those will be applied. The correct processes and procedures will be applied going forward.
Q: Do you expect anyone to be reprimanded?
MR. COOK: At this point, there was -- as we understand it, based on the investigation, there was no malice here. This was what they believed to be an appropriate target. We've now learned since that that was not the case. And the secretary will leave it to the commanders to determine anything along those lines.
Q: (inaudible) -- about the policy impact that this strike had, and how it impacted your dealings with Russia? Because obviously, the investigation dealt with the technical aspects of it, but from a policy perspective, what impact would that have on working with the Russians since September?
MR. COOK: I think the one thing that the investigation made clear, one thing that we've tried to do since, for example, is to make clear that in those conversations that happen on that hotline that if there's immediate information that needs to be relayed, that it should be relayed right away. That's one of the most immediate after effects of this.
But with regard to broader policy, I don't believe that there has been a change.
Q: So, following up on the Russia contact. So, in the -- they were told by the investigating officer that this was the first time that Russia had been made aware of actual targets before coalition war planes struck. We were understanding that this was -- the hotline was for de-confliction of air space. This seems to be a little bit different. Can you talk -- was there a lot of discussion about kind of providing that information? Is this a change in what the hotline is designed to do? And has that kind of information been shared regularly?
MR. COOK: No. I think as you heard from General Coe, this was in fact the first time that this kind of information was relayed and it was relayed because of the number of aircraft that would be in the area as I understand it.
Again, I would defer to CENTCOM and the investigators for the detail on this, but because of the number of aircraft involved, this was an effort -- the purpose of that line is for de-confliction and that was what was attempted here and they did provide an area of operation because of the risk that there might be Russian aircraft in the same area.
So they went out of their way, they did something that was not necessary under the terms of the memorandum of understanding. And so they tried to provide the kind of guidance that would avoid some sort of miscalculation or misunderstanding in the air. Unfortunately, the after effect of this was a strike that did not end up with the result that we had intended.
Q: There was a little talk about whether or not -- the question was asked if compensation had been discussed at all. I understand this is something that's left to -- you said it was going to be left to diplomatic channels. Is the Department of Defense involved in those conversations at all about the prospect of compensation as something that's being looked at?
MR. COOK: I'll defer to what you heard today on the call from General Coe on that. I'm not aware of anything that's actively happening.
Q: Back to the budget. On the letter released today --
MR. COOK: Yeah.
Q: -- is there any concern about the CR potential impact on the supplemental request that the secretary made I guess about a month ago now? I don't know how closely the two are -- how one affects the other.
MR. COOK: The letter only references the threat of a -- or the possibility of an extended CR. There is an additional reference to the OCO funding, so.
Q: Are you expecting any sort of impact as well on a supplemental request? Have you heard any --
MR. COOK: Well, we continue to work closely with Congress. We know that there's bipartisan support for our operations in overseas, particularly the fight against ISIL, our operations in Afghanistan, and so we remain certainly optimistic that we'll be able to work this out with members of Congress.
But the secretary felt strongly enough that he wanted to make this point that an extended CR – a CR is bad enough, it is not an efficient way to conduct the department's business. He's been clear on that for some time. An extended CR would be an even worse situation and could, again, have the possibility of affecting our operations and that's something that he would like to avoid.
Q: More on the transition. Are -- have the transition teams continued to come to the Pentagon or the Pentagon staff still meeting with them?
MR. COOK: Yes.
Q: Is it a daily occurrence or what --
MR. COOK: My understanding, there's a meeting today, but I'll leave it to the transition folks for the president-elect to detail what their activities are here. But we continue to provide the support and answer any questions that they have.
Q: The Iraqi National Assembly has passed a law making the Shiite militias a formal part of the Iraqi army. Will that affect how the U.S. deals with either the militias or the army? I mean, now you don't support the militias with air power, for example. Would that change under the new law?
MR. COOK: First of all, this is really a matter for the Iraqis to resolve and my understanding is it has not been completely resolved at this time. And so I defer you to questions on their legislative action to the Iraqis.
What I can say is we continue to support the government of Prime Minister Abadi and continue to support forces under his control right now and we'll continue to do that. And this is, again, a situation where this has more to do with Iraqi domestic politics as anything else and we'll continue to work closely with Prime Minister Abadi.
But this is not finalized as I understand it and there are also diplomatic considerations here as well. You know there are rules regarding U.S. assistance, and so these are things that we think at this point, not all those questions can be answered.
Q: Well, are you concerned -- regarding the rules on U.S. assistance, are you concerned that some of these bigger militias have their origins in the insurgency against U.S. troops while they were there in Iraq up through 2011?
MR. COOK: Well, as you know, we're not providing support to the PMF at this time. We're going to continue to provide support to the Iraqi security forces, and that has not changed.
Q: My question is if the PMF become a formal part of the Iraqi security forces, would your position towards the PMF change?
MR. COOK: We will continue to work closely with the government of Iraq, but we have stated clearly in the past that we will not support those PMF forces. If there's a change in the structure, that's a determination that the Iraqis will make on their own and we'll have that conversation at a later time. But at this point, our position has not changed.
Q: Two on the budget. First, usually when these type of letters get sent to Congress from this building, they aren't announced from this podium. Usually something we find out about from the Hill. What are the circumstances that made you feel it was important enough to publicly announce this letter?
MR. COOK: We got word that there was a risk of -- possibility of this, an extended CR. There's obviously a limited time that Congress is here to take action on these matters, and so the secretary felt time was of the essence. And because of that, he felt it was important to send this message out and deliver what he thought was -- his view on this issue, given that there's limited time for Congress to act on it.
Q: We also are expecting an NDAA agreement shortly. One of the things that we're told is in that agreement is going to be a change to the AT&L structure, which is something that the secretary has raised concerns about in the past. What have the discussions been like with the SASC and the HASC about a potential change? And what are the concerns presently from this building?
MR. COOK: Well, first of all, we haven't seen a finished product, so I'm not going to weigh in on something we haven't seen yet.
You know, Aaron, as well as anyone, the secretary's concerns about the change that had been proposed in the Senate legislation in particular, and he would continue to have those concerns. So we would like to see the finished product and we look forward to working with Congress trying to resolve these outstanding issues. But until we see a finished product, it's hard for me to weigh in on anything.
Q: Going back to the Dayr az Zawr strike, you said that this was the first time that the U.S. had relayed the coordinates to the Russians because of the number of aircraft. How many times has that happened since the Dayr az Zawr strike?
MR. COOK: Honestly, I don't know if it came up in the call or -- I'd refer you to CENTCOM for that. I'm not aware of it happening again since, but I can't say with certainty.
But again, this was a unique instance in which the sheer number of aircraft involved, they thought -- they did it out of an abundance of caution. And again, they're not obligated to do that, but the idea here was to promote safety of flight, and that was the goal in making that call.
Q: I'm -- (inaudible) -- I'm a reporter with -- (inaudible) -- news wire, so I want to follow-up on cooperation with Russia. So, is the United States still looking to enhance the MOU?
MR. COOK: I think we continue to engage with the Russians with regard to safety of flight. Those discussions have been professional and productive in terms of maintaining that line of communication, and I think we'll continue to have those conversations to see if there are ways to achieve greater safety, greater understanding between our air crews and their air crews so that we minimize the chances of a miscalculation in the air.
So we would have urged the Russians to maintain that memorandum of understanding and the communications, and nothing's changed in our view on that. We think it's an important line of communication to maintain in order to preserve the safety of our flight crews and of course the Russian crews as well.
Q: Will the United States consider cooperating with Russia to validate targets on the ground in the future?
MR. COOK: We have no plans at this point to cooperate with Russia in that way.
Q: Now that the formal report is out, are you planning to formally apologize to the Syrian government?
MR. COOK: Gary, as you know, at the time of the incident, we did express regret if coalition forces mistakenly struck forces aligned with the regime, and that appears to be at this point the case, that's it's likely, although we can't say with certainty, that those were government-aligned forces. And we'll stand by that at this point, again, if a mistake was made in this instance, it's a mistake we regret.
Q: Regret isn't an apology, though.
MR. COOK: I'm going to leave it at that, Gary.
Q: Peter, on the budget, you mentioned that there's a possibility of an impact on the campaign against ISIS from an extended continuing resolution, yet you've also cited the major progress made in the campaign against ISIS.
So the -- the question is, if you're making this progress under current spending levels, how is -- how is an extended continuing resolution, how does that impact the -- the war against ISIS?
MR. COOK: Well, I'll give you one example, and that is obviously that the funding levels that we had set for last year reflected the reality on the ground and the support we needed at that time.
We've had, for example, increases in the number of U.S. forces in Iraq, for example. So if we're using money and budgeting that was allocated under one scenario or one expectation about the level of U.S. forces and we now have a new one, again, you might be able to see how that would pose problems for us.
Likewise, anything we need to do to provide funding to those forces right now conducting the counter-ISIL operations could mean a limitation on funding for training, for readiness back here at home, and that's not a situation the secretary feels any better about.
So it is not an effective way to run the Department to Defense. It is certainly not an effective way to plan for the future. And that's why the secretary would like to limit as best we can the period of time that we might be under a continuing resolution.
Q: Peter, if I could, one on the -- one on the transition. The secretary has said several times and you've reiterated from that platform that the significant changes he's made here at the Defense Department, DIUx, Defense Innovation Board, opening up all MOSs to women, that they make good sense and he would hope that they would be retained by his successor.
Have you brought up this in the contacts that you've now made with the Trump transition team? Has this been a subject that you've brought up with them?
And lastly, does the secretary intend before he leaves to outline -- to be specific about the changes that he's made and his hopes for retaining them in the future?
MR. COOK: I will leave it to the Trump transition team to outline their meetings here and the information they want to receive. We've been providing information as they've requested it and we'll continue to do so in as seamless and professional a way as possible. But I'll leave it to them as to what information they've asked for.
With regard to the secretary's own initiatives here and the accomplishments under his watch, you've heard him talk about those in the past at length. I think he will certainly do everything he can to articulate why he feels strongly that the achievements we've made with regard to innovation, with regard to the counter-ISIL fight, with regard to the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, why those are important and why we've carried out the strategy and the operations and the initiatives on his watch in that way.
Again, he's prepared to articulate those to whoever is willing to listen. But with regard to what the transition team is looking for and asking for, I'll leave that to them to characterize. But the secretary certainly is willing and able to explain to anyone, as he has publicly on many occasions, why he's done the things he's done or why he thinks they make sense, not just for the next administration, but for administrations down the line.
So many of the things the secretary has talked about, particularly with regard to innovation and the Force of the Future initiatives, deal with issues that ensure that the Department of Defense he leads today is just as capable for his successors down the road.
Many of the decisions and the initiatives he's outlined are things that will have an impact 10, 15 years down the road. They may certainly be things that affect not just the next administration, but administrations to follow.
Q: Peter, how do you evaluate the advances that the Syrian regime is making in Aleppo? And what kind of implications do you see if one side falls into the hands of Damascus?
MR. COOK: Well, obviously, like others, we've been watching what's happening there. We certainly have concern for the humanitarian situation in Aleppo. You can't watch what's on the TV screen and not be moved by that. But as you know, Joe, our focus from a U.S. military standpoint remains -- the Department of Defense remains on the ISIL fight.
And we would continue to encourage peaceful resolution of the Syrian civil war and an end to what we're seeing in Aleppo. And Secretary Kerry has taken the lead, continues to conduct negotiations. I'll leave that to my State Department colleagues to articulate our views on that.
But what we're seeing in Aleppo is a tragedy. And what we're seeing with the Syrian civil war for months play out is a tragedy, one that we would of course encourage all the players to reach a peaceful resolution to what has been a humanitarian situation that we all deplore.
In the meantime, we're going to remain focused on our efforts in Syria against ISIL.
Q: (inaudible) -- think, or do you think having the Syrian regime taking over Aleppo could help the coalition in the fight against ISIS? Do you see any relation between both operations?
MR. COOK: Anything that further strengthens the hand of the Assad regime, we do not see as playing a helpful role in terms of not only ending the civil war in Syria, but bringing peace to Syria. It's one of the reasons ISIL formed in the first place.
So, we don't see necessarily, just as the secretary expressed concerns about anything that strengthened the support for Assad when the Russians first came in, I think we continue to maintain the same view.
Q: (inaudible) -- having the Syrian regime taking Aleppo, this could complicate the war against ISIS?
MR. COOK: Well, the regime itself has fueled the civil war. Its actions have made the situation in Syria worse. And we don't think that the military efforts by the regime do much to help the people of Syria. And what would help the people of Syria is a peaceful end to the civil war, and that's what we're encouraging. That's certainly what our colleagues at the State Department, led by Secretary Kerry, are doing with as much energy as possible.
Q: Quick question, Peter. Have you seen any evidence that the YPG is working closely with the Syrian regime in Aleppo?
MR. COOK: I can't speak to that. It's not something I'm tracking. I'm not aware of that.
Q: Thank you.
MR. COOK: Yes?
Q: Just to follow up on Aleppo, does the secretary, as he is as the helm of the most powerful military in the world, feel that the moral responsibilities that the United States military should stop this onslaught going on inside the city. Or -- or how does he feel about this -- the things going on in Aleppo as he's going to go out (inaudible).
MR. COOK: I think you've heard -- just to reiterate what I said before, I think you've heard from the secretary that the most important thing that can happen right now would be a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war, and that rests in the hands of the regime and rests in the hands of its allies who are helping fuel the civil war at this point.
And the United States, again, not at the Department of Defense, but our colleagues elsewhere, they can speak to it better than I can, continue to make every effort to try and -- with the help of the multinational community, other countries, continue to try and make the case for peaceful resolution.
So we do not believe there's a military solution that can end a civil war, and so the policy decision's been to maintain our focus on ISIL, and that's going to continue to be our focus.
Q: I understand that, but the issue is this. For several times, the diplomatic efforts somehow blocked, broken, whatever. Then, doesn't the secretary believe that at least in order to put the diplomatic discussions back on track, that the military should at least have some points or positions to push the parties to do something?
MR. COOK: I think the United States has made clear our view on the civil war and the need to end those hostilities. And again, that's been the effort of diplomats led by Secretary Kerry. Our focus has been on ISIL and we're going to continue to remain focused there. That's been what this president has asked Secretary Carter to carry out and we're doing that to the best of our abilities.
Q: I just had two questions on THAAD. Is THAAD deployment dependent at all if the South Korean president resigns or is impeached? And do you know anything about Japan also looking to acquire THAAD?
MR. COOK: On the first question, our THAAD deployment continues -- the effort to do that as quickly as possible continues forward, and I'm not aware of any plans to alter that at this point.
Q: Okay. And Japan?
MR. COOK: I'm going to leave it to the Japanese at this point with regard to that, but I'll just speak to our efforts with regard to South Korea. Again, those remain ongoing, and the alliance continues to move forward with that plan.
Q: Northern Syria in al-Bab, how worried are you about potential for a confrontation between Turkish backed forces and Kurdish forces there? They're all seeming to focus in on the city.
MR. COOK: We've continued to engage all of our partners, including our NATO ally, Turkey, with regard to efforts in Syria, trying to make sure that everything we do is as coordinated as possible, as deconflicted as possible, and that the most important thing for all of our partners is that we all share one common enemy and that's ISIL. And the more we can keep our focus on that, the better.
There continue to be discussions on a regular basis with all of our partners to ensure that we remain deconflicted and we keep our focus on ISIL, and we'll continue to do that. And it's a challenging environment. Obviously, there are a number of different players with different concerns. And one of our goals, or one of our primary efforts is to make sure that everyone knows our view on things. And the most important thing is, again, our common enemy, keeping our focus and pressure on ISIL.
And that's what we're doing every day.
Okay. Thanks, everybody.