Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White in the Pentagon Briefing Room
Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White
DANA WHITE: Good afternoon. Secretary Mattis spent this week on Capitol Hill talking about the Nuclear Posture Review and the National Defense Strategy, which will drive our budgets for the next four years. Tomorrow, Secretary Mattis will travel to Fort Benning to meet the first security force assistance brigade, the first unit of its kind to provide advisors at a tactical level.
Next week, the secretary will travel to Europe to reaffirm key alliances and partnerships in the region. Switching gears, I'd like to share you two unrelated announcements -- announcements with you today.
Yesterday, Syrian Democratic Forces acted in self-defense with support from the coalition to defeat an unprovoked attack by Syrian pro-regime forces in eastern Syria. Pro-regime forces initiated what appeared to be a coordinated attack on Syrian Democratic Forces east of the Euphrates River deconfliction line.
Syrian pro-regime forces moved in a battalion-sized unit formation, supported by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.
After 20 to 30 artillery and tank rounds landed within 500 meters of the SDF headquarters location, Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by the coalition, targeted the aggressors with a combination of air and artillery strikes.
Coalition advisors were with the SDF, and this action was taken in self-defense. Pro-regime vehicles and personnel, who were turned around and headed back west, were not targeted. The coalition observed a slow buildup of pro-regime forces over the past week.
Coalition officials alerted Russian officials of the SDF presence via the deconfliction line in advance of the attack. The deconfliction line -- the deconfliction process served its purpose. Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the attack.
Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity. One SDF soldier was wounded, and there were no coalition casualties. Our forces have the inherent right to self-defense.
MS. WHITE: We are not looking for a conflict with the regime. Any action that takes away from our ongoing operations to defeat ISIS is a distraction. One of the secretary's main priorities is increasing the lethality of our force. Something that affects lethality and readiness is harassment in all forms. Today, we are releasing a comprehensive policy to prevent and respond to all forms of harassment in our military.
This policy provides a formal, binding foundation to work from, but it's just the beginning. It's a framework for military services to address unacceptable behaviors such as offensive jokes, stereotyping, violence and discrimination.
Let me be clear: Harassment has no place in our military. This policy brings us one step closer to eliminating these behaviors. Over the next 60 days, the military services and DOD components are required to provide us with their implementation plans. We are doing this because we owe our all-volunteer force every protection.
Today is also noteworthy because the continuing resolution expires tonight at midnight. It's important to remember Congress approved with bipartisan support, and the president signed the $700 billion for F.Y. '18 defense spending.
The longer -- the longer continuing resolutions are, the more damaging they are, to our service members, their families and the communities. Shutdowns are also wasteful and destructive, but we remain optimistic that Congress will do its job, pass the budget and write the checks.
So with that, I'll open up to your questions.
Q: Thanks, Dana. One quick thing on the -- the parade, and then a second question.
Has -- I know there's options out there that are being looked at for this military parade. But who would pay for it? And how -- has there at least been some sort of cap on the expense? Considering we've been listening to the Pentagon, for months, now, talk about its lack of funding and the fiscal distress.
But then mainly, on Syria, have you been able to tell what the makeup was of those pro-regime forces? Who was it that did the initial attack? And does this make you concerned that the Russians aren't able to either influence or control the pro-government forces? Since they knew about this for days, obviously, and they weren't able to dissuade them from making those attacks.
MS. WHITE: With respect to the parade, right now we are still in initial planning stages. This is an opportunity -- the -- the president often looks for opportunities to honor and appreciate our service members.
We are looking at several different options. Right now, the Army is the executive agent on it. But we haven't -- we don't have those options yet. We're still in the nascent stages. When we have those options, we will provide that to the White House, and the president will decide.
With respect to the Syria and the composition of the aggressors, I'm not going to speculate on the composition of -- of those aggressors. But I will tell you that we were in regular contact with the Russians. The deconfliction line worked. And we always reserve the right to -- to self-defense.
Q: Well, how do you say the deconfliction line worked if you're in contact with the Russians over those several days, and yet the attacks still happened, and there apparently may have been Russian contractors within that force? Doesn't that show a lack of influence and...
MS. WHITE: I would -- I would -- I would have you -- I'm not going to speculate about people's motives or -- or what the influence is. I can tell you that we had a very productive conversation insofar as we told them they knew what was happening.
They agreed not to attack coalition forces. So from that respect, it was successful. Again, we have the inherent right to defend ourselves.
Q: Thank you. Just going off that question, were there any Russian troops or contractors that were part of this force that attacked the coalition and SDF?
MS. WHITE: I don't have any information and I'm not going to speculate on -- on the composition of the regime -- of those forces, pro-regime forces.
Q: Thank you, Dana. We've seen a Military Times poll on the parade, and so far 45,000 people have responded. It's been a pretty high response rate. Eighty-eight percent of our readership is against the idea of a parade, citing you know, there's other budget priorities for the military. It's a very heavy military readership.
Is this really the right thing to do at a time when the military's trying to get back to readiness levels hurt by C.R.'s, hurt by operations? You know, why focus on a parade?
MS. WHITE: This was an opportunity -- this has been discussed for a little bit. The president is looking for opportunities to honor our service members and show appreciation. Our all-volunteer force depends on 1 percent of the U.S. population. It's an extraordinary population. And the president is simply looking for options, and we're going to provide him those options. We don't have a plan yet. We're developing those -- those options. And when we do, we'll present that to the White House and the president will ultimately decide.
Q: Would some of the options be, instead of a parade, do something else to honor the military? Other options that are not parades that are...
MS. WHITE: Again, there are several options that are possible. And so -- but again we are in the initial stages of planning, but the bottom line is we want to honor our service members. That is the intent. And so we'll provide him with options and then we'll go from there.
Q: Thank you so much. When you say you don't want to get into the deals of the identity of the pro-regime forces, does it mean that the Pentagon is ruling out that those pro-regime forces were like pro -- like fighters backed by Iran?
MS. WHITE: I'm simply just not going to speculate on -- on -- on the composition of the force.
Q: OK, what about the casualties among the Syrian forces -- the pro-Syrian forces? I mean, there are many numbers. Some reports are talking about more than 100 pro-regime forces are killed. Do you have any information on that?
Could you confirm this the number, the more -- the more than 100 ...
MS. WHITE: I -- I don't have numbers on that. And I can't confirm the numbers on the aggressor side.
Here in the middle.
Q: Tony Bertuca, Inside Defense.
Question about the budget rollout Monday. Is what you're going to present Monday, will that be reflective of the top lines we're seeing on Capitol Hill? And what kind of details are you going to be able to provide if what you had to do is now going to be amended, or edited or changed?
MS. WHITE: Well, we need to make sure that the deal goes through. We need everyone to come to a resolution. We will roll it out. It is the top line. I will let -- I will wait until we actually roll it out. But it's important to know that the defense -- the national defense strategy informed those top lines.
And so this is a strategy-driven budget. So a great deal of care was taken to ensure that we're rebuilding readiness, and that we are -- we are remedying some of the shortfalls that we've had in the past.
Q: So on Monday, we're going to see something relevant then? It's not going to be placeholding numbers, or the -- the budget will be relevant to what the Defense Department actually wants to get out of that?
MS. WHITE: Yes, they will be relevant.
Q: Will we get justification books? That level of detail?
MS. WHITE: I will -- let me take that and I will come back to you. Absolutely.
Q: Sure. On Syria strikes, the Syrian government called the strike a war crime, and the Russian army said that the U.S. goal in Syria is to capture economic assets. With such a strong reaction, the reaction they give, are you concerned about the safety of other U.S. advisers that are embedded with SDF troops? And do you believe the strike was a proportionate response to the attacks?
MS. WHITE: We have the inherent right to defend ourselves. And we have seen a buildup for over a week. It was unprovoked. We are comfortable, and the secretary's comfortable, with the judgment of our commanders on the ground.
With respect to Syria, we are there -- our mission hasn't changed. We are there to defeat ISIS. They are on the run, but it's not finished, and so there's still work to be done.
Q: And a quick follow up on the parade. Usually military parades celebrate a military victory. In Afghanistan, the Taliban continue to make strides, the political situation in Iraq is just fractured, and the Syrian war fighting doesn't seem to be nearing an end.
So what military victory would this parade be celebrating?
MS. WHITE: The intent behind the president's request was to honor our military service members and their sacrifices, and to show our appreciation for what they do. That's the intent and we are working to provide different options for the president to decide.
In the back?
I have some quick questions on Syria. First of all, have there been any U.S. casualties? Has -- is there any plan or cause to react to that in the -- in the eventuality that that may happen?
And the second question would be, you keep on talking that right now you have focus on the (inaudible). That's the main goal. But it would be probably unwise not to have, like, a long-term strategy. What's going to happen once you defeat ISIS?
I mean the situation in Syria is really -- has (inaudible), with the (inaudible) and with the Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Would you recover the weapons? What's the plan?
MS. WHITE: The military goal is to defeat ISIS in Syria. Our position is to provide our diplomats with the strongest positions so that they can find a political, a diplomatic solution through the Geneva process. That's the goal.
Q: (Inaudible) on the casualties, on the U.S. casualties, in case that happened. I also ask do you have any kind of plan or any options ...
MS. WHITE: With respect to the U.S.?
Q: There would be -- like an attack that took place yesterday, that's maybe -- become more common nowadays, what would be the reaction?
MS. WHITE: If we are attacked, we will defend ourselves.
Q: What is the Pentagon doing to ensure that military members who either are on active duty or with (inaudible) contracts, who are DACA recipients are not deported? There's over 800 of them we're told by the Pentagon. What are you doing to protect these people?
MS. WHITE: We are always going to respect the service of our service members. Right now we are working with our colleagues at the Justice and at the Department of Homeland Security with the way forward. Ultimately this is a legislative decision.
And so we'll continue to work with them to ensure that we do -- that we -- that we comply with the law.
Q: Well, let me -- I think everyone understands that President Trump has not hypothetically left the door open to DACA recipients in this country being deported. A legislative fix is hypothetical. His statements are not.
So what is being done by the U.S. military, by the Defense Department, to protect these military members and people who have signed contracts that they're -- from being deported?
MS. WHITE: There are about 900 service members who are DACA recipients. We respect their service, and we'll continue to do that. We will also work alongside our colleagues within Justice and Homeland Security to find a way forward.
That is the purview of those departments: immigration, citizenship. That -- that is their purview. So we'll work with them, but continue to respect and honor the service that -- that these service members have given.
Q: So, just to be clear. For these military people, for these 800 DACA military recipients, there are no -- I just want to make sure I understand exactly -- there are no special protections, that they can continue to serve in the military or join the military with their signed contracts? They are, in fact, even as active duty military members, they are subject to deportation?
MS. WHITE: We are going to ensure...
Q: There's no special category?
MS. WHITE: There is -- there are some provisions which -- I'll have to come back to you, but -- considering what sort of status they're in, whether they're applying for citizenship. There are different things. But, again, that is all within the purview of Justice and Homeland Security.
We'll -- we -- we respect and admire all of their work. But there is a political decision that has to be made. And we will work with our colleagues in the interagency to ensure that we follow the law.
Q: Can I just follow up on two other things you've mentioned? I want to make sure I understood the other question. On -- on the Russian deconfliction, I want to go back to that because I am confused how that is viewed as a success when in fact, to go back, the Russians knew about this. They knew the troops were (inaudible), they had conversations, and nothing you said until you fired at the opposition forces who -- you fired against them -- could the Russians influence these people to turn around.
So I don't -- question number one, I still don't understand the answer how that is a success of the Russian deconfliction line. The only success appears to be that the Russians promised themselves not to shoot at us.
And the other question I didn't understand was Lita's very first question. Who pays for the parade? There's sort of two choices here. It's either taxpayer money or it's not. That's not in the planning options. The question is, who pays for it?
MS. WHITE: To your first question, why was it a success? The deconfliction line worked because, number one, the Russians, we deconflicted, and they understood, and didn't fire on us. And if you're those people, it's a good thing not to be fired on.
Two, the deconfliction line allowed us to -- no, deconflict and understand where everyone was. And we were able to defend ourselves and the aggressors turned away. They went back.
Q: (off mic) back? The Russians couldn't turn them around.
MS. WHITE: Well, I would -- then I would -- I would ask you to go to the Russians about what their influence is. For us, the deconfliction line worked.
Q: (Inaudible) payment for the parade?
MS. WHITE: Let me -- let me get one more person.
Q: On the sexual-harassment policy, was this in response to anything specific? Was this Secretary Mattis-driven? Was -- was the secretary simply saying, enough is enough? I mean, can you give us some specifics on what it does? Does it increase punishment? Walk us through it.
MS. WHITE: So in NDAA, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, Congress actually mandated that we have a policy. When Undersecretary Wilkie came in, and he said in his testimony -- this was one of the first things he was going to tackle, within his first six weeks. And he has.
There have been other policies. But let's be clear -- this is a comprehensive policy. Each service, DOD components have harassment policies. But the reporting chains are different, the -- tracking the data is different.
So what this policy does is it provides a framework so that there's a commonality with respect to tracking offenders, how we keep data, and how -- what services have to be provided, to include, you have to have anonymous reporting. That has to be possible.
So this is a first step. They have stood up a group, a working group, an equal-opportunity working group, to deal with some of the other issues. Because this is a very large enterprise. This policy only covers service members. And so this is a first step. But within six -- within 90 days, the services all have to provide an implementation process.
Q: Just a quick follow on DACA. Do you know of any DACA service members who are deployed? And if they are deployed, will they have to come back and then be deported?
MS. WHITE: I do not know, but I will -- I will take that.
Here in the middle.
Q: Thank you very much, madam. Two questions, please.
One, what would be the secretary's message to the millions of Afghans who are saying that we are now in 2018, and still they are living in (a dark ?) of attacks, and after attacks by the Al Qaeda or Taliban and all that, and they want to see a light at the end of the tunnel? What would be the message?
And second question will be, madam, on China. China is expanding in the region and is (inaudible) the regional nations, and the according of the U.S. (inaudible). Time has come for the U.S. to stand up against China, because it will be threat also to the U.S., not only to the regional nations.
MS. WHITE: With respect to the Afghan people, I think the Afghan people should be heartened by the implementation of the South Asia strategy. It's a regional strategy. Tomorrow, the secretary will go to Fort Benning to visit the -- the SFAB . It is a uniquely, highly-trained group of seasoned commanders who are going to advise conventional forces.
Wherever U.S. -- wherever the coalition has advised, mostly special forces, the Afghans win. And so with this strategy, we are training at the tactical level. So that will enhance the capabilities of the conventional forces.
So they should be heartened by that. Because with that increased capability, they will be able to take the fight to the Taliban, who are desperate, who are murderous, and they can ensure that they stop the violence, that they support the constitution, and that they come to the negotiation table.
With respect to China, in the national defense strategy, the secretary lies -- lays out that China is a strategic competitor. We will continue to have to look at what China does. We will confront China where we have to. And we'll work with them when we can.
But it's important to understand that Russia and China both look to undermine American leadership, and so that's why it's so important that we do have stable budgets. Because there is an investment that's required to ensure that we expand the competitive space. And that's -- that's the message for -- with respect to China.
Q: Thank you. On the military parade, what cities -- cities are being considered and what are the considerations that are going to be given to host cities?
MS. WHITE: So we are again in the nascent stages of putting that together. There are several different options, but nothing has been set in stone. We are putting together several options. The Army is the lead, and when we have those options we'll present those to the president.
Q: So you don't know if it's going to be in Washington D.C or this area?
MS. WHITE: We don't know that, we don't -- there are -- there are options and we will explore those and then the President will ultimately decide.
Q: On the DACA issue, Secretary Mattis has spoken constantly about readiness and lethality being his number one priority. It seems to me that having 800 to 900 service members who don't know what their status might be going forward seems to be a readiness issue to me.
Does the secretary consider that issue a readiness problem, if it's not taken care of quickly?
MS. WHITE: The secretary thinks that we need to resolve these issues because, one, tonight the C.R. expires, and we could be in a shutdown. The secretary is looking through the lens of lethality on everything. We will work with our colleagues, but ultimately, immigration and citizenship, those are -- those are within the purview of the Department of Justice, and is also an issue for the legislature.
STAFF: Ma'am, we have time for a few more questions.
MS. WHITE: Tony?
Q: Yes madam, parade questions? He's going to -- Mattis is going alone to NATO next week?
MS. WHITE: Yes.
Q: Reuters broke an interesting story that he, in January, wrote to NATO asking for a semi-permanent presence in Iraq. A, did he write such a letter, and B, will that be a message that he lays out?
MS. WHITE: The secretary will, at NATO lay out one, the national defense strategy. The secretary has talked often about NATO members doing more. As we -- to include contributions to Iraq and Afghanistan. That -- that -- there are now 70 members of the coalition for D-ISIS and 41 with respect to Resolute Support.
He will continue to carry that message. He often says countries with alliances thrive. And so his mission there is to ensure that we continue to strengthen that alliance.
Your second question?
Q: Did he write a letter to NATO articulating his desire for a semipermanent presence?
MS. WHITE: There was a letter -- I don't know that -- I don't know the exact details of that, but the secretary often communicates with our NATO -- with our NATO partners about their contributions.
Q: The harassment task force you laid out, you said something interesting about banning offensive jokes. Who determines (inaudible) jokes, and will you have like a murder board -- seriously -- seriously -- this is kind of a freedome ofspeech issue, too.
MS. WHITE: Absolutely.
Q: ... determine vulgarity, but offensive is in the eye of the ear kind of -- (Laughter.) -- can you say what -- is there going to be like a list of what constitutes offensive words, like George Carlin's magic words in the '70s? (Laughter.)
MS. WHITE: I like that you got George Carlin in here today.
Q: (off mic)
MS. WHITE: I do. Now I'm, like, running George Carlin things in my head. Thank you, Tony. (Laughter.)
MS. WHITE: The -- the goal of the harassment policy is to address all issues of harassment. So the implementation policies will be developed by the services. They will come up with the framework. OSD, the under secretary for P&R will then look at those standards, look at what their -- their proposals are, and then determine if they're consistent with the goals of this framework. There's a working group.
We have to be in -- the point of the harassment policy is to ensure that we have a safe workplace. No one should feel intimidated. No one should feel as though they can't do their job without being discriminated against.
I mean, this also goes to hazing. This goes to political beliefs. This goes to religious beliefs. But those -- those details will be developed by the services, and then this working group will work with them to ensure consistency and standardization.
Q: (Inaudible) what's an offensive joke to one may be funny, but bawdy to a few. So that's an issue.
MS. WHITE: Kevin?
Q: Hi, Dana. How are you?
MS. WHITE: Good.
Q: Could you talk more about Syria? I wondered if there's been any new communication with Turkey after Lieutenant General Funk's visit to Manbij. General Votel kind of drew a red line, saying that the U.S. are not was -- wasn't going to be going anywhere from there. Are there any signs of Turkey either holding their line, or not pulling back?
Additionally, General Votel in Raqqa made a kind of a call to the world to come to the aid of the -- the post-conflict stability operations there. Has there been any kind of response, or -- or is the stability on the civilian side working any -- any, you know, asks or options out there for that?
MS. WHITE: Yes, so, one, we are going to continue to support our -- the SDF in the fight against ISIS. And yes, there is more being done with respect to stabilization, but more needs to be done. We need more help from the international community, with respect to stabilizing, because ISIS is not finished, but part of also the conversations the secretary will have in NATO, as well as in Rome at the D-ISIS panel, is, where do we go, and what can we contribute?
It's important -- second priority of the secretary is alliances and partnerships. We need our friends, and partners and allies to help in this. D-ISIS is not -- ISIS is not defeated. It remains a global threat, and we need the help of our allies and partners to ensure that we address it.
Q: (inaudible) any responses?
MS. WHITE: The we are up -- We are. We are. And then, maybe I can tell you more once the secretary returns from Rome. How about that?
Colonel, do you -- one more? OK.
Q: Thank you, Dana. You said that you don't want to make war against Syria, against Syrian regime. How are you going to avoid that? Because they already said publicly that they are going after SDF, and you are supporting SDF.
MS. WHITE: We continue to support SDF with respect to -- to defeating ISIS. We will continue to support them. Our goal is to ensure that our diplomats can negotiate from a position of strength, with respect to the Geneva process. It's our diplomats who will resolve, ultimately, what happens with respect to Syria.
Q: So if the -- the fighting's only between the Syrian troops, or pro-Syrians and the SDF, and there is no ISIS there, you are not going to defend them?
MS. WHITE: ISIS is still there, and our mission is still to defeat ISIS.
Thank you all.
STAFF: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. We look forward to seeing you Monday for the rollout of the F.Y. '19 budget briefing. And we'll send you an advisory out for that prior, too.
Thank you. Have a good day.