Media Availability with Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Good morning.

Q:  Good morning.

SEC. MATTIS:  How are you all doing?

Q:  Fine.  Good.

Q:  (Inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, so we go on the record for a little bit and then we go off the record for a bit.

How you doing?  You get some sleep?

Q:  Some, yes.  Thank you.

(Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS:  No problem, no problem.  Good to see you all.

So I wanted to see you on 9/11 and you know why.  It's a day that lives on in this building's memory.

How many of you were here, just out of curiosity?  Any of you here that day?

Yeah, it's 17 -- yeah, there we go, David.  17 years gone by and -- but still, it's something we -- we remember, it's -- when you go over there, it's sacred ground, it's a sacred day right now.

And I thought Vice President Pence's remarks really captured a lot of that, the human side of it.

I think having a number of members of Congress here, it -- it's interesting.  I think we had 17 different countries represented -- I'm not certain on that number by the way, because -- that's what we thought had replied, saying they would show up.  So it -- clearly more than a dozen were there and I think it might have been quite a bit more.  Can't give you the actual numbers.

But honor the first responders and, of course, the families who -- who lost loved ones there.  A number of those families are there again this year.  I've seen them here on previous ceremonies, as well.

But it does remind us to stop, kind of say, "Now what're we doing here?", think back on those days and say we know exactly what we're defending as you look at those families.

At the same time in the midst of this, the president -- the vice president spoke about how the Pentagon kept operating and the Joint Command Center downstairs here continued to operate that day, as ships were turned around at sea and sent to the area.  That's where they -- the functions went on.

And so even on a day as sacred as this, the Pentagon continues to function.  And right now, you know, the biggest immediate threat to our people were four -- excuse me, talking too much today again -- four storms at one time.

You think about it, we had the storm off Guam.  That looks like it brushed by Guam; not a lot of damage out there.  And Indo-Pacific Command is responsible there, they're working with the -- the various islands around there.

One of the islands was hit, but we don't yet -- the survey results haven't gotten back to us.  I don't think it's real bad, but we're still waiting on some information.

The storm that was trending toward Hawaii -- also for DOD, it would be INDOPACOM would be the command that's prepared to support.  It looks like Hawaii also has been fortunate so far.

So the two Pacific storms OK.

We've got one down in the region of Puerto Rico tracking toward Virgin Islands.  That one we're still tracking.

And then, of course, the big one, save the best for last here, the one that's really going to be a problem.

As you know, we've sortied or are in the process of sortieing our ships and aircraft out of the Norfolk area and out of the Carolinas, so that's ongoing.  But more importantly, the warning orders are out and the units are alerted:  Better to be ready to go in the wake of it.

Right now, it looks like it could be very heavy water damage -- high water kind of situation we'll be reacting to.  So you can imagine the kind of units that have been alert -- put on alert to help the governors if they need it.

Of course we're in support of Homeland Security, specifically FEMA for that.  But the -- every request we've received so far from DHS and FEMA we've been able to meet in real time.  We have no outstanding requests right now.  So we're 100 percent there and we'll work to maintain that right on through whatever happens as this storm closes on the coast.

Let me just do quick around the world and what we're looking at right now.  I was gone last week, so I did not see you.  I haven't seen you in about 10 days, of course.

In Idlib, we're watching very closely at what the -- the regime -- Assad regime, aided and abetted by the Iranians and the Russians, are up to there.

As some people have characterized it, as you know, it's probably one of the largest refugee camps in the world, all those people have been displaced living up there.  It's a place with relative -- relative quiet up until this offensive began.

And I know that -- I don't know if you saw President Erdogan's piece in the paper today, but obviously they have tried to maintain a degree of -- of stability in that corner.  And clearly the Russians and the Iranians and the Syrian regime -- Assad regime intend to go after it.

I think that as far as any potential use of chemical weapons, I would say that the American position on this -- and I would add that of our allies and the United Nations -- is well known.  And right now we see zero evidence that the opposition has any chemical capability, notwithstanding what Russia has been broadcasting repeatedly.

On -- let me just talk for a moment here.  Last week I did go to India for what could only be considered highly successful consultations between the world's two largest democracies.  There was no difficulties that we uncovered there in moving forward on a number of pragmatic steps to draw ourselves closer together in terms of security.

And it was a -- it was a very heartening trip, historic I'd even say, as you look at where we've been over so many years as we've grown closer and closer together.

Probably we will look back on the 2+2, where Secretary Pompeo led the two of us in there as our senior diplomat.  Probably a defining moment for the relationship between us and India, and -- and one that we think is absolutely on the right track in terms of defense cooperation.  And I would specifically point to the COMCASA agreement that opens a lot of doors at that point.

From there, I went into Afghanistan.  The Taliban -- we're getting the -- the same kind of -- you know, two different messages from them.  They've increased their violence in some parts of the country, not in all parts of course.  But they've also shown an increased interest in reconciliation.  We'll have to see which way -- which way it goes.

The good thing that we have right now that's probably different than six months ago, we now have an ambassador-level person in charge, Ambassador Khalilzad.  He's got a deputy, he's got military -- military members on his staff, as well, whatever they ask for in terms of any kind of specialty expertise they need.

And after what his predecessor, Alice Wells, had going at -- gotten started, I thought it was very good form.

We're actually now -- for the first time, we have some semblance of strength to the reconciliation effort.

Now, whether or not that is strong enough to promote it at the speed we want, I don't know, so we'll fight and we'll fight in defense of the Afghan people, the Afghan government.

And you've seen that most of that fighting is carried clearly by the Afghan forces, who are suffering probably upwards of 98, 99 percent of the -- of the casualties in that fight.

Very apparent from my visit there and listening to the people I spoke with, both the senior civilian representative of NATO, as well as our own ambassador, and, of course, the Afghan's leadership, President Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah and their ministers, and right down to their sergeant major, their senior enlisted person, that the yearning for peace is widespread, and we're coming up on 2019 and 40 years is enough.  This is 40 years since the Soviet invasion that turned that society on its head.

And so I think there's a fair amount of what I would call non-quantifiable factors that are mounting, in terms of going in the right direction.

So we'll just have to do everything we can to protect that process with our military might, the 41 nations that have got military people there in the fight.  And then continue to buttress what the diplomats are doing, and -- in a very complex fight, as you know.  In some areas, the Taliban is more committed in its fighting against ISIS than anything else; in other areas, they're simply attacking -- massing and attacking district centers, provincial centers, that sort of thing in an effort to keep it in the press, keep it up, keep it on the skyline in order to show that, "You see?  We can -- we can kill innocent people."  So they're conveying that statement loud and clear.

I'm travelling this weekend.  I'm going to go out and see our Macedonian friends on a rather swift journey over there and back.  And this is in support of their decision -- their own sovereign decision to make sure that they know that we believe it should be our Macedonian friends charting their country's future, and not outsiders.

I -- I'm not sure -- I was asked about this, actually.  Let me go back to today here, so we can go to some questions.

As we were -- several of us noted His Royal Highness here.  That was the U.K. representative.  Some people asked, "Who was it?" and I -- you know, it's one of those things you do.  You -- you're so used to what is on my schedule, and I know, I forget that it might be good to tell you all who it is.

But it -- it was the earl of Wessex.  And he was here as a reminder of a special relationship that endures.

And by the way, he invited me on board his aircraft carrier.  I'll see if I can get back in time, up in New York City, when she visits up there.

She was actually supposed to be, I think, in Port Norfolk, if I remember right, by Friday.  Our welcoming ceremony's a bit over-the-top right now:  It's a hurricane.  So she'll probably remain, of course, at sea for a bit.

But -- but it was -- it's a very good visit, just, he stopped by my office for a chat just a few minutes ago.  And it's just a reminder of how much we see the world, in terms of -- of having a degree of order, and the rule of law.  And from the Pacific all the way back to here -- I mean, the Western Pacific.  He did note that HMS Albion is one of the ships on the U.N. Security Council Resolution Enforcement patrols, a U.K. ship, as they contribute to the U.N. sanctions on DPRK to stop the ship-to-ship transfers.

Oh, and let me tell one other thing:  We have identified a couple of the remains -- the families for the remains coming out of Korea.  And it's been good work done.  They're -- they've moved swiftly on a couple where they thought they had a better chance for a number of reasons -- where the remains came from, and what background we had, and how much we had to work with.  And so there's been, already, some closure for a couple of families that have waited many, many years for this.

So that's, again, it's -- it's a -- for us, it's a sacred day.  It -- you remember how united we were on 9/11 in 2001, 9/12, 9/13, when there were no airplanes in the sky.  And that's certainly where DOD stays today, where we defend the country and we stay focused on that.  And from these operations around the world, you can see where we're putting our -- our attention.

So let me take some questions.

Q:  Could -- could I -- first, let me start out with Idlib.  When we were on the plane, we asked you your assessment of whether you had seen -- seen President Bashar al-Assad preparing to use chemical weapons, and you said, "We're looking at.  And we're watching it very closely."

SEC. MATTIS:  Right.

Q:  Since then, Jim Jeffrey, the State Department has said, "I am very sure that we have very, very good grounds to be making these warnings," in reference to Assad preparing to use chemical weapons.

Is that your assessment as well, that President Assad is getting ready to use chemical weapons in Idlib?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  I -- I'd just leave Ambassador Jeffrey's statement as it stands, and not comment further on that one.

Q:  Can you talk about your talks with France and Britain in relation to any retaliatory strikes?  Because Ambassador Bolton has talked about that.

SEC. MATTIS:  No, no.

Yeah, (inaudible)

Q:  One quick follow-up on North Korea.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  There's two remains.  That's accurate?  Is that correct?  There's -- there's two that have been identified.  Is that accurate?  You've said -- you've said "a couple."  I just want to make sure we're --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  Two right now, but we're working.  We're working.

Q:  But in addition to that, there's also been efforts to speak with the North Koreans about other repatriation.  Can you talk about any progress on that?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  That's ongoing right now, those deliberations, consultations, and it's -- all I can tell you is ongoing right now.

Q:  Sir?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  Can I ask you about the hurricane coverage?  How often are you being updated, and do you have any --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  -- particular areas of concern, is -- in regards to the military and what -- what you have, and what's out there?

SEC. MATTIS:  OK, first on areas of concern, no.  In -- in some cases, we have to sign special authorities, and my executive secretary for Department of Defense works about 30 feet from my office, and he's available in 30 seconds or less on the telephone in the middle of the night.

So the authorities are there.  They've been delegated.  No concerns whatsoever on that.

What was your first question about?

Q:  How frequently you're being updated.

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, I get a full update, one from INDOPACOM, and one from -- one from NORTHCOM, as well as the joint staff, each day, one full update.  This is a kind of a rundown of everything:  last 24, next 24, next 48.

And then I'll get, during the day, what we call spot reports; just constant updates just on individual issues.  You know, this many ships have sortied.  This governor's looking at this.  We've got the right guy in place in Guam.  They're deploying to the island that may have been hit yet.  That comes in around the clock.  I can't even --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Does that --

Q:  Yeah, yeah --

SEC. MATTIS:  -- give you a flavor for it?

Q:  Thank you.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, again.

Q:  Yes, can I ask you about this report about the electromagnetic microwave weapons being used against diplomats in Cuba?

The report suggests that sonic weapons have been ruled out, and that attribution that there's a belief in the U.S. government that Russia was behind it.  It that your understanding?  Is that true?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  I don't want to comment on that right now.

It's State -- it's under State Department.  They've got the doctors who are working it, and they've got all the intel.  I do get updated on it, but I'd prefer that comes from the one department that's working it.

Q:  Do you feel that there are conclusions at this point?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  I -- I'm not -- again, I'd -- and please go to State Department on that.

Q:  And what would you -- what would you do if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  I'd -- you know me.  I -- nice try.  Nice try (inaudible)

(Laughter.)

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  I never talk about what would come next.

But I think that you do have to look at the fact that we will abide by the chemical weapons prohibition and -- and support it 100 percent.

Q:  But would chlorine fall under that prohibition?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I'm not -- I'm not going to give that clarity --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Mr. Secretary?  Can you talk about what you discussed with General Miller and President Ghani in Afghanistan?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

We discussed the security situation, the adaptations to what we saw the enemy doing, the protection of the elections.

The elections -- you have to start protecting, not -- before the election day, you know?  There's things that get distributed and all.  How they're -- how they're prioritizing that and still keeping the troops on the offensive.

We spoke about the need for clarity among everyone so that there's never something going on -- not aware of the specifics, but on reconciliation.

And we spoke for a bit about the -- how to put this -- basically, how do we sustain this effort into the future as we look toward reconciling Afghanistan.  What would that look like.  And -- in particulars.

Q:  And President Ghani said that stopping green-on-blue attacks is a top national priority.  Did you two reach any conclusions about the way forward to avoid such attacks from recurring?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  President Ghani broached the issue first.  Of course, it was on my list of issues to bring up.  He brought it up, both in my private one-on-one meeting, but -- as well as with his entire staff and our ambassador and senior NATO civilian representative in our military and diplomatic staff.

And there is increased vetting going on, that -- whether increasing it, (they're ?) bringing in more people that we have helped train to know how to do it, to make certain we're catching people who have been radicalized.

And there's a lot of attention from their military side that's actually in the field with the troops.  And by "attention," I mean training of their people and how they protect the coalition troops, American and --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  On North Korean --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  -- 40 other countries.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  -- on North Korea --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah?

Q:  -- has North Korea stopped making nuclear weapons?

SEC. MATTIS:  I -- yeah.  On -- on those kind of questions, I'm not sure that we'd answer it even then.  But you'd have to -- anything on North Korea and the negotiations is under Secretary Pompeo.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Mr. Secretary?

Q:  On Russian --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Are they cranking out five to eight bombs a year, as has been reported?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I'm not -- you know?

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Can I follow up on that?

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Has the president given you new guidance about this -- the permanence or the longer-term presence of U.S. forces in Syria?

Earlier, you know, he had said that he wanted a shorter timeline for their removal.  Do you have new guidance now about keeping them there in the longer term?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  We're -- we're aligned between the president, the national security adviser, State Department, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Jeffrey and our -- here at DOD, as well as Central Command.  We are all aligned on where we're at and where we're going.  It remains to get this war ended.

We're working in Syria.  As you know, right now the authority is to go after ISIS, and that's what we're continuing to do.

I forgot to -- thanks for bringing this up.  I forgot to mention that we are moving against the -- the MERV, Middle Euphrates River Valley, and so that, we're down to about I'd say less than 2 percent of their ground.  And of course, they've fallen back and they're -- we'll see how tough the fight is.

I can't give you a good assessment right now of it, but yes, we're all aligned on this and the guidance has been clear, and that's where we're at.  We're going to crush ISIS and we're going to support the Geneva process.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Does that alignment mean that after they're defeated militarily, that you can -- can maintain a long-term presence in -- in that part of Syria?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  We're going to support the Geneva process.  So we're -- we're going to deal with it as it lies.

Q:  On that --

Q:  Do you -- in this last kind of readout of ISIS here in Syria, do you think that a lot of its leadership could be there in its last -- like Baghdadi and some of the others, is the assessment that some of the key leaders involved in foreign plotting, is that --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  I wouldn't be surprised if some of ISIS' leadership is up there, no.  But -- but I don't want to go into more detail than that right now.

Q:  And then can I follow up on the North Korea?

You've mentioned briefly the British contribution to the U.N. -- enforcement of the U.N. sanctions.  Do you anticipate any additional U.S. participation in sanctions enforcement, military-wise?

SEC. MATTIS:  I generally don't talk about upcoming operations, as you know.  But I -- we have seen from Japan and Canada, from New Zealand and Australia, they're -- there's a lot of nations contributing to this.

And so, we'll do what we -- whatever we have to do to support the -- the diplomats in the negotiation, and carry out the -- the U.N. -- the international sanctions.

Q:  Did Bob Woodward reach out to you about those quotes before publication?

SEC. MATTIS:  This is not a -- this is -- of all days, this is not a day I'm going to discuss politics.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Can I ask about today?  Can I --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, go ahead.

Q:  Thank you, sir.

Could you tell us if you are going to brief lawmakers and the Congress about the ongoing U.S. support to UAE and Saudi Arabia in regards to the Yemen civil war?  Are you going to brief them today, tomorrow and this week?

SEC. MATTIS:  We're in constant communications with lawmakers.  And right now, Secretary Pompeo, I know, is also in -- in consultation with our lawmakers.

This is not -- this is the normal -- I would call it the responsibility of the Congress that they have, to be asking questions, to be -- and we -- we keep active feedback to them.  We're responsive to them at all times, in whatever forum.  Foreign Relations Committee questions, Armed Services Committee, a Democrat caucus, a Republican group.  We don't -- they're all -- over here, we treat them all the same.  There's no politics to it.  This is defense of the country.  They have a right to ask, and we -- we respond.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  That is constant.  It's not a -- there's not a formal hearing right now.

Q:  Thank you.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah?

Q:  Shortly after today, 17 years ago, you led a Marine task force into Afghanistan.  And you've mentioned some non-quantifiable factors that we have with the war now.

But what would be the quantifiable factor to say that the -- the -- al-Qaida has been defeated in that area?

And then -- and then also, what do you say to people who say that reconciling with the Taliban is -- is a defeat in its own right, and -- and is not, you know, a victory?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Well, for -- on the last point, if you look at where we've stood on this -- I can go back at least to when I was CENTCOM commander.  Let me speak directly to that period, 2010, 2013.  And we said, even then, there were only three conditions that had to be met and we were ready to reconcile with the Taliban.

So this is not something new.  We have always known that the way you end wars is you end them, you know?

The three conditions, of course, were:  stop killing people, abide by the constitution, and break with terrorists.

And right now we see them attacking ISIS.  We have not seen them yet break with al-Qaida, but we've seen their young guys basically start a cease-fire, whether the bosses wanted it or not, when -- the first time President Ghani offered it.

So we can see the non-quantifiable things, the peace marches and this sort of thing, all going on.  But it's turning out into quantifiable areas that, you know, al-Qaida -- it's not that they didn't attack America for the last 17 years because they suddenly decided, "Why, we like America."  No, it's because we've been keeping them on their back foot.

Now, we can always speak from the safety of America today, and ask a lot of questions and challenge this sort of thing.  But the fact is, an organization that swore they would attack us again and again has been unable to do so.  That's the number one quantifiable factor.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  -- they're still killing people --

Q:  Syria -- Mr. Secretary, on Syria in the Idlib Province.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

Q:  What are we doing -- what can we do differently this time around, to prevent Assad using chemical weapons?

And also, if he does in fact use chemical weapons for this next time, what would we do differently, just militarily and --

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not -- I'm not -- I'm not going to tell you -- tell the world ahead of time what we're going to do.  That's just not my style.

QUESTION:  But what are we -- what are we doing currently to prevent a scenario like that from happening?

SEC. MATTIS:  He's been warned.  And the first time around, he lost 17 percent of his pointy-nosed air force airplanes.  He's been warned, and so we'll see if he -- if he's wised up.

QUESTION:  Do you think that was an effective use of force --

SEC. MATTIS:  How long afterwards did it take for him to use them again?

Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Secretary, thanks for coming down.

On Syria, would you support American forces staying there longer to be a bulwark against Iranian influence?  Are you ready for that conversation?

SEC. MATTIS:  That's a -- that's a -- I'm ready for a conversation, but that would be a decision by the president of the United States.

QUESTION:  Would you recommend that maybe that would be a good idea?

SEC. MATTIS:  I keep a degree of confidentiality what I recommend to the president.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, can I ask about the Vostok exercise --

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION:  -- Vostok exercise in Russia?

Does -- are you worried about a possible military alliance anytime in the future between Russia and China?  Does this kind of behavior fall short of an alliance?  And -- and does the articulation of our -- of the U.S. great power competition strategy increase the likelihood of driving those two powers together?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  I think that nations act out of their interests.  I see little in the long term that aligns Russia and China.

There was another question I missed.

QUESTION:  Sir, could I switch -- could I switch gears to Macedonian NATO accession?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.

QUESTION:  I know you're headed there soon.

Are you -- are you concerned at all that Russia is making an active attempt right now to interfere with this referendum?  And what can we do about it?

SEC. MATTIS:  I am concerned about it.  I think that democracies should be left alone, or if their ambassador wants to make a statement in the paper, that's one thing.  But the kind of -- the kind of mischief that Russia has practiced from Estonia to the United States, from Ukraine and now to Macedonia, it -- it always is adapted to the specific situation and it's always beyond the pale, as far as I'm concerned.

So I'm going there to make very clear we stand with the Macedonian people.

QUESTION:  Can we do anything other than say "We stand with the Macedonian people"?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary --

QUESTION:  Would you like to elaborate on that?

QUESTION:  -- off the record, sir?

SEC. MATTIS:  Sure.

QUESTION:  One last on-the-record question.

One of our readers asked:  How would you describe your relationship with President Trump?

SEC. MATTIS:  The -- no problem.  It's been the same all along.

QUESTION:  And do you intend to serve out the rest of his term as secretary?

SEC. MATTIS:  This is not a day I'm going to go further into politics.

QUESTION:  (inaudible) something on the record, on Iraq?

SEC. MATTIS:  I want to go off the -- I really got to go here in a little bit.  So I've got to go off the record -- well, if you want to go with that, fine.

QUESTION:  (inaudible) off the record on Iraq?  How do you see the outcome of the internal --

QUESTION:  (inaudible) off the record?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, we're --

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION:  -- are we off --

SEC. MATTIS:  We're on the record.

That's up to the Iraqi people and we'll -- we'll see what happens.

OK, now can we go off the record?