Secretary Mattis Media Availability at the Pentagon

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  I didn't want to start early, because one of you wasn't here, I thought, but actually was here.  So, good afternoon, how ya'll doing?

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Happy Monday indeed.  Yes, it's good to see you, I think. We'll wait until the Q&A to see if I still believe that.  

But on the record initially, and then I'll talk for a couple minutes, go around a little bit of the world here.  And then we'll go to on the record Q&A and then we'll go off record.  Is that OK?

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  All right.  One - we're on the 100 year anniversary of the Meuse-Argonne.  And it's connected to us right here, Charlie, your grandfather and great uncle.  So, Charlie wouldn't be standing here if his grandfather hadn't survived that very tough battle that helped tip the Germans over and end the war.

So, it's a big day for us in the Department of Defense, as you know we're rather fond of our history and the sacrifices made by people before, because especially in our line of work, we need role models.

And the role models who’ve been through something like that before remind us we will not face anything tougher than what they faced.

We did do last Friday the POW MIA recognition day.  I hope some of you were able -- I know some of you were able to get out there for it, to include the fly over.  And all the families by the way were very appreciative talking afterwards with us, very appreciative of it.

And as you know now already, the repatriation of remains from Korea has resulted in two families getting closure, so it's a continuing obligation we have to bring them home.  And we want our troops always to know that.

And -- and that's what it was all about out there the other day.  It was good to see the number of young people there.  You know, high school kids, and even younger out there.

Talking about the hurricane response, I -- we rate ourselves as having done a good job so far.  The tactics as you know were to surround it on the seaward side and the landward side, but keep people out of the actual area forecasted to be hit.

So, we had troops who were ready to go and follow the storm in from both directions.  And we met all the requests from FEMA, which had the lead as you know under DHS.  We met them at a timely manner.  It worked, we're working on the after action report.

We still have troops committed to it.  But clearly it’s winding down.  The deep water vehicles, fording vehicles and the boats are available.  And so that's all still going on.  We have the dual capable -- or, excuse me, the dual authority officers command the National Guard unit as well as any what we call Title 10 force and they are still on duty.

I think they'll become some of the (inaudible), and one of the (inaudible) will end up coming off today.  We will -- when we stand down in a state, it'll be after we coordinate with FEMA and the governors, so that continues the way it has been going so far.

I don't think you reported much on it so that's probably a good sign, isn't it? (Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS:  Cheer up now, Barbara.

(LAUGHTER)

SEC. MATTIS:  Just had to throw that in.

(LAUGHTER)

SEC. MATTIS:  We are in Syria.  Obviously, the fight is ongoing in the middle Euphrates's River Valley, and this is downstream now as you know from this is the last probably, I think some will say two percent, less than two percent of land.  And that fighting is ongoing.  As we've forecasted, it's been a tough fight.  And we are winning.

I think too that Syria is well aware of our position on any employment of chemical weapons of the regime forces.  And we continue to see zero evidence that any of the opposition have any capable chemical capability.

On the terrorist bombing, it was on a city down near the Iraqi border in southwestern Iran.  That we condemn it, we condemn terrorist bombings anywhere that they occur.  It's ludicrous to allege that we might've had anything to do with it.

And we stand with the Iranian people, but not with the Iranian regime that has practiced this very sort of thing through proxies and all for too many years.

The Senate voted a week ago, 93 to 7, I'm very proud of that vote on our appropriations bill.  And I believe that this week, the House intends to take up the appropriation bill.  This is for FY '19, so then this will be the first time in decades that we had in good order authorization bill, appropriations bill.

And, if we are so fortunate that the House sends that to the president, once it is signed, it'll be a real vote of confidence from the U.S. Congress in the department and our managerial integrity over the budget.

And we intend to maintain the pace of the audit that's ongoing right now, and full speed ahead on that.  Next week, I'll be traveling to France, then over to Belgium for the ministerial, to the defense ministerial.  And have a number of bilateral meetings there as well as meet with the secretary general of course.

So there -- there is a quick run around the world.  UNGA is underway right now, as you know I prefer not to talk at all about any of the ongoing negotiations with Korea.  I leave that to the department that's responsible for it, the State Department.

And I think that's enough.  Tell me what's on -- what questions do you have-

Q:  Can we stay on Syria for a second, you said about two percent left of the physical caliphate. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  So, once that comes to an end, what is the role for U.S. forces at that point?

SEC. MATTIS:  Okay.  Remember what our goal is in Syria is to end this tragedy that would've been a long ago absent Russia and Iran supporting Assad in everything that you've seen unfold.

We want to support the Geneva process, the U.N. mandated process, Staffan De Mistura, the UN's special envoy.  And so in that scope, what we want to do is make certain that ISIS does not come back and upset everything again.  So we're training local security, we're working with the Turks right now in order to create the joint patrols, get the training rolling.

I think we're again close on that.  It's complex.  Once we get those patrols going along the line of contact and we basically take out the rest of the caliphate, our goal would be to set up the local security elements that prevent the return of ISIS, while at the same time diplomatically supporting Staffan De Mistura on the Geneva process.

Q:  The U.N. resolution says member-states are supposed to get rid of the enclaves, get rid of the caliphate.  But once the caliphate is no more, what's the legal standing for saying there?  Is it necessary to get another resolution do you think?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I think that getting rid of the caliphate doesn't mean you then blindly say okay, we got rid of it, march out, and then wonder why the caliphate comes back and how many times have we seen -- look at even Iraq where they're still on the hunt for them.  And they're still trying to come back.

So, this is not a conventional war where you raise a flag over the enemy's capital and they sign a peace treaty, it's not that kind of an enemy.  So dealing with that reality would mean that we get the locals stood up and we make certain that they can actually hold on to that security.

That is not an easy thing where you're up against an enemy as capable as ISIS is through-

Q:  That can be opened ended then, right?

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  No, it's not open-ended because the -- the Geneva process is the closing of this whole problem in that area.  That's why we support the Geneva process.

Q:  What about the S-300 issue?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  OK, on the S-3...

Q:  Why is that a problem for us, for the United States, that -- that weapon program?

SEC. MATTIS:  Any -- any additional weapons going in to support Assad right now keeps him in a position of threat to the region, and the threat is refugee flows coming out of the region.  It's murder of his own people.  It's the restraints over their efforts.  And go back a few years.  Remember how this all starts, is the people want more of a say-so.  They don't want to live under him.  And so anything like this puts him in a position, basically, to be more of an obstruction to revolving and ending this fight.

Q:  But it's their defense system.  It's not an offensive system.  I don't follow the logic.

SEC. MATTIS:  I would not -- well, then I'm -- I'm not going to -- I can't understand that for you.  When Assad is stronger, that is not helpful for the U.N. and the U.N. process, Geneva process, and (inaudible).

Q:  OK.

Q:  So John Bolton, at the U.N. today, told reporters, and I quote him, "We're not going..."  He was talking about Syria...

SEC. MATTIS:  OK.

Q:  And he said -- I'm talking about Syria.  He said, "We're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias."  He seems to be underscoring what Ambassador Jeffries had previously said, which is that there is a longer path here than just defeating ISIS.  Can you help us understand?  Are they working on a new policy for you?  He's saying, "We're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are there."  What is this all about?  What are we talking about, here?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I think I can help you on this.  Remember when I first -- when I was speaking on the record right at the very beginning, I said it's because -- let me be more specific there.  I said Russia is in Iran's support to him.  Russia's regrettable vetoes, and I call them very regrettable vetoes in the U.N. kept the U.N. marginalized at a time when it might have been able to stop what unfolded.  Iran then sent in their proxy forces -- Lebanese Hezbollah.  They sent in Hamadani, the brigadier that went in with money, more money, additional money, weapons, vehicles, technicals, advisors and this sort of thing.

So as part of this overarching problem, we have to address Iran.  Everywhere you go in the Middle East where there's instability, you will find Iran.  So in terms of getting to the Geneva -- the end state of the Geneva process, Iran, too, has a role to play, which is to stop fomenting the trouble.

Q:  But are you saying -- he says, "We're not going to leave."

SEC. MATTIS:  I'll -- I'll let -- I'll let Ambassador Bolton state for himself.

Q:  But what if -- now, well, sir, let me press you on that.  The only people in the "we" -- U.S. people that are really there -- yes, maybe some diplomats and NGOs.  But the "we" that are there are U.S. troops.  Do U.S. troops have -- are they going to get the mission -- are you getting the mission to stay as long as Iranian forces are inside Syria?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, right now, our troops inside Syria are there for one purpose, and that's under U.N. authorization about defeating ISIS, and the U.N. saying that we're -- we're, you know -- ISIS...

Q:  Is this going to the next step?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm sorry?

Q:  Is this now going to the next step?  Stay...

SEC. MATTIS:  No, our -- our troops are there for that one purpose right now.  

Q:  And you don't see that changing?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, we obviously have got to train up local security forces so that ISIS and other, I would just call it outsiders taking advantage of this could not get in.  But that is part of the defeat of ISIS.  That's what we're in there for, and that's (inaudible)

Q:  So Mr. Secretary, so you see how possibly a -- a longer presence by U.S. forces there to train and make sure that the -- the Syrian forces are...

SEC. MATTIS:  OK.

Q:  ... are to a point where you think they -- they should be.  Is that what you're saying?

SEC. MATTIS:  I -- I'm not sure that that's any change.  I've said all along, we are not just going to get them out of a town and then walk away, knowing full well we're up against an -- an unconventional enemy, not a conventional force that could come right back in.  I think this has been our position for at least a year and a half.

Q:  Right, but it sounds like this could perhaps go on for quite some time.  Is there...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I'm not -- I'm not willing -- I see what you're saying now.  No, I'm not willing to say that right now.  We are there to defeat ISIS.  We are there to make certain they cannot come back, and we're not going to simply expose the people who have been freed now.  We're very proud of that.  How many times have we told you how many villages, or people, or square kilometers have been freed, and then just somehow surrendered that advantage with a brutal military pullout that would not permit, basically, the Geneva process to take them under their wing and give them some future?  I mean, these are human beings. 

Q:  You brought up the attack in Iran, where Iranian, I guess the Iranian government is blaming Israel and the United States for that attack.

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I think they also added in Saudi Arabia, if I remember.  I think (inaudible)

Q:  (inaudible)

SEC. MATTIS:  No, they -- clearly, they don't know what happened.  We had no -- no advance warning.  I don't get woken up with phone calls over something we know is going to happen.  That's just ludicrous, to say we had anything to do with it.

Q:  But the threat itself is of -- is that of concern, the threat that the (inaudible) of U.S. forces?

SEC. MATTIS:  We consider terrorism a threat everywhere.

Q:  Are U.S. forces in the region on higher alert because of this potential threat from Iran?

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't -- I don't talk about something like that.  That's -- that's something I wouldn't prefer to -- but don't – please don't take that they are.  I'm just saying I'm not going to talk about (inaudible)

Q:  Mr. Secretary, Iran has vowed revenge over the attacks.  Does that give you any concerns?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  No, it does not.  We've been very clear that they shouldn't take us on like that, and I -- I -- I'm hopeful that cooler, wiser heads will prevail.  They've so far blamed at least three countries, and I think one terrorist group.  We'll see how long the list goes, but it'd be good if they knew what they were talking about before they started talking.

Q:  Mr. Secretary?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes?

Q:  And are you saying that the war in -- on ISIS is not becoming the war on Iran?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, our -- again, I'll say it one more time.  We are in Syria right now to defeat ISIS and destroy the geographic caliphate, and make sure it doesn't come back the moment we will turn our back.  So there's going to be a little while that we've got to work with the locals.

Q:  So what was Ambassador Bolton talking about, then?

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

Q:  What was Ambassador Bolton talking about?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, I -- please talk with Ambassador Bolton.  I think we're on the same sheet of music.  It's the Geneva process, and the Geneva process has got to come to a conclusion if we're to see this end.  It is, again it is, without a doubt, in my some four decades-plus of dealing with security matters, it is the most complex issue I've seen.  So I understand why you want clarity.  Please understand, issues can only be clarified to the point that the complexity permits.  Right now, we are there to defeat ISIS.

Q:  Did you say...

SEC. MATTIS:  That's what I'm talking about.

Q:  Sorry.

SEC. MATTIS:  And in the long run, the diplomatic effort is -- I -- it's to get it into the Geneva process and end it.  That's where we're at.  There's a hundred different little intricacies and nuances, I'll -- I'll be the first to admit.  

Q:  When you say you're on the same page of music, I mean, are you?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, we are.

Q:  You're saying -- you're saying two -- well, it sounds like you’re saying two different things. 

SEC. MATTIS:  We speak weekly on it, and I can assure you that as of my last meeting, we were on that, and I've talked to him so far today, twice, and so -- (Laughter.) -- and -- and...

Q:  So do you concur with his assessment that the U.S. is going to stay there until Iran...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Again, you're going to have to talk with him. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Mr. Secretary? 

SEC. MATTIS:  I've told you what we're doing there right now, and there's no daylight between his appreciation of the situation and mine.  Again, the Geneva process, Staffan de Mistura, which it has been for at least 18 months or however long I've been in this job -- I'm losing track so I'm -- I'm almost at the point where I'm having to take my boots off now and count the number of months. 

So I've been here a long time, and we've said the same thing and we’ve been very consistent on this.  

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  I wanted to ask you a question about China's withdrawing from military -- military talks this week.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah. 

Q:  They were -- they were angry about the sanctions put on by the U.S.  

You're a big proponent, of course, of military-to-military dialogue.  Is this a setback or what can you do to sort of revitalize the effort that you started when you went to China in June?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  Good question.  I should have mentioned that.  Thanks for bringing it up.  

Q: You’re  welcome. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Right now, it's too early to say.  We're still sorting this out.  We believe that we do have to have a relationship with China and Secretary Pompeo and I are of one mind on this.  And so we're sorting out the way ahead right now.  And I can't give you a good answer right now.  We're still sorting it out. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Mr. Secretary?  

SEC. MATTIS:  ... I'll try and remember come back to it.

Yeah go ahead. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  On Afghanistan, the Afghan defense minister said that in the past month, 500 Afghan security forces have been killed.  Another 700 wounded.  What can the U.S. military do to prevent the Taliban from bleeding the Afghans white?

SEC. MATTIS:  First of all, I wouldn't characterize it that way.  The Afghan army has taken severe casualties over the last year and a half.  They've stayed in the field fighting.  

The numbers that they've outlined, I -- I'm not confirming them.  They sound about right.  But -- so I don't want you to think I -- I confirmed those numbers. 

But they have continued to fight, and we are adjusting tactics.  We're bringing more support in certain areas in, but I do not want to go into detail on that. 

Q:  Well if I could rephrase.  Are the Afghans on the verge of losing the war of attrition…

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  

Q:  ... to the Taliban? 

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  We're not, no. 

Q:  How long can they sustain casualties like that?

SEC. MATTIS:  You'll have to ask the Afghans.  So far, they have taken hard casualties over the last year.  And they're still in the fight.  So...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Mr. Secretary? 

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah?  So...

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  You were in India earlier this month, you signed contracts with the Indian defense minister.  What's the next step in your defense ties with India? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  We were -- as you know in India, here, a few weeks ago, very positive outcome.  We signed some enabling documents, is what I would call them, enabling a closer military relationship.  Additional information-sharing of -- of information we need to keep secure, that we would share with a country that we trust. 

And so it's an indication of growing trust, growing partnership and of a mutual -- mutually supportive effort, mutually beneficial efforts on the part of both of us. 

There will be additional documents we sign as we mature the relationship, and we continue to work together on everything from exercises to exchanges of officers. 

Q:  So the talks are going on?  Additional documents, signing of the additional documents? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  I -- let me -- I -- I don't want to say specifically right now just because I'm not -- I didn't brief myself on this ahead of time.  But it's -- I will tell you this.  It's all going according to plan. 

Q:  OK.  Thank you. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Secretary? 

Q:  One question on Poland. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah? 

Q:  Last week, the president of Poland he suggested that maybe the U.S. could open or he offered for space -- for a U.S. base there.  Is the Pentagon looking at it?  

And if so, would that mean that you would take some troops from Germany in order to locate them in Poland? 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah.  What we're doing right now is with Poland, alongside Poland, we're examining what land they're talking about.  Is there -- as you know, a base has also got adjacent close-in additional requirements for maintenance, for test flights, for test drive, test firing.  Got firing ranges, maneuver ranges. 

So the first thing we have to do is look at what are they offering.  Because then you would size up what it can actually hold and sustain.  So that -- we're in the exploratory phase of doing just that.  

We’ve made no -- no decisions, and then because -- I would say because this also has an impact on the alliance as a whole, the protection of Europe, we will obviously be engaging with other NATO nations in the alliance, you know, as we move forward. 

Right now, we're still in the early stages.  We're just determining what is the offer and what is the -- what I would call the carrying capacity of what is being offered. 

It -- it -- there's an analysis.  I won't go into how many meters of range and square kilometers of maneuver, all that stuff is pretty easily defined.  And it's "Well, OK, they can't have firing ranges but they can have maneuver ranges and the firing ranges will be over here," that changes things. 

So we're -- we're still early in it but we're working together and we -- we're greatly appreciative of the Polish offer. 

Q:  But if you are working on it, that also means you are considering that you may need it?  If that's the case, it's because you will not be using...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  No I -- I'm not going to -- right now, I'm not willing to say we need it.  I'm just saying we're exploring the offer and we have to know what it is before we can say if we need it or not. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  ... I can say that you are -- U.S. troops right now in Germany are fully committed to staying there?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  I -- I don't -- that's way down the road. 

Q:  Mr. Secretary, a quick question back on Afghanistan.  You said you couldn’t confirm exact numbers of Afghan casualties.  Has the trend been they're continuing to increase, has been the recent trend?  

And secondly, is there...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not sure.  They've been high.  I'm not sure if that's the same.  I just haven't looked at that.  I look at it as it comes in, week by week.  And then I take a roll-up of a month, and I take a roll-up of two months.  I'm -- I'm just -- I don't recall the previous months close enough to give you a statement on the record about that. 

Q:  OK.

And the second question...

SEC. MATTIS:  Just that they've been high.  They've been high.  

Q:  I mean, a couple years ago, a commander in Afghanistan said -- it may have been more than a couple of years ago, it may have been three years ago when it was about 5,000 I think for the year -- he said it was unsustainable.  We understand now it's higher.  That's why people are interested in those figures.  But my other question …

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  I think that when people say something's unsustainable, it's better to look at what they have actually sustained.  And it appears that they've sustained it somehow. 

Q:  Yeah. 

SEC. MATTIS:  And so it is tough fighting.  And this is an enemy that has shown a lot -- and remember, too, I think it's more than just -- your number might be more than just military police; it may involve innocent people, which -- and they're remarkably good at murdering innocent people.  That's where they're really at the top of their game. 

Q:  My other question was, is there any kind of policy review still under way in the administration for the way forward or are you done with that?

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  No, no.  We – the policy review -- frankly, the policy review is on frequently because I fly in to meet with the commander there.  I -- he sends me briefs -- I'll just say "frequent," I won't tell you how often but they're very frequent. 

And so that is all fed in to include with the intelligence community's red team that is looking at it and trying to make certain that we're getting down to -- getting down to, you know, bottom-line raw numbers, mounted ground, enemy situation.  Then you crank in the non-quantifiables -- the fatwas that have been voted against them by clerics from Riyadh to Jakarta, the peace marches, the willingness of the young guys to come over on the -- on the ceasefire.  Those are non-quantifiables, but sometimes they're even more important than quantifiable.  So it's an attempt to try to pull all this together.  That is ongoing and will continue to be ongoing.  Every month, we'll be looking at this. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Top to bottom, kind of reconsideration of where you're headed? 

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  We know where we're headed.  

Yeah?

(CROSSTALK)

STAFF:  One -- one more on the record, sir. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah?

Q:  Quick question, sir, just a follow-up on the S-300, sir.  

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah?

Q:  Prior to the announcement of their deployment, was there any discussion between this building and Russian counterparts on what Moscow is thinking as far as moving those weapons in?

SEC. MATTIS:  Not on Syria, no.  On the Syrian regime, no. 

Q:  Secretary, may I ask one more question...

SEC. MATTIS:  One more. 

Q:  ... on -- on Yemen.  You issued a statement when Secretary Pompeo certified that the Gulf-led coalition was doing what it needed to be doing, to continue the aerial refueling. 

And you actually went in your statement a step farther than Secretary Pompeo did in his statement, saying -- I forget the words exactly, but something like, "making every effort to do what was needed."

SEC. MATTIS:  Mm-hmm.

Q:  Can you just tell us why you believe that and why you felt like you wanted to endorse them that strongly given the record of repeatedly striking civilians?

SEC. MATTIS:  And what is their record of not hitting civilians? 

Q:  I can't answer that.

SEC. MATTIS:  You -- my point is -- and that's very accurate.  We have gone through on the deliberate targeting effort.  In other words, what do they do when they select a target? 

And we have gone through and shown how you make no-fire areas, how you restrict fires, how do you look at where you're planning to do a strike and say, "Look at this.  You see this alley?  That's going to have that."  Go right down and look what's at the end of it.  You know, a residential area or a school or something like that. 

So we can't show you all the success because when we're successful, it's -- it's nothing -- none of that happens.  So we're working very, very hard with them on this.  

We have seen the embrace by the coalition officers of this.  They don't -- they have not -- they are not dragged reluctantly to this table.  They actually, you know, embrace it. 

The area where we're trying to do more right now is on dynamic targeting, where they're under fire or taking fire, and they're calling in air support.  

It can be fire where there's shooting at the townspeople in Saudi Arabia with missiles -- I think some of you have been out to Bolling Air Force Base to look at the Iranian missiles that we've picked up off the desert floor -- and that sort of thing.  

So, Missy, what's happening is, we see people who are trying to do this in the midst of a fight.  What we're also doing is we're supporting Martin and the U.N. Special Envoy in trying to get this thing to a -- to a negotiation there.  And you saw him almost get the Houthis there.  And it wasn't a complete failure.  At least we got them talking and we think it's -- they're edging closer to it right now. 

So the -- the ultimate solution here is not to say we're going to pull out our support.  The bombs will still fall.  But it's not like we're going to stop the war by then.  And it would be very perhaps satisfying to some people that we did that, but the fact is more civilians would die.  We're not -- I'm not willing to sign up for that. 

STAFF:  OK, thank you. 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, OK.  What else?  We'll go off...