Media Availability with Secretary Mattis

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: Good morning.

Q: Hey. Good morning.

SEC. MATTIS: The usual suspects. How you all doing?

Q: Good. Happy Thanksgiving.

SEC. MATTIS: Kind of ruined your early departure, didn't I? I didn't think of that, truly. Thanks for sticking around for a little bit and hopefully you're out of here shortly.

So I'll talk for a few minutes, okay? Then we'll take some questions on the record. Then we'll take some questions off the record. Fair? Kind of usual routine.

Anybody new here? I don't think so. Well, I know you.

(Laughter.)

Yes. No, looks like the --

Q: Same old.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, same old team. Yes, all right. Well, what I'll -- first, let me just go around issues and around the world a bit.

I want to start with Yemen. I think some of you were either with me in Manama here last month when I said, you know, we need to -- we need to end this thing and we need to end it soon. We need to, next month, in November, get together.

I don't think we're going to make November but it looks like very, very early in December up in Sweden we'll see both the Houthi rebels side and the U.N.-recognized government Hadi -- President Hadi's government will be up there.

The U.N. Special Envoy has been impressive since he arrived in the job. This is heavily a result of his leadership and I would -- I would just tell you that Martin Griffiths has had a very close relationship administration. We've been working very closely with him in tandem. I probably speak to him on average of once every two weeks, either face-to-face or by phone; sometimes it's several times in a week.

But right now, I think we are at a position where we will be focused on -- not on the subordinate issues when we -- when we start in Sweden. Sweden has been magnificent, by the way, at enabling this. They have played a quiet role but it -- without them, we would not have this going.

The Saudis and the Emiratis are fully onboard by the way. They have -- they are putting -- we have got a -- an enormous humanitarian crisis there. I mean, this is as big as you can find anywhere in the world right now. They will providing somewhere around 500 million -- it's probably a little bit over that, that's a round number -- from Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

And the purpose is they intend to feed 10,000 -- excuse me, 10 million Yemeni for 30 days with this initial outlay. That's the goal, and the distribution and who they're working with, including both local NGOs that operate only there inside the country and the usual international ones; I think most of you know which ones those are, World Food for Peace and the others.

So that is -- that's all underway. Saudi and the Emirates have ceased offensive ops around Hodeidah. There has been still fighting. I would characterize it as probably a reduced level and reducing level. And the way I monitor this, I know for at least 72 hours and it may be five days now, the front lines have not changed.

I get updated every morning, of course, on where the front lines of both sides -- those lines have not changed in at least 72 hours, and I think it's five days. The reason I say I think it's five days is there was fighting taperingoff at one point. We didn't have the strict front line -- what's called the FLOT, forward line of troops outlined there. So -- but I don't think there's been any significant change in about five days and no change at all in the last three days for sure.

Q: Is there a specific date set for this meeting?

SEC. MATTIS: There is. It's very early, but I'd rather not say that right now and let the U.N. Special Envoy bring it up. But it's very early in December; frankly, it's faster than I expected.

The -- and while I wanted to force it in November, you remember me calling for it. I think you were out there, Bob. As -- as they go through thorough work, the heavy work, there's -- I would just say there was nothing more that Martin could do. He did everything possible and it's been successful. The Saudis were actually key to opening the door to this in terms of the -- some of the wounded Houthis being removed to hospitals took Saudi approval because of something I won't go into, and that was achieved thanks to the Saudis.

There's many challenges, as you know, in the region. Yemen's not the only thing. There's the GCC rift, it is still real. I will tell you, there are areas where they work together, even now, where you find Qatari officers in other nation's capitals, for example.

In the Combined Air Operations Center, there are all six GCC nation officers represented in Qatar at our Air Operations Center. So there are -- you know, I'm not saying it's all one-way, it's all frozen, it's all -- there's no cooperation. And there's a fair amount of work going on, on the rift as well.

Middle East peace process continues to be, I would say, maturing as a planning effort. It's not ruled out yet. And this, of course, is under foreign policy, under State Department, under the White House. But that is -- all of those activities are ongoing. As you know, one of our lieutenant generals is actually the representative to the Palestinian authority. We stay in very close contact with him. He maintains some of the most -- the swiftest communications, by the way, between the various parities that are involved.

MESA, this is the Middle East Security Arrangement that we're looking at, architecture, whatever. This is right now, with Saudi being one of the key countries in that effort, the quiet effort continues to look at how we can work better together to maintain stability in the Middle East. Due to the Khashoggi affair, that is not being dealt with as an active effort more publicly right now as we try to sort out the -- the effect of the Khashoggi murder.

We are -- all of these efforts are really trying to get to a degree of stability to deal with the humanitarian crises that definitely exist, as you know. It leeches all the way over in to the refugees out -- out of Syria that have fluttered into Jordan, for example, and what the rest of the countries can do to support the king of Jordan in -- in what has been a pretty phenomenal effort by that poor country and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to take care of them.

But it's still -- it is not an -- an improved situation for those refugees yet. So we've got to keep working on it to get everybody in the region involved. You cannot leave anybody out right now and think you're going to solve the -- these various interconnected issues.

On the Khashoggi affair, presidents don't often get the freedom to work with unblemished partners in all things. Right now, as you know, we have a twin principle here. One is accountability for those who committed the murder and -- or had any connection to it. So far, State has identified 17, they are censured -- sanctioned, excuse me -- sanctioned. They -- I think some are -- are charged in all that -- in -- I don't have a lot of detail on that part of it. I know that Saudi Arabia has charged some to include with capital crimes.

We also maintain a strategic relationship at the same time, for reasons I just outlined. For example, what's going on in Yemen and this international effort to end that war as soon as possible, Saudi being one of the belligerents in the fighting, you're -- we're going to deal with them. That's already -- if you want to end the war, you're going to deal with Saudi. You can't say I'm not going to deal with them.

I would just tell you that State Department is the organization that's monitoring the Saudi investigation, and the administration continues to consult with Congress on this.

Shifting over to the INF now, the bilateral -- this is a bilateral treaty with -- only between us and the Russians, although it has a lot to do with European security because that was its origins. Right now, because of Russia's continued violations, we are the only ones who are obeying the treaty. The Russians are not. This is no longer a subject of dispute among our European allies.

This is probably the one issue that has arisen every time -- I can't remember -- once I went to Brussels, I go there every -- you know, every three months for NATO -- I don't remember once where INF did not loom large in my discussions. In the last several times I've been there over the last about six months, I've told them -- with -- now we have two administrations, Democrat and Republican, who have diplomatically engaged with the Russians, tried to bring them back into compliance.

Initially they simply denied having the weapon. When they accidentally revealed the weapon, they then used deceit to say, "Well, it doesn't really do what you're saying it does," and our allies are of one mind on this: it does violate the treaty. We are working with them. Matter of fact, this week again -- by the way I -- we have a U.S. team, led by State Department as usual, working with the allies right now.

When I was last there, at the last ministerial, I briefed everybody on the situation and I left a briefing team behind with technical experts who went through the issues of technical violation.

For the last 2 years in the -- I think it's the NDAA, I'm almost certain of that, it might be the appropriations bill -- there is a statement that it is the intent or the spirit of Congress that Russia -- the sense of Congress that Russia is in material breach. That is passed -- for example, the latest one was passed, as you know -- both of them, the last two have been passed with bipartisan support, the last one with a lot of bipartisan support, overwhelmingly, and that is our U.S. Congress's view that Russia is in material breach.

We will continue working with the European allies, Secretary Pompeo will meet with the foreign ministers on the -- I think it's the 4th of December at what's called a four-man foreign ministerial in NATO at Brussels, and I -- I think it'd probably -- we're getting near the end, because it's simply not tenable to have two countries sign up for a treaty, one violates it, and the other one lives by it. You know, I mean, it's not a treaty, it -- it's broken by Russia.

And we'll watch as we go forward for any sign that Russia wants to come back into compliance. That is the best outcome. That's what we want to have happen. As you know, two administrations in a row have wanted it, worked, toward it. They have had their diplomats work it, and not hit and miss. This has been a concerted effort by both administrations, neither of which have been successful.

Let me talk about the border for a minute. We're full of issues, aren't we?

(Laughter.)

About 5,764 -- what we call Title 10, those are federal troops -- are committed to the mission right now. That does not count the 2,100 -- approximate 2,100 National Guardsmen who are on the border but they are under state governor control. The caravans are a concern to the state governors. They are -- I -- we obviously, through DHS, keep in close contact with them.

The estimated cost -- and I want to caveat this -- this is an early estimated cost. I am confident this number will change, so please remember that when you report that, contrary to what the secretary said, this is the initial amount I'm getting -- I know you've been asking a lot of questions about it, and let me just tell you what this is for. This is like buying concertina wire, paying for the fuel of helicopters that are moving Border Patrolmen from one sector to another, the gasoline for that, fuel for that.

But right now it's $72 million. I am confident that number will go up. Now I'm on the record, I hope you all heard me.

(Laughter.)

Because we're always reluctant to give you stuff that we know is not final, is not complete the units that are going there, for example, are capturing the additional costs. Obviously we don't -- they don't capture the cost of paying the sergeant who's going. He's going to be paid no matter what. It's the additional costs that we're capturing, and we will keep you informed on that. And what I'll do at a point when the costs start coming in, we'll put -- we'll probably be best off if we just put up a chart somewhere, and that way you can check it whenever you're in and just keep track of it. I think it's a better way to keep you informed.

I understand you've been impatient on it, but understand too that those units that are deploying are capturing the costs and reporting them back through the services and through NORTHCOM, and by the time it gets to us I'm sure they've used more fuel, I'm sure they've laid a lot more concertina, so there's going to be a lag on this.

They are deployed in support of the Department of Homeland Security and the Customs and Border Police -- Border Patrol. Their job includes supporting crowd control. That's when you see Jersey barriers being forklifted into place or nearby so we can close the port of entry if someone tries to force it -- force their way through. It's concertina wire, it's -- it's putting the stuff in, it's moving their troops around using our helicopters, in some cases our C-130s if it's longer legs, we'll use the -- the C-130 airplanes for that, helicopter for -- more for local movement.

The one point I want to make again is we are not doing law enforcement. We do not have arrest authority. Now the governors could give their troops arrest authority. I don't think they've done that, but there are -- is no arrest authority under Posse Comitatus for the U.S. federal troops. You know, that can be done but it has to be done in accordance with the law, and that has not been done nor has it been anticipated.

The -- the president did see the need to back up the -- the Border Patrol, and we received late last night an additional instruction authorizing implementation -- to implement additional measures. We're sizing up what those are.

I've already talked with folks over at DHS. And I would just tell you that we'll keep you posted on any new missions and any new number of troops as the decisions are made, you know, operational constraints would be minor.

I would tell you in terms of us talking to you, there's not a operational reason not to share it, like we would not share those numbers if it was an overseas mission. In this case, we have no -- no reservations. It's simply when -- if and when I decide what those missions are, we'll keep you informed.

Q: What about extending the new mission, the length of it? You know, on December 15th?

SEC. MATTIS: Well, that'll be mission-dependent, situation-dependent if they need to be extended. And by the way, I know that one of the commanders of the troops spoke about most of the troops, or all of the troops being home by Christmas.

Some of those troops certainly will be, because we can anticipate -- based on how many miles of wire the engineers have to place -- when we think they'll be done. We -- we know how to lay wire. We know about the -- the rate we can do it over certain types of terrain and that sort of thing.

So as long as DHS doesn't assign us more missions to lay more wire, which they could, then we could anticipate they'd be home. I understand what he was saying. This is one of the problems with trying to answer questions of reporters at a current point when something could change later.

So some of those troops certainly will be home, I would anticipate they would be. But some troops may not be or some new troops may be assigned to new missions. But this is a dynamic situation.

Q: I thought DHS had already asked you to extend it beyond December 15th?

SEC. MATTIS: No. It -- it's mission dependent, that -- it's -- in other words, Bob, if they say -- if they say they want additional miles of wire, then it's going to take additional time.

Q: And as far as the additional --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: You -- you said Christmas; did you mean Thanksgiving? Just to be clear, you said some of those troops will be home by Christmas. Did you -- you meant Thanksgiving, right? Or no?

SEC. MATTIS: No. Thanksgiving's tomorrow.

Q: Right --

(Laughter.)

Q: But -- but -- but if the authority only goes until December 15th, you're saying that there are some troops who could be there after December 15th?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, it's conditions --

Q: That's to be fair, okay.

SEC. MATTIS: -- conditions-dependent.

Q: And one last thing on additional measures, we've been hearing that if things really get rough along the border, if thousands more come, the Border Patrol may need assistance from U.S. troops if things really get hot and heavy.

SEC. MATTIS: Well, if we had to back them up, yes.

Q: And back them up in what way? What would that look like do you think?

SEC. MATTIS: Probably M.P. -- unarmed M.P.s with -- with shields, batons, no -- no firearms.

Q: No firearms?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, let me -- let me just give you, I -- I've actually sat down and prepared for you, for the first time in my life.

(Laughter.)

I'm really eager to tell you all the things I know. Cheer up, Barbara. It gets worse as I go further on here.

The -- we have had -- I was reading in New York Times, some of you work for that organization -- oh, Helene, how are you? Right in front of me.

You saw where six Mexican policeman were -- were injured, according to The New York Times. I think it's an accurate report, this down at Guatemala's border. So it is not an unreasonable concern on the part of the president that we may have to back up Border Patrol.

I think part of this is just by putting in the crowd control barriers and the barbed wire. If there's one thing you don't -- don't want to walk through, any of us as human beings, it's barbed wire; even cows are smart enough to stay away from that stuff.

So if we can keep the -- the danger to the border police low by just putting in barbed wire, especially when people say they're going to try to illegally cross the border, of course, we -- we'd do it.

We are -- I just to remind everybody once again, we are a welcoming country to immigrants if they come in legally. We're a welcoming -- we have thousands -- millions who have come to this country legally.

And that's what we're saying here. There's a legal way to come in. We're a welcoming country, legally as you come in. But it is -- frankly, it's -- it's up to the American people and their Congress what the law says.

And the Border Patrol is charged with carrying out the law, it's that simple. So people who have the responsibility for doing this can't say, well, we're okay with allowing illegal to happen.

So the American Congress, the American -- for the American people, write the law, we carry out the law and that's what Border Patrol is doing. I was just down there. These are great guys, I'll tell you. They have a very difficult job and they're carrying a heavy load with a country that, right now, has been unable to-date to deal with a legal accommodation for how we're going to address immigration into this country.

This is Congress's responsibility. And down on the border are young men and women, not all young, but pretty -- but, you know, pretty physically fit that have got to try to carry out the -- the law as it's written right now.

The DOD -- I have one thing again, although I get into dangerous ground when I talk about history. But let me just point out that President Clinton's Operation Gatekeeper back in 1994 -- most of us were alive then. In 1994, it is in the last millennium, put both troops and hardware.

Hardware, what do you mean? Like night vision goggles from the military were passed over to the Border Patrol, that sort of thing. But we had troops down there and their mission was to stem the flow of illegal immigration. So that is under President Clinton Operation Gatekeeper, and we also had active duty, Title 10 federal forces down there.

I was a regimental commander in 1994 to '96. And I had troops on the border, they were in observation post. And when people tried to get over the border they would pick up the radio, call the Border Patrol, guide them in with their binoculars, okay -- or, their night vision goggles, they're in the next gully over, and the Border Patrol would do it.

Most of the people down there never saw the U.S. military that was guiding the Border Patrol at that time, Operation Gatekeeper.

Q: Mr. Secretary, a Marine shot and killed someone in 1997. What are you doing to make sure it doesn't happen again?

SEC. MATTIS: I'm not going to dignify that. They're not even carrying guns for Christ's sake. The President Bush in 2006 to 2008 had thousands of National Guardsmen down there, and that was on both borders. And the reason it was on both borders, of course, was the terrorist threat at that time.

President Obama, of course, had the longest of the troop durations on the border, 2010 to 2017. That was 1,200 National Guard. They were there on border security, was their mission.

And as you know, since April, President Trump has had 2,100 -- well, initially it was a smaller number, it has grown to 2,100 folks on the border since that point, and Title 10 forces more recently to put the -- the -- the obstacles, crowd control measures and possibly now more -- more missions based on what I was -- the letter I got last night signed by the chief of staff at the White House.

The NDAA back in 1997, this was a Democrat amendment to our -- excuse me -- a Democrat amendment effort in 1997 to the NDAA. The Democrats wanted to authorize up to 10,000 troops for the border -- for border security to limit illegal entry.

It was a very hot debate in the Congress if you go back and look at it. It was ultimately unsuccessful. One of the individuals sponsoring it, a gentleman by the name of Traficant went to jail during that period. But what was interesting to me as I read about it was both Republicans and Democrats were for it and against it at the same time.

So I guess my point is that it ultimately failed, but I think it shows that sincere patriotic Americans can be on both sides of these kinds of issues of the use of troops. And it's something for us to consider if we try to focus in on what is the problem we're trying to solve and then how are we trying to address it to solve it.

The president, as you know, has that responsibility, whether it be a Republican president or a Democrat president, they have the responsibility.

Both party's presidents have actually used this sort of a remedy. But it's ultimately again an immigration law and how you implement it, how you carry it out and it is law. It's why it's called illegal immigration, when people implement legally. It's ultimately up to the American people though, and the Congress to resolve the laws of settle those things. I don't think we should leave it on the backs of the young lady or male border patrolmen down there who's got to sort it out on the border because we've had some kind of ambivalence up here.

Let me swing back to overseas for a minute. In Syria, as you know Turkey is a NATO ally and they have legitimate concerns about terror threats and where are they emanating from -- from Assad's Syria. Assad, with the help of Russia and Iran has, as you know, committed murder in his own country, and he has torn the country apart with his kind of governance, if you can even call it that. And Turkey has a lot of reasons for concerns, being the NATO country with a border right along Syria.

And we don't dismiss any of their concerns. We are putting in OPs up in northern Syria, this is the change now, okay? We are putting in observation posts in several locations up along the Syria border -- northern Syria border because we want to be the people who call the Turks and warn them if we see something coming out of an area that we're operating in. This is closely collaborated -- we are consulting closely with Turkey, military and State Department. Both were consulting with them.

We are going to track any threat that we can spot going up into Turkey. That means we will be talking to Turkish military across the border. They will be very clearly marked locations day and night so that the Turks know where they're at, and what this is designed to do is to make sure that the people we have fighting down in the MERV are not drawn off that fight, that we can crush what's left of the geographic caliphate, which is of course, as the enemy gets pushed into smaller and smaller areas, they're in effect, reinforcing that what they still hold. And so it is the tough fighting that we said it would be sometime of the -- many months ago.

At the same time, we're doing everything we can to -- everything reasonably possible to protect civilians.

Again, remember this is an enemy that would not let civilians abandon Mosul or Raqqa when we went in. That's the kind of enemy we're up against. There's also firing from the south side of the river into our region.

So I understand and respect the monitors who are saying there are civilians dying. This is against everything we stand for, but we are doing everything humanly possible right now to carry out this fight without innocent people dying. But this is a place where innocent people are literally forced to stay right in among the guys who are fighting -- the ISIS, but this is a long-standing tactic of theirs.

On the USNS Comfort, she's on an 11 week deployment. So far she's been to Ecuador, Peru, she's now in Columbia with another stop coming up. There are right now 10 partner nations where the doctors and nurses on board, NGOs, that sort of thing. So the ship is actually an international effort, so far on 14,500 have been treated.

Really, it's an effort to deal with the Maduro regime's creating a refugee crisis of enormous proportion for our friends and partners down there and it's to try to take some of the load off of the overloaded health care system.

They have -- Columbia has over 1 million, even Brazil has had to take army airplanes and fly refugees off their border where they don't have you been the capability to provide for the refugees and move further inland in Brazil where at least they can take care of them.

It's a much bigger crisis, I think and it's getting a lot of attention up here, but that's the reason the hospital ship is there and Maduro, I'd just say, irresponsible rule down there and his willingness to make party -- make common cause with some pretty undesirable elements, destabilizing neighboring countries, is not to his credit.

Afghanistan, let me just quickly say that -- I want to get to Q&A here -- just, we're doing what we can to support Ambassador Khalilzad. He is firmly in control now and acting very much in an energetic way, I would put it, acting energetically to engage with Saudi help, United Arab Emirates help and Qatari help, to get the reconciliation talks, going. You noticed President Ghani announcing at least a total 29,000 Afghan troops killed since 2015. It gives you an idea just how much of a load of this fight is being carried by the Afghan army and how {phone rings}-- is that your mother?

Q: Sorry.

(Laughter.)

(Inaudible) but they are carrying the load. They're holding together, 41 nations. As you know, a year ago, I would have said 39 to 41 nations that are with them, and I think the reconciliation -- I remember -- are going to regionalize a reinforced and realigned NATO force that is going, that is still ongoing. We're doing the advising in the field, we've lost some troops doing it over the last several months, as you know.

But right now it's 40 years next year since the Soviet invasion. The thing's gone on long enough. Again, with some key partners, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, they are helping us to try to bring the Taliban together for an Afghan-led but fully supported by the international community reconciliation effort.

Last thing, we're working the budget right now. There's all sorts of numbers being bandied about. Usual kind of heave and ho, give and take during the budget process. It's -- it's somewhere between 733 and 700, and we're working out all the gives -- the -- basically the puts and takes of what that means. Nothing final right now, we're engaged with OMB and Capitol Hill, so we'll continue to work that. We'll keep you posted as decisions are made.

And on the Space Force, whatever you're reading about the costs right now, we're still costing out why are the costs not specific. For one thing it's simply a shifting of costs. So it's not an increase, so we're trying to make -- get clarity to you on that. But it's also -- we're trying to produce what the President wants, which is a Space Force capability. And as we look at what that takes and what kind of back office or supporting effort, just -- the deputy is working directly with the Vice President and we'll keep you posted.

Let's go to Q&A --

Q: Sure you're done there, Mr. Secretary? There's a few more things on the list)

SEC. MATTIS: I know, there are, but I want to get to the Q&A, and I -- I've got an appointment coming out in a couple of minutes.

Q: I was just teasing.

Q: On the authorities -- with the border, sir ? The authorities that General Kelly sent over last night also included potential detention units --

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.

Q: -- using U.S. forces for detention, the potential for use of lethal force. How are you going to manage this, and what sort of guidance are you going to put out to forces at the border?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes. First of all, we'll look at what does DHS need? I now have that authority -- what do they need? There has been no call for any lethal force from DHS. So right away, I can say -- going back to your earlier point -- we -- we don't have guns in their hands right now, other than a couple of NCOs who, at any point, even if they're riding on a bus from Fort Sill to Fort Bliss for training five years ago, there'd be a couple NCOs who were armed for force protection.

So there is no armed element going in. I will determine it based upon what DHS asks for and a mission analysis. And then when we do that, we'll let you know what it is.

And what -- and what -- you said something early on, what was it there?

Q: Sure. Just to clarify, there's no call for it, but they do have the authority to use lethal force if needed --

SEC. MATTIS: I have the authority.

Q: You do, yes. And --

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, but we are not -- we are not even employing -- you've seen the picture of the guy down there), they're not even carrying guns so, just relax.

Q: Okay.

SEC. MATTIS: Don't worry about it, okay?

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Okay. But then to follow-up on your --

SEC. MATTIS: Oh, detention -- that was it. On detention, we do not have arrest authority. Detention would -- I would put it in terms of minutes. In other words, if someone's beating on a Border Patrolman and if we were in position to have to do something about it, we could stop them from beating on them and take him over and deliver him to a Border Patrolman, who would then arrest him for it.

Q: How is that not a -- how is that not a risk to the limits of Posse Comitatus?

SEC. MATTIS: No, let me try someone else now. Yes, go ahead.

Q: (Off mic.).

SEC. MATTIS: (Pardon)? There's no violation of Posse Comitatus, there's no violation here at all. We're not going to arrest or anything else. To stop someone from beating on someone and turn them over to someone else -- this is minutes not even hours, okay?

Q: (Inaudible), just to follow on that sir, so sorry, Barbara. You -- you have --

Q: I know the secretary will get back to me.

Q: He will. You then have -- you have veto power over whether force will be in -- used on the border with active troops.

SEC. MATTIS: Veto power?

Q: In other words, you make the final decision. DHS --

SEC. MATTIS: The president has delegated that to me, yes.

Q: Yeah, that's right. That's my (inaudible)

SEC. MATTIS: And if DHS -- again, we're in support -- I see -- we're in support of DHS, of Customs/Border Patrol, the commissioner of Customs/Border Patrol --

Q: Yes.

SEC. MATTIS: -- is a subordinate element. When they identify something they can't do, we could not, they said, put in that much barbed wire fast enough. Okay, that falls to the military then, okay? It's the same process for any other -- any other mission. What can they not do? And -- and --

Q: And you decide if you can do it --

SEC. MATTIS: We decide if it's appropriate for the military --

Q: Got you. Okay.

SEC. MATTIS: -- and at that point, things like posse comitatus and that sort of thing obviously are in play. So we'll stay strictly according to the law.

Q: Thanks for clarifying it.

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, sure.

Barbara?

Q: I want to go back. You talked for a second about the relationship with Saudi Arabia and the need of that. But you also said that it had to be the -- you had to sort out the effect of the Khashoggi murder, as you called it.

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.

Q: And I wanted to ask you to explain that a little bit more. What is -- what's your --

SEC. MATTIS: Sure.

Q: What do you think needs to be sorted out about all of this? And, as Defense Secretary, could you talk for a minute about the trade-off, in your mind, between the issue, genuinely, of human rights versus the national security requirement to work with countries? But what did you mean by --

SEC. MATTIS: Well, let me -- let me go backwards on this.

Q: Yeah.

SEC. MATTIS: We -- we are unapologetic about American view of human rights. We're not going to apologize for it. We believe that human dignity, the rule of law applies.

As far as sorting out, there's two primary thrust lines. One is accountability for anyone involved in the murder, and yes, I'm calling it murder, you -- as you highlighted. On the other hand, if we're going to stop a war in Yemen, we're going to have to deal with Saudi Arabia. There's no way not to. If you're going to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe, there is no way. You can see that we're using what they can provide for us to try to bring an end to the fighting in Afghanistan. That's sorting out accountability, and dealing with them in terms of America's interests, and it is in our interest to stop the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.

So we're not going to either apologize for our human rights stand, nor will we apologize for working with Saudi Arabia, where it's necessary, for the good of innocent people who are in trouble.

Go ahead.

Q: You see accountability, sir, but do you think that -- are you satisfied, at the moment, that accountability line that you just drew has been satisfied by the Saudis, or do you -- you're -- you're saying that (inaudible) --

SEC. MATTIS: No, I -- I think right now, State Department made very clear when they put the 17 sanctions on, Barbara, that there was more -- going to come, and I think they (inaudible) --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, go ahead.

Q: What authority does the chief of staff have to sign this cabinet order, what legal authority, and where does he fall in chain of command?

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, he has the authority to do what the president tells him to do.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Mr. Secretary. On the border --

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.

Q: What do -- you mentioned the fact that the troops are laying wire and moving Jersey barriers.

SEC. MATTIS: Oh, and flying troops, border patrolmen around --

Q: (Inaudible), right, yeah. So what -- why can't that be done by private contractors at a cost that would be significantly less than $72 million, and growing? Why do you need active duty troops to do that?

SEC. MATTIS: You -- I don't know any contractors that could probably have mobilized that quickly. And also, there is the potential that some could be injured. I mean, obviously, they're doing it along a -- a border that has had a fair amount of lawlessness along it. Further, I don't know of any contractor that can provide helicopters 24/7 with night vision goggles, and what I would call fast-rope capabilities so we -- they can dismount the helicopter in the air if they have to get into rough terrain.

Q: And on the Saudi situation, do you -- do you believe the CIA or the Saudi government's explanation for who's responsible for the murder?

SEC. MATTIS: I don't think that has been fully established by either of those, either the CIA or the Saudi government.

Q: My -- my question on Syria, sir --

SEC. MATTIS: Syria?

Q: Yeah, mainly on the MERV -- why it took so -- so long to clear the last two physical --

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, it's a good question.

Q: -- percent of ISIS in the MERV?

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.

Q: Do you have a timeline? Do you think by the end of this year would be --

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah. I never -- I never give timeline. I'm smiling, because some of these guys have been around for a while, and they know I never give timelines.

Why did it take so long? Number one, we said this was going to get harder and harder, the more you compress. If you've ever taken snow, it's real fluffy at first. You're making it small; by the time you get it down to like this, it's a hardball, right? It's a hard snowball. So we knew, as we pushed them in, it would take longer.

But we had the additional wrinkle of what happened up in -- in Afrin, and working this out with the Turks, because they kept coming in. They don't like our relationship, and I understand where they're coming from. But we do not say that YPG is the same as PKK, and the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF, who have lost thousands of troops killed and wounded fighting ISIS and pushing them down there got distracted by the instability up around Afrin and Manbij, and so they were not staying fully focused.

Q: So quick -- quick -- quick follow up. Is it fair to say that the -- the battle of Hajin is more complicated than what we have seen in Raqqa and Mosul?

SEC. MATTIS: No, it's not more complicated; it's simply a more compressed battlefield, and we can't just go in bombing, because there's still innocent people in there.

Q: Okay.

SEC. MATTIS: So you've got to -- you're -- they're trying to keep this from --

Q: Okay.

SEC. MATTIS: -- from worsening the situation for the victims of this inside the area.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: (Inaudible) the observation post?

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.

Q: Will that require you to bring in more troops, or --

SEC. MATTIS: No.

Q: -- could you do that with the troops that are there?

SEC. MATTIS: Thank you. No, it will not require more troops. The troops that are there who are operating in that area will occupy the observation posts.

Q: On Afghanistan, there was a --

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.

Q: -- suicide attack yesterday, killed about 50 people.

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.

Q: Do you have a sense who was responsible? And --

SEC. MATTIS: Not yet.

Q: -- will that impact peace talks, going forward?

SEC. MATTIS: You know, there -- this is -- every time you see a -- one of these kind of, I'd call it an irregular fight, and the efforts for peace start picking up momentum, whether it be the FARC in Colombia, the Provo IRA in Ireland, or terrorists, they will -- they will sense they've got to do something to derail it. It's absolutely essential we keep the peace talks going.

And by the way, even in the midst of this, there were Taliban representatives in contact, thanks to UAE and Qatar and Saudi -- stay -- still in talks with us, with Ambassador Khalilzad.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Would you say it's picking up momentum, the -- the reconciliation talks with the Taliban, or are they picking up momentum?

SEC. MATTIS: I -- I don't want to characterize them right now. I would just say they're an active -- there -- there's an active effort underway, and it includes folks from the Taliban side.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: (Inaudible) a clarification about the border, a clarification?

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.

Q: When you referred to John Kelly's instructions, --

SEC. MATTIS: No -- no. He signed the memo out for the -- for the -- from the White House.

Q: Okay, well, you called them instructions. Whatever they are --

SEC. MATTIS: Okay.

Q: But anyway, have you, therefore, expanded the mission in any way?

SEC. MATTIS: No, I'm reviewing -- again, I'm reviewing that now. If we add missions, we will brief you, and we will brief you as quickly as possible after that with the numbers of troops. There's -- there's no -- I -- I just want you to know, there's no operational reason for not sharing -- like, most of the time, I wouldn't tell you that.

This is different. It's inside America. There's no operational reason to hide this.

Q: But the authorities have expanded, though, right? That -- we're -- that's correct.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes.

Q: And that -- so the CBP -- the U.S. military now has the authority to protect CBP officers if they see them in danger or if they see them under attack.

SEC. MATTIS: No.

First of all, the secretary of homeland security has to ask me to do stuff. I mean, I now have the authority to do more; now we'll see what she asks me for.

Q: And those -- they will be armed, those ones who -- you made the mention of someone being beaten, a CBP, with a rock or something. Those U.S. military will be armed.

SEC. MATTIS: No.

Q: No.

Q: Mr. Secretary, there's been a lot of criticism --

SEC. MATTIS: Not -- not with a firearm. No.

Q: There's been criticism that the president hasn't visited our troops in war zones. I wondered what's your perspective on that --

SEC. MATTIS: Say that again.

Q: That the -- President Trump hasn't visited troops in war zones during his first two years in office. Do you think he should be going or --

SEC. MATTIS: I -- I'm -- the -- that -- the president's the commander-in-chief and he decides where he needs to go. There are times I don't want him in certain locations, to be frank with you, for his security and the troop security. So, you know, don't worry about that. That's --

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Have you told him not to go to certain places?

SEC. MATTIS: Pardon?

Q: Have you told him not to go at certain times or certain locations?

SEC. MATTIS: There's places that I've been very straightforward I don't want him to go at certain times. Yes.

Q: (Inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS: Pardon?

Q: Can you tell us (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS: No.

(Laughter.)

Q: Sir, can I ask you a question?

Q: Can I just -- sir, I think everyone is kind of hung up on this lethal force, you know, authority spectrum. And as I understand it, you have a standing rule for use of force. SRUF (standing rules for the use of force) (Inaudible). And under that it covers that DOD can protect themselves, Title 10

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS: Well, of course. I mean, if somebody pulls a gun on you and --

Q: Right. Right.

And it also says that they can protect people assigned to the mission, so that would be BP. So that hasn't changed, so I'm just clarifying that those -- the standing rules of the use of force and the mission-specific rules of force for Title 10 people have not changed.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes. That's very good. They have not changed. The rules right now have not changed.

I got to get rolling.

Q: But you have the authority to change them, right?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, you haven't had -- pardon?

Q: But you now have the authority to change them, is that what's changed then? I think some of us are confused about what's changed with this new (inaudible).

SEC. MATTIS: If change the mission, then something like that could happen. We have no intent of doing that right now.

Yes?

Q: Can I ask you a question about South Korea?

SEC. MATTIS: Yeah.

Q: Two weeks ago you were -- you were speaking with your counterpart -- South Korean counterpart, and you -- and you said that the decision would be taken by the end -- by beginning of December about the exercises -- the main exercises. Did you -- did you take a decision on that?

SEC. MATTIS: Good question.

We have taken a decision. Let me get back to you, because it's -- we are not canceling exercises. We are realigning one exercise.

But let me get back to you. Sylvie) are you here today?

Q: Yes, we are today.

Q: Is it Foal Eagle, sir?

SEC. MATTIS: All right. Let me -- I need to get back. I got to get rolling. I really do have to go. I'm already three minutes late for something.

Q: Was it Foal Eagle, the one that -- the exercise?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, that is the one. But I -- but I need to say what has happened with it. Okay?

Q: Okay.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: (Inaudible) for 2019.

SEC. MATTIS: No, there's nothing else going on. Foal Eagle is being reorganized a bit to keep it at -- at a level that will not be harmful to diplomacy.

Q: Thank you.