Media Availability With Secretary Mattis While En Route to Ottawa, Dec. 5, 2018

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: ... West Point grad, he thinks somehow there's going to be victory. So he says all the smart money's on -- OK, so why don't we talk for a little bit on the record. What I'll do, I'll talk for just a short time about a couple things about this trip and about more broadly.

And then we'll go to Q&A, then we'll go off the record. Does that sound OK? Then nod OK. So thank you for joining us on the trip to Ottawa. As you know we have the -- the small group meeting on defeat ISIS.

The campaign goes on. There will be a larger group meeting in the new year that Secretary Pompeo will host as the larger 70 odd international organizations and mostly nations get together. I will co-host the meeting and these are the largest contributors to the D-ISIS campaign.

That's who's getting together. Minister Harjit Sajjan is our -- our -- my Canadian counterpart from Vancouver, British Columbia, just north of Washington State, by the way. So we have a lot in common. We've been together for several years now.

At the meeting we're going to discuss our vision for the future. In other words, you see the shrinking geographic caliphate and the continued offensive that you've seen underway now, it's back on track.

And so what do we do as we adapt to the next chapter of ISIS, is the bottom line. How does the Defeat ISIS Coalition assess it, and we have some people who will be giving us their assessment and the commander -- deputy commander in the field, a U.K. general officer who will talk about the military part and Brett McGurk again, the very able diplomat, will be there to give the diplomatic framework.

And a lot of success, but you've seen it slow down too as we anticipated as they fell back to their -- their basically their core area. Pressed on all sides. For example, the fight that was going on last night as the SDF was pushing against them with the D-ISIS coalition air support and also had artillery being fired from the Iraqi side of the border to show you that this remains a coalition effort.

There's more work to be done. That hardened core means tough fighting there plus the potential for it to try to become more influential worldwide. Influential meaning inspiring a tax by surrogates, by those who've pledged allegiance to them.

So we're going to have to address that threat that emanate from a global affiliate and they do have an influence campaign. It's mostly conducted over the internet, as you know. So we have to be fit for our time, we have to make the necessary adaptation.

One thing right now in the preparation for this, the various countries coming and some of our prep discussions both the Brussels, and on the phone, who were quite adamant they're still -- they're still in the game.

They recognize that I'm not going up there to persuade them about the threat; it's more to assess it. How is it adapting? How must we adapt? And how do we go forward? That's what we're looking at.

The -- let me think -- let me just go hit a couple, I think, bigger issues right now. One being the Israeli defense forces began a counter tunneling effort in Northern Israel in the last 24, 48 hours.

In this regard, Israel is working slowly on their side of the border inside Israel, in other words, to identify the tunnels and to block them. This is -- these tunnels are dug by Lebanese Hezbollah and it would be irresponsible if Israel did not undertake this operation and protection of their own territorial integrity and their own populations.

So, this is exactly the right thing to do. They are staying on their own side of the border. There is nothing provocative about it. Obviously, the problem is whoever dug the tunnels and they -- they are engaged in basically solving that problem.

I believe UNIFIL, the U.N. command there, will be in a position to observe the tunnel blocking, because that sort of -- that sort of openness makes very clear what's going on and why it's going on, in order to maintain safety.

There was a tripartite meeting earlier, either today or yesterday. This is where the U.N. and Lebanese, and the Israelis get together. So those processes continue. I've not seen any increased response at this time from Lebanese Hezbollah or Israel. And the Lebanese, I would just point out, we have the legitimate state security organization is the Lebanese armed forces.

And they -- we have a partnership with them. A U.S. military partnership with them and they are helping to keep the stable situation stable right now. So full support for the Israel operation from our view.

It's a necessary operation for the protection of innocent people. It's on the Israeli side of the border. UNIFIL, I'm confident, will be able to observe the operation and the Lebanese armed forces are certainly doing their part in order to maintain stability in southern Lebanon.

In -- let me think what else. On Yemen, about -- let me get it right now. When was I in Bahrain? End of ...

STAFF: It was last, the end of October

SEC. MATTIS: End of September, last of October. I think it was at the Manama Dialogue but I can't remember quite the right day. I think around the last of October.

STAFF: (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS: Latter -- I'm sorry. Yes, latter part of October. That's where I raised a point that this fighting and the humanitarian catastrophe that was still raging, needed to end. And I made a target date of within 30 days we need to have negotiations underway; they must focus on confidence building measures. I was under no illusions that we were going to have a peace treaty in 30 days.

There were many people who doubted that the U.N. Special Envoy could pull this off. Martin Griffiths, a man for whom I have great respect. He has wonderful backgrounds. He has the ability to actually do it. He has now done it.

We have the Yemeni delegation, I think, or the Yemeni government, the U.N.-recognized government, will arrive Stockholm today. Special Envoy Griffiths put himself on the Kuwaiti airplane that carried the Houthi Delegation to show that it was safe that it was done with Saudi Arabia's support after we evacuated 50 wounded Houthis.

I don't remember where they went. [off the record] So the Emiratis held up the operation against Hodeida port.

The Saudis and Emiratis together are putting together several hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to address the tragic -- and it is -- it is -- it is much worse than we have been able to see because of the lack of reporting and it's hard to report from there frankly.

So I -- this is something that we could not have done without the special envoy’s leadership, without the support of the Emiratis and the Saudis, and without a lot of other quite support from a number of corners to include from Oman and others.

So it's underway and we'll see how that goes up there. But I did want to touch on that. It's a reminder when it's very easy to see the problems, the challenges, the obstacles, the skeptics and cynics who all say it can't be done. It can be done.

If the international committee rolled up its sleeves, if people will sincerely work, we can move this forward in the only way it should move forward and that is to resolve it peacefully. So let me just stop there and take questions.

Sylvie you have question?

Q: Yes. Yesterday, sir, the ...

SEC. MATTIS: (Inaudible) coffee?

Q: Yes, we have coffee.

SEC. MATTIS: You do?

Q: Yes. No, no, we have coffee.

SEC. MATTIS: You have it.

Q: Yes. Yes. Yes.

SEC. MATTIS: All right. Yes. I get perks all the time, so I just want to make sure you guys get it too.

Go ahead, Sylvie.

Q: So yesterday the CIA director briefed some senators on the Khashoggi investigation. And Senator Lindsey Graham was very critical and he said ...

SEC. MATTIS: Very what?

Q: Critical of the Saudis and of you, sir. And he said “there is no smoking gun in Khashoggi killing. There is a smoking saw,” and he was referring to what you said recently, there is no smoking gun. So what is your answer to Senator Graham?

SEC. MATTIS: The senator, he has a right to his own opinion. Go ahead, question.

Q: Do -- do you think that -- that what has been learned about Khashoggi's death is grounds for any U.S. action regarding the Saudi Crown Prince?

SEC. MATTIS: Any U.S. action about Saudi ...

Q: Any reprisals well towards -- yes.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes. First of all, as you know, we've already sanctioned -- a number have been identified within probably days -- a couple days, we were well underway of reviewing among a number of international nations, all possible tapes, social media we're going back through.

We believe in accountability for whoever was directly involved in the Khashoggi murder or who directed the Khashoggi murder. That is from beginning -- my first statements publicly, I have not waivered at all. We also, as you see, are working with Saudi, for example, in order to get the Yemen war moved into negotiations.

And that -- in that issue we were working heavily in support of the special envoy's specific request. We do not see anything inconsistent with expecting full accountability for whoever was involved or directed the murder with trying to end the war in Yemen.

You know those are separate and distinct issues even if one of the parties is integral to both. Does that address your question?

Q: Well, I'm wondering if -- we have senators saying that they have concluded that the crown prince did have a hand in this that all evidence points to that. Have -- have you decided that that's still an open question or have you reached any conclusion yourself?

SEC. MATTIS: What I've been asked is -- if I say something, I need the evidence. So there's -- whether you call it smoking gun, smoking saw; if can point to something that says somebody is implicated, I've already said where I stand on that, and even my adversaries have learned to count on my word.

But in my role in the executive branch, I need to have a specific. There is sincere -- there are sincere, studious people who are drawing different conclusions. We are doing everything we can to go down every rabbit hole to find what's there and that's my responsibility because a significant amount of the U.S. intelligence apparatus, including a rather critical part of it, is under my cognizance.

And they have their orders. They are very good men and women and they have found a lot of things out over the past years. So just bear with us. When we speak, it'll be with the authority and I won't -- I will not speculate or draw premature conclusions but we are leaving no stone unturned.

Q: Are you saying that you have not seen that evidence -- you have not seen that evidence yet to persuade you?

SEC. MATTIS: We are continuing to review. I am quite satisfied we will find more evidence of what happened. I just don't know yet what it's going to be or who's going to be implicated, but we will follow it as far as we can.

TM?

Q: Sir, going to the border, I believe yesterday ...

SEC. MATTIS: Our border or (inaudible). (Laughter.)

Q: Our border. Yes, sir.

I think yesterday...

SEC. MATTIS: (Inaudible). Go ahead.

Q: Sure -- talking about extending the deployment to down there until the end of January or through the end of January. Do you have any concerns about how this is going to affect troop readiness?

SEC. MATTIS: OK. I should of -- thanks for bringing it up. I signed yesterday the -- the statement that we will extend forces. Now, understand how this works. DHS commissioner border patrol acting for them in most cases but not without DHS in the room.

He says I need this here and this there and that sort of thing. So we get missions in and I accept certain missions because they're appropriate for us. The -- in Texas, basically the engineering tasks are complete.

In Arizona, they're pretty much complete. I'll probably leave a few engineers in each place who would actually move -- if we ever had to close the ports of entry; the commissioner of border patrol says close this as you saw it done once for six hours in California.

But a number of these troops will be coming off. In other words, the continuation, first of all, is not of everybody. The missions that are done, they're coming home. So that will leave a modicum of engineers out there. You don't need many to move the last Jersey barriers or barbed wire barricades into position.

There are some MPs who are still there. Those MPs, generally in Texas, Arizona, those places, are there as oversight of the U.S. army engineers or of the -- where the helicopters are stationed just -- they're basically guards, that sort of thing.

Side arms they don't -- they only carry rifles. Now, in California we probably will not reduce as much as we will in the other places. Remember there are still 2,100 National Guard under -- under governors’ control, those I'm not referring to.

They probably will stay. I did not see a lessening of readiness with that group because, in fact, they're doing -- they're very close to many of the things they would do in the regular jobs, what the Guard does all the time.

On the federal troops, you will see a reduction in the number of federal troops, the reason I just mentioned. And their MPs preparing for missions that I would call non-traditional in location but they're not non-traditional security jobs in -- if they were to deploy somewhere else.

For example, flight line MPs from the Marine Corps are doing basically the same sort of thing where they're securing an area. In this case they're behind border patrol and various other federal law enforcement.

Remember we do not have law enforcement, OK, we cannot arrest anybody. So I don't see this as having an appreciable impact on military readiness. One is, simply because we're dropping down in number so obviously you have less quantitative impact.

And for those who are there, we will be rotating those for. They're not -- we don't leave the same unit on the border all the time. So, as they rotate off the border, they go back to regular duty, another unit's down there.

So no, I don't. I want -- I should have given you that broader brief there earlier.

Yes, go ahead.

Q: So, I mean, you're kind of withdrawing troops, I mean really kind of go withdrawing troops. I mean we're really kind of going from 5,800 to 4,000, 3,500 federal?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes. What I'll do -- yes, I -- I can't give it to you right now because I when I signed it yesterday, I said now, look at the missions that still remain and give me what's the troop to task.

It's a fancy way of saying we have certain things we have to do and certain locations for certain amounts of time, how many troops each one are there. We'll tell you that as soon as we have it though. And, Dana, if you could make sure that we proactively run that out. OK. I -- I would expect to have it very shortly.

The thing is, this number has been going up and down as I think you're aware. I mean sometimes it varies only by 212 people in 24 hours. But that shows -- for example, some engineers were no longer needed. They were pulled back, but we needed more people to string the wire and it's better to use just regular old combat engineers or people like that for the wire.

And the people who are down there trying to plan for where you would put Jersey barriers and that sort of thing. So this is a normal give and take but we'll get you a number very -- as soon as we make the decision and again, then we'll have to update you almost daily because that number does wander. Generally speaking, it's coming down as the border patrol gets everything done. That's a reduction in missions, so.

Yes?

Q: Yes, I have two small questions. First about Yemen -- do you still -- Yemen -- do you still provide refueling assistance to the Saudis right now?

SEC. MATTIS: Americans provide any refueling?

Q: Yes.

SEC. MATTIS: No, we had stopped that some weeks ago. What had happened on that, so we were doing the refueling as a way so a pilot doesn't think, boy, I've got to -- I've got to -- I've got to push this; I've got to get going; I've got to get back to the land.

By the time we were doing it, it meant they had exhausted their own. We'd -- I don't think -- I think have the exact amount, but it was in the low teens percentage-wise, somewhere around 13 to 15 percent. Might have been lower than that. It depended on what month you were looking at -- that we were even doing it. So it was not very much of it going.

So why did I stop it? We had gone around and we have been teaching at every ops center, every airbase how you reduce civilian casualties. When we saw pilots returning to base still armed, we knew they were now -- and plus we know of cases. You can figure how we know.

We didn't actually get into picking targets. We explained how if you put this bomb on this target and there's a house over here we can tell you if it's safe or not, OK. We did not pick any targets. We did not do any dynamic targeting. We taught them how we would organize missile defense, because you know they've been having missiles launched at their cities’ international airport. We taught them how to do the restricted and no fire areas.

At that point, I did not believe that we needed to continue refueling to -- to -- as a measure to prevent civilian casualties. The thing that actually made me make the decision was the Royal Saudi Air Force commander had gone from base to base, looked all his pilots in the eye, and said you will do it this way. And at that point I knew from the top all the way down to the pilots, they were on the right sheet of music. So at that point we ceased the refueling.

Q: And about the anti-ISIS coalition, one of the problems that have not been solved yet is the fate of the foreign fighters who are detained in Syria and -- by the SDF. What's -- are you going to speak about it and what is the -- the solution you envision for that?

SEC. MATTIS: Of the?

Q: The foreign fighters that are prisoners of the Syrians.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, we are -- yes, we are going to be talking about the foreign fighters that are in SDF custody for sure. And I would -- it, you know, it's sometimes good to have -- OK, there's a problem. So I mean, you have a non-state actor holding over 700; over 700 from, I believe, it's about 43 countries. I'm not sure on that number but it's somewhere around there.

Take a look at Macedonia going through a naming convention right now to see -- in order to open a door to bring them into NATO, Northern Macedonia. They have taken in -- small Macedonia have taken back foreign fighters. So there's the example for all the big countries, take a look at little Macedonia. They did -- they carried out their international responsibility and I would call it their national responsibility. So we will be talking about this issue.

Q: And what -- what happens in the case of the fighters who have double citizenships?

SEC. MATTIS: Well...

Q: Because most of them have double citizenships.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes. I think that would be a secondary issue. First we just need a lot of countries to carry out their responsibility to bring home their citizens, or those who were citizens when they went off to fight, and to ensure they don't return to the streets of Jakarta, or Paris, or Minneapolis or wherever. You know, we -- we need to deal with this issue.

Q: Apparently, green card holders are now going to be eligible for military training at the Pentagon which seems to be a change in the policy, is that correct -- and why?

SEC. MATTIS: The court has come out saying we have to take them in with no extra vetting. We have to sort this out. The -- it was the independent I.G. Again, remember, inspectors general and the U.S. government are independent. They're there to maintain the managerial and -- oversee the managerial integrity and to ensure the internal controls over what each branch of government -- each -- excuse me, each department of the government does.

That was not something we assigned them to do. That is up to the inspector general himself. They found that we had espionage vulnerabilities. I cannot ignore the inspector general. So the court has come in with their direction. So our lawyers are having to sort this out right now. I don't have a good -- a complete answer for you at this time.

Q: Are they eligible at this point for training?

SEC. MATTIS: I -- I don't want to say that. I need to have the lawyers give you because people will parse each word in our legalistic age, and then say that I misspoke or something. So I need to -- before I can answer a question like that, I really need to have the lawyers come in and -- and show me how we're going to work this out because I also am not allowed to ignore an inspector general's report. And so, that -- that's kind of where we're at right now.

Q: OK.

SEC. MATTIS: OK. So...

Q: One -- one other thing I wanted to ask about it. The INF Treaty that … that yesterday it was -- it was announced that...

SEC. MATTIS: (off mic)

Q: ... INF Treaty, that the U.S. would wait for 60 days for Russia to come into compliance. After that ...we will begin the process to pull out.

SEC. MATTIS: Yes. On the INF Treaty, we have seen in repeated diplomatic efforts by the Obama administration and this administration stretching back to at least 2014, repeated efforts to bring Russia back into compliance to point to what they had done. To date, they've been unavailing.

When we came into office we doubled the diplomatic engagements in 2017, over what I thought was a very good effort by the previous administration to try to bring Russia back in compliance. We have been briefing the NATO allies on this in many bilateral and then the entire North Atlantic Council format repeatedly over the last year and a half.

You'll notice that we had out of the summit declaration last June or July the entire NATO Council meeting at -- at heads of state level registered their concern. For two years in a row, the U.S. Congress has said it is the sense of the Congress in law that the Russians are in material breach of the treaty.

So when you look at why did all the allies support Secretary Pompeo yesterday in Brussels, that is the end result of transparency, of compelling evidence that Russia has violated, and it shows the independent views of different nations, of our House and our Senate all speaking with one voice, material breach.

[Aside] Oh, you're getting blinded, young man.

Q: And -- and without the restrictions of the INF, will the U.S. be able to deploy land-based missiles in the South China Sea, for example?

SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I -- I -- I would never -- I thank you, TM -- I would never speak to anticipated military operations. Right now, our -- our best outcome would be that Russia returns to compliance immediately. And this is not like springing a trap on them. Again, for years now two administrations, various allies have talked to them about getting back into compliance. So this is not an unrealistic expectation.

Of course, Russia at times is proving to be a difficult partner in any positive effort. But -- but that was the reason for Secretary Pompeo's discussion yesterday and declaration of material breach.