Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Ash Carter and General Martin E. Dempsey in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin E. Dempsey


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Okay.


Well, good afternoon.


It's been a very busy week, so let me provide a few updates. First, earlier today, I met with Iraqi-Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani. We talked about our progress in the fight against ISIL. I recognize the sacrifice that all Iraqis have made in this struggle, and congratulated him on retaking territory loss to ISIL.


We reaffirmed our commitment to working together by, with, and through the government of Iraq to deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL.


I understand that some on Capitol Hill would like to bypass the Iraqi government and directly arm the Kurds and some Iraqi tribes. But we oppose such a move, because we believe a unified Iraq is critical to the long-term defeat of ISIL and because it could put some of our personnel at risk.


Second, we're announcing today that combat training has begun for a company-sized group from the new Syrian forces. This program is critical and a complex part of our counter-ISIL efforts. We expect a second group to begin training in the next few weeks.


Third, the chairman and I testified yesterday before the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense. Given that the current budget approach is, as I said yesterday, a road to nowhere, we need members of Congress to come together, as they have done in the past, including in 2013, and agree to a multi-year budget agreement that provides the stability DOD needs and the resources our troops deserve.


Fourth, need to change gears a bit. I want to commend seven former secretaries of defense, and 10 retired four-star general and flag officers for releasing a letter today encouraging Congress to pass the Trade Promotion Authority or TPA so that the president can finalize two critical trade agreements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP.


This important letter builds on what I said last month at Arizona State University, and I encourage every member of Congress and all of you to read it, as the letter says, quote, "the stakes are clear," end-quote.


While both agreements would boost our economy, they also make strategic sense for our country. They'd help us promote stability and security in critical regions, deepen our alliances and partnerships abroad, and bolster a global order that reflects both our interests and our values. That's why we need Congress to pass TPA.


Finally, before your questions, I want to say a few words about the officer and gentleman beside me.


Now, we have a lot of work to do in the months ahead, and I know Chairman Dempsey will sprint through the tape with his characteristic humility, courage, and expertise. But I want to thank him for his strong leadership and his thoughtful advice to me and to President Obama during an immensely challenging time.


The chairman has made our country and the world safer. He's also made sitting before Congress and all of you a little more comfortable. He and Deanie are great friends to me and Stephanie. We came in to this elite building's leadership at the same time. I'll really miss him, and the same goes for Sandy Winnefeld as well. But like them, I have absolute and complete confidence in their successors.


General Dunford, General Selva met all the criteria that the president and I wanted in our next chairman and vice. We saw in them the same strategic perspective, operational experience, sound judgment, and total candor we value every day in our current leadership. Much as we'll miss Chairman Dempsey and Vice Chairman Winnefeld, I know their great responsibilities to the president and me will remain in excellent hands.


With that, I'll turn it over.


And I think we ought to give our chairman a round of applause if you don't mind.


(Applause.)


GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thanks. That's a first from this group. I'll tell you that. (Laughter.)


Now thanks Mr. Secretary, for the very kind words. I, too, welcome the nominations of General Joe Dunford as the next chairman of the joint chiefs, and General Paul Selva as vice chairman. I, too, have great and complete confidence and trust in them.


Our nation will be well-served by these two phenomenal leaders, and I appreciate the fact that both of them and their families have agreed to continue to serve their country at this important time in our history.


As the secretary said, there's plenty to do in the months ahead for me. Yesterday, I appeared with the secretary before the Congress of the United States in what may have been my last budget hearing.


To briefly recap where we've been with the budget since I became chairman, when I came into the job, I knew we'd be facing significant cuts after 10 years of incredible support through those periods of highest activity in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we have faced significant cuts.


In fact, over the last five years, we've cut three quarters of a trillion dollars from the defense budget. Now that in itself is significant, but combined with the lack of long-term budget certainty and the lack of support to make the internal reforms that we think are necessary, we are eroding our technological edge, and our military readiness is declining. America's sons and daughters in uniform serving faithfully across the globe deserve better.


Our allies and partners are watching what we're imposing on ourselves through our budget process. Our adversaries are paying attention to, while we lurch from budget cycle to budget cycle one year at a time, our adversaries are investing and they are adapting.


If the trajectory that I just described continues, especially if sequestration returns, we'll be looking at dramatic changes to how we protect our nation and promote our national interests.


On the Syrian train and equip mission, as the secretary noted, we've started the program and we'll grow it in a measured way. This T&E program is very complex. It won't be easy, but I'd emphasize that it's one part, one component of a much broader approach.


And finally, tomorrow, as you know, marks a significant day in our history: 70 years since Victory in Europe Day, the end of the Second World War in Europe. We know that we are a better nation for the courage and sacrifice of the brave men and women who served in that conflict.


And with that, I'll be glad to take your questions.


STAFF: We'll start off with Lita Baldor from the Associated Press.


Q: Mr. Chairman, you talked last month about Bayji and its strategic importance in Iraq.


I was wondering, there apparently have lost -- the Iraqis have lost ground there fairly significantly over the last several weeks.


Can you just talk a little bit about -- is this fight a little more difficult because of the unwillingness to destroy maybe large segments of the oil infrastructure, and what does this say about the goal of retaking Mosul? Is this making it far more difficult?


And a quick question for the secretary. You've said a company size. Can you be a little more specific about how many trainers you expect, and if you have any concerns about the safety of the trainers, because of potential green on blue attacks.


GEN. DEMPSEY: Why is Bayji significant? Obviously, it's part of Iraq's critical oil infrastructure. It sits on the corridor that runs from Baghdad to Kirkuk to Bayji, correction, to Bayji, Kirkuk, and over to Mosul. It actually also sits on a corridor that runs from the Tigris River valley to the Euphrates River valley. And so it's
geographically significant as well as significant economically.


It's a very important place. The Iraqis are under pressure there, and have lost some control of the perimeter and some of the road network that leads to it through the emplacement of especially IEDs.


We've been working with them. We've conducted 26 airstrikes since the fifth of May. We've been working with -- we call it a mobile training team in Baghdad Airport to assist them in rigging airdrops. And just recently, they conducted an airdrop to resupply the force that's at Bayji, and very successfully by the way. 18 of 18 pallets landed on the intended target.


So, the Iraqis understand the significance and are working to ensure they retain control of the Bayji oil refinery.


SEC. CARTER: There are about 90 of the trainees in this company-sized tranche, first tranche that I referred to. You asked about green on blue possibility. First of all, these are highly vetted individuals. That's an important part of the program.


Second, the training takes place in a secure location. And third, of course, our people who are participating in the training are very experienced in this kind of training, including in security procedures.


STAFF: Okay. We go next to Ms. Barbara Starr from CNN.


Q: I'd like to start with General Dempsey and then Mr. Secretary.


General Dempsey, in the last couple of days, we've seen the moderate opposition in Syria and other groups make some gains against Assad. And Assad came out yesterday and in fact publicly acknowledged that he had suffered some losses.


But what concerns do you have if the battlefield inside Syria looks like Assad could be getting shaky, like the status quo is changing for him, that ISIS and al-Nusra might be again rising, might gain strength and destabilize the situation? What risk does that pose?


And Mr. Secretary, on a completely different subject for you, one has to ask about Jade Helm in Texas, sir, just to get you on the record, if I may. Your response to the governor of Texas, who expresses concern that the United States military could risk the civil liberties of the people of Texas?


SEC. CARTER: Why don't I just take that one first Barbara, just on your second question.


We have given information to authorities in Texas, any information that they've requested. We're very open and up front about our training activities in the United States, and I should say that we're very grateful for the support of communities around the United States in all of our training facilities. We count upon people's -- the support of Americans in our training areas and around our training areas and around our bases, and are very grateful for the hospitality that we receive.


Q: And your message to him, would you refute his concerns that this could be an issue? Would you refute the concerns of those on the Internet, who believe otherwise?


SEC. CARTER: We are very responsive to any local officials who want to know about our training. We are very transparent, we've tried to be very transparent in this case and answer all questions, give all information about what we're doing about the need for it. And once again, I just want to express the appreciation that we have to communities across the country who host our troops. It's very important.


And back to your first question.


Q: Okay, but the destabilization, do you believe, you know, if Assad gets shakier, does that pose a new set of challenges here?


GEN. DEMPSEY: Well yeah, it would.


And if you recall, two years ago, Assad was at a point where we thought that he was at a disadvantage, and that the opposition was on the rise, and then that situation reversed itself for a period of time. So, we've been through the intellectual rigor of what this might mean. So, what it might mean for the nation of Syria is further instability, you know, were this to suddenly -- were power to suddenly transfer precipitously. And it could mean an even increased humanitarian crisis.


For us and our counter-ISIL strategy, it wouldn't change the dynamic except that the -- meaning that we still have the fundamental challenge of finding moderate Syrian opposition, men, to train to be a stabilizing influence over time.


And on the side of our diplomacy and our diplomats, there's the issue of finding moderate Syrian opposition to establish a political structure to which the military force that we're building can be responsive.


So as the challenge wouldn't change for us, but it would certainly make the situation for Syria more complicated.


Q: And do you think there have been gains against Assad in recent days in some of these key places in the north, especially that change the dynamic for him?


GEN. DEMPSEY: I do think that the regime's momentum has been slowed, and therefore you can certainly from that take that I do believe the situation is trending less favorably for the regime. And if I were him, I would find the opportunity to look to the negotiating table.


STAFF: Sir, we'll move to radio now, and try Tom Bowman.


Q: Mr. Secretary, I want to get back to the combat training for the Syrian rebels. You talked about two companies being trained at a secure location in Turkey, presumably?


SEC. CARTER: I'd rather not talk about the location. As you probably know, there are several locations, and we're going to keep that to ourselves.


Q: When will these trainees go operational? Do you have to get to a certain level of battalion or brigade before they go operational, first of all, and secondly, what responsibility does the U.S. have once they do go operational? Will you provide air cover for them if they need it? Medevac? Maybe advisors on the ground?


SEC. CARTER: Okay. With respect to the first question, that will -- the question of the first disposition of those forces will be decided later by the commander of that training operation and by us. That decision has not been made yet.


Q: Are we talking months, six months, nine months, or a year?


SEC. CARTER: A few months.


And, I'm sorry, this other part of your question was?


Q: What responsibility...


SEC. CARTER: Yes, right.


Now, very good question, and of course we would have some responsibility to protect forces. Now, remember, their mission is to fight ISIL. So, that's the combat we expect them to get involved in, and we do expect to support them in that regard. If they are contested by regime forces, again, we would have some responsibility to help them. We have not decided yet in detail how we would exercise that responsibility, but we have acknowledged that we have that responsibility.


Q: ISIS starts overrunning them, will you send in...


SEC. CARTER: Well there we definitely would absolutely work to protect them, certainly with that kind of ISR help, potentially air support help, yes.


It depends on where they are, but again, we have some obligation to these people. Now, they're fighting for their own country. But on the other hand, we definitely have acknowledged that we have an obligation to their safety as well as their effectiveness, and we would exercise that.


STAFF: We'll go deeper and try Jim Sciutto in the middle.


Q: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, if I could begin with you. I interviewed the head -- the president rather, of the Syrian opposition earlier this week, Khaleed Khoja. And his description of U.S. support, specifically training, too small and too slow. He talked about 5,000 over the course of the year. He said he needs 30,000 to make a battlefield difference. They want sophisticated weapons, specifically anti-aircraft weapons, to fight back against Syrian airstrikes, and they want of course, support for a no-go or a no-fly zone among their protected areas.


He's -- he left Washington disappointed. I wonder if you have a reaction to that criticism, and did the U.S. make any hard commitments for instance on sophisticated weapons or to increase the number of those training?


And when you're done, I just have a question for the general.


SEC. CARTER: Sure Jim. Well, this is a complex program. It's going to have to evolve over time. I think it's fair to say to that kind of concern that it will need to prove itself. So, we're starting with the people that we have that we've vetted very carefully. We're figuring out what the best training is, what the best initial deployment is. We expect that to be successful and therefore to grow, but you have to start somewhere, and this is where we're starting.


Q: Anti-aircraft weapons?


SEC. CARTER: In the main, the arms that they're provided will be small arms and small unit arms, and so forth.


There's a limit to the kind of sophistication of arms that troops trained in this way will be provided with.


Q: General Dempsey, before I ask you to sing an Irish song...


SEC. CARTER: He's really good at that. Extremely good at that.


Q: ... Iranian activities in and around the Gulf, taking these Marshall flag ships, required sending a U.S. aircraft carrier, required escorts. Those have now stopped. This was the activity of the Revolutionary Guard, in particular the navy.


And I'm just curious, in light of the sensitive negotiations that are going on right now, if you have any concern that the revolutionary guard units that the navy are not under the control of the government of Rouhani, that they are operating freelance, and that they can't control them as -- as a tool, and there is a great deal of independence.


But from a military perspective, you had to move significant assets to respond to that. Do you have that concern?


GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, whether I have a concern or whether it's true, that is the government of Iran who's responsible for their behavior. And so we are concerned about their behavior. As I've said frequently, there's about six things that concern me about Iran's behavior: one of which is the nuclear issue. And I'm certainly supportive of the efforts to try to resolve that one diplomatically, but we'll have other issues with Iran, whether it's surrogates and proxies, weapons trafficking, ballistic missile development, cyber activity, and on occasion, their effort to threaten freedom of navigation.


And so, we've got to work these. And the government of Iran has got to, if they're going to act responsibly and engage the world as they claim they wish to do, then they have to control the IRGC land forces and the IRGC navy.


STAFF: Sir, we'll go local with Missy Ryan.


Q: Okay. Two quick questions. The first one, Secretary Carter, just going back to the Syria training program, a follow-up. When exactly did it start, and can you tell us a little bit more about who the trainees are? I mean, are they from the FSA, are they trained fighters who are already in the field, and the second question is regarding drone operations. There have been some measures in Congress to speed up this supposed transfer of drone operations from the intelligence community to the military. Can you guys, either of you, give us an update on what's happening with that?


And the U.S. military has announced drone strikes in the past or alluded to drone strikes in the past in Somalia. Have there been military drone strikes in Yemen in the recent weeks, months?


SEC. CARTER: Okay. Let me do the first one first and then the second one. And Marty, if you want to add. As far as the training is starting now, but I just need to explain the process. These trainees are recruited. They are vetted. And only then are they put into training.


So, they've been in the program for quite awhile. And then the training takes some time, and then they would be inserted into operations, and the trainees behind them, and to get back to the previous question, we hope this to be an ever-expanding program once it proves itself, which I think it will.


With respect to drones, I'm limited in what I can say, but I will say the following: we -- the president included and especially believe in being as transparent as we possibly can with all of the measures we take to protect America and our citizens and friends and allies around the world.


And drones are no different. They're used only when it's necessary and appropriate and there's no better way to achieve the same objective. As you know, we have a preference to capture individuals who are a terrorist threat, so it's done with the utmost care and deliberation. And I think that's the most important thing.


Obviously, we in the Defense Department stand ready to do whatever the president wants us to do and play whatever role he wants us to play in this, but I think the important impulse here is one of transparency and conveying the care taken to make sure that these actions are necessary, appropriate, and lawful. And I'm afraid I can't really talk about particular places, because that's in the nature of things.

 

But that is the general philosophy behind the management questions that you're alluding to.


STAFF: Phil.


Q: Mr. Secretary, could you just take a moment to clarify? Yesterday before Congress, you said that the United States was creating a force to combat both Assad's forces and the Islamic State. And today you are again returning to the idea that they would just be combating the Islamic State. If they get in -- could you clarify those and tell me explicitly, if they do get into a fight with Assad's forces, is the question really whether or not they intentionally engaged Assad's forces as opposed to inadvertently engaged them? Where is the line on providing support?


And to General Dempsey, could you give us a sense of whether or not you're concerned that this training operation started without all this completely ironed out?


SEC. CARTER: Okay. Now let me be very clear, and if I wasn't clear yesterday, I apologize for that. It was in the context of the no-fly zone discussion. But that's a different question, so that's my imprecision.


In the case of the train and equip forces, they are being trained and equipped to fight ISIL. That is the purpose, and that is the basis upon which they're being vetted and trained. The question was raised earlier about what happens if -- and they are not being asked by us, and it's not part of our program to have them engage the forces, Assad's forces.


So the question arises, if Assad's forces undertake to engage them, would we have some responsibility towards them? And as I indicated, we would. But they're not being fielded for that purpose. They're being fielded for the purpose of engaging ISIL. That'll be their principal mission, and that's one of the bases on which they would join our program in the first place.


Q: It's not clear exactly what response, or is it totally determined...


SEC. CARTER: No, as I said, we have some responsibility. We have not determined yet all of the rules of engagement under those circumstances, but I think we have acknowledged that we have some responsibility to support them.


STAFF: Sir, we'll go back to broadcast with Jen Griffin.


Q: Two quick follow ups, Mr. Secretary. In terms of AQAP in Yemen, there are reports that a top leader was taken out by a drone strike. The leader was involved in the Charlie Hebdo attack. Can you confirm that?


In terms of Jade Helm, can you say clearly, is the U.S. military planning to overtake Texas, as is being asserted by a certain presidential candidate? (Laughter.)


SEC. CARTER: Okay. Well I'll take the second one first. No.


With respect to the first one, I'm afraid I cannot give you a specific response on this particular strike. We just don't talk about those and certainly not from this podium.


I will say though that to the general question of AQAP in Yemen, we continue to apply pressure there. Obviously, the circumstances have changed in Yemen. And said earlier, it's more when you have a stable government in a country, it gives you more opportunities for counter-terrorism operations. But we do have other ways of doing that, and we're keeping up the pressure on A.Q., and we intend to continue to do so.


Q: And General Dempsey, in terms of Iran and the Maersk Tigris, do you believe that that -- that Iran took the Maersk Tigris hostage if you will in a tit for tat because of the USS Teddy Roosevelt's involvement in following their weapons convoy? And did you stop accompanying the U.S. and British ships through the Strait of Hormuz because the Maersk Tigris was going to be released today?


GEN. DEMPSEY: So, to the first part of your question, whether we believe it was a tit for tat for turning their weapons convoy around through the deterrent value that the carrier provided, I don't think so.


As you know, the government of Iran stated that it was to resolve a long-standing financial dispute. There was reason to believe that was true.


Now, the way they did it was certainly, in our view, a violation of international law, which is to say by force. But we don't think it was as you said, a tit for tat for our activities to turn that convoy around.


And in terms of the accompany mission that the secretary approved, we had put a sunset clause on it from the beginning in order to determine whether the threat would be persistent, or whether it was episodic. Doesn't appear that it's persistent right now, but we've certainly got the resources in place should we need to quickly turn it back on.


STAFF: Sir, we'll go deep to Tom Vanden Brook from USA Today.


Q: Sir, question about the moderate opposition.


Will the United States be paying salaries to these people, and then second -- secondly, what is our responsibility if they commit war crimes, if they do something, do we have responsibility in that regard?


SEC. CARTER: Okay. With respect to the first one, they do receive some compensation as well as training and equipment. As I said, support. Secondly, an explicit part of their training is how to conduct themselves in a way that is consistent with international law. That's an explicit part of our training, and it's also, by the way, an explicit part of our vetting.


And it -- and of course, any continued support for them would be strongly conditioned upon their continued good conduct in that regard.


Q: (off-mic) compensation that they'll be receiving?


SEC. CARTER: I can't, but you know, we can get that for you, Tom.


STAFF: Sir, we'll end with a major network. Dave Martin at CBS.


Q: You've talked about your responsibility to support these opposition fighters. What's your ability to control them once they go back in, other than just pulling support?


SEC. CARTER: Well, I think one way of addressing that is through their training and through the missions they're given, and where they're located, and you -- in many cases, remember, as part of the vetting process, there's a dialogue that goes on about their motivation in the first place. Many are motivated by the fact that ISIL has taken over and mistreated the places from which they came, and so their commitment is something that we have a very good idea of as part of the vetting process.


Q: Would the U.S. be giving them specific missions as in sort of exercises and tactical control over these units?


SEC. CARTER: I would put it a little bit differently than that. I would say that that's again, part of the dialogue. Remember, these are people who, in general, come from a particular place, and so they have commitments to the country of Syria as a whole, but they also have a commitment to the part of the country from which they've come and so forth.


And so they clearly have a voice in where they're going to fight, at least initially and first. And that's part of the dialogue that'll go on.


First thing's first though, we first have to get them trained, having gotten them vetted.


STAFF: Thanks very much sir.


Q: One more on ISIL? One more on ISIL?


STAFF: I think we're done sir, but one last? Go ahead.


Q: Over recent days, there's been a number, there's been quite a bit of propaganda, purportedly from ISIL, taking credit for the attack in Texas and threatening future attacks against the U.S. homeland. Can you help Americans understand how serious that threat is from ISIL in this country, and I would welcome a response from both of you?


SEC. CARTER: Okay. Well, I think we have to take it seriously. And I think our law enforcement and our homeland security folks have been saying the same.


I think again, our understanding from the investigations that are going on was that these were inspired by ISIL, not directed by ISIL, which is an important distinction.


Still, in all it's concerning that there are individuals like this who draw their inspiration from ISIL, and finally, it's yet another reason why the defeat of ISIL is important. It's important in Syria, it's important in Iraq, and it has this larger meaning because of the ability of a movement like this to inspire a certain sort of person.


STAFF: Thanks sir.


SEC. CARTER: Thank you.