Department of Defense Press Briefing by Adm. Tidd in the Pentagon Briefing Room

Admiral Kurt Tidd, commander, Southern Command


ADMIRAL KURT TIDD: Well, good afternoon. It's good to see one or two familiar faces here in the audience, and I look forward to getting to know more of you as I haven't really had a chance to meet you all directly. So, looking forward to this. I appreciate this opportunity to speak with you today. I recognize that you represent a corps of distinguished professionals, respected organizations entrusted with the unique task of reporting about the Defense Department's mission to the American people and to the world.

Now, I know that this is still technically winter here in Washington, but actually today I can tell you the temperature in Washington is exactly the same as the temperature in Miami. But I am aware of, and very fortunate that I am going to be jumping on an airplane and heading back south. And you probably have at least one more blizzard before spring sets in permanently.

I've been here long enough to know that's pretty much the way this runs. But please don't hold that against me.

Now, to be honest, I have not stayed in Miami very much since assuming command about two months ago. In the last 60 days, I have visited the Caribbean, Central America and South America in order to meet with military, public security, and government leaders. I wanted to hear their views, their concerns and their interests, to express our continued commitment and to discuss the way ahead for regional security cooperation.

While most of my meetings were bilateral, in January I did meet with defense leaders from the Caribbean for talks on capabilities and mechanisms needed to collectively address security challenges facing the Caribbean region. In early April, I will join defense and security leaders from Central America for a similar conference.

ADM. TIDD: Central America's northern tier countries are a priority for me. I've already visited Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where I met with my military counterparts to discuss ways in which we can assist their efforts to improve security.

While there, I met with our embassy leaders and staff to discuss how SOUTHCOM can complement the U.S. government's support to the Alliance for Prosperity.

Another priority, Colombia, which was the first country that I visited --

(AUDIO GAP)

ADM. TIDD: -- actually on my fourth day in command, I step foot in Colombia. As you well know, Colombia recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of Plan Colombia. It's remarkable to see just exactly how far this country has come over the past 15 years. But it is not surprising when you consider how courageous, steadfast and committed the Colombian people are to defending their representative government. We will remain committed to Colombia and to their continued efforts.

I intend to continue visiting our partner nations and to discuss our future cooperation with them and to build on our success. Now while security is essential to the region's stability, SOUTHCOM plays an equally vital role supporting the diplomatic, development and law enforcement activities that serve as pillars of our nation's partnerships in this hemisphere.

I've met with the directors of the FBI and DEA, the secretary of DHS and the administrator of USAID as well as with senior leaders at the Department of State. Our combined interagency efforts are critical in order to deal with the drug interdiction mission.

Visiting my component commands is -- and the subordinate task forces was also very high on my list of things to do early on. They contribute significantly to our mission each and every day, and I wanted the troops and their leadership to know how much I value what they do for SOUTHCOM, for our country and for the Americas.

In addition, I visited Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay, twice in fact. The men and women there conduct safe and humane detention operations comparable and, in my opinion, exceeding the care of any facility anywhere in the world. They are deserving of our nation's gratitude and respect, and I'm proud of what they do and of the service they perform on behalf of our nation. This morning, I shared this pride that I feel for the men and women of SOUTHCOM as I testified before the distinguished members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee -- Armed Services Committee. I was very encouraged by the committee's interest in our mission and the nations that we partner with. We touched on a wide range of topics, including the security challenges impacting the region, our command's priorities and the resourcing that SOUTHCOM needs to successfully accomplish the missions that it's entrusted with.

Now, what I'd like to do is open the floor, and I'll be happy to take your questions. Lita?

Q: Admiral, thanks for doing this. I was wondering if you could just bring us up to date a little bit on the Zika virus and talk to us a little bit about what, if any, what number of U.S. forces have either been afflicted or -- by the virus, how many have had to be transferred out, and what, if any, other challenges this has brought to the countries that you're overseeing.

ADM. TIDD: Yes, sure. And first, the second part of your question, two of our service members have been diagnosed and confirmed to have had Zika. Both cases were confirmed, they have -- the cases resolved. And they both returned to duty.

In addition, we've had one other person who has taken advantage of a -- of a policy that we put in place for a pregnant female to be able to return to the United States. She was already scheduled to depart the region, and so this was just a very slight acceleration to an already scheduled departure.

ADM. TIDD: So that's where we stand on the specifics.

With regard to the individual countries, I think you're aware of the -- the broad interagency partnership that was put together to deal with the Ebola crisis. We were able to reactivate that -- that network and the role that the Department of Defense, and specifically that SOUTHCOM plays is as a supporting enabler for that -- that broader whole-of-government approach.

We've been working closely with partner nations down there to be prepared to deal with specific requests that they may have for assistance. The -- the types of activities, the types of requests have been fairly small in nature because the -- the dealing with the vector that transmits the disease, the mosquito, is exactly the same mosquito that transmits dengue fever, chikungunya, and in fact we have, as you all probably know the history of this region, we paid very close attention to mosquito-borne disease vectors. And so we understand what it takes for self-protection to be able to deal with that.

We have done a number of subject-matter exchange discussions with partner militaries on how you deal with mosquito eradication. They've got a pretty solid handle on that. No one has asked us yet for assistance in the actual eradication.

We've also provided small amounts of materials -- mosquito netting and some other materials. But -- but for the most part, we are in a being prepared to provide any additional assistance that might be requested.

Yes?

Q: Admiral, thank you.

Courtney Kube with NBC News. Thank you.

So, following up, the two service members who were confirmed -- where were they -- they were confirmed -- (inaudible) -- here in the U.S. Where had they traveled in --

(CROSSTALK)

ADM. TIDD: One was assigned in Brazil. One was assigned in Colombia.

Q: They were there at the time that they were --

(CROSSTALK)

ADM. TIDD: They were both diagnosed. The confirmation occurred. They remained there. They, obviously, you know, Brazil is very well equipped. And the treatment, in fact, is -- is fairly simple and straightforward. Both were males and so it was a fairly straightforward procedure. And they're back on duty again.

Q: And my next question was were they --

(CROSSTALK)

ADM. TIDD: I'm sorry. Yeah, I should have said right up front. Yes.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Sir, Gordon Lubold, Wall Street Journal.

Two unrelated questions. One is what is the current assessment of the -- of the facilities at Gitmo? You know, there's a long -- (inaudible) -- about pouring money into a facility, obviously, that the administration still intends to try to close. But can you give us a sense of where the -- you know, are the facilities okay? Do you -- are you putting money in them? Have you recently?

Now, I know you're new there, but give us a sense of that.

ADM. TIDD: Yeah. The -- yeah, the detention facilities, I presume, is what you're talking about.

(CROSSTALK)

ADM. TIDD: Then there's the peripheral. The detention facilities that are currently in use are literally state of the art detention facilities, that -- that -- and if you've not visited recently, I would certainly invite you to take advantage of the -- of the tour opportunities to come down and see for yourself. I mean, they truly are state of the art.

The peripheral -- excuse me -- support facilities, frankly, are temporary structures that are -- that were put in place -- the dining facilities, the housing facilities for the men and women who are -- who are assigned to work at Joint Task Force Guantanamo Bay.

And frankly, the -- the wear-and-tear of a tropical environment is -- is playing pretty hard on them. And so it is -- we're using operations and maintenance money, frankly, to be able to sustain them until, or unless and until we understand just exactly what is the timeline that's required. But because of the uncertainty on how long the facilities would be in operation, there's been -- we've been unable to do, you know, what I would call real detailed planning for the long term posture for the support facilities.

Q: And then, if I could just ask a really -- a question on what operationally you're seeing in terms of the drug running and the boats and those subs that I always forget the name of? And are you seeing an increase? Are you seeing a decrease? Are you able to have enough ISR and other ways to see any of this? I'm assuming you don't get a lot of ISR.

ADM. TIDD: We never have as much ISR as we would like. We could certainly make use of more and I think that's probably -- comes as no great surprise. We are able to see a significant amount of the movement of drugs at sea and in the air.

The challenge that we have is the ability to interdict. That's where we have a real, distinct shortfall in capacity. The mitigations that we put in place is the work that we do. Building partner capacity of the countries of South and Central America to increase their capacity to do the interdiction mission.

So it's -- it helps out. But the interdiction platforms that we have today are largely provided by the U.S. Coast Guard of which, I'd be remiss if I didn't throw a big, big shout out to the Department of Homeland Security and specifically the U.S. Coast Guard for the tremendous support they provided in this mission.

They provided the lion share of the surface platforms engaged in the interdiction mission.

Q: (Off mic.)

ADM. TIDD: The -- in terms of the amount of drug that are going, I think what we've seen is that it is -- it has been relatively stable ticking up and we certainly, I think, you know, we expect to see that it will continue to rise.

Unfortunately, it's all driven by the demand for drugs here in the United States and that demand is not under control.

Q: Yes, to follow my question on Gitmo. This place has had very, very dangerous and most wanted terrorists in the last ten years or so. And some of them have been the lead. And in American case, you've been asking to take them and where they belong to.

But, are you comfortable raising them because some of them already came off the battleground and people are not happy in those countries in that their most dangerous to was what kept them. And now, you are releasing them.

ADM. TIDD: I would defer to our Department of State and Secretary of Defense's Office that are engaged in the specifics of negotiating the -- those particular agreements with the different countries.

Q: So you are concerned there -- you think they should remain there? Are they safe there? Or do you think they should go back to where they belong, or to those countries?

ADM. TIDD: I will be honest. The responsibilities of U.S. Southern Command is to ensure that, you know, unless or until the very last detainee steps foot on an airplane and departs to the island, that we continue to conduct that mission in a manner that is safe. Safe for our people who are conducting it.

But its' fully transparent, that it's legal and that it's humane. And I can tell you from personal observation and I can assure you that probably would be the one area within my command that I will visit the most frequently is, I can assure you, you can have nothing but enormous respect and pride in the men and women who are conducting that mission.

Q: Thank you for doing this sir. On the Islamic State in the region, we've been told about a year ago, that there had been a couple hundred fighters and then a few hundred more after that. What's the latest assessment of the Islamic State?

ADM. TIDD: You know, I watched and I -- especially the -- the discussions that went back and forth when a number was thrown out there and then there was, is that the right number? Is it more or is it less. And I think I would say, rather than pinning down a specific, exact number, which -- which we all recognize is an -- an estimate, we need to recognize that -- that radicalization within our region is occurring.

Radicalization within many of the countries of our region is occurring, and -- and there is -- whereas before I think there was -- not necessarily agreement across all of the different countries and certainly their -- their -- their security chiefs over -- over whether they had a terrorism problem or not, in the aftermath of -- of events that -- the events that occurred in Paris and in San Bernardino and in Tunisia, everyone recognized just exactly how rapidly that radicalization can occur, how -- how quickly an attack -- either a lone-wolf attack within their country or the appearance of foreign fighters who go over to Iraq and -- and to Syria to fight and potentially return -- can occur.

Now, I think there is -- there is general, broad agreement that this is a problem that we all have to pay attention to, and that we are all going to have to share information much more effectively than we might have been willing to in the past, in order to -- to share a common picture and understanding of exactly what the threat is.

Q: Now, would you say that there are more, and -- than there were in the last six months? And would you say that they were -- they're showing up in more countries?

And I know that -- they'd mentioned exactly what you'd said -- we've heard about the need to share information. Have there been any -- any substantial steps toward doing that?

ADM. TIDD: I would -- the -- the conversations that I've had personally with security chiefs from the different countries that I visited, as well as countries that -- where the chiefs have come through Miami and I've met with -- we all agree that we have this problem.

And you -- and we exchange -- you know, this is the number that we think, they tell us the number that they think. And I -- I've yet to have someone come back and give me a number that was lower than the one that I had.

So -- you know, I -- that just tells me that -- that -- that we need to do a better job of exchanging that information and come to a common understanding. But the -- the thing we all agree on is that it exists, it's going on, radicalization is occurring and we're going to have to do something about it.

Q: Can you talk about the countries -- real -- real quickly, just because that has been mentioned in the past? Can you --

ADM. TIDD: Yeah, I -- it -- it probably is better to preserve the -- because of the nature of the discussions that -- that -- that I not, but just tell you that it -- there's -- across the region, there is broad concurrence that -- that -- that we have to pay attention to this problem and work together if we're going to be able to solve it.

I probably ought to go to some people who haven't asked a question first, and then I'll -- I promise, I won't leave until you do.

Q: Admiral, in your personal opinion, should Guantanamo be closed?

ADM. TIDD: You know, one of the luxuries, I think, of -- of -- of being a -- a senior military officer is -- is that -- you know, my responsibility is to make sure that, unless or until it is closed, that we conducted the operations there in an absolute professional manner.

Now, that said, in the conduct of armed conflict, we have to be able to detain people someplace. I have no opinion on where that might be.

Q: (Off mic.) a little concerned that some of the ISIS detainees that are being captured off the battlefield in Iraq and Syria are only being held for a short term?

ADM. TIDD: I -- I will -- again, I will defer to others who -- you know, whose responsibility it is to -- to deal with that. My job is to make sure that Gitmo is operated in a manner that's -- that's -- that's professional.

Q: This week, the administration released a study that said the amount of Guantanamo detainees -- your detainees -- six more have returned to the fight, or are suspected of return to the fight. Aren't you concerned that some of these individuals that are being transferred from Guantanamo have the potential to go back and kill Americans -- some of your sailors and -- and soldiers throughout the world? Doesn't that concern you a little bit?

ADM. TIDD: Some of our sailors I -- I would point out -- I -- look. I think we all have to be absolutely concerned, but the -- the fact of the matter is we're going to make some decisions.

And there are other countries that have expressed a willingness to help us in this. And I think we ought to continue to let that process play out.

Q: Some of these goes to a place like Ghana, for instance. Does that give you a little bit of worry?

ADM. TIDD: I've -- honestly, I've not -- I have not thought about, you know, the conditions that they are being incarcerated in in those countries.

Yes, you bet. Okay. I won't leave, I promise.

(Laughter.)

Q: Thank you, sir. Thank you for doing this.

With the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, what kind of military-to-military engagements are planned? Are you planning a visit? Can we expect some kind of maybe ports of call or something like that?

ADM. TIDD: You know, I will tell you in my previous assignment as assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, one of my responsibilities was his liaison to the secretary of state. So I actually was at the embassy when the flag was raised over the newly reopened embassy. So I've been to Havana already.

When asked by numbers -- Cubans that were there, and they asked me, "Oh, so it this your first visit -- your first visit to Cuba?" And I said, "Well, to this end of the island." But the reality is, we are working. We've had a number of engagements with -- very small, very low level -- with initially I think you're familiar, when the hospital ship Comfort was on its last stop on this recent deployment in Haiti, a small group of Cuban military physicians, who were also conducting medical support in Haiti, came, visited the -- the Comfort. And they had exchanges and discussions.

So those are -- those are the kinds of things that I can vision that we might be able to do.

The previously mentioned security conference -- Caribbean security conference, our co-host, Jamaica, invited the Cubans to participate. The Cubans were there. They were at the conference. And so -- so, you know, I -- I foresee that this will be a process and it will take time. It will take time to unfold.

But I would also observe, over the course of my career I was stationed in NATO headquarters in Brussels when the Berlin wall came down. And up until the time that that happened, my entire career was focused on the fact that there was a world divided along the Berlin wall and there was really no -- no concept that it would come down and the world and the reality that we dealt with would change.

But as military people, our responsibility is to be flexible and agile. And when circumstances change, to be flexible and agile enough to be able to respond to them. So if the time comes and as the relationship evolves, you know, we will be prepared to be able to work with them when and as is legal, and when and as the, you know, the two governments decide is the appropriate pace.

Q: Does the embargo actually have a play in your relationship?

ADM. TIDD: There are certain types of activities that we would not be able to engage in. But right now, there's been no ask, no demand, no -- no need to at this point. So, you know, we're -- we're patient and the door is open and we'll see where it takes us.

Q: Going back to Zika. What are some of the precautions that you folks have in place? And has -- have any of those changed since you had these two cases with service members?

ADM. TIDD: The precautions -- the specific precautions really haven't. Again, because, you know, since -- since the digging of the Panama Canal and the recognition of mosquito-borne illnesses, we've recognized, you know, what a significant danger that they pose. Dengue fever, obviously, the -- the immediate risk posed by dengue fever is pretty dramatic.

So, personal protective measures, you know, the use of Deet, of staying in -- sleeping in screened-in places, using the appropriate precautions -- those sorts of things that are -- that are prudent precautions that anyone should take anywhere that they are in a mosquito-borne illness environment, those remain the same.

ADM. TIDD: The changes have been a policy in place to either temporarily or, if necessarily, relocate specifically women who are part of our team and women who may be or may become pregnant. But again, we've only had the one instance thus far that that's occurred. But it's -- you know, it's just a -- it's a recognition.

We're kind of building this airplane, as -- the entire world is building the airplane as it's -- as it's flying in terms of understanding what are the -- what are the true long-term risks, and we will be prepared to participate in that.

Q: Hi sir. Jennifer Ladd from Air Force Magazine. I believe earlier today you mentioned Russia in your testimony, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Russia's growing involvement or presence in the region --

ADM. TIDD: Sure.

Q: -- and what, if anything, the U.S. is doing in response or about that, I guess.

ADM. TIDD: At this point, the -- what Russia is engaged in is a -- is a reaching back out to former countries that the Soviet Union had close working relationships with. It's developing markets for Russian weapons systems at extremely competitive rates. And then just attempting through the same sort of disinformation campaigns that we've seen in -- them engage in in other parts of the world to create the narrative that the United States is withdrawing from Central and South America, that we don't care about this region, that we are not a reliable partner. And so it's those sorts of activities, but they are -- they are engaged.

You saw -- you know, we had visits by a number of Russian Federation navy ship into Caribbean and Central American countries and some flights by long-range aviation have come in. And so we tended to watch that. It is -- what I -- what I describe it as is a competition for influence within the region and an attempt to displace us as -- considered a reliable partner in the region. And so we pay close attention to that.

It also gets at the point that if we as a -- as a nation are interested in what Russia is up to on a global scale, you can't just look at what they are doing in eastern Europe or in the -- in the Baltic states that you have to pay attention to what they're doing globally in every place. And they are very, very present here, and we need to be aware of that.

Q: Well, are we doing anything to counteract this, you know, message that we're pulling out?

ADM. TIDD: It is -- the direct personal engagement by people such as -- such as myself, other senior U.S. leaders, both military and diplomatic and other leadership that we are and remain a reliable partner, that we remain interested and committed and engaged in this theater, that Central and South America are incredibly -- this is our home and we are very interested in the security environment and that we will continue to be the most reliable partner here.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: Okay.

Q: Hi admiral. Going back to Carla's question for a minute, I was wondering if you could give us just a little bit more granularity on the Islamic State threat in your region. Are we talking about moving from hundreds to thousands? Do you see the group coalescing or is this more of a scattered -- a few here, a few there -- lone wolf, or is it actually attempts to recruit into or have, as we've seen in other countries, have groups change their sort of affiliation to Islamic State?

ADM. TIDD: I would -- I would say it's in the hundreds, and I would -- you know, right now, I want to be very, very careful to caveat the confirmed numbers that we continue to talk to is around -- between 100, 150 range, you know. But I would -- I would also say that, you know, we've got other people that have told us that the -- that the numbers they're tracking for their country is higher that what we've had.

ADM. TIDD: So I -- but again, I don't want to -- that's not the important piece. It is, they are providing foreign fighters. At this point, it's fighter flow from this region over to the, you know, the main fights that ISIL is engaged in.

But I know that you are aware that one of the tactics that they've engaged in is to tell potential recruits if you can't come here, conduct attacks locally. And we've seen how that plays out. So, I think that is just we got the recognition that we need to pay attention to this challenge and that we all collectively have a responsibility to help each other.

Q: And have you seen any sort of direct threats of concrete examples of such direct lone wolf threats?

ADM. TIDD: We have tracked in the theater a number of potential I would say, intense or aspirations at this point. None of whom have borne out. But that's the piece. Regretfully, in many instances, the first time that you have solid proof is after the fact.

Q: How about any specific threats against the Olympics? Or any of -- are you -- is that something that you're -- and I guess, what - will SOUTHCOM have any kind of role?

ADM. TIDD: Obviously, Brazil, as the host nation is the principle partner. And the -- our State Department is the lead U.S. agency that's engaged in providing the support. We have a close working relationship with the Brazilian military. We've been close consultation with them. I met very recently with the chief of the Brazilian Army and we talked about -- specifically about the Olympics.

We have a number of exercises that we engage in that are certainly helpful in terms of opportunities to test through procedures that they might engage in. I think you'll see that right now Brazil is engaged in a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear decontamination exercise that's going on right now.

And we have consulted with them on that and I think then -- been in partnership to make sure they know what we know and then we'll be prepared and are planning to do is to make sure that we are as rapidly as possible, to share any and all information that we have about any potential threats.

Right now we don't see any, but again we've --- you read the publicly published announcements of some of the terrorist organizations who would dearly love to do something that will get a big splash.

Brazilians are taking that very, very seriously and we're happy to be helpful in any way that they would find useful. But we're supporting them.

Q: Going back to the Russians in your region, what's the status of the spy ships? The Russian intel vessels that have been in Havana harbor of late in the auxiliary ship?

ADM. TIDD: You know, I'll have to go back and check. The last one returned home and I don't - I'm not tracking right now any that may be on a return. But you know, we'll be happy to go back and just double check and make sure that I'm not missing one there.

Q: And of late, have there been any Russian -- either long-range bomber flights or have there been any intel ships, I know somewhere, fishing off the coast of Kings Bay coincidentally? Do you have any idea?

ADM. TIDD: It's a pretty good fishing there. I don't know if you've spent any time off of there. But, it's, you know, again. This is all part and parcel of activities that Russia's engaged in.

Again, just to -- one, to demonstrate that the investment that their government has put into recapitalizing their armed forces. And I think it's also sending -- it signaling.

Q: With Cuba being a close ally of the Russians, do you support the Tampa Bay rays playing this baseball game in Havana?

ADM. TIDD: I think I'll leave that to the ownership of the Tampa Bay Rays and the major league baseball association.

STAFF: We have time for one more question.

Q: Just to follow up Cuba and the Russian relations now since U.S. and Cuba relations are moving forward or will be, because in the back yard, and Russia may be out there. What do you think now -- what is the future of Russia's role in Cuba and in the region do you think?

ADM. TIDD: I would probably say go ask the -- the Cuban ambassador and see what they think. I really, you know, we will continue to watch and see.

Q: And finally, a quick question on -- (inaudible) -- if you want to answer. In your field, in your region, in your area, so much going on, right? We talk about Berlin wall came down, but now they're talking about building another wall in the region and other questions.

Do you think -- do you have anybody -- anybody coming to you on those things that they are angry and they don't --

ADM. TIDD: Yes, I would refer you back to Admiral Gortney's testimony this morning. But let me -- any other -- any other questions?

Just if I could, and I don't want to walk away without taking one last opportunity to cite the absolute heroic activities of our Colombian counterparts. They have been engaged in a 50-year civil war. They have taken significant casualties over the course of that time. The country has -- has made the hard, difficult decision and now they're engaged in an effort to achieve peace.

The toughest days remain ahead of them, of the Colombian armed forces, rather. It is critically important that we continue to stand with them, just as it was a decades-long commitment to get Colombia to the position where they are today. This will continue to be a decades-long commitment. But I -- the investment has paid enormous dividends up to this point. Colombia is one of our staunchest partners in terms of helping as a key mentor and adviser to Central American militaries that today face a similar set of circumstances that Colombia found itself in a couple of decades ago.

And Colombia is able to play an incredibly important role. They are also a key participant in peacekeeping operations throughout the world. But as important, they have also stood side by side with American men and women engaged in combat operations in parts of the world, from the Korean War back in the early 1950s, all the way up to Iraq and Afghanistan. They've lost men and women side by side with ours.

And so I just wanted to say we owe an enormous thanks to the Colombian people and we would like to continue to work with them as solid partners.

So thank you all very much.