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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell January 13, 2009

DoD News Briefing with Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon


MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. Pleasure to see you all today. I have just a few announcements, and I'll gladly take your questions.

First, Secretary Gates very much appreciates the Senate Armed Services Committee quickly arranging hearings this Thursday for the first four people nominated to serve in this department under President Obama. As you know, last week the president-elect nominated Bill Lynn to be the deputy Defense secretary, Michelle Obama (sic) for undersecretary of Defense for Policy --

Q That was Flournoy --

Q Not Obama --

(Cross talk.)

Q (Laughs.)

MR. MORRELL: Excuse me. (Laughter.) Thank you for correcting me. (Laughter.) Talk about an --

Q (Off mike.)

MR. MORRELL: Talk about an active first lady!

Michele Flournoy for undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Robert Hale as Pentagon comptroller, and Jeh Johnson as the general counsel.

The secretary emerged from interviews with all four of those individuals impressed with their professional credentials, as well as their personal character. He is grateful they have agreed to serve the nation and urges the Senate to confirm them as soon as possible after the Inauguration, so as to help him ensure a smooth transfer of power within the department as we continue to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Second, Secretary Gates will himself appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee, as well as the House Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday, January 27th. The committees have invited him to testify on the challenges facing this department as President Obama takes office.

And finally, I am pleased to announce the secretary will appear before you all later this week. He will conduct a news conference here in the briefing room this Thursday sometime in the afternoon. And I'd certainly hope you all can attend.

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

Andrew?

Q Geoff, there's a Washington Post story today which suggests that the extra troops to Afghanistan are not expected to make a big difference there and turn the tide, but rather they're more of a stopgap while a more complete strategy is worked out. Is that how the secretary sees it?

MR. MORRELL: No. I think that the hope, the belief of those who are working on this is that by sending an additional four brigade combat teams, an additional combat aviation brigade and the enablers to support them, that you will make a real difference on the ground in Afghanistan. You will effectively be doubling the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, bringing the total number of coalition forces to nearly a hundred thousand, and that cannot help but make a difference.

That said, what ultimately is the strategy that the president- elect and his team wish to pursue is something that's still under discussion and likely will be for some time once they take office. But fundamentally, the strategy that will be pursued as those forces flow into theater is a counterinsurgency strategy, albeit enhanced by additional resources. The commander will make decisions about how to deploy those resources for maximum effect, and the commander in chief and the secretary of Defense, advised by the chairman and the chiefs, will ultimately come to some understanding about where this president wants to lead the mission in Afghanistan.

But I don't think anybody here would be sending troops into Afghanistan in the kinds of numbers we are talking about if we didn't think it would make a real difference on the ground.

Q Follow on that?

MR. MORRELL: Yeah.

Q Do you have any visibility on which units will be sent over to Afghanistan; in other words, where they'll be coming from?

MR. MORRELL: I think we've talked about this at great length. What we know thus far is that the 3rd of the 10th Mountain Division will be the first of these additional brigade combat teams arriving in Afghanistan. They're due to get there this month. Additionally, the 82nd Airborne Division has been identified as the supplier of the combat aviation brigade.

As for the additional three brigade combat teams, the sourcing of those is still to be determined, or has at least not been announced yet. And, you know, we've talked about those additional forces flowing into country beginning in late spring, early summer.

So as we get closer to that, I think we will be making announcements as to where those forces will be coming from.

Q Can I ask another question as well? There's a report from Greek media that an arms supply shipment from the United States to Israel's been cancelled. It was supposed to go through some port in Greece. Can you speak to that, please?

MR. MORRELL: I can. We have a stockpile -- a munitions stockpile we've had for some time, I think dating back nearly 20 years now, in Israel that requires resupplying from time to time. I think this summer there was a decision made to beef up that stockpile. This is a U.S. stockpile which Israel, as an ally of ours, does -- can ask for permission to access. And a decision was made this summer to flow additional munitions into that stockpile.

And I think what you are seeing now is an effort to get those munitions there. I think the Greek government had some issue with the off-loading of some of that shipment in their country, and so we are finding alternative means of getting that entire shipment to its proper destination in Israel. I don't think we've come to a final resolution on how or when that will take place.

Q So the Greece -- the Greeks had a security problem with having the arms come through?

MR. MORRELL: I don't know if they had a security problem or a political problem or some other kind of problem. But for whatever reason, there was an objection raised at some level, and so we will find an alternative means of flowing those munitions into Israel and to our U.S. stockpile that exists there and has for decades, now.

Q What sorts of arms are we talking about?

MR. MORRELL: I'm sorry?

Q What sorts of arms are we talking about?

MR. MORRELL: I don't think we care to discuss how we position arms around the world for security reasons.

Q Just to follow on, some of the papers coming from this building have said it's because of the security situation in Gaza and not primarily because of the Greeks.

MR. MORRELL: What is because of the security situation?

Q The delay in the shipment.

MR. MORRELL: Well, fundamentally, we put out a request for services that would have required off-loading some of those munitions in Greece and onto a different vessel. There were objections raised. And so we have -- are trying to figure an alternative.

I don't, frankly, know, Dmitri, if a compounding factor here is the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip. But we are looking for an alternative means of getting them into Israel and to our -- to our warehouse, and looking for a safe means of doing so.

Yeah, Jim. Yes. You should really sit up here, Jim. A man of your stature should be in the front row, not way back there.

Q (Laughs.) Okay.

Q Too tall.

Q Were the Israelis given access to the -- this munitions stockpile, either in the lead-up or in the course of this conflict?

MR. MORRELL: Frankly, Jim, I don't know, but even if I did, I don't think that's something I would disclose with you all. I think, you know, this is fundamentally our stockpile, which is rather routine. We preposition arms in many allied countries around the world, strategically placing them, should we need to access them at different -- in different areas around the world. And I think that it's a typical arrangement with host nations that they, with our permission, can access those stockpiles as well, on a requested basis.

Q Can you say then why it was decided to increase or to add to this stockpile this summer?

MR. MORRELL: I don't -- I mean, it could have been that the stockpile was drawn down for operations, you know, being conducted in the region. It could have been that there was a strategic decision to increase the number of weapons in that stockpile. But for whatever reason, there was a decision made -- let me just look at my notes here. It was coordinated during the summer of 2008 and approved by DoD in October 2008, so this certainly predates this conflict that we're now seeing underway in the Gaza Strip.

Q Geoff?

MR. MORRELL: Yes, Barbara.

Q Guantanamo Bay --

MR. MORRELL: Anything else? I'm happy to get to Guantanamo Bay. Anything else on this subject, or we're -- okay.

Guantanamo Bay. Barbara, yes?

Q You know, you did talk about it several weeks ago, but just for the record, can you bring us up to date on the status of the secretary's review for the transition about what it would take to close down Guantanamo Bay, how -- what you can tell us about how he views this effort now, you know? And then I'll follow up.

MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, as you know, this has been something the secretary has been pursuing for some time now. The closure of Guantanamo Bay is something he has long advocated. It's something, frankly, President Bush has long advocated and, for that matter, the president-elect. So I think everybody's in agreement that it should be closed.

The challenge, of course, has been for this president and for this secretary: How do you close it?

And it will remain the challenge for the incoming president and his secretary of Defense. So that challenge has certainly been a topic of conversation between the secretary, the president-elect and his national security team.

I can tell you, they've had a number of conversations, on this topic, the most recent of which, I think, occurred last week. And I think that it is clear that from the statements the president-elect has made as recently, I believe, as Sunday, on one of the Sunday programs, that he is intent on closing down the detention facility of Guantanamo Bay, and that the secretary is working with him and his team, to figure out how that could be done.

I think you heard from the president-elect that he acknowledges that it may take some time to do so. But that doesn't mean that he and his team, including the secretary, aren't working now to figure out the best course of action.

And so the review that you ask about, that the secretary initiated, is a work in progress. It is very much being informed by the conversations the secretary is having with President-elect Obama and the new national security team. And so as those meetings take place, and as those discussions take place, he makes requests then of the team that he has put together in house. And they continue to work on trying to fashion a solution.

I can tell you that there are a range of outcomes, a range of possibilities under discussion, and that no one has settled on, at this point, on any one option or solution to this thorny problem.

Q When you talk about a range of options and possibilities, can you give us any insight? Does the secretary see perhaps different categories of people who are there, so-called high-value versus the general population?

Will everybody -- are we looking at everyone being treated the same in whatever the new structure is? Or will the high-values have one set and everybody else another? How do you view this?

MR. MORRELL: Listen, I could give you a logical answer to that. I mean, but I don't know that it accurately reflects where the president-elect and his national security team wish to take things.

But clearly it would seem there is a difference between the detainees at Guantanamo. There are some we have identified as being ready to be transferred back to their homelands who we are just looking for a willing recipient of them, a willing government to take them on and provide -- either guarantee their safe treatment, once they arrive there, or provide for their confinement back there or at least monitor them effectively so they don't return to terrorism.

I can disclose with you the fact that we have a new -- we have updated recidivism numbers of people who have been at Guantanamo, and these are the latest numbers we have as of the end of December. And it shows a pretty substantial increase in recidivism. I think prior to this report, I think the rate had been about 7 percent of those who had been held at Guantanamo and released who have been confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight. At that time we suspected that 30 -- confirmed or suspected that 37 former detainees had returned to the fight. We now believe that that number has increased and that the overall known terrorist reengagement rate has increased to 11 percent. The new numbers are, we believe, 18 confirmed and 43 suspected of returning to the fight. So 61 in all former Guantanamo detainees are confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight.

So there clearly, Barbara, are people who are being held at Guantanamo who are still bent on doing harm to America, Americans, and our allies. So there will have to be some solution for the likes of them, and those are among -- that is among the thorny issues that the president-elect and his new team are carefully considering.

Q Can I just ask you to clarify the statistics? I may have missed this. When you say 37 and now 61, is that just a continuum over time? Are those year-to-year numbers, you know --

MR. MORRELL: Now this is the total number from the history of detainees at Gitmo.

Q So the 37 was at what period of time and the 61 is at what period of time?

MR. MORRELL: Well, I think we've updated our numbers at the end of last year.

I'll have to figure out when our last update we provided for you was. But it has -- our tracking has gone from 37 now to 61 former Guantanamo detainees who have been confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight.

Okay? Yeah, let me -- I'll come back to you, Dmitri. Let me go to Jack.

Q Just to clarify something, earlier, when you were talking about the troops that might be going to Afghanistan, I think you said the sourcing is ongoing or at least it hasn't been announced yet. Are you saying that a decision has been made, but it hasn't been announced yet?

MR. MORRELL: No. I said it's ongoing -- haven't been identified or it hasn't been announced yet. It was an "or."

Q Okay. So you're not --

MR. MORRELL: Not an "and."

Q Okay.

MR. MORRELL: But -- no, so I'm not trying to -- I'm not trying to tell you that I know but won't share it with you because we're not ready to announce it. I don't know what the sourcing solution is for those additional BCTs, and I'm not so sure that we know yet what the sourcing solution is to that, because I don't think a decision has been made. So that's where my hunch is at this point, rather than that it has been made, but we just aren't ready to announce it. But as soon as we have made it and are ready to announce it, I am prepared to share it with you.

Q On a completely different subject, there have been five Medals of Honor awarded for the global war on terrorism, all of them posthumous. Is it now DoD policy that Medals of Honor for the war on terrorism are posthumous?

MR. MORRELL: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I can tell you emphatically that is not the case, that the secretary of Defense would like nothing more than to honor a living hero with the Medal of Honor. I think he is like many people who look at seven years of conflict and -- in two different theaters and says, "How can it be that there has not been a soldier who has not performed an act worthy of the Medal of Honor who has survived that act?"

And so I think he would very much like to see the services identify people who would be deserving of such an honor.

But it is certainly not the policy of this department merely to award Medals of Honor -- or to recommend to the president that he award Medals of Honor to only service members who have been killed in their act of heroism.

Yeah, Jim Miklaszewski.

Q Geoff, back to this recidivism out of Gitmo.

MR. MORRELL: I love this. Mik is watching in his booth and he rushes in here with a follow-up question.

Q Well, you know --

MR. MORRELL: It's only -- you only come if it's newsworthy. Okay, go on.

Q Well, I mean, you were a little unclear, actually.

MR. MORRELL: I was? Okay.

Q Is it now a total of 61 --

MR. MORRELL: Right.

Q -- or is it 37 plus the 61?

MR. MORRELL: No. It was a total of 37; now it's a total of 61.

Q Okay. And these detainees have been released to which countries? And they return to the fight; which fight?

MR. MORRELL: I'm not -- I don't think we're prepared to --

Q (Off mike) --

MR. MORRELL: I don't -- no, this is acts of terrorism. It could be Iraq, Afghanistan, it could be acts of terrorism around the world. I don't think we're prepared to identify where each and every one of these people was released to and where they've since either went on to commit an act of terrorism or are suspected of going on to commit an act of terrorism. Just that we have, you know, intelligence, in some cases evidence to prove that they have indeed gone on to return to violence, and that's a real concern.

Q But wouldn't it be helpful -- I mean, if you're going to throw out these numbers -- to categorize it a little bit, to give us a little more detail on where these people went and just exactly what kind of acts of either terrorism or warfare they're committing and where?

MR. MORRELL: You know, I didn't come in, frankly, with examples of it, Jim. I will -- I think we've talked before about some sort of well-known examples. I think there was at least one individual, I think, who was returned to Kuwait and then went on to conduct a suicide bombing in Iraq. I mean, there are anecdotal examples of this. I'm sure -- we don't make these figures up. They're not done willy-nilly.

It is painstakingly done by the Defense Intelligence Agency. And they go over this with great care to make sure that they are either classified as suspected of returning to terrorism based upon -- you know, this can be based upon everything from -- okay, for example, the confirmed returning to terrorism would be fingerprints, conclusive photographic match, reliable verified or well corroborated intelligence reporting, things of that nature.

Analysis indicating a detainee most likely is associated with a former -- with a specific former detainee, or, well, engagement in propaganda, for example, does not qualify as terrorist activity. It must be a specific former detainee is involved in terrorist activities. Reporting -- plausible reporting has to indicate that a specific former detainee is involved in terrorist activities for them to be qualified as suspected of returning to terrorism.

Q Could I respectfully request that additional --

MR. MORRELL: Sure.

Q -- information be made available, details of exactly who these people are, to what countries they were released, and just exactly what kind of --

MR. MORRELL: I'll see what we can do.

Yeah?

Q Quick response.

MR. MORRELL: Yeah.

Q Geoff, can you break down the 37 in confirmed and suspected?

MR. MORRELL: I'll have to check on that. I don't have that readily here.

Okay?

Q (Off mike) -- coverage says that it's 61 through, like, November of last year, or --

MR. MORRELL: No, I said it's through December -- it's at the end of last year.

Yeah, Louie (sp).

Q Geoff, when these numbers have been released in the past, there's been discussion among critics that, actually -- that this should not be titled recidivism, but that, possibly, some of these individuals may have turned to terrorist activities as a result of the treatment or their detention at Guantanamo -- in order words, that they may have -- not have had these inclinations prior to having arrived there.

MR. MORRELL: So they were innocently picked up on the battlefield, or --

Q Well, is that something that you're willing to potentially acknowledge, that maybe --

MR. MORRELL: I have no -- I have no reason to acknowledge it at this point. I've seen no indication that that -- to be the case.

Q But is there -- are -- is there confirmation that, in these numbers -- that every one of these individuals was deemed an enemy combatant and --

MR. MORRELL: Well, if they were being held at Guantanamo Bay, they were being held there for a reason.

Q And why were they released?

MR. MORRELL: Because, at some point, somebody made a decision that they were no longer deemed to be a threat, or that the country that they were being returned to would have been responsible for their safekeeping.

Q Would material support be included among some of the things that -- when you were talking about a battlefield, or they return to the site, would material support or fundraising be included among that?

MR. MORRELL: I would think it would be. But I'd have to -- I'd have to check on our precise definitions.

We'll check -- or you could also check with DIA, but we'll try to get you can exact definition.

Yeah. Let's take -- if we're going to -- let's take a couple more. I don't have much time, so if you have any other subjects, let's round it up.

Q Still on Gitmo. The Portuguese last month said that they would be willing to take some detainees and other European countries should. Have you had any kind of positive discussions -- concrete discussions about them taking some?

MR. MORRELL: With the Portuguese?

Q Or other countries.

MR. MORRELL: Yeah. I didn't come in armed with any update in terms of other countries.

Obviously, we've been encouraging of other countries around the world taking on -- taking on some of these detainees. It would certainly help us draw down the population in Guantanamo Bay. We certainly believe there are many detainees there who are -- who are qualified to be -- to be moved out of Gitmo. And so we are encouraging of those countries that are willing to do so to step up to the plate and offer to take them. So that would certainly be a way to help diminish the overall numbers in Guantanamo.

Let's finish up with --

Q Can I ask you --

MR. MORRELL: Let's do these three right here.

Q Okay. Acquisition --

Q Can we finish on Gitmo, though?

Q Well --

MR. MORRELL: I'm running the press conference here. Tony.

Q Well, that a question. Can we finish on Gitmo?

MR. MORRELL: And I'm calling on Tony. Thanks, Jim.

Q Okay. Can you give a sense of --

MR. MORRELL: You would have more leverage if you were here at the beginning, by the way.

Go ahead.

Q You have three major acquisition decisions coming up on the F-22, the C-17 transport and the tanker acquisition strategy. Can you give a sense of which of those will have to be decided first in the -- in the first two or three months of this administration?

MR. MORRELL: F-22, tanker -- I'm sorry?

Q Tanker and the C-17 line, whether to buy more to keep the line open.

MR. MORRELL: I think the only one that has hard date for making a decision would be the F-22, if I'm not mistaken. I think there's a March decision date there that is the one that has to be dealt with right away.

But I think decisions about procurement -- those particular procurement programs are going to be undertaken right out of the gate. And I don't think they would necessarily be taken in a vacuum. I think there wants to be -- there has to be an effort under way about budgeting overall.

Q Right.

MR. MORRELL: And in the -- in the confines of that discussion, we will proceed on sort of individual procurement programs.

But the one that has the hard and fast initial date would be the F-22, but the secretary has made it clear that he believes and the Air Force believes the top procurement priority of the Air Force is the tanker. And that is something that is going to have to be addressed quickly, to rebid that contract and to make a decision upon -- about that.

But I don't think that's going to happen, that whole process is going to happen, before March the 1st when the F-22 comes to us. We will likely embark on that process beforehand, but it won't come to any conclusion before that first date on the F-22.

Q Do you think it will be April or May on the tanker, or by then?

MR. MORRELL: I don't have a good sense for you, Tony. But suffice it to say, these decisions are going to be addressed very seriously very early in this administration.

Q I expect we'll hear -- (off mike).

MR. MORRELL: Yeah. Let me go back to -- yes. Yes?

Q Geoff, the Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that the director general of the Israeli defense ministry made what they call a lightning visit to Washington yesterday. Do you have any reading on his meetings he had here at the Pentagon?

MR. MORRELL: I don't. It's the first I'm hearing of it. Sorry.

Jennifer?

Q Yes. Do you have any evidence that there are more or fewer Iranian-made weapons going into Iraq? And what is the secretary's point of view on potentially negotiating with Iran?

MR. MORRELL: I don't have a strong indication of whether there are more or less, but I think we see persistent evidence that there continues to be Iranian support of special groups who are trying to undermine peace and security in Afghanistan. Whether it be through training or the supply of weapons such as EFPs. Frankly --

Q Afghanistan?

MR. MORRELL: You're asking Iraq.

Q I was asking about Iraq.

MR. MORRELL: Iraq.

(Cross Talk.)

MR. MORRELL: Okay. I did that last week, too, and I apologize, but it wasn't a Freudian slip. Actually, we have seen evidence, obviously, of it in Afghanistan, as well -- or perhaps it was a slip, but it was deliberate.

So we've seen evidence in both theaters of sort of Iranian efforts to supply weapons and training to those who wish to destabilize the security situation.

Q But in the last six months you've seen EFPs coming into Iraq?

MR. MORRELL: I think --

Q (Inaudible) -- continuing every month?

MR. MORRELL: We have continued to see evidence of Iranian support to terrorists in both countries.

Q And what is the secretary's position on negotiating with Iran?

MR. MORRELL: I think the secretary's position has been -- and I could refer you to his -- some of his previous remarks -- that -- I don't think he's ever been opposed to trying to conduct conversations with Iran at some level and indeed this administration has done so. But he believes that the best way to do so is from a position of strength, and the best way to do so would be for economic and diplomatic pressure to become so great upon the Iranian government that they wish to conduct fruitful and serious conversations about not pursuing a nuclear weapons program, about not destabilizing their neighbors, and about emerging into a community of nations that understands right from wrong and wishes to benefit from that structure.

Q Does he feel we're at that point right now?

MR. MORRELL: I think I would let him answer that question. I have not had an update from him on his latest thinking on that. Obviously this is something that he and the president-elect and the new national security team have been and will continue to talk about. And so those discussions will likely inform his thinking as well. But I don't have an update for you on his most current thinking on engagement.

Q Geoff, can I just have a quick clarification on something you said to Jennifer?

MR. MORRELL: Sure.

Q You said it twice. Is there in fact new evidence now -- and can you tell us what it is -- of Iranian involvement in the war in Afghanistan, beyond the time frame of a couple years ago or better, when General McNeill talked to us about some weapons convoys? What --

MR. MORRELL: Sure, we have seen more contemporaneous evidence than a couple of years ago or weapons convoys of -- I think the anecdotal account was, I think, about a year ago, where the British, I think, had intercepted a convoy, something of that nature.

Q Okay. Now that you've said it twice, can you tell us what the evidence --

MR. MORRELL: You know, I'd have to -- I don't come armed with the specifics, and I'd ultimately like to refer you to General McKiernan or to CENTCOM. But I will go check to see in my own notes what I have as sort of the latest that I've heard. But I can tell you that there has been evidence in both theaters of continued meddling.

Okay?

Q To follow on that, you mentioned EFPs specifically. Did you mean EFPs to Iraq, or is there evidence that EFPs are also being sent into Afghanistan? Do you know that?

MR. MORRELL: I was referring to Iraq in that case. But I believe, as we've -- as this convoy that Barbara talked about a couple years ago, it would not be unprecedented for EFPs to be shipped into Afghanistan. That convoy, I believe, had EFP materials in it. And I think we have seen isolated incidents of EFP attacks.

Okay?

Q On the Iranian meddling --

MR. MORRELL: You guys are killing me. We'll end with Jim Mannion.

Q On the Iranian meddling, is it associated with the elections that are coming up in Iraq?

MR. MORRELL: You have to ask them. I can't -- I can't deduce as to why they would be doing such things, only that it's terribly unhelpful.

Thanks.

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