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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 March 21, 2008

DoD News Briefing with Press Secretary Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. A pleasure to be with you all today.

Is Bob Burns the only who was on the trip who's here? Oh, Kristin. (Inaudible) -- productive. Glad to see you guys are here. Brief opening statement, then we'll get right to your questions.

Secretary Gates spent part of his morning in the tank discussing options for the way forward in Iraq with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As many of you know, yesterday morning he had a similar conversation with Admiral Fallon, who was here at the Pentagon, and General Petraeus, who participated via secure video teleconference from Baghdad.

These two meetings, which lasted in total about 2-1/2 hours, were an opportunity for the secretary to hear the very latest thinking and analysis of these senior military leaders before they brief President Bush in the coming days. The secretary was very impressed with the presentations he received and is confident that, just as they did last September, General Petraeus, Admiral Fallon and the Joint Chiefs will provide the president with the information and advice he needs to continue to chart a path to success in Iraq while also taking into account the stress on the force after five years of fighting there.


Q Geoff, in today's tank session, did the chairman present his own recommendation to the secretary in addition to the individual views of the service chiefs?

MR. MORRELL: I was not in the tank session today so I don't have the specifics of how the presentation was presented to the secretary. But as we have talked long ago, or many times over the past six, seven months, this process is identical to the one that we used last September. And that provided the president with the opportunity to hear from all of the Joint Chiefs, obviously including the chairman. So the chairman's views will be heard. They were heard by the secretary today, just as he heard Admiral Fallon's view yesterday and General Petraeus's views yesterday.

I would caution you, though, that this process, you know, has -- began some time ago. We were in Iraq, I think last month, when the secretary sat down for the first time with General Petraeus to hear his thinking. He received another briefing yesterday, in which if General Petraeus had advanced his thought a little bit, changed, altered, the secretary is now up to speed on where General Petraeus is before he briefs the president.

Time is running out, of course. There are only a few days left before the president will likely hear these briefs from his senior military leaders. So it's unlikely that things will change dramatically between now and then. So I think we're sort of where we are, but this has been an ongoing process and there still is the possibility for updating of thinking.

Q Will the president -- I mean, I've been gone several days myself, but will the president come back to talk to the chiefs again about their views, or was that done -- (off mike)?

MR. MORRELL: No. In fact I think the White House announced yesterday in their week-ahead that the president's planning to come here to the Pentagon to go into the tank with the Joint Chiefs. I think it's on Wednesday, if I'm not mistaken.

Yeah, Guy?

Q And when the president comes here on Wednesday to speak with the chiefs, will he also be hearing from the secretary? Will the secretary be giving the president his perspective at the same time, or is that happening at a different time?

MR. MORRELL: The secretary has many opportunities to talk to the president. I mean, they -- he sees the president virtually daily. The tank session is an opportunity, as I understand it, for the chiefs to present their views to the president. Their interaction with the president is far more limited than the secretary's. This time is dedicated for them to share with the president their thinking on the way ahead in Iraq and the impact it has on the force.

Q And can you give us a sense of what some of those viewpoints are?

MR. MORRELL: No. I really think that we need to preserve the integrity of the process so that the president -- I mean, there's been a lot written already, and the secretary has been public about his belief in the value of a pause of some duration at the end of the drawdown of the five surge brigades, for consolidation and evaluation. Obviously, General Petraeus is the one who first floated that idea. Admiral Fallon has also endorsed the notion. So some of this is already out there on the record. But I think we want to try to preserve the integrity of the process as much as possible so the secretary -- the president, rather, can hear from his key military leaders, firsthand without going through the media, what their views are.

So I'm going to -- you know, what's out there is significant already, and I think we should leave it at that right now.

Yeah, Al? Q So, when will be the president's opportunity to hear from Fallon and Petraeus, then?

MR. MORRELL: Well, I don't want to -- you know, I'm not here to announce the president's schedule, but I think that there are opportunities in the coming days for the president to hear from the CENTCOM commander and the MNF-I commanding general. So I would imagine that in the next -- in the course of the next few days there will be an opportunity for the president to hear from them as well.

Q And I understand you were in yesterday's meeting but not today's meeting. And in the wake of everything that happened the previous week, what can you tell us about the relative views of Fallon and Petraeus on the way forward?

MR. MORRELL: I just don't think it's my place to speak to their views in advance of them sharing them with the president. You know, I know there's an opportunity there for me to tell you that they are in lockstep and so forth, to take care of some of the stories that go out there about how they are in disagreement over the way forward, but I'm going to pass on that opportunity because I think it's most important the president hear from these leaders without it being shared in public. I think there is merit to having this process be a private one until it's -- until after the president hears from them.

Q Can you at least describe the scope of the recommendations? In other words, does it include projections about potential or likely drawdowns in the second half of the year or is it just conditional?

MR. MORRELL: You know, everything -- I think everybody has been pretty forthright about the fact that the way ahead is conditions- based, from the president to the secretary to General Petraeus. The remaining drawdowns that we're doing from the -- well, the surge brigades is conditions-based, and what happens beyond them is certainly conditions-based.

The only thing that I think we've all sort of talked publicly about is the belief that a pause of some duration is worthwhile to figure out the impact of the rapid withdrawal of the last four surge brigades, which -- as you know, the second one is coming out this month, and then between now and July you'll have three more come out. So losing those four brigades over the course of four months is going to require some assessment of the impact that has.

But I think beyond that -- I think it's best that the president is able to hear firsthand from his commanders before we start sharing their thinking and their differences, if there are any, with the public.

Yeah, Julie -- Jeff.

Q We know that we will hear from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker when they go before Congress, and they will share with the public what they told the president. What's the opportunity for the public to hear what the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary Gates -- what their advice is? They obviously have a different role than General Petraeus. They have other responsibilities to think about. And so they would -- even if they said the same thing, they might say it in a different way.

MR. MORRELL: Well, the secretary and the chairman are very accessible to you all. We do virtually weekly briefings with them. I'm sure there will be an opportunity shortly after General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker's testimony for them to come before you and explain their thinking.

You know, if you're referring to -- is there going to be an opportunity for members of Congress to question them? I imagine that -- I think, as we did last time, there will be a similar opportunity. I don't know that that has been hammered out and that there's been a date chosen or a committee chosen, but I imagine that is something in the offing.

There have been questions, I know, that have circulated as to whether -- I know there have been requests, in fact, from members of Congress to have Admiral Fallon testify with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. And I can tell you that Admiral Fallon will not be testifying with the general and the ambassador.

The process that we used last time worked quite well and we're going to stick with that again this time.

Q And you will be amenable to a separate hearing after that with -- so members of Congress could have time to question Admiral Fallon?

MR. MORRELL: Well, Admiral Fallon will have resigned his command by that time. He's due to resign his command at the end of this month. Obviously, the testimony's taking place in mid-April.

Q Is that why you're ruling it out?

MR. MORRELL: I'm ruling it out -- well, that's certainly one of the reasons. The other reason is that the system worked quite well last time. And obviously there are -- Admiral Fallon has testified before Congress. He did so, I think, a couple of weeks ago. So it's not as though the Congress doesn't get a chance to talk to the CENTCOM commander. But they asked for this arrangement last time and it worked quite well and we're going to do it again.

Q Could I follow up on that?


Q Ruling out Admiral Fallon testifying -- in fact, he doesn't retire from active duty --

MR. MORRELL: He doesn't retire. I didn't say he retired.

Q (Off mike) -- finish my question. He doesn't retire until sometime around May, so he remains on active duty. Who has ruled out him testifying, specifically? Is the secretary of Defense opposed to Admiral Fallon testifying? And since he's still a serving four-star, that's quite an extraordinary thing. Why, and who?

MR. MORRELL: Okay. Barbara, I did not say he retires come the end of March. I said he resigns his command. And therefore -- the purpose of having him testify is that he would be the active CENTCOM commander. But I don't think for that matter we want the interim CENTCOM commander, General Dempsey, testifying in that setting either at this point.

The arrangement that we had last September, in which General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testified to the Congress, served the Congress and the American people well, and we'd like to continue that arrangement. It has nothing to do with anything beyond the fact that it worked well last time and we think it can work well again.

Q My question --

MR. MORRELL: I don't know, Barbara, if -- I have not talked to the secretary about whether or not he has personal objections to the notion of Admiral Fallon testifying again. I don't think it's about that. I think it's about a system that worked last time well and can work again well.

Q My question is that you said it has been ruled out -- your words. So that means someone has ruled it out. If Congress has asked for a four-star -- and I'm not saying the day that General Petraeus testified -- but if the Congress asks for a four-star, still active- duty military officer to testify before Congress and it is, to use your words, ruled out -- not saying it's the day Petraeus will testify -- why is it ruled out?

MR. MORRELL: Okay, you changed the question. The question originally, Barbara, was, would they testify together? We have decided that that is not the course of action which we are going to take in testifying before Congress on our assessment of the situation in Iraq. Last time we used General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker; that's the mode we're going to employ again.

Now, you've changed the question and said, is there an opportunity for a four-star general to testify in another setting at another time? That's another question, to which I do not have the answer. I do know that Admiral Fallon is due to resign his command of Central Command at the end of this month. So he would not testify in that capacity, at least, beyond that point. I don't think there's an opportunity.

Q Can I follow up? Senator Clinton has specifically asked for Admiral Fallon to come before the SASC. Is that going to be a possibility before May?

MR. MORRELL: Again, I'm not --

Q Will he -- (off mike)?

MR. MORRELL: I am here to tell you what I know, which is that come the Petraeus-Crocker testimony, it will once again be the two of them who testify to the Congress and to the American people. That's the extent to which I am making a statement about Admiral Fallon's participation.

Anything on another subject, because I think we've exhausted this one?

Q Well, I got one follow-up on Admiral Fallon, in his resignation. Has there been any guidance that Secretary Gates or his public affairs specialists have given to other commanders about what is appropriate or what is inappropriate comments to make to the media in the wake of Admiral Fallon, in order to sort of suggest that, hey, you can discuss things, but you can't do X, Y, and Z?



Q Can you update us -- can you update us on the process of finding Admiral Fallon's permanent replacement? Where are we?

MR. MORRELL: We are at the very beginning stages of that process. It has only just begun.

No, it is really, Jeff, beginning as we speak. And I think it will be a -- it will be a careful, considered, perhaps lengthy process to replace Admiral Fallon at Central Command. It is, as you know, a vitally important post within the military. And the secretary wants to make sure that he has the best person stepping into Admiral Fallon's shoes. There are a number of qualified candidates. I think he is just beginning to hear from advisers on potential names, but that is as far as we are in this process.

Q Could you ballpark about how long it's expected to take?

MR. MORRELL: I've done this once before and I've had to adjust it. But I think -- I would say this, that there will likely not be someone on a permanent basis in Admiral Fallon's job at Central Command until at least May.

Q And I have to ask, can you say what any of the possible candidates are?

MR. MORRELL: No, I can't. I'd like to preserve the integrity of that process, too, if I could, although I'm sure there will be many names bandied about this hallway. But I caution you to not fall prey to that parlor game. I mean, this is going to be a very tightly held process, and I wouldn't necessarily trust what you hear in the hallways.


Q Well, I have a bunch of questions, but I'm going to stick with the Fallon thing for a moment. First of all, I don't understand why, if Congress thinks that -- I mean, Congress is in best position to know the opinions that it wants. Is the Pentagon afraid that this will turn into a hearing on Iran?

MR. MORRELL: No, it's a hearing on Iraq. I don't think --

Q Why not allow the most recent Central Command commander, who has the experience in managing that war, go to the Hill?

MR. MORRELL: Well, first of all, he won't be the Central Command commander.

Q But he has been the Central Command commander. MR. MORRELL: Okay. But he will not be in that post at the time of the testimony. And as I said before -- and my answer is not going to change no matter how many times we ask this question -- the system worked well last time. We're going to make sure it works just as well this time by employing the same couple of people, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, to brief the Congress and the American people.

If the Congress wants to try to hold hearings with other commanders at another time, I suppose that's their prerogative. And we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. But I think we are -- we believe the system worked well last time.

Q Okay. Can you talk to us a little about the decision to provide arms to Kosovo?

Is this something that Secretary Gates and Rice talked to the Russians about this week? And I'm curious about the decision given, you know, there's such ongoing dispute and disagreement about the status of Kosovo right now.

MR. MORRELL: I was not in all the meetings this weekend in Moscow, so I'm not so sure if that specific presidential determination came up. Obviously, Kosovo was discussed at some point. But I think -- I wouldn't read too much into this. I mean, I think that this is a normal part of establishing bilateral relations with nations. We have similar arrangements with a number of other countries, including Serbia.

And the focus here is on developing a transparent and professional security establishment for this new nation. I should note that we are certainly pleased that more and more nations are choosing to recognize Kosovo's independence, but I would not read anything into the fact that we have taken what is a normal step in establishing bilateral relations with countries -- between countries.

You had a list. Do you want to keep going down your list?

Q Sure.

MR. MORRELL: And then I'll come to Justin.

Q I wasn't here yesterday; I was still recovering from Moscow.

MR. MORRELL: I don't blame you.

Q The secretary met with some Georgian officials?

MR. MORRELL: The president did meet with the president of Georgia, President Saakashvili.

Q Did they discuss the possibility of the Membership Action Plan for NATO?

MR. MORRELL: Sure, absolutely.

Q Is it something that Gates and company will be pressing for in Bucharest? MR. MORRELL: Well, I mean, Secretary Gates, like President Bush, strongly supports MAP for Ukraine and Georgia. They, those two countries, want to establish a better relationship with NATO, integration into the West, and this is certainly -- would be a step for them to do so.

I think it's important to remember -- or not to confuse MAP with membership. It is what its name implies it is; it's a Membership Action Plan. You know that three of the countries that are up for membership in Bucharest -- Croatia, Albania and Macedonia -- have been doing through MAP for the past decade. So this can be a long process, and it's designed to, you know, encourage democratic and military reforms and along the way to sort of recognize the progress they've made, but in no way, along the way, gives Article V protection to those countries until, of course, they're full members.

But he's a strong supporter, as is the president.

Q Why begin it now, though, when there's such dispute among the allies about starting it?

MR. MORRELL: I think that's a question, really, for the president, because it's his policy. He's the one who is advocating it. The secretary obviously supports it. But in terms of the strategy of deploying it now and bringing it up at Bucharest when the Russians are clearly opposed to it is something I would direct to them or to the State Department.

Q Can I follow up on -- sorry.

MR. MORRELL: Sorry. Let's go to Justin. I'll come back to you.

Q On the way ahead, Geoff, in Iraq, the White House is looking to put together a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq by the end of this year that would outline our military --

MR. MORRELL: We're looking to do that by July, in fact.

Q Yeah. Right. So, what is the Pentagon recommending there? Gates has said this agreement won't be about future force levels and permanent bases, but is that really possible, considering this war is going to outlast the current U.N. mandate?

MR. MORRELL: I think we've been -- I think the secretary's been very explicit on this. I really have nothing to add to it. We are not calling for permanent bases. We are not trying to tie the hands of the future commander-in-chief. But we do need the legal means by which to operate in Iraq after this year, when the U.N. Security Council resolution runs out. And the Iraqis have said they want to establish a more normalized relationship with us.

These negotiations are ongoing. They just began a week or two ago. I think you're going to see lots of talks between now and July when we hope to establish this deal.

Q What do you hope to establish? What does a normalized relationship mean? I mean, what is the goal?

MR. MORRELL: Well, a normalized relationship is what we have with -- I mean, SOFAs, for example, Status of Force Agreement, we have with more than a hundred other nations. And these are the legal permission for us to operate in countries. It covers everything from the delivery of mail to the ability to conduct combat operations. So this is essential for us to have our forces operating within Iraq once the UNSCR runs out at the end of the year.


Q Would this agreement include a U.S. guarantee to provide security to Iraq?


Q It will not.


Q (?) Hello, Guy.

Q Two questions. Just to clarify, all these meetings that are taking place between the secretary, the joint chiefs, General Petraeus, Admiral Fallon, the president and so on -- does this in a sense preempt what Petraeus and Crocker will be saying to the Congress in three weeks' time? I mean, between now and then we'll have a -- we should have a pretty good sense of where the president stands on this issue after he's sort of processed all of these different recommendations, right?

MR. MORRELL: I don't think it preempts anything. It's the exact same process we deployed last time. I mean --

Q But we will know what the president -- we'll essentially know what the president's thinking on this is. Presumably Petraeus isn't going to go to Congress and, you know, contradict what the president says.

MR. MORRELL: I mean, Guy, I don't -- it's the same process we had, which was last time General Petraeus, Admiral Fallon, the Joint Chiefs, the secretary all shared with the president their view of the best course of action going forward. That's going to happen again. It is happening again.

And like last time, before the president announced to the nation the steps he was going to take, Admiral -- General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testified before the Congress. So it will not stray from that at all.

Q So we shouldn't expect to hear the president make some kind of policy pronouncement until after Petraeus testifies?

MR. MORRELL: I think that's a question for the White House, but I would not expect it.

Q (Off mike.)

MR. MORRELL: All right. Thanks, guys.

Q Thank you.

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