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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 December 09, 2008

DoD News Briefing with Press Secretary Geoff Morrell from the Pentagon

MR. MORRELL: Good afternoon. Big crowd.

Q Good afternoon.

MR. MORRELL: Though I'm told it mostly is comprised of interns in the Defense Department. So welcome. Thanks for coming today. We're going to confine our questions, though, to the first couple rows of working reporters, if you don't mind.

And the inaugural question for the AP's new reporter at the Pentagon, Anne Gearan. Welcome.

Q Thank you. I'd like to ask you about Pakistan. Can you describe coordination between U.S. military and Pakistani army, assuming there was some, ahead of the raids over the last couple days on Lashkar-e-Taiba facilities? And do you anticipate any U.S. military participation in interrogation of those suspects?

MR. MORRELL: Anne, I think -- to my knowledge, there has been no direct request for U.S. military assistance in really any of the efforts in the wake of the tragic Mumbai attacks. It is clear, based upon the fact you saw the chairman travel to both India and Pakistan last week that we take this problem very seriously and are in close coordination, discussion, consultation with the militaries in India and Pakistan.

But in terms of what -- how did you characterize it? Coordination?

Q Yes. Did they tell you ahead time they were doing --

MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into what our level of discussions has been. I would suffice it to say that we are working closely with the Pakistani military, as we have before the Mumbai attacks. We are working closely with the Indian military, as we have, as well, for some time. But there have been no direct requests for assistance. We have channels in communication open and are prepared to assist them, should they need our assistance. I'm not speaking in terms of inserting troops, but of -- in terms of providing any insight that we could help keep this -- the situation as calm as possible in the wake of these attacks.

Q And in reverse, would you like access to the alleged mastermind or anybody else picked up --

MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to get into that.


Q Geoff, do you know if you have seen any plans or any decision in this building to move ahead to close the prisons in Guantanamo? And how do you see the future of the military commission system and the result of ongoing trials right now in the future?

MR. MORRELL: Well, the military commission system is the law of the land as it's currently constructed. I mean, this is statute that Congress passed that -- that is the legal guidance for us to deal with the people who we pick up and detain at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

As for efforts to close down that detention facility, I always caution people that there are no discussions of closing down Guantanamo Bay as a naval base. That's a long-term lease. It's been there for decades. It will likely remain there for decades more.

But in terms of closing down the detention facility, I think the secretary's addressed this. It's clearly in his interest. He would like to see it done. I think that this president, President Bush, would like to see it done. The president-elect would like to see it done.

As the secretary has said, it's a question of finding probably additional legislative remedies to actually make it happen, so that if you were to get rid of that detention facility, what do you do with these people once they are brought stateside?

Keep in mind, these are very dangerous people we have held there, who have -- if they haven't killed Americans, have made it clear that it is their desire to do so. And so we need to provide for what would happen to these people after whatever judicial process that they may -- that they may -- that they may get, should they be transferred stateside.

But I think this stuff is -- we're sort of getting ahead of ourselves, here. I mean, it was made clear that this is not going to happen within the remaining weeks of this administration. The incoming administration clearly wants to deal with this, as the president-elect has made clear in his statements and -- as have those who work for him -- and I assume that is a challenge that they are willing to confront head-on when they take over. But I'm not aware of any efforts that are under way right now in anticipation of that. So I don't think there's a lot new there.

Q Geoff, can I follow up on that? So we can say there is no plan right now for the future of the detentions in Guantanamo.

MR. MORRELL: There has -- there are always contingency plans that this building works on. But in terms of is there an active effort under way to get ready for January 20th so that when President- elect Obama is sworn in and he were to give an order to close Guantanamo Bay, that we have the ability to do so on January 21st, I don't think that's an accurate characterization of where things stand right now. But there are always contingencies being worked on in this building, and they certainly have been and likely will continue to be with regards to detention operations.

Q Short of what you just outlined, have there -- can you characterize the discussions between current officials and transition officials on the Guantanamo issue? Have there --

MR. MORRELL: I wouldn't --

Q Have we gotten to that point yet or is that still down the line?

MR. MORRELL: I wouldn't get into the business of characterizing discussions between those who work in this building now and the -- those who will likely be working in this building in the future, or the transition team for that matter, other than to say I think this, at least at the secretary's level -- somehow this notion that the secretary is going through with the transition team, piece by piece, issue by issue, looking at specific subject areas -- I don't think that's where we are at this point.

I think that the discussions have been at a much higher altitude than that, in which it's more of a process discussion. What kinds of skills are needed for which positions? What kind of apparatus is ideal to deal with national security issues? Rather than getting into the weeds on particular problems, around the world, it's still at an elevated organizational discussion at this stage.

Q Just one more on that: The secretary has long talked about this need for a piece of legislation, in order to pave the way to close Guantanamo. This goes back six months or more, when he brought that up.

Did anyone in the Justice Department or within the general counsel's office, of this building, ever create a proposed legislation, for the secretary to look at that would address some of these things? Was that ever -- do you know if that was ever created or outlined?

MR. MORRELL: I think there have been various attempts to try to fashion a solution to this very thorny problem. But I don't think any of them, to date, has been sufficiently evolved to deal with this problem. I don't think we've seen anything yet that takes care of all the concerns the secretary has. I think that's the best way to describe it at this point.



Q That being the case then, what -- where is the wiggle room? What -- where could judgments be different, or level of risk assumed be different, in order to move this forward? And would it inevitably involve accepting more risk, from potentially the release of these detainees, than the Bush administration has been willing to accept?

MR. MORRELL: Yeah. I just think we're getting into areas that I'm not comfortable with at this point.

I think, you know, I think, I've characterized where we are right now.

When a new administration takes over, if the mandate is such that we've got to deal with these things right now, I assume that all the resources and all the capabilities of this building, if it falls upon this building to fashion a solution, will be brought to bear.

But I am not going to get in -- I don't think it's helpful for me to start speculating from up here about what's required, what's not required, other than what the secretary suggested, which is that he thinks there needs to be a legislative remedy to deal with certain possible eventualities, including the possibility that, should someone be tried and exonerated, what would happen to that person such that they -- you know, to prevent them from seeking asylum in this country, to make sure that they were deported somewhere? And what would happen to those people who are tried and convicted and serve their time and perhaps are released after some prison sentence?

I mean, that's just one of probably many, many issues that need to be dealt with in this piece of legislation, which has yet to be conceived.

Yeah -- (name inaudible)?

Q I want to follow up on several points. First of all, I mean, are you -- congressional members in any of the proposed locations, including Leavenworth, the Carolinas, are all on the record as saying they oppose any movement to have any of these detainees in their state. So I'm wondering, you know, is this still even a theoretical possibility, given the fact members of Congress are so adamantly opposed to having it in their state?

And secondly, I'm not sure I understood what you said about the discussions with the secretary being at a higher altitude, and not being issue-specific with the transition team, because we had been told that, in fact, the transition team was looking at sort of the first 90 days of issues that they would be facing with some specificity.

MR. MORRELL: All right. Let me deal with these in two parts. First, the first question: The not-in-my-backyard issue is clearly going to be a difficult one. I mean, that is a -- we all have to recognize that if, indeed, the solution to this is to bring some of these incredibly dangerous people stateside, it's going to pose problems, potentially, in those states in which there could be a facility that would be appropriate to house them. But that's an issue to address down the road.

We're not at that stage at this point. But I don't think it's lost on anybody here that there will be NIMBY issues associated with this problem if indeed that's the direction we head.

With regard to the transition, I think what I was speaking of -- you're, I think, conflating two things. The transition team is clearly at work, and I don't want to speak for them. You should talk to the PTT, the Presidential Transition Team, about their work.

I can speak to our level of participation with them. And I think at sort of the -- at the sub-secretarial level, they may be dealing with issues, but at the secretarial level, in his discussions with them -- and he had a working lunch with them today at noon -- my understanding at this point is that their discussion remains, as I said it, somewhat elevated, and that it has been -- for example, the secretary had -- had a meeting yesterday with President-elect -- Vice President-elect Biden.

And I think that that discussion did not delve into issues but really was an opportunity to call upon the secretary's vast experience in national security operations. Having served on -- you know, on the staff of the National Security Council, having been deputy national security adviser, having been secretary of Defense, having been the director of Central Intelligence, he can and has provided a lot of insight as to how he thinks the -- the president-elect's team can construct their national security operations, everything from how to conduct meetings, appropriate participants, those kinds of things.

Q Was this meeting with the vice president-elect in this building?


Q They met yesterday, though, face-to-face?

MR. MORRELL: They did.

Q Okay. Can you tell us where?

MR. MORRELL: I think your colleagues had a camera at the Presidential Transition Team's offices.

Q Okay. There was no -- there was no discussion of issues between the two of them?

MR. MORRELL: I'm not going to delve into their conversations any further than I have. I'm just trying to give you a sense of sort of the tenor of the conversation so far.

And I think you all are looking for some sense, "Okay, we're going to solve this problem and that problem and this one and that one," and, you know, hopscotch the globe. I think right now this is about establishing a team, building the -- the construct in which they will work, and -- and moving forward from there. But we're still at the early stages of this process.

Q Can I --

MR. MORRELL: But I want to remind everybody of one thing before I go any further on this.

This is in addition to the secretary's duty that he first and foremost has, which is to work for this president of the United States, George W. Bush, to ensure our nation's security with the United States military. So that's his first and foremost function. That is not lost on him or anybody else here.

But in addition to that, he's in this unique position of being involved in a transition to himself. So he has certain obligations to make sure that goes -- goes smoothly, including, how do you recalibrate the transition team's work so that it deals with his needs? This is no longer transitioning to a to-be-determined secretary of Defense. This is transitioning to himself. And there are certain things he needs. He needs greater insight into the national security agenda of President-elect Obama and the goals and the -- and the priorities of his team. And so that is part of the work that's under the -- under way.

In addition, in terms of identifying those people who will be working with him in all the positions that would have to be filled, you know, he obviously will play a -- play a -- as he described last week, a key role in determining -- you know, in participating in the identification and interviewing process of those candidates. And so he has to work with them on just how that will work.

But -- so the transition has to be recalibrated to deal with this unique situation we find ourselves in, where we have a secretary who's transitioning to himself.

Q I may have missed it last week -- so can I just ask is it definite that you're staying as the press secretary?

MR. MORRELL: That's my understanding in my conversations with the secretary, yes. I will be here to work with you as best I can for the foreseeable future.

Q (Off mike.)

MR. MORRELL: A lot of frowns out there. (Laughter.)

Q The interns.

MR. MORRELL: The interns? They just met me, and they're already frowning.

Okay. Yeah, Jeff?

Q Has the secretary been given a report of the DOD IG report on MRAPs? And if so, does he have a reaction?

MR. MORRELL: Jeff, I do not believe he has. And frankly, I haven't had a chance to talk to him today, so -- other than just in passing. So I haven't had a chance to ask him about that.

Q Does the Defense Department have any kind of official response to the report's finding that it didn't do enough to develop MRAPs, anti-mine and roadside bomb technology before 2003?

MR. MORRELL: Well, I have yet to see the report. I understand a summary of their findings has now been posted on the IG's Web site. And I've, obviously, read some of the stories, and I've responded to some of the queries that came up yesterday.

I think the main thing to keep in mind here is that there's a lot of context to what happened in terms of our -- in terms of our force protection measures over the course of the Iraq war, and that when we embarked on this -- on this -- on the liberation of Iraq, we had -- you know, we had tanks and Bradleys, heavily armored vehicles which were necessary for the invasion.

Once Baghdad fell and the country was -- was liberated, the mission changed and the threat evolved. We started using much lighter vehicles. And the enemy saw that and tried to take advantage of it, primarily from roadside -- roadside bombs, which exploited a particular weakness in these -- what were then unarmored humvees.

And commanders at the time thought the best way to protect our forces from that emerging threat was to up-armor humvees as quickly as possible. Those were the vehicles we had; we knew we could up-armor them; and we thought we could do it rapidly.

At that time, MRAPs, although an existing vehicle, were not held in great quantities, and there was real concern about whether or not we could mass produce them quickly enough to deal with the immediate threat. And so, the judgment at the time was to up-armor humvees. And we went from, I think, a couple of hundred at the outset of the war to 30,000, rather quickly.

Eventually, though, the threat changed, such that we started to see deep-buried IEDs, exposing a weakness even in the up-armored humvees, which was the belly of the humvee. And so that's when it became clear, particularly to this secretary, that we needed to do much more than the up-armoring humvees.

And he made it his top acquisition priority in May of 2006 to buy as many of these -- sorry, I mean 2007 -- to buy as many of these up- armored -- pardon me, these MRAPs -- mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles -- as we could, as quickly as we could. And $22 billion and, what, 18 months later, we've got, you know, almost 12,000 in theater. And I think we're on course to buy more than 16,000.

So we have seen the enemy adapt to us, and we've had to adapt to them.

As the threat has evolved, so have our force protection measures. Have we done so with the rapidity and the efficiency that we would have liked at all times? No, we haven't. But to suggest that there was any sort of neglect or people were sitting on their hands ignoring the urgent request of commanders in the field is just not accurate. And it certainly has not been accurate since the secretary decided to confront this issue head on.

And it's not just the vehicles, guys. I mean, it's also, you know, the Joint IED Defeat Task Force -- Defeat Organization, rather -- JIEDDO. And it's the ISR Task Force. We're approaching this -- and it's the Sons of Iraq. We are approaching the IED threat we face in Iraq from, you know, 360 degrees; from identifying them before they're laid, from going after the networks before they can bring the materials in country, to the point of contact with -- you know, if it comes to that, in the vehicles. And there have been Herculean efforts made over the past couple of years to ensure that our troops have the best possible protection they can have.

Q Geoff, we've heard this before. You did an eloquent job of summarizing. But this report does break new ground in criticizing the department. You weren't here. Gates wasn't here. So this is not on your watch. But it does say that the department went into Iraq less prepared than it could have been to mitigate the threat from IEDs and mines to the lives of soldiers and Marines.

My question is this: Could this report be used as kind of evidence of the secretary's repeated complaints that this building focuses too much on the next war and not on the current conflict?

MR. MORRELL: Well, I -- without sort of getting sucked into that, I would -- I'd say this, Tony. That, you know, we -- listen, let's remember, this report was asked for by the Marines. You know, it was -- they had full cooperation from this department. And we welcome any report that helps us better understand how to meet the needs of the commanders and our troops in the field as quickly as possible. We clearly need to do -- we clearly can improve on that. The secretary has been pushing that, but there's still room for improvement. And so we welcome this report in that sense.

I just take issue with the notion that somehow there was negligence on their part of the department. I know that term wasn't used, but that's sort of the inference I draw from that one set of inflammatory bit that you quote from.

And it wouldn't be the first -- first time, though, Tony, in which this department has taken issue with something that the IG has written. I'm not breaking new ground here.

But I think that -- I think that we certainly feel comfortable with the actions that have been taken since May of 2006 (sic\2007) to get the MRAP to as many troops as need them. And now you see a huge effort being made to get more MRAPs to Afghanistan, where we're seeing an increased need, including moving some that are no longer needed in Iraq to Afghanistan, including buying more.

Now we're looking to build a lighter MRAP, to -- so it's ideally suited for our forces in Afghanistan. This is a challenge to physics, though, because you want a vehicle that's just as strong, but lighter so it can deal with the terrain there. But that's where we are.

Q You meant May '07, didn't you? You said May '06.

MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I originally said May '06, then I corrected myself. But did I do it again? I'm sorry -- May '07. Thank you for protecting me.


Q Going back to Mumbai attacks. Since chairman was in the area, and that he had discussions with both officials, now there's a report that former ISI official was involved in this -- the Mumbai attacks, in planning and training. What do you think now, what the Pakistanis are saying, or what the Indians are asking from this building or from the secretary? And if they had discussion about this -- these ISI and American officials links?

MR. MORRELL: Yeah, I really -- I'm sorry, I just have nothing for you on this.

I mean, I think the -- to summarize sort of where we are, is that we have had no requests for direct military assistance. I mean, this is really a question I think you should put to the State Department, or the White House, for that matter. But we are -- we are engaged with the militaries in both countries, as we always have been. You've obviously seen the chairman spending a great deal of time developing a relationship with General Kayani, his counterpart in Pakistan. He obviously has relations with his counterpart in India. And that's sort of where we are at this point.

I mean, we obviously are watching things closely and, you know, I think all -- are encouraging all the nations in the region to work together to prevent any future attacks, such as the -- you know, the deadly one we saw over the Thanksgiving week in Mumbai.

But in terms of, you know, whatever actions the Pakistani military is taking, against LeT, I'm not in a position to comment really authoritatively on it other than to say, you know, we're watching them. We see it as a positive step.

I think what all the problems that we have, emanating from Pakistan terror-wise, show us is that this is a problem that needs to be dealt with on a sustained basis, that it can't be done in fits and starts, that there needs to be a constant and vigilant effort to go after the terrorist networks that exist there and throughout the region.

Q May I just have a quick follow?

According to the militants in Pakistan and also think tanks here, what they are saying is, next attack will be somewhere in India or in the U.S., as far as nuclear weapons or small nukes maybe, which maybe A.Q. Khan is still there, which you don't have any access, which he has spread to Iran, North Korea and elsewhere. And he might be --

MR. MORRELL: That's a long question. I would say this. Obviously these are two nuclear powers. Whenever you are dealing with terrorism, in countries that are nuclear powers, it is always -- it creates a heightened concern.

You know, obviously the Pakistani government has enormous challenges right now financially. Although they secured a $7 billion loan, which will certainly alleviate the immediate financial threats they were facing financially, politically from terrorists obviously. And so we want to work, with them and any others who find themselves in this situation, and make sure that their nuclear arsenals are always secure.

We see no reason at this point to have any concern with regards to the security of either country's arsenal. So I think that's sort of where we are at this point.

Yeah, Luis.

Q Going back to the transition, you spoke of recalibrating the transition to this unique circumstance.

Is the secretary recommending or is he of the opinion that the service secretaries or other political appointees remain, in their offices, once the Obama administration takes over, until the replacements come in? Or I mean, is there some other thing that he's asking, potentially maybe even asking some of the people who are currently working with him, in these political posts, to remain as well?

MR. MORRELL: Yeah, let me deal with that a couple of different ways. I mean, I think, fundamentally he answered this question best last week.

But in terms of the recalibration effort -- I mean, the bottom line is that he is now at least one of the customers of this transition effort. Before, the customers were the president-elect and this to-be-determined secretary of Defense. Well, the secretary of Defense has now been determined; it will remain Secretary Gates. So he and President-elect Obama are the customers of this transition effort, and that's how it's being recalibrated.

As for hiring people who will work in an Obama-Gates Defense Department, I think his -- I really want to leave it pretty much to what he said, other than to add this one thought: I mean, the goal is and remains as seamless a transition as possible. That requires more than Secretary Gates being the lone guy on watch. The last thing I think we want is a situation where you have Secretary Gates at the helm and no one around to assist him during this transition phase.

So that either requires getting new appointees in here in, you know, record fashion in terms of speed or it requires some sort of holdover for some number of existing Defense Department officials. That assignment is -- will be worked out by the secretary and the president-elect and the president-elect's transition team.

We're not there yet. But I think it's the goal of both entities, both the transition team and the secretary, to make sure that there is a -- that there is as seamless a transition as possible. And it requires more than Bob Gates to do that.

Does that help? Okay.

I think we're almost done here. Last one -- Al? That's it? Okay, Al.

Q The directive on irregular warfare, is this an attempt by the secretary to sort of institutionalize some of his views regarding "next war-itis" and the need to avoid it?

MR. MORRELL: I think the secretary is always looking for ways to institutionalize his views on making sure that we have -- we do not forget the lessons we have learned in these conflicts as they pertain to counterinsurgency and asymmetrical warfare.

He likes to note that, you know, you can -- you know, if you install one person to sort of carry on your mandate, the institution, particularly one as bureaucratic and big as this one, will outlive it. But what he's tried to do, through his personnel appointments, is to put a number of people in influential positions to ensure that these lessons are not forgotten.

And I think you've seen, particularly in his appointments in the United States Army, a lot of people who appreciate the fact that counterinsurgency is likely going to be a skill we need for decades to come. And I think there is evidence of that elsewhere throughout -- throughout the military in his appointments.

So whether it be through his speeches, his appointments or his actions within the department, I think all of it is geared towards helping this place realize that this is likely going to be the threat we face for decades; not at the exclusion of our need to prepare for a full-scale conventional conflict, but that is likely a lesser possibility in the foreseeable future than -- than these kinds of operations we find ourselves in now.

Which is why -- you all didn't ask me about it, but this desire of the commandant of the Marine Corps to move Marines from -- from Iraq, from Anbar, to Afghanistan is something, obviously, the secretary is aware of -- it would be hard not to be aware of it -- and that he is sensitive to. He understands their desire to be in the fight. And there is clearly more of a fight in Afghanistan these days than there is in Anbar. I mean, the turnaround in Anbar -- we've all talked about it -- is incredible, and it was recently turned over to provincial Iraqi control.

But nonetheless, you know, there is a formal process by which these decisions are reviewed, and he will await the formal recommendations of a variety of commanders, from CENTCOM to JFCOM to -- to the chiefs, before making a decision on this matter. But I would not presume to suggest that silence is consent on this one. There is still more discussion that needs to be had.

But, you know --

Q Will you -- you’re bringing --

Q I'm sorry, could I just follow up on the IW answer you gave? Has he been trying to spread this message to other designees in the Obama national security team? Does he feel like they need to take steps, early in the new administration, to spread the --

MR. MORRELL: I think -- again, I think, Al, you're getting -- you're getting way more into the weeds than I think anybody has gotten at this point.

But clearly, when President-elect Obama chose Secretary Gates to stay on, he did so with full knowledge of what he has been championing within this department. I don't think that's lost on the president- elect or anybody else within the incoming administration.

OK, last one. Barb, you had a follow-up?

Q Yeah. Why did you just decide to -- you said, we didn't ask. Why did you decide to bring up the issue of the Marines?

MR. MORRELL: Well, I guess I was trying to bring it up within the context of irregular warfare, because this is something that the Marines, you know, obviously are quite skilled at.

And although -- you know, and part of irregular warfare is sort of the nation-building component to it, the peacekeeping and nation- building component to it. And as much as that is going on in Anbar and may not be completely to the Marines' liking, it is part of the mission and will likely be part of the mission in Afghanistan as well. That is the nature of the conflict we are now dealing. It's -- it's --

Q Well, to be clear, Secretary Gates in the past has expressed his annoyance at the Marines and, in particular, General Conway for bringing this up.

MR. MORRELL: I don't think he's ever expressed annoyance, and I don't think I'm expressing annoyance. All I'm trying to make clear is -- I got a number of questions about it -- that there will be a formal process to review this and all such decisions.

Okay? Thanks.

Q Thank you. Have a good day.

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