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Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook November 24, 2015

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook in the Pentagon Briefing Room


PETER COOK: Afternoon, everyone. Sorry I'm a little delayed. The meeting with the French minister was a little bit delayed as well, so my apologies. Before I update you on the secretary's meeting with Minister Le Drian, I wanted to touch on the situation involving the downing of the Russian military aircraft earlier today. As the president mentioned a short time ago, U.S. officials have been in touch with their Turkish counterparts about this incident, continue to gather more information.

And at Turkey's request, the North Atlantic Council held an extraordinary meeting today on this issue. I under the NATO secretary general has had some comments in the last short while on this issue. While we are still gathering details, the United States and NATO support the right of Turkey to defend its airspace and sovereignty. We urge Turkey and Russia to de-escalate the situation and resolve this matter through discussion, diplomacy and de-confliction measures. I can confirm, once again, that U.S. forces were not involved in this incident.

Now, with regard to the secretary's meeting with his French counterpart, the secretary just concluded a very productive conversation with the French Minister of Defense, Jean-Yves Le Drian. The two also participated in the earlier meeting at the White House today between President Obama and President Hollande.

The secretary began today's meeting here at the Pentagon by again expressing his deepest condolences to the French people for the horrific attacks in Paris and by reiterating our commitment to strengthen shared efforts against ISIS. Secretary Carter and Minister Le Drian spoke within hours of the attacks and have been in frequent contact every since. Their conversations have already resulted in several concrete steps.

France and the United States are now sharing information and details about operational planning against ISIL to the fullest extent allowed by law. Our nations are also contributing to a thickening of the coalition air campaign, with sorties now originating from the French carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

France was the first to join the United States and in strikes against ISIL in Iraq. They have shown strong commitment to each facet of the campaign ever since. The French are helping to build the capacity of local fighters, training Iraqi peshmerga forces and have been at the forefront of efforts to stem the flow of financial support and foreign fighters to ISIL. The two countries are now looking at ways to further expand their cooperation.

While Secretary Carter and Minister Le Drian focused on counter- ISIL efforts in their conversation today, for the most part, France and the United States share security interests in other parts of the world. In Africa, for instance, the United States has supported the French mission to prevent the spillover effects of terrorism and extremism through a unique lift in aerial refueling capability. In Europe, France has joined the United States in providing our partners reassurance in response to Russian aggression. The French have also volunteered to lead NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force at a future date.

Echoing the president's words today, Secretary Carter thanked France for serving as an anchor for security on several continents and for standing as a steadfast ally. And again, that meeting wrapped up just a short time ago.

With that, happy to take a few of your questions. Bob?

Q: Peter, on the Turkish shootdown of the Russian plane, can you confirm, first of all, that -- that the Russian plane did cross Turkish airspace? And also, Secretary Carter's view on this event, does he see this as a reason for there to be more discussion with Russians about avoiding such conflicts in the future or any additional interaction with the Russians on any level?

MR. COOK: Bob, we're still gathering the details. I think even the president referenced to find out exactly what happened here. I think the secretary would make the same point that the president made today that Russian flights, particularly in this area, which is not an ISIL- controlled are but an opposition-controlled area, carry risks and they'd be much better off focused on going after ISIL.

And so I think anything that can be done at this point to de- escalate the situation between Russia and Turkey would be good, would be productive. I think the secretary would -- would certainly hope that that's the case.

Q: Did he talk to his Turkish counterpart about the event?

MR. COOK: I don't have a conversation to read out to you at this time. I'm -- I'm not aware of a conversation that's taken place, but I'll double check.

Thomas?

Q: Thank you. Is there -- there are reports that the Russians also lost a military helicopter. Is there any indication that that was shot down by U.S.-backed rebels? And I have second question about France.

MR. COOK: We've seen the media reports about -- with regard to the helicopter, but there's nothing I can confirm about what's happened there.

Q: Alright. And then you mentioned France and the U.S. are now looking at ways to further their cooperation. You gave some examples previously. Can you talk about perhaps what some of those additional steps might be?

MR. COOK: Well, I think that's part of the conversation that's going to be ongoing, not only between the presidents and the ministers of defense, but at lower levels within the two defense departments, about what additional steps can be taken, whether it's expanded airstrikes, whether it's additional steps that might help the local ground forces.

I think there are a range of things that could be under consideration. And it's not just military, Thomas. You've got to consider as well the other lines of effort at work here, and that includes financing for ISIL, are there steps that can be taken on the part of some of our interagency partners that might be able to help with the financing question? A range of other issues that can be handled between the two governments, perhaps steps that can be taken to further enhance the fight against ISIL.

Lucas?

Q: Peter, does the secretary believe that the Turkish actions today were justified?

MR. COOK: Lucas, we're still getting all of the details. I think, as the secretary has said, Turkey has -- as a NATO ally, this is NATO airspace. Turkey has a right to defend itself. There were previous incursions that, of course, made the Turks concerned and as a NATO ally, we had concerns as well. And so we're still waiting for the details to come out exactly in this instance, but -- but as the secretary has maintained, the president reiterated today, Turkey has a right to defense its airspace.

Q: They have a right to defend their airspace, as you say, but when former top generals have made the case that when Russian bombers come close to the coast of the United States, the United States does not shoot them down. They launch fighters -- they escort them. Do you think that should have been something that the Turks took on board?

MR. COOK: This is a question that you'd have pose to the Turkish government. This is obviously a conflict zone right now, given the fight over Syria. Certainly, different circumstances than what you described here in the continental United States.

So this is a -- this is a particular circumstance with particular aspects to it. That -- again, this is an action that the Turks chose to make, chose to take today and we're still looking at the -- the details. But, as we've said previously, as a NATO ally, this is NATO airspace. They have a right to defend their airspace.

Yes?

Q: Do we have any update on (inaudible) in South Korea?

MR. COOK: I know that there was information we provided yesterday on that. I don't have an update at this time beyond what we provided for you previously. It's an ongoing investigation. If we have more information, I'd be happy to pass along. But nothing beyond what we had yesterday for you.

Tony?

Q: (inaudible) the fight against ISIL, the secretary in the last week and a half has said the Pentagon would intensify the fight against ISIL. And also, he's looking to change the rules of engagement. He said that last week on MSNBC. Can you give us an example beyond going after oil trucks of intensifying the campaign?

MR. COOK: I think what he said was that -- that the rules of engagement are under review and -- and always under review, as you would expect in -- in this kind of conflict. And the oil trucks is a perfect example of when there have been changes to those rules of engagement that we can share with you. But this is an ongoing process, Tony, that's going to involve adjustments as we go along, in every aspect of our campaign.

Not just the rules of engagement, but other aspects of the campaign -- how we are tweaking and adjusting the fight to make it more effective. And so, I think what the secretary was pointing to there, again, was a -- a larger effort to constantly review how we are taking the fight to ISIL, can we do it more effectively, and those -- the tankers are a perfect example of an adjustment we made that -- I think as you all saw from the video that Colonel Warren played earlier today -- is having an effect.

Q: What about increased use of special operations forces for direct action missions? Brett McGurk talked to reporters on Friday and he suggested there's gonna be more of the same, like what happened in May.

Is that part of intensifying the fight? The use of U.S. commandos going in on direct action missions?

MR. COOK: Well, the secretary has said previously, he testified on the Hill -- he spoke here from -- from this podium some time ago, that the Unite States would continue to -- to look for opportunities to deliver a blow to ISIL. To further degrade and -- and defeat ISIL. And that that raid was a particular circumstance that happened in -- in conjunction with the Iraqi Kurdish forces -- Peshmerga forces.

But that if there were other opportunities in the future, that we would take advantage of them. But the primary role of the special operators who are gonna be -- who are part of this effort in Syria -- as the secretary's also detailed -- is a support role to further enable them, and to -- to make them more effective.

But if there are opportunities for the unique capabilities of U.S. forces to be brought to bear, that -- if the moment was right, there would be -- the secretary would take advantage of that.

Q: Direct action, kind of as opposed to hostage rescue missions.

MR. COOK: Well, I think, again Tony, the -- the idea is -- is to enable these local forces because they are the ones who ultimately need to not only clear this territory, but hold this territory.

And so that central focus has not changed. That there are unique capabilities that American special forces can bring to bear. The secretary and this department are prepared to consider their use.

Q: (inaudible). Are any of the 50 in Syria at this point?

MR. COOK: I'm -- I'm not gonna comment on the status of those forces at this time.

Q: When -- when can you because at some point it's gonna be ITN crews or something, and they're gonna show them in Syria...

MR. COOK: And Tony, that -- that may be the case, but I'm not gonna divulge operational details that could put them in any sort of risk from this podium. I hope you understand that.

So, yes.

Q: (inaudible) for a second. Do you have any update on the status of the two Russian jet pilots? There were some reports that members of the U.S. supported rebel groups on the ground intercepted one or both of those pilots at some point today.

MR. COOK: I don't have details that I can pass along right now.

Q: Does the secretary expect that any member of the U.S.- led coalition, including the rebels on the ground, would coordinate an effort like that? With the U.S. if it -- if it took place?

MR. COOK: Listen, this is a -- the rebels, for example, that -- that we trained previously, as we've made clear that they cross the line into Syria, that we did not have control over those folks.

I do not know the circumstances of this particular situation. I don't know the forces on the ground at play in -- in this particular situation. So I can't even hazard a guess as to who's involved here.

But I think we've made clear that the training and -- and -- that happened previously, that U.S. control of those forces ended when they walked into Syria.

So I -- I think it's be hard to -- hard pressed to consider exactly how that would take place, if, indeed, they --they're even involved here, which I can't -- I can't confirm that's the case.

So, yes. Tom?

Q: Peter, two questions please.

Have the U.S. F-15s that have been sent to Turkey had any encounters of Russian aircraft?

MR. COOK: The U.S. F-15s -- I -- I can't say with 100 percent certainty, but my -- my understanding is no. There have been, as we've reported previously, some engagements with Russian aircraft prior to the Memorandum of Understanding. I cannot say with certainty, Tom, if those aircraft originated from Incirlik or from somewhere else.

So, I just can't say with certainty. So -- but I'm not aware of anything since the MOU that would amount to any sort of engagement with -- with U.S. warplanes.

Q: A different question. How would that -- I'd like to ask what led to the dismissal of General Lewis, and what the nature of the inspector general's investigation is?

MR. COOK: Tom, because the inspector general is looking into this, I can't comment on the dismissal of General Lewis beyond the statement that was put out previously.

Q: Is it the concern of the secretary -- there's a -- there's another high level...

MR. COOK: As an inspector general's investigation, it is their responsibility to carry this out and we have to maintain that distance. Understandably, there are also questions about privacy here. So I have to refer you simply to the statement that was released previously.

Q: Can I follow up?

MR. COOK: Barbara?

Q: I want to go back to the plan and then I have a follow-up on a different question. You've said a couple of times that you are still looking at the facts of what happened and you very specifically -- while you said Turkey had a right to defend its airspace, you did not answer Lucas's question about whether the secretary felt this attack was justified. So very specifically, does the United States know whether this plane was shot at inside Turkish airspace? Do you know?

MR. COOK: We are still gathering the details, Barbara, to determine exactly what happened here, including those questions.

Q: So you do -- do I understand you correctly? Even though you were tracking radar and you were tracking the radio calls, as Colonel Warren said today, as we sit here, the United States does not know for a fact if the Turks shot at this airplane...

MR. COOK: The United States, as is NATO and several other of our allies involved, all trying to get as much information as we can as to exactly what happened, Barbara. So we're not able to conclude definitively right now as to exactly where the aircraft was and all the circumstances that played out here. We hope to have that for you.

We have gotten the reports from Turkey, a NATO ally, as to what transpired here and that this aircraft did violate their airspace. And again, we're taking that information into account, as NATO is as well, as I think you heard from the secretary general.

Q: May I ask a -- very briefly a separate question?

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: Now, on the attack against the hospital in Kunduz, the Doctors Without Borders hospital, not that it's clear you are beginning the process of concluding the review of that. One, can you tell us anything about what you have found in this review that has been the human and technical errors that led to this mistake and attack?

And second, has the secretary or the military been able to take any steps to ensure that this kind of incident doesn't happen again? What have you done to make sure this doesn't happen again somewhere in the world?

MR. COOK: Well, a couple of things. First of all, the investigation that you refer to is being conducted -- has been connected under General Campbell's leadership and instruction and direction in Afghanistan, and I'm going to leave it to them and General Campbell to release more information. He's got an update, as I understand, that's going to be made available tomorrow. And I'm going to leave that to General Campbell.

More largely, the secretary has maintained from the start that this needs to be a full and transparent investigation and that we do need to learn whatever we can about this incident, about this mistake in which a protected medical facility was targeted so that it doesn't happen again. That will be part of what we learn from their findings.

And so I'm going to leave it to General Campbell to outline whatever update he has for you tomorrow and the secretary is eager to hear what he has to say and eager to find out what's been learned through the course of this investigation.

Q: I'd have to assume if we're getting -- that the news media is getting an update tomorrow, the secretary's likely already been briefed on this.

MR. COOK: I can't -- I can't actually confirm that he has been briefed. We are waiting to hear from General Campbell tomorrow in Afghanistan.

Q: (inaudible) just yet about what you may have learned from this to make sure it doesn't happen again.

MR. COOK: Well, I think it's clear that the secretary has made clear that the proper protocols need to be followed, not just in Afghanistan, but around the world, to prevent this kind of thing from happening. But are -- were there unique circumstances in this instance that we can learn from again? I think that's the sort of thing we're waiting to -- to find out from General Campbell.

Yes, Bill?

Q: The Turks said they warned the Russian pilot ten times. Do you know that to be true?

MR. COOK: My understanding is there were warnings. I think Colonel Warren referred to this this morning. So my understanding is there -- there were warnings that -- that our -- the coalition was able to hear as well.

Q: Previously -- so at NATO? This when they were...

MR. COOK: The coalition.

Q: Previously, Russian incursions were described as being not accidental. Does this incident also seem to be not accidental, antagonistic? Or how could you characterize that?

MR. COOK: I think Bill, these are some of the details that we are trying to find out ourselves as to exactly what transpired. And the Turks have described it, that they warned the aircraft in advance and that aircraft did venture into Turkish airspace.

And again, the previous incidents, there were at least two previously that I'm aware of, in which the Turks made clear their concern about this. NATO made clear its concerns to Russia.

And so I am not going to characterize this particular instance because we're still trying to track down the details. But again, there were two previous incursions and we've heard from both the Turks, from the Untied States and from NATO as a whole as to our concerns about that in the past.

Yes, Christina.

Q: Thanks Peter. Were any U.S. forces or officials aware of the possible Russian jet incursion before it was shot down?

MR. COOK: I think only to the extent as I mentioned before and I think as Colonial Warren mentioned, that the coalition heard the warnings, previously. But in terms of a flight plan, or something like that, no.

I'm not aware of any advance knowledge that this incident was going to take place. Obviously it's an incident that we wish had not taken place and now we're hoping that both sides, Turkey and Russia, can de-escalate further.

And once again, I want to highlight what -- something that the president referenced, and that is where the Russians were flying this particular mission. Not an area controlled by ISIL. An area along the border with Turkey, where there have been problems with incursions in the past. Russia, if it was focused more on the ISIL fight, perhaps this incident would not have happened at all.

Q: And then on a related topic. The Pentagon announced the intensification of the ISIS fight. Even in the weeks before the Paris attacks. Is it -- can you assess that -- the results of the intensification? Are you seeing any positive results so far?

MR. COOK: Well, we continue to apply pressure to ISIL on a number of different fronts. You've seen what happened in Sinjar, for example, in the cutting off that supply line. We consider that certainly to be a step forward.

You have seen the movement of forces, some of those opposition forces around Raqqa. The taking of (inaudible) is another indication of a step forward. Again, there are going to be steps back as we engage this fight but many -- in those instances, coalition air support made a difference to those forces.

And coalition support over all made a difference. So we're tracking those things. We've seen the progress with regard to the targeting the oil infrastructure in recent days. These are what we consider to be steps forward. Again, there are going to be challenges along the way as well.

There is no silver bullet here. But we do consider the effort to try. And if you will accelerate this fight is moving forward. And I think what we've heard from the president today and certainly the conversation the secretary just had with his French counterpart, we're looking for ways to further accelerate it with the help of the French and others.

Yes.

Q: Given that the U.S. F-15 aircraft are based in Incirlik to help protection of Turkish airspace. Which you also described as a NATO airspace. Do you consider the U.S. to be very much a part of any escalation whatsoever to come out in that area?

MR. COOK: Those forces are there, the U.S. aircraft there, those F- 15s in particular, are there to assist a NATO ally at the request of a NATO ally. And so we don't consider that escalatory, we consider that a step to aid an ally and partner. And that is the purpose for those aircraft.

Yes. Terry.

Q: The Russian ministry has issued a statement that it's deploying its cruisers, the (inaudible) off the coast off Latakia. And it has an S-300 equivalent on board as a long-range anti- aircraft missile. How much more dangerous is it getting for U.S. and coalition pilots to operate in Syrian airspace? And given this escalation, will continued air operations against the Islamic State in Syria continue at pace?

MR. COOK: Well, first of all, our missions are continuing, even today. And we're not going to slow down our pace and our mission continues. We have the memorandum of understanding in place with the Russians that has up to this point, proven successful in keeping our aircraft safe, our crews safe. And so we don't anticipate problems. Again, anything the Russians do that is bolstering the Assad regime, we would consider counterproductive. And we would be worried about any additional weaponry that -- that enters the fray. But we do expect the Russians to abide by the Memorandum of Understanding and to do their part to make sure that the skies over Syria remain safe for our crews.

Q: Did Turkey sign the Memorandum of Understanding?

MR. COOK: The Memorandum of Understanding is -- was signed by the United States on behalf of all the coalition members. And so, it would be -- Turkey would be covered under that.

Q: So if it wasn't Turkish airspace, would this be a violation of the MOU?

MR. COOK: Well, it -- the coalition, it covers only Syrian airspace. So that is the limit of the Memorandum of Understanding for coalition and for the United States, and for Russia as well.

Yes.

Q: Will the Truman be joining the de Gaulle for airstrikes in Syria in the Eastern Med.?

MR. COOK: Let me double check the exact -- what -- what the plan is for the -- for the Truman. My understanding is it's headed to the Persian Gulf. So I don't know if there's particular operations planned for the Eastern Med. at this particular moment in time.

Q: Was it a topic of discussion with Minister Le Drian?

MR. COOK: It did not come up in the course of the conversation today. But let me check and see if there's anything further I can get for you on that.

Bill, back to you.

Q: So if -- because it covers only -- the MOU only covers Syrian airspace, if the Turkish jet shot down the Russian jet in Syrian airspace, it -- it would be in violation of this MOU?

MR. COOK: Again, I'm not going to get in the hypotheticals, Bill.

The Memorandum of Understanding deals with the safe interaction of aircraft over Syrian airspace. The professional airmanship that's required -- it is intended to deconflict and to create a series of protocols put in place that aircrews and even ground communication links can be employed to try and prevent something from happening over Syrian airspace.

That was the purpose of it. What turkey has informed us that it did today was to defend its own airspace. And as a NATO ally, we obviously take that with great concern -- any incursion into Turkish airspace. And so, we're gonna try and track down the details along with our other NATO partners and work with Turkey as to exactly what happened here, and whether or not something like this can be avoided going forward.

But the initial effort here should be on the part of Turkey and Russia to try and de-escalate and prevent this from happening again.

Yes, last one, and then I gotta run.

Q: Two questions. Quickly, was there signs, since you were able to hear everything that was going on, any sign of a distress call or any response that we haven't heard about yet from the Russian planes involved in the incident, and the second...

MR. COOK: Let me -- let me answer that first then I'll come back to you.

I'm -- I'm not aware of everything that was heard, but my understanding is the -- the warnings from the Turks -- we were made aware, we could hear -- the coalition operation center could hear that there were warnings conveyed. So.

Q: But nothing in terms of a response from the Russian pilots?

MR. COOK: I'm not aware of any that -- I can't say it didn't happen, but I'm not aware that -- that we heard any.

Q: And then the second part -- how concerned is the Pentagon about this confluence of events, whether, you know, I know there's a lot that hasn't been confirmed, but it seems like things are building up where you have these tensions building. Russians are -- are using some tough language. They're moving other things into play. How concerned is the Pentagon that things could start to spiral out of control? And -- and what, if anything, are you trying to do to prevent that from happening?

MR. COOK: Well, I think we're -- obviously, we've got concerns about what played out today and the risk for miscalculation and misjudgment over Syria and in the neighborhood. And if the Russians were focused on the fight against ISIL as opposed to targeting opposition groups in support for the Assad regime, that would be a step forward to help try and -- if you will -- de-conflict this entire conflict zone.

So we have concerns about it. And -- but the focus for us continues to be the fight against ISIL. And to the extent that the Russians can shift their energy and attention to the fight against ISIL, would be in the best interest of everyone, including the people in Syria who, if the Russians were to exert their influence in terms of the political transition, that would be a step forward as well.

And -- so, there are risks for miscalculation. There are risks for misjudgment. That's why we have this Memorandum of Understanding in place with the Russians, and we would like to see steps on -- on the part of a number of actors. But the Russians in particular, to try and -- and move this -- move the fight against ISIL forward. At the same time, strike some sort of political and diplomatic resolution to the Syrian civil war, which is goal really, ultimately, here for everyone.

Lucas, I've got to run. Alright.

Q: In the last week two of Secretary Carter's former predecessors, Secretary Panetta, appeared on my network, Fox News Channel, and offered a number of criticisms, saying that the United States needs to do more; it needs to do more to destroy the Islamic State. President Obama's former Undersectretary of Defense for Intelligence Mike Vickers, had an op-ep recently, saying we need to treat the Islamic State like the war against the Taliban and Afghanistan.

Has Secretary Carter spoken to any of his predecessors or former Undersecretary Mike Vickers, and does he share that sense of urgency? And is he relaying that across the river?

MR. COOK: Well, first of all, I think Secretary Carter has had a sense of urgency about this himself since he took this job. And he has -- as he's detailed the you, taken several steps over the past few weeks and months to not only assess the situation there, but look at what's working in the fight against ISIL, look what's not working, make adjustments to ramp things up, whether it's the air campaign, whether it's, again, the insertion of these special operations forces into Syria, steps that we think can further enable local forces to ultimately prevail in this fight against ISIL.

With regard to his predecessors, the secretary has had conversations in the past, I know, with several of his predecessors, has a good relationship with a long list of people and worked with many of them very closely. I know that he respects their views on these issues, and sought their counsel in a host of different ways since he's taken over this job.

But he has his own views about what should be happening now on the ground. He's detailed them to you, and he believes that the changes we're making will intensify this fight, will accelerate this fight against ISIL, and there may be more opportunities to do even more in that regard, and that's one of the conversations he just had with his French counterpart.

There are going to be further adjustments. There are going to be further enhancements to this fight. And the secretary is going to continue to lead that effort. And get advice, and counsel and support from wherever he can.

Thanks very much, everyone.

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