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Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook January 27, 2016

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

PETER COOK: Afternoon, everyone. Hope you survived Snowzilla adequately. You look -- crowd's a little smaller today. Maybe people are still trapped. But -- hope everyone's doing all right.

I wanted to begin, today, with a statement regarding – a statement from the secretary regarding Afghanistan -- again, from Secretary Carter.

"I want to thank General John Campbell for his extraordinary leadership and dedication in his dual role as commander of the United States forces Afghanistan, and as commander of the NATO Resolute Support mission.

"While many challenges remain, we have made gains over the past year that will put Afghanistan on a better path, and much of the credit for that progress rests with General Campbell.

"Under General Campbell's leadership, our forces have engaged in two important and enduring missions: our train, advise and assist support to the Afghan security forces, and our counterterrorism effort. General Campbell has taken the fight to Al Qaida and made clear our resolve to deny it safe haven.

"He has consistently identified ways to increase the capability and capacity of the Afghan forces -- forces that have shown the motivation and resiliency required to ensure the long-term success of our partnership and the security and the stability of the Afghan -- that the Afghan people deserve.

"General Campbell has presided over important milestones in our mission to enable the ANDSF, including the recent delivery of the A-29s to the Afghan military to provide close air support, which will be a key element in increasing superiority over Taliban forces.

"He has also forged strong partnerships with the Afghan unity government led by President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, and it is clear that we have strong partners with a common vision focused on a secure and prosperous future for the Afghan people.

"For nearly 18 months, General Campbell has given his all to the mission as our top commander in Afghanistan, and his personal sacrifices on behalf of his troops and the Afghan people will be remembered by us all.

"As his tour in Afghanistan comes to a close, I want to personally thank him for everything he has done to bring us to this moment in Afghanistan, and for all that he has done throughout his extraordinary career. There will be more to say about his future in the coming days.

"The good news is that we have a deep bench. I am absolutely confident the man the president intends to nominate to take General Campbell's place when his work in Afghanistan is completed, Lieutenant General John "Mick" Nicholson, is an accomplished soldier with extensive command experience both in Afghanistan and around the world.

"He has led soldiers at all levels, from platoon to division, in airborne, ranger, mechanized, Stryker and light infantry units in five different infantry divisions and the 75th Ranger Regiment. He commanded the 82nd Airborne Division, reestablishing global response force capabilities, and commanded NATO's Allied Land Command.

"He knows what it means to lead a responsive and nimble force, and how to build the capacity of our partners to respond to immediate and long-term threats and remain adaptable to confront evolving challenges. And he understands the importance and complexity of our mission in Afghanistan, having served in multiple capacities, including chief of staff of operations for the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, and U.S. Forces Afghanistan, director of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell for the Joint Staff and deputy commander of stability of ISAF Regional Command-South.

"I am confident that General Nicholson will build upon General Campbell's hard work to secure a bright future for the Afghan people and help the government of Afghanistan strengthen a professional and capable security partner to the American people."

I also wanted to update you as well on the secretary's visit to CYBERCOM earlier today. The secretary and Chairman Dunford visited U.S. Cyber Command or CYBERCOM in Fort Meade, Maryland, this morning. They discussed a range of cyber-related topics with the leadership there, including the latest on efforts to degrade ISIL's messaging campaign.

As the secretary made clear in his remarks to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell and in his speech in meetings with allies last week in Paris, our effort to accelerate the campaign to deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL includes targeting their use of the Internet to spread their message of hate, recruit fighters and inspire acts of terror.

CYBERCOM is charged with supporting our inter-agency partners in our whole of government effort to counter ISIL messaging in addition to several other vital aspects of the counter ISIL campaign. Secretary was able to engage directly with some of the men and women directly engaged in cyber operations. He encouraged them, the entire CYBERCOM team, to do what they can to intensify the fight against ISIL.

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


Q: I wanted to ask you about the possibility of the U.S. expanding its counter ISIL efforts into Libya. The chairman traveling in Europe this week said that it was fair to say that the U.S. needed to take decisive military action -- he said, in conjunction with the political events in Libya.

Can you help us understand what he's talking about and what's under consideration in terms of expanding efforts against ISIL into Libya?

MR. COOK: Well, as the chairman has discussed, as the Secretary has spoken on numerous occasions, including just last week in our visit to Paris and our meetings with other members of the ISIL coalition, we are extremely worried about the metastasis of ISIL to other locations, Libya being just one of those locations.

We continue to monitor the situation there. Continue to work very closely with our coalition partners, with others in the region who have similar concerns about the situation in Libya. And I think it's fair to say that we are closely monitoring the situation. As Chairman Dunford has indicated, working with those partners and also continuing to have conversations with people on the ground as to exactly what is happening there and the threat that ISIL poses to the United States and others.

Q: Could we see an expansion into Libya that looks something like what's going on in Iraq and Syria? That is to say, more consistent air strikes and even possibly some limited ground actions?

MR. COOK: We've shown in the past a willingness to strike in Libya. We've taken out a key ISIL leader in Libya in the past. But I think Jamie, it's too soon to say at this point exactly where things will evolve. We're taking a very close look at this situation.

Again, it's not just the United States that's involved here, that has a stake in what happens in Libya. We're continuing, of course, through the State Department, to support the effort to -- to forge a government in -- in Libya, and we think that's a critical step in terms of the governance of the country to trying to address the -- the ISIL threat as well. It's not just a military solution here.

But we're going to continue to monitor it, and -- and as Chairman Dunford indicated, we see this threat in ISIL as a serious threat, and we're going to continue to -- to monitor the situation and consider what options we have moving forward.

Q: Chairman Dunford seemed to indicate that those options might be presented to the president in -- I think he said in -- in a matter of weeks. Are -- so we -- are we talking about seeing some significant stepping-up of the operations against Libya in a matter of weeks?

MR. COOK: I think we're going to continue to assess the -- the threat in Libya and respond accordingly, and the chairman and the secretary will continue to have those conversations with the president's national security team and with our partners as well, as we assess the threat in Libya.

Q: Peter?

MR. COOK: Jennifer.

Q: Can you -- can you rule out U.S. boots on the ground going to Libya? Is that (inaudible) discussion?

MR. COOK: You -- you know the situation right now. We've had -- acknowledged that there have been some U.S. forces in Libya trying to establish contact with forces on the ground so that we get a clear picture of what's happening there.

But beyond that, it's -- again, we're going to consider all of our options going forward. Right now, that's not something that's -- that's under consideration.

Q: And can you help me understand -- twice this week, Ash Carter told CNN and CNBC -- gave the impression that U.S. boots on the ground are on their way to Iraq and possibly Syria.

He told CNN, "I just went to Fort Campbell, headquarter of 101st Airborne. They're going to be the next unit going into Iraq -- whole division. This is your mission: to get the Iraqis positioned. Is that hazardous? Boots on the ground -- yeah."

That led to some confusion. Did he mean to say that a division of the 101st was going to Iraq?

MR. COOK: The deployment of the 101st -- it's been scheduled for some time. They're rotating in to replace existing forces on the ground. So hopefully there isn't any confusion there.

Q: It's not a whole division. It's a brigade.

MR. COOK: It's my understanding it's about 1,800 troops that will be moving in. And, as the secretary acknowledged to those troops, they have an important mission to carry out.

It's been planned for some time. It's going to be the same mission that's being conducted right now by the 82nd Airborne, and they have a critical role to play going forward.

And I think the secretary was making the point that those forces, while they're on the ground in Iraq trying to, again, enable Iraqi security forces to move forward, will be at risk -- will be in harm's way. I think that was the point he was trying to make in that conversation.

Q: Is there any change to their mission in terms of -- will they be closer to the front lines? Will they be embedded if the Mosul operation begins? Is there any change to their mission?

MR. COOK: Their mission will be the same as the mission that -- for the forces that they're replacing, and this is, again, an effort to enable those Iraqi security forces, as U.S. trainers were able to do with Iraqi security forces that successfully took back those parts of Ramadi.

We're looking for much the same thing out of these forces, and they -- I can tell you from our travel to Fort Campbell and our conversations with them -- are -- are ready for this mission.

They understand the importance of this mission, and they will play a critical role in enabling those Iraqi security forces as they move towards their next targets, including, ultimately, Mosul.

Q: And I -- can I just shift to China for a moment?

Secretary Kerry is over in China today, and he was quoted in talking about the disputed islands in the South China Sea -- he was quoted saying, "Let me emphasize again: the United States does not take sides on the sovereignty questions underlying the territorial disputes in the South China Sea." That is a very different tone than what we've heard from this building.

Secretary Carter has said that we will continue to fly over the disputed islands. And in fact, there has been a lot more said that suggests that we do actually take sides on this issue. So where -- how do I understand this?

MR. COOK: I think Jennifer, that careful reading of the secretary's comments on this topic, including when we were in the region, he has been very clear -- and I think you can look at his testimony as well. We don't take sides in terms of these disputes. We encourage a diplomatic resolution to these disputes.

But what he's said is that efforts to reclaim these areas and to militarize these disputed islands is counterproductive to the effort to try and get a final resolution. And in the meantime, the United States will continue to be a force for stability in the region.

And we're going to continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. But we don't take sides in these disputes, whether it's disputes involving China or other players in the region.


Q: Going back to Libya for a second, are there currently U.S. forces on the ground there?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to tell you exactly what the disposition of our forces are there. I can acknowledge that we've had forces on the ground previously as we've indicated, to engage in conversations with local forces to get a clearer picture of exactly what's happening there.

Q: And can you give us a better sense of what that discussion with local forces is? Is that is preparing to organize the kinds of militias we can work with? Is it meeting with political leaders to get a sense of whom supports whom? I mean, it sounds as though it's a very complicated picture with dozens if not hundreds of different kinds of militias. What exactly is the U.S. stance?

MR. COOK: It is a complicated picture and I think you've characterized pretty well what the goal would be and that is to simply get a better sense of who the players are, who might be worthy of U.S. support and support from some of our partners going forward in the fight against ISIL.

It is a complicated picture. And that's why the formation of a government is so central to the future for Libya and to also addressing the issue of ISIL in Libya. And so part of the presence -- the reason for the presence of those troops is to, again, get a sense of the forces on the ground, the players on the ground and exactly what's happening, because it is a muddled picture right now. And we -- that is one of the best ways we can get a better sense of what's happening.

Q: Have they come to any conclusions on the kinds of forces we can work with?

MR. COOK: I think they provided valuable information. And again, there's a big picture here. There are lots of players involved, there are also a lot of foreign partners that we have who are providing us critical information about what's happening in Libya and we'll continue to work closely with them. It's not the only way we're getting information on the ground.

Q: Going back to Jamie's question. I realize that ISIS is a problem in many countries beyond Iraq and Syria, but Libya, as we understand it, is the only place where they are exercising active command and control. And I wonder, given Chairman Dunford's comments, given Secretary Carter's comments, is Libya getting a greater priority, a greater sense of urgency in the anti-ISIL fight than other countries?

MR. COOK: Well, I think we've acknowledged the threat posed by ISIL as it metastasizes and Libya is clearly a place where we've seen movement of ISIL forces, of ISIL members if you will. So clearly, it's a significant concern for us.

I'm not going to say it's more of a concern than other countries at this particular point but we have seen an increase in ISIL members, ISIL-affiliated groups, if you will, in Libya, and that's a cause for concern. And -- and as a result, we're doing everything we can to monitor that situation and work with our partners, trying to get a better fix on what's happening and, again, consider our options going forward.


Q: A domestic question for you. Can you confirm the secretary's going to brief the budget on February 2nd and maybe give us a preview of the preview?

MR. COOK: I can confirm that the secretary will have something to say about the budget on February 2nd, yes. But I can't give you more details than that. And he'll make -- he'll make those comments here in Washington.

So, Barbara?

Q: Can we go back to Libya again?

My -- my memory may be very faulty on this. I recall -- I think it was a couple of months ago -- there was a photo that emerged, that was acknowledged, of some U.S. troops that appeared in Libya, and it was said at the time that they were asked by a local militia to please leave the area, and they did leave. they did not stay.

And I -- I acknowledge my memory maybe faulty -- that is the only instance I recall. Is what you're saying today the first time the Defense Department is now openly acknowledging that U.S. special forces have gone in on the ground in Libya to establish contact with local groups?

Because I don't recall, other than that photo -- and I may -- my memory may be faulty. So is this your first time you're saying this?

MR. COOK: I don't know if it's the first time we've said it as -- as a building, but I would just acknowledge, I think, what we've said previously -- that there have been U.S. personnel there, doing exactly what I described: trying to get a better sense of the picture there.

Q: (off-mic.) I believe, in Tripoli, but you seem to be indicating that it's much more of an enduring mission that just --

MR. COOK: (inaudible) --

Q: -- so help -- help us understand if you could --

MR. COOK: -- this is --

Q: -- what these -- the task and mission of these U.S. special forces is?

MR. COOK: -- there have been U.S. personnel in Libya, as I described --

Q: Military personnel?

MR. COOK: -- at the concurrence of -- of Libyan officials in an effort to try and explore relationships, to get a better sense of what's happening on the ground in Libya.

And, again, we've acknowledged this in the past -- small group, and they're trying to get a clearer picture of what's happening there. And they've made contact with people on the ground to try and get a better sense of not only the threat that ISIL poses there, but the dynamic on the ground in terms of the security situation.

We're looking for partners who can give us a better sense of the security situation, and it's not just the United States, of course, that has a keen interest here, Barbara. It is our foreign partners as well, and likewise, they have been able to provide us a significant amount of information as to what's happening in Libya.

And again, cause for concern for us, and that's why I think you've heard from Chairman Dunford, Secretary Carter -- been very up-front that this is a situation that does cause us concern, and we're considering what our options might be going forward should that threat – ISIL, become an even bigger threat from Libya.

Q: So you -- just to clarify, they are U.S. military personnel? These are not just random government employees? These are U.S. military personnel you're referencing?

MR. COOK: U.S. military personnel.

Q: And you are also acknowledging that you are working on -- you just said "options". So you're -- you're -- you are acknowledging you are indeed, then, working on military options to deal with ISIS in Libya?

MR. COOK: We're taking the appropriate steps, along with our partners, to assess the threat that ISIL may pose in Libya. And obviously, looking at the security situation there, and doing everything we can separately.

Very important, Barbara, the -- the diplomatic side of this -- the formation of a -- of a central government in Libya -- critically important to the future of that country, of course, and to try to stabilize the security situation.

Q: But -- but you said "options," and since you're the Defense Department spokesman, you are talking military --

MR. COOK: We are --

Q: -- I just need to make sure I understood accurately. You're talking -- your podium?

MR. COOK: We are -- yes. We -- we're looking at military options, a range of other options as a government that we can engage in to try and -- as the situation in Libya unfolds, we want to be prepared, as -- as the Department of Defense always wants to be prepared, in the event that ISIL in Libya becomes more of a threat than it is even today.

Q: And can I just follow up, also, on Mosul, if I might? So the secretary is going to have this meeting with the allies to talk about getting increased contributions.

To what -- and -- and I think Colonel Warren referenced -- you know, you're looking, in particular, at Mosul coming down the road, and the need for eight trained Iraqi brigades -- brigades.

So how much of this meeting he is going to have focuses -- and why -- on trying to get the Persian Gulf and the Middle East allies to contribute to get the Iraqi forces ready for a fight to take Mosul? How much of the meeting focuses on that?

MR. COOK: Well, I think the secretary's made clear that he's looking for contributions from as many contributors as possible -- as many countries that are engaged in the campaign -- including those, perhaps, that aren't engaged in the campaign at all right now.

So he doesn't want to single out any particular group here. But he thinks there's plenty of contributions that can be made -- and it's not just, Barbara, in the -- in the training, if you will, of those eight brigades.

There are a whole host of other things that need to be done in the counter-ISIL fight, and what the secretary and his -- and his partners at the table in Paris have -- have said about doing is to -- identifying the key capabilities that are going to be needed, going forward, in the fight against ISIL.

Again, it's not just training forces. It could involve additions to the air campaign. It could involve logistical support. It could involve the training of police. There are a whole host of things that countries could do as part of this effort -- ISR is another example -- where countries could step up and do more.

Q: If -- and not hypothetically, because as you said, many of them are doing nothing. So if that -- of the status quo continues, what is the general range of additional U.S. personnel that are needed for Iraq to be ready for Mosul?

MR. COOK: I think the secretary -- again, we -- this is a coalition. We have 26 nations, plus Iraq, in Brussels. We have seen great contributions from many members of that coalition.

The secretary believes that more can be done -- that more can be offered towards this effort -- that there should be no free riders, in his words. And -- and we'll see what comes out of Brussels.

But this is an ongoing conversation, and I think, at this point, we remain optimistic that there will be additional contributions from foreign partners that will enable this effort to move forward.

In the meantime, the United States is going to continue to do what it's been doing -- and we are the leader of this coalition right now, and contributing the most to it at this point. We're going to continue to do what we're doing to push this --

Q: (off-mic.)

MR. COOK: -- to accelerate this effort along, with the help of our partners.

Q: So how many more U.S. troops are needed?

MR. COOK: I think you know where we are right now.

Q: I don't.

MR. COOK: We're about 3,700 U.S. troops, right now, in Iraq, and that's -- that's the level, right now, that the secretary feels is the appropriate level, and if he feels like he needs to request more, then he's prepared to do that.

It depends on the circumstances, going forward, and if unique capabilities need to be brought into the fight. But this is -- that's where we are right now, and that's part of -- again, that's a calculated assessment of -- of what this campaign needs, at this moment particularly, from the U.S. side.

But if -- the secretary has said, if he sees an opportunity for us to be able to do more, and it requires additional U.S. forces, he's prepared to make that request. But he doesn't have a pending request right now.


Q: Peter, I want to go back to Libya. You said that -- just to make it clear. You said that now the Pentagon is (inaudible) the military options to (inaudible) of ISIS fight inside Libya. Is that correct?

MR. COOK: We are always reviewing our options with regard to Libya and a whole host of other challenges facing the United States.

Q: What about you could clarify the size of the U.S. force, the military personnel who is -- who worked in Libya before or -- what is the status?

MR. COOK: It's a small number of military personnel -- I'm not going to get into the disposition right now of those forces. But we've indicated before there was a small group there to meet the diverse range of groups to get a better sense of what's happening on the ground.

Q: And when you say small group, this isn't --

MR. COOK: I'm going to leave it at that. This is a small group, Joe, I'm going to leave it at that.

Yes, Austin.

Q: Peter, at Fort Campbell in his prepared remarks, the secretary once again knocked Congress for holding up the last $49 million in Syria train and equip funds. Have there been any updates on that in terms of briefings to answer Congress' questions. And at this point, have there been any real world consequences for not having that money?

MR. COOK: Austin, let me take that question to give you a definitive update as to where that -- to my understanding, as at last check, there was still some money being held up if you will, had not been released fully. And I think in terms of real world consequences, the department and the secretary believes that that money could be well used in this effort to take the fight to ISIL, and so we'll continue our efforts to work with Congress to try and free up those funds.

Q: Thank you.

MR. COOK: Yep.


Q: Of course.


Q: Two questions.

MR. COOK: Everyone knows who you are, Gordon, so (inaudible).

Q: (Inaudible) When you were with Secretary Carter in Afghanistan in September, he hinted talking to troops about a longer term mission for troops in Afghanistan, okay. And then we see these reports, or a report today about rethinking the idea of an exit strategy altogether.

Can you respond to this notion that the current plan which will withdraw most of the troops I believe, by the end of the year or whatever it is now, is being rethought. And I have a second question, unrelated which is, the Turks had proposed to Chairman Dunford a kind of a new, teeny program, slightly more limited, for folks inside Syria to be training somewhere and then brought back into Syria.

Has the secretary received any recommendation on that?

MR. COOK: I know that this topic came up previously. The secretary -- I'm not aware of any specific action or review that the secretary has conducted yet that I can share with you at this point. On your first question, there is no change right now to the number of U.S. forces and the current plan in place.

Ninety-eight hundred U.S. troops being reduced down, ultimately to 5,500. The pace of that will be determined by commanders on the ground and there's been no change to that. Obviously, we are going to continue to assess the security situation in Afghanistan.

The secretary is going to continue to listen very carefully to General Campbell on his assessment on what is happening in Afghanistan. But as of now, there's no change in that plan.

Q: And we have several months to go before the end of the year, but is there a point at which a decision would have to be made on not starting to draw down the 9,800 to 5,500?

MR. COOK: Again, this will be determined by commanders on the ground. I think everyone's looked at this situation, understands what -- what that end point is scheduled to be, at this -- at this moment, and is confident that we can get there, if necessary.

And, again, if there needs to be a review -- a reassessment, that will be done with -- in coordination with commanders on the ground, of course. The secretary engaging with the -- with the national security team at the -- at the White House as well.


Q: (inaudible) -- in the nomination for General Nicholson. Is that -- is he being nominated for a fourth star, or is this going to be a three-star command now?

MR. COOK: My understanding, this would be a fourth star.

Q: And there's been a development in South America with this Zika virus that is drawing concern. Last night, the president had a meeting with his health care leadership, and also national security leaders like defense -- Deputy Defense Secretary Work was there.

What is the role that the U.S. military or the Pentagon is being asked to play as part of this health initiative to try to prevent the spread of this disease?

MR. COOK: My understanding is we've been asked -- and, again, the deputy secretary was at the White House yesterday -- we've been asked to support Health and Human Services in their efforts to convene experts and -- and stakeholders, specifically in the research area.

This is an area where the DOD has done some research in the past, and I think some of that expertise will be brought to this effort, and we'll be supporting HHS in whatever way we can.

Q: Is there any consideration to --

MR. COOK: Excuse me.

Q: -- an initiative similar to what happened with Ebola, where the U.S. military played a role in containing that disease in Africa?

MR. COOK: I don't think anyone is talking about that kind of role at this particular time. So this is a support role, again, sharing our research knowledge as -- as much as anything else, with the folks at HHS.

Okay? Jennifer.

Q: Peter, why haven't we heard from the 10 sailors who were held by Iran overnight? If you have any plans to allow them to take questions?

MR. COOK: I'll refer you to the Navy as to exactly what stage they are. My understanding is the reintegration process has been completed, and I'll leave it to the Navy -- I know that the Navy investigation is still ongoing -- as to exactly what took place.

And I think that could be -- a determination could be a factor in exactly their status at this point, and whether or not they might be made available for media interviews.

Q: And does the secretary have any reaction to the CBS report last night on the Wounded Warrior Project and how money has been wasted that was raised to help wounded warriors -- up to $1 billion? Any reaction to that?

MR. COOK: To be honest. Jennifer, I didn't see the report myself. I'm not sure if the -- the secretary did. We'll obviously look into it. The secretary would obviously be concerned about any report of malfeasance in this sort of area.

But we didn't see the report, so let me take a look and find out if -- if the secretary saw it himself.

Okay. All said? Thanks, everyone.

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