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Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook May 26, 2016

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


PETER COOK: It's a busy day, busy Monday here at the Pentagon.

Let me run through some schedule items before I provide one announcement for you.

This morning, the secretary was pleased to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Nunn-Lugar Competitive Threat Reduction program. The secretary was joined by Senators Nunn and Lugar to honor five individuals who have made that program such a success and made America safer in the process.

At 4 o'clock this afternoon, the secretary will honor another American who has focused much of his career on U.S. national security. The secretary will present the department's highest civilian honor, the distinguished public service award, to Dr. Henry Kissinger, honoring his years of dedicated service to the country, and that event also is open press.

Tomorrow, Secretary Carter leaves for a trip that will take him to California and Colorado. In California on Wednesday, he'll be in Silicon Valley to visit the Department's Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, DIUX, where he will provide an update on his efforts to build bridges with the innovation economy.

Later on Wednesday, he will attend a meeting of the National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee. NSTAC is a federal partnership with major private sector entities and provides recommendations to the president on preserving vital telecommunications services in a crisis.

The secretary will be joined there by other federal officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

And finally on Wednesday, the secretary will honor former Secretary of State George Shultz as the 2016 recipient of the Department of Defense Ideas Award. Again, that will happen in California on the Stanford campus, or just off the Stanford campus.

On Thursday, the secretary heads to Colorado, where he will visit the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operation Center, or JICSPOC, to discuss key space issues with the leadership team there. Later, he will speak to cadets at the Air Force Academy.

And on Friday, he will attend a historic change of command ceremony, where he will thank Admiral Gortney for his exceptional service as commander of NORAD and NORTHCOM, and welcome General Lori Robinson as the first female leader of a combatant command. That happens on Friday.

Now, I do have one announcement for you regarding the counter-ISIL campaign. On May 6th, a coalition air strike targeted Abu Wahib, ISIL's military amir for Anbar Province and a former member of Al Qaida in Iraq who has appeared in ISIL execution videos. That strike near Rutbah was successful, killing Abu Wahib and three other ISIL jihadists. Abu Wahib's death is another blow to ISIL's leadership that will further degrade its ability to operate, especially in Anbar Province.

And with that, happy to take any questions. Tony?

Q: Starting off with a Syria train and equip question. You've got two reprogrammings on the Hill for $349 million. Congress has been slow to act on those. What is the status of the train and equip program in terms of how many in the second phase have been vetted to date? And what's the goal for the end of the year, i.e. why do you need the money and why should Congress give it to you?

MR. COOK: Tony, as you know, we're not talking about specific numbers of people and not providing disposition as to where they are right now in the program, in part for operational security. But this effort was again an effort to build on the -- the problems that we saw in the first round of the train and equip program, learned from those lessons and advanced this program, which we think is very important in terms of enhancing those Syrian forces on the ground that are taking the fight to ISIL.

And so that is why this program is moving forward again. And while we've asked for Congresses' help in terms of financial support for that program and we're going through the process of making that case to the committee, so you've heard the secretary on the Hill talk about the importance of this and talk about the importance of getting these funds in place so that that program can be accelerated and these forces can be brought to bear in the fight against ISIL.

Q: In the first -- first time this went around, the -- your predecessor, Kirby, did say how many -- the end goal was like 5,000 at the end of a couple of years ago and he did give periodic updates. Why can't you at least give a sense of what in the second tranche are the goals and vetted to date?

MR. COOK: Well, the goals we can talk about. But Tony, remember this is a different program than what was originally conceived. What that was was an effort to, if you will, build ground forces effectively from the ground up, a large number of forces. This is much more tailored to -- to training and -- and making connections with individual leaders who will enhance the fight against ISIL, not entire teams of -- of soldiers, if you will. So on that effort, it's got a different outcome in mind, a different approach, one we think that will be more successful.

By dealing with these vetted individuals, we think there'll be a way for them to -- for us to establish those connections with those individuals, and again, get the groups that they represent more involved in the fight without having to train -- train up a significant number of people. So it's different in that regard.

Q: So the money -- the $349 million would go to helping equip the units so the individual -- the personnel, that the selected individuals would hopefully muster?

MR. COOK: I'm sorry, I don't have the exact breakdown right here exactly what this $349 million would be spent on. But you can be sure that part of that will include the training of these individuals and the resources necessary to do that, the resources necessary to support the U.S. personnel that will be providing that training. But I don't have the exact breakdown for this $349 million.

Q: Another budget question. House -- the House Armed Services Committee has acted on the 2017 defense bill. The appropriators act on it Wednesday, the Senate acts on it on this week -- later this week. Are there sections in the House Armed Services Committee legislation that the secretary would feel compelled to recommend a veto to the president on if they remained in the final budget – in the final bill?

MR. COOK: Well, Tony, you just talked about a process that is underway up on Capitol Hill, and we're going to be respectful of that process. We're still early at this point, but the secretary, I think, has made pretty clear he has problems with the some components of what's in the House legislation, particularly with regard to the dollars and the use of the contingency funds, the OCO funds.

And I think he has made his concerns about that readily apparent, but it's too soon to be talking about veto threats and things like that. There is a process that needs to be followed here. We're early in that process.

We're look forward to working with Congress and trying to address the secretary's concerns and end up with a product that serves our warfighter and maintains the budget certainty that the secretary has identified.

Q: Because it has shifted the $18 billion of OCO back into the base budget. Is that potentially veto material?

MR. COOK: Again, Tony, the secretary has made his views on this clear. We're early in the process; it's too soon to be talking about veto threats. This is a much larger bill, with a whole host of components to it, components that are critically important to this department, critically important to America's warfighters.

We'd like to work with Congress and make this successful end result in something that we can be supportive of and they can be supportive of as well.

Lucas.

Q: Peter, does the secretary have reaction to the Army Times story saying the Army right now is being cut to the lowest level since World War II?

And my question is, how does the Pentagon justify these cuts in light of the rising threats from Russia, who has threatened to put more divisions along the border with Eastern Europe, China's militarizing the South China Sea and now Iran just in the past few weeks has launched another ballistic missile violation?

How do you justify these cuts to the U.S. Army?

MR. COOK: Well, let me talk big picture here. The budget that the secretary has presented, that he has worked on closely, collaboratively with the services, including the Army, represents a budget that puts priorities on where the secretary believes we should be spending our money -- that is readiness, that is of course innovation, making sure America's warfighters have what they need today and in the future.

And this was done collaboratively with the Army, with General Milley. And these -- again, this is a budget environment in which we're given a topline number of the budget agreement. And the secretary, working closely with his top leadership and with the leadership of the services has come up with move the budget forward that he's confident reflects our priorities, our needs at this time, given the budget environment that we're in.

And that's -- again nobody -- everybody wishes we had more dollars to spend if that was possible, but this is a budget agreement that we have to operate in, and this would -- represented the best case -- the best plan to put forward with regard to the nation's defense within those budget frameworks.

Q: But General Milley was just on Capitol Hill a month ago, saying that these cuts -- he can't even deploy two-thirds of the Army in time of crisis, and that if forced to deploy troops in crisis, that to expect more U.S. casualties.

Is the secretary satisfied in that kind of answer, in strength and size the U.S. Army right now?

MR. COOK: Again, tough decisions were made in this budget. This reflects budget that has the nation's security interests in mind, given the budget realities.

And he's confident that what is presented here and what he has worked with, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Chairman Dunford, represents a plan that if it's approved by Congress, would allow for the protection of the United States. And again, this is a budget environment, Lucas, that you've covered, you know is different.

We had a budget agreement that set a topline number, and this reflects the kind of investments we need right now in readiness, in force structure and in innovation for the future that reflects that the right balance in the secretary's mind.

Q: Just to follow up on Tony's question, in this budget that Congress has planned to ask the Pentagon to halt these cuts to the Army would the secretary support that, to stop these cuts right now?

MR. COOK: Again, we're going to let this process play out. It's early in the process up on Capitol Hill. We're not going to judge it at this moment in time, we want to see what the finished product looks like and continue to work with the members of Congress, and identify those areas that are critically important to us.

This is really important for our warfighters and for the certainty that they deserve. And we're going to continue to work with members of Congress through this process.

Q: And finally, I noticed in your opening announcements, you didn't say anything about V.E. Day. Did -- not think it was important to say something about? The 71st anniversary?

MR. COOK: It is important. Thank you for reminding me. It is an important day in history. A lot of things going on today, and that did slip my -- did slip from my original list.

But I did notice some of the observations around the world today. So, thank you for that, Lucas.

Joe.

Q: Yeah. I want to go back to the announcement about the killing of the ISIL leader.

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: Could you tell us -- could you give us more details? How was this operation, going back to -- was it a drone, or an aircraft?

Also, what's the importance of killing -- his name is Abu Wahib, like you said? And do you know the number of ISIL leaders who have been killed, targeted by the coalition since the beginning of the year?

MR. COOK: On that last question, I do not have that exact answer. I can try and get you an answer after this, if possible.

But I think it's fair to say that ISIL leadership has been hit hard by coalition efforts, and this is another example of that. It is dangerous to be an ISIL leader in Iraq and Syria these days, and for good reason we want to apply pressure ISIL on as many fronts as possible. And taking out leadership targets is one way to do that.

And we've been very successful and this is another example of that. Anbar Province, as you know, is an area critically important to the fight against ISIL, and the fact that we've not taken out the military amir of Anbar Province is going to harm ISIL's ability to conduct operations there.

Is it alone, just -- is taking out leadership alone sufficient in this fight? Absolutely not. But it is one part of a multi-pronged effort to apply pressure on as many fronts to ISIL, and for ISIL leaders to be very worried about their next step.

Q: On ISIL, also, could you tell us what's the status of relations between this department and the YPG right now? Do you have -- if you could explain to us, what's the status of the relationship with them?

MR. COOK: We continue -- we continue to support forces in Syria that have been successful in taking the fight to ISIL. And we've worked with the Arab forces, with Turkish and with Kurdish forces, with Turkmen as well.

And so, there are groups that are – have been successful in taking the fight to ISIL. That's one of them, but our work specifically has been with a range of different groups, as you know, in -- in Syria, and we will continue to support those forces on the ground that are being successful.

Q: When you say forces in Syria, you mean YPG is part of these forces, correct?

MR. COOK: The YPG is on the ground in Syria. I think their efforts against ISIL have been -- have been documented, but they're not the only force taking the fight to ISIL, and we've been successful in establishing ties with the some of those other forces.

Q: OK.

MR. COOK: Paul.

Q: Back on this, the reports out of Iran that they're -- that they had the third ballistic missile tests since the Iranian nuclear deal.

There are sort of differing reports on that. Can you confirm that the third test -- this test did, in fact, take place? And give us your comment on what that means?

MR. COOK: We're aware of those reports. I cannot confirm that they took place from -- from this podium right here, but I think consistent with what we've said in the past, Iran has to abide by U.N. resolutions with regard to ballistic missiles tests, and if they have violated or not been consistent with those resolutions, that clearly would be a concern for us.

And we've said from the start that the nuclear deal is one aspect of the relationship with -- with Iran, one particular set of issues there, but there are a whole host of other Iranian actions which we find destabilizing, and their malign activity remains a significant concern to the United States and the Department of Defense, and we're going to continue to do what we need to do to address those malign activities in an appropriate fashion.

Q: So you're saying the Pentagon isn't paying attention to whether Iran actually conducted a ballistic missile test --

MR. COOK: No, I'm not going to -- I'm telling you, I can't from here confirm the details of a ballistic missile test from here.

Q: But you're watching?

MR. COOK: Of course. We're watching everything the Iranians are doing. I'm just not in a position to confirm for you your specific question right there.

Yes, Jenny?

Q: Thank you, Peter. Yesterday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un suggested South and North Korea military talks and he also wanted to stop conducting U.S. and South Korea military exercised in Korean Peninsula. What is your comment on this?

MR. COOK: Well, we are of course closely allied with South Korea and have been for some time and we'll continue to maintain our defense relationship with the South Koreans, given the threat posed by North Korea. And until there's some reason for -- for us to reassess that, we're going to continue to do everything we need to to -- to bolster the security of our South Korean allies and to of course -- to look out for U.S. national security interests with regard to the Korean Peninsula.

Yes?

Q: Do you have any update on HIMARS in Turkey?

MR. COOK: I do not have an update for you. I'm -- let me take that question for you, see if we have -- my understanding was there may have been still some time before that was going to be finalized. So I will take that question and see if we have a calendar update for you.

Q: And also, Turkey's President Erdogan has recently said that -- that Turkey has been left alone in the fight against ISIS, noting the recent rocket launch into the southern cities and also the suicide bombs. Do you have any additional, you know, offers to Turkey with respect to their fight against ISIS or securing the border?

MR. COOK: Well, of course, this is an ongoing conversation that we're having with our ally Turkey, our NATO ally Turkey about what's happening along the border, the threats facing Turkey. So this is a conversation where there are U.S. officials in regular contact with Turkey about those security concerns, what else can be done to further take on ISIL in Iraq and Syria and in a way that protect the homelands of our allies, like Turkey.

So this is an ongoing conversation and obviously we want to do what we can to -- to make Turkey feel as -- as safe and secure as possible, and this is something that we'll continue to work with the Turkish government on.

Q: So there was a report yesterday saying that Turkey and U.S. have been helping -- (inaudible) -- force to take control of this 98 kilometers, the Manbij pocket, and clear this area of Daesh elements. But Turkey claimed certain conditions like -- certain conditions for this agreement, saying that the leadership of SDF taking control of the area should be Turkmen or Arabs -- Syrian-Arab, rather than the YPG elements.

Do you have any kind of, you know, aware of any kind of conversations between Turkey and the U.S., which respect to taking or clearing these 98 kilometers of Daesh?

MR. COOK: Well, I mean, it's just as -- we were just talking about.

Obviously, we have concerns for -- for Turkey, and the threat ISIL poses to Turkey, including in that part of Syria.

So, these are ongoing conversations we're having at a significant level with the Turkish government, both the Department of Defense and other members of the U.S. government. But with regard to that particular area, we've identified that area for some time as a place where ISIL has taken root. And anything that can be done to remove ISIL from that part of Syria, we think would be significant, certainly would shore up the effort to prevent foreign fighters from being able to cross that border.

And we think anything that can be done to bolster that border security would be -- would be important. I'm not going to get into private discussions that are having, that we may be having with the Turkish government about exactly how that's being carried out, but we see that goal and we share the interest that Turkey has in getting rid of ISIL as a threat in that part of Syria.

Q: Could you confirm that, at least that who -- you know, that there has been some conversation about who will take control of that area? Just -- I'm not, you know, talking about --

MR. COOK: Again, I'm not going to get into specific operational details about coalition operations in that area, and you know, I'll leave it to the Turkish government to speak to their concerns there. But this is something, again, we've identified and we believe other coalition allies have identified as a critical area in the fight against ISIL, in retaking that area and securing that area -- particularly that border, would be a significant forward movement in the fight against ISIL.

And in particular, in dealing with the concerns about foreign fighters. We think that would be a significant step forward.

Courtney?

Q: Could you give us some more details about the -- about the Abu Wahib strike?

Was it a U.S. aircraft? Was it manned, was it droned? A drone -- where was he -- and I think you said there were three other fighters he was with at the time. Where were they? Were they in a vehicle, were they in a building?

MR. COOK: Yeah.

Q: How long was the U.S. watching him? Any -- just any kind of details about the strike?

MR. COOK: Yeah. I can tell you that it was a coalition aircraft, but I can't get into more detail right here, because I don't have it all in front of me, for one.

And he was with three other individuals in a vehicle. And again, we think this is a significant member of the leadership team, particularly in a critical area right now, in the fight against ISIL, Anbar Province. And this happened near Rutbah, in Anbar Province.

Q: So, is he -- did the U.S. military classify him as the most senior ISIS fighter or leader in Anbar?

MR. COOK: I know that -- again, he has been referred to as the amir of Anbar Province. Whether or not there are others higher ranking, I just know that we view him as a significant leader in ISIL leadership overall, not just in Anbar Province.

And so we think this is a -- removing him from the battlefield will be a significant step forward.

Q: I know -- this is, I think, the fourth time that he has been reported dead. I don't think the U.S. has ever confirmed him, but the fourth time in the past three years or so that he has been reported dead.

What -- how -- can you give us any sense of how, you know for sure he's dead? I mean, is it just that the vehicle blew up? And is there any talk of potentially releasing the video of it?

And then one more thing. The first couple of times he was reported dead, there were some reports that he had been a prisoner at Camp Bucca and escaped in the 2002 -- or 2012 big prisoner breakout, Al Qaida breakout.

Do you have any confirmation on that? Do you know if that's the case?

MR. COOK: Let me take that last question for you. I know that he had a history in Al Qaida in Iraq previously. And so, let me take that question -- that question for you. In terms of our confidence level, we're confident that this was a successful strike and I'll leave it at that.

Q: And releasing the video? Any consideration to release the video?

MR. COOK: I'll take that question as well.

Other questions? Yes, Michael?

Q: Peter, after 15 years in Afghanistan, why are our operators having difficulty with the ROEs? And I've heard from people out there directly that there's a lot of -- still a lot of confusion and that if the operators are not in there fighting with the Afghans who apparently are running away half the time, that Kabul will fall within three days and -- as well as -- as well as other areas that they're securing. The question I guess is why -- what -- they feel like they're out there, but they don't have a -- they don't know what the mission is nay longer. Can -- do y'all have any insights as to where this is all heading after 2017?

MR. COOK: Well, let me just tell you where -- where we are right now, and I think this is something that certainly General Nicholson has spoken to in his time there so far. You've heard from General Cleveland as well if you were here last week. The role of those forces, resolute support, is to train, advise and assist the Afghan forces. The effort here is to try and allow Afghan forces to take control and secure their own country.

They have made progress over the last few months towards that effort, certainly the -- the Unity Government and the formation of the Unity Government was a positive step that has allowed Afghan security forces to take further advances, but they need additional support. We've seen from the last year evidence of that. And the purpose of those U.S. forces is to get them to a position where they can defend themselves, but not to be the lead in the fight, to play -- be in a support role, and that poses -- that is a challenge for -- for our forces in terms of the -- the training mission and -- and getting Afghan forces to a position where they can defend themselves.

Q: I understand that they are under instructions and they can't be firing on the Taliban. If the Taliban is increasingly joining with either Al Qaida or ISIS, which is -- appears to be the case now, why -- why -- why aren't these forces that are shooting at our guys allowed to engage with -- with -- with a lot of vigor and --

MR. COOK: Well, you know U.S. forces always have right to defend themselves, of course, and -- and this is --

Q: Why are they still wondering what -- are confused by the rules of engagement, then? I don't understand that.

MR. COOK: Well, I'm not sure exactly which -- which --

Q: Well, there was a report that -- apparently a Pentagon report that just came out that -- that cited this -- this confusion, this -- the question of -- I mean, there's a New York Times story today, Reuters just carried a story on it. And it seems as though after 15 years, it should be crystal clear what the -- what the ROEs are.

MR. COOK: We're in a different position today as compared to when our forces first arrived in Afghanistan. They're in a different role. They're performing a challenging, difficult responsibility that oftentimes can put them in harm's way. This is -- we are asking a lot of U.S. forces right now, but those rules of engagement, as I think General Nicholson has explained, those authorities are as clear as they can be right now for those forces, the particular role they're in right now.

And I think this is something that obviously, we're constantly reassessing, constantly talking to the Afghan government and leadership about the most effective way for our forces to support Afghan forces, and I think that's a conversation that you'll be hearing more from General Nicholson in the -- in the not-too-distant future and something that we're looking at, again, on a daily basis.

Q: Thank you.

MR. COOK: Luis?

Q: Last week, we heard that there are U.S. Special Forces that have returned to Yemen. Are they still in-country, and what's the expectation for how long they're going to remain in there?

MR. COOK: Well, I think as Captain Davis told you last week, there's a small contingent of U.S. forces that have been operating in a liaison with the coalition activities in Mukalla. And they are still in-country, still providing that liaison role, in particular in support of intelligence sharing.

And they continue to performable that role.

Q: Is there any visibility as to how long they may be there?

MR. COOK: It's going to be a limited period of time, but I don't have a particular deadline to share with you at this time.

Q: Would the deadline be the War Powers Act that requires, you know, their -- congressional authorization if they were to remain?

MR. COOK: This is going to be a short duration operation, a short duration support. So obviously, we're going to comply with whatever rules and -- are required for their operation in -- in Yemen.

Q: A quick follow up.

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: Just briefly, could you talk about why you all decided to put some boots on the ground for this particular operation? I mean, there has been other activities in Yemen over the past several years that didn't require boots on the ground.

What was it about this particular situation, this particular coalition, its operations against this port town that led to that decision?

MR. COOK: Well, it's the target of these operations that is most important. It's AQAP, and AQAP remains a significant security threat to the United States and to our regional partners. And we welcome this effort to specifically remove AQAP from this part of Yemen. And our support is particularly designed to support that.

I've tired you guys out? All right, Lucas, Tony and then I'm going to head out of here.

Q: Are you concerned about the Russian advances in their military hardware, particularly in aviation, like the T-50s, the stealth fighter, as well as some of their other systems?

They're rolling out the S-500 missile system that supposedly can shoot down some of our stealth fighters, and maybe even shoot down satellites.

MR. COOK: Lucas, this sort of brings me back to one of your earlier questions about our budget and is reflected in our budget, and that includes investments in weaponry -- lethal weaponry that we think can serve our warfighters in the future, and investing in technology that will keep us ahead of potential adversaries in the future.

So, obviously, we've seen -- been watching carefully what other countries are doing in terms of their investments. And the United States is not going to -- the Department of Defense is not going to sit still.

We, for years, have had technology and innovation that has supported our warfighters, and we're going to continue to do that, and this budget reflects advancements in the kinds of capabilities we think we need in order to deter potential adversaries in the future.

Q: Finally, any reaction to Russia's big military parade today in Moscow?

MR. COOK: No particular reaction. I did not catch the parade, but I understand it was quite substantial.

Q: A quick question, on the Anbar strike --

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: Did the expeditionary targeting force have anything to do with directing the airstrike?

MR. COOK: Tony, I'm not going to get into operational details. This was carried out by coalition aircraft.

Q: No ground support from the expeditionary targeting force?

MR. COOK: I'm not going to get what went into the targeting. It was a successful strike and it was, again, carried out by coalition aircraft.

Q: And the China report, is that going to come out this week, or what's the status of that?

MR. COOK: Let me check on that. I know that -- let me check on -- take that question. I don't have a particular deadline right now, a particular date for its release, but I do not think it is going to happen this week, but I'll check on it.

Q: Because it's usually due on March 1st, that's normally the congressional deadline, so.

MR. COOK: I will note that and I will check on the status of that report.

Q: I'll be in California, thanks.

MR. COOK: Yes. OK. One more in the back and then I've got to go.

Q: Back on Russia. Today in the morning, -- (inaudible) -- said that the bridges with Russia should be kept open in terms of the nuclear threat and then said that because the potential threat is still over there. Are these channels are open or how are you managing the nuclear threat with Russian, you know --

MR. COOK: Well, I mean, I think you've heard the secretary talk about approaching Russia in a strong and balanced way, and that means, again, making clear our concerns about Russian actions in places like Ukraine, Russian aggressive activities. At the same time, being balanced and open to the notion of working with Russia where our interests align, and this is one area where again I think our interests have aligned in the past.

The -- the Nunn-Lugar cooperation, that effort to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons and the stockpile of nuclear weapons is an example of successful cooperation with the -- with Russia in the past. And I think the Senator made a good point that even though we may disagree with Russia on a whole host of areas, there may be other areas where our interests do align. Certainly, reducing the threat of nuclear weapons getting into the wrong hands is an area where we and Russia share an interest, and I think he made a very good point, one that's consistent, I think, with what you've heard from the secretary.

All right. Thanks, everybody.

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