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U.S. Department of Defense
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News Transcript

Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook May 16, 2016

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

PETER COOK: Afternoon, everybody. Hope you had a good weekend.

I don't have anything off the top, here, so I'll just turn it over to questions if you have any.

Yes, Goyal, welcome.

Q: All right. Thank you. Thank you very much. My honor.

First of all, I will -- I know it has been a long time. Welcome back from India trip.

MR. COOK: yes, it feels like a long time ago.

Q: Yes, sir. Let's talk about that India trip. Of course, secretary of defense and you have been there, when -- so, what new is emerging between U.S.-India relations, especially military-to-military relations?

And also now, Prime Minister Modi is about to come next month to visit the White House.

MR. COOK: I think you've heard the secretary talk about his trip to India, the success of that trip, and as you know, there were some agreements reached at that time in principle with regard to our military-to-military relationship.

I think the secretary feels very good about where things are with regard to that relationship, and his relationship with Minister Parrikar. I think he sees this as an opportunity for future cooperation between the United States and India on military issues.

He was able to visit India's aircraft carrier -- the first secretary of defense to do that. I think he was, again, very appreciative of the -- of the warm welcome he received, and the substantive discussions that took place while we were in India.

And he's of course looking forward to the visit of the prime minister; he met with the prime minister as well when he was in India, and looks forward to enhancing and building on the -- on that visit and the strong relationship that he has been able to maintain with Minister Parrikar since he took over as secretary.

Q: What agreement, do you think, compared to the last visit when the secretary of defense -- I mean, the defense minister of India was here?

MR. COOK: I'm sorry, missed the first part.

Q: What sort of agreement do you think they reached -- the two countries, after the -- India's defense visit here, and now the secretary's visit to India?

MR. COOK: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think it's consistent that at each step of the relationship, they have been able to build on -- on past discussions. I think that took place specifically with the -- the regard to the logistics agreement that was discussed in principle when we were there.

And we still -- the secretary believes there are still opportunities for us to further expand the cooperation between the United States and India on military issues. This is -- they are issues of consequence for India, security issues that are of consequence to the United States.

We have shared security interests in that part of the world. And I think the secretary is confident that the strong relationship we have right now will only build in the future, so.

Q: And if I may, one more quickly.

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: (inaudible) in discussing about the China Sea, because India is also facing problems.

And second, finally, does the -- Pakistan needs F-16 to find -- to fight the home-grown terrorists, because this is a question here in the U.S. Congress and among the communities here?

MR. COOK: Yeah. I think, on the last point you just made there, I think the secretary addressed this when he was in India, and specifically, that the United States views the relationship with Pakistan as not a zero-sum game with regard to India, that we look at these relationships individually.

And that specifically, we have an interest and Pakistan has an interest in going after terrorist groups in that country. We've talked about it at length, and that is the focus of that security relationship with Pakistan.

And at the same time, we have security interests with India that stand alone and stand apart, and he feels very strongly that that relationship can be enhanced further. And we've made significant strides in the last few years with regard to that, last few months, even. And he sees that continuing to build, and he does not see those two issues, if you will, the -- not getting in the way of each other.


Q: China.

MR. COOK: China, I think again, the secretary talked about this when he was in India, that China's actions in that part of the world have -- have raised questions among many nations in -- in the region.

And India has its interests, of course, and -- whether it's freedom of navigation. And so, I believe the secretary feels that India can speak for itself on these issues. The U.S. interests in that part of the world and the notion of -- of a part of the world where there is no NATO, but there is a security architecture there that has been able to foster the boom that is that part of the world.

And of course, the critical waterway the South China Sea is for so much of global commerce, that for anything to put that at risk right now would certainly be of concern to the United States and we believe other countries in the region, and that includes India as well.

Q: Thank you.

MR. COOK: So, yes, Kristina.

Q: Oh, thank you. The House is preparing to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act this week.

Would the secretary yet recommend a veto if it includes using OCO for the Pentagon's base budget? And are there any thoughts on Senator McCain's idea to ask for more defense spending on the floor, Senate Floor, versus putting it into their version of the NDAA?

MR. COOK: First of all, I think the secretary has been pretty clear about his views on the use of those OCO funds in this way and the way that the HASC is represented.

And he just believes it is -- to rob money from the warfighter in this sort of way is not the right approach, and will only expose those warfighters to greater risk in the future. And budget certainty is critically important, and it has allowed us to do some planning in this budget, effective planning.

And I think his views on that are pretty clear. And I think he's pleased to see that the Senate has not approached it in the same fashion.

Still, this is relatively early in the process, and there are still votes that need to take place. And we're going to continue our discussions with the relevant committees about these issues going forward.

So, I -- it's -- you'll hear more from the secretary on this topic, I'm sure, in the coming days. But it's early in the process; we'd still like to work with these committees before anyone starts talking about veto threats, so.


Q: Peter, given the news out of Vienna today, has the Pentagon been tasked with any kind of arm, or train and equip to Libyan rebels or Libyan government forces in their battle against ISIS?

MR. COOK: Yeah. I'm aware of the news, the communique that came out of Vienna today. We're not specifically tasked at this point, but certainly we have been supportive of the Government of National Accord and its efforts to try and take shape, and in particular, its efforts to go after ISIL, we're supportive of that.

And this particular communique, which of course Secretary Kerry of the State Department was responsible for, you know, spells out some of the next steps of support for the Government of National Accord. Of course, we stand ready to play our role in that. But as I am aware of at this moment, that communique was just issued and there has not been any particular marching orders to us.

Q: What can you tell us about U.S. troop presence on the ground in Libya? Has it been continuously -- there have been U.S. troops on the ground continuously since December?

What can you tell us about it?

MR. COOK: Lucas, I'm not going to get into details, as you know, other than to acknowledge what we have previously -- that there are small teams of U.S. forces that are on the ground effectively meeting and getting a better sense of the players on the ground, so that we have a sense of for example, ISIL's presence in Libya, the level of strength and the level of strength as well as some of those other forces on the ground.

But I am not going to characterize it other than to say, these are small groups of Americans who have, again, maintained a small presence in Libya for that specific purpose.


Q: Peter, last week you have announced from this podium that the killing of Abu Wahib in the Anbar Province.

Do we know -- or do you have a number, you could share it with us, how many ISIS leaders have been killed during the coalition operation this year?

Any number you can share it with us?

MR. COOK: I'm happy to take the question Joe, and I do not have a number with me right now, we can certainly try to answer that question for you.

Q: In Syria, in Dawr az Zawr, could you give us an update on the -- about the situation in Dawr az Zawr, based on some local reports that ISIS is advancing in that area?

MR. COOK: I've seen those reports, Joe, as well but I can't give you from here an exact picture of what is happening right now, other than to say we have seen those reports. You know our air campaign is as continued, but in terms of ISIL's specific tactical progress in that particular region in Syria, there has been a lot of back-and-forth in Syria, not just in Dawr az Zawr.

And you know, we continue to monitor closely where ISIL's activities and where it is making progress, but I characterizes specifically at this moment where they are in Dawr az Zawr, because I believe it has been very changeable over the last few hours and days, certainly.

But I'm happy to follow up with you if we can get more information. But my understanding is that has been a fluid situation, and I don't want to characterize exactly what ISIL's position is there, relative to other forces.

Q: Thank you.

MR. COOK: Yeah. Andrew.

Q: Peter, it has been about a month since the secretary announced some new accelerants for Iraq. He announced the increase in troops levels, some battalion and brigade level advisers, and maybe the use of Apache helicopters.

But we heard last week that none of those have happened yet. Is that does the secretary have any thoughts on why that is, and does he have any concerns about the pace of implementing those?

MR. COOK: I think the secretary is very satisfied with how things are developing right now in Iraq, in his consultations with the Iraqi government, in terms of the force capabilities. He is in constant conversation General MacFarland about General MacFarland's needs.

And remember those deployments, for example, are -- represent specific capabilities that General MacFarland and his team had requested, and the secretary is satisfied that those capabilities are being addressed.

This is a changeable situation in terms of what is happening with the Iraqis on the ground, and we want to be able to adjust to the situation on the ground. And that means reflecting consultations with the Iraqis, again, with General MacFarland about what those needs might be, and I think the secretary is satisfied that, in the short-term at least, the requests that had been made are being handled appropriately, and being put in place in accordance with the timetable for the campaign overall.

Q: That said, wasn't the authorization of them a month ago in response to the recommendation that there was a need for those accelerators?

MR. COOK: Those -- it's all built on a campaign timeline, and there was of course an understanding that certain things would take a certain amount of time to flow into theater.

And the secretary is satisfied that that progress is being made, that the pieces are being put together in such a way as to support the Iraqi forces. Remember, this is the Iraqis fight. These are supportive capabilities that may be needed in the future, particularly in the fight for Mosul. And we always anticipated there would be some sort of lag time between decisions and ultimately implementation.

But we believe -- his conversation General MacFarland indicate that General MacFarland has everything he needs right now to carry out this fight against ISIL. And he will continue to get additional capabilities as needed, and obviously, in consultation with the Iraqis at every step.


Q: If you could just -- a quick follow up on Andrew's question.

In terms of those requests that are being made, I know Colonel -- Colonel Warren had said there was a concerns bout safety in Baghdad, and the possibility of Iraqi government officials pulling troops from the planning for Mosul into the capital.

Has there been any requests made like that to the DOD or U.S. commanders on the ground?

MR. COOK: Just so I'm understanding, for Iraqi forces to move?

Q: Yeah, for Iraqi forces to move. Has that been bandied about?

MR. COOK: Yeah. My impression is the same as I believe Colonel Warren's last week, that we're not aware of any forces that are -- been called back to the capital, that are supposed to -- or planned to be engaged in the ISIL fight.

Obviously, this is something we'll continue to watch. These are decisions that the government in Baghdad will have to make, but there are Iraqi forces out right now, taking the fight to -- to ISIL in various parts of the country. You've seen activities in Anbar Province; you've seen what's going on in Makhmur; you've seen what's going on in the Euphrates River Valley.

And obviously, the government of Iraq has to make, and Prime Minister Abadi has to make decisions about where those forces would be and whether or not he needs them in some other location. But as of now, we're not aware of any reason, any Iraqi forces that have been pulled back to Baghdad that in any way undermines the larger operation against ISIL.

Q: And a quick update on Yemen. With a recent suicide attack against police forces in Mukalla, is there any plans in keeping this small U.S. military intelligence team that is on the ground now there longer? And if there isn't, when are they expected to rotate back?

MR. COOK: I don't have an exact timeline for you, but the -- all along, that this small -- we have always planned for this small presence of U.S. forces to be there on a temporary basis. And that has not changed.

Yes, Jamie.

Q: Thank you, Peter. The Iraq Security Forces today announced an operation to clear out the town of al Rutba in Anbar Province.

Just curious if you might be able to share what, if any assistance U.S. and coalition forces provided to this operation?

And also specifically, was there anything that brought this operation to begin today? I mean, the death of Abu Wahid, was that a contributing factor that hastened the beginning of this operation today?

MR. COOK: Yeah, I'll let -- I know the Iraqis themselves announced this action today, so I would refer you to the Iraqis for -- to detail.

This was there operation. But I can tell you we have flown air support and conducted strikes. There has been at least on strike in the Rutba area in the last 24 to 48 hours from the coalition.

But I'll leave the Iraqis to characterize the operation itself.

As for Rutba itself, you can look on a map and see the significance of that part of Anbar Province, and in particular, that is a pathway to the west, to the Jordanian border, that if the Iraqi Security Forces were able to secure Rutba, it would be a significant step forward in the fight against ISIL and a significant step in terms of being able to cut off that flow from the Jordanian border from west to east towards Baghdad, for example.

So, there is strategic significance to Rutba, but I'll leave it to the Iraqis to characterize how things are happening on the ground there. But that -- that has been an area of focus for them. And again, if they're showing progress on the ground there, that's a good thing.

Q: And then, on an unrelated topic, the South Korean Defense ministry announced an upcoming anti-missile drone involving South Korea, the United States and Japan.

I was curious if you had any details about specifics you might be able to share, like where it's going to take place and what might have -- was there a specific incident that brought this about?

MR. COOK: The exercise is going to be on the sidelines of the -- the RIMPAC exercise, as you know, and that's the world's largest international maritime warfare exercise, and it's held biennially during June and July of even-numbered years.

So, RIMPAC is obviously a significant exercise that we'll be taking part in, and the details for the exercise itself are still being finalized. And -- probably not going to provide the specific technical details, but it's being conducted within the trilateral -- trilateral information-sharing arrangement that was signed in December of 2014.

And again, this is an effort to work with our allies in the region, the Republic of Korea and Japan specifically. And it's being conducted again within that specific information-sharing arrangement.

We won't get into -- to, again, the details of it, the technical details. But I think this just reflects the kind of coordination that we want to have with our allies at an important time right now in terms of security issues in that part of the world.

And you've seen the actions of the North Koreans in recent weeks. And again, this is part of a larger exercise, and one additional step that we can take with our allies to try and make sure we're doing everything we can to coordinate our defensive posture in the region.

Q: Can I speak to the -- (inaudible)?

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: This exercise take place at Hawaii. You don't know yet other places?

MR. COOK: We're not going to -- they're still finalizing some of the details, and -- and we, again, once we have a better understanding exactly how it's going to play out, we'll consider what information we can share at that time.

But we're not going to get into the technical details about this -- this exercise, this part of the exercise for understandable reasons.

Q: So, South Korea announced it yesterday, they took place in Hawaii. That I ask can you confirm that?

MR. COOK: I'm just good -- we're still finalizing the details. And when they are complete, we'll be ready -- to announce them at that time. And I'll leave it to the South Koreans and the Japanese to articulate their participation in this trilateral exercise.

But again, we think it's an important moment for us to work with our allies on -- on a key area of our defense posture in the region. And you all know how -- the importance we attach to RIMPAC, and this is just another way for us to get even more out of that RIMPAC exercise.

Q: Okay.

MR. COOK: Luis.

Q: Two cyber questions, if I could. Hack the Pentagon is ongoing, I believe. Do you have an update on how the -- how many people are participating, what's going on with that?

MR. COOK: Yeah. The -- actually, the Hack the Pentagon itself, the actual period of time when the hackers have been allowed to engage in the DoD and try and identify vulnerabilities, that has now come to an end.

We're in the process right now of pulling together all the details we can about not only those who -- the vulnerabilities that have been identified, but also the steps that we have had to take to try and remedy those vulnerabilities, and also determine who's qualified for -- for potential prizes as a result of this.

We have been very, very satisfied with the -- with the outcome so far. The secretary spoke to this last week, but I believe over 1,400 hackers participated. They did identify, I believe, over 80 vulnerabilities. And we believe this has been a success.

As you know, this is the first time ever that a federal agency has ever had a competition like this, a bug bounty competition like this. And we think it has been an unqualified success, and we look forward to sharing the full details once we've been able to tabulate everything. We're going through that process right now.

Q: So those 80 vulnerabilities, will you be disclosing them publicly, or are these just going to be for internal --

MR. COOK: No, we will not be, for understandable reasons.

They've been identified to us, and now we're in the process of being able to remedy those vulnerabilities. In many cases, they've already been remedied.

But the goal here was to spot things that we, in our teams, had not been able to spot. And that was -- that was achieved and it has been done in a very cost-effective fashion.

And we believe our -- our security, our digital security is better today as a result of this competition than it would have been otherwise.

Q: And then -- regarding the secretary's trip last week at the Silicon Valley, the changes that he made in the outreach program at Silicon Valley, were those prompted by internal concerns that there wasn't enough outreach taking place, or that there wasn't enough reciprocity being undertaken by companies out on the West Coast?

MR. COOK: I think the secretary, and I think he articulated it pretty well was the -- looks at the -- looked at DIUx, saw what was happening there, and he see so much promise with DIUx.

Not only have we made the decision to expand it now into another area, but there are ways to adjust how it was initially set up to make it more effective.

And that's the -- that's why these changes came about. This is in terms of adjusting the structure, adjusting the outreach, as you said, adjusting the outreach, as you said, adjusting some of the folks we brought into the leadership team.

They have private sector expertise that is going to be particularly helpful, we think. They have military expertise as well. And this is an effort to try and -- and fine-tune, if you will, to enhance what DIUx has already done and to build on it. And that is why we're going to open a second DIUx facility in Boston.

Q: Was there also some concern on his part that maybe the program is not advancing as far as he would want it to?

MR. COOK: I think the secretary was candid that there were -- he heard feedback from some in the tech community that there were some issues in terms of how they were integrating with DIUx, that it's still hard to do business with the Department of Defense. And I think we looked at some of those concerns and decided to make some structural changes to try and address those concerns.

Much like a Silicon Valley startup, this was a -- has always been an experimental operation, Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, it's right in the name. And so the secretary, and his leadership team and the folks at DIUx all agree that there was an opportunity to make some changes here that would enhance the effectiveness of it, and achieve what we ultimately want to achieve, and that is to get more cutting-edge technology into the hands of American warfighters, including technology from people, firms, companies that right now do not do business with the Department of Defense.

That is what the goal has been here in DIUx. The goal here is to make this to be as much of a middleman as anything else to get that technology in the hands of warfighters, to get those entrepreneurs working with individual units within the Department of Defense. Maybe it is the Navy. Maybe it is Cyber Command. Maybe it is another combatant command to try and link people up with those technologies so that we're getting, again, more bang for our buck.

Q: Back to Hack the Pentagon. Has there -- a decision already been made to just keep going with this as an ongoing program in the future?

MR. COOK: Well, we certainly are pleased with the results of the first one, but there no decisions have been made at this time whether or not we'll have another. I can tell you, that there are other federal agencies carefully reviewing what we have done, and we will see if they make a decision to engage in similar competitions of their own.

But we feel very good that this has been a successful event, and we'll have more details on it in the weeks to come once we have a final tabulation.

Did you participate, Luis?

Q: My -- I'm worried that my son may have, but no.


MR. COOK: All right. We'll see if he's among the winners.


Q: Hey, a quick question on Yemen, and then I want to ask -- (inaudible) -- on Libya.

So, on Yemen, there was a bombing over the weekend claimed by Islamic State in Mukalla. I'm just wondering what you thought about that, if it signals any kind of reassessment of Islamic State's capacity in Yemen? And I'll stop there.

MR. COOK: Well, there -- as you know, Phil, Yemen's a place where there have been a lot of different players on the ground trying to fill the void, trying to secure control of geographical areas, trying to exert influence.

And certainly, we are very concerned about extremist groups in Yemen trying to take control, trying to exert influence. That is why we have been targeting AQAP, that is why we're keeping such a close eye on the Islamic State. But I am not aware of anything that has changed in terms of our understanding of the Islamic State and its presence in Yemen as a result of this particular incident, which, you know, did result in a significant number of deaths of Yemeni policemen, as I understand it, and obviously a tragic event.

Q: And in Libya, if I could just pin you down a little bit more about this presence on the ground there that you spoke about earlier.

MR. COOK: Don't count on it.

Q: Could you -- well, I mean -- but I mean, we've been told for some time that -- (inaudible), you have people coming in an out.

MR. COOK: Yeah.

Q: Am I understanding that this is a fixed group of people that does not come in and out?

MR. COOK: No, you should not interpret that. This is a small group, and as we've said, there have been teams that have -- it's not a permanent presence. And I'm going to leave it at that.

(inaudible) -- want to maintain their operational security, want to obviously be concerned for their safety, and so, we're not going to provide more detail than that.

But they've been doing good work in providing us information that we think is important.

Q: And are they strictly acting as, you know, not to play down what they're doing, but are they strictly acting in an intelligence role right now, like gathering the information?

Or is there any -- you know, very limited training that would allow some people they identify who could be cooperative with the United States to do so at a later date?

MR. COOK: There's -- this is simply an effort to try and collect information on people on the ground, the situation on the ground. This is not an effort to engage in training, as you said.

And that's -- I'm going to limit it to that. That is what their goal has been from the start.


Q: You have said, though, that these guys were trying to find potential partners, right? Someone that the U.S. can work alongside potentially in the future?

MR. COOK: We're trying to identify groups on the ground, that's right, and certainly looking for groups that are willing to take on ISIL.

And so, yes, that's a fair characterization of their efforts on the ground. Of course, the Government of National Accord is taking shape, and you know, a lot of this also is our -- trying to get a picture of what's happening on the ground there as well provide our support to the Government of National Accord as it -- as it emerges from the fighting that is taking place in Libya.

Q: Is there any sort of vetting that takes place with this sort of operation?

MR. COOK: We're -- we're -- again, I'm not going to get into details here, Bill, other than to say this small presence of U.S. forces has been trying to identify players on the ground and trying to find out exactly what their motives are and what they're trying to do on the ground and why.

And that's to give us a better picture of what's happening there, because we don't have a great picture. And this is one way we've been able to get a better sense, an intelligence sense of what's going on there.

Q: Given today's news, then, could this -- the operation that has been going on in Libya, could it be seen as a precursor to perhaps arming those folks that the U.S. side has been working --

MR. COOK: I would not jump ahead of -- we're not going to get into hypotheticals here.

These people are doing a specific mission to try and get a better sense of the picture on the ground. The announcement today in Austria is again, something that correlates to our support for the Government of National Accord. And we want to do everything we can to be supportive of that government.

And you're jumping the gun if you're talking about a training mission in Libya. That's not where we are.


Q: Just one follow-up, just on --

MR. COOK: Sure.

Q: -- the ISIS war. Since December, the Pentagon has said the U.S.-backed coalition has taken 40 percent of the land back from ISIS. Is there an update on that figure today?

MR. COOK: I know that there were some numbers -- a couple numbers that I can share with you that I think are consistent with that.

Again, we've had numbers both for Iraq and Syria previously. But I think the number right now is -- in Iraq, about 45 percent of the territory they once held has been recovered. And I think the number in Syria is anywhere from 16 to 20 percent.

And that's an update, I think, from the most recent numbers we had for you.

All right. Any more questions? Carlos, then we'll end with Goyal. We started with Goyal and we'll end with Goyal.

Q: Just a quick follow-up -- question, seems that Secretary Kerry is expected to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov this week and going back to some of the comments at the (inaudible) podium, I think it was last week or a few weeks ago as far as communications between Secretary Carter and Defense Minister Shoygu, you had said that, you know, those interactions really wouldn't have helped tamp down some of the tensions going on in Eastern Europe.

Is that still the case? Is there -- are there any plans for the secretary to speak with his Russian counterpart about what's going on?

MR. COOK: The secretary has spoken with Minister Shoygu in the past. The lead person right now in terms of our engagement with -- with Russia is Secretary Kerry, who meets regularly and often with the -- with his counterpart, and the secretary is prepared -- Secretary Carter's prepared to -- to engage with Minister Shoygu in the future if it -- if we feel like that's a productive step to -- to take at this point.

There are no meetings or calls planned, and if that changes, we'll let you know.


Q: Thank you, sir. President Obama spoke last week with CNN that five years of Osama bin Laden, and Mr. Fareed Zakaria had been wondering why they hate us -- (inaudible) -- referring, of course, to Osama bin Laden and Mr. – Fareed Zakaria was referring also ISIL and -- (inaudible) -- who hate the U.S.

My question is after five years after Osama bin Laden, any change that who kept him for 10 years? And we're telling the U.S. that they don't have him, he's not in Pakistan. But President Obama, of course, also tried his best to bring him back, but they didn't tell him until of course this building, DOD and the Pentagon played a bigger role to bring him to justice.

Anything change now? And plus, why they hate us?

MR. COOK: Goyal, I'd -- I don't -- five years after, I think I can say with a high degree of confidence that -- that the operation to kill Osama bin Laden was clearly a successful operation that many very capable people within the Department of Defense helped make happen. And I think -- five years later, I think we're please with that outcome.

With regard to the larger fight that you talk about, everyday we see forces in the Middle East and elsewhere that would like to do the United States harm and it is the responsibility of this department do what we can to protect the American people, and we're going to continue to do that.

Thanks, everybody.


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