U.S. Department of Defense
|Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook||June 09, 2016|
PETER COOK: Sorry to push things back, a busy day here.
And let me ask, first of all, I hope you are enjoying the new WiFi that's in the room. So I'd like to thank our technical team for making that happen.
Let me begin here with a few announcements and then I'll get to your questions.
Earlier today, Secretary Carter spoke to troops and DOD civilians here at the Pentagon about his new round of Force of the Future proposals. I just want to reinforce a couple of the points that the secretary made in his announcement this morning.
First, this is an historic set of proposals to address policies that have been on the books in some cases for nearly four decades. As the secretary said today, by and large our personnel policies work well. They have given us the best, most effective force not just in our nation's history, but the history of the world. So the system serves us well, but that does not mean it cannot improve to meet some new realities.
Second, these reforms are significant not just to the officers and the civilians they will affect. We want to provide our people opportunity to grow, to better accommodate their family lives, and to tailor their careers to their own circumstances. But as Secretary Carter made clear, every American has a stake in these ideas because they will make our force stronger and better able to protect our nation.
The secretary and his team look forward to working with Congress to make these necessary improvements in the way we manage our military and civilian force. And some of these ideas already have been incorporated into legislation up on Capitol Hill.
Now, this week the Senate is debating its version of the National Defense Authorization Act. We're grateful for the hard work senators have put into this piece of legislation. As the secretary and the White House have made clear, we do have some significant concerns with this legislation as it now stands. Some of those concerns relate to very significant proposed organizational changes that could have a profound negative impact on the department's ability to perform its functions effectively.
Many of these changes we feel are not well studied or understood, and all would come at a time when the department is carrying out significant national security missions, while the department will be executing a major transition between presidential administrations.
This includes things like major reductions in senior civilian and military leadership positions, directed in an overly detailed fashion; new organizational structures within OSD and the combatant commands; and an entirely reorganized acquisition, technology and logistics organization within the Department of Defense.
We also have significant concerns about the proposal debated today in the Senate to add funding to the legislation. We are pleased that the amendment did not pass and we hope that the Senate similarly adheres to the Bipartisan Budget Act when it considers the defense appropriations bill. As the secretary has said in the past, certainty in the budget process going forward is critically important to this department.
Now, as you know, the House has already taken a funding approach that does raise serious concerns as well. The secretary has highlighted the fact that the House approach fails to provide the vital stability the department needs to focus on the department's highest joint priorities, and would risk the return of $100 billion in new sequestration cuts over the next four years. The House approach dangerously gambles with war funding, something even the Senate has rejected.
There are many other provisions of the Senate bill that micro-manage the department, rejecting in troubling ways the judgments of the department's senior civilian and military leaders that are reflected in our budget proposal. So we again encourage senators to carefully consider these issues as they debate this important piece of legislation.
In its current form, the secretary would recommend to the president that the bill be vetoed, as you saw in the statement of administration policy that was issued previously.
And lastly, I want to give you a brief update on operational developments in the counter-ISIL fight. Since you heard from Colonel Garver yesterday, we've seen some additional progress in the fight against ISIL. Syrian-Arab fighters liberated an additional three kilometers of territory to the northeast of Manbij in the last 24 hours. We have seen ISIL attempt to reinforce its defenses, particularly on the southern access where ISIL is deploying fighters to slow the Syrian-Arab coalition fighters and attempt to keep open its lines of communications to the west.
This slow of ISIL fighters has created opportunities along the Mara line and liberating forces have seized those opportunities, freeing several villages without a fight.
In the south, the Syrian-Arab coalition advanced six kilometers despite ISIL-reinforced resistance. In the last 24 hours, coalition forces have conducted 12 additional strikes to support the liberating forces. The total number of coalition strikes in support of the Manbij operation is now at 127.
In Iraq, CTS troops have engaged in heavy fighting along the southern edge of Fallujah. And as Colonel Garver pointed out yesterday, this fight will become increasingly challenging as it moves into more dense urban areas. But Iraqi forces continue to make progress and we are, of course, closely monitoring that and working with the Iraqis as they do make progress in the fight for Fallujah.
And with that, I'd be happy to take your questions.
Q: I have a question for you on two different topics. One is this video that shows a couple of American soldiers in Qatar pointing at and apparently joking about the flag, or at least in the presence of the flag, it's been interpreted by some Qataris as being disrespectful of the flag.
I'm wondering whether the Defense Department is -- has apologized or is going to apologize for that.
Let me ask the other question is --
MR. COOK: Let me do that one first, and then I'll come back to you.
We are aware of the video that was posted to social media and we're looking into the circumstances surrounding it. We sincerely regret any offense the video may have caused in Qatar. We have great respect for the state of Qatar and its people, and overwhelmingly positive friendship we share with our Qatari partners.
We hold members of the U.S. military to the highest standards of personal conduct and we will take appropriate action as needed.
The content of this video does not reflect the esteem the United States has for its relationship with the state of Qatar. We reaffirm the United States as a stalwart partner and friend of Qatar and we deeply value our cooperation with the Qatari people.
Q: My other question is about EUCOM's report that -- the announcement that there will soon be two carriers in the Mediterranean. And if you could explain the significance of that, if it has any, for the counter-ISIL campaign?
MR. COOK: It is not the first time we've had two carriers in the Mediterranean. It has been some time. And I think important to bear in mind that they are there for -- they are certainly a representation of the United States' presence in the region, our ability to project presence as well.
Specifically, as you know, Bob, the Truman is carrying out responsibilities with regard to the counter-ISIL fight. The Eisenhower is there as part of Atlantic Resolve and as part of our presence in the region in that part of the world.
So, it is again not something that happens all the time, but it has happened in the past that we've had two carriers in the same body of water.
Q: Okay, just to clarify. You are saying that there are separate mission that they're undertaking?
MR. COOK: Yes, this is certainly something that the Navy has coordinated and planned for. But they are carrying out two separate missions.
Q: Thank you.
MR. COOK: Yes?
Q: What is the Pentagon doing about these latest allegations of fraud having been committed against the TRICARE system?
MR. COOK: I assume you're referring specifically to the report on CBS last night?
MR. COOK: David, I can't talk to any particular ongoing investigation, as you know. But I can say that this is obviously an area -- an issue that we take very seriously, something that the department continues to work closely with the Justice Department on.
My understanding in the specific area of laboratory testing or unnecessary laboratory testing, fraudulent testing, if you will, that there's been active work on over 100 investigations with the Justice Department, and an effort to recover, as I understand it, more than $240 million in these cases.
This is obviously something we take very seriously. The primary goal of TRICARE is, of course, to take care of those people who merit care and to do that in the most efficient and effective way possible. And obviously, this is something of concern to us.
Q: So, you just mentioned a pretty big number there. Say that again, the number of --
MR. COOK: Yeah, my understanding is the department, working with the Justice Department, has recovered more than $240 million and that there are more than 100 investigations underway specifically into the issue of testing fraud.
Q: Why is TRICARE such a juicy target?
MR. COOK: As you know, David, TRICARE, like many things within the Department of Defense, is a very large operation. It is the biggest health care provider, individual health care provider in the world, last time I checked. So it is an organization that is quite large, dealing with a significant amount of money, caring for a significant number of people.
And obviously, we want to do everything we can to make sure it's spending that money as wisely as possible. And reports like this obviously are -- are of concern to us and something we want to address. And whether TRICARE was a small organization, we would be concerned about any question about whether that money was being spent wisely.
Q: But just to be specific about -- about this case, is the Pentagon conducting an investigation into this alleged case of fraud at Fort Hood?
MR. COOK: David, I cannot confirm to you information regarding that here.
Q: I wanted to ask you if the Pentagon has any comment on the meeting today in Tehran between the Russian minister of defense, the Syrian minister of defense, and the Iranian minister of defense? They all met to discuss future planning in Syria. Any -- any comment on that?
MR. COOK: I'll leave it to those respective governments to comment on the movements and meetings of their defense ministers.
Q: I'd like to go back to the NDAA just for a moment.
MR. COOK: Yes.
Q: The -- so, you know, in the Senate today, Senator McCain introduced his amendment to add $18 billion to the top line in the Pentagon budget. It went down to defeat. Is that an amendment you would have supported or not?
MR. COOK: I think, as I said in my opening, this is something we -- we support the Senate vote today that -- the defeat of this amendment. And again for very specific reasons, and the most important being the secretary values the certainty provided to us by the budget agreement.
Q: (inaudible) -- a certainty of a lower amount of money than another significant increase in the budget in order to meet the needs of the Pentagon?
MR. COOK: Well, you have to look carefully at how that money would have been spent. There were questions -- we had questions about how -- what that money would have meant. Would it have been spent on programs, for example, that we do not feel like were the wisest use of our resources at this time; or would they be spent on programs that would require additional funding in the future to support those programs, that had not yet been accounted for in this legislation. In essence, funding an obligation for us in the future that we had questions about whether or not we could support.
So the certainty of the budget agreement right now is something we find very, very valuable. And to introduce this additional funding would have called into question that agreement going forward. And again, uncertainty is an enemy for us in terms of our planning and processes.
And the secretary and the administration overall felt that it would again inject a certain degree of uncertainty and even the money specifically that would have been added, we did have questions about what the money would have been spent on, and what it would have required in the years forward and one that we could have supported that.
Q: In your opening statement, you also talked about the language in the bill that amounted to micro-management, and substituting the judgment of the -- (inaudible) -- and some of the people in the Pentagon. I wanted to ask you about one provision. I don't know if you know about this one or not.
MR. COOK: It's a big bill. I'll try.
Q: I know it's a big bill. So if you don't, I understand.
But one of the provisions that is in the Senate version would adjust the basic housing allowance for U.S. troops to try to more closely tie it to their actual housing costs. But the effect of that might be to disadvantage many troops, especially families where both members serve in the military, and result in a financial impact.
Does the Pentagon have a position on that?
MR. COOK: We do. I want to make sure I'm crystal clear in terms of what our concerns are with that. So let me take that question from you. I know this is an area of obviously very intense focus for the secretary, for the service chiefs, for everyone in this building in terms of the benefits provided to our service members.
But I want to make sure I've got our concerns, and that we have exactly the language within this bill, that we're crystal clear on what our response is to you on that. Because I don't want to get -- I don't want to get this wrong in any way. So.
Q: Get back to me. I'd appreciate it.
MR. COOK: Yes, I'll take that question.
Q: Peter, maybe not a pleasant question, but a heartfelt one. So, as we sit here this afternoon, David Gilkey's body is being returned to Dover. We know that you read a statement the other day on behalf of the Department of Defense. We know that the uniformed military in Afghanistan under General Nicholson did remarkable work to ensure that the NPR team, the entire team got home.
But what is curious, and I'm wondering if you can offer an answer -- Secretary of State John Kerry issued a personal statement with his name on it of condolence. General Nicholson issued a personal statement of condolence with his name on it, as did Colonel Warren, your spokesman in Baghdad.
Correct me if my information is wrong, but I am just mystified why Ash Carter and Joe Dunford have been silent on this. You did read a statement on behalf of the department, but tradition in the U.S. military has always been personal statements of condolences are offered. So while General Nicholson's team did remarkable work, which I think NPR and the entire press corps is grateful for, is there anything you can tell us about why the silence from Ash Carter and General Dunford?
The journalists have been with secretaries and chairmen on every battlefield for 15 years. So it's a little mystifying.
MR. COOK: Barbara, I think you know how seriously we take this. And this is a -- this is a blow to journalism. It is a significant -- a significant event. And I can assure you that when we learned of this, and I made the secretary aware of this, that his thoughts and prayers are absolutely with the families, with the NPR colleagues of David Gilkey. We've issued a statement. General Nicholson has spoken to this. The United States military did everything it could as soon as we heard about this instance --
Q: I think I acknowledged that in my question just now. I think I acknowledged that twice in my question. Everyone is extremely grateful for that. The question is one of basically the tradition of any secretary of defense and I suppose chairman, of offering personal condolences. Can you tell us, have either of them reached out to the Gilkey family? Has there been any personal reach-out? We've seen, with great respect, we have seen nothing with either of their names on it.
MR. COOK: I'm not going to speak for the chairman. He can speak for himself. But I can assure you that, again, not only has this department done what it could to try and help in the immediate situation, but the that the secretary of defense certainly expresses his condolences to the family and to the NPR team members, to everyone affected by this.
He has not, to the best of my knowledge, engaged directly with the Gilkey family. He did not know David Gilkey.
And I would just express to you that the seriousness with which the secretary takes the role and responsibilities of the journalist profession, those journalists who expose themselves to risk in trying to tell the stories of American service personnel, the secretary feels deeply about that and is obviously very upset about this loss.
We talked about it at length. We learned about it in our flight back from Singapore, that this had taken place.
And I can just reassure you as a spokesman -- I've spoken from this podium on this issue -- how seriously the secretary takes this and how he feels a personal grief that he feels and the regret that he feels. And he, of course, would like to convey to the -- to the family, and to anyone who knew David Gilkey, and for that matter the NPR translator who was also killed.
So, I would not take a lack of official comment from Secretary Carter to be any indication of any lack of feeling for what's happened here. Quite the opposite.
I have spoken to him personally about this and I've tried to convey from here the sentiments of this department -- on behalf of this department, including the secretary of defense, how badly we feel about what's happened here, and how honorable it was what David Gilkey and that team was trying to do, in terms of trying to tell the story of Afghanistan. It's a difficult situation, and they were doing it in, obviously, an environment that was a very challenging.
And I would just reaffirm from here that in my statement on behalf of the Department of Defense, I certainly was speaking on behalf of Secretary Carter and spoken to him personally about this.
Q: I was wondering if you had any update on the situation in Libya. It looks like ISIL is losing ground in -- near Sirte – in particular. And I was wondering if it changes the assessment the U.S. is making on the importance of helping Libyans to expel ISIL; maybe the Libyans can expel ISIL by themselves.
MR. COOK: Laurent, I think you've heard us talk about the fact that our support for the Government of National Accord in their efforts to try and -- and take the fight to ISIL.
The Libyan people, as you've heard the secretary talk about, have a lot of reason themselves to want to get rid of ISIL and it's clear from what we're seeing on the ground that there have been successful efforts in that regard. We're certainty supporting that; encouraged by what we see.
And absolutely if the new government there can handle this issue on their own, that would be a welcome thing. We would absolutely support that.
Q: Do you think the military assessment of the situation in Libya has changed?
MR. COOK: We certainly are encouraged. We certainly are encouraged by the progress we see those government forces making. And we'll continue to watch it very closely.
ISIL is a threat wherever it is, and it's been a threat in Libya. We've talked about it. And the fact that they are now under pressure in Libya in the same way they're under pressure in Syria and Iraq, we think is a good thing. And again suggests that the -- that the Government of National Accord and the forces supporting that government are making progress and we certainly encourage that.
Q: Peter, just to follow up on that question, we've heard General Dunford and others say that, you know, it's basically been a waiting game trying to see if the GNA would, kind of, pass that tipping point and show that unit before further action is taken by the U.S. military specifically in terms of train, advise and assist.
So from -- just to be clear, from what you're saying, the progress that's being made near Sirte is promising, but it still hasn't reached a point where the department is now willing to, kind of, entertain other options in the country as far as --
MR. COOK: We haven't made any additional decisions about U.S. action at this point. We're obviously watching it very closely and very encouraged by what we see. If we -- if there is no need for the United States and other nations to get involved in Libya, that would be a welcome thing.
We continue, along with our -- many of our international partners, to stand by, offer our support to -- to the GNA. But nothing's changed on our part; this is something we're watching closely, like everybody else, and encouraged by what were seeing on the ground.
But there's been no determination that -- that ISIL isn't still a threat there. I think the government would acknowledge ISIL's still -- remains a threat there.
Q: Understood that ISIL remains a threat there, but what I'm saying in terms of final determination whether or not to again restart the training and advising program in Libya. If this isn't, sort of, again, the tipping point, then what is? What would the department or the secretary need to see on the ground in Libya to, kind of, come to the conclusion this is a unified government with military forces -- (inaudible) -- actually pursuing ISIS in the country?
MR. COOK: I think that's something that would be a conclusion that we would reach after discussions with the Government of National Accord, of course discussions with our inner agency partners and with other nations, again, standing by to offer support to the Government of National Accord. I think this is an ongoing conversation with a whole host of parties, but we can all be encouraged by what we're seeing in terms of the pressure being applied to ISIL in Libya and we're encouraged by that, absolutely. So, yes.
Q: (inaudible) -- hours. So, does the Pentagon have any comment about that?
MR. COOK: We will continue -- of course, we've expressed our regret and apologies over this incident and will continue to work with the government of Japan going forward in terms of our presence there and we, at this point, will continue that conversation with the Japanese government and will work closely with the Japanese government on our presence in Okinawa and will continue to do as we've talked about in the past, our commanders there will continue to take the steps that they feel are most appropriate with the Japanese to try and prevent any kind of negative incident from happening in the future. Yes?
Q: Thank you.
On North Korea. Recently North Korea reported that North Korea has restarted the plutonium -- (inaudible). Regarding this, do you think this is seriously a concern to us for their -- (inaudible)?
MR. COOK: I'm not going to get into this particular report.
But I will say more broadly that we continue to be very concerned about anything the North Koreans do to try and further their nuclear program and we've -- will continue to stand with South Korea and our other allies in the region to try and address the concerns that are being raised by North Korea's provocative actions and we feel that again, at this point, the responsibility's on North Korea to try and turn this -- reduce these tensions and not continuing to take actions we think simply only raise questions on the peninsula -- contentions on the peninsula.
Q: (inaudible), the U.S. is more concerned about this.
MR. COOK: Of course, we are concerned about any indication from the North Koreans that they are further trying to advance their nuclear program. Stand in violation of U.N. Security County resolutions, and we've made that clear from the start, but again, calling North Korea not to take these kinds of actions and to do its part to try and reduce tensions in the region.
Q: (inaudible). One of the biggest issues that the Peshmerga has criticized the coalition force is that they need more weapons, they need better weapons to fight the Islamic State. Is the United States or any other members of the coalition looking to give them more weapons directly, and have there been discussions about that?
MR. COOK: I think we've been provided a significant amount of material and support to the Peshmerga forces through the government of Iraq, which is the appropriate way for this to be handled. We're not the only ones; there are other international partners who have provided that kind of -- provided support to the Peshmerga forces. We'll continue our conversations, of course, with the Peshmerga leaders, with the KRG about what their needs might be, but I think the United States and the Department of Defense has certainly provided a significant amount of material, and we're prepared to engage with them if there are additional needs in the future, but just as one example.
We recently announced -- the secretary recently announced $450 million to help pay for Peshmerga -- some of those Peshmerga forces to make sure these very effective and capable fighters, who are putting a lot on the line in the fight against ISIL will continue to be paid, and that's a significant amount of money, and we think an appropriate step we can take to try and aid these, again, very effective forces in the fight against ISIL who are trying to, again, defend themselves and defend their homes. And we think that's appropriate. And we'll continue to have conversations with the Peshmerga, with the KRG about what additional resources they might need.
Q: But no talks about directly providing them weapons, still going through the government of Iraq.
MR. COOK: As we've done from the start; we continue to work through the government of Iraq and Prime Minister al-Abadi and there's been no problem in getting material that's been approved and equipment to the -- to the Peshmerga forces through that format, and we think that's the appropriate way to continue this. Yes, Tom?
Q: Can you tell us about Bryan Whitman's status, what his employment status is, when the Pentagon learned about the incident last week, and any further details you can provide?
MR. COOK: Tom, there's only so much I can say here because it's a personal matter and there are also privacy concerns, so I can just tell you that he's been temporarily detailed to a -- part of the department outside of public affairs, and that's all I can tell you at this time. Yes?
Q: I want to ask about -- (inaudible) China Sea China, Chinese -- (inaudible) -- in terms of -- (inaudible), so my question is, how does the U.S. force cooperate with Japanese government to counter Chinese -- (inaudible)?
MR. COOK: Well, as you -- as I know you know -- (inaudible) -- we had extensive conversations with the Japanese at our meetings in Singapore, the bilateral conversation with the defense minister, so we have significant defenses cooperation with the Japanese.
This particular incident that you talked about, we have been in touch with our -- with the Japanese government over this, obviously coordinated with them and spoke with them about this incident, but our relationship -- defense relationship with the Japanese government is clear and, again, the focal point of the conversation between the secretary and his counterpart just a few days ago. Courtney?
Q: I'd like to follow-up on Barbara's line of questioning. You mentioned that Secretary Carter has respect for the media and everything, I went back and looked, and I can only find two instances where he and Gen. Dunford have actually briefed from this briefing room, since General Dunford actually became chairman of the joint chiefs. So I'm just wondering why don't we hear from him more often in this brief room, and I acknowledge that he does things on the road, but you have to acknowledge that that is a very small -- (inaudible) -- as press corps because -- there's a limited number of people that can travel with him, there's, you know, et cetera.
So I'm just wondering, when will we hear from him again in this briefing room; it's been several months. And why does he not feel the need to come in here and talk to us more often? I know that you do, but the secretary does not.
MR. COOK: It's hard for me even to come here and brief as often as I would like because of our schedule. It's a challenging schedule. The secretary does not have all the opportunities he would like to engage with the media as he would to engage with members of Congress. It's a very busy job. The man has a lot of demands on his time, and we like, as often as we can, to try and get him to engage with the media. Again, he had a news conference in Singapore that was open to the media. I know you all did not get to make that trip. He's going to be at NATO next week where he will have, again, a press conference there.
I know it doesn't necessarily satisfy the Pentagon press corps here. We do extend invitations to news organizations to, you know, travel with us, including yours on occasion. And it's not an ideal situation, but the secretary has no reservations about coming down here and speaking with the media and would like to do so more often, but it is a question of schedule often, and we try and accommodate as best we can without the secretary himself. We're trying to provide the information as often as we can from other people here in the department, myself included, who can try and answer some of these questions, but the secretary looks forward to his next engagement with you. He's done things with the chairman in the not too distant past here, and he looks forward to doing it again, so --
Q: You know, I look back and I can only find two times that they briefed in here together since the chairman was sworn in last fall. The most recent one was in March so -- we haven't seen him very often in the briefing room.
Q: I guess it's my question, my last question is, when will we see him again in the briefing room?
MR. COOK: I hope you'll see him soon. I don't have a particular date to -- (inaudible).
Q: Can you give us an update on Guantanamo, do you agree with the assessment that it's not going to close before the end of the current administration?
MR. COOK: We continue to work with Congress, continue to provide more information on the plan that we submitted to Congress and are moving forward with that same expectation.
Q: The expectation being?
MR. COOK: The expectation that we put forward a plan that working with Congress, we believe, can achieve the President's goal of responsibly -- and the secretary's goal, of responsibly closing Guantanamo and bringing those that cannot be transferred outside to other nations, to the United States for detention here in the United States. And we continue to work at that effort and will continue to do so.
Q: So you're saying -- (inaudible) -- believes that he still can get Gitmo closed?
MR. COOK: There's significant -- it depends on the engagement with Congress and we know there's some in Congress who support this effort, and there's some who remain adamantly opposed, and we respect that. This is part of the dialogue that we continue to have with members of Congress on the plan that's been submitted and trying to get their feedback, what it would take for them to be able accelerate that timeline.
Nobody here, Thomas, thinks this is easy and but our determination to try and get this done remains in our efforts to that end continue.
Q: Are we going to see a lot more transfers over the coming weeks?
MR. COOK: I think you can expect that the secretary will continue as he has up to this point to continue the review as appropriate. The cases of those people who have been deemed eligible for transfer, whether or not they meet his test and the legal test for transfer and that's a very significant process that requires a lot of due diligence, not just by the Department Of Defense, but by other agencies as well.
And we'll continue to do that at the appropriate pace and the secretary will continue to apply the rigor to those transfer cases that he has in the past.
Q: Did the Senate NDAA require woman's register for the draft, I noticed there wasn't anything on that statement of the administration policy. I'm wondering, does the Pentagon have any position on that issue and has the Pentagon provided any new legal analysis on the issue to Congress?
MR. COOK: I'm not aware if we provided any new legal analysis and I think that the secretary's position all along is that this is a certainly responsible conversation for the country and the Congress to have about whether or not it's appropriate I think the secretary has also spoken, as well, about the whole question of that -- this is a question or a national discussion that needs to take place.
And so Congress would be the appropriate place for this debate to take place.
Q: Can we expand that -- amendments that would abolish the draft, has the DOD looked at the -- whether there's any real need to continue a draft? All of the commanders at the podium here have always said -- we support all volunteers.
The question is do you ever perceive us getting into a situation where we would have to have mass conscription?
MR. COOK: I think that the Secretary on this subject has been clear that he believes the all-volunteer force is the right approach and been a very effective tool for the Department of Defense; and I think he says he's talked about this, that this is an appropriate conversation for Congress to have in light of the women in service decision.
And but he believes very strongly that an all-volunteer force is the appropriate way of going forward. But he has not weighed in; this is for -- a decision for Congress to reach. Yes?
Q: I just wanted to go back to the East China Sea incident. There was some reporting that the admission to the PLAN vessel, there was a Russian vessel or vessels. Is your assessment that it was only Chinese vessel or Russian vessels in the area, as well?
MR. COOK: I can't confirm from here what vessels were in the vicinity. I just know this is a situation we've talked directly with the Japanese government about but I'll leave it to the Japanese to describe what they saw.
Q: Okay and then from your understanding of what happened there, I mean is the transit or the course of the Chinese vessel -- was that appropriate or inappropriate?
MR. COOK: We continue to talk with the Japanese about this situation. They've raised their concerns. We don't have a particular conclusion right here as to what the Chinese vessel was doing.
Obviously, the Japanese concern is about the proximity of this vessel and we'll continue to work closely with the Japanese trying to understand those concerns and work with them going forward as we would with any ally.
Q: Okay and it's a hypothetical so you're probably not going to like it, but if a Chinese vessel transited a similar distance from, say, for example, Guam, what would the response be?
MR. COOK: This department continues to believe that we fly, sail, and operate anywhere international law allows. We believe strongly in freedom of navigation, and so I'm not going to get into hypothetical situations, but this is a belief in freedom of navigation that the Secretary has spoken to many times. It's a principal we will continue to believe in.
We'll continue to also work closely with our Japanese ally, and with other nations in those areas where they have concerns about maritime security, and about maritime operations of other nations. And, we think the U.S. presence in that part of the world, as the Secretary has spoken to quite often, it a stabilizing force in the Asia-Pacific, and will continue to be so.
Q: Peter, can I ask about Afghanistan and the Taliban for a minute? Does the secretary support the military notion, idea, proposal, whatever the correct noun is at the moment that the rules should be re-amended back so that the U.S. military can go back to striking the Taliban, especially in Southern Afghanistan? Perhaps where the U.S. commanders have talked about them being so resurgent that the rules should now be changed to what they were so the U.S. can now, once again, strike the Taliban when and where they find them?
MR. COOK: I think the secretary, and I -- he's made this clear in the past that this is in the ongoing assessment of what's going on in Afghanistan. The question of authorities is, along with our troop presence, these are important questions that need to be looked at with regard to the circumstances on the ground right now. A conversation that he continues to have with General Nicholson, a conversation he had before that with General Campbell, and obviously, with Chairman Dunford, who has significant experience in Afghanistan. And, ultimately, with the commander in chief.
So, I think the secretary's view is that this is something that needs to be looked at carefully. But, right now, there's no change in U.S. policy, and the authorities that are in place right now are the authorities that are being implemented -- being used by American forces in an appropriate way, in support of the Afghan Defense Forces.
The most important thing here, Barbara, is for the Afghan forces to be able to take, and secure the country on their own, and that's what we're working toward. That's what we've been working for, that's what the coalition, other countries, are helping to support as well.
We'd like to make that happen as soon as possible. We're trying to make that happen right now.
Q: When you say it's something that at least needs to be looked at carefully, can you explain a little big what you mean? Do you mean that there is some sort of review into the authorities that exist on the ground right now? Is there any consideration on changing them?
MR. COOK: This is, as you know, an on-going discussion, as there has been for some time, about our presence in Afghanistan, and what we can do to best support the Afghan government, particularly Afghan security forces, and it's no different than the discussion that General Nicholson talked about when he was up on Capital Hill. And, it's part of that on-going review process that, I think General Nicholson has spoke to; the secretary, talked about. As we review the circumstances in Afghanistan. So, we have, for the last fifteen years this is a constant process for us of looking at the situation on the ground, looking at the use of our forces, and looking at the progress being made by the Afghan Security Forces.
And that's what's going on right now. And, they're making good progress. They have shown resiliency, they have had, certainly, challenges. But, we think they're making good progress. We want to do everything we can right now to make sure that they're able to advance even further.
Q: The notion that -- just to be clear, you are telling us that it is part of this review that the secretary is looking at on whether to change the authorities so you can once again strike the Taliban on a broader basis? That is what you are saying, that it is part of the review?
MR. COOK: I'm saying --
Q: -- what the decision is?
MR. COOK: I'm saying that at every step of our review of Afghanistan, the question of what is the best way to use our forces, is something we're constantly looking at, Barbara. It is also in the same sense that we're looking at the number of troops that we have.
MR. COOK: We are always looking at the authorities question and the best use of our troops. We do that constantly. We've done that since we first had troops in Afghanistan; it's the appropriate thing to do. We've made adjustments. This President has made adjustments in the past. And again, that's part of looking at -- reviewing the footprint of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; how are they being used? How are they -- how can they be most effective in training, advising and assisting those Afghan forces going forward?
Q: So what's holding up a decision? It's 9,800 troops. What is holding up a decision about all of this?
Q: Do you think the president at this point knows what he thinks? General Campbell knew what it thought, General Dunford knows what he believes is -- whatever they know, the three of must know what they think by now. What's holding up the decision?
MR. COOK: There are significant factors here to consider. Obviously, the situation on the ground -- critical factor. There are other nations involved in terms of the coalition and their support for this effort. The number of troops they might be willing to provide, for example. We'll be heading to NATO next week. And that's part of the conversation. This is --
Q: -- I mean, can you imagine General Nicholson and General Dunford on the authorities question don't know what they believe the correct answer is? Whatever they believe, I am not asking. If they know --
MR. COOK: These are -- these are --
Q: What's holding that up?
MR. COOK: -- these are discussions, Barbara -- as you know -- that are happening through the chain of command, including with the secretary of defense, as just as we're talking about every aspect of what were doing in Afghanistan, whether it's training the Afghan Air Force, whether it's, again, where we have our presence within Afghanistan.
So this is -- these are important things. There is a government Afghanistan as well that we need to work things out with. So there a lot of factors in play, Barbara, and I think you know that.
Q: (off-mic) serious with Peter, do you think they'll come have a press conference --
MR. COOK: Should they meet you in Syria? That was an inside joke, sorry.
Q: (off-mic) Peter, a question about in terms of the secretary of the future, he has seven months left to complete many items on his agenda; has he expressed a willingness or a desire to continue to serve in his post in a future administration -- in the next administration?
MR. COOK: The secretary of defense remains entirely focused on the job he's carrying out right now. As you pointed out, he has a significant number of things on his to-do list. This is someone I can assure you is busy with a long list of agenda items that is looking to carry out and that is his focus right now.
Q: But has he expressed a willingness to staff or to the administration or any of the campaigns that he is interested?
MR. COOK: This is -- you're talking about a hypothetical situation. The secretary is focused on his job right now and that's in serving his commander in chief.
Q: (off-mic) released a report on children in combat on which the Saudi-led coalition was blacklisted -- we heard from the Pentagon earlier that there's been a steady drum beat expressing concern over military actions in Yemen carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. Does this report -- although their name has been since expunged -- influence the way the U.S. is cooperating with that coalition?
MR. COOK: I'm not directly aware of this report, so I am happy to take your question and get back to you, so I just don't know the report you're referring specifically.
And I owe answers to Jamie and Loree as well, so.
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