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Presenter: Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook June 16, 2016

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


June 16, 2016

PETER COOK: Good afternoon, everybody. I apologize for being late. Our meeting with the Saudi deputy crown prince just wrapped up a moment ago.

Before I take your questions, I do have a couple of important items to share with you.

First of all, today at Fort Hood, Texas, a memorial service will take place for the eight soldiers who died in the tragic training accident there on June 2nd. The secretary and all of us here at the Pentagon join with the Fort Hood community in mourning their loss, as well as the loss of the cadet killed in that same accident. Again, our thoughts and prayers are with everyone in the Fort Hood community.

A couple of schedule notes for you. As I just mentioned, the secretary at this hour just wrapped up a very productive meeting with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman. They discussed a wide range of security issues of interest to our two nations, including the fight against ISIL, the situation in Yemen, and the Saudi role in the recent successful operations aimed at Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in that country, as well as the kingdom's efforts to upgrade its military capabilities.

Today's meeting follows on productive conversations in Riyadh during the GCC summit and many other interactions, including Minister Salman's previous visit to the Pentagon in September. Secretary Carter was pleased to host the deputy crown prince and looks forward to continuing cooperation on countering extremist threats, the counter-ISIL campaign, countering Iran's malign influence in the region, and other shared security concerns.

Now, looking ahead to the secretary's schedule tomorrow, Secretary Carter will host an event here at the department announcing the results of the Hack the Pentagon effort. He'll have a chance to personally thank some of the hackers for their help in strengthening our cybersecurity and for helping to make the first bug bounty program ever for a federal agency such a success. We'll have more details on that event to you later on today.

And finally, you heard yesterday from Colonel Garver about the latest progress in the fight against ISIL, but I did want to highlight a couple of additional points. First, as Colonel Garver said, Syrian-Arab coalition forces have completed the encirclement of Manbij and are working to complete the isolation of that town to prevent ISIL forces from reinforcing or resupplying. This is obviously good news for the forces who are seeking to wrest their homes from ISIL control. But as we've said before, it's also good news for efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters into ISIL-controlled areas and for ISIL's ability to dispatch potential external attacks across the Turkish border.

By encircling and eventually liberating Manbij, these U.S.-backed local forces will help reduce ISIL's ability to threaten its innocent victims in Syria and beyond.

And as you know, Iraqi forces are also making progress in a difficult fight to retake Fallujah. Wherever it has tried to spread its influence, ISIL is under intense pressure from an international coalition that continues to gather strength, as is demonstrated by the latest international commitment from Poland to contribute F-16 aircraft to the campaign.

We will continue to look for any opportunity to accelerate ISIL's lasting defeat, again, working with the rest of the coalition.

And with that, happy to take your questions. Jamie.

Q: I just wanted to ask you about CIA Director John Brennan's testimony this morning.

Like you, he cited a lot of areas where the United States and the coalition are making progress. He said the trends are in the right direction.

But then he came to this conclusion, which I'd just like to read, since I -- to make sure I got it right. He said, and I quote, "Unfortunately, despite all of our progress against ISIL on the battle field and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group's terrorism capability and global reach. The resources needed for terrorism are very modest, and the group would have to suffer even heavier losses on territory, man power and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly."

He's clearly saying that their capacity has declined significantly since the battle began. What does that say about all the effort that the United States has expended over these last two years?

MR. COOK: Well, a couple of things. I did not see the director's testimony, first of all, so I'll share that with you.

But I think, as we've said, the effort -- the military effort to defeat ISIL is absolutely necessary, but it is not sufficient to deal with this threat in full, and I think we've been quite clear on that. We've been working very closely with an interagency approach, an international approach to dealing with the ISIL threat.

And while we believe we have made progress in the military campaign -- we detailed what's going on, the loss of territory in Iraq, the loss of territory in Syria, the loss of ISIL leadership -- it's much harder for them to communicate right now, much harder for them to plot both in Iraq and Syria and beyond, thanks to the efforts to the efforts of the coalition, thanks to the military efforts.

And yet, they still pose a threat. I think we've acknowledged that. And will continue to pose a threat. That's why we want to accelerate our efforts to impose more of those losses you just talked about to make it even harder for ISIL to -- to do harm to people in places like Iraq and Syria, and to do harm to people outside of those areas.

Q: Is it discouraging, though, that after all -- the billions of dollars, the tens of thousands of bombs, the -- the -- you know, decimation of the leadership that really, its -- ISIL's capability hasn't really diminished significantly, according to the CIA director?

MR. COOK: I would say it's -- ISIL remains a concern and a threat, and we've acknowledged that. But we have made progress in this military campaign against ISIL.

We will continue to make progress, and we will continue to reduce that threat. But this is going to take time. It's going to take the combined efforts -- our whole of government effort. We're working very closely with our -- our counterparts in the intelligence community, our counterparts in Homeland Security, our counterparts at the State Department to conduct this effort.

And of course, we're working very closely, Jamie, with our international colleagues to make this happen.

This is not going to be easy, and we've never said it would be. And I think Director Brennan's acknowledging that, and we -- we share that assessment, and -- and -- but we also want to make clear that we believe the military campaign against ISIL has shown results, continues to show results, and will going forward, as well.

Q: –Follow-up.

MR. COOK: Yeah.

Q: You said you share that assessment. Is that a specific reaction to Director Brennan's comments when he said that ISIS has -- the U.S. effort has not reduced ISIS capabilities and their global reach?

MR. COOK: We just -- we share the assessment. Again, I didn't see his testimony in full.

We share the view that ISIL remains a threat, and we're doing everything in our power to reduce that threat, working collaboratively, as I said. And we believe we've made progress in that regard.

And -- but ISIL and other terror groups do have the ability to -- to still cause harm. I think we've seen that. And -- so we're going to continue every single effort we can, working with our interagency partners, working with our international partners to try and reduce that threat, to make it even less likely.

And there is no way you can look at ISIL today, and look at their -- the geographic territory they control, look at their leadership, look at their ability to communicate and judge that it is -- they are in a better position today than they were, say, a year ago.

Q: Would you -- just to be specific, to you agree with Director Brennan's testimony when he said that U.S. has not reduced ISIS' capability and global reach? Just yes or no?

MR. COOK: We -- again, I'll leave Director Brennan to speak for himself from the military side of things.

We have detailed to you the steps we've taken to reduce ISIL's ability to -- to threaten others. And we continue to believe we're making progress in that effort, and we'll continue to make progress in that effort.

Q: Is there some concern in this building -- is the secretary concerned that the longer this war takes -- we're coming up on year two, just saw the attack in Orlando -- that there's going to be other ISIS inspired, potentially inspired attacks?

You know, is the secretary satisfied with the timeline right now, with the pace of operations?

MR. COOK: You -- I think you've heard the secretary say that he's not satisfied, Lucas. He is constantly looking to accelerate this campaign.

To remove ISIL from Iraq and Syria, the territory it holds, and likewise, to do everything we can to reduce the threat to the homeland, to reduce the threat to the United States. And that's something that we're working very collaboratively with our interagency partners to do.

A good example is the -- the effort right now in Manbij that I referred to. This is an area where we know that there have been efforts to plot attacks -- external attacks outside of Syria. This is a waypoint, if you will, for ISIL foreign fighters.

The fact that this operation is taking place now, that we are putting pressure on ISIL in this particular area is just one step, one step we can take to reduce the threat of -- exactly these kinds of external threats.

But it doesn't mean we're going to eliminate that threat.

Q: And lastly on ISIS, Director Brennan also said that the number of ISIS fighters exceeds the number that Al Qaida had at its height. Do you agree with that assessment?

MR. COOK: Listen, I'll let the director of the CIA speak to intelligence matters in whatever way he sees fit, so.

Yes, Joe.

Q: Peter, I want to go back to the meeting with the Saudi minister.

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: Could you give us more details about what they have discussed -- discussed in -- in regards to Syria? And also, does the secretary still believe that Saudi Arabia and the GCC have to bring more assets in the war against ISIS?

MR. COOK: Again, we -- the secretary had a very productive conversation with the deputy crown prince.

I will share -- I won't share all the details of their private conversations, but the counter-ISIL campaign did come up. The secretary offered an update on where we think things stand. And the deputy crown prince shared his own assessment.

They have very comparable views on many aspects of the campaign, and they discussed additional ways that perhaps the Saudis could play a role in the campaign.

And the secretary thanked the Saudis for their contributions to date. Won't get into details, and I'll leave it to the Saudis to discuss their own view on what else they could contribute going forward.

Q: So, the secretary -- is the secretary satisfied with what the Saudis are bringing -- bringing for the war against ISIS?

MR. COOK: As I just said to Lucas, the secretary is always looking for more contributions, looking to accelerate this campaign. He certainly would welcome any additional contributions from the Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, just as he told all of the NATO partners yesterday, how much he would welcome additional contributions from -- from NATO members, as well.

So, the secretary will -- will not be satisfied until the ISIL threat is eliminated.

Q: Last question. Do you know if they will be going to Norfolk to visit -- if there was a plan to visit Norfolk --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. COOK: I know there were hopes that maybe they might be able to take a trip together to look at some particular capabilities that might make -- be helpful for the Saudis. Weather and other logistical factors have intervened, unfortunately. So we don't think we'll be able to do that tomorrow as we had first hoped. And there's some discussion about trying to reschedule that for the future.

Q: Hi, Peter.

Captain Antonio Brown, the reserve officer that was killed in Orlando, if this is an ISIS-inspired attack, would he be qualified to receive the purple heart?

MR. COOK: Let me look into that, and take that question for you. I know it has to do with the designation, sort of a technical designation. I mean, I think at a minimum, we can -- obviously, we -- we lament his loss and what's happened in Orlando. And it's a tragic situation, but let me get back to you. I think that might be something that we'd have to hear from the Army on specifically.

And again, it also, as you know well, it has to do with the definition of the event, the Justice Department's own determination about what was carried out there. So it's not necessarily in our hands in terms of the formal designation that might occur there.

Q: And then one follow-up. Since General Nicholson seems to have wrapped up his 90-day review, at what point would we hear about the potential redeployment of soldiers that are in Afghanistan to draw-down to 5,500, given the lead time that would be necessary to get those men and women home before December 2016?

MR. COOK: I think we -- you'll hear from General Nicholson. You'll hear from the secretary and the commander in chief on those decisions at some point in the future. We don't feel that there's -- there's nothing that requires a decision now. This is an active conversation that General Nicholson continues to have with his chain of command. And so you'll hear at the appropriate time when and if decisions need to be made.

Gordon?

Q: Just on that point, we saw the comments the secretary made in Brussels about the decision on authorities and the potential decision on a troop decision for Afghanistan. But just to kind of clarify, on the table at some point this year is a decision, yea or nay, to modify the current plan in Afghanistan. I know that people are always looking at, you know, the situation and reassessing, but there is a decision-point at some point this year on that issue. Is that -- is that correct?

MR. COOK: The plan that is in place now is the plan that is operational. And I think you've heard the secretary say -- I think you've heard Josh Earnest say at the White House that we'll continue to review this and that the president will, of course, be open to hearing from his commanders on the ground. And those conversations will continue. But right now, the plan that is in place is the plan that is operational.

So, this is going to be a topic of conversation, obviously, we expect in Warsaw with the NATO members as well, and determining their contributions going forward. And we, as I think the secretary made clear, he was pleased with what he heard from some of our NATO colleagues, but we want to find out final details. Because, of course, that shapes a number of factors for us as well.

Q: Another quick -- unrelated question. ISIS seems to be claiming responsibility for the death of an individual at Incirlik. Can you speak to that, if there's some kind of a connection, or what happened there?

MR. COOK: I'm not aware of any. There's no U.S. service member, no American individual that's been harmed by ISIS in Turkey that we're aware of.

Let me move back over and then start here. Sorry.

Q: Coming back to Afghanistan, yesterday I believe British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said that Secretary Carter told members at the NATO meeting that he was actively reviewing the drawdown in Afghanistan.

Could you confirm those comments that he made those?

MR. COOK: I think -- I assume Minister Fallon was referring to the secretary's discussions in the group, in the NAC session about Afghanistan and the picture of what's happening. He discussed the authorities issue and the fact that we are, as always, reviewing what's happening in Afghanistan; hearing from commanders on the ground; and looking at the contributions not just of the United States, but all NATO members going forward.

So, the secretary made clear that the plan that is in place right now is the plan that is operational, and we'll continue to assess the situation. He'll continue to hear from his commanders on the ground. He'll continue to engage with Chairman Dunford. And of course, offer his advice to the president as appropriate.

Barbara?

Q: Peter, can you bring us up to date on something else? I was noticing in your own -- the department's published statistics about the wounded are showing an uptick in the number of wounded. Has there in fact been a combat-related incident perhaps in northern Syria where at least one additional service member in recent days was wounded?

MR. COOK: Barbara, let me take that question. I know that there have been some reports that I've gotten of some folks who -- some injuries. I understand that there have been service members who may have been injured and gone right back into the fight. But I'll take that question and get you a more precise answer on it.

Q: Well, because you're saying some multiple. So just to be -- your -- your published statistics show an increase of one. You're saying some.

MR. COOK: And that -- just so I know what you're referring to specifically there?

Q: Right -- wounded in action in Inherent Resolve, which would be Syria or Iraq. And we had heard at least one wounded in a combat incident in northern Syria. So could you get us some clarity, with all due respect, today if you can at all --

MR. COOK: I'll try. I'll try and get information.

Q: -- on what we're talking about?

And can you also, then -- so that's first. And can you also clarify, what exactly is the department's policy right now with these operations on informing the public -- I mean this genuinely -- about wounded; where they're wounded; how serious; and combat-related incidents? Because I think there's some confusion about whether you do or don't, you know, inform the public.

MR. COOK: We do not routinely provide information on wounded. As you know, we, of course, disclose information with regard to casualties in the -- in the course of our operations. But we do not routinely provide information, for a variety of reasons, with regard to wounded. And I'll try and find out any particular about this, but that's been our standard practice for some time.

Q: Can you say -- I have two very quick follow-ups. I'll be very quick.

Can you get us an answer why the department's policy is not to publicly acknowledge -- because it is policy -- wounded, and also when troops are in a combat incident on these -- these missions?

And I -- I'll just go right ahead. My other question is not directly related, but do you know anything you can tell us about an attack against a Free Syrian Army position in southern Syria, possibly by the Russians? And were there any Americans there?

(CROSSTALK)

Q: So two questions -- why the policy not to disclose; whether there was -- (inaudible).

MR. COOK: There are a variety of reasons, Barbara, why we don't share that information about wounded. One is privacy rights of those individual service members and we are -- share a tremendous amount of information. And it's been the practice of this department not to share in particular, information about wounded. For a variety of reasons, and we don't plan to change that at any time soon.

Q: When troops are in combat, you tell us about Iraqi troops in combat, local indigenous forces you train in combat, why not tell us, just from a policy perspective, what's the department's rational for not telling us, the American public, when troops are in combat in --

MR. COOK: There may be a variety of reason, Barbara. We share information on a regular basis about those instances. We don't share all of that information, in part, because of individual circumstances in certain cases. Maybe it involves operational security, maybe it involves special operations forces, in which we don't want to disclose certain things and we have a practice of not disclosing certain things. And that is applied on a case by case basis and so that's been our practice and we will continue to be our practice.

Q: (off-mic)

MR. COOK: We are aware of reports that moderate Syrian opposition were bombed today in southern Syria and we don't know all the details, but if indeed that action was taken by the Russians, we would have serious concerns about that and we are working to gather more information and engage with the Russians as well to try and address this matter, but we have seen those reports and trying to find out what we can about them.

Q: Any indication any American troops were nearby?

MR. COOK: I'm not aware of any American troops impacted by that situation. Yes?

Q: Israeli media is reporting that Israeli Defense Minister Lieberman will be meeting with Carter next week, can you offer any details on that, like what day and what will they discuss?

MR. COOK: Yes, I know we're still working on the secretary's schedule, but if we have more information to replay with regard to that meeting, we'll share with you as soon as we can. So I don't have anything right now to share with you.

Q: He is meeting with him?

MR. COOK: I know that there is a hope to work something out but we're still working on the secretary's schedule so when we're ready to announce something, or able to announce something, we will. Yes?

Q: As for China, do you have any comment on the series of Chinese military ship incursion into Japanese territorial, or contiguous, waters?

MR. COOK: We are -- we were informed by the Japanese government that a Chinese naval vessel did enter Japanese territorial waters and we're in communication with the Japanese government about that situation. I refer you to them for their particular concerns. I think they've made those known, and so I'll refer you to the Japanese government for that. But we are aware of it and they did inform us of the incident.

Q: (inaudible). Do you share the concern by the Japanese government?

MR. COOK: Well, again, they informed us of this situation and we believe the people's territorial waters should be respected and we don't know all the circumstances that took place here. So we obviously will be in close communication with the Japanese government about this and I'll refer you to them as to exactly what's taken place here.

They've shared their concerns and –they shared their concerns with us.

Q: Allow me to ask one more things about this. (inaudible) -- Chinese vessel getting into the Japanese territorial water, the ship has been said to follow the Indian naval ship.

So do you think in getting to the territorial waters to the -- (inaudible) -- countries following or chasing the military ships could be seen as an innocent passage?

MR. COOK: If -- whether following another ship could be innocent passage?

Q: Yeah.

MR. COOK: I -- again, I'm not familiar with every single aspect of the circumstances here; whether or not they could fall -- it could fall within some nautical rules that allow for this kind of action. So this is something that China and -- or the Japanese government and the Chinese government should engage on to find out exactly what happened here.

But there are very particular rules for naval activities, and I think it best for the Japanese government and the Chinese government to try and resolve this.

Q: Following up on the Free Syrian Army. You said that that was in southern Syria?

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: And you expressed concern. Correct?

MR. COOK: Yes.

Q: Why?

MR. COOK: Because any effort by the -- if there's targeting being done of groups who are taking the fight to ISIL, we would have concerns about that. Anything that's causing harm to -- impeding their ability to successfully fight ISIL, we think would be a problem. And we've made that view known in the past.

Q: But the -- I mean, the U.S. military is not providing advise and assist to the Free Syrian Army. Correct?

MR. COOK: We are, of course, supporting local forces that are taking the fight to ISIL, and we're concerned if -- if, again, this was an incident that involved the Russians targeting a group that is taking the fight to ISIL, that would be counterproductive to the Russians' own goal, they say, of wanting to fight ISIL as well.

So that's our concern here, that they're -- if this indeed was a Russian airstrike, that they're targeting forces that are trying to get rid of ISIL and we think that would be a mistake. That would be our concern and that's why we would share that with the Russians.

Q: Were there any forces trained by the U.S. as part of the train and equipping program, affiliated with these fighters that were attacked by --

(CROSSTALK)

MR. COOK: I don't have particular detail. I can't answer that from here.

Yes, Lucas?

Q: One more on Afghanistan. Is it the Pentagon's assessment, Peter, that the Taliban right now control more territory in Afghanistan than at any time since 9/11?

MR. COOK: Lucas, I -- let me take that question for you, because I want to give you a precise answer. You've asked a very precise question. What I can tell you is that the Afghan security forces are in a better position today to challenge the Taliban thanks to the support and efforts of not only the United States, but other coalition partners. And we're going to continue to support their efforts to build up their security forces so they can secure their own country on their own.

And that's an important distinction today, versus since 9/11.

Q: Does the secretary anticipate more U.S. airstrikes to support those Afghan forces? Does he anticipate more U.S. aircraft going to Afghanistan?

MR. COOK: I don't believe that the secretary -- there's no announcement at this time about any additional aircraft that are required. You are aware of the change in authorities. And with that comes the prospect for additional airstrikes in support of those Afghan forces. But we're not going to predict from here -- right now as to exactly how that will transit. That will be the discretion of the commander on the ground.

But certainly it could happen, Lucas, but we can't say with 100 percent certainty from here exactly how the airstrike totals will change going forward. It will depend on the circumstances.

Q: And just switching gears to the fight in Fallujah against ISIS, there have been numerous reports that these Iranian-backed Shia militias are carrying out retribution against dozens of Sunni civilians leaving Fallujah. Is the secretary concerned about those reports?

MR. COOK: Of course the secretary is concerned, and we're concerned. And we -- very supportive of Prime Minister Abadi, who has initiated an investigation into what's going on there. We support his efforts.

And obviously, we'd have concerns about any reports of atrocities, and think that there should be -- as the prime minister has said in a direct investigation to what has happened there and who's responsible.

Q: Is it troubling that some of these Iranian-backed generals once targeted U.S. forces over a decade ago? And does that throw off the strategy a little bit as, you know, you -- the U.S. military is supporting the Iraqi forces, yet here are these Iranian backed forces also in the fight, yet with American blood on their hands?

MR. COOK: Lucas, we continue to support the prime minister of Iraq, and the Iraqi forces that, for example, are leading the effort in Fallujah, in particular.

We have expressed our view that it is the Iraqi forces that should remain in the lead, should be operationally in control. We have received -- we have every confidence that that's how this is being conducted.

And so, our interaction remains with the legitimate Iraqi government forces and with the prime minister, of course, and his leadership. And we're confident that he's approaching this in a correct way. He has talked at length with the secretary about the multi-sectarian approach that -- that he believes is important for Iraq going forward.

And we support that, and support his efforts.

All right. Thanks, everyone.

-END-

http://www.defense.gov/News/News-Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/801708/



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