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Presenter: Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White March 01, 2018

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White


DANA WHITE: Hello, everyone. Good afternoon. Good afternoon. Hey.

Next week, March 7th, the department will host an industry day for our ongoing cloud acquisition. This is a key milestone in our pursuit of a cloud solution to improve our lethality and provide the -- and provide for the future force.

Industry day underscores the importance of fair and open competition. It also reinforces our commitment to attaining the best value for the American people. We achieve this by leveraging the innovation and ingenuity of the private industry. Another way we remain accountable to the American people is reforming the way we do business.

For years, Congress urged the department to streamline the way we buy, sustain, and invest in capabilities. Under this administration, we are making that reform a reality.

Last week, Jay Gibson, DOD's first chief management officer, assumed his role as third in command of the department.

Mr. Gibson will lead our efforts to synchronize technology, people, resources and processes to achieve reform. He will also manage the fourth estate, the DOD staff and agencies that -- that don't fall under our military services.

MS. WHITE: This position is part of the largest organization -- reorganization of the department since the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.

You will see fewer generals and greater civilian oversight and accountability of the department as a result of this reform.

The United Nations Security Council unanimously voted, Saturday, to demand an immediate ceasefire throughout Syria. The Assad regime continues attacking its citizens, especially in East Ghouta.

We condemn the loss of innocent lives, and urge all parties to remain focused on defeating ISIS. We encourage all parties to de-escalate and resolve the Syrian conflict, and protect innocent civilians.

The failed ceasefire called into question Russia's commitment to de-escalate violence and negotiate a political solution. Russia's inability to exert control over the -- over the portions of the battlefield where they operate is troublesome.

As General Votel testified earlier this week, Russia placed both arsonists and firefighters in Syria, fueling tensions among all parties, then serving as an arbiter to resolve disputes, attempting to undermine and weaken each other -- each party's bargaining position. Russia's efforts to preserve their own interests in Syria puts coalition progress at risk, and undermines international security.

We do not seek a conflict with the Syrian regime, but we call on Russia to restrain the Assad regime, de-conflict counterterrorism operations with the coalition, and de-escalate the remaining battlefields of the Syrian civil war.

With that, I'll take your questions. So I'm starting to take it a little personally.

No Bob. No Lita.

Sylvie?

Q: Thank you again. The Russian president, Putin, said today that he has weapons that are invincible and able to strike the U.S. anywhere. Do you have any reaction?

MS. WHITE: We're not surprised by the statement. And the American people should rest assured that we are fully prepared.

Tara? Go ahead.

Q: But bragging about these invincible weapons?

MS. WHITE: Again, we weren't surprised by his statements.

Tara?

Q: (Inaudible) When Putin made the statement, he basically said it was because the U.S. under this new administration has built -- or got -- recommitted to building up its own arsenal. Is the U.S. to blame for, perhaps, a new missile build-up?

MS. WHITE: Our -- our stance has never been -- they know very well that it's not about them. Our missile defense has never been about them. We need to ensure we have a credible nuclear deterrent, and we are confident that we are prepared to do -- and we are prepared to defend this nation no matter what.

Q: Separate -- separate topic. On personnel, Sergeant First Class Bob Crawford, the 7th Special Forces Group veteran whose wife faces a deportation hearing on Monday. They have worked the system to try and get her legal status changed.

Is Secretary Mattis aware of this veteran's plight? And as a bigger picture, there are up to possibly 5,000 members of the military that are looking for their own naturalization cases to be resolved. What sort of tension is Secretary Mattis putting on this issue?

MS. WHITE: So I'm not familiar with the precise details of this story, I haven't read it. So let me -- let me come back to you with more details on that. I'm not aware of it, the secretary's not aware of it. So I owe you that.

The disposition of -- of these individuals is ultimately an issue for legislators and for DHS. But obviously, we are -- we will continue to help and provide our advice and counsel. But those are ultimately within the purview. But I do owe you an answer on that specific case.

Q: (Inaudible) Secretary Mattis was able to reach out directly to Secretary Nielsen. To resolve that issue...

MS. WHITE: Yes.

Q: Is he willing to, again, reach out to the secretary of DHS to resolve these individual cases and then the issue at large?

MS. WHITE: I think the secretary wants to ensure that there is a comprehensive way in which we look at all of these things. And that includes more than the Department of Defense. So obviously we'll continue -- we'll continue to have those conversations with DHS.

Joe?

Q: Thank you. We have seen today the Russian statement saying that the U.S. is establishing -- has established 20 bases in Syria, mainly in the areas controlled by the Kurds. This is the first statement. The second one also, the Russians are accusing the United States of providing the Kurds with sophisticated weapons. How does the DOD address both statements?

MS. WHITE: So, I've seen the reports regarding the bases but the focus needs to remain that Russia has helped the Assad regime. They've enabled them to kill their own citizens. And that -- and we're watching. It's a brutal regime and Russia allows it to kill its own people, to use chemical weapons. Russia has made a lot of promises with respect to Syria. Our mission remains that all parties focus on defeating ISIS.

This is a complex space and all parties need to focus on that. We want Russia to live up to its commitments with respect to the cease-fire. There are innocent people dying, there's humanitarian assistance that's not getting through. They made a commitment and we look -- we want them to uphold that commitment.

Q: As a follow-up, have you seen any evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta?

MS. WHITE: We haven't seen any of that evidence yet. Barbara.

Q: As I'm sure you know, U.S. military exchange stores sell firearms and ammunition -- firearms in the stores, ammunition in the stores -- in brick and mortar stores and online. And online in particular, they sell a wide variety of ammunition. I was looking today, including jacketed hollow-point rounds. One advertiser on your DOD exchange website advertised their jacketed hollow points as, quote, "the deadliest bullets on the planet." While I understand that the -- the customer base for this would be those in the -- legally engaged in hunting, most likely, or sporting activity, my question is very specifically, given today's environment, why does the department need to be selling these items through its military exchange stores?

Are you looking at it, are you rethinking it? What's the policy here?

MS. WHITE: The policy hasn't changed. And all of our exchanges are subject to both federal and state law and they are all in compliance. So they do -- it differs depending on the state. But all of our installations are in full compliance.

Q: (Inaudible) state and federal law, and I have a question about that. My question really goes to, again, I know we've talked about this before given the national conversation. You are -- by selling these items, you are now part, there's just no question, the Pentagon is now part of this national conversation because you offered these items for sale.

What is the need to offer the -- what -- why are you selling these items in military stores, in the military websites online?

MS. WHITE: Again, our military is a part of our larger community and -- and state and citizenry. Currently we're in compliance with state law and with federal law. With respect to the conversation, it's a national conversation, and it's one that has to happen between our lawmakers and the president, as well as citizens at large about the future of gun control.

Q: (Inaudible) part of it by -- are you not part of it now by selling these items through your stores? (Inaudible) is there any question that the U.S. military is not part of this national conversation since you were selling these items?

And can I just also follow up on DACA, because I was confused about something.

MS. WHITE: Our service members are a part of our community, and they had -- and they enjoy the same rights as those in our community. They have the right to purchase ammunition and guns as long as it's in compliance with state and federal law as well as -- as the policies with respect to on our bases. Our policies haven't changed, so if something is going to change, that is ultimately for lawmakers to make that decision.

Q: Can I ask about DACA?

MS. WHITE: DACA, yes.

Q: Because I was confused. I want to make sure -- the last time the secretary talked about the U.S. -- U.S. military personnel and DACA, I think I'm correct that he indicated active duty, not veterans, active-duty military personnel would be protected from deportation. He did not want to see people deported. So what is being done if there are all these cases out there, which there are? What is being done since we last talked about it to ensure military members under DACA are not going to be deported? What is being done?

MS. WHITE: So the secretary's comments were anyone who's active duty. I think he also talked about reserve, as well as those had -- who had been -- as long as there hadn't been a federal order for deportation, who had been -- who had left service honorably. Those are the two categories, and he outlined a couple of exceptions.

The DACA question is ultimately one that has to be looked in a holistic way. These are hundreds of thousands of individuals. Ultimately, DACA has to be decided by our lawmakers. That's a decision that Congress has to decide.

Q: (Inaudible) he spoke to the DHS secretary and he would not -- he did not -- he said these people would be protected, and they would not be deported. He did not want anyone deported.

Now he seems to back away from the secretary's view and back at DHS. So does the secretary have any influence or any -- any ability to carry out what he said, that he didn't want these people deported under DACA?

MS. WHITE: The secretary has a great deal of influence. So again, the ultimate question of the fate of those -- of DACA is with legislators. It's with the president. It is not with Secretary Mattis.

Secretary Mattis talked about individual DACA members who had served honorably and who are on active duty. The question of how DACA is resolved is ultimately with Congress.

Gordon, go ahead.

Q: (Inaudible) secretary, though, his protection or his efforts to protect members, does that include family members as well?

MS. WHITE: I will have to come back to you, his statement was about service members. Kristina.

Q: Thank you, on -- on Yemen, yesterday Senator Mike Lee and Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would force a debate over our involvement in Yemen. What is the authority we are participating in the Saudi-led war? And what is your response to the legislation?

MS. WHITE: In Yemen our mission is two parts: it's counterterrorism which we feel we have the authority to conduct that mission under our current AUMF. Our other mission is with respect to supporting Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has been attacked from Yemen by Iranian backed Houthis who have fired missiles on and targeted civilian facilities. The extent of our support is refueling and sharing intel. So, that is our mission in Yemen. I won't comment on pending legislation but that's the extent of our involvement.

Q: The servicing agreement that we have with Saudi Arabia to use that as the authority -- it's a stretch for our involvement in the conflict.

MS. WHITE: I will let Congress decide but we feel as though we have the authorities under the current AUMF to conduct our mission.

Q: Thank you very much, madam. Two questions, please. One, for the first time between the U.S. and India there will be a two-plus-two -- it will be of course on defense and security measures.

MS. WHITE: Yes. So, we're looking forward to that. Our goal is to ensure that we are working together on an array of issues with respect to regional security. India plays a very important role and therefore the more we can have a conversation not only about Afghanistan and the future of Afghanistan but also where do we -- how can we work together on maritime security? There's a great deal that we can learn from each other and so the secretary looks forward to that conversation.

Q: There are in Washington high level officials from the Afghan government including special advisors to the president and advisers. Now my question what they are saying and also of course the Afghan president has been saying for the last several months that as far as security measures and terrorism is concerned in his country Pakistan is behind and unless Washington stops it or puts pressure on Pakistan there will not be peace in the region or in Afghanistan. But also, at the same time recently Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and China voted against the U.S. resolution as far as Pakistan is supporting terrorism and the State Department did confirm yes Pakistan is still supporting terrorism with U.S. money for the last several years. What is the Pentagon and secretary's views as far as Pakistan's or Afghanistan's future?

MS. WHITE: Well, with respect to Pakistan we believe that Pakistan can do more to combat terrorism. This is an inflection point and this is an opportunity and Pakistan has an opportunity to do more. They've been victims of terrorism. So, we'll look forward to continuing to work with them to see where there are opportunities.

Q: Russian President Putin has said that any nuclear weapon used against the Russians or their allies will be viewed as a strategic threat. Does that negate the need for low-yield nuclear weapons?

MS. WHITE: The need for -- in the NPR when we lay out the need for a low-yield nuclear weapons it's because of many of the things Russia has done; it isn't in compliance with INF.

We need to ensure that our nuclear stockpile meets -- stays a credible nuclear deterrent. That's the key. And that goes hand in hand with nonproliferation, arms -- arms control regime. But it's important that we've been watching Russia for a long time. We're not surprised. And so we will -- and we are prepared.

Follow-up?

Q: Sure, no. If possible, if it needs to be taken. If the Russians are saying it doesn't matter if it's a tactical nuclear weapon, a battlefield nuclear weapon, if its low kilotons, if it blows up on Russian soil or Russian ally, they are going to end the world, why have low-yield nuclear weapons?

MS. WHITE: Well, remember, that this is not about defense; this is about deterrence, when we're talking about that. And moreover, it's about more than Russia, right? We have partners and allies. This is a deterrent capability, one that we need to ensure stays relevant.

Stephanie?

Q: Thanks, Dana.

I think you touched on this in your last answer, but just to be crystal clear. With this development -- with the development of these new Russian weapons, does that change the U.S. deterrence policy at all?

MS. WHITE: These -- these weapons that -- that are discussed have been in development a very long time. So, no, our Nuclear Posture Review takes all of this into account. And so we are planning. Because our Nuclear Posture Review is about ensuring that we are -- are -- our strategic forces are relevant.

Q: OK, so their (inaudible) did factor into the NPR?

MS. WHITE: Absolutely.

Q: OK. On the parade beat, so we know that the president had mentioned having this military parade on Veterans Day. But there may be a potential conflict with November 11th, if President Trump is eying that day for a parade. Macron has invited the president and 79 other heads of state back to Paris for a summit on that date.

So there seems to be a scheduling conflict. Are there any other dates being discussed for this parade?

MS. WHITE: Regarding any scheduling conflict, I would have to refer you to the White House, regarding the president's schedule. But we are looking towards November 11th, around Veterans Day, and also possibly in conjunction with the World War I centennial celebrations.

So it would be a celebration, not only of our currently serving servicemembers, but also those of the past.

Lucas?

Q: Can you explain the complexities behind evacuating 200,000 American noncombatants from the Korean Peninsula, should war or hostilities break out?

MS. WHITE: We are always talking about what we need to do to ensure any contingency. To include how -- how we would deal with civilians on the peninsula . This is -- this is the whole building about plans, and those plans are always being evolved, and those plans are always being assessed.

So I'm not going to get into those particular conversations, but rest assured, everyone in this building is very dedicated to ensuring that our citizens are safe.

Q: And is the Pentagon confident that you can evacuate all the Americans on the peninsula right now?

MS. WHITE: We are very confident in our ability to safeguard American lives on this -- on the peninsula.

Q: And what about the Russian weapons. Are you confident the U.S. can defend against a Russian hypersonic or nuclear-powered cruise missile attack?

MS. WHITE: I'm very confident about our ability to -- for anything that may come our way.

Q: And are these weapons operational, or are they just being tested by Russia?

MS. WHITE: We are prepared, and we're ready.

Right here in the middle.

Q: Thanks Dana.

Two follow-ups. One to Barbara's question about the weapons on bases. I understand that members of the U.S. military are U.S. citizens and entitled to all their rights. I -- I got that.

But the military does have discretion as to what sells on base and what's available. There are other laws – non-military people can do things that those in the military are not permitted to do.

I'm just -- I'm just wondering, to Barbara's point -- Barbara's point is -- she's over there now. Is it possible for the military -- I understand that (inaudible) discussion as you've said a couple times, with Congress and the lawmakers. But is it possible for the military itself to conduct a discussion, a conversation, as it would do say let's review what we're order for our PXs in 2019, we're going to have Slurpees, we're going to have this and that, but we're not going to sell ammunition.

I mean, is it possible for them to have -- the military to have that kind of -- I'm not trying to be a smart ass; I'm just trying to isolate what the military can do on -- on this issue.

MS. WHITE: Certainly, it's possible for our military to have a discussion about -- about what is carried, what is done. Commanders can determine those things. Most of the people on military bases, for the most part, who carry weapons are law enforcement. So of course there's flexibility for that commander to decide that with respect to an overarching DOD policy or the future of gun control, our policies have not changed.

Q: OK, if I could follow up on -- sorry, OK. One more follow-up on -- the first statement you said about the Russian missiles and missile-defense system, you said, "They know very well it's not about them," in other words our missile defense system. They mean the Russians know very well it's not about them.

MS. WHITE: Yes, the Russian's know it's not about them.

Q: Who is it about?

MS. WHITE: Our missile defense, in large part, has to do with rogue nations.

Sorry, I have two more, Janne.

Q: Thank you Dana.

On South Korea, Moon Jae-in, special adviser to South Korea, President Moon said that two days ago at (inaudible) in Washington, D.C.

He said that U.S. troops would have to -- I mean, would have to leave Korea, South Korea, if President Moon's ask the U.S. troops to leave South Korea. How do you respond to this comment?

MS. WHITE: I haven't seen his comments, but our presence on the Korean Peninsula is at the invitation of South Korea. We are alliance partners. And the decisions that we make with regards to our posture and our future have to be alliance ones that we make between Washington and Seoul.

Q: You don't have anything about the withdrawal of U.S. troops in South Korea?

MS. WHITE: Again, we are -- our troops are there, and we are hosted by the South Korean people and the South Korean government.

Right here in the middle.

Q: Hello, Julio Rosas, Independent Journal Review.

Two questions, if I may. So recently Secretary Mattis met with the Montenegro secretary -- minister of defense this past week.

Was there any discussion between the two about how to prevent an attack similar to one on our embassy that happened I think two weeks ago or a week and a half ago? And if -- and if there was a discussion, if you could say what steps will be taken to safeguard both American and Montenegro facilities?

MS. WHITE: There -- there weren't any specific discussions about that attack, and the -- as that was an embassy, I would refer you to the State Department with respect to force-protection issues.

I'll take one more. Lieutenant colonel, I know. (Laughter.)

Right here.

Q: First, a follow up on India. You spoke about the increased cooperation between India and the U.S. on American security. Can you be more specific about it. Which area do you -- in particular are looking into?

MS. WHITE: I can come back to you with the -- more details. The agenda is still being laid out, but that's one of the issues that we definitely want to work with the Indian navy at, much more closely, and see what we can do. Particularly with respect to the lines between Fifth Fleet and Seventh Fleet. So we will -- I can get you more details. But maritime security is -- is on the agenda.

Q: And on Afghanistan, the Taliban has offered for peace talks. There has been positive reaction from both the Afghan government and Pakistan. What is Pentagon's view on this? Is there -- do you think there is a chance right now to have peace talks with all the three partners?

MS. WHITE: Our goal is to help the Afghan Security Forces become capable enough to ensure that the violence ends. The Taliban has to abandon terror, it has to abandon violence, and it has to support the Afghan constitution. Then they have to come to the table. And that is, ultimately, for the people of Afghanistan to come to an ultimate political resolution.

Thank you all very much.

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