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DoD Transcripts

TRANSCRIPT | Aug. 7, 2018

Press Gaggle at the Pentagon by Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis

Q:  ... spiking in the North Atlantic?


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Russian submarines what?


Q:  Their activity spiking in the Atlantic Ocean.


SEC. MATTIS:  We -- we watch all submarine activity, not concerned about it.


Q:  Mr. Secretary, I'd like -- hi.


SEC. MATTIS:  Hello.


Q:  Hi.  How are you?  The -- in Afghanistan, the talks, are you -- are you pleased with the progress of the South Asia strategy?  And do you see it as having led the Taliban to be open to talking to the U.S.?  And can you comment on reports that the U.S. is now actively discussing, with Taliban officials, a potential peace process?


SEC. MATTIS:  As you all know, a year ago when we signed out the South Asia Strategy -- about a year ago, about 11-1/2 months ago, it was based on four pillars; one, to regionalize the effort, look at it across the region not just in Afghanistan since so many of the problems there are transnational.  Second was, we were going to realign our forces.  We would then reinforce those realigned forces to support the train, advise, assist, and in many cases accompany effort.


But the most important R in the four Rs was to reconcile.  You had to reintegrate this.  We've watched how these kinds of situation have been resolved throughout history, whether it be South Africa, Northern Ireland.  And so, the reconciliation effort Afghan-owned, Afghan-led and we are working very closely with them in everything we're doing, alongside our NATO allies, as we engage to try to end this war.


No doubt, the strategy has confronted the Taliban with a reason to go to ceasefires that President Ghani has led and offered and to go into discussions.  But it is still early in that reconciliation process.  We'll -- I'll have to give you updates of it as it matures.


Q:  Could you -- could you talk about the reports that the U.S. is now directly engaging with Taliban officials?


SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I think it would probably be best if we -- if we left that to State Department that leads any kind of reconciliation efforts on our part.  Again, it is Afghan-led and an Afghan-owned process as we work with them to bring peace to that -- that country that's been through enough war.


Q:  Mr. Secretary, how close are….


Q:  Mr. Secretary, you stated you're watching submarines in the North Atlantic and elsewhere.  But are Russia and China putting more submarines out to look at the United States than they have since the Cold War?


SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, we always keep an eye on the -- on the submarines at sea.  And I'd prefer not to say anymore than that.  Thanks.


Q:  Mr. Secretary ...




Q:  ... How close are you to declaring victory over ISIS?


SEC. MATTIS:   I don't declare victory until it's in the rear-view mirror. When there is hard fighting ahead, as I've said, as we close in what happens with ISIS is they become more concentrated, so there is -- there is hard fighting ahead, that's all there is to it.


Q:  Mr. Secretary ...




Q:  On the election security, you have spoken recently about the efforts of the Pentagon to provide support for election security for the midterms and beyond.  As you have looked at this issue, can you offer any more specifics about what you think the Defense Department could do to help states and governments...




Q:  ... Assist in election security with active measures that you've spoken about?


SEC. MATTIS:  So the -- the question...


Q:  (Inaudible).


SEC. MATTIS:  I was going to turn my back on you, Barbara.  (Laughter.)


SEC. MATTIS:  But...


Q:  No problem.


SEC. MATTIS:  The -- the question has to do with, you know, we all saw what happened in 2016 when the Russians and possibly others, but the Russians for certain, tried to do both influence operations and actually -- and actually get in and actually corrupt some of the election process.  And so, what we've done is taken a look at all of those things so that we know what to look for.


We are engaged in support of the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement in order to maintain the integrity of the election.  I prefer not to say what those specifics are because in that case, our adversary would know.


And the adversaries may be more than just Russia.  We are not focused solely on one country.  We are focused on protecting the elections themselves.


So we're looking at both this influence peddling and the corrupting -- the violating the integrity of the elections.  And those activities are in direct support of law enforcement and Department of Homeland Security.


Q:  When you say the Russians, are you in fact talking about the Kremlin?  Are you talking about Russian government ordered and support interference in 2016 and possibly beyond?  And is there any credible evidence in your mind of anybody other than the Russians?  So it is official Russian support?


SEC. MATTIS:  I believe it is official Russian support; however, that is not exclusive.  There is also other activities that went on that perhaps are not directly ascribed to the official Russians.  But we watch for all of it and we can trace at least parts of it back to -- to the Russian government.


Q:  Mr. Secretary, are you worried about any of those influence peddling campaigns targeting U.S. troops in particular?  And how are you trying to keep officials for falling for any of that?


SEC. MATTIS:  You know, I -- the -- the U.S. troops, of course, U.S. -- the United States troops, they're troops, like all Americans we have to be alert to the people who would try to manipulate an election in the Information Age when there's so many feeds coming into everybody, and everybody has access to those.


So U.S. troops are part of protecting the Constitution, protecting the integrity of the elections and protecting what we stand for.  And certainly, we pay attention to that as well but it's part of the larger -- the larger domain of protecting America.


Q:  Mr. Secretary, why is the Defense Department limiting troops' access to transfer their unused education benefits?


SEC. MATTIS:  I'll have to get back to you.  I -- I don't have a -- I mean, I know what you're talking about, it's -- it's only during certain years and all.  But I don't want to answer a vague question on it.


Q:  Mr. Secretary...




Q:   Do you have more details on, your Chinese counterpart's visit to Washington later this year?


SEC. MATTIS:  We look forward to hosting him.  I personally look forward to hosting my counterpart from Beijing.  I just got back from a visit there, as you know.  And we had very good discussions and I look forward to continuing those.


Q:  Mr. Secretary, do you -- do you support establishing a new combatant command for space?


SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, absolutely.  We need to address space as a developing warfighting domain and a combatant command is certainly one thing that we can -- we can establish.  This is a process we're in.


We are in complete alignment with the president's concern about protecting our assets in space that contribute to our security, to our economy.  And we're going to have to address it as other countries show a capability to attack those assets.


Q:  But is that going to be the same as establishing a separate service, as the president has...


SEC. MATTIS:  We -- we are working our way through all this.  We are in complete agreement.  The vice president is the -- the -- kind of the point man for the president on this.  We are working closely daily with his office and with supporters on Capitol Hill and the relevant committees.


So we're working up what that actual organization will look like, it'll be fit for purpose is what I can assure you.  But I don't -- I don't have all the final answers yet, we're still putting that together.


Q:  And you have a timeline for when this...




Q:  ...Combatant command may...


SEC. MATTIS:  We'll -- we'll get it right.  We'll work it through the Congress.  We have the direction from the president and we're underway.


Q:  Mr. Secretary...


SEC. MATTIS:  I better go -- I better go here in a minute.


Q:  Mr. Secretary, is the U.S. military prepared...


SEC. MATTIS:  We're, OK.


Q:  ... To enforce these new sanctions against Iran?


SEC. MATTIS:  There're economic sanctions that are diplomatically led and there's no military role that -- that is -- that is needed...


Q:  Could we just...


SEC. MATTIS:  ... For these sanctions.


Q:  But could -- could there be?


Q:  ... come back on one matter?


SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not going to speculate on that.


Q:  Can we quickly come back on one matter?  You said...




Q:  ... The Russians and possibly others.  What can you tell us?  Is there somebody other -- is there a government other than the Russian government?  Can you...




Q:  ...  Give us your sense of what you really mean when you say "and possibly others"?


SEC. MATTIS:  Our -- our mission is to protect the Constitution, protect our way of life, protect our elections, maintain the integrity of the election process, that is what we do in support of Department of Homeland Security and we protect against anyone who would try to muck around from outside the country.


Inside the country is a law enforcement issue.  And they handle any kind of -- any kind of corruption allegations on an election.  But as far as overseas, we have much of the capability in the Department of Defense, specifically in U.S. Cyber Command and NSA.  And we work together to watch for any kind of threats from wherever, from criminals, from countries, from...


Q:  But who did you see?


SEC. MATTIS:  ... From lone actors, from whomever.  And it takes -- as you know, it's very hard to identify in each case, but in some cases we have.  I'd prefer not to go into more details on that.


Q:  And in the -- in the coming elections, are you certain you can see and hear the Russians if they come again?


SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I'm not going to get into that.  I'd prefer to leave quiet how we conduct those operations.  You understand?


Q:  Mr. Secretary...




Q:  ... Do you have the authority to conduct retaliatory cyber attacks if -- if they're interfering with the elections -- if someone was...


SEC. MATTIS:  I have -- I have all the authority I need.  I'm not going to get into the specific authority.  I'd prefer not to let any adversary know what we have up our sleeve.


Q:  What does "fire in the hole" look like for cyber, Mr. Secretary? (Laughter.)


SEC. MATTIS:  This guy (inaudible). (Laughter.)


SEC. MATTIS:  That, I'm not going to tell you.  What else is on your minds?  All right, so why don't you guys get out and get some water in you, OK?


Q:  What should we be asking you?


Q:  Do you have any comment about the Russian Ministry of Defence?


SEC. MATTIS:  Look at that guy in that bearskin hat.  Now is that not a great job?  You walk in the room wearing that hat...


Q:  The Russian...


SEC. MATTIS:  ... And you get attention.  Look at it.


Q:  Mr. Secretary, the...


SEC. MATTIS:  All right.


Q:  Russian Ministry of Defence said they sent a letter from General Dunford's counterpart to him talking about humanitarian efforts inside Syria.  Is there a broadening of the -- of the conversations that the U.S. military and the Russian military is going to be having in terms of ...




Q:  ... Not just the deconfliction line but greater efforts in Syria?


SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  We maintain the open communications military-to-military.  It's designed for deconfliction only in regard to Syria.


Q:  So, humanitarian efforts would not be considered something that you would discuss at this time?


SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, we maintain the deconfliction line for Syria.  But that's all we're maintaining at this time.


Q:  Just quickly on -- on the -- on, given that you've got Gavin Williamson coming, there was -- there was the letter that you wrote to the -- to -- to him -- to the Brits, encouraging them to spend more.  Britain's already, like as Williamson says a top-tier military.  Can you...


SEC. MATTIS:  No doubt.


Q:  ... Can you tell us like what was the genesis of that letter?  Why did you feel it was important to write one of your most stalwart allies, kind of, finagling them to do more when they're all doing -- when they're doing all they can already?


SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  I think it's very important we maintain a close collaboration with all allies.  I have letters frequently going between myself and trusted ministers of defense, which is throughout NATO.


And this was a letter to the U.K.  None of them are form letters.  They're all very specific about what we as democracies are doing, united to protect ourselves.  You saw what happened in Salisbury; and, Salisbury again.


You've seen what's been going on in influence activities.  You've watched the European Reassurance Initiative and this sort of thing.  This is all part of the coordination and collaboration.  It was meant as an additive effort in support of our ally as we coordinate where we're building up, where they're building up and back and forth.


It's not one letter alone.  It's a back and forth dialogue.  And as you know, he'll be showing up within minutes as we continue the dialogue here...


Q:  Did he ask you to write it?


SEC. MATTIS:  ... So it's the same thing.


Q:  Did he ask you to write it?


SEC. MATTIS:  No, I -- I don't get into -- this is the normal collaboration, the normal consultation between allies, is what this is.


Q:  Do you have any assessment of what happened in Venezuela?  Whether that was an assassination attempt and the use of drones?


SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I -- I don't -- that's what I read, that it -- that it was that.  But we had nothing to with it.  We have no background knowledge.  We saw nothing until the press brought it out, so.


STAFF:  The delegation's arriving.


SEC. MATTIS:  OK.  I've got to go to work.  You all get some water in you now.


Q:  (Inaudible)


Q:  Thank you.