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Press Briefing by Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper
Jan. 7, 2020
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER:  Okay, good afternoon, everyone.

I'm -- I know we moved up the time on you, but I was cognizant of the -- the snow.  And so I -- I'm told you are the brave few who decided to stay around and weather D.C.'s roads as they become a little bit snowier.

Anyways, good afternoon, everyone.

I'd like to begin by offering my deepest condolences to the families of the three Americans who lost their lives on Sunday in Manda Bay, Kenya.  An attack by al-Qaida affiliate Al-Shabaab resulted in the death of a U.S. service member and two Department of Defense contractors while wounding two other American personnel.

On behalf of -- of the entire department, our thoughts are with the family and friends of Army Specialist Henry Mayfield Jr.  He was in Kenya in support of Operation Octave Shield, working to protect American interests in the region and improve security and stability alongside our Kenyan partners.  We honor him and his colleagues who lost their lives and assure you that the perpetrators of this attack will be brought to justice.

The United States conducted over 60 airstrikes against Al-Shabaab safe havens and assets last year and our forces continue to provide training and counter-terrorism support to our East African partners at the Manda Bay Airfield to help them in the fight.

Moving to Iran, at this time, our top priorities remain:  first, the safety and security of American personnel and our partners; and second, our readiness to conduct operations to respond to Iranian aggression.

Since the strike, I've spoken with the commanders on the ground to ensure that they have the resources they need to protect their people and prepare for any contingencies.  As a result, we've increased our force protection postures across the region, and will continue to reposition and bolster our forces as necessary to protect our people, our interests and our facilities.

As I mentioned to you yesterday, we have received widespread support for our actions from our allies and partners in the region and we will continue to work with them to protect our gains against ISIS.  I've been in constant communication with my counterparts and have called on them to stand with us in the defense of coalition forces in Iraq.

Working through NATO, the Defeat-ISIS coalition and with our partners on the ground, we continue to bolster Iraqi institutions to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS.

As we defend our people and interests, let me reiterate that the United States is not seeking a war with Iran, but we are prepared to finish one.  We are seeking a diplomatic solution, but first this will require Iran to de-escalate.  It will require the regime to come to the table with the goal of preventing further bloodshed.  And it will require them to cease their malign activities throughout the region.

As I've said, we are open to having this discussion with them, but we are just as prepared to deliver a forceful response to defend our interests.

Finally, the American people should know that their safety is in the hands of the strongest, most capable military in the world.  The men and women of our armed forces should know that we are standing with them and will continue to support them as they meet and overcome today's threats from malign actors, including Iran and its proxy militias.

Our partners should know that we remain committed to our strategic priorities in the Middle East:  deterring Iranian bad behavior, sustaining the enduring defeat of ISIS, and supporting Iraq as it becomes a strong and independent nation.

And the architects of terror should know that we will not tolerate attacks against America's people and interests and will exercise our right to self-defense should that become necessary once again.

With that, I'll open this up for some questions.

Thank you.

Q:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

I just wanted to clarify one thing you said earlier, that the U.S. continues to engage ISIS in Syria.  Have -- has the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria been affected at all by this?

And then secondly, there seems to be continued confusion among Iraqi officials about this draft letter.  There was a televised appearance by Mahdi earlier today in which he, sort of, laid out what he said was "a signed letter that the Iraqis got" -- those are his words -- and he suggested that another letter should be sent.

What have you done and are you continuing to do to clear up what you said yesterday was a mistake?

SEC. ESPER:  Our policy has not changed:  We are not leaving Iraq.  And a draft, unsigned letter does not constitute a policy change.  And there is no signed letter, to the best of my knowledge.  I've asked the question.

So there may be people trying to create confusion, but we should focus on this much, what I said a few times now:  Our policy has not changed.  We are in Iraq and we are there to support Iraqi forces and the Iraqi government to become a strong, independent and prosperous country.

Q:  And in Syria -- ISIS in Syria?

SEC. ESPER:  I've gotten no report from a commander saying that we've had a material impact on our ability to engage ISIS along with our SDF partners.

Q:  To follow up on Lita's question, what if the Iraqis don't want you to stay?  If the prime minister says you need to go, will U.S. troops pull out?

And also, NATO allies are pulling out.  Why aren't U.S. troops pulling out?

SEC. ESPER:  So, we'll take all of those one step at a time.

There's a -- a -- a few procedural mechanisms, hurdles, if you will, that the Iraqi government would need to go through.  We remain in constant contact with them on that.

I think it's fair to say that many Iraqis recognize the strategic importance of our partnership with them, whether it's training and advising their military to become more effective on the field of battle or it's working together with them to defeat ISIS coalition.

I think the vote the other day shows the support of the -- of most Iraqis for our presence in the country.  As you know, most Kurds and most Sunnis did not show and those Shias who did vote, many of them voted at the threat of a -- of their own lives by Shia militia groups.

Even in the last few days, we still see Iraqis on the streets protesting their government due to corruption and the malign influence of Iran.  So those sentiments, those feelings have not gone away.

So I think at the end of the day, working with the -- with the -- with -- with the Iraqi people, you'll find that our presence is important for both their country, ours.

You also asked about partners.  I've talked to many of our partners in Iraq who are part of the D-ISIS coalition, many Europeans.  They are fully supportive of us; they are fully with us.  I've been told by them that some of the movements they are taking are simply for -- with regard to force protection.  We are doing some of that as well.  It does not mark or signal any withdrawal from Iraq or the mission -- the mission writ large.

Q:  Can I follow up on that, on the allies?

STAFF:  We'll get there. Gordon?

Q:  So could you take me through the range of options that were under consideration?  Can you give us any sense of, you know, how many other options were under consideration?  Did you support any other ones?  And was one option to not take this strike inside Iraq, which would have clearly --

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not going to speak to any options or anything we present to the president.  As you know, that's kind of how I approach things.

I -- I will tell you that options we presented were all options that we supported and believe we could deliver on and would be effective.  And with any time we deliver an option, we always list pros and cons and -- and pluses and minuses.  That's how we approach it, that's my duty and that's my obligation to the commander in chief.

Q:  Were there -- were there multiple options that you would have considered, that -- that you would have supported?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm not sure I understand the question.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Were there other options that you supported in addition to this one?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, look, there are -- there are always a wide range of options.  Our duty is to narrow them down and to -- to ones that are consistent with the president's guidance or expectation or can meet the political end-state we're trying to achieve.

So again, we had a full panoply of options available and we present them and we portray them as we do.

STAFF:  Sylvie?

Q:  Yes, one follow up, sorry, about the allies moving their troops.  Does it mean that you couldn't guarantee their security, especially with an air protection, or did you ask them to move their troops?

SEC. ESPER:  No, I -- I -- I don't think so.

I -- I know in one case in particular it was just a matter of us being able to move in additional U.S. forces into a confined space that was being occupied by some of the -- the international trainers, partners on the ground.  You know, it was just a logistical issue.

Q:  Thank you.

Can you clarify, the attack Soleimani was planning, was that days or weeks away?

SEC. ESPER:  I think it's more fair to say days, for sure.

Q:  And is the U.S. legally obliged to withdraw from Iraq if told by the Iraqi government to go?

SEC. ESPER:  I'm -- I'm not going to speculate.  We're not there yet.  There's been -- none of that has happened, to the best of my knowledge.  And as those events, we'll address them and we'll have all the right legal experts to -- to advise us on that.

STAFF:  David Martin?

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you said the U.S. is not seeking a war with Iran.  I think the question most people want an answer to is how close are we to war with Iran?  And specifically, how would you characterize Iranian military movements over the past several days?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, it -- it -- it is true, we're not seeking war with Iran.

I think the -- what happens next depends on them.  I -- I think we should expect that they will retaliate in some way, shape or form, either through their proxies, as they've been doing now for -- for how many years, or by -- and/or with -- by their -- by their own hand.

And so we take this one step at a time, we're prepared for any contingency and -- and then we'll -- we will respond appropriately to whatever they do.

Q:  And how would you characterize their military movements so far?

SEC. ESPER:  Oh, you know, we -- we watch them very closely, we see their movements.  I don't want to get more into that because it starts to get into -- into -- into intelligence issues, so I'll just leave it at that.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, you talked about being ready for potential conflict here in case Iran retaliates, but if they don't retaliate against American targets or interests in the Middle East but instead target our partners in the region, is that enough to warrant a U.S. response?

SEC. ESPER:  Look, you -- you know, Luis, I'm not going to comment on -- I'm not going to hypothesize or comment, speculate.  But we are standing there to defend not only our interests but those of our allies and partners, and I want to reassure them that we're there with them, as well.

STAFF:  Barbara?

Q:  Two points to follow up on, if I may.

You have talked about Iran needs to de-escalate.  My first question is does the U.S. have any obligation to de-escalate or is that solely in Iran's court?

My second question, you have said several times in the past couple of days that you will follow international law on potential war crimes.  I think the -- let me set that aside; I think everyone would expect you to do exactly that.  My question is not hypothetical.  The president is out there with his position.  If you get an order, would you resign from office rather than violate the law?

SEC. ESPER:  Barbara, I'm not going to get into some hypothetical that you're portraying here.  I am fully confident that the president is not going to -- the commander in chief will not give us an illegal order.  And -- and as I said, the United States military will, as it always has, obey the laws of armed conflict.

Q:  And escalation?  Does the U.S. have any responsibility or obligation to also de-escalate, or is that, in your view, solely in Iran's court?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, we have not -- we're not the ones that have escalated this over the past, arguably, 40 years, and certainly over the past several months.  It's been Iran, through its proxies, had -- has consistently escalated this in terms of the size, scale, scope of -- of their attacks.

So we reached the point where we had to act in self-defense.  We had to take appropriate action.

So at this point, as I've said a few times now, the ball is in their court.  What they do next will determine what happens in the subsequent moves.

Q:  Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, I would like to ask you, before the -- the attack against Qasem Soleimani, have you been in consultations with your partners in the region?  I mean, the GCC countries or Israel.  If you have informed them that this operation is going to take place today, at this moment?

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I'm not going to get into the details of our consultations on any matter with other countries.

Obviously, we -- we've been talking about our -- our force posture in Iraq for some time, our concerns about Iranian actions or the actions that they are inspiring, resourcing or directing through its militias.  But I'm not going to get into -- in -- into any details.

STAFF:  Phil?

Q:  As you recall, on -- on your remarks about the parliamentary vote, you've raised some questions about the kind of people who -- who did vote and didn't vote yesterday and today.  Do you believe that vote was legitimate; that that resolution calling on U.S. forces to leave was legitimate?

And then separately, on the issue of -- you said that you'd expect Iran to retaliate, are there any off-ramps to this crisis, or do you expect that we're heading towards this military confrontation?

SEC. ESPER:  On -- on the first question, I -- I won't characterize it any -- any differently than what many other people have characterized it, many experts, and that is -- is nonbinding.  And we know there are other -- there are -- there are mechanisms by which they would have to act.  I'm not an expert on Iraqi government, so I characterized it the way I did with you all the other day as nonbinding.

With regard to the off-ramps, there's a big off-ramp sitting in front of Tehran right now, and that is to de-escalate, to message us that they want to sit down and talk -- without precondition, by the way -- to the United States about a better way forward, a forward -- a -- a way forward which would constitute a -- a -- a new -- a new mode of behavior by Iran where they behave more like a normal country, and that would, one could presume, free up -- free them up from economic sanctions and allow the Iranian people to pursue the life they want to live, and that is one with freedom and prosperity and all those things that most human beings want.

STAFF:  TM?

Q:  Yeah, thanks for doing this, sir.

After pressure from Iran, has the Iraqi government prevented the U.S. military from using certain capabilities within the country, hampering operations in any way?

SEC. ESPER:  They're -- they're -- they have taken some actions in the past that have hampered some of our operations with regard to airspace and things like that, but nothing that we weren't eventually able to work through with them.

Q:  And is that happening currently?

SEC. ESPER:  There's -- there's nothing they're doing right now that is hampering our operations to the best of my knowledge.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, I just want to follow up on Phil's earlier question.

So what would -- just to press you a little bit more on this, what would constitute a binding order from the Iraqi government?  Because there seems to be a disconnect from what the prime minister is telling Ambassador Tueller and other -- and heads of state from Europe about implementing this resolution from the Iraqi parliament, and what the Pentagon says has been communicated or hasn't been communicated.

SEC. ESPER:  Yeah, I think that's a great question for the Iraqi prime minister.

Q:  So -- but are you -- does that mean that you are not taking his -- his communication about the implementation of that parliamentary resolution on its face, in terms of what he's actually saying?

SEC. ESPER:  To the best of my knowledge, I haven't received any communication from him or the Iraqi government about -- about the legislation or about an order or a request to withdraw U.S. forces.

Q:  Thank you.

Mr. Secretary, can -- can you please explain to us how the killing of one of Iran's top generals would contribute to the case of the de-escalation?

You're asking Iran to de-escalate now.  Would the U.S. respond in such a manner if one of your top generals was killed in a third country?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, let's take a look at history.

Soleimani was a terrorist leader of a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.  He's been conducting terrorist activities against us and our coalition partners for over 20 years.  He has the blood of hundreds of Americans, soldiers, on his hands, and wounded thousands more.  And then we could talk about all the mayhem he's caused with -- against the Syrian people, the people of Lebanon, even his own people in Iran.  He is responsible, and the Quds Force, for -- for the killing of Iranian people.

So this sense that somehow taking somebody who -- oh, by the way, over the last few months had planned, orchestrated and/or resourced attacks against the United States that resulted in the killing of American and the siege of our embassy in Baghdad, and was in Baghdad to coordinate additional attacks -- to somehow suggest that he wasn't a legitimate target, I think, is fanciful.

He was clearly on the battlefield.  He was conducting, preparing, planning military operations.  He was a legitimate target, and it was -- his time was due.

STAFF:  One final question.  I'll go to Jeff Schogol.

Q:  Already asked.

STAFF:  Oh, okay.  Tony?

Q:  Can you give a little bit of a preview of what you're going to tell Congress tomorrow?  This -- in terms of how much detail will you be give -- willing to give members that you haven't thus far told the -- the public in terms of the size -- size, scope and imminence?

You -- you are aware of how skeptical people are of the imminent threat issue.  You were there in 2003 when you heard all that.  So what -- temper our expectations.  What we -- what are you prepared to disclose in Congress tomorrow?

SEC. ESPER:  Well, look, first of all, much of my messaging to Congress will be the same as what I'm delivering to you all here, in terms of my views on the policy, the -- this -- the -- the broader regional situation and the history.

Obviously, with members of Congress we can go into a -- a classified -- we will be in a classified setting and be able to share more.  But the exquisite intelligence that we're talking about that led to the decision to -- that was, I should say, one of the factors that led to the decision to strike at Soleimani is -- is -- is only shared with a handful of members, the so-called Gang of Eight.  And so they are getting that briefing this afternoon, and -- and -- and they will have access to that, but most members will not have access to that.

Q:  What about -- you -- you talked about increasing force posture in the region.  What about force protection levels?  Have you gone up to the C or delta, highest level?

SEC. ESPER:  The -- the commanders in the region, and I should say globally, are taking all appropriate force protection measures relevant to their situation, the threat that they're -- that they're receiving, the readiness of their troops, et cetera.  So I'm confident that our commanders are going to do the right thing on the ground.

SEC. ESPER:  Okay?  Thank you all very much.