Operation Inherent Resolve

 

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

By | March 29, 2016

PETER COOK:  Good afternoon, everyone.

 

I have a quick piece of news to share with you off the top, and then I've got an update on the secretary's schedule, but this -- literally-- just handed to me just a few moments ago, from the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs unit at Bagram airfield in Afghanistan.

 

An F-16 has crashed in Afghanistan, a U.S. Air Force F-16 assigned to the 455th crashed during take off today about 8:30 in the evening near Bagram airfield.

 

The pilot safely ejected, was recovered by coalition forces, and is being evaluated by medical personnel.  Coalition forces are securing the crash site.

 

The cause of this accident will be investigated and more information will be released as it becomes available, but literally, that's all I know at this point.  I was handed this just a moment ago.  So, I wanted to share that with you all, first of all.

 

And before I get to your questions, again, I did want to highlight one announcement, an additional announcement regarding DOD dependents in Turkey, as well as give you an update on the secretary's schedule.

 

First, the secretary, in coordination with Secretary Kerry has authorized the ordered departure of all DOD dependents not assigned to chief of mission authority from Adana, to include Incirlik Air Base, Izmir and Mugla, Turkey.

 

This decision allows for the deliberate safe return of family members from these areas due to continued security concerns in the region.  It in no way signifies a permanent decision to end accompanied tours at these facilities and is specifically intended to mitigate the risk to DOD elements and personnel, including family -- including family members, while ensuring the combat effectiveness of U.S. forces and our support mission to operations in Turkey, our mission -- our further mission to support operations in Turkey.

 

The United States and Turkey are united in our common fight against ISIL, and Incirlik continues to play a key role in the coalition's counter-ISIL operations.  This decision was made at the request of General Breedlove as well.

 

Now, regarding the secretary's schedule this morning, he attending a wreath-laying with Secretary McDonald at the Vietnam War Memorial, part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of that war.

 

The secretary expressed his gratitude to Vietnam veterans for their service and steadfast devotion to our country.  He told them he believes they never received the home-coming they deserved, and that he is committed to demonstrating the thanks of a grateful nation by supporting veterans and their families in every way he can.

 

There were hundreds of 50th anniversary events throughout the country today.

 

This morning, the secretary also attended a round table discussion with leaders from the Aerospace Industries Association, National Defense Industrial Association and Professional Services Council.

 

Secretary Carter appreciated the invitation to talk to these groups, as well as hear directly from top executives from some of their member companies.  The secretary highlighted the strong and longstanding partnership between the department the defense industry.

 

He reiterated that he views defense contractors and their employees as part of the broader DOD mission to keep the country safe and secure.  It was a private conversation, but I can tell you they did discuss the secretary's innovation agenda, the budget picture, Goldwater-Nichols reform and foreign military sales, among other issues.

 

The secretary thought it was a very constructive exchange and he again appreciated the invitation extended to him.  Later this afternoon, Secretary Carter will meet with Estonia Minister of Defense, Hannes Hanso, Estonia has worked hard to live up to its commitment of NATO allies made in Wales to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense and Estonia is an important example of our NATO allies in both the areas of defense spending and host nation support.

 

Minister Hanso and his government have helped put their nation on the right path through strengthening their own defense capabilities and their resilience.  And we will have a read out of that meeting later on today.  And final note on the secretary's schedule for today, this evening he will receive the international public service award on behalf of the men and women in the Department of Defense at the World Affairs Counsel's Global Education Gala.

 

Not quite finished yet; looking ahead to his schedule.  For the rest of this week tomorrow, Secretary Carter will travel to Tampa, Florida to attend two change of command ceremonies.  First he will speak at the ceremony for Special Operations commander, or SOCOM.  As General Tony Thomas assumes that important post, next he will attend the ceremony for central command, CENTCOM, as outgoing SOCOM commander, General Joseph Votel assumes command of CENTCOM.  He will be joined by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dunford.

 

Secretary Carter will also thank the men and women of both SOCOM and CENTCOM for the critical responsibilities they meet every day, whether in the campaign against ISIL and our ongoing efforts to support the people of Afghanistan in building a more secure future, or in countering Iran's maligned influence in the region.  The secretary will also, of course, congratulate outgoing CENTCOM commander, Lloyd Austin on his extraordinary career and thank him for his over four decades of service.

 

In addition to his keynote remarks at both ceremonies, the secretary will conduct a press conference in Tampa with Chairman Dunford and his new combatant commanders.  From Tampa, the secretary will held to Austin, Texas at the invitation of the University of Texas chancellor, Admiral Bill McRaven, to partake in a series of events on campus highlighting mutually beneficially links between the U.S. military and the academic community, including a roundtable with UT Sexual Assault Prevention Taskforce.

 

He will also participate in a moderated conversation with UT students, including ROTC members.  Secretary Carter will then continue his outreach to the tech community in Austin by visiting a tech incubator and meet with local entrepreneurs at that location.

 

And on Friday, Secretary Carter will be in Boston where he will make a significant announcement at MIT regarding a new technology partnership that will further strengthen the DOD with private sector companies and academic institutions in the area.

 

And with that lengthy beginning, I apologize.  Happy to take your questions.

 

Bob.

 

Q:  Peter, on the Turkey departure --

 

MR. COOK:  Yes.

 

Q:  -- how many dependents will be required to leave?  And if you can fill up the picture a little bit more fully, how many U.S. military members are there at those places in Turkey and what changed about the security environment that required this departure all of a sudden?

 

MR. COOK:  First of all, in terms of the numbers, my understanding is the figure is 670 dependents will be affected by this.  And I believe the total picture there is slightly more than that, 770.  So, approximately -- these are dependents that will be affected by this.  So, let me just double check that number right now, because I got this from EUCOM earlier.

 

I want to make sure I've got this absolutely right.  But my understanding is that 670 people.  Total dependents that will be affected by this, there's 770 total in Turkey overall.

 

Q:  So -- (inaudible) -- military members, not counting civilians?

 

MR. COOK:  These are total DOD dependents in Turkey right now.

 

Q:  How many military members --

 

MR. COOK:  Let me -- let me get that -- let me get that number for you specifically as opposed to family versus service members themselves.

 

Q:  (inaudible) -- security --

 

MR. COOK:  Again, this is a -- this was a decision made out of an abundance of caution, given the overall picture, the security threats that -- that we looked at in the region.  There's no specific threat that triggered this, but a broader decision based on what we've seen in the region.  You all have seen some of the things playing out in the region that -- this decision was being made at this time.

 

Again, the U.S. government overall making this decision.  I'll note that our State Department colleagues have made the same decision and it is just out of an abundance of caution.  The safety and security of our personnel and certainly their family members is foremost to us, and we feel that this is the right decision to make at this particular moment in time.

 

Q:  So as the security situation has deteriorated since, I think it was some months ago, when you -- the DOD said it was -- there were voluntarily departures, I think, for family members.  Now, it's required, so it sounds like it's gotten worse.  Is that -- is that the case?

 

MR. COOK:  Well, I believe that the determination has been made that the -- the threats out there have increased since that time, and that's reflective of this decision as opposed to what we announced in September.  And again, Bob, it's -- it has as much to do with being safe, being cautious, being prudent right now and -- and doing everything we can to -- to make sure that service members can focus on their mission, not worry about the -- the safety and security of their individual family members.

 

And by making this movement now, we can do it in a safe and deliberate and efficient fashion, and we realize this is disruptive to those family members.  We absolutely want to do everything we can to try and ease that disruption, but the decision was made at this time to again take this step out of an abundance of caution.

 

Q:  Like urgently, like in a week?  In a day?  In a month?

 

MR. COOK:  This -- this will -- my understanding is that this will move very quickly.  I'm not aware of a specific deadline, but that -- this will move relatively quickly and everything will be brought to bear to -- to, again, make this as -- as efficient and as -- the least disruption as possible to these families and to these service members.

 

Q:  Peter?

 

MR. COOK:  Yes, Jennifer?

 

Q:  Can I just follow-up about that?  And then I have another question.  You said there are 100 dependents who are allowed to stay.  Which part of the country are those dependents based in?  And why is it safe for them to be in those parts of the country?

 

MR. COOK:  Again, it's an assessment that -- those folks are primarily in Istanbul and also in -- let me double check this -- specifically Ankara and Istanbul.  And the decision was based on the particular situation they're in that -- it was deemed that it would be appropriate for them to stay in their particular situation because of the security environment there and -- and some of the precautions in place.  So specifically, only three areas are affected, specifically in Turkey, in terms of dependents -- U.S. dependents.

 

Q:  In terms of Syria, do you welcome the Assad regime's retaking of Palmyra with the assistance of the Russian air force?

 

MR. COOK:  We certainly welcome word of any loss of territory on the part of ISIL, and the ejection of -- of ISIL from parts of Syria we think are a good thing.  We are actively trying to eject ISIL ourselves from parts of Syria, as you know.  At the same time, we have said for some time that the Assad regime is the primary reason for the Syrian civil war, and we think that the Assad regime's focus should be right now on trying to end that civil war and by engaging in the diplomatic process that's currently under way.  And we hope that that's -- they get -- devote as much of their focus to that, as they have in Palmyra.

 

Q:  Assad's forces are now just three -- a three-hour drive to Raqqa.  Would you encourage the Assad forces and the Russians to continue going into Raqqa?  Would you welcome that?

 

MR. COOK:  At this point, again, we're not going to look ahead into the future as to what their military moves might be.  We know that our focus will be the elimination of ISIL from Syria and Iraq, and our focus is on Raqqa.

 

We've conducted a significant number of operations, as you know.  Coalition airstrikes in that part of Syria.  And I'm not going to predict the future, but we believe that, again, ultimately, ISIL needs to be eliminated from Syria and Iraq, and we're going to continue doing everything we can to achieve that.

 

Q:  And is there still no U.S. military plan to re-take Raqqa?

 

MR. COOK:  I think you've heard the secretary document in extensive detail what the campaign plan is to both move towards the two centers of power, if you will, that are -- that ISIL currently controls, both Mosul and Raqqa.  But a specific street-by-street, neighborhood-by-neighborhood plan, that's not something we're prepared to walk through at this point.  But there certainly is a plan in place, a campaign plan that's been in motion for some time now, and we are accelerating that plan, I think as you've seen in recent weeks.  Yes, Tara.

 

Q:  I want to clarify on the F-16 crash.  Any indications that it was brought down by enemy fire?

 

MR. COOK:  I honestly, Tara, just shared with you what I -- what I know.  There's no indication of that in the statement I just read, but that -- this is literally all I know is what I've just been able to read to you.

 

Q:  Okay.  And then moving on to Mosul, last week, when the chairman and the secretary were in here, they spoke about creating plans to present to the president about potential additional U.S. forces for Iraq.  Was wondering about a -- if we could get a status update.  Have those plans been sent to the president?  And then I have one follow-up.

 

MR. COOK:  Yeah.  Again, the -- no specific recommendations have been presented.  The secretary and the chairman continue to talk with their commanders.  This is an ongoing conversation they're going to have with the president and the rest of the national security team, but I think they gave you a sense of sort of forward momentum here, and the notion that the Department of Defense and the coalition wants to do -- we want to do everything we can to accelerate this campaign.  And there are a host of ideas that will be presented and have been considered over the past few weeks and months, and there'll be more brought to bear in the coming weeks.

 

And I think, again, it's reflective of our interest to try and speed this up, to try and speed the demise of ISIL, and we think there are a number of steps that can be taken to achieve that, working in close partnership with, obviously, the rest of the coalition and the government of Iraq and our local, the local forces on the ground that are actually carrying out this mission.

 

Q:  There have been a couple of news reports over the last few days that Iraqi forces have again fled positions in the villages around Mosul.  And I was wondering if you're familiar with those reports.  And to follow-up on that, if Iraqi forces are withdrawing from the fight, why would we send additional U.S. troops in to, I guess, finish the job?

 

MR. COOK:  Yeah.  I'm not totally aware of the reports you're referring to.  I know that -- my understanding is some of the forces near Mosul, Iraqi forces have actually moved the forward line of troops closer to Mosul.  In the past few days, they've actually progressed further than perhaps we and even the Iraqis thought they might.

 

So, we feel confident that with the support of the coalition, that Iraqi forces will have the capability to take Mosul, ultimately.  But right now, again, they need our support, they need our training.  And these are things that we are in a position to provide, along with other members of the coalition.

 

And we think that will enhance their capabilities going towards Mosul, and as I've been talking about, speed up this fight with ISIL.

 

Yes, Carla.

 

Q:  Thank you, Peter.  Two questions, one on Syria and one on Turkey.

 

First, since Syrian forces are getting closer and closer to Raqqa, has there been any air-to-air communication between U.S. pilots and Syrian pilots?  Have there been any close calls or conflicts recently?

 

MR. COOK:  I'm not aware of any conflicts.  As you know, we have the memorandum of understanding in place.  There is a formal communication channel that can be used in those instances, but I'm not aware of that being triggered in any unusual way in recent days.

 

Q:  And then on Turkey, I know you said that the decision was made out of an abundance of caution, and there was no threat -- specific threat that triggered this.

 

But Secretary Kerry has been speaking with his Turkish counterparts.  Susan Rice has been talking with some of the Turkish leaders as well.  Were they given any information by the Turks that would cause this increase in a threat in a Turkey to DOD?

 

MR. COOK:  We, of course, have been in close consultation with the Turkish government over the -- the regional picture and the security picture, not just in Turkey but in the region, as a NATO ally, a close partner of ours.

 

But there is nothing specifically, we heard from the Turks.  This is a decision being made on our part, again, out of an abundance of caution, given the threat environment out there that we see right now that we think is the safe and prudent thing to do, specifically with regard to the family members of U.S. military personnel.

 

Yes, Bill.

 

Q:  Yeah.  On the South China Sea, there were reports last week that China has deployed anti-ship cruise missiles on Paracel Island.

 

Has the Pentagon been able to confirm this, and would this represent a further militarization of the disputed islands?

 

MR. COOK:  Yeah.  Bill, I'm aware of those reports.  I can't confirm from here that those, in fact, exist.  I can't get into intelligence matters from here.

 

But obviously, as we have been talking about for some time, anything, any steps by any of the players in that part of the world, China or otherwise, to militarize those features that are in dispute, those islands in dispute would be a concern to us.

 

And again, we would go back to -- specifically, what the president and the ASEAN leaders said at Sunny Lands, that there is a shared commitment to maintain peace, security and safety, Freedom of Navigation and Over Flight, unimpeded lawful commerce, as well as non-militarization and self-restrain in the conduct of activities in that part of the world.

 

And this is something that we've stressed repeatedly with the Chinese, particularly the question of militarization.  And it is a concern for us, and something clearly at the top of our agenda as we engage with the Chinese.

 

Q:  A quick follow-up.  The CNO also recently talked about Chinese activities near Scarborough Shoal, which is fairly closed to -- (inaudible) -- Bay.  What's -- what's going on at that facility?

 

Can you address that?

 

MR. COOK:  Yeah.  I don't have a specific update in terms of what's happening right now.  But again, I just would go back to -- whether it's Scarborough Shoals or other areas there, where there have been -- and there are questions about -- about, you know, those specific legal questions that have been raised in that part of the world.

 

The United States continues not to take sides in these disputes, these territorial claims, but we do encourage and ask all players to -- to pursue a legal and diplomatic solution to these -- to these controversies, to these issues.  We continue to maintain that.

 

In the meantime, we've asked all those nations to halt further reclamation, halt any militarization that's taking place there.  We think that only adds to the tension there, adds to the -- the concerns in the region, the security picture, and we're trying to, if we can, enhance the security picture and bring those tensions down.

 

Yes, Tony?

 

Q:  I want to ask you -- this week, Washington is going to be a-buzz with diplomats from around the world for the Nuclear Security Summit, the latest one.  The secretary is going to be in Austin and Massachusetts.  But I want to ask you broadly, what is the Defense Department's role in securing nuclear materials, preventing terrorist organizations from getting such materials, and if they get bomb materials, the military's role in stopping their use?

 

MR. COOK:  Well, I mean, I think, Tony, broadly, obviously, we, as the Department of Defense, have an incentive, the United States government has an incentive in of course making sure that those kinds of materials stay out of the wrong hands, and this has been an area of focus for the department for -- for some time.  As you know, the secretary of defense in his career has had a long history, particularly with regard to nuclear materials.

 

And so this is something we take very seriously, and whether it's both our people, our programs, our technology, these are areas in which the department is very engaged and particularly with regard to concern that -- that weapons of mass destruction could get into terrorist hands.  This continues to be an area of focus for us and something we work very closely with -- with nations around the world on these issues.

 

Q:  One or two example?

 

MR. COOK:  Tony, again, I -- this is something that this department, whether it's something we continue to monitor with efforts.  I mean, I mentioned just one specific example of the efforts the department conducted after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the -- trying to control those nuclear materials that were left behind, if you will.  That's been a very successful program in terms of maintaining and monitoring those nuclear materials.

 

For example, a country like Ukraine is a good example of what DOD has brought to bear in the past in terms of trying to oversee and make sure that these kinds of weapons of mass destruction do not get in the wrong hands and that they're safely disposed of.  That's just one historical -- but it's obviously an area where we continue to have significant concern and continue to -- to maintain a level of effort and a level of cooperation with our partners around the world.

 

Q:  One specific -- he's going to be at Special Operations Command, I guess, tomorrow to -- Wednesday to -- for the change of command --

 

MR. COOK:  Yes, tomorrow.

 

Q:  Excuse me.  SOCOM's role in countering weapons of mass destruction, is that a fairly major one or is it more of a subordinate role?  You know, they're commandos, basically highly trained to go after weapons and interdict weapons, that sort of thing.

 

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into specifics of Special Operations Command and their -- their training in -- in this or any field, but I think it's safe to say that the United States maintains a capability to try and to -- to be able to -- to address these kinds of issues and concerns if, indeed, a threat of weapons of mass destruction comes up, we maintain a range of capabilities to be able to address those kinds of -- those kinds of issues.

 

Q:  (inaudible) -- range of capabilities?

 

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to get into specifics about Special Operations Command and whether or not they're involved in this particular -- particular area of concern.

 

Yes?

 

Q:  Ma Ying-jeou invited the international media to Taiping Island and to show them there's water and agriculture there.  And does DOD see Taiping as an island or rocks?

 

MR. COOK:  I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to initially.  Who made this, Kim?

 

Q:  The president, the Taiwanese President, Ma Ying-jeou invited international media, including, I think, CNN, the New York Times, many national media.

 

MR. COOK:  Again, we -- Taiwan's --

 

Q:  So the island -- they show there's water, spring water, and -- (inaudible) -- agriculture there.  And does DOD still think it's an island or just rocks for DOD?

 

MR. COOK:  Yeah, you're talking about Taiwan specifically?

 

Q:  Yeah, the Taiping Island.

 

MR. COOK:  Yeah, okay.  This is -- let me take your question because I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to right here.  So let me come back to you in one second.  I'll go here first.  Yes?

 

Q:  Thank you.  Thank you, Peter.  Yesterday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong said that North Korea Leader Kim Jong Un prepared to preemptive attack -- I mean, nuclear attack on the United States.  How do you respond, please?

 

MR. COOK:  Obviously, we've been carefully watching what's been coming out of North Korea over the last few weeks.  We've seen both the rhetoric and the provocative actions from the North Koreans, and it continues to be a cause for concern for us.

 

Again, another reason why we stand so steadfastly with our South Korean, our Japanese allies in the region, and so, you know, it's consistent with the provocative rhetoric and language we've seen in recent weeks from the -- from the North Koreans and it continues to be a cause for a concern.

 

And we just would, again, urge the North Koreans to try and take the level of rhetoric down to de-escalate the situation on the Korean Peninsula.  We do not think it's conducive for anyone.  And we continue to stand steadfastly with South Korea and with Japan and our other allies in the region because of the threat posed by North Korea.  And we don't think that kind of rhetoric certainly supports the notion of de-escalation in that part of the world.

 

Q:  The U.S. concern is -- does the United States have any significant message to Kim Jong Un?

 

MR. COOK:  Our message is one, again, of steadfast solidarity with our South Korean ally, and our continued message that we'd like to see a de-escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  And we don't see a whole lot coming from North Korea right now that would send a -- tend to support that.

 

We think there's an opportunity to bring this tension, the rhetoric level down, and in the meantime, we are going to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with South Korea and our other allies in the region.  Barbara?

 

Q:  One on Incirlik and then a completely different topic on a domestic issue for the military.

 

On Incirlik, so the DOD school on base has been closed for weeks, the base went to force protection condition Delta also some days and weeks ago.  All of Delta, of course, public knowledge signals imminent attack, they closed the school on the base.

 

This is -- just one more time -- only an abundance of caution.  That would suggest -- both those actions would suggest that you had -- the Department had some concern about an attack on the base; if it's not safe to go to school, if you have to go to Condition Delta.

 

MR. COOK:  Barbara, as I said, we've -- we have seen threats in the region.  You've seen events take place in Turkey, even in recent weeks.  And so we took -- we've taken steps to try and ensure the safety of our personnel, which is job one for us and this is a further reflection of that.  We are taking this step now in order to be absolutely certain about safety of our personnel, and just as importantly their families.

 

Q:  But no specific threat in Incirlik?

 

MR. COOK:  I'm not aware of a specific threat that brought this about.  There have been as we've been discussing a range of threats in the region.

 

You know about our fight against ISIL right nearby in Syria.  And so, we want to take this step now on as we can in a safe and deliberate fashion to try and minimize the disruption to those families.  We realize this is a disruption and we obviously sympathize with that but at the same time, we feel we have a responsibility to do everything we can to ensure their safety.  And that's what this represents.

 

Q:  And on a completely different topic, as I'm sure you're aware, North Carolina recently passed a law widely viewed as restricting transgender rights and restricting cities in North Carolina from passing their own non-discrimination laws.

 

Since North Carolina is such a large military state and these laws have been discussed in other states, but it's now passed in North Carolina; what is your guidance to troops there who may live off base who deal with the community?  They live in the community.  Will the military can deal with contractors and vendors who do discriminate that is different than federal law?  How does this law in North Carolina impact your military bases and your military personnel?

 

MR. COOK:  As you know Barbara, our facilities are not affected a state law change like this.

 

So the DOD facilities operate separately.  So this is not an issue that directly impacts the Department of Defense facilities.  And I don't think it's appropriate for me to weigh in on state law changes.  That's something that the people in the legislature in North Carolina have determined.

 

Q:  Well, what I would ask is all military bases in any community have extensive business and contracting relationships with local vendors, with local businesses who they -- local businesses who come on base and perform contracts or conduct.  You know, everything from a job fair to a community event on base.

 

So how does this -- and because there's federal law that's very clear on discrimination.  And because the Secretary himself has spoken about no discrimination on anybody on the basis or gender or on any basis -- if you could take the question even, how does this affect -- how does this affect a U.S. military base?  How does it affect Bragg?  How does it affect all these other bases?

 

Right, you're on federal land but you don't live in isolation, you live in a community.

 

MR. COOK:  Again Barbara, I think as this pertains to Department of Defense facilities in North Carolina, this does not apply to facilities on our installations.  And so, I think in that sense I think it would be best for me to leave this to the government of North Carolina, the state legislature, and the governor there to answer questions there.

 

It's not clear to us if this is going to have an impact on our facilities specifically.  So --

 

Q:  At the moment it does not change any of your relationships with local businesses, vendors, state agencies?  It changes nothing for you at this point?

 

MR. COOK:  Again, from our perspective here in terms of our facilities.  This legal change -- this state law change does not affect our facilities, and that is our primary focus here.

 

If there -- again, this is an issue for the -- the people of North Carolina and the government of North Carolina to -- to -- what they've decided to do with regard to state laws does not affect us, and I think -- for the moment, that's where I think -- I think the most appropriate comment for us is just simply reflect what's happening at our facilities, and right now, this is not impacting our facilities.

 

Yes?

 

Q:  Given the changes in the threat environment that you've referenced and in context of Turkey, obviously, the attacks in Brussels still weighing very much on everyone's mind, is NATO obsolete?  Does it need to expand its mission to focus more on counterterrorism, including within Europe?  And even the Pentagon has said that NATO partners should be contributing more to the alliance, to their own defense, is there any sort of forcing mechanism that the U.S. could use to try and get allies to -- to contribute more, particularly in this threat environment?

 

MR. COOK:  NATO is far from obsolete.  We think NATO is as relevant as ever right now in the current environment.  We -- I think it's reflective just of the secretary's own engagement with NATO members the number of NATO members who are also part of the counter-ISIL campaign.  We think there's certainly an important role for -- for NATO to play going forward, as there has been in the past.  I don't need to remind everyone about what's happened in -- in recent months and years with -- with regard to -- to Russian actions in the region.  And I think, once again, that brings to mind exactly why NATO is as relevant now as it's ever been.

 

Certainly, the -- the push for NATO members to meet that two percent target is an important push that the secretary has referenced repeatedly and talked to his fellow NATO allies about.  It's an important metric and one that we look to.  The United States contributes a significant amount to -- to NATO and we look for other -- our allies to continue to do their part.  But we think -- but we think, again, NATO's as relevant today as it's been in sometime.

 

Q:  Given that, as you said, the secretary himself and U.S. officials have sort of repeatedly called on allies to contribute more to NATO, is there any -- is there any teeth to those -- to those calls?  Is there anything --

 

MR. COOK:  I think we've seen -- I think we've seen some countries respond.  We've -- a good example today is Estonia, a country that is, again, targeting that 2 percent level.  We've had the U.K. in recent months step up its spending levels.  So we -- we believe that there are countries that are responding.  They see the threats that are out there and see that it's in their own national security interests to elevate their focus on defense spending.  We think that's a good thing we will continue to encourage that.

 

Q:  I'm sorry.  Any -- any comment on whether NATO should be expanding its mission to focus more on counterterrorism, even within Europe, rather than maybe a sort of traditional conception of threats, such as Russia --

 

MR. COOK:  I think this is a conversation that will continue to evolve at NATO itself among the -- the members of the alliance.  There were conversations about this when we were there in Brussels most recently, and certainly, in light of recent events, this is obviously going to be part of the conversation going forward and the -- the secretary continues -- this will be a topic, I'm sure, of conversation between the secretary and the secretary general.  They'll be meeting soon.

 

And so I think, at this point, it's obviously a -- terrorism is something that all -- every NATO member, and counterterrorism and something every NATO member itself has to confront and consider, and certainly, the alliance.  This will be a part of the conversation going forward, but it doesn't mean that the core -- core focus of NATO needs to necessarily change.  But we think that the NATO members have individual decisions, individual security concerns that need addressing, and the alliance as a whole can have that conversation as well.

 

Q:  How many NATO --

 

MR. COOK:  Yes?  Hold on, Jen.  I'll come back.

 

Q:  Peter, you mentioned, as far as the withdrawal of dependents --

 

MR. COOK:  Yeah.

 

Q:  -- you mentioned Incirlik, Izmir.  What was the third?  I couldn't hear.

 

MR. COOK:  Mugla.  And I'm -- I apologize if I'm not pronouncing that correctly, if anyone knows their Turkish geography better than I do.

 

Q:  Mugla?

 

MR. COOK:  M-U-G-L-A.

 

Q:  Okay.  And the decision to take out the dependents, was that -- given the impact of the Brussels attack on the Air Force family, was the decision to take out the dependents from Turkey influenced by -- in response to the Brussels attacks?

 

MR. COOK:  I'm not going to -- I don't believe it was specifically triggered by the Brussels attack in the same way I don't think there's not a specific threat.  But certainly, the overall environment -- you know, we've seen terrorists willing to strike in European capitals, we've seen terrorists strike in Turkey itself.  And so, again, this is being taken out of an abundance of caution, but not because of any one specific action or one specific threat.  Jennifer, sorry.

 

Q:  And just to follow up on the NATO question, how many NATO members are spending two percent of their GDP now on defense, or how many are (off-mic.)?

 

MR. COOK:  Jennifer, if -- I'd like to take that question because there has been some movement recently in terms of some of the spending decisions some of these countries have just recently had parliamentary sessions to talk about some of these issues.  So let me take that question and see if I can get an updated figure for you.

 

Let me go to your colleague, Lucas, who's just popped in.

 

Q:  Peter, ahead of the secretary's travel to Tampa tomorrow, in a recent Jeffrey Goldberg article in the Atlantic, he quoted a number of senior administration officials who said that General Lloyd Austin called ISIS a flash in the pan, and that was the precursor to the president saying that ISIS was the J.V. team.

 

Will the secretary clear General Austin of this charge tomorrow?  Were there any plans for that?

 

MR. COOK:  I don't think the secretary -- Carter -- Secretary Carter needs to clear General Austin of that.  I think General Austin himself has indicated that that statement is factually incorrect, and I believe there are others who have said the same.  So I'm not aware that General Austin ever made that comment, and I think I would refer you to the White House as well if you want to check with them.

 

But General Austin does not need to have his name cleared for any reason.  He has led admirably and with distinction for, as I said earlier, close to 40 years, and I think his record of accomplishment speaks for itself.

 

I think the secretary will be honored to play a role in wishing General Austin well in his future endeavors.  He is a -- he's earned it, and we look forward to, again, celebrating General Austin's departure from CENTCOM and, obviously, the arrival of General Votel.  And it is a moment for the secretary to acknowledge the good work that General Austin has done.

 

Q:  And just to follow up, Peter, where is the -- where does it stand, the I.G. investigation into the tampering of intelligence about ISIS coming out of CENTCOM, because that was under General Austin's watch?

 

MR. COOK:  Yeah.  I'd refer you to the inspector general for an update on their investigation, Jennifer.  I'm not aware of their timeline at this point.  So, yes, Jim.

 

Q:  Peter, I just wanted to follow on the issue of Russia's role in Syria --

 

MR. COOK:  Yeah.

 

Q:  -- previously, you described the role as non-constructive.  Since the cessation of hostilities, Russians strikes have been shifted more towards ISIS and ISIL, Palmyra is the most recent example.  Would you still describe their role as not constructive or is -- or is there a shift in thinking?

 

MR. COOK:  I think it's being clear that they have focused more of their military attention on ISIL.  We think that is a good thing.  We encourage that from the start.

 

They said initially that their primary goal was to go after ISIL in Syria, and they're doing so now.  We again, think that's a good thing.  They're playing a constructive role with regard to the cessation of hostilities.  I think Secretary Kerry has spoken to that.

 

And so, we see these developments on the ground.  We are also pushing for the cessation of hostilities that we hope will ultimately lead to a resolution of the Syrian Civil War, but to have that happen will require changes on the part of the Assad regime and nobody has more leverage, more clout if you will, with the Assad regime than Russia.

 

And we would hope that they would use that leverage in as constructive a fashion as possible.  And we would encourage them to do so.  At the same time, again, the effort to go after ISIL on our part will continue.  And if the Russians continue to focus their efforts on ISIL we think that would be a good thing.  But at this point, we're not at a position to cooperate with Russia in that effort.

 

Q:  Would you still characterize the role as non-constructive overall?

 

MR. COOK:  I would say it is more constructive than it's been.

 

Q:  All right.  Back here.

 

MR. COOK:  I've got a question that I need to take.  I'll come back to you on that.  If you can, I'll get an answer for you.

 

Yes, in the back.  Then I've got to head out.

 

Q:  Last we the -- a special envoy for Guantanamo closure told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that a Guantanamo detainee had killed an American.  U.S. officials have said this in the past, but I'm wondering has this altered, from the DOD perspective, how they're approaching law makers and is there any intention to alter that Guantanamo closure plan?

 

MR. COOK:  The secretary is confident in the plan that's been put forward.  And as you know, part of the overall effort with regard to Guantanamo requires the secretary of defense to carefully review each and every person, detainee who has been deemed eligible for transfer.

 

And I can tell you that the secretary of defense takes that responsibility very, very seriously.  And scrutinizes those decisions extremely carefully and will continue to do so.  The safety and the security of the American people are foremost in his mind as he makes those decisions.

 

At the same time, he still believes that the ultimate resolution here will require those people who are being held at Guantanamo, who can not be released, to ultimately be located to a facility here in the United States, and he will continue to have a conversation with members of Congress about that plan moving forward and looks forward to that conversation.

 

All right.  Thanks, everybody.



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