Department of Defense Press Briefing by Secretary Carter, Oct. 23, 2015

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–October 23, 2015.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: Hi, everybody. Good afternoon. Thank you. Thanks, all of you, for being here, as always. Appreciate it.

It’s been a productive, eventful week, including in the campaign against ISIL. From the start of my tenure as secretary of defense, when I brought together generals and ambassadors in Kuwait, to my frequent meetings with President Obama and Secretary Kerry, I have ensured that this department remains laser-focused on the execution of our counter-ISIL strategy.

We will deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL. Doing so will require us to learn, evolve and adapt over the course of a determined campaign to carry out this strategy.

Earlier this week, we were — we were reminded that there will be risks to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, that they face in Iraq — there and across the world. But it also reminds me of why I am so very proud of them.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and loved ones of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, who will be welcomed home tomorrow by his family, by my wife and myself, who died after assisting our close Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga partners in the rescue of 70 hostages held by ISIL.

The sacrifice and decisive action of this courageous American in support of his comrades reminds us of the dangers that the coalition forces confront in Iraq, but also the — of the important assistance they provide local forces as they lead the fight against a barbaric enemy.

I made the decision to assist our Kurdish partners after receiving specific actionable intelligence that a mass execution was imminent.

As U.S. Special Operations Forces provided airlift support and accompanied Iraqi-Peshmerga, dozens of lives were saved and a significant cache of intelligence was collected.

We have now heard from rescued hostages. They expected to be executed that day, after morning prayers. Their grave had already been prepared. Not only did our support help provide (sic: prevent) another mass killing, we enabled those partners of ours to deliver ISIL a clear defeat, and prevented them from broadcasting a horrific massacre to the world.

Meanwhile, across the border in Eastern Syria, coalition aircraft recently hit a key node in ISIL’s oil enterprise, destroying a pump station, and a site for crude oil production and cash collection. After extensive conversations with Chairman Dunford, General Austin, Secretary Kerry, and with leaders of the coalition in recent weeks, we’re ramping up our assault on this critical pillar of ISIL’s financial infrastructure.

We will also work to disrupt ISIL’s distribution of oil in a lucrative marketplace, one that includes customers, by the way, from the Assad regime. And we will continue to work on all of the so-called nine lines of effort of the counter-ISIL campaign, including counter-finance, counter-messaging and interdicting foreign fighters.

Also in Syria, we continue to target terrorist leaders. This week, we dealt a significant blow to the Khorasan group, which continues to plot against our homeland, by killing Sanafi al-Nasr. Al-Nasr served as a leading financial figure for Khorasan, and is the fifth highest level Khorasan operative (sic: is the fifth operative) we’ve killed in the past four months.

As I review the pace of recent events and the multiple ways we’re bringing pressure against ISIL, I would like to commend General Sean MacFarland, a pioneer of the Sunni Awakening several years ago, who I recently appointed as the commander of our counter-ISIL efforts. Rather than three generals responsible for different aspects of the campaign, as had been the case, I have empowered Lieutenant General MacFarland as the single commander of counter-ISIL activities in both Iraq and Syria.

His efforts will be critical in the coming months as we continue to provide support for capable partners fighting on the front lines.

In Iraq, thousands of fighters have now passed through coalition training sites. The contributions of more than a dozen coalition nations have provided capacity to train thousands more. It is essential, it is essential that more Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd, be recruited, trained and equipped so that Iraq’s territorial integrity is restored, and the country returned to the full control of its people.

As I’ve stressed repeatedly, we’re committed to supporting these partners, but cannot serve as a substitute for them.

We’re watching recent military advances in Baiji and around Ramadi, which suggest that Iraqi forces may be regaining the initiative. And as local forces continue to prove their mettle, and as they prove a commitment to an inclusive future for their country, we are correspondingly committed to enhancing the support we provide.

The challenges of developing capable and motivated forces in Syria have been painfully clear. But here too, the coalition has provided an air drop and air support for Syrian Arab Coalition fighters as they prepare for a difficult drive towards ISIL’s administrative capital in Raqqa.

This is one example of how we’re adjusting our approach in Syria to focus on equipping existing groups rather than training new recruits, though — though we — we will continue to be open to all approaches.

We’re strengthening our partnerships with moderate Syrian forces, who have fought fiercely in recent months and hope to advance the gains they’ve made with our help.

The additional support I’ve mentioned today does not represent a change in our strategy, but it does represent a change in our approach to achieving it. I’m determined that we continue to adapt to get results.

So we will continue to work closely with Prime Minister Abadi and his command of the Iraqi security forces. The Department of Defense will continue to support the moderate Syrian opposition, and we will continue to meet our commitments to friends and allies across the region, especially Israel.

And that connection — I look forward to consultations with Israel’s defense minister, — (inaudible) — Ya’alon, when he arrives in Washington next week.

On Tuesday I will also appear before Congress, alongside Chairman Joe Dunford. Our testimony in the Senate will provide an opportunity to discuss in more detail the execution of the counter-ISIL strategy and how to pursue the next phase of the coalition campaign.

One final note: I know that each of you is waiting for the civilian casualty report from General Campbell on the tragic incident in Kunduz. My staff and I are in frequent contact — contact with General Campbell’s as his team completes their initial report.

We want to get this done, and I want him to get it done, but we wanted to get it done absolutely right. And remember, the more complete report will come from the so-called 15-6, which is the expanded military investigation.

I want the answers to the questions in those investigations. Accountability is part of our obligation to those who died in Kunduz, and it must inform everything we do here at the Department of Defense.

And with that I’ll take a few questions here.

Q: Mr. Secretary, on your comments about the — the Hawija prison mission — the — the rescue mission, you said that — that the people there faced imminent mass execution, that their graves had already been dug. Curious how you know that.

And also you said there was a significant cache of intelligence that was gathered. Can you describe that? — (inaudible).

SEC. CARTER: Yeah, on the — on the first point, the — first of all, we now have 70 people who were rescued, who told us what they were facing. And the graves were right next door to the compound.

It happens that we had seen them beforehand, because we were watching this compound once the — the Peshmerga informed us that they believed that there were prisoners of ISIL there.

And the — so that was another indication to us what appeared to be the — basically the digging of graves. You can’t be sure by just looking at it, but it sure looked like that. That was another indication.

Then we had other indications, as well, I can’t go into. But the main thing is that the — that our Peshmerga partners, they were the ones who had information that this particular location was being used, basically, as a prison camp, and seemingly planned to be an execution center by ISIL.

So that’s how we knew, and — Bob, I — I forgot the second part of your —

Q: (inaudible) — intelligence you collected at the site. What —

SEC. CARTER: Well, yeah. This — the — this is the — the — the stuff you get and the great value, by the way, of raids of this kind. And I expect that we’ll do more of this kind of thing.

But one of the reasons for that is that you learn a great deal, because you collect the documentation, you collect various electronic equipment and so forth, on top of which we now have 70 individuals who spent a lot of time there, and who were, in turn, captured by ISIL in different ways, and thereby had different perspectives.

And so the sum of all this will be some valuable intelligence, and that just — obviously saving the lives that were about to be brutally sacrificed is the main thing, and supporting our Peshmerga partners, who have been wonderful fighters, and everything we were looking for in Iraq, which is capable, motivated fighters.

But then it turns out we’ll get good information as well.

Yeah, go ahead, David.

Q: You just said that you expect there’ll be more raids like this in the future. So, could you please explain how more raids fits with no combat troops?

SEC. CARTER: Well, I say we’ll — we’ll do more raids. Remember, we did — if you remember the raid that took down Abu Sayyaf, we have this capability. It is a great American strength.

It doesn’t represent us assuming a combat role. It represents a continuation of our advise and assist mission. And I said right from the beginning, David, and we mean this — when we find opportunities to do things that will effectively prosecute the campaign, we’re going to do that.

And this is an example of a case where we could do something we alone had the capability to do, and I’m absolutely prepared to do that. So raids is — is — is one of those categories. And I suspect that we’ll have further opportunities in the future, and we would want to avail ourselves of them. Jim?

Q: Sir, why —

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Can you clarify the rules of engagement then? Because it’s — it’s my understanding that the special operations commander on the ground made a decision, when the Kurdish partners came under overwhelming fire, to come to their defense. Entered a wall — walled compound in the middle of the fire fight.

They can do it in self-defense, they can do it when their partners come under fire, as well? If so, how is that not combat? I just wonder if you think the president, the administration’s being misleading when he says that U.S. forces are not in combat.

SEC. CARTER: We — we have — let me tell you, explain what this — what happened in this particular event. And again, this is based upon the reporting that we have now, Jim.

But everything I know about this incident was that as the compound was being stormed, the plan was not for the U.S. advise and assist and accompanying forces to enter the compound or be involved in the fire fight.

However, when a fire fight ensued, this American did what I’m very proud that Americans do in that situation. He ran to the sound of the guns, and he stood up, and — and all the indications are it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the — the — the mission successful.

So that was an inherent risk that we ask people to assume. Again, it wasn’t part of the plan, but it was something that he did. And I’m immensely proud that he did that.

I’m — I — obviously we’re very saddened that he — he lost his life. But — you know, nobody should be in any illusions, Jim, that Americans are (sic: not) at risk.

Americans are flying combat missions, thousands of combat missions, over Syria and Iraqi territory. There are Americans involved in training and advising Iraqi security forces around the country. We do not have combat formations there the way we had once upon a time in Iraq, or the way we have had in years past in Afghanistan.

But we do have people who are in harm’s way, and who evidently have shown a willingness to put themselves in harm’s way in order to have mission success.

And I think that’s very commendable.

Q: But just —

Q: Follow up — I’m not — just for a follow up. Because the administration has taken great pains, the president in various permutations, to say it’s not ground combat, it’s not a major combat role. I mean, just as you said, it’s not the same size as it was during, certainly, the Iraq invasion and occupation.

But if you’re saying there are going to be more missions like this and if commanders will be commended for making decisions to go into the breach, right, and go into the battle —

SEC. CARTER: They will be — then they will be in harm’s way. There’s no question about it. And I don’t want anybody to be under any illusions about that.

But this was an opportunity in which the capabilities that we uniquely possess could have a material effect. It was — there risk associated with that, there was.

But again, all I can say from the reports I’ve received, I’m immensely proud of this young man.

Q: I want to ask you about something else. The way ahead on women in combat and your decision on whether to bar women from some ground combat jobs.

I know General Dunford is supposed to offer his recommendation by the end of the month. The Marines, as you know, or many of us know, have asked that all infantry jobs — also, some other jobs, combat engineers, forward air controllers, artillery controllers, be closed to women as well.

And it’s based on a Marine report which found that mixed-gender units did not do as well as all-male units, they were slower, less lethal, had a lot more injuries. That report is marked pre-decisional, not for release to the public.

So I’m wondering, the question is, when will you release that report? After you make your decision?

And what about the Hill? Lawmakers want that as well. Will you release it to them before you make your decision?

SEC. CARTER: Let me back up. I mean, first of all, I’ll say I don’t actually have anything new for you relative to two weeks ago, when we discussed this.

But just to take it from the beginning, again, the direction to the services, now going back a couple of years was to — and was from Secretary Panetta — that they should prepare for all positions to be open to women, unless they requested exceptions from the secretary of defense by January 1, 2016.

So that’s me, now, several months from now. That the services were to do analysis and make recommendations to the chairman, and then the chairman and the deputy secretary of defense will review that, then they’ll bring it to me. They’ve not done that yet. So that report, which you know of, but it is truly pre-decisional, because I’m the one who’s going to make the decision and it hasn’t come to me, on the merits of the thing, Tom, I just go back to what I’ve said before.

I’m going to make this decision on the basis of the facts of the analysis. And if there’s good analysis in the report to which you refer, that will be important to me. It’s much more important to me — rather, I should say it’s less important to me who says something than what they say.

I’m going to be analytically based, and if you ask — which I think makes perfect — perfect sense, you all know this, but — why are we doing this in the first place, and — you know, people say fairness, and part of it’s fairness.

But there’s another part of it that I need to stress, which is that we have an all-volunteer military. Which means that I’m basically in the position — we are in the position of recruiting from the pool of Americans.

The more Americans that I can draw on, who can meet the standards — no change in standards here — but who can serve in the way that we need people to serve, the better off I am and our forces and my successors are, in having — (inaudible).

So that’s why we’re doing this thing in the first place. And we’ll see, and it will be — it’ll be a — a few — few months —

Q: What about the report itself? Will you wait until —

SEC. CARTER: I — I don’t know. There are a number of reports going around, so I — if you have one, I can’t comment on that and I’m not — but –by — the only thing I can say, you say it’s stamped pre-decisional, and that I can tell you it is, because the decision in question is mine, and it’s certainly — it’s — it’s pre-that, that’s for sure.


Q: Secretary Carter, two questions. First of all, how do you think about balancing, in Iraq, your relationship, or the U.S. military relationship with the Iraqi Kurds and with the central government in Baghdad?

There was some commentary out of Baghdad from the defense ministry yesterday that they were upset that they didn’t have more information about this raid, which took place well outside of Iraqi Kurdistan, ahead of time.

And secondly, on the — the Kunduz report, on the casualty assessment team, can you tell us what is the reason for the delay? I understand that there was, at least initially, a delay because of ongoing combat or fighting within Kunduz, but now that the city is, you know —

SEC. CARTER: On the second part, Missy, I — I really can’t. I’m going to refer to you General Campbell when he makes the report.

My instructions to him are — were get it right. And remember, this first thing you’re talking about has to do with the assessment of civilian casualties.

The investigation that I await that will come later is the U.S. military investigation, which will include an investigation of possible wrongdoing, which is important to me.

But I think in both of these cases, what’s important is that we get it right. And I’m sorry, Missy, your — your first question —

Q: So how do you balance the operational relationship between the Iraqi Kurds —


Q: — and that with the Baghdad Government and — (inaudible)?

SEC. CARTER: You know, this question goes — goes back to the — our fundamental strategy in Iraq, which is to pursue a multi-sectarian approach in which we work through Baghdad, but we work with local forces.

Prime Minister Abadi himself has spoken of what he calls — I forget his phrase, but essentially the — the — a decentralized but single Iraq.

Remember, it’s sectarianism and sectarian divides that got us to this point in the first place. And that was the kind of government that Prime Minister Maliki was associated with. And Prime Minister Abadi is determined to behave in a multi-sectarian way.

We support that, and that is why, for example, when it comes to arming the Peshmerga, which we do, and a number of other coalition countries do, we do that by and through the central government of Iraq.

We consult with them on operations when we train Sunnis, another important group, Sunni tribes. We do that in consultation and through the Iraqi government.

Now, we’re determined to do it, because the Kurds are effective fighters, and we need effective fighters to combat ISIL. And we’re determined to do that in the case of the Sunnis as well. So, we’re trying to both uphold the principle of multi-sectarianism and ensure that capable and motivated local fighters, who will have a sectarian tinge to them, that’s the nature of that country, are able to be armed and trained and fight.

So that’s kind of the nature of our strategy. And the nature of Iraq itself.

Q: Just quick — is the standard of practice to inform the Iraqi defense ministry of operations that U.S. military conducts with the Peshmerga —

SEC. CARTER: Yeah, as a general matter, absolutely can. Obviously time and circumstance is — but absolutely. And it is an Iraqi — and by the way, Missy I should say that the KRG government doesn’t have any problem with that. We always inform — they know that we inform Baghdad of things that we do with them. And they accept that as part of the game, to their great credit.

Q: Mr. Secretary, to what extent are you concerned that North Korea is preparing either a nuclear test or a space launch? And more specifically, a few years ago, a while back, when you weren’t in public office, you wrote a rather compelling op-ed with Secretary Perry, advocating that the North Korean missile be taken out on a launch pad before they can test it.

Has your thinking about that changed? And if so why?

SEC. CARTER: I don’t have anything new for you on that. We’re always concerned about North Korean behavior and provocations of all kinds. I think you mentioned missile launches. Their nuclear activities. By the way, there are other activities. Naval activities, activities along the DMZ, and so forth.

So, there’s a constant potential for provocations. And one of the things that we were discussing with President Park during her visit here last week, and then I’ll have the opportunity to discuss also in Korea next week, where I’ll be –including the DMZ — by the way, is the ability of our collective defense to respond to those kind of North Korean provocations.

Incredibly important. Because that place isn’t in the headlines every day. But we don’t forget, here, every day that fight tonight, which is the slogan of USFK and their Korean partners, is a very real possibility —

Q: So, what about your argument that you care about the preemptive strike? You argued very convincingly.

SEC. CARTER: Go ahead.

Q: Okay, well, I don’t want to interrupt him. But you didn’t mention the veto this week in your rundown of events.

What happens next? There’s about 40 different authorities in there for pay benefits that expire at the end of the year. What are you going to tell the troops if the veto is sustained?

Are they going to be stiffed?

SEC. CARTER: Here’s what I hope happens next. And I think that the upper-most consideration in my mind, since I first testified about this question of the whole budget gridlock in Washington back in March, is precisely that the troops are upper-most in our mind.

They look at gridlock now extending over seven years, including to beginning yet another fiscal year under a continuing resolution. And you know, for many of them, and I talk to them, as do you, this is a source of uncertainty for them and their families that I think is unworthy of them and what they’re doing for the country.

And while I’m talking about others affected by this gridlock, and then I’ll get to what I hope happens, that is true also for the people who serve this department, uniformed and civilian. It’s true for our industry partners, whom you know very well, and upon whom we depend for equipment and services.

It’s true of our friends and allies. And I see them all the time. And they ask me, and it’s — it’s embarrassing to have to explain why it is that we’re embarking on a — a seventh year without a clear budget in this country.

So you ask, what do I hope happens? I’ll tell you the same thing that I’ve said before, and that I tell them, including the troops, all the time.

I hope that it is possible to — for everybody to come together here, at long last, in Washington, address all of the parts of the budget — not piece by piece, but all of the parts of the budget.

And by the way, there are other parts of the budget that are not the defense budget that do contribute to national security, and I’m — I’m very mindful of that as well. That’s the kind of world in which we live.

Law enforcement, diplomacy, intelligence, homeland security and so forth. All of that is part of protecting our people, and I very much hope — I’m not the expert on this, Tony, and you — you — you could get better sources of information than the Secretary of Defense on this, because we’re by and large an observer.

But I very much hope that it’s possible for everybody to come together here and do — put us on a normal multi-year budgeting horizon that doesn’t — isn’t — doesn’t have the managerial inefficiencies and the uncertainty to our operations and our people that is represented by this.


Q: Last question?

Yes, sir. We — one other event from this week is the de-confliction agreement that was signed. Senator McCain said it was immoral, basically, that you’re going to be asking U.S. pilots to steer clear of Russian pilots who are bombing the opponents of Assad.

I’m wondering if you can — why you would say he’s wrong about that, and also give us a sense of what Russia is doing there.

SEC. CARTER: The — the agreement is a very specific one that is aimed at safety of flight for — and that’s what it covers. And we concluded that our interest in it, Tom, was to — safety of flight for our own pilots.

You ask, what are the Russians doing? What the Russians are actually doing is buttressing the Assad regime, which is, as I have said, will have the effect of fanning the flames of the civil war.

And very few of their strikes have been directed towards ISIL, which is the reason why they said, initially, they were getting into the fight. So the Russians are on the wrong side of this in every way, and they’re going to contribute to the violence and the tragedy of the civil war that’s been going on now, all these years.

Listen, y’all, it’s been a very long week. I — I look forward to seeing you —

Q: Mr. Secretary, would you take a question about Master Sergeant Wheeler, please?

SEC. CARTER: — about Master Sergeant Wheeler?

Q: Would you take a question?


Q: You alluded twice to his actions. His actions and — and the actions of a fellow special operations soldier. Could you provide us some of that detail?

SEC. CARTER: I can’t.

Q: You seemed very impressed by what had happened.

SEC. CARTER: I — I — well, I — I am. And — I — I tell you Mik, that’s on the basis of the reports I’ve gotten. So I want to be careful about that, because this is combat, things are — are complicated.

But I — the — the story is as I related it already. This is someone who saw the team that he was advising and assisting coming under attack. And he rushed to their — to help them and made it possible for them to be effective.

And in doing that, lost his own life. That’s why I’m proud of him. But you know, pride doesn’t — proud of him doesn’t make it any easier to welcome him home to the United States fallen.

But on the basis of what I know, again, now, this is what you — is so consistent, but also so amazing about the American soldier. He ran to the sound of the gun. So, that’s what I know, Jim. And that’s why I’m proud of what I know.

Q: Thank you.

SEC. CARTER: Thank you.

Q: Thank you.