Press Gaggle With Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark A. Milley

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: OK. Good afternoon everyone. How are you. I know we don’t have too much time because I have a couple phone calls to go do.

A few things up front. So first of all, we continue to deploy forces and reposition forces throughout the region to bolster our security, our force protection, and also to be prepared for any contingency.

That’s number one. Number two, over the last several days I’ve had conversations with many, many of our allies and partners about the situation in – in Iraq and the region. I got to tell you it’s been uniform support for our position and for our actions.

And I continue to convey to them the importance we place on continuing, A, the defeat ISIS mission for those who are ere involved in that – that operation. Two, for our commitment to partnering with Iraq going forward. And number three, to the mission that we’ve always said about deterring Iranian bad behavior and standing up to this malign behavior that has been ever present now for 40-plus years.

And number three, on the diplomatic front part and parcel to this conversation has been what I’ve said to them, is that – is that we remain prepared for any contingency with regard to Iran. That our message to Iran is that the ball is in their court.

We encourage them to de-escalate the situation. We are open to sitting down with them and discussing issues so that we could have a more normal relationship with that country. We’ve been saying this for quite some time now. I’ve conveyed that to our partners and to our allies.

And I’ve asked them to convey that as well to our – to Iran. And I said – but – but that said, if – if Iran chooses to go the other path we are completely prepared for that too and will respond forcefully. With that I will stop and we’ll take a few questions. Yes.

Q: Mr. Secretary, we’ve all seen the letter from General Sealy to the Iraqi government indicating some – apparently indicating U.S. forces are leaving Iraq. Can you confirm this bit of decision to that effect?

SEC. ESPER: There’s been no decision what so ever to leave Iraq.

Q: Can you say what that – what that letter conveys then?

SEC. ESPER: I don’t know what that letter is.

Q: I can read – do you want to look at it. I have it.

SEC. ESPER: No, no. I don’t know what it is. We’re trying to find out where that’s coming from, what that is. But there has been no decision made to leave Iraq, period.

STAFF: Jennifer.

Q: Did you get a chance to look at that, sir. I’m so sorry. (Inaudible).

STAFF: Jennifer.

Q: Well, I was going to follow up on the Sealy letter. So you can’t confirm that it’s authentic and …

SEC. ESPER: No I can’t.

Q: And …

GENERAL MARK MILLEY: I do know that it’s not signed. But I just looked at it right there; it’s not signed.

Q: But it would seem to suggest plans to leave. So you’re saying there’s no decision.

SEC. ESPER: There is no decision to leave nor did we issue any plans to leave or prepared to leave. We are committed to the de-ISIS mission in Iraq alongside our allies and partners.

Q: Just to follow up, it sounded like from the OIR statements that came out this weekend is that the ISIS mission was on hold. Is it on hold, is it not on hold. Is – what – what is it. It sounds like your statement is in contradiction to …

SEC. ESPER: No, it’s not in contradiction. I’m talking about our long-term presence in Iraq is – is oriented on defeat ISIS. The enduring defeat of ISIS mission. Right now, given the threats that we – we face, given some of the – what we’re seeing on the ground is we’re going to focus here, in the immediate, on force protection.

That may mean – that means suspending if the commander on the ground thinks he needs to suspend training along with our coalition partners for some period of time we will do that. That’s only prudent.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: (Inaudible) ISIS fight …

Q: Did you anticipate having to suspend this campaign as a result of the strike on Sulimani. Was that identified as one of the downsides?

SEC. ESPER: I think in terms of all the options that were considered this – this was always one of them in terms of the suspension of activities in – in Iraq as – as something that they – that could come out of it.

Q: So you were – you were willing to suspend your ISIS campaign in order to get Sulimani?

SEC. ESPER: Well look, given – given what we were faced the – you got to go back – let’s go back many many months; we’ve – since I’ve been here alone we’ve seen an escalation of attacks by Iranian proxy groups, Kataeb Hezbollah being the primary one, attacking our forces.

It – it peaked; it picked up. I’ve talked to you all about it in the October, November timeframe, nearly a dozen attacks over two months, escalating in both size and scale, and the type of weapons you used. And then the one on the 27th or 29th, I can’t recall the date, is when it killed an American and wounded soldiers.

Followed up by firing 31 rockets. 31 rockets weren’t designed to harass but were designed to kill people and destroy things. And then of course we had the siege of the embassy. So this isn’t a matter of taking a choice over it.

It’s a matter of self defense and our right of self dense to protect our people. We have thousands of Americans on the ground in Iraq at the – their assisting the Iraqi military and Iraqi government improve its security, improve its stability, improve its capability to defeat ISIS.

STAFF: Tom.

Q: In the defeat ISIS campaign, the pause, as General White suggested, does that include a pause in Syria as well. And also, any sense how long this pause will last. We talking weeks if not longer …

SEC. ESPER: Well his – Chairman, I don’t know if you have any insight on that one in terms of …

GEN. MILLEY: Yes. I mean – I mean to answer your question and your question, when we looked at this operation we knew there would be consequences. We knew there’d be risk. We knew that ahead of time.

We didn’t take any of it lightly. And the forces, White and those that work for him in theater and the CENTCOM theater, and we knew we would have to adjust their posture, force protection posture, in the immediate aftermath of this particular strike operation. So the short answer to both of your questions is yes.

SEC. ESPER: By the way, let me – let me elaborate on his answer because I know there’s another question floating around out there. We didn’t put any option on the table that we didn’t believe in and that we – we knew that – that we couldn’t execute.

And with each option we present the pros and cons, the cost and benefits. That’s what we do all the time. That’s my duty, my obligation. That’s his duty and obligation as well.

Q: And you talk about de-escalate with Iran. Well, you just killed one of their two-star generals. They clearly want to take revenge on that. How do you expect them to de-escalate when you kill one of their senior officers.

SEC. ESPER: How – how do you expect us not to respond after they’ve been killing our people for 20 years. Sulimani alone has the blood of hundreds of Americans. He’s wounded thousands of Americans and coalition partners.

So somehow them turning this around, he is a terrorist, a leader of terrorist organization who’s been killing and attacking Americans for 20 some years. And the blood is on his hands. He was planning attacks on American forces.

He was there on the ground with the leader of Kataeb Hezbollah, met him on the ground at the airplane, welcomed him so they can further coordinate attacks. This whole narrative that’s being turned around is – is – is just – is silly.

GEN. MILLEY: So you’ve got a very long history here of a guy. We know his history. Importantly we knew his future. I’m not going to go into the details of that, and I know that a lot of people are out there – I’ve seen words like, oh, the intel was razor thin. Very, very few people saw that intelligence. He and I saw that intelligence. And I will be happy, when the appropriate time comes in front of the proper committees and anybody else, through history and every – I’ll stand by the intelligence I saw, that – that was compelling, it was imminent, and it was very, very clear in scale, scope.

Did it exactly say who, what, when, where? No. But he was planning, coordinating, and synchronizing significant combat operations against U.S. military forces in the region and it was imminent.

Q: If you guys had to withdraw to from Iraq, was it – was it worth it.

GEN. MILLEY: And I – and I know there’s a lot of debate out there about all those words and I understand it but I’m not going to go further than that because of the sources and methods. And I know people saying well you’re hiding behind and you lie and all.

That’s not true. I know what I saw. And – and I think I said publicly previous, and I will reiterate it that we, those of us who were involved in the decision making of that, we would have been culpably negligent to the American people had we not made the decision we made.

STAFF: Barbara, and then we’ll go to (inaudible).

Q: For both of you if possible. The president has twice now, not hypothetical, said he is willing to strike cultural sites. Truly cultural sights not with weapons that makes them military targets. So straight-up could you both say whether you are willing to target cultureal sites.

GEN. MILLEY: We will follow the laws of armed conflict.

Q: And that means no because targeting a cultural sight is a war crime …

GEN. MILLEY: That’s – that’s the laws of armed conflict.

Q: OK. And could I just also ask the letter actually talks about relocating forces in anticipation of onward movement. So not on the question of withdraw from Iraq, but are you – should we be taking this to mean you are relocating forces in anticipation of something, whatever that may be. Are you relocating forces?

SEC. ESPER: Well, I said up front that we are repositioning forces throughout the region, number one. Beyond that, with regard to that letter, which I’ve read once; I can’t tell you the veracity of that letter, and I can tell you what I read. That letter is inconsistent with where we are right now.

Q: Thank you.

SEC. ESPER: Any details (inaudible).

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Thank you.

Q: If – if you have to wind up – if you end up withdrawing from Iraq, was the strike on Soleimani worth it, or was this an unforeseen consequence that you – you didn’t think would be worth it.

SEC. ESPER: Well again, we – laid out very clearly what the consequences were pro and con of every option. Secondly, it’s not a matter judging the merit. We had a responsibility to act when American lives were threatened. And I think that’s a responsibility – responsible thing to do.

I will tell you this much, I think the Iraqi people don’t want us to leave. They know that the United States is there to help them become a sovereign independent prospers country. That is not the intentions of Iran. Iran wants to control them as a proxy state.

And I think actually there are many – many Iraqi lawmakers who feel the same way. If you look at what’s happened with the vote you’ve had, I think, nearly all the Kurds not participate in the vote.

Most if not all Sunnis not participate. And many Shia voted in this proxy vote, if you will, at the point of a gun. They were being threatened by the Iran – Iran supported resourced inspired proxy groups.

So that’s the – it’s a terrible situation that the Iraqi people face in their country where they don’t have – where their country is being whipsawed by Tehran.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Do you believe you will face a more unified Iran now as a result of this strike?

SEC. ESPER: I don’t know. I’m going to – I – we got to – we’ll see how things play out.

STAFF: Yes, (inaudible).

Q: Sir, can you say if you received any specific threats to specific forces in the Middle East; specific cities, specific bases? And also have you received and then foiled any threats…

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER: I don’t – I – sorry, I can’t get into intelligence. We are obviously tracking a lot of different reports and threat streams. So it’s something we pay close attention to.

STAFF: Tara?

Q: Sir, thanks. I’ve lost my voice.

But after the airstrike there’s a renewed debate on the Hill about a vote on the AUMF. Have you been asked? Will you be advising the committees? And what are you telling them about a potential new AUMF.

SEC. ESPER: Well, we’ll see what that – I suspect that will come up on Wednesday when we go to brief the Hill, and we’ll just – we’ll talk about it at that time. As we’ve said, over and over again that we think the current AUMFs are – are sufficient. They give us the authority we need to do in order to protect the United States from terrorist activity.

Q: Mr. Secretary…

STAFF: (Inaudible), and then one last question.

Q: You said at the top that you – there were no plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. Does that mean that you are taking the vote by the parliament over the weekend as non binding and that there is nothing imminent.

SEC. ESPER: It – it is being reported as a non binding vote. I think Iraqi – or some have categorized – characterized it as a nonbinding vote. So it’s nonbinding right now. We – this has to play out. I think there’s some more action that has to happen.

Q: General Milley, can you clarify something you said earlier. You have said that this is imminent threat and that this was the appropriate response. You’ve also said that there also could still be some sort of strike campaign.

So what I’m trying to reconcile is if this was the necessary step to remove an imminent threat, why can it then also pose a future threat. How is – what I’m trying to understand is did the killing of Sulimani eliminate that threat and if not, should we expect additional measures? I’m trying to reconcile how there could be – this was a necessary step and yet there’s still a future …

GEN. MILLEY: I think in the world we deal in, we don’t deal in certainties, we deal in probabilities. I think the probability is elimination of Sulimani disrupted for sure the plans that he was putting together. Does that mean it eliminated all threats, no. It doesn’t mean it eliminated all threats at all.

There’s still significant risk operating in – throughout the Middle East and specifically in Iraq. So no, it didn’t eliminate all of that but the plans that he was working on, I believe it disrupted those. But – but it’s – frankly it’s too early to tell. We don’t know yet. We don’t know with certainty yet.

(CROSSTALK)

STAFF: All right guys. Thank you, guys.

SEC. ESPER: Thanks, everybody.

STAFF: We have to do a call, so we’ve got to go. Thank you.