Secretary of Defense Esper Conducts News Conference

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper conducts a news conference at the Pentagon, January 7, 2020.

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Hey, good afternoon everyone. I know we moved up the time on you but that was cognizant of the snow, and so I 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 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 attacked by Al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab 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 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-Shabab 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 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 said, “We’re open to having this discussion with them, “but we were just as prepared to deliver a forceful response “to defend our interest.” 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 we’ll 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.

Thank you, Mr. Secretary, I just want to clarify one thing you said earlier that the U.S. continues to engage ISIS in Syria. Has the anti ISIS campaign in Syria been affected at all by this. And then secondly, there seems to be continued confusion among our Iraqi officials about this draft letter. There was a televised appearance by Madhi earlier today in which he sort of laid out what he said was a signed letter that the Iraqi’s 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?

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 Iraqi government become a strong, independent and prosperous country.

ISIS and Syria?

I’ve got no report from a commander saying that we’ve had a material impact on our ability to engage ISIS along with our STF partners.

[Caller] Jennifer.

[Jennifer] To follow up on Leta’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?

So we’ll take all those one step at a time. There’s 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 most Iraqis for our presence in the country. As you know, most Kurd’s and most Sunnis did not show, and those, Shia’s who did vote, and many of them voted at the threat of their own lives by Shia militia groups. Even in the last few days we still see Iraqis on the street 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 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’re fully supportive of us they are fully with us. I’ve been told by them that the some of the movements they are taken or simply with regard to force protection. We’re doing some of that as well. It does not spark or signal any withdrawal from Iraq the mission we’re at large.

Can I follow up on that on the Allies—

We’ll get there, Gordon.

Sir, could speak to the range of options that were under consideration? Can you give us any sense of how many other options were under consideration? Did you support any other one’s and was one option to not take this strike inside Iraqi which would have clearly mitigated—

Hey Gordon, I’m not going to speak any options or anything we present to the President as you know that’s kinda how I approach things. 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 anytime we deliver an option we always list the pros and cons and pluses and minuses. That’s how we approach, that’s my duty and that’s my obligation to the Commander and Chief.

Were there multiple options that you would have considered that you would have supported?

I’m not sure I understand the question about—

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

Well there are always a wide range of options, our duty is to narrow them down into one’s that are consistent with the President’s guidance, or expectation, or can meet the political instate we are trying to achieve. So again, we had a full panoply of options available and we present them and we portray them as we do.

[Caller] Sylvie.

[Sylvie] Yes, sorry, about the allies moving their troops, does it mean that you couldn’t guarantee their security or especially with a air protection or did you ask them to move their—

No, I don’t think so 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 international trainers, partners on the ground and it was just a logistical issue.

[Caller] Jeff Sherwood.

Thank you. Can you clarify the attacks Soleimani was planning? Was that days or weeks away?

I think it’s more fair to says days, for sure.

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

I’m not going to speculate, we’re not there yet none of that has happened to the best of of my knowledge and as those events unfold we’ll address them and have all the legal experiments to advise us on that.

[Caller] David Martin.

Mr. Secretary you said the U.S. is not seeking war with Iraq. I think the question that 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?

Yeah. It is true ware not seeking war with Iran I think what happens next depends on them. I think we should expect that they will retaliate in some shape, way or form either through their proxy’s as they’ve been doing now for how many years and or with by their own hand. So we take this one step at a time, we’re prepared for any contingency and we will respond appropriately to whatever they do?

And how would you characterize their military movements so far?

We watch them very closely, we see their movements. I don’t want to get more into that because it starts to get into intelligence issues, so I’ll just leave it at that.

[Caller] Louie.

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.

Look at… Louie I’m not going to comment on, I’m not going to hypothesize or comment, speculate but we are standing their to depend 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.

[Caller] Barbra.

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… Let me set that aside, I think everyone would expect you would do exactly that. My question is not hypothetical. President is out there with his position. If you get an order, would you resign from office rather than violate the law?

Barbra, I’m not going to get in some hypothetical that you’re portraying here. I’m fully confident that the President is not gonna… The Commander in Chief will not give us an illegal order and as I said the U.S. military will as it always has obey the laws of armed conflict.

And escalation, does the U.S. have any responsibility or obligation to also de-escalate or is that in your views solely in the wrong sport.

Well 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. It has consistently escalated this in terms of the size, scale, scope of their attacks. 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.

Thank you. Mr. Secretary, I would like to ask you, before the attack on Quassem Soleimani have you been in consultations with your partners and 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.

Yeah, I’m not gonna get into the details of our consultations on any matter with other countries. Obviously, we’ve been talking about our force posture in Iraq for sometime. Our concerns about Iranian actions or the actions that they are inspiring, resourcing or directing through its militias but I’m not gonna get into any details.

[Caller] Phil.

You said you would follow up on your remarks about the parliamentary vote. You’d raised some questions about the kind of people who did vote and didn’t vote yesterday and today…


Do you believe that vote was legitimate, that resolution calling on U.S. forces to leave was legitimate. And then separately on the issue of… You said that you expect Iran to retaliate, are there any off ramps to this crisis or do you expect that we’re heading towards this military confrontation?

On the first question I won’t characterize it any differently than what many other people have characterized, and many experts and that is it’s non binding. And we know there are mechanisms by which they would have to act, I’m not an expert on the Iraqi government so I characterize it the way I did with you all the other day, its 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 if they want to sit down and talk, without precondition by the way, to the United States about a better way forward. A way forward which we constitute a new mode of behavior by Iran were they behave more like a normal country and that one could presume free them up from economic sanctions and allow the Iranian people to pursue the life they want to life and that is one with freedom and prosperity and all those things that most human beings want.

Thanks (muffled speech). After pressure from Iran, is the Iraqi government prevented the U.S. military from using certain capabilities within the country, hampering operations in anyway?

They have taken some actions in the past and it hampered some of our operations with regard to air space and things like that but nothing that we weren’t eventually able to work through with them.

And is that happening currently?

There’s nothing they’re doing right now that is hampering our operations to the best of my knowledge.

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 of Tueller, another and heads of state from Europe about implementing this resolution from Iraqi Parliament and what the Pentagon says has been communicated or hasn’t been communicated.

Yeah. I think that’s a great question for the Iraqi Prime Minister.

Does that mean that you are not taking his communication about the implementation of that Parliamentary resolution on it’s face, in terms of what he’s actually saying.

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

Thank you. Mr. Secretary can you please explain to us how the killing of one of Iran’s top Generals would contribute to the case of de-escalation. You’re asking Iran to de-escalate now, Would the U.S. respond in such a matter if one of your top generals was killed in a third country.

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 against the Syrian people, the people of Lebanon, even his own people in Iran. He is responsible in the Kurd’s force for the killing of Iranian people. So this sense that somehow taking somebody, by the way over the last few months had planned, orchestrated, and or resourced a tax against United States that resulted in the killing of American and the siege of our embassy in Baghdad and was in Baghdad to coordinate additional tax to somehow suggest that he wasn’t a legitimate target I think is fanciful. He was clearly on the battlefield. He was conducting or preparing, planning military operations. He was a legitimate target and his time was due.

[Caller] One final question and we’ll go to Jeff Sherwood.

[Caller] Oh, Okay. Tony.

Can you give a little bit of a preview of what you are going to tell Congress tomorrow, this. In terms of, how much detail will you be willing to give members that you haven’t thus far told the public in terms of, the size scope and imminent. 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 expectations, what do you prepare to disclose at Congress tomorrow.

Well look first of all, much of my messaging to Congress will be same as what I’m delivering to you all here in terms of my views on the policy, the broader regional situation, the history. Obviously with members of Congress we can go into 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 lead to the decision to, I should say one of the factors that lead to the decision to strike at Soleimani is only shared with a handful of members the so called ang of eight. And so they are getting that briefing this afternoon and they will have access to that. But most members will not have access to that.

Okay one final—

You talked about increasing force posture in the region, but what about force protection levels, have you gone up to the C, or delta highest level.

The commanders in the region and I should say globally are all taking all appropriate force protection measures relevant to their situation, the threat that they are receiving the readiness of the their troops, et cetera. So I’m confident that our commander’s gonna do the right thing on the ground.

Thank you all—

Okay. Thank you all very much. (people chattering)

[Woman] It’s been a long week.

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