Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Holds Briefing | April 17, 2023

Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh briefs the news media at the Pentagon, April 17, 2023.


Hi. Hey everyone. Good afternoon. Apologies for the delay here. Um I have a few items to take uh to relay at the top and then I’m happy to jump in and take your questions. Um So the Department of Defense continues to actively address the incident involving the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents. As the secretary made clear in his statement last Thursday, dod s highest priority is the defense of our nation and our national security. And the department is taking this breach seriously and continues to work around the clock to better understand the scope and scale of these leaks throughout last week. And over the course of the weekend, the Secretary and senior Pentagon officials continue to convene daily meetings to examine the scope and scale of this disclosure as well as ensure that appropriate mitigation measures are being taken in support of this effort. The secretary has formally directed under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security in coordination with the Chief Information Officer and the director of administration and management to lead a comprehensive review of dod security programs, policies and procedures within 45 days I N S will provide the secretary with initial findings and recommendations to improve the department’s policies and procedures related to the protection of classified information. We’ll have more to say soon on more immediate actions that will be taken that we will be taking. We continue to be in close touch with the White House and interagency and have also continued to engage with our partners and allies at high levels both within dod and throughout the inter agency, we will also continue to engage with Congress. Again, we’d encourage you to be mindful of how you are reporting and repurposing these images due to the classified nature of this information and the potential impact on national security as well as the safety and security of our personnel and those of our allies and partners. And finally, I also want to take a moment to address something we’ve seen in press reports that warrant us relaying the facts with regard to the US military presence in Ukraine. We have publicly acknowledged previously that there is a small US military footprint in Ukraine to provide mission critical support to the US embassy. To be clear, there are no us combat troops conducting combat operations in Ukraine. And while we’re not going to go into the specific disposition of our forces for reasons, their duties include support to the defense attache office in support of our security assistance programs and end use monitoring as well as us embassy security support. This is not new and again, something we’ve been transparent about and publicly uh with, with Congress as well. Separately earlier today, Secretary Austin spoke with Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Reznikoff. During the call, both leaders discussed the security situation in Ukraine and the secretary looks forward to the meeting later this week at the Ukraine defense contact group. Also later, also later this afternoon, Secretary Austin will host the United Kingdom, Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace. The leaders will discuss the strength of the US UK defense relationship and our mutual ongoing efforts to support Ukraine. A readout will be posted later today on defense dot gov. Shifting gears a little bit on August 25th, 2022 the defense, the secretary of Defense approved and released the civilian harm mitigation and response action plan, directing the department to take immediate actions to create an architecture and supporting processes to mitigate civilian harm by optimizing the efficacy of military operations. Today, the Department of Defense in consultation with the Secretary of the Army announced Mr Michael mcnerney as the director of the Civilian Protection Center of Excellence. Mr mcnerney previously served at the RAND Corporation as a senior international and defense researcher and has published extensively on civilian protection issues. He brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the role, having both served in the public and private sectors including more than 15 years with the US. Government focused on national security strategy and development planning, the international security sector reform and decision making in conflict. The director will oversee the efforts to establish the institution to build on existing processes and improve the department’s approach to civilian hard mitigation and response. The Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Army have full confidence in Mr mcnerney to oversee the stand up of the civilian protection of excellence. Sorry, the the stand up of the civilian protection center of excellence. And finally, a reminder that tomorrow Secretary Austin will travel to Sweden to meet with his counterpart to discuss security related topics including Sweden’s planning for NATO accession from there. He will travel to Germany where he and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Milley will host the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on Friday at Ramstein Air Base. And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions. I’ll go to I um thanks for doing this. So at this point, does the Pentagon have a better sense of just how many documents were leaked and the larger scope, it seems like documents continue to surface in different media reports?

Do you have a better sense of how wide the damage was?

Well, two things. Um First, I’ll say that this is an ongoing investigation being led by the Department of Justice. So uh we are working consulting with them on on on going basis, but that investigation will reveal more documents um that have been, you know, previously posted. Um And again, we’re doing our own internal review assessment as I said in the top, um this is being led by our intelligence and security department um to get a better assessment of what exactly what documents were um were disclosed and where they serviced online. But do you have a kind of a ballpark assessment of just how many documents there were?

And it seems like some of these documents may have been put out months ago um and predate, you know, the window that the secretary was initially focused on. Well, as the secretary said, you know, we’re gonna continue to find docs online. Um I think you’re referring to his comments at the um press conference that he participated in last week. I don’t have a specific number for you at the moment. It’s something that we’re still reviewing, we’re still assessing. Um And when we have a better grasp of just the scope and scale, um we’d be happy to update you, but that’s something that we’re continuing to assess. I guess the heart of the question is, is the Pentagon concerned that there’s still more documents out there that it doesn’t know about. Well, we’re continuing to assess and that’s exactly what our internal efforts are geared towards and, and looking to review. And that’s also why the Department of Justice is also, has launched an investigation to figure out what exactly is still out there. And um you know, also assessing the impact that this has not just on us security interests, but on our partners and allies around the world. I’ll go ahead to Jen Sabrina. Why is airman not being tried in a military court?

And could he be later tried under U C M J?

So this is an ongoing investigation and um in terms of uh jurisdiction, something that we’re working through with the Department of Justice. But, uh right now this is something that’s in D J’s hands and we’ll keep you updated as that goes. So you’re suggesting that there could still be a U C M J trial after the federal trial. It’s something that we’re, we’re, again, this is an ongoing investigation. It’s something that we are working through with the Department of Justice, but I just don’t have anything to announce on that front just yet. But it’s confusing because someone like, uh, Chelsea Manning was, was held at Quantico and then tried up at Fort Meade, not in the federal system. How does it work?

I understand it’s ongoing. But how does this work again?

We’re assessing this?

We’re still working with the Department of Justice on this issue right now. They are the lead investigators for, um, this case, this criminal case. Um, it’s not to say that something couldn’t come back to the department of, uh, defense at, at some point. But right now, um, in terms of jurisdiction, we’re just, we’re still working through that and I just don’t have anything to announce today and just to, to follow up what can you tell us about the Navy?

N C O Sarah Beals, who calls herself Donbas Dika. Uh Why was she honorably discharged from the Navy and demoted to ranks in November in terms of the specifics on her record, I would refer you to the Navy for those questions, but she was posting um pro Kremlin propaganda since 2014 and she had a T S security clearance, was the department aware that she was posting that kind of propaganda?

And was, you know, was that under investigation prior to this classified leaks case?

Yeah, and that’s, thanks Jen. That’s a great question. And something that, uh we’re certainly looking, looking into because this investigation is ongoing. Um, I’d refer you to the DOJ for that. But is she under investigation by the military?

Well, she’s not, she’s not a, uh, she’s a former service member. You can bring her back on to duty right now. I have nothing to announce at this point. I would refer you to the Department of Justice. Thank you, Travis. Um Thank you. I’m just wondering, um, you say the investigation is ongoing. I’m wondering if there is an investigation of Tara’s supervisors or the other people who oversaw him at the facility where he worked to see if uh, somebody else may been involved in some way in this. And if so, is that something the dod is doing or something the DOJ is doing?

And can you say at all how that might work. So a few questions in there, um, on the, on the first part of uh the actual unit itself, I’d refer you to the Air Force for that again. This is an ongoing investigation and I don’t mean to sound like a broken record here, but it is an ongoing investigation and being led by the Department of Justice right now. So for any questions related to the investigation, I’d also refer you to them. So you’re referring me to the Air Force and whether there is a military investigation that is ongoing at the facility. That’s correct. I can’t say whether there is a military, I’m not aware of one at this moment. So that’s why I’d refer you to the Air Force. Ok. And you said that there’s a review, ongoing new review that the secretary had ordered and just to be clear as part of that review, you’ll be looking at who has access to this type of information, that is the direction of the review. That’s part of the review. Yes, who has access to, um who is able to access and review classified information, sensitive information. Um And part of that is um not just looking here within the building but across our components worldwide. Um So that is something that our team here is looking at, but also this is an, this is also an in our agency effort. Um It’s not just uh the Department of Defense who um has uh stakes in some of these. Um the unauthorized disclosures of docs that were posted online. There are other agencies um that were impacted our allies and partners as well. So it is an interagency effort. Thank you. Great, Janie. Yeah, thank you. I have a couple of questions about the classified information released and uh Secretary Austen and the South Korean Defense Minister Lee had a phone call conversation last week about the leak of classified document and the ministers agreed that the classified document was substantially faulty. What is the evidence that the classified document is fed or fake?

So I think you’re asking about the validity of some of the documents that have leaked online. Um Again, I’m not gonna speak to specific documents that are circulating. But what I can say and again is that we’re just, we’re doing a review of the documents. That’s something that our I N S team is um assessing and reviewing to see if any documents were further manipulated. Uh But I just want to get into the specificities. Do you think leaker has an intention to damage the US and South Korea relations by leaking wiretap document?

I wouldn’t be able to speak to uh the intentions of the individual. I would refer you to the Department of Justice lastly, if it is true that the U again, this is an ongoing review. This is a matter that’s been referred to the Department of Justice as it is a criminal criminal in nature. Um We have a very good relationship with South Korea. Um You’ve heard us stay from here from this podium, but again, from Secretary Austin as well. Um, that our commitment is rock solid and we, we have a positive relationship with South Korea just following up on Travis’s question, slightly different. Um, not about the investigation, but does the secretary have faith and confidence in chain of command on the base?

Well, I think we certainly have um confidence in our service members and our commanders. Um, in terms of, you know, the actual unit itself, there’s an ongoing investigation at the Department of Justice. We are doing our own internal review here. Um If there are changes that need to be made from that review, that will certainly inform um either changes that need to be made or, um, you know, who has access to what and when in the interim, uh because his faith and confidence won’t be based on an investigation. But as of today, does he have, we’re, we’re, we’re, we’re here to pull the facts and that’s what this review will do. And that’s what um part of what our I N S team is doing here along with other departments here in the building is trying to assess um what can we do better and what also was, you know, happening in that, in that unit itself. So I just don’t have anything more to say on that. And on a separate note, um there was a statement today from Centcom about an operation um against ISIS militants. And in the statement, um I think I mentioned two militants were probably killed. Um I’m curious how you’re probably killed. Does that mean that they were, they thought they were dead but they’re not sure, like probably is a very um unofficial way of saying, right?

They didn’t say likely, they said I’m just confused, you know, I’d refer you to for additional details on, on that front. Um But I think in terms of the operation itself, it really does stand as a testament to our commitment to the enduring defeat of ISIS. And um I would just leave it at that just to be sure. So are they dead or no, I would have to refer you to or two questions. Uh First am I right?

In understanding that you cannot say at this point that the leak is definitely contained. I mean, it’s, we’re still reviewing it. It’s still an ongoing effort here in this department. This is a criminal investigation. So again, the Department of Justice has the lead on that. So I would refer you to the Department of Justice and given the ongoing efforts to review and look at who has access to this kind of information. Can you give us a sense of how many people have had their access restricted based on the efforts you’ve taken so far to review distribution lists and, and printing abilities and, and that sort of, yeah. So I can’t give you exact numbers on, on, um, on the who has had access revoked. But what I can say is that we are calling through some of our distribution lists and who has access to, um, uh, certain information. Um, that effort is going to be ongoing. It’s not just going to stop tomorrow and it’s not gonna stop after a week. This is gonna be a long term effort. Um And so while I can’t give you exact numbers, we are taking steps when it comes to exactly what you said, uh when it comes to distribution list, when it comes to printing access, um when it comes to uh just access within skiffs, um we have to make sure that um the service members or our civilians have what they need to be able to do their job. Um But it also needs to, we need to make sure that it is on a need to know basis. Yeah, Matt, sorry. Um Just to follow up on that, I wanted to see if you could say anything more about those efforts when you say you’re calling through distribution lists. Um And you talk about a need to know it is that process meant to determine, you know, someone who might have had a need to know at one point and been part of a distribution list and had access to things, making sure that they still have that need. Is that part of the process?

Can you explain that?

Yeah, it’s part of, I mean, it’s part of an ongoing review. I mean, a very simple example would be a distribution list that has 10 people on it and one of those people has less have left the organization, but they moved within the department and still have that email. So it’s calling through some of those lists, making sure that uh people that um are sent information actually need, need to have that information to do their jobs. Um But part of what this department is focused on is making sure that people have the information that they need to do their job successfully and be able to defend our homeland and our interests abroad. And can you say whether some of those efforts are already being made?

Is it just you’re reviewing those distribution lists or have some actions already been taken to that end?

No actions have already been taken. Yeah. Thank you. And then I’ll come back to Chris or do Chris and then Rio, there we go. Thanks. Um uh to share uh appeared to hold some racial extremist views. Um And that’s been an issue for the department that you tried to address in the past. So, as part of this effort, um looking at how you’re, you can better investigate, find extremism in the ranks. So someone who might be predisposed to do something like this doesn’t release these documents. Doesn’t, no, this effort is solely about uh looking at how, um or the effort I should say within the building is looking at how um classified information is accessed and who has access to that information while also working with the Department of Justice in their investigation um to prevent something like this happening in the future. So did, is someone’s possible political extremist views part of how they might have access to that or is it just?

Well, I don’t know how someone’s political views in uh would shape how they have access to classified information. No, again, again, this, this effort that the department has launched um is about looking at our own internal process on who has access to classified information and who needs access to that classified information to be able to do their jobs. Uh It does not have anything to do with um anyone’s political dispositions. Welcome back. Thank you very much. Two questions. First on the legal document that how many allies and partners have the secretary or the senior dod officers reached out to uh on the legal document so far it’s been ongoing since last week. The secretary and I should just say not just the secretary, the chairman, senior leaders within this building have been reaching out to their counterparts all across the world. I think we read out some of those just last week. I think the secretary spoke to, to that as well today. As I mentioned, the secretary speaking to Minister Razov from Ukraine and he’ll be doing a bilateral meeting with uh the Minister of Defense from the United Kingdom later today. Um So this is ongoing and then you also have to remember that um the secretary leaves tomorrow for travel to Sweden and for the Ukraine defense contact group. So again, he’ll be in person um to talk more with allies and partners on a different topic. That one year ago, the China and the Solomon Iran, the security arrangement uh has, has the Pentagon observed any Chinese military activities concerning to you around the Solomon Island?

And do, do you think that?

But are you confident that the US is doing enough to prevent China from expanding the military footprint in the Pacific Island region?

Um Thanks for the question. So I, I think you said the Solomon Islands, right?

So as you saw um the US recently opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands. And I think doing so just um renews the uh our relationship and undermines our strength and commitment to our bilateral relations with the people of the Solomon Islands. Um in terms of, I think you asked about um concerning PR C activities around the islands, was that right?

Um So what is particularly concerning um about the Pr CS activities in the Pacific is the lack of transparency and the lack of clarity around the terms it negotiates its uh with, with host countries and its intended purpose of these programs. Um So we want to ensure that Indo Pacific nations can make decisions for themselves without being pressured, but for their economic and security future. Um and we wanna, we are committed to helping them do just that I’ll go to Laura. Thank you. Um I’m just wondering if this um the situation with the leaked documents has prompted dod to review its vetting processes at all. I mean, you have airman Tara and this former Navy E five, they’ve clearly have extremist, racist views that they’ve expressed on social media including when they were in the military. Um So may, should this be part of dod s vetting process when we’re looking at recruiting people?

I think that’s, that’s a great question and thank you for the question. Um We do have a very robust vetting process when it comes to someone being able to have a security clearance. Um that includes an FBI background check. Um and that includes a vetting of friends, family, former coworkers. Um And then there is uh a more detailed in depth on just finances, um, further background checks um that the FBI does. But I mean, I think we are pretty confident in how the FBI does conduct its background checks um, when it comes to somebody being able to obtain a security clearance. And we also ask and, and mandate that our service members are civilians who do have security clearances. And I include myself in that, um uh do so with uh certainly something, you know, you have to, being able to follow the rules that are in place, which is part of that is a nondisclosure agreement that we sign as well when you get, when you have a, a security clearance. And so while I feel confident in the background checks that do go into place um for security clearances and for someone to get access to one. Um again, that is why we are doing this process. If there is something that we feel that needs to be added to the background check process, I think that’s what this review will certainly lend itself to. And is there any way for Dod or I guess it might be the F FBI to track the social media postings of these people?

So may maybe they didn’t express extremist views before they went into the military and, and now, maybe, I mean, it seems as it seems happened with this Navy E E five, um there was an event and then afterwards she sort of went off on the deep end maybe. Um is there a way for Dod to track that or it seems like it would be pertinent?

Um So as you know, we have to follow uh the, the I’m trying to find the best way to phrase it. Dod does not spy on its own us citizens. Um And we conduct ourselves in the, the in adherence with the law. Um, again, background checks certainly do go through social media postings. Um This is exactly what this effort internally here in the building is designed to look at. Um, is there something else that we need to do to add on to a process when it comes to a background check and obtaining a security clearance?

This is something that this will look at and when we have more, um, to follow on that, I’d be happy to update you on that. Yes, right over here. I probably have time for two or three more. I have two questions. Thank you. Um My first question about the leaked documents, Sabrina. How much do you have a concern that the other parties like Russia or China could use the information inside these documents to harm us military operations or even their uh the U SI mean allies?

Well, we’re certainly concerned about the contents of these documents cir being circulated on social media, which is why I think at the top. Um you know, I I address the fact that it is important when reporting on these documents that they do contain sensitive classified information that could cause irreparable damage to our allies and partners. But we’re also doing an assessment of that. Um So yes, we are concerned about these documents. We feel that of course, Russia and China could use this to their advantage. Um But we also feel confident in our outreach to partners and allies um and, and working with them as, as this continues, second question, a different topic regarding to the clashes in Sudan. Have you seen the latest reports about that clashes?

And do you have any concerns about the stability of the region?

And is there any contact between the Dod and their Sudani counterparts or even the countries in the area in that area in the region?

And how do you see the situation there?

Sure. So and I, I think for some of these, I would refer you to the Department of State. Um But within Sudan, the Department of Defense’s mission is primarily focused on providing security to the US Embassy. And so while, while I can’t go into too much detail, we have the Department of Defense through the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group provides ongoing security for diplomatic facilities worldwide. Yeah, I’ll go to Courtney and then that’ll have to be our last question. I just wanna ask uh uh just for clarification on one of the questions. Uh one of your answers to Tara’s question, you said that the DOJ investigation will reveal more documents that have been previously posted. So are you saying that the you, you think that the invest or you know that the investigation, there will be more documents that have not been reported on it have not been made public that will be, that will come out as part of this investigation. I’m not exactly sure how I phrased that. But what I mean, quote, direct quote. So doj is the lead investigator on this topic. Um, there could be more documents that are being circulated online that is something that this investigation is looking into. That’s something that the department is looking into different media outlets here in this room have reported on having different um numbers of pages, numbers of documents. Um at each time that, you know, we are, we are calling through the documents that we get. Um And as we get more, that number grows, does that make sense?

So, so you do. So I, I guess, I mean, one of the questions that we all have, have had here is there’s been this drip, drip of, of documents like every day, multiple documents per day being reported on. So I guess we’re trying to figure out is, is this just gonna continue?

And, and if you guys have any sense, I mean, at this point now that you’ve arrested someone or that the Department of Justice arrested someone, they, I’m sure they’ve gone through his computers, his things, they must have a better sense of, of what more is still out there that could potentially still be released. Well, as you said, they’re going through his computers, they’re going through his files that that day is the Department of Justice. So I’d refer you to them in terms of what they’re actually pulling off of anything that they’ve taken from his home. Um Yes, we do continue to assess what other documents are being circulated online um as, as news outlets report on them. You know, we are also calling through what we are finding. Um and that is that is ongoing. So I think what you’re getting at, could this, could this count grow?

I mean, we’re still assessing that um we are still reviewing different posts that continue to surface online and working with um you know, we’re working with online social media platforms um to get those documents and, and to review them, just one from Jennifer’s questions. I’m still not clear on Sarah Bills I think is her name the the NAV former navy. So there is at this point, there’s no military investigation looking into any of her activities while she was in uniform. Is that, is that correct as far as I’m aware while she was in uniform?

There was not, but for more specifics, I would refer you to the Navy. But for that, right?

But, but now, I mean, there’s no because like not even anything to do with the the investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of documents. Anything to do with that investigation. I’m just not gonna speak to more specifics of who’s being spoken to or who’s being interviewed. I would refer you to the DOJ for that. Great. Ok, we’re gonna have to wrap up. Thanks so much guys.

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