Sep 20, 2021
Pentagon John Kirby Press Conference Transcript September 20
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby held a press conference on September 20, 2021. He addressed the U.S. drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan that resulted in 10 civilian deaths. Read the transcript of the news briefing here.
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John Kirby: (00:00)
Just a couple things at the top here.
John Kirby: (00:11)
Today, I think you saw, the secretary issued a statement recognizing the 10 year anniversary of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The repeal eliminated a significant barrier to equal treatment in an effort to pursue a more equitable, diverse, inclusive, and accessible Department of Defense. I might also add, a more effective military. As the secretary said, by insisting on standards of merit and allowing all those who are qualified to serve in uniform, we avail ourselves of more talent, better leaders and innovative solutions to the security challenges that we face around the world. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell improved the diversity, equity and inclusion across our force, and it makes us more representative, not only of the nation we defend, but wiser and stronger. And without question, better able to defend this nation.
John Kirby: (00:55)
On a personnel note, excited to welcome our newest member of the public affairs team here at OSD. Melanie Fonder Kaye joins us as the deputy assistant to the secretary for strategic engagement. Her first day was today. She comes to the team after founding and leading the strategic communications firm MFK Strategies. She previously served as director of communications to Dr. Jill Biden, where she developed the then second lady’s communications strategy, which included Joining Forces, encouraging all Americans to support service members, veterans, military families, and caregivers, among many other initiatives. Melanie will have a robust schedule of office calls here as she settles in and we’ll circulate her contact information as soon as she’s up online. As far as I know, she doesn’t even have a email account yet, but we’ll get that fixed soon. With that, we’ll take questions.
Speaker 2: (01:48)
Hey John, couple quick questions on, do you have anything on an airstrike in northwest Syria today?
John Kirby: (01:54)
I have seen a short statement by Central Command. I think they put that out, and I can just read for you what I’ve got. I don’t have more detail than this though. Strike near Idlib, Syria on a senior Al-Qaeda leader. Their initial indications are that they struck the individual that they were targeting and that they don’t have any indications at this time of civilian casualties, but they continue to look into that of course. I don’t have more detail in that.
Speaker 2: (02:22)
Okay. The other question I had for you was whether you could discuss any further the question of accountability for the Kabul strike that General McKenzie described on Friday. And he mentioned very briefly that there was an accountability aspect to the investigation. Is Secretary Austin involved in some way? Can you elaborate on that?
John Kirby: (02:42)
Sure. The secretary has asked the Secretary of the Air Force to task a senior flag or general officer at the rank of three star or above to conduct a review of the Central Command investigation, the same investigation that General McKenzie read out to you guys on Friday. Part of that review will be to examine the investigation itself, the thoroughness of the investigation. To study the degree to which any policies, procedures, or targeting mechanisms may need to be altered going forward, if any. And of course, to then take a look at what levels of accountability might be appropriate, and if so, at what level. So that’ll be part of this review. And the secretary has asked for the Secretary of the Air Force to nominate somebody for that, and then to of that review done within 45 days of the tasking of the individual reviewer.
Speaker 2: (03:47)
On the question of accountability, does that three star or above officer have the authority to initiate action or only to recommend?
John Kirby: (03:57)
It would be to review the investigation and to make recommend based on that review, not necessarily to take action. This would be a senior Air Force officer. So if there’s accountability to be held, the decisions about who and what would be done would be a separate consideration.
Speaker 2: (04:20)
Okay. Thank you.
John Kirby: (04:21)
John, I’m still trying to understand how the US military followed a car for eight hours and took a fire to hell fire missile when a car was pulling into a driveway, not even pulling out of the driveway en route to the airport. Why was the decision taken? As we’ve now learned, there was another surveillance drone showing that there were kids or individuals on the ground. But I’m still confused, with that car pulling into the driveway, why was that the moment that you would strike?
John Kirby: (04:52)
Well Jen, I think you can understand now that we’re going to review this investigation. I really am not in a position today to re-litigate the tick tock of what happened and in what order. General McKenzie, I thought did a very fair contextual job on Friday walking you through, almost minute by minute, what they were seeing and the decisions that they made in the moment. And so I think I’m just going to leave it the way General McKenzie left it on Friday, and then let the reviewer of this investigation come to their own conclusions about this.
But can you explain to us how these drone strikes, when they take place in a place like Afghanistan, at what level is the targeter? Was the targeting team at the airport? Was it sitting at CENTCOM in Tampa? Was it at Fort Bragg? Was it out in Las Vegas? At what level was the decision being made?
John Kirby: (05:43)
The decision was made in Kabul by the strike cell commander in Kabul.
And lastly, is there any plan to evacuate the remaining members of the family? They are doing interviews saying that nobody’s reached out to them for payments and they want to be moved to the US because they feel their lives are in danger now that they’ve been outed as having had family members who worked for the US government.
John Kirby: (06:03)
Yeah. Certainly seen those comments. I don’t have anything to confirm or speak to today in terms of the physical movement of the family members, but we know that Central Command is working through how best to reach out to them for the issue of payments, but also to determine the validity of this interest in moving out. And I certainly want to speak for the family and I don’t want to get ahead of where CENTCOM is in that process.
But the defense secretary would support removing that family if they want to come?
John Kirby: (06:33)
I believe the Secretary of Defense would absolutely support if the family wanted to leave Afghanistan and come to the United States. I believe he would support that, assuming that all the proper legal hoops were worked through. I mean, I don’t want to get ahead of a process or a decision that hasn’t been made yet, but I think he would absolutely consider that. Yeah. Jenny.
Thank you. On the South Korea issues. As you already know, South Korea successfully test fired SLB, submarine launched ballistic missiles. As an ally, the United States, how do you view South Korea’s successful test of fire of SLB?
John Kirby: (07:23)
I would simply say that we continue to work closely with our allies in the Republic of Korea on making sure that we have complimentary military capabilities and that we keep those capabilities ready and prepared and capable in a way commensurate with the continued threats that we see on the peninsula.
Do you think that this will help deter North Korean provocation?
John Kirby: (07:55)
I would like to think that the alliance itself, and the strength and the unity of the alliance itself would be an appropriate deterrent capability. That’s certainly one reason why we work at this alliance so hard and why it matters so much to us and to the region. But you’ve heard the secretary talk about something called integrated deterrents. He mentioned it the other day in context of the meeting with the Australians at the State Department. Integrated deterrence is not just something that he’s looking at from a United States perspective. It certainly does cut across the joint force and it does cross many domains of war fighting from space and cyber, maritime and air, and of course ground. But in the secretary’s mind, integrated deterrence is really about netting in and integrating the capabilities of our allies and partners, particularly in that part of the world. And of course there’s no stronger ally than the Republic of Korea.
Thank you very much.
John Kirby: (08:54)
You’re welcome. Teresa.
Yes, hi John. I have two questions. First one, did Secretary Austin give the Secretary of the Air Force a deadline for choosing the person that’s going to do the review of the investigation?
John Kirby: (09:05)
John Kirby: (09:06)
But I don’t think this is going to be a task that’s going to take an exorbitant amount of time.
But once they’re selected, it will be 45 days.
John Kirby: (09:12)
Once the individual has been named by Secretary of the Air Force, the secretary has asked that the review be completed in 45 days.
Gotcha. And then my second question is, what is the military doing to try to amend relationships with allies in the Middle East, following the drone strike?
John Kirby: (09:30)
I’m not sure what you’re getting at in terms of mending relationships, we have very strong relationships in the region as it is. And I would point to the secretary’s travel just the week before last, to visit some of our Gulf allies, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar. That was very much part and parcel of thanking those strong allies and partners in the region for the support that they continue to give us with respect to these evacuees. Yeah, Travis.
Thanks, John. I wanted to ask you about Afghanistan as well. And I know that the secretary has talked a little bit about this. He had mentioned a possible resurgence about Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But I’m wondering if he is concerned that we could have a similar situation to what we saw in Iraq and Syria in 2011 to 2014 with the Islamic State. Could we see something similar to that in Afghanistan and how are we better prepared to deal with that kind of threat today than we were, say eight years ago?
John Kirby: (10:36)
The secretary has said that that given the rapid collapse of the Ghani government and the rapid ascendancy now to power of the Taliban, that he believes it would be prudent to reassess his previous assessment of a medium risk in terms of the return of Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda affiliates in Afghanistan to a level commensurate with an ability to threaten the homeland the way they did in 2001. That doesn’t mean that we don’t already recognize, and we have recognized, that they do exist in Afghanistan, and they do continue to pose a threat, but a threat rising to the level of a possible attack on the homeland. So he believes that, given recent events, we need to reassess what our view is in terms of how, and to what degree, they could reemerge at that level.
John Kirby: (11:35)
And then your second question, and we’ve talked about this quite a bit. I mean, we are not the same country that we were on 9/11 in terms of our ability to defend ourselves from these kinds of attacks. The intelligence communities are much more networked now and coordinated. We have far more capability in space and in cyber and certainly in the aviation realm than we did in 2001, to try to keep eyes on and to be able to gather and analyze intelligence. We also have just better kinetic capabilities than we had. We didn’t have, in 2001, anywhere near the unmanned aerial capability that we have now. So we have advanced a lot. It doesn’t make you perfect. It doesn’t mean that you don’t still have to work hard to make sure that you get it right. But we have a definitely advanced our CT capabilities around the world.
I guess I was asking about the lessons learned by the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the in between period. US troops largely left around 2011, and there was that period. And the Islamic state grew, metastasized, and they took over a huge swath of territory, including Mosul. So I’m wondering if there are any lessons learned in that fight that we could apply to Afghanistan so we don’t end up with a similar situation.
John Kirby: (13:02)
Well, we’re certainly going to stay vigilant, watching the threat in Afghanistan. There’s no question about that. And as I said, the secretary believes it’s prudent to reassess what we think we know about Al Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan and where they might go. I would tell you that as we speak today, when you talked about the metastasization of a threat, we have seen it metastasize outside of Afghanistan to other places. You mentioned Iraq and Syria, but also Yemen, Somalia, the Levant. We do not hold there to be an existential threat of terrorism from Afghanistan right now, but again, we’re going to stay vigilant. We’re going to watch it, and we’re certainly going to be willing to reassess what we know today. And we do have the capability to keep eyes on.
If I could, just one quick follow up. Any future military action inside of Afghanistan would be done under the authority of the existing 2001 AUMF, correct? That’s the authority that you would be using?
John Kirby: (14:05)
The 2001 AUMF exists, we would like to see a new AUMF written to address the kinds of threats that we face now. I’m not going to talk about specific authorities for any specific military action that might or might not occur there or anywhere else. But again, the secretary is supportive of the administration’s approach to seek a new and more accurate, more clearly defined AUMF. Dave.
Is this reassessment of the threat from Afghanistan, is this a formal reassessment or just people rethinking?
John Kirby: (14:41)
He has not tasked a formal reassessment. He believes it’s warranted.
So does that mean there’s going to be one?
John Kirby: (14:48)
Thanks John, good afternoon. You’ve often said up there that you want to be as transparent as possible. Bearing that mantra in mind, yesterday at Lackland Air Force Base, a reporter on the public roadway was taking photographs of the entrance side to Lackland. The reporter was covering the larger Haitian deportment issue. Base security came out, escorted the reporter onto base, took the reporter’s driver’s license and called the local sheriff, would not release the reporter until she turned over her photographs and tape recording. I’m wondering if you know about this incident, if not, how you feel about it?
John Kirby: (15:26)
I don’t know about it. I’m going to have my staff look into it as soon as the briefing is over. I think that’s the best I can do right now. Let me find out what actually happened.
John Kirby: (15:35)
And I appreciate you bringing it to my attention. Let me go back to the phones here, or actually I haven’t gone to the phones at all yet. Sylvie.
Hello John. I would like to go back to Bob’s question about the strike in Syria. You don’t have any more details? Where was it exactly, and who was the Al Qaeda operative that was targeted?
John Kirby: (16:02)
Sylvie, right now I can just tell you, it was near Idlib in Syria. And as Central Command said in their brief statement, it was a senior Al Qaeda leader. I don’t have more detail than that right now.
Okay. Thank you.
John Kirby: (16:13)
You’re welcome. Phil.
Hey John, two quick follow ups. One, and I guess I’ll follow back for that. One, when you said it was a three star, or who’s going to be potentially reviewing this whole review, what does that say about accountability? Does that say the accountability here, if there were to be any, would be for people at three star or below, but not higher? What does that say to you? And then I guess the other follow up I had was, on the strike itself, I realize that you don’t want to re-litigate details of the strike, but I mean, aren’t certain elements of what happened still within the public’s right to know? I mean, I realize that the review of the review has to conclude, but we have no timeline on that.
John Kirby: (17:04)
Well Phil, as I said, the only thing holding up the review, it’s not even holding it up, is just the selection of a reviewing officer. And then once that officer has been chosen, the secretary expects the review to be done in 45 days. I don’t think that’s an exorbitant amount of time to treat with seriousness and with some sense of gravity, this particular investigation. As for the tick tock of the events, I thought General McKenzie did an excellent job Friday walking you through the thought process and as much of targeting process as he could. He and his staff are far more able to do that than I am from the podium. And so if there’s an additional set of details that you think you need, I would encourage you to reach out to Central Command.
John Kirby: (17:45)
As to your other question about the accountability, and whether a three star sends some sort of negative message, I would remind you of two things. One, the tasking memo to the Air Force says it just needs to be an officer at 09 or above. So that’s either a three or a four star, and we don’t know who the Air Force is going to choose. And it also says in the memo, and I failed to mention this earlier, that if the reviewing officer believes that there should be a level of accountability at someone at a higher rank than he or she, the reviewing officer needs to make note of that to the Secretary of the Air Force and to the Secretary of Defense. So that that’s made clear. Yes, Christina.
Well, I have a big picture policy question about freedom of navigation in the Asia Pacific and the impact of AUKUS on that short term. And then over the longer term, how DOD is maybe thinking about that as it might impact things like budding democratic ambitions in Taiwan, as they look to move closer to the global community of democracies.
John Kirby: (18:59)
So what’s the question?
How’s the DOD thinking about that? I said it was a big policy question.
John Kirby: (19:07)
Yeah. I mean, there’s an awful lot there. First of all, the there’s no change to our One China policy. So we’ll just lay that flat right now. We continue to maintain a strong belief in international norms that exist in that region and around the world. And in abeyance to those norms and orders to include the right of navigation in international waters and international airspace. Freedom of the seas doesn’t just apply to whales and icebergs. It applies to navies and ships of all nations, and we’re going to continue to exercise that right lawfully and appropriately as we can.
And do you think that AUKUS will assist in that over the longer term?
John Kirby: (20:01)
I think it’s important to remember that AUKUS is not some sort of new alliance. It is a new defense security partnership that has been put in place. And the first element of it, the first initiative of it, is to help Australia acquire nuclear powered submarines, which as the secretary said last week, we believe will be an additive component to something akin to integrated deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region. It’ll improve the Australian Navy’s reach and their war fighting capability, their defensive capability. And that’s all to be welcomed in that particular part of the world, given the dynamic intense security environment that exists. Jen.
Can I ask you about the flights from Ramstein and when they’re going to resume? It’s my understanding that there’ve been about 9,000 MMR vaccines that have been administered. And so the reason for stopping those flights, you still have about 10,000 people at Ramstein. When are they going to start up again, and why is the CDC still halting them, I guess.
John Kirby: (21:05)
I don’t have an update. They are still halted. And your question is much better put to CDC about when they can be resumed. Just like we do here at home with respect to COVID, we comply with CDC guidelines and I would refer you to CDC for more detail on that. Okay, I got to take a couple more and then I’ll let you all go. Jared.
Hi Mr. Kirby. My question has been asked.
John Kirby: (21:28)
Okay. Kim Dozier.
Kim Dozier: (21:43)
Hey there, thanks. Two questions. Can you give us an update on the Afghan casualties who were taken to Landstuhl or other US medical facilities from the Abbey Gate bombing? And also, what guidance are you giving US military personnel who are trying to shepherd along their Afghan interpreter or other threatened Afghan cases, mainly in the P2 category? As I’ve heard from people who are worried that they hear state talking about American citizens and the legal permanent residents, and it feels like the P2 category has just dropped off the map and they want to know if the Biden administration is still trying to get threatened Afghans out.
John Kirby: (22:23)
I can’t help you on your first question, Kim, but I will take it and we’ll see. I can’t promise, I don’t know how much we’re going to be allowed to speak to the wounded of another nation, but we will certainly look into this and see if we have something for you. I just wasn’t prepared today to have any detail on that.
John Kirby: (22:44)
On your second question, again, questions about visas and how they’re being processed is better put to my State Department colleagues. What I can tell you is that we have been already talking to veterans’ groups quite frequently about their concerns over specific individuals and/or specific families. Many of us here in the building also have friends and coworkers and teammates that we know of. And so, you might have seen General Milley tried to help put together a process by which these veterans’ groups, whether they’re formal or informally developed, a process by which they could communicate directly with the department about individuals and family members that they want to make sure are on our radar screen. And so we’re going to continue to try to improve that process and improve that communication so that we can continue to help as many people as possible.
John Kirby: (23:46)
Another flight left yesterday with I think, more than 20 American citizens on it. So as we said earlier, though the military component of this effort has ended, it doesn’t mean that DOD or the inter agency or the administration is going to turn a blind eye to the effort to continue to try to get American citizens out of Afghanistan, and to continue to help those Afghan allies who helped us so much over the last 20 years. Oren.
John, two questions. Is there any detail you can offer about DOD and Transcom assistance to DHS and CBP like the border at Del Rio? And a different the subject entirely, a clarification question, service members who are dishonorably discharged for sexual orientation or gender identity, have they always had access to full VA benefits, or is there a change in policy or process that now makes it easier for them to get full access?
John Kirby: (24:42)
I’d refer you to the VA on that one. I’m not an expert on their processes, but I hope you saw in the secretary’s statement that he encourages those individuals who were discharged under other than honorable circumstances because of this, because of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, to reach out to their Boards of Corrections for their individual services, and to try to get their services amended appropriately. But as for the VA benefits, I’m just not an expert on that.
John Kirby: (25:12)
On your other question, I can confirm that the department has received a request for transportation support from the Department of Homeland Security and the US Customs and Border Protection Service. Under this request, the department would provide contracted air transportation for Customs and Border Patrol on a reimbursable basis to temporarily supplement CBP efforts to move non-US citizen migrants from Del Rio, Texas, to other domestic CBP processing facilities. And this support will conclude on or before October 20th of this year, and it can be provided with minimal risk to current DOD missions.
John Kirby: (25:52)
I would just again highlight contracted air. We’re not talking about military aircraft right now, and on a reimbursable basis. And then to be provided at minimal risk to current DOD mission. I don’t have more detail than that. The request really has just come in. So we’re doing the same thing we would do with any RFA, request for assistance. We’re examining it, reviewing it, determining the best way forward. Yes, Rio.
[inaudible 00:26:19] about Christina’s question. I’m wondering how important Australia is from the DOD’s perspective to maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Are you going to discuss a concrete operation, planning for a contingency in the Taiwan Strait with Australia in the future?
John Kirby: (26:42)
I wouldn’t get so specifically to talk about Taiwan here. Again, nothing’s changed about our One China policy. What I would tell you though, is that Australia is a key ally. We’ve been an ally for 70 years and a country that that is, all by itself, vital to Indo-Pacific prosperity and security, and obviously a good friend and a partner. So we were delighted to be able to enter this new defense relationship with them and with the United Kingdom. And we look forward to, as the secretary said last week, just looking at ways we can broaden that with additional capabilities, with additional rotational deployment opportunities, and with additional potential access to Australia and to Australia’s training ranges as well. So there’s a lot here to grow and the secretary looks forward to doing that. Okay. Thanks everybody.