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July 26 Defense Department Briefing

By The Pentagon, The Pentagon - July 26, 2012

            MR. GEORGE LITTLE:  Good afternoon.  Today I wanted to go around the world and provide a few updates on some of our most pressing priorities. 

            Last night in Afghanistan, U.S. special operations joined Afghan commandos from the first special operations battalion in a full mission exercise demonstrating a night air assault.  This was an Afghan plan, an Afghan-led mission.  Afghan pilots flew four helicopters during the exercise, which involved more than 50 Afghan commandos, and U.S. special operations forces acting in an advisory capacity.

            In the exercise, the commandos successfully discovered and apprehended a person of interest, recovered weapons and intelligence.  I highlight this exercise as another example of the increasing versatility and capability of Afghan National Security Forces, which are stepping into the lead for even our most complex operations.

            Meanwhile, as part of Pacific Partnership 2012, hospital ship USNS Mercy concluded its two-week humanitarian civic action mission to Vietnam.  While in that country, our sailors completed more than 12,000 medical treatments and 200 surgeries, in addition to renovating two health clinics and constructing a new health building.  USNS Mercy will continue next to Cambodia, after having already visited Indonesia and the Philippines.

            Earlier this summer, the secretary made an historic visit to Vietnam and to other countries in the Asia Pacific region.  Deputy Secretary Carter is just completing a 10-day trip to the region, and all of these visits, from operational to high-level engagement, demonstrate the commitment of the United States to strengthening our relationships across the Asia Pacific.

            Our focus on the Pacific is very much in line with the new defense strategy, but that strategy also emphasizes that we will maintain a significant focus on the Middle East, as well. 

            On that note, let me preview the secretary's trip next week to northern Africa and the Levant.  More than 18 months have passed since the start of dramatic changes we have seen sweeping the Arab world.  These changes have presented new challenges, notably violence in Syria and the destabilizing behavior of Iran, but they have also presented new opportunities for security cooperation, with the beginning of peaceful, democratic transitions.

            The secretary will visit Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, and continue on to Egypt.  In both countries, we will consult with new leadership and reaffirm the support of the United States to continued reforms. 

            He will then visit Israel and Jordan to engage close allies who share our concerns about Syria and Iran. 

            The secretary's goal in the trip is to affirm the commitment of the United States to the security and stability of the Middle East and North Africa.  That will require strengthening traditional alliances with countries like Israel and Jordan and building strong partnerships with new democratic governments.

            Finally, in advance of tomorrow's Olympic Opening Ceremonies in London, I want to commend the 21 military athletes and coaches participating in the games, including Army shooters and Greco-Roman wrestlers, a Marine boxer, a Navy shooter, and an Air Force fencer, among others.  They are superb representatives of the United States and our tremendous military, and all of us will be rooting for them as they compete in the days ahead.

            Thank you.  And with that, over to you.  Spence?

            Q:  Al Qaida in Iraq is making threats about attacking the U.S. inside the homeland.  After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, what kind of visibility does the Defense Department still have into this threat?  Does that have to come from the Iraqis?  And with all of the military equipment that still remains in Kuwait, could that be considered a kind of over-the-horizon capability in case the building decides it needs to take further action?

            MR. LITTLE:  We condemn AQI-related attacks in the strongest possible terms.  We understand that they're a presence.  We have expressed -- and I will reiterate today -- our belief that the Iraqi government and security forces can address the challenges posed by AQI.

            Make no mistake about it.  We are working closely with the Iraqis and with other governments to disrupt, defeat, and dismantle Al Qaida, to include AQI.  Our continuing efforts to address not only AQI, but also Al Qaida in other parts of the world, to include Afghanistan and Pakistan, Yemen, North Africa, the Horn of Africa --  we will be unrelenting as we pursue this enemy.

            Yes?

            Q:  George, as a follow up on Spence's question on Al Qaida, does the Pentagon -- is the Pentagon concerned about Al Qaida presence in Syria?  Do you see that -- do you have any information if Al Qaida and Syria is gaining foothold in the country?

            MR. LITTLE:  The people who are getting a true foothold in Syria are those who are opposing the brutal regime of Bashar Assad.  I can't rule out the possibility that there are some extremists in Syria, but no one should think -- at least it's not our view -- that AQI has a significant major or particularly strong footprint in Syria.  I can't eliminate the possibility that some elements of AQI might be there, but I wouldn't want anyone to overstate the concern about AQI in Syria.

            Q:  What else do you have that -- whoever might take over from Assad, if Assad falls, that that would not be a more brutal regime?  I mean, what do you know about them?

            MR. LITTLE:  Well, it's hard for me to crystal ball the political transition that we hope takes place in Syria.  The goal at the end of the day for the Syrian people, we believe, should be to define for themselves a path for the future.  It's really not for us to define that path for them.  And I can't speculate as to what kind of government may come next.  The important thing at the moment is for Bashar al-Assad to go.  

            Q:  I have just -- sorry, just one on a different topic.

            MR. LITTLE:  OK.

            Q:  What can you tell us about this Palantir controversy, this software that detects IEDs in Afghanistan?  Is the secretary concerned that the Army is accused of destroying positive reviews of this software and then not providing it to Army units who have cited an urgent need for it?

            MR. LITTLE:  The detection and defeat of IEDs is a top priority for our commanders in the field.  With respect to Palantir, the secretary has full confidence in the Army to look into issues that there may be with respect to the software.  But I would refer you to the Army for specifics on this matter.

            Q:  (off mic) does he support a congressional inquiry, which is supposedly happening soon?

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary believes that the Army can handle this appropriately.  And obviously, we will consult closely with Congress.  The Department of the Army, as I understand it, is consulting, but for details, I would refer you to them.

            Q:  But there -- but, of course, the Army is the one who's accused of destroying a report about it, so why would -- if that's the accusation, is it really appropriate (off mic)

            MR. LITTLE:  The secretary, Justin, has full confidence in the Army to look into this matter.

            Q:  Just to follow up on Justin's first question, you just said that you have no idea what sort of government may follow Assad, and yet your primary focus seems to be moving him out of power as soon as possible.  Why are you so hell-bent on getting him out of there if you have no idea in the world that the alternative might be many times worse?

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