Jan. 28, 2021
JOHN KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody. Looks like a familiar place.
(UNKNOWN): Welcome back.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you. All right, thanks for joining us today for the first of what we hope will be regular press briefings, and it — it really is good to be back here, up here with you.
But today I’m going to do something a little bit different to start out. I want to start with the efforts that the department is undertaking to deal and to contribute to the federal government’s efforts to battle COVID. And so we’re going to start the briefing with some guest briefers first. I’m going to bring up General Paul Friedrichs, who I think many of you know, the Joint Staff Surgeon, as well as Max Rose, who has recently come on board as the department’s COVID coordinator. Many of you probably remember Mr. Rose as the representative to New York State’s 11th Congressional District. He — we are now very proud to have him on the — the team as our COVID coordinator, working with the COVID Task Force and helping coordinate those efforts inside the larger interagency effort by the federal government to battle the coronavirus.
So with that, I’m going to bring both gentlemen up. They’ll each have a couple of opening comments, and then they’ll take your questions for a little while. When that’s done, I’ll come back up and you can have at me, okay? Thanks.
MAX ROSE: All right. Afternoon, everybody. So I mean, let me just first say it — it’s an absolute honor and a privilege to be supporting this effort here. I’ve had the utmost regard for our men and women in uniform, and all those working here at the Pentagon and defending this country at home and abroad, both as someone in uniform myself, and formerly, a — a public servant in a — in another capacity. And of course, it — it’s my honor to work on behalf of Secretary Austin and everyone else here.
You know, Secretary Austin sent the most clear message he could have in just the first hour that he stepped into this role after he was confirmed and he walked into the Pentagon. First meeting that he called with the highest levels of leadership not just in this building, but around the world on one topic, and that is COVID, firmly establishing right in that meeting that this is his number one priority; that the department is absolutely committed, above all else, to protecting the DOD workforce and their families, safeguarding the department’s mission capabilities and readiness, and supporting the president’s priority and effort to do everything we can to defeat this pandemic.
Now, our primary support to the U.S. government response has to date been providing medical personnel to existing — existing healthcare institutions, partnering as such, supporting logistics towards other government agencies that need it, and we most certainly fully intend on wherever possible, supporting that with ever-higher levels of commitment and effort, whatever is — is needed.
Today, there are over 20,000 — 20,000 National Guardsmen deployed providing COVID support, including at over 216 vaccine sites in 36 states and territories. DOD has over 1,000 military medical personnel on prepare-to-deploy orders, available to support state and local requests for assistance that have come through FEMA — remember, this is in support of a FEMA mission — and HHS within as early as 48 hours upon request.
Now, this current support includes 224 medical personnel to support eight hospitals and an ICU facility in California, 80 medical personnel to support three hospitals in Texas and 87 medical personnel to support three hospitals in Arizona and New Mexico. Additionally, the Army Corps of Engineers has deployed over 40 personnel supporting area hospital infrastructure improvements in California, and those resources are certainly available to any hospital or any other healthcare entity that is looking to expand their pre-existing infrastructure.
The secretary’s made this absolutely clear: We have to move further. We have to move faster. We have to be as bold as possible, all the while remembering that it is our utmost prerogative to protect and defend the United States at home, as well as abroad.
I’d also like to note that General Perna and his team, the secretary has met directly with General Perna and is working very closely with him; continue to increase their capacity to distribute vaccines to the public. And we’ve certainly heard the president’s call to increase the manufacture and distribution of vaccines, and to make sure that there is an infrastructure in place on the administration side to increase the number of shots in arms that we’re giving, and the department stands ready to increase its support for any other federal department that is engaged in this effort.
So with that, again, it’s great to be here with you, I certainly commit to continuing to give you updates on a regular basis. With that, I turn it over to Brigadier General Friedrichs, who has been an absolute privilege to work with.
BRIGADIER GENERAL PAUL FRIEDRICHS: Sir, thank you very much.
And Mr. Kirby, thank you.
Thank you all for the opportunity to be here again to give you a little bit of an overview of our medical support, both to our nation’s effort and within the Department of Defense. There is no question that we continue to take very seriously our responsibility to service members and to their families, to the communities in which they live.
As of this morning, the military departments and combatant commands have reported a total of 138,763 cases of COVID among our military personnel. And those of you who have looked on the website will note that’s up from 137,000 yesterday. And that’s been a very similar increase that you’ve seen and that we have seen over the last several months, as the rates of cases and hospitalizations have grown across the United States here.
We’re glad to see that over the last 10 days or so, the increase in cases has leveled off across the United States, and we’re seeing the same trend in our population as well.
With the help of the DOD testing task force led by Dr. Payne, who some of you have met previously, as well as the service and combatant commands, the department has continued to aggressively expand its testing program over time. Last week, we met 100 percent of our operational testing requirements and as we have from the beginning of this pandemic, 100 percent of the clinical testing requirements that were made at the — at the medical treatment facilities.
The week after New Year’s Eve, we completed over 100,000 tests for COVID, and are typically between 65 and 80,000 tests each week. The percentage of positive new COVID tests in military personnel is 8.8 percent, and that’s in comparison to a U.S. national average of 9.2 percent. And again, that’s been pretty consistent, that rate has been lower within the military population than the U.S. as a whole.
As you recall from previous briefings by Lieutenant General Place, the Defense Health Agency director, and the service surgeons, we receive our weekly allocation of vaccines and — and we are distributing those based on our COVID vaccine plan.
Now, that plan is one, as you probably recall, that we developed and shared with the Centers for Disease Control going forward. It aligns with the phased approach that the rest of the country is using, and the priorities that our country has agreed on to ensure that there is fair and equitable access to the vaccine.
We began vaccinations at select sites in December of last year, and have now vaccinated almost everyone who requested vaccines in our very first group, those are the frontline workers, police, EMS, those caring for patients or military personnel with COVID. We’ve also vaccinated all of the residents and staff at our two armed forces retirement homes, and again, that’s a very special group because that represents some of the oldest members of the military family for which we are responsible.
Our second group of personnel that we vaccinate are those over the age of 75, personnel who are preparing to deploy outside the United States, personnel in strategic or national security roles, as well as key frontline workers like teachers, support staff, child and youth services.
And this is very much in line with President Biden’s executive order that he’s put out, we’ve — as you know, we’ve been working very closely on that.
That group will then be followed by those who are over the age of 65, as well as younger personnel who have significant risk factors, and we’ll continue to work through the DOD extended family until everyone who desires to have a vaccine has been able to receive it.
I want to be clear that as you’ve seen across the country, and as many leaders have said, this is going to be months, this is not weeks. So I don’t want to create the perception in anyone’s mind that everyone is going to be vaccinated in the next few weeks here. This is a very deliberate process based on the supply of vaccine as it comes through.
To date, the department has received 769,000 doses of the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines, and these are the data that are posted as of 5 o’clock this morning on the CDC website. Of that 769,000, we’ve distributed them out to 306 sites around the world.
And I want to emphasize that. Unlike a state or a local authority that is responsible for an area here in the United States, as you know, we have operations all over the world, and thanks to the Defense Logistics Agency and the United States Transportation Command and many other partners, we’ve been able now to get vaccine out to many of our bases where we have personnel who are in those first tranches that we’re trying to vaccinate.
I suspect some of you will also wonder why we have not administered every dose of vaccine that we’ve received. And what I would ask you is, if you’re looking at the CDC website, is to notice how, over time, that percentage of vaccines administered changes.
So typically, early in the week, the percentage is lower because we get our distributions at the beginning of the week. And then by the end of the week, it gets up to the 55 to 60 to 66 percent range of vaccines received. It’s a rolling average that goes in there based on what we receive and then what we’re able to ship out to our bases around the world and then administer.
If we look at the last two weeks, DOD has administered all of the vaccine doses received, and that’s, I think, an example of the great work done by many people across our bases and in our communities to make sure that we’re as efficient as possible with this.
Many people have asked us about the safety of these vaccines. And the DOD experience has been very much like what the rest of the country’s experiencing. We have had only two CDC-confirmed adverse events, and both of those fully recovered. And this is very much in line with the data that was originally released by Pfizer and Moderna on their vaccines. And this is truly remarkable, you know, for a vaccine to be this safe is — is quite heartening.
One — one other key part of our team here, our contribution to the national effort, are the work being done by our research and development colleagues across the department, partnering with their federal, academic, and other counterparts to accelerate new medical counter-measures, tests, and other tools to help our national response to control the spread of COVID.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our logistics and acquisition teams, who, as you’ve heard previously, continue to provide support to HHS, to FEMA, and to many other parts of the federal response to ensure our nation has the supplies and equipment needed for this effort.
In addition to all that, we’ve reviewed the president’s national strategy and the 12 COVID-related executive orders that he released last week, and are incorporating those into our guidance going forward. We continue to ensure that our approach is science-based, derived from what the Centers for Disease Control publish, and that we do everything possible to take care of our service members so they can continue to protect our nation.
With that, Mr. Rose, I turn it back to you and am very happy to take questions.
STAFF: Very good. Questions, okay, first question will go to Lita Baldor, A.P.
Q: Hi, Lita Baldor with A.P. Question — General, can you just clarify, of the 769,000 doses, can you give us a broad idea of how many have actually — how many shots have actually gone into arms there, or how many people have received the shots? And then –
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Yes.
Q: Okay. Go ahead.
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: I’m sorry. So of the — as of 5:00 this morning, which was the last time that I was at my computer to check it, the CDC website is showing 366,000 doses administered. And I want to emphasize, as you probably heard from other sources, there’s a bit of a lag. So that’s not exactly the same as what we’re seeing in our data here. But my recommendation is we continue to use that CDC website because otherwise we’re going to be dealing with dueling numbers going forward.
So 366,000 is what’s on there. That gets updated regularly. It may be different right now than it was at 5:00 this morning.
Q: And, Mr. Rose, can you give us an update on the latest request from FEMA for the teams to help provide shots in as many as a hundred different locations?
MR. ROSE: Sure.
Q: Where does that stand? And do you expect this will include National Guard?
MR. ROSE: Sure.
Q: Will it include active duty?
MR. ROSE: So let’s take a step back and look at the whole effort to support vaccinations, with the understanding, again, Secretary Austin has established that this is of the utmost priority. If we can help increase this process in every way, shape, and form, that is in the interests of this country in the face of an enemy that has killed over 400,000 Americans, more than died in World War II.
And so there is separate lines of effort in that regard, right? There is non-clinical support to existing vaccination sites. That is something that — those are numbers that in the future we can update you on as to support for that. There is clinical support for existing vaccination sites. That again is now – our numbers that we can update you on in the future in a similar manner to how we have updated you on medical personnel support for hospitals.
And then there is what has been reported on as the potential for standing up existing sites. Now we can confirm that a mission has come in from FEMA. Certainly not prepared under any circumstances to — and I guess I’m not getting off on the right foot with any of you, you talk time-line, budget, or number of soldiers, and that should actually be to you a sign of how seriously we are treating this. Because these types of requests, we are certainly putting through the same levels of analysis under Secretary Austin’s direction that we would for any other type of allocation of soldiers.
But certainly it is something that we are taking extraordinarily seriously. And in our effort to keep all options on the table, certainly not rejecting outright by any sense of the word.
Q: But would you expect — considering the strain on some of the National Guard forces that they’ve talked about, do you expect you’ll have to dip into more active duty for this, or will states be able to use their Guard for this?
MR. ROSE: Well, actually, I wouldn’t look at it like that. You know, national guardsmen you have under Title 32 status and are answering up to the governors. Now remember what’s so key here is that this is a state-led effort. So certainly any DOD support that you see coming in, that includes the medical personnel that are being — serving in hospitals right now, that is only under the leadership of those respective governors.
When it comes to serving at home, it’s a — the Department of Defense, no matter how robust its support, much more often than not, is leading from behind in that regard. So when you see these vaccination sites as well, it falls under that same model, whether we are seeking to support an existing vaccination site, or should there be a new vaccination site.
And so that means from the perspective of the governor, they’re looking to vaccinate as many people as possible, whether that is being done in a hospital, a clinic, a pharmacy, a National Guard site, or a new site with potential active DOD involvement. And I think that is the best way that we should look at this effort across the nation to vaccinate millions of people.
STAFF: And let’s go over to the side to Tom Bowman, NPR.
Q: I just want to follow-up on this. Can you give us — you said 20,000 guard so far. Can you give us an estimate on how many more will be needed through FEMA’s request, ball park. I know you can’t give exact. And also, you know, how many locations are they looking at? Ball park on that. And then finally, what is the need here? Is it medical personnel to put needles in arms? Is it setting up sites for vaccinations? Or is it moving the doses from point A to point B?
If you could just walk us through all of that.
MR. ROSE: Sure, so when you’re looking at — to your initial question, the National Guard requests for these national guardsmen and national guardswomen that are under Title 32 status, which is — by the way, we’re not talking about Reserve here, we’re talking about National Guard, that is falling under the governor — each respective governor is looking at their needs and seeking to allocate national guardsmen and -women accordingly, with the understanding as well that you never want to — or it would be — it wouldn’t make any sense to take someone who is providing a medical role in the civilian side and put them in uniform to do the same.
Now that was the same thing that they were considering when it came to addressing the surge of COVID cases and our hospital levels dramatically increasing.
When it comes to vaccinations, there is no difference. So where I would really caution us not to go down the road of saying, it is about the number of sites that we need and going on and forth. The goal is one that we all share. And that is to get as many Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible, beginning with those that are most vulnerable to this disease, as well as those who have been on the front lines for so long, putting their lives on the line fighting for us all.
Q: So my question is, you say you were ready to offer an increase in DOD support to FEMA. Can you give us any sense of what that increase will look like, or you just don’t know yet?
MR. ROSE: Well, certainly there is a sense of that does involve human beings, right? I mean, if you look at non-clinical support for existing vaccination sites, what you do see in a vaccination site is there is a role for higher-level medical professionals but you also see a role for — to help stand it up and to do things along those lines. So you do see particular lanes where there is the potential for a role. And that is in regards to existing sites.
But this is going to be an evolving story. It has been for the last year. But what is most critical is that the secretary, Secretary Austin, has established this as something that we have alw — that we have got to keep on the forefront as we consider all of the assets at our disposal, whether that’s human expertise and the highest level of supply expertise and logisticians, or whether it’s that increasing the number of people who can help get shots in arms or help support vaccination sites or to continue to help our hospitals and medical centers that are so desperately struggling.
Q: Quickly, lastly, can you give us any sense when you can come back with specifics?
MR. ROSE: Well, I am certainly — I think the department, I know the department, whether that involves me or not, remember, my first week on the job. It could be a probationary phase. But the — we are absolutely making the commitment to brief you a very, very, very regular basis.
STAFF: Let’s go to the phone to Luis, ABC.
Q: Hi, first a question for General Friedrichs. General, can you tell us what the hesitancy information is that you have about the use of the vaccine on all three bases? I had a conversation yesterday with somebody who told me that on their base, a very large base, there were — only 60 percent of those who were eligible had agreed to take the vaccine since it is voluntary. And I’m just looking to see if you have any statistics that could back that up or provide more clarity.
And to Mr. Rose, you talked about Title 32, but what about Title 10 in terms of activation of Guard assets for this new FEMA request? What kind of assistance could we see and is Title 10 under consideration? Thank you.
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: And — and so I’ll — thank you and I’ll take the first part of that. So what we’re seeing right now is similar to what is being reported across the United States in that there’s a higher acceptance rate or a higher percentage of people who are older who are opting to have the vaccine and it trends down with age.
Again, I’m — I don’t think we’re — in fact, I’m sure we’re not at a point where we can give you — here are the absolute numbers — because we have multiple bases at different points in rolling out the vaccination. As I mentioned, we have some that started back in December and they’re now farther along in vaccinating their population. Others that have started in the last couple of weeks and so they’re still working on their frontline health care workers.
But in general, the trends are very similar to what we’re seeing in the U.S. population as a whole that the older population has been more willing to take the vaccine. The younger population has been a bit more hesitant about it and, you know, I think that’s understandable. I think as the — as we go forward and we educate our population about the safety of the vaccine, we hope and trust that that will allay some of the concerns.
And I believe, you know, for all of you who are messaging to your respective audiences there, a key part in this — as Mr. Rose said — is we have got to get this — we have got to get this vaccine out and we have got to control this pandemic. The public health measures are the first step.
And for those of you who’ve been here in previous briefings that I’ve given, I’ll reiterate what’s been said over and over again. The first step or the basic measures — the things that we’re doing right now with social distancing and wearing masks, all of the different things that you, and I, and our families have had to implement — that’s not going to go away in the near term here as we roll out the vaccines.
Testing is a key part of that and — and again, can’t stress how important that is and how proud I am of the work that folks have done to expand that across the Department. The vaccines are then the third layer of that to help us protect folks from becoming significantly — or seriously infected with this.
So it’s a layered approach that’s combined with an educational campaign. And that — as Mr. Rose said, that’s part of why we’re going to be coming back out here, whether it’s me or him or someone else, to continue to share the data that we have and what we’re learning as we roll out the vaccine and continue to protect the force.
MR. ROSE: So one — one other point that I should have noted, when you’re thinking about the use of National Guard as well as when you’re thinking about this crisis from the perspective of governors is one of — one of if not the most significant changes over the course of the last week has been the transition in the percentage that the federal government is accounting for in terms of payments. That’s for both the — any type of FEMA contracting as well for the use of the National Guard.
But certainly, there are constraints when you look at the use of the National Guard and the — and the force within it. Does it make sense to take medical personnel and transition them? Does it make sense to take law enforcement personnel and so on and so forth?
Of course, there are those same considerations when it comes to members in the Reserve force that we — many of our medical professionals in the Reserves, who do operate under a Title 10 umbrella, are doing the same job in the civilian side. So that is — the — the reason why I put that forth is that is always a consideration. That we’re — we’re not just thinking here about what is the number that we can come out and present you all with, we’re also thinking about, well, how does that change the strain of that — of that state and the — and those hospital systems.
Keep in mind as well is that — it would be easier to make that determination if this were a crisis that was in just one state or just one region. But because this is something that is engulfing the entire nation at this one moment it does — it doesn’t make sense to take a civilian doctor or a civilian nurse from Texas and put them in uniform and send them to Michigan at all times. But this is something that we are continuing to balance is absolutely my point, as well as continuing to do the risk analyses necessary to consider whether or not it makes sense to transition a medical professional — a nurse or otherwise — from the active-duty force to — to a mission out here at home.
STAFF: Let’s stay on the phone. We’re going to go to (Jennifer ?) with The New York Times.
Q: Hi, thanks. I just want to amplify my colleague’s questions — and just ask again directly. You point out that the National Guard has helped set up these sites in states and even administered vaccines. We know that.
What’s not been the case is active-duty military has not participated in moving around vaccines or putting shots into arms. So I think we’re just trying to ask you directly, as a policy change, is the Pentagon preparing to — to send active-duty troops to these FEMA centers? Will they participate in setting up/running those centers, giving shots? I know you don’t know how many in specifics but, yes or no, are they going to do it?
MR. ROSE: So first of all, keep in mind that this is — the Pentagon will not do anything under any circumstances without the approval and consent and support of governors. So that is the — that is the first thing.
But we are actively considering support for the vaccine effort and are prepared to certainly do so, so long as it does a few things: one, fulfills — helps to fulfill the president’s objectives, as he’s — as the president has laid out; so long as it is with the consent of the governor; so long as it remains equitable and fair along the way. But that — that is certainly a mission that we are capable of doing and — and are certainly analyzing doing. It’s — you do have to break it down, though, into two different pillars: support for existing sites as well as support for stand-up sites as well.
STAFF: Okay, let’s go in the room here. Lucas?
Q: Mr. Rose — Lucas Tomlinson with Fox News.
MR. ROSE: Good to see you.
Q: Good to see you too. Mr. Rose, do you have a U.S. Army general in charge of logistics? If that’s the case, why are there so many problems distributing the vaccine?
MR. ROSE: Well, I — I don’t think that that’s the correct way of looking of this. I believe you’re referring to General Perna?
MR. ROSE: So first of all, this is a monumental task. But it is not just a logistical task as one would think about Amazon sending a book, right? It has to get somewhere where there’s a shot in the arm.
There’s also incredible complexity to production. You have 97,000 potential sources where it could go, but you also have the capability of standing up new vaccination centers. Now has this gone perfectly over the course of the last how many months? No. Are we absolutely intent on continuing to be ever bolder, more effective, more equitable so that we can beat this pandemic?
Absolutely yes, absolutely, and I’m supremely confident that from the DOD perspective, you’ll — can see — you’ll continue — you’ll see our full engagement.
Q: And just to confirm, you were given a distribution plan when you assume this role, correct?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Oh if I could, I’ll take that. Are you talking about the internal distribution plan for DOD?
Q: DOD and also across the country.
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So I assume that’s an important distinction there. So we developed our DOD distribution plan for our vaccine in coordination with CDC like every other jurisdiction did. And then separately, OWS, formally known as OWS led by General Perna as you highlighted there, has worked with those states and territories.
But it’s really the states and territories that develop their plan, came back and said here’s our requirements through CDC and then worked with — with the logistical team to execute the distribution of that. So that — it’s — there’s no one organization that develops those plans, it’s really a partnership to pull those together.
Q: And Dr. Friedrichs, in your expert medical advice and military advice, would you characterize the National Guard deployment in Washington D.C. as a potential super spreader event?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: No. No I would not. I — and I — I hope you guys will, you know, accept on face value here. I’ve been very straight shooting with you guys every time I’ve come out here, I would not. I personally talked to the guard surgeon, I’ve talked to the folks who were working out and the short answer is no.
STAFF: Staying in the room here, let’s go to Lara Seligman.
Q: Hi, it’s Lara Seligman with POLITICO. Just actually to follow-up on (Lucas’ ?) question, you say it’s not a super spreader event but can you give us a little more detail about why you say that? Can you specifically tell us the total number of guard members who have been tested for COVID out of the 25,000 and then how many tested positive and how many are quarantined?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So I’m going to disappoint you on that and say no, I cannot give you the specific numbers. I can tell you who can, and that’s the D.C. Guard. And the reason I’m so confident in this though is when I’ve spoken to our guard colleagues on this and listen to the plans that they implemented.
They’re the same plans that the Centers for Disease Control has put out. They’ve used the same processes going forward that the rest of the country has been asked and recommended to use going forward. I believe they’re executing them the right way. They’re identifying folks who develop symptoms and testing them and I would refer you, for the specific numbers, to the D.C. Guard because they’re the ones who have that information right now.
But every indication that I’ve heard from them in multiple discussions with them is that they are following the same protocols and the same standards that the rest of us are following.
Q: So I have been asking the Guard for a long time for those details and they have not given them to me. So can you say why you can’t release those numbers?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: I don’t have the Guard numbers, all right, so I don’t have the specifics that you were asking for there.
STAFF: Let’s go to Oren, CNN.
Q: Have you tested for or are you testing for the U.K. or the South African variant of COVID amongst DOD personnel, either domestically or abroad, and obviously what are the result of those tests?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So, yes, we have labs that participate in and share data with the Centers for Disease Control. And as you know, the number of sites at which we found some of these new variants is fairly low across the United States. We are not yet seeing them in our DOD population of the tests that we’ve done.
Again, this is — I would be very cautious though in reading too much into that because as you’ve seen from other sources, from the CEC and elsewhere, this is very much an evolving spreader. So I think the key thing on this is we got to keep testing for it and keep tracking for it. But so far, within our population, we have not seen a significant new variant that is causing concern.
Q: And that’s both domestically and internationally, correct?
STAFF: Also in the room here, Meghann?
Q: Oh, the CDC vaccination tracker pretty consistently puts DOD’s number of administered doses at about half of the distributed doses. We know from local reports around the country that a lot of that has to do with that hesitancy for the people on the priority list to get it and then kind of just scramble to figure out who they’re going to give it to instead because all of those plans are different.
Does DOD have a more specific plan about who you call when you can’t give it to the person on the list? And if they do, why is the 50 percent still pretty par for the course with everybody else?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Yes, and so I’m — first, it would go back to a couple points that I made earlier on this because I think this is really important. Would recommend if you’re going to look at the CDC data that you look at it day by day and not just a single snapshot because it does tend to vary, as I mentioned earlier.
If you look at the very beginning of the week, the percentages are almost everywhere — going back and look at the last three weeks, different than at the end of the week because we get the allocation at the beginning of the week.
Q: I checked in the beginning of the press conference and it’s about 50 right now. Is there a part related –
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Correct, and so that’s the lag that — that’s the lag that I was talking about earlier. So to answer your specific questions, yes, part of what the Defense Health Agency has worked with each of the bases on is their base level plan that says using the DOD prioritization, which is based on the CDC prioritization, here’s who we go through.
And they have the authority, if there’s no one in a particular tear that’s available or that opts for the vaccine, to go to the next level down, and it varies base by base. That was the comment that I made earlier there. For the first 10 bases that were our pilot sites, they’re much farther along in their lists than the last few sites that have come online that are still working on their initial group of healthcare workers.
So at least the — everything that I am hearing on the joint staff side into the COVID task force is that that process is working well and stepping through the priorities and making sure that we are not losing any vaccines. Our loss rate has been negligible. It’s, I think — I don’t remember the exact number and apologize for that.
But we certainly have not lost any vaccines because they’re sitting on the shelf there.
Q: I have a very quick follow-up. So the DOD website also tracks COVID cases and breaks them down by service members, dependents, civilian contractor. Why can we not get that same level of fidelity of administered vaccines?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So, that’s a very long answer. That’s a quick question but a very long answer.
Q: I assume it’s because CDC says you have to do this and you’re not doing more than what CDC is telling you to do.
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: That’s –
Q: What I’m asking is why not?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So, that’s part of it. What I would offer and I’ll defer to our P.A. colleagues, if I can get back to you because that’s a much longer answer. There’s — there’s a lot of nuances to that piece of it. There’s a lot more data that we are collecting. They’re — putting it all out on the website becomes a bit more challenging for a variety of reasons, so.
STAFF: Let’s go to the — back to the phone. We’re going to go to Jeff Schogol.
Q: Thank you. This is a question for General Friedrichs. I’m following up on my colleague’s question, are you saying that an organization that has an annual budget of $705 billion is unable to say how many service members have been vaccinated and how many have refused? Thank you.
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: No, I’m not saying that. So, I — as I mentioned, there were 366,000 doses given out and I don’t have it in front of me. I can get you the exact number of which of those were first doses and which those were second doses. If I remember correctly, it was around 320,000 are first doses and 40,000-ish of those were second doses, so that means about 320,000 people.
So the declinations are a little bit more challenging and — and this gets into the fact that this is voluntary.
We — we are not compelling people to take a vaccine that this is truly something that they have to volunteer for. And — and we’ve been very careful to adhere to not just the letter but the intent of the guidance that’s been put out on that under the emergency use authorization.
STAFF: Okay, back to here in the room.
Q: Hey (inaudible) — excuse me, Al Jazeera English. White House officials said when they took over they realized there was no plan in place to get vaccines into the hands — the arms of Americans. Is that true?
MR. ROSE: So, there is no doubt that there is significant room for improvement and that is reflected in the strategic guidance, the executive orders, the changes in FEMA payment ratios, the leadership by FEMA, all of which this administration has put into fold in just the last few days.
That in itself speaks for what this administration came on to. Now with that being said though, from the perspective of DOD, I just think it is absolutely essential that we are forward-looking, just trying to do more. And –
Q: Was there a plan or no?
MR. ROSE: Well, certainly in terms of anything that the White House said, I would refer you to the White House. Anything that the White House came onto, I would refer you to the White House.
But what I can tell you is, is that from the perspective of Secretary Austin, within just his first day establishing this as his number one priority and firmly stating that this department stands ready to do anything it can to support the president’s effort, FEMA’s effort, all the while not sacrificing our posture and our capabilities to defend this nation. That is where we stand right now under — under Secretary Austin.
Q: So those people had ten months to come up with a plan and they didn’t and you’re saying those same people are going to stay in charge of the distribution?
MR. ROSE: Well, I — I don’t think that that’s the correct way to look at this, okay? That this — that what this administration is doing and the –the Department of Defense’s support for President Biden’s strategy of defeating this pandemic as quickly as possible. That’s where we are right now.
And I can tell you within my first week as I look at the men and women in uniform who are serving this nation and have served this nation for years, I have the upmost confidence in their ability to execute this plan going forward.
STAFF: Let’s go to the back. Tom?
Q: Thanks. What’s the percentage of individuals here in the Pentagon who have gotten the vaccination and what’s the refusal rate?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Again, I — I — I think I may not have been clear on that one. So, the refusal rate is a — is a statistic that I think we’re not going to be able to give you because it’s a voluntary vaccine.
Q: Let me rephrase the question and what’s the — the first part still, so what’s the percentage? How many in the Pentagon have been vaccinated? And are you seeing people here in the Pentagon refuse to?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Are we seeing people who are declining to it? Yes.
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Yes. And I mean I’ve had people say that for a variety of reasons, they’re pregnant, which is a very reasonable concern. They want to talk to their doctor first, very reasonable concern. I mean, yes.
So there are people who have said they don’t want to get it. I’ll have to get back to you on the latest numbers for the Pentagon. It changes daily and I don’t have those numbers with me right now.
Q: Is it ongoing the –
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Yes.
Q: — (inaudible)?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Yes. Every day we’re — we’re doing vaccinations here in the building and our clinic downstairs is in charge of that.
Q: Thank you.
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: You bet.
STAFF: Okay. And last question, Abraham?
Q: Thank you. Abraham Mahshie with the Washington Examiner, this question is for General Friedrichs. So you mentioned 320,000 of military personnel, duty personnel, have been vaccinated. But you had 769,000 doses, so there’s a — there’s a big gap there. You also said that there’s sort of a trend line that matches civilian society that older folks are the ones who are accepting it at a higher rate.
And you also said that — that — that there’s a tier of individuals for strategic and national security and those deploying, those people are generally younger. So are the people who are doing national security, strategic, and deploying turning down vaccines and still deploying without the vaccine?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: So, in some cases yes. It’s a voluntary vaccine. I mean, there are people in I think every walk of life across our country who are making this choice as they’re offered the opportunity to get vaccinated.
Certainly within the Department of Defense we had tried very hard to make it clear this is a voluntary vaccine. And while we certainly encourage people, and I asked for your help with that to reinforce the safety and the efficacy of this, it is ultimately a voluntary vaccine. And so, the answer is yes.
Q: And when they deploy or they do some important national security function like nuclear protection they are allowed to –
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Yes.
Q: — continue to do that job?
BRIG. GEN. FRIEDRICHS: Yes.
STAFF: Gentlemen, thank you very much for your time and then we’ll transition here to our — our phase two of the — of the conference.
MR. KIRBY: Okay. You have a couple of things to read off at the top if you just bear with me. So, just some status updates. We have made a lot of progress over the last week alone in just getting new members to the Defense Department team. We’ve welcomed now 30 new appointees.
And just the last week another dozen are slated for next week. Of those, 25 came to the Office of Secretary Defense, the OSD staff. Two went to the Department of the Army and three went to the Department of the Navy.
Among these new arrivals are Kimberly Jackson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness inside the personnel and readiness directorate and Taylor Ferrell, as the Deputy General Counsel for Environment and Installations. And if you want a full list of the people we’ve on boarded happy to provide that after we’re done here.
We also want to obviously thank Congress for their support in helping us get some of these positions filled. As you may know next Tuesday the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Dr. Kathleen Hicks who has been nominated to be the Deputy Secretary of Defense. We’re grateful that that hearing got scheduled in short order and we’re certainly looking forward to a speedy confirmation for Dr. Hicks.
We’re obviously very happy to see all our arrivals and we thank them for their willingness to serve. Now let me shift gears to Secretary Austin.
I think you’ve been seeing that we’ve been providing read outs of the calls that he’s made to several international counterparts. He spoke again today with the Foreign — French Foreign Minister — I’m sorry, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly to reinforce the importance of this strategic alliance between our two countries.
They also discussed security stability in Africa, the need for continued vigilance against terrorism, and the pandemic, and of course the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the broader Middle East.
He thanked her for her leadership on global security and defense issues. Said he looks forward to continued dialogue in the future — in the future for the United State and France to work bilaterally and to — obviously through the NATO alliance.
Second call we had today was with the Israeli Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, Mr. Gantz congratulated the Secretary on his position and the Secretary reaffirmed of course the — the strong partnership and relationship that we have bi-laterally with Israel. The Secretary did reiterate U.S. commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge and both leaders agreed to remain in close coordination on shared defense priorities, particularly in the region but also around the world.
I think you’ll see the Secretary continue to reach out to the counterparts, two more calls tomorrow. One to the Defense Minister of Italy and the other to the Defense Minister of Canada. [ED NOTE. The call was with Mexico, not Canada.]
Taken outside behind — beyond the building we’d like to announce that Arlington National Cemetery’s going to commemorate the Centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with a whole year-long tribute. For nearly 100 years the Tomb of the Unknown, many of you have seen it has served as — has served as the heart of Arlington National Cemetery, it’s truly a peoples memorial and inspires reflection on service, valor, sacrifice, and mourning.
As a sacred memorial site and the grave of these unknown American service members the tomb connects visitors with the legacy of the U.S. Armed Forces throughout our nation’s history and throughout the whole year the cemetery will hold events leading up to the centennial ceremony on November 11th of 2021. They’ve got a website set up, I encourage you to check it out, all the events will be available there.
And with that, I’ll start taking questions. Lita.
Q: Let us take another stab at this.
MR. KIRBY: What’s that?
Q: Let us take another stab at this. Can you give us some clarity on the FEMA request and what it may or may not include, what the Secretary’s spot is on that? Active duty, not, active duty medical units and whatever and then just secondarily, Secretary spoke with the Germany — German MOD yesterday –
MR. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: — what can you say about the Secretary’s thought on the ongoing plan to pull a significant number of troops out of Germany?
MR. KIRBY: Okay. Let me start with one, if I forget two, which is likely, please remind me because those are both weighty questions you just asked.
So, look, on the — on the FEMA request, as I think Mr. Rose indicated that we are in receipt of a request by FEMA for Defense Department capabilities to assist in vaccine distribution. I am not able right now to go into great detail into what the request is.
It is going through, just like we would get from a combatant command, it’s going through the same process and it just came in yesterday, actually in the evening and so it is being analyzed for resourcing and risk by the services and that’s — again, typical process, Lita, you know that. So, I’m — I’m really loathe to get into the details of the request. Now, what I think what you’re really getting at is how we’re going to source it.
So, a couple of thoughts. First of all, we’re obviously going to source this request. I mean the Secretary has made it very clear that we are going to provide as much capability and capacity as the Defense Department can afford to do to help with this national priority.
We also have other jobs to do clearly in the defense of the country and so there’s risk whenever you pull capabilities away and we’re going to have to balance that risk with this request but we’re going to contribute and we’re going to — and we’re going to do so in as aggressive a manner as we can.
And just as we do with every other request, when we put it out to the services for sourcing, because this would very much be a joint effort, this would not fall on any one service, each service has medical, clinical and non-clinical, as well as logistical capabilities. So, I would suspect you see when we fill this request it will be done jointly across the services.
I can’t tell you definitively right now that it’s going to be this particular mix of active duty or reserves or Guard. I would be surprised if it isn’t a mix of all three. But again, it hasn’t been sourced yet and as for the — the numbers — the numbers they asked for versus the numbers we’re going to be able to source, again we’re not there yet because we also do have to — we have to balance the risk to — to the medical capabilities that we need in the fleet and in the field and to care for our members and their families.
So, it’s a long answer to a good question. I — I would just tell you that it’s going through the same exact process that we would get and normally, Lita, and you know this, we wouldn’t talk — sit up here and talk about requests from combatant commands, right, especially not before their sourced, but in this case we thought it was important to acknowledge that we got the — the request and that we are actively sourcing it.
When am I going to have answers for you? I don’t know the exact day, but I would say it — we’re talking days, certainly not weeks, to get this sourced. We know there’s an urgency, the Secretary knows there’s an urgency, and he’s made it clear that he wants the department to lean in and lean forward with as much as we can possibly do.
So, I think you’re going to see us figure out the sourcing mechanism here within days and when we do and we have something more definitive we’ll let you know. But look for a — look for a blend and a mix.
On Germany, they had a great conversation yesterday. Without question, the issue of U.S. force presence in — in levels in Germany came up, clearly. What I would tell you is that the Secretary made clear that he wants to take a look globally at force posture. As you would expect him to do when he first comes into office.
So, we’ll certainly — we’re certainly going to look at the European lay down and we’re going to bounce that against — I’m sorry, not bounce, that’s not a good verb — we’re going to measure it against you know what — what the requirements are for the U.S. Military and what our strategy is in every region and he’ll think through that thoughtfully with the advice of both civilian and military leadership.
What he did assert to the Defense Minister was that whatever decision we make, we’ll do it in consultation with her and her government. There won’t be any surprises. It’ll be a collaborative effort as we look forward and — and, Lita, last thing I’d say is I don’t want you to take away from this answer that — that there will be or won’t be any specific change.
He made it very clear that he values the support that we’ve received for so many years from Germany as a veteran of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, he well knows the key role, logistical and medical role that — that the German government has played in terms of providing us those — the — the infrastructure to provide those capabilities to the force and I can guarantee you that whatever we come to it — it’s going to be in the best interest of our national security interest and those of our key ally, Germany. That — that get you?
Okay. Afghanistan, go ahead.
Q: Thank you very much, welcome back.
MR. KIRBY: You’re welcome, thanks.
Q: My name is (inaudible) I am Afghan journalist.
MR. KIRBY: I know you.
Q: Thank you. What is the new plan out of the strategy of (inaudible) bring some change to U.S. and Taliban (inaudible) they are going to start again a war and start — get (attacked to use ?) forces in Afghanistan?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, let’s back up just a little bit. We are still involved in trying to get a negotiated settlement. The Taliban have not met their commitments. As you know, there is a looming deadline of early May that — that before everybody in terms of you wanting to have the solution here.
But without them meeting our commitments to renounce terrorism and to stop the violent attacks on the Afghan National security forces and by dint of that the Afghan people, it’s very hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement.
But we’re still committed to that. There’s no question about that. The secretary has been clear in testimony that that’s — that we need to find a reasonable rational end to this war and that it’s got to be done through a negotiated settlement.
That includes the Afghan government has to be involved in this. And thus far, the Taliban has been, to put it politely, reticent to their requirements. So — and this gets to the — the other number — the other issue, which is U.S. force presence.
So we’re down to 2,500 right now. Both General Miller, the commander in Afghanistan, and of course the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Milley, have made clear that they believe that this is a sufficient number to accomplish the mission, which is largely a counter terrorism mission right now.
We have many NATO partners in Afghanistan. In fact, that was another thing that we talked — that the secretary talked about the German defense minister was their commitment to the NATO mission who were also involved in some advise and assist missions as well. So right now we think we have enough to do what we need to do.
But there’s no — let me put — there hasn’t been any decisions made now about what that force presence is going to look like going forward. And I would say this to the leaders of the Taliban, that it is going to be — that they make it that much more difficult for final decisions to be made about force presence by their reticence to commit to reasonable, sustainable, and credible negotiations at the table. Okay.
MR. KIRBY: Go ahead. (Inaudible). Go ahead.
Q: (Inaudible) with Fox Media News, nice to meet you.
MR. KIRBY: Nice to meet you.
Q: Sort of a follow-up on Lita’s question.
MR. KIRBY: No follow-ups to Lita’s question.
Q: Okay. This will be a new question.
MR. KIRBY: Once I’m done with Lita, I’m done.
Q: Okay. This will be a new stream of questions. You mentioned that you spoke today with Minister Parley of France. And you also said from here that he’s looking at a force posture around the world.
Last summer on a trip by then Secretary Esper to — many went to Minister Parley. Secretary Esper announced that the U.S. was going to cut back significantly its support for the French operations — counter terrorism operations in France. And of course we –
MR. KIRBY: You mean not in France, you mean in Africa.
Q: Africa — French operations in Africa, thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: As well. I’m wondering did that come up as part of the conversation today and if so, is a review of the U.S. force posture in Africa helping the French underway to the point of this? Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: It did come up in the conversation. I think I mentioned that in the read out. They certainly did talk about Africa and to the Sahel specifically. The secretary certainly didn’t commit to one course or another but he obviously expressed his appreciation for the work that France is doing counter-terrorism wise.
And in pledged that we would continue to look forward to what — what our contributions might or might not look like going forward. So there wasn’t — there wasn’t a specific commitment. But look I mean we’re –
Q: Same as sort of with Germany, in other words, you can look at it and it’s being sponsored with — yes.
MR. KIRBY: That’s where I — yes, that’s where I was going. So we’re week one into the job and I think it’s fair for everyone to expect that the secretary is going to want to take a look at operations around the world, what we’re doing, whether it matches — whether we’re matching resources to the strategy, whether the strategy is itself appropriate.
And then what kind of operations need to be conducted going — going forward when we’re talking about an operational environment, which we’re not in Germany. It’s largely that there’s a — there’s a large infrastructure there for forward basing of some troops and facilities.
But I think it’s fair to say that — that he will be looking at all the force presence around the world before he makes any specific decisions.
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Yes, go ahead.
Q: Thank you very much. And, John, nice to meet you again. I’m (inaudible)
MR. KIRBY: Yes, I know. I remember almost all of you.
Q: Yes, I would come (prepared ?) for (four years ?) (inaudible). Can you tell us about — have two questions for you. Can you tell us about the vaccinations, you know, situations for the U.S. troops stationed overseas?
And second question is the joint military exercise continues in South Korea where (it’s intended ?) during the Trump administration, so what is the Biden administration in — for resuming this military exercise.
MR. KIRBY: So I’m — I’m — I’m not able to into the specific vaccination of troops overseas but we obviously can help pull that data.
So let me take that question because I don’t want to speak to something I don’t know about. Thanks for that reminder. Again, I would refer you more specifically to General Abrams and his staff. I don’t want to speak for them.
I think just broadly, right, that we recognize the value of training and exercises to keep forces ready and no place is that more important than on the Korean Peninsula.
And even though some exercises were changed in character or in fact stopped over the last couple of years, while diplomatic negotiations were going on with — with Pyongyang, I don’t want to speak for General Abrams but my understanding is that they were still able to exercise and to train at a level that kept readiness capability intact.
And that is certainly what the secretary is committed to doing. And he’ll work with the — with his civilian staff as well as the chairman and General Abrams going forward to make sure that that’s the case.
I meant the ready to fight tonight is — is not just a slogan. It actually means something there on the peninsula and the secretary’s committed to that. What that exercise regime is going to look like specifically going forward, I’m just not prepared to tell you but we — he fully understands the need to stay ready and we’re going to be committed to that.
Q: (Inaudible) tell you about the North Korea, you know, the new development of a new SLBM.
MR. KIRBY: I’m sorry the development of?
Q: Development of the new SLBM.
MR. KIRBY: Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile.
Q: Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile, yes.
MR. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: That’s work. (Inaudible) in four years, yes.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you for that reminder, Mike. So I’m — I’m not going to get into assessments of specific weapon systems now but all I’ll just say is that we’re certainly mindful of Pyongyang’s desire to advance their military capabilities. We know exactly what those military capabilities are designed to do. And — and we’re — we’re going to continue to make sure that we have the readiness posture we need on the Korean Peninsula. And I think I’ll leave it at that.
Let me — let me get a question from the phone. I think Barb — Barb, are you on?
Q: I am. I have two specific questions. I wanted to ask you to bring us up to date as much as possible, in as much detail as possible, about the work so far on trying to find a way ahead on countering domestic extremism in the military. What you’ve been looking at, what meetings you’re having, and what your thoughts are.
But first, I want to go back to what you said about Afghanistan. You said it’s very hard to see a specific way forward for negotiated settlement decisions made on going forward. You seem very much to be raising the prospect of keeping the door open to not going to zero in May because you’re saying it’s hard to see a specific way forward for the negotiated settlement. Is — are you saying that the decision to go to zero is still open to review and discussion in the Biden administration?
MR. KIRBY: What I’m saying is that any decision of — of force levels in Afghanistan is going to be driven by our security requirements there, our security commitments there, and driven by conditions. And I think we’ve been very clear about that, Barb. They’ll be conditions-based.
We obviously want to see a responsible end to this war. We obviously want to see successful negotiated settlements to end it. We obviously want to see those settlements include the Taliban and the elected Afghan government but we have a commitment to — to Afghanistan and to — and to the Afghan National Security Forces that we take very seriously.
So I don’t want to get into hypotheticals or — you know, or — or try to predict certain outcomes. I can tell you that that’s still the goal. We know that that May — that May deadline is out there. But we’re going to be making our decisions in a sober, rational manner that is driven by what’s in our best interests and the interests of our partner in Afghanistan, as well as our NATO partners and allies too.
Q: So the notion of — which General Miller, I think, has articulated — you would keep a small amount for counterterrorism — Al Qaida, ISIS-K should it be there — but that the agreement you reach was, under the Trump administration, was to — signed I believe, was to go to zero. And now, you’re saying that is a goal so it is under discussion to not go to zero.
MR. KIRBY: It is — it is under discussion with our partners and allies to make the best decisions going forward on — on — on force presence in Afghanistan. I think, again, as the secretary has been very clear and I — and President Biden has too, it’s — it’s — it’s time to end this war but we want to do it responsibly. We want to do it in keeping with our national security interests and those of our Afghan partners.
So I don’t want to — I’m not trying to dodge the question. I’m telling you that, just like the answer to Lita on Germany, we’re — we’re going to take a broad look here going forward about what — what makes the most sense.
As I said, right now, General Miller and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs believe that the 2,500 is enough to do the job they’ve been given. The question is, you know, how much longer do they need to keep doing that job. And if we can get to a negotiated settlement, then there won’t be the need for those troops. Right now, there is.
And it’s difficult — and in fact, impossible to look out here on the 28th of January to early May to see exactly where we’re going to be. But we’re going to constantly — and we’ll constantly talk to you about it, but we’re going to constantly review it, as we do elsewhere.
And you had another question, Barb?
Q: Domestic extremism, as much as you can tell us about what you’ve been — what you’ve been doing in the first week to try and look at that issue, which the secretary I believe also identified as a top priority.
MR. KIRBY: He did. I can tell you that he and Chairman Milley have spoken about this particular issue and they’ve both expressed their commitment to trying to get after it, to find the best way forward, to understand the scope of the problem inside the ranks and to better deal with the behavior — the conduct that is driven by — by extremist beliefs.
I want to say at the outset — and I know you understand this, but the — the vast, vast majority of men and women in the United States military serve with honor, and with character, and integrity, and dignity and they don’t espouse these sorts of dangerous beliefs. But that doesn’t mean that even the small number, while it may be small, is insignificant. And that — and it doesn’t mean that we don’t think that there might be a problem. The problem is we don’t understand the full scope of it.
So he and Chairman Milley have talked about this. There is, I think you guys know and have reported on — had already been an ongoing review by the Personnel and Readiness directorate here at the Department to look specifically at extremism, to look at policies, laws, regulations that govern the conduct driven by extremist beliefs and to see whether there needs to be changes.
That work is ongoing and continues. The secretary has not shut that down. They have to finish their initial work by the end of March, so very soon here, with a plan to come up with milestones to be completed by mid-summer, I think.
So the secretary is not going to stop that work. He wants them to keep doing that. But in the meantime he’s also, as I said, meeting with Chairman Milley and he’s going to be talking to military leaders going forward about — about what they think the scope of the problem is.
MR. KIRBY: Tom? Go ahead, Tom. Go ahead, Tom.
Q: I mean, do you expect — does the secretary expect and the chairman expect fairly soon to get an idea on the scope of the problem? How many people have been kicked out for extremist behavior, how many recruits turned away for extremist behavior, and then how many investigations by the FBI?
We got figures from the FBI just for 2020 and half of the investigations by FBI last year — half of them involved domestic extremism. Do we expect to get a sense of the numbers which would give you a sense of the scope of the problem?
MR. KIRBY: I think in a perfect world, Tom, the answer to that would be yes. We would like to get that. The problem is it’s not a perfect world, particularly when it comes to this problem because so many of the cases of conduct by people with extremist beliefs are adjudicated through the civilian investigative law enforcement and — and — and judicial processes.
So for instance, we received 143 notifications of investigation from the FBI last year for all conduct, 68 of them pertained to domestic extremism. So sometimes we are — we are sort of beholden to the civilian law enforcement apparatus for that kind of data. That doesn’t mean it’s exclusively that, but mostly it’s driven by the law enforcement data.
And you don’t know what you don’t know — right — until somebody acts on these kinds of beliefs. So it’s very difficult to — to get a hand on how many people at any given time espouse these kinds of beliefs and how many –
MR. KIRBY: — Wait, wait — how many act on it –
Q: — Right. Right.
MR. KIRBY: So back to recruiting, for instance, you know this. I mean, we do extensive vetting of — and screening of recruits. Just because somebody comes in, okay, doesn’t mean that they somehow develop radical beliefs while they’re in, through exposure online or from colleagues, so it’s very difficult to get at the root of the — where does the radicalization begin and how do you get to the left of that? And I think that’s one of the things that they want to explore.
Q: Again, if you’re getting just one figure from the FBI from 2020, I mean, why can’t you guys — we can ask the FBI, but they’re going to listen to you much more than us. Why can’t we get a numbers going back 10 years in the FBI? Has this increased over the past number of years? I mean, that’s the kind of thing that everybody would want to know, right?
MR. KIRBY: Yes. Well, I point you to the FBI for that kind of data, I mean — but and –
MR. KIRBY: — I — no, I get it. And remember, disciplinary issues in the military are handled by the services. So again, one of the things I think we’re looking at is how do we get — how do we do the data pull? How do we get better visibility, and we just don’t have the answers right now.
A lot of this is driven by the services themselves, and sometimes — sometimes the conduct itself. While it may be driven by an extremist belief, it’s not a behavior that you automatically look at and say okay, well there’s white supremacy, you know. Maybe it’s a violent crime for — on one service member to another and it’s not exactly clear what the motivation was.
The motivation may have been extremist beliefs. We — that may not manifest itself in the investigative and adjudication — in the military justice system. It may not — it just may not manifest itself, so it’s hard to get a perfect grasp on it.
But you’re hitting it exactly why the Secretary and the Chairman are taking this so seriously and want to get a better grip on it. I don’t think anybody can assure you that we’re going to know, down to the very specific detail, every single case and what motivated it, but I can tell you they’re committed to trying to find out.
And so, as they start to look at this, I mean that — what we don’t know and why we don’t know it is going to be a part of that calculus.
Q: I want to follow-up on Afghanistan.
MR. KIRBY: All right, we’ll go on Afghanistan and then Goyal, we’ll go to you, and then I got to do some from the phone.
Q: Yes, Afghanistan and Iran — yes, yes. It seems to me you’re –
MR. KIRBY: Yes, yes.
Q: — making a new interpretation of the agreement with Taliban because the issue of political reconciliation has nothing to do with the level of U.S. troops, based on what was declared back then in February. So my question is this, is the U.S. still committed in pulling out all troops by May if Iran cut — if Taliban cut all ties with terrorist organizations? That’s the first one.
On Iran, can you share with us your assessment of the, you know, state of play with Iran now? Are we still seeing the same level of tension with or threats coming from Iran has been assess previously by this building? And we saw yesterday like continuation of sending B-52 to the region.
We heard from Israel top general talking about readying plans for military plans, I guess Iran. Do you think these type of moves and statements are conducive to creating more room for diplomacy?
MR. KIRBY: Okay, on Afghanistan, I think I was pretty clear. I don’t think I was trying to reinterpret the political settlement.
Q: (Inaudible) an Afghani track separate from pulling out, but we know — but — yes.
MR. KIRBY: Right, I said that — I said the Taliban are not meeting their commitments to reduce violence and to renounce their ties to Al Qaida. And they are not meeting their commitments and as long as they’re not meeting their commitments, it’s going to be difficult for anybody at that negotiating table to meet their commitment, in fact, it wouldn’t be the wise course.
I mean, we obviously are still committed to ending this war, but we want to do it in a responsible way. And I don’t think it’s helpful to be drawn now into specific hypothetical discussions about the troop numbers on a — on a specific calendar basis.
We’re still committed to ending this war and we obviously, the president has made it clear, he wants to bring American troops home from Afghanistan but we’re going to do it in lockstep with the diplomatic process to try to find a negotiated settlement. I’m not trying to recast that.
Q: My question is not about ending the war, my question is not hypothetical, it’s about an agreement that the U.S. signed by which it should pull out all troops by May if Taliban met its own requirements. Is that still the — are you still committed –
MR. KIRBY: Yes, they did — of course we are, but it’s a big if isn’t it?
Q: Yes, it’s if — Taliban, yes. So if Taliban commits its own — met its own commitment, you are willing to pull out fully by May?
MR. KIRBY: There is no change, let me put it very clear, there’s no change to the commitments we made that was done previous to our coming in, there’s no — been no change to that. We all want to see an end to the war, but you said if the Taliban meet their commitments and they haven’t and they aren’t.
So it’s — as I said at the very beginning of this, it’s difficult to see how we get there from right where we are now. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep trying, doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue to support the efforts of our negotiators. That’s exactly where we want this to go, okay.
On Iran, I mean I think Iran continues to be a malign actor in the region. It continues to support terrorism throughout the Middle East. And they still post threats to our partners and friends there. They still have an active ballistic missile program and they have been recently respinning centrifuges.
I won’t speak for the State Department and the status of how they’re looking at a return to the JCPOA, that’s really not our issue here. I would tell you that from the Secretary’s perspective, we still have national security interest in the Middle East, in the Persian Gulf specifically. We still have partners and friends who we are committed to as well.
And we still have a significant interest in stemming the acts of terrorism that Iran continues to propagate throughout the region. I mean just recently, there have been attacks on facilities in Iraq, which we have reason to believe were the result of the Shia-backed militias.
So there’s — they’re still — they’re still involved in significant and specific acts of violence. And to the degree that we have capabilities to try to deter that activity, I think you can expect we’re going to use that, okay?
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Goyal, Goyal, go ahead.
Q: Thank you John, first of all congratulations.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you.
Q: My question is that how much has been going on with when the U.S. and India (inaudible) relations? I understand Secretary have just spoken with the Indian defense minister, Mr. (inaudible).
MR. KIRBY: He did.
Q: And he has spoken about ongoing problems all around India and China in the region. So can we talk about that there, what was phone call about and what is the future of U.S., India military to military relationship.
MR. KIRBY: I had a good chat yesterday, I think you saw the readout of that, discussed a lot of issues, including our two nation’s response to the coronavirus. And as I said in the readout, the Secretary made it very clear that we’re going to remain committed to a strong U.S., India bilateral relationship. Let me go to Phil Stewart. Are you — are you there, Phil?
Q: I am, yes. Thanks very much. First of all, welcome back to the briefing room.
MR. KIRBY: Thank you. Thank you.
Q: Yeah. So first, just going back the coronavirus issue. I think a lot of us were sort of alarmed, I hadn’t been tracking the numbers very closely to see how many personnel and armed forces have contracted COVID.
And I wanted ask in the Biden administration comfortable with the military’s performance and keeping troops free from infection given that the rate of infection among — among U.S. armed forces is similar to the general population. And then I have a question on Syria.
MR. KIRBY: Well, the short answer is yes, Phil, and I think you heard General Friedrichs talk about that. We’re obviously committed to vaccinating as many as our troops as we possibly can. But as he noted, it is a voluntary vaccination and there is a tiered structure in terms of the priorities for doing that.
So, bottom line is yes, we are committed to vaccinating as many of our troops as possible.
Q: Yes, I guess what I’m asking is, like, are the rates of infection among — among personnel in the armed forces acceptable at their current levels or do you think that they — the military needs to do a better job safeguarding people from infection, not vaccinations right now, but infection until they can get vaccinated.
MR. KIRBY: I don’t have the data on the rates of infection. So if that didn’t come out previously, I mean we can get that to you. Obviously what we like to see in the ranks is zero infections, clearly. That’s the — that’s the goal. I don’t know what the threshold is here for driving a particular sense of urgency or different policy discussions.
So let me — let me get back to you on the — I’ll take your question and I’ll get back to you on the — on the rates of infection but clearly we want to do everything we can to keep our people safe.
Did you have another one, Phil?
Q: And then on Syria — on Syria what role did securing the oil in Syria play in the Biden administration’s military strategy there?
MR. KIRBY: I think I’ll just that — that what our — our view of the purpose of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria are to continue to go after the ISIS threat. I’ll leave it at that.
Go ahead, Joe?
Q: Thank you. Yes, I would like to know what’s the — what’s the status of the decision to move Israel to the — to the CENTCOM AOR? Is this decision final? Is it under review by the administration?
MR. KIRBY: Well, I mean when the previous commander in chief made that decision he did so within his full authority. So the decision has been made. The secretary believes that it — from a geographic perspective it seems to make sense. But he also has indicated that just like in every other respect he wants to take a look and he wants to talk to our combatant commanders about that. And just to make sure.
But — but at the outset where we are right now, the secretary would lead from a geographic perspective that makes a certain sense. But he does want to reserve the right and he will around the world to take a look at our laydown, to take a look at the geographic boundaries for the combatant commanders as you would expect him to do. Matt Salem?
Q: Hi, it’s Seyler, thanks for doing this.
MR. KIRBY: Seyler. I apologize. I should have put my glasses on. Yes — yes there it is right there.
Q: That’s quite all right. (Inaudible). Anyway, you’ve answered most things. I just have one more question on the FEMA request that you might be able to answer. I believe I heard Mr. Rose say that it doesn’t always make sense to pull say a National Guard doctor or nurse and task them with doing injections on a site because it would mean pulling them away from a necessary job they’re already doing in their civilian capacity.
And it’s my understanding that some states require some sort of medical certification to actually put shots in arms. So if you’re tasking thousands of troops to do this, is there any effort underway that you’re aware of to secure waivers for them or extra training to kind of lower the bar as to which troops are allowed to actually work and actually give injections?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, great question. And I think that gets to my answer to Lita that now that’s part of the analysis right of we have the request, we know what’s being asked of us and now we have to source it. And sourcing it just like sourcing any request for military capabilities around the world, sometimes requires additional training.
And so while it’s difficult for me to answer your questions specifically because we’re — we’re still working our way through this. It is reasonable to conclude that there might have to be some additional training given to — to members whether they’re active or reserved before they contribute to this effort.
And we’re 100 percent committed to doing that depending on what the — what the need is and what the gap in the need and our capability happens to be. Does that answer your question?
Q: Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Okay. I’ve got time for one more.
Q: This is Tony Capaccio, can I get a question?
MR. KIRBY: Sorry, go ahead, who’s that?
Q: Tony Capaccio. I came in a little late so I wasn’t on your list.
MR. KIRBY: Yes, you’re not on my list, Tony, so I’m sorry, you’re — that’s it, you’re done.
Q: All right. Well, so are you then if you can’t answer a question.
MR. KIRBY: Come on, Tony.
Q: Okay. Can I get a couple quickies?
MR. KIRBY: A couple quickies, sure.
Q: You mentioned — you mentioned the number of appointees have come in. What is the status of a new acquisition undersecretary and a new undersecretary for research and engineering?
MR. KIRBY: Yes. So there’s no — I don’t have — I don’t have an update on that, Tony.
Q: Okay. Another question then on the budget, which is obviously — you’re — you guys are reviewing, at what do you think you’ll be able to give some clarity on when the 23 budget will be released and how much of that is contingent on an OMB director being nominated — being confirmed in an office?
MR. KIRBY: Well, I can’t speak to — to the timing for a new OMB director, Tony, and — or as a capacity of OMB right now to — to staff of a budget request by — by the administration. What I can say is that the secretary knows that budget deadlines are coming and they’re coming soon and he’s already begun to prepare for that.
And I think we’ll have more clarity in – in coming weeks about what it’s going to look like. But I don’t have a specific answer in terms of the deadline. I mean you — as you know better than anybody, it’s always in the spring, it’s sometimes a moving target.
I think the secretary wants to be prepared to present and defend the budget in the normal fashion and that means for him as soon as possible. And I think in his mind regardless of what the actual timing ends up being, he’s made it clear that he wants to get himself up to speed and get the Department ready in about the next three months or so.
Q: Okay. Fair enough. Thank you.
MR. KIRBY: Yes. Okay, guys I’m going to have to go. I’ve got to — I go to go.
Q: On Taiwan — just one on Taiwan.
MR. KIRBY: Okay, do that. Do you really want a question on Taiwan? I want to hear it. (Laughter.) All right.
Q: This morning the Chinese ministry of the banks that though Taiwan’s independence would mean war. So I was just wondering what the Pentagon’s reaction to that statement is and how you view the strategic importance of Taiwan.
MR. KIRBY: So let me start with the second one first. And nothing has changed about the Department’s commitment to — our — our commitments to the Taiwan Relations Act and the three communiques about — about Taiwan. As the secretary said in testimony this is something that has been supported in a bipartisan way for decades.
And — and the Department of Defense under his leadership will continue that same support to — we have — we have obligations to assist Taiwan with their self-defense and I think you’re going to see that continue.
To your other question, the Department sees no reason why tensions over Taiwan need to lead to anything like confrontation. And so we find that comment unfortunate and certainly not commensurate with our intentions to meet our obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act and to continue to, as Secretary Blinken at the State Department said yesterday, look for ways where we can cooperate with China.
We — but we have obligations that we intend to meet. Okay. Thanks very much.
Q: Is the U.S. military ready and capable to defend Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion.
MR. KIRBY: I’m not going to get into hypotheticals. But the United States — the United States military remains ready in all respects to meet our security commitments in the region. Thank you very much.
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