Department of Defense News Briefing with Secretary Hagel and Gen. Dempsey from the Pentagon

Press Conference

By:  Charles Hagel
Date: May 17, 2013
Location: Washington, DC

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. I'm sorry we had to move this one day, but nonetheless, it's been a slow news week for you. I know you've been looking for something to do and to report on.

Let me begin by making an announcement regarding a nomination that the president is going to make, and that is a change of command for our forces in Korea. General Curt Scaparrotti is going to be nominated by the president to replace General J.D. Thurman in Korea. And we're very proud of that announcement; I know the president is. And General Dempsey may want to address that in a little more detail, since he's worked very closely with General Scaparrotti. We'll have more to say about that announcement as we go on and as the president makes his formal nomination.

But let me just note a couple of things about General J.D. Thurman. He has done a tremendous job for our country, for our forces of that region. He has credibility. The confidence that people have in him everywhere is really pretty special. He's been there, as you all know, at a very uncertain time. And his steady, wise leadership has really counted, so I wanted to note that, and, as I said, we'll have more to say about both those -- those generals at the appropriate time.

Yesterday, as you all know, I participated in a meeting with the prime minister of Turkey, with the president, vice president, Secretary Kerry, and others. Long meeting, very productive meeting, good meeting. If you want to talk about any of that, I'd be glad to respond to any of the questions you have.

This morning, General Dempsey and I hosted the Turkish minister of defense and foreign minister for about an hour-and-a-half, and we talked about many -- certainly the regional issues and followed up on a number of points that were made in the meeting with the Turkish prime minister and President Obama yesterday and would be glad to respond to any of those questions.

This afternoon, after this news conference, I -- I will host the French minister of defense. And we will spend a considerable amount of time talking about different mutual interests in NATO and certainly what we're doing together in a number of areas. And so if you want to pursue any of that, I'd be glad to respond.

Before I ask General Dempsey for his comments and we take your questions, just a couple of updates on the sexual assault issue. You all know that General Dempsey and I met with the president, the vice president yesterday, as well as our senior enlisted and officer leadership in the U.S. military. I thought it was a very important, productive meeting.

It was important because it gave the president an opportunity to ask questions directly, and get the sense of this huge problem, serious problem in our military, ask questions of the military leadership.

The military leaders in that room answered and responded and, at the president's invitation, gave I thought very honest evaluations of what they thought about the issue and clearly articulated what we're all going to do, and are doing, to address it.

It was also important for our leadership, our military leadership, to hear from the president on this. The president was very constructive. He was very clear. There wasn't anybody in that room who wasn't disappointed and embarrassed and didn't recognize that we've in many ways failed.

But we all have committed to turn this around, and we're going to fix the problem. As the president said in his comments after that meeting, there's no silver bullet. This is going to take all of us.

The problem will be solved here, in this institution, and we will -- we will fix it and we will do everything we need to do to fix it. There's not a military leader who was in that room who's not completely committed to that. These are men who -- and women in our services who have devoted their lives to this institution and to the men and women who serve this country. So no one understands the depth of this more or more concerned or more committed to fix it than -- than those people in that room with -- with the president. And I will be glad to respond to any particular questions on that.

This morning, I had the first meeting with the congressionally mandated sexual review panel that was mandated in the FY [fiscal year] 13 National Defense Authorization Act, which I think you're generally familiar with. I noted a few days ago that I had selected the final five panelists. It's a nine-panel review board, four selected by the Congress, five selected by me. We had about an hour-long telephonic meeting this morning to go over what the expectations were, what the president's expectations were, what -- what my expectations are, what the Congress's expectations are.

And I think we've -- you've all seen the membership, they're all highly respected, highly regarded, experienced men and women who understand cultures, society, command, and I think it's an exceptionally well-balanced group of men and women who we look to, to help us. And they are charged with reviewing everything we're doing and then coming up with recommendations to the Congress and to me and to our military leadership on what we need to do to fix it, how can we fix it. And they will have their first meeting physically impaneled -- most likely it'll be in this building -- next month. We're putting that together. So if you want to get into any of that here in a minute, I'll be glad to.

Also, I wanted to note that this afternoon, after the meeting with the French minister of defense, I will hold my first weekly review and progress meeting on the sexual assault directives that I started about a month-and-a-half ago. It's not good enough to say we have a zero-tolerance policy. We do, but what's that mean? How does that translate into changing anything?

And I want to know -- and I'll get weekly briefs. They will be on my schedule, in my office. I'll chair the meeting. What are we doing? What did we do? How do we continue to break through this? It's just not good enough for people to walk out of my office and say, "Well, we're doing it." I want to know how it's being done, and I want to know everything about it. Who's being held accountable?

And I just signed off on a directive here today on another part of this, and that is the recertification and the review and the retraining of everyone associated with the United States military who has any responsibility for any sexual abuse offices, sexual protection offices, in any way dealing with this program across the board. It will be standardized in all the services.

And all our military recruiters, every military recruiter, regardless of the service, will undergo this. We've got timeframes on it. You will all be given, I think, copies of the directive here after the conference, so you'll see exactly what I said. But that was signed off on today.

There will be more of these directives. There will be more action. You know a number of the things that I've done, we've done.

And I might add, because I ask General Dempsey for his comments, this wasn't done just independent of everybody else. I've spent a tremendous amount of time with the chiefs on this, the secretaries. Chairman Dempsey has led on this.

This problem can't be fixed by the secretary of defense alone. I can direct it. I can hold people accountable. And I will. The president's held me accountable for it. And there's not one of these people in leadership today that wants this to be their legacy. And so we will continue to work this, and we'll work it hard. It is as big a priority as I have, for obvious reasons.

Our force structure is the core of who we are. It's the fabric of our system. No matter how many new technologies we employ and how much the quality of our technology and our weaponry gives us an edge -- and it does -- no matter how much money we have, it won't work unless your people make it work. And so it has to be at the center of our focus of leadership and our priorities.

So with that, let me ask General Dempsey for his comments and then we'll open it up.

GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I can think of no finer officer to be promoted to general and to take command of U.S. Forces Korea than Mike Scaparrotti. Scap's an exceptionally competent leader with the moral character to match. Like our current commander, General J.D. Thurman, he's extraordinary well-suited to sustaining our strong alliance with the Republic of Korea.

Scap's quiet confidence has delivered success throughout his career, whether as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan or, most recently and currently, as the director of the Joint Staff. As my director, he has helped advance my priorities to include our urgent work to eliminate sexual harassment and sexual assault from our ranks.

As I've said before, the risks inherent to military service must not include the risk of sexual assault. It betrays the trust on which our profession is founded. It's a crime that demands accountability and consequences.

And as you know, the Joint Chiefs have spent the better part of the last year implementing a campaign focused on prevention, investigation, accountability, advocacy and assessment. The additional actions recently directed by Secretary Hagel will strengthen those efforts.

The emphasis on prevention is especially important. As the president made clear to us yesterday, we can and must do more to change a culture that has become too complacent. Now's the time for us to recommit ourselves to our profession. Now's the time for character to be valued as much, if not more than competence. Now's the time for moral courage at every level. There can be no bystanders.

I remember my early years in the Army when racial issues and drug abuse tore at the fabric of our service. The Army was broken. With moral leadership and a recommitment to professionalism, we changed that course, we restored trust in the ranks, and trust among -- between us and the American people.

Today the joint force is not broken. In fact, it's remarkably resilient, something I spoke to last week when I was presenting the commencement address at Arizona State University. But we have a serious problem that we must solve, aggressive sexual behavior that rips at the bond of trust that binds us together.

We need -- actually, we must change course. Every single member of the joint force in every unit at every level must be alert to the problem and be part of the solution. Working together, we can and will restore faith in ourselves and the trust and faith of the American people. Thank you.


Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned that the president said yesterday after your meeting that there is no silver bullet to fixing this problem, but what is your best bullet? And also, do you think that -- is there any reason to believe that alcohol use and/or abuse is part of this equation and there needs to be more attention to that?

And I've got a question, also, of the chairman. You were quoted the other day as saying that you see a connection between this problem and the effects of being at war for more than a decade. I wonder if you can elaborate on that. And also, with the war winding down, does that suggest in any way that this problem would wind down with it?

SEC. HAGEL: On your question regarding the use of alcohol, yes, alcohol does play a very big factor in sexual assault, not every case, but in many cases. And I don't have all of the demographics and all the metrics on this, but there's no question it does. That is a part of this, but -- and it can be used as an excuse, but it is -- it's part of the larger context of, why is this happening.

To your bigger question, what are our best bullets, well, as the president said yesterday, and I've said, and certainly our leadership, both at the enlisted and the office corps level, has said that this is -- and you've heard it -- this is cultural, this is an accountability issue. It's sometimes a structural issue. Are we going far enough up and down the chain of command?

There are so many dimensions to this that I don't think you can come at it in one simple way. You know, I -- I get a lot of advice on this, and I listen to everybody. Well, why don't you just fire some people? Well, yeah, we could do that. And, you know, who are you going to fire?

Now, the people who have been charged, they, as you all know, are moved out of their billets and the responsibility until they have due process. Where we can find people who have actually perpetrated these crimes and we prosecute, and so on, yes, we get rid of them. And -- but there's no simple way to come at this.

And so, you've got to come at in -- I think from the entire framework of starting with, why is this happening? And try to understand that. And there are a lot of dimensions to that. And the chiefs got into that with the president yesterday. Then you get into the reporting process.

Now, when you look at the -- those numbers that are essentially spiking, and I -- and I suspect they're going to continue to rise on the reporting, as Vice President Biden reminded us yesterday, there is a glimmer of hope in that. There's no good news in this, but there's a glimmer of hope, because in many cases -- and we're going back in and trying to understand this better and asking a lot of questions -- is at least there some new confidence being built out there and developed that, when people come forward and report something, that they have some assurance that, first of all, the victim will be treated fairly and -- and that there will be something done about it.

Then -- then you have the victim's rights here. The protection of those victims, what does a victim think about and expect if they -- before they come forward? Will they be treated fairly? That's part of it.

Then you -- then you've got to look at the prosecutorial side. Then you look at the penalty side. You look at all those pieces, and you can't take just one or two or three of them and -- and fix just one or two. It's -- it's everything.

That's why the panel, the outside independent review panel, is so important here, because as you all know, I think the last count I got this morning, there are 10 pieces of legislation in the House and the Senate that change components of -- of all this reporting and the structure and who's accountable and some of it -- even taking it out of the military command structure. And we're going to have to do something. We will do something. We're working with everybody.

But whatever we do, we want to make sure it's right, because there are consequences to whatever we do. And that's why the panel is so important. It was congressionally mandated. And we need to see what they come up with, and we're listening to everybody. We're talking to everybody. We're talking to other militaries, by the way, from around the world and -- and see what they think. The president noted that yesterday, and I told him that we were talking to different militaries around the world. How are they dealing with this? And what kind of command structure have they changed and what works? So I think it's all of those things, Bob. It isn't just one or two things.


GEN. DEMPSEY: Bob, at some level, this is actually a continuum of -- of a challenge we've had. You know, you were around in the mid-'90s when we had -- within a space of about 18 months in the mid-'90s we had Tailhook, Aberdeen, and a military academy scandal.

And then I think, you know, we went to war and maybe some of that was masked. And you asked, do I think that there's an effect of 10 years of war? Yeah, instinctively, I do. And we've been looking at what that might be.

And, you know, you might -- you might argue that we've become a little too forgiving because, you know, if a perpetrator shows up at a court martial with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart, you know, there is certainly the risk that we might -- we might be a little too forgiving of that particular crime.

So we're looking for game-changers, really. And some of these congressional proposals could be game-changers. And so we want to make sure, as the secretary said, that as we take a look at the -- the proposals, that we understand how they fit together and, more importantly, how -- what are the second- and third-order effects?

Because, look, in our system, we give a commander life-and-death decision-making authority. I can't imagine going forward to solve this issue without commanders involved.

Q: Well, can I follow on that? Because if you listen to the women in the military who are sexually assaulted, they say the best thing that you can do to change this is to take this out of the commanders' hands, put this in civilian courts. They are afraid to talk to their commanders, because they know the men who are assaulting them. Are you considering at all changing that? And where do you all stand on that move?

And then I do have another question on Syria. We -- we've learned that Assad is being provided with anti-ship cruise missiles and that the Russians are putting a dozen or so extra ships in the Med [Mediterranean] off Tartus. Do you consider this a provocative act designed to sort of push the U.S. out of involvement in Syria?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'll start on your first question. We're looking at everything. And we are listening to victims carefully, closely. And I addressed this in my -- in my first answer to -- to Bob's question about the rights of victims and what goes through their minds before they come forward. And are they afraid? Are they intimidated? Obviously, yes, yes, yes, on all those questions.

So we're looking at everything. We're not taking anything off the table. And we want to understand all that's best. So that -- that's what I've said, that's where I come down.

As to your Syrian questions, just a couple of general responses. One of the reasons -- one of the primary reasons that Secretary Kerry went to Moscow to meet with President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov was to talk about all of these issues and try to find some common ground that the Russians and the U.S. can come to, some intersection of interests, because we all have interest in the Middle East. What's happening there, everybody knows, is very, very dangerous.

And what we don't want to see happen, the Russians don't want to see happen, is for Syria to erupt to the point where we -- we may well find a regional war in the Middle East.

So we continue to work with the Russians on their interests and everything we can do to convince the powers that are involved in the region to be careful with escalation of military options and -- and equipment. We'll continue to work through that. So this is complicated, and I think I would leave my answer that way. And if General Dempsey wants to add anything...

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, just on Syria, I mean, you know, it's at the very least an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering. So as -- it's ill-timed and very unfortunate.

Q: Mr. Secretary...


Q: You're talking about which -- which missiles, the anti-ship...

GEN. DEMPSEY: The ship -- the ship missiles.

Q: So they have made clear, the Russians, that they're going to keep delivering missiles in accordance with arms sales they made years ago. How does that change -- and particularly I'm thinking about the S-300 air defense system -- how does that change your thinking about arming the rebels? And how does that complicate your planning for all of the military contingencies that you're planning for?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, we plan for every military contingency, as you know, and every option. As General Dempsey said, the escalation of weaponry in the Middle East is dangerous, and we are working with our partners in that area, as well as other countries, to make sure that whatever influence we have, that that doesn't continue.

General Dempsey made it very clear that, on the specific areas of the missiles, whatever else is involved with the Russians, does not help. It makes it more dangerous.

And I think, to summarize my thoughts on this, is that we continue to keep every option open, as the president has said. We are already doing a lot in Syria on the humanitarian side, on the non-lethal side. We are continuing to try to bring some consensus with all the different countries involved, the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, others. A lot of the conversation with Prime Minister Erdogan yesterday and this morning and their entire delegation was about this issue.

And certainly my opinion that to -- to de-escalate, to find some common ground to assure that Syria doesn't disintegrate and the Middle East erupt into a regional war, we continue to obviously keep every option open and what further action we may take, but also working with the other players here.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Just on the -- on the shore-to-ship missile capability and the -- and the SA-300 system, there are more capable systems. The SA-300, for example, higher altitude, longer range, multiple tracking capability. It pushes the standoff distance a little more, increases risk, but not impossible to overcome. What I'm really worried about is that Assad will decide that, since he's got these systems, he's somehow safer and/or more prone to a miscalculation. So, you know, again, an unfortunate decision.


Q: Yeah (inaudible) from Al Jazeera English television. One hundred days since the hunger strike began in Guantanamo, 102 detainees currently on -- making this protest. And I wondered, can you fill us in on what the department has done, what the overall military has done to try to address some of their concerns, to try -- what -- what is being done to try to end this hunger strike?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, we have a responsibility, an ethical responsibility, to assure the health and well-being of every detainee. And certainly, we're doing everything we can to do that.

As you know, President Obama noted a couple weeks ago that he is going to come back -- and he's in the process of that now -- to find some resolution to Guantanamo. And I think our role, the military's role there, is being handled with -- with as much responsibility as we should and need to with our detainees.

And so I think -- I'll ask General Dempsey if he's got any other thoughts, but we're doing everything we can to protect those detainees. And we do need a resolution to this. The president has said that, and he's working toward it.

GEN. DEMPSEY: The only thing I'd add is that, you know, the United States military guards Guantanamo, and our responsibility is clear. That is the -- the safe -- the well-being of the prisoners, the safety of both them and the guards, and that's our job. That's what we're doing. The rest of this is really policy decisions.


Q: You talked a little bit earlier about looking at the various congressional proposals on sexual assault. Just to -- to follow up on Justin's, do you at this point support Senator Gillibrand's legislation to take sexual assault and battery cases out and put them in the hands of a prosecutor, as opposed to the chain of command? And what do you think about some of the new proposals by Senator Blumenthal about creating a victims compensation fund? Could that encourage people to come forward?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I've spoken to all of those senators a number of times, as many of our leaders have, on their proposals. We're working with their staffs on all their proposals. We're talking to all the members of Congress, both in the House and the Senate. And I've got two more conversations this afternoon on their proposals.

We are -- and I appreciate this -- we all do -- accommodating House and Senate members and working with them on what we think is workable, giving them our best assessment. They are listening, and they are giving us that opportunity. We are not taking any position on any bill, that this is our favorite bill or this is not our favorite bill. We're looking for components of all the legislation that we think make sense.

But I also would say that -- going back to what I noted earlier about the congressionally mandated panel, I would hope that we -- we would have some time here, everyone would have some time, to listen to what the panel comes back with. This was a congressionally mandated panel and give them some time here to go in and really assess the problem. Why do we have the problem? How can we prevent the problem? What should we be doing better? It may well end up those recommendations are exactly what -- one or two are the same way that Congress have been -- have proposed in their bill. So we're looking at all of it and working with all of them.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, I'm actually in receipt of a letter from Senator Levin and Senator Inhofe, Senate Armed Services Committee, asking me to provide my military advice on the specifics of those bills. And I'll -- I will communicate with them before I communicate with you.

SEC. HAGEL: Barbara?

Q: Mr. Secretary, you've talked a lot about the concept of accountability, but this isn't a new problem in the military. This has been going on for military women for some time. So what -- what's your philosophy, your decision-making about accountability? When do you hold someone accountable?

And with respect to both of you, the Joint Chiefs, as an organization, they -- they're in charge of training, and they know this problem's been going on for many years now. When do you hold somebody accountable on the senior level for -- I'll be very quick -- not getting the job done as you would if there was a major accident and lives were lost, if it was drugs, racism, attacks against gays in the military?

Very quick follow-up for General Dempsey on Syria. Should this -- given what you've said about your fear of a wider war, do -- do you recommend the Syrians be stopped militarily, if they have to be, from getting the S-300?

SEC. HAGEL: I think, when you come at this, as you noted, specifically focus on accountability. And I have. You're exactly right. I have felt -- by the way, it isn't just applicable to this issue. It's everything in life. If you don't have accountability, you don't have much. In fact, our Constitution, our country, our government was founded on accountability. It's why we have three coequal branches of government.

And what we're looking at in every way, many of the directives that I've given this week, two weeks ago, back a month-and-a-half ago, were focused -- if not every one of them -- on some element of accountability of every chain of command.

The division commander is in charge of that command. Regardless if there's a brigade commander, battalion commander, company commander, that connection has to work all the way up and down the line. We are looking at how we can do that better. We are -- one of the reasons we're going back and we're re-certifying everybody that I talked about earlier, the directive I gave -- formally gave today, announced a couple of days ago, is -- is to go back into that chain of command, go back into that accountability. The president talked about it. It is an essential component that somehow has been lacking or broken down. I don't know. But it is -- is a central part of how we fix the problem. There are other pieces, too.

Q: But the accountability (OFF-MIC) United States military on the issue of sexual assaults against military women and men, seems to me that is more than just -- I mean, that's an extraordinary thing for a secretary of defense to acknowledge. If accountability is lacking, what do you do about it?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I responded in the -- in the general sense of your question of accountability. The accountability of any institution, especially the discipline of the military -- and I'll let General Dempsey, who's devoted 39 years of his life to this, understands it far better than I do -- if any component of that breaks down, if it's lacking anywhere, there's going to be a problem.

Of course there's accountability in the military, or we wouldn't have a military. The chairman couldn't make decisions and the combatant commanders couldn't give orders. And if there wasn't accountability in the chain of command, things wouldn't happen. Of course there's accountability.

I was referring to the specific area of what's broken down in sexual assault, starting with reporting, starting with reporting, and the follow-through of that. And of course, we -- that -- that's a key part of anything to get to a resolution, how do you fix it?

Starting with some of the questions about victims saying -- and rightfully so -- that they didn't feel their commanders were accountable enough to be able to come forward and -- and register a complaint, file a complaint, because they thought they would be subject to many things, which is true, which has happened, and then also having no confidence that anything would be done about their complaint. So that's what I was referring to. And that needs to be addressed, as well as all the components of this.

GEN. DEMPSEY: You want the Syrian question?


GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah. Well, first of all, they don't have these weapons systems. Syria doesn't have control of them.


GEN. DEMPSEY: Right. Right. If they have control of them, there -- there are several -- there are several capabilities that Syria has not used or potentially has not used responsibly, chemicals, long-range rockets, and missiles, and high-end air defense. And so the things that are in their control, we have options to deal with that. We -- we do not have options in any way to prevent the delivery of them.

Q: (OFF-MIC) delivery to Syria militarily?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I -- I didn't say that. I didn't say we couldn't. I said we do not have options to prevent the delivery of any military sales to the Syrians.

GEORGE LITTLE: Last question.


Q: Actually, on -- on Syria, can you just both update us on -- you mentioned the humanitarian aid the U.S. has provided -- has there been any change in thinking on providing any lethal weapons to the -- the rebels since the last time we asked you?

And then also, General Dempsey, could you just clarify, earlier you were talking about -- to Bob's question about the war and any -- any impact that may have on sexual assaults. And you said that the military may have become a little bit too forgiving when they see someone walking in with all these awards and whatnot. Have you -- have you seen specific instances of that happening? I mean, presumably you have a lot more clarity on individual cases than we do. Are we seeing that as a problem?

GEN. DEMPSEY: You want me to go first?


GEN. DEMPSEY: You know, you never -- you -- you don't know what a panel -- what turns a panel as it deliberates. I mean, that's -- you know, you're not afforded the opportunity to go back and scrutinize it.

But what I am suggesting is that, after 10 years of war, there is the potential that we should examine whether -- whether we've become a little bit too forgiving, not just of -- of -- of sexual harassment, sexual assault, but of other forms of misconduct, as well.

So if you're -- what you're hearing me expressing is that -- is the commitment to try to gain a deeper understanding of what we're dealing with and -- and an instinct that suggests that 10 years of war might be a factor.

SEC. HAGEL: On your question, the answer is we -- we continue to look at every option, and we will. We have to. Every option is on the table.

MR. LITTLE: Thank you, everyone.

SEC. HAGEL: Thank you very much. Thank you.

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