Sabrina Singh

Press Briefing Discussing the Unauthorized Disclosure of Classified Documents at the Pentagon

delivered 17 April 2023. The Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia

Audio mp3 of Address       Audio AR-XE mp3 of Address

 

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SABRINA SINGH: Hey, everyone. Good afternoon. Apologies for the delay here. I have a few items to take -- to relay at the top, and then I'm happy to jump in and take your questions.

So the Department of Defense continues to actively address the incident involving the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents. As the Secretary made clear in his statement last Thursday, DOD's highest priority is the defense of our nation and our national security, and the department is taking this breach seriously and continues to work around the clock to better understand the scope and scale of these leaks. Throughout last week and over the course of the weekend, the Secretary and senior Pentagon officials continue to convene daily meetings to examine the scope and scale of this disclosure, as well as ensure that appropriate mitigation measures are being taken.

In support of this effort, the Secretary has formally directed Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and Security, in coordination with the Chief Information Officer and the Director of Administration and Management to lead a comprehensive review of DOD security, programs, policies and procedures. Within 45 days, I&S will provide the Secretary with initial findings and recommendations to improve the department's policies and procedures related to the protection of classified information. We'll have more to say soon on more immediate actions that we will be taking. We continue to be in close touch with the White House and interagency and have also continued to engage with our partners and allies at high levels both within DOD and throughout the interagency. We will also continue to engage with Congress.

Again, we'd encourage you to be mindful of how you are reporting and repurposing these images due to the classified nature of this information and the potential impact on national security, as well as the safety and security of our personnel and those of our allies and partners.

And finally, I also want to take a moment to address something we've seen in press reports that warrant us relaying the facts. With regard to the U.S. military presence in Ukraine, we've publicly acknowledged previously that there is a small U.S. military footprint in Ukraine to provide mission-critical support to the U.S. Embassy. To be clear, there are no U.S. combat troops conducting combat operations in Ukraine. And while we're not going to go into the specific disposition of our forces for OPSEC reasons, their duties include support to the Defense Attache Office in support of our security assistance programs and end-use monitoring, as well as U.S. Embassy security support. This is not new, and again, something we've been transparent about and publicly with Congress as well.

Separately, earlier today, Secretary Austin spoke with Ukraine's Minister of Defense Reznikov. During the call, both leaders discussed the security situation in Ukraine, and the secretary looks forward to the meeting later this week at the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.

Also later this afternoon, Secretary Austin will host the United Kingdom Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace. The leaders will discuss the strength of the U.S.-U.K. defense relationship and our mutual ongoing efforts to support Ukraine. A readout will be posted later today on defense.gov.

Shifting gears a little bit, on August 25th, 2022, the Secretary of Defense approved and released the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, directing the department to take immediate actions to create an architecture and supporting processes to mitigate civilian harm by optimizing the efficacy of military operations. Today, the Department of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of the Army, announced Mr. Michael McNerney as the Director of the Civilian Protection Center of Excellence.

Mr. McNerney previously served at the Rand Corporation as a senior international and defense researcher, and has published extensively on civilian protection issues. He brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the role, having both served in the public and private sectors, including more than 15 years with the U.S. government focused on national security strategy and development, planning the international security sector reform and decision-making in conflict. The director will oversee the efforts to establish the institution to build on existing processes and improve the department's approach to civilian harm mitigation and response.

The Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Army have full confidence in Mr. McNerney to oversee the standup of the Civilian Protection Center of Excellence.

And finally, a reminder that tomorrow, Secretary Austin will travel to Sweden to meet with his counterpart to discuss security-related topics, including Sweden's planning for NATO accession. From there, he will travel to Germany, where he and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, will host the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on Friday at Ramstein Air Base.

And with that, I'd be happy to take your questions. I'll go to Tara.

Question: Hi. Thanks for doing this. So at this point, does the Pentagon have a better sense of just how many documents were leaked? And the larger scope -- it seems like documents continue to surface in different media reports. Do you have a better sense of how wide the damage was?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Well, two things. First, I'll say that this is an ongoing investigation being led by the Department of Justice. So we are working, consulting with them on an ongoing basis but that investigation will reveal more documents that have been, you know, previously posted.

And again, we're doing our own internal review assessment. As I said at the top, this is being led by our Intelligence and Security department, to get a better assessment of what exactly -- what documents were disclosed and where they surfaced online.

Question: But do you have a -- kind of a ballpark assessment of just how many documents there were? And it seems like some of these documents may have been put out months ago and pre-date, you know, the window that the Secretary was initially focused on.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Well, as the Secretary said, we're going to continue to find docs online. I think you're referring to his comments at the press conference that he participated in last week. I don't have a specific number for you at the moment. It's something that we're still reviewing, we're still assessing, and when we have a better grasp of just the scope and scale, we'd be happy to update you but that's something that we're continuing to assess.

Question: I guess the heart of the question is is the Pentagon concerned that there's still more documents out there that it doesn't know about?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Well, we're continuing to assess, and that's exactly what our internal efforts are geared toward and looking to review and that's also why the Department of Justice has also -- has launched an investigation to figure out what exactly is still out there and also assessing the impacts that this has not just on U.S. security interests but on our partners and allies around the world.

I'll go ahead to Jen. Yeah?

Question: Sabrina, why is Airman Teixeira not being tried in a military court? And could he be later tried under UCMJ?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: So this is an ongoing investigation. And in terms of jurisdiction, it's something that we're working through with the Department of Justice, but right now, this is something that's in DOJ's hands and we'll keep you updated as that goes.

Question: So you're suggesting that there could still be a UCMJ trial after the federal trial?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: It's something that we're again, this is an ongoing investigation, it's something that we are working through with the Department of Justice, but I just don't have anything to announce on that front just yet.

Question: But it's confusing because someone like Chelsea Manning was held at Quantico and then tried up at Fort Meade, not in the federal system. How does it work? I understand it's ongoing but how does this work?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Again, we're assessing this, we're still working with the Department of Justice on this issue. Right now, they are the lead investigators for this criminal case. It's not to say that something couldn't come back to the Department of Defense at some point, but right now, in terms of jurisdiction, we're still working through that and I just don't have anything to announce today.

Question: OK. And just to -- to follow up...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Sure.

Question:... what can you tell us about the Navy NCO Sarah Bils, who calls herself Donbass Devushka? Why was she honorably discharged from the Navy and demoted two ranks in November?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: In terms of the specifics on her record, I would refer you to the Navy for those questions.

Question: But she was posting pro-Kremlin propaganda since 2014 and she had a TS security clearance. Was the department aware that she was posting that kind of propaganda? And was that under investigation prior to this classified leaks case?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Thanks, Jen, that's a great question and something that we're certainly looking into. Because this investigation is ongoing, I would refer you to the DOJ for that.

Question: But is she under investigation by the military?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Well, she's a former service member.

Question: You can bring her back on to duty.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Right now, I have nothing to announce at this point. I would refer you to the Department of Justice.

Question: Thank you.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Travis?

Question: Thank you. I'm just wondering, you say the investigation is ongoing. I'm wondering if there is an investigation of Teixeira's supervisors or the other people who oversaw him at the facility where he worked, to see if somebody else may have been involved in some way in this? And if so, is that something that the DOD is doing or something that DOJ is doing? And can you say at all how that might work?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: So a few questions in there.

On the first part of the actual unit itself, I'd refer you to the Air Force for that. Again, this is an ongoing investigation and I don't mean to sound like a broken record here but it is an ongoing investigation and is being led by the Department of Justice right now. So for any questions related to the investigation, I'd also refer you to them.

Question: So you're referring me to the Air Force on whether there's a military investigation that is ongoing at the facility?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: That's correct.

Question: You can't say whether there's a military investigation...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: I'm not aware of one at this moment, so that's why I'd refer you to the Air Force.

Question: OK. And you said that there's an ongoing new review that the Secretary had ordered. And just to be clear, as part of that review, you'll be looking at who has access to this type of information? That is the direction of the review?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: That's part of the review, yes -- who is able to access and review classified information, sensitive information, and part of that is not just looking here within the building but across our components worldwide.

So that is something that our team here is looking at but also this is also an interagency effort. It's not just the Department of Defense who has stakes in some of the unauthorized disclosures of docs that were posted online. There are other agencies that were impacted, our allies and partners as well. So it is an interagency effort.

Question: Thank you.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Great. Janne? Yeah?

Question: Thank you, Sabrina. I have a couple of questions about classified information released. Secretary Austin and South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-Sup had a phone call conversation last week about the leak of classified document and both ministers agreed that classified document was substantially forged. What is the evidence that the classified document is forged or fake?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: So I think you're asking about the validity of some of the documents that have leaked online. Again, I'm not going to speak to specific documents that are circulating but what I can say -- we're doing a review of the documents. It's something that our I&S team is assessing and reviewing, to see if any documents were further manipulated. But I just wouldn't get into the specificities.

Question: Do you think the leaker has an intention to damage U.S. and South Korean relations by leaking wiretapping document?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: I wouldn't be able to speak to the intentions of the individual. I would refer you to the Department of Justice...

Question: Lastly, if it is true that the U.S. wiretaps, would you apologize to South Korea?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Again, this is an ongoing review. This is a matter that's been referred to the Department of Justice, as it is criminal in nature. We have a very good relationship with South Korea. You've heard us state from here, from this podium, but again, from Secretary Austin as well, that our commitment is rock solid and we have a positive relationship with South Korea.

Question: Thank you.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: I'll go to Idrees.

Question: Just following up on Travis' question...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Sure.

Question:... slightly different, not about the investigation, but does the Secretary have faith and confidence in Teixeira's chain of command on the base?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Well, I think we certainly have confidence in our service members and our commanders. In terms of, you know, the actual unit itself, there's an ongoing investigation at the Department of Justice. We are doing our own internal review here. If there are changes that need to be made from that review, that will certainly inform either changes that need to be made or, you know, who has access to what and when.

Question: In the interim, because his faith and confidence won't be based on the investigation, as of today does he have faith and confidence in...

[CROSSTALK]

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Well, we're here to pull the facts. And that's what this review will do. And that's what part of what our I&S team is doing here along with other departments in the building, is trying to assess what can we do better and what also was, you know, happening in that unit itself. So I just don't have anything more to say on that.

Question: And on a separate note, there was a statement today from CENTCOM about an operation against ISIS militants.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Yes.

Question: And in the statement I think it mentioned two militants were probably killed. I'm just sort of curious how you're probably killed, does that mean that they thought they were dead but they're not sure? Like, probably is a very unofficial way of saying, right? They didn't say "likely," they said "probably." I'm just confused.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Sure. You know, I'd refer you to CENTCOM for additional details on that front. But I think in terms of the operation itself, it really does stand as a testament to our commitment to the enduring defeat of ISIS. And I would just leave it at that.

Question: And just to be sure, so are they dead or no?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: I would have to refer you to CENTCOM.

Oren?

Question: Two questions. First, am I right in understanding that you cannot say at this point that the leak is definitely contained?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: We're still reviewing it. It's still an ongoing effort here in this department. This is a criminal investigation so, again, the Department of Justice has the lead on that. So I would refer you to the Department of Justice.

Question: And given the ongoing efforts to review and look at who has access to this kind of information, can you give us a sense of how many people have had their access restricted based on the efforts you've taken so far to review distribution lists and...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Yes.

Question: ... printing abilities and -- and that sort of...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Yes. So I can't give you exact numbers on like who has had access revoked, but what I can say that we are culling through some of our distribution lists on who has access to certain information. That effort is going to be ongoing. It's not just going to stop tomorrow and it's not going to stop after a week. This is going to be a long-term effort.

And so while I can't give you exact numbers, we are taking steps when it comes to exactly what you said, when it comes to distribution lists, when it comes to printing access, when it comes to just access within SCIFs, we have to make sure that the service members or our civilians have what they need to be able to do their job. But we need to make sure that it is on a need-to-know basis.

Yes. Matt, sorry, go.

Question: Oh, just to follow up on that, I wanted to see if you could say anything more about those efforts. When you say you're culling through distribution lists...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Mm-hmm.

Question:... and you talk about a need to know, is that process meant to determine, you know, someone who might have had a need to know one point and been part of a distribution list and had access to things, making sure that they still have that need? Is that part of the process? Can you explain that?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Yes. It's a part of an ongoing review. I mean, a very simple example would be a distribution list that has 10 people on it and one of those people have left the organization but they moved within the department and still have that email. So it's culling through some of those lists, making sure that people that are sent information actually need to have that information to do their jobs.

But part of what this department is focused on is making sure that people have the information that they need to do their job successfully and be able to defend our homeland and our interests abroad.

Mm-hmm?

Question: OK. And can you say whether some of those efforts are already being made? Is it just you're reviewing those distribution lists or have some actions already been taken to that end?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: No. Actions have already been taken. Yeah.

Question: Thank you.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Ryo? Oh -- and then I'll come back to Chris -- or do Chris and then Ryo. There we go.

Question: Thanks, Sabrina. Airman Teixeira appeared to hold some racial extremist views, and that's been an issue for the department that you tried to address in the past. So is part of this effort looking at how you can better investigate, find extremism in the ranks so someone who might be predisposed to do something like this doesn't release these documents, doesn't...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: No, this effort is solely about looking at how -- or the effort, I should say, within the building is looking at how classified information is accessed and who has access to that information while also working with the Department of Justice in their investigation to prevent something like this happening in the future.

Question: So is someone's possible political extremist views part of how they might have access to that or is it just...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Well, I don't know how someone's...

Question: Well...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: ...political views in -- would shape how they have access to classified information. No, I -- again, this effort that the department has launched is about looking at our own internal process on who has access to classified information and who needs access to that classified information to be able to do their jobs. It does not have anything to do with anyone's political dispositions.

Ryo? Yeah? Then I'll come back.

Question: Yeah, thank you very much. Two questions.

First, on the leaked document, how many allies and partners have the Secretary or the senior DOD officials reached out to on the leaked documents so far?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: It's been ongoing since last week. The Secretary -- and I should just say not just the Secretary, the Chairman, senior leaders within this building, have been reaching out to their counterparts all across the world. I think we read out some of those just last week. I think the Secretary spoke to that as well. Today, as I mentioned, the Secretary's speaking to Minister Reznikov from Ukraine, and he'll be doing a bilateral meeting with the Minister of Defense from the United Kingdom later today. So this is ongoing.

And then you also have to remember that the Secretary leaves tomorrow for travel to Sweden and for the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. So again, he'll be in person to talk more with allies and partners.

Question: Great. Separately, on a different topic...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Sure.

Question: One year ago, China and the Solomon Islands concluded a security arrangement. Has the Pentagon observed any Chinese military activities concerning to you around the Solomon Islands? And do you think that -- are you confident that the U.S. is doing enough to prevent China from expanding their military footprint in the Pacific Island region?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Thanks for the question. So I think you said the Solomon Islands, right? So as you saw, the U.S. recently opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands, and I think doing so just renews our relationship and undermines our strength and commitment to our bilateral relations with the people of the Solomon Islands.

In terms of -- I think you asked about concerning PRC activities around the islands, was that right? So what is particularly concerning about the PRC's activities in the Pacific is the lack of transparency and the lack of clarity around the terms it negotiates with host countries and its intended purpose of these programs.

So we want to ensure that Indo-Pacific nations can make decisions for themselves without being pressured but -- for their economic and security future and we want to -- we are committed in helping them do just that.

I'll go to Lara. Yeah? Hi.

Question: Thank you. I'm just wondering if this -- the situation with the leaked documents has prompted DOD to review its vetting processes at all? I mean, you have Airman Teixeira and this former Navy E-5. They've -- clearly have extremist, racist views that they've expressed on social media, including when they were in the military. So may -- it -- should this be part of DOD's vetting process when we're looking at recruiting people?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: I think that's a great question and thank you for the question. We do have a very robust vetting process when it comes to someone being able to have a security clearance. That includes an FBI background check and that includes a vetting of friends, family, former co-workers, and then there is a more detailed, in-depth on just finances, further background checks that the FBI does.

But I mean, I think we are pretty confident in how the FBI does conduct its background checks when it comes to somebody being able to obtain a security clearance. And we also ask and mandate that our service members or civilians who do have security clearances -- and I include myself in that -- do so with certainly something -- you know, you have to -- being able to follow the rules that are in place, which is -- part of that is a non-disclosure agreement that we sign, as well, when you get access -- when you have a security clearance.

And so while I feel confident in the background checks that do go into place for security clearances and for someone to get access to one, again, that is why we are doing this process. If there is something that we feel that needs to be added to the background check process, I think that's what this review will certainly lend itself to.

Question: And is there any way for DOD or I guess it might be the FBI to track the social media postings of these people? So maybe they didn't express extremist views before they went into the military and now maybe -- I mean, as it seems happened with this Navy E-5, there was an event, and then afterwards, she sort of went off on the deep end maybe? Is there a way for DOD to track that? I guess it seems like it would be pertinent.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: So as you know, we have to follow the -- I'm trying to find the best way to phrase it. DOD does not spy on its own U.S. citizens and we conduct ourselves in adherence with the law.

Again, background checks certainly do go through social media postings. This is exactly what this effort internally here in the building is designed to look at -- is there something else that we need to do to add on to a process when it comes to a background check and obtaining a security clearance? This is something that this will look at, and when we have more to follow on that, I'd be happy to update you on that.

Yes, right over here? I probably have time for two or three more.

Question: I have two questions.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: OK, great.

Question: Thank you.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Yeah.

Question: My first question about the leaked documents -- Sabrina, how much do you have a concern that the other parties, like Russia or China, could use the information inside these documents to harm U.S. military operations or even their -- the U.S. -- I mean, allies?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Well, we're certainly concerned about the contents of these documents being circulated on social media, which is why, I think at the top, you know, I addressed the fact that it is important when reporting on these documents that they do contain sensitive, classified information that could cause irreparable damage to our allies and partners, but we're also doing an assessment of that.

So yes, we are concerned about these documents. We feel that of course Russia and China could use this to their advantage but we also feel confident in our outreach to partners and allies and working with them as this continues.

Yeah?

Question:... second question, different topic. Regarding to the clashes in Sudan, have you seen the latest reports about the clashes? And do you have any concerns about the stability of the region? And is there any contact between the DOD and their Sudani counterparts or even the countries in that area, in the region? And what -- how do you see the situation there? Thank you.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Sure. So -- and I think for some of these, I would refer you to the Department of State. But within Sudan, the Department of Defense's mission is primarily focused on providing security to the U.S. embassy. And so while I can't go into too much detail, we have -- the Department of Defense, through the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group, provides ongoing security for diplomatic facilities worldwide.

Yeah, I'll go to Courtney and then that'll have to be our last question.

Question: Thanks. I just wanted to ask, just for clarification on one of the questions -- one of your answers to Tara's question, you said that the DOJ investigation will reveal more documents that have been previously posted...

[CROSS-TALK]

... are you saying that you think that the -- or you know that the investigation -- there will be more documents that have not been reported on, have not been made public that will be -- that will come out as part of this investigation?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: I'm not exactly sure how I phrased that but what I meant...

Question:... direct quote.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: So DOJ is the lead investigator on this topic. There could be more documents that are being circulated online. That is something that this investigation is looking into, that's something that the department is looking into. Different media outlets here in this room have reported on having different numbers of pages, numbers of documents. At each time that, you know, we are culling through the documents that we get and as we get more, that number grows. Does that make sense?

Question: So -- so you do -- so I -- I guess the -- I mean, one of the big questions that we all have -- have had here is there's been this drip, drip of -- of documents, like, every day, multiple documents per day being reported on.

So I guess what we're trying to figure out is is this just going to continue and -- and if you guys have any sense -- I mean, at this point, now that you've arrested someone -- or that the Department of Justice has arrested someone, they -- I'm sure they've gone through his computers, his things. They must have a better sense of -- of what more is still out there that could potentially still be released.

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Well, as you said, they're going through his computers, they're going through his files. That -- that "they" is the Department of Justice. So I'd refer you to them in terms of what they're actually pulling off of anything that they've taken from his home.

Yes, we do continue to assess what other documents are being circulated online. As news outlets report on them, you know, we are also culling through what we are finding, and that is ongoing. So I think what you're getting at, could this count grow, I mean, we're still assessing that, we are still reviewing different posts that continue to surface online and working with -- you know, working with online social media platforms to get those documents and to review them.

Question: And then just one from Jennifer's questions -- I'm still not clear on Sarah Bils, I think is her name...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Yeah.

Question:... the -- the Navy -- former Navy -- so there is -- at this point, there's no military investigation looking into any of her activities while she was in uniform? Is that -- is that correct?

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: As far as I am aware, while she was in uniform, there was not, but for more specifics, I would refer you to the Navy...

Question: But -- right, but -- but now, I mean, there's no -- cause, like, a -- a -- not even...

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SINGH: Anything to do with the investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of documents, anything to do with that investigation, I'm just not going to speak to more specifics of who's being spoken to or who's being interviewed. I would refer you to the DOJ for that.

Great. OK, we're going to have to wrap up. Thanks so much, guys.


Original Text Source: Defense.gov

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