MR BROWN: Everyone knows Assistant Secretary Cooper.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Hi.
QUESTION: He has remarks and will take Q&A. This will be on the record.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: So back from North Africa. Sabah al khair, bonjour, ca va. How are we all doing?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: It’s all good, yes. Yeah, and a very timely trip. So – give you a – looked at the trip as we were building it is you were looking at bookends as to why, why Mauritania, why Algeria and why Tunisia.
So Mauritania was the host this year of Flintlock Exercise. It’s a multinational exercise. We, the United States, have been sponsoring this via U.S. Africa Command since 2005, and this has been hosted in different trans-Sahel, trans-Sahara states. This year was significant in the sense that it – you had the hub was in Mauritania and the other co-hosts were – the other spokes was in Senegal. There are about 30 partner nations, African as well as European states that participated in this exercise.
And why the exercise? The exercise is to bolster capacities and confidence of these states and their ability to maintain their sovereignty and to actually better communicate with each other. Because at the end of the day their sovereignty, their security, is dependent on their ability to do that for themselves, and best to be able to do that with partners and neighbors that you can communicate with. So at a very tactical level, while they’re looking to be able to shoot, move, and communicate up at an operational ministerial level, Flintlock Exercise helps amplify the necessity to do that at a greater capacity level.
Two things that came out of that that are worth noting here. Mauritania was the first – and I highlighted this to the defense minister as this was happening. I said you’re the first state in a flint exercise to apply organic ISR. Now, that might not seem like a big deal, but it is a big deal because this is an ISR platform that they’re manning themselves. Now, we may have sold it to them, and we did, because we do provide the best quality in equipment when we’re looking at defense capabilities, but the Mauritanians operated and maintained the ISR through the exercise. Again, it was a capability of an expression of where they have come and where they are going.
Another interesting point when one’s looking at it from transregional, transnational support and communications that this exercise really emphasized the necessity of applying CEM, C-E-M, Captured Enemy Material, taken from the battlefield for judicial prosecutions of terrorists or those who are facilitating terrorists. Why is that significant? Again, I go back to the necessity for states to communicate with each other. We often talk about information sharing in the perspective of the U.S. sharing information with a partner state, or a partner state sharing information with the United States.
What we’re trying to encourage and engender in exercises like Flintlock is for information sharing to occur amongst the states with themselves, and that was expressed throughout the exercise. And that was another thing, having been involved in Flintlock in a different capacity in a different life, to see the maturation of this exercise take things up a little bit higher than a tactical operational level into ministerial spheres was certainly important to see, and again, another expression of the work that the Department of State does when it comes to the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership program. That’s a Title 22 program that supports capacities for states that would normally be a participant in Flintlock for their ongoing capacity building to combat terrorism.
Also in the region, sat down, had ministerial meetings in Nouakchott on particular capabilities that they were looking to address, met with directors of the G5 Sahel program. That is something that we’ve, as a government, have invested in, again, encouraging these states to be able to better develop their capacities for themselves and with each other.
And then moving east to Algiers, the focus there was on the bilateral, the foreign ministry and the defense ministry. There is a significant appetite in Algeria to do additional not just procurements of U.S. defense materiel and U.S. defense articles; there’s actually a growing appetite to do more in co-production. A good tangible example of that is the number of American businesses that have field representatives in Algiers. Probably the longest presence and one that is the most tangible I could cite here as far as co-production is L3Harris. So anybody who has served in the field and depended on a Harris radio would recognize what’s produced. That is something that – where the private sector has growing opportunity in Algeria.
Our processes as how we do procurement and the transparency that’s associated with it is very attractive in Algeria right now. If we look past 2011 and we look at the reform – the reform mindedness that swept the Middle East and North Africa, how we do our procurement processes is attractive for – if you look at the protests that were occurring in Algiers with the Hirak over the past year, calling for, demanding transparency, demanding accountability in Algeria. And if you’re an Algerian minister or a service chief or program officer and you look at how transparent and in the sunshine U.S. defense sales are, foreign military sales are, we’re almost a guarantor of combatting corruption.
So while for us it’s a matter of accountability and transparency between the Executive Branch and Congress, if you’re a foreign partner, they see it as a – for lack of a better description – kind of a Good Housekeeping seal or a credential that if we’re buying through the American processes, it shows that we are actually representative of our people’s interest and not putting ourselves at risk for corruption.
So that was an interesting space of how the Algerians see pursuing an additional tighter, closer security cooperation relationship with the United States beyond information sharing, beyond counterterrorism, and looking at it as a more fruitful relationship for defense trade development, but one that would be inclusive of co-production, which is why I mentioned the L3 example.
So then moving east to Tunisia. Tunisia certainly has carried significant weight for the region when it comes to combatting terrorism. They were the first state in the region to actually voluntarily request to take back foreign terrorist fighters to repatriate them from Syria. Also, we we’re quite familiar with the significant impact that has hit Tunisia’s economy from terrorist attacks, particularly the attack on the Bardo Museum in 2015, and of course, there is the attack that occurred earlier today in Tunis. That said, their capabilities have expanded and grown over the past five to six years with their defense and interior ministries working more cooperatively and with Tunisia looking to do more regionally.
So I mentioned peacekeeping operations. This is something that is an ongoing conversation with every state that we work with, but Tunisia has certainly taken the lead in providing support for other states when it comes to the trans-Sahara, supporting missions like MINUSMA, of moving personnel from one location to another, and – I like to say on platforms they purchase from us, like on, say, a C-130.
So we look at Tunisia as a developing partner in the region on taking a greater leading role on peacekeeping operations and a greater leading role when it comes to resolving issues like Libya, which is, of course, contiguous to their border and is something of great concern to their national security enterprise. And we also see a growing opportunity when it comes to defense trade and aerospace.
The other bookend, as I mentioned, was being in Tunisia for their first, the premier aerospace and defense exhibition. It was phenomenal. To have that kind of a display in North Africa and to have not only the greatest U.S. official presence there, we also had the greatest foreign industry presence, meaning U.S. industry, we had the largest footprint there. This was something that was a hallmark for the new government. So if you are Kais Saied, the new president, and the new ministers, having a showcase like the International Aerospace Defense Exhibition in Djerba was something that they needed to show as a tangible, concrete example of them wanting to look forward and having a closer, tighter relationship with the West, but also showing that they could be an expression, a hub from a regional aspect, of opportunities for other states.
Tunis also, mentioning President Saied, provided opportunity for us to have initial engagements with their new government, so their foreign minister, their new defense minister. And then I mentioned transparency and accountability – taking time to meet with their speaker of the parliament and their parliamentary leaders of their defense and foreign policy committees.
Again, overarching focus of the trip was our continued investment and our continued relationship with African partners and our necessity to be present and to be in place, and also highlight partners who are actually stepping up further. So those three states I mentioned have all done tangible things to show that they are taking on more not only for their own sovereignty and for their own security, but doing more from a regional context, and that is something we certainly value not just from a state-to-state partnership, but also something that we value as far as protecting U.S. interests as well.
MR BROWN: Okay.
QUESTION: Yeah, well, I’m just going to presume that you don’t really have a lot more to say about what happened in Tunis this morning.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Other than what you’ve probably seen, the five Ws. I mean, there was an attack and it occurred. It’s unfortunate, and it – but what I would say is it shows that combatting terrorism is a long-term proposition. It’s treatment, not a cure, and that there is always going to be a threat wherever you are globally. It’s not limited to one place or jurisdiction. But the response – what I will say is the response was quick, was swift, was significant. I wish we could talk more about the response, but I would like to highlight the Tunisian response to that was swift.
QUESTION: Okay. So I wanted to ask you about Algeria. And recognizing that this doesn’t really come into the rubric of arms sales, did the Algerians in your conversations with them express any concerns about potential shifts in the U.S. position on Western Sahara?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Yes. I would say every bilateral engagement I’ve had – and I’m including not just ministers; this would be just people – as you all know, in the public sphere that’s a conversation, it’s a very robust discourse on the entire continent about our commitment. So the conversation came up wherever I – it didn’t matter if I was getting a cup of coffee or if I was in a ministerial. It was something that anybody, regardless if they were an Algerian waiter or an Algerian minister, it was brought up.
And why? Because their concern is if they want to be closer to us, they want to make sure that they see that commitment. And if you look at Algeria’s historic relationships with Russia, there has certainly been some fanning of the flames. There’s been some disruption that is certainly being proliferated by Russian narratives of our commitment to that space.
QUESTION: To Western Sahara.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Correct.
QUESTION: And then just the – very – there was – you were – when did – Tunisia was your – Tunis was your last stop?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: I just got back last night.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Yeah, so not even – like, not even 12 hours.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: A few hours ago.
MR BROWN: Okay. Courtney.
QUESTION: So to broaden the question, Matt was asking about Western Sahara, but more broadly, what were your interlocutors looking for from the U.S.? And you talk about the importance of presence.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Obviously, we have the AFRICOM re-evaluation. And then separately, the trip that we were just on, our stop in Addis Ababa coincided with the African Land Forces Summit. Did you talk to anyone who had participated in that? And what were their early takeaways from that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Yeah, so several different summits. So it’s a – first we’ll start with the base (inaudible) review. Again, that’s Department of Defense. And just to also offer to – in fairness to them, it’s every geographic combatant command. Africa starts with A, so they’re first. But that said, security assistance accounts —
QUESTION: They all start with A.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: A?
QUESTION: Well, except for Europe.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: All right, Matt. (Laughter.) Anyway – but if we look at the review, as I mentioned, security assistance accounts – for example, peacekeeping operations; for example, the trans-Sahara counterterrorism program  – all of those reside at the Department of State as Title 22 accounts. So – and part of that was reminding our interlocutors – to your question, Courtney – was to remind interlocutors that these accounts that you’ve been working on with us and where we’re working on addressing requirements don’t go away. What has changed is we have certainly put additional focus on who else could be participant in this space.
And so I’ll step back a few weeks back to Munich. And that was a conversation I was having with European ministers in my bilats, which was: What can you bring to the table when talking about certain parts of the continent like, say, the Sahel – not just the G5 Sahel, but what can you do there? Or are we looking at other capabilities that may be addressed, that may be better aligned, be it East Africa or West Africa?
The short answer was “yes,” and the caveat was, “We need to make sure that the U.S. is still present in certain places and is not wholesale divested of the continent.” So a silver lining for – from all this discourse could be assessed as European partners have been able to look a little closer as to what they could do to be an additional partner, be it in a support mechanism or logistics mechanism or in some kind of an expansion of information sharing.
We’ll not speak for them here, because that’s – they’re still developing what those options could be in their capitals. But I would say in a very general sense, before going to the continent, having those conversations in Munich were very fulsome and very healthy in the sense that some things that have not been yet offered before could come to the table. The challenge will be to make sure that there’s no duplication of effort in certain places or that something is offered and there’s not an absorptive capacity by a partner state to receive whatever it is that may be offered by a state other than the United States.
QUESTION: And on the African Land Forces Summit? Sorry, just the —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: What I could say in this fora is that did provide a bit of a forcing function for some of the African partners as far as what their footprint laydown could or should be. But again, I won’t – I can’t get into those entre nous pieces. So —
MR BROWN: Jennifer.
QUESTION: Two questions. In any of your conversations, have people expressed concerns about the impact of coronavirus on the defense industry, be it timelines or being properly supplied or anything like that? And then on Turkey, have you had any success in convincing them to render the S-400 inoperable given recent tensions? And anything on the Patriot battery.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Sure. I’ll start with COVID-19. On the coronavirus, that is certainly a consideration. We have a global supply chain for everything in the defense industry, regardless of what the materiel or the armament or system is. So that is certainly a consideration. That is a concern that has been flagged. What industry is doing, no different than anybody else, is looking at what it would mean to have different types of shifts, what could be done in cloistered or compartmentalized environments. But again, every part of industry certainly has been flagging this, and it does – when one’s looking at delivery times, I can’t speak per companies, but companies are looking at how they would be able to either (a) meet delivery based on an adjusted posture, or (b) possibly change delivery dates for things if need be. But I’m not aware yet of any particular defense industry partner talking about delays or protractions of delivery dates at this time.
QUESTION: And then Turkey?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: And then Turkey, yeah. So yes, based on the current posture in Syria and also based on some other global factors, the conversation is still ongoing with Ankara. They know where we stand, that the delivery and acceptance of the S-400 is an absolute no go. It is why they are still outside of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. They are not in that program because of the receipt of the S-400. The dialogue is still there. We have a wonderful ambassador with David Satterfield in Ankara who has consistent, persistent lines of communication throughout the central government, so yes, the conversations are at play. But with – they know what they need to do to get to good.
QUESTION: Would you say there’s been progress, though, given recent tensions between Russia and Turkey?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: I would say that Moscow certainly hasn’t done themselves any favors lately.
MR BROWN: Nick.
QUESTION: Can I just press you a little bit on the DOD review? In your conversations, did officials directly urge you to bring to bear some influence to make sure that troops – troop levels are not reduced, or was there – was it that explicit?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Well, remember, the places I was at – Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia – this is not where we have – we don’t have any basing. We don’t have any troops.
QUESTION: But in terms of the broader Sahel and how all these things impact each other.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Right, but again, look at – we have a very limited footprint on the entire continent.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: A very limited footprint. So depending on where one sits in a particular ministry in any one of these states, they either were so fully aware that they knew that the review had no impact because they understood that the accounts that they worked with the United States resided at State Department, or if they took it from a whole – more holistic standpoint, they were just saying, “We want to make sure that what we have currently in place when it comes to security cooperation, security assistance isn’t impeded by the review,” because as I said, we have – when you talk about the BOG or boots on the ground, there’s such a limited full-time presence on this massive continent that’s the size of three continental United States. The concern that has been expressed was: Does the defense posture review have an impact on Department of State programming? The short answer is no.
MR BROWN: Okay. Humeyra.
QUESTION: Can I follow up a little bit more on that? And I’ve asked this to multiple people within the USG: What is the State Department assessment of direct threats to American homeland from Sahel? Is there —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: From —
QUESTION: From Sahel in terms of, like, terrorism, is there – I’ve been told that there is definitely an intent to attack, but is there a capability, and is there an assessment that it might happen in the foreseeable future?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: So let me – we’re in an open-source environment here, and what I can say is that when we look at from a context of threat, threat is not just limited to a direct external operator or direct external operations threat to the United States. We do look at it broader in the sense of what’s a threat to U.S. interests on the continent. So if one is sitting at an embassy level in any one of our states – any one of the – any one of our embassies in any one of the African states, they’re looking at it as to what is that direct threat to U.S. interests. And that could be an industry interest, it could be an energy interest, it could be anything.
But as far as the threat to the homeland, the thing that we have to remember is that terrorism today is not limited to one geographic locality. It is transnational, it is transregional, it does have an overlap with illicit trafficking and criminal trafficking. So when we talk about a broader threat, it is the necessity to disrupt and disable a threat or facilitation of a threat closer to its root, not to let it continue or proliferate where it becomes a threat to the homeland. So much of what we’ve done historically as a country on countering terrorism, be it anywhere on the African continent, has been to mitigate it there locally so it doesn’t proliferate or become an external operation threat or one threat to the U.S.
But if you – but again, going back to what we’re doing on the continent on counterterrorism programming, it is to bolster capacities of our partners to be able to neutralize that threat and also bolstering the capacity so that they can prosecute that threat in judicial processes, not just in a kinetic sense. So I can’t talk in detail about intelligence assessments, but I would say we look at it from a transregional aspect, and we look at it from the ability to mitigate it before it becomes a problem for the homeland.
QUESTION: Is that an understanding across the USG, or is it State Department? Like, I’m curious if DOD shares this view exactly.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: It’s safe to say from an interagency aspect addressing a threat is done in a transregional framework, but I can’t – we’re —
MR BROWN: And you can check out the National Security Strategy, which makes that explicit.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Yeah.
MR BROWN: Last question.
QUESTION: Can I ask about SMA with South Korea? General Abrams has issued the 30-day notice of furloughs. So could you just update us on the status? And also, will the coronavirus outbreak affect any scheduling of upcoming negotiations with South Korea or negotiations with Japan?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: So regardless if it’s the SMA that’s currently front-burner with Seoul, or if it’s the host nation agreement that we’re working with Japan that’s a little further afield – and that expires March of 2021 – the conversations haven’t stopped. They have embassies here in Washington. We have embassies in Seoul and Tokyo. Our senior negotiator, my colleague Jim DeHart, is in direct contact with his counterparts in Seoul and in Tokyo. So no, the – nothing has slowed down.
What has – certainly have happened – you mentioned General Abrams doing notification for furloughing. April 1st is the clock we’re looking at. With that, we certainly see the Koreans now have opportunity to come back to the table, and this is certainly an expectation of everyone involved here in the United States. It’s an expectation of Secretary Pompeo. It’s an expectation of President Trump for the Koreans to come back and respond to what we have been discussing. But it’s certainly within the timeframe and we have modern ways of communicating. Face-to-face is preferred, but we are certainly not immune from using video teleconference.
MR BROWN: Okay.
QUESTION: It sounds like when you say Koreans – it’s an opportunity for the Koreans to come back to the table, that you’re basically saying the ball’s in their court.
MR BROWN: That was the last question. Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: Okay. All right.
MR BROWN: All right.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY COOPER: All right. Thank you all.