Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel held a press conference in Abu Dhabi to wrap up his five day trip to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates. He discussed U.S. intelligence on the use of chemical weapons in Syria.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: This, I think, was meant to be kind of a wrap-up with the five days, which we can do, but I want to read a statement, because I think this is going to consume most of your attention, as it has the last couple of days.
This morning, the White House delivered -- delivered a letter to several members of Congress on the topic of chemical weapons used in Syria. The letter, which will be made available to you here shortly -- as soon as George gets it, we'll get it to you -- states that the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.
As I've said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made within the past 24 hours. And I've been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours, on this issue.
We cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have been originated with the Assad regime. As the letter states, the president has made it clear that the use of chemical weapons or the transfer of such weapons to terrorist groups would be unacceptable. The United States has an obligation to fully investigate, including with all key partners and allies and through the United Nations, evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria.
Over the past week, I've traveled, as you all know, to five countries at least, all of whom have expressed concern about the deteriorating situation in Syria. And you've asked me on several occasions about chemical weapons use.
As I've said, this is serious business. We need all the facts. The letter will be available as soon as George gets it to you. And as you all know, I have no more to say about this until we get the full story, as I think that will be the position of the administration.
With that, be glad to take questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, does this cross the red line?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, I would answer your question this way. We need all the facts. We need all the information. What I've just given you is what our intelligence community has said they know. As I've also said, they're still assessing and they're still looking at what happened, who was responsible, and the other specifics that we'll need.
As to a red line, my role as secretary of defense is to give the president options on a policy issue. That's a policy issue. And we'll be prepared to do that at such time as the president requires options.
Q: Did you say varying degrees of confidence? Is that the phrase you used? What does that mean?
SEC. HAGEL: I did. Well, it means that we still have some uncertainties about what was used, what kind of chemical was used, where it was used, who used it.
Q: But not if?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, as I've said in the statement, in talking to our intelligence people the last couple of hours, they have a reasonable amount of confidence that some amount of chemical weapons was used.
Q: What changed in the last 24 hours, sir? Was it part of the ongoing assessment? Or did they get new information that caused them to change their assessment?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, when you all asked me yesterday about what's the timeframe on this, and I think I responded something like, you don't put timeframes on -- inventing timeframes on assessment of intelligence, as you know, we've been looking at this for some time. As you also know, we have been talking to our partners on this and getting their information and assessing what they have and trying to piece that together.
I don't know exactly what over the last 24 hours has changed in the sense that - was there new information or did they have new confidence in that information? But you do come to a point in this business where you can make some assessments, and I think that's probably how they got to this point and -- and the timing on it.
But any -- any further details, you'd have to ask the intelligence people on this.
Q: Sir, what is the next step for this? Are you reviewing further intelligence analysis on this potential use, what are the next steps on this?
SEC. HAGEL: Yes, that's exactly right, because as I just inventoried some of the questions, that we need more fully to round out and get specifics on, and you just stated it. And I think that will be in the letter from the White House to the Congress that's already been sent up. And I think they lay that out.
Q: It has been sent out.
SEC. HAGEL: It has been sent out?
Q: What was the evidence?
SEC. HAGEL: I don't know the specific evidence, Jim. I haven't -- I haven't seen it.
Q: Mr. Secretary, could you help us understand something? The Syrian civil war has been a humanitarian catastrophe, estimates of 70,000 civilians killed so far. We understand that chemical weapons are a different thing, but 70,000 civilians killed through conventional means, some smaller number with chemical weapons, why is C.W. such a game-changer, if you could help us understand that?
SEC. HAGEL: Well, a lot of reasons, but, first, it violates every convention on warfare. Second, chemical weapons are uncontrollable, deadly weapons. You can say that about someone being slaughtered as a result of artillery fire, but when we move into the arena of chemical weapons and of the mass destruction of human life and the uncontrollable dimensions of chemical weapons. All weapons are deadly -- we get that. But I think those are some of the dimensions of this issue that are in play here. And once standards of acceptance of warfare are broken and devalued, just like weapons of mass destruction, at what point do you -- do you justify using nuclear weapons?
So all weapons destroy. It's what they're meant to do. I get that. Your question's a good one. But -- but I do think that most people in the world, most leaders put the use of chemical weapons in a different category.
GEORGE LITTLE: One last question for the secretary. You need to get into a meeting.
Q: Sir, can you tell us what -- under what circumstances these weapons were used? Do you have any sense of that at all?
SEC. HAGEL: No. No. Those are all questions that -- that the intelligence community is assessing. Intelligence, as I've seen over the last few weeks, do get into some of the when they were used in general areas, but I don't have that in front of me. And, obviously, this is classified, and so I couldn't respond to you on that.
MR. LITTLE: Thank you all very much, alright, thank you.
SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.
SEC. HAGEL: And appreciated you traveling with us.
SEC. HAGEL: Yeah, this was -- this was an important trip. And I think this subject alone would dominate any trip. But this subject, Syria, and in particular chemical weapons, is just part of the larger challenge in the Middle East.
And it is so vitally important for our United States interests, as well as our allies in the world, that we work with allies in common interest to stabilize and secure these countries, because if this region of the world essentially gets itself into a situation where it's ungovernable and out of control, then this will be an astoundingly huge problem for all of the world.
So our attention has to be focused in this part of the world. So it's -- it's worth everyone's time to come here and make sure you listen carefully, as I did, and make sure we understand points of view and everyone understand our point of view on what we're trying to accomplish with them.