The Pentagon pushed back Thursday against the charge by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the White House was engaged in "semantic backflips" on whether U.S. troops were in combat in Iraq.
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and other U.S. officials had frequently stated that the troops in Iraq were at risk and that circumstances sometimes put them in direct combat, although they were limited to the train, advise and assist role.
"We’re not engaging in semantic backflips," Cook said at a Pentagon briefing. "We’ve made very clear that what American troops are now engaged in overseas puts them in harm’s way" and "there have been instances when they’ve been engaged in combat."
"They certainly have found themselves in combat," such as the firefight earlier this month in northwestern Iraq in which Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV was killed, Cook said.
On MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" show, Gates, a constant critic of the Obama administration since leaving office, said "I think that it is incredibly unfortunate not to speak openly about what is going on" in Iraq.
"American troops are in action. They are being killed, they are in combat and these semantic backflips to avoid using the term ‘combat’ is a disservice to those who are out there putting their lives on the line.," Gates said in reference to White House staffers.
Gates acknowledged that Carter has used the term "combat" in referring to the deaths of the three Americans killed in action in Iraq – Keating, Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler and Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin. He said it was "unfortunate" that White House staffers have not followed suit.
At a news conference on May 3, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that Carter was accurate in describing the death of Keating as a "combat death," but said that U.S. troops in Iraq "do not have a combat mission."
Keating was "in a combat situation," Earnest said, "and it is a testament to the bravery and courage and sacrifice not just of this individual, who gave his life for his country, but for the 4,000 other U.S. service members who are operating every day in Iraq. They are not in a combat mission, but they are in a dangerous situation."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org