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Remarks by Secretary Hagel at the Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island

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Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and CNN Correspondent Jim Sciutto
September 3, 2014

JIM SCIUTTO: Thanks to our viewers for joining for this very special live event, a live interview with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during what can only be described as an extremely busy and challenging time for the Defense Department, for the administration, for the country. We appreciate the defense secretary taking the time with us.

We also are doing this at a very special venue. We're here today in Newport, Rhode Island at the Naval War College. This is where America's present and future military leaders are trained. There are more than 500 of them joining the audience today. And it's not just American. There are some 63 countries represented here, and many of the countries that are right in the center of the stories that we are covering today: representatives from Estonia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel. These are the decision-makers that are going to be dealing with these crises, just like the defense secretary, in the coming months and years.

Again, thank you Secretary Hagel for taking the time to speak with us.

ISIS is at the top of the minds of many Americans, and certainly the administration as well. The president traveling to Estonia, you heard his comments earlier today, when he described in more definitive terms than we've heard so far, what the American mission is when it comes to ISIS. And he used the terms "degrade and destroy," that is the goal.

Vice President Joe Biden took it a step forward at least in rhetorical terms, a short time afterwards, saying in his words that, "we will follow them to the gates of hell because hell is where they reside."

Now, soon after the president, moments in fact, after he uttered the terms, the words "degrade and destroy," he went on to say that the goal may be to make ISIS "a more manageable threat," which seems to imply contain rather than destroy. And I want to ask you, which is it? Is the mission goal to contain or destroy, and what mission have you in the Defense Department been tasked with?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Well, first Jim, let me thank you and CNN for an opportunity to bring this group together and focus on the really pretty exceptional leadership and commitment to our country that's represented here today, as well as our foreign partners.

I also want to thank the admiral for hosting us. My old friend and former Senate colleague, Senator Jack Reed is in the audience. He and Governor Linc Chafee gave me a visa to come into the state for -- (Laughter.) -- for a few hours. I shall get out before sundown. As I said.

But thank you for what you do Senator Reed and admiral, and to all of you. And I want to thank all of our men and women across the globe for their commitment to our country.

I also understand that your father is in the audience, who is a Navy veteran, so to your father, thank you.

To your question, I think the president's statement, which I did read and aware of both he and the vice president's news conference, was pretty clear, to degrade and destroy the capability of ISIL. To come after U.S. interests all over the world and our allies. However way he addressed that later in the news conference, I wasn't aware of that.

But our mission, as you have asked us what that mission is, based on what the commander in chief has asked of us, is to provide him those options and those plans to accomplish the mission of destroy and degrade the capability of ISIS. We're doing that as the president said, not just militarily, because that is but one component. The president has been very clear on that point.

But it also requires a stable, new, inclusive government in Iraq, which we are hopeful will be in place next week.

It is the people of Iraq, the people of the Middle East, that will make their ultimate decisions and determine their future. We can support them.

It's also bringing a group with us of like-minded countries that appreciate the threat that ISIL represents to all of us. And I think you know many of the countries, France, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Albania, others, to bring that coalition with us, that's another part.

Authorizations. Air strikes. Budget issues. The president's been very clear he wants the Congress involved with him. We've been consulting with the Congress.

So, it's all of those components, but the mission is, very clearly, and we're providing the president with those options, to degrade and destroy ISIL's capability.

MR. SCIUTTO: That's the end-game? Degrade and destroy? Not contain?

SEC. HAGEL: No, it's not contain. It's exactly what the president said. Degrade and destroy.

MR. SCIUTTO: I want to talk about the threat to the U.S. homeland, in particular, from ISIS, because there have been mixed signals from the administration as to how imminent and severe that threat is.

Two weeks ago, you said ISIS is, quote, "an imminent threat to every interest we have," and you went on to say, "It's unlike any threat we've ever seen."

After your comments, the administration seemed to pull back, somewhat. You had the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff describe is as a "regional threat," something the president did later that same week, in fact, last Thursday, saying that ISIS poses an immediate threat to the people of Iraq and the people of the region. He did not say immediate threat to the U.S. homeland.

This is key. We have many folks back home wondering what threat it poses to them and their families.

Is it an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland or to the region?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, first of all, I didn't say homeland. I said to U.S. interests.


MR. SCIUTTO: But you said an imminent threat to every interest we have.

SEC. HAGEL: That's right. I didn't say homeland. I said to all of our interests.

Look at -- look at what just happened 24 hours ago on the latest video of another citizen, as to what ISIL did. It is a threat. ISIL is a threat to this country, to our interests.

Obviously, Prime Minister Cameron of Great Britain made that pretty clear a couple of days ago. The president of the United States has said they are a threat. The attorney general of the United States has said it in similar language. The secretary of homeland security, director of national intelligence.

So these are very real threats. Or, if they weren't real threats, then the president wouldn't be saying, giving us the mission, to go out and degrade and destroy the capabilities...

MR. SCIUTTO: No question. I'm not denying that officials have said it's a threat. The specific question is, is it a threat to the U.S. homeland at this stage, or is that a distant potential threat, and for now, ISIS is focused largely on gains in Iraq and Syria?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I think, Jim, part of that answer is, as we have acknowledged publicly, we are aware of over 100 U.S. citizens who have U.S. passports who are fighting in the Middle East with ISIL forces. There may be more; we don't know.

We can't take a chance, Jim, on saying, well, let's technically define this, is it a real threat today or tomorrow, or is it going to be in six months? That's the way the threats don't work in little, neat boxes and emanate on our time frame. They emanate on their time frame.

And the president's point being to degrade and destroy their capability, so that it doesn't get to your question.

We know they're a threat. We know they're brutal. We know that they are, as I've said, as others have said, something that we've never seen before. They're better organized. They're better funded. They have more capability. They're better structured. There's a dangerous, dangerous ideology of a brutality, a barbaric nature, that we've not seen before.

So my job as secretary of defense is not to second-guess what may be or what's going to be, but we've got to protect, do everything we can to protect our country, our interests, at this -- at the -- at the command of our commander in chief as to what he needs in order to do his job.

MR. SCIUTTO: So it sounds to me like you're operating, that this, to some degree, is not knowable, that there's a potential threat -- and I've had many intelligence briefings where intelligence officials have told me, that is the concern: Americans or Europeans returning home with those passports possibly carrying out attacks. While they may not have a credible threat, where they know the date and the time and the target, that's a potential threat.

But it sounds to me like you're operating, as defense secretary, that that threat could be immediate. And, therefore, you're reacting so that you could prevent that from happening.

SEC. HAGEL: That is part of our mission. And that's, again, not only my mission, my responsibility as secretary of defense, but, as you know, from our other Cabinet members, the attorney general, the secretary of homeland security, the director of national intelligence, all our intelligence agencies, all of us together, working -- law enforcement -- on this. But there are capabilities we have, missions that we can perform just as the president has instructed us to perform those missions, giving him the options, that we have to take seriously.

And I can't second-guess what may come or what may not come. This crowd is as dangerous a group of people beyond just terrorists. They are an army, marrying this with an ideology and capacity to do things. They -- they control half of Iraq today. They control half of Syria today. We better be taking them serious.

MR. SCIUTTO: So, if you are taking them seriously, and I hear urgency in your voice, why isn't there an urgency in articulating and defining to the American people what the strategy is to react to the threat from ISIS, whether in the region or at home?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I think the president has made that very clear. First, as he has said, we need to concentrate on, and we have been -- in Secretary Kerry's area of responsibility, but we all have this, is doing everything we can to support the Iraqi people as they come together, forming a new, inclusive government.

MR. SCIUTTO: But as you know, Iraqi politics move very slowly. And frankly, the terror threat is and is likely to move more quickly than the Iraqi political process.

SEC. HAGEL: Jim, if you'll let me finish answering the question, that's but one component, but we're working on that.

What the president has talked about, bringing a group of countries together. Secretary Kerry will be doing this right after the NATO conference. I'll be involved in this, we have been, so has our CENTCOM commander, others, in bringing a group together that together, can help support forces in Iraq and Syria, in the Middle East, who respect freedom and dignity and the choices that people will make. Military is part of that. Planning is part of that. Working with the Congress is part of that. Resources are part of that.

Asking the follow-up questions, if you do this, if you take this action, what will that lead to? Is this the right action to take? So there's a strategy to this. As the president said in his reference last week, putting the cart before the horse, you can't do that. We've gotta bring a coalition together and do the other things that we are building, we are doing, with a sense of urgency.

There's no -- I think there's little question in my mind that there's a sense of urgency. I think the president has been pretty clear about that.

MR. SCIUTTO: Is part of the strategy military strikes inside of Syria?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, that's an option. And we are looking at all those options.

MR. SCIUTTO: Have you prepared those options for the president?

SEC. HAGEL: The president has asked us for different options, and we have prepared them for him.

MR. SCIUTTO: And Syria airstrikes are among them?

SEC. HAGEL: All these things are options that the president wants to see, and we've been working with the White House, not just starting working with the White House. Been working with the White House for weeks. The president talks to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Ambassador Rice, national security advisor, talks to all of us. The president talks to me, talks to Lloyd Austin, the commanding general of CENTCOM. So, this isn't something that just popped up the last week or two. We've been working this for the last few weeks.

MR. SCIUTTO: To accomplish that mission, as you described it, degrade and destroy, can you in your view, as defense secretary, accomplish that without military action inside Syria, in light of the fact that ISIS controls territory on both sides of what is effectively a non-existent border?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, as I said, it's a number of options. And you plan for all those options, but one thing that we -- I hope we can accomplish with the Congress is the Congress going forward and funding the president's request for $500 million in funds to help support the Syrian moderate opposition. This is a part of the counter-terrorism partnership fund that the president put forward. The Congress has not acted on that yet. I would hope the Congress would.

But we look at all options. You have to look at all the options.

MR. SCIUTTO: There was a moment last week when the White House Spokesman Josh Earnest seemed to imply that the Pentagon had not yet completed the options to present to the president. Have you placed options on his desk already for military action inside Syria?

SEC. HAGEL: Jim, options are constantly being defined and refined. This is a dynamic process. It isn't just start with five days ago, the president asked for an option. We're constantly providing different options and contingency plans for different things. So, the missions or whatever the commander in chief requests of a specific mission, wants from us, then we tailor our responses and our options to whatever that mission is, as he had just clearly defined it today, degrade and destroy.

MR. SCIUTTO: So the president has on his desk an option for attacking Syria?

SEC. HAGEL: He has options all the time. But we're refining. We in fact -- yesterday, we just -- we were in touch again, and two or three times a day before she left with the president, with Ambassador Rice.

MR. SCIUTTO: Do you think it's a mistake for the president to have ruled out boots on the ground to contribute to this action? Because you talked to generals former and present who will say air power is limited in what it can accomplish.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, the president has been very clear about we're not going to go back into Iraq the same way we came out of Iraq a few years ago. That means a combat action, so-called boots on the ground combat action for American troops. We're not going to do that. I support that decision. I think it's the -- the right decision.

Now, to your -- your bigger point about just airstrikes. No, just airstrikes alone won't fulfill -- accomplish, what the -- the mission is. This is why I go back with an earlier answer I gave on this is a larger dimension of many pieces. One is -- is a functioning, credible, trustworthy, inclusive Iraqi government is being formed now. Coalition partners, building coalitions in that area, so everybody has a role. Everybody can participate. And we're making good progress on that.

It's what are our military options? It's many of these different dynamics that flood into one. Airstrikes is one. We've seen airstrikes that work pretty well. So far, in the limited missions that the president has given us to use airstrikes, and they have been pretty effective.

MR. SCIUTTO: I'm wondering if I can turn now to one of the other major international crises that is on your plate now, and that's of course the situation in Ukraine. Does Russian military action to date inside Ukraine constitute an invasion?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, there are Russians in Ukraine. Russian military. Russian military equipment in Ukraine. You can define it any way you want. We have been very clear on this. We've said it. NATO has said it. General Breedlove has said it is.

MR. SCIUTTO: They've said "incursion," though. U.S. officials haven't gone as far as to say, "invasion," which Ukrainian officials, as you know, have...

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I'll leave that -- others who worry about how you express yourself, or what words you do. That's not my role. This will be an issue that obviously will be very high on the agenda at NATO over the next two days.

MR. SCIUTTO: Do you -- I mean, the reason I asked that question, is in part is because an invasion would seem to require certain responses that an incursion or a limited military intervention would not.

But specific -- let's get to the policy. The administration policy to this point, gradually raising the costs on the Russian economy has been designed, so say administration officials, to deescalate the crisis. Meanwhile, it is escalating, and even U.S. officials and yourself included have described it that way.

In light of that, is the U.S. policy regarding Ukraine a failure to this point?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, let's examine the facts here, Jim. The tension that has been rising and the escalation that's been occurring, that's been because of one individual. It's the president of Russia. It's not President Poroshenko of Ukraine. It's not NATO. It's not the United States. It's the Russian president who continues to take very dangerous escalatory actions. So, that's number one. And I think the proper context we should come at it.

Second, well, let's look at the damage that's been done to the Russian economy. The ruble is at an all-time low against any currency. It continues to find itself isolated in the world. You saw the recent announcement by the French government to in fact stop the sale of the Mistral ship.

MR. SCIUTTO: Just today, yeah.

SEC. HAGEL: Today.

MR. SCIUTTO: Advanced warships with a helicopter capability.

SEC. HAGEL: And you can go on to chart through all the other consequences so far that have occurred, that have had significant impacts on the Russian economy.

I wouldn't say those are failures. I would say those are pretty -- pretty significant. Now, has it accomplished...

MR. SCIUTTO: But if the goal is to deescalate, they have failed, because Russia has kept on escalating military...

SEC. HAGEL: But Jim, do you want us not to do anything, as Putin continues to escalate?

MR. SCIUTTO: No, the question I'm just asking is if the policy has been successful so far, and the evidence would seem to show that it hasn't.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, the president has been -- our president has been very clear. This is not a short-term deal. If President Putin continues to escalate, as he has been, he continues to drive his country into a ditch, there will be long-term consequences for that, as already consequences are starting to show up. We are dealing with this.

We must, NATO partners, all the countries of Europe, in how we are handling this and how we are responding to it, as we are supporting the Ukrainians.

So, it is a -- not just a short-term issue here, but it's a longer term issue.

So I think the president, too, said very clearly last week, I mean, we're not going to a military engagement and a war with Russia over this. So then you look at the options that are responsible, and how do you deal with this, and I think we're taking the responsible actions that we must, that are pretty devastating to Russia.

MR. SCIUTTO: I just wonder if the Russian president is taking advantage of that understanding, that because the U.S. will not take additional steps, and, in fact, even the economic steps have been slow in coming, there are critics on both sides of the aisle that the Russian president is taking advantage of that by making a fait accompli, for instance, the annexation of Crimea and the possibility of further territory under Russian control in eastern Ukraine.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, whatever Putin's calculations are, they are his calculations. We have never recognized the annexation of Crimea. That is something that's gonna have to be dealt with as we work our way through this.

But, as we've said, I've said, the president's said, all of our administration officials have said, we need to get the tensions lowered, the escalations stopped, and get into a position -- and we can't control that. We can help it, we can foster it, our NATO partners can, where this thing gets sorted out, so the world doesn't go to war over this.

But there are things that we can do and we are doing, they're pretty effective right now, to deal with Russia.

MR. SCIUTTO: You gave a speech just a short time ago here in Newport talking about U.S. technological superiority and how countries, including Russia and China, are challenging that today, and, in particular, how the U.S. needs financial resources for the Defense Department to continue to -- to keep that superiority, that technological advantage.

I wonder if you could describe how severe that threat is to Americans who might not be paying attention at home to the advantage that -- the advances. rather that countries, such as Russia and China, are taking.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I've said many times, and I think all of our senior administration officials, starting with the president, the vice president, that this so-called sequestration, which is an unaccountable, irresponsible way to govern -- well, in fact, it's not governing, it's deferring, is terribly dangerous to the future capabilities of our national security enterprise.

MR. SCIUTTO: Can you give an example...

SEC. HAGEL: Yes, I can.

MR. SCIUTTO: ... just for folks back home.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, just a quick review of the bidding here. About three years ago, there was a law passed by the Congress, signed by the president, to, over a 10-year period, take down about $490 billion from the Pentagon, over a 10-year period. That'd be a reduction across the board.

MR. SCIUTTO: Where has that hit you the most, and made it, in your view...

SEC. HAGEL: But that's only one -- but, Jim, that's only thing. So, that isn't sequestration.


SEC. HAGEL: Sequestration is about another $50 billion, in addition to that.


SEC. HAGEL: Now, to give you an example of what happened to us last year, when we -- when we took the full brunt of almost $100 billion cut in one year -- steep, abrupt, immediate cuts, shots to the system. We had to stand down all of our training -- our Navy, our Air Force, our Marines, our Army couldn't train. We couldn't do maintenance. We couldn't go forward with contracts.

As you know, when we go forward with contracts to keep a technological edge, which we've always had since World War II, that is years out. We start that now, but we won't see the benefit for that for 10, 12 years. Those things were stopped.

And we reduced further our manpower, reduced further and cut into further every capability we had.

It won't show up in a year or two. It will start showing up third [three] and four years out.

So, when you look at the long-range view of this, if we don't reverse sequestration, stop it, then it is gonna have an impact on the future capabilities of our country to keep, if nothing else, the technological edge, when Russia and China, for example, continue to put in significant amounts of money to keep not only -- not only keep them in the game, but to jump us on capabilities.

Now, they're not there yet. They won't be there for...

MR. SCIUTTO: Catching up?

SEC. HAGEL: But they're catching up.

MR. SCIUTTO: Would you call Russian military intervention in Ukraine the first or a first asymmetrical attack on U.S. and the West, in the way they've carried this out, on -- forces out of uniform, for instance, use of separatists on the ground, et cetera?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, I think it's this, Jim, if nothing else. It is representative of the world that we're now dealing with, the world that we're in, and I think the world we're going to be in for a long time to come.

That's why our special operations, our cyber, our technological edge, our counter-insurgency experience, our training, sophistication, intelligence now comes together at a -- at a point where -- it's always been important, of course. But now this is going to be the -- the tip of the spear as we go out.

We're always going to need a big capable Navy and Army and all the rest. But expeditionary work that the Marines were originally instituted for. They're going back to that. And -- and we're seeing what -- to your point about what's going on with the Russians in Ukraine -- I think more of -- of what we'll probably be dealing with in the future.

MR. SCIUTTO: Asymmetric?

SEC. HAGEL: Asymmetric...

MR. SCIUTTO: Not land armies and tanks and so on contending for territory?

SEC. HAGEL: I -- I think that's right but we have to be ready for everything. We -- we can't disarm in certain areas and then arm up in certain other areas. We don't have that luxury.

The United States is the only nation on Earth that helps other countries in the sense that we have a large portfolio. We're -- you know, we're in over 150 countries and we're -- we're more engaged in the world today than ever before whether it's Asia Pacific rebalance.

And this narrative, that somehow has gotten some credibility out there that we're pulling back is just not true.

MR. SCIUTTO: Let me ask you about the issues, the stories that have just captivated Americans the last week in the most horrible way and that's, of course, the beheading of Jim Foley, journalist, and Steven Sotloff, which we just had confirmation yesterday and today.

How -- is that a watershed event, do you believe, not just in terms of public perception of the threat from ISIS but in terms of how the U.S. responds to this threat?

SEC. HAGEL: It's probably a watershed event for a lot of reasons.

One is the sophistication of ISIL, ISIS and their communicative abilities, capacities. They're as sophisticated as anybody out there in how they frame and how they use modern technology.

That's partly what I was referring to when I said we've never seen anything quite like that. But that's just one part of it.

When you're beheading people and with the barbarism, the brutality that is their practice and then all the rest, that's not -- that's not unique in a sense of -- of how they treat other people. I mean, you -- you know and we have intelligence reports of some of the things, the atrocities they commit as they go through these villages. This is just beyond anything quite like we have seen.

And when you say watershed, well, I don't know about watershed but -- but it is a look into where -- where parts of the world may be going unless the United States, along with our partners and our coalitions, stop it.

This is the point the president was making. You got to destroy it because if we don't destroy it, it will get worse and it will get wider and deeper.

MR. SCIUTTO: I wonder about your personal reaction to seeing those videos and those young American victims.

I sensed in Vice President Biden's voice today an -- an emotional -- perfectly understandable emotional and angry response. "We will chase them to the gates of Hell."

You're a veteran yourself. You've fought in a war to protect Americans and you are commanding many soldiers who are doing exactly that.

How did you personally react when you saw those videos?

SEC. HAGEL: Jim, I think regardless of your background, your experience, just as a human being with having some sense of decency and respect for human life and other people, it makes you sick to your stomach.

But it again reminds of the kind of brutality and the barbarism that is afoot in some of these areas of the world. And it is our responsibility -- the president, the vice president, mine, all of us -- to do everything we can to stop this now because it won't just recede into the -- into the gray recesses of history until we stop it.

And I think we have to think about that. We -- the emotionalism, of course, overtakes us all but we've got to be clearheaded on this too.

We've got to be responsible. We can't overstate things. We can't understate things.

We've got to be honest with the people of our country. We've got to be honest with these young men and women who serve our country. We've got to be honest with the world what we're dealing with here.

MR. SCIUTTO: Let me ask you finally -- and I want to give the chance for the audience to ask questions of you as well, does the president have the congressional authority he needs currently to carry out further strikes in Syria, or does he need to seek congressional approval before taking that step?

SEC. HAGEL: Like I said, Jim, the White House, all of us had been reaching out, conferring with the Congress. We are looking at the different authorities that would come with the different options as to what would be required if any additional legal authorities would be required. The president has been very clear that anything he does, he wants the Congress to be part of that. He wants the legal authority.

And he's been straight -- straightforward about that with all of us. So, we're looking at all of those options and what may be required, depending on what options the president wants to go with.

MR. SCIUTTO: Can you vow to the American people today that ISIS will not be just degraded or contained, but destroyed?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, vows are something beyond my mortal capacity of doing. But I can tell you this, Jim. I know this about this president, this vice president, I know this about everyone in his administration, I know this about myself. We will do everything possible that we can do to destroy their capacity to inflict harm on our people and Western values and -- and our interests.

MR. SCIUTTO: Everything you can do, everything the government can do. Secretary Hagel, thank you very much for your time.

SEC. HAGEL: Thanks Jim.

MR. SCIUTTO: We covered a lot of ground here, and I appreciate this, knowing what great challenges you and the people you command and serve have on your plate. So, thank you very much. CNN and our audience appreciates it.

Brooke, you heard the secretary's strong words on ISIL and on Ukraine echoing some of what we heard from the president earlier today and the vice president. I think as Americans in these coming days and weeks, we can expect this to stay very much at the top of the administration's priorities, and I think it's something that you and I, Brooke, are going to be covering very closely.

So, I'm going to turn it back to you now. Thanks very much for giving us the time.

Thank you.

SEC. HAGEL: Thanks Jim.

MR. SCIUTTO: I took more time than I promised. And that's why Admiral Kirby came up here behind the camera to slap me around a little bit, and that's deserved.

SEC. HAGEL: Yeah, these guys always do.

MR. SCIUTTO: We always do that. (Laughter.) -- But I will make a confession, there was a television moment there because about two minutes in, my earpiece came out of the back of my head, so I was flying blind for that. I had no one talking to me. I had to rely on my producer here, who was sending me hand signals. So, we went old school for a little bit.

So, I'm going to blame -- I'm going to blame technology. It's your turn please. Certainly want to hear your questions. I'm just the mediator here, so it's your turn to quiz him.

Q: Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. Lieutenant Colonel Cameron (inaudible), U.S. Air Force.

Sir, I wondered if you could give us an update on the withdrawal from Afghanistan, from your perspective, and in particular, if the administration is reviewing the timeline for that operation, given the current situation in Iraq?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, thank you for your service and thanks for the question.

Everyone here knows that Afghanistan is struggling through this transition of power to new government. We, the United States, and our ISAF NATO partners are doing everything we can to facilitate that peaceful transition. But in the end, it's up to the presidential candidates to come together and the people of Afghanistan to make all of this work.

We are still on track to follow through with the president's decisions as we transition out of a combat role and bring our forces down. That retrograde is on track. Certainly at NATO, with the next two days, this is will be very specific agenda item.

Because first, we all had hoped that by the NATO summit, we would have a new Afghan president inaugurated. We would have a status of forces agreement for the ISAF NATO partners. We would have a bilateral security agreement signed with us. That's not happened. So, it complicates the situation. But we're on track with the -- our NATO partners, and what we're doing, and with the new commander, General J.C. Campbell (sic). I just spoke with him a couple of days ago.

We'll see. But we can help. We can facilitate. We can support. We can do everything we're doing. But in the end, the Afghan people have to resolve this difference in those two candidates, and I know President Karzai is helping do that as well.

Q: Hi Secretary Hagel. This is Commander (Gode ?), U.S. Navy. I just came from the NAVCENT command, where I was the lead Syria planner. And one of the things that my team came up with, when we were looking at the ISIL problem, was that there was, there seemed to be a strategic disconnect between how we treated ISIL when they related to Syria and how we treat ISIL as they relate to Iraq. When we're talking about Iraq, we want to fight ISIL. And when we are talking about Syria, we don't necessarily want to help them, but we want to leave them alone to do their business.

How do we solve the strategic disconnect between those two viewpoints and prioritize Iraq over Syria in that regard?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, that's a good question. I don't think there's any policy disconnect. Let's remember that our status in Iraq, our situation in Iraq, is totally different from our status and our situation in Syria. First of all, we have no presence in Syria.

We do have a significant presence in Iraq. They have been an ally and a partner. As you know, we've continued to assist them in weapons and since we've had our role transitioned out a few years ago.

The president was very clear on what our interests are in protecting those interests in Iraq. First of all, it's our people. That was his first priority. You protect Americans, protect the embassy, the consulates. Our strategic areas for us, the Baghdad International Airport.

Second, to assist, because they have been partners and allies, Peshmerga Iraqi security forces, which we have been helping them, assisted. Helping our allies as well. And then also doing everything we can to assist them with specific areas that could truly threaten the government of Iraq and the people of Iraq, Mosul Dam being a good example.

So, the three priorities the president put on and requirements put on us, on what he gave us license to do, Central Command, were predicated on those three principles. Syria is a whole different ball game. Syria is not a matter of where ISIL is, and you have al-Nusra there, you have Al Qaida there, you have many varieties of terrorist groups in Syria. That's a different situation for us.

It isn't a matter of just let ISIL be ISIL in Syria. But we also have legal authorities, which Jim talked about, that we have to comply with. We have legal authorities in Iraq to help the Iraqis and to take those military strikes. We would work through different authorities we would require, as Jim asked, if we would take some of the same -- the president exercised some of the same options, on kinetic strikes in Syria. Authority to do that, international law, domestic law, and so on.

So, if I've not confused you totally, I mean, they are really -- make no mistake, there's no question ISIL is as bad in Syria as it is in Iraq and wherever else it will be or could be. That is not the issue, that they're not as bad in Syria as they are in Iraq. But I think it's important that we define, as the president has said, our interests, and then what -- what can we do within the boundaries of our authorities to do it, and then we're looking at the other options.

Q: Secretary Hagel. Lieutenant Colonel Shane (inaudible), Air Force Reserves. I'm a citizen soldier. I'm a part-timer. And over the last 20 or so years, the Reserve components of our services have played a significant role in the combat capability of our armed forces. Where do you see the future of the Reserve components in this -- in these crises and future crises over the next 10 to 20 years?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, thank you. You -- you know, and everyone in this room knows, and particularly the National Guard and Reserve component members here, that over the last 13 years, our defense enterprise has relied on -- had to rely on the Reserve-National Guard components of our integrated services.

The future for Reserves and National Guard is going to be as important or more important than what we've seen in the past. I think that's right. I think that's smart. I think that gives us value-added across the system. All the reasons I suspect you agree, and there are more reasons why the Reserve-National Guard component will continue to be an integral fabric of our enterprise.

Now, we'll work through tactical issues. I mean, there are differences on training schedules and readiness schedules, and you -- you know all those. But we will -- we will have to rely on Reserve-National Guard components well into the future.

Second, third point I'd make would be the experience that you in the Reserves and National Guard gained over the last 13 years as being part of that day-to-day operating dynamic of two long ground wars, and everything it took to support those wars, we don't want to lose that experience. I don't mean by that let's go get into another war. What I'm saying is that experience that you all gained is hugely valuable. And we don't want that edge to be lost.

So, in training, in schools, in universities, this setting, we'll continue to keep integrating the National Guard and Reserves into -- into the system. As I said, there will be differences in how -- how we do that -- on platforms. I mean, for example, the Army aviation brigades are shifting and the regular Army has made some recommendations which I accepted -- I thought they were smart for everybody -- that would trade out different platforms for National Guard platforms.

Now, I know everybody doesn't agree with all that. That's OK. We'll work it out.

So those kind of things we'll be working through. But the overall responsibility in integration into the enterprise, that is there. It is there to stay.

Q: Good afternoon, sir. Lieutenant Commander Jack (inaudible), United States Navy.

We, much like Mr. Sciutto, rely very heavily on our technology to do our jobs well. Are you convinced, and if so, why, that we can compete against a near-peer enemy if our earpieces are taken away from us?

SEC. HAGEL: I'm sorry. I didn't hear your last -- am I convinced -- what? You were talking so fast. I don't know. (Laughter.)

Q: Yes, sir. I was relaying how we, much like Mr. Sciutto, rely very heavily on our earpieces -- our technology -- to do our jobs well. Are you convinced, and if so, why, that we can compete and reign victorious against a near-peer enemy if we lose our earpieces?

SEC. HAGEL: Oh. (Laughter.) Very clever. (Laughter.) -- I wish I would have thought of that. (Laughter.)

I did have him at my mercy, you know. I mean, I saw the ear-plug fall out, but I -- (Laughter.) -- I'm just too fair-minded to do that.

But that's a very good question and I like the way you put it. I think there are probably three components of an answer to your question. One is people. You all know in this room, like any institution, the most important asset that any asset can be or any country or organization, institution has is its people.

If they are not quality people to start with, if they're not trained, capable, ready, committed, then you've got a flaky outfit, quite frankly. The military cannot be flaky. That's one outfit that can't be flaky. So you start with people. So in answer to your question, if we can continue to keep the kind of people that we have now and we have had, that's first.

Second, a speech I gave a couple of hours ago that Jim referred to, the technological edge, innovation. That is a critical component of this. This institution has played a very historic role in that over many, many years. This area of the country has and continues, especially with the Navy. That technological edge has to stay there. We've got to continue to advance that.

And third, I would say in answer to your question, are partnerships. You know that much of our strategy has been over the last couple of years, and certainly since I've been here for a year-and-a-half as secretary of defense, is to help capacity-building of our partners. The world is too complicated -- what Jim said about asymmetric challenges. The world's too big, too vast, diffusion of economic power now is historic, unprecedented, for one nation. As great and powerful as we are, we can't do all this stuff alone. We can't do it.

We need partners. We need capable partners. We need partners that are integrated to some sense into what we're doing. NATO is a good example of that, but you -- you've got one NATO. But even within NATO, there are differences. But what we're doing in the Asia-Pacific as we build new partnerships and relationships and all the new things that we're doing, the Navy's been a huge part of that.

As we're doing with GCC countries in the Middle East, we've got to have confident, capable partners to also help answer your question. So when our earpiece falls out, we can still -- we can still win and still deal with any -- with any challenge that comes along. And we have to be in a position with this enterprise, to build this into the high ground so that whatever that challenge is.

And nobody, I don't think here, you're all smart, but I don't think anybody here is so smart they can predict what's going to -- what the world's going to look like in five years or 10 years. And I use cyber as an example. I mean, 10 years ago, cyber -- what's the problem? Now, I know there were varying degrees of, "yeah, that's going to be a threat." But anybody who really doesn't understand the threat of cyber today, you're not -- you're not tracking.

So, we've got to be prepared and build an institution as -- as much as we can, as best we can, to prepare for tomorrow's challenges even they'll be unknown.

Q: Good afternoon, Secretary. Lieutenant Commander (inaudible), U.S. Navy.

My question is, we've talked a lot about military ethics here in our first trimester of the War College. And when you watch the national news, you see a lot of retired military weighing in on the current situations in the world. I wanted to see if you had a -- what your perspective was on military and whether or not we should remain apolitical in our retirement time, as well as when we're in service.

SEC. HAGEL: Well -- do you want to handle that? (Laughter.)


SEC. HAGEL: I -- I've thought about this because I'm occasionally the subject of that commentary. (Laughter.)

But first, when a -- when an individual retires from the military after a long and dedicated, selfless career, I think it should be up to the individual to use his or her own judgment on what they want to do afterward, what their own sense of propriety is.

And I think -- this is my own personal opinion about it -- I know there are various opinions. As a matter of fact, I've had some recent conversations with some current senior military leaders about what they think. There are varying degrees of this, but I think it's really up to the individual.

I would not want to see us as a military get into a situation where we are making people sign something that they can't speak their mind or what they think as a citizen of the United States of America after they defended the rights of people to express themselves for their careers.

And I do think it's a personal decision. And I know that's not a very good answer, but I -- that's -- I think that's the smarter way -- way to do it.

I have an abundance of faith in the American people. And if -- if nothing else, I've always believed, and the older I get the more convinced I'm right on this -- wrong on a lot of things, but right on this. (Laughter.) You can always rely on the common sense and judgment of the American people.

Now, we all react to things quickly. But in the end, we stabilize, we self-correct. We can think things through. And I'll always put my faith in that.

And I think when former military leaders get up on television or give speeches, whatever they want to do, it's their right to do it, I think their audience factors that in, sometimes, whether you agree with the individual or don't agree with them. But, again, I think it comes back down to it's the individual's call on that. And I -- I have to assume that people who give of themselves so completely and their families for their careers, are capable of figuring that out and wouldn't do anything, I don't think, to put themselves over -- in front of -- in front of what's right for our country.

MR. SCIUTTO: Mr. Secretary, I think we have time for one more question, I'm told. As much as I want to take it, I know Admiral Kirby would bound across the stage to tackle me, so I think I should leave it for the audience.

SEC. HAGEL: I don't want to see that, no.

Q: Good afternoon, sir.

My name is Lieutenant Colonel (inaudible). I'm from Croatia, but a member of this team here, for this year, at least, the future, of course.

My question refers to the -- against, out of the scope of the homeland security here, goes to the Libya. It's been three years since the NATO alliance and the coalition stopped operations under the umbrella of the United Nations to protect the civilians of Libya.

Since then, and especially nowadays, that the situation there is a little bit in the shadow of the current situation in middle Asia and in Ukraine. The government of the Libya just pronounced that they fall apart, and the parliament vote three weeks ago if I'm not wrong. They called for the international support of the security forces in Libya.

So, can you give us your overview of that situation and what the international community -- I'm not referring to the U.S. specifically here -- may or should do at this time for this crisis, sir?

Thank you.

SEC. HAGEL: Well, thank you. And we're glad you're here.

And we thank your country for your friendship, as well.

Everyone here knows Libya is a very difficult problem, starting for the Libyan people.

I think we -- we -- the nations of the world who care about Libya -- NATO, countries of the region, all have some responsibility to help the Libyan people. But, again, we're limited, you know, in how much we can do. To impose from the outside our framework of governance or decision-making is not right.

The Libyan people and the different interests have to find some common ground, enough to start being able to work through these differences. We can help facilitate that, and I think we have some responsibility to do that. We can assist with that. We can help build coalitions to do that.

But it is -- you know, it's very, very difficult and heartbreaking what's going on in that country -- with the kind of resources Libya has, with the kind of potential Libya has, to see the devastation that's going on there.

So, another -- another big problem and when you look around the Middle East, there's not a lot of happy news or stability in that entire region. And I think, going back to a point that Jim made in a question, and I'll end this this way, that whatever decisions President Obama make or other leaders make, certainly I think I can reflect on President Obama on this point, has to be made not with just short-term interests, but long-term thinking, I mean, how is this gonna affect the long-term outcome and consequences.

Now, I recognize, President Obama does, that inaction has consequences as well as actions have consequences. But you don't want to make it worse. You know, different actions we can take could make it worse.

So we got to be smart, as smart as we can be, dealing with the short term, but also thinking through the long term, as to -- as to how we want to help build something for the future, as we -- as we work through these more immediate decisions to help the Libyan people.

But I would apply that to every country in the Middle East.

Thank you.

MR. SCIUTTO: Mr. Secretary, Admiral Howe, and thanks to all of you for welcoming me, certainly giving us the time and welcoming a few million CNN viewers, we hope, today. Really appreciate it.

SEC. HAGEL: Jim, thank you. Appreciate it. (Applause.)

MR. SCIUTTO: Thanks, Admiral. (Applause.)