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Press Availability with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates at the Pentagon

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
January 26, 2007 2:00 PM EDT

SEC. GATES: Well, welcome.

Just a word first. I apologize for the crowding. I would like to try and do this on a regular basis. I'd like to try it perhaps once a week. Frankly, I would prefer a more informal setting than the dais and the big sign behind me and so on. I realize this arrangement probably cramps some of you, and so we'll look for another opportunity, just have an evolution here in terms of what meets your needs and the kind of more informal setting that I would prefer.

It's also my hope that in addition to my talking with you once a week or thereabouts, that we can get more senior officials from the department before you, either on the record or on background, to talk about some of the issues that are facing the department and so on. And I think that would probably be especially helpful as we get into the budget hearings and things like that where there's a lot of detail.

I guess I should apologize also for doing this on a Friday afternoon, but I had told the group traveling with me last week that I wanted to start this week, and then the calendar filled up, and I figured it would be better to do it on Friday and keep my word than not do it at all.

I had a good meeting this morning at the White House with the president and General Petraeus and General Pace. We had an extended discussion of the situation in Iraq, a good dialogue between the president and General Petraeus.

The general gave the president a copy of his book on counterinsurgency, and I think he's really looking forward to getting out into the arena as it were. And I thank him, as did the president, for taking on that responsibility.

Next week, confirmation hearings will begin for Admiral Fallon to go to CENTCOM and for General Casey as chief of staff of the Army. These are two fine officers, and I hope that the Senate will confirm them both.

With that, I'll take your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, may I start -- ask you a question about the incident in Karbala last Saturday. The initial reports have said that five American soldiers were killed in the attack on that building. Can you explain what's known now about reports that, in fact, they were abducted alive and taken and killed some miles away?

SEC. GATES: I'm aware of the -- I've just been made aware of the discrepancy in the account, and I've asked for the specifics about it. And I'm about where you all are at this point. I think as they've investigated and tried to figure out what was going on, that this other report has come out.

Q: Is it clear that that is what, in fact, what happened, that they were -- do you know –

SEC. GATES: I don't know for sure. I have read that, but I haven't independently confirmed it.

Q: Mr. Secretary, Senator Lieberman said the Senate resolution opposing the 21,000 increase in troops would offer some encouragement to the enemy. Would you agree with that?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think it's pretty clear that a resolution that, in effect, says that the general going out to take command of the arena shouldn't have the resources he thinks he needs to be successful certainly emboldens the enemy and our adversaries.

I think it's hard to measure that with any precision, but it seems pretty straightforward that any indication of flagging will in the United States gives encouragement to those folks. And I'm sure that that's not the intent behind the resolutions, but I think it may be the effect.

Q: Sir –

Q: Can I just follow up on that, the question of resources? In the questioning in his Senate confirmation hearing, General Petraeus conceded that he had what he thought was the minimum amount of forces he needed if he counted in private contractors and everybody else in Baghdad.

If he needs more forces, will he be able to get them? And he also asked that the forces that were coming be sent as quickly as possible. Does that mean that the timetable that you laid could possibly be accelerated?

SEC. GATES: We are going to see if the timetable for the dispatch of the brigades can be accelerated. There are certain -- simply some logistical constraints that make it difficult to do a lot, but I've asked people to look at it and see to what extent they could be -- or some portion of it could be accelerated.

General Petraeus has indicated that he believes the force that has been allocated is what he needs to do the job, and I think we'll wait and let him get over there and get into it before answering a hypothetical about whether more beyond that would be needed.

Q: I'd like to follow up on that –

Q: But you seem to have given your commanders a blank check to ask for more troops.

SEC. GATES: What I have done is ask the commanders what they think they need to be successful in their mission. Those are requests are then vetted by the Joint Staff -- the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. So there is no blank check. There is a thorough process that is then -- and before making a final decision, I also discuss it with the president.

So I would say what we have done, I hope, is create an environment in which the commanders feel open to requesting what they think they need, and then we will evaluate it here in the department to see what's available and how much of that request we can satisfy.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you address this report today that there's new authority for the troops in Iraq to capture and kill Iranian operatives? I don't expect you to discuss rules of engagement. But was there some decision that troops now can kill Iranian operatives, rather than catch them and release them, as the story said?

SEC. GATES: Well, my impression is that -- my recollection of the story is that a significant part of it covered a period before I got into government. But my impression is that there are a number of inaccuracies in the story.

What I will say is what the president said this morning, and that is that our forces are authorized to go after those who are trying to kill them. And we are trying to uproot these networks that are planting IEDs that are causing 70 percent of our casualties. And if you're in Iraq and trying to kill our troops, then you should consider yourself a target.

Q: Does this authority, Mr. Secretary, extend beyond any Iranians who may be in the country that are meddling in political or economic affairs? Or is it strictly confined -- this kill or capture authority strictly confined to those involved in these IED methods?

SEC. GATES: What we're looking for are people who are trying to kill us.

Q: And is this part of a much larger anti-Iran strategy on the part of the administration?

SEC. GATES: No, I don't think so. I think that we're not simply going to stand by and let people bring sophisticated IEDs into the country, that can disable an Abrams tank, and give them a free pass. But as we've said before, we think we can handle this inside the borders of Iraq, and the operations are limited to inside the borders of Iraq.

Q: Dr. Gates, what is Iran trying to do in Iraq? And what can the military do to deter or prevent that?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- to take the second part of your question first, I think that the way to deal, other than the individuals who are part of the IED network, if you will, and those trying to attack us, I think that the challenge that we face in Iraq with respect to Iran can be dealt with diplomatically, again as the president said this morning.

What we are trying to make clear to our friends in the region is that the United States has had -- has considered stability in the Persian Gulf region a vital interest for many years, and it will continue to be for many years.

And we will -- we intend to show through our military presence, carrier groups and so forth, that we intend to continue that presence as a means of providing reassurance to our friends, and to let those who are not our friends know that they will have us to deal with if they choose to become aggressive.

Q: In regard to the troop surge in Iraq, I wanted to clarify, is there any doubt now that all of the troops will go? Is there any question that they will be withheld if the Iraqis don't come through? General Petraeus seemed to say that he needs that number; he wants that number as quickly as possible.

SEC. GATES: I think all of the circumstances relating to troops will depend on the situation on the ground and the recommendation of the commander on the ground.

Q: Well, the commander seems to want those troops.

SEC. GATES: As long as he feels he needs them, they're all going to flow.

Q: To follow up on Iran, you said that that problem can be dealt with diplomatically. But if there are in fact Iranian government agents that U.S. troops are capturing in Iraq, I mean, is that not an act of war on the part of Iran? Does that necessarily need to be dealt with on a diplomatic basis, or is that not a military problem?

SEC. GATES: I'll let the State Department worry about that one. (Laughter.)

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you anticipate a major call-up of the National Guard and Reserve? If so, when and how many troops are we talking about?

SEC. GATES: No. I think other than the call-ups that are associated with the five brigades for Iraq and the extension of the -- and it's not a Guard unit -- the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division for Afghanistan that's being extended four months -- or 120 days, I'm not aware of any plans for any further call-ups beyond what is part of the normal troop rotation. In other words, I don't see anything beyond what is already in the works.

Q: Mr. Secreary, next week, General Casey has his nomination hearing. There's already buzz from Senators McCain, Graham and others that they're going to vote against him. There's a perception that he was the general of a failed policy in Iraq, why should he become the next Army chief of staff?

Can you address that perception and whether that's in fact a fair rep on the general?

SEC. GATES: Well, I would say this. First of all, General Casey has given something like 35 years of service to the United States. He has spent 30 months in Baghdad in an 18-month tour. He has responded to the changing circumstances. After all, a year ago there was a plan to bring home a substantial number of troops before the end of 2006, and after the Samarra mosque -- (inaudible word) -- attack and the rise of the sectarian violence, he adjusted the tactics and strategy and made it clear that the troops that had been planned to return home were going to be needed. The original initiative for the additional forces to help implement Prime Minister Maliki's strategy came from General Casey.

I haven't been here long enough to get to know very many general officers, but my first exposure to General Casey was when I was with the Baker-Hamilton study group early last September in Baghdad. I spent some time with him, considerable amount of time with him, on my trip to Baghdad after I was confirmed in December, and more time with him when I was in southern Iraq this last week. So I feel like I've gotten to know general Casey pretty well.

I will tell you that he was the first choice of the professional military and the secretary of the Army for this position. He served as the vice chief of staff of the Army. So I think he's eminently qualified. I think he's rendered good service. I think he deserves this position.

Q: Can I follow up on that. General Casey's service, his loyalty, his years aside, nonetheless it didn't work over this past year. That is, we have the president wanting a fresh look, you're in office, et cetera. So aside from his loyalty and his years of service, what is his accountability, general -- all decent, honorable officers, his accountability, General Abizaid's accountability, the accountability of the general officers who have run the war in Iraq, for it not working out, for not asking for more troops until after the mid-term elections, till after Baker-Hamilton.

And more broadly, could you lay out and discuss for us your view on when is a general officer accountable in this war? What do you hold to be a standard of accountability?

SEC. GATES: I think that one has to look at this in the context of the decisions made by the civilian superiors of officers and how the battlefield they face was shaped by those decisions. I think that there have been adjustments to the changing circumstances in Iraq. I just went through those, in terms of General Casey's response. That was a major departure from the strategy that had been followed in the past. It seems to me he has made adjustments. I think that if it's clear that generals have made serious mistakes, specific mistakes that I -- that they should be held accountable just like any of us should be. But I'm not convinced that has happened in this case.

Q: But I must follow up, sir. With respect, the president has said persistently as well as Former Secretary Rumsfeld that they gave the generals what they asked for. So when you say it's the responsibility of civilian superiors' decision-making, when the president and Secretary Rumsfeld have said, "We gave the generals what they asked for," there appears –

SEC. GATES: Well, what I'm saying to you is, though, you had one strategy under way until attack on the Samarra mosque. After that and the development of the sectarian violence that was being stoked by extremists -- this wasn't spontaneous -- there was a shift in strategy, and instead of sending troops home, the troops that were supposed to be sent home were kept -- or the troop level was kept. And then, later in the year, as Prime Minister Maliki and the development of the Iraqi army developed -- or got better, then they were prepared to recommend additional troops to implement that strategy. I don't have a problem with that.

Q: Mr. Secretary, could you address the department's credibility? Yesterday, you had Senator Warner, a great friend of this department, suggesting that he'd been misled by general officers through the course of this war.

Does the department have a credibility problem on the Hill? And is that going to limit your ability to execute these new policies?

SEC. GATES: Well, all I can tell you is that I had quite a number of courtesy calls prior to my confirmation, and I don't recall a single senator raising with me the notion that they felt they had been misled by the department. So I -- you know, I -- they may have felt that way and not said anything at that time, but it clearly was not an issue that they raised with me when I was going through my courtesy calls.

My hope is to establish a record with the Hill going forward, regardless of what may have been the case in the past, where we get -- where we have a reputation for candor and for saying -- calling things exactly as they are, for good or for bad.

I think it's very important that the department have credibility on the Hill and that the members of the Congress have confidence that they get the full story and an accurate story when either civilian or military people from this department testify.

Q: Mr. Secretary –

Q: Sir, General Petraeus in his testimony was quite adamant about how the rest of the United States government has to get mobilized for this war. Only the Department of Defense was doing it. State's offered up 300 people. Are you asking from -- anything from the Department of Justice, Commerce, Agriculture, the other Cabinet –

SEC. GATES: I think that we'll wait and see what -- I think this was one of the issues that was discussed this morning between General Petraeus and the president. It's an issue that I've felt strongly about from the beginning, that the reconstruction and economic development part of this strategy of clear, hold and build is critically important to its long-term success.

I think that we will wait until General Petraeus arrives on the scene and get his estimation of what he needs.

Q: Mr. Secretary, and with regard to the new Iraq strategy, do you expect -- should the American people be braced for at least a short-time rise in casualties? You're going to have troops going into neighborhoods. You're going to have them staying in neighborhoods in a way that they have not done before. Is it reasonable to expect a rise in the casualty rate?

SEC. GATES: I'd -- I honestly don't know what's going to happen. I think that that's a possibility. I think there's also a possibility that some of these people will go to ground, or a lot of these people will go to ground in the hope that they can just outwait us and filter back once we're gone. So -- and I just don't know which of those it may be.

Q: Mr. Secretary –

Q: But to follow up on that question, have there been discussions between senior coalition and representatives of the Sadr militia about some deal where they would not carry their arms and there might be some way to avoid a major conflict in Sadr City?

SEC. GATES: I'm not aware of such discussions with the coalition, but that's not to say they may not have happened. I'm just not aware of any.

Q Can't they simply –

Q: Mr. Secretary, can't they simply outwait the U.S. military? Can't they just wait until it's time for the U.S. military to start to draw down?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the key here is the fact that the Iraqi military are going to be in the lead on this and we are going to be in a support role. And it would be my expectation that the Iraqi military would be there for a very long period of time. And once we got the level of violence down to a certain point, that it would be entirely manageable by the Iraqi army that would be there for a protracted period of time.

Q: Mr. Secretary, if you were pursuing an Iranian who you suspect to be involved in IED attacks upon Americans and they go back across the border into Iran, under the new policy, can the U.S. military hit or kill an Iranian inside the borders of Iran?

SEC. GATES: I don't think there is any intention to cross the border.

Q: Mr. Secretary –

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you -- I'm sorry, go ahead.

Q: But to cross the border or to use any kind of weapons to attack them from inside Iraq into Iran?

SEC. GATES: You're getting into a level of specificity that, frankly, I don't anticipate anything like that.

Q: Mr. Secretary –

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you share with us any details of the results of the airstrikes in Somalia? And can you comment on the international law aspect of it? Does the United States assert the right to attack anywhere in any country where you suspect that there might be some terrorists?

SEC. GATES: We've made pretty clear -- it's my impression for quite some time that members of al Qaeda and others who have attacked the United States, that we will seek them out and try to capture or kill them.

Q: And in Somalia –

SEC. GATES: And we will do that wherever possible with partners.

Q: And the results in Somalia, sir?

SEC. GATES: I'll just leave it at that.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Mr. Secretary, there have been a lot of reports recently about communications problems for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan based on a lack of available bandwidth and severely strained satellite resources. I'm wondering, what's your perception of this problem, based on your travels in theater, and what's your plan, if any, to deal with it?

SEC. GATES: I didn't hear a word about it when I was on that. (Cross talk.) It was the bandwidth. I couldn't hear. (Laughter.) No, seriously, no one raised that issue with me.

Q: Mr. Secretary, in terms of the policy of being able to go after Iranian operatives in Iraq, what kind of considerations have been given to an Iranian response outside of Iraq in other parts of the world? Is there a concern that, indeed, that they could react with the proxies or pursuing terrorist-type operations against U.S. targets?

SEC. GATES: Well, you know, that's clearly a hypothetical. Certainly, it could happen. But that -- it seems to me that we have every legitimate right to go after those people who are trying to kill Americans inside Iraq, and they just have to deal with the consequences.

Q: Could you clarify for us the logistical constraints on the brigades that are supposed to be going in the spring to Iraq? I think part of the problem -- I think you were referring to sort of shortage of armor and protective vests and some other things. The service chiefs have talked about declining readiness in the stay-behind brigades here in the United States. How big of concern is that for you, especially if it looks like we're doing a little pushback with Iran?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think we have the capability to deal with any threat to the United States. We have a significant National Guard and Reserve that's out there and that can be used if there were any kind of a national emergency. In terms of the specific logistical impediments, I would just -- I'll have to ask the department to get back to you on that. I mean, I think it has to do with marrying them up with their equipment. It has to do with the amount of notice that soldiers are given before they have to ship out. It's ranging all of those logistical aspects. But we can get back to you on the specifics.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you clarify for us how the -- this so- called new authority or the reporters of new authority who captured or killed Iranians inside Iraq is different from whatever -- hasn't the United States always asserted the right to capture or kill foreign forces in Iraq that are hostile to the U.S.?

SEC. GATES: That's been my impression. You know, as I say, this is my sixth week on the job, and it's not clear to me it is different. You know, I'm not aware of any change in the sense of being -- of having the authority -- of our forces having the authority to go after those who are attempting to kill Americans, any foreign fighter in Iraq who's trying to kill Americans.

Q: (Inaudible) -- what you're saying, Mr. Secretary –

Q: You've extended the 10th Mountain Division soldiers in Afghanistan. Have you thought about a long-term solution? It's just for 120 days. Have you had a chance to think ahead, what do we do after 120 days in terms of more manpower for Afghanistan?

SEC. GATES: Well, I would say I came back from Afghanistan more optimistic than when I went there. And I think what our commanders see this spring is an opportunity for us to make the spring offensive our offensive and to preempt whatever plans the Taliban may have. And so if we're doing that, then it probably wouldn't be necessary to extend them more 120 days.

STAFF: One more question.

Q: Mr. Secretary, can you talk a little bit about why you chose Admiral Fallon, why you nominated him to be CENTCOM? Were there some personal qualities, his experience, background, what you see as the future of CENTCOM?

SEC. GATES: Yeah, there are several reasons. First of all, Admiral Fallon was described to me by a number of people as one of the best strategic thinkers in the military. There is a huge diplomatic role in Pacific Command, the number of countries that we have to deal with. And I think that that's an important component of the CENTCOM responsibility as well. And also, I mean the reality is, if you look at the CENTCOM area of responsibility, there's a lot of water there. And as you look at the range of options available to the United States, the use of naval and air power, potentially, it made sense to me for all those reasons for Admiral Fallon to have the job.

Last question.

Q: Mr. Secretary, what is your belief on the number of Iranian operatives who are in Iraq?

SEC. GATES: I have no idea.

STAFF: Thank you.

SEC. GATES: Thanks a lot.

Q: Thank you.

SEC. GATES: Maybe do this where there's more room next time.