SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. I've spent a good part of the last two days on the Hill. I've had a chance to talk in public and in private with a number of members of Congress. We've had frank, but very cordial discussions about the war funding request, defense authorization bill, the way ahead in Iraq and a number of other issues.
Before taking your questions, I want to start out with a few words about a man who has been my mentor and my friend these last 10 months. As I'm sure you know, this is General Pace's last press briefing as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I'll leave it to him to characterize how much he likes this part of the job. (Laughter.)
For four decades, General Pace has served our country with dedication and distinction through times of peace, times of war, during periods of great transition. He cut his teeth on the battlefields of Vietnam, made his way up through the ranks during the Cold War, and these past few years has led our military in a very different, very complex war against jihadist terrorism. Through it all, General Pace has never once forgotten about the individual men and women who make up our armed forces, and he has never forgotten where he comes from.
To illustrate this, I'd like to do something familiar to a few people in this room, which is to quote something Pete has said in the past. At a dinner earlier this month to honor military families who have lost a loved one, General Pace said, "You show me a Marine who knows no fear, and I will show you a Marine I don't want to be anywhere near. Marines do know fear in combat," he continued, "but what makes Marines get up and do their job is a greater fear -- that we will not measure up to those who have gone before, that somehow we will let down the Marine on our left and on our right." General Pace has always been and will always be the epitome not only of a Marine, but of anyone who has ever had the honor of wearing our nation's uniform from the bottom ranks to the very top.
I hope all of you will wish me and join me in wishing him and his family the very best as they open a new chapter in their lives, and I hope that some of you can make it to Fort Myer on Monday for the farewell ceremony.
GEN. PACE: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. That's very kind.
I would be remiss if I didn't take this last opportunity, thanks to you all and those cameras, to say, first of all, to our troops thank you for what they do for this country. They freely give more than anybody could ever demand, and I certainly and we all owe them a great debt of gratitude and their families, who sit at home and worry about them, and pray for them and then stand in the background when they come home when they get awards and decorations and promotions, pretending the families have nothing to do with it. Our families are serving this nation as well as anybody who's ever worn the uniform, and we thank them.
The secretary mentioned what I think about these press conferences. I like them; I don't necessarily like all your questions. But I have sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, and a free press is absolutely vital to the freedom of this country. There is no freedom in any country around the world that does not have a free press. If you were to push me to pick between a free press and a strong military, I would pick the free press. You need them both. But I can tell you, despite the fact that at times the questions have not been comfortable, I have considered it a privilege to participate in the dialogue.
It's my responsibility to tell you the truth as I know it up to the limit of classification, and it's your responsibility to check the facts and print the truth as you know it. If we both do our jobs, this country's going to be in great shape for a long time to come.
Thank you all for the opportunity to do this with you. I'll miss this in many ways.
Q May I mention on behalf of the press corps, thanks for making yourself available to us over the years. Appreciate that. (Bob Burns, Senior Wire Correspondent, Associated Press)
Mr. Secretary, Secretary Geren mentioned this morning that he'd been talking to you about his proposal to expand the Army faster than planned and was announced in January, to do it in four years instead of five. I'm wondering whether you’ve either approved already or are inclined to approve it, and also, whether it would suggest that the strains that have been caused by the build-up in forces earlier this year has added up to the -- for the military more than you had anticipated?
SEC. GATES: Well, the answer to the second part first -- I think that it's more the cumulative effect of years of deployments in terms of their impact on the force and the desire to move quicker, more quickly, to add additional end strength to the Army. I'm inclined to approve it. My questions have focused principally on whether they can do it in terms of recruitment, and whether they can do so without lowering standards, and in fact to begin to move back toward the high standards of not too many months ago, principally in cases for example where the percentage of high school graduates for example is down, I think, around 76 percent.
GEN. PACE: (inaudible)
SEC. GATES: I think we'd like to see that get back up.
And so the question of whether they can do it has been important both in terms of recruits and whether they will have the number of captains and majors and so on to provide the leadership necessary at the unit level, at the company level, to lead these new soldiers. They are confident they can do that. They've put together some programs to try and do it, and I'm probably going to recommend that they go ahead and give it a try. But I'm also asking for periodic reports on how they're doing against some of these concerns that I have.
Q You wouldn't allow them to go below certain levels in terms of standards for --
SEC. GATES: I have been very explicit that they -- that as least as long as I'm here, I will not allow them to lower the standard.
Q Let me just follow up on that. I mean, you mentioned high school diplomas. Clearly the Army's bringing in more without high school diplomas, more with criminal waivers and more who score lowest on the acceptable level of the aptitude test. And you said you'd like to see them get back toward the high standards. I mean, clearly --
SEC. GATES: I was thinking principally of the high school statistic, but go ahead.
Q And the other issues too, I mean, when you say back toward the high standards, do you mean across the board with criminal waivers, of scoring lowest on the aptitude test? Is that part of the -- your concern as well?
SEC. GATES: Yeah, I think that there's, and let me answer this and then ask General Pace to chime in, because this is actually a little more complicated issue than sometimes is discussed.
Any time there is one of those waivers, that has to be reviewed at a fairly senior level, and the entire record evaluated. And examples that I've been given are that in one state, being caught with marijuana is a misdemeanor but in another state, it may be a felony.
So the notion that they're going out and getting people out of prison or felons who have committed crimes of violence and so on, I think is a mistaken impression. But I don't like the waivers, and I'd like to have fewer of them.
But -- General?
GEN. PACE: The only thing I would add to what the secretary just said is that the department has not changed the department's policies and the band in which an individual must fall academically, morals, et cetera. Within that band, if it's between 75 and 100 percent -- let's take high school graduates -- clearly for many years we were up at 95 percent and above, and the Marine Corps is still within that band at 95, 96 percent, and the Army is within that band at around 77, 78 percent. But it's where you are in that band. And you always want to be going for the highest quality that you can get, even though inside that band you are still well within the parameters that the secretary of Defense has set for us.
SEC. GATES: Yeah.
Q There was a very critical report from a House committee today on the conduct of Blackwater in the run-up to the 2004 ambush in Fallujah. Blackwater doesn't work for you now, but according to the State Department, that was a DOD contract Blackwater was fulfilling in March of '04. Probably General Pace is going to have a better memory than you.
SEC. GATES: I certainly hope so. (Soft laughter.)
Q Yeah. My question is, did the March '04 incident arouse concerns within the U.S. military about the competence of Blackwater? And did it have any effect on the fact that Blackwater is no longer a Pentagon contractor?
GEN. PACE: Let me take the second part first, which is the -- Blackwater has been a contractor in the past with the department and could certainly be in the future. And my knowledge of not only of Blackwater but all of the 137,000 contractors who are out there fulfilling very important jobs for us is that, in the vast majority of the cases, they're doing exactly what we've asked them to do, filling in, doing very important jobs in a very credible manner.
Had there been times where we -- where they had performed to a standard that we don't appreciate? Apparently, yes, and those are under investigation.
I do not specifically know about the 2004 -- certainly it rings true to me that Blackwater was working in part for the Department of Defense in the 2004 timeframe; whether or not they had a problem in 2004 in Fallujah, I'm not aware. Perhaps some commanders in the chain were, but I am not.
Q Well, what are you referring to? Are you referring to just the recent incident when you said, "Are there times when they haven't performed as we expected them to?"?
GEN. PACE: I'm only aware, because of the recent incidents, of allegations of past problems. And that is why the secretary of Defense has put together this panel, to go out and find out what is true and what's not and what about our procedures -- if anything needs to be changed, and have we brought people home instead of prosecuting, for an example, to find out what the ground truth is.
STAFF: Mr. Secretary, a question.
Q Next week marks the one-year anniversary of NATO taking control -- full control of ISAF in the Afghanistan operation. Many of the allies still have not fulfilled the promises they made at Riga. There are still many caveats that are affecting commanders' abilities to have flexibility on the ground. Can you bring us up to date on some of the major manpower and training requirements that are still unfilled almost a year now after the latest CJ (inaudible) update and what you think this says about the ability of NATO to effectively manage that particular war?
SEC. GATES: I think the principal requirement that is unfilled at this point and I'm aware of is for about 3,200 trainers, principally to train the Afghan police. We have been very direct with a number of the NATO allies about the need to meet the commitments that they made at Riga. There have been some cases where I have extended an American commitment to give NATO a few more months to find replacements. I've made pretty clear that I'll be loath to make further extensions where somebody else is not fulfilling the requirement.
I think that Afghanistan is likely to be a major topic of the defense ministers' meeting in the Netherlands next month. I've asked that it be including a review of the commitments that the member states have made for Afghanistan and those instances in which they have fallen short. So I -- it's a matter that we take very seriously.
We've been talking directly to a number of our allies. I think -- my overall impression is that most European governments get it. They understand how important Afghanistan is, and they are actually eager to try and fulfill the commitments that they've made. The problem is, many of them are coalition governments, some of them are minority governments in a coalition, and there is a lack of appreciation on the part of their voters of why Afghanistan is important.
And so one of the subjects we've been talking about in the alliance is, how do we do a better job of strategic communications, not just in Afghanistan, but in Europe, in terms of what this conflict in Afghanistan is all about and the impact that it has on European security? So it -- it is an issue and it is a concern.
Q Are you also loath to extend the aviation bridge force in Kandahar?
SEC. GATES: Well, that's one of them that is clearly at the forefront of the issue. And let's just say I'm pushing very hard on that.
Q Dr. Gates, yesterday you spoke about a long-term force for Iraq that might be the size of about five combat brigades.
What level of sectarian violence would be acceptable in order to get -- to have that size of force? In other words, what do the conditions on the ground need to be in order to get down there? Can you still have sectarian violence?
SEC. GATES: Well, I had the luxury of giving you that number off the top of -- of giving the Congress that number off the top of my mind since nobody's actually done any analysis on it -- (laughs) -- and so I didn't have to go against any more thoughtful consideration. I was just trying notionally to give some sense of the size of a longer-term presence that might be required to fulfill a very different mission than we have now, and that is the mission of going after terrorists, al Qaeda, Jaish al-Mahdi, perhaps Iranian Qods Force operating inside Iraq, as well as continuing to do the train-and-equip mission and provide other support for the Iraqis.
So there's been no analysis that would provide an answer to the question you asked. I would just try and -- there's been a lot of concern out there that a long-term presence might be 130,000 troops, and I was just trying to put in context, as least in my mind, what I considered to be sort of notionally the size of an enduring presence.
Q But to follow up, based on your own experience and your own knowledge of places like the Balkans, do you have to eliminate the sort of sectarian violence completely or can you have a sort of background level of low-level civil war and still get to this more limited mission with a more limited force?
SEC. GATES: I think that you -- I think you have to get the violence down to a certain level where everyday life can go on, and that's the backdrop that I think is required.
Q I know that this is just notional off the top of your head and there's been no analysis, but when you talk about combat brigades down to a quarter of what's there now, about five brigades, and you're talking about support troops, what notionally are we talking about in terms of troop levels? I know that it's not just five combat brigades.
SEC. GATES: The last thing I'm going to do is give a number. (Laughter.)
Q (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: I've been down that road before. (Continued laughter.)
Q Back on the contractor issue, what are -- what specifically are your concerns that prompted you to name this five-member team to go to Iraq and study the issue? And do the improper actions of some of these contractors, small number as it may be -- are you worried that they undermined the U.S. mission, if not the very credibility of U.S. troops in Iraq?
SEC. GATES: It seems to me that what I wanted the group to look at -- first of all, although I have been assured here that we have the proper procedures, policies and legal authorities in place to oversee and manage these contractors, both through the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act that would put them in federal court -- although I've been assured of all that, I want to make -- I want to be confident that that is in fact the case and that the commanders understand that that's the case.
But my real concern: I think that these -- we have a joint contract command out there. My suspicion is that it is more focused on, are they fulfilling the terms of the contract in terms of, if you promise X number of people, do they have that number of people working; are they properly trained and things like that?
What my concern is, and I don't know the answer, and this is the answer I've been -- I've asked them to find, is, do we have the mechanisms and the means for our commanders to exercise a kind of strategic oversight and assure accountability in terms of the behavior and the conduct of these security contractors? Do our commanders have what they feel they need to be able to exercise the proper supervision of these groups?
One of the reasons I think it's important is because although these incidents may be uncommon -- we don't know how common they are, but let's assume that they're uncommon -- I believe they still have disproportionate impact on the Iraqi people. And so it's very important that we do everything in our power to make sure that people who are under contract to us are not only abiding by our rules but are conducting themselves in a way that makes them an asset in this war in Iraq and not a liability.
Q And when you mention exercising oversight, are you implying that you would like to see a situation where U.S. military, if they see contractors acting improperly, that they could intervene somehow?
SEC. GATES: We do have that authority. We have the authority; our commanders have the authority to detain contractors, to disarm them and so on. And I want to find out if that's been happening and whether it should have been happening. That's what the group's out there to find out.
Q General Pace, I want to echo Bob’s by the way, his statement that we've really been gratified that you've come out here, without any armor, by the way, all right, to take questions. I have an Iran question I want to ask you. (Tony Capaccio, Bloomberg News)
Last week, General Abizaid signaled that, his personal view, that the U.S. could live with a nuclear Iran that they would be -- they're aware of the whole concept of nuclear deterrence, that militarily the U.S. could live with a nuclear Iran. Secretary Gates, you were on a panel, I think, two or three years ago, that looked at this issue. But is that view reflected within the military at your level, General Pace -- General Abizaid's view, that is?
GEN. PACE: Well I haven't seen General Abizaid, his words, or talked to him about this specifically. But generically the belief that nations who own nuclear weapons would adhere to the same logic that we have is a question mark for me with regard to Iran, especially when you look at the leaders of Iran right now.
The policy is going to be set by the president of the United States and our government as far as whether or not this country accepts or doesn't accept their possession of nuclear weapons. But part of the dialogue I would think amongst the leadership of our country would be to what purpose would the Iranians have weapons, and to what level would their possession destabilize the neighborhood, and would they be expected to be rational in the possession of those weapons -- all of the issues that are way outside my lane as a military guy, but things that I would want to be part of the dialogue on.
So I haven't had the benefit of talking to General Abizaid. The policy of the United States is to work with our allies and friends right now to prevent proliferation. Iran having nuclear weapons would be proliferation, and therefore, we should work with our friends and allies around the world to prevent that from happening.
Q Well, just one follow-up. As you leave after your 40-year career, what's your thinking? I mean, does the Iranian leadership -- are they -- do they meet this threshold of rationale that you were laying out that the United States has?
GEN. PACE: You're asking me to use 40 years of military experience to color outside my lane.
Q Okay. Mr. Gates, could -- do you have a --
SEC. GATES: Go ahead.
Q Thank you, sir. The Turkish prime minister today up in New York said that he thought it would be a good idea if the United States set a timetable for a gradual withdrawal from Iraq because of its impact on Iraqi forces stepping up to their responsibility. He also said that he would look favorably -- positively, I think, is the word he used, on the United States exiting through Turkey and were not allowed to do so, of course, when we came in. Your reaction to those statements?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the reality is that there have been sort of over a period of months a series of expectations or a series of views of what the president ought to do in Iraq. It started with say that he will begin to draw down the forces; then it was a date to begin the drawdown of the forces; then it was a timetable for the drawdown of the forces; and then it was stating that there would be a change of mission.
I think the president, in his speech, essentially moved on all four of those. He announced that there would be withdrawals, draw-downs; he announced when the draw-downs would begin -- last week, as a matter of fact; he -- and General Petraeus has laid out a schedule of sorts through at least July with a review in March to see what to do beyond July, so at least there is some kind of conditions- based timetable; and the president announced that the beginning of the withdrawal -- the withdrawal of the first brigade or the -- not replacing a brigade in December would mark the beginning of a transition of mission.
I -- an end date creates two problems for me. One is it tells your adversary how long they have to wait and puts a precise calendar date on it. If you guys can just hang in there for X months, the Americans will be gone.
Related to that, it essentially -- and the second point -- it sends the same message to the Iraqis. Now, the assumption is that an end date will drive the Iraqis together; that's an assumption. I think an equally valid assumption might be it might drive them apart as they try to protect themselves, and if the Americans aren't going to be here, then how do we preserve our community and our lives post- coalition?
And so it seems to me that the real issue we've arrived at is the pacing of the draw-downs depending on the circumstances. And as I've said before, I think how we get this next phase -- that it's very important that we get this next phase right, because the consequences of getting it wrong are so significant.
General Petraeus and all of the senior American military commanders have said the way General Petraeus has laid it out is what we think is the best way to go. I find some irony in the notion that some of those who have alleged that the views of the senior military officers who were not taken seriously enough at the beginning of the war are now prepared to set aside the recommendations and views of the senior military officers in this next phase of the war.
So this is one where, it seems to me, if the issue is truly pacing of draw-downs depending on circumstances, then it seems to me that our professional military officers, including the commander on the ground, probably have a better feel for how to do that in a way that minimizes negative consequences, both in terms of risks to our own troops but also the circumstances in Iraq, is worth paying attention to.
Q What about the second part of Erdogan's statement, that we would be -- he would look positively on allowing transit through Turkey?
SEC. GATES: Well, I would defer to our logisticians on that. I mean, it's always nice to have somebody willing to work with you.
Q Mr. Secretary --
SEC. GATES: Yeah?
Q -- I wonder if you could address two questions that have come up recently, clear them up a bit. One is the question of knowing all that we know now about weapons of mass destruction and everything else, was the decision to go into Iraq the right one to make? And the second one: Has our effort there made America any safer?
SEC. GATES: I think that our effort there today makes America safer. Al Qaeda -- whether or not al Qaeda was present in any significant way in 2003 is less important to me today than the fact that they certainly are there today, and in a major way. And both Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden have said publicly that Iraq is the central front on the war against the United States. So taking them on there, it seems to me, today, does represent an effort to make -- a successful effort to make America safer.
With respect to the history, frankly, it's probably not very useful for me to speculate on that, and I kind of wish I hadn't earlier. I think it's a moot point. My whole philosophy since I've arrived in this job is, regardless of what you think about what happened in 2003, we are in 2007, and we face a certain set of challenges. We need to deal with the situation as we find it today.
STAFF: One more.
Q Mr. Secretary, it's been nearly a month since that mistaken transfer of nuclear weapons aboard a B-52. Can you shed any light at this point on what happened there and whether procedures have been changed or other steps taken since then?
SEC. GATES: Let me ask General Pace to answer that question.
GEN. PACE: General Moseley, the chief of staff of Air Force and Secretary Wynne, the secretary of the Air Force, have, from the instant they were notified, taken this to be exactly what it is, an unacceptable occurrence, and have been very energetic, very aggressive in tracking down what happened, who's responsible, what needs to change.
The investigation is not yet complete, and therefore talking about who's responsible would be not prudent. I do know that they have made procedural changes. When the investigation's complete, we can look to the secretary of the Air Force and the chief of staff of the Air Force to come forward and go public with what they have found and what they have corrected.
Q Can't you just say what happened?
GEN. PACE: No, I cannot, because I do not have whole cloth yet. I know pieces of it. Because the investigation has not gotten to my desk, I only know what I'm hearing -- bits and pieces of discussions, which is not useful to whole cloth clarity.
In addition to what the Air Force is doing, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command is doing a complete review, and the former General -- retired General Larry Welch has a separate team of experts taking another look at it. So there's three separate entities looking at this, and they'll report back, first to the secretary of the Air Force and then to the Secretary of Defense.
It is very important that we be as public as possible about what's being corrected. We need to protect our secrets, but we need to admit to mistakes and ensure that people have the confidence that we understand what went wrong and that we've taken corrective action.
But we should not speculate before we know the whole thing.
STAFF: Thanks very much.
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