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Media Roundtable with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, Va.

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
December 02, 2008
            SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. I'd like to start with four points and then take your questions. 
 
            First, I want to thank President Bush for giving me the opportunity to serve as Secretary of Defense. As I said yesterday in Chicago, serving in this position has been the most gratifying experience of my life and he made it possible. I also thank him for his support in the difficult decisions that I've had to make. It has been an honor and a pleasure to work for and with him. And I'll have more to say about this at an appropriate time. 
 
            Second, this is quite literally a unique situation. Since the creation of the position of Secretary of Defense some 60 years ago, no secretary has been asked to continue in office under a newly elected president, even when the new president has come from the same party. So I thank President-elect Obama for his confidence in me and look forward to working for and with him. 
 
            Third, every new president traditionally fills civilian positions at the Department of Defense. It will be no different now. Virtually every political appointee in the Department of Defense before yesterday assumed he or she would be replaced on January 20th or soon thereafter. That assumption remains as valid today as it was before. Some incumbents will likely be asked to serve until a successor is confirmed, and I am hopeful that we can reach those decisions soon. 
 
            I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every civilian appointee for their service to this department and to our country. 
 
            Fourth and finally, I suppose it should go without saying, but I have no intention of being a caretaker secretary. Our challenges, from the budget to acquisition and procurement reform, war strategy, care of wounded warriors, meeting the needs of warfighters, decisions on important modernization and capitalization projects and more, all demand the personal attention of the Secretary of Defense and they will get it, not to mention the multitude of challenges around the world where this department will continue to play a significant role in supporting U.S. policy. 
 
            I'm told by my staff that although there have been numerous opportunities for press questions while I've been on the road or appearing with foreign visitors, I've not had one of these press availabilities in some time. And so I'll stop here and leave ample time for questions. 
 
            Lita? 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, I was wondering if you could clear up a couple small things and then sort of a broader question. But, are you a registered Republican, Democrat or what? (Laughs.) If I could toss that out first. 
 
            SEC. GATES: I felt, when I was at CIA, that as a professional intelligence officer, like a military officer, I should be apolitical, and so I didn't register with a party. I consider myself a Republican. Until yesterday, all of my senior appointments have been under Republican presidents. 
 
            Q     How long do you -- we've all -- those of us who have traveled with you a lot have seen your countdown clock, and I'm wondering if you are resetting it. Is your time here going to be open-ended? Or do you expect, even generally, to have, like, sort of a time frame for your stay?   
 
            And then secondarily, what changed your mind? We've all quoted you numerous times on your thinking that it might be inconceivable that you would stay on. What are the types of things that you thought about when you knew this was coming? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I've thrown away the clock -- (laughter) -- because it was absolutely useless -- (chuckling) -- at the end of the day. The president-elect and I agreed that this would be open-ended, and so there is no time frame.   
 
            With respect to my comments over the last six months, I guess I would say that I was engaged in my own form of strategic deterrence. It was my hope that if I made enough noise about how much I did not want to stay here and how much I wanted to go back to the Northwest, that I wouldn't have to worry about the question ever being asked, because I also knew myself well enough to know that if the question was asked, what the answer would be.  
 
            And it was the same as with President Bush two years ago. With the country fighting two wars and our men and women in uniform at risk, if a president asks me to help, there's no way I can say no. So I spent a long time hoping the question would never be popped. I then hoped he'd change his mind. And yesterday it became a reality. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, yesterday you said that when President-elect Obama asked you to stay on as secretary of Defense, you considered it your duty to say yes. But there must -- there must have been more involved in that calculation than that.  
 
            Just how comfortable are you with President-elect Obama's positions on withdrawal of troops from Iraq, on Afghanistan, on Iran, on Guantanamo Bay, for example? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think the president-elect has made it pretty clear that he wanted a team of people around him who would tell him what they thought and give him their best advice. I think he has assembled that team. There will no doubt be differences among the team, and it will be up to the president to make the decisions. 
 
            We did meet, but I would tell you that there were no negotiations or anything like that. The discussion really was focused on how will the -- how will it work; how do we make this kind of an appointment that, as I indicated, really has no precedent, work in practice. So it more focused on that and relationships than it was on substantive issues. 
 
            Q     Well, specifically, then, do you consider yourself at odds with President-elect Obama on a possible timetable for withdrawal of troops from Iraq?   
 
            SEC. GATES: I think that I would subscribe to what the president-elect said yesterday in Chicago. He repeated his desire to try and get our combat forces out within 16 months. But he also said that he wanted to have a responsible drawdown, and he also said that he was prepared to listen to his commanders. So I think that that's exactly the position a president-elect should be in. 
 
            Q     But he also said it's right time frame, 16 months. Do you think that's the right time frame -- 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- 
 
            Q     -- sixteen months to remove combat troops? 
 
            SEC. GATES: -- I would take you back to what I just said in terms of what -- all he said. And it's within that framework that I think that's an agreeable approach.  
 
            Q     Just the 16 months again -- what might be your concerns at this point about a 16-month timetable? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, the situation has changed, I think, in some significant ways since the campaign, and most of all in
 terms of the signing of the SOFA. We are going to be out of all populated areas of Iraq by the end of June 2009. By the end of June 2009, we are obligated, under the SOFA -- or we will see that provincial Iraqi control has extended to the entire country, to all 18 provinces. 
 
            So we will confront or have a different kind of situation, in Iraq, at the end of June 2009 than we would have thought perhaps in June of 2008. And I think that the commanders are already looking at what the implications of that are, in terms of the potential for accelerating the drawdown and in terms of how we meet our obligations to the Iraqis.   
 
            So again I go back to the president-elect's comments yesterday. He did talk about the 16 months in terms of combat forces. But he also talked about a responsible drawdown and that he was willing to listen to the commanders.   
 
            Q     So you're less concerned about that timetable than you were before the election.   
 
            SEC. GATES: I'm less concerned about that timetable.   
 
            First of all, we have a definite timetable now in the SOFA. It's a longer one but it's a definite timetable. So that bridge has been crossed. And so the question is, how do we do this in a responsible way? And nobody wants to put at risk the gains that have been achieved, with so much sacrifice, on the part of our soldiers and the Iraqis, at this point. And so I think that the president-elect framed it just right yesterday.   
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, President-elect Obama also said that, he thinks, the main threat to the American people comes from terrorist safe havens in South Asia, he said, presumably referring to Pakistan.   
 
            Is there more that the department can do, under this administration or the next, to address that problem?   
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that we all believe now that we basically have our foot on the neck of al Qaeda in Iraq, that the safe havens in the FATA and that area are a great concern and do pose probably the greatest threat to the homeland, from al Qaeda and other extremist organizations.   
 
            My view is that the solution there is involved in partnering with the Pakistanis and our and the Afghans' efforts to work it, from the Afghan side of the border, and the Pakistanis working it from their side of the border. They confront violent extremists there as well. And they have over the last several months been moving fairly aggressively in taking on some of those, some of those groups in Bajaur and SWAT and elsewhere.   
 
            And so I think that we just need to continue looking at ways in which we can strengthen our partnership with Pakistan and do what we can to enable them to deal with the problem on their side of the border.   
 
            Q     Is this more of a long-term project, or is it something that could be addressed relatively quickly with a policy change or a tactics change? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that we are prepared to move as quickly as the Pakistanis are. I know they're uneasy about the American footprint in Pakistan, and I think we have to be sensitive to their political concerns. At the same time, I mean, we cannot do this on our own. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, can you confirm that Admiral Mullen is on his way to India? Can you outline the purpose of his mission? And more broadly, can you talk about the Mumbai attacks and who you believe was responsible? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- you know, I don't want to get into the intelligence that we have.   
 
            I would like to commend the Indians for their restraint at this point.   
 
            Admiral Mullen is in the area, as is Secretary Rice, as you know. And frankly, because the situation's fairly delicate, I don't want to say too much about it. It clearly was the action of an extremist group that apparently was targeting Americans and Britons, and -- but the truth is, most of the people who were killed were Indians.   
 
            And so it's important that we find out who did it and try and prevent it from ever happening again. 
 
            Q     Could you tell us, under an Obama administration -- obviously you've talked about some of the changes in personnel that we may see here at the Pentagon. But otherwise, physically, on the ground, in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in here operationally, within the walls of the Pentagon, what will be different under an Obama administration?   
 
            I know that besides, perhaps, this difference on the time frame in Iraq in pulling out U.S. troops, they've also had some concerns about the U.S. tactics in Afghanistan as far as the reliance on attacking from the air, the number of civilians who are killed that way. They've taken issue with that. What immediate changes will we see? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that, clearly, one of the first priorities of the administration will be to look at our strategy and approach in Afghanistan. My own view, as I've said before, is it's very important for us to do everything we can to make sure that the Afghans understand this is their fight and they have to be out front in this fight. That's why I'm such a strong supporter of accelerating the expansion of the Afghan army.   
 
            And so, you know, I'm -- I can't foretell the outcome of the review that will take place in the new administration, but as the president-elect has made clear, it's a very high priority.  
 
            You will have a significant number of new civilian leaders in this building. There clearly is going to be very close scrutiny of the budget, I think as I indicated yesterday at Minot. We need to take a -- I think for me, at least, a high priority, given our experience of the past year or so -- actually, some would say a lot longer -- we need to take a very hard look at the way we go about acquisition and procurement. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, as far as terror attack in India, there's a clear evidence, according to the U.S. intelligence officials and also Indian officials, that there is a connection from Pakistan-based terrorists. It may not be the hand from the government, but the safe haven, like you said, in Pakistan. What do you think now -- since you have been in the area so many times and you have a vast experience and you have been doing a great job now as Secretary of Defense under this administration -- what will you advise to the President-elect Obama?   
 
            And also, under your new position in his administration, you think you will change your views or policies or what you are going to advise him, as far as this problem? Because there is a tension between the two countries now, just like the parliament attack and all of Kargil. There may be another war between the two countries, so -- 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I learned a long time ago not to respond to anonymous intelligence officials, either here or abroad. So I'm not going to -- not going to go down that road.  
 
            As I say, I think it's important for there to be restraint on both sides and -- but it's also important to find out who was responsible. And I think what we would like to see is both countries work together to make sure that something like this doesn't happen again. 
 
            Q     Are you concerned that the recent tensions in India and Pakistan might divert Pakistan's attention to its eastern border and therefore that they might, you know, soften their effort on the western border with Afghanistan? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, that's kind of hypothetical. I would just say that we haven't seen any sign of that at this point. 
 
            Q     Secretary, when you came in, you spoke about closing Guantanamo Bay and your desire to do so. And the president even has said that he would like to close Guantanamo Bay, but no steps have really been taken to do so.   
 
            Did you conclude in the last year and a half or so that it is not possible to do that? Is it still possible to close Guantanamo Bay? Is it something you would recommend to President-elect Obama? 
 
            SEC. GATES: I think it is possible to close it. I think it does require a joint effort with the Congress. I think some legislation probably is needed as a part of it. And I think that it will -- I think trying to move forward on that, at least from my standpoint, should be a -- should be a high priority. 
 
            Q     A couple budget questions. You said you don't want to be a caretaker secretary. The budget will get scrutiny and there are major recap issues. What success have you had convincing the Bush White House and President-elect Obama to go along with your plus-up of the '010-'015 plan? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, because the president will not submit a budget -- I mean, we've told OMB, reviewed with them what we're doing. And we've just started the process of discussing the '10 budget with the transition team. And so we've provided them with briefings, but so far there hasn't really been any reaction. 
 
            Q     One follow-up. On the major recapitalization programs -- i.e., weapons programs -- one of the big issues you're going to deal with is whether to buy more F-22 fighter planes. You've been continually against going beyond 183. Under an Obama administration, are you going to change your mind on that?   
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the key here is to -- is to do the analysis, examine the Air Force's requirements, talk to the senior leadership of the Air Force, talk to the new appointees who will come into the department, and then make a decision how to go forward. But I'm not going to commit today where I'm going on that subject. There's a lot of work to be done. 
 
            Q     How much say will you have over the team that is around you here at the Pentagon? I mean, did you discuss that with the president-elect? And can you be an effective secretary of Defense if the key positions around you are appointed by the White House? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, the truth of the matter is, when I came here two years ago every single position was filled by somebody who had been appointed by somebody else. And I think it's worked out okay.   
 
            But to the specifics of your question, I expect that the transition will provide names and candidates to me for positions, particularly for the most senior positions, I will interview them, and then I'll make a recommendation to the president, and the president- elect or president will make the final decisions. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, both you and President-elect Obama have spoken a lot recently about the need to increase spending on soft power. As we're in the middle of this economic crisis, how much of that increased spending should come from the Pentagon budget, and how much of it should be new spending? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, as I made pretty clear at the Landon Lecture at Kansas State a year ago November, I wasn't exactly calling for a transfer out of the Defense Department budget to support soft power.   
 
            But look, the reality is, the dollars required significantly to enhance our capabilities in that area are, relatively speaking, small compared to a new weapons system, and the personnel required to significantly plus-up the capabilities of the civilian side of the national security arena in the State Department and AID and so on are relatively small. 
 
            So you know, I think we'll -- this is one of the decisions that will confront the new administration, and that is, first of all, how do we organize to make these capabilities more effectively and then how do we recommend to the Congress or propose to the Congress making the necessary increases in those capabilities, and where does the money come from? That's all still out in front of us. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, you've talked often about the need for the Pakistanis to improve some of their training, some of the ways that they do counterinsurgency. The Mumbai attacks and the Indian response seem to suggest that India has a lot to do as far as the way it equips its counter-terror forces, what their tactics and procedures are. Have there been any specific requests from India for either U.S. training help or U.S. equipment help? And if not, have there been any offers from the U.S. to India of equipping help or training help? 
 
            SEC. GATES: The answer is both is no, not as far as I know. 
 
            Q     Thank you, sir. I'd like to return for a moment to Iraq. If I understood you correctly, you seemed to be suggesting that the old debate between withdrawal and a timetable of withdrawal, totally conditions-based, is essentially moot now; that it's been overtaken by events -- the SOFA, the improvement in security conditions and so forth. Is that in fact your view, that that debate is over and moot? 
 
            SEC. GATES: I still think the pacing needs to be seen in the context of what's going on both in terms of the deadlines we've agreed to and in terms of the situation on the ground. The new factor is that we have agreed to some deadlines that change the nature of the mission in considerably -- in considerable ways. And so I think that and the deadline, of the end of 2011 are both new components in addition to the conditions on the ground.  
 
            And so this is something that, I think, we just have to work with the commanders and make our best recommendation to the president.   
 
            Q     You had mentioned that extra troops for Afghanistan would not be available until spring or summer. Has the president-elect indicated that he might want to accelerate that timetable?   
 
            SEC. GATES: There has been no discussion of that.   
 
            Q     You have said you want to throw away the clock, which would suggest that you're really kind of settling in to this job for potentially the long term. You're also known for making personnel changes.   
 
            Do you see now, if you are kind of settling in for the long term, you making a review of some of the senior officers, across the globe, who work with you, and making changes to comport with your views?   
 
            SEC. GATES: I don't at this point.   
 
            I mean, this is a continual process of renewal, in terms of the combatant commanders, in terms of two-and-three-year terms. These things are reviewed on a regular basis by the chairman and the chiefs, who make recommendations to me. But apart from the regular rotation of senior assignments, I don't have any changes in mind.   
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, given the withdrawal guidelines now in place, in Iraq, and your plans to increase troop strength in Afghanistan, how quickly can the Army get to an end to its stop-loss policy? And how quickly can you get to a dwell time that gives active troops twice as much time at home as they have on deployment?   
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think that General Casey is probably in a better position to give you the specifics on that. But I think that in terms of, we will probably increase the dwell time, be in a position where we have to increase the dwell time gradually, rather than all of a sudden go from one-to-one to one-to-two.   
 
            We may go from 12 months deployed to 15 months at home or 18 months at home and so on. And I think that process could begin perhaps as early as this fall, I'm sorry, as early as this spring. But General Casey would be in a better position to give you that information.   
 
            Q     Well, you have Marines, also, who are -- 
 
            SEC. GATES: And the Marines, the same way, the one-to-one as opposed to -- I think that -- for the Marines as well it will probably increase more gradually than just go automatically one-to-two. 
 
            Q     Do you see dwell time ending this year -- I'm sorry -- 2009? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Dwell time or stop-loss? 
 
            Q     Stop-loss, pardon me. 
 
            SEC. GATES: No. No, I don't. As I've indicated before, I mean, I've pressed on stop-loss ever since I got this job, because I don't like it. But a significant percentage of those who are stop-lossed are NCOs. And the concern of the Army is that if you don't use stop- loss you end up gutting a unit of its experienced leadership, senior enlisted leadership. 
 
            I push on them, I think they will tell you, every month -- they may say more frequently -- because I would like to see us at least start heading in the right direction. And I think we have leveled off and it has begun to decline very slowly. I won't pretend that it's any significant increase. But I hope that fairly soon and especially with the drawdowns in Iraq that we will begin to see a further decrease in stop-loss. 
 
            Q     So no end to the policy in 2009? 
 
            SEC. GATES: I don't think so. 
 
            Q     Thank you. 
 
            Q     On the budget, you said there was going to be scrutiny. But at the same time, the Joint Chiefs have prepared an estimate that's 57 billion (dollars) more than the current estimate for next year. So I'm wondering if you -- how do you justify that, given the economic situation our country is in?   
 
            And also, is it true that there's an $80 billion war supplemental for the remainder of fiscal 2009 estimate that this building has prepared? And when would that be released? Would that be at the same time that the regular budget is released? 
 
            SEC. GATES: All along, everyone has known there would be a second component to the FY '09 supplemental. We were given a $66 billion bridge. Everyone has known there is another piece to that. It's still being worked by OMB and us. So it has not gone to the Hill. My hope would be that we could do that in the next couple of weeks for the '09 supplemental. 
 
            One of the things that we are trying to look at and see if it's feasible -- and I don't want to get into the specific numbers -- but we've gotten a lot of expressions of concern, I guess is the way I would put it, from the Hill about the reliance on supplementals. And so one of the things that we are looking at in the '10 budget is are there expenditures that we can anticipate recurring year in and year out in terms of a deployed force that could be moved from the supplemental into the base budget, because we know that we're going to have at least that amount of capability that from the -- is going to be operational year after year. 
 
            This -- as I said, the -- President Bush does not submit a budget. 
 
            So this is a discussion that's really a philosophical and a strategic question: Do you begin that migration from supplementals into the base budget, which gives you a bigger top line number but also -- I mean, it's a bill that's going to have to be paid one way or the other. And so the question is, do you put it in a supplemental or you put it in the '10 budget? And that's a discussion that has just begun with the transition team. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, you've talked about the Afghan review, which is wrapping up. First of all, do you have any sense when that will be completed?   
 
            And also, I'm hearing from some people that there's a questioning now of whether to send three or four more combat brigades to Afghanistan. Some are saying they might be better off sending combat enablers, Predators, strike aircraft, and maybe send combat engineers, civil affairs advisers, even special forces troops, as opposed to brigades. Can you just talk about that? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, we -- I think there is a desire on the part of the chiefs and myself to be responsible -- to be responsive to the requirements that the Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan/Commander ISAF has requested. That includes -- and I usually get these characterizations wrong -- but I think it's three additional combat -- brigade combat teams and an aviation support unit. 
 
            Clearly, we focus on the enablers. And one of the things that I've noticed about some of the press articles about Iraq is they're beginning to focus on the reality that there's a lot of people in Iraq in addition to the 14 brigade combat teams or the 15 brigade combat teams, and most of those are enablers of one kind or another. And so one of the things that we need to make sure is, as we send in the brigade combat teams or additional combat forces to Afghanistan, that we give them the enablers that they need to be successful 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, could you talk a bit more about your conversations with President-elect Obama? I understand you spoke to him the same day he was in Washington meeting with President Bush. Just your sense of his sense of the military and stepping into his role as Commander in Chief. 
 
            SEC. GATES: Sure. First of all, we did meet the day he came to Washington to meet with the president. We met when he went back to the airport. We actually met in the fire station at National Airport. 
 
            (Laughter.) And they pulled the trucks out so that our cars could go in. 
 
            I have been very impressed by several things -- first of all, the things he said to me and the things he has said on the campaign trail about the military and his respect for the institution. I was impressed by his reaching out to Admiral Mullen to come sit down and talk with him. And he has made clear that he wants to have a regular dialogue with the chairman and the chiefs and the commanders. 
 
            I also have been very impressed by Michelle Obama's desire to work on behalf of military families. And I think all of these things send very positive signals to our men and women in uniform about the way the new Commander in Chief looks upon his responsibilities, as Commander in Chief but also as the person for whom all of these men and women in uniform work. 
 
            Q     Mr. Secretary? 
 
            STAFF: There's time for maybe one or two more. 
 
            Q     I wanted to go back to Guantanamo. You said that in order for the United States to close Guantanamo Bay there needs to be legislation. What needs to be in that legislation so that Guantanamo Bay can be shut down, in your view? 
 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I -- the list of that legislation depends on who you talk to. And I'm not a lawyer. But to give you an example, it seems to me that we would require legislation so that if somebody is released from Guantanamo they cannot seek asylum in the United States. That's one example. But as I say, there are a number of areas where -- where legislation may be required. 
 
            Last question. Yeah. 
 
            Q     Can you talk about the need to shore-up the acquisitions that's going to do this more smartly? Do you expect to have something like the ISR task force to handle this problem, or can you do it with the existing structure in OSD and in the services? 
 
            SEC. GATES: I think we have to make the existing structure in the services and in OSD work better. You can't do these big programs outside the system. I think that -- I think that, you know, when it comes to MRAPs or ISR, that's a very finite kind of program, and there is a need for great urgency. We can do the -- we can do some of these procurements in that -- in that fashion. 
 
            But I think, when it comes to some of the big modernization and capitalization programs, that it would be a mistake to try and bypass the system. The key is to figure out a way to make the system work better. And I think that will be a high priority.   
 
            Q     Is it reasonable to expect that that can happen though, in the time frame that the services at least say it's needed, for things like CSAR-X and tanker? Without -- you know, you're going to be going through a transition, assigning new secretaries and whatnot. You'll have the same bureaucracy in place.   
 
            So is it reasonable to expect that can happen, within the time that you have before you?   
 
            SEC. GATES: I certainly hope and intend for it to be so.   
 
            Q     On a personal note, as a Republican, just how strange did it feel yesterday to be standing on that dais in Chicago? (Laughter.)  
 
            SEC. GATES: It really didn't. You know, the president-elect will be the eighth president I've worked for. And all I can say is, I look forward to it.   
 
            Thank you.
 
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