DoD News Briefing with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen
SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. I have a couple of brief points I'd like to make, and then -- and then take your questions.
First, I'd just like to say that the transition here at Defense has gone very smoothly, a testament I believe to the desire and strong commitment by both the outgoing and incoming administrations to ensure continuity during a time of war. I again thank those Bush appointees who have already left, as well as those who were asked and have agreed to stay on during the transition and until their replacements are appointed or nominated. Their help has been invaluable.
I'm impressed with the caliber and credentials of the individuals recommended by the president's team for positions here in Defense, and I look forward to working with them. On that note, the president and I both urge the Senate to take up the nomination of the new deputy secretary as swiftly as possible so that we can begin addressing the myriad challenges the department faces. I also hope other senior nominees will be taken up as soon as possible, once the Senate has all the necessary paperwork.
I believe the new national security team is a strong and collegial one, and off to a fast start. We had several substantive meetings during the transition, and I would say in particular Secretary Clinton and I are committed to further strengthening the collaborative relationship between the Department of State and the Department of Defense.
Finally, a personal note. Over the holidays, I managed again to injure one of my arms, this time the left one. The injury, a torn ligament, is tractor-related, which I consider to be a step up from falling on the ice. I was trying to attach a snowplow blade to a tractor up in the Northwest during the holidays and managed to tear the biceps tendon from the bone. It's an inconvenience, and tomorrow morning I'll have surgery to repair the damage. For the brief period I am undergoing this procedure, because the new deputy is not yet on board, Deputy Secretary England will continue on and serve as acting secretary on Friday. And I expect to be back -- back at work on Saturday, though again in a sling.
With that somewhat embarrassing information out of the way, be happy to take questions.
Q Mr. Secretary, wonder if you could enlighten us a bit more about your discussions yesterday at the White House on Iraq. In particular, is a speedier withdrawal from Iraq more likely under this administration than it was under the last one? And is the 16-month timetable the basic plan you're working on?
SEC. GATES: I would say that yesterday's meeting was the beginning of a process of evaluating various options. There was a good give and take, a good discussion with both Ambassador Crocker and General Odierno and General Petraeus. There is some follow up in terms of additional analysis to be done, but I would say simply that we have begun a process in which a variety of options are being examined.
Q Mr. Secretary?
Q Mr. Secretary?
SEC. GATES: Yeah.
Q I wanted to ask you about Guantanamo. We were told from the podium last week that 61 former Guantanamo detainees are confirmed or suspected of returning to the fight, and that is a pretty substantial increase we were told. So if Guantanamo closes, won't that threat only increase? And also, if 61 are returning to the fight, what does that say about your review process?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think you have to find out what the other part of the equation is, because I think at one point -- well, you have to know -- and I don't -- the total number of people who have been processed through Guantanamo over the past several years. So the number 61 is a big number compared to the 250 or thereabouts that we have now. It's not as big a number if you're talking about 700 or a thousand or however many have been -- have been through Guantanamo.
Clearly, the challenge that is -- that faces us and that I've acknowledged before is figuring out how do we close Guantanamo and at the same time safeguard the security of the American people. And that's the challenge that we will continue to face. I believe that there are answers to those questions, but we clearly have a lot of work to do. And the executive order spells out the -- I think the work that has to be done to get there.
Q Mr. Secretary, among the executive orders signed by President Obama today is one which would -- the intent appears to be to put all national security/military/intelligence interrogation processes under the Army Field Manual. There are some in the intelligence community that will say one size doesn't fit all, that there's a gray area and there may have to be exceptions made. Given your experience at both the CIA and now at DOD, do you think that all interrogations can be conducted under the rules and regulations of the Army Field Manual?
SEC. GATES: I haven’t read the latest -- I haven't read the version of the executive order that the president signed. But if that's what he said, that's what will be done.
Q But given your experience in the intelligence community, would it present problems for intelligence officials in their attempts to gain actionable intelligence in a timely manner?
SEC. GATES: I think you have to weigh the -- the costs of the more severe interrogation measures with, as the president talked about in his inaugural address, our values and the impact on our values. We know a lot more about al Qaeda now than we did in the early years of the administration, the early years after September 11th, 2001. And personally, I believe that the need for measures that go outside the Army Field Manual is dramatically less than it was several years ago. So based on my experience in both arenas, I've very comfortable with where the executive order placed this.
Q Just --
Q To clarify -- the question for both of you -- to clarify on the first question, did you specifically discuss the 16-month time frame during yesterday's meeting? Do you consider that effectively an order from the new president? And as people who have at one time or another been critical of outside or artificial deadlines, do you consider it wholly responsible?
SEC. GATES: We have, from really every since the election, been looking at several options, and obviously 16 months is one of them. We are very aware of what the president has said, and we have an obligation and responsibility to provide him with a range of options that include the one that he has spoken about.
Do you want add to that?
ADM. MULLEN: The only thing I would add is we discussed a deliberate and yet rapid process. The secretary talked about this being the beginning, and in fact, to look at a responsible drawdown, and there's still work to be done. We've worked this very hard. We've planned an awful lot of options. But there is -- I think there will need to be additional meetings and engagements to work our way through the fullness of both Iraq, Afghanistan, hear from -- hear from the Joint Chiefs, which is what the president has said he would do as well. So there's still more work to be done there, and I think a lot of that will be done in the very near future.
SEC. GATES: Barbara.
Q What should we take from the fact that the White House statement last night doesn't mention the 16-month option specifically?
SEC. GATES: I wouldn't take anything from it.
ADM. MULLEN: Yeah. I think you need -- ask the White House. (Laughter.)
SEC. GATES: Barbara.
Q Admiral Mullen, you've just said the words a more rapid withdrawal. So whether it's 16 or 17 or 18 months, certainly more rapid than till the end of 2011 is one of the things you're looking at.
ADM. MULLEN: I said a responsible drawdown, but a deliberate and rapid process to get to the decisions. If I didn't say that, that's what I meant to say.
Q Okay. Well, my question is -- and also for the secretary, then -- is, the notion of 16 months is certainly in the national dialogue and has been for some time. So it seems to me there's -- I don't understand. There's one of two things. Either you think 16 months is it, as you said, doable, as you've said in the past, and a doable idea -- in which case I'd like to ask, did you ever tell President Bush that you could bring troops homes faster, save -- save troops and money and time? Did you ever tell him that you could do it faster than the Bush plan called for? And if you did not, why not?
And if 16 months or whatever, a faster one, is not a good idea, are you both absolutely committed to telling President Obama that you think the risk is too high?
ADM. MULLEN: With -- with respect to at least my role with respect to President Bush's, I was operating under very clear guidance from him, followed that guidance in terms of what we reviewed and what we recommended. Actually, in the engagement with the new president and the new administration, it will be much the same, to both receive that guidance and then execute it, and would intend to do that.
As the secretary said, we've certainly heard 16 months for a long time. We've looked at options -- looked at that option and the risks that are associated that -- with that. And when the time comes to have that -- to have that full engagement with the president with respect to that -- which, as the secretary indicated, has started -- you know, I will advise him accordingly and then he'll make the decision.
Q You certainly must, at this point, have a fair idea of what your view is about a 16-month withdrawal.
ADM. MULLEN: All of us, I think, understand where we are on the possibility of various options. That's -- and that's the advice, tied to the risk that's associated with that, that -- that I'll -- I give the secretary and I'll give to the president.
Q On this --
SEC. GATES: Let me just -- let me just say, I think our obligation is to give the president a range of options and the risks associated with each of those options and -- and he will make the decision. He has said that he wants it to be a responsible drawdown. He has said that before he makes a decision he wants to talk to the military commanders and the chiefs and get their independent views. Once he has all of that, he will make the decision and we will execute it.
Q Mr. Secretary, on Guantanamo, you told us that you tried to have it closed something like a year ago and failed. The issues really haven't changed. So what's going to be different this time, particularly with regard to the two tough issues of where to send those that you'd like to transfer and what to do with those you can't put on trial but aren't ready to release?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think those are exactly some of the issues that -- that are going to be investigated, as -- as laid out by the executive order.
Those -- we have developed some options in terms of how many we think could be returned to other countries, if we could get the other countries to take them. That diplomatic initiative has not started. That will await work on -- in carrying out the executive order.
We have identified a number of possible prisons here in the United States. I've heard from members of Congress where all of those prisons are located. Their enthusiasm is limited.
The -- so I think, you know, these are just issues that we will have to work through with the new administration. And some of the legal issues, which are really outside of our purview, are the things that the Justice Department and the White House counsel and so on will -- will be working on.
Q But is there some option out there that you identified before but was rejected by the Bush administration, particularly with regard to those that you can't release and can't put on trial?
SEC. GATES: I don't think so. But I think one of the things that has come with the new president, as we have heard publicly from some of the European countries, is that they were willing to consider taking these. And we've not heard from those people before. So we may have some opportunities in terms of sending some of these detainees to other countries that did not exist before January 20th.
Q Mr. Secretary?
SEC. GATES: Yeah.
Q Where, in your opinion, did Gitmo go wrong?
SEC. GATES: I am -- you know, I was busy running Texas A&M on September 11th, and -- well, actually, I wasn't; I was back up peacefully in the Pacific Northwest. And I haven't read the books and I haven't looked into the details of this, and I think that's a judgment that somebody else is going to have to make.
Q Well, let me ask this question, then: Was the intelligence garnered from the detainees at Gitmo worth the international condemnation?
SEC. GATES: That's a net assessment that I don't think I'm in a position to make.
Q Mr. Secretary, you started about saying you'd like the prompt approval of Bill Lynn, the deputy Defense secretary nominee. About a half an hour ago, Senator Levin sent out an e-mail saying his committee needs more information from the administration about what steps Lynn could take to recuse himself from the potential Raytheon conflicts of interest.
Could you talk a little bit about what -- what -- when you vetted him, was that a troublesome aspect, that he was while qualified on paper, coming from the number five defense contractor?
SEC. GATES: People certainly recognized -- people in the transition certainly recognized that it was an issue. And I interviewed Bill Lynn. I was very impressed with his credentials. He came with the highest recommendations of a number of people that I respect a lot. And I asked that an exception be made because I felt that he could play the role of a deputy -- of the deputy -- in a better manner than anybody else that I saw.
Q Well, one follow-up, then. What steps --
SEC. GATES: And I would just say I think that we certainly -- we certainly owe the Armed Services Committee whatever information they need to feel comfortable going forward.
Q What steps, realistically, can the department take to give not only the panel, but the American public a sense that the number two guy will be impartial about Raytheon decisions?
SEC. GATES: Fair enough.
Q You know, there's a big DDG 1000 --
SEC. GATES: And I think that -- I think that the White House Counsel's Office, presidential personnel and our own General Counsel's Office are in the process of working those arrangements out right now.
Q And you’ll make them public when they're done?
SEC. GATES: I assume so.
Q During the campaign, President Obama said that he would, when elected, send perhaps two to three additional brigades of troops to Afghanistan. Lately, actually since the election, we've heard talk about as many as 30,000 troops -- significantly more than that -- going to Afghanistan. Have any decisions been actually made, pending this review that the president has talked about, in terms of how many American forces might go to Afghanistan this year?
SEC. GATES: No final decision has been made. Part of -- part of what the president made clear was that they intend to look at Iraq and Afghanistan holistically. And so I think part of the -- one of the things that the president will expect before making decisions is what the implications are not just for Iraq, but for Afghanistan. And I expect, as I say that, to be part of those decisions to be forthcoming pretty soon.
Do you want to add anything to that?
ADM. MULLEN: I -- I really wouldn't add a lot except to say that these are the level of forces that the commander has asked for. So again, we've looked very carefully at how to do that. There have been some recommendations that have been made up the chain of command, but no decisions yet.
And consistent with what I said before, I think a very deliberate process now, but rapid as it can be, to both recommend and have the president make this decision -- these decisions.
Q Are there detailed plans that you've already seen for what these 30,000 troops would do -- in other words, where they would be deployed specifically in terms of what provinces and cities, and what their tasks would be? Or is it just a ballpark estimate about what these --
ADM. MULLEN: No. I -- consistent with how the commanders on the ground have acted for years now is when they come forward, they come forward and have a very clear plan of what they want the forces to do. And that's certainly the case here as well.
Q Sir, just to follow up on what Al asked, were you ever asked by the previous administration to come up with a plan to close Gitmo, and that you started on that process and then found that you had no place to send these detainees? Or were you not asked to look at that plan? And what is your best military advice as to whether these detainees should be tried in military courts here in the U.S. or in federal courts?
SEC. GATES: First of all, I was not asked. I took that action on my own. And I am one of the least-qualified people to evaluate whether people are tried under the military commissions, Article III, or the UCMJ. I think those -- those decisions will be made, or recommendations will be made, by the Justice Department, perhaps with the input of the White House counsel for the president.
Q Mr. Secretary, on Afghanistan, as you've gone through these various reviews -- and, Mr. Chairman, this question's for you also -- have you come to a point where you've decided that it's clear that you've got to go after the drug -- narcotics trade in Afghanistan, beginning with the drug labs? Or are you going to leave that to NATO? And is it clear to you that the United States can reach its goals in Afghanistan without going after the drug problem?
SEC. GATES: No, we clearly have to go after the drug labs and the drug lords that provide support to the Taliban and to other insurgents. And to that end, the NATO defense ministers, at our meeting in December, gave new guidance to the ISAF commander, tying those together in that way. And I have signed off on a change in the rules of engagement for our own forces that essentially say the same thing. If we have evidence that the drug labs and drug lords are supporting the Taliban, then they're fair game.
Q Is that enough, do you think, to really take them out?
SEC. GATES: Well, we'll see.
Q You said at one time that legislation would be needed to close Guantanamo. You specifically cited the asylum rights of detainees, if they were brought to the United States, that they -- that those rules need to be changed. The executive order signed today doesn't say anything about new legislation. Do you still think that that is necessary? Or in your discussions with the transition and now the new administration, do you think that that is -- is that no longer a concern of yours?
SEC. GATES: What I heard the Justice Department saying in the last administration was that legislation would be required in certain areas. I think that the Justice Department, White House counsel and others in this administration will probably take a look at that and make their own determination on whether new legislation is needed.
Q Mr. Secretary?
Q Mr. Secretary -- when the previous -- when you were looking at the previous goals for Afghanistan, the end state, I mean one of the questions as we -- as we send additional troops into the country is, what -- when do we know we've been successful? You know, what is our end state? When are we done there?
And I'm curious to know whether you see any differences between the Obama administration and the last administration in terms of, you know, what is our goal in Afghanistan? When do we know we've completed our mission there?
SEC. GATES: Well, let me make a comment and then invite the chairman to comment.
I think one of the -- one of the points where I suspect both administrations come to the same conclusion is that the goals we did have for Afghanistan are too broad and too far into the future, are too future-oriented, and that we need more concrete goals that can be achieved realistically within three to five years in terms of reestablishing control in certain areas, providing security for the population, going after al Qaeda, preventing the reestablishment of terrorism, better performance in terms of delivery of services to the people, some very concrete things.
So I think that that's -- that's a starting point. But you know, the president, I think, has referred -- I think referred last night to the need for a comprehensive assessment on Afghanistan. And what we have -- you know, I mean, we have a -- we have a NATO campaign plan. We have an RC [Regional Command] South campaign plan. We have a commander's campaign plan. We have General Petraeus's study. And we have the Afghan review that was conducted in the last administration at the White House.
So I think all of these pieces will be inputs into the -- into the review that this administration will take in terms of determining what those nearer-term goals should be and how we get to where we -- where we can achieve them.
ADM. MULLEN: I'd only say that that's clearly the message I'm getting is, what are the near-term goals going to be? And I think that will be part of this initial assessment. And then, how do we -- obviously, how do we achieve them over that time frame?
And we've talked about the military side of this. Certainly, a big part of all the reviews has been the need to make sure that we have the right civilian corps there as well, numbers of PRTs; that we have the right governance development in Afghanistan, along with the economic development; because, over time, without that, all the military troops in the world aren't going to make any difference.
Q Mr. Secretary?
Q Mr. Secretary?
Q We've heard about the possibility that combat troops could be withdrawn from Iraq in 16 months, but we haven't heard anybody put a number to how many troops we're talking about. Could you talk about that?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that's one of the decisions that still has to be made.
Q Well, how many combat troops are in Iraq?
SEC. GATES: It'll depend on which option he chooses.
Q All right. But how do you define "combat troops"? If you are told to withdraw combat troops in 16 months, how many troops would that be?
SEC. GATES: I don't know that answer.
Q Mr. Secretary?
Q Mr. Secretary, it's been clear for some time that obviously Iraq was a top priority for the Bush White House. And when you talk about Afghanistan being an economy-of-force mission, in your communications thus far with the transition team and now with the new president, is it clear to you that that's now changing, and that for the Obama White House Afghanistan will be the top priority, and not Iraq? And if so, beyond troops, what does it mean to have high-level presidential attention be focused on Afghanistan primarily, as opposed to on Iraq primarily?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think, clearly, whatever time frame we end up with for drawdowns in Iraq, the administration will be paying very close attention to that. But it is clear -- I mean, the president has been quite clear that the mission is to responsibly draw down and end our active combat role, the role that we have been playing over the last number of years.
He wants to put more emphasis on Afghanistan and deal with the problems in Afghanistan there and the challenges that we face in Afghanistan. It is clear that -- that the threat to the homeland is -- to this country -- is focused in the Afghan theater, on both sides of the Pakistani -- the Afghan-Pakistani border.
So that -- I think what you're -- what I'm trying to get at is what you're seeing is, is a transition from -- moving from concluding the size of role and high -- highest priority that we have given to Iraq over the last number of years and moving that priority to Afghanistan.
The admiral's spoken to this quite often.
ADM. MULLEN: I think, actually, they're very much linked; it is the responsible drawdown, that the conditions in Iraq clearly permit that now. So it becomes -- as the secretary has said many times, it becomes an issue of pace, specifically, and that -- generally availability of troops for Afghanistan are tied to that drawdown.
And we're in a time right now over the next 24 to 36 months that it's just a very delicate balance because we haven't built out the army yet, we don't have more capability, and that the focus is moving towards Afghanistan. But I -- I see it as a broad focus on both as opposed to a principled focus on one or the other.
Q Just a follow-up briefly on Iraq. There's been so much talk coming especially from the commanders in the field that the gains are fragile. At the same time, they’ve held. I mean, the numbers are still very good, the Iraqi government's power has grown, its army's power has grown. Are you hearing from them now more confidence that you could do a faster and more substantive drawdown, that they are more comfortable with it today than they were, say, a few months ago or six months ago, because, as you say, the conditions may now permit it?
ADM. MULLEN: I think there's -- there's growing confidence, but it's not -- it's not in leaps and bounds. I mean, this -- this really does work over time. General Odierno right now, as we all are, very focused on the elections which come up in nine days in Iraq. That's a big deal. How the provincial elections play out will, I think, be a big indicator for 2009, which is a big year. So I think there is growing confidence, but it's something that we all watch very carefully, and that General Odierno still uses the word "fragile" and "irreversible," but more durable than it was just a little while ago.
Q Mr. Secretary, back to Gitmo. As someone who did advocate for taking steps to close down Gitmo, can you just talk a little about what you think the impact will be, assuming that the mechanics get worked out over the coming months on how to do it -- what the impact will be on the overall U.S. war on terrorism? Will it help the United States achieve its goals? If so, in what way?
SEC. GATES: One of the things that -- that that I have found interesting is the very positive response around the world to the determination to close Guantanamo, to close the detention facility there. And I think that closing Guantanamo creates additional opportunities for us in terms of partnering with other countries and other countries' eagerness to work with us in dealing with violent extremists. I don't think that can be measured.
But just based on the nature of the public comments that have been made and the statements about, "Well, maybe we can help the Americans close Guantanamo by taking some of these detainees" tells me that this is going to be very positively received -- has -- is being positively received. And I think -- as I said, I think that creates opportunities for us.
Q Mr. Chairman, Mr. Secretary, General Odierno yesterday said that if the provincial elections in Iraq go smoothly, the security gains could become irreversible. And I wanted to ask you, how important is that, the provincial elections, in terms of determining your plans forward? How much of that is a metric in terms of determining which plans you'll go forward with, the provincial elections and that post-period?
SEC. GATES: Well, I would just basically repeat what the chairman said a couple minutes ago about we are looking to the provincial elections as a really important event. They are the first elections in -- since 2005, as I recall. This is a chance for particularly the Sunnis to become engaged more in the political process, in contrast to 2005. And so I think that -- I think all of us see these provincial elections as very important.
There are two more elections in Iraq this year. There will be district and sub-district elections sometime in the summer, perhaps in June, and there'll be national elections in December. So these elections -- with each set of these elections that goes -- that takes place and works, the roots of political reconciliation and of solving problems with words and legislation instead of with guns -- the roots of that get deeper.
And so that's why I think most of us believe that 2009 is a really important year in terms of the political evolution of Iraq and away from some of the tragic problems of the not-too-distant past.
STAFF: We probably have time for about one more, sir.
Q Have there been communications with the new administration during the transition about repealing don't ask, don't tell? And can I ask both of you whether -- what your attitudes are for calls to repeal don't ask, don't tell, and whether attitudes have changed within the military and DOD about -- that will make the policy not necessary anymore?
SEC. GATES: Well, I'll say -- I'll offer a comment and then the admiral can.
Don't ask, don't tell is law. It is a political decision. And if the law chains -- changes, we will comply with the law.
ADM. MULLEN: The president has been very clear in his -- I mean, as he was coming in to take over as president that it was his intent to do this. So the intent clearly is there. There are no more specifics with respect to when or anything like that that have been addressed to me.
Q Do you sense a change in attitudes within the military, within the armed forces, that would make this viable?
ADM. MULLEN: Part of -- part of my responsibility as a senior military officer is to go out and do that kind of assessment, should -- should -- we get direction or when we get direction to do that. And I certainly look forward to the opportunity to make that assessment, and give the president my best military advice with respect to this and the impact of what a potential change could be.
SEC. GATES: Thank you.
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