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Media Roundtable with Secretary Gates from Santa Cruz, Bolivia

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
November 22, 2010

                Q     The first question is what is the US’ view of the relations between Bolivia and Iran and the intention of developing national reserves of uranium together?

                SEC. GATES:  First of all, as a sovereign state, Bolivia obviously can have relationships with any country in the world that it wishes to.  I think that Bolivia needs to be mindful of the number of United Nations Security Council Resolutions that have been passed with respect to Iran’s behavior.  But within the framework of those resolutions from the Security Council, many countries have a relationship with Iran and that’s up to -- that’s purely up to the Bolivian government. 

                In terms of civil nuclear power, we have even said that the Iranians can have their own civil nuclear capability as long as it is in accord with IAEA standards and all of the safeguards that are in place to prevent development of nuclear weapons or proliferation of nuclear weapons.  So with all of those safeguards, many countries are looking at civil nuclear power as a way of providing for their energy needs.  And as I say, the key is ensuring that it’s properly safeguarded and in keeping with international regulations. 

                MR. MORRELL:  Anne?

                Q     Mr. Secretary, I’d like to ask you about the report of North Korean centrifuges and apparent activity towards -- on the uranium front at Yongbyon.  How concerned are you by this development?  Does it surprise you that they were able to essentially pull this off even under sanctions?  And does it say to you anything about whether the U.S. strategy of withholding direct negotiations has been effective?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think, first of all, there have been suspicions going back several years that North Korea might either have or be developing its own enrichment capabilities.  Based on the observers who have visited this facility, it would seem to be an enrichment facility.

                North Korea has ignored a number of Security Council resolutions and sanctions.  They continually try to export weapons in violation of those resolutions.  So the notion that they could develop this is obviously a concern, but I would say fairly consistent with their longstanding willingness to ignore the U.N.

                Q     On negotiations?  Are they trying to goad you?

                SEC. GATES:  I’m sorry?

                Q     Are they trying to goad you?

                SEC. GATES:  I have no idea what their motives are.

                MR. MORRELL:  Any follow-up on that?

                Q     Yes.  Do you see a way to reengage with North Korea either multilaterally -- I won’t say bilaterally because I’m sure that’s probably not something you’re considering -- but is there a way and a need given these events, developments to reengage with them now?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, frankly, I think it’s premature for me to talk about a diplomatic strategy.  This facility has been reported on since I left Washington and I haven’t had a chance to talk to my own staff, to my own policy people, much less to the national security adviser, Secretary Clinton.  So in terms of our diplomatic strategy going forward, I think I need to wait until I’ve had a chance to consult with them before I start pronouncing.

                Q     Could I ask just one quick follow-up?  Was this announcement or information that came out a surprise to you?  How strong were the indications that the U.S. government had?

                SEC. GATES:  There’s been a pretty serious debate going on actually going back to the late Bush administration about whether North Korea had an independent enrichment capability.  So it was news in the sense that I hadn’t known about this specific facility before, but the fact that they were going -- that they wanted their own enrichment capability is not a surprise.

                MR. MORRELL:  Are we done on North Korea?  Okay.  How about Mattia?

                Q     Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask you about Mexico and do you think -- I mean, how concerned are you about cross-border security with Mexico?  And do you think the U.S. should get more involved and should send more help to fight -- I mean, are we talking about an insurgency there?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I don’t think it’s an insurgency.  It’s several criminal syndicates warring with each other principally for turf.  It’s all about money, not about political influence. 

                And, you know, contrary to some of the impressions, at least from what I hear from the FBI and from the Department of Homeland Security, the insecurity on the Mexican side of the border created by these cartel wars has yet to spill over onto the U.S. side of the border in terms of significant increases in crime or murder and so on.  That’s not to say there hasn’t been any.  It just has not been significant. 

                But I think it’s something -- as these groups get more and more violent with one another, it’s something that I think we clearly have to keep a very close watch on.  And the governors along that border clearly have a more -- have greater concern than I’ve just articulated and we need to, I think, be in a constant dialogue with them as well.

                In terms of helping Mexico, we’re prepared to help the Mexicans insofar as they want our help.  They are a sovereign state.  I would say that our military relationship is probably better now than it has been ever.  But there are still obvious sensitivities in Mexico and we have to be attentive to those.  So we will do -- we will try to do anything they want us to do to help but I think the initiative has to come from them.

                MR. MORRELL:  How about Jordi?

                Q     May I come back on this -- some people say, even including some governors, including some political figures in the United States, they say that the United States should intervene in a stronger way, maybe sharing, patrolling together with the Mexican Army on the border.  What do you think about --

                SEC. GATES:  Mexico is a sovereign state.  We won’t do anything on Mexican territory except at Mexican invitation.

                Q     And just a quick follow-up on that.  In Central America I understand that you are meeting now soon the Salvadorian minister of defense and El Salvador has been very vocal in Central American countries on they need help and the situation is getting really serious and troubling over there.  What can you offer or what do you expect them to ask you?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, they were encountering serious problems, particularly with criminal gangs, when I was there even in, I think, 2007.  And it’s not a problem limited to El Salvador alone.  Guatemala has some serious issues as well.  Again, the United States is prepared to help.  We are helping both countries, but, again, there’s a question of how much help they want.  And frankly, when we have limited resources, how do we apportion those resources? 

                One of the things that we have been pressing for, and that I particularly have been pressing for, is more regional cooperation in terms of narcotics and that would be Mexico, the Central American countries, Colombia, having a number of these countries because the problem is bigger than any one of them can probably manage on its own.  So we’re encouraging regional cooperation in this and we’ll do what we can to help.

                MR. MORRELL:  Let’s go to Javier next. 

                Q     (Translated) Mr. Secretary, do you know of Iran’s intention to use its relationship with Bolivia and Venezuela to advance nuclear power goals that are not internationally recognized?

                SEC. GATES:  I don’t have -- I don’t really know what the Iranians are up to, to tell you the truth.  And based -- going back to my earlier answer - based on their willful ignoring of successive U.N. Security Council resolutions, I think that countries that are dealing with Iran in this arena need to be very cautious and very careful about how they interact with the Iranians in terms of what the Iranian motives may be and what they are really trying to do. 

                That said, I go back to my earlier answer.  If they’re talking about civil nuclear power and it’s all safeguarded and under the IAEA, then we would have no reason to object.

                I would add one other thing though.  I’m not sure that the Iranians have an independent capability to help somebody build a civil nuclear capability.  Their own capability at Bushehr has been done under contract by the Russians going back almost 20 years.  So if it required Russian help to build a civil reactor and capability in Iran, it’s not clear to me what independent capability Iran has to help anybody else. 

                MR. MORRELL:  How about David?

                Q     NATO agreed on this 2014 date for (inaudible) combat operations in Afghanistan.  The military has always sort of had this resistance or reluctance to put any sort of firm deadline on ending things.  Why is it okay to do so now?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that -- first of all, let me say that I think I’m a long way away from Lisbon, but I would just say I think that from the standpoint of the United States that the Lisbon summit was a tremendous success. 

                And I think it was a real success for the president getting agreement on missile defense, getting agreement on NATO reform, getting agreement on Afghanistan, both in terms of the aspirational goal of 2014 in terms of the turnover of security responsibility, the partnership agreement, the whole strategic concept.  I mean, all the things that we’ve been working on for the last two years came to fruition in an extraordinary way in Lisbon.

                The key is that the goal of a complete transition to Afghan security was first articulated by President Karzai.  And I was very supportive of embracing his articulation of that goal of getting to 2014 and by the end of 2014 being able to transition security across the country or having security transition across the country by that time. 

                The president clearly left the door open yesterday in his remarks.  I did as well in Santiago, but I think in terms of getting the attention of the Afghans in terms of the progress they need to make in terms of their security forces, in terms of local police initiative, in terms of governance and so on, having this goal out there for the Afghans I think has real value. 

                And frankly, I think it also sends the message to many of our partners and perhaps even to our own people that having been at war in Afghanistan for nine years or so that we do not anticipate this thing going on forever.

                MR. MORRELL:  Okay.  How about John?  We’ll just get everybody on board here and then we’ll see what the time is. 

                Q     Sir, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” report is to leave soon, if you haven’t seen it already.  What’s -- can you give us an idea how it’s going to roll out and what the procedure will be as far as any implementation or recommendations based on what the report says?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, the report was intended to both inform us about what we needed to do to prepare should the law be changed, and also to -- my hope, when I first announced it in February, was that it also could inform the legislative process.  My current plan -- everything is on schedule and my current intention is to release the report to Congress and to the public on November 30th.

                Q     May I follow up on that?

                MR. MORRELL:  Sure.

                Q     Mr. Secretary, by doing so, are you hoping for any better chance of its -- of a legislative repeal during the lame duck session?  And if it were to carry over into the next session, what chance do you give it of passage before you leave as secretary?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, the concern that I have derives from the confusion we went through in October with the court decisions where we ended up essentially having four different policies on this issue in the space of two weeks because of different actions by different courts and including at one point a directive immediately to suspend the law. 

                The one from the very beginning, from last February when we first testified on this, having to implement this immediately and without preparation, and without taking the steps to mitigate whatever risks there are I think is the worst of all possible outcomes -- being directed to do it by a court with no notice. 

                And in terms of the timing and the legislative approach and so on, that’s completely up to the Congress.  All I know is if this law is going to change, it’s better that it be changed by legislation than it simply be struck down -- rather than have it struck down by the courts with the potential for us having to implement it immediately.

                Q     Is there anything more you can do to get Congress to take it up quickly then?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that this report -- we’ll see what the reaction to the report is.

                Q     Could I --

                MR. MORRELL:  One follow-up on that and let’s go.

                Q     Actually it’s a follow-up on North Korea.  One more --

                MR. MORRELL:  Okay.  Let me just make sure our guys here -- Pablo, anything else for you?

                Q     (Translated) The United Nations in its last report on drugs and crime said that drug trafficking is acquiring both an economic power that may destabilize governments.  Is it possible that this could happen in the Andean region?  The example of the Colombian people is applicable to the entire region.  And what role should the U.S. be playing there?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that there is a risk that the cartels could come to threaten the ability of governments to exercise sovereignty in their own territory.  You know, you look back 10 or a dozen years ago, as you just suggested, at Colombia, and between the FARC [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] and the cartels the Colombian government was really challenged and it’s been a great success story here in South America as the Colombian people and the Colombian government have reestablished control and sovereignty over their own territory.  So I think it is a concern and it’s just one more reason why it’s important for all of us to work together in dealing with this problem.

                MR. MORRELL:  Gabe.

                Q     Chairman Mullen said today that the announcement on North Korea was an example of North Korea advancing its nuclear program to real life.  I wondered if you share that assessment or even that concern.  And to what extent you give any credence to the North Korean claim that this is for civilian nuclear power.

                SEC. GATES:  Well, if it was for civilian nuclear power then they should have welcomed the IAEA and announced it to the IAEA as I think they’re supposed to under U.N. rules.  I don’t credit that at all.  My view is that the North Koreans have had an ongoing nuclear program for a long time and have -- and probably have some number of nuclear devices. 

                An enrichment plant like this, assuming that’s what it is, obviously gives them the potential to create a number more.  But I believe they have nuclear weapons.  They’re clearly developing longer range missiles, including potentially a mobile ICBM.  So all of these programs I think are of great concern to every nation.

                MR. MORRELL:  How about Mattia?

                Q     Kind of talking about -- I mean, before the new Senate Republicans take their seat, how optimistic are you the START treaty will be ratified by Congress and what will happen if it’s not?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I abandoned my crystal ball when I left CIA, so I’m not much good at predicting the future.  As I said in Santiago yesterday, I think that there are potentially serious consequences for failure to ratify the new START agreement. 

                I think the biggest and most immediate and the one we know with confidence is we have no access to Russia’s strategic programs today and have not had for almost a year now since last December.  That’s the first time since the first SALT treaty was signed in 1972 that we have not had some kind of access to Russia’s strategic weapons in terms of verification.  And the longer it goes without us having that access, the less we will know about those programs.  And so that’s a lead pipe cinch.  We know that’s happening. 

                But I think there are also potential political consequences.  The Russians have been very -- I don’t know what the political impact inside Russia of having the U.S. not ratify this treaty would be. 

                But I know that over the last year or two the Russians have been very cooperative in terms of the supply line to Afghanistan, what we call the northern distribution network.  They were very supportive in terms of the last U.N. Security Council resolution on Iran.  They have just signed up to work with us and with NATO on territorial missile defense.  So some positive things have been happening in this relationship. 

                If the START treaty isn’t ratified, I think all of that is potentially at risk.  I’m not trying to scaremonger.  I just think you have to be realistic that the new START treaty is a centerpiece of the relationship.  And for that not to be ratified, I think poses potential real problems for the relationship.

                MR. MORRELL:  Three more rapid fire.  Let’s go.  David.

                Q     One of the big hanging points on this modernization the administration has agreed to commit $80 billion and a little bit more than on top of that, is there a fundamental disagreement between the administration and Republicans over it?  What constitutes modernization?

                SEC. GATES:  I should have mentioned this as one of the major consequences and one that I think is a very real possibility.  And that is that if there is no new START agreement, I think the additional funds that the administration has asked for for modernizing our nuclear enterprise are very much at risk.  And the administration has been working with Senator Kyl.  And as a result of the conversations with Senator Kyl has in fact added more money to the budget both in FY’11 and beyond to meet the needs of the modernization program.  And I think all of that is at risk if the treaty isn’t ratified.

                Q     Are they looking for more of a program?  Are the Republicans looking for a bigger, broader program?

                SEC. GATES:  I don’t know what they’re looking for, frankly, because we have essentially in terms of the adds that they thought were needed, we have made those adds. 

                MR. MORRELL: Jordi, and then one more after that and we’re done.

                Q     Yes.  There’s a growing debate of the role of the military forces in Latin America against drug trafficking.  First it was Colombia then and now Mexico, maybe soon Central America.  What are the limits you see?  There are some worries about human rights relations and what would be the consequences?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I would say two things.  First of all, it’s a testimony to the fact that the cartels have become powerful enough that regular police often have a problem dealing with them.  The police are outgunned.  The cartels engage in intimidation and assassination, so they are a big security problem that in some places appears to be beyond the capability of the police to deal with and, therefore, the militaries have become involved.

                I think the key is actually one of the three themes here at this conference of the defense ministers of the Americas and that is the third subject which is democracy armed forces security.  And that has to do with professionalizing civilian leadership of the militaries throughout the hemisphere.  We obviously have a long tradition of this, of civilian control of the military, but I think that the greatest assurance that the militaries observe human rights and that they are responsible to the civilian leadership is to have professional, well-trained civilians at the heads of the ministries of defense and to make sure that the military report to those ministries and through those ministries to the elected leaders of their countries.  And I think that’s -- we really embrace this as a theme of this conference.

                MR. MORRELL:  Last question for Javier.

                Q     (Translated) The issue of the military budgets in the region in South America.  Is that an issue of concern this week?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, again, that’s a second theme for the meetings this week.  And that is initiatives by a number of countries here in South America to begin with for greater transparency in acquisitions and in defense budgets.  And we strongly support that.  That’s the way democratic societies ought to behave.  And it also is stabilizing when people know what everybody else is doing.  Then they don’t -- they don’t have to give way to their worst fears.  They have greater security just by virtue of knowing more. 

                So, again, this is one of the important themes.  And the third theme is one that we’ve just seen in this last year the importance of and that is greater cooperation in the Western hemisphere in terms of preparing for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance for either natural or manmade disasters.  The earthquake in Haiti is a perfect of example of where it really took the combined efforts of many countries to begin the humanitarian effort after the earthquake. 

                And all of the countries in the hemisphere, including us, have these tremendous disasters that are hard for us to handle alone.  When we had Hurricane Katrina in 2005, several nations in the hemisphere offered their help.  So I think these three themes for this week’s conference are all very important and we’re very supportive of measures in all of them.

                MR. MORRELL:  Thank you, guys.