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Media Availability with Secretary Gates from Moscow, Russia

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
March 22, 2011

            SEC. GATES:  Well, since the circumstances earlier didn’t afford you the opportunity to ask questions, I thought I would give you that opportunity now.

            Q:  Thank you very much.

            Q:  Thank you.

            SEC. GATES:  Since my prepared statement has already been delivered, and it was excessively long, but some of it had to be extemporaneous.

            Q:  Well, thank you very much.  The first thing we were hoping to get clarity on was your comments that significant military action would recede in the coming days.  What did you mean by that specifically?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think as the -- as we are successful in suppressing the [Libyan] air defenses, the level of kinetic activity should decline.

            Q:  By when, exactly?  Wednesday, Thursday?  Are we almost done --

            SEC. GATES:  Well, you know -- oh, 4:00.  (Laughter).  I don’t know.  Next -- I assume in the next few days.

            Q:  It does seem as if the -- your Russian counterpart [Russian Minister of Defense Anatoly Serdyukov] was quite robust.  You obviously gave a robust answer too, but he was quite robust about the Russian government’s unhappiness about civilian casualties.  Do you think he was putting the Medvedev line or the Putin line?

            SEC. GATES:  Yes.  (Laughter.)  I think he threaded his way pretty well between them, best I can tell.

            Q:  Yeah.

            SEC. GATES:  But I -- it sounded to me like his comments were closer to President Medvedev’s.  But I must say, I’m a little curious, frankly, about the -- about the tone that has been taken.  It’s perfectly evident that the vast majority, if not nearly all, civilian casualties have been inflicted by Gadhafi.  Most of our targets, virtually all of our targets are isolated non-populated areas, air defense sites, SA-5s, 2s, 3s and so on.
           
            And we’ve been very careful about this.  And it’s almost as though some people here are taking at face value Gadhafi‘s claims about the number of civilian casualties, which as far as I’m concerned, are just outright lies.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, what about your assessment of the future of the coalition and the leadership?  You said the other day that you expected the leadership to sort of transfer in the next few days, but there’s obviously been some great deal of disagreement over who’s going to do that. 

            Where is that headed, and are we at sort of an impasse that would force a longer U.S. lead?

            SEC. GATES:  No, I think -- I think -- I mean, my impression, I don’t want to get out in front of the diplomacy that’s going on, but I still think a transfer within a few days is likely.

            Q:  Right, but to whom?  And to -- how do you see this?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, again, I -- that diplomacy is still under way.  From us, for sure.

            Q:  On Yemen, sir, can you tell us, does the United States still support the president of Yemen, or is it time for him to step down immediately?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think -- I don’t think it’s my place to talk about internal affairs in Yemen.  We are obviously concerned about the instability in Yemen.  We consider al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is largely located in Yemen, to be perhaps the most dangerous of all the franchises of al-Qaeda right now.  And so instability and diversion of attention from dealing with AQAP is certainly my primary concern about the situation.

            Q:  Can I just -- building briefly off Lita’s question -- when you talk about transferring control, do you envision that as being General Ham handing over his position, or also that Admiral Locklear would no longer be in sort of tactical command?

            SEC. GATES:  I think -- I think all that’s what’s being worked out. 

            Q:  Are you concerned at all about how long it’s taking to work out some of these details and to do the political work to figure out how that should be structured?  And how unified or lack thereof has NATO been on this?  You’ve talked about how NATO needs to be able to be more nimble.  Do you --

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I -- first of all, this isn’t a NATO mission.  This is a mission in which the NATO machinery may be used for command and control.  But I don’t think -- there hasn’t been any disagreement that I’m aware of in terms of the mission and what we’re trying to accomplish, at least in terms of the Security Council resolution. 

            But you know, this is a complicated -- this command and control business is complicated.  We haven’t done something like this, kind of on the fly before.  And so it’s not surprising to me that it would take a few days to get it all sorted out.

            Q:  Sir, just to follow up on when you talk about kinetics dropping, is that when you see the Americans receding to the -- to a back-up position?  And also about this downed plane, can you give us an update on what happened?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, the -- I don’t know for sure on the plane.  I’ve heard there may have been a mechanical problem, but I don’t know for sure.  I expect to find out when I get done with you all.

            But -- sorry, what was the --

            Q:  It was about the kinetics.  When you say kinetics --

            (Cross talk.)

            SEC. GATES:  It just -- it just seems logical that once we have the air defense system sufficiently suppressed that the level of military activity would decline.

            Q:  But you’re talking about U.S. military activity?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, everybody’s.  But again, it will be other members of the coalition that on a day-to-day basis will be sustaining the no-fly zone.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, radiation in Japan -- can you talk about your concerns about risk to U.S. service members in Japan, and the calculation possibly of withdrawing some or all of them?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, I think first of all, we’ve certainly erred on the side of caution in terms of women and children, dependents, in terms of offering them the opportunity to leave.  We’re watching it very carefully.  We’re very concerned about the health of our men and women in uniform.  We’re also deeply concerned about the well-being of our Japanese allies, so we will do -- we will do -- we will do what’s best both for our men and women in uniform and for our allies.

            Q:  Sir, may I ask you about the photos released by Der Spiegel?  Forgive my posture; you can respond like I’m standing up?  Can you comment on how damaging the release of those photos is, and what effect, if any, does it have on the operations in Afghanistan?

            SEC. GATES:  Well, it’s associated with an ongoing judicial matter, and so I obviously am not at any liberty to comment.

            Q:  Did they [the photos] upset you?

            SEC. GATES:  Yes.

            STAFF:  Okay.

            Q:  Thank you.

            Q:  Thank you, sir.