SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Good afternoon.
This is General Dempsey's first press briefing with the secretary, serving now as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And so I welcome him to this press briefing and just would inform him that there's a tradition that he gets all the tough questions. (Laughter.) So get him used to this job.
Let me begin also by wishing a very happy birthday to the United States Marine Corps. I'll be attending their ball this Saturday and look forward to that event.
As you know, General Dempsey and I have been working with the entire senior leadership of the department, including the service chiefs, the service secretaries, the combatant commanders and the undersecretaries of defense, to implement the more than 450 billion (dollars) in savings that we've been required to do over 10 years. That translates into around 260 billion (dollars) over five years as part of the budget that will be submitted in February.
This process -- and I've required this from the beginning -- has to be driven by strategy. It has to be strategy-driven. And it also has to be a team effort. My hope is that, you know, as we work through this, that we will put the entire leadership of the department, both military and civilian, in the same place so that we can finalize this effort within the coming weeks.
So as we move ahead with this process within the department, all of us are obviously watching closely what happens on Capitol Hill and with the congressional supercommittee. And we watch it, obviously, with great concern. As you know, if the supercommittee fails to reach an agreement with regards to additional budget savings, the penalty for that is sequester. And this sequester approach would virtually double the size of the cuts that we face here at the Defense Department. And it would also force us to cut across the board. All of these cuts would occur -- I think this takes effect in January of 2013 so that, obviously, we would have a year where sequester would hang as a shadow over this department.
I've learned that by cutting in excess of 20 percent in every area, sequester will lead to a hollow force. And let me explain just exactly what we're talking about when we talk about a hollow force. Obviously, that which is hollow retains a shell but lacks a core. A hollow military has the organizational structure but lacks the people, the training and the equipment it needs to actually get the job done.
It's a ship without sailors. It's a brigade without bullets. It's an air wing without enough trained pilots. It's a paper tiger, an Army of barracks, buildings and bombs without enough trained soldiers able to accomplish the mission. It's a force that suffers low morale, poor readiness and is unable to keep up with potential adversaries. In effect, it invites aggression.
A hollow military doesn't happen by accident. It comes from poor stewardship and poor leadership. I guess my message to the Congress is that it must show the necessary leadership by doing the job that they've been asked to do. That means identifying savings in the two-thirds of the federal budget that still has yet to be considered for deficit reduction, along, in my view, with additional revenues.
In my conversations with the members of Congress and with members of the committee, I have told them that if this -- if this nation has brave young men and women who are willing to die and put their lives on the line in order to sacrifice for this country, it really shouldn't be too much to ask our leaders to sacrifice just a little, to provide the leadership essential to solving the problems facing this country.
This is a fundamental responsibility we have. It's also an obligation that we owe to our service members and their families and one that the entire country should reflect on tomorrow as we observe Veterans Day.
On Monday I travel [SIC – traveled] to New York to meet with leaders in the business arena, to meet with those in government and nonprofit sector, and talk about how important it is to try to help our returning veterans find jobs in these very difficult economic times. I should also mention, as we move into these next few years, as we begin a drawdown process, we are going to be adding to that burden.
These are men and women with extraordinary skill, proven leadership. And yet the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since 9/11 now stands at 12.1 percent. That's unacceptable. We can do better as a country, and we are making it a priority here at the department to ensure that our departing service members are given the support they need to pursue higher education, to find a job and to start a business.
These profound obligations to service members continue at every stage, to include ensuring the recovery and dignified return of our fallen heroes. This is one of the department's most sacred responsibilities. And that's why all Americans, including myself, are justifiably disturbed by the reports of mismanagement at Dover Port Mortuary that came to light this week.
When I came into this office in July, in one of the first meetings I had as secretary of defense, I was briefed by Secretary Donley and General Schwartz on their investigation into Dover. They were forthcoming with me. It was clear that they took these allegations seriously and that they were committed to strengthening the department's handling of this most sacred and solemn task.
Still, none of us will be satisfied until we have proven to the families of our fallen heroes that we have taken every step possible to protect the honor and dignity that their loved ones richly deserve. That's why I've directed, at the request of the Air Force, an independent review of overall current operations at Dover to evaluate the changes and the procedures that must be implemented. Vice Admiral Dr. Richard Carmona, who's the former surgeon general, 17th surgeon general of the United States, along with a distinguished panel, will conduct that review.
As you know, the United States Office of Special Counsel produced its own report on this matter, which I received and reviewed in just the last 48 hours. In light of the concerns that were raised in that report, I've asked the Secretary of the Air Force, Mike Donley, to ensure that the disciplinary action taken was appropriate and to provide me with the results of that review.
In addition, as the OSC confirmed in its report, it is conducting an additional investigation to determine whether there are management reprisals that have been taken at Dover against the whistleblowers. This is a serious issue. And as someone who voted for the whistleblower legislation, I directed Secretary Donley to report back to me once the OSC investigation is complete to ensure that all appropriate action has been taken in light of that report.
This department has to be fully accountable in what we intend to deliver on this matter. We have to be fully accountable on how we treat its service members. Full accountability is what we intend to deliver.
Having been to Dover, I consider this a sacred place with a sacred responsibility. And it is a place that must meet the highest standards for caring for the remains of our fallen heroes. We can do no less.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.
I'd like to also begin by wishing the Marine Corps a happy 236th birthday, and also all veterans around the world. I've been to several very moving Veterans Day events over the last 48 hours -- a few more to go -- but couldn't be prouder of their service.
Just to highlight a couple of things the secretary mentioned, as some of you know, we are involved in a -- in a -- in a strategy review. We're looking out to 2020 to determine what does our joint force, what do the armed forces of the United States need to be to ensure we provide the nation with the capabilities it needs, provide our leaders -- our senior leaders options in the environment we anticipate. And part of the environment we anticipate, of course, is some resource constraints that we haven't had to deal with here before. So that's all working, and as the secretary said, he's got us -- he's led us through a process, continues to lead us through a process that ensures we have a collaborative effort. This isn't two or three folks in a room trying to dream this thing up by themselves. So we're well on our way to answering some of those questions.
And I'll just end by echoing what the secretary said about the events at Dover. They're just very distressing to us. And we intend, as the Air Force intends, to get to the bottom of it and to ensure that we continue to improve processes that may not have been executed properly and to hold folks accountable where appropriate to hold them accountable.
And with that, I'll turn it back to you, sir.
Q: Mr. Secretary, the other day you issued a statement saying that you thought the Air Force investigation was thorough and that you supported their disciplinary actions, and today you're asking for them to take another look at that. What changed?
And do you think -- was the Air Force not as up-front with you about some of the general counsel criticisms that may have been made that you're now aware of?
And General Dempsey, there's been a lot of discussion about possibly increasing troop strength in Kuwait. Can you talk a little bit about how important you think that may be for security in the region and what possibly would be the missions and the capabilities that you think would be necessary there?
SEC. PANETTA: On the first part of the question, no, I think they -- I think they did do a thorough report. It was a -- it's about 215 pages, along with some additional supplements that were added by the secretary of the Air Force. And all of that was forwarded to the Office of the Special Counsel. And as a result of that report, they've taken a number of significant steps to try to correct the procedures there at Dover to ensure that what happened never happens again.
But at the same time, obviously the Office of Special Counsel then issued its report. And I've reviewed that, and they've raised additional questions which I think ought to be looked at. And for that reason, I want to make sure that we have taken every step possible to bring peace of mind to the family members of our fallen heroes. And for that reason, this review commission will look at the processes and procedures there, and make sure that we are implementing the highest standards in dealing with the remains of our -- of our fallen heroes. And in addition to that, I want to make certain that we have taken all appropriate disciplinary action here. And for that reason, that's why I've asked the secretary to review that.
Q: Mr. Secretary --
GEN. DEMPSEY: And I'll just briefly say on Kuwait, you know, we have cooperative defense agreements with most all of the nations in the Gulf Cooperative Council and in that -- and in other parts of that region, and we routinely review them. And so we've been going through a process to review our posture. We're reviewing it both in terms of emerging and -- emerging threats, opportunities, resources. And what we'll end up with in Kuwait will be something that helps us meet our interests and theirs.
Q: Mr. Secretary, given the situation at Dover, the Office of Special Counsel and veterans organizations are wondering aloud why nobody has been fired, essentially. And up on the Hill today, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Schwartz, in a congressional hearing said, while there were some inappropriate actions, whether it constitutes wrongdoing is another matter. Is there some legal impediment to firing anybody over this? And shouldn't there be a higher standard of conduct and accountability in dealing with America's war dead and wounded?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, that's exactly why I've asked for the review here, to make sure that the appropriate actions were taken here.
Now, the disciplinary action was taken with regards to the commander there and two of the civilians that were involved. And you know, it obviously -- for them and their careers, it has a serious impact. But nevertheless, based on the seriousness of what took place here, it's my view that we ought to look at not only that, but we ought to look at the reprisal issue to determine whether or not all appropriate and tough steps were taken with regards to disciplinary action. We have to send a clear signal to the American people that this kind -- these kinds of actions that took place there cannot happen again.
Q: Yes, but in terms of -- in terms of discipline, is this just a clear black-and-white legal issue, or is there a higher moral standard that should be applied here?
SEC. PANETTA: I -- you know, I think it's a -- it's a command decision. When they review these facts, obviously, it involves what is the nature of the violation, is there a violation, how serious is it. And in addition, when it comes to Dover, in my mind, there were involved some moral standard that means we have to -- we have to pay the greatest respect and reverence to the remains of our fallen heroes. That's what I think ought to be considered in this situation.
Q: Mr. Secretary?
SEC. PANETTA: Yes.
Q: I want to follow up on this because what I still don't understand is why is it credible to you to have the Air Force investigate itself on this matter given -- a couple -- that -- given how critical the special counsel report was of the Air Force, why have them investigate themselves? And with respect, why should the American people -- after this, after Walter Reed, after Arlington, why should they believe that the military is handling the wounded and the war dead remains with the appropriate respect?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, first of all, the -- I mean, the independent review is an independent review that I'm requesting take place here.
The independent review is going to be done by Richard Carmona. It's going to include General Fred Franks, who is a former member of the board here, the health board; Ruth Stonecifer, who's a representative of the families that are involved in the mission there; Congressman Vic Snyder, who is a former Democratic U.S. representative who was --led a committee that reviewed this; Garold Huey, who's a licensed funeral director and embalmer, who served in the U.S. Navy; Jacquelyn Taylor, who's executive director of the New England Institute, an internationally recognized leader in funeral service education; and Dr. Bruce Parks, a forensic pathologist. All of them will be involved in the independent review.
With regards to the secretary reviewing it, he -- you know, the secretary is at the top of the chain of command when it comes to the Air Force, and I want him to review it because he has that responsibility. And I -- look, I trust Mike Donley. I think he tried to deal with this matter, to go after the issues involved here, to correct them and to do whatever was necessary to deal with it, and I trust that he'll try to do the same. And when I tell him to take a look and make sure that appropriate disciplinary action was taken here, I trust that he'll do that.
Q: (Were either of you ?) told that remains were being put in landfills?
SEC. PANETTA: I did not know that, frankly, and I hope that the independent review will also look into that situation.
Q: Mr. Secretary?
SEC. PANETTA: I think that it happened back in the past. I know they've changed that procedure now, but nevertheless, it's something we should look at.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you said you read the special counsel report. I've talked to the special counsel, Carolyn Lerner. She said her office informed -- asked the Air Force back in March whether they informed the families or not. She pressed for that back in March. The Air Force informed the families of those whose remains were mishandled just this past weekend. Was that a wise course of action? Should they have told the families earlier?
SEC. PANETTA: My impression was that the families were alerted to that earlier, but I -- you know --
Q: No, just this past weekend.
SEC. PANETTA: Well, let me check that out, because they --
Q: The OSC --
SEC. PANETTA: -- the families should have been alerted earlier.
Q: The report, as you know, has said that the Air Force has not acknowledged culpability for this. Do you think that's right?
SEC. PANETTA: I think, if I'm not mistaken, General Schwartz in testimony today said he accepts full culpability for what took place.
Q: Mr. Panetta, I wonder if you or General Dempsey think that an apology is in order, either to the families whose -- the remains were misplaced or lost accountability in the report, or the ones who, prior to 2008, had remains end up in a landfill? Is this the sort of thing the department should apologize to the families for?
SEC. PANETTA: Listen, absolutely we should apologize. If we haven't handled those remains properly, then it is our responsibility, and we do owe those families an apology.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Do you -- I don't -- do you have an indicator that they have not been apologized to? I mean, back to the notification process -- I'm telling you for a fact that there were -- there were apologies rendered with that notification, and deep expressions of regret, as there should be. And so -- but back to the landfill issue, Barbara, the -- as you know, that -- the secretary said it does go back pre-2008. That procedure was changed.
By the way, though, that procedure is not uncommon elsewhere in the medical community outside the military. I mean, the disposition of human remains that are separated from the principal portion -- look into -- if you look into how it's handled routinely in civilian life, there are procedures exactly that way. We just took a decision in 2008 to do it at sea.
Q: But sir, in hindsight, do you think that was -- do you believe that was wrong, to put military remains in a landfill prior to 2008? Was that -- can you say unequivocally that was wrong to do so?
GEN. DEMPSEY: I'm -- I don't know what right looks like in that regard now that this has manifested itself. And I think the review that the secretary has requested is going to help us learn a lot more that we didn't know before.
Q: Another hot-button issue: Iran. There's been a lot of chatter about bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. Can you walk us through or comment at least on the complexities and the effectiveness issue of this kind of a campaign?
Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen both said over the last couple of years that bombing, at best, would set back their program by three years at most. Do you still agree with that assessment? Just walk us through the complexities and the blowback, the unanticipated effects of something like that.
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I certainly share the views of Secretary Gates and General (sic; Admiral) Mullen that they've expressed with regards to this in terms of the impact that it would have. I think you've got to -- you've got to be careful of unintended consequences here. And those consequences could involve not only not really deterring Iran from what they want to do, but more importantly, it could have a serious impact in the region and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region. And I think all of those things, you know, need to be carefully considered.
Having said that, look, Israel and the United States share a very common concern with regards to Iran, and that concern was reflected in the IAEA report that was issued this week. And for that reason it is important for us to make sure we apply the toughest sanctions, economic, diplomatic pressures on Iran to change their behavior. And we are in discussions with our allies with regards to additional sanctions that ought to be placed on Iran.
And when it comes to action against Iran, I think it was the prime minister, Netanyahu himself, today who said that ought to be a last resort, and we would agree with that.
Q: The two to three years, though -- I want to make sure -- they've said bombing would at most delay that program or derail it up to two or three years at most. Is that still the current assessment?
SEC. PANETTA: I see no change in the assessments.
Q: Mr. Secretary?
Q: Can I follow up on this, please? If the sanctions don't reach a -- positive results, do you think the United States or Israel can live with a nuclear Iran?
SEC. PANETTA: We've made very clear that it's unacceptable for Iran to develop a nuclear capability. We've made that point time and time again, and we've taken steps and implemented sanctions to make that clear to Iran. Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. They've got to abide by that. They've got to abide by international standards. They've got to abide by international rules.
And obviously, the report from the IAEA just indicates that that is not the case. And for that reason, it is important that the world come together to apply sanctions against Iran and make very clear to them that they are going to pay a heavy price if they continue along this track. As to what happens down the road, you know, I think our hope is that we don't reach that point and that Iran decides that it should join the international family.
Q: Mr. Secretary and General Dempsey?
Q: Mr. Secretary, if I could just ask one other thing on Iran, obviously, the National Intelligence Estimates from the U.S. side had said that the weapons program had halted, at least in 2003. The IAEA now says that it's proceeding apace and that Iran is closer than ever. Do you share that assessment that they are now closer than ever to a nuclear weapon? And since sanctions have not yet worked -- economic sanctions, diplomatic sanctions have not yet worked -- is it not time to say this strategy -- that strategy has failed and a new strategy needs to be put in place?
SEC. PANETTA: Now, you know, look, first of all, with regards to the IAEA report, that was perfectly in line with the intelligence assessments, certainly that I've seen, with regards to Iran. We've always made the point that they continue to try to develop a threshold capability with regards to their nuclear capacity. But at the same time, there continue to be divisions within Iran as to whether or not to actually build a bomb itself. So in many ways, the IAEA report pretty much indicates that they continue work on that capability, and that's pretty much reflected in our intelligence assessment.
But nevertheless, the fact that a respected international organization like IAEA has come to this determination I think raises serious concerns that Iran continues to flaunt international rules and standards. And as a result of that, it's very clear that additional sanctions have to be applied.
Q: Just a -- on the National Guard becoming a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that idea is out there. There was a hearing just today. General Dempsey expressed his opposition. President Obama during his campaign expressed his support. Now, where do you stand, and where does the administration stand?
SEC. PANETTA: I stand with this guy. (Laughs.)
GEN. DEMPSEY: (Laughs.)
Q: Are you in line with the president on this?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I mean, I -- look, on this one, you know, I think the chairman and the Joint Chiefs have indicated that -- you know, that -- look, that individual is at the table, but at the same time, that person really doesn't have a budget, doesn't really have, you know, the kind of authorities that the service chiefs have.
But, you know, look, nevertheless, National Guard is important; our reserves are important. It's important to hear their views. But in terms of being a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that's something that I think ought to be reserved for those that have, you know, direct command and direct budgets that deal with our military.
GEN. DEMPSEY: I don't know. I was asked, as I always will be, to give my own personal best military advice. And in fact, when I swear my oath, that's exactly what I -- what I promised to do. And I gave my advice today in a rather lengthy hearing. You're welcome to go and look at the transcript.
Q: Has the president changed his mind, that you know of, or is he -- or is he still opposed to it?
SEC. PANETTA: I think --
Q: Does he support -- does he still support it?
SEC. PANETTA: I haven't really talked to the president about this particular issue. But I think if I know this president, I think he would seriously take into consideration the recommendations of the chairman and the Joint Chiefs.
Q: Mr. Secretary, on the budget cuts, refer to a different but a related issue on the budget cuts --you may now refer to an October report in Congress by DOD on contracting fraud. The report's own conclusions are that the penalties for contractors repeatedly involved in fraud -- and some of these are big; we're talking about some of the big guys as well -- that it's not clear the remedies are sufficient, that more work needs to be done, and that they need to increase the size and capability -- again, reading from the report -- of the acquisition workforce to ensure that the interests of the taxpayers and our war fighters are protected.
Do you believe that the remedies currently in place are sufficient to ensure those interests? And do you believe that, particularly at this time, when you're making the cuts you've described, 20 percent across the board, that particularly now more needs to be done to make sure that taxpayers and soldiers and sailors are getting, in effect, what they pay for?
SEC. PANETTA: Look, one thing I've made clear as we've gone through this budget process is, everything has to be on the table and we've got to look at everything. And this is an area that we have to look at, when it comes to procurement reforms, when it comes to the kind of contracting problems that you've reflected in your reporting.
This is an area we've got to look at very closely, to make sure that doesn't happen. Not only -- not only does it impact on the taxpayers' funds that are provided for the purpose, but more importantly, it impacts on the very weapons and technology that these contractors are involved in. And that -- all of that concerns me. And so for that reason, that is part and parcel of the areas that we're looking at as we make the budget decisions for the future.
Q: Mr. Secretary, there is a great deal of concern that maybe the budget cuts are going to impact the military assistance programs to Mexico. Do you think that will -- that that will happen?
And also, do you have any interview -- have you scheduled any encounter with your counterpart from Mexico?
SEC. PANETTA: I would -- I'm looking forward to doing that. I actually -- I'm going to go up to Canada, I think, next week, but my hope is to be able to do the same with Mexico in the near future as well.
And you know, with regards to the kinds of assistance that we provide Mexico at the present time in order to deal with the drug cartels and try to assist them in the serious problems that Mexico's confronting, we certainly aren't contemplating any cutbacks in that area, because, I mean, that does involve the kind of assistance that we think is extremely important not only to protecting the security of Mexico but protecting our security as well.
Q: Mr. Secretary --
STAFF: Thanks, everybody.
Q: Thank you.