JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, thank you for talking with us.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Good to be with you, Judy.
MS. WOODRUFF: Let’s start with Afghanistan. Are you confident that in two or three years that as the coalition troops withdraw, Afghans themselves are going to be able to secure that country and the Taliban is not going to come in and take over big chunks of Afghanistan?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, Judy, let’s put it this way. I think we’re on the right path towards that goal. 2011 was really a turning point. In 2011 the Taliban was weakened significantly. They couldn’t organize the kind of attacks to regain territory that they had lost, which is something they have done in the past. So they’ve been weakened.
Secondly, the Afghan army and police really developed a great capability. They were operational. They were involved in the battle and they were doing a great job and they continue to do a great job and provide security.
And thirdly, we’re transitioning areas to Afghan security and control. Right now as we speak, 50 percent of the Afghan population is under their security and under their control, and I’d say by late summer 75 percent of their population will be under their security and control. So General Allen has done a great job. We’re on the right course. We’re in the right direction towards the end of 2014, being able to make that transition.
But let’s not kid ourselves. There are going to be challenges. Taliban is resilient. They’re going to be there, they’re going to continue to attack. We do have problems obviously with Afghan corruption. We’ve got to make sure that this continues on the right path, so I don’t think we ought to take anything for granted. We’re going to have to keep pushing to make this work.
MS. WOODRUFF: I asked about that because this week the president was there. He spoke about the light of a new day in Afghanistan, and yet at the same time a semiannual report is being issued by the Pentagon, right here, talking about the corruption problems. At one point the report says setbacks in governance and development that threaten the legitimacy and the long-term viability of the Afghan government. Are we talking about the same country?
SEC. PANETTA: I think -- I think all of that obviously has to be focused on in terms of what are the challenges that we’re going to face as we try to achieve the goals and try to achieve the mission in Afghanistan. We are on the right course. We have made significant progress. We are making the transition. Our troops are doing a great job. The Afghan troops are doing a great job. The country is more secure. The level of violence is down.
But to make this work we’re going to have to continue to ensure that the Afghan army grows and does a good job. We’re going to have to ensure that governance is there, Afghan governance is there. We’re going to have to control the level of corruption that goes on. We are going to have to make sure that the gains that have been made are permanent, not just temporary.
MS. WOODRUFF: Well, on the corruption question. An acting special inspector general for reconstruction has told Congress that this week that construction is a huge -- I’m sorry, that corruption is a huge impediment to getting this reconstruction done, that congressional overseers have talked about no real serious effort to prosecute high-level corruption in Afghanistan. How do you see that?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, let’s not kid anybody. Corruption, you know, has been part of that culture, just as it was in Iraq, just as it is in other areas of the Middle East. It’s one of the things you’ve got to deal with. If you eventually want to develop a stable, governing operation there that provides stability, they’re going to have to do a better job in trying to control the level of corruption that’s there. That has to be part of the governance effort. And that’s something the Afghans have to focus on and we have to encourage the Afghans to focus on.
I think they’re aware of it. They know that it can undermine their ability to achieve the kind of stability they need, so they’re working on this but it’s something we have to continue to push on as well.
MS. WOODRUFF: The killing of Osama bin Laden. This week John McCain said the president, in his words, he’s been high-fiving the anniversary of the killing of bin Laden. He talked about the president giving what he called gloating interviews, cutting commercials attacking Mitt Romney. Are you comfortable with how the administration is talking about this at one year?
SEC. PANETTA: I’m not going to get into the politics of the situation. Obviously there will be a lot of that for this year going on. All I can say is that I think the professional people that were involved that operation, the intelligence people, the military people who were part of that operation -- it was something that I was involved in in my former role as director of the CIA -- they just did an outstanding job putting that operation together and achieving that mission. I think that’s something, frankly, all Americans, whether you’re Republicans or Democrats, independents, whatever, all of us ought to be very proud of what happened.
MS. WOODRUFF: So when Republicans talk about the president speaking of himself a lot in talking about that --
SEC. PANETTA: You know, obviously there’s going to be a lot of politics about everything this year, but I think the mission that was involved here is probably one of the best things I’ve been associated with in 40 years.
MS. WOODRUFF: Pakistan. It was acknowledged this week that the drone strikes have been underway for some time against targets in Pakistan. Are those going to continue no matter what the government of Pakistan desires and wants in that regard?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, without referring to those specific operations because they still remain covert operations --
MS. WOODRUFF: But they were acknowledged. John Brennan.
SEC. PANETTA: There was some acknowledgement of the fact that, you know, that they’re used but the basic operations remain sensitive and they remain classified. But let me just say this. We were attacked. The United States was attacked on 9/11. And we know who attacked us, we know that al-Qaida was behind it, and we are going to do everything we can, use whatever operations we have to, in order to make sure that we protect this country and make sure that that kind of attack never happens again.
MS. WOODRUFF: It sounds like you’re saying they’ll continue.
SEC. PANETTA: The United States is going to defend itself under any circumstances.
MS. WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about another difficult part of the world, and that’s Iran. You have clearly indicated that the danger of any Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, you said that it might only set back the program for just a few years. What signals are you and the administration looking for from Iran’s supreme leader that would be sufficient to persuade the Israelis not to go ahead with a pre-emptive attack?
SEC. PANETTA: I think one thing that we could take a lot of satisfaction in is that the international community really is together and unified with regards to Iran, including Russia and China for that matter, that there’s a clear signal to them that they cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. This is not about containment. This is about preventing them from developing a nuclear weapon.
The international community has brought a lot of sanctions on Iran. They’re probably the toughest sanctions we’ve applied in a very long time. They’re having an impact. They’re isolating Iran, and I think as a result of that, of all that pressure that’s being put on Iran, the result of that is that there is now at least some glimmer that there could be a diplomatic effort to try to see if we can resolve these issues.
There are serious talks going on and I guess the bottom line here is that Iran has to make clear that they’re going to suspend any kind of nuclear enrichment and that they will make no efforts to develop any kind of nuclear weapon. All of that has to be part and parcel of any ultimate solution here that would allow everybody, all of us to try to find a peaceful conclusion.
MS. WOODRUFF: You were quoted a few months ago as indicating you were, in so many words, really worried about what Israel might do. Do you think the threat, then, of an attack is diminished?
SEC. PANETTA: I think the president of the United States, all this -- you know, the United States had the opportunity to talk with the prime minister of Israel as well as the defense minister, who is somebody that I know and work with a great deal. And you know, clear messages, this kind of unified international effort that Israel is a part of, to try to go after a common cause here, which is to make sure that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon, that we are unified in that.
We ought to continue to operate in a unified way. That’s the most effective means of trying to achieve our goal of convincing Iran to become part of the international family of nations and try to take the steps to ensure that if they want nuclear power that they operate on a peaceful basis with nuclear power. We can assist them if they want to do it peacefully and use it for energy purposes, but we are going to stand very firm against them trying to develop this for a weapon.
MS. WOODRUFF: Bottom line, it sounds like you think the likelihood is less.
SEC. PANETTA: I think the bottom line is we don’t know whether they’ve made that decision, whether Israel has made that decision, as the president has said. And frankly, at this point we’re not sure that Iran has made a decision to proceed. But what we’re doing is sending a very clear signal as to what we will or will not allow.
MS. WOODRUFF: Let me turn to China for just a moment. The blind dissident, Chen Guangcheng, is now pressing the United States to come to his rescue. Is this administration, Mr. Secretary, putting political and economic concerns ahead of human rights in this instance?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, obviously on that one the State Department is deeply involved on that issue. I think the president has made clear that obviously our goal is to engage the Chinese, to be able, from my point of view here at the Defense Department, to try to establish mil-to-mil relations so that we can discuss issues that we’re concerned about, try to be transparent about those issues.
But at the same time obviously, the purpose of these discussions is to also indicate our concerns, and one of those concerns, obviously, relates to human rights and I suspect that the State Department is making very clear to the Chinese our concerns in that area.
MS. WOODRUFF: You’re going to be meeting the Chinese defense minister in just a few days. Is human rights something you would bring up in those conversations?
SEC. PANETTA: I think our main opportunity here is to try to begin to establish some mil-to-mil relations with them. There are a lot of issues we have to discuss. Talk about North Korea, talk about the ability to have free trade in that region. Talk about trying to keep our sea lanes open. Talk about humanitarian assistance. Talk about proliferation of nuclear weapons. There’s an awful lot we have to talk about and I guess what I’m hoping is that we can establish at least a process whereby we can communicate with one another on a peaceful basis. So that’s going to be the primary focus that I’m going to be looking at.
MS. WOODRUFF: One brief question about incidents of misconduct in the military, Afghanistan, most recently Cartagena, Colombia. What’s the message you would like to send to men and women in and out of uniform who work for the Defense Department?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, obviously when those incidents happen it impacts on the force in terms of, you know, it impacts on the morale, it impacts -- sometimes can even jeopardize lives. It clearly hurts the military when those incidents take place.
But I guess what I would like to tell the American people is that in my experience going out there and meeting with literally thousands upon thousands of men and women in uniform -- let’s not forget this is a department of 3 million people -- that this is a very small percentage of those that are involved in this kind of misconduct, that the overwhelming majority of men and women in uniform abide by the highest standards. They’re great soldiers. They do the job. They really put their lives on the line for the safety of this country. And I guess I don’t want the American people to forget that, that overall the vast majority of our men and women do the job.
Now having said that, you know, I’ve tried to make clear to our service secretaries and our service chiefs that we have to continue to emphasize character, professionalism, integrity, kind of tough chain of command, discipline. That’s very important and that makes our military the best in the world. We’ve got to continue to emphasize that in the future so that we try to make sure that these incidents don’t occur.
MS. WOODRUFF: Defense spending. You’re a former budget director, you know the fiscal situation very well. If the administration and the Congress cannot agree by January on what to do about the current disagreement, as you know there’s going to be an automatic so-called sequestration that could lead to $500 billion of cuts for this department beyond what you’ve already proposed.
If that happens, are you better off exempting defense and just taking the pressure off of worrying about the deficit? Or do you just go ahead and show the public, you know, what kind of pain this is and what it would be?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, Judy, having served in the Congress and having worked on budget issues most of the time I was in Congress, I’m very concerned that the Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have to show leadership here, and can’t just allow sequestration to take effect. I mean, the whole purpose of sequestration, or even developing a crazy vehicle like that, was to ensure that they would exercise leadership to prevent it from happening.
Instead, they weren’t able to come together on any proposal and now we have this thing supposedly taking place in January. My approach to that is that this would have a devastating effect on not only national defense but I think on the rest of the country. It’s totally unacceptable, and frankly our political leaders cannot allow it to happen. That’s where I’m coming from on this issue.
MS. WOODRUFF: At the same time, the U.S. military budget, I understand, is larger than the next 14 countries’ defense budgets combined. Why does it need to be so big? In 30 seconds.
SEC. PANETTA: Judy, we’re facing a lot of threats. We talked about a lot of those threats. We’re facing threats from Iran, facing threats from North Korea, we’re facing threats from terrorism. We’re still in war in Afghanistan. We’re continuing to have turmoil in the Middle East. We’re facing cyber attacks. We’re facing a number of challenges. We have to protect this country. That’s my job. That’s what I’m paid to do and that, thank God, is what the United States military does.
MS. WOODRUFF: Well, General Dempsey, who’s the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the Pentagon, in his words, has never truly been denied the means, what it’s asked for in recent history. But with budget constraints, he said, the Pentagon now needs to confront whether there’s another way to do this. What would another way be?
SEC. PANETTA: Look, I don’t think you have to choose between protecting national security and fiscal responsibility. I think we can do our share with regards to reducing the deficit and trying to find the savings that we have to find in the Defense Department. But at the same time, we have an obligation to protect this country and to develop the kind of defense force for the future that can be agile. It’s going to be smaller. It can be agile. It can be deployable. It can be technologically advanced. But most importantly, it can protect this country. That’s what I’m trying to do with the challenge I face right now between the budget and where we need to go on defense.
MS. WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask about a specific program, big program. Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet. The plan is to buy 2,400 of these jets. Again, given fiscal constraints, lacking international support now for this --Australia, Norway, I’m told Canada considering cutting back on what they get -- can that be cut back too? By the United States.
SEC. PANETTA: No, I understand. You know, look, part of our challenge is to try to stay on the cutting edge of the future and that’s what the F-35 is all about. It’s the fifth generation fighter for the future and it provides the kind of capability we absolutely are going to need in the future. So that’s why we’re developing it and that’s why I think it’s important.
Do we have to control costs? You bet. Do we have to make sure that companies and corporations that are involved with this plane do their share to keep costs down? You bet. Do we have to continue to try to make sure that this is the best fighting plane for the future? We have to do that as well. So yes, you know, it is something we have to invest in, but we have to do it smartly, and that’s what I’m trying to do here at the Defense Department.
MS. WOODRUFF: So that could mean a smaller buy.
SEC. PANETTA: It means that we have to fully test that plane before we go into production. We have to be damned sure that it is the most effective fighting plane for the future before we go into full production, and that’s what I want to ensure.
MS. WOODRUFF: Question about -- a couple of questions about you. You’ve been in this city, in and out of the city of Washington for, what is it, four decades, give or take --
SEC. PANETTA: At least.
MS. WOODRUFF: The partisanship, the rancor that seems to permeate so much of politics. Is it worse today than it’s ever been, or do we just not remember how it was?
SEC. PANETTA: No, I don’t think I -- I don’t think there’s any question. The 40 years that I’ve been in this town I’ve never seen Washington as partisan as it is today. And I really am concerned about the dysfunction of our institutions of government to respond to the challenges and crises that are there.
When I was in the Congress, when I was in the administrations, past administrations there was a greater willingness -- politics has always been the case, but there was a greater willingness between Republicans and Democrats when it came to those national crisis issues that we have to confront. There was a greater willingness to work together to solve those problems.
Governing was good politics. Today I think the attitude is that governing is not necessarily good politics, and the result is that it’s much more partisan, much more divided, and we’re paying a high price for that.
MS. WOODRUFF: Both parties equally at fault?
SEC. PANETTA: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question that Republicans and Democrats both bear some responsibility for the situation.
MS. WOODRUFF: What would you do to make it better?
SEC. PANETTA: I think it’s really important that those who are elected to office understand that they are elected to take risks in order to govern this country. They aren’t elected just simply to save their seat. They’re elected to take risks, to make the kind of decisions that have to be made in order to solve the problems facing this country.
I’ve done that in the past. I mean, when I was in Congress we faced tough decisions, but both Republicans and Democrats made those decisions. You took risks. But those risks were worth it because in the end we were solving some of the challenges that this country faces. So I guess that’s what I would urge. Both leaders and members, elected members of the Congress, do what is right for this country. Don’t simply do what you need to do to protect your seat.
MS. WOODRUFF: Can you name one or two Republicans whom you most admire in public office right now?
SEC. PANETTA: I think there are a lot of good members in Congress. I work with a lot of them on both sides of the Hill, chairmen and ranking members and members on both sides who are really good people, who are trying to do the right things. You know, I’m not going to just pick a few names. There are a lot of good people up there that want to do the right thing.
I think what’s wrong right now is the politics because the politics of both parties is kind of poisoning the well. And you have to allow these members to be able to work together to solve problems. That’s important. And very frankly, from a national security point of view, all the things I do, all the things others do to try to protect the national security in this country, one of the most important things affecting our national security is the ability of our institutions of government to work, solve problems. That is part and parcel of the national security.
MS. WOODRUFF: Final question. In a sentence or two. You’ve worked with both Democratic presidents -- President Obama, President Clinton. How are they different?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, they are two different -- very different individuals in terms of their backgrounds and how they came to office. But they’re both extremely bright, they’re both extremely capable. They’ve got minds that can focus very much on the issues. And they both want to do the right thing for the country. I think that’s probably the most important thing I care about: do they want to do the right thing for the country. And I think in both cases they made decisions that they thought were important for the country, and that’s all I ask for in any president.
MS. WOODRUFF: You even served under a Republican president.
SEC. PANETTA: That’s right.
MS. WOODRUFF: Speaking of bipartisanship.
SEC. PANETTA: That’s true. I’ve covered them all. But in the end, if it’s a good leader, you know, it doesn’t make a lot of difference whether they’re Republican or Democrats. If they’re good leaders, that’s important for the country.
MS. WOODRUFF: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, thank you very much.