JAKE TAPPER: Good morning, everyone. George Stephanopoulos has a well-deserved morning off. This Memorial Day weekend as the country pays tribute to its fallen heroes, we also remember that for the eleventh consecutive Memorial Day, we are a nation at war with 88,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines fighting in Afghanistan. And countless others monitoring hot spots around the globe. On war ships in the Persian Gulf amidst the nuclear standoff with Iran. Down the Arabian peninsula in Yemen as al Qaeda continues to threaten to attack the U.S. homeland. In Pakistan, where tensions with our supposed ally continue to mount. And from the South China Sea and the world's largest nation, China, seeks to build its military might.
And to talk about all of this, let's bring in our exclusive headliner, the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta. Secretary Panetta, welcome back to "This Week."
LEON PANETTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nice to be with you, Jake.
TAPPER: So, I want to get to some specifics in a moment. But before I do, just broadly speaking, in this era of terrorist threats, nonstop terrorist threats, as a former director of the CIA and the current secretary of defense, what is it like having this responsibility? How often does a terrifying message come on your desk about some threat, and you just think, oh my God?
PANETTA: Well, you don't get a hell of a lot of sleep, let's put it that way. There are a lot of challenges. You know, as director of the CIA, got an awful lot of intelligence about all the horrible things that could go on across the world. In this job, I get the same intelligence but I'm responsible for a lot of the operations dealing with those threats. And you know it's a much bigger place than it was at the CIA. Got three million people.
But I have probably the greatest strength of our country is the men and women in uniform that serve this country, put their lives on the line. And that's something that I get to see up close and I'm very proud of them and proud of what they do.
TAPPER: So, turning to Afghanistan, which might be one of the biggest challenges – definitely one of the biggest challenges that the nation faces right now and you face. At the NATO summit, President Obama and the administration made it clear that the combat mission ends come midnight December 31, 2014. But the chairs of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees just returned from Afghanistan and they say that from their briefings there, they believe that the Taliban is actually stronger now than since the surge began.
Do we have a plan in place in case after the U.S. combat mission ends, Afghanistan or parts of it start falling to the Taliban?
PANETTA: Well the most important point is that we're not going anyplace. We're gonna, we have an enduring presence that will be in Afghanistan. We'll continue to work with them on counterterrorism. We'll continue to provide training, assistance, guidance.
We'll continue to provide support.
So, we're going to be there. And so will ISAF - will be there for awhile. The important thing right now is the mission that Afghanistan is all about. And the fundamental mission is an Afghanistan that can secure and control itself so that the Taliban never again or al Qaeda never again is able to find a safe haven from which to conduct attacks in this country.
We are making good progress. I mean, the Taliban, my view is that they have been weakened. We have not seen them able to conduct any kind of organized attack to regain any territory that they've lost. We've seen levels of violence going down. We've seen an Afghan army that is much more capable at providing security. We've seen transitions take place where we're beginning to transition. Now we're at about 50 percent of their population that's been transitioned to their control. We're going to be at 75 percent --
TAPPER: Right, but Secretary--
PANETTA: So, we're on the right track.
TAPPER: But you're not naive. I mean, there are problems with the Afghan forces, and you – (crosstalk) the military is always planning for a worst-case scenario. I'm assuming there is some sort of plan just in case the residual forces left there are not enough.
PANETTA: Listen, we still have a fight on our hands. The American people need to know that. The world needs to know that we still have a fight on our hands. We're still dealing with the Taliban. Although they've been weakened, they are resilient. They'll continue to conduct attacks. We'll continue to see IED attacks taking place. We have the concern about the safe haven in Pakistan, the fact that they can seek refuge in that safe haven, that's a concern. And we have continuing concerns about the level of corruption in Afghan society. All of those things are continuing challenges.
But we're on the right track. General Allen has laid out a plan that moves us in the direction of an Afghanistan that can truly govern and secure itself. And that is going to be our greatest safeguard to the potential of the Taliban ever coming back.
TAPPER: At the NATO summit in Chicago, General Allen who is the commander of the NATO alliance troops there, ISAF troops, provided a briefing. And he was asked about the so-called green on blue attacks--Afghan army, Afghan police forces attacking U.S. forces. And this was his response. I want to get your reaction.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GENERAL ALLEN: There's a good news story here, and that is that the Afghans have arrested more than 160 individuals in the last several months that they believe could have been in the throes of planning for an attack on ISAF forces. So, the process is working.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: The process is working. Now, I understand 160 individuals not killing American soldiers -- is good that they haven't killed them or haven't attempted to kill them. But that does not seem like a good news story to me, that there are 160 Afghan security forces that were considered to be threats. That seems like a lot.
PANETTA: Well, as General Allen pointed out, we are making progress on that front. It is a concern. Of course it's a concern. It's the kind of thing that the Taliban would use to come at our forces. And it's an indication again that because they can't organized efforts to come at us, they're going to use this kind of tactic to try to frighten us.
And it's not going to work for several reasons. Number one, the Afghan army has put into place a very thorough effort to review those that are serving--to look at their background, to check them out. And that process is working. That's the reason that we've gotten 160 that concerned us.
Secondly, our forces are going to be very vigilant as well in terms of how they operate to make sure that they watch their backs as we go through this process.
And, thirdly, I think overall, what we're seeing is the basic training that's going into the Afghan army is one that truly is testing the qualifications and quality of individuals that are going to be fighting on behalf of Afghanistan. All of those elements give us some level of confidence that we can protect against that kind of threat.
JAKE TAPPER, ABC HOST: (Tapper clears his throat) Mitt Romney's had this to say about the president's Afghan strategy and the date certain.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You just scratch your head and say how can you be so misguided? And so naïve? His secretary of defense said that on a date certain, the middle of 2013, we're going to pull out our combat troops from Afghanistan. He announced that. He announced that so the Taliban hears it, the Pakistanis hear it, the Afghan leaders hear it. Why in the world do you go to the people that you're fighting with and tell them the day you're pulling out your troops?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Now, first of all, there's a factual error that Mr. Romney made that I'm sure you want to correct, but the larger point about giving a date certain for the withdrawal or the end of the combat mission, could you address that as well after you correct him?
PANETTA: Well, Okay. You know, I think without getting into the campaign rhetoric of what he's asserting, I think you've got 50 nations in NATO that agree to a plan in Afghanistan. That's what happened in Chicago and it is a fulfillment of Lisbon. It's the Lisbon agreement, an agreement that, you know, others, President Bush, President Obama, everyone has agreed is the direction that we go in in Afghanistan.
What is that direction? It's to take us to a point where we draw down by the end of 2014. In together, out together. And part of that transition involves in 2013 being able to take the combat mission and be able to put that in the hands of the Afghanistan army so that they can conduct those operations.
We'll be there. We'll still provide support. We'll still protect ourselves in that process. That is the plan that has been agreed to. And it's a plan that is working.
And very frankly, the only way to get this accomplished in terms of the transition that we have to go through is to be able to set the kind of timelines that have been set here in order to ensure that we fulfill the mission of an Afghanistan that governs and secures itself. That's what this is about.
TAPPER: You can't get the Afghans to do this without saying we're leaving on this date?
PANETTA: We can't get them to do it without saying we have to partner with you in an effort, working together, to arrive at points where we can make a successful transition. This is about transition.
This is not being there forever. The United States is not going to be there forever. We shouldn't be there forever. Neither should ISAF be there forever. But what we should do is be able to do everything possible to ensure that the Afghan country has the sovereignty to secure and govern itself. That's going to be the key to success in the future, and that's what we're putting in place today.
TAPPER: But you've talked about -- you mentioned Pakistan just a minute ago about the fact that there is a safe haven in Pakistan for insurgents -- for the insurgents for the Taliban. This week, the Pakistani doctor who helped the U.S. find bin Laden was sentenced to 33 years in prison by the Pakistan government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the arrest was unwarranted. Congress has proposed cutting aid to Pakistan by $33 million, $1 million for each year of his sentence.
Realistically, is there anything that the U.S. can do to help this doctor?
It certainly seems like this is a shot across the bow, saying anyone who ever helps the United States, you know, the U.S. is not going to be there, and you're going to be held accountable by your own government.
PANETTA: It's -- it is so difficult to understand and it's so disturbing that they would sentence this doctor to 33 years for helping in the search for the most notorious terrorist in our times. This doctor was not working against Pakistan.
He was working against Al Qaeda. And I hope that ultimately Pakistan understands that, because what they have done here, I think, you know, does not help in the effort to try to reestablish a relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
TAPPER: Secretary Panetta, can we call Pakistan an ally when they do something like this, when they sentence a doctor who helps the United States find bin Laden, who has killed more Muslims than I can count? How can we call them an ally when they sentence this guy to prison?
PANETTA: Well, Jake, this has been one of the most complicated relationships that we've had, working with Pakistan. You know, we have to continue to work at it. It is important. This is a country that has -- that has nuclear weapons.
This is a country that still is critical in that region of the world. This is a country in which we have to go after an enemy that's located in their country as we have. So we have to continue to try to work with them. It's an up-and-down relationship. There have been periods where we've had good cooperation and they have worked with us.
And there have been periods where we've had conflict. But both countries have a responsibility to work together because we're dealing with common threats. They're dealing with the terrorist threat just like we are.
They've had huge numbers of Pakistanis who've been killed by terrorists. So our responsibility here is to keep pushing them to understand how important it is for them to work with us to try to deal with the common threats we both face. And what they did with this doctor doesn't help in the effort to try to do that.
TAPPER: And you've been in the middle of a very difficult negotiation with the Pakistanis about the lines of transit through which we supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan by using Pakistan and they shut them down after that incident at the border in November.
They initially charged about $250 per truck.
They are now trying to charge $5,000 per truck. We already give them – the U.S. taxpayer already gives the Pakistanis billions of dollars a year. And now they're trying to charge $5,000 per truck. First of all, how high are you willing to go in this negotiation?
Are you willing to pay more than $1,000 a truck?
And second of all, what are the American people to make of this relationship, when they hear about this doctor going to prison, when they hear about they're trying to charge us, even though we already give them billions of dollars?
PANETTA: Yeah. No, I -- you know, I think the American people are concerned. We're all concerned about the relationship. And at the same time, as I said, we have to do everything possible to try to work with them in order to protect our interests.
And you know, the G-locks, these transit points, are important to us. We would like to be able to use them. But we're going to pay a fair price. We're not going to --
TAPPER: What's that, a few hundred dollars per truck?
PANETTA: We're going to pay a fair price. They're negotiating what that price ought to be. You know, clearly we don't -- (inaudible) we're not about to get gouged in the price. We want a fair price. We are working right now through what's called the northern distribution center, which means we're moving most of our stuff through the north. It's more expensive, but we're getting the job done, and they need to understand that we can continue to get the job done that we have to by using that northern distribution route. It would be convenient for us. We would like to be able to use the Pakistan gates, but it isn't absolutely essential to our completing the mission that we're involved with.
TAPPER: Let's move to Yemen right now. We saw this past week a suicide bombing that killed 100 soldiers. The Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen has attempted at least twice to bring down a U.S. plane. You've said Al Qaeda in Yemen poses the greatest threat to the United States. But you've also said you will not send American troops into the country.
We only have, I think, about 20 U.S. advisers right there. First of all, why so few U.S. forces in the country? And second of all, if this is the biggest threat to the U.S., why would we not try to play a bigger role?
PANETTA: Well, our whole effort there is aimed at going after those terrorists who threaten to attack our country. Al Qaeda, elements of Al Qaeda have located in Yemen and the result is that we are focused, just as we were in the Fatah in Pakistan, we are now focused in Yemen to make sure that they never get the opportunity to attack our country.
We've been successful. We've gone after a number of key targets there. We'll continue to do that, counterterrorism is what we're all about in Yemen. And that's the number of forces we need in order to be able to do the job that we feel is necessary in order to protect our country.
TAPPER: But I think, I think the question is whether or not the smaller counterterrorism is -- approach to this is enough. What we're seeing in Yemen seems to be a possible nightmare scenario of a terrorist state. Let me just show you a map.
TAPPER: Our Martha Raddatz was there earlier this week, helped us put together this map. The portion shaded in red are territory in which Al Qaeda has a strong and significant presence. As you can see, that's most of the country, and they're starting to hold those territories. I know I'm not telling you anything you don't know, but can we really fight them without boots on the ground there?
PANETTA: The answer is yes, because very frankly, what we're targeting, the operations we're conducting, require the kind of capabilities that don't necessarily involve boots on the ground, but require the kind of capabilities that target those that we're after who are threats to the United States.
That's what this mission is about. It isn't about getting into, you know, their tribal differences and controversies. It isn't about getting into a civil war. It's about going after those who threaten our country. That's what this mission is about.
TAPPER: President Obama recently said that -- recently told John Brennan, his counterterrorism adviser at the White House that he wanted a little bit more transparency when it comes to drones, which are the -- is one of the approaches that you're alluding to in Yemen, and of course in Pakistan.
Dennis Blair, the former director of national intelligence wrote the following in "The New York Times," quote, "As the drone campaign wears on, hatred of America is increasing in Pakistan. American officials may praise the precision of the drone attacks, but in Pakistan, news media accounts of heavy civilian casualties are widely believed. Our reliance on high-tech strikes that pose no risk for our soldiers is bitterly resented in a country that cannot duplicate such feats of warfare without cost to its own troops."
And "The Times of London" reported last week that the civilian casualties in Yemen as a result of drone strikes have, quote, "emboldened Al Qaeda."
Is there not a serious risk that this approach to counterterrorism, because of its imprecision, because of its civilian casualties, is creating more enemy than it is killing?
PANETTA: First and foremost, I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal. Number two, what is our responsibility here? Our responsibility is to defend and protect the United States of America.
There are those who have no other intent but to attack this country. We saw three potential bombers that were trying to get on planes to come here and attack this country. We've seen past attacks taking place. We've seen those that continue to – to indicate that they're planning every day to try to attack this country.
We have got to defend the United States of America. That's our first responsibility. And using the operations that we have, using the systems that we have, using the weapons that we have, is absolutely essential to our ability to defend Americans. That's what counts, and that's what we're doing.
TAPPER: Just to clarify, three potential bombers? I know there's Abdulmutallab, there's the incident recently --
PANETTA: And there were the cartridge bombers --
TAPPER: Oh, the cartridge bombers. Okay.
PANETTA: -- at the same time.
TAPPER: Let's turn now to Iran. Our diplomats were in Baghdad this week negotiating as part of the international coalition, trying to convince Iran to stop its suspected nuclear weapons program. But we recently saw an Iranian diplomat seemingly bragging to "The New York Times" about out-negotiating us. David Sanger has a new book out in a week called "Confront and Conceal" in which he writes, quote, "White House officials blanched a bit in December 2011 when Leon Panetta suggested that despite all the roadblocks that Washington had thrown in the way, Iran could move to a weapon fairly quickly if it made a political decision to do so." Quote, "'It would be sometime around a year they would be able to do it,' Panetta said. Perhaps a little less, the one proviso is that they have a hidden facility somewhere in Iran in which case a nuclear weapon may be within their reach sooner."
The U.N. Atomic Agency has found evidence at an underground bunker in Iran that could mean the country has moved closer. This is just news in the last few days.
Given the urgency of the timeline you describe in the Sanger book that you told to the White House last December, are they not just running out the clock? And are these negotiations once a month enough?
PANETTA: We begin with the fundamental premise here. The fundamental premise is that neither the United States or the international community is going to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. We will do everything we can to prevent them from developing a weapon.
International community's been unified. We've put very tough sanctions on them as a result of that, and we are – you know, we are prepared for any contingency in that part of the world. But our hope is that these matters can be resolved diplomatically.
PANETTA: And that's what's going on. That's what going on in Baghdad, hopefully that's what will continue to go on in Russia. And we have to put pressure on them to suspend their nuclear enrichment and to operate pursuant to international rules and regulations.
That's our goal. We keep pushing on it. Hopefully this can be resolved diplomatically. But make no mistake about it, we will prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon.
TAPPER: Well, the ambassador to Israel, the American Ambassador to Israel said a few days ago that the U.S. is quote "ready from a military perspective to carry out a strike on Iran." That's true?
PANETTA: One of the things that we do at the Defense Department, Jake, is plan. And we have – we have plans to be able to implement any contingency we have to in order to defend ourselves.
TAPPER: All these hot spots we just touched on, and yet the administration is talking about how it's focusing now on the Pacific. Even though everything we've just spent the last 20 minutes talking about --
PANETTA: We do have a few problems!
TAPPER: Yes, exactly!
So, you are headed to Asia, and you will be meeting with your Chinese counterpart in Singapore. You've said that we face the possibility of a cyber attack. This is one of the things you talked about last time with me, about how this was a very big, serious issue of concern for you. And you said it could be the equivalent of Pearl Harbor.
The Pentagon has acknowledged recently China is the biggest source of cyber attacks against this country, including stealing our military secrets. Newt Gingrich spoke about this threat on the campaign trail often. He said cyber attacks, cyber spying, are quote, "acts of war." Do you agree? Are they acts of war, and how would the United States respond?
PANETTA: Well, there's no question that if a cyber attack, you know, crippled our power grid in this country, took down our financial systems, took down our government systems, that that would constitute an act of war.
But what we're involved with here is the effort to make sure that never happens. And in order to do that, we've got to engage. You know, I think it's important for us to engage China in this effort. That's one of the issues I raised when the minister of defense came here from China. How can we better engage on this issue, to share information and to ensure that those kinds of attacks never happen, because this is an area where the technology is developing quickly and where clearly it is becoming an adjunct in terms of any country that moves against another country militarily.
This is something we've got to pay attention to. And it's not only with China. We've got to engage Russia. We've got to engage other countries in an effort to try to develop some kind of standards here that will assure us that just as we did in the nuclear area, we can take steps to prevent a mistake that could be very damaging to our security.
TAPPER: China has been very aggressive in the South China Sea in the last few years. There have been some near-skirmishes. How concerned are you, considering especially that we have treaties with the Philippines and Japan, that China's aggression could end up having – creating a situation where there might actually be military involvement that we have to get involved in? How much does that concern you?
PANETTA: Well, you know, we – we want to make sure that we take all of the steps necessary to avoid those kinds of potential conflicts. And in order to do that, it's very important for us to develop a mil-to-mil relationship with China so that we can discuss these issues. I mean, when it comes to the South China Sea, the fact is that we have to protect our naval sea lanes. We've got to protect our maritime rights. We've got to recognize that there are international rules here that apply--that this is not an area that is controlled by any one country, that in order to conduct trade--in order to provide for peaceful exchanges, we have to be able to protect those rights.
To do that, we've got to engage these countries. And so one of the reasons I'm going to China is to follow up on the president's efforts to try to establish lines of communication with them that deals with these kinds of issues. Because the last thing you want to avoid is a mistake by one country or another that decides that their only option is to use military force. If that happens, then I think we have a great concern about our ability to then maintain peace in that part of the world.
TAPPER: There's been a lot in the press in the last few days about the fact that the Obama administration cooperated with the filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Boal, who are making this Bin Laden film. What is your response to the controversy and can you assert that nothing inappropriate was shared with these filmmakers?
PANETTA: Yeah – nothing inappropriate was shared with them, Jake. You know, we get inquires everyday from the entertainment industry. We get inquiries from people writing articles, from people writing books, people doing television shows. And the process that we've established is that you know, we will work with those individuals. We'll try to make sure that we give them accurate information so that the historic record is protected. But you know, we do not share anything that is inappropriate with anybody.
TAPPER: You were head of the CIA when bin Laden was captured. Now you're head of the Pentagon. There was an effort by the Obama campaign to talk more about the capture and killing of bin Laden. What is your take on this? Are you uncomfortable at all with what some have described as chest-thumping? Are the Navy SEALs and the Nightstalker pilots getting enough credit?
PANETTA: You know, I guess my view, having participated in that operation, is that it was something very special in terms of both the intelligence and military communities working together to go after bin Laden and doing it successfully. And whether you're Republicans, whether you're Democrats, whether you're Independents, I think this country ought to be proud of what our intelligence and military community did. And you know what, I'll let history be the judge as to whether or not that was a successful mission.
TAPPER: Well, obviously it was a successful mission but the politicization of it, that doesn't make you uncomfortable at all?
PANETTA: I would hope that both Republicans and Democrats would be justly proud of what was accomplished.
TAPPER: There are massive mandatory budget cuts heading your way -- I know you're more than aware of this -- coming to domestic programs and the defense budget if Congress doesn't come to an agreement on deficit reduction. You've said that defense cuts would lead to a hollow military but in a recent interview, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said this: "So now see the Republicans scrambling to do away with the cuts to defense that would be required by this agreement. I will not accept that. My people in the state of Nevada, and I think the country, have had enough of whacking all the programs. We've cut them to a bare bone and defense is going to have to bear their share of the burden." Is that language okay with you, that language from the Democratic leader of the Senate?
PANETTA: Well-- my view is that when you're facing the size deficits and debt that we're facing, that obviously defense has to play a role in trying to be able to achieve fiscal responsibility. I've also said you don't have to choose between national security and our fiscal security and that's what we've done. We were handed a number by Congress to reduce the defense budget by $487 billion dollars. To do that, we laid out a strategy that we want for our defense system both now and in the future and we provided a budget that, we think, meets not only the goal of savings but also, more importantly, protects a strong national defense for this country. The thing that does concern me is the sequester which involves another $500 billion in defense cuts.
TAPPER: That's these automatic cuts I'm talking about.
PANETTA: These automatic cuts that would take place that I think would be disastrous in terms of our national defense. And I would say this. I think the sequester, both on the domestic side and the defense side, doesn't make a great deal of sense that both Republicans and Democrats now have a responsibility to work together to make sure that sequester never happens. That's what should take place.
TAPPER: I've heard from a lot of people on Capitol Hill, Democrats too, who say they were alarmed with what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. It seemed to suggest that he is ready for a standoff and he doesn't care if the sequester cuts come down.
Does this concern you, the language you're hearing from the Hill?
PANETTA: You know what, I know Harry Reid and I know he, the last thing he wants is for sequester to take place and I think that should be true, frankly, for all Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. They put this trigger into legislation in order to pressure Republicans and Democrats to work together on the super-committee to come up with the money necessary to ensure that that would not happen.
TAPPER: It didn't work.
PANETTA: It didn't work. And so now you have this automatic meat ax that will suddenly take place sometime in January. I think what both Republicans and Democrats need to do and the leaders on both sides is to recognize that if sequester takes place, it would be disastrous for our national defense and very frankly for a lot of very important domestic programs. They have a responsibility to come together, find the money necessary to de-trigger sequester. That's what they ought to be working on now.
TAPPER: We only have a couple more minutes so I'm just going to ask you two more quick questions. One of them: President Obama recently came out in favor of same-sex marriage. I know it's not your bailiwick, I know the military abides by the rules of each state, but I'm wondering as a former member of Congress, somebody who has opinions, what is your take on same-sex marriage?
PANETTA: You know, my job as secretary of defense is to give the president the best advice I can on defense issues.
TAPPER: I know, but you're a living, breathing, sentiment human being.
PANETTA: I know, but my viewpoint is not relevant to what I have to do in this job. What is relevant is the fact that we are engaged in implementing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and we are doing that very successfully. What is relevant is that I want to be able to open up opportunities in the Defense Department, in our military, to everyone to be able to serve our country. That's what counts and that's what we're doing.
TAPPER: Okay. Lastly, several key members of the president's cabinet, Secretaries Clinton and Geithner most prominently, have said if there is a second Obama term, they will not be in it. Will you?
PANETTA: You know, one thing I've learned over 40 years is that when you have jobs in Washington, you do it day by day and that's what I'm doing as secretary of defense. And, I serve at the will of the president and that's what I intend to continue to do.
TAPPER: If there is a President Mitt Romney and he asks you to stay on as
President Obama did with Secretary Gates, would you consider it?
PANETTA: I don't engage in hypotheticals.
TAPPER: Alright. Secretary Panetta, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time.
PANETTA: Thank you
Later segment at the Vietnam Memorial
TAPPER: This Memorial Day weekend, we mark 50 years since the official
start of the Vietnam War. I recently took a walk with Secretary Panetta to that powerful symbol of the fallen heroes, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice for country.
PANETTA: This was a bloody war, a bloody war, 58,000. When you consider Afghanistan and Iraq, I think we have lost now close to about 6,500 which is too many, but to think back to Vietnam and 58,000 lives that were lost.
TAPPER: And you know people on this wall.
PANETTA: Oh, yeah. I had three good friends who I went through ROTC with at Santa Clara. We all got commissioned. I went on to law school before I actually went in the service and they actually went right in were deployed to Vietnam and lost their lives there.
TAPPER: What have we as a nation learn from that war?
PANETTA: We can never lose sight of men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line, fight and die for America. When the people to agree or disagree with the cause, when there are men and women willing to do that for this country that is something, that's a strength that I hope we always appreciate and are grateful for in the future. And there's one thing this wall is all about it's a reminder that we always remember those who served.