SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: How you doing? Good. All right. Are we ready?
(UNKNOWN): We're ready.
SEC. PANETTA: Okay. Let me just -- let me say a few words about the trip and then just open it up to your questions. (Laughter.) Maybe. (Laughter.)
This is -- as you all know -- likely my last international trip as secretary of defense. And as I mentioned to you, as a -- as a son of Europe, it's appropriate that this last trip would take me back to Europe. We're going to be going to Portugal and Spain, Italy, and then Great Britain.
This is my 18th international trip as secretary. And as many of you know, I visited more than 30 countries, including, obviously, the warzone a number of times, but I've made it a priority to -- as part of our defense strategy, as you know, to emphasize the importance of strengthening our alliances and partisanships throughout the world.
So the goal of this trip is really in line with that. It's to try to strengthen and reaffirm the transatlantic alliance, our relationship with NATO, to reflect on what we've accomplished over the last decade of war, and to also lay the groundwork for the future.
As always, I will also use this opportunity to visit the troops and have a chance to thank U.S. men and women in uniform for the sacrifices they're making. It's been since -- I think nearly three years since a secretary of defense traveled to European capitals to meet with leaders on a bilateral basis. And therefore, I thought it was important to be able to make this trip in order to follow up with our closest allies on a range of topics to obviously brief them on the Karzai visit and some of the discussions related to Afghanistan, talk about some of the common budget challenges that we are facing on both sides of the Atlantic, and how we -- how we can try to deal with those challenges in an innovative way, and also talk about some key bilateral security issues.
Our European allies, as all of you know, are the most capable and closest military partners that the United States has, bar none. And with Afghanistan and Libya, I think we've all seen how crucial that alliance can be in the 21st century.
On Afghanistan, let me note that the nations that I'm visiting have all maintained a strong commitment to that mission. And because of that commitment, we've been able to make significant progress in the effort to try to build an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself.
As President Obama announced this spring, Afghans will take the lead for security responsibility, and our troops will shift to a support role. That's a significant milestone that is the result of the efforts of -- by the United States, by ISAF, and by the Afghans themselves.
We've had a successful series of consultations with President Karzai about our future commitment to Afghanistan's security, and I look forward to, as I said, updating our counterparts on those discussions.
Portugal, first stop will be Portugal. They are a key NATO ally, important strategic partner in the Mediterranean and beyond. I am told that I -- I'm the first secretary to visit Portugal in at least 30 years, so it's an indication that we do consider Portugal to be a close ally. The U.S. and the Portuguese militaries share a history of close cooperation, particularly in the Azores. And as you know, with the budget constraints that we're facing, there will be some reduced operations that we will have at Lajes, which is the air base there, and my goal is to tell them how we hope to broaden and transform our defense relationship through trying to increase mil-to-mil engagement and exercises and try to focus on the challenges that we all have, like maritime security.
Spain -- I go to Madrid after Lisbon, and both Portugal and Spain have maintained a strong commitment as I mentioned to Afghanistan. Actually, I think Spain has lost something like 90 individuals in -- in Afghanistan. So, you know, they've suffered a real price for their commitment to Afghanistan.
In my first trip to Europe as secretary, I announced the deployment of four Aegis ships to Rota. And the purpose of that is to fulfill our commitment to the European ballistic missile defense system. The deployment is important because it demonstrated how this alliance is making investments to meet the new challenges that we're confronting.
More broadly, Spain is an important leader in NATO and a vital ally to the United States, so in my discussions, I'll have an opportunity to touch on a full range of issues, including greater cooperation with Spain on cyber and the cyber arena.
Italy, next stop is Rome, and I guess it goes without saying that it has a lot of tremendous personal meaning for me, since I'm the son of Italian immigrants. The U.S.-Italian defense relationship is very deep and very enduring. And I am very grateful for the strong support that Italy has provided to U.S. troops that are stationed there. We've got some very important bases in Italy. They've been extremely important to our efforts throughout that region, and we are very grateful for their support. Those bases enhance our collective security of the alliance and are critical to our ability to be able to respond to any crisis in the region.
In Afghanistan, they're a lead nation in R.C. West. They've played a very important role in the ongoing transition in that region. And I'll have an opportunity again to pay tribute to the sacrifices that Italy has made over the last decade with a visit to their war memorial in Rome.
And lastly, the United Kingdom, I'll go to London for my first visit to Great Britain as secretary. Over the course of the last four years, I've seen in my past experience and in my experience as secretary how important the American and British intelligence and military relationship is. We've partnered very closely to confront every major security challenge facing our nations.
And it's in the spirit of that close relationship that Minister Hammond and I have built a very effective partnership, and I'm looking forward to be able to visit him on his home turf. My discussions will focus on how to meet the challenges and the transition in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, the challenges there in North Africa and how to enhance our cooperation so that we can meet those challenges at a time, again, of fiscal constraint.
Let me just say, in summary, you know, after 10 years of war, as I've pointed out, and with the budget constraints that we're all facing, we nevertheless continue to face some real uncertainties and threats in the world. We have to complete our mission in the war in Afghanistan. We continue to confront terrorism as a threat, Al Qaida as a threat to our security. And, you know, whether it's in Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen or Mali, we are confronting some common threats with regards to terrorism.
We continue to face the threat -- threats from North Korea and from Iran. We continue to face turmoil in the Middle East. And we continue to face the challenge of cyber and the cyber threat.
So the point is, we all face the reality of budget constraints. And I think the bottom line is, no one nation can confront these threats alone, that the only way we're going to be able to do it is by strengthening and reaffirming and building new partnerships and new alliances in the world.
The model for that is NATO. NATO is really the oldest alliance we have. It has responded in Afghanistan. It's responded in Libya. And it continues to be a very important model to build future partnerships and alliances.
NATO goes back to 1949. I think the reality is that, you know, there are generations that have been born since the fall of the Berlin Wall that may not fully appreciate how important NATO is as an alliance in the future. I guess one of my objectives is to kind of speak to younger generations there. The speech I'll give in London, as well as the discussions I'll have throughout the area, is to, again, re-emphasize -- particularly to younger generations -- how important it is to be able to pass the baton to them when it comes to the strength of these transatlantic alliances and partnerships that we have.
They are the model. The purpose of my trip is to make clear that we are going to need this alliance today, tomorrow and in the 21st century.
MR. GEORGE LITTLE: Lita?
Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned Mali very briefly. Can you expand a little bit on the assistance that the U.S. is giving to the French in -- in Mali? And maybe just characterize a little bit for us what you think this conflict is going to look like, how great the threat is, and how well armed you think those rebels are there. How long of a conflict do you think this may be?
SEC. PANETTA: As I've mentioned in the past -- and I'll reaffirm that, you know, we -- we have a responsibility to go after Al Qaida wherever they are. And we've gone after them in the FATA. We're going after them in Yemen and Somalia. And we have a responsibility to make sure that Al Qaida does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali.
We've been very concerned about AQIM and their efforts to establish a very strong base in that area. We have been working with our regional partners to try to develop plans to confront that threat. I commend France for taking the steps that it has. And what we have -- have promised them is that we will work with them to cooperate with them and to provide whatever assistance we can to try to help them in that effort.
And we are engaged in those discussions. AFRICOM is discussing this with France, and we'll continue to work with them to ensure that ultimately we do stop AQIM and that the responsibility for assuring security in that region will be passed to the African nations to provide a more permanent security for the sake of the world.
Q: But how long do you see this -- how long do you see this going on? And can you be a little more specific about either intelligence gathering, other things that the U.S. is willing to do so far?
SEC. PANETTA: It's hard to estimate, you know, the timeframe here, because obviously, you know, the effort is to try to do what is necessary to -- to halt their advances and to try to secure some of the key cities in Mali. This is being done, as I said, in conjunction with other -- other nations, the other African nations. I know ECOWAS, the African group of nations, is going to be deploying a force there soon. And the hope is that ultimately they assume the responsibility to ensure security in Mali.
MR. LITTLE: Elisabeth?
Q: On that topic, can you talk about, have the French asked for anything in particular from the United States?
SEC. PANETTA: We are -- I've been in discussions with the minister of defense and will continue to have those discussions. And the effort there will be to provide, you know, some limited logistical support to them to provide logistical support and intelligence support where we can to assist them in that effort.
Q: Are you talking about tankers -- (off mic)
SEC. PANETTA: There will be some -- some areas of airlift where we will try to be able to assist them, as well.
MR. LITTLE: Julian?
Q: If -- if on the -- in the intelligence, are you thinking more satellite support or unmanned aerial vehicles? If you do provide drones, would they be armed? And is there a possibility that you could do strikes?
And then if you could also address, is AQIM a threat to the U.S. homeland at this point, or is it more of a regional threat? Or can you talk a little bit about what it does -- what --
SEC. PANETTA: I'm not -- I'm not going to get into the particulars of exactly the assistance we'll provide, other than to say we'll -- we will assist them in the intelligence arena. With regards to AQIM, we're concerned that any time Al Qaida establishes a base of operations that -- while they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, that ultimately that still remains their objective and it's for that reason that we have to take steps now to ensure that AQIM does not get that kind of traction.
MR. LITTLE: Greg?
Q: Mr. Secretary, you know, Mali's a long way away from pretty much everywhere. It's, you know, not very well developed. We don't have bases right nearby. But, you know, this -- this threat with AQIM in northern Mali, it sort of developed pretty quickly after the Libya war. And some people say that one -- I don't know if it was unforeseen, but one unintended consequence of the Libyan war is that this resulted in a big flow of weapons and fighters into northern Mali. And, of course, the guy who led the coup in Mali was a guy who'd been trained in the U.S. The Malian army had received a lot of training.
To what degree could this -- these developments with AQIM in northern Mali been prevented? Would that have been possible? Is this something the United States -- if they had taken some different steps months or years ago -- could have led to a different outcome?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I think we've always -- going back to my last job as director of the CIA -- we were always very concerned about AQIM, as well as Al Qaida in these other areas, as I mentioned, Somalia and Yemen. And our concern was that I wasn't enough simply to go after the leadership of Al Qaida in the FATA, that it was important that we try to go after Al Qaida wherever they tried to establish a base of operations, and for that reason, I think we have always been concerned about Al Qaida not only in these other nations that I talked about, but in North Africa, as well.
I think -- I think it was -- it's understandable that, as we've confronted them in each of these other areas, that they were going to try to move and establish a base of operations wherever they could, and obviously with the turmoil in Mali, they found it convenient to be able to use that situation to gain some traction there.
I think that was probably going to happen under any circumstances, but the fact is that we've been watching it for a long time, we have been paying attention to it, we haven't ignored the fact that -- that they have made efforts to -- to locate there, and I think when they began offensive operations to actually take on some cities, it was clear to France and to all of us that that could not be allowed to -- to continue. And that's the reason France has engaged, and it's the reason that we're providing cooperation to them in that effort.
Q: (off mic) -- Libya, do you think it was a side result of the Libyan war, an unintended effect?
SEC. PANETTA: I think that -- that there's no question, as you confront them in Yemen, in Somalia, in Libya, that they're going to ultimately try to relocate. So, you know, there's -- you know, that certainly, I think, is a consequence. But the fact is, we have made a commitment that Al Qaida is not going to find any place to hide.
MR. LITTLE: Gopal?
Q: On Mali, are other countries in NATO also providing any support, France? I know U.K. is providing some airlift, but are you asking other countries to provide any support to the French mission, as well.
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I'm not aware of what other countries are providing to France at this point. I know -- I know what we've been asked to do and what we're trying to provide, but, you know, frankly, one of the discussions I'll have in Spain regards their concern about what's happening with AQIM in Mali, as well. And I'll get a better idea of what -- what these other countries may be doing to assist.
MR. LITTLE: Marcus?
Q: Mr. Secretary, you discussed the budget constraints that the U.S. and a lot of these European allies are facing. At the same time, to make up for these reduction in weapons purchases in the U.S., the U.S. has been promoting a lot of foreign weapons sales. To what extent are weapons sales going to be part of your discussions this week? And are there any systems in particular that you'll be promoting?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, I think, you know, one of the elements of our defense strategy that we laid out is that we have to maintain a presence in the rest of the world that even though we're going to -- you know, we're focusing on -- on the Pacific, on the Middle East, it's important for us to maintain a strong presence in Europe and Latin America and Africa and elsewhere.
And the main focus of that is to develop our rotational deployments, and it's also to develop the capabilities of these countries so that they can provide their own security.
So, yes, that does involve listening to what their needs are, seeing what kind of assistance we can provide, what kind of military assistance we can provide to be able to increase their capabilities within their own particular budget constraints, recognizing that. But I think -- I think, in each of these countries, there are elements of -- of military assistance that we can provide that I think will be helpful to them to be able to be effective partners in NATO.
MR. LITTLE: Got time for one or two.
Q: In the past, if I recall, you've talked about Somalia being sort of the model about handling some of these different conflicts against Al Qaida in Africa. Is that your view about the way to handle Mali? Or is that still your view about how to handle it? And also, is -- is this -- is this a NATO sort of operation? Or is -- in Mali? Or is it strictly bilateral French, U.S., and sort of multilateral amongst the countries?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, I think -- I think right now, it's -- I think right now, it could best be described as an international effort. Obviously, the U.N. has expressed serious concerns about AQIM and Mali. And I think the -- the effort is largely focused now on those nations that have had a relationship with that part of the world and are trying to ensure that it does not become a base of operations for Al Qaida. So the larger focus is on the African nations that border on Mali, as well as countries like France that have a historic relationship to that arena.
MR. LITTLE: I think that's -- one more, Joan.
Q: Secretary Panetta, were you in any way surprised when Great Britain announced their drawdown decision at the end of last year? As it sort of came to a surprise to many that they would do this out of step, it seemed, with the -- with the U.S. and with a NATO decision. And in regards to the recent visit by President Karzai to the U.S., in discussions with your U.K. counterparts, are you going to make them aware of any thoughts coming from the Department of Defense on post-2014 troop numbers in Afghanistan?
MR. LITTLE: (off mic)
SEC. PANETTA: Actually, we had been given a heads-up that they would be making that announcement. And in many ways, you know, I think the numbers that -- that the British are talking about in some ways complement what the United States will ultimately do by the end of 2014, as well. So I think we -- we understand, you know, the path that they're taking. But I think they also agree that it is -- it is very important, as we make this transition to an Afghan lead, that we continue to provide support to ensure that the Afghans have the training, have the capabilities to do counterterrorism and have the enabling capability so that they can -- they can provide the security that's necessary.
I'm confident that Britain -- Great Britain shares that fundamental goal that we have -- you know, that this is a -- this is a long-term relationship. It's not one that, you know, is going to involve simply picking up and leaving at the end of 2014. It's going to be a long-term relationship to ensure that Afghanistan can continue to maintain their security.
Q: Just to follow up on my question --
MR. LITTLE: Okay, Elisabeth, one -- this is it, for real.
Q: Okay. You wouldn't talk about drones. Can --
SEC. PANETTA: (off mic) (Laughter.)
Q: Well, I actually -- well, let me -- before I do that, let me ask --
MR. LITTLE: One follow-up. (Laughter.)
Q: -- you said you wouldn't talk about drones, but you'd talk about logistics and air support. Can you just be more specific, what that means?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, again, I don't want to go into all of the particulars. It suffices to say that we're -- you know, it's basically kind of in three areas that we're looking at. One is to obviously provide limited logistical support, two, to provide intelligence support, and, three, to provide some airlift capability, as well.
Q: What does that mean?
MR. LITTLE: I think the secretary answered --
Q: Okay -- (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: All right. Thank you. Thank you, everyone. Appreciate it.
Q: (off mic) -- transport planes -- (off mic)
MR. LITTLE: All right. Thanks, everyone.
Q: What'd you think of "Zero Dark Thirty"?
SEC. PANETTA: You know what? I lived it.