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SecDef Interview with Jim Lehrer, PBS NewsHour

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
January 11, 2001

Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Lehrer: Now, our "Summing Up" interview with Defense Secretary William Cohen, the only Republican to serve in the Democratic Cabinet of Bill Clinton. He moved to that post four years ago after serving 24 years as a Republican Senator and Congressman from Maine. Mr. Secretary, Welcome.

Cohen: Jim, it's great to be here.

Lehrer: You met this morning with President-elect Bush and his national security team. How did that go?

Cohen: It went very long, quite long, we spent two hours and perhaps ten minutes during the briefing, but it was a good overview of our strategic position and some of our programs. He was intensely interested in the subject matter and asked very pointed questions and I was quite impressed with his pragmatic type of approach to what can be an exercise in lots of acronyms and some fairly esoteric subjects, but he went right to the heart of the matter on quite a few issues.

Lehrer: And this was in what you all call the tank at the Pentagon, right? Tell us what that is.

Cohen: It started in my office for the first 45 minutes; then we moved to the tank, which is really the room where the joint chiefs meet to discuss issues on a daily basis.

Lehrer: And it's all -- the wire stories said that you all had prepared for Mr. Bush a file that was so secret you couldn't even say what was on the outside of the file?

Cohen: He got a secret briefing. He certainly --

Lehrer: Briefing about military commitments all around the world.

Cohen: Commitments, strategic relations, strategic capabilities, basically an overview of our military power and our commitments and looking at some of the hot spots that he will have to confront.

Lehrer: Did he bring up the subject that he brought up during the campaign, that he believes the Defense Department needs a review from top to bottom?

Cohen: That didn't come up but certainly every president who comes in needs to look at the Defense Department and other agencies, but certainly to see whether or not there are things that can be done differently or better and improved. He should do precisely that; I think that that is something that his team has been wanting to do and I certainly think that it's a wise thing to do.

Lehrer: If he does this, what he is going to find that he's not going to like?

Cohen: Well, I think he will find a lot that he will like in terms of where we were just a few years and where we are today. When I took this job, I was told that the budget was fixed. It was fixed by the highest, at the highest number between the Executive Branch and the Congress, and that would be it for the foreseeable future. Eighteen months later I was able to work with President Clinton and his team to propose an increase of $112 billion over the future years defense spending, which is roughly a six-year period. Today I announced that we have actually doubled that number. So it's roughly $227 billion that will be allocated to future years defense spending over and above where we were. So he'll have much to say --that's a pretty good gift to be looking at in terms of what we've been able to do. He will see a force that is highly trained, very well well equipped and really ready to do the job that needs to be done. There will be some deficiencies, we have a big bow wave coming in terms of some of the --

Lehrer: What's a bow wave?

Cohen: A bow wave is the spending that is required to pay for the programs that are on the books right now that we are developing. It will have a very big bow wave coming. They have to pay for it. One of the way that is have to look at paying for it will be more base closures, which we were unsuccessful in getting.

Lehrer: Did that come up today?

Cohen: No, it didn't come up today. But there are many areas he will look at. He has indicated, for example, he wants to look at all of our tactical aviation programs. That is fair enough. He'll have an opportunity to examine them, and other programs that are currently scheduled to be developed and he will have to make a decision based upon the recommendation coming from Don Rumsfeld and others what -- on what he intends to do.

Lehrer: As you know, during the campaign he said he was concerned about the readiness of the U.S. military. How do you respond to that? What kind of military are you handing over to President-elect Bush and his Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, as far as its ability to cope with the military threats to our country?

Cohen: We are handing over the finest military in the world. There is no peer competitor -- and unlikely to be a peer competitor anytime soon. We have a military that certainly is stretched, because the numbers have come down since the end of the Cold War rather significantly.

Lehrer: Amount of money spent, right?

Cohen: The numbers in terms of the size of the war chest -- they have come down fairly significantly. We had cut I think too deeply into the procurement budget and now that's going to back up. One of the things we've been able to achieve was to go from $43 billion annually up to over 60 now and it's climbing up to 70 in the near future. And we'll have to go higher to pay for these new systems, but we have got a very highly educated, highly motivated, well-led military and the first of the forces that are on the front lines, they are very ready. Some of the second tier, third tier we have to address those readiness problems there; those who have to have more training, more equipment, more modernization. That will be pending down the line for him.

Lehrer: Some of your critics -- as I'm sure you know, Mr. Secretary -- have said that what you still have over there is a defense establishment and a military that is all equipped and all ready to fight a war that isn't going to happen, in other words, the Cold War, the kinds of things in Eastern Europe all of that has gone away.

Cohen: It's simply untrue. The fact is we had to fight a war in Kosovo -- the most successful air campaign in the history of the world. We did that with our existing systems. We have to develop new systems in order to take into account the kind of new threats, no doubt, but you have to contend with a Kosovo. We still have to contend with a Saddam Hussein; he hasn't gone away yet. We still have to be ready to deter any power that might want to challenge us. So we have to have a deterrent capability. We also have to modernize and anticipate what kind of threats we're going to face in the future. Cyber warfare -- that's something that we are devoting a lot of --

Lehrer: What is cyber warfare?

Cohen: Attempts -- we know about computer hackers, teenage hackers who are going on joy rides on the Internet. Well, we also --

Lehrer: How in the world will the U.S. military get involved in that?

Cohen: Well, because we have had hackers who hacked into DoD systems and some of our secure systems. We have to protect these systems. The critical infrastructure that -- looking at not only DoD but certainly at all of our commercial enterprises as well, but the critical infrastructure of the Department of Defense, which is linked to all of our private enterprises as well. But you have now dedicated professionals from various countries who are now training in order to be able to shut down our transportation system, our financial systems.

Lehrer: Do you know this for a fact?

Cohen: Absolutely. So we have got to protect these critical infrastructure systems and we have devote resources to that. The spread of chemical and biological weapons as well as nuclear weapons, missile technology -- all of those are continuing to spread. And so we are going to have to look at whether we need a missile defense system, which President-elect Bush has committed his administration to develop. What is it going to look like? How big? What is the scope? What is the purpose? So we have a number of things that we are doing but this is not a Cold War military. If you look at the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Marines with their urban warrior program looking for how to deal with urban conflicts. The Navy going to a smaller more capable type of force, fewer deployed, less manpower required -- if you look at the Army now in its transition going to a lighter, more easily deployable -- sustainable force, all of this is underway and President-elect Bush will have an opportunity to build upon that momentum that has been generated.

Lehrer: You know, Rumsfeld is a supporter of a missile defense shield system as well. Are they wrong about this, Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld?

Cohen: Well, the threat is certainly there and growing.

Lehrer: What is the nature of the threat, in simple terms?

Cohen: In simple terms we have countries who are acquiring a long-range missile capability -- countries such as Iran, North Korea. We still have Saddam Hussein should he ever get out from under the sanctions without complying with the inspection requirements -- could develop a long range missile capability as he tried to do before.

Lehrer: Long range -- it could hit targets in the United States?

Cohen: Absolutely. He can't do it now, but he could were he unconstrained by the kind of sanctions that are in place now and the restrictions upon him developing his military capability. So that is, you have, you have proliferation of missile technology so you are going to have more and more players who have that capacity to put at risk some of our forces in the field but certainly also try to intimidate us from carrying out our conventional and global responsibilities.

Lehrer: So it is a new world, is it not?

Cohen: It's a grave new world in many situations, but I think that the new administration coming in is going to face up to it and they will look to see what kind of a national missile defense system is desirable and capable of being developed and deployed consistent with dealing with our allies as well. And that's something he'll have to take into account.

Lehrer: If they ask you for your advice, what would you tell them about a missile defense system?

Cohen: Well, I would sit down and explain what I have supported in the past, I believe that President Clinton in supporting a limited defense capability against a limited type of attack is the way to go, but President-elect Bush has indicated he wants something more expansive.

Lehrer: You made a speech today at the National Press Club here in Washington, and you spoke about your concerns about Russia reverting to the past? What's that all about? What caused you to be concerned?

Cohen: Well, Russia is going through a very difficult transition period right now. According to some of the intelligence estimates, they are going to experience difficulties in terms of their economy, social problems that will continue to mount. The health situation has not been great in Russia. So there are many, many problems. You have a new president, President Putin, who has sent somewhat mixed signals in terms of what he seeks to do.

Lehrer: I took it from your remarks today you are not too hot about him, am I right? Did I read that correctly?

Cohen: Well, I think that he, he certainly is a man with single-minded focus. I don't -- at least in my meeting with him I didn't see him as a great strategic visionary as such. I think he is coping with a very difficult situation. But I am troubled by the fact that it appears he is trying to curtail or shut down the media. The free and open discussion of ideas, I'm concerned about the control that he would seek to apply to countries like Georgia; that there may be an effort to apply a strong-armed tactic in supplying oil and gas and energy supplies to the former republics of the Soviet Union and bring them back into line. I think there is a mixed message there. We have to try to encourage him to pursue one of integration with Europe and a better relationship with the United States.

Lehrer: Did you bring that up with Mr. Bush today?

Cohen: In passing, a number of issues, yes.

Lehrer: How difficult was it being a Republican in the cabinet of a Democratic president?

Cohen: It wasn't difficult at all. President Clinton made it clear that my role was to focus on national security. And he and his entire administration never once attempted to inject politics into any of our deliberations, and so it was very easy for me. I had the ability to go back up on the Hill to my former colleagues and to talk to Republicans and to Democrats and they all understood that I was playing it straight down the line. There was only one issue with the national security. It was a great relationship that I have with President Clinton, Sandy Berger, Secretary Albright, the whole team it was a wonderful experience.

Lehrer: Were you ever confronted with a situation where you had to make a decision that you felt might be good for a defense policy or whatever and for President Clinton and yet might be harmful to your party, the Republican Party?

Cohen: I never took party politics into consideration. I, the only thing I looked at is what is good for the country, what is in the best interest of our national security? What obligation do I have I to the men and women who are serving us? That is only the consideration I had, not to my party and no political considerations.

Lehrer: Was there any asset gained by your being a Republican in a Democratic cabinet, if they mentioned just the opposite in the incoming cabinet of President-elect Bush?

Cohen: I think so. Others will have to judge that but I found myself in a really unique position being able to go to my former colleagues on the Republican side and still having credibility with the Democrats being part of a Democratic administration. And there never was a question raised about my -- whether I was playing it one way or the other. So it was a totally wonderful experience for me.

Lehrer: What was it like working for Bill Clinton?

Cohen: I enjoyed it very much. He is truly a unique individual. He has an incredibly incisive mind, a curious mind. He is intellectually stimulating to be with. He has penetrating insight into issue that is I think is quite unique.

Lehrer: How did he function as commander and chief of the military?

Cohen: He functioned very well. On every issue that we presented to him, he had the ability to go right to the heart of the matter. He would ask penetrating questions. He would put us all on our toes, make sure that we had answers to questions. He was always well briefed. I think he did a splendid job and one that has served this country well.

Lehrer: What are your plans immediately and in the long-term?

Cohen: Well, I plan to try to take advantage of 31 years of public service, to become a consultant, to start my own little group and try to give advice and insight to people who would be interested in doing that in terms of doing business internationally or nationally.

Lehrer: Interested in reentering politics?

Cohen: No, my career in politics I think has come to an end. I've enjoyed every aspect from being the mayor of my hometown to being an assistant county attorney and Congressman, Senator and now this. This has been the best for me, the most rewarding experience of my life and I'm grateful to President Clinton for giving me this opportunity and it's something that I'll never forget and I hope to continue to be able to provide some support to my wife Janet, who will be serving in the USO, that we can continue to support our men and women who are serving.

Lehrer: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. Good luck to you and thank you for coming on your program when you did.

Cohen: Thank you, Jim.