Defense Department Media Roundtable with Secretary Gates and Gen. Pace from the Pentagon
SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. I was at the White House earlier today and took the opportunity to thank Senator Dole and Secretary Shalala for agreeing to co-chair the Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors. As you know, the commission will carry a comprehensive review of the services our government is providing our wounded servicemen and -women. The Defense Department, as directed in the executive order, will provide support to the commission.
I also attended the first meeting of the Task Force on Returning Global War on Terror Heroes, chaired by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, which will focus on services and help for veterans of the war on terror.
Finally, the independent review group on Walter Reed that I established has begun its work and will report back its findings -- its initial findings and recommendations just over a month from now. This deadline is relatively short for a reason: to make sure we identify additional flaws in the system and get on with fixing them as fast as possible.
While we look forward to the results of all of these efforts, the department will not wait for them to conclude before beginning to identify and fix problems that we can immediately address. To that end, I've directed the acting secretary of the Army to brief me by the end of this week on the Army's action plan and timeline to address Walter Reed outpatient care. I will expect progress reports on this every two weeks.
In addition, I've directed that the undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness and the assistant secretary for Health Affairs to comprehensively review of all of the department's medical care programs, facilities and procedures in all services, to ensure that we are providing all of our troops the standard of care that they deserve. I have told them that resources will not be an issue.
After the war itself, fixing the problems associated with care for our wounded must be our highest priority. I believe it's important that we look at this from the perspective of the serviceman or -woman, and not from the perspective of the bureaucracy. The goal is a system and an institutional culture that is a powerful advocate for the needs of wounded soldiers and their families, not an adversary.
It's our duty to set the priorities, to allocate the necessary resources, to look for and find problems, to fix the mistakes, and to make the bureaucracy work as it should for the people it's supposed to serve. These responsibilities are particularly heavy in a time of war, and especially when it involves the care of men and women who have suffered and sacrificed so much for their country.
GEN. PACE: Thank you, sir.
The secretary's already covered the important issue for the day, so why don't we go straight to your questions?
Q Mr. Secretary, over the last several days there's been escalating violence in Iraq by Sunni insurgents against Shiites. Can you tell us whether you think this is either a reaction to the surge, or is the surge, as you see it, not doing what it needs to do at this point?
SEC. GATES: I think -- the general can offer his thoughts on this.
I think that we expected that there would be, in the short term, an increase in violence as the surge began to make itself felt, as the Baghdad security plan began to be implemented. There are some very preliminary positive signs of things going on. No one wants to get too enthusiastic about it at this point; we're right at the very beginning. But I would say that based in terms of the -- whether the Iraqis are meeting the commitments that they've made to us in the security arena, I think that our view would be so far, so good.
GEN. PACE: Sir, I think that covers it pretty much. We've got very early data points, and the two are -- one, that sectarian violence is down a little bit, and vehicle-borne explosives are up a little bit. So I think you see potentially the Iraqi people wanting to take advantage of this opportunity, and the enemy wanting to keep it going.
Q But does that slight decrease take into account the more 120 people that were killed in sectarian violence this last couple of days?
GEN. PACE: The murders between Sunni and Shi'a are down. The numbers of bombs that have gone off killing large numbers, as you mentioned, has gone up.
I -- with just those few data points, it means to me potentially that the Iraqi people do want to stop killing each other, but that the al Qaeda wants to find ways to get them to start killing each other again. So bombs are up; murders are down.
Q Mr. Secretary, as Secretary England has been testifying on the Hill this month, there has been some consternation expressed by members of Congress, who seem to be a little surprised about the number of additional support troops who are going, and the amount of additional funding that is required, both for Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them seem to think that the Pentagon and the administration is lowballing both the troops and money that's required for this renewed effort. Could you put that in perspective for us?
SEC. GATES: I think it's pretty straightforward. The chairman and I both testified in January after the Congressional Budget Office report came out, and with their estimates of what the combat support elements would cost and the number of troops involved. And we said at that time that we believed that the combat support would be about 10 to 15 percent of the size of the reinforcement itself, so 10 to 15 percent of 21,500. We're in that range. The size of the combat support units at this point are about 2,400.
What has happened is that subsequent to the submission of the supplemental, we sent a new commander to Iraq. And he has come back with a request for an additional couple of thousand people to help oversee detainees. He anticipates that as the brigades come in and as the Baghdad security plan is implemented that there will be a requirement for -- that they will pick up a significant number of additional detainees, and he wants more military police to help with that. So that's a new requirement by a new commander subsequent to the submission of the supplemental to the Congress.
There are other requests that have come in that have not been vetted. They have not been reviewed and a recommendation made by the Joint Staff, and we will look at those going forward. They are not huge numbers, and we will look at them.
I mean, the reality is -- it sort of speaks to the obvious, but we are in a war. We have a new commander out there. He's looking at the needs as he proceeds. But so far, the commitments that have been made in terms of combat support are within the range that the chairman and I told the Congress in January, plus the new request from General Petraeus on detainee operations.
Q What is that new request, the number from General Petraeus?
SEC. GATES: It's about 2,200 --
GEN. PACE: Yes, sir.
SEC. GATES: -- for military police for detainees.
Q Mr. Secretary, first of all, I must commend that you have been taking time to fight the global war against terrorism and also taking -- solving the problem.
You have, Mr. Secretary, vast experience as Afghanistan is concerned. You have been there for many, many years. And recently, you had been in the area also visited about the problems growing in Afghanistan. My question is that since -- although we don't have had any major attacks here since 9/11, but now the Taliban and al Qaeda are regrouping in Afghanistan and they are preparing to attack again the free government of Afghanistan, of President Karzai, as you have been sticking to him, and also General Musharraf in Pakistan, and the report is there that Osama bin Laden is still alive, and he's the one who's taking initiative to regroup his people there.
SEC. GATES: And the question is?
Q So what do you think -- where are we heading now? Because many Afghans are now -- they are complaining that even though U.S. got freedom for us, but now we have been left alone because there are -- more attacks are coming from Taliban.
SEC. GATES: Well, the Afghans certainly are not being left alone. The NATO Alliance has made one of its -- perhaps its largest commitment outside of the Balkans -- in Afghanistan. The United States has a significant number of troops there.
The reality is that over the last two to three years, there has been a steady increase in the amount of violence that the Taliban have engaged in, principally in the eastern and southern part of Afghanistan. We anticipate that they would try and increase it further this spring. And as the NATO defense ministers discussed in Seville, we made a commitment that the spring offensive in Afghanistan would be our offensive. We have extended a brigade, so we have plussed up our own troops. We are sending additional trainers. Other countries are committing additional forces to Afghanistan, and we are determined to take these guys on and push them back.
Q (Off mike) -- Mr. Secretary, sir, quickly. What role do you think India is playing in Afghanistan? And also, how do you put today military relations between the United States and India?
SEC. GATES: Well, I don't want to get into India's military role. But I would say that the relationship between ourselves and India is quite good, and remarkably better than when I left government 14 years ago.
Q Mr. Secretary, before the regional meeting in Baghdad, do you think that Iran is ready to play a constructive role in Iraq and ready for the diplomatic engagement with the U.S. in Iraq?
SEC. GATES: I'd say we'll see.
Q Mr. Secretary, you asked each of the services to get back to you by February 28th on how to minimize stop loss. My understanding is the Army has yet to do so. The Army has declined to comment. Can you talk about why the Army has not met your deadline, and if you're taking any follow-up action?
SEC. GATES: I don't know why the Army hasn't met the deadline. I will find out.
Q Mr. Secretary, I know you testified before Congress that you'd only ask for funding for the troop surge through the end of the fiscal year. But for both of you, what is the current planning scenario for this higher level of troops? In fact are you now looking at how you would maintain it into early '08? What's the scenario, even though you may not have reached a decision? How long are you planning for?
SEC. GATES: I'll answer and then invite the chairman. What we do will be determined by the situation on the ground.
Q If I just might clarify for the chairman, I think my question is -- I understand that, but you certainly plan ahead. You know you have to decide on troop rotations just in case. So how far are you planning ahead for now?
GEN. PACE: From a budgeting standpoint, for FY '08 we just used steady state, not knowing if we're going to go up or down. The numbers that were submitted by the department for '08 were steady state numbers. For the planning for what's really going to happen on the ground, we're looking at maintaining 20 brigades, we're looking at coming down from that with some off-ramps, and we're looking for, if needed, to be able to plus up. So we're looking, as we should, at each of the three possibilities: hold what you have, come -- come down, or plus up if you need to.
Q Through what point on the calendar does this -- is this the plan -- are these options to carry you through early '08?
GEN. PACE: Each of those options would take us through '08, whether it's a plus-up, a steady state, or a come down, we're looking out over the next 12 to 18 months to see how we would resource the requirements if they were larger, the same, or smaller than they are today.
Q Mr. Secretary, regarding Afghanistan, how much of a problem is the activity that's been reported as going on in Pakistan by way of al Qaeda and Taliban safe havens and training camps?
And can you clarify for me what exactly our rules of engagement are? If we know -- if the United States knows that there are al Qaeda and Taliban training camps that are being used to -- as part of offensive actions against American troops in Afghanistan, are we free to take those out, if the Pakistanis are either unwilling or unable to do so?
SEC. GATES: Well, I would say, first of all, that the Taliban and al Qaeda have been able to use the areas around particularly North Waziristan to regroup, and it is a problem. We are working together with Pakistan to address that problem. And I think I'll leave it at that.
Q Mr. Secretary, the department has decided to close Combatant Status Review Tribunals at Guantanamo to the press and the public. Do you worry that holding those proceedings in secret will undermine their credibility?
SEC. GATES: No, I think, first of all, the reason is -- for these particular individuals is that a good deal of the discussion associated with their evaluation is going to be of classified information. That's the reason.
Our plan is to issue, within a couple of days of the reviews, redacted transcripts of the reviews so that you all will have access to those.
Q Do you think when they release those -- we were told yesterday that they would likely not have the names of the suspects. I think that there's a high degree of public interest, especially on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Do you think you should put the names of the detainees along with the transcripts so we know who you're talking about?
SEC. GATES: I don't know the answer to that question, but I'll ask.
Q Mr. Secretary, a follow-up on (Julian's ?) question. Has Guantanamo, has the military prison at Guantanamo become such a liability for the United States that it’s continuation is essentially no longer worth it?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that I've actually spoken to this before. I think that Guantanamo has become symbolic, whether we like it or not, for many around the world. The president has said he'd like to close the detainee facility there. I'd like to close the facility there. The problem is that we have a certain number of the detainees there who often by their own confessions are people who if released would come back to attack the United States. There are others that we would like to turn back to their home countries, but their home countries don't want them.
So we are trying to address the problem of how do we reduce the numbers at Guantanamo and then what do you do with the relatively limited number that you probably -- that it would be irresponsible to release. And I would tell you that we're wrestling with those questions right now.
Q (Off mike) -- different facilities, perhaps the United States?
SEC. GATES: Well, that gets into all kinds of legal issues that, frankly, are, as the line is used here, out of my lane.
Q I understand it's still early in your tenure, Mr. Secretary, but one of your first announcements was the plan to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000. Can you update us at all on whether you've been briefed on a strategy to do that? Are you confident that it can be done quickly on schedule? And what are some of the challenges in mustering what is effectively, you know, the largest increase since the Cold War?
SEC. GATES: I have been briefed. I am very comfortable with the numbers. The numbers that are represented in the build-up -- 7,000 a year for the Army, 5,000 a year for the Marine Corps -- were numbers that came from the services themselves that they believed were net increases that they could fund -- that they could achieve without lowering quality. And so I'm fairly confident. I'll invite the chairman to speak to it, but I'm fairly confident that they can meet these targets.
GEN. PACE: So the Army started out at a baseline of 482,000. They had a temporary increase ceiling of 512,000. They were at about 509,000 when the decision was made to add the additional 35,000 on top of that.
So over the next five years, as the secretary said, we'll be adding 7,000 per year to the Army. That's on track. The funding for that is in the budget request, and that is on track.
For the Marine Corps, very similar numbers: They start out with 175,000. They were at 180,000 for the temporary ceiling when the decision was made to go to 202,000. The other 22,000 would be added at 5,000 per year for the next five years. And again, that money is in the budget.
SEC. GATES: I might just add that one of the positive things that's going on is that the services are meeting both their retention and recruitment goals, so -- yeah.
Q Mr. Secretary, at the beginning of the administration, or right after the attacks on 9/11, Afghanistan was looked at as a foreign policy success for this administration. And yet we've seen an increase in violence, a resurgence of the Taliban and al Qaeda, poppy crop is up, and we can't get the allies to contribute. Is it still in your view considered a foreign policy success?
SEC. GATES: I think the Afghan people would say it's a foreign policy success by the United States, and I think it is one for us. I would say -- well, first of all, I can't address the preceding number of years. But first of all, I would say, it's not the case that we can't get our allies to provide troops. A number of countries have either announced publicly or have told us privately that they are preparing to increase their troop levels in Afghanistan over the next several months.
So I think that in fact NATO really is stepping up. NATO and our other partners in Afghanistan are stepping up. Are they stepping up to the extent we would like? Probably not. But they're doing more than is being reported, I think, and more countries are sending in more forces. Afghanistan is -- one of -- the challenge in both Afghanistan and Iraq is that the elected governments in those countries are trying to do something that has never been done in the whole history of those countries, and that is create a government that actually serves the people. And the notion that they're running into difficulties or challenges when people are trying to prevent them from doing that should come as no surprise to anybody.
Part of the problem is history isn't made at television time. And the fact that the Europeans are in Afghanistan in such numbers, both in a military sense and in terms of economic development and reconstruction, I think is evidence that the international community is very supportive of the Karzai government, wants to see it succeed.
And the popularity of the government, while down somewhat, is still fairly high across Afghanistan. So I see it as a continuing success but a success that is facing challenges.
Q Mr. Secretary, a question for you and the chairman. General Casey had the goal of handing over all Iraqi provinces to Iraqi security control by November of this year. Do you believe that's still a realistic goal? And when might we see the next province handed over?
SEC. GATES: Why don't you --
GEN. PACE: I do think it's a realistic goal. Again, the enemy has a vote. The Iraqi government has a committee that meets a couple times a month; they review the status. Currently there are three of the 18 provinces that have been turned over. There are three more, I'm told, that the Iraqi government has determined are ready to turn over. There's some -- I'm told some political agreements that need to be made to make sure that that's ready to go. But the process is on track. And by the end of this year, it is certainly reasonable that the vast majority, if not all, will be able to be under the Iraqi provincial governor's control, with his central government-provided policy and army providing the security with us backing them up.
SEC. GATES: Yeah.
Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I would like to ask a question about North Korea. North Korea still has WMD -- (inaudible) -- chemical and biological weapons. Why are these chemical and biological weapons and mass murder weapons not included -- February 13th North Korean nuclear agreement?
SEC. GATES: I think that that's because the purpose of the six- party talks was basically focused on North Korea's nuclear problem. I think that the concern that most countries have is -- about North Korea is related to their nuclear program, not only their own capability to use nuclear weapons, but their potential willingness to sell nuclear materials to others.
So I think that people have seen that as the principal concern with North Korea, and that's where the focus of the diplomatic effort has been.
Q Mr. Secretary, Chairman, you say that al Qaeda is stepping up its activity in Iraq. I wonder if you can explain what role Saudi Arabia or Saudi Arabian sources, what role they're playing in either providing funding or weapons to al Qaeda there or Shi'a forces -- or Sunni forces.
SEC. GATES: I have seen literally nothing to suggest that the Saudi government is providing any support.
Q What about Saudi donors?
SEC. GATES: I have not seen any information to that effect.
Q Mr. Chairman?
GEN. PACE: Yeah, I'm searching my memory bank here. First of all, let me make sure that I haven't misspoken. I said the couple of data points we have, which is not a trend, murders are down, bombings are up --
GEN. PACE: -- which is a little different than what I think you said.
Second, I can't recollect a data point about support other than the official -- sorry -- the official Saudi government support for things like the neighbors conference that's about to take place this weekend.
Q Mr. Secretary, General Pace, China has announced an 18 percent increase in is defense spending. What does that do to your level of concern about China's military intentions in the region? What, if any, U.S. response will there be? And what, if anything, can China do to ease concerns here and elsewhere about its growing military capability?
SEC. GATES: Well, we both can address that.
First of all, I think it doesn't say much at all about China's intentions. It does say that China is building its capabilities. And we've talked about that here before in terms of the anti-satellite test and some of their submarine operations, and so on. They clearly are making a significant investment in their military forces and in both strategic and tactical modernization.
I think that greater transparency would help from the standpoint of the Chinese in terms of both what they're doing and what their strategies are, their intent in modernizing their forces; a greater openness about the purposes.
My guess is that what they've announced does not represent their entire military budget. So I think that -- again, I think one of the most significant things they could do to provide reassurance to people is greater openness or transparency about what they're doing.
Q What is your assessment or the department's assessment of the other side of the coin, the threat side? You said capability doesn't equal threat, but what's your assessment -- (to the general) -- or yours, sir, about what their intentions are?
SEC. GATES: I don't -- I do not see China at this point as a strategic adversary of the United States. It's a partner in some respects. It's a competitor in other respects. And so we are simply watching to see what they're doing.
I think that it's very important for us to engage the Chinese on all facets of our relationship as a way of building mutual confidence.
GEN. PACE: And a threat has two fundamental parts to it. One is capacity and two is intent. And when you see the global capacity growing in any area, we need to make sure that the United States military's capable of handling any threat that might develop, without regard to current intent, which is why in the budget, when you look at it, there's not only the money for continuing the global war on terror, but also ensuring that we have the Air Force we need, the Navy we need and all the things that we need for conventional battle, so that our potential adversaries don't miscalculate our capacities.
And that's -- that did not assume anything about any one country. It means that we need to look out across the globe, as we did in Quadrennial Defense Review last year; we look at the types of capacities that are coming on line, regardless of country; we ensure ourselves that we can deal with that capacity and that we have overmatching capacity for that, and where we don't, that we ask in the budget for the funding to be able to address that gap, if it exists.
STAFF: One more.
Q A question for the chairman. General Pace, as a combat veteran and chairman of the Joint Chiefs, now what was your personal reaction to the stories about some of the conditions that the wounded soldiers at Walter Reed had to face in the outpatient facilities?
And a second question: In all your years of service, surely you must have been aware of the kind of bureaucratic nightmare that many of the wounded and disabled have had to face in going through the military medical system, not only in this war but from World War II, Korea, Vietnam. For many, if it wasn't a tragedy, it was a standing joke. Why, when there's so much lip service paid to supporting the troops, has that system not been fixed after decades, from what we understand, of these problems?
GEN. PACE: The first answer is, I was sick, because we all want to ensure that these great young men and women who serve our country so, so well receive proper support and care, from the way that we train them and employ them and provide protection for them in combat until they get home.
I can simply tell you why I was surprised. And that is because as I visit the facilities, especially here in D.C., Walter Reed and Bethesda, my trips have been to the wards where the troops are -- have currently -- had recently come in. And when you were on the ward, whether somebody came from two or three days ago or a month ago, and you'd ask the families how they're doing, consistently and across the board, and I believe it's true today, that the families and the troops believed that, first, the wounded soldier was getting the very best medical care possible, and that secondly, we're taking very good care of the families, to include picking them up at airports and having rooms for them at places like Mologne House and Fisher House, and making sure they can get from point A to point B.
So all of that care had me believing that we were in fact not providing lip service, but we were doing what we were supposed to do. And to be absolutely candid, I did not even know about Building 18, didn't visit the, quote, "outpatient" facilities, was visiting the troops who were wounded, seeing them, seeing their families, and believing that what we were saying and what we were producing were the same thing.
So I was sick from the standpoint of not providing to our wounded troops the end-to-end care that they deserve, which is why I've given my advice to the secretary about how we might -- how we can first identify what the gaps are and fix that in the future. And now I am chastened to remind myself that when I go visit the hospitals, I should also find the other places in the hospitals where the longer- term care is being given so I can satisfy myself that what we are saying and what we are doing are the same thing.
Q Are you satisfied that the system in terms of the longer care, the after-care given not only the wounded and disabled soldiers and Marines, airmen, whatever, but also the veterans -- are you satisfied that that system is not broken?
GEN. PACE: I'm never satisfied because even for the parts of the system that are working well today, you need to have constant leadership to ensure they continue. And the secretary and the president have both put in place, from the department standpoint, everything that the department's responsible for from the time a troop is wounded until the time we hand them over to the VA care and, from the present standpoint, the continuation then from the -- turn over from DOD to VA and the continuation of that. That is all being looked at, as it should be. There's no doubt in my mind that there'll be things found that need to be fixed and that we are all committed to fixing it.
SEC. GATES: The last comment. I would just add this -- my view was that when we found that -- when we found the problems that we did in -- at Walter Reed, which we considered the jewel in the crown, if you will, I became very worried that there were other bureaucratic problems elsewhere, and I worried about -- especially about the hand- off from the Department of Defense to the Veterans Administration and so on. And that's why I am so supportive of an effort, of the Dole- Shalala effort that looks at this process end to end, as I said in my remarks, from the time a soldier is wounded on the battlefield until he or she is either returned to service or is discharged and ends up at their local VA hospital or back at home to make sure that from the -- it's look at from the standpoint of the soldier that -- and not from the bureaucratic standpoint, that the quality of attention and care through that whole spectrum is what it should be. And I'm concerned that it's not.
Q And I guess what surprises many people is that the bureaucracy is surprised that there were these problems. (Laughter.)
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