Q What's the best case scenario -- (off mike) – most likely case scenario -- (off mike)?
SEC. GATES: Well, based on what the Ecuadorians have said, we're obviously beginning to look at alternatives. The capabilities that are in (inaudible) are important not just for us, but for all of regional security. That said, the issue did not come up in Colombia, and we had no proposals to anyone, and it's not on my agenda at other stops either. It's – premature, you know, we're not there yet. We're just still looking at alternatives. We haven't made any proposals to anyone.
Q Do you think Equador is off the table -- (off mike)?
SEC. GATES: I hope not, but we continue to talk with them. But they sound pretty far along—we’ll see.
Q Can we just go back to -- I know you answered a question about security groups in Iraq at the press conference today, but I'm wondering if you have talked to anyone since -- talking a little bit more about what types of things the Defense Department could do. And also --
SEC. GATES: I re-read the memo -- (laughter) -- so now I can remember a couple of things. (Laughter.)
Q And also, just -- this sounds like Maliki is suggesting that perhaps he again wants to throw Blackwater out. So I'm wondering what the repercussions of that --
SEC. GATES: Well, I think it would be -- first of all, I think it would be -- I mean, I don't know whether other firms could cover. I just don't know what the practical implications of that would be if it were limited to one firm.
So I think we'll just have to wait and see and especially if the question is what State would do in the meantime. So it's really more of a challenge, I think, for the Department of State in the short term.
But some of the suggestions that the team came back with were things like the -- one of the things that surprised me was that many if not most of the contracts that are executed in Iraq are not processed through MNF-I. They're done in the States even though they're going to be executed in Iraq. So one obvious suggestion is, how do we give MNF-I a greater clarity and more of a role, and knowledge about the contracts that are going to be executed in their AOR?
Another is better coordination among the contractors and MNF-I. For example, one of the units reports that about 30 percent of the calls for help for quick reaction forces come from convoys that MNF-I doesn't know are out there. And so better coordination -- I mean, and then they face a problem and then they've got to call for help from MNF-I. So the idea is, how do you coordinate this in a way that MNF-I has a better picture of what's going on in its own area?
Another would have to do with -- another proposal would be selective application of UCMJ. Another idea has been to -- for either Deputy Secretary England or I to meet with the heads of these companies, talk about the situation and our expectations, but also at the same time perhaps offer some -- I'm sure there's a fair amount of uncertainty on their part now about what the ground rules are going to be, and perhaps we could provide some help on that.
So those are some of the suggestions that have been put forward, and that's why I said yesterday or whenever it was that they seem fairly common sensible to me. But I haven't talked with anybody about them. I haven't talked with Gordon England, I haven't talked with any of the contracting people, I haven't talked to John Young. So I'm not making any commitments on any of these, but these were some of the kind of suggestions that came up.
Q Would limiting the number of contractors there, would that put more stress on the military, having to fill some of those roles?
SEC. GATES: Well, there -- if you had -- as I said in the Appropriations Committee hearing last week, the reason we have contractors is that they take the place of soldiers. And it doesn't matter whether they're guarding a facility or a convoy or cooking meals. And so the two alternatives -- if there were significant limitations on contractors doing security work, the two alternatives are either we have to use soldiers to do that or you have significantly less mobility on the part of the Department of State and the civilian side of the government, which is a huge component of what we're trying to accomplish in Iraq right now. So that would be, it seems to me, very counterproductive.
Q Can you go back to that point, the point you made about selective application of the UCMJ?. What do you mean by that? Do you mean --
SEC. GATES: Well, it would be -- I mean, they have the authority to use it now; the question is, where would the authority be exercised? In other words, at what level would it be exercised? At the General Petraeus level and only by General Petraeus, who would make that decision, or maybe somebody else? And again, that's just something we need to look into more deeply and talk with departmental lawyers and so on.
Q Do you expect there would probably be significant legal challenges to trying contractors under the UCMJ?
SEC. GATES: Well, I -- you know, I'm no lawyer, but I think there -- and the Congress, you know, has helped us out here. They've -- my understanding is that they have given us the authority to use -- to apply UCMJ. I -- and -- but my -- what I've been told is that there is some uncertainty whether you could actually make that work.
Q Do you see more -- now that --
SEC. GATES: And so the question then is -- the alternative to that would be the use of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act.
Q And do you see -- (cross talk). (Inaudible) -- just to follow up on that -- (off mike) -- do you see more prosecutions or more enforcement now that Gordon England’s memo has gone out , commanders maybe feel more solid in -- (off mike).
SEC. GATES: Erin (sp), I think that there was some concern on the part of our commanders that maybe over -- you know, I don't know -- this goes back quite a while, but some concern that contractors who did things wrong were just sent home and further action wasn't taken against them.
Q (Off mike) --
SEC. GATES: I'm sorry?
Q (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: Well, actually, I thought I did. I said that any effort that would lead to the result of the hostages -- the safe release of the hostages is worth considering. I also said that President Uribe had made perfectly clear that there were limits in terms of what he was prepared to do to make that happen, and that everybody had to realize at the end of the day it was FARC's decision.
Q What limits had President Uribe set --
SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- I think, actually, I – it would probably be better for me to let the Columbians respond to that.
Q Well, they did make a statement that I don’t actually understand -- (off mike).
Q (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: The president and I had a discussion about how counterproductive it is to release convicted criminals in exchange for hostages, and I cited a couple of examples from Afghanistan as to how that can be a vicious cycle.
Q So will the United States ask for the release of those guys -- (off mike) --
SEC. GATES: I'm in no position to judge that at this point or hypothesize.
Q Did the subject of China come up at all, or is it on your mind on this trip in terms of counterbalance of the influence China is trying to have on this part of the world -- (off mike).
SEC. GATES: That did not come up.
Q Is it something that is on your mind as you (off mike).
SEC. GATES: Not particularly. The focus has really been on further strengthening our relationships with them.
Q What specifically would you like to see (off mike) – way ahead
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the idea is to help them strengthen their own capabilities so that they can then do these things on their own. For example, they are using FMS to buy military equipment from us. And I don't think anyone anticipates that these cooperative programs would go on forever.
But I will tell you one of the big surprises for me coming back into the government, and when I left in '93 and watching it during the '90s, I think that the turnaround in Colombia is one of the great success stories in terms of both establishing greater security but also professionalizing the military, institutionalizing the rule of law, bringing people accused of wrongdoing to justice, and the efforts to take out both -- to get -- to go after both terrorist groups and insurgencies but also to take down some of the major drug lords and be willing to extradite them to the United States.
So I think -- I mean the difference between Colombia 10 years ago and Colombia today, I think -- 10 years ago, Colombia was headed toward being a failed state, and it's absolutely far from that today.
Q Can you give us an idea --
SEC. GATES: So the bottom-line answer to your question is, the idea is over time that these programs will be pretty much institutionalized by these countries themselves and our support can begin to diminish. But we need to help to get going. And it's -- you know, Colombia is a mature democracy, but Plan Colombia is only -- well, 1999, 2000, so six or seven years old. Given the magnitude of the problems they face, I think to cut it short now would be a serious mistake.
Q Can you give us an idea what's on your mind as we head to Chile?
SEC. GATES: In many respects, Chile is a -- is going to be kind of a -- a celebration, in the sense that we have a very strong military-to-military relationship.
I was first in Chile with former President Bush in 1990 when I was deputy national security adviser, and they were just coming out of the Pinochet period. And there's been so much progress.
And, you know, talk about a mature democracy, here's a democracy that's playing a significant role in international peacekeeping. They've got over 500 troops in Haiti. They've endorsed the Proliferation Security Initiative. They're a member of the Board of Directors of the IAEA. I mean, these guys are serious players on the international scene, and it's really an opportunity to go down there and see if there are additional opportunities to deepen our relationship with them. The Air Force is only going to be participating in one international air show, in Latin America, in 2008, and it's is going to be in Chile. So there's a very close relationship between the two militaries.
Q Do you have any ideas -- (off mike) -- relationship?
SEC. GATES: Well, we've -- you know, they've already bought a number of F-16s from us. They're modernizing their military. They're already participating in exercises with us. And so finding ways to intensify those efforts, I think, is one way.
Q I would like to know --(Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- first of all, I was very impressed with the professionalism of the young men who were in the (Ensaros ?). It was a very impressive group of people. You're sitting there knowing that on your best day at 20 years old you couldn't have done that. (Laughter.) I was sitting there thinking that. (Laughs.) General Correlli (sic) -- might believe that -- (inaudible) -- probably was able to do those things.
But and then, you know, first of all, the demonstration of the rappelling and so on, and then going over for the hostage rescue -- my own view is that the first objective is the safe return of the hostages. And so I think any attempt at a rescue would have to be very, very carefully thought through, and the circumstances and quality of the intelligence. I think doing that kind of thing -- just based on my own experience, you know, we went through efforts all through the mid-1980s to rescue hostages in Beirut. And all I can tell you, it's a very iffy proposition.
And I think it would have -- and I think everything would have to be just right. The priority has to be on the safe return of the hostages. My view is, that probably requires more patience.
Q (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: No, those are always the answers that get you into trouble. (Laughter.) So off to Chile and then Peru. (End available audio.)
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