DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
SEC. GATES: Glad to see a big turnout for Admiral Mullen's debut.
Q We all have season tickets. (Laughter.)
SEC. GATES: (Laughs.) I'm sure you will all join me in welcoming Admiral Mullen to the briefing room for our first joint press conference. I'd like to think you'd cut him some slack first time out, but I know better.
Yesterday I attended the swearing-in ceremony for General Kevin Chilton, "Chili" Chilton, at the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha. STRATCOM's portfolio includes some of the military's key capabilities -- space, cyberspace, proliferation, missile defense -- along with our nuclear deterrent.
General Chilton, a former NASA astronaut who had three space shuttle missions, is probably one of the Air Force's best and brightest officers and, I think, is well-suited for this post.
As you know, I was in Russia last week with Secretary Rice. We had rather direct discussions with President Putin and our Russian counterparts. Although some different -- real differences remained between our countries, I think we've developed a path forward in several areas.
In addition, by having regular meetings of the so-called two plus two, I think that'll help improve relations and lines of communication between the two countries. And we have invited our counterparts to come to Washington in about six months.
Finally, I voiced my concerns about the pending congressional resolution on Armenian genocide with leaders on Capitol Hill. I would state again it has the potential to do real harm to our troops in Iraq and would strain, perhaps beyond repair, our relationship with a key ally in a vital region and in the wider war on terror.
At the same time, we call on Turkey to refrain from military action into Iraq that would create an international crisis and further undermine stability in Iraq. We recognize the harm and heartbreak caused by terrorist attacks across the Iraqi border into Turkey and are working with both governments to rein in the activities of the PKK.
I'm scheduled to meet with Turkey's minister of Defense next week in Europe and intend to discuss this situation with him.
ADM. MULLEN: Thank you, sir.
I would just like to again say what an honor it is to be here and to represent the men and women who serve us around the world, and thank the secretary and the president for the confidence in me to serve in this job. And I very much look forward to it.
Secondly, many of you may know we lost a true hero last night, Admiral Bill Crowe, who passed away; a distinguished naval officer, diplomat, leader, mentor; served both Presidents Reagan and Bush; had, if you knew him, one of the greatest senses of humor of anyone I ever knew. And I saw him recently and just want to pay my respects, our respects, for his great service, and our thoughts and prayers go out to his family in this very difficult time.
I just in the first couple weeks -- got back a little over a week ago from Iraq and Afghanistan. I was positively moved by what I'd seen. I hadn't been over there since last December in either one -- in either country. In Iraq, I found security to be better, as has been discussed. I found the strategy to essentially secure the Iraqi people and try to move forward in that regard, I was positively moved. I talked to a lot of the troops who are over there in their 14th month, and they are performing magnificently, although certainly that group -- they're ready to come home, and their families are ready to have them home.
I also observed some progress in terms of what I would call the local politics. One of the big things that impressed me were the concerned local citizens who are actually taking over the security in their local areas; upwards of 50 to 60,000 have done that so far. And so there was positive -- there were positive steps there as well.
In Afghanistan, I was -- one other comment on Iraq is just the police performance, particularly up north, which had been a concern not that long ago. I spent time in Mosul and Tikrit and was highly praised, and many of our soldiers talked about the leaders -- the Iraqi leaders who were stepping forward, military leaders, and police leaders who were stepping forward and filling key positions. Those were positive signs to me.
In Afghanistan, again, very positive comments about the Iraq -- sorry -- Afghanistan army, and we need to continue to make progress there. There's a lot of terrific effort going on with respect to training there, and also recognize that there -- in both places there's still a great deal to be done.
So I was encouraged by that based on the fact that -- and this is my baseline; I hadn't been there in almost year -- based on what I saw.
And then, lastly, last week I was -- spent a half a day out at BAMC out in San Antonio, and just a reminder of how important it is for us to get it right for those wounded warriors and their families. That's a priority for me to keep focus on, as I know it is for the secretary and many others, to make sure we get it right for those who've actually sacrificed so much in both these campaigns.
SEC. GATES: Leah?
Q Mr. Secretary, you met with the Armenian prime minister today. Did he urge you to back off on your opposition to the resolution, and do you think you've made any headway in getting it perhaps stalled?
And then, secondarily, for, Admiral, and also Mr. Secretary, can you say why it is the U.S. military can't do more against the PKK on the border as a way of, perhaps, mollifying the Turks?
SEC. GATES: First of all, he didn't raise the subject of the resolution and neither did I. The -- I think there have been -- you know, I haven't counted any noses, but I just -- based on what I read in the newspapers, it sounds like -- you know, I don't think there's very much disagreement on the substance of the issue. The question is really the timing and the consequences.
And as I've said on a couple of other occasions, I think, based on the Turks' reaction when the French parliament passed a resolution, and their cutoff of military-to-military relations and other things, and frankly having worked this issue for the last four -- well, in the last Bush administration, when this resolution also came up, I don't think the Turks are bluffing. I think it is that meaningful to them. I think they see implications in terms of reparations and perhaps even borders.
And so I think there's a very real risk of perhaps them not shutting us down at Incirlik, but of placing restrictions on us that would have the same effect, or narrowing the flow of traffic across the border into Iraq, as I've mentioned. About 70 percent of our air cargo into Iraq goes through Incirlik. About a third of our fuel goes across the border, across the -- into Iraq, and 95 percent of the MRAPs that we're flying into the theater are going through Incirlik. So there are real consequences here, and I think people are beginning to think about that.
The -- we want to help the Turks with the PKK. We recognize that Turks are being killed by this organization -- innocent Turks, both soldiers and civilians. It is partly a matter of intelligence and how specific the information we can get is. I think that if we were to come up with specific information, that we and the Iraqis would be prepared to do the appropriate thing and, if we had information on them in Turkey, that we would provide that information.
So we are determined to work with the Turks in trying to reduce this threat to the Turkish people and the Turkish army.
I guess I'll stop here. Mike, you want to add anything?
ADM. MULLEN: The only thing I'd add is just to reemphasize the significant military impact that it would have in terms of the support for ongoing operations. I've also been encouraged that the Iraqi government officials and the Turkish government officials have been working this, and hopefully we can -- hopefully there can be some positive outcome from that engagement as well.
Q Mr. Secretary, you just said a moment ago we and the Iraqis would be prepared to do the appropriate thing. What would be that appropriate thing? Are you talking military action against the PKK? Exactly what?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think I'll just leave it at "the appropriate thing." These are -- these people are basically terrorists, and I think we would try and do the appropriate thing.
Q In the meantime, are the U.S. and Iraqis leaning on the Kurdish leaders in the north to do the appropriate thing? Can anything be done about that?
SEC. GATES: There certainly have been conversations with the Kurdish leaders about this.
Q Sir, can you clarify or elaborate on the remarks made by the president yesterday about "if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them" -- meaning Iran -- "from having the knowledge necessary to make nuclear weapons." There's been some misinterpretation, I think, of those remarks suggesting that the U.S. could launch World War III. Are those helpful words from the president at this very tense time with Iran regarding --
SEC. GATES: Well, it's not my role to interpret the president. What I will say is that -- and what I believe he probably had in mind is that if Iraq -- if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it seems very probable that there will be other states in the region that decide for their own protection they will have to obtain nuclear weapons as well. And so you will have a nuclear arms -- you very likely would have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. And as those materials became available -- and perhaps weapons became available -- in states that have not had nuclear weapons to date, the risk of an accident or a miscalculation or of those weapons or materials falling into the hands of terrorists seem to me to be substantially increased.
And I think in that context, the risk of a major war in the Middle East, with who knows what consequences, comes onto the radar screen. I think it's not something that's going to happen next year or the year after that, but perhaps five or 10 years from now.
I think the worry is that it's -- and this is not to mention the fact that you've got a leader in Iran who has already publicly said that Israel ought to be destroyed. So let's just say that the leadership in Iran doesn't give us confidence, even by their public statements, that they would handle this kind of a capability with any kind of responsibility. And then when you add to that the proliferation part of the equation, it seems to me it ends up being a far more dangerous world.
Q Did President Putin make any progress in convincing Tehran to stop its enrichment of uranium? You mentioned when you were in Russia that there was some perhaps new initiatives that Putin was putting forth.
SEC. GATES: I haven't gotten a debrief, but I hope he did.
Q Secretary, back on Iraq. There's a new report out today by the special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction, and it sort of lays out a bunch of assessments from the PRTs about what's happening all across the country at a very low level in terms of economic and political progress and reconciliation, the kind of things that the surge was supposed to enable to take place. And what the report says in essence is it ain't taking place; that there's a very low level of economic reconstruction and there's no political reconciliation, and those things that many people have hoped for are not taking place.
So, what's plan B as far as extending the security cover under which this kind of activity can take place? And within the administration, what can you do or what are you doing to sort of push more effort on the non-kinetic side of this struggle?
SEC. GATES: Well, I haven't read this report. I haven't seen this report. And all I can tell you is that the information that we're getting from the commanders and from the ambassador doesn't square with that. The admiral's just come back from there, so I'll let him speak to this also, but our sense is that in fact there is progress in these areas, more than we would have expected.
The reactions that we're getting from the military commanders is that the PRTs are an incredible value added, that they are having a big impact, and that even having a handful of civilians who are expert in some of these areas is a game changer on the local level.
So I just -- everything I'm hearing -- well, not everything I'm hearing, but the thrust of what I'm hearing is contrary to what you just described.
But, Admiral, you --
ADM. MULLEN: In talking with our military and actually the political leadership out there, Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus, they would re-emphasize what the secretary just said. And then I saw on the ground on two occasions where there have been PRT members from the State Department who had been there just a few days, for example, and the enormity of their impact was effusively praised by the two star who was in charge of that area down to the 03 that was out at the firebase I was -- I visited, and the expectation that that would continue in great ways.
And I don't want to be overly -- overly state it, but clearly they had been waiting for that, and it's -- what they're saying is it's starting to happen.
One metric that one of the local commanders used was the local market. And the butcher there not too long ago was going through a sheep a week, and now he's going through a sheep a day.
Q (Off mike.)
ADM. MULLEN: This is actually outside -- about 10 kilometers east of Baghdad, a firebase called Assassin. And it was also a place where the concerned local citizens were starting to show up. Those are all positive signs for me.
SEC. GATES: Yeah. All right.
Q Are you looking into other alternatives in the Middle East which can replace the Incirlik Airbase?
SEC. GATES: Not at this point, no.
Q Can I ask about President Putin's remarks today? He said that Russia was working on new types of nuclear weapons as part of a grandiose plan to boost the country's defenses. Do you have any reaction to that statement?
SEC. GATES: Well, what we have seen is, with the increase in the price of oil and revenues that Russia has received over the last -- I can only speak with classified insight to the last 10 or 11 months; Mike can do it for a longer period of time -- but I think for the last couple of years, you've seen a steadily increasing pace of Russian military modernization, a renewal of exercises and so on. But I would point out that we're coming from a very low base.
In the 1990s, the Russian military was almost inert. And, you know, they're spending perhaps 10 percent of what we spend, if that, on defense. So I think what you see is that these kinds of things that he's talking about are a -- basically an assertion that Russia is back and intends to play a major role on the world stage and intends to be taken seriously.
Q Do they alarm you -- comments like that or those plans as well?
SEC. GATES: No, it doesn't alarm me.
Q Mr. Secretary, on the subject of nuclear weapons, we're told that the Air Force has wrapped up its investigation of the incident involving the B-52 back in August, referred to by some as a weapons transfer anomaly. I understand that you either have been briefed or will be briefed shortly on the results of that. I'm wondering if you can say anything about the disciplinary action that might be taken.
And even more broadly, and perhaps both of you can address this, what can you say to the American people to assure them that America's nuclear arsenal is secure and that this kind of thing won't happen again, given that it was not supposed to happen in the first place?
SEC. GATES: Well, I learned, for the first time in preparing for this briefing, that I'm getting that briefing tomorrow. They don't give me my calendar more than a day at a time -- too risky. (Laughter.) And so it would be completely inappropriate for me to say anything about what that report says or what I'm going to react to, but let me ask the admiral to respond to the second part of your question.
ADM. MULLEN: And I too will see the briefing tomorrow for the first time. I come from, I guess, a place where I was young as a nuclear weapons officer, and understand what the standards are. And I think I have a pretty clear understanding in my head of where they should be. I certainly -- I look forward to understanding really what the -- what happened here, and I just don't know that, to really make a judgment about where we are and what we have to do. But certainly being at a point where we can assure everybody that we have control of these weapons in a very assured way is where we absolutely have to be.
Q But you're not waiting for the results of this investigation to be sure that the U.S. nuclear stockpile is secure, right? I mean --
SEC. GATES: No, there was a complete review of all of that immediately after the incident. And everybody was -- everything was assessed at that time and everything was secure.
Q But you're not worried this could happen again tomorrow.
SEC. GATES: I would never say that. (Laughter.) You know, I mean, we -- it will be our intent to reduce to the lowest level humanly possible that something never happens again. But to say that an incident that happens would never happen again would be silly.
Q Mr. Secretary --
Q Mr. Secretary -- me? Yes? Okay. Can you give us a sense of how you plan to consolidate authority over U.S. contractors in Iraq under your office? And given that you've said in the past and you know that the overwhelming majority of contractors in Iraq are actually low-skilled laborers, many of them from the Third World, many of them paid a dollar, $1.50 an hour, why aren't U.S. contractors subject to U.S. labor law, if they're operating on U.S. military bases in Iraq?
SEC. GATES: I don't know the answer to the second question.
With respect to the first, the issue that we are focused on is limited to those contractors that are providing security services. And I think -- as I've said before, I think it is important that we have the means and the mechanisms to ensure that we know what's going on and that these activities are coordinated and are known to MNF-I.
Now, the issue here is really -- there are two different missions involved. The private security contractors' mission is to deliver their principal from one place to another safely. That's all their mission is.
The mission of MNF-I is essentially to -- and of our embassy as well, but especially MNF-I -- is to get the security situation under control in Iraq, train and equip the Iraqi forces, and in the process bring stability to Iraq by bringing more and more Iraqis on to the side of the Iraqi government and more and more Iraqis who see the coalition forces as their friends and their allies with whom they want to cooperate.
As I see it, right now those missions are in conflict, because in the objective of completing the mission of delivering a principal safely to a destination, just based on everything I've read and what our own team has reported, there have been instances where, to put it mildly, the Iraqis have been offended and not treated properly.
So they're working -- so those kinds of activities work at cross purposes to our larger mission in Iraq. And my goal is to sit down with the secretary of State when we -- (chuckles) -- when we're both back in the country at the same time and see how we reconcile those missions and bring it together.
At this point, they've done their look independently. We've done our look independently. As far as I know, there's no conflict between the two departments at this point. But I'll sit down the Secretary Rice, and we'll see how we can work this out to achieve the objectives that I described at the outset.
Q Can the U.S. accomplish what it needs to do in Iraq without security contractors?
SEC. GATES: Well, we could, but it would require an enormous commitment of American troops to the security mission rather than -- to assuring the security of our diplomats and civilians working in Baghdad and in the rest of Iraq as opposed to working the security situation for Iraq more broadly.
Q Mr. Secretary. Thank you.
General McNeill reported today the interception of a convoy in Afghanistan coming from Iran on September 5th with EFP materials. Can you tell us -- or can you, Admiral -- how extensive a problem this is, how high you think the Iranian -- the level of Iranian involvement goes, what can be done about it?
And Mr. Secretary, did you ask President Putin to ask the Iranians to stop doing some of these things in Iraq and Afghanistan?
SEC. GATES: (To Admiral Mullen) Do you want go ahead take the first part?
ADM. MULLEN: The -- it's a very serious problem as far as the infiltration, and just specifically having been over there and talking with the commanders about it and actually the troops. And the troops know it's -- they're coming in as well. So from that standpoint, it's one that we're extremely concerned about and working in all manner of ways to try to stem that flow. The longer-term impact of this or as it continues to increase will certainly create a larger problem for us.
I am not aware of the higher-level connection in the Iraqi (sic) government at this particular point in time, though --
SEC. GATES: Iranian government.
ADM. MULLEN: -- the Iranian government, although it has certainly been mentioned enough as a possibility that -- I mean, it's been out there publicly. They certainly have seen the concern expressed both in the questions and in the answers to questions like this.
SEC. GATES: I did not ask President Putin to raise that.
Q Mr. Secretary, in Moscow and then here with the Israeli Defense minister, you probably discussed Iran's nuclear program. Was there any -- is there a significant difference in the different intelligence assessments you're getting as to how far along the Iranians have gone and therefore when it's really dangerous, how many years or months?
SEC. GATES: I don't think that there are significant differences in the assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. There was clearly, in our discussions in Moscow, a difference of opinion on the rate or the pace with which Iran is developing longer-range missiles.
So the focus was mainly on the difference on the missiles and the timing. There was no disagreement that the Iranians are seeking missiles with longer ranges, but there was disagreement about how soon they thought they could get there.
Let me take one here, and then I'll come back.
Mr. Secretary, some House Republicans have called on the administration to block the proposed merger of 3Com and a Chinese company linked to the Chinese military. The concerns are that this will increase Chinese cyber-warfare capabilities, and because the company sells computer prevention -- intrusion prevention systems to the Pentagon, that it will increase the vulnerabilities. Do you have a view on whether this deal should go forward or be blocked?
SEC. GATES: I don't know enough about -- in fact, I don't know anything about it, so it would be inappropriate to comment.
Q All right. Can I ask you another question? The Afghan Defense minister was in town -- is in town, and yesterday he said that the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan was increasing. His take on it was that perhaps they're under pressure or that there's not enough indigenous fighters. Do you have a sense of why there's more foreign fighters in Afghanistan?
SEC. GATES: I don't know that for a fact. He was my guest for lunch here and he never raised the subject. So I don't know what he was referring to.
Q My question is actually for Admiral Mullen. I wanted to ask you about your thinking, as much as you can lay it out for us, about Iran, on several points. How mindful are you at the moment of the risk of conflict with Iran, given, of course, what the secretary says about their nuclear weapons program, about them shipping weapons into Iraq, where they're killing U.S. troops. A lot of people are asking the question, why doesn't -- why isn't it the best military advice to strike targets, if they pose a threat, inside Iran? How concerned are you that you're simply sending the message to the Iranians that the U.S. military may be stretched too thin to deal with it?
ADM. MULLEN: I would add to the secretary's concerns as he previously expressed, their support for terrorists, and all of that adds up to a huge and growing concern about Iran and where it's headed. There is a significant amount of activity right now to try to influence them diplomatically. I'm not one to take options off the table and wouldn't do that. However, I really do consider that to be one that's -- the military option -- one of the last resort, and, I guess, would only reemphasize that the concern is there, clearly their stated intentions, what their actions support.
And there are an awful lot of people that are working to try to get their attention and influence them in a way that backs -- or that moves them off of that position. But the concern that I have is very, very real.
Q Well, what -- can I just ask you, then, what is your concern, and is the United States military stretched too thin right now and too exhausted to deal with Iran?
ADM. MULLEN: From a military standpoint, there is more than enough reserve to respond if that in fact is what the national leadership wanted to do, and so I don't think we're too stretched in that regard. There are -- I have been concerned, as many have, over the last year, year and a half with their seemingly growing intentions, their interference with what we're trying to accomplish in Iraq and the other things that have been mentioned, in addition to the potential for nuclear weapons -- all of which has potentially a very destabilizing impact on a part of the world, a region of the world which is struggling in many ways already. So they're not being helpful.
Q Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask you about whether you can tell us anything regarding plans to procure MRAPs. Has there been down-select, and what's your estimation of the timetable for their delivery in terms of these large numbers we're hearing about?
And then, secondly, for MRAP II, the improved survivability MRAP, what's your timeline for that in terms of when you expect there to be procurements?
SEC. GATES: Well, I received an update just the other day. We are pretty well on track. We should reach a production level of several hundred a month this month, and our goal is to be, I think, at around a thousand or 1,200 a month by December, January, February, in that area. We are continuing to airlift them as they're produced. At a certain point we'll make a transition and start sending them by sea just because of the numbers that are involved.
So I would say that the program is pretty much right on track.
Q Follow up? Mr. Secretary, I understand as of right now the Defense Department is about a thousand MRAPs shy of the 1,500 MRAPs in Iraq by the end of the year goal.
We've heard that the Defense Department is on track to meeting that goal. Can you explain, how are you going to get about 1,000 MRAPs to Iraq in such a short period of time?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, there's a significant ramp-up in production between August and October. And we will be flying -- and then we have to take them down to South Carolina to be outfitted with all the government equipment and so on, and then we'll get them into the theater. So as far as I know, in terms of having them in theater, I mean, we knew that there would -- it would be a -- from where we started in the early summer that it would -- by the time these companies got the materials and got ramped up for the kind of production that we were looking at, that we were looking at not seeing significant numbers being produced until about October. And so we will do everything in our power to get them into the theater.
ADM. MULLEN: I just might add, if I understood your question correctly, we've got almost 500 in theater right now, and -- with an expectation, you know, that that would continue, to meet the goal, as the secretary described. And a vast majority, I think, all but 20 or 22 of them, are in Iraq.
Q After discussing Iran with President Putin in Moscow last week, is it your sense that he, Mr. Putin, is genuinely interested in playing a helpful role in brokering some sort of solution to this dispute that would be acceptable to the United States as well as to --
SEC. GATES: I think the way I would describe it is that President Putin takes Iran seriously as a securities concern for Russia. And I think that they are prepared to take some actions as befits that.
: Mr. Secretary, we have an Afghan journalist here attending her first Pentagon briefing. She's been trying to get a question. Would you consider taking one more? (Laughter, cross talk.) I'm just feeling the empathy here. She's been trying to get a question in. (Cross talk.)
Q Thank you so much. (Name and affiliation inaudible.)
Just I want to make a question about Afghanistan. People in Afghanistan were very happy for a while. Unfortunately now, there is a new Afghan situation. Afghanistan situation gets more like a negative, and the Taliban gets more powerful. Afghan people want to know, where does the Taliban get more support? And also in view of all this problem, what do you think about future in Afghanistan?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- personally I think that the future is bright. I think that the Taliban are getting support from Iran, both weapons and money. They are clearly getting support from elsewhere, outside of Afghanistan.
The -- one of the problems that we encounter is that while we have 40 countries cooperating in Afghanistan to help Afghanistan, both in terms of security and in terms of development, not all of those countries have delivered on the commitments that they made at Riga at the NATO summit. And I will be at a meeting of the NATO defense ministers next week, and I expect this subject to be the centerpiece of those discussions, of people meeting the commitments that they have made.
And I would say that the primary shortfalls at this point are in the operational mentoring and liaison teams that help prepare the Afghan Police and Army; in trainers, other trainers for the police. I think that the Afghan Army is making very good progress, both in terms of training and operational capability. I think everybody who visits Afghanistan from this building and sits down with our military leaders and our younger officers who are partnered with the Afghan troops comes away impressed and believing that these people can do the job.
So I think that the key issue at this point is we blunted, probably prevented a major Taliban offensive this spring. And -- but at the same time, the overall level of violence is up, as you suggest, and so we need to look ahead and see what we're going to do over the next year or two to have a strategic plan that moves us in the right direction in terms of the security situation but also better coordination of the economic and civil development part of the challenge.
One last question.
Q What do you think -- what's your gut reaction to the Marine commandant's proposal that the Marine Corps focus on Afghanistan and the Army focus on Iraq?
SEC. GATES: I have -- I have pretty much literally up to this point heard one sentence about it, that they were thinking about it, and so I would say that if it happens, it'll be long after I'm secretary of Defense.
Q Thank you.
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