DoD Press Briefing with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.
SEC. GATES: A very brief opening statement: This month marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. Senate establishing May as a month to honor our military members and their spouses for everything they do for our country. We're deeply grateful to the American people who continue to show their support for our men and women in uniform.
And we see amazing acts of citizen support, especially through America Supports You. Over 370 citizen groups have now joined that program and are augmenting the work of the department to offer assistance and support to our military community.
And even as we mark Military Appreciation Month, with two wars ongoing, it is important to remember the sacrifices and service of our troops and their families every day throughout the year.
Q Secretary, a few months ago, the Marines recommended to you that they shift their focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. And at the time, you said you felt the timing wasn't right for that. I'm wondering if you're now reconsidering that in light of events that have happened since then, including the fact that you have sent a smaller number of Marines to Iraq and the fact that the NATO allies have not, in fact, offered up large numbers of additional combat forces for Afghanistan?
SEC. GATES: Well, let me make a comment and then invite the chairman. There is no plan to extend the Marine deployment beyond this winter, beyond November. We are still going to be looking at what the options are in terms of augmenting our presence during 2009. I think that there -- at this point, at least, as far as I know, there's no specific planning going on along those lines then.
ADM. MULLEN: Absolutely no change from what we've talked about in previous weeks. I think General Conway has certainly made his strategic direction clear. That said, he's very supportive of what we're doing right now. And so I think it's going to be very much tied to force levels in Iraq and then should we be in a position to move forces into Afghanistan, I think that certainly would come back into consideration. But no planning efforts to do that right now. And then just to reemphasize what the secretary said, that this deployment of Marines is seven months and they're going to come out towards the end of the year.
Q If I could just follow real quickly, you said there's no plan to extend the Marines. Would you rule that out as a possibility because you're not planning to right now?
SEC. GATES: Well, I always hate to make categorical statements, but I -- there is -- no one has suggested even the possibility of extending that rotation. And -- be loathe to do that.
Q Can I just follow up on -- Admiral Mullen said that, you know, as you send more forces into Afghanistan next year that Conway's proposal might, I think he said, come back into consideration.
I think that's sort of the question, that the Marines have argued that concentrating on Afghanistan might allow them to more effectively manage their forces and their rotations. And it seemed like a non- starter when it was proposed earlier.
I'm just wondering if, given the plans to send additional troops, whether that Conway proposal is sort of back on the table as something that you might be interested in.
SEC. GATES: Well, I think what -- I think that there was an interpretation of the commandant's comments that that shift in the mission, for the Marines, might happen pretty quickly. And I think my response was, it won't happen on my watch. That was a statement of fact rather than a policy statement.
Yeah, exactly. And I think that's a possibility.
ADM. MULLEN: I do too. I mean, one of the, I mean, I certainly, having been a service chief and being in this position now, the service chief is concerned about being able to best optimize the forces that he has.
And the Marines have been on a very challenging rotation. And to be in a position, that sort of has a foot in both countries, is going to be, you know, it will be challenging. A transition, should it occur, would be challenging as well.
And I think that's really where the commandant's coming from. I mean, he certainly speaks to this better than anybody else.
That said, he understands very clearly where we are now and where we intend to be, based on what we understand right now. And there may be considerations down the road to do exactly that. But that really is down the road.
SEC. GATES: Andrew.
Q Mr. Secretary, Admiral Mullen, can you bring us up to date on preparations for possible humanitarian aid to Myanmar? And could you address the possibility that some action could be taken even without the consent of the government of Myanmar?
SEC. GATES: Well, again, I'll comment and invite the admiral.
We have the Essex Group -- I think there are three or four ships -- either has or is offloading some helicopters to be available in Thailand, because they could reach Myanmar in a very short -- in a matter of hours from Thailand with relief supplies. There are also, I think, six C-130s available.
The ships then will begin steaming around to the area off of Myanmar to be available. I cannot imagine us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government.
ADM. MULLEN: Admiral Keating is very focused on this. In addition to moving the ships and the C-130s, there's a JTF commander, General Goodman, who is out there and positioned again in Thailand.
This tragedy happens coincident with a major exercise -- international exercise called Cobra Gold, and so there are resources not too far away, and very focused on this, and the question really becomes whether we can -- whether can gain entry, and at this point that hasn't happened.
SEC. GATES: And I think these capabilities -- I mean, the tragedy is compounded by the fact that if you look at what our Navy was able to do, both with the tsunami and the Pakistani earthquake, there is an opportunity here to save a lot of lives. And we are fully prepared to help and to help right away. And it would be a tragedy if these assets -- if people didn't take advantage of them.
Q Can I follow up on the detail? How long would the ships take to be in a position where they could help off the coast of Myanmar?
ADM. MULLEN: Roughly five days from -- and they're starting to move now.
SEC. GATES: That's one of the reasons they off-loaded the helicopters.
Q Secretary Gates, if I could follow up on that. Why would it not be a good idea just to do an air drop? I mean, USAID raised that possibility today. We have -- the C-130s are in position. Could you not do some good by dropping off food or water supplies from a -- you know, with a flyover in air?
ADM. MULLEN: Clearly could. I mean, typically, though, it's sovereign airspace and you'd need their permission to fly in that airspace. And it's all tied to sovereignty, which we respect, whether it's on the ground or in the air. And right now we just don't have any way to get into that airspace with their permission.
SEC. GATES: But that would -- if we got their permission, that clearly would be a possibility.
Q Mr. Secretary, since the U.S. does not have, obviously, very good relations with Myanmar, do you think that there is concern on their part that having U.S. military ships close to their coast might suggest to them something else other than relief and aid, and that actually might then make them more opposed to letting aid agencies in?
SEC. GATES: I'd be surprised if they misinterpreted our intentions that badly.
ADM. MULLEN: There are some dozen or so countries that are looking to assist. I mean, immediately there, there have been a small number -- there's been a very, very minor assistance provided, I think, by China and India so far. But there are lots of countries trying to help that don't have the access that we don't have, as well.
Q I want to shift from Myanmar to Moscow a second. The State Department confirmed today that 2 military attaches will be expelled. Can you give a sense of why -- what are the motives here? Put your Kremlinologist hat back on. (Laughter.) You know, are we returning to the Cold War here, or a mini-version of it?
SEC. GATES: There's a major aspect to reciprocity here. And I wasn't following it closely, but I think at some point recently we expelled a Russian for spying, and then these things get into kind of a back and forth, and at some point everybody decides to stop. But it's -- you know, we're going to have the first military parade in 15 years, I guess, tomorrow. And I'm waiting to see if the leadership will be standing atop Lenin's tomb and see if we'll be back to Kremlinology about who's standing in what place and so on. There are -- there are some intriguing developments in Moscow. But I don't read much into the attache thing other than just the usual tit-for-tat.
Q Mr. Secretary, could I follow up on that, with your Kremlinologist hat still on for a little bit? We are going to see the parade tomorrow. For those of us old enough to remember 15 years ago watching them, can you tell us, when you were at the CIA, how much did the CIA watch these parades? Do you recall any instances when you looked at it frame by frame to see who was standing where, what you learned from it, what the intelligence community looked at -- (off mike)?
SEC. GATES: Oh, yeah. I mean, we devoted enormous effort to that. I mean, not only looking at the equipment that was going by, because they'd run some of their newer stuff out -- they don't have a lot of new stuff now -- but sure; and looking at who was standing next to whom and who was more heavily bundled up than the next geriatric. (Laughter.) (Laughs.) So, you know, and we probably made a lot more of it than was warranted, but yes, we spent a lot of time on it.
Q Well, that's what I wanted to ask you. When a lot of people look back at that nowadays, they say, well, wait a minute, you know, when satellite technology came in, maybe the parades had some entertainment value, but perhaps not a lot of intelligence value.
SEC. GATES: Well, I'd say that's not entirely the case, because we would sometimes -- it would allow us the opportunity to, for example, check our measurements on the size of some of the missiles and that sort of thing. So I -- you know, I don't think it was ever really just for entertainment purposes.
Q Do you think (it really was for ?) missiles?
SEC. GATES: Probably not.
Q Mr. Secretary, going back to Burma and Afghanistan, as far as Burma is concerned, there was a briefing at the State Department this morning. Do you think the U.S. military can work with the United Nations and also those countries, India and China, because they have access, especially China, until they allow the U.S. airdrops and U.S. flights?
SEC. GATES: Well, this is really more the State Department's and the White House's arena, but my belief would be that if we cannot get in directly, that we would be prepared to work creatively with others in any way we could to help. And if that involves using an intermediary, perhaps that -- we would do that. I think our interest here is totally nonpolitical. It's to try and help the people of Myanmar. And I think if we can't do it directly, then we'd be prepared to consider other means of doing that.
Q And on Afghanistan, sir, there were several briefers from Pakistan last week, and also a lot of things happened in many think tanks, sir, as far as terrorism and peace in Afghanistan or Pakistan is concerned, since the new government is there, and the new prime minister is committed as far as working with the U.S.
But my question is that -- what they were saying. Unless there's peace in the FATA area, there cannot be peace in Afghanistan and vice versa. Are you in touch with some kind of plan for the FATA area now under the new Pakistani government? And also maybe general is in touch with General Kayani, because he's more for working with the military rather than the politicians.
SEC. GATES: (To Admiral Mullen) Go ahead.
ADM. MULLEN: I've been in touch with General Kayani since -- since he took over, and I would say that, you know, he is consistent in both his goals, which -- and understands his challenges and seems to be doing exactly what he said he would be doing. And he realizes that he has a very significant challenge in the FATA, and also to transform his force from a conventional force to a counterinsurgency force. And that it's going to take some time to do that. And so from that standpoint, I think he's been very consistent. And we're working to -- you know, when he requests assistance, we're working to continue that assistance. And again, I think that will be a long-term effort, as well.
SEC. GATES: (Jonathan ?).
Q Mr. Secretary, Admiral Mullen, to both of you: Last week the U.S. military engaged in a military strike on Somalia. We've heard almost nothing about it. I'm wondering if you can tell us what the target was and what military assets were used in that target.
SEC. GATES: I think the only thing that I would say is that we have made very clear for quite some time that when we have an opportunity to target al Qaeda, we will do that. I'll just leave it at that.
Q Mr. Secretary --
Q But wait a minute. If I may, I mean this is a case where we engaged in a military strike on another country. This is, you know, essentially an act of war. Is that -- I mean, there's nothing more you can tell us in terms of who was targeted and how?
SEC. GATES: Al Qaeda was the target. An al Qaeda leader was the target.
Q Can you tell us what al Qaeda leader?
SEC. GATES: No.
Q And why can't you?
SEC. GATES: Well -- (laughs) -- first of all, because I don't remember. (Laughter.)
Q Admiral, do you remember?
ADM. MULLEN: I don't.
Q Mr. Secretary? Oh.
Q Your opening statement had to do with supporting the troops. Why are you not supporting Senator Webb's GI bill that's on the Hill right now? What damage do you think it could do to the military?
And Admiral Mullen, are the service chiefs concerned about this GI bill that's being presented?
SEC. GATES: Well, I'm glad -- I'm glad you asked that. First of all, I do support the notion of an enhanced benefit for veterans, education benefit.
I took advantage of a VA education benefit myself and, I think, it's important and it's richly deserved.
My principal concern with Senator Webb's bill is the time of service that's required. As I understand it, it's three years of service. The analogy is often made to the G.I. Bill, at the end of World War II, and the important impact that had on America. That was a conscript military in 1945. And what we're dealing with is an all- volunteer force.
Our desire is to keep soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines in the military as long as possible. And so our hope would be, and our preference would be, that the period of service be long enough to in essence require at least one reenlistment. And that's why we've suggested six years rather than three years. So that's really the principle concern that we have.
There is another thing though and that is the proposal for the transferability of the education benefit, from a servicemember to a spouse or a child. I got that idea from a spouse at a spouses meeting at Fort Hood. The president put it in the State of the Union message as a proposal.
And I will tell you that I think, and certainly what we have sent the message, that the letter that I sent to the Hill was that, what we hear from the field and the fleet is that this is the most important thing for the men and women in the service right now, this transferability. So we would like to see that be part of whatever legislation is passed.
And I would tell you, at the military spouses event, on the South Lawn of the White House two days ago, the loudest, longest applause during the whole event was when I mentioned it in my remarks, and when the president mentioned it in his remarks.
So I think there's a real resonance in -- among our military families for this benefit. So that benefit, plus the longer period of service, to try and encourage people to at least stay through one reenlistment, are the -- is really the principal issue. The notion that we're against a better education benefit is just totally nonsense. The veterans deserve it. It's probably needed, and -- but we're trying to balance the benefit to the veterans also with maintaining an all- volunteer force and having as experienced a force as we can.
Admiral, do you want to --
ADM. MULLEN: I would only add that -- secretary talked about this being Military Appreciation Month. And I for the last several years, along with my wife, Deborah, have focused heavily not just on the members but also on military families. And in all hands calls for me since 2005, I've had sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines stand up and ask this question about transferability. So it is a really important issue. And it also speaks to the value of education and how they value education, and we would not be where we are without the family support that we've had. And I think this part of the discussion in terms of future benefits is at the top of the list and would have the biggest impact.
Q (Off mike) -- some people think that part of the objection here is the cost, that it's too expensive to provide generous benefits to veterans. Could you just talk about that? Is cost a factor?
SEC. GATES: I am not representing OMB -- and I would just say that I -- from our standpoint, the principal issue is not the cost but the length of service that's required, from the Department of Defense's standpoint.
Q Mr. Secretary, while we're on that subject of treatment of soldiers, it was more than a year ago that you instructed the Army to minimize the use of stop loss. Yet today there are more soldiers on stop loss than at the time you issued that instruction to the Army. Why has the Army been unable to reduce the number of stop losses? And are you satisfied with that performance so far?
SEC. GATES: Well, it's interesting you should ask since I got an hour -- about an hour's briefing on it this morning. I have not been satisfied. But Secretary Geren and General Casey came to see me. Among other things, I had made quite clear that I was approving the acceleration and the growth of the Army on the condition that stop- loss was not used to increase the numbers.
And a basic -- I think one of the principle reasons for the increase in the use of stop-loss since last spring, since a year ago, has been the 15-month rotations. And my impression is that particularly with the drawdown of the five brigade combat teams being complete in September -- in July, by the end of July -- there are no guarantees, but I think that the general view of Secretary Geren and General Casey was that the numbers of stop-loss will begin to decline probably in September.
It is an issue. It troubles me. And I think it is a strain. But the principle reason for it is to maintain unit cohesion. One of the things that I learned for the first time this morning is that half of those -- about half of those who are stop-lossed are sergeants. And so if you pull them -- if they left a unit it would leave a pretty gaping hole, you know, while still deployed and so on.
And so I think they have good reasons. They don't like it any better than I do. But it has proven necessary in order to maintain the force, and they are hoping that with the -- as I say, with the drawdown of the five brigade combat teams from Iraq, that we'll begin to see those numbers gradually decline.
Do you want to add anything, Admiral?
ADM. MULLEN: The only thing I'd add, Jim, is that as the Army has grown, it actually is a smaller percentage than it was a year ago even though it is a larger number. And that I'm -- the point the secretary mentions about the unit integrity issue is a very powerful point in many ways in terms of being able to operate and execute like we are, and much different from what we did in Vietnam.
And General Casey describes this as creating -- a significant contributor creating the resiliency that's clearly in the units.
But he doesn't like it, and none of us like it. And we need to move away from it as rapidly as we can.
SEC. GATES: One other fact about this, that I was told this morning, is that if you're looking strictly at the active Army, the percentage of people on stop-loss was about between 10 and 11 percent in 2005. And it's about 6 percent now.
But the absolute numbers are higher.
But the Army now expects to start stop-lossing those in Reserve and National Guard. And senior Army leadership --
SEC. GATES: (Off mike.)
Senior Army leadership says this is going to continue at least through 2009.
And I'm interested to know, what specifically troubles you about this stop-loss?
SEC. GATES: I think any time that you tell -- when somebody expects to leave at a given time, and you tell them they can't do that, it's got to have an impact on them. And that's the part that troubles me.
Q Mr. Secretary, last week, several Sudanese detainees, including a cameraman for Al Jazeera, were released from Guantanamo. The Sudanese government -- they were delivered to Sudan, and the Sudanese government said that this was not the result of any negotiations with the U.S. government.
If that's the case, can you explain the circumstances for that release? And if it was an unconditional release, does that mean that the authorities are not considering these people enemy combatants?
SEC. GATES: I don't know the specifics in this case. We can get you an answer on that.
Q Mr. Secretary, just two weeks ago, an ex-Gitmo detainee killed himself and seven others in Iraq.
How significant a threat are these detainees that are returning to the battlefield?
SEC. GATES: Well, I was told today that the recidivism rate, if you will, of those who return, to the battlefield, is probably somewhere between 5 and 10 percent, maybe 6, 7 percent, something like that. We don't have a lot of specific cases. We're talking about 1, 2, 3 dozen that we have data on, some information.
So I would say that I think we do as careful a vetting job as we possibly can before releasing these people. There are a lot of -- there are a lot of prisoners down there, frankly, that we would be prepared to turn over to their home government, but the home government isn't prepared to receive them, or we don't have any confidence that if they still need to be incarcerated, that the home government will keep them incarcerated. So there are actually a fair number of the prisoners at Guantanamo that we would be prepared to send home if we had -- if their government would accept them and -- or if we had confidence that the government would continue to keep them incarcerated.
Q Are you any closer to --
STAFF: Time for one more, sir.
SEC. GATES: Huh?
Q Are you any closer to closing Guantanamo?
SEC. GATES: I don't think so.
Q Has the government of Lebanon asked for any assistance, given the military situation there right now? Are you concerned about what's going on in the streets of Beirut?
SEC. GATES: We're obviously concerned about what's going on. But I'm not aware of any outstanding request we have from the Lebanese armed forces.
Q Mr. Secretary, congressional opposition is out there regarding the proposal to provide military aid to Panama. And they say that you shouldn't provide it 1206 aid because they don't have a military. In hindsight, do you think it's a mistake to ask for that aid?
SEC. GATES: No. There are -- what we are trying to do under 1206 is to provide assistance to security forces in other countries that are engaged in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and other activities that are of interest and in our interest. And I think it was an entirely appropriate commitment. We have -- I've sent a letter to the Hill explaining why we believe not only that it's consistent with the law but why it's a good thing to do. We are prepared to send people up to brief.
I think as a result of the hearing that the admiral and I and Secretary Rice had before the House Armed Services Committee a couple weeks ago, that there's a considerably greater understanding about what 1206 is all about.
And one of the points that we tried to make to folks is that not every country in the world organizes its security forces like we do. And so you may have some kind of -- well, a good example is the frontier police in Pakistan, where the Congress actually recognized that that was an important thing to do and gave us a specific exemption for those guys.
One of the things we asked for in the new authorization bill was a broader interpretation, for them to embrace a broader interpretation of security forces rather than just purely military. So we could deal with countries' equivalent to the Coast Guard and so on. And I'm modestly optimistic that we will reach agreement on this.
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