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DoD News Briefing with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen
July 31, 2008
            SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. I'd like to open with a few words about the new National Defense Strategy, which the department is releasing today.   
            If I could describe the new National Defense Strategy in one word, it would be "balance," balance between the range of capabilities to prevail in persistent asymmetric or irregular conflict, and sustaining our conventional and strategic force superiority as a hedge against rising powers. 
            Now, the reality is that conventional and strategic force modernization programs are strongly supported in the services and in the Congress. I also support them. Indeed, in the 2009 base budget, of the $104 billion in procurement and about $80 billion in research and development, the overwhelming preponderance is for conventional modernization programs. And nearly all of these programs are multi-year. 
            The principal challenge, therefore, is how to ensure that the capabilities gained and counterinsurgency lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the lessons re-learned from other places where we have engaged in irregular warfare over the last two decades, are institutionalized within the defense establishment. 
            To date, virtually all the costs associated with such capabilities have been covered by supplemental appropriations. Looking to the future, we need to find a long-term place in the base budget for them.  
            If I've made it a point to emphasize the importance of this over the last year or so, it is because unlike the big conventional modernization programs, there has been no strong constituency inside or, for that matter, outside the Pentagon for a long-term resourcing of capabilities for irregular conflict. The danger is not that modernization will be sacrificed to fund asymmetric capabilities, but rather that in the future we will again neglect the latter.   
            I firmly believe that in the years ahead, our military is much more likely to engage in asymmetric conflict than conventional conflict against a rising state power. We must be ready for both kinds of conflict and fund the capabilities to do both. There is no doubt in my mind that the modernization programs will continue to have strong institutional and congressional support. I just want to make sure that the capabilities we need for the conflicts we're in and most likely to face in the foreseeable future also are sustained long term. And that is the essence of the new National Defense Strategy.   
            Thank you. 
            (Off-mike comment to Admiral Mullen.) 
            ADM. MULLEN: No, sir. 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, this morning the president said that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have told him that recent security gains in Iraq have now a degree of durability. I'm wondering if it's your assessment that the improvements have steadied to the point where you can foresee further troop reductions this year. And what sort of numbers are you considering at this point? 
            SEC. GATES: I'll answer and then ask the admiral to comment. We are going through -- Admiral -- General Petraeus is going through his evaluation right now. We will do as we have done over the past 14 months. General Petraeus will make his recommendations. Those recommendations will also be reviewed by General Odierno, who is going to be taking over in September, then CENTCOM and also the chiefs, and they will make their recommendations. And I think until General Petraeus has made his recommendations, we're really not in a position to say what we will be recommending to the president. 
            ADM. MULLEN: (Inaudible.) 
            Q     Is it your view personally that -- I mean, you've been to Iraq. You've seen what's happened there in recent months -- that the improvements are holding and that that would be sufficient to foresee reductions in troop levels? 
            SEC. GATES: I think that the situation has improved dramatically. And I would -- I personally believe that there is a real possibility of some additional drawdowns as we -- 
            Q     This year? 
            SEC. GATES: -- as we look forward. Well, I'll leave it to General Petraeus to make recommendations in terms of what the sequencing and the timing would be. 
            Q     Mr. Secretary – what does that mean, then, for possible deployment of additional forces to Afghanistan? How soon and how many do you think you'd be able to send into Afghanistan? I know requests have been made for at least another two, maybe three additional combat brigades.  
            SEC. GATES: Well, we need to continue looking at that. We're looking at how we backfill behind the Marines with forces that are already there, additional forces that other countries have committed to send. I think we'll just have to wait and see what General Petraeus's recommendations are before we can make that judgment.   
            ADM. MULLEN: I would say that, to talk a little bit about what Bob asked about earlier, that the conditions there really are dramatically improved in Iraq. And actually the word durability is one that, some level of durability, I think, is one that fits.   
            But it's still, you know, not irreversible. We haven't gotten to that point. We just got the five brigades out literally. You know, this is the end of the month where they're all out. And so there is a time to assess. The violence level this month is down yet again.   
            So all those trends are positive. And then we clearly are looking at an Afghanistan, where results are mixed. The challenges are certainly significant. And we'd like to get additional troops there as soon as we could.   
            Q     Just to clarify, are you saying you have to wait until Petraeus decides whether to reduce forces in Iraq, before we can send infantry units to Afghanistan? Is that necessary?   
            (Cross talk.)   
            SEC. GATES: This is something that the Central Command commander is looking at. It's something that the chiefs are looking at, in terms of what we might do in the way of additional forces for Afghanistan.   
            Q     So it's not necessary for Petraeus to reduce troops in Iraq before you send more to Afghanistan.   
            SEC. GATES: I think that there are some alternatives. And it also depends on the kind of forces and the size of force and so on.   
            Q     We've been told you're looking at sending additional support units to Afghanistan; EOD, Civil Affairs.   
            SEC. GATES: We are looking at that, yeah.   
            (Cross talk.)   
            But the numbers are not significant; at most, a couple of hundred maybe.   
            Q     Mr. Secretary, the other document that came out today was the president's executive order on intelligence organization.   
            I wonder, could you talk a little bit about how you see this new version and whether you think it gives both the CIA and the Defense Department the leeway and the, for example, budgetary powers that you need?   
            SEC. GATES: First of all, I'm very satisfied with the executive order. I believe that the authorities of the secretary of Defense are adequately preserved in this. But at the same time, one of the reasons why I decided not to be interested in the DNI job three years ago -- 3-1/2 years ago was that I felt that the position didn't have enough power to do the job properly. For example, it had no authority to fire anybody.   
            And so I think what has been a significant -- what has created a unique opportunity -- I mean, the old executive order has been around for 28 years, 27 years. And I think what has come into play here in a way to try and make the -- empower the DNI and enable him to do that job better and give him the tools to do that job better is having four leaders, Mike McConnell, Mike Hayden, Jim Clapper and myself, who have worked together for a long time, trust each other, and we spent a lot of time together working through a lot of these problems. To be honest, I think with a different cast of characters it probably could not have been done. But I think we have arrived at an outcome that takes a step further than the congressional -- than the statute in terms of empowering the DNI without weakening others. 
            Q     Does that depend, as you go forward without the same cast of characters perhaps -- 
            SEC. GATES: No, I think the way that it is codified in the executive order will make it an enduring achievement and that will last beyond the tenure in office of any or all of those four people. 
            Q     General Petraeus originally said he would need 45 days to complete his assessment. Has he given any indication that he's going to be able to complete that assessment earlier because he's got to complete that before you can make serious plans for major increases in Afghanistan, or does he intend to take the full 45 days? 
            SEC. GATES: General Petraeus's timeline is tied strictly to Iraq and has nothing to do with -- as far as I know -- nothing to do with Afghanistan. 
            Whether he takes the full 45 days or not, I don't know. We'll see. But I think he is -- he is making his evaluation in Iraq based purely on the -- on the ground situation, the conditions in Iraq itself. He's not being pushed because of the other --  
            Q     If I can ask two questions, one on Pakistan and the question of the tribal areas, I'm just wondering, to both of you, what can be done if the government of Pakistan is not, you know, willing or able to take a more forceful stance against the terrorist groups in the tribal areas? What was your message to the leaders of Pakistan on you recent trip there, Admiral Mullen?   
            And my second question is to you, sir, Secretary. There's been more talk since you were last asked about the issue of whether or not you'd be willing to stay on in the next administration. And given that there's been talk, it seems to me, particularly among Democrats about this possibility, is it something that you would consider -- sticking around for a little extra time? 
            ADM. MULLEN: May I take that one, sir? 
            SEC. GATES: (Chuckling.) Please! (Laughter.) 
            ADM. MULLEN: The -- I really would prefer not to go into any detail on these private discussions that I had with the leaders of Pakistan on my most recent trip, except to say clearly there was -- there is recognition that there is a serious problem in the FATA and in the tribal area; that it is a threat not just to our troops in Afghanistan, it's a -- it's a serious threat internal to Pakistan, and it's growing; and that in those discussions, they were -- the leaders were very positive about recognizing that and committed to taking steps to do -- to address it.  
            And for instance, I mean, a small step in one of the places I visited in that trip was up at the border control center Torkham Gate, where the Pakistani military officers, when I visited there, had not shown up for their permanent assignment. And they have since shown up. 
            And I was -- I received a commitment that they would. 
            But there's a long way to go with respect to that, and I don't think it gets a whole lot better from a threat standpoint unless something is done there. So action needs to be taken to do that. 
            This is their country. It's sovereign territory. So clearly the kind of -- they need to look at options to do that. We certainly have offered to assist in the training area of their Frontier Corps, which is one of the steps that needs to be taken.  
            And so their reaction in terms of receipt of the message was very positive. They recognized it's a serious problem. And so we'll see from the standpoint of -- within those discussions, including this week, with the prime minister's visit here, whether that action -- substantive action gets taken.   
            SEC. GATES: I am planning and expecting to return to the Pacific Northwest 173 days from today.   
            Q     But maybe you could -- you still have the ability to fire people, which apparently -- 
            SEC. GATES: (Chuckles.)   
            Q     -- (off mike). 
            SEC. GATES: I'm not going there! (Chuckles.) 
            Q     That doesn't sound like a denial, Mr. Secretary.   
            SEC. GATES: (Chuckling.) I'll just leave it at that.   
            Q     Switching to another -- yet another document, today is the deadline for the bilateral security arrangement with Iraq. There's some comments out of Baghdad today from the Iraqi government that that is -- agreement is imminent, maybe next week. Can you talk about what visibility and exposure you have had on this agreement, whether you're satisfied with the amount of -- I won't say free hand, but the -- with the -- that it be allowed to let U.S. troops operate in Iraq under this new agreement, A? And B, the extent to which this idea of a time horizon that might be inside this deal gives you enough free hand to make sure that any withdrawal you have in -- on conditions-based in the future? 
            SEC. GATES: I think that's one we can both take a crack at. I -- I am comfortable with where the draft is. It has been a -- we are negotiating with a sovereign power, and -- and they have certain expectations.   
            If there was ever any doubt that real politics have come to Iraq, we have -- we have seen some manifestation of it in this, in terms of the expectations of different political leaders in Iraq for this agreement. 
            But I would say that based on the latest draft that I've seen, that with respect to -- for Iraqi sovereignty, we can carry out the tasks that we need to in partnership with the Iraqis. 
            ADM. MULLEN: I've had a lot of visibility, and I'm very comfortable that it gets us where we need to go, from the military perspective, for the requirements that we have. And I would only echo that it's been spirited and, I think, a very healthy negotiation, which in fact is still ongoing, despite some reports that it's imminent. And I think we've -- have to wait until those negotiations finish to really know obviously what the outcome is with respect to the details. 
            Q     But specifically on the issue of whether you'll still be able to make conditions-based withdrawals in the future, do you feel that the draft, as you've seen it, despite this language about a time horizon, will still allow military leaders to draw down based on conditions on the ground? 
            SEC. GATES: Yeah, I think that's the case. 
            Q     Sir, back on Pakistan, perhaps you both could give us your assessment of what is the relationship at the moment between the ISI and the Pakistani military with the various militants and extremist groups, given that they have a long history? Is it feasible or reasonable to think they can be weaned off of contact? 
            ADM. MULLEN: I really wouldn't go into a -- a lot of detail with respect to another nation's intelligence service. And certainly that is an area that -- the leaders in Pakistan are aware of that service and what it provides to them.   
            I think, more importantly, it is the entirety of the government of Pakistan that's got to figure out broadly and then specifically how to deal with the challenge that I just described. The eaches of that, particularly on the intelligence side, I -- I just wouldn't comment. 
            Q     The question's been raised, where are the allegiances, where have they been in the past, what are the allegiances today of both the ISI and the military; maybe not necessarily aligned with the government of Pakistan. Do you think that they do? 
            ADM. MULLEN: Well, actually that's probably something the government of Pakistan ought to speak to. 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, can you clarify on Afghanistan? I believe you said a week or so ago you were looking to send troops there sooner rather than later. Are you now saying that you have determined you can only send maybe a couple of hundred specialized support troops and no more combat units before the end of the year? 
            SEC. GATES: No, not necessarily. I'm just saying that we're still working through it. And I haven't received any recommendations yet from the chiefs or from the Central Command commander. 
            Q     Can I also ask one about the national security -- National Defense Strategy, rather, that came out today? China and Russia are mentioned fairly prominently as among the potential conventional threats. Can you say a word about how immediate you see those threats, or what in particular you think the United States needs to be prepared for with regard to those two countries? 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I would rather speak in terms of capabilities than threats. I don't see either nation as a threat to the United States at this point. But they both are investing in modernization programs that are of concern.   
            And our concern is one of the reasons that we have proposed and now have under way a strategic dialogue, in particular with the Chinese, that has begun to give us better visibility and understanding of what they're doing and what their intentions are, as well as providing the same for us. But they are building some capabilities that have concern for us. The Russians are engaged in more limited but nonetheless still strategic programs, modernization, that are potentially of concern. 
            So I think it's in that framework that we discuss them. 
            Q     Sir, you made a point of saying you want to make this transition during wartime as soon as possible, and setting aside whether you would stay in office or not. Do you have a sense that -- your idea to vet candidates and get both campaigns and the Hill to play a larger role in doing it, are you getting any traction there? It seems that there's kind of a ho-hum kind of, not sure it's going to happen -- 
            SEC. GATES: I've not -- I've not had any contact with either campaign. And frankly, I think that probably -- and here I'm just speculating -- we probably need to wait until after the conventions before we pursue this in a serious way. First of all, in terms of -- the White House really has to have the lead in this in terms of contact with the campaigns, but we are certainly prepared to be supportive and helpful and provide briefings and so on to both candidates after the conventions. And kind of whatever the president wants to offer, we are fully prepared to provide. 
            Q     Coming out of whatever conversations you've had with folks on the Hill, does it seem like they embrace what your kind of overall goal was? 
            SEC. GATES: I think sort of at the philosophical level, they really do understand the concerns with the new administration, whoever wins, getting into place as many people in the national security and homeland security arenas as possible. And again, I think probably later in the summer, after the conventions, it may be worth some of us sitting down with them and seeing if we actually could work something out. 
            Q     A question for Admiral Mullen. Admiral, I see you're wearing the new service dress khaki uniform. It's being tested, I understand, by the Navy.   
            The Air Force is also considering a new uniform. And the Army is looking at changing its policy for dress uniforms.   
            My question is, when we're at a time of war, when we have record deficits, is this the proper time for the military to be spending money, on designing and producing and researching new uniforms?   
            ADM. MULLEN: Actually I think the question itself sort of implies that we're not focused on what we need to be focused on, with respect to supporting the troops, supporting those who are in fact on the front lines and really from them all the way back. And I'm very comfortable that we are doing that and doing that absolutely in the best way we possibly can.   
            As far as uniforms are concerned, each service does this. It's actually done in a fairly routine manner. Services look at what their uniform requirements are.   
            You mentioned three of the services. Actually all of the services have done or are doing this. And it's part of what the leadership addresses, to look to how they're going to handle the uniform requirements, not just now but in the future.   
            Q     There seems to be an assumption right now that more troops eventually will be sent to Afghanistan. But in the National Defense Strategy, you talk about the limits of the use of force in the long war, and how it can actually diminish local participation in these kind of conflicts.   
            Do you have concerns about sending more troops to Afghanistan, that it actually may not achieve our long-term goals there? And do you think two to three brigades would be enough? Is that where you would cap it? Or do you think more troops need to be sent eventually?  
            (Off mike.)   
            SEC. GATES: Well, first, that's -- really the estimate of what troop levels are required, to accomplish the missions, is really -- starts with the commander on the ground. And that's General McKiernan's estimate at this point.   
            As you know, I've talked about the need to have the full range of national power and international power brought to bear, in dealing with these problems.   
            And I think that, you know, you have the Paris conference just last month that pledged over $20 billion in development assistance for Afghanistan from a number of different countries. You have these Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We need -- we need more of them. We need better coordination of the -- of the development and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. That's the role of the new senior U.N. adviser. We have invited them to participate. We're standing up a civilian cell in RC South headquarters to coordinate -- better coordinate the civilian part of the struggle against the Taliban in terms of not just aid and reconstruction and development but also governance and so on.   
            So it's obviously very important. And I think -- as I've said many times, I think that part of our government is under-resourced, and -- and we need to do more. I think that other countries need to do more as well. But there clearly is a need for both elements of both military power and the civilian sector if -- if this effort in Afghanistan is to be successful in the long term. 
            Q     But is there a danger of surging too many troops into Afghanistan, from your point of view? 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think one of the things that we found in Iraq is that before development can take place and actually -- and a certain degree before political progress can be made, there has to be a certain level of security for people, so that they can feel safe in their homes and in their villages, and so that markets can reopen and -- and so schools aren't being burned down and teachers assassinated and things like that. All those -- that requires security, in the first instance, before you can come in and begin to do those things. 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, how is it you were able to come up with the precise number of days until you're scheduled to leave? 
            (Laughter.) I mean, are you literally counting down your days? 
            SEC. GATES: I'm paying attention. 
            Q     Sir, earlier this week you met with the Israelis and talked about possible deployment of an X-band radar in Israel. I was wondering, is that something that is going to happen -- (off mike)? And is it because there's been a change in the urgency of the threat from Iran? 
            SEC. GATES: I would -- I think what I'll say is that we have looked at a whole series of enhancements to Israel's defense and we are looking toward greater cooperation with them in terms of providing some additional capability. And I think at this point I'll just leave it general like that. 
            Q     There's a lot of criticism coming from the Hill lately that not enough is being done by the DOD to provide registration -- voter registration information to service members overseas ahead of the 2008 elections. You got Senator Cornyn, among others, saying that the federal voting assistance program is falling short of its duties. Do you agree with that assessment? And to what degree is it the DOD's responsibility to encourage service members to vote? 
            SEC. GATES: Well, I think we have a significant responsibility to encourage our men and women in uniform to vote and to enable them to vote. And so this is a high priority. And your question prompts me to go find out if things are on track, as they -- as I have been told they are, in terms of making sure that we have the ballots and things available for our troops. 
            Q     Mr. Secretary, back on Iran very quickly. Several months ago there was a high pitch of comment about Iranian involvement in Iraq. We were promised that General Petraeus would produce a dossier on what the Iranians were doing inside Iraq, what you discovered after the Basra offensive. We haven't seen that. Has the Iranian activity diminished? Is there a reason why you're not putting that out there? 
            ADM. MULLEN: Actually, I -- was it promised? Actually that was promised? 
            Q     Yes. (Off mike.) 
            ADM. MULLEN: Actually, I think -- I mean, my view of that is we learned a lot more about what Iran's doing in Iraq in the Basra operation and thereafter. 
            And I've been asked whether, and their activity is down somewhat now. And I've been asked, is that the new normal for Iran. And I don't think it is.   
            They ebb and flow. Quite frankly we still have serious concerns with that border. There are a bunch of ports of entry there that we have to -- that we are working to pay a lot more attention to. And in fact, I think, it was two visits.   
            The second one was, the prime minister went down there. And that, as a result of that, we're satisfied with the level of knowledge of what we have right now. And quite frankly from the perspective of General Petraeus, without putting words in his mouth, I mean, he's comfortable with where we are and, I would assume, doesn't feel compelled to bring that forward at this point.   
            Q     Mr. Secretary, during a congressional hearing this morning, it was revealed that although the DOD's task force on sexual assault in the military was formed more than two years ago, it has yet to hold a single meeting.   
            Do you have any idea on why that might be? And what is the department's priority, your personal priority, on fighting sexual assault in the military?   
            SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think, all the members of our armed forces need to be -- need to feel safe. And so preventing sexual assault and taking disciplinary actions when it happens, seems to me, is a very high priority for us. And I think it is a very high priority personally for both myself and Admiral Mullen.   
            Maybe you'd like to say something.   
            ADM. MULLEN: I'm aware of the hearing. In fact, one of the witnesses was Congresswoman Harman, who I went to the Hill and spent time with the week before last, who has put a very healthy focus on this. And I know the services have as well.   
            I go back to 2003 when I testified on this. And there's been a great deal of focus. It is a leadership responsibility and it is -- the standard is none. And we've got to continue to work very strongly in that direction.   
            I think the hearings are healthy. The focus is healthy. We're not down to zero certainly and we need to continue to press forward, to get to that level, so that everybody does feel safe.
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