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Press Conference with Secretary Gates En Route From Germany

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
June 30, 2009

                Q     So today is an important day -- the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities.  We've seen a peak of violence these past weeks and your commanders and yourself said that it was pretty predictable.  However, I was wondering if you could give us an assessment of the security in Iraq for the next month?  What is the Pentagon's assessment?  What might happen?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think it really varies around the country.  You have some places like Fallujah and Ramadi and Kirkuk, Basra that are pretty quiet.  Mosul -- they were in the middle of a fight in Mosul when this deadline came, and we're seeing some of these high profile suicide attacks in Baghdad.

 

                And I think the general view is that part of General Odierno and what he has been anticipating for weeks was that al Qaeda, in particular, as soon as we began -- two things.  First, as soon as we began to leave the cities, al Qaeda would try and reignite the sectarian violence, and to the degree that he has seemed relatively positive about developments, I think it's because even after these high profile bombings and with a lot of casualties, that sectarian violence has not reignited.  And I think his view is most Iraqis are sick and tired of the violence.

 

                The other thing is al Qaeda and others trying to increase the level of violence to try and pretend that they were the ones that forced us out of the cities and also to try and demonstrate deficiencies of the Iraqi security forces.

 

                So this is -- I think our commanders have anticipated these strategies on the part of the remaining al Qaeda and a few others, to try and take advantage of our withdrawal to get into the cities.  And the failure to spark new sectarian violence is what is, I think, making them as positive as they sound.

 

                Q     So what do you expect for the next month to happen?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I expect that there'll continue to be sporadic attacks as people try and take advantage of our being out of the cities.  But we're not -- you know, we're not coming home and in many respects, being out of the cities and able to focus on, say, the belts around Baghdad and some of these other areas may, in fact, allow us to help the Iraqi security forces by preventing those who want to foment trouble from getting into the cities.

 

                So I think we can continue the partnership that's been developed with the Iraqi security forces.  We'll just be doing it outside the cities.

 

                Q     (Off mike.)  Mr. Secretary, on Afghanistan, can you sort of conclude at this point that NATO allies contributed about as many troops as they're going to, and that our request -- (inaudible) -- should be not for troops but for money or training camps or things other than just raw numbers of troops?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I actually started that in Poland, in Krakow, earlier this year, focusing on two things.  One, seeing if they could get some more troops in, at least temporarily, in the pre-election period; but then, second, longer term, contributing civilian experts; and then, third, contributing to the Afghan trust fund in NATO to help sustain the Afghan security force.

 

                Q     Let's talk about the other big battle you're facing right now with Congress.  Obviously, the F-22s -- more of them was red lined for you.  What are some of the other red lines that you see as they try to pick at the budget?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I've indicated to some of the chairmen and the ranking minorities of the committees what I -- issues that I think would be a problem.  I'm not going to detail what that list is but I'll give you one more example.  It'll be the vehicle program for future combat systems.  But so far -- you know, the truth of the matter is, we haven't seen the full Senate Armed Services Committee mark yet, but based on what I've been told about the House part and the partial information I have about the Senate mark, the F-22 and the second engine for the F-35 seem to be about the only main issues where they have gone anywhere different than what we put forward.

 

                So based on the mark we've already seen from the House and what I've heard about the Senate, with those exceptions, I think we've actually done pretty well.

 

                Q     Are you surprised at how little resistance there's been to some of these big cuts?

 

                SEC. GATES:  A little bit.  But I think that, you know, the Chairman and I have done four hearings, appropriations and authorizers, but the service secretaries and the service chiefs have done a lot of hearings and so has -- and General Cartwright has done a lot of briefings on missile defense, for example.  And so I think that between our hearings and -- but especially hearing directly from the service chiefs and the service secretaries I believe has undoubtedly had a positive impact on the Hill in terms of hearing the services' views on these changes and their involvement in the process and their belief that we're headed in the right direction.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, while you were meeting with the wounded warriors, we were getting a briefing at lunch and we were hearing about the long distances that injured troops in Afghanistan have to get to care -- and I know you've been pushing to get more assets there.

 

                How soon do you expect that all be in place so they can start having an impact with this -- (inaudible) --

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think we're pretty close to being there.  The overall average time in Afghanistan -- you know, I mean, our goal is that golden hour, 60 minutes, which is the goal in Iraq.  That is my goal in Afghanistan as well.  We're now down to about 68 minutes on average, but we're keeping track of every single Medevac because there maybe some that are 20 minutes and there are maybe others that are an hour-and-a-half.

 

                Q     Right.

 

                SEC. GATES:  And I want to try and equalize that.  So a big impulse, big input was the arrival of the new combat air brigade, aviation brigade in May with all the helicopters they provide. 

 

                We took some of the helicopters -- when they arrived, we took some of the helicopters -- I had 10 helicopters I had sent in February back out.  I think we took four of the helicopters that went into Afghanistan earlier this year back out.

 

                Q     So six were here --

 

                SEC. GATES:  We left six, plus the capabilities of the combat aviation brigade and then we sent in three new field hospitals as well.  So we're trying to get -- part of the problem is the procedures in terms of the approval process for Medevac and what we're trying to do now is get them to the point where they launch the helicopters and -- even if they don't have the full chain of approvals, so that when they get those approvals, they're on their way or almost there.

 

                So we're not -- trying to avoid the bureaucracy and procedures getting in the way of being there quickly.  When I was in Afghanistan about three weeks ago, one of the surgeons told me that until the arrival of these capabilities, they had not been able to save a -- at least in his hospital, had not been able to save a single double amputee.

 

                Q     To save as in --

 

                SEC. GATES:  To save their lives, and they had already saved several with these additional air assets.  So they're working it.  I think we're going to get very close to being down to that hour.

 

                Q     One thing that they mentioned to us was -- apparently, a large number of our troops in Afghanistan, their first level of care was actually from the coalition for  medical treatment, not U.S., because of where they're located. 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, most -- that would be true really only in parts of the west.  And if we put another field hospital into the west of our and if we're working through some issues with our allies, they had some caveats associated with conditions under which they will fly helicopters and things like that and getting rid of a lot of those problems as well.  Chairman Mullen has been very active with his counterparts in the Alliance on that.

 

                But my direction was -- where we have the assets, our CEs and our CSTAF, let's get it down to an hour and then we'll work the north and the west as well as we possibly can.

 

                Q     The president yesterday spoke again about "Don't ask, don't tell" and his desire to overturn it.  When is the last time you spoke to him about it and the last time you had your staff speak about a timeline or any movement -- (inaudible) --

 

                SEC. GATES:  There was some discussion of it among the senior military during our Defense Senior Leadership Conference last week, and I think my last discussion with the president was probably last week as well.

 

                Q     And what was the level of that discussion?  Was it just the same -- his desire or is it --

 

                SEC. GATES:  We were talking about how do we move forward on this to achieve his objective which is changing the policy and the issue that we face is that how do we begin to do preparations and simultaneously the administration move forward in terms of asking the Congress to change the law. 

 

                What we have is a law -- be it a policy or a regulation -- and as I discovered when I got into it, it's a very prescriptive law.  It doesn't leave much to the imagination for a lot of flexibility.

 

                And so one of the things we're looking at is is there flexibility in how we apply this law in terms of -- well, let me give you an example.  Do we need to be driven when the information, to take action on somebody if we get that information from somebody who may have vengeance in mind or blackmail or somebody who has been jilted.

 

                Q     Somebody was outed without --

 

      (Cross talk.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yeah.  In other words, if somebody is outed by a third party, we have to -- does that force us to take an action?  And I don't know the answer to that and I don't want to pretend to.  But that's the kind of thing we're looking at to see if there's at least a more humane way to apply the law until the law gets changed.

 

                Q     Is that a legal question that has to be worked out?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think it's a question of legal interpretation, yeah.  So we've got the general counsel and others working on it.

 

                Q     Just going back to the Iraqi -- (inaudible.)  Is there concerns at the Pentagon that, you know, U.S. forces leaving the Iraqi cities might create a vacuum that Iran can take advantage of to gain more influence in Iraq?

 

                SEC. GATES:  No, I don't think so.  I think that, to a considerable extent, Iranian influence is political and covert, not military. 

 

                Q     And can you update us on the flow of aid to the insurgents from Iran?

 

                SEC. GATES:  There is still a flow of help from Iran to the insurgents, but I would say -- and, frankly, I haven't read much about it lately, so my suspicion is that the amount of it is down some.  But I'm not in a position to quantify.

 

                Q     Maybe never.

 

                Q     I wanted to follow up on the -- (off mike) -- what's your sense as a historian -- Iran, obviously, seems to have pummeled them.  Do you think that's going to hold or do you think that they would create the conditions for -- (inaudible) -- down the road?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I honestly think that no one knows the answer to that question.  I mean, you have the kind of situation that you saw in places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia where liberalization trend or hope or repression and the repression lasted for another 40 years; or do you have a situation that is more like the circumstances that happened in Eastern Europe more recently or in places like Ukraine and so on.  And I think you just don't know, and I think the key -- the quick -- the key question often is the security forces, the loyalty of the security services and whether there are deep fissures within the leadership.  And, frankly, we don't have a lot of information on that.

 

                Q     By the way, are you satisfied with the intel that you're getting from Iran right now whenever you kno?. 

 

                SEC. GATES:  I'm never satisfied with the level of details.  I want to know everything.

 

                Q     How would you qualify it?  Like the intel from the U.S. coming from Iran?

 

                SEC. GATES:  It's as good as we had when I was at the CIA, and I'll just leave it at that.  (Laughter.)

 

                Q             In your book, you talk a lot about how a '70s propaganda campaign within the Soviet Union started opening up fissures there.  So following Yoki's question, do you feel like the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, is actually starting to serve those same purposes in Iran?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I just think that -- as I said in the press room last week, I think that the multiplication of channels of information and technology make it increasingly difficult for authoritarian governments to cut their people off from outside information.  And as we've seen in Iran, particularly young people are incredibly innovative and creative in finding ways around the blogs.

 

                So I think it's a problem for all authoritarian governments.  You know, the people in the western part of the Soviet Union couldn't -- were able to access West German television, it's going to take something much cruder than what we riot about now.  It made all the difference in the world.  They're looking at their lifestyle and they're looking at West Germany and they're saying, what's wrong with this picture?   And -- so I think it remains to be seen.

 

      (Cross talk.)

       

                Q             Just back to Iraq real quick.  You said you expect the level of violence, you expect more push back from al Qaeda groups.  But do you have any concerns about the effect that will have on U.S. forces if they're under more -- removed from positions to have to respond to situations where the Iraqi security forces may not be handle it right away?  Does that put U.S. forces in a more dangerous situation?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, as you all know, we're going to have a certain number of soldiers embedded with Iraqi units, and we will still be providing them a lot of support, ISR and so on.  And so I think we'll be in pretty good touch with the situation and won't have to wait until somebody is an extremist before we -- if they call for help.

 

                I think -- I mean, I've been struck by General Odierno's overall positive view of the way things have developed and in the way forward.

 

                STAFF:  Okay, last one. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.) 

 

                SEC. GATES:  I saw him today.

 

                Q     You saw him today in the field -- in the hospital?  Is it fair to say that -- (off mike). 

 

                SEC. GATES:  Yeah.  I think it's still a dangerous situation.  We just lost four kids today. 

 

                Q     (Off mike.)

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think so.  Yeah, it was about half and half of the patients I saw. 

 

                Q     Are you --

 

      SEC. GATES:  He got a Purple Heart.  We gave out a Purple Heart. 

     

      (Cross talk.)

     

      SEC. GATES:  I'm not sure the soldier will remember -- (off mike).

 

                Q     I kind of understand that the Pentagon plans to keep the level of forces currently in Iraq steady for the next month until the election while the number in Afghanistan is going to go up.  So it means pretty much according to provisions that -- forecast that there's going to be 180 (thousand) or more, almost 200,000 U.S. soldiers in theater at the end of the year.  Is there any concerns that it might, you know, add to the issue of stretching the force?

 

                  SEC. GATES:  Sure there is.  And, you know, we really don't begin to get real relief.  They've obviously gotten some relief by going from 20 BCTs to 12, which is where we are now.  But until we can begin drawing down from that 12 to the five or six that General Odierno is talking about after August '10, then we're going to -- it will be a continual strain.  And that's why General Casey and others have said we don't really begin to see real relief in terms of dwell time until probably after the turn of the year and next spring.

 

                Q     I wonder if -- Cyber Command, just real quick.  If you can give us a little more overview on when we'll see more details and if you feel like we're already behind the eight ball in getting that underway?

 

                SEC. GATES:  No.  I -- you know, that's another one of those things that I punted with the next administration.  Actually, I created a subordinate unit under STRATCOM and double-hatted the director of NSA, General Alexander, in that job because I didn't want to move straight to a sub-unified command in the waning days of the Bush administration. 

 

      Once I agreed to stay, I told everybody to go ahead and move toward the sub-unified command and it simply brings more structure to it and even further integration of our different capabilities.  And we were actually ready to move about four months ago, but I told the White House that I would wait until the White House cyber review was completed.

 

                So we waited until then and then we moved ahead.

 

                Q     Sir, did that -- did the White House review not have any affect on the plans for the DOD site commander?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I think we probably made some adjustments.  I wasn't deeply engaged in the process, but I imagine we made some adjustments to the plan based on the 60-day study, but the fundamental structure was not changed.  

 

                STAFF:  Okay.  Thank you guys.

 

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