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Secretary Gates Interview on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
September 27, 2009

STEPHANOPOULOS:  And we begin with the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, Welcome back to "This Week."

 

GATES: Thank you.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS:  National security was front and center all week long. Let's begin with Afghanistan.  We saw the leak of General McChrystal's review, and he concluded that the United States has about 12 months to reverse Taliban momentum and that, without new troops, the strategy laid out by the president is likely to fail.  And I want to show what the president said back in March when he laid out that strategy.  He called it "new and comprehensive."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

 

OBAMA: This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review. My administration has heard from our military commanders, as well as our diplomats. We've consulted with the Afghan and Pakistani governments, with our partners and our NATO allies, and with other donors and international organizations. We've also worked closely with members of Congress here at home. (END VIDEO CLIP)

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Now, this was clearly a carefully considered strategy. And now the president is telling us -- he told me last week that he can't approve General McChrystal's request until we get the strategy right. Why the second thoughts on the strategy?

 

GATES: I don't think there are second thoughts so much as, you know, when he made his decisions at the end of March, he also announced that he would -- we would be reviewing the policy and the strategy after the elections...

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: But he said the tool was in the tactics, not the strategy.

 

GATES: Well, I -- I think that he -- he clearly felt that we would have to reassess where we are after the election. Now, in addition to having a flawed election in Afghanistan, we now have General McChrystal's assessment.

 

When the president made his comments at -- at the end of March, his decisions, obviously, General McChrystal was not in place. We now have his assessment. He has found the situation on the ground in Afghanistan worse than he had -- than he anticipated.

 

And so I think what the president is now saying is, in light of the election, in light of McChrystal's more concerning assessment of the situation on the ground, have we got the strategy right, were the decisions in -- that he made at the end of March the right ones? Do we need to make some adjustments in light of what we've found?

 

And once we've decided whether or not to make adjustments in the strategy, then we will consider the additional resources.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: But did -- but didn't General McChrystal take these problems of the election into account? He didn't even deliver his report until August 30th, which was after the elections. Dennis Blair, the head of national intelligence, said back in February or March that we could foresee that there would be problems with this election.

 

GATES: Well, I think -- I think that the potential magnitude of the problems in the election really didn't become apparent until the vote count began in early September. So -- so I think it was really after he submitted his -- his assessment.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: So now we have a real dilemma. Does that mean that the United States is re-thinking whether it can even -- whether it can bolster President Karzai's government, whether we have to give up on it?

 

GATES: Well, I -- you know, the Afghan people have gone to the polls, and we have the two election commissions -- one internal, one international -- that could still come to conclusions, even if they throw out some fraudulent ballots or a number of fraudulent ballots, that there was a clear winner.

 

The key is whether the Afghans believe that their government has legitimacy. And everything that I've seen in the intelligence and elsewhere indicates that remains the case.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: It does seem, though, that you're caught in a dilemma right now. You've got your commanding general on the ground who's given you this report. He's said that troops -- more troops are necessary or you risk failure.

 

That report has been endorsed by the head of Central Command, David Petraeus. Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to Congress and said we probably need more troops.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet the president is saying that we need to think about the strategy right now. And it really creates the impression of a rift between the civilian leadership, you, as secretary of Defense, the president, and the uniformed military.

 

GATES: I don't think that's the case at all. I talked with -- I had an extensive conversation on the telephone with both General McChrystal and General Petraeus on -- on Wednesday. General McChrystal was very explicit in saying that he thinks this assessment, this review that's going on right now is exactly the right thing to do. He obviously doesn't want it to be open-ended or be a protracted kind of thing...

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: How long will it take?

 

GATES: Well, I -- you know, I -- it's not going to take -- I think it -- it's a matter of a few weeks. And people should remember that the debate within the Bush administration on the surge lasted three months, from October to December 2006.

 

So I think it's important to make sure we're confident that we have the right strategy in place, and then we can make the decisions on additional forces.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet the clock really does seem to be ticking, again, to go back to General McChrystal's report. He says that if we don't turn the tide in the next 12 months, we risk failure. So every week that goes by puts the soldiers who are on the ground at risk, doesn't it?

 

GATES: But having the -- having the wrong strategy would put even more soldiers at risk. So I think it's important to get the strategy right and then we can make the resources decision.

 

As I say, I don't expect this to be protracted process. The reality is that, even if the president did decide to approve additional combat forces going into Afghanistan, the first forces couldn't arrive until January.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what are the options right now? You have said in the past that you didn't believe what some people are recommending -- stepping up drone attacks, stepping up missile attacks, using special forces -- you don't believe or haven't believed in the past that that's sufficient to contain the Taliban.

 

GATES: I think that most people who -- the people that I've talked to in the Pentagon who are the experts on counterterrorism essentially say that counterterrorism is only possible if you have the kind of intelligence that allows you to target the terrorists. And the only way you get that intelligence is by being on the ground, getting information from people like the Afghans or, in the case of Iraq, the Iraqis.

 

And so you can't do this from -- from a distance or remotely, in the view of virtually all of the experts that I've talked to.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: So if that -- if that's not going to work, and then you have General McChrystal who said in his report that you need a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign, counterinsurgency is the answer, that certainly seems to be endorsed by General Petraeus. Is there a middle ground between those two poles?

 

GATES: Well, I think -- I think people are -- are, frankly, so focused on -- on the comment that -- in General McChrystal's report about additional resources that they're neglecting to look at the rest of what's in his report and that -- where he talks very explicitly about the fact that -- that a preoccupation with the resources or with additional forces, if you don't have the strategy right, is a mistake.

 

And -- and he, as I say, he understands this process that's underway. But -- but what he talks about in most of that assessment is not resources, but a different way of using U.S. forces and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

 

It talks about accelerating the growth of the Afghan national security forces. It spends a lot of time talking about how we stay on side with the Afghan people. This is mostly what McChrystal's assessment is about.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: But it's a resource-intensive strategy, isn't it? He says that the troops have to probably be more lightly armed and engage more with the population. And it's hard to ignore that stark conclusion: Success is not ensured by additional forces alone, as you point out, but continued under-resourcing will likely cause failure. Failure.

 

GATES: Well, that's what we're discussing. And how do we avoid that?

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: And, as you said, you hope to have this done in a few weeks and you want to avoid failure, as well, but the president has not made any -- any decision at all on resources? Has he -- has he ruled it out?

 

GATES: No, I haven't even given him General McChrystal's request for resources. I have the -- I -- I'm receiving the -- the report. I'm going to sit on it until I think -- or the president thinks -- it's appropriate to bring that into the discussion of the national security principles.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's what -- General McChrystal says we have to have more troops to avoid failure. Where we've had a lack of clarity is on what success means in Afghanistan. You pointed out at the beginning of this year what it was, and he said we're not -- we shouldn't expect a Valhalla in Afghanistan.

 

The president's special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, was asked for his definition of success last month, and here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

 

HOLBROOKE: I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the simplest sense, the Supreme Court test for another issue, we'll know it when we see it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that good enough?

 

GATES: Well, I think -- I think we know it when we see it, and we see it in Iraq. I think that success in Afghanistan looks a great deal like success in Iraq, in this respect, that the Afghan national security forces increasingly take the lead in protecting their own territory and going after the insurgents and protecting their own people. We withdraw to an over-watch situation and then we withdraw altogether.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Which first required a surge in Iraq.

 

GATES: It did require the surge. And that's -- the issue that we will be looking at over the next several weeks -- the next couple of weeks or so -- is, do we have the right strategy?

 

And that includes the question of -- of, is the -- is McChrystal's approach, in the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Central Command commander, the right approach? And if so, then what -- what would be the additional resources required?

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me turn to Iran. The president has put Iran on notice that they're going to have to allow inspectors into this secret site which U.S. intelligence discovered for enriching uranium. President Ahmadinejad says that President Obama is mistaken and the United States owes Iran an apology. Is Iran going to get one?

 

GATES: Not a chance.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: So what happens next? The president has said that this site is not configured for peaceful purposes. Now, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate concluded -- of the U.S. government -- concluded that Iran had stopped its active nuclear weapons program in 2003. Does the president's conclusion -- that this site is not configured for peaceful purposes -- mean that that intelligence estimate is no longer operative?

 

GATES: No, not necessarily. But what it does mean is that they had a covert site. They did not declare it. They didn't -- if -- if this were a peaceful nuclear program, why didn't they announce this site when they began to construct it? Why didn't they allow IAEA inspectors in from the very beginning?

 

This -- this is part of a pattern of deception and lies on the part of the Iranians from the very beginning with respect to their nuclear program. So it's no wonder that world leaders think that they have ulterior motives, that they have a plan to go forward with nuclear weapons. Otherwise, why would they do all this in such a deceptive manner?

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: U.S. intelligence had been tracking this site for quite some time before President Obama made it public. Is this the only secret site that we know of?

 

GATES: Well, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to get into that. I would just say that we're watching very closely.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does the United States government believe that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program?

 

GATES: I think that -- my personal opinion is that the Iranians have the intention of having nuclear weapons. I think the question of whether they have made a formal decision to -- to move toward the development of nuclear weapons is -- is in doubt.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: The U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency said a couple of weeks ago that Iran is closer to what he called "breakout" capacity on developing a nuclear weapon. What does that mean exactly? And how much time -- if they do, indeed, have the intent -- how much time do we have before Iran has a nuclear weapons capacity?

 

GATES: Well, I think "breakout" in the -- in the ambassador's terms means they have enriched enough uranium to a relatively low level that if they have another facility where they could enrich it more highly, that they have a -- they have enriched enough at a low level that they could, in essence, throw out all the IAEA inspectors, change the configuration of the -- of the cascades and the enrichment capability, and enrich it to a level where they could use it -- where they could make it into weapons-grade uranium.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you say you personally have no doubt that they want weapons. Can that weapons program be stopped with sanctions?

 

GATES: I think that what is critical is persuading the Iranians that -- or leading them to the conclusion that their security will be diminished by trying to get nuclear weapons, rather than enhanced.

 

And I think that, because of the election, we see fissures in Iran that we have not seen before, not in the 30 years since the revolution. And I think that severe sanctions, if the Iranian -- that, first of all, we -- we have created a problem for the Iranians with this disclosure.

 

And so the first step is the meeting on October 1st with the P5- plus-one, with the Iranians, to see if they will begin to change their policy in a way that is satisfactory to -- to the great powers.

 

And then, if that doesn't work, then I think you begin to move in the direction of severe sanctions. And their economic problems are difficult enough that -- that I think that severe sanctions would have the potential of -- of bringing them to change their -- their policies.

 

I think -- you asked me, how long do I think we have? I would say somewhere between one to three years.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me turn, finally, to Guantanamo. We have just a couple of minutes left. A major story in the Washington Post suggesting that the president's deadline of January 22nd for closing Guantanamo will not be met, and White House officials tell me that at least some prisoners will still be in Guantanamo on January 22nd and beyond. How big a setback is that? And how long will it take to finally close Guantanamo?

 

GATES: When the president-elect met with his new national security team in Chicago on December 7th...

 

STEPHANOPOULOS:  2008.

 

GATES: ... last year, this issue was discussed, about closing Guantanamo and executive orders to do that and so on. And the question was, should we set a deadline? Should we pin ourselves down?

 

I actually was one of those who said we should, because I know enough from being around this town that, if you don't put a deadline on something, you'll never move the bureaucracy. But I also said, and then if we find we can't get it done by that time but we have a good plan, then you're in a position to say, "It's going to take us a little longer, but we are moving in the direction of implementing the policy that the president set." And I think that's the position that...

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: That's where we are. So the deadline of January 22nd will not be met?

 

GATES: It's going to be tough.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: And -- and how many prisoners will be there on January 22nd, do you know?

 

GATES: I don't know the answer to that.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, as you said, it's going to be tough and likely will not be met?

 

GATES: We'll see.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: One -- one other deadline question. When you were working for President Bush, you used to keep a countdown clock on your desk, counting down the number of days you had left to serve. Is that clock still there?

 

GATES: No, I threw the clock out. It was obviously useless.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you're in for the long haul?

 

GATES: We'll see. The president-elect and I, when we first discussed this, agreed to leave it open.

 

STEPHANOPOULOS: Secretary Gates, thank you very much for your time today.

 

GATES: Thanks a lot.

 

Source: CQ Transcriptions

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