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Secretary Gates Interview on CNN's State of the Union with John King

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
September 27, 2009

KING: I'm John King, and this is "State of the Union." A wrenching debate over whether to send thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. And startling revelations about a secret underground bunker in Iran.



GATES: This is an illicit nuclear facility.



KING: And a candid assessment of the pressing global challenges from Defense Secretary Robert Gates.


Plus, the political divides on foreign policy and health care. We'll talk to two influential senators, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana.


Then, our "American Dispatch" from the Mississippi Delta. Unemployment is pushing 20 percent, things look bleak, and every job matters.


This is the "State of the Union" report for Sunday, September 27th.


We'll get to our interview with the Defense Secretary Robert Gates in just a moment, and you won't want to miss his thoughts on the new nuclear showdown with Iran and the president's debate over sending thousands of more troops to Afghanistan.


First, though, let's set the scene with some remarkable new images of the Iranian nuclear facilities at the heart of this high- stakes confrontation. You see Iran up on the map here. The world, for some time, has been watching 17 nuclear facilities. You see them highlighted there across Iran. Well, we want to zoom you in now to the new area of interest the world has been watching more closely. You see the Iranian city of Qom here. Some facilities to the north.


This is an image I want to show you now. Watch it load up on the screen. This is a little more than three years ago, almost four years ago, near Qom, out in the desert. You see some rudimentary construction here, but look at all this open space. Now watch closely as we fast forward to an image from January of this year. This one takes a moment to load, stay with us. You see here a dramatic change in that landscape, including deep underground construction. Let me go back to that. Sorry, we'll come right back to it.


Come to January here, it will load right up, deep underground construction here, including steel reinforcement beams underneath, more construction over here, even more construction up in here. Now, remember, this is January, just eight months ago. This is a dramatic new image just into CNN yesterday. We want to show you once we bring this up. Here's January. Watch us fast forward now. This is now. A building constructed here where you saw that underground ditch. This was all open a few minutes ago, tunnels into the hillside. Up here, covered again, more tunnels into the hillside.


Again, we want to put this into context for you by coming back in time. Here is this image, the area four years ago, three, four years ago, rudimentary construction. Here we are now, a major facility under way, underground access, ventilation up here, ways out up in the countryside. All of this in an area under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.


So the question now for Secretary Gates and others, what does the Obama administration know and what actions will it take? (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)


KING: Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.


We learned as the week came to an end about a new underground secret Iranian nuclear bunker, and the president described it this way. "The size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program."


Tell us more about what we know, and do you have any doubt Iran was using this facility or planned to use this facility to develop nuclear weapons?


GATES: We've been watching the construction of this facility for quite some time, and one of the reasons that we waited to make it public was to ensure that our conclusions about its purpose were right. This is information shared among ourselves, the British, the French, as we've gone along. And I think that, certainly, the intelligence people have no doubt that this is an illicit nuclear facility, if only because the Iranians kept it a secret. If they wanted it for peaceful nuclear purposes, there's no reason to put it so deep underground, no reason to be deceptive about it, keep it a secret for a protracted period of time.


KING: Take me back in time. You say you've known about it for some time, dating back into the Bush administration. You, of course, were serving in the Bush administration. How far back?


GATES: Well, it's hard for me to remember, but at least a couple of years we've been watching it.


KING: At least a couple of years. Because the former vice president, Dick Cheney, is on record as saying in the closing months of the administration, he was an advocate for possibly using military action against some of these Iranian sites. Was this one of his targets, this area we've just learned about?


GATES: Well, I think I'll just let his statement speak for itself.


KING: All right. We know -- and correct me if I'm wrong, please -- that you were skeptical about that, in fact, opposed to that. You didn't think that was the way to go. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said publicly many times how skeptical he is about the military options here. I just want you to help an American out there who says, we can't trust Ahmadinejad, this has been going on for years. We don't think sanctions will work. Why don't we do something about it? Explain to that person out there, whether they work in the United States Congress or whether it's just an average American, when you look at the contingencies that you have available to you and the president has available to him, are there any good military options when it comes to these deep underground facilities?


GATES: Well, without getting into any specifics, I would just say we obviously don't take any options off the table.


My view has been that there has been an opportunity through the use of diplomacy and economic sanctions to persuade the Iranians to change their approach to nuclear weapons.


The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time. The estimates are one to three years or so. And the only way you end up not having a nuclear capable Iran is for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened.


So I think, as I say, while you don't take options off the table, I think there's still room left for diplomacy. The P5 plus 1 will be meeting with Iran here shortly. The Iranians are in a very bad spot now because of this deception, in terms of all of the great powers. And there obviously is the opportunity for severe additional sanctions. And I think we have the time to make that work.


KING: I want to get to that diplomacy in just a minute, but when you shared this intelligence with others, I want to ask you specifically about the case of Israel, which you know in the past has been very skeptical about the diplomatic route. And many have thought perhaps Israel would take matters into its own hands because it is in the neighborhood. What did the Israeli government, specifically the Israeli military, say when they learned of this intelligence, about this new second facility?


GATES: Well, Israel, obviously, thinks of the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel. We've obviously been in close touch with them, as our ally and friend, and continue to urge them to let this diplomatic and economic sanctions path play out.


KING: And as that goes forward, President Sarkozy was quite skeptical and he was very clear, this year, December, he wants to see progress or else we'll see tougher sanctions. From your perspective, what sanctions would have the most teeth, would work?


GATES: Well, there are a variety of options still available, including sanctions on banking, particularly sanctions on equipment and technology for their oil and gas industry. I think there's a pretty rich list to pick from, actually.


KING: If you look at that list, though, in some of those cases, you'll find the suppliers, gasoline, imports, some of the equipment and technology would be China, would you not?


GATES: China's participation is clearly important.


KING: And the early indications are they will or won't help?


GATES: Well, I haven't had -- I haven't had an opportunity to talk to the president or those who were with him in Pittsburgh, so I don't know the nature of the conversations that they had with the Chinese there, but I do have the sense that the Chinese take this pretty seriously.


KING: Let me ask you about the situation in Iran, as this diplomacy goes forward. You're the defense secretary now. You have been the director of Central Intelligence. When you look at post- election Iran, all the talk of turmoil, reports of tension between Ahmadinejad and the clerics, Ahmadinejad and the reforms, is the water bubbling or is the water boiling in the sense that you just see trouble or do you see potential seeds of revolution?


GATES: Well, I guess I would say it's simmering. It's clear in the aftermath of the election, that there are some fairly deep fissures in Iranian society and politics, and probably even in the leadership. And frankly, this is one of the reasons why I think additional and especially severe economic sanctions could have some real impact, because we know that the sanctions that have already been placed on the country have had an impact. The unemployment among youth is about 40 percent. They have some real serious problems, especially with the younger people.


So I think that we are seeing some changes or some divisions in the Iranian leadership and in society that we really haven't seen in the 30 years since the revolution.


KING: And if you think sanctions work and this is a clear violation -- they hid this from the world, they hid this from everybody, in clear violation of their commitments -- why wait? Why not slap tougher sanctions now? Why wait until the end of the year?


GATES: Well, the opportunity exists in the October 1st meeting and over the next few weeks to see if we can leverage publicizing this additional illegal facility and activity to leverage the Iranians to begin to make some concessions, to begin to abide by the U.N. Security Council resolutions.


GATES: I think we are all sensitive to the possibility of the Iranians trying to run the clock out on us. And so nobody thinks of this as an open-ended process.


KING: And so, lastly, on this point, this facility, obviously, is not on-line yet. It is under construction, not on-line. So Iran's capability in terms of being ready to perhaps have a nuclear bomb, in the past, the public statements have been a year to three away. Is that still operational?


GATES: That would be my view.


KING: The defense secretary, Robert Gates.


We'll be back in just a moment with another big decision facing the secretary and the president, whether to send thousands more U.S. troops into Afghanistan. Stay with us.



KING: We're back with the defense secretary, Robert Gates.


Very momentous decision. Recommendation you will have to make to the president, the president will have to make to the nation about whether to send thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of more troops into Afghanistan. I want to start with a threshold question. Do you have full confidence in the commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, on the ground in Afghanistan now?


GATES: Absolutely. I think we have in General McChrystal the very best commanding officer we could possibly have there.


KING: Does the president share that?


GATES: I believe so.


KING: And then is it a logical extension then to go on to say, if you have such full confidence, that if General McChrystal says, I need 40,000 more troops, he will get them?


GATES: I think we are in the middle of a review. The president, when he made his decisions on strategy in Afghanistan at the end of March, said that after the Afghan elections, that we would review where we are and review the strategy.


We now, in addition to that, have General McChrystal's assessment of the situation. He found a situation in Afghanistan that is more serious than we had thought and that he had thought before going out there. So we're in the middle of a process of evaluating, really, the decisions the president made in late March to say, have we got the strategy right? And once we confidently have the strategy right, then we'll address the question of additional resource...



KING: As you know, some of your friends on Capitol Hill are saying, why wait, in the sense of because of the ominous warnings, General McChrystal sounds, in his report, among them, this: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term, over the next 12 months, while Afghan security capability matures, risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."


If the situation is that dire and he believes he needs more troops, why wait?


GATES: Well, first of all, I would like to remember -- remind people that the debate within the Bush administration over the surge took about three months, from October to December 2006.


It's very important that we get this right and there is always a dialogue between the chiefs -- the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Centcom commander, and our commander in the field. We had the same kind of dialogue with General Odierno about the timing of pulling our combat units out of Iraq. And the conclusion of all of that was actually for General Odierno to take some additional risk. And it has proved to work very well.


So the question is, there has got to be some dialogue between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of Central Command, as well as General McChrystal, and then a discussion among the president's national security team.


KING: You know the conversation in town,though, some, understand the surge debate, find this one rather remarkable in the sense that you now have General McChrystal, part of his report has leaked out, saying he needs more troops. Admiral Mullen has testified to Congress recently he believes we're going to need more troops. Some see an effort to almost put the president in a box before he deals with the other issues.


If you have the military, the admiral and the generals on record saying we need more troops, does the president really have a choice to say no?


 GATES: Well, I think the president always has a choice. He's the commander-in-chief.


The reality is, do we need additional forces? How many additional forces? And to do what?


And it's the "to do what?" that I think we need to make sure we have confidence we understand before making recommendations to the president.


KING: Help me on that point, because there's a lot of questions about the legitimacy of the election. Did President Karzai commit fraud to the level at which he perhaps has stolen the election? The political vacuum could be months. You may have to make your decision uncertain as to the political leadership in Afghanistan unless you wait. There could be a runoff. There could be contestments (ph) and challenges. Would you prefer some sort of power-sharing arrangement to move past this vacuum?


GATES: Well, I don't think it's up to us to tell the Afghans how to organize their government. The reality is that you still have an election process playing out. You have both the Afghan and the international election commissions evaluating the ballots. And if they come to a conclusion that there was a real winner, then I think it has legitimacy for both the international and the national -- and the Afghan audience.


But I think, above all, what's important is whether or not the government of Afghanistan has legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghans. All of the information that we have available to us today indicates that continues to be the case.


KING: Let's turn to the debate back home. You try to stay of the politics, but it does influence what happens in this town. As you know, a growing number of people on Capitol Hill want a clearer exit strategy. They want benchmarks. They want to know where the end is. Some have even said -- a few, but some have said we need a time line to get U.S. troops out. And now a liberal organization that was very vocal in the Iraq political debate is urging its members to call the president, e-mail the White House and say, don't send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to be stuck in a quagmire.


Is Afghanistan a quagmire?


GATES: I don't think so, and I think that with a general like McChrystal, it won't become one. I think that we are being very careful to look at this as we go along. We've put out metrics so that we can measure whether or not we're making progress. And if we're not making progress, then we're prepared to adjust our strategy, just as we're looking at whether adjustments are needed right now.


So I think that the notion of time lines and exit strategies and so on, frankly, I think, would all be a strategic mistake. The reality is, failure in Afghanistan would be a huge setback for the United States. Taliban and Al Qaida as far as they're concerned, defeated one superpower. For them to be seen to defeat a second, I think would have catastrophic consequences in terms of energizing the extremist movement, Al Qaida recruitment, operations, fundraising, and so on.


I think it would be a huge setback for the United States.


GATES: I think what we need is a strategy that we think can be successful and then to pursue it, and pursue it with confidence and resolution.


KING: You mentioned the history, and you're a student of history, and you're on the record talking about how this did become a quagmire for the Soviets, who had about 120,000 troops in Afghanistan. And you have said many times the Afghan people began to view them as occupiers, not as friends.


Where's the line for the United States so that you don't cross that very same line?


GATES: Well, I think the analogy of the situation with the Soviets really doesn't hold. The Soviets' presence in Afghanistan was condemned by virtually every country in the world. They conducted a war of terror against the Afghans. They probably killed 1 million Afghans, made 5 million of them into refugees, tried to impose an alien social and cultural change on the country.


So the situations are completely different. And I think that the -- I think the Afghans continue to see us as their ally and partner.


KING: General McChrystal, in an interview that will air on "60 Minutes" tonight, talks about the breadth and the geographic spread of the violence in Afghanistan. He says, "It's a little more than I would have gathered."


We've been at this nearly eight years. Why are we still surprised?


GATES: Well, I will tell you, I think that the strategy that the president put forward in late March is the first real strategy we have had for Afghanistan since the early 1980s. And that strategy was more about the Soviet Union than it was about Afghanistan.


KING: You served in the Bush administration. That's a pretty broad damnation of the Bush strategy.


GATES: Well, the reality is, we were fighting a holding action. We were very deeply engaged in Iraq. I increased -- I extended the 10th Mountain Division the first month I was on this job in January of '07. I extended -- I put another brigade into Afghanistan in the spring of 2007. And that's all we had to put in there. Every -- we were -- we were too stretched to do more. And I think we did not have the kind of comprehensive strategy that we have now.


KING: And if it comes to the point of sending more, this time, if the president agrees and General McChrystal gets -- maybe it's 20,000, 30,000, or 40,000, do we have the troops now? If you needed 40,000, could you find it?


GATES: Well, I think, if the president were to decide to approve additional combat forces, they really probably could not begin to flow until some time in January.


KING: We're about out of time. I want to ask you a couple quick questions in closing. One is, do you see any chance now, because of the delays in the political problems, that the administration will keep its promise to close Gitmo, the Guantanamo Bay detention center, in one year, as promised?


GATES: Well, I think -- I think it has proven more complicated than anticipated. I will be the first to tell you that, when the president-elect's national security new team met in Chicago on December 7th, I was one of those who argued for a firm deadline. Because I said that's the only way you move the bureaucracy in Washington.


And you have to extend that date, if at least you have a strong plan, showing you're making progress in that direction, then it shouldn't be a problem to extend it. And we'll just see whether that has to happen or not.


KING: And lastly, you served eight presidents. What makes this one unique, or is there anything unique when it comes to these decisions of war and peace?


GATES: He is very analytical. He's very deliberate about the way he goes through things. He wants to understand everything. He delves very deeply into these issues. I'm not going to get into comparing the different presidents. I very much enjoy working for this one.


KING: Mr. Secretary, thank for your time.


GATES: Thank you.


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