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DOD News Briefing with Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen
July 29, 2010

                 SEC. GATES:  Good afternoon.  I would first like to start with some comments about the release and subsequent publication of classified military documents earlier this week.  

                First, as the president stated, the problems identified and the issues raised in these documents relating to the war in Afghanistan have been well known in and out of government for some time.  In fact, it was the recognition of many of these challenges that led to the president to conduct an extensive review of our Afghan strategy last year, which concluded that our mission there needed a fundamentally new approach.  

                These documents represent a mountain of raw data and individual impressions, most several years old, devoid of context or analysis.  They do not represent official positions or policy.  And they do not, in my view, fundamentally call into question the efficacy of our current strategy in Afghanistan and its prospects for success.  

                Having said all that, the battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships and reputation in that key part of the world. Intelligence sources and methods, as well as military tactics, techniques and procedures, will become known to our adversaries.  

                This department is conducting a thorough, aggressive investigation to determine how this leak occurred, to identify the person or persons responsible, and to assess the content of the information compromised.  We have a moral responsibility to do everything possible to mitigate the consequences for our troops and our partners downrange, especially those who have worked with and put their trust in us in the past, who now may be targeted for retribution.  

                Yesterday, I called FBI Director Robert Mueller and asked for the FBI's assistance in our investigation as a partner.  It is important that we have all the resources we need to investigate and assess this breach of national security.  Furthermore, the department is taking action in theater to prevent a repeat of such a breach, to include tightening procedures for accessing and transporting classified information.  

                As a general proposition, we endeavor to push access to sensitive battlefield information down to where it is most useful -- on the front lines -- where as a practical matter there are fewer restrictions and controls than at rear headquarters.  In the wake of this incident, it will be a real challenge to strike the right balance between security and providing our frontline troops the information they need.  

                The U.S. military's success over the years rests on the abilities and integrity of its men and women in uniform and our trust in them. This trust is represented by the fact that, relative to other countries' armed forces, our military culture is one that on the battlefield places great responsibility on the shoulders of even junior servicemembers, to include entrusting them with sensitive information. The American way of war depends upon it.  

                But to earn and maintain that trust, we must all be responsible in handling, protecting and safeguarding our nation's secrets.  For years there has been what I would call appropriate criticism of excessive classification and overclassification of information. However, this recent release of documents is a pointed reminder that much secret information is treated as such to protect sources of information, to protect the lives of our men and women in uniform, to deny our enemies the information about our military operations, and to preserve our relationships with friends and allies.  

                This recent massive breach should be a reminder to all entrusted with our secrets that there are potentially dramatic and grievously harmful consequences of violations of trust and responsibility.  We will aggressively investigate and, wherever possible, prosecute such violations. 

                Chairman.  

                ADM. MULLEN:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  I certainly share your concerns about the recklessness with which classified documents were both leaked and then posted online.  

                As I said earlier this week, I am appalled by this behavior, and, frankly, outraged that anyone in their right mind would think it valuable to make public even one sensitive report, let alone tens of thousands of them, about a war that is being waged.  

                Yes, the documents are old and essentially raw inputs to our intelligence and operations apparatus.  And yes, much of what has been revealed has already been commonly understood by the public or otherwise covered in the media.  I can assure you, having just come from visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan, that none of what I've seen posted online or reported in the press affects our overarching strategy.  

                But, frankly, that's not why this is so destructive.  The sheer size and scope of the collection now demands a careful review to determine the degree to which future tactical operations may be impacted, and the degree to which the lives of our troops and Afghan partners may be at risk.  And I think we always need to be mindful of the unknown potential for damage in any particular document that we handle.  

                Mr. Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.  Disagree with the war all you want, take issue with the policy, challenge me or our ground commanders on the decisions we make to accomplish the mission we've been given, but don't put those who willingly go into harm's way even further in harm's way just to satisfy your need to make a point.  

                And while I'm at it, let me make one:  A big part of my trip -- indeed, a big part of my time as chairman -- has revolved around building and sustaining relationships.  Everywhere I went over the last 10 days, those relationships were front and center -- not just for me, but for our commanders and for our diplomats.  

                I saw it in Kabul, where Ambassador Eikenberry and General Petraeus have forged a strong team and an even stronger dialogue with the Karzai administration.  

                I saw it in Kandahar city, where I met with a company of U.S. MPs living and working side by side with Afghan police at a security station near the outskirts of town.  

                I saw it in Islamabad in yet another of my engagements with General Kayani.  He spent an entire afternoon flying me to northern Pakistan so I could see for myself some of the rugged terrain he and his troops have to patrol.  

                If we've learned nothing else in fighting these wars, it's that relationships matter.  They are vital.  We are not going to kill our way to success, and we sure aren't going to achieve success alone.  

                So in addition to making sure we understand the tactical risks from these leaks, I think it's incumbent upon us not to let the good relations -- relationships we've established and the trust we've worked so hard to build throughout the region also become a casualty.  

                Thank you.  

                Q     Mr. Secretary, do you believe that the investigation should go beyond the source or sources of the leak within the military to include those who received or used the information -- WikiLeaks, the news media?  And does the presence of the FBI in the investigation indicate such a widening of its scope?  

                SEC. GATES:  Obviously, in the middle of an investigation, and particularly one that is in the military justice system, there's very little that I can say because of the potential for command influence. My basic position, though, is the investigation should go wherever it needs to go.  And one of the reasons that I asked the director of the FBI to partner with us in this is to ensure that it can go wherever it needs to go. 

                Q     To include potentially beyond --  

                SEC. GATES:  I'll just -- I'll just leave it at that.   

                Julian.  

                Q     Sir, PFC Bradley Manning was charged earlier with another leak to WikiLeaks.  Do you feel that there was not -- was there an aggressive enough effort to examine what he accessed that he was not supposed to access?  Have you thoroughly looked at what documents he, who's already accused, might have looked at in addition to what he's already been charged with?  

                SEC. GATES:  Well, obviously, what I just said in response to Anne's question goes here, too.  I'm just not going to talk about any specific individual or the status of the investigation.  

                Q     If I could try again, then, on a slightly different matter. Is there -- are you -- you mentioned that there would be some changes at the tactical level in Iraq.  Are you concerned that -- is it a problem that the rules -- there were insufficient rules in place, or that rules were not followed to the letter that allowed breaches on the front line?  

                SEC. GATES:  Well, again, the -- based on what I've been briefed on and what I knew before, as I said in my statement, if the kind of breach involved in the downloading of these thousands of documents had occurred at a rear headquarters or here in the U.S., very high likelihood we would have detected it.  

                But the interesting thing is -- and it really was one of the lessons learned from the first Gulf War in 1991 -- was how little useful intelligence information was being received by battalion and company commanders in the field.  And so there has been an effort over the last 15 or so years in the military, and I would say really accelerated during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to push as much information as far forward as possible, which means putting it in a secret channel that almost everybody has access to in uniform, and obviously many civilians as well.  

                We want those soldiers in a forward operating base to have all the information they possibly can have that impacts on their own security, but also being able to accomplish their mission.  And so one of the things that we are going to have to look at with General Petraeus, and soon General Austin, is what kind of -- should we change the way we approach that, or do we -- do we continue to take the risk?  

                And there are some technological solutions.  Most of them are not immediately available to us.  But figuring out if we need to change the balance I think is one of the issues that independent of the investigations that all of us are going to have to work on.  

                ADM. MULLEN:  Let me take this.  

                SEC. GATES:  Yeah, yeah.  

                ADM. MULLEN:  Can I just add -- make one additional comment to that, is in that change, what it has done is it has put -- pushed -- put us in a position to much better match the enemy in terms of speed of war.  It's integrated intelligence more rapidly into operations, which then generates more intelligence, which allows us to operate much more effectively.  And I think, obviously, as the secretary said, we're going to have to take a look at what this investigation tells us and make sure that we have the balance exactly right.  

                Q     Admiral Mullen, you have mentioned that the founder of WikiLeaks may have blood on his hands.  Do you know, have people been killed over this information?  

                ADM. MULLEN:  They're still -- what I am concerned about with this is I think individuals who are not involved in this kind of warfare and expose this kind of information can't -- from my perspective, can't appreciate how this kind of information is routinely networked together inside the classified channels we use specifically.  

                And it's very difficult, if you don't do this and understand this, to understand the impact, and very specifically the potential that is there -- that is there to risk lives of our soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines, coalition warfighters, as well -- as well as Afghan citizens.  And there's no doubt in my mind about that.  

                Q     What --  

                SEC. GATES:  I would -- I would just add one other thing.  The thing to remember here is that this is a huge amount of raw data, as I said at the outset of my remarks.  There is no accountability.  There is no sense of responsibility.  It is sort of thrown out there for take as you will and damn the consequences.  

                Q     With all due respect, you didn't answer the question.  

                Q     Mr. Secretary, if I could just come back a minute, the fact is, the department -- the U.S. military knew weeks ago; it is part of the public record that tens of thousands of documents had been downloaded.  Without referencing any particular legal matter, it has been in the public record released by this department.  Charge sheets had been filed.  The department, the military knew.  So why the surprise?  Why didn't the military move faster to assess this, to establish a team to assess it, to bring the FBI in?  Charges were filed about tens of thousands of missing documents weeks ago.  

                And has anyone else been relieved of duty?  Where's the command responsibility in the unit where this occurred?  

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, those are the kinds of issues that I think the investigation will address.  I would tell you that, at least from my perspective, it has only been very recently that I was aware of the magnitude of the number of documents that had been -- had been leaked.  

                The reality is, at this point, we don't know how many more there are out there.  It could be a substantial additional number of documents.  And we have no idea what their content is, either.  

                Q     Do you believe there's other documents that are either missing or downloaded?  

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, my impression is that the head of WikiLeaks has acknowledged that he has thousands of additional documents that he has not yet posted.  So we have his own statement to that effect.  

                Q     The department, is it talking to the founder of WikiLeaks to determine what he may have and just hasn't released yet?  

                SEC. GATES:  No.  

                Q     Is there any kind of dialogue?  Why not?  

                SEC. GATES:  Not that I'm aware of.  I'm not sure why we would. Do you think he's going to tell us the truth?  

                Q     Should Julian Assange face criminal prosecution?  Will he face criminal prosecution, sir?  

                SEC. GATES:  I have no idea.  As I -- as I said in answering the first question, the investigation should go wherever it -- wherever it needs to go.   

                Q     You said you were taking steps to mitigate the damage. What, specifically?  Are you taking Afghans who are named in those documents out of the country?  Or are you doing other things that would specifically reduce the danger of -- 

                SEC. GATES:  Without compounding the problem by revealing what we're doing -- I would just say that I -- as I said in my statement, I think we have a moral obligation, not only to our troops but to those who have worked with us.  And as we go through these documents and identify people who have helped us, it seems to me we have an obligation to take some responsibility for their security.  

                Elisabeth.  

                Q     Mr. Secretary, can you -- without going into specifics in talking about the investigation, can you talk in a general way about what the FBI can do that the -- that the Army criminal investigation can't do?  

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't know, to tell you the truth.  I do know that -- I mean, we all know the range of skills of the FBI.  And frankly, because I don't know whether this investigation should stop at the edge of the responsibilities of the Department of Defense and the military, it seemed to me, to ensure that the investigation goes wherever it needs to go, that having the FBI involved as a partner was very important in terms of leaving open the full scope of a possible investigation.  

                Q     Can I ask you a non-WikiLeaks question?  This is a Veterans Affairs issue.  Both you and Admiral Mullen have worked very hard to ensure that the transition from warrior to retired or disabled under the auspices of the VA has gone humanely and efficiently.  Yesterday, the VA opened an investigation into an insurance company practice where survivor's benefits are held by the companies in a large, interest-bearing account, the survivors get a small amount of it, and they're not told that their benefits aren't really insured by FDIC.  

                Andrew Cuomo, the New York attorney general has subpoenaed the companies today.  It's becoming a larger issue.  

                I wanted to get your take on the subject, since you sit on an advisory council for servicemembers and veterans group insurance.  

                SEC. GATES:  I do?  (Chuckles.) 

                Q     (Off mike.)  

                SEC. GATES:  Oh, okay.  (Chuckles.)  

                Let me just say that today is the first time -- well, let me say, until today, I actually believed that the families of our fallen heroes got a check for the full amount of their benefit.  So this came as news to me.  And so I will just say I will be very interested in the outcome of the VA  investigation.  

                ADM. MULLEN:  I would just add that -- and I saw the story as well and would have the same observation.  Certainly there is great care taken in counseling of those once this tragedy has occurred in a family.  It's a very difficult time.  And that I certainly am anxious to see where this investigation goes specifically.  These are people we have to take care of.  

                And as you said, we've both been very focused on it.  Sometimes the devil's in the details, and certainly this is one I was not aware of.  

                Q     Well, can you do anything from a Defense Department standpoint possibly to ensure that at least survivors know up front how their money is being handled and the disclosure up front, even though you can't -- you can't regulate insurance companies, obviously.  

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I -- you know, all we can do is assure the VA that we will do everything we can to help them in their investigation, but also in terms of, as the chairman just said, whatever we can do to ensure that the families of the fallen are taken care of.  

                ADM. MULLEN:  If I -- if I can, Tony, I would -- or, Mr. Secretary -- I would say that we have put great emphasis on expanding the level of knowledge of those who counsel, those who have to make these decisions.  The Army in particular has put in over the course of the last year or two a significant focus here.  Obviously, we've got to, you know, again, wait to see what the results are.  But certainly we want to do everything we possibly can to get them their benefits.  

                Q     Do you believe that WikiLeaks is a media organization that should be protected under the First Amendment?  Or -- that's one question.  

                The second is, are you concerned that there are other -- without getting into the investigation -- that there are other people that might be leaking documents still?  Or do you think this is something that's been sort of contained, and there might be documents out there that were downloaded previously, but not more being downloaded for release?  

                SEC. GATES:  The answer to the second part of your question is I don't know whether there's anybody else out there that is a party to this.  That's one element of, clearly, what the investigation will pursue.  

                With respect to the first question, I think that's a question for people who are more expert in the law than I am.  

                Q     Sir -- actually, for both of you -- do you believe there's going to be a chilling effect -- I guess on the commanders, too, in Afghanistan -- believe there's going to be a chilling effect on future contacts with Afghans who may come forward because of the spillage of names out there?  And if you do, is there something you all are planning on doing or doing to mitigate that future concern?  

                SEC. GATES:  One of my -- I spent most of my life in the intelligence business, where the sacrosanct principle is protecting your sources, and that involves your sources trusting you to protect them and to protect their identities.  That is one of the worst aspects of this, as far as I'm concerned:  Will people trust us?  Will people whose lives are on the line trust us to keep their identities secret?  Will other governments trust us to keep their documents and their intelligence secret?  

                You know, it's a funny thing, and especially for a so-called realist, but it's amazing how much trust matters in relationships, whether it's with governments or with individuals around the world. And it seems to me that, as a result of this massive breach of security, we have considerable repair work to do in terms of reassuring people and rebuilding trust because they -- clearly, people are going to feel at risk.  And so I think this is one of the -- this is one of the consequences of this kind of a breach, both for those who leak the information and those who post it online, that they don't perhaps think about.  But it is -- it is front and center for me.  

                Q     Mr. Secretary?  

                Q     Have you been contacted by other governments concerned about this, besides the Afghan government?  

                SEC. GATES:  There has been -- I don't know precisely, but my sense is that there have been some conversations with other governments beyond just Afghanistan and Pakistan.  But, frankly, I'm not familiar with the details of that.  

                Q     Mr. Secretary, are you recommending or considering recommending that the federal government issue an injunction against WikiLeaks if it is indeed considered to be a news organization, or to forestall publication of further documents?  

                SEC. GATES:  I haven't considered that at this point.  

                Q     Something to be considered? 

                SEC. GATES:  I would need to -- I would have to defer to the Justice Department on that kind of an issue.  

                Q     British Prime Minister David Cameron said today that he can't tolerate the idea that Pakistan is allowed to look both ways and is able to promote the export of terrorism, is what he said.  Does the U.S. think that the Pakistani government is looking the other way in -- from the allegations made in the WikiLeaks documents?  

                SEC. GATES:  Well, what I -- what I will tell you -- and the chairman's just returned from there, and I certainly want him to address this issue -- what I have seen over the past 18 months to two years is a Pakistani government that has become increasingly aggressive in taking on terrorists in the western part of their -- in the northwestern part of their country.  They have 140,000 troops in that area.  If you had asked me would they be aggressively pursuing the Taliban in South Waziristan a year or two ago, I would have thought that impossible.  

                So I think what we have seen, and one of the reasons why these documents are dated, is that in the last 18 months or so there has been a dramatic change, in my view, in Pakistan's willingness to take on insurgents and terrorists, their willingness to put their own military at risk and take casualties in going after this.  And our cooperation has been steadily expanding.  

                I've talked -- over the last three-and-a-half years, I have talked about the fact that one of the challenges the U.S. has faced in both Afghanistan and Pakistan is that they vividly remember us walking out in 1989, and being left to deal with their own security situation on their own.  The notion that, under those circumstances and not knowing whether they could count on us to be there -- the notion that they would hedge in one way or another is not a surprise.  And it is something that I have talked about ever since I -- ever since I got this job.  

                But, again, the point that I would make is I think we are rebuilding that relationship of trust with Pakistan, and it is evident in the expansion of cooperation that we have had with them, both in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.  

                ADM. MULLEN:  I think the heart of your question goes to the ISI. And specifically -- and I've said before and would repeat that it's an organization that, actually, we have, in ways, a very positive relationship, very healthy relationship between our intelligence organizations.   

                And there have been -- that said, there have been elements of the ISI that have got relationships -- a relationship with extremist organizations, and that we -- you know, I, we, consider that unacceptable.  In the long run, I think that the ISI has to strategically shift its -- tied in great part to what the secretary's laid out -- focused on its view of its own national-security interests.  

                These are issues that -- and I have seen some of this; I was just with General Kayani again, and this is a subject we frequently discuss.  And they have, as the secretary said, in that country, captured lots of terrorists, killed lots of terrorists, focused on terrorism.  And they are strategically shifting. 

                That doesn't mean that they are through that shift at all, and they do still -- they are still focused on rebuilding this trust as well, and it is not yet rebuilt.  

                Q     Can I just follow, Mr. Secretary? 

                SEC. GATES:  Last question.  

                Q     Mr. Secretary, what are your goals for your meeting today with industry?  And also, what's your reaction to the QDR review panel's criticisms? 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, the meeting today with the Aerospace Industry Association executives is a periodic meeting that I have with them.  They are our industrial partners in many -- in many important projects.  And so I try and stay in touch with them periodically.  Both Undersecretary Carter and Deputy Secretary Lynn meet with them more frequently than I do.  So I would characterize it as a -- as a routine meeting for me.  

                What was the other part of your question?  

                Q     The QDR review panel --  

                SEC. GATES:  Well, first of all, I haven't read the report.  And I have been briefed on the results.  I think they have some important contributions that they've made in analysis.  They've made some suggestions that I think we need to follow up on.  But again, before I get into any specifics, I think I need to read the report.  

                The one -- the one issue that I've heard reported on in the news media a little bit, just today, has been what has been characterized as the commission's support for the alternate engine.  And I would just tell you that I've been informed that -- or been told that Secretary Perry went out this morning and made clear that what the commission is talking about is the importance of competition, and real competition -- that is, where there are -- and now it's my phrase -- where there are winners and losers, not where everybody wins.  

                Thank you.

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