Media Availability with Secretary Gates en route to Andrews Air Force Base from Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
SEC. GATES: Felt like it was a good visit to the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and a very productive, satisfactory meeting with the Crown Prince last night. We talked about our bilateral relationship, particularly our military-to-military relationship, as well as the desirability of greater multilateral cooperation in the Gulf on air and missile defense and maritime surveillance.
We talked about Afghanistan where the UAE is making a real contribution both on the military side and on the economic and humanitarian assistance side and providing support for some of the other participating countries. We talked about Yemen and the need to -- the concerns we have about Yemen, but also the need to provide -- continue providing assistance to the government of Yemen and President Saleh as they take on -- as he takes on the various challenges there.
We obviously talked about Iran and the importance of the sanctions and keeping the diplomatic and economic pressure on. I thanked him for their support and contributions to the Palestinian Authority that has helped sustain the Palestinian Authority over the last number of months. I think that was -- (inaudible.)
So anyway, we really covered a broad range of issues, and so let me then go on and say something about the vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I was disappointed in the Senate vote, but not surprised, as I indicated when we were on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln early in the week. I was not optimistic. The fact remains, though, that there is still roughly a week left in the lame duck session, and so I would hope that the Congress would act to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” If they are unable to do that, then as I’ve indicated in testimony and talking with you all, my greatest worry will be that then we are at the mercy of the courts and all of the lack of predictability that that entails.
Q: Could I ask you about that because all the government challenges to any judgments against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have been successful so far. Why do you think that those challenges, those legal challenges by U.S. government would not be successful in the future, or is there an indication that the Obama administration is not going to be as aggressive in those challenges?
SEC. GATES: No, I think that -- I think that the government is kind of obligated to defend the law, but I think that the wake-up call for us, certainly for me, was the decision by the district court judge in California in October, who basically said, on a global basis, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is struck down immediately. So for all practical purposes, from that moment forward we had -- the law was no longer in effect and we had done no training, no preparation. And we weren’t 100-percent sure that the Ninth Circuit would give us a stay. And so there was a two-week period there where there was an enormous amount of uncertainty as the courts went back and forth.
The proceedings of the Witt case are a concern. This is one that we have worried about because in that, as I understand it -- and I’m getting into legal territory here that I may not fully understand, but my recollection is that we were faced with a situation where if the court decision stood, we would have a different set of criteria in terms of applying “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit and we would have had elsewhere in the country, so, again, the potential for extraordinary confusion.
And so I think that some of the actions of the court -- and again the General Counsel Jeh Johnson in the hearing also talked about a decision in the Second Circuit that while decided generally in our favor, there were aspects of it that -- of the decision that were of concern. I don’t remember the specifics. So it’s more than direction that the courts have been going in the last year or two that gives rise to our concern.
Q: Is your concern only legal or do you also have a moral concern?
SEC. GATES: No, my concern is being faced with a -- with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law being overturned with no time to prepare. And I talked about this in the hearing. This is something that I think needs to be done very carefully, very thoughtfully and to take the time necessary to prepare. And so as I said, the way we get that time most assuredly is with the legislation that’s before the Congress today.
Q: (Off mike) -- two questions. Given that you think this could happen fairly soon, during the next six months or so, are you beginning to prepare for the court decision overturning the law? And secondly, how soon do you think it could happen?
SEC. GATES: Well, I don’t know the answer to the second question. The Eighth Circuit -- the Ninth Circuit will hear this case presumably in the spring. But we do -- we do now have a roadmap in terms of implementation in the paper that was prepared by the working group. But I think it would be a serious mistake to start training and preparing before the law is changed because I think it will just confuse the troops. What is the law and what’s not the law if you’re being trained to go in both directions? So while we have the blueprint and we have a plan, I think it would be a mistake to begin that process until there is action with respect to the law.
Q: I want to ask you about Iran. I would like to ask you about Iran. Based on your meetings in Oman and last night in UAE, do you think the United States and the GCC are on the same page regarding how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program?
SEC. GATES: I think that -- I won’t speak for Oman or the UAE, but I think that there is general -- you can see the general support in the region for applying the sanctions and for doing what we can to make the sanctions effective and try to influence the Iranian government to walk away from their -- from a nuclear weapons program. And there clearly is concern, and not just in this region but elsewhere, about Iran’s overall aggressive behavior with respect to Hezbollah and Lebanon and other places around the world. And I think that’s a broadly shared concern.
Q: (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: Well, I guess I would just say that I think that we have made more progress in Kandahar faster than I expected. They have moved in that area more rapidly than I had anticipated. I think one other thing that sort of -- certainly came through clearly to me in this trip and that I hinted at when we talked in that FOB (Forward Operating Base) Joyce is -- when I was there, I was talking about how you need to understand that the strategy in one part of the country will be different than the strategy in another part and we have to be diverse enough to say, you know, we’re going to do certain things in one part of the country that we won’t do elsewhere, and vice versa.
And I think what’s really clear is that, for example, in the east what we’re engaged in is a disruption activity and a blocking activity to stop the Taliban from coming across the border, from making it to Jalalabad and to Kabul, whereas in the south it’s a different strategy of clearing the Taliban out of populated areas and then holding those areas. So it’s a different approach in both.
And it’s not a surprise that in the east, where you’ve got these guys coming across the border all the time, that it’s actually now more kinetic than in some places in the south.
Q: Mr. Secretary, on Yemen, is there anything that you are asking some of the countries in the region to do? Is it funding? Is it training? And what more can -- specifically can the U.S. do there other than just spend more money?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that as in -- and I kind of hinted at this at the embassy yesterday in Kabul, the key is getting in there before there’s a crisis with economic assistance, with building partnership capacity. And I think that both the UAE and Oman are engaged in these activities, these development projects. Other countries are as well. The United States has some efforts ongoing in this respect, particularly in building partnership capacity. So I think it’s that kind of thing. And I actually think that there are a number of countries that are trying to help.
MR. GEOFF MORRELL (Pentagon Press Secretary): We have time for one or two more.
Q: WikiLeaks -- now that WikiLeaks has come out with -- has made public some of the U.S. military action there, can you be more open and do you feel freer rein to do more of that now that it’s out in the open?
SEC. GATES: Well, I never talk about military operations. I think we can be very open about the economic assistance and development work that we’re doing there.
MR. MORRELL: The last two.
Q: There was this Taliban imposter incident and then occasionally we’ve heard --
SEC. GATES: Sorry?
Q: There was this whole incident with the Taliban imposter came to -- and also there’s so much speculation and discussion -- sorry -- about reconciliation and the state of it. Is there a danger that the U.S. or the Afghan government will look too eager for peace talks or some kind of reconciliation talks? And second of all, does that imposter incident suggest a problem generally that’s been pointed out before that our intelligence picture is flawed, that we don’t really understand what we need to understand about Afghanistan?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think we have a pretty good idea. It’s not perfect by any means. I actually think that being open about reconciliation is different than looking eager. And as long as we have agreed criteria for what reconciliation means and stick to those criteria, I’m not worried about looking too eager.
Q: Mr. Secretary, back when you were talking about disruption in the east, is it fair to say that that’s moving more toward a counterterrorism strategy given all the fighters coming across the border from Pakistan and away from counterinsurgency in the east?
SEC. GATES: Well, I mean, it’s a good question and I haven’t thought of it in those terms. And I’d be hesitant to sort of say that it’s moving in one direction in one place in that respect. But there clearly is a -- you know, when I think of counterterrorism, I think of targeting specific individuals and specific small cells and that sort of thing, whereas what we’re seeing here is a broader effort to block the Taliban and foreign fighters from coming into Afghanistan. So I -- I guess I would continue to characterize it as a mix of the two.
Q: (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: A mix of the two.
Q: Just to follow up on that one, in terms of the ability to continue doing that, as long as Pakistan doesn’t move in on the other side of that border, do you feel like you can really make a lot of headway in terms of disruption or are you just picking away at the -- the numbers are too great -- they’re just going to continue flowing across?
SEC. GATES: I think actually one of the reasons the numbers have increased is because of Pakistani pressure on the other side of the border. And so what I talked about when I was in Afghanistan is the importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan building this relationship and this collaboration so they’re planning operations on both sides of the border at the same time so they’re reinforcing each other’s actions. And my sense is that both Afghanistan and Pakistan are open to that. There have been a number of meetings between their military officials and we participate in some, but not all. And we’re willing to facilitate that cooperation to the degree we can.
MR. MORRELL: Okay. Thanks a lot. Appreciate it. Thank you.