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Media Availability with Secretary Panetta en route to Afghanistan

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
July 08, 2011

            MR. WILSON:  Ladies and gentlemen, this is on the record.  (Inaudible) -- no reference to -- (inaudible).

            SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA:  Okay, let me hit some issues and then just open it up to your questions.  First of all, this is the first -- (inaudible) -- that I’ve been secretary of defense.  And in some ways it’s a little bit like this plane ride.  It’s big, it’s complicated, it’s filled with sophisticated technology, it’s bumpy, but in the end it’s the best in the world.  And that’s what I’ve learned about the Defense Department.

            I did have an outreach in the first week.  I reached out to the service chiefs and secretaries, reached out to the senior enlisted from each of the branches.  I had lunch with them.  I reached out to, obviously, the senior civilian leadership there.  I talked to the troops on the Fourth of July -- had a chance to talk directly with individuals who were located in the war zones and talked with them about not only their assignments, but their families.  And had a chance to really get to try to get an understanding of all of the elements of that very, very big department.  

            I did share with them some -- (inaudible).  By the way, one of the things I did initiate in the first week was to have a regular staff meeting each morning, which is something that I guess hasn’t taken place in recent history, but is something that I’ve always used.  And so we will have a staff meeting each morning with the chairman, the vice chair, and the key undersecretaries to talk through the issues of the day and to try to see if we can, you know, work together to try to confront whatever challenges we’re facing that particular day.

            I’ve found that can be a very good forum in other capacities I’ve had going back to the White House and OMB, and it’s something that I wanted to institute there at the Defense Department. 

            In addition to that I’ll be meeting with the service chiefs and the secretaries once a week.  We will have a regular meeting once a week to get to, again, go over the issues that impact on them. 

            The priorities that I laid out to them are obviously, we have the finest military force in the world and I want to ensure that it’s the best trained, best equipped, and that it is agile and efficient in meeting the threats not only today, but down the road.  One of the things I’m hoping to do is to create a vision of what the Defense Department will look like in five or 10 years.  I think that’s important to do, particularly in light of the budget issues that I’ll be confronting this year as well. 

            In addition I said my -- you know, my goals are to defeat al Qaeda, that obviously we made an important start with that with getting rid of bin Laden.  I was convinced in my prior capacity and I’m convinced in this capacity that we’re within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda and I’m hoping to be able to focus on that, working, obviously, with my prior agency as well. 

            I want to take these three conflicts we’re engaged in right now and try to prevail in those conflicts.  Obviously, to establish sufficient stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan so that al Qaeda and the militant allies don’t find a safe haven there.  And in Libya, I do intend to bring down the regime of Qadhafi.  That seems to me to be extremely important to our ability to try to get the best result we can in Libya as well. 

            In addition, obviously, nuclear proliferation -- continue to work to ensure that we don’t have nuclear proliferation, particularly with Iran and North Korea, and at the same time obviously develop a strong nuclear deterrent for this country as well.

            In addition, I think it’s important that the cyber threats that we’re facing -- to really strengthen our cyber capabilities.  I really do view this as an area that -- in which we’re going to confront increasing threats in the future and I think we have to be prepared to deal with that, so that will be an area that I’ll be focusing on.

            And then I also want to, obviously, strengthen our strategic partnerships, our security partnerships.  There have been -- some of those will require some reforms, but I don’t think the United States can face the threats that we’re facing across the world and not try to strengthen those partnerships -- those very important partnerships that we have, such as NATO and others.

            And lastly, I want to, obviously, do everything I can to work to support our troops and their families.  I’ve -- one of the purposes of this trip is to go over there and talk to the men and women who are out there on the front line, but one of the things I’ve already had to do is to sign condolence letters to the families and it makes me that much more aware of the great responsibility we have to support these men and women and to do everything we can to support their families. 

            All of that brings me to the budget issues, which we’re confronting.  And I recognize, as all of you know, based on my own background having worked on probably every budget summit up to this point, the importance of trying to confront the challenge that faces the country and obviously I understand the enormous responsibility on the part of the president and the leadership to try to come to the tough decisions that have to be made regarding the deficit.  And I also understand that defense is going to have to play a role in that process.  But my hope is that, as you know, we’re in the process of completing a review at the Defense Department.  I’ve also directed our people to engage with OMB with regards to the approach that would make the most sense in terms of protecting our national defense and achieving savings at the same time. 

            I do not believe -- I do not believe that you have to choose between fiscal responsibility and a strong national defense.  I think we can achieve savings and be able to have a strong defense force at the same time.  But one thing I am concerned about is that if negotiators settle and just pick a number and throw it at the Defense Department without really looking at policy, without looking at what makes sense, the danger is, as Bob Gates pointed out time and time again and I agree with him, is I don’t want to hollow out the force.  And so it’s really important that we are going to get a savings number, but it should be tied to good policy not only because that makes the best sense for defense, but also because it’s enforceable.  If it’s tied to good policy, it can be enforced.  If it’s tied to bad policy, then it could be a real problem in terms of being able to achieve that.

            Last thing, on the -- (inaudible), you guys have my itinerary.  I’m hoping to meet with the men and women out there.  I’m hoping to meet with top commanders to try to get a sense of what’s happening on the ground.  I also want to convey to them the thanks of the country for the sacrifices they’re making.  [Sentence deleted.]

            So with that, I’m happy to answer your questions.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, why specifically are you confident that the U.S. is within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda?  And what does that mean -- strategically defeat?  Does that mean central al Qaeda and all its cells that are working in various parts of the world?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think the key -- the key is that having gotten bin Laden, we’ve now identified some of the key leadership within al Qaeda both in Pakistan as well as in Yemen and other areas.  And if we can be successful at going after them, I think we can really undermine their ability to do any kind of planning to be able to conduct any kind of attack on this country, but that’s why I think it’s within reach.  Is it going to take some more work?  You bet it is.  But I think it’s within reach.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, on Afghanistan, knowing from your previous job that you are obviously very familiar with all of the dimensions of the conflict, as you become secretary of defense did you think about all the problems like the reliability of the Afghan government, the competence of the Afghan forces, and other things.  What aspect of this troubles you the most -- (inaudible)?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think the key to success in Afghanistan is the ability to successfully transition to the Afghans.  That means that they have to develop a capable military, a capable police force, capable local militias that are going to be able to maintain stability.  That’s the key and that’s the area that we’ve got to focus on.

            I feel very good about, you know, what the United States has been able to accomplish in the last few years.  I think that in many ways the military and CIA and others have done what the president asked us to do.  We’ve been able to disrupt, dismantle al Qaeda.  We’ve been able to in many ways return Afghanistan to itself instead of having the Taliban run that country.  But to ensure that, you know, we can make a successful transition, particularly in 2014, I think the main job is going to be to not only continue to go after the Taliban and the leadership, but to also develop a strong military force -- an Afghanistan military that can take that responsibility. 

            We are -- from everything I’ve seen, we have made good progress on that, but I think there’s a lot more work to do in terms of being able to transition responsibility to them.  That’s the key.

            Q:  (Inaudible.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  That’s right. 

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, can you go into some detail about the leadership in al Qaeda that you’ve identified and how many people are we talking about -- (inaudible) -- came out of the bin Laden raid?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Let me -- I’m not going to list all the names that we have, you know, but we’re talking about, at this stage of the game, I would say somewhere around 10 to 20 key leaders that between Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, AQIM in North Africa -- those are -- you know, if we can go after them I think we really can strategically defeat al Qaeda.

            We were at the point as a result of the operations that we conducted at the CIA as well as, you know, the other work that’s been done -- I think we had undermined their ability to conduct 9/11 type attacks.  I think we had them on the run.  I think now is the moment -- now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them because I do believe that if we continue this effort that we can really cripple al Qaeda as a threat to this country.

            Q:  On this with al Qaeda we’ve been hearing for a long time that there are so few of them left in Afghanistan the real problem of the Taliban, especially the Haqqani branch.  On the same kind of question, how much of the leadership does the U.S. see as targeted in sight in fighting that fight against Taliban and Haqqani?  It’s the same dynamic that once you get the leadership you’re confident that’s going to be the big significant strategic victory you’re talking about? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah, I think -- I mean, I -- the interesting thing that we found with bin Laden is that for a long time the sense was that he was an inspirational leader, but he wasn’t the guy who was managing operations.  And what we found out when we went into that compound is that in fact he was someone that was operating on an operational basis.  And we’ve been able to, obviously, target that capability. 

            More of these team leaders like Awlaki, Zawahiri, and others that we can go after -- the more we undermine those who have an operational capability to work with the Haqqanis, to work with TTP, to work with the other militant groups that threaten our forces and that threaten this country.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, as you know, the Pakistanis for many years said there’s no way that bin Laden was on their territory and they denied this up and down, and of course he was.  How much do you -- (inaudible) -- that Ayman al Zawahiri is in Pakistan?  And do you have any confidence the Pakistanis would help the United States track him down there?

            SEC. PANETTA:  One of the last things I did as director of the CIA was to sit down with my counterparts in Pakistan and make clear to them that, you know, there are a set of targets that we have, and the more that they can help us go after those targets, the more we will have the ability to achieve our goals in Pakistan in defeating al Qaeda.  So, you know, my sense is that, to answer your question, we think that Zawahiri is one of those that still resides in the FATA and he’s one of those that we would like to see the Pakistanis target, along with our capabilities as well.

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- urban area over here -- (inaudible).

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah, you know, again, with these guys you never know.  But we -- the best intelligence we have is that he’s located somewhere -- (inaudible) --

            Q:  Those are the U.S. goals, Mr. Secretary, but do the Pakistanis share those goals?

            SEC. PANETTA:  We have to continue to emphasize with the Pakistanis that in the end it’s in their interest to be able to go after these targets as well.  And in the discussions I’ve had with them, I have to say that, you know, they’re giving us cooperation in going after some of these targets.  We’ve got to continue to push them to do that.  That’s key.

            Q:  Hi, Elisabeth Bumiller from the New York Times.  We didn’t meet earlier.  I have two quick questions.  One, what is the state of al Qaeda’s finances?  If you’re so sure about these 10 to 20 leaders, how has the U.S. affected the financing of al Qaeda?  And secondly, I don’t think I’ve heard this from you -- who in Pakistan knew about the bin Laden -- who in Pakistan knew about bin Laden?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I think if the intelligence we had is that, you know, as we continued to target their leadership that they were finding it harder and harder to maintain the financing capabilities.  And that they were not able to get the kind of funds that they needed in order to conduct operations.  It was an impact-- still trying to raise money.  They’re still going out and trying to do what they can, but it was part of what impacted on their operational capability with the lack of funding.  So that’s the reality. 

            On Pakistan --

            Q:  (Inaudible.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, everybody has suspicions about, you know, the Pakistanis -- how much they knew, what they knew.  The reality is that there are investigations now being conducted by ISI and by the government to try to determine whether or not there were elements of the Pakistani military or ISI that might have known about the compound.  So we have to wait to see what the results of that are.

            Q:  What’s your best guess?  I mean, you’re the former CIA director.  You’re in the center -- (inaudible).

            SEC. PANETTA:  Suspicions, but no smoking gun. 


            Q:  Mr. Secretary, as far as Yemen and Somalia, do you have any particular -- is it a very chaotic situation now and one that might lead somebody to suggest that al Qaeda could replicate its -- could become more of a threat from there than it has been in the past.  And as we -- as progress is made in Pakistan, et cetera, the threat could shift there.  I guess my question is, as secretary of defense do you anticipate shifting more resources of your new department into that theater to take on this growing threat?

            SEC. PANETTA:  (inaudible).  There is no question that, you know, when you -- when you look at what constitutes the biggest threat in terms of attacks on the United States right now, more of that comes from Yemen and people like Awlaki than from other areas.  And for that reason we are very concerned about the al Qaeda threat out of Yemen.  And as you know, there are a number of operations that are being conducted not only by the Defense Department, but by my former agency to try to focus on going after those targets.  That -- I would say that’s one of our top priorities right now is to go after those threats.

            Q:  (Inaudible.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  By the way, I might just mention on that that interestingly enough, as much turmoil as we have in Yemen -- (inaudible) -- a lot of turmoil, they are continuing to cooperate with us with regards to counterterrorism operations.

            MR. WILSON: We only have time for a couple of more questions.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, Afghanistan again.  As the administration turns more towards the issues of reconciliation and trying to aid in some sort of reconciliation agreement to end the war, how do you coordinate that with your targeting of the Taliban leadership?  How do you decide which -- who to go after and which ones you might need to work with to actually reach some sort of -- (inaudible)?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I’m a believer that you have to put maximum pressure on the Taliban, on al Qaeda and their leadership and continue to go -- continue to target the principal leaders and that that in the end can hopefully influence what happens in terms of reconciliation with some future political settlement. 

            I think it’s really key to keep the pressure on now in order for us to have half the chance to achieve reconciliation. 

            MR. WILSON: This will be the final question.

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- share with us what you’re going to bring to your meeting with President Karzai today or tomorrow?  (Inaudible) -- What advice Secretary Gates may have given you as to how to communicate with President Karzai?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I’ve had the opportunity to meet with President Karzai in my prior capacity a number of times and we’ve always had -- we’ve always had a very good relationship in terms of our ability to talk to one another in an honest way about what needs to happen.  I’m happy to have that kind of conversation with him.  There are obviously a lot of concerns.  I know there are a lot of concerns he has.  I know there are a lot of concerns that we have with regards to what’s happening there. 

            But I really do think that -- you know, there’s a whole new team that’s going in place in Afghanistan.  General Allen, Ambassador Crocker, myself now as secretary of defense.  And I think these are all individuals that have a good understanding of Karzai and hopefully it can be the beginning of a much better relationship than what we’ve had over the last few years. 

            Q:  (Inaudible.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  A lot of those are names that we’ve been going after for a long time.

            Q:  (Inaudible) -- Mr. Secretary -- (inaudible).

            SEC. PANETTA:  Have a good meal.  Have a good rest.  See you on the other end. 

            Q:  Mr. Secretary -- (inaudible).

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