SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: (Applause.) Thank you very much.
Senator Ben Nelson, someone I've had the good fortune to work with -- actually when he started as governor -- and I think I was chief of staff at the time -- is when we first met. And I've worked with him ever since in various capacities.
Senator Johanns, nice to have you here as well. And I know that he too provides a tremendous amount of support for the military mission here as well.
And Senator Terry, this is your home -- or Congressman Terry, this is your home territory.
And when I was a member of Congress, I represented several military facilities in Monterey, California, had the Navy Postgraduate School, the Defense Language Institute and at that time I had Fort Ord Military Reservation, which went through a BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure] process and is now -- we converted it to a university, California State University system, in Monterey Bay.
So I'm very familiar with the responsibilities of a member of Congress trying to serve a military community that -- it's a tremendous benefit to the community, but more importantly, it's an honor to be able to serve individuals who represent the national defense of this country.
So thank you for all the support all of you in the delegation provide for this mission. We really appreciate it and look forward to your continuing support.
This is a -- it's a real treat to be able to come here to Offutt Air Force Base and right here in the middle of Omaha. I've had a chance to come to Nebraska a number of times. When I was a member of Congress, I was also -- besides being on the budget committee was also a member of the agriculture committee. So I had a chance to come out and do hearings with some of my fellow members from Nebraska who represented the agriculture community here.
And as some of you may know, my father and -- who was in the restaurant business, then bought a farm in Carmel Valley. So I spent an awful lot of time on that farm, worked very hard because my parents believed that child labor was a requirement. (Laughter)
And he -- we planted a walnut orchard -- this is -- it's a great story -- I -- planted a walnut orchard, and walnuts got -- you know, as they grew, my father used to go around with a pole and hook to shake the branches. These days when you've got walnut trees, they now put a band around the tree and shake the whole tree. But in those days he'd go around with a pole and hook and shake each of the branches, and my brother and I used to be underneath picking the walnuts.
When I got elected to Congress, my Italian father said: You know, you've been well trained to go to Washington, because you've been dodging nuts all your life. (Laughs)
SEC. PANETTA: Still the case. (Laughter)
Anyway, I've really enjoyed the opportunity to serve now as secretary of defense and have a chance to go around and visit some of the key bases throughout the country. And there's no question that STRATCOM here is extremely important to our national defense. And I want to thank the command, who gave me some very important briefings. As I told them, the briefings were tremendously reassuring and at the same time they scare the hell out of you, because you recognize the threats that are out there and the responsibilities that we all have to make sure that we confront those threats.
So my thanks to the command and my thanks to all of you for being wonderful hosts for me and having a chance to visit out here.
As I always do, let me first and foremost thank all of you for your public service. Our democracy cannot survive unless there are people who commit themselves to public service. It is the nature of our country that in order for us to have the strongest country in the world, we've got give back to this community. We've got to give back to this country. That's why we are strong, is because the American people are willing to do that.
My parents -- I mentioned my parents were both immigrants to this country and, like millions of other immigrants, came here with little money in their pocket, few skills. But they came because of the opportunities that this country offered. I used to often ask my father: Why would you travel all of those miles to come to a strange country? And even though they came from a poor area of Italy, they had family there. Why would you pick up and suddenly leave, to come thousands of miles to another country? And my father said that the reason was because my mother and I believed that they could give their children a better life.
And that is the American dream. That's what I want for my three sons -- my wife and I want for our three sons, and hopefully that's what they want for their children. It's what all of us want, is to be able to give our children a better life. And the key to doing that is service. The key to doing that is making sure that we provide the security and we provide the kind of country that can provide that better life for our children. My parents used to always say it is important to give something back to this country, because of what this country gave to them. And I think that's the key to public service: the inspiration to be able to serve this country so that we know that America will remain strong.
For me, the inspiration came not just from my parents. It came from serving two years in the Army and understanding what it meant to work together towards a common mission. And then thirdly, it came from a young president who said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." All of that inspired me to get involved in public service.
And so my wife and I both -- we have an institute now in California that tries to inspire young people to get involved in public service, because we think that's so important to the future of this country. And the greatest joy I have is to meet people like all of you. When I went over and met with the troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq and looked into their eyes, as I'm looking into yours, and realized that these are young people who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country, it is for me a very moving moment, because it tells me that there are those who really do want to make this country strong and want to give back to this country.
So first and foremost, let me thank you for your service, for your dedication, for your willingness to put your lives on the line for your fellow citizens. This is a challenging time for the defense of this country. It's a challenging time for the United States. But with regards to our missions, they really do relate to making sure that we secure this country for our children. We've got a number of challenges and threats that are out there that we are responsible for confronting.
First and foremost is the continuing terrorist threat that's out there. We have confronted terrorists since 9/11, and even before that. But since 9/11, we've been going after al-Qaida. And we have made progress in weakening al-Qaida. We've conducted operations against them in Pakistan. We've confronted them in Afghanistan, as well as other parts of the world. But in particular, we have seriously weakened the ability of al-Qaida to plan attacks on this country.
And obviously, the most significant achievement was to get bin Laden. That was, for me, probably one of the proudest moments I've had, with the ability to get the intelligence on where we thought he might be located, but then to work with the military to develop the plans to actually go after him.
This was really a tremendous example of the intelligence community and the military community working as a team to accomplish a very important mission: to try to rid the world of this criminal. And we were successful at that.
And I think that helped, in fact, continue the effort to weaken al-Qaida. Doesn't mean that they're gone. They're still around, and there are elements of al-Qaida that are still out there -- whose main purpose is to attack our homeland. You guys, we have to keep reminding people, the main purpose of al-Qaida is to attack our homeland.
And so we have to continue to put pressure on them, wherever they're at. We've got to continue to put pressure on them in Pakistan. We have to continue to confront them elsewhere. The biggest concerns we have now are the nodes where they're located in places like Yemen, Somalia, north Africa. We've got to continue to put pressure on them, and we will do that. We will do that because our goal is to make sure that someday we can secure the world from the threat of that type of al-Qaida terror.
Secondly, we've got two wars that we're confronting. We are a nation at war. One of the most -- one of the most brutal things that I have to do as secretary -- and I had to do a little bit of this as director of the CIA -- but the toughest thing I have to do in this job is to write condolence letters to families of those that have been killed in action. We are a country at war, and we have men and women out there on the front lines that put their lives on the line every day in order to try to protect this country.
So we've got to do everything possible to make sure that as we draw down in Iraq, as we begin the drawdown in Afghanistan, that we do it in a way that maintains the stability of those countries so that in Afghanistan, they -- Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for al-Qaida so that they can conduct attacks on this country. And in Iraq, the goal is to achieve stability there, so that we have a country in a very important region of the world that will reflect, hopefully, the democratic values that are so important to all of us and that many in that part of the world are now seeking.
So my goal is to make sure that we do this in a responsible way and we do it in a way that makes sure that the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in that part of the world are not in vain.
We will be true to them in what we are able to achieve there. But it means we have to continue that effort, and do it right.
We're confronting the problem of rogue nations today -- nations like north Korea, Iran, who continue to seek a nuclear capability. And because they are rogue nations, they remain dangerous in terms of the threat to the rest of the world. So we have to continue to focus on that threat as well.
We have to continue to focus on the threat of cyber-attacks. We're now in a very different world, where we could face a cyber-attack that could be the equivalent of Pearl Harbor. I mean, cyber these days -- someone using cyber can take down our power grid system, take down our financial systems in this country, take down our government systems, taken down our banking systems. They could virtually paralyze this country. We have to be prepared to deal with that. We have to have both a good offense and a good defense with regards to the cyber-world. A lot of what you do here is aimed at our trying to improve our abilities to confront that kind of cyber-attack.
And we are in a world where we're facing rising powers. And we have to be in a position where we can project our power into this kind of world, to make sure that we always check those countries and always make sure that they understand that we are the strongest and the best military in the world.
All of those things are challenges that we have to confront. And my challenge in confronting those threats is that I've got to make sure that if we are to be effective at confronting the threats I just described, I can never break faith with the troops and the families that have to carry out these missions.
So one of the most important things for me is to make sure that you are always supported -- your families are supported, you are supported -- and that we ensure that you know we're always watching your back as you go out there and put your lives on the line. That's very important to me, because frankly, we can't defend this country unless we have good people that are willing to take on that job. And for that to happen, you have to know that we are behind you 100 percent.
So I want you to know that as you go out and fight the wars you have to fight, that I will have to fight the wars that I have to fight in Washington to make sure that we protect your back. And you have my guarantee that I will do that.
All of this now occurs, obviously, as we confront the budget challenge that obviously Washington needs to -- needs to deal with. This is going to be a difficult time and it's going to require some very difficult choices. And I have always said that obviously with the size deficits this country's running, that the Defense Department will do its share.
We have a responsibility to do that. And we will.
And the number that was just passed by the Congress is a number that, frankly, we've been working with. We figured, and we've anticipated -- I've been in the budget business most of my life. One of the goals I said when I went there is that we've got to -- we've got to get ahead of this, not behind it. And so we were working towards pretty much the same ballpark number that Congress ultimately enacted. And I think we can do it. I think we can do it responsibly. I think we can do it in a way that will ensure that we'll have a strong defense for the future.
But concern that I registered yesterday, and I'll just share with you, is that if, in fact, they were to go after defense more with this kind of trigger that they've built in, that would double the number of cuts that face the Defense Department, it would seriously weaken the national defense of this country. And the last thing we need to do is to hollow out our force. The last thing we need to do is to weaken the United States of America at a very important time in our history.
Listen, people are questioning the political leadership. People are questioning the economic situation. The last thing people should question is the ability of the United States to defend itself. And that's why we have to maintain a strong defense for this country.
And I think we can do that. But like everything else, it's going to require that we continue the fight. As I said, you've got to be out there fighting for what you have to do, and I've got to be in Washington fighting for what we have to do.
Let me -- let me just conclude with something that's a story I often tell because I think it makes the right point, of the rabbi and the priest who decided they would go out together to events because if they did that, they could talk to each other and learn about each other's religion.
So one night they went to a boxing match together. And just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross. And the rabbi nudged the priest and said: What does that mean? The priest said: It doesn't mean a damn thing if he can't fight. (Laughter)
Now, my friends, we bless ourselves with the hope that everything's going to be OK in this country. Frankly, it doesn't mean a damn thing unless we're willing to fight for it.
I want to thank you, because your presence here tells me that you are willing to fight for that American dream that my parents came here for, for a better life for our children, and most importantly, for a government of, by and for all people.
Thanks very much for having me, and I look forward to meeting each of you as you come up and get a coin. Thank you.