SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: Let me say a few words and then open it up to questions. This Sunday the nation marks the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in the history of the United States. We will honor those who died at the Pentagon, 184. But I thought it would also be appropriate to come here and honor those, nearly 2,000, who died here in New York City, and to make clear to them that all of those who died are in our thoughts and in our prayers.
And to also make clear that as tragic as 9/11 was, that we have drawn tremendous inspiration from that day, inspiration that brought this nation together in the commitment that what happened on 9/11 will never happen again. And for those who in the attack on this country thought they would weaken the United States, that in fact they helped strengthen the United States, and that our greatest strength lies in those that have been willing to serve this nation to defend it.
I brought five soldiers with me. Each came on after 9/11. They are part of each of the services that serve America and I wanted them to come along with me as a symbol of the tremendous service that our men and women in uniform have given this nation since 9/11.
And also to, I think, mark with great pride the fact that since 9/11 we have achieved significant success going after al Qaeda and going after al Qaeda’s leadership. Of the top four al Qaeda leaders -- bin Laden, Said, Atiyah, and Zawahiri -- three are dead. Not to mention a number of others that we’ve been successful at going after. I think that’s significantly undermined the command and control of al Qaeda and developing the planning of the kind of 9/11 attacks that occurred here.
In addition to that we’ve improved homeland security significantly, both in intelligence as well as steps to improve the security of our citizens, and in addition the cooperation between the number of agencies that are involved in providing for the security of this country.
Having said that, we think it is very important for us to also pledge to not only the families of those who died but to all Americans that we will forever remain vigilant, that al Qaeda continues to be a threat out there, that they continue to plan attacks on this country, and that we pledge that we will not only always remain vigilant but continue the pressure that we have in the last few years to make sure that we not only defend this country but make certain that this country will never again experience the kind of attack that we all remember today.
Q: Picking up on your point about vigilance. In light of all the progress that has been made against al Qaeda, do you believe that another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland is inevitable?
SEC. PANETTA: I think we have to continue to be vigilant and continue to ensure that that never happens. You know, obviously those threats remain. The main threats from al Qaeda now emerge from the nodes -- places like Yemen and Somalia, North Africa, elsewhere -- and they continue to plan attacks and I don’t think we can take anything for granted. The potential for that kind of attack remains very real, and for that reason we have to continue to be vigilant. We have to do everything necessary to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Q: Do you think that Yemen and Somalia are now more dangerous than Pakistan in terms of al Qaeda?
SEC. PANETTA: I think that what we are seeing now is that these nodes that have developed from al Qaeda in places like Yemen and Somalia, particularly Yemen, where Awlaki has continued to urge individuals to attack this country and continues himself to represent a threat to this country, that it is an important focus for us. I think we have to obviously continue the effort in the FATA, we’ve got to continue the effort elsewhere, but there’s no question that Yemen has risen to the top of the list.
Q: Mr. Secretary, did this capture in Pakistan over the weekend, did that make any difference? Do you still feel that al Qaeda is on the verge of strategic defeat?
SEC. PANETTA: The capture of Mauritani, Mauritania, is someone that we had targeted for a long time and I think it’s a tribute to the Pakistanis, who worked with us on this effort to be able to go after him. We’ve done a number of similar operations in the past, trying to target individual terrorists in Pakistan, but this is one that frankly was particularly encouraging because he was a -- you know, he was someone who we thought was a real threat in terms of our security.
You know, again, my view is that we have significantly impacted on the leadership of al Qaeda, particularly in the FATA. We have gone after their key leaders. There are many to continue to go after and I think we’ve done significant damage to al Qaeda and their ability to conduct the kind of attacks that obviously we remember on the anniversary of 9/11.
Having said that, al Qaeda is out there. They remain out there. They are in these other areas. They continue to threaten the United States, and there’s also the jihadist ideology, which continues to attract terrorists of one kind or another. So I think we have to continue to be vigilant, we have to continue the pressure on al Qaeda, but there is no question that as we celebrate the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that we have made significant progress in weakening al Qaeda.
Q: (Inaudible) -- that the administration has decided to reduce troop levels in Iraq to 3,000 by the end of the year. What do you say to someone who had concerns that that might impact the security of U.S. troops in Iraq?
SEC. PANETTA: No decision has been made with regards to the number of troops that will remain in Iraq. That obviously is going to be the subject of negotiations with the Iraqis and as a result of those negotiations, as I said, no decision has been made as to what the number will be.
Q: Going back to Mauritani for a second, has the U.S. requested access to interrogate him? And what does this agreement say about the status of U.S.-Pakistani intelligence cooperation? There have been reticence in the past who shared sensitive information with the Pakistanis.
SEC. PANETTA: It’s an encouraging sign that, you know, we’ve gotten the Pakistanis to work with us in this kind of effort. As I said, we have had that kind of cooperation in the past, going after a number of targets. They have assisted us in those efforts in the past. But as you know, we’ve had kind of a rocky relationship of late. But we have continued to urge the Pakistanis particularly to work with us in going after some key terrorist targets. And this is an indication that they are cooperating with us in that effort and I think that’s a good sign.
Q: And on the issue of access to Mauritani?
SEC. PANETTA: I assume that we will work with the Pakistanis to try to obtain access to -- to gather intelligence --
Q: Mr. Secretary, have the Iraqis asked for a specific number of troops at this point, of U.S. troops to remain?
SEC. PANETTA: Not that I’m aware of. They have indicated a -- they have indicated a desire obviously for our trainers to be there and obviously that would probably be at the core of whatever negotiations take place.
Q: (Inaudible) -- troop numbers?
SEC. PANETTA: Pardon me?
Q: Can you address concerns - if a decision had to be made for -- (inaudible) -- the activities, that the number would be reduced by too much -- (inaudible) -- people may ask about --
SEC. PANETTA: No, as the president’s made clear, we’re in the process of drawing down all of our combat forces by the end of this year in Iraq. And with regard to what our presence would look like beyond that, that is going to be the subject of negotiations with the Iraqis. As I said, I can’t give you a number -- tell you what that number looks like. It’s going to have to be part of the negotiation.
Q: Well, what about concerns that too many might be --
SEC. PANETTA: I think our goal here is to try to do what the Iraqis want us to do in order to try to protect their security.
MR. LITTLE: We have time for two or three questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, do you still feel that Colonel Gadhafi -- do you still believe that he is in Libya, or do you have any idea of any connection between him and this convoy that was seen entering Niger?
SEC. PANETTA: I wish I knew. I wish I knew. You know, I don’t have any information as to exactly where he’s located. I think the best information we have is that he’s on the run, but as to where he is or where he’s located, I don’t have any information.
Q: Because through last week the Pentagon was still saying fairly consistently every day that he was -- that he’s still believed to be in Libya. So now you’re not sure whether that’s true.
SEC. PANETTA: I just -- I don’t have any information as to his location.
Q: Can I just ask you exactly where you were on 9-11-2001?
SEC. PANETTA: Yes. I was on Capitol Hill. I was briefing a group of members of Congress on ocean issues. I was chairman of an oceans commission at the time and we were briefing members of Congress when one of my fellow members on the commission who had an office here in New York leaned over to me and told me that an attack had taken place on the Trade Towers. And I actually -- I shared that with the members of Congress and at that point the meeting came to a quick end.
Q: And you went -- and you went where?
SEC. PANETTA: We all left the Capitol and got I stuck in Washington for a few days until I was able to rent a Hertz car and drive all the way across country back to California. Which actually was an interesting drive because it gave me a chance to see how the rest of the country came together as a result of 9/11. I mean, I -- when you’re driving through the Midwest and you see signs up, God Bless America, just tells you a lot about what this country is made of.
MR. LITTLE: Last question.
SEC. PANETTA: Yes, you know, I was actually a member of the board of the New York Stock Exchange on 9/11 and a lot of what happened here, there were individuals that sought out the Stock Exchange for refuge as they were trying escape this area, and then obviously the stock market was shut down and we all came together as a board to try to see if we could re-start the stock exchange as soon as we could.
And I -- when I came here to meet with the board we actually came over here to see what had happened here at Ground Zero and it was obviously a shocking reminder of what had taken place. But you know, you kind of come back now and see the changes that have happened here. And, you know, it’s a sign that this country truly is resilient and in particular New York City is resilient in coming back. I think this is going to be a special place for people to be able to come to and remind themselves not only of the sacrifice that was made but also the great strength that the American people have in coming back.
MR. LITTLE: Thank you, everyone. Appreciate it.