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Roundtable with Secretary Panetta and U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes at Fort Bliss, Texas

Presenters: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes
January 12, 2012

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  OK.  OK, guys, thank you.

            Everybody ready?  OK? 

            Well, I already -- (inaudible) -- it's good to be here at this great post.  It is a premier post, and it's a series of posts that I'm going to throughout the country.  I think it's important for the secretary of defense to have a chance to visit all the key posts throughout the country and get a sense of what's going on, what's happening.  And more importantly, get a chance to meet the troops and also meet their families.

            This has been important for me.  I told the congressman that this was an area that I did want to come to.  I actually told you that when I was the CIA director.

            REP. REYES:  You did.  (Laughs.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  That's right. 

            REP. REYES:  And we actually had a trip scheduled and -- (laughter) --

            SEC. PANETTA:  OK, yeah.  So this is fulfilling that commitment to -- (inaudible).

            So it's a pleasure to be here.  I've had a long relationship with Texas, having been in Congress as long as I was there, and I worked with the Texas delegation and have always appreciated, frankly, the great service that Texas has given this country, particularly when it comes to the military.  So thank you for that.

            REP. REYES:  And the way I got him to come here, as I described El Paso as exactly like Monterey, California --

            SEC. PANETTA:  (Chuckles.)

            REP. REYES:  -- with the exception of the beach and the trees and a few -- (laughter) -- but frankly, I don't know if he agrees, but it resembles Monterey, California a little.  (Laughter.)

            SEC. PANETTA:  Somewhat.  (Laughter.)

            REP. REYES:  But we're really -- let me just -- let me tell you, we're very fortunate to have Secretary Panetta at this pivotal time in the history of our country.  I can't think of another person that has the kind of experience for the challenges that he faces as secretary of defense, from the experience in the Congress and key budget committees, OMB, chief of staff at the White House.

            When the president announced that he was nominating Leon Panetta to head the CIA, some people weren't that thrilled.  I was, because I knew that he was going to be an outstanding director.

            And let me tell you, right now if you knew people from the CIA and you were to ask them, would you like to have Director Panetta back, I will bet you $100 to 1 (dollar) that everyone would say yes.

            He is really respected, admired in not just in the agency, but in the whole intelligence community.  So we can't have a better individual that's going to have to make the tough recommendations to the president, to the Congress, as secretary of state (sic), no one better than --

            SEC. PANETTA:  Defense.

            REP. REYES:  Leon Panetta.  I mean, yes --

            (Cross talk.)

            REP. REYES:  Well, maybe that's another -- (laughter) -- but at any rate, thank you for coming.

            SEC. PANETTA:  All right.  I understand there's a high school reporter.  Who is the high school reporter?

            Q:  I am.

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, you get to go first.

            Q:  Well, thank you.  What are your greatest goals over the next few years that you want to see accomplished? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  I mean, the most important challenge right now is to take the budget numbers that I've been handed as a result of the concern about the deficit, and be able to use this fiscal crisis that we're in in this country and use it as an opportunity to design a military force for the United States that meets the needs of the future and that really can confront all the challenges and issues that are out there.

            It's a tough challenge, but we have all the service chiefs, all the undersecretaries.  We have a real team effort going at the Pentagon to try to help design that defense force for the future.

            This is a -- it's a great opportunity at this turning point to be able to lay the groundwork for that to happen.  And we're not looking just at the force for today or tomorrow.  We're looking for a military force that will be there for the United States through 2020 and beyond.

            Q:  Sir, (inaudible) right now has one of the most important decisions in your professional career, how do you rate and how are you going to cut the 490 billion (dollars) from the bottom line of the (inaudible)?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You've just defined the challenge that we face.  It's almost a half-a-trillion dollars that the Congress has mandated from the Defense Department.

            But you know, I've also said, look, this deficit problem that this country is facing is serious and it's also a threat to our national security and it has to be confronted.  And defense has to play its role in that.  I think we have a responsibility to do what we can to try to help the country address this issue.

            And so with that in mind, and my history in the Congress and in the Clinton administration was working on budgets, so this gives me the opportunity to try to design a budget for the Defense Department that I think can, again, protect our military, not hollow it out, and keep faith with our forces.  That's going to be the challenge.

            Not easy, OK?  Let me tell you, it's not easy.  Some tough decisions have to be made in implementing this policy.  But my hope is that if it's tied to a strategy that makes sense for the country, that the Congress hopefully will approve that.

            Q:  You mean --

            (Cross talk.)

            Q:  I'm sorry.

            Q:  Yeah, go ahead.

            Q:  You mean that you have got a special plan in this moment to help you figure -- (inaudible)?  You feel -- (inaudible)?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I'm sorry?

            Q:  You mean that you have right now your special plan right now, at this time?  Do you have a special plan--

            SEC. PANETTA:  A special plan designed already?  We have the strategy that I just outlined as to what we need to do.  And we have the budget decisions that I'll be reviewing when the president's budget comes forward.  It will -- the decisions that we make will implement the strategy that I just talked about.  So the investments we make, the reductions we make are all designed to make sure we put in place the military strategy that I just talked about.

            Q:  (Name and affiliation inaudible.)  You already mentioned your strategy, but what's going to happen in case that the sequestration costs -- are become effective--what is going to happen to the strategy?  Is it going to be out of the window?

            SEC. PANETTA:  That's trouble.  I've already said that's trouble.  If there -- there is this process called sequester, which are these cuts across the board, that Congress had put in place as a result of this committee that Congress put together, that was supposed to deal with coming up with roughly over $1 trillion in savings.

            The committee failed to do its job.  And as a result of that, this sequester process is put in play.  It doesn't take effect until January of 2013, but it could represent a doubling of cuts at the Defense Department, which would mean a total of over $1 trillion in cuts.  And I said that would be a disaster for the Department of Defense. 

            And I'm hoping that the Congress will exercise the leadership to ensure that that doesn't happen, because it would do serious damage to our defense system.  And frankly, the strategy that we've designed, I'd have to throw it out the window and start over.

            Q:  Well --

            REP. REYES:  Secretary, I have a follow on to that --

            Q:  Yeah, go ahead.

            REP. REYES:  -- as part of the sequestration.  In a letter that you sent to Senators McCain and Graham, you mentioned the 20 percent across the board, that it could end up impacting construction projects and that it could require furloughs of a month, I believe.

            We have a (inaudible) dollar hospital going up here.  And can you say, do you think that that would impact that kind of a project?  And what about the furloughs?  Are we looking at furloughs for civilian personnel here?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, the problem with sequester is that it's not tied, not only the amount that's involved here, but it's not tied to any kind of strategy.  It's basically a meat-ax approach to cutting the budget.  So it's a formula that basically could cut almost 20 percent -- well, it would cut 20 percent across the board from every area.

            It does exactly what I said we should not do, which is to hollow out the force, because it will weaken every area of defense, and it will impact on every area.

            Imagine, you have a weapon system, you cut 20 percent out of that weapon system, you've basically doubled the ability to get that weapon system in place.  So, you know, whether it's a ship, whether it's a plane, whether it's a hospital, whether it's the force structure, everything is going to be cut by 20 percent.  It's nuts.

            Q:  Has the authenticity of the videos of service member allegedly urinating on --

            SEC. PANETTA:  Yes.

            Q:  Has it been confirmed?  Has -- can you say they're authentic or not?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I have not gotten, you know, a firm conclusion.  The indication from the commandant of the Marines is that it appeared to be valid and appeared to be a real video of what took place.

            But I think we're still waiting for, you know, a firm confirmation if that's the case.

            But you know, my view is, and I said it today, that that kind of behavior is deplorable, and I condemn it because it does not represent the kind of standards and values that the U.S. military and those in uniform are sworn to -- the kind of values and standards that they're sworn to uphold. 

            And so what I've ordered is the commandant of the Marines and General Allen, who represents our forces in Afghanistan, to immediately conduct an investigation to determine exactly what happened and to hold those individuals accountable.

            Q:  Secretary, but even if it's not confirmed, it wouldn’t be the first time that service members are involved in this kind of activity?  What has happened over the years that these kinds of scandals are becoming more common issues?  Because technology is more readily available to document that? Is there a culture shift?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I have to say, the vast -- the vast, vast majority of our men and women in uniform do not behave in that manner, that they are, you know, that they really uphold the highest standards of our military, and that there will always be a few -- always be a few -- that will do deplorable and disgusting things like what we saw.

            But I don't think you should use that as a basis on which to indicate that across the board there are, you know, problems that undermine what the military is doing.  These are isolated incidents.

            But having said that, it doesn't make it any less deplorable.  And my responsibility is to make sure that those involved in that kind of behavior are -- that we conduct an investigation and that we hold them accountable.

            Q:  And you said that to President Karzai, too, correct, sir?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I had a discussion with President Karzai earlier today, indicated our concern about what had occurred, and that I condemned that behavior, and that I was directing that an investigation proceed as rapidly as possible to determine what happened and to hold those individuals accountable.  He appreciated the fact that I called him and told him that we were going to do that.

            Q:  Does that affect possibly the talks with the Taliban and the establishment of the Taliban office?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, you know, I mean, the danger obviously is that this kind of video could be misused in many ways to not only, you know, undermine what we're trying to do in Afghanistan, but undermine the potential for reconciliation.  There's a danger there. 

            But I think if we move quickly, if we conduct this investigation, if we hold these people accountable, we send a clear signal to the world that the United States is not going to tolerate that kind of behavior.  And it doesn't represent what the United States is all about.

            Q:  Are there concerns for some soldiers who might be there right now that this kind of video might provoke some sort of --

            Q:  Backlash.

            Q:  -- yeah, backlash or retaliation?

            SEC. PANETTA:  I can't -- I just can't speculate obviously the implications of it except to say that that kind of deplorable behavior is there and is in the hands of those that are enemies.  It can be misused in a way that makes the challenge we face in that part of the world that much tougher.

            Q:  Have the troops there been -- (inaudible) -- is there some extra level of security there now in light of this?  Or, I mean, how are they handling, you know, the -- (inaudible) -- this video --

            SEC. PANETTA:  They've handled this through the chain of command.  And they are, you know, they make very clear that this kind of behavior is not to be tolerated.

            Q:  Sir, back to the 20 percent cuts across the board, how do you plan on doing that?  I mean, the Army is changing their APFT.  Is that part of the --

            SEC. PANETTA:  I'm not planning to do it at all.  (Laughter.)  That's -- I mean, the plan --

            Q:  How is it going to happen?

            SEC. PANETTA:  The plan that we have in place now deals with the amount that we've been given, the 489 billion (dollars), and that's what our strategy is tied to, and that's what I'm committed to.  We're not planning on sequester, largely because, frankly, sequester is this crazy formula that isn't tied to any kind of strategy.  I mean, I couldn't even begin to design something, because the requirement of the law is that this cut be made across the board.

            Q:  So are there going to be MOSs or jobs that are going to be consolidated and, like, some go away?

            SEC. PANETTA:  Sequester is a meat-ax approach, and it's going to impact every area, and I just can't define for you, you know, each area except to say that everything is going to be hit by 20 percent.

            MODERATOR:  Sir, we have time for two more.

            Q:  Are you concerned that this reduction in funding and smaller forces might be viewed globally as sort of vulnerability in our armed forces?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, look, there are risks associated with any strategy.  And my goal is to make clear to the world that the United States will still be the strongest military in the world and that we will have a force that can respond to any threat, anywhere, any time, and that we can not only confront that enemy, but defeat them.

            That's the message that I have to send to the world, and I think we are designing a force that will be able to make sure that we are able to accomplish what I just said.

            Q:  Sir, something about soldiers behavior--I read an article like a week ago that more soldiers coming from this war that just ended suffer from PTSD.  Is that true?  And if it is, how are you going to deal with this?

            SEC. PANETTA:  You know, I think it's really important that we make sure we provide a support system for those that have put their lives on the line in battle.  And you know, I can tell you, having been to the war zone a number of times and met the troops that are there, how brave and committed and dedicated they are.

            But there's no question that 10 years of warfare have had an impact on our military psychologically and other ways as well.  And we have a responsibility as a result of what they were willing to do, to make sure that we give them the support system to deal with any of the problems that they may have incurred.

            You know, we are seeing health problems, we're seeing problems with regards to post-traumatic syndrome.  We're seeing a lot of problems with regards to suicides.  And that concerns me a great deal.  And we are, in every one of those areas, trying to develop programs to address those concerns.

            MODERATOR:  Thank you very much.