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Media Availability with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta while En Route to Bogota, Colombia

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
April 23, 2012

                 SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA:  Just a little bit about the trip.  This is my first trip to Latin America as secretary of defense, but I've had a number of trips there as -- in my past capacity as director of the CIA and also as a member of Congress and as chief of staff to the president.

                 The purpose of the trip is to engage in consultations with a number of our partners in that part of the world to try to promote some innovative security partnerships in that region.

                 As part of the new defense strategy, as you all know, one of the things that we're stressing is obviously an agile and innovative force, but one of the things we want to do is to build some innovative partnerships and alliances that can develop a strong relationship in places like Europe, Africa and Latin America. 

                 And so the focus obviously for this trip is Latin America.  It's a key region.  They are our neighbors in this hemisphere.  We face some common challenges together in this area – narco-trafficking and the dangers of that, narco-trafficking not only impacting the Americas but also narco-trafficking that is now going to Africa and impacting on Africa and that region as well.

                 Secondly, the whole area of humanitarian assistance.  We've had a number of disasters.  We've worked closely with countries there on humanitarian aid, and we want to continue to focus on that issue.

                Terrorism, cyber, concern over cybersecurity -- those are all common challenges that we have in that region.

                 And one of the things these countries are doing is developing their own regional security.  They are -- you know, they've done a much more effective job at developing their security capability but also doing outreach as well with their security developments.  And so that's something we want to review and try to help them with.

                 The key in the kind of partnerships we're trying to develop is a lot of joint training, exercises, providing assistance where we can and also technology sharing.  We've already begun this process, as you know.  SOUTHCOM with General [Douglas] Fraser has laid a lot of groundwork for developing those partnerships.  As you know, I had the first-ever meeting with the trilateral consultation that we did with Canada and Mexico just about a month ago, and we're hoping to continue to build on that relationship as well.

                This trip, we're focused on some old and new partners.  We'll be in Colombia, where we have worked with Colombia for a long period of time, ever since I was in the Congress, trying to provide assistance to them, particularly with regards to narcotrafficking and going after the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia].  And Colombia, to its credit, has done a tremendous job in going after them.  The FARC, I think, at one point was numbered about 20,000; they're now down to about 8,000.  There is a lot of progress.  They're still a threat, and there's still concern about going after them, but Colombia has done a great job in the effort to try to go after them.  And as a matter of fact, a lot of the countries there look at Colombia to learn their lessons in how effective they've been in doing that job. 

                We go to Brazil because it's an emerging power.  And I want to build on the U.S.-Brazil Defense Cooperative (sic) Dialogue that President Obama and President [Dilma] Rousseff agreed to commence.  We'll be looking at defense trade, looking at scientific research, technology sharing, logistics cooperation and cybersecurity. 

                Then we go to Chile, which is another partner that we've had in the region.  They're doing a great job in developing regional security.  We'll get a chance to see some of their exercises up close and their developing capabilities.  So we'll be trying to work with them to try to enhance that capability as well. 

                So bottom line is that, you know, this trip is really trying to develop a key part of our new defense strategy, which is to develop and reinforce some very innovative partnerships in a very important region of the world that represents a key security interest for the United States. 

                OK. 

                Q:  (Inaudible) -- (sound of musical instrument).  (Laughter.) 

                Q:  (Off mic.) 

                Q:  (Off mic) -- going to Colombia, what -- (off mic) -- you think -- (off mic) -- bring us a little up to date on the progress of the investigation into the military who were involved in the Cartagena episode.  And are you going to be briefing or bringing the minister or -- (off mic) -- up to date on where things stand at this point when you get there?

                SEC. PANETTA:  As I've indicated, we have deployed officers to the region to conduct an investigation as to what took place.  And they're still there, and that investigation is still ongoing.  

                As I said before, we expect our people, wherever they are, to abide by the highest standards of conduct.  And I want -- I want this investigation to be thorough.  We have -- we have suspended the security clearances of individuals there, pending the results of this investigation.  Frankly, my biggest concern is the issue of security and what could possibly have been jeopardized by virtue of this kind of behavior.  That's the key concern for me, and I'm hoping that our investigators will be able to give us a full report on that.  

                So I will -- obviously, if asked by the people there, I'll give them an update on the investigation.  But, at this point, I'm still awaiting the results of that investigation. 

                Q:  (Off mic) -- sorry, is that for all eleven from the military that were there, all of them have been -- (off mic)? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  All of -- yeah, I think they're looking at all of the individuals that could possibly have been involved in what happened there. 

                (Cross talk.) 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I don't -- I don't -- you know, I just don't want to give you a number at this point because I'm going to wait for the investigation to determine how many were involved. 

                STAFF:  (Off mic) -- all who had security clearances -- I don't have any precise number of those.  Any who had security clearances and for those -- (off mic) -- suspended. 

                Any of those who -- (off mic) -- part of this -- (off mic) -- investigation or are being investigated.  Any who had security clearances have been suspended. 

                Q:  Can I ask a question about -- (off mic) -- to Iran.  They said that they've been able to get into the drone, break the -- break the software and start to build one of their own.  Do you think that -- what do you think about those claims out of Iran? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  Well, you know, it's obviously a classified program, and I don't want to get into the particulars of that program.  But I think I can -- I can tell you, based on my experience that I would seriously question their ability to do what they say they've done.  

                STAFF:  Last question. 

                Q:  Can you talk a little bit about Afghanistan?  There's been a report this morning that they -- there was a deal reached for the U.S. presence past 2014.  Do you have any specifics on that you can share?  

                SEC. PANETTA:  I -- we have reached an agreement on a strategic partnership deal, and I'm not going to talk on the particulars because those agreements are being brought back to their respective governments, to the Afghan government and will be brought to the president and our government for review.  But I think it is fair to say that it represents a significant step in the relationship and makes clear that the United States is committed to an enduring presence in Afghanistan that will be there to help Afghanistan become a country that can secure and govern itself.  

                Q:  (Inaudible) -- part of the deal was U.S. troops would continue on in some capacity after 2014, though, right? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I think as the president said, we'll -- you know, we're committed to an enduring presence, and this -- this agreement makes clear that we will have that presence there beyond 2014. 

                Q:  (Inaudible.)  There's no -- (inaudible) -- number in the deal right now, that's to be worked out?  And that will be worked out when? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  That really remains to be worked out, obviously with our NATO allies and with the Afghan government to determine what -- what the nature and the size of that presence will be beyond 2014. 

                Q:  Will it be worked out by Chicago or much later? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  I expect that will continue beyond Chicago. 

                Q:  Mr. Secretary, the region you're going to has been visited already six times in the last six years by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  There are persistent reports of Iran's growing engagement in the region.  Do you plan to -- do you expect to raise that issue with the people you'll be meeting with on this trip?  And how concerned are you about that growing engagement? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  Well, we always have a concern about in particular the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] and the efforts by the IRGC to expand their influence in -- not only throughout the Middle East but into this region as well.  And, that, in my book, that relates to expanding terrorism.  And that's one of the areas that I think all of us are concerned about.  And I hope that we can work together to make sure that all the steps are taken to ensure that anything that encourages terrorism can be fought against. 

                Q:  Going back to Colombia, is there anything -- any deal -- any sort of deliverable -- any sort of a deal or announcement that -- (inaudible)? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah, we've -- you know, I've been -- we've been working with them.  I met with the defense minister.  I've had a very close relationship with the president, both in his present capacity, his past capacity, when I visited there.  And we talked about some areas where we can provide assistance.  And we'll have announcements to make today once I've had a chance to meet with them. 

                Q:  Can I ask you one more, please.  You've talked about the tremendous progress that Colombia has made in fighting narco-trafficking in the last few years.  As this has happened largely with the U.S. assistance plan, do you envision any similar plan in the case of Mexico? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  Well, we've been working very closely with Mexico, as most of you know, to try to deal with the very serious problem that they have fighting the drug cartels.  And, you know, to their credit, they've made some progress as well in that effort.  But one of the keys here is to take the lessons of how Colombia was able to deal with this issue and confront this issue and to be able to have other countries in the region learn from those lessons so that they too can confront narco-trafficking in an effective way. 

                Q:  What about Brazil?  (Inaudible.)  What are you going to say?  Do you have anything -- are you going to offer anything on -- (inaudible)? 

                SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah, there are a lot of areas.  I talked to my counterpart the defense minister there.  There are a number of areas that they're looking for additional assistance and technology sharing.  And, you know, I'll be discussing those directly with them. 

                So the goal there is to not -- I think Brazil is an emerging power in the region. I think we have to do everything possible to be -- to try to develop a really innovative partnership with them in this part of the world. 

                STAFF:  Thank you, everyone. 

                SEC. PANETTA:  OK.