SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA: Good afternoon. As you know, this is, I believe, my final press conference here at the Pentagon Briefing Room. There are moments when I thought I was part of a last act of an Italian opera and not sure exactly when it would end and when the fat lady would sing. But, you know, I think that the Congress will act and that they will confirm Chuck Hagel this week.
So with -- what I wanted to do was to come down and use this opportunity to, first of all, thank you all, all of you that are part of the press corps here and the press in general. Throughout my 50 years in public service, I have always believed -- believed very deeply in the role of the press, because I believe deeply in the role of the American people in our democracy. Information is a key to an informed electorate.
And while we may or may not agree with every story, in the grand scheme of things, because of the work of the press, I believe the truth always comes out. And in the end, we cannot really serve the American people well unless we deal with the truth. And so my thanks to all of you for the role you play in helping present that to the American people.
What I would like to do is, obviously, through the press express once again my deepest thanks to our troops and to the American people and to the president of the United States for giving me the distinct honor of serving as secretary of defense.
I was recalling with a group today that -- we went through ROTC in college, and at that time, when you -- when you graduated, it's like one of those old movies where you had your graduation gown over your military uniform. I received my degree, and then we took off our gowns, and then in our uniform received our commissions. And little did I know at the time that that happened at Santa Clara University that ultimately I would be here, serving as secretary of defense.
So this has -- this has for me been a very distinct privilege and honor to have had this opportunity.
Let me -- let me use this opportunity, before I open it up to questions, to make a few comments on some issues. First of all, during my time as director of the CIA and as secretary of defense, I've seen firsthand how modern tools, like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems, have changed the way wars are fought. And they've given our men and women the ability to engage the enemy and change the course of battle, even from afar.
I've always felt, having seen the great work that they do, day in and day out, that those who performed in an outstanding manner should be recognized. Unfortunately, medals that they otherwise might be eligible for simply did not recognize that kind of -- of contribution. And for that reason, recognizing these technological advances, I'm pleased to announce that I have formally approved the establishment of a new distinguished warfare medal. The medal provides distinct department-wide recognition for the extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but that do not involve acts of valor or physical risk that combat entails.
Our military reserves its highest decorations obviously for those who display gallantry and valor in actions where their lives are on the line, and we will continue to do so. But we should also have the ability to honor the extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations. And the work that they do, the contribution that they make, does contribute to the success of combat operations, particularly when they remove the enemy from the field of battle, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight.
So with the distinguished warfare medal the department now has that ability, and it will be reserved only for those who have met the highest standards. This award recognizes the reality of the kind of technological warfare that we are engaged in, in the 21st century.
Let me also comment on some other recent events. First, obviously, I want to join President Obama in condemning the apparent North Korean nuclear test. We're still evaluating that to determine exactly, you know, whether or not it really was a nuclear test.
This highly provocative act was a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and North Korea's own commitments under the party -- six-party talks. The regime's actions are undermining regional security. The regime's actions are increasing the risks of proliferation and further isolating North Korea from the international community.
There is no question that North Korea constitutes a threat to the United States, to regional stability, and to global security. A combination of a recent missile test combined with what apparently was this nuclear test we believe represents a real threat to the United States of America.
Make no mistake: The U.S. military will take all necessary steps to meet our security commitments to the Republic of Korea and to our regional allies.
I was pleased yesterday that the U.N. Security Council condemned North Korea's actions. This is -- this is a strong first step as we work to increase the pressure on the regime with new sanctions and new steps that we hope to take with regards to our presence in that area.
Turning next to the State of the Union address, I was very pleased that the president made clear that the looming budgetary cuts could really jeopardize military readiness. And as you know, my deputy, Ash Carter, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been on the Hill this week making a very strong case for why we need to resolve this self-inflicted crisis.
I would again strongly urge the Congress to heed these warnings. And as I said last week, this is not a game. This is reality. And the fact is that, even as I speak, people are being hurt. People are being hurt by the budget uncertainty that this country is now living under. There are salaries that are being cut. There are jobs that are being lost. There's readiness that has been impacted.
The uncertainty is hurting people, and it's hurting our country. And members -- members of Congress need to understand that they were elected to protect the public, not to hurt the public. And I hope they'll remember that as they hopefully work towards a resolution of this issue.
On Afghanistan, let me put the announcement last night into the context of the broader campaign. When I became secretary of defense in mid-2011 with the surge fully in place, the number of American troops that were on the ground at that time stood at about 100,000. These additional forces have expanded our footprint and provided the combat power necessary to disrupt the insurgency and push it out of its traditional strongholds, particularly in the south.
In the months since, the United States and coalition forces have partnered closely with the Afghan forces, which now have grown to a full end-strength of 352,000 personnel. Those Afghan forces are now leading nearly 90 percent -- 90 percent of security operations across the country. They are in the lead for security for more than three-quarters of the Afghan population, and they have retained security gains even as the United States has drawn down the surge forces that we had there, the 33,000.
Over the past several months, Gen. Allen conducted a thorough assessment of the ISAF campaign plan and recommended the drawdown of the 34,000 additional troops in a phased approach over the coming year. In consultations with the administration, I strongly supported Gen. Allen's recommendations. And I was very pleased at the president's decision, announced last night, accepts the – Gen. Allen's recommendations and puts us firmly on a path I believe, to fulfill our mission in Afghanistan.
From now until the end of 2014, I'm confident that Gen. Joe Dunford, who now has taken that position, will have the combat power he needs to protect our forces and to continue building up the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. The United States, NATO, and the Afghan government agreed in Lisbon in 2010 and affirmed in Chicago last year that Afghanistan will assume full responsibility for its security by the end of 2014.
We are well on track for that goal. And we will maintain a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, including through the continued training and equipping of Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and their affiliates.
With the continued dedication and sacrifice of our troops, I am fully confident -- as I prepare to hand over my responsibilities as secretary of defense -- that we will prevail in denying al Qaeda a safe haven from which to attack our homeland.
As I stated at the beginning, this is -- this will be my last press conference here in the Pentagon Briefing Room, so let me close by stating the following. First of all, I am -- I am very proud of the achievements that we've been able to accomplish in the time that I've been secretary of defense. First and foremost, we've kept the country safe. Secondly, we have -- we have been dedicating ourselves to bringing two wars to a -- to a conclusion, the war in Iraq and now we're well on the way to bringing the war in Afghanistan, hopefully, to a conclusion, as well.
We have made significant gains in weakening terrorism. And I can say that I'm proud of my contribution as both director of the CIA and secretary of defense. I will -- I will carry the memory of having worked on the bin Laden operation at the CIA with me for a long time to come. It was a very special operation, and I think it did a great deal to try to keep this country safe.
The other efforts to undermine the leadership of al Qaeda, by both the military and intelligence operations working together, and probably the finest example I've seen in my time of the military and intelligence operations coming together to go after the enemy who attacked this country, I think has done a great deal, not only to weaken al Qaeda, but to -- but to weaken and undermine their ability to attack this country in the future.
I'm proud of the defense strategy we put in place. It came, obviously, when we were presented with having to reduce the defense budget by almost $500 billion. But I think the defense strategy really makes good sense for this country, in terms of the force we need for the 21st century. And I hope that ultimately we'll receive the budget certainty we need in order to make that defense strategy a reality for the future.
I'm also proud of having the opportunity to expand opportunities for everyone to serve in the military. I'm a deep believer in that, from my own background as the son of immigrants, I believe that everybody deserves a chance to succeed. There are no guarantees, but everybody does deserve a chance to be able to succeed.
And I'm proud of the care that we continue to provide for our wounded warriors and for their families. They are truly deserving of whatever we can provide because of the sacrifices they've made.
And, most of all, I remain very proud and very honored to have led those very brave warriors as secretary of defense. They've put their lives on the line. They are brave men and women who have sacrificed in order to keep our country safe and to make the United States the strongest military power in the world.
And lastly, again, let me state that a vigorous and informed press is vital to our democracy, and the Department of Defense and the American people have been very fortunate to have some of the best journalists in the business in our press corps. I've had the opportunity to interact regularly with you, to travel with many of you, and to share a meal, and to share a few drinks, or two, with some of you. I've always been impressed by your professionalism, your dedication, and your fairness. Your work has helped me to do better by the men and women in the military.
So when I depart this briefing room for the last time, know that I deeply thank you for your commitment to informing people around the world about the work of the Department of Defense and the sacrifices of those brave Americans fighting and serving on the front lines. In a sense, we are all working towards a common mission, a common mission of keeping our country safe, of giving our children that better life that my parents believed in, as Americans coming -- as immigrants coming to this country, and in defending and strengthening a government of, by, and for all people.
With that, I'm happy to take your questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, first, I'd say thanks for your willingness to come into the briefing room on a regular basis and take our questions. And we hope that your successor follows your example.
I'll ask you a question about North Korea. You mentioned that you're still assessing whether or not it was, in fact, a nuclear test. One of the questions that's out there is was it -- are there indications that it was a plutonium device or a uranium device? More broadly, would you say, knowing what you know about North Korea and the evolution of this program, would you say they are now a nuclear power? And what sort of deterrent actions are you considering -- is the U.S. considering taking now of a military sort?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, we obviously are continuing to try to evaluate and assess whether or not the test that they conducted was, in fact, a nuclear test. And we're still in the process of doing that, so I can't give you an answer to that question.
But there's no question that North Korea has continued to enrich fuel. They've conducted tests in the past. And I think the combination of their continuing pursuit of a -- not only a nuclear weapon, but their continuing pursuit of developing intercontinental ballistic missile capability represents, as I said, a real threat to the United States.
They continue to be engaged in provocative behavior. They are isolating themselves from the rest of the world. Russia, China, you know, almost the whole world has condemned what they have done. And as a result of that, it should be -- it should be of great concern to the international community that they are continuing to develop their capabilities to threaten the security, not only of South Korea, but of the rest of the world. And for that reason, I think that we have to take steps to make very clear to them that that kind of behavior is unacceptable.
Q: Can you describe in any way any sort of actions or steps, as you put it, you're contemplating taking?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think it's -- you know, it's a combination of a number of things that we have to do now. One is obviously the diplomatic steps that have to be taken. I think the Security Council -- bringing the Security Council together to condemn their actions is very important, to organize the international community to do that.
I believe that -- this morning, I talked with the defense minister of South Korea. And we both agreed that -- that we ought to make sure that -- that we make clear that we are going to continue to conduct exercises there. We're going to continue to deploy our forces in that area. We're going to continue to show the North Koreans that we are fully prepared to deal with any contingencies.
We're going to work with both South Korea and Japan to try to develop the kind of defense systems that we need. And I think that we have to do everything necessary to increase our missile defenses with regards to that threat.
Q: Now that you're leaving and you may be able to be more candid, the bin Laden operation, certainly, as you mentioned, very central to your tenure in both places. What can you tell us now that we don't know about the operations? Who -- you know, the one thing that maybe you --
SEC. PANETTA: It wasn't James Gandolfini who did that, I just want you to --
Q: You know, let me ask you a couple things. You know, the one thing that you've been dying to tell America that you haven't been able to until you're, you know, about to retire, but did you have a moment at some point when you were worried -- maybe the helicopter, maybe something else -- that it might not go as smoothly, that you -- they might be wrong that he was there? And as you also look back now, who was bin Laden at the end of it all? Was he some lonely jihadi? Was he a threat? Did he have credible plots? Who was this guy?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, just a couple thoughts here. I mean, I think, first and foremost, that bin Laden remained the inspirational leader for al Qaeda, and that continued to make him dangerous. You know, he was -- he obviously was not close to -- to the frontlines of al Qaeda, but he continued to stay in touch, he continued to communicate with them. And I think, for that reason, he continued to remain very dangerous in terms of the leadership that he could provide in developing the kind of 9/11-type attacks that -- that we were the victim of. So I think, without question, he remained a dangerous threat to the United States.
The operation itself, you know, I always get asked about the movie. And as I've said, I basically lived -- I lived that operation. There's no way you can take everything that was done over 10 years, plus the time that I was there, and try to put it into a two-hour movie. It just doesn't work that way.
What I saw in the time that I was there was a very professional intelligence operation that was able to determine the location of this -- of the compound in Abbottabad. And yet, I think as everybody knows, despite all of the work that was done on the intelligence side, and a great deal was, that -- and we were putting the bits and pieces together, that we never had 100 percent confidence that it was bin Laden who was located there.
And so, from the very beginning, it was always very risky, because we didn't know that, in fact, it was bin Laden. You know, we didn't know whether, you know, it might be someone else. I mean, we continued to look at the intelligence. It seemed to all point to -- to it being bin Laden, but, very frankly, we did not have 100 percent.
And when we went into the discussions ultimately on the operations to be conducted, there were a lot of different views that were presented that raised questions and concerns about whether or not we should do this.
I -- I remained very confident that, with the information we had, the best information we'd had on bin Laden since Tora Bora, that it was important for us not -- not to simply ignore what we had, but to take action and to go in and determine whether or not it was him.
And, obviously, during the operation, there were moments when we were all nervous about what was happening, but, you know, what gave me -- what made me confident that we ought to proceed was the confidence I had in those conducting the operation. I had tremendous confidence in them, their capability. They do these kinds of operations every night in Afghanistan. They do them sometimes 10 or 12 times a night. So we had tremendous confidence in their ability to get the job done. And I think, in the end, that confidence proved worthwhile.
Q: Also on bin Laden, sir, do you -- where do you stand on the potential prosecution of Matt Bissonnette, the author of "No Easy Day." Will that get underway before you leave this post? And do you have any comment on the controversial Esquire magazine piece, which claimed -- it claims that the bin Laden shooter was, quote, "screwed" by the military after he retired?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, I don't -- I don't know where that matter stands. I know that -- that counsel did -- you know, has considered taking action on that, but I don't know exactly where that -- where that matter stands. The likelihood is I'm not going to be here when those steps are taken.
On the Esquire magazine article, I haven't really read the article that you're -- you're raising. But, you know, look, the operations conducted by our special forces are outstanding and involve tremendous risk. But yesterday, we gave a Medal of Honor to, you know, Sgt. Romesha. And this kid is out there in the middle of nowhere with 400 Taliban charging him, and he's -- and he's tremendously courageous and tremendously brave in taking them on and saving not only his fellow soldiers, but ultimately saving that base.
Acts of that kind of bravery and courage go on often every day in -- in a war zone. And I just think it's difficult to think that, you know, everybody who -- who performs in that kind of fashion, that somehow we ought to, you know, establish a -- you know, a separate fund to try to assist them. I mean, the reality is, men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to sacrifice for this country. And I think, you know, the great thing about this country is that there are those that are willing to do that and not worry about whether or not they're going to get an award or additional pay, but they just do it because they love this country.
Q: Mr. Secretary --
Q: Mr. Secretary, why did you, Gen. Dempsey, and Sec. Clinton recommend that the U.S. provide weapons to the rebel forces in Syria? Were you disappointed that the White House turned that down? And -- and do you think as a result of that that this war could go on endlessly?
SEC. PANETTA: Look, I was asked a very direct question by Senator McCain, and I gave him a direct answer. I'm not going to go into, you know, the discussions that were held on this issue other than to say, you know, there were -- there were a lot of variables and a lot of issues that were discussed. In the end, the president made a decision, and I supported that position.
I will say that Syria obviously remains a tremendous concern. The situation in Syria remains a great concern, particularly with -- with what Iran is doing in going in and assisting there in Syria. The -- the al Qaeda front, this Nusra Front is now participating in -- on the opposition side. In addition to that, Hezbollah seems to be more active there, as well.
And, you know, when you look at the whole situation and the lives that have been lost in Syria, I think this is -- it's not only a tragic situation, it's a situation in which can develop into a much more chaotic situation that can create even more turmoil in the Middle East. And for that reason, I believe that the international community, working with the United States, has to take steps to do whatever we can to -- to ensure that Assad does step down and that there's a peaceful transition here.
Q: And, Mr. Secretary, if I could, has Gen. Allen talked to you about possibly withdrawing his name from nomination to become supreme allied commander in Europe (off mic)
SEC. PANETTA: You know, John Allen has -- as all of you know -- has been, I think, one of the -- an outstanding commander for the United States and ISAF. I think history, when it looks back on, you know, on the Afghanistan war will look at the role played by John Allen and see it as pivotal in terms of the direction that changed while he was in command, and the direction that was set by him has put us on the path towards completing that mission.
He's been under a tremendous amount of pressure, a lot of challenges, a lot of, you know, work that he's had to engage in, a lot of policy decisions he's had to work on, in terms of the recommendation, so John Allen came home. I had the opportunity to meet with him yesterday. My recommendation to him was, take your time, you know, be with your family, think about what you need to do. I think your country will always find a way to make use of your great services, but you've got to make the decision as to what you want to do in the future.
Q: Mr. Secretary, you talk a little bit about the accomplishments of the department and the things you're proud of. I wonder if you could focus a little bit on any particular disappointments during your tenure here. Maybe something that you couldn't -- besides the budget and sequestration -- I don't want to head down that road again. Something -- maybe something that you -- you couldn't resolve in your time here or couldn't deal with adequately during your tenure here that is going to be left to your successor. Any disappointments in particular?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I really have to say -- and I expressed this to the team here, I was -- I've been honored by having a great team here at the Pentagon, a great military team. Gen. Dempsey, all of the service chiefs have been outstanding, just outstanding in the work that they've done. And all of the civilian personnel, the undersecretaries and the staff and others, have just had a very good team, working on a number of issues.
And, you know, every -- every one of the -- you know, the tough issues we had to confront, I've always -- I've always felt I had the best advice, the best guidance, and that we were able to get things done. And, you know, to be frank, I've put a lot of -- a lot of burdens on the military, working through a lot of the tough decisions that we've made. And, you know, they always responded. They responded, you know, in a fashion of dedication to country and dedication to the military. We've been able to do some historic things as a result of that.
You know, I guess -- I guess if there's -- you know, if there's anything that -- that I am, you know, always disappointed by is that, you know, all of the -- all of the work that we do here to try to make this country strong and develop a strong defense, that -- I'm sorry about this, but I've got to say it -- the partnership with the Congress and the ability to have Congress there, to be able to support what is being done to protect this country, that -- I've been very concerned that -- that what -- what should be and what our forefathers, I think, envisioned as a strong bond between an administration, an executive branch, and a legislative branch to help govern this country, that that bond is not as strong as it should be and that often times I feel like I don't have a full partnership with -- with my former colleagues on the Hill in trying to do what's right for this country.
I don't -- you know, I don't -- I don't pretend that we always make the right decisions. We make mistakes. But what I look for are members who are willing to work with us, to try to work our way through some tough issues and be able to find some solutions. We need to find solutions. We can't just sit here and bitch. We can't just sit here and complain. We can't just sit here and blame others. We can't just sit here and point fingers at each other. We can't just sit here and try to get sound bites. We can't just sit here and try to make points, political points.
We have got to solve real problems facing this country. This country is facing some real threats in the world. I mean, this is not a time when we can kind of, you know, take a deep breath and assume that the rest of the world is going to be fine. We're facing some real threats, as I've pointed out before. We can't do this alone. We have to do this with a full partnership of the Congress and both houses of the Congress.
And I just have to say, the disappointment I have -- you know, in the 50 years that I've been in this town, and particularly as a member of Congress, I always felt that, you know, that leadership in the Congress and leadership with whatever administration was involved here, and when it came to the big issues facing this country, that there was a willingness to work together to resolve those issues. And I was part of that. And I -- frankly, my -- one of my great experiences in the Congress was being able to -- to work on budget issues and work on other issues with the support of both parties and with the support of the leadership. Somehow, some way, we have got to get back to that. We have got to get back to that for the sake of this country.
Q: Mr. Secretary, do -- do you fear that your successor, given -- given his kind of rough reception at his confirmation hearing, will have an even more difficult relationship in -- you know, difficult partnership with Congress? And also, following up on your answer on Gen. Allen, I mean, clearly, did he indicate the likelihood that he may not go for the EUCOM job?
SEC. PANETTA: No, he did not. And, you know, I think he -- he, too, I think, in coming back, first and foremost, was pleased that the president accepted his recommendations that he had with regards to the Afghan drawdown. And we talked a great deal about the situation there and some of the issues that we have to continue to confront.
And, you know, I told him, you know, when it came to his personal plans for the future, that obviously we have tremendous confidence in him, that I'm prepared in my capacity, as long as I'm in this job, to do whatever I can to -- to make sure that he serves this country in whatever capacity he wants to serve this country. But I said, you just got to take some time to be able to be with your family and then think about what you to want do.
BRYAN WHITMAN: We've got time for about one more.
SEC. PANETTA: On the -- the first issue.
Q: On the partnership between Hagel and (off mic)
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, no, you know, I mean, I -- you know, it was kind of in full display. I mean, I -- I -- you know, I think I -- when you -- when you see some of the debate -- look, in the Congress, the thing that makes the Congress work is that you'll always have differences. There will always be party differences, there will always be political differences, there will be ideological differences. That's the whole purpose of our forefathers fashioning that legislative branch, is to -- is to debate fully those differences.
But there are also some lines that are there that make that process work, lines that involve mutual respect, lines that involve, you know, courtesy and a degree of respect for each other, despite whatever their decisions are. And you kind of see that breaking down in this process. It becomes too personal; it becomes too mean.
It becomes -- I mean, look, people have -- you know, everybody's got legitimate points, but there's a way to express it in a way that complements our democracy, doesn't demean our democracy. And I think, you know, what you see on display is too much meanness.
And I think -- I really do think that they've got to get back to a process where -- you know, there's a word we used to use in the House of Representatives -- hopefully it's still used -- which is, "With the greatest respect," "With the greatest respect, I disagree with my friend."
But there's a reason for that, because you -- it's respect not just for that individual, but respect for the institution of the Congress. And somehow the members both in the House and Senate side have to get back to a point where they really do respect the institution that they're a part of.
Q: (off mic) what would you say, after four years of the current administration -- (inaudible) -- second term, what would you say is the reputation of this country, in the eyes of the rest of the world?
SEC. PANETTA: Wherever I've gone throughout the world -- and obviously traveled a great deal in this job and had -- had the opportunity to work with partners everywhere in the world. Everywhere I have gone, I think there is a recognition that the United States of America is a great power in the world, that our values, what we believe in, is in large measure what gives us the strength that we have for leadership in the world we live in.
I think what they -- what they worry about is what I worry about, which is whether or not, you know, we can govern and whether or not we can face the tough decisions that have to be made and resolve those. And I think the present budget uncertainty is something that -- that other countries are looking at to determine whether or not we can, in fact, resolve that.
That's why -- that's why I've said, I think, you know, when we talk about national security, I think the greatest concern I have for our national security is that budget uncertainty and that inability to govern and find solutions.
And so I think the United States is viewed as strong, strong in terms of our military power, strong in terms of our values, strong in terms of what we represent to the rest of the world, strong in terms of wanting and needing our leadership and our ability to work with them and develop their capabilities, but there is a nervousness out there about whether, in fact, ultimately we can rise to the challenge of governing ourselves and finding answers to the tough issues that we're confronting.
Q: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.
SEC. PANETTA: Thanks very much, guys.