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Remarks by Secretary Carter in an Interview Forum hosted by The Atlantic and 1776


JEFFREY GOLDBERG:  -- very pleased to have a continuing relationship with the secretary, with the Defense Department. We cover them rigorously and will continue to doing so, even after you leave.


Thank you to 1776 and to everyone on the Atlantic team.

I'm going to try to divide this up into three parts, Mr. Secretary.

First is talking about your relationship with the tech industry and what it means for the future of American defense.

Second part, we want to talk about some of the -- some recent events and everything that that means.


Third thing we'd like to do, since you're coming to the end of a term -- we're coming to the end of a presidential term -- is give a little bit of a tour of the world, some of the hotspots, some of the challenges for the next president and the next president after that.

And then in our fourth hour, we'll take questions.


I actually have a large number of questions already from the audience.  And -- and I want to lean heavily on the tech questions.

But let's -- let's start in the -- what you might call the Silicon Valley area, even though we're not in Silicon Valley.  Let's talk about your -- your pretty revolutionary approach to -- to managing a relationship with the tech community.

You have said that you would like to see the Pentagon as agile in -- in some ways as the tech startup community.  I've been in the Pentagon.  It's a lot of things, but it doesn't seem very agile.

How -- how do you actually transform the place so that you're getting in ideas fast and you're applying them even faster?

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER:  Well -- well, I don't want to give the impression that we can't be agile, because we are agile.  And I don't think -- I'll -- I'll give you some examples, Jeff, right off the bat.

We've been at war now for 15 years.  And that has caused us every single day to have to change, adapt, -- (inaudible) -- we're (inaudible).  (inaudible) -- people.

But what I'm getting at when I try to reach out to the tech community, I -- I -- I have two things principally in mind.

The first is the tradition that goes back many decades and is one of the reasons why our military is the finest in the world.  And that is that we have always had a close connection between our technology-intensive and innovative community in America, which is unrivaled in the world.

And this incredibly important mission, providing security for our people and leaving a better world for our children.

And that -- you -- you can go back to World War II, you can go back to the jet engine, the communication satellite, the internet itself:  all of these things were things that were done in partnership between the innovative community of the United States and our institution.

So it does go back a long way and I never want to suggest that we don't know how to do it or haven't done it.  What's different today is that a lot of -- let me put it this way, when I started out -- and I'm a physicist --  when I started out in this business, most of the technology of consequence was developed in the United States, and most of that in government programs.

MR. GOLDBERG:  When you say technology you mean universally?

SEC. CARTER:  Yes, period.  And that's, we're still a big force, but I have to recognize that a lot of technology is commercial and global and a lot of our innovators are outside of our walls.  A lot of our innovators, don't know all us, have never worked with us, even have an uneasy relationship with us, and so I need to reach out and try to build back a bridge to that community.  Get them inspired by our mission, change the way we do business enough that they are now reciprocal to the modern innovative lifestyle, the modern innovative practice.

And so it's not a birth right that we're the best at protecting ourselves with technology.  I've got to work on that, my predecessors did that and I think my successor and my successor's successor, and my successor's successor will need to do the same.

MR. GOLDBERG:  One assumption I've always made is that we're so far ahead in technology that it's very, very hard for other countries and their tech complexes to catch up.  But who do you worry about eating our lunch?  Do you worry about China and Russia, two traditional adversaries, ever becoming in a position where they could actually be faster and more agile than we are?

SEC. CARTER:  Certainly no one is gonna come close to the United States in terms of comprehensive military power anytime soon.  But, make -- make no mistake, they're all very competitive.  Our enemies and our potential enemies are extremely competitive.  Whether they're terrorists who are working hard each and every day, all day to try to think of some way that they can do harm to us.  Right up to the potential high-end opponents, who yes have the technological lag, but are determined to close that.

So it's a competitive world even as it is competitive in the commercial world it is competitive in the security world, and if we relax our guard and we just assume that it's a birthright to be the best, that gaps going to close.  I can't allow that to happen.

MR. GOLDBERG:  Let me ask you a question for a lot of you innovators in this audience.  A lot of people have a certain perception of Pentagon culture, Defense Department culture, other perceptions of innovations culture.  I'm not suggesting that anyone here's every smoked pot on a regular basis, but there's a possibility that you might have one or two pot-smoking libertarians in the larger tech community.

How do you respond --


Again I'm not making any assumptions.  How do you bridge that gap between traditional security needs and people who are non-conventional from a Pentagon perspective?  And the second part of that question is did Snowden and the controversy surrounding Snowden set you back in making and building better bridges to tech companies?

SEC. CARTER:  There's no question that Snowden set us back.  It created a tremendous amount of suspension, concern and disinclination to engage.  And I'm realistic enough to know that -- I do not condone what Edward Snowden did and I might as well tell you why.

There are 300 million of us in this country, and no one has the authority or the warrant to arrogate to him or herself the ability to use their position and their access to privileged information for their own purposes.  That's just not -- (inaudible).

I -- none of us can do that.  We join and we're -- we're part of 300 million people.  And so I don't accept that anyone who arrogates to him or herself the ability to so fundamentally affect everyone else when they have no warrant to do that.

And second, whatever you think of the cause, and now and again they get to the cause, which is, you know, we conduct ourselves extremely carefully with respect to the collection of intelligence and it's -- (inaudible) -- to go into.  But the harm done was to our international relationships, to our relationship with -- with the technology community – I’m just very open – I’m realistic about that.  It is what it is.

And also, by the way, our companies overseas because this is used by our competitors as a way of edging out our own innovative companies.  So it's very harmful in lots of ways.

That said, I -- I simply have to work with that and try to build bridges back of trust and understanding and a willingness to meet people halfway and to build that trust.  And we're doing that, and I find that innovators are people who want to make a difference in the world.  And one of the ways they can make a difference is by protecting our people and civilization.

And so when they get seized with a mission and they feel that they can contribute to the mission in a way that is compatible with everything else they believe in, and there's every opportunity to do that in this country and -- and with the Defense Department, then you know, really --


SEC. CARTER:  Nothing better than waking up in the morning and being part of this fundamentally important thing.  There are a lot of wonderful things in life, but none of them can be had unless we're safe, and that's -- that's what we do -- (inaudible) -- tell kids, you know -- (inaudible) -- spend a few days seeing troops.  And I always tell them, you get to get up in the morning and know that you’re part of something bigger than yourself.

And everybody else in the country gets up to -- and they kiss their kids and they drop them at school and they go to work and they live their lives and they dream their dreams and -- and all the things that make life full.  It's not possible without -- (inaudible).

MR. GOLDBERG:  Go -- go to the part of marijuana just for a minute.

SEC. CARTER:  Well, I mean, we have new rules about -- for -- to protect us from -- in a counter-intelligence and security point of view. People -- our rules are sensible enough and flexible enough that they take into account the modern lifestyle.  They're not as up to date always as they should be, but we work hard at making sure that they are.  So it's very different from when I started out.

So I -- nobody should assume that they can’t serve.  I think -- give us a try.

MR. GOLDBERG:  I want to stay on tech for one -- one more minute.  We -- we were speaking about this earlier.  The assumption has always been that innovation comes from within the system, you're saying that you've reached a tipping point maybe, where -- where a lot of innovation is coming from outside of the system.

Can you give us one or two examples of -- of hard-core defense applications that have come -- that help --.


SEC. CARTER:  Let me just say, I don't know that we've reached a tipping point.  We do a lot of -- really --

MR. GOLDBERG:  When DARPA's still DARPA.  I mean, that activity --

SEC. CARTER:  We do things that nobody has an interest in doing expect us because there's no commercial application.  I mean, nobody's building hypersonic vehicles because they'd -- (inaudible) --.  We need to do that -- (inaudible) -- not everything we do can be bought or absorbed from the outside.  But yeah, I'm being very specific.

We have our defense digital service, which is our way of bringing people in who are from the outside working all our most important -- somewhere here is Chris Lynch by the way -- who -- Chris, who's the director of the Defense Digital Service – He leads a bunch of people who walk around looking like him --


-- in the Pentagon all day, and they're not -- they're -- for one, Jeff, they come in for a year or so and they work on things like protecting our nuclear command and control system from being hacked.  So that's the kind of thing where best practices and the talent of people from the outside have made a very material difference here -- (inaudible).

MR. GOLDBERG:  Let me turn to some recent events.  The first question is a simple question --

SEC. CARTER:  I'm sorry.

MR. GOLDBERG:  Tech issues.  The first question is simple question.  Has the transition team of the president-elect been in touch with you yet?

SEC. CARTER:  We have procedures in place.  The transition team hasn't arrived at the Pentagon yet.  These -- these -- these practices, by the way, were settled upon weeks ago before the election was concluded.  This is normal and I -- I just want to say Jeff --

MR. GOLDBERG:  But you haven't met with the transition team yet?

SEC. CARTER:  I -- they have not come yet.  They're expected, I think sometime this week, but that's up to them.

But we're ready to welcome them and to help the new team to get started.  And I want to emphasize that, because this has been going on for 240 years.  I myself witnessed transitions in the past, and I am extremely proud of two things about us.  The first is that not only I -- and I have been extremely careful about this all these many months of the election campaign -- but all of our senior leadership have adhered to our tradition to stand apart from the political process.

And so you haven't heard us talking -- that's an important principle in this country and I'm extremely proud that we've done that.

And then the second thing is, I am committed to an orderly transition to our new commander-in-chief, President-elect Trump.  I will -- that is something, you know, all my predecessors my entire life and for generations before that have done.  So we're gonna do it to standard, we're gonna do it warmly, we're gonna do it to the best of our abilities so that we hand off things to the new administration in the best way we possibly can.

MR. GOLDBERG:  So you've spent an incredible amount of time building multinational coalitions to fight ISIS most noticeably, but other -- other areas obviously.  The president-elect spent a lot of time during the campaign disparaging NATO, disparaging alliances.  The next time you talk to our allies in NATO or elsewhere, what are you going to tell them?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, now you're -- I'm going to repeat what I just said, which is I'm not going to speak about and I certainly cannot speak for the new administration.

I can certainly speak about what NATO is doing these days.  And you know, NATO was founded to fight the Cold War and it did that.  And when it -- and I remember the days when the Cold War ended and we all were saying "Well, what's NATO going to do now?  Its raison d'etre is gone."  It turned out that along came something shortly thereafter which was the -- well, first of all, NATO began the process of rebuilding Europe and reintegrating countries, including reaching out to Russia, by the way, was an important thing.

And I was part of that.  I was -- I was in the Defense Department in the '90s and this was my responsibility.

But along came the Balkans, for example, and the slaughter of people in the Balkans and NATO rose to that challenge and did -- and that was a example of a community of nations that saw things similarly, saw a need and met them -- met it together.  Then subsequently, after 9/11, NATO worked with us in Afghanistan and has been working with us ever since to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't once again become a place from which attacks on America or France or Germany or the United Kingdom or anywhere else in Europe are launched from.

So, it is a -- it is a community of nations that have effectively worked together, but it's constantly in a process of change --

MR. GOLDBERG:  Let me -- me rephrase it slightly to say what is your message to your NATO allies going forward about American stability and American continuity?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, I have no warrant obviously to speak for a future administration.  The only thing I would say is engage with the new administration.  You know, work with them, stay committed to the values and the principles that we have stood for.  You know, remember that we have a lot of people who were trying to attack all of us collectively and we're much better at protecting ourselves if we can find a way to work together.

MR. GOLDBERG:  Let's talk about the operation in Iraq and also Syria.  I would like to hear a quick status report on that and I would also like to hear -- and it's not just criticism that came from the president-elect, but this idea that it was wrong to telegraph an attack going forward, that we should have launched a, quote, "sneak attack" on Mosul rather than telegraph this.

Tell us about the buildup and tell us about where we are at the moment.


Well, the campaign has been -- is one that we designed and launched, myself and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Joe Dunford, and the president approved a year ago now.  And we have -- its objective in Iraq and Syria is to destroy ISIL there because we need to destroy the fact and the idea that there can be Islamic State based upon this ideology and it needs to start there.

I just want to say that it -- there -- that is necessary, it's not sufficient.  So, we also need to operate against it and are wherever it arises.  Libya, Afghanistan, and so forth and then absolutely we need to protect our own people.  And we do that every single day; protect ourselves form -- from attack.

But to get back to Iraq and Syria, this was a campaign plan that was -- we put together last fall.  Mosul is Iraq's second-largest city and it and Raqqa are the two central nodes of ISIL.  So they have to be destroyed, and so our plan very early on involved the systematic envelopment of those two forces, of those two cities, and the destruction of ISIL within them.

So for a year now we've been planning that and working with the Iraqi security forces, which include the Kurdish Peshmerga, to take the Mosul example.  And it's important to -- we're using them and we're enabling them.  It's important that I mention, Jeff, the -- they -- what we've learned from 15 years is that we can defeat ISIL, but we have to -- we -- this time, we want to make sure they stay defeated, right?  And to -- for them to stay defeated, local forces must consolidate the defeat, must -- must keep the peace after we've won the war.  That's why we're working with the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga.

So this -- this campaign and its objectives of Mosul and Raqqah have been quite clear.  They're absolutely necessary and we built up the combat power to do them very systematically according to a plan that, as I said, we put together a year ago.

MR. GOLDBERG:  And the secrecy or sneak-attack component of this was not salient in overall success?

SEC. CARTER:  There -- there are secret tactics involved there, but the fact that we're going to Mosul and Raqqa is -- it's clear because they're the two biggest cities --


SEC. CARTER:  -- and it's actually important that the enemy know that -- and that the -- that ISIL everywhere else know that we intend and will destroy them.

MR. GOLDBERG:  Why is it important for them to know specifically --

SEC. CARTER:  Because you've got to -- because I -- the inspiration factor around the world, that's why it's so important to destroy them in Iraq and Syria, so that people know this is not a happening thing.  This is something that's gonna be stamped out.

MR. GOLDBERG:  Right.  Let me ask you a related question from an audience member.  How would you rate the biggest threats to the United States over the next five years; North Korea, Russia, China and the South China Sea and then add in the -- sort of the Islamic State threat?

SEC. CARTER:  Yeah, well, you left out Iran and --

MR. GOLDBERG:  They ran out of room on the card.

SEC. CARTER:  -- And you left out ISIL --


Well, it's a -- now, these are all very different --


MR. GOLDBERG:  And answer this in the length of a tweet if you can.  I know it's an essay, yeah.

SEC. CARTER:  -- situations.  By no means are we at war with all of these and so forth, but if you're -- if you're saying what are the things that we stand vigilant against, those are the sort of big five; ISIL, malign activity by Iran in the Gulf and deterring attack upon our friends and allies, North Korea -- our slogan there is “fight tonight.”  We've been there for decades and decades and I'm -- and you know, every single night we stand guard to deter attack against South Korea and attack upon ourselves from North Korea.

Russia and China are different situations where we have a mixed relationship, where we work together or we seek common purpose, but there are also respects in which those relationships are competitive, and being the Defense Department, we're realistic about that.

And then, Jeff -- (inaudible) -- those are the five that are on our minds today, but life is long and our history is long.  So as I think in the spirit of this audience about my successor's successor and decades down the road -- and one reason to be agile is we're pretty good at not knowing what comes next.

And so I have to be realistic that these are the things that I focus on today, but I also need to make sure that we're ready for things that we cannot foresee today, as ready as we can possibly be.

MR. GOLDBERG:  This is a question that I see in various forms throughout these cards.  How can DOD or federal contracting in general keep up with the --


SEC. CARTER:  ..not technology that is unique to defense.  I'd be crazy if I were not farming what is outside our walls.  I -- I --

MR. GOLDBERG:  Do you want these people out here to come in to you or do you not care any more --

SEC. CARTER:  Yes, realistic about -- well, I want to be careful about -- come in doesn't mean spend your whole life -- to give your whole life to it.  That's why the Defense Digital Service is so important.  People who come there are giving it a try.  They come in for one project or one year and then they go back to the companies from which they came which are all the marquis companies.

And I know they're not all going to stay and -- by the way -- Ash Carter got into this years and years ago -- an elder in my field of theoretical particle physics who had been part of the Manhattan Project, said, you have a responsibility given the knowledge that you have to contribute to the greater good and I want you to take one year off -- one year, and I don't know, 35 years later, here I am.

And I did and it stuck with me for two reasons.  First of all, I found out, yes, I actually could make a difference, I knew something that mattered, and so I felt like I was counting.  And the other thing was I -- that what I was working on was about the most important thing you could possibly work on.  Take those two things together, that what you do is having an effect and what you're working on really matters.  That's about as magical as it can be for somebody who is innovative and -- and -- so I was hooked.

I don't expect everybody to get hooked so I'm trying to make us permeable enough that people can come and go.  Some people will want to serve in uniform, some people will want to serve in the civil service, and that's great and I want them to.  That's why I'm going down to basic training in Texas day after tomorrow.  But I know not everybody's going to do that, not everybody in this audience, but give us a try.  Work on something and even if that's all you ever do, for the rest of your life, you'll look back and say, you know what, you can tell people I did something that really, really mattered.

And if I had stopped with the first thing I worked on which was an old Cold War project probably most of you won't even know what it is, I'd be proud of that.  I'd be proud even now if I'd not done nothing else since.

MR. GOLDBERG:  One more -- time for one more question?

SEC. CARTER:  I'm sorry, am I not holding it up okay?  You can give him a different mic, but if he doesn't know how to hold it, it's still not going to work.


MR. GOLDBERG:  The -- what is the best path for start ups to get the information they need from the DOD to design and market their products?

SEC. CARTER:  Well --

MR. GOLDBERG:  The questions are coming extraordinarily specific to me, by the way.

SEC. CARTER:  Yeah, no.  This is -- this is good.  And the place I'd -- one of -- one of the -- the first place I'd send people right now is our Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, DIUx.  Now, I have three outposts of that that are in three of our technology hubs.  I intend to create more.  But it doesn't matter where they're located.

They're a place for you to connect and what they'll do is -- is help you understand how to connect with the customers, and we have lots of different customers doing lots of different things, how to work with the government and -- and the government is just another customer.  What makes us unusual is this, and it would -- which is we -- it's not our money and we know it's not our money.

So when you work with the government, you're working with people who know it's not their money, it's your money, it's the taxpayers' money.  And that is one of the reasons why we have some rules and so forth, and I'm trying to make sure those rules don't slow us down unnecessarily.  But I -- I have to respect the rules because it's not our money.  And so we need to be fair, we need to have competition and so forth, that's just part of the way the government does stuff because it's not our money.

MR. GOLDBERG:  I don't want to have you nerd out too much right now, but I do have this -- it's easy, I know, on occasion, yeah.  But I do want to know something about autonomous warfare, and I want you to talk a little bit in sort of almost a science fiction vein, or maybe it's not science fiction anymore.

When do we reach the point where we're not gonna need pilots anywhere in our planes?  When do we reach the point where the battle -- the battle space is taken over by robots?  And what are the -- what are the technological and moral complications associate with this?

SEC. CARTER:  Well, we're flying airplanes right now --

MR. GOLDBERG:  I'm not talking -- when is the end of pilots is what I'm talking about.

SEC. CARTER:  -- (inaudible) -- that don’t have people in them.  And systems in the warfare area, like elsewhere in life, get more and more powerful and capable of making tactical decisions.

But the thing I want to say to you, Jeff, we are very clear and I actually -- when I was deputy secretary of defense four years ago, I issued a directive to the entire department which said -- which reminded them that when it comes to the use of force on behalf of the American people, there always needs to be a human being involved in making those decisions, and I think that's an incredible important principle.

So there can be more and more automation built into a system, but when it comes to the very solemn job of using force to protect the American people, I think there -- I'm absolutely certain that our public officials and our public will always insist that there be a human being involved in making those decisions.

MR. GOLDBERG:  Let me ask you one final question about America's role in the world, and this is not a question that's necessarily specific to the election that we've had.  But you and I have talked before about this president and his foreign policy doctrine, national security doctrines, presidents before that.

Since World War II, the United States has played a role, sometimes has played it well, sometimes less well, but it's played a role as the global guarantor of stability, especially in the three regions of the world that are most crucial to American national security interest; East Asia, Middle East and Europe.

Do you believe that, based on what you see about the world as it's organized, the rise of other powers, the proclivities and dispositions of the American people, do you believe that this is something that continues inexorably or are we heading in your review into a kind of different direction about the role that America's gonna play?

SEC. CARTER:  No, I do think much of it will continue.  We remain a exceptionally strong country with an amazingly bright future and innovative people, tremendous military strength, but that's not our only strength.  We have a very resilient economy.  We have the best innovation system in the entire world.  And then there's something else which is -- I always tell the troops. I say, let me tell you what I hear from foreign leaders who work with you.  They like working with you, and why is that?  It's because you conduct yourselves in a very decent way and the things that we stand for, matter to people and appeal to people.

And it's not going to be 1945 again, where the rest of the world is in ruins and the United States is the only power left standing.  And we actually have worked now for 70 years since World War II to help other nations to rise and prosper, and we welcome that.  But we also stand up for the things that we stand up for and we remain a very influential -- not dispositive -- but an influential power in the world.  And I expect that to continue.

MR. GOLDBERG:  Keeping America great.  Thank you very much, Secretary Carter.  I appreciate it.


SEC. CARTER:  Appreciate it.  Thank you all for being here.  Thank you.