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U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Transcript

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace March 01, 2007

Media Stakeout by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and General Peter Pace Following a Briefing of Senate Members on Iraq. Location: The Capitol, Washington, D.C.

SEN. REED: Good afternoon. Let me make just a few comments.

First, speaking personally but I think sharing feelings of many, we appreciate the fact that the secretary of Defense has committed to briefing the Senate and the House on a regular basis. And I think that's an important change in tone as well as procedure, and we appreciate it.

We can't comment on the substance of the discussions upstairs, but based upon my impression from the open hearings I've attended on Armed Services, is that we're in the beginning of this operation. It's very difficult to make judgments as to success or failure. There have been some difficult steps taken by the Iraqi government, but the most difficult steps are ahead in terms of dealing with the militias, in terms of reconciliation, in terms of really not just budgeting money for reconstruction but spending the money fairly. And I think also the question that's outstanding is what's happening on the other side. Are the Shi'a militia simply waiting us out? Are the Sunni insurgents still committed to attacking and attacking and attacking? The Sunni insurgents, I should say.

The dilemma, and I think it was quite well stated by the National Intelligence Estimate, is they've described this sectarian violence as an existential struggle, winner take all, self-sustaining.

If that's the case, these reconciliation efforts might be inadequate, yet those are ultimately what we're calling upon the Iraqi government to do.

In conclusion to my remarks -- and I'll turn it over to Senator Murray -- this is a beginning of a process, and I think it's just too early to make a judgment whether or not this particular tactical change will be effective. But in the longer run, I still think we have to begin to consider ways where we can position ourselves to begin to redeploy our forces home.

Senator Murray?

SEN. MURRAY: What I would just add to what Senator Reed said is that, as he said, it's too early to judge whether or not the tactical changes are going to be effective. But what we do know is we are sending thousands more men and women, Americans, over into harm's way. We know that they're coming home and being denied care because of lack of services. We saw the stories at Walter Reed in the past week and a half. This is not new to me, I have seen this across the country as our men and women have come home and had excellent treatment to begin with, but then they are separated from the military, cannot get into the VA, get out to small communities and don't have the health care and support they need.

So as the President moves forward with this surge, what concerns me beyond just the tactical that Senator Reed talked about, is why they are not asking for additional dollars for the health care costs to make sure we're taking care of these men and women when they come home, and that is not being asked for today.

SEN. REED: We'll respond to any questions.

Q Senator, could you comment on the decision to relieve the general at Walter Reed? Do you think that was a good idea? And apparently he was only in charge of the place for about six months. Do you think it's enough just to get rid of him, or do they need to go further?

SEN. REED: Well, I think they have to go further in terms of establishing responsibility. This step was decisive. It does represent also, I think, a change in terms of accountability. We can look back over the last several years for incidents, including Abu Ghraib, where senior commanders were not held accountable properly. I think the secretary of Defense and the secretary of the Army were determined to hold this commander accountable. My sense is that whatever responsibility he shares, it's not his alone, and that they have to look carefully at others. They have to look carefully at the people beyond Walter Reed who were putting the budgets together, who were trying to make the requests to us for resources.

So I think this is just the beginning of the process, but I think it's appropriate, particularly in the military, to hold people accountable.


I would just add that I appreciate Secretary Gates coming forward very forcefully on this issue as soon as it was publicly known to the rest of us. And I commend this step today, but I don't think it's adequate. I think this is a chain-of-command issue.

Secretary Gates has said he will be back to us in another five weeks, I believe it is now, to make his recommendation not only how we can take care of those soldiers better and more adequately, but who has been responsible and not giving us the information we need -- and again, I hold the people at the highest levels in the White House, who have from the very beginning of this effort four years ago tried to deflate the impact in terms of cost, and as a result have left men and women, at Walter Reed we've seen recently but across the country, without being adequately taken care of when they serve our country.

SEN. REED: Can I just add one more thing? It's not just about firing individuals; it's about fixing the problem.


SEN. REED: And the problem extends beyond Walter Reed. Because we know we have a generation now of severely wounded veterans who will require care for probably 40 or 50 years, and we have to make the budgetary provisions now, and consistently going forward, so that we give these individuals, these men and women, the care that they deserve as veterans of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force -- all these veterans.


And the question goes beyond Secretary Gates. Secretary Nicholson of the VA needs to come forward and be honest with the number of veterans who are seeking care, those who have been denied care, those who can't get into care. And as we have seen just in the last week, the signature wound of this war if traumatic brain syndrome which comes from being exposed to IED explosions.

These men and women are treated with the best kind of care at Walter Reed initially or Bethesda. But boy, when they go home and it's their mom or their sister or their wife or their spouse who cares for them, and they don't have anywhere close to them that has the kind of therapy that they need, and they're left in tears, that's a disservice to all these men and women. It's part of the cost of war, and to this date, this White House has not been honest about that. With this surge, we're going to see an increased number of these men and women who are in need of care long-term.

Q Senator Murray, Kent Conrad was quoted as saying that the Democrats were talking about taking $20 billion off of this supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan. Can you elaborate on those plans?

SEN. MURRAY: Well, I don't -- do not hear what Senator Conrad heard.

What I know Senator Conrad is doing is looking at how he can put forward a balanced budget. It is a very challenging budget within a, you know, short amount of time here, and he's working on the numbers. He said that he put out a possibility of that. Our caucus is having a discussion about that, and he is trying to do the best he can.

I don't know if Senator Reed has talked to him more than I have, but I can tell you this -- the question all of you have is, are we going to take away the funds that our troops need to be able to do the job that we've asked them to do? And the answer is no.

Q What effect do you think this briefing will have on the various Iraq resolutions pending in the Senate?

SEN. REED: I don't think the briefing itself will have any effect.

There are several issues. One is I think this is a good, safe attempt to keep the Senate informed of what's going on. We appreciate it. But there are larger policy questions about our course in Iraq and in the region.

I think, interestingly enough, a lot of our discussions and the votes over the last several weeks I think have prompted the administration to begin a diplomatic effort, which is long overdue. Last June, Senator Levin and myself proposed a policy change which specifically called for a regional conference on Iraq; that finally is being announced and being undertaken.

So I don't think there's a direct correlation. This is about what's happening there, and what we're talking about is what should happen over the next several months in Iraq.

Q Are Democrats any closer to coalescing now around any kind of specific resolution? Where are you?

SEN. REED: We're hopefully using the time wisely to develop a policy that both works substantively, it makes sense in terms of the situation in Iraq, and also one that can gain widespread support, and we're working on that.

Q You're not there yet?

SEN. REED: No. Q Was the briefing just militarily about the Iraqi military or -- I know you can't speak to the contents of it, but the nature of it? The briefing, the closed briefing --

SEN. REED: I would assume that General Pace and the secretary and Secretary Rice might come down, so I'll leave it to them to open up any comments about what their remarks were.

Thank you.

Q Thank you.


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