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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 Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace June 21, 2007

DoD Media Roundtable With Secretary Gates and Gen. Pace in the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington, Va.

SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. I'd like to begin with a statement.

Some time ago, I said that after the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, fixing health care for our wounded at every stage of their recovery was my highest priority as secretary of Defense. Last week the Department of Defense Mental Health Task Force issued its report on the state of mental health services within the department. I would like to thank the co-chairs -- Vice Admiral Arthur and Dr. MacDermid -- and all the participants for their time and service.

The panel concluded that current mental health care efforts, however well-intentioned -- and I quote -- "fall significantly short," unquote, of adequately serving service members and their families -- a conclusion reinforced by recent press accounts.

I again thank the media for their focus on the well-being of our men and women in uniform.

The Defense Mental Health Task Force report outlines several areas where this department can, and I would say must, transform the way we meet the psychological needs of our service men and women. It called meeting these goals a, quote, "achievable vision," unquote. I agree. This is something that we can, must and will get fixed.

Among other important goals, the task force report called on this department to build a culture of support for psychological health throughout the military by removing the stigma associated with seeking help. One change I support and will very aggressively pursue is removing the question about mental health treatment from the security clearance questionnaire -- a government-wide form. Too many avoid seeking mental health help because of fear of losing their security clearance.

I've also discussed the stigma issue with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I am confident they will provide strong leadership in an effort to overcome this impediment to proper mental health care. Leaders at every level must follow suit.

This department is required by law to provide Congress with a corrective action plan within six months. I have no intention of waiting that long.

I have directed that the action plan for implementation of the 95 DOD task force recommendations be completed within 60 to 90 days. The scope of our effort is even broader than this suggests. Along with the results of other studies, the department is now reviewing in detail some 331 recommendations. These recommendations deal with broad mental health issues, including PTSD and TBI. Other studies are still in process, so the total number of recommendations we must address will probably not be available until October.

In the meantime, the Department of Defense is partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide integrated solutions to all of the recommendations. This team is working full-time and reports weekly to an oversight group chaired by the deputies of both departments. Jointly, we have already begun implementation of corrective actions and will continue this process until a fully responsive and caring system is in place for our men and women.

Fixing our military mental health system will require changing not only what we do within the department but possibly legislative changes as well, and I'm confident that Congress will continue to be a strong supporter in supporting our -- a strong partner in supporting our military.

Just over a week ago, I was in Germany and went to Landstuhl Army Hospital. I visited the bedside of several soldiers fresh from Iraq who were recovering from their wounds. I presented six Purple Hearts, including one to a soldier who was still unconscious and on a respirator. It was a starkly moving and emotionally powerful reminder of the sacrifices these young men and women are making on our behalf. It is our moral obligation and duty to ensure that they are properly cared for in mind, body and spirit when they return from the battlefield to the homeland that they have pledged to defend. They have done their duty; we must do ours.


GEN. PACE: I would add that the chiefs are energized on this issue, and they are intent -- we are intent on making sure we provide the proper leadership to ensure that everybody who needs any kind of assistance with mental health gets it, not only for those who have already served honorably and well but also those who are currently in combat. As you know, the surge force now is in place. We've got folks in 115-degree weather working extremely hard to do this nation's business, and they deserve to know that we're going to provide for them in every way we can when they come back out of battle.

SEC. GATES: Lolita?

Q Mr. Secretary, and also for you, General Pace, we've seen a spike in violence over the last couple of days since this new operation has begun, and I'm wondering if you can address whether or not this suggests to you that commanders in Iraq may be correct in their argument that they may need to sustain this level of troops for a longer period of time. And also, does it put more pressure, do you think, on the military to show some improvement and some progress by September?

SEC. GATES: I'll answer first and then invite General Pace.

It seems to me that there's a -- that the reason for the spike in violence is that, as General Petraeus has indicated, our troops and the Iraqi troops are going into areas where they haven't been for some time, and they anticipated that there would be a high level of combat as they did that. I think that we'll just have to wait and see the progress of these offensives and -- in terms of the recommendations that are made in early September in terms of answering your other questions.

But General, do you want to --

GEN. PACE: I think certainly from the standpoint of the commanders on the ground, this is exactly what needs to be done to assist in providing a level of security that buys the time for the Iraqi government to provide the governance and provide the economic opportunities for their citizens. So this is the right thing to do. And as the secretary said, later on this summer we'll get some input or some feedback from both General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker and be able to make recommendations to the president.

Q Mr. Secretary, you just talked about mental health and so forth. I'm wondering if you could comment. The Pentagon's mental health survey released last month recommended 30 days off in theater for every soldier or Marine that experienced 90 days of heavy combat. The report also said that one-third of those on multiple deployments who experienced heavy combat experienced mental health problems.

Can they get that amount of time off? And should they?

SEC. GATES: Well, we're just examining these recommendations. At the current time, I think, to be honest, it would be a challenge to manage that at current force levels. But we will examine that recommendation along with all the others.

Q But if you don't manage that, if they don't get the time off, aren't more people going to be coming home with mental health problems?

SEC. GATES: Well, we'll just have to wait and see. You know, it's a good report. I have no reason to question the report. We are just going to have to ensure that if we do have more troops coming back with problems, that we have the resources in place and the procedures to make sure that they're properly treated.

GEN. PACE: You know, there's another part of that, as well. And the medical data is very important and needs to be taken into consideration. Not quite as scientific, but also, I think, a fact to be considered is the fact that normally our highest casualties in a unit are in the first period of a deployment and in the last period of a deployment, and a lot of it has to do with mind-set and having total focus. And the numbers of times that you put yourself into and out of a combat situation changes how you're thinking, what you're mentally prepared to do.

We need to take a look at the entire spectrum of impacts, not only the very important factor of mental stress, but also the factor of ensuring that we've got folks mentally focused so they do come home in the best possible condition both physically and mentally.

Q Can you shed some light on the -- (inaudible) -- penetration that occurred yesterday that prompted the Pentagon to take down part of its e-mail system, affecting 1,500 workers?

And also was your e-mail affected by this hack, sir?

SEC. GATES: Well, to answer the second question first, I don't do e-mail. (Laughter.) I'm a very low-tech person.

The reality is that the Defense Department is constantly under attack. Elements of the OSD unclassified e-mail system were taken offline yesterday afternoon, due to a detected penetration. A variety of precautionary measures are being taken. We expect the system to be online again very soon.

We obviously have redundant systems in place, and there is no anticipated adverse impact on ongoing operations. There will be some administrative disruptions and personal inconveniences. It will come as no surprise that we aggressively monitor intrusions and have appropriate procedures to address events of this kind. But as I say, we get perhaps hundreds of attacks a day.

Q Just one follow-up, then, if you get hundreds of attacks a day, what was so unique about this attack that prompted the takedown of a limited part of the network?

SEC. GATES: Well, I don't know the answer to that, and they're still investigating it. So I don't know the answer to your specific question.

Q Mr. Secretary, in his confirmation hearing earlier this week, acting Army Secretary Geren said, if the surge continues beyond its anticipated length that it may be necessary to extend deployments for U.S. troops there in Iraq. They're already on 15-month deployments in Iraq. Is that physically possible or even politically possible, to extend those troops in Iraq beyond that 15-month period?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think, that's a worst-case scenario, and I don't anticipate having to move to that. Our policy is 15 months. We extended beyond 12 months reluctantly and only to ensure that every soldier, Marine -- or every soldier got at least a year at home.

It is my hope that we can at some point move back to 12 months deployed, 12 months at home, and then to our eventual goal, which is 12 months deployed and two years at home. But as I say, I think, beyond 15 months is a worst-case scenario. And we're focused on the 15-month and then -- and rolling that back as soon as we can.

Q Sir, there was a building struck in Diyala province that was the headquarters for the 1920s Brigade, which is a group that had switched sides and started working with U.S. troops against al Qaeda lately.

Four people were killed in that attack. It was a U.S. bomb that struck the building.

Isn't it risky to have that kind of a mistake in a place like Diyala, where you're relying on groups like the 1920 Brigades and these sheikhs, tribal sheikhs, who are switching sides and helping with U.S. forces as they go in and try and route out al Qaeda? Can you comment on that incident?

SEC. GATES: This is the first I've heard of it, so I think -- I don't know whether --

GEN. PACE: I have not heard of that particular incident, but certainly no force in the world takes more precautions and is more precise in the application of combat power than the United States is. And it is unfortunate when either the intelligence that we are acting on or in the delivery of the weapons that we strike a target.

One thing that's also true, though, is any time that we have those kinds of mistakes, we investigate it and we find out what happened, we take the corrective actions, either in the systems or against the individuals involved depending upon what the incident was.

So do those kinds of things happen in combat? Yes, they do. But unlike our enemy who takes great pride in putting women and children in harm's way, we take great pride in our precision and in our follow- up when something does go wrong.


Q Yes. Mr. Secretary and General Pace, it's been a pretty bad couple of days in terms of losses -- American losses in Iraq. I think it's 12 in the last two days killed. Is this something we're going to expect and to be bracing for in the coming weeks and months as we have the tempo of operations increase and we have the surge forces on the ground?

And if I could also, just picking up on the question about the 1920s Brigade, do you have some concern or pause about working and joining forces with groups that so recently had been aiming some of their fire power or affiliated with those that have been aiming their fire power at American forces?

SEC. GATES: Remind me again what your first question was.

Q It was about the 12 deaths in the last few days.

SEC. GATES: The offensive -- this new offensive has been under way just a few days. I think that General Petraeus, he certainly indicated to me when I was there last week that he expected it would be very tough fighting at least initially when they moved into these areas for the first time. We certainly hope and pray that that level of casualties will not be sustained, it will not continue, but they are in the middle of a battle, and we just will have to deal with that.

With respect to the second part of your question, you know, part of trying to bring some measure of peace to Iraq is going to be persuading people who have been fighting to stop fighting and become a part of a political process. And so it seems to me that in a number of different sectors, the embassy and our forces are going to be talking to people who not long ago may well have been shooting at us. And I think I have to defer to the judgment of those on the ground -- and after all, we also are working with the Iraqi government in all of this -- in terms of making the decision of deciding whether to work with these people and whether to arm them. After all, it's a strategy that has worked extraordinarily well in Al Anbar province in terms of working with the local tribes, and so on.

And so I think this is -- trying to get more of the people who have been shooting to stop shooting and work with us I think is really the pathway forward in terms of accomplishing our objective and getting them to work with the Iraqi government.

So -- but in terms of the specific decisions, I'm not going to try and second-guess General Petraeus or the ambassador.

General, do you want to add anything on either part of that?

GEN. PACE: All I would add to that is that in addition to Al Anbar, you also have about 130 sheikhs in the Tikrit area who have banded together to fight against al Qaeda.

So, is there risk involved with arming groups with whom you've been fighting before? Yes. But I think the greater risk is in not seizing the opportunities as they become available, and as individuals and groups determine that they are willing to team with the Iraqi central government, that they no longer want to be cowered by the al Qaeda, for example, that we should seize those opportunities and work with them and try to get the Iraqi family to pull together.


Q Can I just follow up on that? For either one of you gentlemen, just sort of to be clear, what is the ground rule here about arming elements in Iraq that may have, as you said, shot at us just a short time ago? Is the U.S. government arming elements in Iraq that may -- that engaged in combat against U.S. forces?

And my question for General Pace goes more to the issue of the direct threat right now for U.S. troops. What can you tell us about the pace of attacks against U.S. troops, the type of attacks you're seeing, the larger IEDs? What is it that is causing this spike in U.S. casualties? Both questions, please.

GEN. PACE: Let me start with the second question first if I could. I asked the question -- you know, we've got all kinds of data (inaudible). I asked the question just the other day, tell me about the numbers of incidents per day; what is it now compared to what it was back in January, for example? And it was interesting that based on the number of U.S. brigades operating on the battlefield, the number of contacts with the enemy has remained relatively constant, of a low of about five contacts with the enemy per day per brigade, up to a high of about seven contacts with the enemy per day per U.S. brigade of about 3,500 folks.

So when you add the additional five brigades, the number of instances have gone up, but the number of contacts per brigade has been relatively stable in that five-to-seven range. That's a data point.

Clearly, the kinds of IEDs that happened yesterday, where we lost five soldiers in one attack and four in another, those are the kinds of attacks that our enemy would like to impose on us. When you look at the trend of June compared to May, it's not as high in June as it was in May. However, every death is significant to us, and our enemy knows that it's significant to us. But as we do these sweeps in areas that we've been through before but now we're going to go in and hold, as we're taking the fight to the enemy with the additional troops, we can expect that there's going to be tough fighting ahead. And we can expect that our enemy is going to want to impact the psyche here in the United States with regard to the number of significant incidents that they're able to pull off and the total numbers of casualties that they're able to produce. So it is an expectation that this surge is going to result in more contact and therefore more casualties.

Q And Mr. Secretary, is the United States arming elements in Iraq that have engaged in combat or may have -- against the U.S. or may have killed U.S. troops?

And how can you assure people that you may have vetted that situation?

SEC. GATES: Well, as I say, I defer those decisions to the commanders on the ground and the embassy and the Iraqi government.

Q But --

SEC. GATES: Prime Minister Maliki raised this with me, and clearly they're concerned, and he's appointed a committee to work this issue and be a part of the vetting process.

But as I say, you know, we've got a lot of conflict going on in Iraq. I've talked to this to you all before about the number of different conflicts that are going on, the five or six different conflicts. And if we refuse to work with or ally with everybody who's been on the other side of the fence, then the prospects for making any progress in Iraq are pretty slim.


Q General Pace, a question for you. This is your first time in the briefing room since the secretary announced that you would not be renominated, and he indicated the main reason for that was he felt senators would focus very much on Iraq. And how fair do you feel that decision is? And how personally responsible do you feel for the fact that the war in Iraq has not gone as well as had been hoped?

GEN. PACE: Oh, look, I have had the great honor and privilege of serving first four years as vice chairman, now two years as chairman. In every recommendation that I have made, in all the military advice that I have given, I have had the benefit of a team of folks around me who have made it possible for me to understand as much of the situation as I could, to give my best military advice.

I understand the Constitution of the United States, which calls for the president to propose and the Senate to dispose -- neither of those two things is going to happen. But I am chairman, and I'm going to be chairman until midnight on 30 September, and through midnight on 30 September, I'm going to do all that I can to stay focused on providing support to the troops who are in combat. And come 0001 on 1 October, if he's confirmed, Admiral Mike Mullen will pick up that responsibility, and I'm sure he'll be as honored to serve as I have been.


Q Sir, can I get back to General Petraeus's September report that we're expecting? In the very early weeks of your tenure, you focused on the issue of wanting a report, I think originally midsummer but now late summer-early fall, a report card on how it's progressing, so you can make a judgment on whether to continue.

We've heard from the White House in the last week or two that they were slipping back a bit, it seems, at least rhetorically -- the press was paying too much attention to the September report; you guys were making it too big a deal. I mean, from a press point of view, the reason we were making a big deal is because we thought you were making a big deal about this. Can you talk a bit about whether there's a disconnect between you and the White House over the importance of this Petraeus report in September?

SEC. GATES: No, I don't think there's a disconnect. What I actually started saying and testifying in January and February was that I thought that we would be able to determine fairly early on from the military side, the security side, whether or not the Iraqis were keeping the commitments that they had made to us as part of the Baghdad security plan. And I said I thought we would be able to make that evaluation reasonably quickly by early summer, by May, June. And I think we have been able to make that determination, and I think that we've been satisfied that the Iraqis have in fact met the commitments that they made in that particular arena.

What I did say, though, also was that in terms of the other aspects of the strategy in terms of political reconciliation and legislation and the economic development side, that it would take longer.

I think that part of the reason that September has taken on the aura it has is in no small part the result of the debate in Congress over the past several months, and the debate between the president -- the conflict between the president and the Congress in terms of benchmarks and when the reporting would happen, and so on. So there will be a report -- under the legislation, there will be a report to the Congress on July 15th, and I think it's actually in the legislation that there will be a report in mid-September. So September is now inscribed in legislation. So it's not just sort of some arbitrary date picked out there, it's something to which everybody is going to have to respond. And I think you'd be naive in the extreme not to believe that the Congress is going to be very focused on that report and on the decisions that the president makes as a result of that report.

Q Mr. Secretary, back to your decision -- to your recommendation to the president, your decision essentially not to renominate General Pace as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. That's being portrayed by some people as a sign of weakness on your part, that you're -- the accusation is that you're kowtowing to Congress, essentially ceding to Senator Carl Levin, you know, the decision of who gets to be your and the president's senior military adviser.

What's your response to that, that you were too quick to cave on this, if, as you said in your statement, you actually did intend to renominate General Pace originally.

SEC. GATES: I would recommend that people go back and read the statement that I originally gave here when I made that decision, when I was very explicit that it was in my consultations with both Democrats and Republicans that I had drawn that conclusion, and discussed it with the president. I received the same kind of concerns from Republicans that I did from Senator Levin and from others on the Democratic side.

So I think to paint this in the terms that you describe simply is not consistent with the facts.

Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

A number of people who have studied your tenure since you took office have come to the conclusion that as the debate over Iraq goes forward within the administration, that you will try to push that debate in the direction of a lower U.S. military profile and less involvement in combat in Iraq. Are they reading you right?

SEC. GATES: Well, I spent several decades as a Kremlinologist. And sometimes I got it right, and sometimes I didn't. I'll leave it at that. (Laughs.)

(Cross talk.)

Q Have they got it right or gotten it wrong?

SEC. GATES: You'll find out.

Q Mr. Secretary, and also for General Pace, I was wondering if you can talk about what commanders' expectations are for this offensive, what the effect will be. Do they expect that this will significantly reduce the violence to the -- before September? Do they expect to break al Qaeda, or are their expectations much more modest than that?

GEN. PACE: Well, I think, first of all if you try to define this in terms of level of violence, you've really put yourself on the wrong metric. It isn't about X number today, Y number tomorrow, because the enemy gets a chance to vote in that. And he will take a look at what you're measuring and try to defeat that measurement, so to speak.

What we're trying to do is to get for the Iraqi government enough space inside of which that they can do the good governance that they promised that they will do with regard to the laws that they're going to pass and the economics. The metric really should be for Iraqi citizens, do they feel better about their lives today than they did yesterday? And do they think they're going to feel better about their lives tomorrow than they do today?

If they do, and if they see that their country is moving forward without regard to the specific instances of violence, that they feel better about where they are and where they're going, then the security environment is providing what it should be providing, which is a level of security inside of which their governance can function. If you had zero violence and people were not feeling good about their future, where are you? So it's not about levels of violence. It's about progress being made in fact, in the minds of the Iraqi people, so that they have confidence in their government in the way forward.

SEC. GATES: I'd like to go back to the question that Jamie McIntyre asked, because I think there's something else I need to remind you all of from my original statement, with respect to the chairman.

As I said at the time, that was a recommendation to the president that I made with great regret and that he accepted with reluctance. It had been my hope that I would have the opportunity to continue to serve with General Pace through the end of the administration.

But at the end of the day, based on consultations with both Democrats and Republicans, it seemed to me that a confirmation hearing was going to be focused on the past and essentially reopen all of the issues of the past six years in a way that was not constructive for the country or for our men and women in uniform or, in my opinion, for General Pace himself.

So I admire Mike Mullen, and I look forward to working with him very much. He's a person of extraordinary capability. And if they've confirmed, I think he'll be a good chairman, a great chairman. But he knows the circumstances as well as I do, and it's, frankly, just a recognition of reality and also my belief that at this point it is important for us all to look to the future and not to the past.

Q Thank you very much.

Q Back to the levels of violence --

Q Can I ask just one more question?

SEC. GATES: One last question.

Q General Pace? (Laughter.)

Q Not so fast.

Q (Off mike.) (Laughter.)

SEC. GATES: Okay, levels of violence.

Q (Off mike.)

Q The last hard data we have on the levels of violence comes from the report to Congress, and that was current through May 15th. And that said the overall level of violence is essentially unchanged; actually, if you look at the chart, it was up a little bit since before the surge started. So bring us up to date from May 15th to today on what has happened to the levels of violence now that you have all five brigades there.

GEN. PACE: The total number's up a little bit, but as I mentioned before, total events per brigade in the field about the same. And again, from my point of view, although that's an interesting statistic, it is not the driving statistic. What we focus on -- if what the American people focus on and if what we military commanders project is based on the levels of violence, then all our enemy has to do is put together more bombs and have more incidents. That's not the measure.

Q You make it sound like he can do that at will, though, when he wants to increase the level of violence.

GEN. PACE: Well, the enemy's -- the enemy's a thinking enemy and he has soldiers at his disposal, and they can decide to surge or not surge like we can surge and not surge. So it's not about the levels of violence. It's about what I mentioned, which is the belief of the Iraqi people in their government and in their situation today versus yesterday and what they believe tomorrow will be.

So is it up a little bit? Yes, it is up a little bit. It's lower than it was, but it's up a little bit compared to last month. And that will change over time as operations begin and stop and people regroup. But that's the wrong metric to chase.

SEC. GATES: And, you know, just another one of the metrics that is up and down is the number of sectarian murders. Those were up -- those were way down for the first three months. They were up some in May. As I recall, General Petraeus told me last week when I was there that they're down fairly considerably again.

So, you know, we're going to have to wait and see. Like General Petraeus points out, that fifth brigade only started its operations last week.

And I would just make one other statement. This joint security station that I visited in Baghdad last week, the brigade commander there told me that he had covered the entire area relating to that joint security station with one brigade until the surge. He now has three, and he says it makes a big difference in terms of the overall security.

Thank you all.

Q General, I'm not sure if you answered the question about personal responsibility for the situation?

(No audible response.)

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