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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 June 26, 2008

DoD News Briefing with Secretary Gates from the Pentagon

SEC. GATES: Admiral Mullen is traveling. General Cartwright is at a meeting downtown. So I'm on my own today.

We're encouraged that the House has passed the global war on terror supplemental bill last week. We're anxiously hoping for action by the Senate before they leave tomorrow for the Fourth of July recess. The funds are obviously urgently needed.

Until Congress passes a spending bill and the president signs it, the Department of Defense must continue to take necessary steps to plan for a possible shutdown of all nonessential operations next month. Should the bill not pass this week, I will meet with senior leadership of the department on Monday to discuss the emergency procedures that will be needed if the funding isn't enacted.

And with that brief statement, I'll take your questions, then.

Q Mr. Secretary, Major General Schloesser briefed us a couple of days ago by a video link from Afghanistan. He says that attacks in RC East are up 40 percent so far this year. You've previously praised RC East as a success story. How concerned are you by that dramatic rise?

And do you think it might be time to alter the balance of risk you take in Iraq so that you can devote more resources to Afghanistan?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think it is a matter of concern, of real concern. And I think that one of the reasons that we're seeing the increase, as General Schloesser probably told you, is more people coming across the border from the frontier area. And I think it's an issue that clearly we have to pursue with the Pakistani government because it has been the -- Regional Command East has been a success story. But clearly, the ability of the Taliban and other insurgents to cross that border and not being under any pressure from the Pakistani side of the border is clearly a concern. I think that's the area that needs to be addressed with the Pakistani government as opposed to taking greater risk in Iraq.

Q Mr. Secretary, just following along those lines, you've gotten the latest Afghanistan report, the first of its kind. Is there something you could share with us about whether or not after taking a look at that you see anything that would give you an idea about how best to deal with the border issues and whether any sort of broader look at the Afghanistan statistics over the last several years gives you any sense of what can be done along the border that you're not doing already, and what other troops or other measures you can take?

SEC. GATES: Well, one of the things that I have found encouraging just today is a statement by the prime minister of Pakistan that the government intends to reassert its control and authority in the Northwest Frontier Province, and their designation of General Kayani and empowerment of him to take responsibility for that. So I think that creates an opportunity for us, and we certainly will be pursuing that.

Q But there's nothing the U.S. can do militarily?

SEC. GATES: Well, obviously there is more we can do militarily. That's why we sent the 3,500 Marines down there. Obviously, pleased by the commitment by the French and the Germans and Poles and others to increase their troop levels.

And as the president pledged at Bucharest, our expectation is that the United States will in fact provide additional troops during the course of 2009.

Q I have a question about the big tanker decision that you were briefed on yesterday. Given what you heard yesterday, is the department and you -- are you leaning toward going ahead with the Northrop contract as is, or taking GAO's considerations and reopening the competition?

I had a follow-up.

SEC. GATES: Well, I haven't made any decisions yet. But I would say that I take the GAO report very seriously. They clearly pointed out some areas where we were deficient. And the deputy and I and the undersecretary for Acquisitions, Logistics and Technology and the acting secretary of the Air Force are continuing to talk about this and figure out the right way forward.

Q The last question. Now you went out on a limb -- you, Gordon England and others -- saying this transaction was transparent, fair. It turns out it fell apart. How much is your confidence in the way this building manages major acquisitions shaken by this episode? It comes as you're trying to get the American people to support a large increase in Defense spending. So the natural question: If you give them the money, how can they manage it well?

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, I think we do manage a number of programs very well. But clearly there are some problem areas. The secretary of the Navy has pointed some out and taken actions with the littoral combat ship. Other management actions have been taken.

Part of the problem that -- and I've discussed this with -- in testimony on the Hill -- is, a dozen years ago the Defense Contracting Agency had 25,000 employees. It's got about 9,000 today. Overall, 15 or 20 years ago, the department had over 600,000 people involved in acquisitions, and it's less than half that. Some of that was due to decisions made in the executive branch. Some of it was mandated by the Congress.

One of the steps that we're taking, for example, in the Army -- the report that Jack Gansler did on Army contracting made clear that contracting had become an unattractive career path in the Army. And so they're taking steps to recreate that as a meaningful career path in the Army.

So we are taking steps to improve the contracting process. John Young has put a number of steps in to try and bring greater discipline to the acquisitions process. So I think in the time that we have left we will implement and are implementing the steps that John Young has put forward to improve the acquisition process, but clearly it will still be an agenda item for my successor.

Q Could I follow up on that, please? You said you take the GAO report seriously. The report also said the Air Force procurement team made significant errors in this contract. Do you still have faith in the Air Force procurement team, particularly Assistant Secretary Sue Payton?

SEC. GATES: Well, I have -- we've clearly had problems with the tanker contract. And this time around is not the first time, obviously. And so I think I need to get a better feel for the GAO report and for the criticisms and the nature of the criticisms that they have made. I know that there were a number of areas in which they found that the process was done correctly. And so I need to -- I need to weigh that. And so does the acting secretary.

Q But you still have faith in the Air Force team? Or is it too early to even --

SEC. GATES: Well, I have confidence in the team until I see something to the contrary.

Q Were you aware there were problems before the GAO report or is that the first that you were aware that there was a problem with the fairness of the procurement?

SEC. GATES: Well, clearly the Boeing protest was the first indication that there might have been some problems.

Q Yet after --

SEC. GATES: But the first evidence that we have seen that there were, in fact, problems was the GAO report.

Q But after the Boeing protest, you still had said that you had faith that it was a fair and transparent process.


Q What had made you say that?

SEC. GATES: The views of the acquisition people.

Q Secretary, I wanted to ask you about the breakthrough with North Korea in its nuclear program. To what extent do you think that provides any sort of model for dealing with Iran and its nuclear ambitions? Or are the two countries so different, the situation so different, that it's not really applicable? And as a follow-up, also, just curious to what extent you're worried that Israel may take preemptive military action against Iran with or without the support of the United States.

SEC. GATES: Well, one thing that -- the one thing that North Korea and Iran have in common is that there has been a multilateral -- an international effort to try and bring pressure to bear on the governments to change their policies and to change their approach.

That pressure worked with North Korea. It has not worked with Iran. The European, the IAEA, a number of proposals have been put on the table in terms of making progress with respect to the Iranians that start with them suspending their enrichment activity. That's been the view not just of the United States but of the entire United Nations Security Council and so on. Those pressures have not worked on Iran as the way -- as they did work with North Korea. My hope is that sooner rather than later, all those international pressures will have some impact.

Q What about the concern about Israel?

SEC. GATES: I'm not going to talk about a hypothetical.

Q (Off mike) -- on North Korea. North Korea still have a multiple number of nuclear bombs and chemical and biological weapons. What is the DOD -- its, like, position of removing North Korea from state-sponsored terrorism list?

SEC. GATES: Well, they're really two different issues. And as Steve Hadley briefed at the White House this morning, there are certain steps toward criteria laid out for designation as a terrorist state. North Korea did not fall under any of those criteria any longer, and so it could be removed from the terrorist-supporting states list. The reality is that there are so many other sanctions on North Korea because of its other behaviors that there's really no practical effect of taking them off the terrorist list.

Q Mr. Secretary, do you now expect North Korea to give up its weapons?

SEC. GATES: I think we'll see. This is a step-by-step process -- as the president refers to it, action for action. I think that one of the things that when I came back into government led me to think that this was the right approach is that actions by the North Koreans then get action on our part and the part of the other nations involved in the process.

How this process will work out in the end and whether they will give up their nuclear weapons, frankly, I think nobody knows the answer right now.

Q What if they signal that they don't intend to give them up?

SEC. GATES: Well, they made a pledge at the beginning of the process that they would. So we'll just see.

Q Mr. Secretary, do you have any details on a suicide bombing in Kharma in which some -- we don't know how many -- coalition troops were killed?

SEC. GATES: I know that there was an attack in the east, if that's -- in RC East?

Q No, I'm talking -- excuse me -- in Iraq, west of Baghdad. There was a suicide bombing --

SEC. GATES: I hadn't heard about it.

Q Mr. Secretary, also on Iraq, how do you characterize the differences remaining between the U.S. and the Iraqi government over the security pact? I mean the SOFA and the strategic framework agreement. Do you expect any deal by the end of this month?

SEC. GATES: Well, we are certainly hoping and pressing to get an agreement that provides the legal authorities for American and other coalition forces to continue their operations in Iraq and in partnership and support of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people.

It's a negotiation. We talked at length yesterday with President Talabani about the need for the agreement and the need to try and get it done by the end of July. So we will keep pressing for that.

Q Mr. Secretary, have you seen any evidence to support claims made by Israel that Iran's program for enriching uranium and perhaps producing fissile material for nuclear weapons is much further along than previously thought?

SEC. GATES: I think that the best way to characterize it is that there is a range of views among intelligence analysts in different countries, and our analysts probably tend to be a little more -- think that the timeline is somewhat longer before they would have -- be able to have enough enriched uranium to begin to proceed toward a weaponization process. I would say that Israel is not the only country -- without getting into any further details, that Israel is not the only country that has a more pessimistic view in terms of how soon they could have something.

Q And what is the timeline by U.S. analysts?

SEC. GATES: I think that -- well, I'd better not say.

I'm not 100 percent sure.

Q Mr. Secretary, last week the Physicians for Human Rights group issued a report saying that they had examined 11 former detainees and found that they had been tortured in U.S. custody. And specifically they said that medical and mental health care workers assisted in these interrogations by making sure the detainees were healthy enough for more abusive interrogation. What's your view of those findings? And do you think they rise to the level where some investigation or further accountability might be necessary?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think there have been a number of investigations of this. Frankly, I have not read the report and have not drawn any conclusions about it.

Q Does that allegation, particularly regarding the medical workers, is that something new to you? Does that disturb you or is it something you think the department ought to look into?

SEC. GATES: I had not heard the part about the medical workers before.

Q Does it rise to the level where there should be some investigation or --

SEC. GATES: Well, first thing that I'd want to find out if it -- was if prisoners were in the custody of the Defense Department.

Q Can we go back to the FATA and Pakistan for minute? You talked about a theme of concern, but can you expand a little bit? What is it that you are seeing in terms of militants and fighters coming across into Afghanistan that are responsible for these attacks? And I ask because some of your own analysts say they see hundreds of fighters now, some belonging to Baitullah Mehsud, some to other warlords, coming in, staging attacks in the south, not just in the east. You say you're concerned, but does success in Afghanistan now depend actually -- security success -- on doing something about the FATA? And is all you can do is to hope that Pakistan deals with this?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think that this is a -- as the prime minister's statement today made clear, the Pakistani government, I think, now understands that it's a problem for the Pakistani government as well. It's not just a problem for us. So I think this creates an opportunity for us to talk with them and see if we can work together in a better way to try and deal with the problem in the FATA.

(Cross talk.)

Q No disrespect, you've talked to them for years about this now. This isn't the first time they've made agreements, that they've said things. And it's only gotten worse.

SEC. GATES: Well, it actually was not bad until a few months ago. This is a fairly recent phenomenon of seeing the numbers come across the border. After all, Khost was an example of a successful counterinsurgency. And I sat here a few months ago, having visited there, and talked about that.

What has happened is that as various agreements have been negotiated or were in the process of negotiation with various groups, by the Pakistani government, there was the -- the pressure was taken off of these people and these groups. And they've therefore been more free to be able to cross the border and create problems for us.

The fact that the Pakistani government itself has recognized that this is a problem and that these groups' activities are a problem, for the Pakistani government as well as for those of us in Afghanistan, I think, is a heartening sign. I hope we can take advantage of it.

Q Mr. Secretary, there's been a lot of talk recently about a possible split within the ranks, of both al Qaeda itself but also Islamic extremism more broadly, with some of the spiritual leaders, who have issued support for attacks and violence, withdrawing their support amid a kind of broader disillusionment with indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets.

Do you believe that that split exists and is real? And if it does, is there a role for the U.S., of any kind, to encourage it? Or do you just sit back and hope that it plays out to the advantage of the U.S. and its allies?

SEC. GATES: Well, I haven't seen anything that would suggest a sort of fundamental split in al Qaeda over attacks on innocent people. You have some individuals who have recanted and taken a different position.

I think al Qaeda -- my own view is that al Qaeda at this point is a fairly dynamic movement. And it has -- the way I would describe it is in some ways like a cancer.

It's metastasized, and it's spread to other places, like al Qaeda in North Africa, the Maghreb, and al Qaeda in the Levant, and so on. And these groups, as best we can tell, have a fair amount of independence. They get inspiration, they get sometimes guidance, probably some training, probably some money from the al Qaeda leadership, but it's not -- my impression is it's not as centralized a movement as it was, say, in 2001. But in some ways, the fact that it has spread in the way that it has, in my view, makes it perhaps more dangerous.

Q You spoke about, you know, the FATA, that things -- along the border of Khost, things have gotten worse in the last couple of months. Do you attribute that in part to the murky political situation in Pakistan, given that we're not really sure who's in charge, and getting different offers, from within the army itself to the insurgents in the FATA, as well as from the government? General McNeill, after he returned from Afghanistan, told us right here in this room that he thought personally that the situation government- wise in Pakistan was dysfunctional. Do you agree with that? Or do you see correlation between what's happening on both sides -- (off mike)?

SEC. GATES: No, I wouldn't say that. But what I would say is that I think the problems are due -- that at least some measure -- in some measure, the challenges that we're facing in Afghanistan, in RC South and RC East are, as I say, in some measure a result of the relaxation of pressure on the Pakistani side of the border. And my hope is that the prime minister's statement today indicates a willingness to reassert that pressure.

Q Mr. Secretary, getting back to my original question, the suicide bombing was at an Awakening council in Anbar province. Now, I know that many troops from Anbar have been moved elsewhere in the country to fight al Qaeda, that security is now largely a police responsibility. Does this possibly indicate a problem, with having police in charge of Anbar?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think there's -- I think there also is significant Iraqi army presence there, and we still have a considerable presence. General Petraeus has said all along we are going to have tough weeks. We are having a couple of tough weeks right now. And you are not going to be able to stop every one of these bombers. That's just the fact of life. But the -- I think there's no arguing with the overall security situation improvement, including in Anbar.

So, you know, this is still -- we still face determined adversaries in Iraq.

And they are adversaries not only of the United States, but also of the Iraqi government. And so that's why we've got to keep at it.

Q Is there any indication, Mr. Secretary, or any concern, that the recent spate of attacks in Iraq might be part of a strategy to try and influence conditions on the ground, to make things worse in order to influence the United States election?

SEC. GATES: I haven't seen any intelligence that would suggest that.

Q Mr. Secretary, can you comment on the report that the United States has removed its nuclear weapons from Britain?

SEC. GATES: I haven't seen that report.

Q Is it true that nuclear weapons have been removed from Lakenheath?

SEC. GATES: I haven't gotten that question since I've been secretary of Defense, but I think I'm not supposed to talk about that. (Laughter.)

STAFF: We have time for maybe one or two more.

Q Could we go back to the tanker, perhaps? Following on from some of the earlier questions, have you at least got to the view that your office, the Department of Defense as a whole, should take over the running of this issue, of this contract, or will it remain in the hands of the Air Force?

SEC. GATES: The way forward is one of the issues that we are talking about. And we clearly need to have an approach that has the confidence of the Congress, and so we are looking at several options.

Q (To include ?) perhaps a greater role for you or for your office to ensure that?

SEC. GATES: I don't think that's appropriate, frankly. But we're looking at several options.

Q Do you think it should be re-bid, Mr. Secretary?

SEC. GATES: Haven't made any decisions on that.

Q Can we ask -- (off mike) -- talking about the political campaign. For the record, what is your guidance to this department and to the U.S. military about providing briefings and materials to Senators Obama and Senator McCain? As you probably know, that has come up, about whether there is a level playing field for both of them to get information from this department, since Senator McCain's a member of Armed Services.

SEC. GATES: Well, they're both -- they're both sitting United States senators. And we will be as responsive as we possibly can to requests for briefings from them in that capacity. The -- obviously, because of the way the Congress is organized, somebody like Senator McCain, who is the ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that can -- will have access to classified information and programs that not every senator has access to. That's the way the system works. That's the way the intelligence committees work, it's the way the foreign affairs committees work, and so on.

But frankly, I think that the kind of information that -- what I'm reading about -- Senator Obama has asked for, there's no problem in providing that information at all.

What I've heard is that he's asked for a briefing -- an operations briefing on Iraq and Afghanistan. We have no problem whatsoever providing that. And he's not going to get anything different on that than Senator McCain would get.

Q Do you expect that after the conventions, once they're our formal nominees, you will be briefing them any differently or providing them any additional information?

SEC. GATES: First of all, that's up to the president. I would tell you that in my previous life -- since at least, I think, the 1960s, the head of CIA, the DCI, has briefed -- and I suppose it would be the DNI now -- has briefed the candidates of both political parties. I briefed president -- candidate Clinton. I briefed candidate Dukakis in '92 and in '88. Whether the Defense Department has ever done any briefings for the candidates, I frankly just don't know the answer to that. But if the president asks us to provide briefings, obviously we will.

Q Sir, could I ask one more question? You were briefed yesterday by General Casey on the Future Combat System, the retinkering of the technologies. Does the Army plan now -- if it's successfully implemented -- meet your criteria for making this the Pentagon's second-largest weapons program relevant to today's conflicts and avoiding what you call war-itis, or next-war-itis.

SEC. GATES: I was very impressed by the briefing that I received with the restructured FCS program, and in part because it focuses on what they can do nearer term to help the infantry brigade combat teams and to get new technologies into their hands. I saw some of those technologies when I was at Fort Bliss. And so I was impressed with the briefing. And frankly, I think FCS, as they've restructured it, deserves support.

Q Thank you.

SEC. GATES: Thank you.


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