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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 of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen November 19, 2009

DoD News Briefing with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mullen from the Pentagon, Arlington, Va.

SEC. GATES: Good afternoon. I have a short statement about the Department of Defense review process relating to the Fort Hood shootings.

At the outset, I should tell you that we will not discuss any details of the ongoing criminal investigation. That inquiry, and any related military justice proceeding, must by law be carried to completion without outside interference, and must be conducted in a fair and impartial manner.

Furthermore, during this time, senior DOD leaders, both civilian and military, must be careful to avoid statements or actions that could be perceived as attempts to influence that process. I urge other senior leaders to be mindful of this, and urge those with firsthand knowledge of the facts to refrain from comment unless expressly authorized.

The shootings at Fort Hood raise a number of troubling questions that demand complete but prompt answers. As you know, the president ordered a government-wide review to look at all intelligence related to this matter, how such intelligence was handled, shared and acted on within and between individual departments and agencies.

An initial response on that review is due back November 30th.

Today, I am announcing that the Department of Defense will conduct a separate review to ensure the safety and health of DOD employees and their families. We do not enter this process with any preconceived notions.

However it is prudent to determine immediately whether there are internal weaknesses or procedural shortcomings, in the department, that could make us vulnerable in the future. To this end, I've ordered a 45-day review with three areas of emphasis.

First, to find possible gaps or deficiencies in Defense Department programs, processes and procedures for identifying service members who could potentially pose credible threats to others.

Second, to assess among other issues personnel reliability programs, medical screening programs, service member release and discharge policies and procedures, pre-and-post-deployment health assessment programs, periodic counseling sessions and procedures on the reporting and handling of adverse service member information.

And third and finally, to examine the sufficiency of both the department's domestic physical security programs, at Department of Defense facilities, and its emergency response capabilities for mass casualty events at our facilities.

Former Army Secretary Togo West and former Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Vern Clark have agreed to head this 45-day review. And I thank them for their public service and their contribution in what will be an intense effort.

Both are intimately familiar with the department and devoted to the safety of Defense Department employees and their families. And I know that they will conduct a serious, thorough and honest assessment.

As part of this review, each service will appoint a senior official to work with Secretary West and Admiral Clark, on service-specific issues. In light of the Fort Hood incident and unique challenges, the Army will conduct a more in-depth, detailed assessment whether Army programs, policies and procedures reasonably could have prevented the shooting.

Those findings will be submitted as part of the Army's contribution to the departmental review.

This initial review is by no means the end of the process; rather, it is just the beginning. Its results will inform and largely shape a department-wide follow-on examination of any systemic institutional shortcomings, an examination I expect to be completed within four to six months.

This more in-depth review will entail each service selecting an investigative panel. These panels will in turn report their findings to a DOD-level panel which will assess the findings and identify needed changes in policy and procedure, as well as areas where additional resources are required. Among other issues, this review will cover topics such as service member support programs, care for victims and families of mass causality events, how we assess and sustain the performance of healthcare providers, and overall stress on the troops and their families.

In all of these, I promise the Department of Defense's full and open disclosure. There is nothing any of us can say to ease the pain for the wounded, the families of the fallen, and the members of the Fort Hood community touched by this incident, pain I saw vividly and firsthand yesterday in Mountain City, Tennessee. All that is left for us to do is everything in our power to prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.


Q Secretary, do you believe that there were management failures at the Army from what you know now? What should happen as a result if you do believe that? And does the fact that you're launching a department-wide review indicate a lack of faith in the Army to investigate itself?

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, the latter is not at all the case. I think -- I think the Army has every capability to investigate itself. But all of the services potentially have some of the same problems that the Army's trying to deal with.

And that's why -- and, for example, let's just say the security of our facilities: that's not limited just to the Army. So I'm -- I have -- I have every confidence in the Army's ability to do this. But I think it's important that we look at it from a departmental-wide perspective.

I have -- I have not seen -- I mean, the whole purpose of what I've just laid out is to answer the first question that you've asked, to determine whether in fact there were lapses or problems. But more importantly -- and it's really focused more on where we are today and looking ahead -- what can we do to prevent something like this from happening again?

I don't know if you want to add anything to that.

ADM. MULLEN: No, that's all right.

Q One of your three items you said you wanted to look into was whether you could identify service members -- if the department could identify service members who could do this again. What are service members supposed to -- supposed to do when they suspect someone? Is this a call for the Army to -- sort of rat each other out, or to report to superiors? Because that seems what has happened with Major Hasan, with the report to -- by his superior at Walter Reed. What -- so what's supposed to happen next?

SEC. GATES: Well, as you've indicated, I mean, that's one of the three areas that I -- that I'm asking the -- this panel to look into -- Admiral Clark and Secretary West -- is what are those procedures, and do they need improvement.

Q There is one detail of the investigation that, since it's already on the record, I'll ask you about. Yesterday, Attorney General Holder said he was disturbed by information that Hasan had e-mail communications with Anwar al-Awlaki. And I wonder if you were also disturbed by that.

SEC. GATES: I'm going to wait before I draw -- it's -- yes, it's disturbing. But before I draw any conclusions about it, I want to find out all the facts.

Q Sir, what is your advice to, say, an Army family right now, going in and out of Fort Hood or another base, that is now perhaps looking at their neighbors with suspicion? What are you telling them? What should they be watching for?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think that -- you know, I remember being on the outside of the government after 9/11, and the cautions that President Bush and others in the government exercised against identifying certain categories of people as -- as potentially suspicious.

And the thrust of their remarks was that, in a nation as diverse as the United States, the last thing we need to do is start pointing fingers at each other, particularly when there's no basis in fact for it. So until all the evidence is in, I think that the comments about how we treat each other still ought to apply. And I know this is an issue that's of concern to the services.

ADM. MULLEN: I would add to that, Kim, that it doesn't take this kind of direction to have leaders recognize the challenges that are associated with this. Every base, every unit, literally leaders have I think immediately grabbed this to look within, to kind of see where they are, and to look at what -- whether there's potential or not, and to reassure members and families that not only do we take it extremely seriously, we are looking at it, and to really come together in what is, you know, what was certainly a tragic, tragic incident, and a reminder of the times in which we live, and that leaders are in fact taking action, literally, before this guidance to ensure that it doesn't happen again.

SEC. GATES: Joe --

Q What is your message to the Muslim community in uniform? Because they're very -- they're caught by this incident.

ADM. MULLEN: My message to all those in uniform, including Muslims in uniform, is how much we appreciate their service, the difference that they make; that the -- I have, for my entire career, the diversity of our force is one of its greatest strengths; and that, not unlike what the secretary said, that no one should -- should draw any rapid conclusions. And we need to ensure that we treat everybody fairly -- I mean, before this incident and after this incident -- everybody fairly. And there are procedures that exist in all the services to look at our people and our programs, and evaluate ourselves routinely. And I am sure that leaders are doing that.


Q Will this review look specifically at the mental health ranks within the Army, where, you know, the allegation has been made that a shortage of mental-health professionals may have let unqualified people continue on rather than being drummed out. How specific to the case before us will this be versus a general look at personnel policy?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think they're going to -- as I've indicated here, they are going to look at how we deal with stress of our healthcare providers. And I would say that it shouldn't be limited only to mental healthcare providers.

You know, you talk to the -- you go to the hospitals, and you talk to the nurses and the doctors and those who care for these grievously wounded young men and women, and, I mean, their level of commitment -- and I can't imagine the burden on them of doing that all day, every day. And so I think one of the things, for their own benefit, if nothing else, is for us to take a look at how are we helping them deal with stress, given the circumstances that they face.

ADM. MULLEN: Can I -- I'd just add to that that clearly there is a shortfall, and it's across the department. It's about 20 percent or so. It's a little more significant in the Army, in terms of the statistics. And that is represented -- representative of the shortfall that we actually have.

In the country, we've recruited significant numbers in the last several years. We've increased the mental health providers for both members and families in the last several years, but we certainly haven't closed that gap.

SEC. GATES: And it gets harder as you get to more rural areas, in terms of finding the -- an adequate number of mental healthcare providers.

One of the things that we're looking at, for example, is whether the military medical education system can expand beyond -- how much it could expand beyond doctors and try and provide opportunities for the training of psychologists and counselors and so on. To -- in -- and we would pay for that in exchange for a period of commitment to serve and then go into the communities. Because one of the things that -- as the chairman has just implied, one of the things we're discovering as we go around trying to hire people all over the country is that there really is a national shortage of these folks.

Q Mr. Secretary, based on the facts that you have now, about Hasan and what happened that day, is it fair to characterize the shooting as a terrorist attack?

SEC. GATES: I'm just not going to go there. I -- as I said in the very first paragraph, I am first of all -- as the senior person in the departmental chain of command, I am the least able to render opinions on these kinds of issues. I'm going to wait until the facts are in. And we'll let the military justice system take care of it.

Q Do you think it's possible they'll draw a conclusion, to that end, as a result of the criminal investigation?

SEC. GATES: I have no idea.

Q One of the threats that's obviously being looked at is the issue of whether the intercepted e-mails should have been shared with the Pentagon earlier. Given your background in the intelligence world, how much of a concern is it, do you think? I mean, is that relationship -- as far as intelligence-sharing between civilian intelligence agencies and the Pentagon, is that what it should be?

SEC. GATES: Well, without reference to this case, I will tell you that the sharing of information, between the intelligence community and the Department of Defense and I would say law enforcement, is so far superior to what it was when I left government in 1993.

It's dramatically different and dramatically better. And so you know, one of the things everybody is looking at and, after all, the purpose of the president's requirement, in terms of looking at who had what intelligence when and shared it with whom, is to answer your question. And we won't know the answer to that until it's over.


Q Short of someone in the U.S. military making a direct, specific, public threat, when you're in the military, what is allowed and not allowed for someone who might be described as becoming self- radicalized? What are they allowed to do, in terms of making Internet or e-mail contact with people known to the U.S. government to be of a radical bent, to belong to certain groups which are not in line with U.S. government policy? What is allowed here?

ADM. MULLEN: Well, I think -- I mean, we all have private lives. And basically in any command, you typically are not overly involved unless -- in private -- in the private lives of people that serve, in the command, unless circumstances surface that there are some difficulties and challenges.

And leaders, mid-level NCOs in particular, are intimately -- oftentimes intimately involved with challenges that young -- that actually any people would have, across a wide spectrum of areas. And the expectation that leaders engage so is very much there.

So, as leaders become aware of something like this over time, you know, my -- not -- or something else -- my expectation is that that gets surfaced in the chain of command. And commanders, whether they're squad leaders right up through battalion commanders or ship commanding officers, are -- they routinely deal with these kind of things when they are -- when they are made known. The question is, how are they made known? And that varies depending on the kind of situation you're talking about.

Q So, Admiral, if you had a young sailor in your command making statements of a radical nature, what -- what would -- what would be the appropriate course of action?

ADM. MULLEN: My -- without trying to map it to the -- to the current incident, you know, my expectation is for -- you know, for any commander to -- certainly to be aware of those kinds of things, and then to take appropriate action; to certainly not sit idly by, but to address it. And there are a lot of different ways to address it. And you know, a single -- a single proclamation, if you will, doesn't, in and of itself, necessarily mean anything. You got to put it into the circumstances.

Q Let me ask you, what's your expectation of any sharing of information between the criminal investigation and this broad review you've laid out in terms of any patterns or any shortfalls they saw in the Hasan case that might not bear on the criminality aspect, but might show a systemic problem that your -- that your larger review should take a look at?

SEC. GATES: Well, clearly we are going to have to be careful as we put together the terms of reference and as we go forward to ensure that we don't do anything to complicate or jeopardize the criminal prosecution. And so we will have some very clear guidelines in terms of the information that we're seeking. But the information that we're seeking in this shorter review really is -- really can, I think, be almost entirely isolated from the criminal investigation because we're really looking at the whole rest of the country in terms of what are our security capabilities, what are our capabilities for responding to a mass casualty event. And that might not be -- that might not be an act of murder; it may -- it might be a natural disaster of some kind. How -- what are our policies and procedures? Going back to the first question, what are our policies and procedures in certain of these areas on how we deal with these certain kinds of problems.

So I think -- I think we can deal effectively with the questions that are being posed without creating difficulties for the criminal prosecution. But at the same time, there'll be some very clear guidelines.

Q Can I ask you -- we haven't talked to you since the -- this horrendous event, but what was your initial reaction when you heard this -- the -- heard of the shooting? And what are one or two of the unresolved questions in your mind as a citizen you'd like answers to?

SEC. GATES: Well, I mean, my reaction was, I'm sure, the same as almost everybody in the country. It was one of horror. And I would just answer the second part by saying the most important thing for us now is to find out what actually happened, put all the facts together and figure out a way where we can do everything possible so that nothing like this ever happens again.

Q Sir, I would like to ask you about your meeting on Tuesday with the Saudi Prince bin Sultan. Could you give us an update about that meeting? Did the prince deliver any request, any message? And what are your views about the conflict -- the current conflict in Yemen?

SEC. GATES: Well, we have a -- we obviously have a very close -- (coughs) -- excuse me – military to military relationship with the Saudis and an ongoing arms sales program with them. And I would just leave it at the fact that we reviewed the programs that are -- for which there are outstanding requests and those that the Saudis may be thinking about. We did discuss the situation in Yemen, and he -- the assistant secretary -- basically outlined for me the Saudi view of the situation there. I'd just leave it at that.


Q Just wanted to ask you about Iraq -- (coughs) -- excuse me -- about Iraq and the veto of the election law there in January. How does that impact the drawdown? And are you concerned by that -- the pace the drawdown might be impacted? And is the U.S. military basically in limbo waiting for Iraqi politicians to come (inaudible)?

SEC. GATES: No, I would say -- I would say that we have -- we are continuing to proceed on the assumption that the drawdown will take place as General Odierno has described it. Frankly, we were very heartened when the election law was passed. And we hope that the concerns that have been expressed can be resolved quickly and a -- and new legislation passed so that the election can take place within the constitutional framework, meaning before the end of January.

Q (inaudible) a push to slide things to the right (inaudible)?

SEC. GATES: I would say we've seen nothing at this point that would make that necessary.

Q Sir, on Afghanistan, are you in favor of setting a precise timeline for the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghan forces starting next year, as Gordon Brown and NATO secretary-general suggested?

SEC. GATES: Clearly, a very important part of the strategy in Afghanistan has to be the increase in the size of the Afghan national security forces and their training, and partnering with us. There is -- and central to the strategy is the ability to transfer responsibility for security, as soon as conditions warrant, to the Afghans themselves.

In my mind, I see this happening very much along the lines that we saw in Iraq, where we partner, then we pull back to a tactical overwatch situation, and then a strategic overwatch situation as the local security forces -- meaning Afghan or Iraqi -- take increasing responsibility. And I think, as happened in Iraq, that is more likely to happening in Afghanistan on a province-by-province or even district-by-district level.

But clearly there is a desire, I think, on the part of all of us to begin this process of transferring security responsibility as soon as possible. But it would be counterproductive to transfer that responsibility before the Afghans were ready and had the capacity to sustain the security when we turn it over. So I'm not -- I'm -- I am -- I think I would rather have those on the ground in Afghanistan make the judgment call about when a province or a district was ready to be turned over rather than a specific -- specific dates.

That said, my assumption would be that there will be some districts and some provinces where that handover could come relatively soon. But again, in terms of specific dates, I would leave that more to the folks on the ground.

I don't know if you want to add anything to that.

ADM. MULLEN: (Inaudible).

Q It sounds like 2010 seems pretty -- may be too early for you.

SEC. GATES: Well, I think -- I think it's -- I think it's too early to say. I'm -- you know, things turned pretty quickly in Iraq once they started to turn, so I think -- I think we just have to wait and see.

Q You expressed concern about the rate at which you can get forces and their equipment into Afghanistan, given the terrain. Can you give us some sense of how important it is to you that whatever is decided in the coming weeks will happen quickly? And are you confident that the stuff can get in there as fast as it needs to?

SEC. GATES: Well, let me make a couple of comments and then invite the chairman to comment.

First of all, the situation in Afghanistan is very different than the situation we faced in Iraq in the sense that we do not have the same kind of transportation access to Afghanistan that we did in Iraq, where we were able, over a five-month period or so, to bring in five brigade combat teams. So almost everything of consequence has to go in by air.

We are in the middle of major drawdowns in Iraq. We are replacing forces in Iraq. We are replacing forces in Afghanistan. And so the ability of the receiving end to receive significant quantities of equipment and people in a relatively short period of time is very different than the situation in Iraq. So that's the challenge we basically face in terms of just the logistics of the issue.

I think that -- first of all, let me -- let me be clear. We identified weeks ago the critical enablers that could be sent to Afghanistan before the end of the year. There were roughly 2,700, 2,800 of them. We have sent all of those in. So no critical medical or route clearance, counter-IED [improvised explosive device], ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] assets have been held up by this review process. And I anticipate that as soon as the president makes his decision, we can probably begin flowing some forces pretty quickly after that. But it is a bigger challenge than certainly was the -- was the case in Iraq.

ADM. MULLEN: We had, in Iraq, a place -- a staging base in Kuwait. We don't have that in Afghanistan, clearly, and we don't have the infrastructure in Afghanistan.

And I want to -- I want to give a plug to a bunch of unsung heroes here; that we oftentimes focus on, you know, the front end, the warfighters if you will, the combat troops per se, although everybody on the ground I also believe is in combat and in a combat zone. But those that oftentimes don't get credit are the logistics support. They are -- they've been magnificent.

And we've worked the potential Afghanistan challenge for weeks, and we think we have a way ahead. But as the secretary said, it's not going to be five brigades -- it's not going to be a brigade a month because of the infrastructure piece -- the ability to receive it, literally, in Afghanistan -- as well as all the other moving parts here that are moving in and out of the AOR.


Q Do you expect a decision next week? Do you expect a decision next week?

SEC. GATES: We'll have the decision when we have it.

Q Mr. Secretary, back on the Fort Hood review. You have a proven record of demanding accountability. Is one of the goals of this review to determine if, in fact, there was any kind of negligence? And in turn, would you demand accountability for that?

SEC. GATES: Well, I think that clearly part of what the Army -- as I indicated, the Army is going into this particularly at Fort Hood in great depth, and I would -- I would assume that if there are questions of accountability, that the Army would address those internally. But I think we'll just have to wait and see what their review surfaces before we go down that road.


Q Back on Afghanistan. There's been a lot of discussion about holding the Karzai government responsible for corruption and somehow leveraging troops against the corruption. Is there any -- do you think there's any merit, or is there any discussion about asking President Karzai to take steps to clean up corruption and then holding up troops until he does that, as they flow in?

SEC. GATES: My view -- my view on all of this is that improvements in governance in Afghanistan will be evolutionary. We are not going to go from a situation where we have a fair amount of dissatisfaction now to believing that these problems have been solved in two weeks or a month, or on the basis of a single speech.

And again, my personal view is that you do have to exercise what leverage you have, but the question is whether that -- whether that's applied on a province-by-province level, district-by-district, ministry-by-ministry. And this, I expect, will be a continuing dialogue between ourselves and the Afghans.

We're there to help them. But corruption and a lack of good government -- governance --are real impediments to the success of both the Afghan government and our own efforts. And so they clearly are an important element, as you've been reading from Secretary Clinton's comments and the president's and others.

Last question. Yeah.

Q Good. Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, do you have to file financial disclosure forms? Senator McCain says such disclosure should be required for retired generals who advise the military. Do you agree with that?

ADM. MULLEN: This refers, obviously, to the story that came out a couple days ago, Tom, I think, and I've read the story and subsequent reports with respect to that. And I think -- and the services are actually taking a look at this. And I think that's the proper purview for this, services and combatant commanders who actually do this.

Secondly, I think this is a group of individuals who provides incredibly valuable, seasoned, wise advice in many -- in many ways. But at the same time, I think we have to be terrific stewards of the taxpayers' money, and we have to be aware of any conflicts of interest or a perception of conflicts of interest.

So I think in that -- as the services look at this, we'll -- we'll come to an understanding of where we are and what we should do in the future. And I really wouldn't want to say anything else at this point on top of that.

SEC. GATES: Okay. Thank you all.

Q Mr. Secretary, do you want to discuss something about India?

SEC. GATES: Looking forward to seeing him.

Q Thank you.

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