Interview with Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Interview with Defense Secretary Robert Gates

By John King, USA - May 10, 2010

KING: Robert Gates is the defense secretary and a rare breed. He has now served eight presidents, Democrats and Republicans, beginning with an entry level job at the Central Intelligence Agency including tenures as the CIA director and now the Pentagon chief in both the Bush and Obama administrations. He's a son of Kansas and counts Dwight Eisenhower as a role model, powerful but not pretentious. Gates is a Republican but says he very much enjoys his work and his relationship with this Democratic president. We had an extended one on one conversation this weekend at the Eisenhower presidential library. Among the topics his early lessons from the attempted car bombing in Times Square.


KING: What does it tell you about the diversity of the threat, if you will, the diversity of the challenge?

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think what we've seen is there are two developments that I think are of concern. You're seeing individuals who have been radicalized and who hold American citizenship who have been willing to undertake these missions against us. And it's pretty clear that they -- that people like Awlaki and Yemen and others see any kind of an attack inside the United States, even if it's a small scale attack, compared, say, to the world trade center, the towers, who see that as a success for them. So that makes the challenge for the FBI and the intelligence agencies and the department of justice and local police that much tougher. Because you may not have a big complex plot involving a lot of people that might be easier to detect.

So I think that kind of threat where the threat is actually -- the threat of large scale harm is reduced, but the likelihood of some kind of an attack being successful is increased. And I think that's a concern. The other concern we have really affects what's going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And that is the creation of this syndicate of terrorist organizations that are working with each other. Al Qaeda, the Taliban in Pakistan, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Haqqani network, there are five of six of these groups that are working together. A success for one is a success for all. They're looking at destabilizing the whole region and overthrowing not only the Afghan government, but the Pakistani government and so on. And so this problem has become more complex as these groups have gotten closer and cooperated operationally in a way that we hadn't really seen I think in a significant way before 2007, 2006.

KING: Has that changed your challenge and the challenges you present to your counterparts?

GATES: Where it actually has been helpful is that as Pakistan has seen these bombings on its own territory, it clearly has seen a greater incentive to go after these guys. And so the Pakistanis have sent a number of brigades to the western part of the country and frankly, 18 months ago, I wouldn't have believed that they would be active in South Waziristan and swat and these other places.

KING: What about in terms of the things you need to do up in that area? I know it's a sensitive subject. But there are Special Forces operations, the drone operations, do you need more of that?

GATES: I think we're doing what we need -- I would just say we're doing what we need to do.

KING: Grade the relationship now as opposed to, say if we're having this conversation a year ago, in a way that just the average American watching understands the tangible results they're getting.

GATES: Sure. On a scale of one to ten, I would have put the relationship at about a three two years ago. I think it's probably at a six or a seven now. I mean, there's been a significant improvement in the partnering and in the cooperation.

KING: How many Faisal Shahzads might there be in the United States? Any way to quantify that?

GATES: There's no way to know that. In the intelligence business we always used to divide everything we wanted to know into two categories, secrets and mysteries. Secrets were the things that were ultimately knowable. Mysteries were the dings you couldn't know. The number of those guys is unknowable.

KING: You gave great hope to a lot of people in the gay community in America when you embraced the president's promise of ending don't ask, don't tell. Now there's a bit of a backlash because of the letter you sent to Congress saying we need time, we need to survey our troops. You have to give us, until this survey is done, get feedback from the military, a lot of people thing you're trying to stall or push this off. Maybe you have some idea of delaying it till after the election. What do you say to those critics?

GATES: I know there are some that are suspicious that this is some kind of effort to slow roll this process. I've led several public institutions and I've led change in every one of them. There's a smart way to do change and there's a stupid way to do change. This one has to be done smart. And I think it's only fair as we get ready to make this change, that we give our force the opportunity to tell us how they feel about it, for us to find out their concerns, for us to identify the challenges we're going to face if Congress does change the law and how we will go about doing that and how we will mitigate negative consequences from what we hear from the force. I said this is not about whether, but about how, and that continues to be our position. Frankly, I believe to legislate before this review is done would send a very negative signal to men and women in uniform, that their views on this and how it should be done don't matter. And I think that's a very bad signal. I want to do this right. I want to do it in a way that makes as little impact on the readiness and capability of our forces as possible in the middle of two wars. So I really feel very strongly about this review process and about doing this change smart.

KING: Did the politics ever come up in the conversation with the president about this where he says, I got it, Bob, I understand, I completely respect the process you're going there and I suspect he thinks it's the right process, but he's getting hammered from the left on this. Has that ever come up at all?

GATES: No. And my position with everybody on this has been very clear from the very beginning, with the Congress, with the president and so on. I support this change, but it needs to be done in a way that has the least possible impact on our military.

KING: Another promise the president made that has been put on hold is closing Gitmo.

GATES: I think it is in the Congress' hands at this point. We have money a proposal in the budget that we've sent to the Congress to close Guantanamo and to fund the military part of another prison here in the U.S. and we're waiting for Congress at this point.

KING: Then if Congress doesn't give the money, then does Gitmo stay open indefinitely or is there some plan c?

GATES: I think we really haven't explored what the alternative would be if the Congress decided not to fund this.



John King, USA

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