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LEON PANETTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nice to be with you, Jake.
TAPPER: So, I want to get to some specifics in a moment. But before I do, just broadly speaking, in this era of terrorist threats, nonstop terrorist threats, as a former director of the CIA and the current secretary of defense, what is it like having this responsibility? How often does a terrifying message come on your desk about some threat, and you just think, oh my God?
PANETTA: Well, you don't get a hell of a lot of sleep, let's put it that way. There are a lot of challenges. You know, as director of the CIA, got an awful lot of intelligence about all the horrible things that could go on across the world. In this job, I get the same intelligence but I'm responsible for a lot of the operations dealing with those threats.
But I have probably the greatest strength of our country is the men and women in uniform that serve this country, put their lives on the line. And that's something that I get to see up close and I'm very proud of them and proud of what they do.
TAPPER: So, turning to Afghanistan, which might be one of the biggest challenges -- definitely one of the biggest challenges that the nation faces right now and you face. At the NATO summit, President Obama and the administration made it clear that the combat mission ends come midnight December 31, 2014. But the chairs of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees just returned from Afghanistan and they say that from their briefings there, they believe that the Taliban is actually stronger now than since the surge began.
Do we have a plan in place in case after the U.S. combat mission ends, Afghanistan or parts of it start falling to the Taliban?
PANETTA: Well the most important point is that we're not going anyplace. We're gonna, we have an enduring presence that will be in Afghanistan. We'll continue to work with them on counterterrorism. We'll continue to provide training, assistance, guidance. We'll continue to provide support.
We are making good progress. I mean, the Taliban, my view is that they have been weakened. We have not seen them able to conduct any kind of organized attack to regain any territory that they've lost. We've seen levels of violence going down. We've seen an Afghan army that is much more capable at providing security. We've seen transitions take place where we're beginning to transition. Now we're at about 50 percent of their population that's been transitioned to their control. We're going to be at 75 percent --
TAPPER: Right, but Secretary-
PANETTA: So, we're on the right track.
TAPPER: But you're not naive. I mean, there are problems with the Afghan forces, and you -- (crosstalk) the military is always planning for a worst-case scenario. I'm assuming there is some sort of plan just in case the residual forces left there are not enough.
PANETTA: Listen, we still have a fight on our hands. The American people need to know that. The world needs to know that we still have a fight on our hands. We're still dealing with the Taliban. Although they've been weakened, they are resilient. We have the concern about the safe haven in Pakistan, the fact that they can seek refuge in that safe haven, that's a concern. But we're on the right track. General Allen has laid out a plan that moves us in the direction of an Afghanistan that can truly govern and secure itself. And that is going to be our greatest safeguard to the potential of the Taliban ever coming back.
TAPPER: At the NATO summit in Chicago, General Allen who is the commander of the NATO alliance troops there, ISAF troops, provided a briefing. And he was asked about the so-called green on blue attacks--Afghan army, Afghan police forces attacking U.S. forces. And this was his response. I want to get your reaction.
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GENERAL ALLEN: There's a good news story here, and that is that the Afghans have arrested more than 160 individuals in the last several months that they believe could have been in the throes of planning for an attack on ISAF forces. So, the process is working.
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TAPPER: That does not seem like a good news story to me, that there are 160 Afghan security forces that were considered to be threats. That seems like a lot.
PANETTA: Well, as General Allen pointed out, we are making progress on that front. It is a concern. Of course it's a concern. It's the kind of thing that the Taliban would use to come at our forces. And it's an indication again that because they can't organize efforts to come at us, they're going to use this kind of tactic to try to frighten us.
And it's not going to work for several reasons. Number one, the Afghan army has put into place a very thorough effort to review those that are serving.
Secondly, our forces are going to be very vigilant as well in terms of how they operate to make sure that they watch their backs as we go through this process.
And, thirdly, I think overall, what we're seeing is the basic training that's going into the Afghan army is one that truly is testing the qualifications and quality of individuals that are going to be fighting on behalf of Afghanistan.
JAKE TAPPER: Mitt Romney's had this to say about the president's Afghan strategy and the date certain.
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FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You just scratch your head and say how can you be so misguided? And so naïve? His secretary of defense said that on a date certain, the middle of 2013, we're going to pull out our combat troops from Afghanistan. Why in the world do you go to the people that you're fighting with and tell them the day you're pulling out your troops?
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TAPPER: Now, first of all, there's a factual error that Mr. Romney made that I'm sure you want to correct, but the larger point about giving a date certain for the withdrawal or the end of the combat mission, could you address that as well after you correct him?
PANETTA: Well, Okay. You know, I think without getting into the campaign rhetoric of what he's asserting, I think you've got 50 nations in NATO that agree to a plan in Afghanistan. It's the Lisbon agreement, an agreement that, you know, others, President Bush, President Obama, everyone has agreed is the direction that we go in in Afghanistan.
What is that direction? It's to take us to a point where we draw down by the end of 2014. That is the plan that has been agreed to. And it's a plan that is working.
And very frankly, the only way to get this accomplished in terms of the transition that we have to go through is to be able to set the kind of timelines that have been set here in order to ensure that we fulfill the mission of an Afghanistan that governs and secures itself. That's what this is about.
TAPPER: You mentioned Pakistan just a minute ago. This week, the Pakistani doctor who helped the U.S. find bin Laden was sentenced to 33 years in prison by the Pakistan government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the arrest was unwarranted. Congress has proposed cutting aid to Pakistan by $33 million, $1 million for each year of his sentence. Realistically, is there anything that the U.S. can do to help this doctor?
It certainly seems like this is a shot across the bow, saying anyone who ever helps the United States, you know, the U.S. is not going to be there, and you're going to be held accountable by your own government.
PANETTA: It's - it is so difficult to understand and it's so disturbing that they would sentence this doctor to 33 years for helping in the search for the most notorious terrorist in our times. This doctor was not working against Pakistan.
He was working against Al Qaeda. And I hope that ultimately Pakistan understands that, because what they have done here, I think, you know, does not help in the effort to try to reestablish a relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
TAPPER: Secretary Panetta, can we call Pakistan an ally when they do something like this, when they sentence a doctor who helps the United States find bin Laden, who has killed more Muslims than I can count? How can we call them an ally when they sentence this guy to prison?
PANETTA: Well, Jake, this has been one of the most complicated relationships that we've had, working with Pakistan. You know, we have to continue to work at it. It is important. This is a country that has - that has nuclear weapons.
This is a country that still is critical in that region of the world. It's an up-and-down relationship. There have been periods where we've had good cooperation and they have worked with us.
And there have been periods where we've had conflict. But they're dealing with the terrorist threat just like we are.
So our responsibility here is to keep pushing them to understand how important it is for them to work with us to try to deal with the common threats we both face. And what they did with this doctor doesn't help in the effort to try to do that.
TAPPER: And you've been in the middle of a very difficult negotiation with the Pakistanis about the lines of transit through which we supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan by using Pakistan and they shut them down after that incident at the border in November. They initially charged about $250 per truck.
They are now trying to charge $5,000 per truck. We already give them -- the U.S. taxpayer already gives the Pakistanis billions of dollars a year. And now they're trying to charge $5,000 per truck. How high are you willing to go in this negotiation? Are you willing to pay more than $1,000 a truck?
PANETTA: We're going to pay a fair price. We're not going to -
TAPPER: What's that, a few hundred dollars per truck?
PANETTA: We're going to pay a fair price. They're negotiating what that price ought to be. You know, clearly we don't (inaudible) we're not about to get gouged in the price. We want a fair price.
TAPPER: Let's move to Yemen right now. We saw this past week a suicide bombing that killed 100 soldiers. The Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen has attempted at least twice to bring down a U.S. plane. You've said Al Qaeda in Yemen poses the greatest threat to the United States. But you've also said you will not send American troops into the country.
If this is the biggest threat to the U.S., why would we not try to play a bigger role?
PANETTA: Well, our whole effort there is aimed at going after those terrorists who threaten to attack our country.
We've been successful. We've gone after a number of key targets there. We'll continue to do that.
TAPPER: But I think, I think the question is whether or not the smaller counterterrorism is - approach to this is enough. What we're seeing in Yemen seems to be a possible nightmare scenario of a terrorist state. Let me just show you a map.
TAPPER: Our Martha Raddatz was there earlier this week, helped us put together this map. The portion shaded in red are territory in which Al Qaeda has a strong and significant presence. As you can see, that's most of the country, and they're starting to hold those territories. I know I'm not telling you anything you don't know, but can we really fight them without boots on the ground there?
PANETTA: The answer is yes, because very frankly, what we're targeting, the operations we're conducting, require the kind of capabilities that don't necessarily involve boots on the ground, but require the kind of capabilities that target those that we're after who are threats to the United States.
That's what this mission is about.
TAPPER: President Obama recently said that -- recently told John Brennan, his counterterrorism adviser at the White House that he wanted a little bit more transparency when it comes to drones, which are the - is one of the approaches that you're alluding to in Yemen.
And "The Times of London" reported last week that the civilian casualties in Yemen as a result of drone strikes have, quote, "emboldened Al Qaeda."
Is there not a serious risk that this approach to counterterrorism, because of its imprecision, because of its civilian casualties, is creating more enemy than it is killing?
PANETTA: First and foremost, I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal. Number two, what is our responsibility here? Our responsibility is to defend and protect the United States of America.
And using the operations that we have, using the systems that we have, using the weapons that we have, is absolutely essential to our ability to defend Americans. That's what counts, and that's what we're doing.
TAPPER: Let's turn now to Iran. Our diplomats were in Baghdad this week negotiating as part of the international coalition, trying to convince Iran to stop its suspected nuclear weapons program. But we recently saw an Iranian diplomat seemingly bragging to "The New York Times" about out-negotiating us.
Are they not just running out the clock? And are these negotiations once a month enough?
PANETTA: We begin with the fundamental premise here. The fundamental premise is that neither the United States or the international community is going to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. We will do everything we can to prevent them from developing a weapon.
International community's been unified. We've put very tough sanctions on them as a result of that, and we are -- you know, we are prepared for any contingency in that part of the world. But our hope is that these matters can be resolved diplomatically.
TAPPER: The American Ambassador to Israel said a few days ago that the U.S. is quote "ready from a military perspective to carry out a strike on Iran." That's true?
PANETTA: One of the things that we do at the Defense Department, Jake, is plan. And we have -- we have plans to be able to implement any contingency we have to in order to defend ourselves.
TAPPER: There's been a lot in the press in the last few days about the fact that the Obama administration cooperated with the filmmakers Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Boal, who are making this Bin Laden film. Can you assert that nothing inappropriate was shared with these filmmakers?
PANETTA: Yeah -- nothing inappropriate was shared with them, Jake. You know, we get inquires everyday from the entertainment industry. We get inquiries from people writing articles, from people writing books, people doing television shows. And the process that we've established is that you know, we will work with those individuals. We'll try to make sure that we give them accurate information so that the historic record is protected. But you know, we do not share anything that is inappropriate with anybody.
TAPPER: You were head of the CIA when bin Laden was captured. Now you're head of the Pentagon. There was an effort by the Obama campaign to talk more about the capture and killing of bin Laden. What is your take on this? Are you uncomfortable at all with what some have described as chest-thumping?
PANETTA: You know, I guess my view, having participated in that operation, is that it was something very special in terms of both the intelligence and military communities working together to go after bin Laden and doing it successfully. And whether you're Republicans, whether you're Democrats, whether you're Independents, I think this country ought to be proud of what our intelligence and military community did. And you know what, I'll let history be the judge as to whether or not that was a successful mission.
TAPPER: Well, obviously it was a successful mission but the politicization of it, that doesn't make you uncomfortable at all?
PANETTA: I would hope that both Republicans and Democrats would be justly proud of what was accomplished.
TAPPER: There are massive mandatory budget cuts heading your way -- I know you're more than aware of this -- if Congress doesn't come to an agreement on deficit reduction. You've said that defense cuts would lead to a hollow military but in a recent interview, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said this: "So now see the Republicans scrambling to do away with the cuts to defense that would be required by this agreement. I will not accept that. My people in the state of Nevada, and I think the country, have had enough of whacking all the programs. We've cut them to a bare bone and defense is going to have to bear their share of the burden." Is that language okay with you, that language from the Democratic leader of the Senate?
PANETTA: Well-- my view is that when you're facing the size deficits and debt that we're facing, that obviously defense has to play a role in trying to be able to achieve fiscal responsibility. We provided a budget that, we think, meets not only the goal of savings but also, more importantly, protects a strong national defense for this country. The thing that does concern me is the sequester which involves another $500 billion in defense cuts.
TAPPER: That's these automatic cuts I'm talking about.
PANETTA: These automatic cuts that would take place that I think would be disastrous in terms of our national defense. And I would say this.
I think what both Republicans and Democrats need to do and the leaders on both sides is to recognize that if sequester takes place, it would be disastrous for our national defense and very frankly for a lot of very important domestic programs. They have a responsibility to come together, find the money necessary to de-trigger sequester. That's what they ought to be working on now.
TAPPER: Lastly, several key members of the president's cabinet, Secretaries Clinton and Geithner most prominently, have said if there is a second Obama term, they will not be in it. Will you?
PANETTA: You know, one thing I've learned over 40 years is that when you have jobs in Washington, you do it day by day and that's what I'm doing as secretary of defense. And, I serve at the will of the president and that's what I intend to continue to do.
TAPPER: If there is a President Mitt Romney and he asks you to stay on as President Obama did with Secretary Gates, would you consider it?
PANETTA: I don't engage in hypotheticals.
TAPPER: Alright. Secretary Panetta, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate your time.
PANETTA: Thank you.
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