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CNN "Erin Burnett Outfront" - Transcript

Interview

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LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Good to be with you, Erin.

BURNETT: I wanted to start by asking you about North Korea. I know, obviously, they've had failures with rocket launches and eight months ago they failed. Now they've had a success. And I'm wondering if you know how they fixed it or whether they might have had help from another country? PANETTA: We have no idea. As a matter of fact, we're still assessing just exactly what happened here to look at each of the stages and determine whether or not it really was a success or not. But, you know, the fact that they've launched this missile is a clear provocation.

We've warned them not do it. We've been very concerned about their firing this missile, in violation of every international standard and rule. And, you know, it's clear that have one of the reasons we're rebalancing in the pacific is to deal with the threat from North Korea and we will. We're prepared to do that. We will respond if we have to.

BURNETT: How will we respond? Does this mean they could hit the United States?

PANETTA: No, the fact is that we do have a very strong missile defense that would be able to guard against that kind of potential and --

BURNETT: So we would be able to stop it if it were coming in?

PANETTA: I'm very confident that we would be able to do that. Obviously, the hope is that we never have to face that kind of threat, and that's why we continue to warn them against this kind of provocation. Because, you know, frankly, it doesn't help the situation in Korea.

It just creates a greater provocation, not only towards the United States, but towards South Korea. And the result is that tensions increase there and it makes the concern about some kind of miscalculation that much greater.

BURNETT: And there was one thing you said. You said you weren't -- you were still determining whether it was a success or not. Is that still something that the U.S. is not sure about?

PANETTA: No, I think we still have to assess just exactly what happened here. Track, you know track, you know -- we had radar tracking the flight of that, to be able to analyze exactly what happened during the course of that flight, the various stages.

And then most importantly, the final stage, to determine really whether or not that did work effectively, or whether it tumbled into space. I mean, that's the issue that we need to assess.

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LEON PANETTA, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think there's a danger here, based on the intelligence that we got a few weeks ago, that, you know, they were, in fact, beginning to assemble these weapons and put them together. And when you do that, you know, that's a dangerous sign, that the next step is to use them. And so, that's why we issued this warnings we did, made very clear that there would be consequences.

And, you know, at least at this point, you know, the intelligence on this issue has kind of leveled off.

But my concern is this: that as the opposition continues to move against the regime, particularly as they move towards Damascus, that if the regime feels that it's in danger of collapsing, that it might very well resort to these kinds of weapons. That's what concerns me the most.

ERIN BURNETT, HOST, CNN'S "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT": You know, everyone has said, well, Syria is a chemical weapon superpower. I've heard that word, "superpower," used to describe them. Sarin gas, VX nerve agent, you know, we've heard about some of these things and what it can done.

But how good is our intelligence? How recent is our intelligence? How much do you really know about what Syria really has?

PANETTA: Well, we've been closely monitoring the situation with CBW for a long time, from the very beginning of this -- the war that's going on in Syria. Our -- one of our great concerns was the location of these CBW sites and whether they were secure and what was happening with them.

And we have been in very close collaboration with the adjoining countries -- Turkey, Jordan, Israel -- are all very concerned that CBW not fall into the wrong hands.

We are monitoring it as best we can. You know, there -- I can't say that this is 100 percent. But, you know, we usually have pretty good intelligence about some of the things that are happening.

But, this -- you know, let me put it this way: I think we would have pretty good intelligence if they made the decision to go get and try to use this.

BURNETT: And what would you do if they did? I mean, would that be something that would involve I mean, you know, Colonel Cedric Leighton, former joint chiefs, said to me that that would involve ground troops. You -- those would be a situation that the U.S. may have to consider that.

PANETTA: Well, I'm not going to go into the options because, obviously, the president would have to decide what steps we would take in that situation. And he made clear that there are going to be consequences.

We've obviously -- as we always do, developed plans that we can present to the president if that situation occurs, and then the president would have to make the decision what steps we would take to try to hopefully prevent that from happening.

BURNETT: So, troops -- you would give him an option of the ground troops. It would be his choice. But that would be among the ones --

PANETTA: Well, there would be -- I mean, there would be a series of options. As I said, I just don't want to go into the particulars of what they would be.

BURNETT: You know, President Obama has said, told ABC News, that the Syrian opposition is, quote-unquote, "legitimate" and had used that (ph), that he now president feels comfortable with that. But this comes in the same weeks, obviously, that you designated part of the opposition, one specific group, as a terrorist group.

How do you know, after so many months, saying we want to arm them or get involved because we don't know who they are, that now we seem to know so clearly?

PANETTA: Well, one of the things that we've made an effort to try to do is to be able to identify those elements of the opposition that we believe can represent the kind of leadership that ultimately can provide political transformation should the Assad regime go down as we expect that it will. And so, you know, over the last number of months, we've made an effort to identify who in the opposition represents that kind of leadership and to also identify those elements that we obviously don't support that involved al Qaeda or al Qaeda influence. That's what we identified yesterday.

And so, the effort now is to assure that the kind of opposition group that we support and that can bring a legitimate opposition together to transform government there is the one that we fully support.

BURNETT: It seems ironic and it has to be difficult for you -- I mean, since obviously you're supporting some groups, but there was an al Qaeda link group, supported group, that also wanted the same thing that the United States wants, getting rid of Bashar al Assad. And Libya was the same thing, al Qaeda wasn't able to get rid of Gadhafi and we helped them in that goal.

Does it -- is it strange that in a sense we're fighting for the same thing al Qaeda is?

PANETTA: Well, no. It's the nature of what's happening in the Middle East now. That as you have the Arab Spring occur, there are going to be very legitimate groups that want to be able to pursue a political transition to real democracy, to freedom, to all of the liberties and rights that we enjoy.

So, there are those groups, there are those that will try to take advantage of it. Extremist groups that will try to say, wait a minute, we don't want to head in that direction. We want to use this as an opportunity to basically promote extremism.

That is what happened in part of Libya. That's happening in Syria.

And our goal is to try to work with those that really want to pursue a legitimate political reform, to try to support them in their effort as opposed to try to, in any way, get al Qaeda to exert any kind of influence.

And it's tough. It's not easy.

BURNETT: Right.

PANETTA: There are extreme groups in these countries. But I think, deep down, people want to enjoy the kind of rights and freedoms that we have in this country. And I think, ultimately, that will prevail.

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