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Media Availability with Secretary Hagel Enroute to Israel

Press Conference

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Location: Unknown

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Hi.

TRAVELING MEDIA: Evening.

SEC. HAGEL: Good afternoon. Is everybody ready? Hi, Jim. Well, thank you. I know you'll have dinner soon, maybe even a cocktail, so I'll make a couple of very brief comments, and then we'll get to whatever what you want to talk about.

First, I read all the stories in most of the papers today about Boston. Appropriate that our country is focused on that tragedy. And I want to acknowledge that at the beginning of our conversation, because when an event like this occurs in a country, it is a societal issue. Yes, it's -- it's criminal, and we don't have all the facts yet. People were tragically murdered.

But it ripples across our society, and every American and every global citizen takes note of this. And I -- I say that because we're on our way to a very troubled region that we'll talk about here in a couple minutes. But it reminds us that every region over the world is not safe from these -- these terrible acts.

And if nothing else, it reminds us, again, that all seven billion of us are -- are global citizens, and many of us are confronted with the same kind of threats and insecurities. And if there's any one thing that should draw us together as a world, it is an event like this. And we're not the only country that obviously has had this happen, and there's terrible tragedies going on tonight everywhere.

So I say that first to, once again, remind us of this reality, remind us of the region we're going to and what's going on there. It does connect with the -- the human tragedy of these deeds, and also to, once again, extend my -- my prayers and thoughts -- and I do that, of course, on behalf of every man and woman in the Department of Defense -- to the people of Boston, especially the families who lost loved ones who are in hospitals tonight, and also to acknowledge the tremendous work of our law enforcement agencies and the people who work tirelessly to deal with this.

Second, let me begin with a couple comments about where we're going. Israel is my first stop, and you all have seen the schedule. I'm going to be in five countries. And I'm going to Israel first, because it is a nation that has -- has had a very special relationship with the United States. And it is a nation today in a very dangerous, combustible region of the world that in many ways finds itself isolated.

And it's very important for the people of Israel to know that the United States is committed to their security and that special relationship. President Obama's recent trip, I think, once again, reaffirmed that. I will be there for some specific business, as I will be in two of the other countries that I'll be visiting, but also to truly reaffirm the United States' commitment to the state of Israel.

The other countries that I'll be visiting are also allies of the United States. And the common threats that face Israel, that face Jordan, that face the other countries I will be visiting should be seen in a regional context. Each nation is different. Each nation is sovereign. Each has its own set of challenges. But overall, these are regional challenges. Brutal terrorism, the threat of non-state actors to destroy and bring down governments, impact societies.

And those common threats certainly should build a set of common interests with these countries working together, and that's part of what I will be talking about, as I visit each, recognizing each is in a separate situation. I think that was very much President Obama's message. As you all know, Secretary Kerry is in Turkey, and he will be talking about some of these same issues in a different kind of way, but essentially with the same focus of common interests.

So I say that as a bit of a preview to the next week, and you'll be there, and you'll see who I talk to and who I meet with, and we'll have opportunities along the way to talk about this.

So let me stop there and open it up to questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, back to your opening remarks about Boston. Have you seen or heard anything to indicate that there was any connection between the bombers and any organized militant or terrorist group or whether these bombings were at least inspired or even directed by a militant or terrorist group?

SEC. HAGEL: I have not seen any intelligence that would make such a link. But as you know, all of the facts are not in. All of the dynamics and intelligence is not complete. And until we know that, until we get more pieces, we won't be able to answer some of those questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, question for you about Israel and the Iranian nuclear threat. Last week in his testimony on the Hill, General Clapper said that, generally speaking, the U.S. and Israel are on the same page in terms of looking at the threat, implying that there are some -- some differences in how you view it. I'm wondering if you could elaborate on whether it's the timing of the -- Iran's development of a nuclear weapon or the implications from a possible use of military force, that areas in which you see it somewhat differently.

SEC. HAGEL: I don't know what General Clapper was referring to specifically, but I would answer your question this way. It is my belief -- and I think it's clear in what I've seen in this job the last two months, that Israel and the United States see the threat of Iran exactly the same as do many other countries, not just in the Middle East. So I don't think there's any daylight there.

When you break down into the specifics of -- of the timing of when and if Iran decides to pursue a nuclear weapon, there may well be some differences, but our -- generally -- and, again, I can't speak for General Clapper -- I believe our intelligence is -- is generally pretty close to each other, as well as other intelligence agencies.

But the bottom line is that Iran is a threat. It's a real threat. And the United States' policy has been very clear on this. And I think everyone knows it. As other nations, the -- the Iranians must be prevented from developing that capacity to build a nuclear weapon and deliver it. And you work out from there.

PRESS SECRETARY GEORGE LITTLE: (Inaudible).

Q: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. We were just talking about Iran. I wanted to know -- we've had some -- some of the statements by Israeli officials ahead of your trip talk about Israel maybe having to do a strike on Iran by itself. What is your view on that? Do you think that that's -- what do you think of the -- what are the implications of that?

Also, in the $10 billion deal that you're in part here to address, you have some items, including KC-135s, for the Israelis that would be offered. Obviously, that kind of a technology would be very useful for the Israelis if they were to do such a strike. So I wanted to get your views. Can they do it? What do you think of the idea of them doing it alone?

SEC. HAGEL: First, Israel is a sovereign nation, and every sovereign nation has the right to defend itself and protect itself. Israel will do that. It must do that. The United States will do that.

It is clear that, as I said, Iran presents a threat in its nuclear program. And Israel will make the decisions that Israel must make to protect itself and defend itself.

Q: Hi, Mr. Secretary. Craig Whitlock with the Post. As you know, Israel was a subject during your nomination confirmation hearings. And some of these groups that raised a ruckus about your nomination, there are all sorts of political reasons in that, and I'm not a political guy, so I won't get into that, but there was a perception I think on some of the groups that they said they were concerned you might be reluctant to take military action against Iran, whereas the Israelis might be more aggressive on that front. Would you say that that is the case? Is there anything to that? I mean, and how are you going to address that perception during your inaugural visit to Israel as secretary?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, I have always said, long before I arrived in this job, that in dealing with Iran, every option must be on the table. That's been my position as a senator. It was my position after I left the Senate. I have said many times, not only in my confirmation hearing, but elsewhere, that I fully strongly support the president's policy in dealing with Iran.

The president understands that, knows that. I doubt if the president would have asked me to do this job if there was any daylight.

The confirmation hearing was years ago. And I've said clearly my position is to fully support where the president is, his policy, and that means clearly the defense of Israel and, by the way, which has always been my position.

So I would hope that this trip will be a good opportunity to talk about that, if anyone wants to talk about it, but the fact is I'm the secretary of defense of the United States. I represent the president. My main responsibility is to give the president, based on the best advice I get from the senior leadership of our military, my best advice in the interests of our country and our allies, and I will do that.

Incidentally, when you tie this together, I started going to Israel in, I think, 1987 when I was president of the world USO. And contrary to some earlier reports before my confirmation hearing, I was the one that kept the Israeli Haifa USO open. And I've been back to Israel many times as a senator and other ways. I have friends in Israel. I've always supported Israel.

So I think the facts speak for themselves. And I look forward to actually renewing some old friendships there when I'm -- when I'm there for a couple of days, as well as once again articulating the absolute commitment the United States has to supporting Israel.

MR. LITTLE: Gopal?

Q: Gopal with Bloomberg News. Thanks for taking my question. I want to ask you about Syria. And the question is, Secretary Kerry is in Istanbul, like you said, and he is proposing to provide some non-lethal aid in the form of night-vision goggles and body armor and so on. It seems as if there's some reporting that there's a difference between how the State Department views assistance to Syria, and in your own testimony last week, you said you're still concerned, you're studying the options.

Is there a difference between how the State and Defense Departments see aid to Syria? And also, secondary to that, our allies, for example, Britain, more forward-leaning. Are they asking the U.S. to provide more military assistance to the opposition in Syria? Thank you.

SEC. HAGEL: On the question, is there a difference between State and Defense on options for supporting Syria, no. That's not what General Dempsey said, nor did I say that.

What Secretary Kerry is doing is exploring, at the direction of President Obama, new options for enhanced support, non-lethal support, and I support that. General Dempsey supports that. Those are options that are being discussed, should be discussed, explored. That's partly why Secretary Kerry is there, to talk to opposition leaders, both military and civilian. And -- and we'll have some opportunities to discuss that.

But I don't think there's any difference in -- in what we -- what we do. These are serious issues. They need serious attention.

As to the second part of your question, I can't speak for any other nation on -- on their commitments or what they think they should do to assist the opposition forces. We are working very closely with our allies in the region, as well as our NATO allies and -- and other allies.

I think there's very clear common interests that Assad must go. And what's particularly important is a Syria after Assad that is free, is democratic, gives all people rights, and I think that all our allies -- and certainly our country is very clear about that. Now, how we achieve that, how we get to that, what we do to assist, you know, there may be -- may be differences, but those are pretty minor.

Q: Thank you very much. I wanted to return to Iran for a second. I'm curious how you as defense secretary engage with the Israelis, because to be sure, as you said, Israel has the sovereign right to defend itself, but American policy also says there is still space and time for diplomacy and sanctions to work to prevent Iran from getting this capability. So how do you say, yes, good ally, you have the right, but, no, don't exercise it?

SEC. HAGEL: First, as I said, every nation, every sovereign nation has the right to defend itself. Now, that said, the United States respects that.

The issue of time, diplomacy, there can be differences. But again, I think it's important that we all keep our eye focused on the objective. And there's no daylight there at all, that Iran is prevented from acquiring that nuclear capacity.

I think the United States' course of action, as well as other nations' in the P5-plus-one and many others, working many tracks with Iran, the diplomatic track, the economic sanctions track. I mean, if you stop just for a moment and look at the U.N. sanctions, international sanctions on Iran, I don't know of an international regime of sanctions that have been more effective, have been more unified and tougher than what's being applied to Iran.

We know through many measurements that those sanctions are hurting Iran significantly. Now, does that assure that Iran is brought to a bargaining table or Iran would give up the possibility of achieving a goal of -- if that's their goal? And I'm not certain we know that, that that decision's been made alone, maybe not.

But I think we look at all the dynamics in play and use all the tracks. I've said, the president's said, all the leaders of the last couple of administrations have said that the military option is -- is one option that remains on the table, must remain on the table. So we've never taken an option off the table, but military options, I think most of us feel, should be the last option.

If that is an option that's required, then we'll have to make that decision, but I think it's our sense, the United States and many of our allies, that these other tracks do have some time to continue to try to influence the outcome in Iran.

There's an election coming up in June in Iran. No one can predict how that might affect the further direction of Iran in policy. So I think our policy is the correct policy. Certainly, Israel has every right and responsibility to make their own assessments, but we're working very closely and will continue to work very closely with Israel.

MR. LITTLE: (off mic) and then (inaudible) and then David, and we'll call it a day.

Q: (off mic) Pull that speaker back.

Q: First, on Iran, then Syria. On Iran, is the arms agreement -- the preliminary arms deal that we've heard about that you're going to be discussing in your trip, is -- is that a way to provide advanced weaponry to Israel, is that a way to make clear to Iran that the military option is very much on the table, that it hasn't faded? Is that -- is that how you see the purpose of that? And then I'll ask you about Syria.

SEC. HAGEL: I don't think there's any question that that's another very clear signal to Iran. But I think that signal and that reality and that policy has been very clear to Iran for some time. But this -- this new set of military capabilities to Israel is not new in the sense that it has been the policy of the United States to continue to enhance the military qualitative edge for Israel. And so this just continues that policy and -- and that dimension.

Q: Sorry. On Syria, as you know, Britain and France have informed the United Nations that they believe they have credible evidence that Syria is using chemical weapons, has used chemical weapons. Is this -- and the U.S. is obviously this seriously, these allegations. At what point does Syria's use of chemical weapons trigger a re-examination of U.S. policy -- (inaudible) -- advocating -- (inaudible) -- is the localized use of it in one or two cases, does that meet the threshold -- (inaudible) -- could you explain what might change the U.S. calculus?

SEC. HAGEL: First, as to your first part of your question, I think General Clapper addressed that in his hearing on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Our intelligence community is still assessing the facts and what -- what we need to know before we can determine whether chemical weapons were used by the Syrian government.

The president has said, continues to say that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a game-changer. And that continues to be the position of the administration. And our government's responsibility, in particular DOD and other agencies, is to make sure the president is equipped with every option for every contingency.

MR. LITTLE: Two questions, Tom and David, and then we'll go (off mic)

Q: Hi, sir. Tom Vanden Brook with USA Today. You said that Iran is a real threat, and I'm wondering if you could tell the American people what they should be concerned about.

SEC. HAGEL: I didn't hear the last (off mic)

Q: I'm just wondering, how concerned should the American people be about Iran, that there may be some military action that we would be committed to?

SEC. HAGEL: When I said that Iran is a real threat, it isn't just the potential of being a nuclear threat. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. That in itself is a threat to not just the region, but to our interests in -- in the region and around the world. When you further expand that threat to the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons, it becomes pretty clear the dimension of the threat.

So when I say it's a threat, the president says it's a threat, every past administration since 1979 has said that, it is for those reasons and more that it's a threat to our allies, clearly, in that region and to our interests, as well.

MR. LITTLE: All right. We'll wrap up with David.

Q: There's been some discussion in Washington about whether the suspect from Boston should be actually sent to Guantanamo Bay. Do you support that idea? Or does the administration have a view on that?

SEC. HAGEL: Well, first, we don't know all the facts. What these two brothers were up to, why, what motivated them, were they associated with foreign governments or non-state actors or global terrorist organizations, we just don't have the facts. And until we get the facts and -- it'll be the responsibility of law enforcement, DOJ, other institutions to make some determination as to how that individual should be treated, detained, charged, and all that goes with it. But right now, we just don't know enough about it.

MR. LITTLE: Thank you, everyone.

SEC. HAGEL: Thank you.

MR. LITTLE: On to dinner.

SEC. HAGEL: Yes, thank you. I'll see you in Israel.


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