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Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and General Martin E. Dempsey, U.S. Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC


It's been an interesting few weeks since we last met, and I am sure you'll have some interesting questions, but before I do that, let me -- let me summarize some key points.

On Afghanistan, last week we held extensive consultations with Afghan Minister of Defense Wardak and Minister of Interior Mohammadi. With the two MOUs that we signed on detention operations and special operations, I believe this relationship is on the right path. And we are continuing to make progress on the strategic partnership agreement as well.

There will be challenges, continuing challenges, as we saw over the weekend, but our partnership remains strong, the Afghans are providing greater security, and the strategy that General Allen has put in place is succeeding.

On the Middle East, we hosted Prince Salman, the Saudi minister of defense. We had a productive discussion on security challenges emanating from the Middle East, where Iran's nuclear program remains a pressing concern and where in Syria, the Assad regime's violence is increasingly intolerable. And obviously, they continue to raise questions about their adherence to the cease-fire agreement.

On North Korea, we have been in very close contact with our counterparts in South Korea and Japan as we monitored the provocative, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt by the North Korean government to conduct a missile launch. We will continue to be fully prepared for any future provocations should they occur. We hope that won't be the case, but we continue to be prepared in the event that that happens.

On NATO, I'm leaving tomorrow morning for a joint NATO ministerial with Secretary Clinton in Brussels, the last high-level meeting that will take place before the Chicago summit in May. We're at a pivotal point for the alliance as we build on the gains that have been made in Afghanistan and try to chart the course for the future in that -- in that area.

We'll also be working to ensure that NATO itself has the right military capabilities that will be needed for the future in order for NATO to assume the responsibilities that it must as we proceed.

But even as we deal with these global security challenges, we have another great challenge here at home, which is working with the Congress to implement our new defense strategy. Let me just give you a quick update on where I think things stand at this point.

Since the president's budget request was released on February 13th, the budget and strategy that we've developed have been subject to intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Chairman Dempsey and I went up to the Hill to testify five times before the key committees as many of you know. But there have been more than 50 additional congressional hearings with the service secretaries, the service chiefs, the combatant commanders and other senior civilian and military leaders. A lot of tough questions were asked, but I believe that both our strategy and our budget proposals have held up very well under this very intense scrutiny. As a result, we continue to strongly believe that this is the right strategy and the right budget to meet our responsibilities to a strong national security and to tough fiscal requirements.

Military and civilian leaders here at the department all stand unified behind our strategy and our budget because, I think, we believe we've developed that strategy and the budget together as a team. In a word, the key elements of the strategy -- I think they're familiar with -- to all of you -- but let me just quickly summarize those key points.

First, the force will be smaller and leaner, but it must be agile and flexible and deployable and technologically advanced. Second, we will rebalance our global posture, emphasizing the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. Third, we'll strengthen key alliances and partnerships through rotational deployments and other innovative ways to sustain our presence elsewhere.

Fourth, we'll ensure our military can confront aggression and defeat any opponent anytime, anywhere. And lastly, we will protect investments in new technologies such as ISR, space, cyberspace, global strike, special ops and the capacity to quickly mobilize.

Of course, in the end, it's up to Congress. In the coming weeks they will begin considering the defense authorization and appropriations bills. Our hope is that Congress will carefully consider the new defense strategy and the budget decisions that resulted from that strategy.

The key is that this is a zero-sum game. Because of the Budget Control Act, any change in any one area of the budget and force structure will inevitably require offsetting changes elsewhere. And that carries the real risk that this is -- if this is not done right, the result could be a hollow, unbalanced or weaker force. Our hope is that our strategy will not be picked apart piece by piece.

If, for example, we're prevented from carrying out all of the six major weapons terminations that we have proposed, the result will be a need to find as much as $9.6 billion in savings from other areas over five years. And that could mean less money to buy high-priority ships or acquire the next-generation aircraft. If Congress rejects all of the modest changes we've proposed in TRICARE fees and copays for retirees, than almost $13 billion in savings over the next five years will have to be found in other areas such as readiness, or we could be forced to further reduce our troop strength.

So the message we wanted to send Congress today is that there is very little margin for error with this package. That's the reality that all of us are living with. The strategy we developed will maintain, we believe, the strongest military in the world by every measure, and that's essential because of the nature of the security challenges that we're facing.

I believe we're at a critical point in our nation's history. We need to rise to meet the challenges that are facing us in this dangerous and uncertain world, and we can't afford to have the Congress resort to bitter partisanship or parochialism at this critical time.

We owe it to the American people to ensure that the right decisions are made to protect our nation and our national security from the full scope of modern threats, including the threat of our debt and our deficits.

Above all, we owe it to the American people to find a way to avoid sequester. The clock is ticking. It's been 121 days since the supercommittee failed, and Congress has yet to find a way to avoid the threat of sequester.

I still remain optimistic that we can hopefully find a way to avoid this disaster. But it's going to take Congress and all of us working together to find consensus and provide strong bipartisan leadership to protect our economy, our quality of life and our national security.

That's what the American people expect of their leaders. It's what we at the Department of Defense have made in an -- in an -- in the effort to do this with the defense strategy that we put in place for the future.

And let me just close by noting that in the spirit of that partnership between DOD and Congress, General Dempsey and I will be meeting tonight with members of Congress, the Caucus on Women in the Military and the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, to discuss the next series of steps that the department will be taking with regards to sexual assault.

As I've said before, sexual assault has no place in the military, and we have made it a top priority to combat this crime. We will continue to develop our strategies; we'll continue to devote our energy and our intention to enforcing our department's zero tolerance policy on sexual assault, and building a zero tolerance culture in the military for sexual assault.

My goal is to do everything possible -- I think our goal has been to do everything possible to open up the military to everyone who wants to serve this country. To do that, we must effectively deal with this kind of threat.


GENERAL MARTIN E. DEMPSEY: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.

Good afternoon. Secretary Panetta rightly observes that the past several weeks have been pretty remarkable, actually. These last seven days alone remind us yet again that we live in an extraordinarily complex and increasingly competitive world.

In fact, today we face a security paradox: a time that may appear, on the surface, to be less dangerous but that underneath the surface is actually more dangerous. Levels of violence are by some accounts at an evolutionary low point. But destructive technologies are also proliferating down and out, to groups and individuals as well as formerly middleweight powers. As a consequence, there simply are more actors with more potential to do us harm.

This is not a time for comfort or complacency, which is why our nation's senior civilian and military leaders came together last year to develop a new strategy.

The strategy affirms our solemn duty to protect our country and its citizens. It's informed by a security environment that is changing in unprecedented ways. It applies the lessons of a decade of war. And it calls for a joint force that is ready to deter and defeat any threat along the spectrum of conflict.

As I've mentioned before, the fiscal year '13 budget is an essential first step toward Joint Force 2020. Our strategy and the budget constitute a carefully balanced set of choices. The decisions we made are not about doing more with less, or certainly not less with less. They are about making sure we have the right talent and the right tools to keep America immune from coercion. Put another way, we updated our strategy to responsibly meet the nation's security needs, nothing more and nothing less than that.

I'm confident that this approach honors our commitment to our military family and the American people.

Thank you, and we look forward to your questions.

Q: Mr. Secretary, I'd like to ask both of you about the multipronged attacks in Afghanistan yesterday. Is it your assessment at this point that these attacks were organized and led by the Haqqani network? And if so, what does it say about the severity of the threat posed by the Haqqanis and about the inability of the Pakistani government to crack down on the Haqqanis?

SEC. PANETTA: The intelligence indicates that the Haqqanis were behind the attacks that took place. And we had received a great deal of intelligence indicating that the Haqqanis were planning these kinds of attacks. And obviously, we're always concerned about the attacks that take place. They reflect that the Taliban is resilient, that they remain determined.

And yet I think we're also confident that the Afghans have increased their capability to deal with these kinds of attacks.

There were no tactical gains here. These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory. They haven't been able to really conduct an organized attack since last year. And what it told us -- and I think General Allen pointed this out -- is that it confirms that the Afghan army and police did a great job of reacting to these attacks. They quickly restored order, they quickly restored security in those areas, and it gave us an indication that they really are improving in terms of their capability to provide security. Having said all of that, this is clearly the beginning of the spring offensive that the Taliban engages in, and we are, I think, fully confident that, combined with the Afghan army, we can confront that threat.

GEN. DEMPSEY: And I'll just add, Bob, that though the evidence leads us to believe that the Haqqani network was involved in this, it doesn't lead back into Pakistan at this time. The threat -- you know, the Haqqani network exists on both sides of the border. So I'm -- we're not prepared to suggest this emanated out of Pakistan. I mean, the evidence may at some point lead us there, but we're not there yet.

Secondly, you know, you ask, what does it mean? It means we're still in a fight, and I don't -- I don't think any of us have ever suggested there wouldn't be fighting to -- still needing to be done. In fact, we've been talking quite openly about the fact that we've got three more fighting seasons with which to both build the ANSF and diminish the capability of the Taliban and the associated movements.

Thirdly, as the secretary said, we did have intel. But it -- we weren't trying to protect a discrete moment like we were at the loya jirga.

And if you remember, when President Karzai called for the loya jirga, the security was remarkable. I mean, there wasn't a single incident that occurred around that, even though the ANSF was completely in the lead in that regard. And so this is a little bigger challenge, though, when you have kind of intelligence that is vague about timing and you have to, you know, keep you guard up constantly.

And the last thing is -- and I've worked, as you know, with both the Iraqi security forces and the Afghan security forces. And I'll tell you, the Afghan security forces perform their duties admirably when attacked, even though it was on very short notice over the last 48 hours.

Q: (Off mic) -- I want to follow up on what you had to say about the Afghan ministers here last week, the defense minister and the interior minister. The interior minister told us that he received assurances from you about training assistance and equipment assistance after 2014. And I wonder if you could just expand on those assurances. What do you think the U.S. role and mission will look like after 2014?

SEC. PANETTA: Well, we're going to be discussing that in Brussels and Chicago. And obviously, we'll want to work closely with our ISAF partners to determine what that enduring presence will look like. But clearly, it's -- it -- you know, any future presence will focus on areas like counterterrorism and focus also on training assistance and advice, as we've provided and probably will continue to provide in the future.

Q: Do you assume there'll be hundreds if not thousands of U.S. soldiers still on the ground in 2014?

SEC. PANETTA: I don't -- I don't think we ought to comment on what we're assuming at this point, mainly because we really want to engage in serious consultation with our partners as to what that presence ought to look like.

Q: But there will be some U.S. presence, correct?

SEC. PANETTA: That's -- I think that'll be the case.

Q: Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey, I wanted to follow up with -- on the attacks over the weekend. These kind of attacks are -- amount to something like guerrilla warfare. Couldn't that in itself be effective enough to undermine the confidence of the Afghan people, to undermine the effort to try to stabilize Afghanistan in the long run and for the Afghan security forces to be able to deal with these attacks if you're -- you know, every few months you have an attack like this in a major population area?

SEC. PANETTA: Well, look, you know, it's -- I -- as General Dempsey pointed out, we are in a war, and we are going to confront this enemy in these kinds of attacks. But I don't think any of this detracts from the fundamental conclusion that 2011 was, I think, a clear turning point. We did seriously weaken the Taliban. They have not been able since that time to put together any organized attack to regain any territory that was lost.

The Afghan people themselves, particularly in these areas that were once dominated by the Taliban, are rejecting the Taliban, and that's a very good point.

The Afghan army and police are becoming much more capable at engaging in operations and providing security. We have successfully been transitioning areas to Afghan governance and security. We're in the process of completing the second tranche of areas.

That will represent 50 percent of the Afghan people will be under Afghan security and governance. When we complete the third tranche, hopefully this year, we'll have 75 percent of the Afghan people under governance -- Afghan governance and Afghan security.

So significant progress is being made here. At the same time as we've gone through that, we continue to experience IEDs. We continue to experience, you know, periodic attacks by the Taliban. We're going to continue to see suicide attacks. We're going to continue to see efforts by them to try to undermine confidence in Afghanistan that we're headed in the right direction.

It hasn't worked in the past. I don't think it'll work in the present, mainly because it is clear that we are headed in the right direction right now. And I think the Afghan people believe that.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, the only thing I'd add is, you know, it's never been our goal to drive attacks to zero and then hand over responsibility to the Afghan national security forces. The idea here has been to -- you know, to continue to assist them in becoming increasingly more and more capable of taking over the fight. And I think, you know, what you saw them -- how you saw them react today, with very, very -- or yesterday, with very little help from us, I think, is an indicator that that strategy is sound.

Q: Can you -- you said it required air power at the end to --

GEN. DEMPSEY: Not much. The French provided a couple of helicopters. We provided a couple of helicopters. But this was very much an Afghan show.

SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, over here.

Q: Mr. Secretary, when you have the kind of failed rocket launch we saw with North Korea, do you expect them to do something provocative to try to save face? And specifically, are you expecting a nuclear test in the weeks and months ahead?

SEC. PANETTA: You know, whether their launch was a success or a failure, the bottom line was that it was provocative and that they should not have taken that step because it violates the U.N. resolution and it was, you know, clearly something that they had been urged not to do by the international community.

They went ahead, did it; it failed. Our hope is that they will not engage in any further provocation. But I can assure you that we have -- we have taken all of the steps necessary to deal with any contingency. But, again, our hope is that they will not engage in provocation, but that they'll go back to the negotiating table and try to resolve these issues, as they should, on a diplomatic basis.

Q: (Off mic)

Q: Did you say a nuclear test?

Q: -- to detonate another nuclear warhead, as they've threatened to do or talked about doing?

SEC. PANETTA: I -- all we've ever -- I heard the same rumors you have. I haven't seen anything specifically.

Q: (Off mic) --

STAFF: Let me start here.

Q: We asked about sequestration. It was eight months ago, at your first press conference, you said you needed to better educate the Hill on -- to avoid the doomsday mechanism. Eight months later, there doesn't seem to be a lot of movement here. When does your optimism turn to just hard-eyed, cold -- this isn't going to work; we need to plan for it? And to both of you, what impact does the specter of sequestration have -- having on the defense industrial base, the contractors you depend on? You don't -- you don't talk much about that but -- (inaudible) --

SEC. PANETTA: Yeah -- (inaudible) --

Q: -- you need to plan for it.

SEC. PANETTA: -- I think, you know, the shadow of sequestration is there. And I don't think we're kidding anybody by saying that somehow, you know, it's not having some impact. Clearly in the -- you know, the industrial community is concerned about the potential for its impact. It continues to be a concern that we have as far as the possibility that that could happen.

But you know, I continue to urge the Congress. There isn't any member I've talked to that doesn't think that sequester is a disaster. There isn't any member who's said to me, you know, oh, it'll be great. All of them understand that it's the wrong way to go. And I just have to hope that ultimately, they will find the courage and leadership to be able to address that issue, de-trigger sequester, deal with the other challenges that are out there and try to do it as soon as possible because frankly, the longer this drags on, the more of an impact it has in terms of the planning process and in terms of the budget process. And frankly, even though we're not planning for sequester to take place because it is such a disastrous step if it occurs, it still has an impact within the department and outside the department for planning purposes.

Q: (Off mic) -- to talk a little bit --

GEN. DEMPSEY: Well, just if the past is prologue, you know, we were -- we confronted a new fiscal reality in late summer last year, and it took us every bit of energy we had to get from there to the budget submission in February. So I mean, I would anticipate that we would have to begin doing some planning in the mid to late summer if we have any chance at all of reacting to it should it trigger.

Q: Do you agree with that, Secretary Panetta? In mid to late summer you're going to have to start planning? Because that is not a strategy that --

SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, I would -- I would assume that OMB at that point would have to indicate, you know, to not just the Department of Defense, but to other agencies that we would have to begin to do some preliminary planning. Even though I think all of us believe that ultimately, this will not happen, we still have to take that precaution.


Q: General Dempsey, how embarrassed should the U.S. military be that members of the U.S. military were potentially involved in whatever went on in Colombia surrounding the president's visit?

How concerned are you about this?

And Mr. Secretary, a quick follow-up. You've made a very impassioned plea so many times about the budget and spending. With respect, are you thinking about adjusting your own travel schedule out to California, since you have racked up -- pardon me -- assumed a tab of about a million dollars in -- close to a million dollars in taxpayer money? Understanding you require security and communications, sir, nonetheless, the question being the cost that it is to the taxpayer.

GEN. DEMPSEY: We are embarrassed. I mean, I can -- I can't -- you said how embarrassed is the military. I can -- I can speak for myself and my fellow chiefs. We're embarrassed by what occurred in Colombia, though we're not sure exactly what it is, but what we do know is that we distracted -- that several of our members distracted the issue from what was a very important regional engagement for our president. So we let the boss down, because nobody's talking about what went on in Colombia other than this incident. So to that extent, we let him down.

The investigation's ongoing. It'll chart a path for us. And we'll hold those accountable if it turns out that they violated orders or policies or laws.

SEC. PANETTA: Let me just, on that, say that you know, whether our -- whether our forces are in Colombia or any other country, or here in this country, we expect them to abide by the highest standard of behavior. That's a requirement. And for that reason, we will -- we are conducting a full investigation into this matter.

The Southern Command under General Fraser is doing that. And hopefully, we will determine exactly what took place here. I don't want to prejudge it, but obviously, if violations are determined to have been the case, then these individuals will be held accountable, and that's as it should be.

With regards to the other question, as you know, for 40 years that I've been in this town, I've gone home because my wife and family are there and because, frankly, I think it's healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight.

But clearly, in this job, you know, I -- normally, I've flown home commercially; in this job, I'm obligated to be in touch with communications, and that -- I have to fly on a secure plane. I regret that it does -- you know, that it does add costs that the taxpayer has to pick up. The taxpayer would have to pick up those costs with any secretary of state -- or secretary of defense.

But having said that, I am trying to look at what are -- what are the alternatives here that I can look at that might possibly be able to save funds and at the same time be able to fulfill my responsibilities not only to my job, but to my family.

Q: Mr. Secretary --

GEN. DEMPSEY: Hey, let me -- Tony, let me help the boss here, because if I couldn't get a hold of him, we'd have a really different relationship. So I mean, there really is a legitimate reason for him to -- and by the way, he doesn't get much rest in California, based on the number of times I know that I'm in contact with him.

The other thing is I've noticed that he consistently finds another -- it's not just he flies from here to -- out to California. He'll go to visit Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines all in and around the United States. So it's not a -- out and back.

I'm -- you know, I just want you to know this is not about him just using that airplane to get himself back and forth to the West Coast every weekend.


Q: Secretary Panetta, why have you decided to make sexual assault a top priority at this time? And can you comment on the size of the problem and the urgency in finding better prevention strategies? And also, you mentioned building a zero-tolerance culture. In your opinion, is there a culture of tolerance now? And what do you think is responsible for that?

SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, I've been very concerned about the sexual assault issue because the reports we have indicate -- I think we just issued a report that indicates that there's about 3,000 reported incidents of sexual assault, but the fact is that there are a larger number of unreported incidents.

And I don't -- you know, I'm not kidding myself or anybody else. These are tough issues, tough to prove. But the reality is that when they take place and nothing happens, it really is the kind of indication that somehow, you know, we're not going to take the steps that we have to take when these criminal violations take place.

And for that reason, I think there's a series of steps -- we're going to discuss it with the Congress -- that we can take in order to make clear that we're going to go after that kind of violation, because, as I said, we're trying to open up -- the military should be available to all of those who want to serve this country, and if -- if sexual assault is one of those areas that is not being aggressively gone after and dealt with, then it sends a terrible signal to those that want to serve. And that's the reason I think General Dempsey and I want to move as aggressively as we feel necessary to deal with that issue.

STAFF: We'll take one or two more.

Q: General Dempsey, you mentioned you had advance intelligence about the attack yesterday.

Can you be a little more specific about that? Was the intelligence -- did it indicate multiple attacks around the country? Did it indicate attacks in Kabul? President Karzai has criticized NATO for not -- for the -- for failure to act on the intelligence. Can you respond to that?

GEN. DEMPSEY: Sure. Yeah, the -- there was intelligence suggesting that as the winter became the spring and the fighting season reopened on or about the 21st of March, you know, the beginning of the new year in some societies, that the Taliban wanted to make a statement that they were back. And so I mean, that was kind of one thread. And then the other thread was that the simultaneity of attacks across the country would, in their view, have -- you know, kind of attenuate or actually accent that. But there was no specificity regarding location or time. And so that's about as much as I can say about the intelligence.


Q: On the attacks and the Haqqani network, Admiral Mullen said last year that the -- that these Haqqanis were essentially -- or basically a virtual arm of the -- of the Pakistani intelligence. Is that still the case? Or are you saying since they didn't -- since they can't be traced back to them this time, has that changed? Have they distanced themselves?

SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, I think that there's no question that the Haqqanis have a base in Pakistan. But they also have, you know, moved across the border and have operated in enclaves in Afghanistan as well. But there is a concern that they continue to find safe haven back in Pakistan. And that's the kind of situation that has concerned us and that we have made very clear to the Pakistanis it's not tolerable.

GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, I have nothing to add. They've been -- you know, they've been in Pakistan for 20 years.


Q: Thank you. Thank you. I have a question on Syria.

Mr. Secretary, Mr. Chairman, as you may know, I mean, before your meeting with Prince Salman, Saudi Arabia and even Qatar have both expressed their intentions to arm the Syrian rebels. I would like to know from you what's the Pentagon's position in regards to this matter? And one more thing -- if President Assad keeps in his violence, what's next in Syria?

GEN. DEMPSEY: I think, you know --

SEC. PANETTA: It's something that General Dempsey and I have testified on the Hill, will testify on Thursday, with regards to Syria as well. I think our view has been that, first of all, with the thousands of lives that have been lost there, that the government of Syria has lost its legitimacy and that Assad must step down. I mean, we continue to take that position. At the same time, I think, we believe that we have to continue to work with the international community to keep putting pressure on Assad.

Sanctions have been applied. The international community continues to work to try to do everything possible to try to resolve that terrible situation. And the pressure is continuing, and other countries are applying pressure as well.

I think that's the clear course we ought to continue on. We continue to plan for all alternatives. We -- we're -- we continue to be prepared to respond, should the president ask us to take any additional steps. But, at the present time, this is a diplomatic issue and an international issue, and that's where it should be in terms of trying to resolve this issue.

STAFF: Thank you, everyone.

Q: Secretary, (one) --

STAFF: All right, we're all -- (off mic). Thank you.

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