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Gen. Dempsey's interview with Ted Koppel for "Rock Center"

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey, Washington, D.C.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Welcome back. They made history today at the Pentagon when two men sat down at a small table in front of a press corps and announced a policy change that will change the U.S. military forever. Women will be able to serve in front-line combat infantry units.

While this has been happening by itself and over the course of the last decade in our two wars, this officially opens up a ton of jobs and new pathways to leadership for women.

About those two men, one of them was out-going Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the other was a decorated veteran, Bronze Star recipient, four-star Army general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is General Martin Dempsey and days before the big announcement at the Pentagon, Ted Koppel sat down with him for our broadcast tonight.

GENERAL MARTIN E. DEMPSEY (at 24 JAN press briefing): We all wear the same uniform, and we all fire the same weapons. And most importantly, we all take the same oath.

TED KOPPEL: And with that, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the out-going Secretary of Defense signed an order rescinding a 1994 rule that bars women from direct ground combat.

Tonight, we’re going to tell you a little about this low-key, low-profile, four-star general. Today, he made history, but when the occasion calls for it, he’s not above poking a little fun at himself.

DEMPSEY (Coast Guard Foundation Gala): At some point, you will pick up the chorus, and I will point to you, and you—you better deliver because [laughter from crowd] I’m the Chairman.

KOPPEL: They used to call Sinatra, “Chairman of the Board”

DEMPSEY: [Singing “My Kind of Team”]

KOPPEL: This guy is no Sinatra, but he is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Right there at the front of the war novel, “Billy Lynn’s long Halftime Walk”, and it is a terrific book, applaud from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: “Worth reading” – General William Dempsey, except his name is Martin Dempsey, not William, and until I brought it to the publisher’s attention, no one had noticed.

It probably wouldn’t have happened to Omar Bradley or Colin Powell, but General Dempsey is little known outside the military. Married, one son, two daughters, all of whom have served in the Army, General Martin Dempsey is the highest-ranking officer in the Armed Forces and principal military advisor to the President.

DEMPSEY (in his office): This is a card of each soldier who …

KOPPEL: On his desk at the Pentagon is a small wooden box with what looks like a collection of baseball cards.

DEMPSEY: And so I’ll pull a handful of them out of this box and cycle them into my money clip.

KOPPEL: These are young soldiers who died while General Dempsey was commanding U.S. forces in Baghdad.

DEMPSEY: But from time to time, if I forget why we’re doing what we do, then I’ll just reach in—some people won’t even know I’m doing it—I’ll just reach into my pocket and make sure I still got my cards.

KOPPEL: Which part of the world do you worry about the most right now?

DEMPSEY: You know, there’s kind of a near term, long term aspect to that—

KOPPEL: Near term.

DEMPSEY: I think near term it is, it continues to be the threat of global terrorism. You know, we track a global terrorist network that is not uniquely al Qaeda, but is affiliated at some level with al Qaeda. What we’ve had to do as a response is that we have become a network. To defeat a network, we’ve had to become a network.

KOPPEL: So what does that mean?

DEMPSEY: Well, it means that you’re not going to see these broad, sweeping movements across the desert of eastern Iraq in a Hail Mary, you know, Right-Hand Cross, whatever it was called in 1991. You’re going to see smaller groups of military formations confronting this distributed enemy across a much wider scope.

KOPPEL: That’s a major change. No more massive troop deployments. Lots of smaller, covert insertions. Think Joint Special Operations, Rangers, Green Berets, SEALs. Think paramilitary-CIA operatives and civilian contractors with military backgrounds. Think unarmed surveillance drones and their killer cousin, the Predator with its Hellfire missiles. Above all, think of doing more with less visibility and dispersed over a far wider battlefield.

On numerous occasions in the past and again in his inaugural address, the President chose a different emphasis.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (at the 2013 inauguration): This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending.

KOPPEL: You tell me we’re not going to be done.

DEMPSEY: Well, I’ll tell you what the language that I’ve actually taken to heart, which is by the end of 2014, our war in Afghanistan will be complete, but no one has ever suggested that that will end the war.

KOPPEL: Is it a mistake to give Americans the sense that Afghanistan is a century over; we can stop worrying about Afghanistan?

DEMPSEY: I think it’d be a mistake to give the American people a sense that al Qaeda is defeated. Wherever we happen to find them. And I think that it’s—it’s fair to say that there will be a part of the al Qaeda threat emanating from both western Pakistan and potentially Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

KOPPEL: We have capabilities today that make us sort of comfortable with the use of drones, but imagine if some other entity had the capability of using drones against the United States. Are we prepared for that as a nation, I mean?

DEMPSEY: Yeah, I think we are prepared for that and I think it’s—it’s an inevitability.

KOPPEL: There’s another kind of warfare already being waged. Remember what Hurricane Sandy did to the power grid in lower Manhattan? A cyber attack would be even more devastating.

There have been instances of our using cyber warfare—and when I say ‘our using it’, the United States, Israel—against Iran. There are also examples of the Iranians using it against us.

DEMPSEY: There are reports that destructive cyber tools have been used against Iran. I’m not—I’m neither confirming nor denying any—any part in that. What that should tell you is that that capability exists. And if it exists—it doesn’t—whoever’s using those can’t assume that they’re the only smart people in the world.

KOPPEL: So if we, hypothetically speaking, are using it against the Iranians, we’d have to assume the Iranians would use it against us.

DEMPSEY: I would—that’s a valid assumption. Let me confirm that there is disruption, and this is a phrase that may not be common knowledge, but disruptive denial of services—where you overwhelm a website in order to impede people who’d normally use it from using it. It is literally disruption. That happens.

KOPPEL: What happens when that occurs?

DEMPSEY: It literally shuts the network down.

KOPPEL: What kind of networks have been shut down?

DEMPSEY: There have been financial networks shut down, there have been industry networks shut down.

KOPPEL: If I were to say to you that the assumption is that both the Chinese and the Iranians were engaged in that kind of behavior, can you confirm that?

DEMPSEY: I would answer that by saying that the assumption is that both nation states, which is to say governments and individuals and groups, organizations, are engaged and trying to take advantage of vulnerabilities in cyber. That’s what makes cyber so worrisome.

KOPPEL: What is it you worry about?

DEMPSEY: Well, I worry about is that that same capability could be used to implant a destructive device that could cause significant harm to the industrial base, whether it’s critical infrastructure, or the financial network.

KOPPEL: All of which makes the recent press frenzy over David Petraeus and marital infidelity less of an issue. To my surprise though, General Dempsey doesn’t dismiss it that easily.

What is it that any commander would not have known beforehand or any man or woman serving under you would not have known beforehand that you’ve learned from this situation?

DEMPSEY: We had what I thought was a very healthy conversation about competence and character. And I think potentially over the last ten years, when you’re at war, you tend to value competence above all else, naturally. The nation’s wellbeing is hanging in the balance. So the first lesson would be—not that we’ve neglected the character side of this equation, but we’re probably at a point where we should re-emphasize it. Maybe we can’t see character from the top down, maybe we can see part of it, but maybe we need the impression, maybe we need the view of those looking from the bottom, up.

I’m actually more interested in what are the colonels—lieutenant colonels saying about the colonels. What are the colonels saying about the brigadiers. Competence will always be the most important thing. You can’t have a man of incredible—or a woman of incredible character who can’t deliver on the battlefield because at the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for. But character counts and it counts mightily.

WILLIAMS: Fascinating look at that character in the Pentagon. Our thanks to Ted Koppel for joining us with that tonight.