SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: Good afternoon. Let me -- let me begin with some comments on the defense budget.
I have spent much of this week, including two hours this morning on Capitol Hill, dinner last night here at the Pentagon, reaching out to members of Congress and to senators to talk about where things stand as Congress begins to debate, mark up and consider the defense budget in earnest.
My message to congressional leaders remains the same. Congress passed the Budget Control Act. It requires a reduction of defense spending of $487 billion over the next 10 years.
As I've said, we do not have to choose between national security and fiscal security, but that does not mean that we do not have to make tough choices. We do. And defense should not be exempt from doing its share to reduce the deficit.
What that means is we have to make very difficult decisions -- difficult decisions that are tied to a strategy that achieves necessary and real savings, and at the same time protects the strongest military in the world.
As you know, the military and civilian leaders of this department -- service secretaries, service chiefs, combatant commanders -- spent months developing a new defense strategy to meet our national security priorities and address our future security challenges.
We then crafted a balanced plan that met the requirements of that strategy as well as met the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act. My concern is that if Congress now tries to reverse many of the tough decisions that we reached by adding several billion dollars to the president's budget request, then they risk not only potential gridlock, because it's not likely that the Senate will go along with what the House did, and if they did, they could force the kind of trade-offs that could jeopardize our national defense.
The Department of Defense -- and, I believe, the administration -- are not going to support additional funds that come at the expense of other critical national security priorities. And if members try to restore their favorite programs without regard to an overall strategy, the cuts will have to come from areas that could impact overall readiness.
There's no free lunch here. There is no free lunch here. Every dollar that is added will have to be offset by cuts in national security. And if for some reason they do not want to comply with the Budget Control Act, then they would certainly be adding to the deficit, which only puts our national security further at risk.
When Congress restores funds to protect particular constituencies that may not be critical to our national defense capabilities, then they risk upending the kind of careful balance that we've worked very hard to achieve, and it could harm our ability to pursue the high-priority investments that we think are essential to the force that we need for the 21st century.
Some examples -- I mean, if we're prevented from retiring aging ships and aircraft that no longer fit strategic requirements, then Congress would be forcing us to have to look elsewhere for these savings, areas like reducing modernization investments and burdening the services with excess force structure that would risk hollowing out the force.
If we're restricted from gradually drawing down the size of the ground forces in the years beyond 2013, Congress would be forcing us to reduce readiness. We would have to cut training; we'd have to cut equipment, all of that very needed to support the force. And again, it would guarantee a hollow force.
If we're limited in our ability to put military health care costs on a sustainable track, then Congress would be making all of this more difficult to invest in new technologies that we believe are critical to the force we need for the future.
I don't think any of us in the administration or on Capitol Hill want these outcomes. Therefore, I would strongly urge the Congress to work with us to reach a consensus about our defense priorities, recognizing the budget realities that we face, not the ones that some would like to pretend are not there.
I understand from my own experience that Congress has the right to question some of our decisions and to make changes. That right is inherent in the legislative process. But Congress also has the responsibility to make sure that we protect a strong national defense.
The bottom line is we cannot cut a half a trillion dollars from the defense budget and not cause some pain. But the price for that pain should be a 21st century force that can effectively defend our country in what remains a very dangerous world. We can do this, but we have to do this together.
Let me say another word about sequestration. Again, I'm grateful to the House for recognizing the importance of stopping sequestration. But by taking these funds from the poor, middle-class Americans, homeowners and other vulnerable parts of our American constituencies, the guaranteed results will be confrontation, gridlock and a greater likelihood of sequester.
Again, the key is to work together. Each side can stake out its political position. I understand that. But the fact is that nothing will happen without compromise from both sides.
Before wrapping up, let me just take a moment to announce that the president has nominated General Mark Welsh to succeed Air Force Chief of Staff Norty Schwartz upon his retirement this summer.
General Welsh is presently the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, where he is responsible for Air Force activities covering almost one-fifth of the globe, encompassing 51 countries in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. He's a command pilot who's flown more than 3,400 hours during the course of his career, and he's got a distinguished record that includes multiple combat missions during Operation Desert Storm.
I had the opportunity to work closely with General Welsh when I served as director of the CIA and he served as an associate director of the CIA for military affairs, a position where he functioned as a critical link between the military and intelligence communities. Over the course of our time working together, I developed a deep appreciation for his wisdom and his counsel. A former Air Force Academy commandant, I believe that he has the right leadership qualities and distinguished background to follow his extraordinary predecessor, General Schwartz.
I'll have the opportunity in coming months to pay a full and proper tribute to General Schwartz, but let me just say that I believe Norty has been a transformative leader in his nearly four years as Air Force chief of staff. He came into the role at a very challenging time, but because of his leadership, the Air Force, I think, is much stronger today. Under his watch, the Air Force has reinvigorated its stewardship of the nuclear enterprise, made important investments in the capabilities needed for the future, and excelled in a wide range of missions, from the operations over Libya to supporting our ground forces in Afghanistan with close air support and ISR.
I greatly appreciate his counsel, his guidance, his friendship and his dedication to the Air Force and to the United States of America.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.
Good afternoon, everyone. On this day in 1775, a small force of Green Mountain Boys led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold successfully attacked the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga, New York. At the same time, the Second Continental Congress was assembled in Philadelphia. Their task was daunting: field and fund an army for a war that was already under way.
As we sit here today, the 112th Congress has its own daunting task: debate and decide on a defense budget with a war under way and with increasingly complex security challenges ahead. I appreciate the difficulty of the decisions they face. Secretary Panetta and I face them as well, and so do the service chiefs and the combatant commanders.
We came together to prepare and submit a budget that we firmly believe is a responsible investment in America's security. Now we stand ready and willing to work with Congress to make sure our armed forces have what they need and no more than what we need to keep America immune from coercion. This means working together to preserve the balance that we built into the budget.
Keep in mind this is a budget for a joint force. It should not be thought of as just a set of separate service budgets, but as a comprehensive and carefully devised set of choices, choices that reflect the right mix among force structure modernization, readiness, pay and benefits. Different choices will produce a different balance.
So before giving us weapons we don't need or giving up on reforms that we do need, I would only ask to make sure it's the right choice, not just for our armed forces, but for the nation.
We all know that America's strength rests as much on the industry and the diversity of its people and economy as it does on the might of its military.
Now, speaking of the right choice for the nation, I'm pleased to join Secretary Panetta in applauding the nomination of Mark Welsh to be the 20th chief of staff of our United States Air Force. I know Mark well. I know about his courage in combat, his acumen in acquisition and his passion for developing future leaders.
Mark is ready to join the ranks of renowned airmen like Carl Spaatz, Curtis LeMay, David Jones and also his immediate predecessor, Norty Schwartz. Norty is the elder statesmen of our group of joint chiefs. I've been privileged to know him both as a fellow chief and as -- now as the chairman. In both positions, I counted on his wise and principled counsel.
But more importantly, the Air Force counted on his leadership at a critical juncture. He delivered, and as a consequence, the Air Force delivers for the country. There's much more to say about Norty in the days ahead, but for today I will simply say thank you. Thanks to him for being a trustworthy wingman. Thank him for being our nation's flight lead.
With that, I think Secretary Panetta is prepared to take all of your questions.
Q: Mr. Secretary, with your announcement, the department's announcement the other day that military trainers are being returned to Yemen, what is the prospect of even deeper U.S. military involvement in Yemen in coming months, whether it be air power or ground forces?
And if I may ask General Dempsey, what are we to make of these latest revelations of anti-Islamic course teachings at the Joint Forces Staff College? Is it -- does it in some way reflect a current -- a current of thinking among some in the military that the U.S. is or ought to be at war with Islam?
SEC. PANETTA: With regards to the Yemen question, as I've said time and time again, that we will go after al-Qaida wherever they are and wherever they try to hide. And one of the places that they clearly are located is Yemen. We've obviously -- the United States, both military and intelligence communities, have gone after al-Qaida, and we continue to go after al-Qaida.
The recent threat that concerned all Americans about the possibility of another effort to take down an American airliner has come out of -- out of Yemen. And it's for that reason that we will continue to take all of the steps necessary to try to go after those who would threaten our country and threaten our -- the safety of American people.
We have operations there. The Yemenis have actually been very cooperative in the operations that we have conducted there. And we will continue to work with them to go after the enemies that threaten the United States.
Q: Would you rule out using ground forces in Yemen at some point?
SEC. PANETTA: There -- yeah, there's no consideration of that. Our operations now are directed with the Yemenis going after al- Qaida.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, if I -- if I could contribute to that part of the question -- or that question as well. We -- you know, we've had a decades-long relationship -- security cooperation relationship with Yemen. We suspended it during the period of their civil unrest. And as President Hadi began to restore constitutional order to the situation, we're reappearing in terms of our building partner capacity.
But it is very much as the secretary described. It's trying to build their capacity, not use our own.
To your question about the issue at the Joint Forces Staff College, as you know, I've made an inquiry into a particular course that was brought to my attention by one of the students because he was concerned that it was objectionable and it was counter to our values, you know, our appreciation for religious freedom and cultural awareness. And the young man who brought it to my attention was absolutely right. It's totally objectionable.
And so we are looking at how that course was approved, what motivated the individual to adopt that -- it was an elective, but what motivated that elective for being part of the curriculum. And we are looking across the institutions that provide our professional military education now to make sure there's nothing like that out there.
It was just totally objectionable, against our values, and it wasn't academically sound. This wasn't about, you know, we're, you know, pushing back on liberal thought. This was just objectionable, academically irresponsible.
Q: (Inaudible) had a budget question. I want you to reconcile an apparent contradiction in your -- some of your remarks. For -- since you've been in office, you've said defense cannot be the sole burden -- bear the sole burden of fiscal -- of fiscal reductions, deficit reductions. You've said domestic discretionary spending has to take part of the burden. The -- right on the floor today, they are debating that very point. Democrats are complaining about the size and scope of the cuts in food stamps and other programs. You seem to agree with the opposition there, but yet they're doing -- the Republicans have a package laid out that you said you wanted, basically. Can you square a little bit why you oppose the legislation?
SEC. PANETTA: I -- look, I've said this time and time and time again, and I'll say it one more time.
In my experience in the Congress as chairman of the -- of the House Budget Committee and later as director of the Office of Management and Budget, there's only one way to deal with deficits this size, these kinds of record deficits that we've never seen in the history of our country, and that is to address every area of federal spending, as well as revenues.
Every -- every major budget summit that I was a part of, going back to the Reagan years, to the Bush years, and to the plan that we developed in the Clinton years, every one of those budgets focused on entitlement spending, focused on discretionary spending and focused on revenues. Those are the pieces that have to be part of an effective plan to reduce the deficit.
And when one party decides to go after one area as opposed to others, and the other party does the same thing, that's the kind of gridlock that prevents the kind of necessary action that this country has to take to reduce the deficit.
Q: One follow-up. Then you would -- would you be one of the senior aides that would recommend that that legislation be vetoed because it's one-sided? The White House put out a SAP to that effect.
SEC. PANETTA: I -- look, I don't think there's a chance that this president is going to follow the priorities that the House is taking in this matter by basically going after all these domestic programs in order to provide increases in defense and to deal with sequestration on the defense side. It's not balanced, it's not fair, and ultimately the Senate isn't going to accept it either. So all we're headed for right now is further gridlock, and that's what bothers me.
Q: Mr. Panetta, this week the family of Sergeant Bergdahl spoke out, calling for a swap or transfer or exchange to be made to send Taliban prisoners to Afghanistan and start these talks and get their son home. Have you reconsidered your -- has there been any change in your concerns with the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Qatar? Do you think that there's any possibility of restarting these talks with the Taliban on confidence-building measures?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, look, first and foremost, our heart goes out to the Bergdahl family. We certainly understand the concerns of the family, and we share the concerns about Bergdahl and the importance of getting him returned. And we're doing everything possible to try to see if we can make that happen.
And -- but on the issue related to Guantanamo transfers, my position hasn't changed. I would only take those steps in accordance with the law and the requirements of the law, and at this stage, frankly, there are no decisions that have been made with regards to that.
Q: Mr. Secretary, can you both respond as a follow-up to the budget issue. The House has added a hundred million dollars for missile defense into the budget. Do you think that the East Coast needs a missile defense system? Do they need to do this survey that will cost a hundred million dollars that the Pentagon didn't request, or is this politically motivated?
And the second question is related to the intelligence leaks related to the revelations about the underwear bomber this week. Do you think that we need an investigation into that leak? Are you concerned that it actually may turn out that that leak either came from this building, and therefore was it helpful, was it hurtful that the -- that the information came out about that plot?
SEC. PANETTA: I'll address the last question.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Okay.
SEC. PANETTA: And then I'll let Marty speak to the first question.
As a -- as a former director of the CIA, I have to tell you that those kinds of leaks are very harmful to the efforts of the intelligence community. Our whole effort is to try to be able to get individuals that can provide intelligence and that can work with us. And to be able to do that and do that effectively, you have to protect these people, and you have to protect the confidence that -- and the classification and the covert nature of this kind of work. And when these leaks take place, I can't tell you how much they damage our ability to be able to pursue our intelligence efforts. And so I am fully in favor of a full and thorough investigation of this matter, and I understand that the director, the DNI will do that.
GEN. DEMPSEY: On the ballistic missile defense, as you know, we went through a strategic review back in the fall, and then we mapped our budget to it. And what I can tell you, Jennifer , is I'm -- in my military judgment, the program of record for ballistic missile defense for the homeland, as we've submitted it, is adequate and sufficient to the task. And that's a suite of ground-based and sea- based interceptors. So I don't see a need beyond what we've submitted in the last budget.
Q: Questions. On Yemen, by any measure, anyone you speak to will tell you that al-Qaida in Yemen is now stronger since 2009, more fighters, controls more territory, has more capability. So how is it, number one, that al-Qaida is facing strategic defeat when they seem to be growing stronger, especially in Yemen?
My other question is to follow onto Bergdahl. Can I ask whether either of you, since you've taken these jobs, have spoken to the Bergdahl family? Why has the president not called them? And fundamentally, are doing as much to find Bowe Bergdahl as you did to find Osama bin Laden?
GEN. DEMPSEY: How about if I take the latter and I forget what the former was, so maybe you'll remember.
SEC. PANETTA: I think I'll remember.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Yes. I've had the Bergdahls in my office. I've corresponded with them several times. I've -- I understand their concerns. And I can assure you that we are doing everything in our power using our intelligence resources across the government to try to find -- locate him and that -- I mean, I'll give you one vignette. If you go to the CENTCOM command center where -- you know, their conference room, there's a four-by-six foot poster of Bowe Bergdahl sitting in front of the podium to remind them, and therefore us, every day that he remains missing in action. I can assure you of that.
SEC. PANETTA: With regards to Yemen, our efforts have been directed at the leadership of al-Qaida and those that have been involved in trying to plan attacks on the United States. And with regards to our -- you know, our efforts and our operations, we have been very successful at going after the leadership and those that are directly involved with regards to trying to make those kinds of plans. And I think -- I think the fact that, you know, we continue to be successful with regards to these kinds of threats is an indication of the effectiveness of the operations that we have there.
There is a larger tribal operation called AQAP. And the Yemenis are dealing with them.
There are -- I mean, I will say that, you know, they do represent a threat in Yemen, and the Yemenis are the ones that are pursuing the -- that tribe, AQAP, and trying to make efforts to reduce their influence as well.
But you know, they are a threat. No one -- no one in any way underestimates the fact that all of them represent a concern for the United States in terms of our national security. But I do believe that we are making effective progress at going after those specific targets that represent real threats to the United States.
Q: My apologies, can you just clarify one thing, sir? You talked about AQAP just now as a tribe. And I want to make sure I didn't misunderstand you. You are talking about al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula --
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah.
Q: -- al-Qaida in Yemen, not a separate tribal organization?
SEC. PANETTA: Yeah, that's correct. That's correct.
Q: I would like to ask you, on Syria, Mr. Chairman, to -- how do you assess the current situation in Syria? As you may know, two suicide attacks took place this morning in Damascus. Do you have any indications if al-Qaida could be behind those attacks?
SEC. PANETTA: I have no information to that effect, as to whether or not they're involved there.
Obviously, the situation in Syria remains of great concern. This -- you know, the cease-fire does not appear to be working. And Annan himself has indicated concerns about whether or not parties are abiding by the cease-fire. We continue to urge Assad to step down, that there must be a change there. They've lost their legitimacy by the huge number of deaths that are taking place in Syria.
And again, we are working with the international community to try to make sure we take all steps necessary to try to do what we can to implement the necessary political reforms to have Assad step down and to try to return Syria to the Syrian people.
This is not easy. There are no easy courses here. But I think the most important thing we can do now is to continue to work with the international community to bring pressure on Syria to do the right thing.
GEN. DEMPSEY: (Inaudible) I --
Q: (Inaudible) -- follow-up on this?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, let me - because Joe asked me as well. I haven't seen any intel to suggest that AQ was responsible for those attacks, although we do know that there have been extremist elements that are trying to make inroads in Syria. That is to be distinct from the opposition. I'm not tying those together. You know, there is -- whenever those kind of situations occur, there will be violent extremist organizations try to take advantage of it.
I'd just add one thing, and that is, two weeks ago I was in Jordan. Today my Turkish counterpart is in the building, and we're trying to gain a common understanding of where we think we are and where we think we might want to go.
Q: If I could also follow up on Syria. In addition to the Annan comment you had, Senator Kerry talked about U.S. involvement in helping to create humanitarian no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors, about arming the Syrian opposition and arming the rebels. Have either of your positions changed in terms of supporting the rebels with arms as opposed to nonlethal aid; that they haven't -- since, as you indicated, the Annan plan doesn't appear to be working, why shouldn't the U.S. do more than diplomacy?
SEC. PANETTA: Well, I think as we've expressed before, that the most effective way to deal with the situation in Syria is not unilaterally, but working with all of our international partners to work together to bring as much pressure as we can, diplomatically, economically and every other way, to try to get Syria to do the right thing; that that -- that is the -- you know, we believe, the most effective way to address that situation.
As far as what we do beyond that, as I've made clear, we at the Department of Defense continue to make all kinds of plans with regards to, you know, possible approaches in Syria. And if the president of the United States asks us to respond in particular ways, we're prepared to do that.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah --
Q: Can I follow on --
GEN. DEMPSEY: Let me just add I don't provide positions, I provide options.
Q: General, do you expect -- in your conversations with your Turkish counterpart, since they've spoken about this themselves, do you expect these specific ideas to come up?
GEN. DEMPSEY: Absolutely. And it's because -- that each of the countries in the region have a different concern or a different set of their own interests. In some cases -- for example, Jordan is very concerned about the potential for increased refugees, and you know, there's 400,000 Palestinian refugees in and around Damascus. So you know, that's a concern that an individual country might have that wouldn't necessarily be ours, but it's important to understand the complexity of the situation.
Q: If I may follow up from Bob's question regarding the course being taught at the Joint Forces Staff College, can I confirm that there's an investigation, but the individual lecturer is still in place, currently holding his position? And does it seem surprising that an officer could speak to a room of O-5s and O-6s and say things regarding target civilian populations, and yet it took a while for this to come out? He spoke several times. This course was taught for several years.
GEN. DEMPSEY: There is an investigation ongoing. The individual instructor is no longer in a teaching status. He is not in a teaching status.
And are you asking me am I surprised? Yeah. I'm surprised. And I was actually quite thankful that the young man who did find the course material offensive spoke up.
Dr. GEORGE LITTLE: We have time for two more questions.
Q: A follow-up -- just to follow up on that issue, if I may?
SEC. PANETTA: Sure.
Q: (Inaudible) so should we -- should we understand that this elective course is not being taught anymore at the -- for the officers?
GEN. DEMPSEY: That's right. That's correct.
Q: And the second question, which is on -- Secretary Panetta, if I may, on al-Qaida in Syria, you've said that we don't have any indication of al-Qaida in that -- those double explosions that took place in Damascus. But what kind of assessment do you have on al- Qaida activity in Syria? Because the Syrian government confirms that al-Qaida is active in Syria. Do you have an indication to say that al-Qaida is actually active, how big it is, and is it a concern for you?
SEC. PANETTA: Al-Qaida anywhere is a concern for us. And we do -- we do have intelligence that indicates that there is an al-Qaida presence in Syria. But frankly, we don't have very good intelligence as to just exactly what their activities are. And that's the reason we can't really indicate specifically what they are or are not doing. But they are a concern. And frankly, we need to continue to do everything we can to determine what kind of influence they are trying to exert there.
DR. LITTLE: Last question.
Q: Mr. Secretary?
DR. LITTLE: Last question, yeah.
Q: This is actually to you both. President Obama recently gave his personal opinion on gay marriage. In your personal opinion, should gay service members be allowed to get married on military bases in those states where gay marriage is legal?
SEC. PANETTA: You know, I'm not going to render a personal opinion on that. As secretary of defense, I'm responsible for enforcing the law and for giving the best defense advice we can to the president of the United States.
I think that's true for both Marty Dempsey and myself.
There are two laws that we are enforcing in this area right now that are of note. One is the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." We just got a report that I received yesterday that indicates that that's going very well and that it's going pursuant to all of the planning that was done before that went into effect. It is -- it's not impacting on morale. It's not impacting on unit cohesion. It is not impacting on readiness. And so because it was prepared -- and I give tremendous credit to the military for having laid the groundwork for that going into effect. As a result of that kind of effective planning, this is working well. And very frankly, my view is that the military has kind of moved beyond it. It's become part and parcel of what they've accepted within the military.
The other law that we do have is the DOMA law, the Defense of Marriage Act. And the Defense of Marriage Act obviously does have some impact with regards to the benefits that are provided to same-sex couples. And so we continue to review the benefits. But those have to be provided consistent with DOMA. And until DOMA is either rejected by the courts or changed by the Congress, that's the law we abide by.
GEN. DEMPSEY: Yeah, personally, I follow the rule of law that governs the issue you just described. When asked for my military advice to the secretary of defense and the president, we -- I form it with the Joint Chiefs, and we provide it privately.
SEC. PANETTA: The marriage -- on the marriage --
Q: (Inaudible) as a military officer, in the idea that everyone in the services be treated equally, does it concern you that some service members are allowed to get married on military bases; other service members are -- do not have that right?
GEN. DEMPSEY: There's three -- if I could, sir, there's three -- so there's three bins of things we're -- this is under review, has been since "don't ask, don't tell." There's three bins into which these privileges and, as you describe them, rights -- that one is self-declared. So a young man or woman can self-declare, for example, who's going to get their insurance benefits. Then there's policies. And we control that, the secretary. The secretary controls it. Those are under review. But then there's the law, and we don't control that. And so those three bins, if you will, are each rather clear in how we approach it.
SEC PANETTA: And with regards to, you know, the question on marriage, I mean, in that instance it's very clear that state law controls in that situation. So, you know, where state law provides for that, then obviously that kind of marriage can take place. If the law does -- prohibits that, then it cannot take place on a military base.
Q: And just a quick follow-up to General Dempsey. Have you discovered any negative impact as a result -- on good order and discipline as the result of repeal of "don't ask, don't tell"? And if not, what was everybody so afraid of all these years?
GEN. DEMPSEY: To the first part of your question, no, I have not found any negative effect on good order and discipline.
To your second, what were we afraid of, is we didn't know. And I think that the way -- we were given a year to make this assessment, to educate ourselves, to collaborate, to build a sense of trust on this issue. And given that time to do it, I think it worked out well.