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Dana Priest interviews Sec. Robert Gates: full transcript

On July 15th, Dana Priest interviewed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the findings of the Top Secret America investigation that was to run the following Monday.

The full interview transcript, produced by the Department of Defense's Federal News Service, is posted below. We invite you to read through the conversation and tell us in the comments section what you find most interesting, important, or worthy of further reporting in the Secretary's response.

Dana or Bill will respond to selected comments later this week.






MS. PRIEST: (In progress) -- ... if you compare 9/11 to where we are today, in this thing, which no one's really named -- the post-9/11 intelligence/defense enterprise -- has it become too big to manage? Has it become --

SEC. GATES: Well, I don't think it's -- I mean, since I'm supposed to manage the largest organization on the planet --

MS. PRIEST: (Laughs.)

SEC. GATES: -- of which intelligence is only a small part, no, I don't think it's too big to manage. (Laughs.) The question is whether the tools are in place to manage it.

MS. PRIEST: Do you think they are?

SEC. GATES: And I think that, you know, the original concept of a DNI was that an empowered DNI could make that happen, could have overview of the -- of the entire thing. And -- I mean, my view is that the compromises that were made in passing the Intelligence Reform Act really inhibited the ability of the DNI to carry out what most people thought the DNI should do.

And what we've tried to do is develop some workarounds that try and fill that gap. For example, because the DNI, according to the law, can't hire or fire -- of any of the -- the defense intelligence organizations, even those for which the National Intelligence Program provides money, I agreed to double-hat Jim Clapper as the director of military intelligence. So he actually reported to the DNI, and the DNI had a pipeline into this building where he could levy requirements and information that he -- get information when he wanted it and so on. And we've developed some workarounds that were captured in the redraft of 12333 in terms of hiring and firing that give the DNI more authority.

But the premise in 2004 was to transfer Goldwater-Nichols to the intelligence community. But there was a fundamental flaw in the logic, and that was Goldwater-Nichols works, because, at the end of the day, everybody involved works for one person.

And so, is it manageable? Yes. But there are constraints on the ability of the DNI to be able to manage the way people originally hoped he would.

MS. PRIEST: And you said you compensated for that by using work-arounds. So is that good enough?

SEC. GATES: I think the -- I think -- well, first of all, it's -- and this is something -- this is why no political science professor at Texas A&M ever allowed me in a classroom -- (chuckles) -- because, at the end of the day, whether it works or not depends very much on personalities. And, you know, just as the relationship between Defense and State is defined by that, so is it in the intelligence community. And so, in my view, of -- being given the limitations of the law, the -- my view of the best model for the DNI is more like the chairman of a powerful Senate committee than it is the CEO of a company. And so he has -- he has authorities and he has power, but, at the end of the day, he's got to sort of lead and persuade people to follow in all these disparate organizations. And frankly I think -- I think Jim Clapper will be able to do that just because of the respect in which he's held.

But is it manageable? Yes. But I think that the challenge -- and we have it inside the Defense Department -- is that there has been so much growth since 9/11 that getting your arms around that for -- not just for the DNI, but for any individual, for the director of CIA, for the secretary of Defense, is a challenge.

MS. PRIEST: Do you think in the department you understand how much your own department and all of its components have grown?

SEC. GATES: I have -- I have instincts. And my instinct is that we probably have unnecessary duplication. And one of the things that I'm looking at as part of the budget process is, we have significant intelligence components associated with each combatant command. Each service has a significant intelligence component, and then we have the intelligence agencies. And my instinct tells me that that could be leaner, that there could be some consolidations and that it could be made more efficient. And so that's one of the things we're working on right now.

MS. PRIEST: Are you getting, you know, actual empirical data from reviews in order to decide where that -- where you should shave things?

SEC. GATES: We will, but we've just started.

MS. PRIEST: Okay. Because I was going to quote you from someone in the story who says, you know, the secretary, meaning you, should take a look at all the -- should review all the different intelligence programs -- and this is someone in the intelligence world who's been in there a long time here at DOD who just sees a lot of overlap and bad redundancy, not good redundancy.

SEC. GATES: Well, it's a good suggestion. I think that's what we'll do (on ?) -- (chuckles) --

MS. PRIEST: Okay. (Chuckles.)

When I interviewed Blair for this, one of the things he said in his lighter moments -- actually this was when he was speaking -- he said after 9/11, we decided to attack violent extremism, and we did what we so often do in this country; the attitude was, if it's worth doing, it's probably worth overdoing. Do you have -- do you share that view, that --

SEC. GATES: Well, I guess I wouldn't characterize it that way. I think that -- I think what people have to -- people have to have some sense of historical perspective on this. And it was one of the things that I talked to Condi Rice and Steve Hadley a lot about. And it was after 9/11 the absolute conviction we were going to be attacked again, and in even more horrible ways. And so we basically -- as -- I mean, I wasn't here, but my impression is, we basically just pulled out all the stops. We want to find out everything we can to -- and do everything we can to prevent this from happening again and -- or to try and find out about it.

And so I think a -- you know, the fastest way to get capability in (play/places ?) is to hire contractors. And so a lot of contractors have been hired.

And I think, you know, nine years after 9/11, it makes a lot of sense to sort of take a look at this and say: Okay, we've built tremendous capability, but do we have more than we need?

Now in an area like counterterrorism, you know, any incident with a loss of American lives will be read as an intelligence failure and as a lack of capability.

So this is an area where I think, just because of the very real risk to the American people, in that particular subject, cutting back is going to be -- have to be done with a very sharp scalpel and not with an ax and as -- in contrast to other areas, where I think we can begin to make some choices about where we need redundancy and where we don't.

You know, when I -- when I was offering -- when I was director, one of the authorities that I got for one year was the ability to move money and people around the intelligence community.

And the examples that I use was, okay, I don't need competitive analysis on Third World order of battle. So CIA, you're going to stop doing (that ?), and DIA, you're responsible for it. DIA, I don't need your expertise on economic intelligence. CIA's going to do that.

So in some of these areas there can be a division of labor where you can cut redundancy and where you don't need competitive analysis. I think most people would say counterterrorism is a place -- if there is a place where you want redundancy, it is in areas like counterterrorism and proliferation or things like --

MS. PRIEST: So who's going to do exactly what you just describe that you did for that year? Because, again, there's nobody other than the president right now that could really look throughout the whole community and make those sort of --

SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the -- I think the DNI has visibility into the entire community. What is needed is for the DNI to be able to make recommendations -- probably, principally to the secretary of Defense, but to the director of CIA and so on; or to draw conclusions and say, "This is what we need to do," and if there's disagreement, take it to the president. I mean, ultimately, that's the DNI's authority.

But I think that the DNI ought to have visibility into everything that's going on in the intelligence arena. I think -- I think he has a great deal. And then, he needs to make recommendations on where you take risk and where you preserve the redundancy.

MS. PRIEST: You just exempted counterterrorism. And, you know, we're defining that as a large group of activities that include counterterror finance, some IO, cyber. In those areas, and a list of others that, you know, I could cite, we have found what I would consider unhealthy redundancy. It's not for an analytic backup; it's because so many of them don't know what others are doing. And if they did, you know, maybe you could combine, and divide and conquer, and that sort of thing. So do you really mean the entire ball of wax that --

SEC. GATES: No, I'm just saying -- I'm just -- you know, I go back to what I said on counterterrorism. It needs to be done with a scalpel, not an axe.


SEC. GATES: I'm sure there are areas -- and to tell you the truth, in the world that I inhabit, as far as I'm concerned, Treasury has the lead on counterterrorism finance. But State has certain responsibilities in terms of the enforcement of the sanctions with respect to countries that support these guys and so on. So my sense is, at the interagency level, this information does flow to the people that need to have it.

The question is whether there are others out there who are sort of onlookers, who have no operational role, where they could just be on the receiving end of this information from others. But as I say, you know, I don't exempt anything from a hard look.


SEC. GATES: But I think in this particular area, that it needs to be done very carefully.

MS. PRIEST: Do you think the -- that we as a country have -- that there should be some kind of risk-assessment discussion on terrorism and -- you know, there are people that argue that our reaction to every terrorist event -- which is usually to put more resources on it -- is playing into the enemy's hands and --

SEC. GATES: Well, I would say, first of all, that discussion at an intellectual level is a very necessary one, and it is a serious one -- and it all falls apart the second a bunch of Americans get killed. And, I mean, all you have to do is look at the uproar after the Christmas Day bomber and so on -- and that didn't even work.

MS. PRIEST: Right.

SEC. GATES: But you know, had it worked -- I mean, there was enough of a furor after it when it didn't work. You can imagine what it would have been like had it worked.

And so that's why in the abstract, these things sound pretty good, until you're sitting at the table in the Situation Room contemplating a bunch of Americans dying, and it's on your watch.

MS. PRIEST: So are we just then trapped in a never --


And, well, first of all, I would say in the intelligence enterprise as in the military enterprise, there needs to be a more rigorous look at this, you know, I mean, the notion.

If we wanted -- the country could not afford a military that was able to handle with ease every conceivable risk you can imagine, because we have some very imaginative people looking at risk.

MS. PRIEST: Right.

SEC. GATES: (Laughs.)

And the same thing that's true in the intelligence world and, you know, I gave you a couple of examples that I thought of a long time ago, where we could take risk, because it really wasn't that significant.

I think you have to apply that same kind of risk against counterterrorism. But again it has to be done very carefully. I think -- I think there you're probably less willing to take risk than in other areas.

But no one should say, we need every single thing and every single person that we're doing in that arena.

MS. PRIEST: Do you -- do you think in the present day that lines of authority and responsibility are clear enough? I mean, because I look at the Christmas Day bomber.

And one of the conclusions, and actually Blair testified on the Hill about this, was that -- and so did Brennan, I think -- that responsibilities got blurred, that in the -- at the bottom of the barrel of the analysis trail, who was it that needed to do -- to run everything to the end?

And one assumed it was the NCTC. But it turned out that they didn't assume that or they didn't exactly do that.

SEC. GATES: Yeah, I would tell you I think that the Christmas Day bombing attempt was a real learning experience. And I think that -- I think that a number of actions have been taken to address the shortcomings in our process and responsibilities that it suggested.

MS. PRIEST: And in the larger sense, do you think those responsibilities are --

SEC. GATES: What we've seen -- what we've seen that has created new challenges is really a change in the nature of the terrorist threat itself in terms of, we still have to be worried about al Qaeda and organizations like that planning big, complicated operations.

But a single person willing to kill themselves, who is an American citizen that goes abroad for terrorist training and then comes back, is a new kind of terrorist problem for us.

And figuring out how to deal with that in the context of our Constitution and our laws and everything else, this is something that really has emerged significantly I think, in the forefront, really only since around the time of the Fort Hood shooting. So this is -- this is another new wrinkle in this -- in this problem that, you know, we had to adjust and try to accommodate.

MS. PRIEST: One of -- one of the other issues that we found is the question of visibility, which you -- you addressed a little bit just a minute ago, but I wanted to ask it a little bit more.

You know, my understanding is that even in the Department of Defense, the visibility on all SAPs, for instance -- because we're really talking about the most sensitive things -- is still problematic, that it really is you are the one, and no one below you, who has visibility on everything within the SAP world. And if there are problems, it really cannot be fixed until it gets to your level, because of the different sorts of SAPs and the different restrictions within those, especially the technical ones. And I think there was a study that General Vines did for General Clapper that concluded this. And then if you add CAPs into that --


MS. PRIEST: The controlled access program that the CIA runs. -- then you have another, you know -- another set of highly sensitive things that nobody has visibility over all of that world, except when issues and problems come up.

SEC. GATES: I think there are different categories of SAPs and that -- and you don't need to have broad visibility across them all spread among very many people. In other words, those that are involved in the collection of information are actually all known to the group of people -- to the (leaders ?) who do collection. And the product of that, like CIA programs, ends up in the hands of people who can use it, but they may not know it came from a SAP. What's important is they get the information.

And there may be SAPs that deal with military activities. Well, the Joint Staff and the chairman and those folks, as well as me and Michele Flournoy and so on, have broad visibility into those.

So you're right, if you're looking at kind of the entire universe, it's very limited for people who have access to them all. But I would say that's sort of as it should be.

Now, do we have too many, and do they need to be weeded through? Almost certainly.

MS. PRIEST: Is that something you're looking at too?

SEC. GATES: Well, we've done -- actually, the administration in the first six months or so went through a process with all of the covert actions, as an example. They're now going through all of our sensitive execute orders. And so I think there has been a pretty disciplined process in terms of trying to take a look at all of these, some of which, you know, have been around for 10 years, and saying do we still need to do this or do we need to change it or should we just kill it.

MS. PRIEST: And on the covert action programs that were reviewed, did they kill or --

SEC. GATES: Some. Now, again, this is the -- this is the universe; this isn't just counterterrorism.

MS. PRIEST: Right. Okay. Can I switch to contractors for a minute?


MS. PRIEST: The -- so we've read about already how large, you know, the contracts have gotten -- and don't necessarily save money. Someone had this to say about the industry of terror -- the industry of terrorism is like cancer; it supports more people than it kills.

And, you know, certainly, when you look at the growth around the Beltway, just the physical growth, is that -- trying to put -- try to put that in perspective. I mean, has it just grown out of proportion to what it needs to be?

SEC. GATES: Yeah, and I would say -- I would say it's comparable to the growth of contractors, in general, in the Defense Department.

MS. PRIEST: Is that comforting, or -- (laughs) --


MS. PRIEST: Is that comforting? (Laughs.)



SEC. GATES: No. It's troubling.


SEC. GATES: In 2000, 26 percent of the workforce in the Department of Defense, civilian workforce, were contractors. It's 39 percent now. And one of our goals is to drive it back to 26 percent. And in the -- and a -- and partly, it is that it was so decentralized that nobody really knew what -- had an overview of how big the problem was getting, or how big that group of people and companies was getting, or had great visibility into kind of the overall role that they were playing.

But this is clearly an area that we are taking on in very serious fashion here in the department and -- in terms of in-sourcing, putting career people in. And we find that a career person -- you know, roughly speaking, a career person is about 25-percent less expensive than a contractor. When we started this in-sourcing process, we hoped it might be as much as 40 percent, but it's -- in practice, it's turned out to be about 25 percent. But that's a real savings.

And I think that the biggest challenge that we face -- and it's true of the government as a whole; it's certainly true of this department -- is just getting some information, getting data to figure out what's going on. I would tell you -- and this is a terrible confession -- I can't get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

MS. PRIEST: That's pretty bad. (Laughs.)

SEC. GATES: And so, what we are devoting a lot of effort to at this point is really getting our arms around this -- the numbers, what people are doing, and then beginning to impose limits and beginning to reverse this process. And in a -- and it's probably going to be time-consuming, in terms of not being able to do it overnight, but --

MS. PRIEST: And you're going to have plenty of opponents to that. I mean, you know, the contractors themselves, who are politically --

SEC. GATES: Yeah, but, you know, I mean, first of all, I think they see the handwriting on the wall. At least, we're certainly going after it here -- here in the Defense Department. And, you know, so this isn't going to come as a blinding flash of light. Or if it is, then we certainly don't want them in the intelligence business. (Laughs.)

MS. PRIEST: Yeah. (Laughs.)

SEC. GATES: But I think -- anyhow, it's just -- it's just not limited to the intelligence. But again, this is an area where you just can't drop a nuclear bomb on the problem because if you take a place like the National Reconnaissance Organization, they have to use contractors. I mean, they're responsible for the maintenance and operation of our spacecraft. And they know this stuff. They built them, and so on.

A lot of the contractors in the service intelligence organizations, and in all -- and in the Defense intelligence agencies, are there working on information technology. We probably don't want to dump those guys, or at least certainly cut off our nose to spite our face.

So there are areas -- the Army has 6,000 contractors who are linguists. We probably don't want to hire all those people as career people.

So again, this is an area that you just can't go at with an axe, but you have to understand where they are making a critical contribution where what they are doing is useful, but ought to be done by government employees and where they're not needed at all.

MS. PRIEST: Is there a -- you know, other than money, a larger question here about why this -- why this should change? I mean, when you look at contractor actions overseas that got a lot of press -- the Blackwaters, the things like that -- you know, there seems to blur the line between legitimate and non-sanctioned actions, military actions, overseas, or in the eyes of the overseas audience.

SEC. GATES: Yeah, I think -- I think in the intelligence world and the kind of things that account for the vast percentage of the contractors that we're talking about, that's really not the issue. I think the issue is more where should the military or career civil servants be doing these tasks instead of contractors? And what you may find -- what we may find is that in areas where you need to surge very fast that it makes sense to depend on contractors, but then to have a plan where, over a period of time, you phase them out as you're able to train -- hire and train career civil servants.

You know, I was talking to somebody about this today, actually having to do with AID and how they were largely a contracting agency now. And the difference is that before, in the Cold War, the professionals at AIG had a passion for their work. They weren't in it for the money. And that's the kind of way, as a career intelligence person myself, you want somebody who's really in it for a career because they're passionate about it and because they care about the country, and not just because of the money.

MR. MORRELL: I think we got to wrap it up there, unless there's something -- one more?

MS. PRIEST: Can I have one more question? Okay. This is sort of one of the bigger cosmic issues that we -- which is, if you look at -- the Census Bureau ranked the 10 top wealthiest counties in the United States, and five of them are in this area, and all five have huge intelligence presence. And you combine it with what's going on elsewhere in the country, it just seems -- I think you called it a muscle-bound something; it was a great quote. (Laughs.)

SEC. GATES: I don't remember, happily. (Laughs.)

MS. PRIEST: Yeah. But it's like -- you know, this imbalance is not just economic -- it's not just economic; it's the activity of defense and intelligence in these particular pockets that has so enriched those pockets as opposed to other places in the country. And is that a healthy -- is it worth noting? Is it --

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all -- first of all, I think the tough question that will need to be asked is -- I mean, one thing we haven't talked about is that, during this period that we're talking about, the country's also been at war.


SEC. GATES: And since 2003, in two major wars. So a lot of the growth of the intelligence has -- both in the civilian and military arenas, has been in support of these two wars that we're in.

And you know, just as an example, I mean, just in the last year or so, I have allocated billions to intelligence collection capabilities to help find IEDs and to help track Taliban and -- as well as go after terrorists in both Iraq and Afghanistan. And it's everything from Aerostats and aircraft to the analysts who support that. And a lot of them are contractors because we just don't have the military people to do it, or the civilians. But I wanted an urgent additional capability, and contractors was the only way to get it done.

Now, how much of that should go away when these wars are over? Or how much of it should be converted over time to full-time government employees or more full-time government intelligence officers? I think those are decisions still to be made. But I think an important element of your story is that a lot of this intelligence capability that is billed as counterterrorism also has had at least a dual role in helping us fight the wars. And there has been a fusion of intelligence and operations that I think marks a revolution in warfare. This full-motion video and all these things have saved a lot of lives.

And so I think you also, in addition to 9/11, you've had a ballooning of intelligence capabilities because of these two wars. And I think that the counterterrorism piece of this is likely to be enduring. It probably needs to be made more efficient and that scalpel needs to be used. But the larger question is, how much of this additional intelligence capability that we've developed should go away once we're out of these two wars?


MS. PRIEST: Thank you.

By Lauren Keane  |  July 28, 2010; 11:12 AM ET
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So, here's the thing, a missed opportunity, if you will: What someone needs to interview Sec. Gates about is why the Dept of Defense is doing so many things that it has no business doing. Every agency will be doing redundant things in counterterrorism, for exactly the reason Gates mentioned, the political consequences are very high.

But why is DoD doing "threat finance" given Gates' admission that it's Treasury and State's job? Or all sorts of things on counternarcotics that are well outside the military's lane? Or in "strategic communications". The list of things DoD gets money for, that civilian agencies ought to be doing (on a much smaller scale, really) goes on and on. When DoD does these things, they get 10x the budget a civilian agency would - and there's a lot of waste in that.

DoD is so big, with so many contractors, and a massive budget increase over the last decade because they're doing things they shouldn't be doing in the first place. Just my $.02, ymmv.

Posted by: DCguy7 | August 2, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

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