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Transcript: Steve Inskeep Interviews Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is shown here in his Pentagon office Friday, before his interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. (Ariel Zambelich /NPR)
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is shown here in his Pentagon office Friday, before his interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. (Ariel Zambelich /NPR)

Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep interviewed departing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as he prepared to vacate his expansive office at the Pentagon. Below is the full transcript of the interview.

STEVE INSKEEP: Do you feel the United States still has a partner in Yemen for its counterterrorism operations?

DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: First of all, the change of government just occurred, so, we are still working our way through what the facts are, what the realities are, what the consequences of this will be, who will be in charge of the government. We still have resources there. We still want to participate and cooperate and partner with the government.

SI: Is there still someone to cooperate with, who's answering the phones?

CH: Well, that's my point. This just happened, so we have to wait until the Yemenis decide who is going to govern, who is going to run the government. Phones are being answered at ministries. Because the president leaves and senior members of his cabinet leave does not mean that all of the institutions shut down. They don't and they are not, but I think until we get a better understanding of how the Yemenis want to go forward in governing, then that will determine the future relationships. But we want to continue to have that relationship, which has been important with the government.

SI: I guess you have to think about what is a serious threat to U.S. interests and not. A change in government might be a problem or not. What is the risk for the United States in this chaotic situation?

CH: First, the government of President Hadi has been very important to us as we have worked with governments in that region to address the terrorist threat of ISIL, of AQAP [al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula]. The other challenges that are presented to these governments, these societies, these people, in the Middle East, North Africa, but also to us and to our partners in Europe. It's critically important that we have governments to work with, that we have entities to work with. President Hadi has been a good partner in that, and we would hope that the next set of leaders that govern Yemen will also take the same approach to cooperation with the United States.

SI: You are wrapping up a couple of years leading this institution that has involved itself in so many ways in different conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere. You bring a particular history to that, personal history as a veteran. Do you feel for the last couple of years that you have served an administration that has learned the right lessons from history?

CH: I think this president has understood history, ramifications, consequences of history in the sense of his time to govern. What lessons do you take from history? But also recognizing, and I think this is the biggest lesson a president or any of us who has responsibility to govern have to learn: There are always consequences to actions that you take. There are consequences to inaction. And thinking through, asking the questions, "Well, then what happens? What comes next?" is critically important. And I think this president has a fundamental grasp on that. We also live in a world — and this president understands it clearly — of absolute immediacy. It is an interconnected, combustible world, where technology and many other actions have given nonstate actors a reach, into countries and societies, for both good and evil, that we have never seen before. So it isn't a matter of just state versus state challenges or conflict. The bigger problem is nonstate actors, which we've seen in results in Paris and Brussels here, recently. But it is a difficult time to govern. I've told the president that. This is a complicated time to govern in the world today because of so much going on and it's coming at us at such an unprecedented rate.

SI: When you talk about consequences of actions, it's clear the president has thought about that as he approaches Syria, that taking too many actions can lead to consequences. His critics have noted potential consequences of inaction — not doing enough. You have had discussions with the White House, we know, on how to approach Syria. Are you satisfied that the administration has properly clarified what its goals are and how to achieve them?

CH: Well, I've testified to that question many times. And I helped with my input and the National Security Council to frame that strategy and that objective. And it is very clearly to deal with ISIL, as the No. 1 threat in Iraq, specifically help stabilize Iraq, help the government of Iraq, which we are doing in every way we can. We will soon be opening training camps for moderate Syrian opposition individuals, to help them help themselves as they develop options to Assad. So it's imperfect. These things have ways of varying and shifting on a daily basis. These are fluid challenges that we face. These are challenges that have come out of hundreds of years of religious differences, of ethnic differences, of tribal differences, of boundary differences. We recognize, and I think the president knows this very well, it goes back to your question on history, that we cannot fix the problem alone. These problems must be fixed by the people of the region. That's why we are helping the government of Iraq, the people of Iraq. That's why we're helping the people of Yemen. But it's the people themselves that must lead and find solutions to many of these problems and challenges that they face. There are challenges and threats to all of us across the globe, but they're indigenous to their region.

SI: But I'm thinking about the question of clarity. It's known that, that you wrote a memo to the White House arguing the administration had not been clear enough about whether it wants Syria's President Assad to stay or go. You mention the upcoming efforts to train Syrian rebels who may be interested in getting rid of Assad. May not be that interested actually in fighting ISIS, which is what the United States wants them to do. Isn't there still a great lack of clarity as to what the United States hopes to realistically accomplish?

CH: Well, let's take the second part of your question. Those that we are training and will begin training, there's no question about the objective of the training and what they will be doing and why we're training them in Syria and opposition forces. And that is to take back their communities and their towns and their cities from ISIL. It is to confront ISIL, and --

SI: They know they're being trained for that and they agree with that?

These are very clear objectives.

SI: OK.

CH: This is all part of the vetting process. This is part of the process that we use and continue to use very carefully so we know who we're training. They know why they're being trained, as we equip them as well. And the third objective is to help them develop their own internal mechanisms to present alternatives for Assad. This issue in Syria is not going to be solved militarily. This is going to require a solution, a resolution in Syria, a political solution, a political change, a shift. It won't be done, can't be done, militarily. There is a military dynamic to it, but the military dynamic cannot lead and will not lead. So, I write memos all the time. I have options and opportunities all the time. So I've written many memos on many subjects.

SI: Is it now clear to you what administration policy as regards to President Assad, whether it is to let him stay or make him go?

CH: It's very clear, and the president has said it. I've said it. We've all said it. Assad must go. He's lost the legitimacy to govern.

SI: Although Secretary Kerry, Secretary of State John Kerry said something a little different recently, didn't he?

CH: I don't know. What'd he say?

SI: He spoke more in terms of allowing Assad potentially to stay as part of a political settlement.

CH: I don't know what he said about that, but I do know the policy of this administration is that Assad must go, that he lost the legitimacy to govern. Now, if the secretary of state, which you'll have to ask him what he meant, not me, but if he was referring to some general way to a political settlement, which I've just noted, which the president has noted, Secretary Kerry has noted, this is eventually how Syria will be resolved, is through a political settlement.

SI: You are working for a president who has very strong foreign policy goals, who wanted to get the United States out of Iraq, who wants to get the United States fully out of Afghanistan as soon as possible, who wanted to close the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, who has wanted to avoid a large engagement in Syria. Has it been challenging sitting where you sit, to take those broad political goals and turn them into workable military solutions that your people can enact?

CH: Well, I start with this again. There are no military solutions to any of this. Closing Guantanamo Bay is not a military solution. The closing of that prison, which I support, I supported it when I was in the Senate, requires more than just a military dimension. It requires countries hosting these detainees and I think since I've been Secretary of Defense, we've transferred 44 detainees. First, countries who are willing to take them. Second, do they have the capability, capacity and commitment to assure in every way they can that satisfies us by law, before I can certify as secretary of defense that there is substantial mitigation of risk of these individuals returning to the battlefield to threaten the United States or our people or our allies. Every one of the components and the questions and the pieces of the questions you asked requires diplomatic solutions, require, yes, some military aspects of it. But, it is, like everything in the world, there are economics. There are people-to-people relationships. But in the end, these things have to be decided politically and diplomatically.

SI: It was hard for you to sign off on some of the prisoner releases or transfers out of Guantanamo Bay in recent years, wasn't it?

CH: I didn't sign off on any Guantanamo detainees that I did not certify because I believed that we, in fact, signing off where they went, and the process we use for each one, each one, careful review was and could be in the category by law that I must certify, substantially mitigated the risk of them returning to battlefield. So I wouldn't sign off, and I've said this clearly on anything or any transfer, and I never have, unless I believed that. Now, has there been a slowing of that which hasn't always made me popular in all quarters? Yes. But I've made that very clear to the president and to everyone, to the Congress. If it's my responsibility by law, which it is as secretary of defense, then I will do everything I can because the American people rely on that.

SI: You're affirming that there were people at the White House who were saying 'Come on, move faster. Let's get this done'?

CH: I'm not affirming anything.

(Laugh)

CH: I'm just saying not all people agreed with me

SI: I understand, I understand. In the last couple of months, a number of people have been released from Guantanamo. Things seem to be moving more quickly. What, if anything, changed?

CH: Nothing changed. These things don't come in neat little bundles. They come in packages of process through, I think, most people don't understand how this works, is that there is an interagency review group, which includes, essentially, all the members of the National Security Council, our intelligence, our law enforcement, our Department of Homeland Securities, our State Department, our military. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has to sign off before it ever gets to me. Before it ever gets to me. I don't review any package unless there is complete unanimity within the interagency before it even gets to me.

So these things come not, not every three weeks I get a package. It doesn't work that way. You have to locate a country first. All of the diplomatic arrangements have to be made first. I need to be assured, as I have sent teams to different countries, by the way, in addition to the package that came to me with assurance from intelligence and every other agency that's signed off on it. So, sometimes there are spikes and sometimes there are not spikes. So there's no organized process in the sense of timing, as to what comes to me.

SI: You must know this caseload about as well as anybody in the government at this point. Is it going to be possible to close the Guantanamo Bay Naval Detention Facility in the next couple of years?

CH: It's going to be very difficult, especially if the Congress further restricts where these last 122 detainees go, how they will be dealt with. This isn't a simple, easy matter of "oh, let's just move 122 detainees." These people are there for a reason. And as you draw down into the last numbers there, these are the most difficult cases. And so more and more time review process goes into each one of those so that we in fact do whatever we are going to do based on the legitimacy of our actions and assuring through the law, through the current law. Now, that law may change. The Congress is talking about changing that law. So, that's No. 1. If the Congress may do everything, they can't further inhibit transfers, which they've said, some in Congress, that's what they want to do. We have to find the countries. The process I've just described to you that we must use in order to, uh, move those 122 detainees. So it's going to be difficult to do.

SI: So this closing may not happen, particularly if Congress does not do what you wish they would do ...

CH: Well, if the Congress throws up roadblocks in disallowing by law any resources for movement — and I don't know what else they're going to do — it doesn't make it easier. It makes it more difficult.

SI: As you know, Secretary Hagel, a couple of your predecessors publicly complained about the White House's hands-on involvement in national security affairs. Of course, there's always a balancing act because you always have civilian control of the military. You've spent a couple of years as the guy in between the White House and the military. Did the White House get that balance right?

CH: What balance?

SI: The balance between letting the military be professionals and do their jobs ... the balance between controlling the military and micromanaging the military.

CH: Well, there's always a balance, I think, any administration has to find in not just the military but in any agency of government. The president of the United States, the way our system works, as you know, is, in this case of defense, he's commander in chief.

SI: But have they micro-managed in your experience?

CH: Well, every, every president has to find that balance in that position on how he deals with not only his military, but every agency of government. We in the military, and I put myself in that category since I am the secretary of defense, we have had, continue to have every opportunity to express ourselves on every occasion, on every issue. I don't think there is any perfection in the process. It depends on issues, it depends on timing, it depends on what is going on at any one time where, as to how much involvement the White House has, wants to have, how much involvement the president has. And again, he is the commander in chief, and the people who work with him at the National Security Council are his arm in working with the Defense Department. And, quite frankly, they have responsibility for all of the government. We are one component of the government.

SI: Did you ever have a moment in the last couple of years of saying to someone at the White House, "Wait a minute, I understand he's the commander in chief, but hold on, you're going too far here"?

CH: We've had opportunities to express ourselves on many occasions.

SI: (Laughs) I don't think you're answering the question.

CH: I just did.

SI: (Laughs) Meaning you, have you expressed yourself in that way?

CH: I have expressed myself in many ways, but I don't get into the book-telling business of conversations I have with the president. That's not my style, and I don't think that's a responsible thing to do.

SI: Let me ask about another thing, Secretary Hagel. The last time we sat at this table, we talked about the Pentagon budget, which is a huge responsibility for any secretary of defense. Sequestration, which has been restricting any federal spending year by year, was a concern for you then, early in your tenure. Little, if anything has changed. How bad is it?

CH: Well, as you know, sequestration is the law of the land and comes back into force, full force in 2016, next year. I have said, the chiefs have said, all the military leaders have said, if, if we have to continue to live under sequestration, it will have a maximum impact on our ability to fulfill the president's strategic guidance. We can't do it all. It's as simple as that, with the limitations of the budget as severe as they are. These deep, abrupt cuts have forced us to make decisions that are not in the interest of this country.

And the other part of this is the unpredictability, which we have had to deal with, of what we are going to have as far as resources. What is going to be there? How much of our future can we commit to new platforms, research, technology, all the things that keep this country ahead of every other force on Earth, in advance platforms, technological edge, capabilities that we have enjoyed since World War II? We won't be able to do it all if we have to continue to be forced to take these huge sequestration cuts.

SI: What's a trade-off that's going to be on the desk of your successor along those lines, a specific trade-off?

CH: Trade-off?

SI: In terms of a weapons platform you might have to do without, in terms of dealing with personnel that you might not be able to take care of.

CH: Well, I'm the first secretary of defense that's had to deal with sequestration. I've prepared two budgets that deal with sequestration. And you bring the chiefs together, the leadership of this enterprise together, to work through, how do we then take these cuts? Where do we apply those cuts? Readiness is the first thing that suffers. I'll give you an example. In 2013, my first year here, we had to shut down all Army training, all Marine training, Air Force, Navy training. No flying, no sailing, no training. We didn't have the money. We had to stop operations and maintenance in many locations, defer the kinds of things that we needed to do. Those were realities in 2013. Now, because of a budget agreement between the president and the Congress which gave us a couple years to start getting well ...

SI: A little bit of a window, yeah.

CH: 2014, 2015, still major cuts, not as bad as sequestration. We have been able to build back the readiness, certainly future platforms. We had to defer more of our new platforms, whether they're airplanes, whether they're submarines, whether they're ships that need to replace old platforms. The technology on the edge of our intelligence, our special operations, our cyber capacity. Now those are two areas I try to protect, for example, cyber and special operations. We've drawn down faster than we intended to across the board in every service, more and more of our personnel. But every facet of this enterprise is affected by these cuts.

SI: How much, if at all, has this institution been able to renew itself after the sacrifices and difficulty of more than a decade of war?

CH: Well, I think one of the hidden consequences of 13 years of nonstop war, which is unprecedented in the history of this country, two wars, two large landmass wars. Also unprecedented is the fact that we've fought those wars with an all-volunteer force. Never has that happened. What that means is you keep rotating back into combat tours, the same people. Four, five, six combat tours, same people. Strain, stress, consequences of that are showing up. They have been showing up the last two or three years, especially those getting out. Hardships on families. And I've tried to pay a lot of attention to this the last two years in our medical health care reviews, family issues, everything, that affect people. Because, in the end, it is people that is the most important asset of any institution. You can have all the capabilities; if you don't have the quality people, you don't have much. So we've got to pay attention to that.

We've got to pay more attention to it. It has affected this strain and the stress. It's affected, for example, this morning I always ask when I bring young enlisted soldiers in and young officers in for private luncheons, which I do, and breakfasts with my, with just me. And I always ask the question, do you intend to stay in the military? Now, these are young sergeants. These are young petty officers. These are young captains, lieutenants. And these are the building blocks for the future force. And the good ones, the quality in these people that do so much for our country, we've got to keep them; we've got to retain them. And when I went around the table this morning and six young officers ... five out of the six said they were uncertain whether they were going to stay in the service and most likely would get out. And why? Because of family issues, because of stress and strain. If you want to have a family, what does this mean? Uncertainty of budgets, uncertainty of whether we're going to continue to cut the force. This is very dangerous.

Now, you don't see that anywhere, that is not anything that is articulated in any big news stories, because it's not here and now. And in the news business, I know, it's part of it, it's reporting on what's there today. But rarely are there any reflective stories on how do you assure this country's security into the next generation? And this is what I look at, because any leader, I think, the main responsibility he or she has is to leave that institution stronger and better for the future. It's not what you get when you arrive. It's how you leave it. So I've paid a lot of attention to this general issue, the health of the force.

SI: When you leave this office, shake hands with Ashton Carter, the nominee, if in fact he is confirmed by the Senate, is there a single piece of advice you'd give him?

CH: Well, I think, first of all, on Ash Carter, who is superbly qualified to be secretary of defense with all the jobs he's had here, and he's a friend, has been a friend for many years and was my deputy for a year, a man I greatly admire. He knows this place. He knows the system. So it's different from having someone walk in who hasn't been around this place. Maybe one thing, he knows this as well, but one thing that I would emphasize is listen. Listen, listen, listen, and I'm not sure leaders listen enough, especially to their people. And I've always thought in everything I've tried to do in my life, in the jobs I've had, is that if we can turn our transmitters off and our receivers on more often, we're better leaders and we know more of what is going on and therefore we can lead more effectively. But we can lead with everybody being part of it. No one person leads alone — can't do it, it's impossible. It doesn't make any sense. You need a team, especially this place. This is the biggest enterprise in the world, most complicated. It's got more of its own entities and fiefdoms and empires under one roof than any one place. You need everybody. You need the cooperation, the leadership. You need the buy-in, and that comes from a great extent from listening to your top commanders right down to your privates.

SI: Were you listened to by the White House?

CH: Well, all I can do is present what I think is in the best interest of this country and how I can best serve this country and the president of the United States. And I feel very good about that opportunity I've had.

SI: You didn't say you were listened to, though.

CH: Well, I was listened to ... sure.

SI: Secretary Hagel, thanks very much.

CH: Thank you.

Copyright NPR 2019.

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