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Wide-Ranging Interview with Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Aired July 11, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

American leaker Edward Snowden is now in his third week of residing somewhere in the bowels of the Moscow airport as the international tug-of- war over his fate continues.

The United States still wants him to come back and wants Russia or any other country to return him home to face the music for his massive leaks while nations such as Venezuela, which has offered Snowden asylum, ponder the price of thumbing their nose at Uncle Sam. Of course, the real question is how safe are Americans from unwarranted mass snooping?

And how much real damage has Snowden done to the United States by revealing the enormous scope of the NSA surveillance programs?

My guest tonight is precisely the right man to answer that question. He is Robert Gates, who until two years ago was America's defense secretary. And before that, he ran the CIA.

Gates hearkens back to a different, perhaps a mythical time in Washington, when people of good faith were called to serve their country regardless of party or politics. And he has served seven presidents and overseen two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was CIA director under the first President Bush.

Gates overcame partisan dysfunction in Washington as the quintessential straight shooter, not afraid to tell generals, presidents and U.S. allies what they might not want to hear, as in this speech in February of 2011, as he was preparing to leave office.


ROBERT GATES, FMR. SECY. OF DEFENSE: Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.



AMANPOUR: Now two years after finally leaving public service the United States still wrestles with war and crises in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. And what does this former CIA chief have to say about Edward Snowden leaking America's most top secret secrets?

Welcome to the program.

GATES: Thank you, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: It's good to see you.

The crisis over Edward Snowden, he's potentially still holed up in the transit area of the Moscow airport.

What concerns you the most about what he has self-professed to have done, to have leaked a lot of America's secrets?

GATES: Well, I think just that, the fact that this single individual has taken upon himself, aggregated (ph) to himself the authority to override 35 years of established oversight processes in all three branches of government and to take upon himself the right to make the decision to make all this sensitive information public.

AMANPOUR: In substantive terms, though, what has it done, do you think? What's the most worrying thing to you, that somebody might know who's being surveyed? Or that, I don't know, what is the most problematic thing for you?

GATES: Well, it's a little difficult for me to answer since I don't know what he had access to --


AMANPOUR: No, but you were former CIA chief --

GATES: -- what he's already revealed suggests to me that he has access to quite a lot. And frankly, these are the tools that we use to protect the American people. You've always had this debate in this country over the proper balance between freedom and security.

But 35 years ago, after the scandals of the CIA, we established these oversight mechanisms that under presidents as different as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and George W. Bush have been continued.

And under Congress' control, both by the Republicans and the Democrats, to override all of those institutional safeguards. For an individual to take upon himself doing this is a formula for chaos and anarchy.

And so I think that -- I think that this is a violation of his oath, but also the violation of all of these institutions in a democratic government for the protection of liberties that is worrisome, not to mention the benefit to our adversaries from terrorists to others of the information that he will communicate and that I think will probably put Americans at risk.

AMANPOUR: What changes will American intelligence gathering have to institute now that some of his methods are out there?

GATES: Inevitably people will be looking at the vetting process, how did this guy get a clearance, how did he get hired, what is the role of contractors in the intelligence business. My guess is that we'll look at all of this.

But you know the reality is at the end of the day, this all depends on trust. There are 3 million people in the Defense Department and somebody is probably not following the rules at any given time.

And so it still boils down to trust. That's why people take an oath to protect the secrets and to uphold the Constitution. And if you can't ultimately trust people, then you're in real trouble. And the consequence of that is you will have a narrowing and a narrowing of the information that's made available to people for analysis and for decision-making as people try to protect that information.

And you will be back in the same kind of situation that we potentially -- that we apparently had prior to 9/11, where you don't have the ability for people with a broad enough access to connect the dots.

AMANPOUR: On the trust issue, a lot of the commentary has been that Snowden didn't reveal any kind of illegality by the U.S. government in this surveillance, but he did reveal an overreach by the U.S. in its massive Hoovering-up of intelligence, or of records.

And people are saying that actually a potential benefit of this is to bring it into the public in order to create more of a trust, have a real conversation about this kind of surveillance so that people can trust their government and know where they're going.

GATES: The second that everything that the government does is made public, in terms of the intelligence we gather on our adversaries, in terms of the capabilities of our weapons systems. Our ability to protect the American people to a considerable degree depends on secrecy in these arenas.

And that's why the American people have to trust their elected representatives to protect them in this. And that's why I think that the representations by the Republican and Democratic chairs of the intelligence committees and others are all in agreement. They've been briefed on these things; there is no wrongdoing.

They monitor them. They're briefed every three months. The American people elect these people to Congress to be their representatives so they can hear those secrets so we can still use that information to go after our adversaries.

But you have to depend on the elected representatives to conduct effective oversight. And I will tell you, based on my experience over 35 years, that oversight is very effective.

AMANPOUR: What about Russia's role as a CIA analyst and then chief? You spent many, many years studying Russia and their intelligence and their spy gathering.

What do you think is happening right now?

And does this point out the real dangers of having a rocky relationship with Russia?

GATES: Well, I think that we've -- our relationship with Russia has had its ups and downs for a long time, even after the end of the Cold War. Frankly, I figure Putin won't miss any opportunity to poke his finger in the eye of the United States.

I don't know what the Russians are doing, whether they're sitting there in the transfer section of the Moscow airport, offering Snowden all kinds of opportunities and dollars and a future and so on to try and give up his secrets, whether they're surreptitiously downloading the computers he's with. I have no idea what's going on.

But it can't be good.

AMANPOUR: Let me just ask you also about the idea of cyber-hacking. Obviously the U.S. has accused China of cyber-hacking, even into sensitive weapons systems. But Snowden has said that the U.S. is also spying on China and various universities and other such things and in Hong Kong.

What is the impact of all of that? Because Leon Panetta, one of your predecessors, said that there could be a massive cyber-attack on the U.S. that could become a cyber Pearl Harbor.

How vulnerable is the U.S. to its institutions, its ports, its airports, its bureaucracy being hacked and wiped clean?

GATES: I think Secretary Panetta had it exactly right. I think we are quite vulnerable, particularly in terms of our infrastructure, particularly in our dependence on the Internet and the networks that exist around this country, control of things like the electrical system, power systems and so on. We are quite vulnerable.

AMANPOUR: Hold that thought; we're going to take a break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about the wars that are going on right now. I'll continue my conversation with Secretary Gates and I'll ask him about America's role in Syria.

But first, the U.S. military has come a long way, as we said, since the days of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And yesterday, for the just the second straight year, the Pentagon held a gay pride celebration. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke on behalf of a grateful and changing nation.


CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We're very proud of everything the gay and lesbian community have contributed and continue to contribute with their service we are moving closer to fulfilling the country's founding vision, that all of us are created equal.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Changing times indeed. And we'll be right back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program and to more of my conversation with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Let's talk about Syria. Since you left office, this has just gotten worse and worse and worse and America appears to be sitting on the sidelines. It has been prompted, perhaps, by the advances of Hezbollah and Iran inside Syria to now say it's stepping up.

Agree or disagree? Approve or not?

You, of giving more military help to the Syrian opposition?

GATES: I think if we're going to give -- first of all, I have to be honest here. I opposed our intervention in Libya.

AMANPOUR: I know. And I'll get to that in a second.

GATES: And I think we overestimate our ability to shape events in that part of the world. But under the circumstances, I believe that if we are going to assist segments of the Syrian opposition, that the way the president has decided to do it is the way to do it --


AMANPOUR: Is it enough?

GATES: -- which is through Turkey and Jordan, basic military equipment. I would be willing to give them more anti-armor. I would not give them surface-to-air missiles. Those would probably come out of Gadhafi's arsenal or everywhere and I think those in the -- too easily could fall into the hands of the wrong parts of the opposition.

But I think -- I think we could do more along the lines of what the president has suggested, the basic military equipment, intelligence and so on.

AMANPOUR: Do you think any of this is going to be enough to tip the balance of power on the ground to some kind of political or negotiated settlement which, now it just seems that President Assad's regime has the upper hand.

GATES: My personal view is probably not.

AMANPOUR: So where do you see this ending?

GATES: I think that's the question everybody is asking. And the question is how much do you do, what makes you think you can have any influence over the end game in Syria? I just have reservations about our ability to make these happen.

And when people talk about a no-fly zone, I mean, the reality is we had a no-fly zone over Iraq for 12 years, and it didn't stop Saddam Hussein for one minute.

AMANPOUR: But it did. It stopped him --


AMANPOUR: -- attacking the Kurds --

GATES: No, it did not stop him. Most of those killings of the Shia and the Kurds after the end of the Gulf War were by ground forces.

AMANPOUR: Well, but anyway, they ended up being the most protected because of your no-fly zone.

But let me get you back to Libya, because you did say you did oppose it; we remember that.

Do you have any second thoughts, given that what happened in Libya was -- I don't want to sound cavalier, but at virtually no cost to America. You did not lose lives and you were in and out and the regime was broken.

And now there's a different regime and a potential for a different future.

Do you have second thoughts about opposing Libya (inaudible)?

GATES: Well, and one of the realities that we're dealing with in Libya is that the country seems to be drifting into its three historical elements with a very weak central government and very heavily armed militias all over the country.

I think that our position, our preferred position in all of these countries should be evolutionary change because the reality is when these revolutions take place -- and that's what's happening in the Arab world -- if you look back 250 years on the history of revolution, beginning with our own, ours is the only one that actually turned out reasonably well in the early decades.

In every other case, the most radical, the most ruthless, the most violent and the best organized have been the winners in those revolutions, have come out on top.

We don't have the democratic institutions, rule of law, civil institutions, civil society in any of these countries to form a basis for democratic governments.

So an evolutionary process of reform under the governments that exist, including the emirs and the monarchies is, I think, the position the United States ought to be taking. And if we have to make decisions on individual countries in a different direction, then we take them one at a time.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you about Iraq because you were there; you oversaw several years of that and you wanted it to be a secure place. Then the Obama administration pulled out and many believed it was politically motivated, that pullout, no residual U.S. force there and complete chaos today. I mean, people being killed on an unprecedented level.

Is that -- was that a wrong decision to pull out without having a residual force in Iraq?

GATES: Well, first of all, the administration did want to keep a residual force and had plans or a force of probably some 8,000-10,000 troops. And there was an effort to negotiate a new status of forces agreement with the Iraqis. At the end of the day, didn't get done.

People can argue whether the administration worked hard enough, whether the president was personally involved.

But I will tell you -- I remember vividly in the late fall of 2008, how difficult it was to get the agreement, the strategic framework agreement with the Iraqis under President Bush. It was a near run thing then because of Iraqi political resentment against the United States and the view of most Iraqis that we were, in fact, an occupier.

So I don't know how hard the administration worked. This was after I left. But I will say that the obstacles to getting such an agreement that would have allowed a continuing U.S. force would have been very -- were great.

AMANPOUR: Let me ask you something that you also had to deal with, and that's Iran and the nuclear program.

There's been a new election in Iran; the new president-elect says he wants to provide more transparency for their nuclear program. And just today the Supreme Leader, who's viewed as having all the power, said that negotiations would be easy if the adversary was less stubborn.

So my question really to you is, do you see any window of opportunity for both sides with the new president?

GATES: I was the notetaker during the first outreach to the Iranian government after the revolution in 1979, when Brzezinski meet with their leadership in Algiers. As I like to put it, ever since, I have been engaged in my search for an elusive Iranian moderate.

I think this guy is probably going to be more moderate in terms of the internal situation in Iran, in terms of the economy, in terms of some of the liberties of the young people in trying to find jobs. But in terms of the nuclear business, I think we shouldn't for a second lose sight of the fact that the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, is going to call the shots.

AMANPOUR: You've called for a face-saving proposition. For instance, that they could have some form of peaceful nuclear program in exchange for robust inspection.

GATES: Correct.

AMANPOUR: So you think that (inaudible) formula that would work?


GATES: I think that that is -- has generally been the view of both the Bush and the Obama administrations, that they would be willing to have, for example, the Tehran research reactor fueled but -- and to have a peaceful nuclear program if there were adequate safeguards so that we and, frankly, the Israelis, had the confidence that they were not building nuclear weapons and that we had enough measures in place that if they did choose to violate the agreement we would have enough time to take action.

AMANPOUR: Secretary Gates, thank you very much. Always fascinating; wish we had more time.

GATES: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: In this dangerous world of ours that Robert Gates knows all too well, U.N. peacekeepers often go where angels and nervous nations fear to tread.

But where do the peacekeepers go when they need a break from the danger zone? From the frying pan right back into the fire, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, blessed are the peacemakers. That might be true in Heaven, but here on Earth, imagine a world where the peacemakers are getting the short end of the stick. It's happening at the United Nations where keeping the peace around the globe has never been more urgent and more dangerous.

But as CNN's Richard Roth reports, a shortsighted policy is taking its toll on the people who are on the front lines.


RICHARD ROTH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Brad Pitt plays a United Nations troubleshooter rushed in, risking his life to save the world from a zombie attack in the movie, "World War Z." In the real world, Lahdin Raffi (ph) went to dangerous places for the United Nations in Sudan, Rwanda and Afghanistan.

In Kabul, suicide bombings started going off near her.

LAHDIN RAFFI (PH), U.N. WORKER: I went at the wrong time when there was a lot of bombings going on and it was in the area where I was living and working. And so it was very stressful. And it was difficult.

ROTH (voice-over): Fearing for her life, she asked for a transfer. The U.N. denied her request for a move to a temporary job that she requested at U.N. headquarters, instead sending her to Timor Leshd (ph) in Asia while her father was dying in New York. Raffi (ph) challenged the U.N. through its legal system, eventually leaving the organization.

She recently went public -- rare for a U.N. staffer -- accusing the U.N. of a bureaucratic hiring system with so-called "godfathers" entrenched in New York, keeping the "untouchables" -- the field workers who risked their lives -- stuck in the fields.

RAFFI (PH): I don't see anything wrong with working at hardship posts. I think it's fantastic experience. And you get to see the world. You get to see the people. You get to see the effect of conflicts on the ground. But I don't believe you should stay there forever and ever and ever, either.

So there's an injustice. There's a unfairness.

JOE TORSELLA, U.S. REP, U.N. MANAGEMENT REFORM: She's onto something and she's drawing some attention to what, I think, is a really important problem for all of us to attend to.

ROTH (voice-over): The problem is global staffers in some dangerous places can't obtain jobs back in more Western comfortable U.N. cities. No mobility for up-and-coming staff.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One, two, three, let's go.

ROTH (voice-over): The U.N. secretary-general, who recently opened up newly renovated Security Council chambers, wants to open up the organization to more job rotations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What have you accomplished? Do you believe in trying to change this?

BAN KI-MOON, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: I think we have been making good progress so far. But I admit that there are much more to be done when it comes to management reform, change management.

ROTH (voice-over): U.N. staff in New York can also get upset, here over work conditions, the U.N. staff union in New York, though, has problems with the proposed U.N. employee mobility plan.

BARBARA JAINCHILL, PRESIDENT, U.N. STAFF UNION: Yes, we are for mobility, absolutely we are for mobility. But under circumstances that work for the staff members, not circumstances that will cause us more grief.

ROTH (voice-over): The union says most U.N. positions are overseas and job postings in New York must be opened up for the entire U.N. staff and to external applicants, too.

BAN: Now everybody's on board except the U.N. staff union in New York. Is it too selfish?

JAINCHILL: They want mobility. Do they want a serious mobility scheme? Or do they want to pay lip service to the concern that everybody has and share that people shouldn't be in hardship jurisdictions for too long?

ROTH (voice-over): It's a new financial world at the U.N. A budget reduction and a staff hiring freeze, but with 193 countries in the mix, can the system change to make room for new ideas and experience from people carrying out the U.N.'s goals in far-off lands?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you want to try the U.N., know what you're getting yourself into and think long and hard before you do it, because it's not going to be what you think it is.

ROTH (voice-over): Richard Roth, CNN, United Nations.


AMANPOUR: With the U.S. increasingly reluctant to act as the world's policeman, the peacemakers of the U.N. are forced to take more risks, both personally and professionally.

And that's it for tonight's program. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.