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Defense Secretary Hagel on Security: ‘We Need To Do More — And We Will’

September 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the wake of the Navy Yard shooting, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recognizes his department's responsibility to ensure the safety of its employees. But, he told Judy Woodruff, there were "red flags that didn’t get connected." On Syria, Hagel said the military is ready to respond to any option the president decides to take.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary Chuck Hagel, welcome to the NewsHour.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s talk first about these tragic shootings at the Navy Yard this week. You acknowledged earlier today that there were a number of red flags, as you put it, that were thrown out that should have been picked up. You’ve commissioned a couple of reviews to be done, and you’ve said whatever mistakes were made, we’re going to fix them.

But what do you say to the families of the victims and to the people who still work at this Navy Yard and other military installations who are thinking, I thought if my loved one worked at a place like this, they’d be safe?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, first, our prayers and our thoughts go out to the families and all those affected by this terrible, senseless tragedy.

Second, we are committed to, as you noted ��” and what I’ve directed, and others ��” to go through everything: What happened? Why? Could we have done something? What should we have done?

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Your question about what do you tell families: The highest responsibility leaders have is to protect their people, is to take care of their people. And when something like this happens, something failed, something broke down. Now, we live in an imperfect world. And I said this morning, we don’t live in a risk-free society. But that’s not an excuse. That’s not good enough. We have to do more to assure the safety of all of our people, and we’re committed to do that. We’ll continue to do that. I’m committed to do it. Everybody is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But don’t people have a right to expect that a military installation is going to be safer than just about any place else ��”


JUDY WOODRUFF: — or not?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, that’s a good point. But remember, military installations are about security and about the vital interests of our country. You have many different interests in and out of that area, yes, because there is more security on a military base, so therefore there should be higher security and it shouldn’t happen there.

But we do know these things do occur. Now, again, that’s not an excuse. That’s not good enough. But we’ve got to find out what happened. I don’t have all the facts. We won’t know all the facts. We will get the facts, and we will fix it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We know the Defense Department commissioned a report after the Fort Hood shooting in 2009. That report came out three years ago ��”


JUDY WOODRUFF: — said there were problems and not enough attention paid to internal threats, not enough information sharing. There’s another Defense Department inspector general report ��” came out, coincidentally, just yesterday ��” said more needs to be done to make naval installations more secure. What happens to all these recommendations, and why should people believe the new reviews are going to get any more attention than those did?

CHUCK HAGEL: We learned a lot from Fort Hood. There were 79 recommendations that came out of Fort Hood. As of this morning, I was given ��” I requested an update on how many of those recommendations are going forward. They have been going forward. I think we’ve got around 65 of the 79 that have been implemented.

I talked to commanders today. I just met with the ��” all the chiefs of the services this afternoon and our senior commanders at the Pentagon, went around the table, talked to them. What has been done? What hasn’t been done? A tremendous amount has been done. Now, obviously not enough, but a tremendous amount has been done to assure the safety and security.

Whether it’s the access to bases, whether it’s the physical safety and security of bases, whether it’s the credentialing process, much, much has been done. Obviously we need to do more and we will. The IG report that just came out on Monday ��” I haven’t seen it yet. It’s in my office and we’ll review it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying the new reports that you’re commissioning are going to get more attention than those did?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, no, not to minimize the attention they got. They got a lot of attention, Judy. Things are much, much better today as a result of what occurred ��” the 79 recommendations that came out of Fort Hood. Now, the new commission that we’re going forward with ��” they’ll be three of them; an independent outside, by the way, and inside ��” we will look at everything. We’ll go back and look at those recommendations. Obviously there are some gaps here, red flags that didn’t get connected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about Syria, a tough part of the world right now. Russia is still insisting that there will be no agreement on chemical weapons ��” what happens to Syria’s chemical weapons if the U.S. is retaining the right to strike Syria militarily. So where does that leave everything? I mean, does the U.S. ��” is the administration still saying that it will strike Syria if that country does not relinquish control of chemical weapons?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, first, I think most of us appreciate the fact that without the credible threat of force, we wouldn’t be where we are today. I think most of us are glad that we are where we are today, with the possibility of maybe we can get this chemical weapons issue, which was the initial issue, resolved through the United Nations, through a process of involving Russia and other nations.

But as to the threat of military force, the president always has that option. That option is still there. The president has made that very clear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the U.S. has moved ships, as we know, into the region which have the capacity to strike Syria with missiles. How long will those ships remain there, through the entire chemical weapons process, assuming that goes forward?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, our force protection to provide the active options that we gave the president, at his request, are still there, and they will remain there until the president decides otherwise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which means it could be well into 2014 if it takes that ��”

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals on how long it could be. We’ll see where this plays out next week in New York. But no, that option is the president’s. It’s there. It’s real. The military is ready to respond to any option the president would decide to take.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both of your predecessors as secretary of defense were at a discussion at Southern Methodist University in Texas last night. They both said they would not have gone to Congress to seek authorization to strike Syria. Secretary ��” former Secretary Bob Gates went further. He said striking Syria is like throwing gasoline on an extremely complex fire. But he also said ��” he said, quote, “To blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple of days to underscore a point is not a strategy.”

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, first, I have the greatest respect for Secretaries Panetta and Gates, know them both well, worked with them over the years. Second, they have every right to express their opinions. I respect that right. I respect that opinion. I don’t agree with those opinions. And the fact is they don’t have all the facts in this.

The other point that you brought up, the president has made this very clear, and I think the entire National Security Council is. What the president was initially talking about, the option’s still on the table, is not some ��” in the president’s words, some pinprick, some signal if that option would be used. No, it would be far more serious than that. So I’ll leave it at that. They have every right to express themselves, but I obviously don’t agree with their assessment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Iran. The president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, told NBC News today that his administration, he said, will never develop nuclear weapons. And he said he has full authority to make a deal with the West on the disputed atomic program.

So my question is, given this, is the U.S. willing to let Iran develop plutonium at what are essentially low levels, that could not be used, theoretically, to make a nuclear weapon?

CHUCK HAGEL: I saw that report. I’m glad to get that report, to hear that report. But I think the next step here is let’s see how Iran’s actions match their words. Let’s see what they’re willing to do to step forward, to activate those words. The United States has said all along ��” President Obama has made it very clear since he was elected that he’s willing to listen, he’s willing to talk. But there has to be some response that is built around and predicated on and anchored to actions to support their words.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally, you’ve got plenty of countries to keep on your mind, I want to ask you about Egypt, because the ��” you, your predecessors have had ��” been in regular contact with the military leaders of Egypt. Today, as you know, a former general ��” or General al-Sisi is also the head of government in Egypt. What do Egypt’s leaders need to do right now in order to prevent the U.S. from cutting off the military aid that has been flowing to that country? I ask because they’ve just extended the state of emergency in Egypt.

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, first, I just spoke with General al-Sisi yesterday. I’ve spoken to him many, many times in the last two months. There is an interim government in place today, have been. They are moving forward on a pathway toward building a constitution and elections.

Now, that said, General al-Sisi understands full well where American is on this. They have been very important partners with Israel, carrying out the Camp David Accords, the peace treaty. We have cooperated with Egypt on many issues, and continue. We have common interests. But until Egypt moves back in a very clear way toward an inclusive, free, democratic country, then we will continue to withhold some of those military assets. Already the president has announced that we would not go forward with F-16s. We’ve already announced that we would pull down Bright Star military exercise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying that withholding military assistance will continue as long as, what?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, as I said, we want to continue to see progress being made with the interim government, civilian government, not a military government, moving toward what General al-Sissi and the interim government have said, a pathway toward inclusive, free, democratic government to include all people. Our military-to-military relationship, which is very much predicated to on the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Those decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis, and the president will continue to make those.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is extending the state of emergency another two months consistent with what you just said?

CHUCK HAGEL: Well, it is consistent. We’ve talked to him about this. I talked to al-Sissi about it. And those are the kind of things that need to be pulled down as they continue to make progress, as they say they’re going to. And I think they have made some, but there’s a long way to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a busy man.

CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much for talking with us.

CHUCK HAGEL: Thank you very much.