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Full Interview: Ash Carter on a military turning point for women in combat

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.

    Today, you announced that you're going to open many combat roles in the military to women. There have been countless reports about the pros and cons of this.

    How did you finally reach your decision?

  • ASH CARTER:

    Well, we had done, over a period of several years, a number of studies. We'd surveyed before, done experiments. And then I received recommendations from the secretary of the Army, the secretary of the Navy, the secretary of the Air Force, the head of our Special Operations Command about special op — women in special operations, and all of our joint chiefs of staff.

    And I took all that data and all their suggestions and recommendations into account, and came to the decision to open up all remaining military specialties to females.

    And the reason for that is simply this. We have an all-volunteer military, and in order to have — as we have in the future what we have today, which is the finest fighting force the world has ever known, I need to be able to reach into the entirety of the American population because remember, it's an all-volunteer force. So I want to recruit from all pools.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    In fact, you said today was quality of opportunities does not guarantee a quality of participation.

  • ASH CARTER:

    No.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Explain what you mean by that.

  • ASH CARTER:

    Well, there are some areas — for example, some of the specialties being opened up today — where physical endurance and raw physical ability is an important part, and for example, loading an artillery piece.

    Now, there are women who can do that and there are women who can do it better than some men. But you can't — the data shows very clearly that on average, women in that age cohort don't have those physical abilities in as great a proportion as men do.

    So you can expect specialties like that will not have as many men in them — or, sorry, women in them as men.

    And that's — and we need to — remember, we need — what we're — we're focused here on is mission effectiveness — protecting our country and protecting our people. That's the principal reason to do this, and so we're going to need to do it according to standards, and…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    It has been widely…

  • ASH CARTER:

    …no quotas.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    …yes, with no quotas.

    It has been widely reported, however, about the disagreement among some branches of the military about this, including among the Marines. How did you cope with those objections — that this would be a threat to unit cohesion, that this would be a social experiment gone wrong?

  • ASH CARTER:

    Well, all of the service secretaries and the — the head of Special Operations Command and all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, except one, recommended that we open up all of the specialties for which they are responsible.

    The commandant of the Marine Corps recommended that we open up most Marine Corps specialties, but not a few. I listened very carefully to what he said, particularly since he's the same person — this is General Joe Dunford — that I recommended to the president be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and therefore my and the president's senior military adviser.

    So he's a man of great experience and wisdom. I listen to him in everything. I listened to him in this regard as well, and…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And yet you overruled him in the end.

  • ASH CARTER:

    In this regard, I came to a different conclusion. I — I agreed with much of what he said, and — and — but not that particular matter.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    If you compare this to other turning points in the military — the integration of the force, "don't ask, don't tell," the adjustment to cyber-warfare — how does this rank in terms of the potential change this will bring to the nation's military?

  • ASH CARTER:

    Well, I'm incredibly proud of this place, because when they take something on, they do it well. When they take on new technology — you mentioned cyber — they take it on well. When we took on "don't ask, don't tell," we did it in a quality, thoughtful way that made it a — a success, as "don't ask, don't tell" has been. We'll make a success of this as well.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I want to change the topic for a moment and talk to you a little bit about something you testified to Congress about earlier this week, which is our escalation of American, for lack of a better phrase, "boots on the ground" in Iraq and Syria.

    You said we are at war. Could you better define for me what that means?

  • ASH CARTER:

    Well, I — I mean, I was using it in a very common-sense way, not in a legalistic way. This is an enemy that must be defeated, that will be defeated. It requires a level of commitment and dedication and effort on our part that deserves that word.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    But how — pardon me. How effective can you be when Prime Minister Abadi and many everyday Iraqis look at the idea of an increased U.S. presence as a threat?

  • ASH CARTER:

    Prime Minister Abadi welcome the U.S. presence, and he has —

  • GWEN IFILL:

    He sent kind of a mixed message on that.

  • ASH CARTER:

    — well I think what Prime Minister Abadi wants and does receive is that — is he is consulted and we have his consent every time we operate in his country.

    Now, it's true that Prime Minister Abadi, even though I believe — I've talked to him many times — has the right ideas for the future of Iraq, Baghdad's a complicated place and he doesn't always get his way. That we watch very carefully, and it does affect —

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So there's a little internal politics going on there?

  • ASH CARTER:

    Oh, enormous internal politics there. And some of that's OK. Abadi's strategy towards governing Iraq makes sense, which he calls it decentralization. So Sunnis and Kurds and Shi'a all live together in one country. They're not at each other all the time, but they have enough localized rule that they're not under one another's thumb. That's the idea, that's as good as it gets in Iraq.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    I know that you are aware of the criticisms which have come from Capitol Hill because you were there. And the committee chairman, Mac Thornberry, told us the night that you testified on the NewsHour that your approach is too gradual, that you're being responsive rather than acting and that the White House is essentially micromanaging our military action from, as he put it, the basement of the White House.

  • ASH CARTER:

    Not true. We are looking — we're not reacting, we're actually on the initiative. We're looking for every way we can to attack and destroy ISIL. The strategy, the fundamentals of our strategy in Iraq and Syria is that — not only to defeat ISIL, but to inflict a lasting defeat.

    And as far as the White House is concerned, the president tells me the same thing I tell our military commanders, which is when you have a — another way of going at this, we're going to do it.

    Now, we just — what I was describing up on Capitol Hill earlier is that it's several different ways that we've improved our campaign just in the last few weeks.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You were describing warfare that we are familiar with. But ISIL, as far as we can tell, given what happened in Paris and what may be happening here in our own — within our own borders — is far more all over the place than that.

    How do we deal with the idea that ISIL is radicalizing enemies around the world that boots on the ground can't approach?

  • ASH CARTER:

    Well, exactly right. And that's why it's boots are important in Iraq and Syria. By the way, I just remind you that we have 3,500 boots on the ground in Iraq. People talk about boots on the ground, there are boots on the ground. And they're doing an excellent job. But…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Not enough, by the way, is what Thornberry says.

  • ASH CARTER:

    You're right. No. Well — well, that's — that's what I've said as well. We're looking for opportunities to put more on.

    But to get to your other point about around the world, yeah, the fight changes around the world. It changes to a — from a place like Libya or Afghanistan, where some — mostly former Taliban members have taken the ISIL flag up. And those need to be dealt with in those circumstances.

    Right here in the United States where we've had people, some of whom just loser — losers with a keyboard who get excited by ISIL propaganda and decide to take off against our fellow citizens.

    And this is the first ever social media enemy. And so it's a — it's new. Not something we can defeat, but we have to be ingenious, and that's why I'm committed to thinking and working and adapting so that we change our techniques and our avenues of attack so they don't know we're taking them by surprise and we're doing new things to defeat them. That's why I say it's a dynamic campaign.

    What I was saying in the Capitol Hill earlier this week is here are the new things that we've done just in the last two or three weeks. We're gonna keep doing that and — until they're defeated, which they will be.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, thank you very much.

  • ASH CARTER:

    Good to be with you. Thanks Gwen.

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