'This Week' Transcript: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

PHOTO: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is interviewed by Jake Tapper on "This Week."

TAPPER: Good morning. Welcome to THIS WEEK.


TAPPER (voice-over): On this Memorial Day weekend, our exclusive headliner, the secretary of defense, Leon Panetta. He's charged with winding down the war in Afghanistan, preventing Iran from going nuclear, and defending the nation against a resurgent Al Qaida. Can he do it? What keeps him up at night?

Then --

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While the Facebook IPO turns from frenzy to fiasco. Those stories and the rest of the week's politics with our "Powerhouse Roundtable," George Will, Jennifer Granholm, Liz Claman, Nia-Malika Henderson and Ron Brownstein.

ANNOUNCER: From ABC News, THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS. It's your voice, your vote, reporting from the Newseum in Washington, Jake Tapper.


TAPPER: Good morning, everyone. George Stephanopoulos has a well-deserved morning off. This Memorial Day weekend as the country pays tribute to its fallen heroes, we also remember that for the eleventh consecutive Memorial Day, we are a nation at war with 88,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines fighting in Afghanistan. And countless others monitoring hot spots around the globe. On war ships in the Persian Gulf amidst the nuclear standoff with Iran. Down the Arabian peninsula in Yemen as al Qaeda continues to threaten to attack the U.S. homeland. In Pakistan, where tensions with our supposed ally continue to mount. And from the South China Sea and the world's largest nation, China, seeks to build its military might.

And to talk about all of this, let's bring in our exclusive headliner, the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta. Secretary Panetta, welcome back to "This Week."

LEON PANETTA, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Nice to be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: So, I want to get to some specifics in a moment. But before I do, just broadly speaking, in this era of terrorist threats, nonstop terrorist threats, as a former director of the CIA and the current secretary of defense, what is it like having this responsibility? How often does a terrifying message come on your desk about some threat, and you just think, oh my God?

PANETTA: Well, you don't get a hell of a lot of sleep, let's put it that way. There are a lot of challenges. You know, as director of the CIA, got an awful lot of intelligence about all the horrible things that could go on across the world. In this job, I get the same intelligence but I'm responsible for a lot of the operations dealing with those threats.

But I have probably the greatest strength of our country is the men and women in uniform that serve this country, put their lives on the line. And that's something that I get to see up close and I'm very proud of them and proud of what they do.

TAPPER: So, turning to Afghanistan, which might be one of the biggest challenges – definitely one of the biggest challenges that the nation faces right now and you face. At the NATO summit, President Obama and the administration made it clear that the combat mission ends come midnight December 31, 2014. But the chairs of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees just returned from Afghanistan and they say that from their briefings there, they believe that the Taliban is actually stronger now than since the surge began.

Do we have a plan in place in case after the U.S. combat mission ends, Afghanistan or parts of it start falling to the Taliban?

PANETTA: Well the most important point is that we're not going anyplace. We're gonna, we have an enduring presence that will be in Afghanistan. We'll continue to work with them on counterterrorism. We'll continue to provide training, assistance, guidance. We'll continue to provide support.

We are making good progress. I mean, the Taliban, my view is that they have been weakened. We have not seen them able to conduct any kind of organized attack to regain any territory that they've lost. We've seen levels of violence going down. We've seen an Afghan army that is much more capable at providing security. We've seen transitions take place where we're beginning to transition. Now we're at about 50 percent of their population that's been transitioned to their control. We're going to be at 75 percent --

TAPPER: Right, but Secretary-

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