Full Transcript: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta Sits Down With Martha Raddatz

VIDEO: Secretary of Defense speaks with ABC News Martha Raddatz.
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MARTHA RADDATZ: Thanks for joining us, Mr. Secretary, and talking to us today. I -- I want to start with Algeria. And some of the statements you've made make it look like you are -- the U.S. is weighing options on what to do with that hostage situation.

SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, there's no question that -- when this kind of terrorist act takes place -- and it involves -- hostages -- some of whom -- are American -- that's a serious matter. And -- United States -- takes that -- very seriously -- when -- our citizens -- are put in jeopardy -- by terrorists. So for that reason -- w -- we're looking at the situation -- very closely to determine exactly what happened, exactly -- what the situation is there on the ground. And -- then -- you can be assured that -- we're looking at -- all of the necessary steps -- that -- that we need to take in order to deal with that situation.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And what kind of things are you looking at?

SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, I -- you know, I -- I'm not gonna go into particulars here. But -- obviously we're gonna -- look at -- at what the situation is -- how best to address it -- how can we -- bring our -- our military assets to bear in order to deal with it and h -- and also basically talk with the other countries that are involved here. There are a number of other countries that are in the same situation with these individuals. How can we -- how can we address that as -- that situation together?

MARTHA RADDATZ: What is the latest you know about what's going on there right now, where the hostages are, the -- the Algerians have surrounded the place, what the hostage takers are doing or saying?

SECRETARY PANETTA: Yeah, I mean, I -- you know, frankly -- the information's pretty sketchy. We don't -- you know -- this is -- an area that's -- in a pretty remote area of Algeria. And -- we know it involves a BP installation -- and the people that work there. But -- beyond that -- you know, just how many hostages are being held, where they're being held -- you know, the individuals -- that are involved here, I mean, that -- that's the kind of -- information we're hoping to get more of so that we can better assess just exactly what is the situation on the ground and therefore what do we -- what do we need to do in order to address it.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And you said possibly as many as 100 hostages?

SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, there -- there were -- I think about 100 people that were involved -- in the -- the facility there. How many of them are actually being held hostage we just don't know.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And perhaps seven, eight Americans?

SECRETARY PANETTA: That -- the first estimates -- indicate that -- somewhere in that vicinity might be -- you know, those that are being held. But again I just want to -- want to make clear that -- the information we're getting is very sketchy. And -- right now we just really don't know -- how many are being held.

MARTHA RADDATZ: But -- but do you believe they're being held by Al Qaeda affiliated militants?

SECRETARY PANETTA: I don't think there's any question that -- based on what we do know that this was -- a terrorist act and -- that the terrorists -- have affiliation with Al Qaeda.

MARTAH RADDATZ: And do you believe this has something to do with Mali and the action -- the French led action that's taking place in Mali?

SECRETARY PANETTA: You know -- the exact motivations -- again I'm -- I'm just not sure of. All I do know is that -- when you're dealing with -- with affiliates of Al Qaeda -- that they're terrorists and they will do terrorist acts. And that's what they've done here. We've faced this kind of terrorism (CELL PHONE RINGS) from Al Qaeda -- we've faced this kind of terrorism from Al Qaeda -- beginning with 9/11. We faced it -- we faced it in Pakistan, we faced it in Afghanistan. We've seen it in Somalia, we've seen it in Yemen. And now we're seeing it -- in -- in Algeria. That's what terrorists do. They have n -- they have total disregard for -- innocent men and women and children. And it's reflected in what they just did here in Algeria.

MARTHA RADDATZ: I know you have been concerned about Mali for a long time. What kind of involvement do you see the U.S. having there? And is there a red line that would be crossed in Mali where the U.S. would put boots on the ground?

SECRETARY PANETTA: You know, I -- I think right now that -- and I've always felt this way about -- Mali is that -- the best way to address that -- is -- with the international community working with African nations -- to determine exactly, you know, w -- where -- where -- is AQIM located, where are the targets of opportunity and how can we address those targets -- together. And -- what France has done here -- which -- which I commend -- is to try to stop the momentum of -- AQIM to establish a base of operations in Mali. And -- we are obviously -- working with the international community to determine -- what kind of -- assistance can be provided -- and also -- working with France to determine exactly what the objectives have to be. The key, I think, is that ultimately the African nations, particularly the West African nations -- ECOWAS have to ultimately go in and resume responsibility for providing security in Mali. That—

MARTHA RADDATZ: So you don't ever see -- American boots on the ground with this situation in Mali?

SECRETARY PANETTA: Not at this time.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And how concerned should Americans be about the Al Qaeda presence there? Why should Americans be concerned about an Al Qaeda presence in Mali?

SECRETARY PANETTA: Americans have to be concerned about Al Qaeda wherever they are -- they're at. You know, we've -- we've made clear -- both in my past job as director of the C.I.A. and in this job that Al Qaeda should have no place to hide. We've gotta go after 'em wherever they are. Because -- they have made v -- very clear that their primary objective is to attack the United States of America. And -- as long as that is their objective -- we have to confront them and make sure that -- we do everything possible -- to deter them from doing that -- to go after their leadership -- and to ensure that the American people are kept safe. That's -- that's been the challenge of the last ten years. And AQIM in Mali represents just another facet of Al Qaeda trying to establish a base of operations from which ultimately they could -- try to attack the United States and Europe. And that's unacceptable.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And -- let's move to Syria if we can. There was a report of a State Department cable that said there was very strong evidence that in fact the Syrians had used chemical weapons, specifically Agent 15, in homes in late December.

SECRETARY PANETTA: You know, I -- I have not -- seen that information -- directly. And f -- from what I know -- we -- we still remain very concerned about -- obviously the CBW sites, the chemical and biological weapons sites that are there in Syria -- and -- ensuring that -- they are secured -- and that they don't fall into the wrong hands -- and that -- also that they're not used against -- their own citizens.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Do you believe they have been used in any way?

SECRETARY PANETTA: I don't -- I don't believe that they have been used against their citizens -- you know -- as we would imagine chemical weapons being used in that kind of battle. I think -- I think they have moved this stuff around, they've moved it from one place to the other. I think they have put together some of the ingredients involved -- in putting a bomb together that involves -- chemical and biological weapons. And -- it could very well be that people in that process -- could have been impacted. Who knows? But we have not seen -- intelligence that -- they have -- deliberately used this against their own people.

MARTHA RADDATZ: When you say they've put these ingredients together, do they have artillery shells loaded and ready to go right now?

SECRETARY PANETTA: Our biggest concern was the intelligence we received that -- they were in fact -- putting together these ingredients into shells that -- could then be deployed against their own people. And that's when the president spoke out about it -- expressed our concern and made very clear that that's a red line for us.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And you remain concerned meaning they're still loaded and ready to go?

SECRETARY PANETTA: From what we know -- what they -- what they put together -- remains put together. And -- you know, we've -- we've -- continued to send a very clear message to them that -- they must not deploy these kinds of weapons against their own people.

MARTHA RADDATZ: How quickly could they load those weapons and use them?

SECRETARY PANETTA: It would take a while. They'd have to -- obviously decide whether they're gonna put 'em on planes or try to load 'em into artillery -- you know, weapons of one kind or another. There are different ways to deploy this stuff. But—

MARTHA RADDATZ: And we're talking about minutes, hours?

SECRETARY PANETTA: I think it -- you know, it's the kind of thing that -- would still take a matter of hours to be able to do it.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And let's talk about Iran. Obviously that is a looming problem for the next secretary of defense and was one of your biggest challenges as well. Every day do they move closer to a nuclear weapons program?

SECRETAY PANETTA: You know -- every day that -- they continue -- the enrichment process -- and every day that they fail to -- sit down and negotiate -- limitations on their ability to -- to enrich and limitations -- that make very clear that they should never be able to develop a nuclear weapon, every day that they do not sit down and negotiate this issue -- indicates -- that th -- the world, the international community has to make very clear to them that -- we will not accept a nuclear armed Iran, period.

MARTHA RADDATZ: You saw Benjamin Netanyahu last year, the end of last year draw that ticking time bomb. It looked like spring was the timeline for the Israelis. Do you still believe that the Israelis will take military action by spring, summer?

SECRETARY PANETTA: You know -- the thing that I've -- I've observed in the time that -- I've been secretary and have -- worked with my counterparts in -- in Israel is that -- we really do have the same objective here. The objective is to make sure that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon. And -- the international community has come together on that same issue. It's very organized, it's im -- it's implemented the toughest sanctions -- that we can against Iran. We're all seeking to try to send a clear message that they should negotiate and try to resolve these issues. But -- I -- I think that at this point in time, you know, all of us need to -- to make clear that the first priority is to sit and negotiate. The last option ought to be military action. And we have to have very clear intelligence that they are in fact -- developing a nuclear weapon before military action should be taken.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Move to Afghanistan. How many troops do you think we'll have in Afghanistan by the end of this year? Could it be fewer than thirty s -- 30,000?

SECRETARY PANETTA: You know -- I'm -- General Allen has -- h -- has -- has looked at -- at the situation -- that we're facing right now in Afghanistan. I mean, he does think that -- good progress has been made on his -- his -- combat plan for Afghanistan. We're looking at -- some time in the late spring -- turning over combat operations to the Afghans. And we'll -- we'll be in support. And that's -- that's a good thing. But -- you know, we're still in for a fighting season -- in the summer. And the last tranche of districts to be transferred will take place in August. So that's -- that's kind of a critical period. If we get through that critical period, I think the likelihood is that -- General Allen will recommend, you know -- a drawdown -- towards the end of 2013. We'll have to maintain a s -- a sufficient force to deal with the elections which will take place in 2014. And after those elections we'll then do the final drawdown towards the end of 2014. What the exact numbers are, I think we're still waiting for those recommendations from General Allen.

MARTHA RADDATZ: But could you see after this fighting season cutting the troops in half? I mean, if you get through that fighting season, why not?

SECRETARY PANETTA: You know, I -- I don't even want to jump to that conclusion at this point because I think we have a long way to go. We've gotta get -- you know, we've gotta get through these next few months, we've gotta provide the lead on combat operations to the Afghans with -- ISAF and support. I think I -- I'd like to see how that plays out during -- I would like to see -- the -- the United States look at -- you know, what happens during these next -- summer months where the -- where we'll still face the fighting -- from the Taliban -- look at how the final tranche is put into place. 'Cause don't forget, those are the toughest areas on the east that have to be transitioned to -- Afghan control and security. And then based on that -- make decisions -- for what the level of drawdown ought to be.

MARTHA RADDATZ: In the future when U.S. troops are gone or there remain a few thousand at the end of 2014 it would seem that we would be more reliant on drone strikes. I don't know if you heard General McChrystal say that he's concerned about overuse of drones and that resentment created much greater -- resentment is created -- to a much greater degree than Americans realize because of these drone strikes. Do you worry about that?

SECRETARY PANETTA: You know, I worry most about -- Al Qaeda and -- those that -- continue to -- attack -- our troops and -- those that continue to plan attacks on our country. Th -- I mean, you know -- I --

MARTHA RADDATZ: Is there any part of you that thinks Americans should know more about the drone war, what we're doing—

SECRETARY PANETTA: Yeah—

MARTHA RADDATZ: --how many civilians are killed as well—

SECRETARY PANETTA: No, I -- I would -- I -- I -- I wish frankly that -- that Americans -- you know, could -- could really see what I've seen as director of the C.I.A. and now as secretary of defense in terms of -- our use of operations to go after those that have attacked our country. I think, you know, we've made a commitment that what happened on 9/11 should never happen again and that the message is you attack America and you don't get away with it. That's the key. And -- a key part of that has obviously been the use of -- you know, of -- of -- the operations -- involving the drones that -- target those that -- are in the leadership in Al Qaeda. And that's a reality. We've decimated their leadership as a result of those operations. So -- you know, my -- my view of it is, you know, it's not something that we're gonna have to continue to use -- forever. But it's a very effective tool, it's a very effective weapon at going after those who are enemies of the United States of America.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Okay, two -- two more quick questions. And North Korea, are you seeing that they're preparing for a nuclear test?

SECRETARY PANETTA: I haven't seen -- you know, the -- direct evidence that -- they're in the process of -- of doing that. The rumors are always that once they do a missile shot they always follow it with -- a nuclear test of some kind -- you know, to -- kind of -- pr -- provoke -- the international community. I wouldn't be surprised if they were -- thinking about doing that, but I have not seen any direct intelligence indicating that that's the case.

MARTHA RADDATZ: All right, on a lighter subject or maybe not a lighter subject. (LAUGH) Have you seen—

SECRETARY PANETTA: There's not a lot of light subjects here. (LAUGH)

MARTHA RADDATZ: Yeah, compared to the other subjects I guess it is. Have you seen "Zero Dark Thirty?"

SECRETARY PANETTA: I have seen "Zero Dark Thirty?"

MARTHA RADDATZ: So what did you think?

SECRETARY PANETTA: It's a great movie. (LAUGH) You know, it's a great movie. But when you've lived what h -- what was -- what happened -- th -- as -- as far as the main subject of that movie is concerned -- you know, I -- I know a lot about -- you know, the kind of human effort that was involved here on all sides to deal with it and -- I wish you could tell that story, but in two hours you can't.

MARTHA RADDATZ: But was it factual in -- in ways—

SECRETARY PANETTA: I think -- I mean, I think they did a good job at kind of -- you know, indicating how some of this was pieced together. But as I said, there were an awful lot of people involved in that effort. It was a lot of teamwork th -- that was involved on the intelligence side, on the military side -- working with the White House. And the problem is in a movie that lasts two hours you just cannot do justice to -- the effort that was made to go after Bin Laden.

MARTHA RADDATZ: And in terms of the enhanced interrogation, that has created a lot of controversy. Did you think that was an accurate portrayal in that movie?

SECRETARY PANETTA: I don't know frankly. I mean, I -- I was not a part of -- you know, of those decisions and never did see or witness -- anything like that. And thank God I didn't. So I -- I can't tell you whether it was accurate or not. Obviously it was something that was used. As I've indicted in the past -- I know obviously there were some bits of information that came from that. But frankly—

MARTHA RADDATZ: That led to Bin Laden?

SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, I think -- I think when you look at the intelligence effort that was involved here, it pieced together an awful lot of information that came from a lot of directions. I can't tell you that any once piece of information was key to leading to Bin Laden. Because in the intelligence business you have to depend on a lot of sources, a lot of intelligence in order to determine how you -- how you're able to achieve a mission.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Final question about that. How about the portrayal of Leon Panetta (LAUGH) by Tony Soprano?

SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, you know, thank God it was an Italian. That's probably the best I can tell you. (LAUGH)

MARTHA RADDATZ: He had an apology or something for playing you?

SECRETARY PANETTA: He wrote a note and said, "You know, as an Italian I'm sure, you know, you probably have a lot of concerns about how I played your role." But you know, the -- the reality is I like him, I like him as an actor. I've met him before. And -- he did a great job in the movie.

MARTHA RADDATZ: Thank you, sir.

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