Oct. 6, 2009— -- Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spend most of their time together in the White House's situation room, a windowless domain where they privately discuss top secret issues such as whether the United States needs a troop surge in Afghanistan, they said Monday.
"Private" is exactly how the top cabinet members want that discussion to remain but, instead, has become a matter of public debate in recent weeks.
"When we did the surge in Iraq, there was no public discussion during that surge by people involved in that debate," Gates said during a taping of CNN's "Amanpour" show, scheduled to air today at 3:00 p.m. ET on CNN and public radio stations. "The president made his decisions ... [we] then went to the Hill to testify. And Gen. [David] Petraeus then followed. That is exactly what is going to happen in this instance."
The sit-down was moderated by CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, who asked the secretaries whether they thought Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, was "muzzled" from speaking publically about his assessment of the war in Afghanistan.
"It would put, I believe, Gen. McChrystal in an impossible spot to go up in a hyper-partisan environment to the Hill before the president made his decisions, and put the general on the spot," Gates said. "I just think that's wrong."
The White House has scheduled meetings this week to discuss the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy that will include Clinton and Gates this week. The meetings come at a time of enormous political pressure to decide whether to change U.S. strategy and raise troop levels after more deadly attacks. Gates said it will be one of the most important decisions of Obama's presidency.
"The reality is because of our inability and the inability, frankly, of our allies to put enough troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban do have a moment now it seems," Gates said.
Af-Pak Border 'Epicenter of Jihad'
"There's no question in my mind that if the Taliban took control of significant portions of Afghanistan that that would be added space for al Qaeda to strengthen itself and do more recruitment and more fundraising."
Gates, who also served under President George W. Bush during the war in Iraq, said the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was the "epicenter of jihad."
"We are not leaving Afghanistan," Gates said.
Calling McChrystal the right man to command the war in Afghanistan, Gates applauded McChrystal for relying less on air power. In recent weeks, Vice President Joe Biden has argued that unmanned drones in Pakistan's tribal areas are more successful at taking out al Qaeda's top leaders and rely less on troop levels.
On Iran, Clinton and Gates said they didn't know whether Iran wanted to resolve its nuclear issue.
"Whether they have begun a weaponization program is hard to say," Gates said.
Gates suggested that there are more secret nuclear sites in Iran when he added that a U.S. objective was to determine "what nuclear sites might they be prepared to be transparent about that have not been declared at this point."
Clinton said the U.S.-Iran talks last week were worthwhile, and the inspections of the discovered nuclear site are going forward quickly.
During the talks last week, Clinton said, the Iranians agreed in theory that they would ship out low-enriched uranium for processing, and a team of experts will determine exactly how that will be carried out within 10 days.
"And they agreed that there will be another meeting, which means that this process doesn't just drag on without any continuity," Clinton said.
The CNN interview was not open but free to George Washington students.
Jack Greenhouse, 18, a freshman, attended the event, in part, because he thought about the young men his age who're fighting and dying in Afghanistan.
The event coincided with the same day that October was declared one of the bloodiest months in Afghanistan, when eight soldiers were killed in an attack and two others died from a roadside bomb.
"I went to a high school with a very large ROTC program," he said, "and there are kids that I know who are over there training right now. So it is a big deal."