Transcript: Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen

Exclusive interview with President Barack Obama's top military official.

ByABC News
May 10, 2009, 7:08 AM



STEPHANOPOULOS (voice-over): Good morning, and welcome to THISWEEK. On this Memorial Day weekend, our exclusive headliner, themilitary's top man.

MULLEN: I have actually been supportive of closing Guantanamo.

They want Afghanistan back. We can't let them or their al Qaedacohorts have it.

That Iran getting a nuclear weapon is calamitous for the regionand for the world.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral MikeMullen, only on THIS WEEK.


DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: In the fight againstterrorism, there is no middle ground and half measures keep you halfexposed.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We must leave these methods where theybelong, in the past. They are not who we are. And they are notAmerica.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Who won the great debate? Who is next for theSupreme Court? That and the rest of the week's politics on ourroundtable with George Will, Donna Brazile, David Brooks of The NewYork Times, and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post.

And as always, the "Sunday Funnies."

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": Hey, President Obama hasfound a way to quickly close Guantanamo Bay. He's going to turn itinto a Pontiac dealership. Yes.


ANNOUNCER: From the heart of the nation's capital, THIS WEEKwith ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos,live from the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue.


STEPHANOPOULOS: Hello, again, I hope you're enjoying thisMemorial Day weekend. We're going to begin today with the president'stop military adviser, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the JointChiefs of Staff.

Welcome to THIS WEEK.

MULLEN: Thank you, George.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And we have a lot to cover today, but I want tobegin with the debate that really consumed Washington this week.Guantanamo Bay, whether to close it, how to close it, what to do withthe detainees. Weigh in from the perspective of the U.S. military.

MULLEN: Well, I've advocating for a long time now that it needsto be closed. President Obama made a decision very early after hisInauguration to do that by next January. And we're all working veryhard to meet that deadline.

It focuses on very difficult issues of what you do with thedetainees who are there. There are some really bad people there. Andso figuring out how we're going to keep them where they need to be,keep them off the battlefield, as well as close Gitmo itself is a realchallenge.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let's talk about keeping them off thebattlefield, because a report -- a Pentagon report was released thisweek -- or leaked this week that said about 14 percent of theGuantanamo detainees have gone back to the battlefield.

I'm trying to puzzle that out. Does that mean it was a mistaketo let them go? Or that somehow they were radicalized insideGuantanamo? That something happened to them there?

MULLEN: Well, there has been an increasing number of those whohave returned to the battlefield over the last year or two. There hasbeen hundreds and hundreds who have actually been released both fromGuantanamo over time as well as other detention facilities in Iraq andin Afghanistan.

And I think individuals make their best judgment about where theyare. And certainly from a military perspective, my advice is to focusheavily on making sure that these individuals don't return.

It has gone up in recent weeks -- or I'm sorry, in recent months,from a single digit number of 5 or 6 percent to the low teens, as faras my understanding of those who have returned.

STEPHANOPOULOS: For those detainees that have to come to theUnited States eventually, if indeed they do, would the best option befor them to be held in military prisons here in the United States?

MULLEN: We're working hard now to figure out what the optionsare and what the best one would be. And that really is a decision thepresident is going to have to make, certainly in meeting this deadlineof what we do.

But I just want to reemphasize how -- you know, the challengeassociated with that, the need to really keep the bad guys off thebattlefield, and to properly detain these individuals as determined inthis process.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But that is everybody's big concern, at least itwas expressed in the Congress this week that somehow detainees wouldcome to the United States and they would pose a danger. And the FBIdirector, Robert Mueller, said this week they could pose a risk.

MULLEN: Sure. I listened to all of that and I thought SecretaryGates also captured it well. We have terrorists in jail right now,have had for some time. They're in supermax prisons. And they don'tpose a threat. So that's certainly an option. But again, it's notone for me to decide. STEPHANOPOULOS: The Republican leader of the Senate was quotedin The New York Times today saying there's actually a very slimpossibility now that the Congress will allow Guantanamo to close.

If he's right, and Guantanamo doesn't close, what would that meanfor your military mission?

MULLEN: Well, the concern I've had about Guantanamo in thesewars is it has been a symbol, and one which has been a recruitingsymbol for those extremists and jihadists who would fight us. So andI think that centers -- you know, that's the heart of the concern forGuantanamo's continued existence, in which I spoke to a few years ago,the need to close it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You know, former Vice President Cheney took onthat debate this week. He was speaking about Guantanamo, but alsospecifically the enhanced interrogation techniques, and he took onthis issue of what he called the recruitment tool mantra. Take alisten.


CHENEY: This recruitment tool theory has become something of amantra lately, including from the president himself. And after afamiliar fashion, it excuses the violent and blames America for theevil that others do. It's another version of that same old refrainfrom the left, we brought it on ourselves.


STEPHANOPOULOS: He's taking issue with your judgment.

MULLEN: Well, again, it's my judgment that it has had an impact.And it's time to move on. And the difficulty of doing that iscaptured in the complexity of the issues. But I think we need to.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me move on to the issue of Iran. You saidthat Iran is on a path to building nuclear weapons. But the 2007National Intelligence Estimate concluded with a high degree ofconfidence that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programs. So doyou believe that intelligence estimate is outdated? Is it no longeraccurate?

MULLEN: Well, I believe then and I still believe that Iran'sstrategic objective is to achieve nuclear weapons, and that that pathcontinues. Their leadership is committed to it. They conducted amissile test this last week that was successful, which continues toimprove their missile delivery system and capability. Their intentseems very clear to me, and I'm one who believes if they achieve thatobjective, that it is incredibly destabilizing for the region. And Ithink eventually for the world.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You said it's their intent. But do you believethey've restarted their actual nuclear weapons program?

MULLEN: I haven't seen -- or I wouldn't speak to any detailsabout what they are doing with respect to that. Although, I remainconcerned that while intelligence estimates focus on what we know, I'mconcerned about what Iran might be doing that we don't know.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me also press the question of theirstrategic intent. "Newsweek" has a cover story out. Let me show you.It says that everything you think you know about Iran is wrong. Andone of the points that Fareed Zakaria makes in "Newsweek" is he pointsout on several occasions over the last several years, Iran's leadershave said they're not interested in having nuclear weapons. They havesaid that nuclear weapons are immoral. The Supreme Leader, AyatollahKhamenei actually issued a fatwah saying that these weapons are,indeed, immoral.

And I guess, it's possible they could just be lying. But it doesseem odd that a country that the Islamic Republic that bases itslegitimacy on being a guardian of Islam that would develop weaponsthat it considers immoral. That would seem to undercut their ownlegitimacy.

MULLEN: Well, I think that speaks to the importance of thedialogue that President Obama has stated he wants to initiate and toreally wring out, whether that's how the Supreme Leader feels.Certainly from what I've seen, Iran on a path to developing nuclearweapons.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you don't believe it? That they don't wantnuclear weapons.

MULLEN: At this point no.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And the chief of staff to Israel's defenseminister, General Michael Herzog, has said that Iran could actuallyhave its first nuclear weapon by the end of 2010 or the beginning of2011. Do you agree with that?

MULLEN: Well, I think you make certain assumptions about whatthey can do. Most of us believe that it's one to three years,depending on assumptions about where they are right now. But they aremoving closer, clearly, and they continue to do that. And if youbelieve their strategic intent, as I do, and as certainly my Israelicounterpart does, that's the principle concern.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And you just said that you believe that anuclear Iran would be calamitous for the region. But last year, SyHersh in the "New Yorker" reported that you pushed back very hardagainst any notion of a military strike during President Bush'sadministration. And you've spoken publicly about the unintendedconsequences of a military strike by Israel. So what worries youmore? A nuclear Iran or war with Iran?

MULLEN: Well, they both worry me a lot. And I think theunintended consequences of a strike against Iran right now would beincredibly serious. As well as the unintended consequences of theirachieving a nuclear weapon.

And so that's why this engagement in dialogue is so important. Ithink we should do that with all options on the table. As we approachthem.

And so that leaves a pretty narrow space in which to achieve asuccessful dialogue and a successful outcome, which from myperspective means they don't end up with nuclear weapons.

STEPHANOPOULOS: They don't end up with nuclear weapons, butcould they have as Japan does a full nuclear fuel cycle program that'sfully inspected?

MULLEN: I think that's certainly a possibility and this isn't,at least, from my perspective, from the military perspective, thisisn't about them having the ability to produce nuclear power. It'sabout their desire and their goal to have a nuclear weapon.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Finally, if it comes to this, do you believeit's possible to take out Iran's program, militarily at an acceptablecost?

MULLEN: I won't speculate on what we can and can't do. Again, Iput that in the category of my very strong preference is to not be putin a position where we -- where someone -- where Iran is struck interms of taking out its nuclear capability.

STEPHANOPOULOS: OK. Let me move to Iraq then. U.S. combatforces are scheduled to complete their pullout from Iraqi cities byJune 30th. But in recent weeks, we've seen an uptick again in theviolence. Does that rise in violence mean that the deadline forpulling American forces out of the cities might not be met?

MULLEN: Oh, I think we're still very much on a track in terms ofpulling the forces out of the cities, which is the end of next month.We're on track to decrease the number of troops down to 35,000 to50,000 in August of 2010.

We've had an uptick in violence, but the overall violence levelsare at the 2003 levels. It's still fragile. There's an awful lot ofpolitical positioning and political debate that's going on right now,and I think that in great part becomes the essence of how Iraq movesforward.

I'm actually positive about what the Iraqi security forces havedone, their army and their police in terms of providing for their ownsecurity. They've improved dramatically.

So the path, I think, is still the right path. These ticks,upticks in violence are going to occur. We said that going in, eveninto -- as we talked about coming down in force. So we just have to,we have to constantly keep an eye on that.

Al Qaida is still active. They're not gone. They're verymuch...


MULLEN: Al Qaida in Iraq is very much diminished, but they stillhave potential to create these kinds of incidents.