Adm. Mullen On Last Day As Joint Chiefs Chairman

Steve Inskeep talks with Adm. Mike Mullen about his tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in part two of a conversation continued from Thursday. Mullen is retiring, finishing a career that began on a warship firing guns at the shore of Vietnam.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

News of the death comes on the last day of work for the nation's top military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, who's retiring, finishing a career that began in a warship firing guns at the shore of Vietnam.

MIKE MULLENS CHAIRMAN: We had five inch, manual guns. But we'd fired so many rounds out of those guns that they literally would melt. These five inch steel guns, they would turn bright red as if you're looking at a coal in a barbecue.

INSKEEP: More recently, Admiral Mullen's job came with a different kind of heat. As we heard yesterday, he tried to improve relations with Pakistan only to finish by accusing Pakistan of backing militant groups. He's also overseen the war in Afghanistan. Last week, he told Congress the military campaign there is going well; but the effort to build a legitimate government is not.

STAFF: The military side of this is just a necessary side of it. It's not sufficient. There's got to be decent governance at the local level, in the local villages, local districts, in the provinces. There's got to be resources that flow to those provinces and people. And we've got to get to a point where the Afghan people trust their own government. And that speaks to governance. It speaks to corruption and corruption is still a huge challenge.

Certainly the goal is not to eliminate all corruption. But the Afghan people have to feel as though they're working for a government that's working for them. And too many of them, right now, don't feel that way.

INSKEEP: Is there likely to be a legitimate and reasonably stable and less corrupt government in 2014, when you want Afghans in the lead in Afghanistan, than there is now?

STAFF: What I would hope for, at that point in time, is that we've taken significant steps in that direction and clearly there is a trend. What I worry about is if there isn't. That even with the security conditions dramatically improved, we will not have a government that's in touch with its people and that the people trust. And in the end, that's not going to work.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you about another issue, Admiral. Of course, near the end of your tenure, "don't ask, don't tell" ended inside the military. It's just been a few days. What parts of that change are still unanswered in your mind?

STAFF: The question I get is about benefits, and there are some benefits that accrue to the change which has already taken place and there are other benefits which are directly tied to DOMA, which is the Defense of Marriage Act, which is a law in the country and we follow the law. And so until that changes, there are not going to be any changes to the benefits.

INSKEEP: You felt that it was a moral issue to treat gay soldiers in the military the same as others.

STAFF: I felt it was an integrity issue. I felt it was an issue that was driven inside an organization that values integrity, which has been bedrocked in me since I was a midshipman in the '60s. And I could never reconcile the fact that integrity is one of our values, and yet I would ask thousands to show up to work every day, and in some cases die for their country, and then have to lie about who they were.

INSKEEP: Could that issue of integrity also be brought to bear on these related questions, or questions that flow from the decision having to do with gay marriage, having to do with spousal benefits, treating people equally?

STAFF: From my perspective, the major issue with respect to integrity had to do with the need to cover up your life, lie about your personal relationships, constantly, as a way of life. And to me that's fundamentally different from whether benefit A, B, or C should be given to certain individuals.

INSKEEP: A couple of other questions, Admiral, and I'll let you go. I know your time is short. I could ask, for a long time, about budget matters. I'm just going to ask...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: But let me ask this. You have already helped direct the military into a position where you're prepared to reduce the increase in spending over the next decade, considerable savings, hundreds of billions of dollars in savings.

STAFF: Right.

INSKEEP: The military, after you leave it will face the possibility, the prospect of hundreds of billions of dollars more, as soon as this supercommittee, for example, comes to a decision, or does not.

STAFF: Right.

INSKEEP: Can the military take it?

STAFF: If the decision ? I think we have to pay our fair share, I've been pretty clear about saying that I think the number one threat to our national security is our debt - we've got to get our arms around that and headed in the right direction - that we have to pay our fair share of this. We just have to be careful.

If we get to $1.2 trillion or some number like that that we've got to remove over the next 10 years, we're going to be a lot smaller and we're going to have to do a lot less. And particularly, if this sequester part of the law essentially occurs?

INSKEEP: If the supercommittee does?

STAFF: If the supercommittee, yeah, does not do what it is supposed to do and their sequester goes into effect, the way that it gets executed it effects almost every single account. So it ? from my point of view, it has a very, very strong chance of breaking us. And in the world we're living in right now, I think that would be dangerous.

INSKEEP: Breaking you, what does that mean?

STAFF: It means eroding training and readiness. It means not being able to modernize, because of the way it hits every single account. So it will break programs, and it has great potential to dramatically hollow out the force. And do it very, very rapidly.

INSKEEP: Admiral Mullen, thanks very much.

STAFF: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Did I miss anything important you want to get at or is there anything particularly wrong?

STAFF: Yeah, there's one story that's really opening up right now that you didn't ask me about.

INSKEEP: What's that?

STAFF: I can't tell you. No, I'm kidding.

INSKEEP: Admiral Mike Mullen speaking earlier this week. He is retiring today as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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