MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates leaves office later this month, concluding a long career of public service. Gates has held two of the biggest jobs in Washington. He was a career CIA analyst who rose through the ranks to become director of Central Intelligence, and his career was not without setbacks. In 1987, Gates's first bid to head the agency was scuttled by allegations that he was less than candid about what he knew about Iran Contra. His confirmation hearing was contentious.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
Mr. ROBERT GATES (CIA Analyst): He did not believe, at that time, that the activity that had taken place over that weekend required a finding and that's still the view of general counsel.
Unidentified Man #1: Mr. Gates, you're flatly - you're flatly wrong.
SIEGEL: After eventually heading the CIA under President George H.W. Bush, Gates traded Washington for academia. And then, in 2006, President George W. Bush nominated him for Secretary of Defense to take over from Donald Rumsfeld. His confirmation then was a coronation remembered for the two-word answer he gave to this question.
(Soundbite of archived audio)
Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Gates, do you believe that we are currently winning in Iraq?
Mr. GATES (Secretary of Defense Nominee): No, sir.
SIEGEL: Robert Gates is far more bullish now about the war in Iraq. He spoke about that yesterday on the program. When I sat down with him last week, I asked him about another battle he's fighting at the Defense Department, cutting its budget.
In a recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, you said essentially that the $700 billion the Pentagon has spent in the last decade on modernization has largely been wasted, that it's resulted in gains - very small gains in actual capacity.
First, what confidence do you have that another 700 billion would do a lot better and why? How is it that we can spend so much money on defense and not...
Sec. GATES: Well, first of all, I didn't say it was wasted. I said we had not been able to significantly increase our military capabilities over that decade. Now, part of it is the cost for the Department of Defense in a variety of areas that have nothing to do with military equipment have skyrocketed. Military pay has skyrocketed. Military healthcare, the healthcare budget in the Defense Department has gone from $19 billion in 2000, to $55 billion now. And that's where I've been focusing my efforts to try and claw back some of that money.
SIEGEL: Claw back? I mean, will military pay flatten out or can you bend the curve on it over the years? Can you do a better job with healthcare costs than the folks at Medicare can do?
Sec. GATES: Well, first of all, the Congress every year has added a half percent to whatever recommendation the president and I have made for increased military pay. And, you know, over time, that adds up to real money.
SIEGEL: You mean, the Congress is saying, pay them more, is what you're saying. Yeah.
Sec. GATES: Yeah. The first year I had the job, I went in for a two and a half percent pay increase and the Congress voted three. This year I put in 1.4 and the House just voted out 1.6 so we're getting close.
SIEGEL: But no one in Congress could say, Gates, you can't meet a payroll, what's the matter with you? They keep raising the pay on you all the time.
Sec. GATES: Well, don't get me started. On the healthcare, first of all, the only healthcare changes that we're talking about are for working-age retirees. We're not talking about anybody in the force today. But the fees for TRICARE, for the military working-age retirees, have not gone up since the program was started in 1995.
Now, a regular federal civil servant pays about $4,500 a year in healthcare premiums. The cost of TRICARE for a family for a year is $460. And we are asking for the radical change of moving it to 520.
SIEGEL: Does it strike you as strange that in Washington you can open up the local newspaper, turn on the local radio and hear or see an advertisement for a defense project that's being argued that you might even not want?
Sec. GATES: It has come as a real eye-opener. Especially, since I figure that somehow, somewhere, the cost of those ads is rolled into one of our contracts.
SIEGEL: You'll end up paying for that ad, is what you see.
You've warned that I'm looking ahead now a bit - once we do draw down forces from both Iraq and Afghanistan, let's say, you've expressed some concern that the military could be returned to the state that it was in or something like the state it was in post-Vietnam in the 1970s. But I wonder, if there is no superpower rival out there, whom are we to defend ourselves? What is going to be the point of the U.S. military over the next couple of decades?
Sec. GATES: Well, first of all, you have Iran and North Korea, both of whom are developing nuclear weapons. North already has them. You have a very aggressive weapons-building program in China. You have a revolution throughout the Middle East. There are - the U.S. military has never been at a loss in being told to find things to do. They've always had a full menu.
And the question is, post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq, do you need the size ground forces that we have now. The Marine Corps already is planning to come down by about 15,000. The Army is planning to come down by about 27,000. That would still leave them about 40,000 troops bigger than when I became secretary of Defense.
SIEGEL: Does that mean that in the event of a conflict that we would see the same reliance on the Reserves and the National Guard that we saw in those wars? That's life now. That's (unintelligible) works.
Sec. GATES: I think so, absolutely.
SIEGEL: People who enter those services should know what they're in for. This was not an odd time.
Sec. GATES: And the truth is, everybody who has joined the National Guard or the Reserves since 2001 knew that they were going to be deployed.
SIEGEL: At the end of our interview, I asked Robert Gates about his role in the decision to send more troops to Iraq in 2007, the so-called surge that's seen as having turned the tide there. Before he became secretary of Defense, Gates was a member of the Iraq Study Group, which recommended withdrawal from Iraq. And because of that, it's been assumed he was a surge skeptic. Not so, says Gates.
Sec. GATES: Because the fact is, the last thing I wrote to Lee Hamilton and to Jim Baker...
SIEGEL: These were the co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group.
Sec. GATES: ...the co-chairs of the Iraq Study Group, was that I thought there should be a surge.
SIEGEL: So you were on the surge wing of the Iraq study...
Sec. GATES: And I will write about this later, but I was not the only one. When we came back from Iraq in September of 2006, I think the study group was heading in one direction. After I left and after the November election, it went in a different direction. So I've never really sat down and talked with Baker or Leon.
Leon Panetta was a member of the Iraq Study Group. So I don't know. But I was persuaded when we were in Baghdad in September of '06 that if you couldn't control Baghdad, you could never pacify the country and that required more troops.
SIEGEL: And one final note. Secretary Gates told us that he's had lunch with Leon Panetta, the man expected to replace him, and Gates's advice: appreciate the sense of scale. The Pentagon's healthcare budget is bigger than the CIA's entire budget. Gates says there is very little that actually prepares you for the job that he is about to leave.