Gates to White House: ‘Put Their Damn Pencils Down’

The former Defense secretary has blunt advice for the White House on how to prevent leaks.

Robert Gates answers questions from the media during a press briefing September 23, 2010 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
Jan. 17, 2014, 5:24 a.m.

 Former De­fense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates gave some simple ad­vice Thursday for how the ad­min­is­tra­tion can pre­vent leaks: “Tell every­one to put their damn pen­cils down.”

The com­ment about ad­min­is­tra­tion meet­ings came dur­ing a wide-ran­ging in­ter­view Thursday night at a Politico event in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. — the latest stop of his me­dia tour to pro­mote Duty, his new book about his time as sec­ret­ary for Pres­id­ent George W. Bush and Pres­id­ent Obama. The book cri­ti­cizes — and has been cri­ti­cized by — a spec­trum of top polit­ic­al of­fi­cials.

Chief among those cri­ti­cism is that Gates should have waited un­til after Obama was out of of­fice to pub­lish the book, but Gates de­fen­ded that de­cision, noth­ing that he hasn’t been “dis­loy­al” to the pres­id­ent.

“The real­ity is, if you talk with any­body in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, you’ll find I was as open in ex­press­ing my con­cerns dir­ectly, face to face, with the pres­id­ent. …What I didn’t do was be dis­loy­al to the pres­id­ent by tak­ing those con­cerns pub­lic, or leak­ing,” the former ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said.

He ad­ded that the Pentagon ap­proved the book, adding “none of this is new news, so I don’t think I’ve re­vealed any­thing that wasn’t already com­mon know­ledge.”

He said, when asked about Sen. Harry Re­id’s as­ser­tion that he is out to “make a buck,” that he will donate a “sig­ni­fic­ant” por­tion of the money brought in, in­clud­ing to or­gan­iz­a­tions that sup­port mil­it­ary mem­bers and vet­er­ans.

“It’s com­mon prac­tice on the Hill to vote on bills you haven’t read, and it’s per­fectly clear that Sen­at­or Re­id has not read the book,” Gates said, in a sharp re­sponse to the ma­jor­ity lead­er’s com­ments.

But Gates’s as­ser­tion in the book that the pres­id­ent had ser­i­ous doubts about the mis­sion in Afgh­anistan has caught wide­spread at­ten­tion. He ac­know­ledged that it is “one of the few” policy areas where he cri­ti­cizes the pres­id­ent.

“It has been in his re­luct­ance — par­tic­u­larly for the troops — on why suc­cess in Afgh­anistan is im­port­ant; why their cause is just and noble; and why their sac­ri­fice is worth­while,” he said.

The former De­fense sec­ret­ary also touched on a hand­ful of cur­rent is­sues and past ex­per­i­ences:

On his biggest pet peeve about the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion: “I think what bothered me the most is the at­tempt to mi­cro­man­age mil­it­ary af­fairs.”

On Bob Wood­ward, who was crit­ic­al of Gates’s book: “I ac­tu­ally would have really liked to re­cruit him for CIA, be­cause he has an ex­traordin­ary abil­ity to get oth­er­wise re­spons­ible adults to spill their guts to him.”

On Hil­lary Clin­ton, who Gates sidestepped ques­tions ask­ing if he would sup­port if she runs for pres­id­ent: “My po­s­i­tion — at this point and go­ing for­ward — is that I don’t think the Demo­crats are ac­tu­ally very in­ter­ested in hav­ing a Re­pub­lic­an han­di­cap­ping their 2016 race.”

On listen­ing to mem­bers of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion cri­ti­cize the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion: “[Every­one in a meet­ing] would just be trash­ing the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. What a mess they had made of for­eign and na­tion­al se­cur­ity policy. What a lousy team they had and everything. [Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair­man Mi­chael] Mul­len and I would just sit there and look at each oth­er, ‘Don’t they real­ize we were in­teg­ral mem­bers of that team. What are we in­vis­ible?’”

On mil­it­ary sexu­al as­sault: “It’s both a leg­al is­sue, but it is also a lead­er­ship is­sue. …If they find people that are neg­at­ive in this”¦ they need to be sacked. Be­cause there is noth­ing in­side a hier­arch­ic­al or­gan­iz­a­tion that gets people’s at­ten­tion like fir­ing a big shot.”

On North Korea: “We’re now on our third gen­er­a­tion of Kims, and frankly I think that with each gen­er­a­tion we have been swim­ming in a shal­low­er and shal­low­er part of the gene pool.”

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