Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–April 28, 2011 – 3:13 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Everybody, please have a seat.
Good afternoon, everybody. I want to begin by saying a few words about the devastating storms that have ripped through the southeastern United States. The loss of life has been heartbreaking, especially in Alabama. In a matter of hours, these deadly tornadoes, some of the worst that we’ve seen in decades, took mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors, even entire communities. Others are injured and some are still missing, and in many places the damage to homes and businesses is nothing short of catastrophic.
We can’t control when or where a terrible storm may strike, but we can control how we respond to it. And I want every American who has been affected by this disaster to know that the federal government will do everything we can to help you recover. And we will stand with you as you rebuild.
I’ve already spoken to the governors of Alabama, Virginia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia, and I’ve let them know that we are ready to help in any possible way.
I’ve declared a state of emergency in Alabama so that we can make all necessary resources available to that state. I’ve dispatched Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate to Alabama so that he can personally work with state and local officials, and I will travel myself to Alabama tomorrow to meet with those leading the response efforts as well as the families who are reeling from this disaster.
I also want to commend all the men and women who have been working around the clock for the last few days to save the lives of their friends and neighbors and to begin the long work of rebuilding these communities. These police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and other emergency responders are heroes, and they have the thanks of a grateful nation. We pray for their success and we stand with every American affected by this disaster in the days and weeks to come.
Now, as we meet our obligations to these Americans, we’re mindful of our obligation to the safety of all Americans, and that’s why we’re here today. As Commander-in-Chief, I have no greater responsibility than the security of the American people and the well-being of our courageous men and women in uniform and their families.
Over the past two years my administration has done whatever it takes to meet these responsibilities. We’ve been relentless against al Qaeda and its affiliates, preventing terrorist attacks and saving lives. We brought nearly 100,000 troops out of Iraq in an orderly way. We ended our combat mission. And we refocused on Afghanistan where we’re breaking the Taliban’s momentum and training Afghan forces. And from Europe to Asia, we’ve strengthened old alliances, forged new partnerships, and restored American leadership in the world.
Still, we confront urgent challenges. In Iraq we’re working to bring the rest of our troops home as Iraqis secure their democracy. In Afghanistan we’re moving into a new phase, transferring responsibility for security to Afghan forces, starting to reduce American forces this summer, and building a long-term partnership with the Afghan people.
As people across the Middle East and North Africa seek to determine their own destiny, we must ensure that America stands with those who seek their universal rights, and that includes continuing to support the international effort to protect the Libyan people. And here at home, as we make the hard decisions that are needed to reduce America’s debt, we cannot compromise our ability to defend our nation or our interests around the world.
These are some of the pressing challenges that we must meet in the pivotal days ahead, and today I am proud to announce key members of my national security team, who — along with Vice President Biden and Secretary Clinton — will help us meet them.
I’ve worked closely with most of the individuals on this stage, and all of them have my complete confidence. They are leaders of enormous integrity and talent, who’ve devoted their lives to keeping our nation strong and secure. And I am personally very, very grateful to each of them for accepting these new assignments.
Given the pivotal period that we’re entering, I felt that it was absolutely critical that we had this team in place so that we can stay focused on our missions, maintain our momentum, and keep our nation secure.
When I took office, Bob Gates had already served under seven Presidents, and he carried a clock that counted down the days — (laughter) — hours and minutes until he could return to Washington State with his wife Becky. I was able to convince him to stay for one more year — or I was able to convince him to talk to Becky about staying one more year. (Laughter.) At some point along the way, Bob threw out that clock. He is now one of the longest-serving Defense Secretaries in American history. And as a grateful nation, we can all agree that Bob has more than earned the right to return to private life, which he has decided to do at the end of June.
I’ll have more to say about Secretary Gates’ exemplary service in the days to come, but today every American must know that because he helped to responsibly wind down the war in Iraq, we’re in a better position to support our troops and manage the transition in Afghanistan. Because he challenged conventional thinking, our troops have the lifesaving equipment they need, and our military is better prepared for today’s wars. And because he courageously cut unnecessary spending, we’ll save hundreds of billions of dollars that can be invested in the 21st-century military that our troops deserve.
I am confident Bob Gates will be remembered as one of the finest Defense Secretaries in American history. And I will always be grateful for his service.
I’m equally confident that Bob’s reform agenda will be carried out by another great public servant of our time, Leon Panetta. Leon appreciates the struggles and sacrifices of our troops and military families because he served in the Army himself, and because he and his wife Sylvia are proud parents of a son who served in Afghanistan. And just as Leon earned the trust and respect of our intelligence professionals at the CIA — by listening to them and fighting fiercely on their behalf — I know he’ll do the same for our armed forces and their families.
The patriotism and extraordinary management skills that have defined Leon’s four decades of service is exactly what we need in our next Secretary of Defense. As a former congressman and White House chief of staff, Leon knows how to lead, which is why he is held in such high esteem not only in this city but around the world. As a CIA director who’s played a decisive role in our fight against violent extremism, he understands that even as we begin the transition in Afghanistan, we must remain unwavering in our fight against al Qaeda. And as a former OMB director, he’ll ensure that even as we make tough budget decisions, we’ll maintain our military superiority and keep our military the very best in the world.
Leon, I know that you’ve been looking forward to returning now to Sylvia and your beautiful Monterey, so I thank you for taking on yet another assignment for our country — and I hope you don’t have a clock. (Laughter.)
I’m also very pleased that Leon’s work at the CIA will be carried on by one of our leading strategic thinkers and one of the finest military officers of our time, General David Petraeus. This is the second time in a year that I’ve asked General Petraeus to take on a demanding assignment. And I know this one carries a special sacrifice for him and his wife Holly. After nearly 40 years in uniform, including leading American and coalition forces in some of the most challenging military missions since 9/11, David Petraeus will retire from the Army that he loves to become the next CIA director, effective early September, pending Senate confirmation.
As a lifelong consumer of intelligence, he knows that intelligence must be timely, accurate, and acted upon quickly. He understands that staying a step ahead of nimble adversaries requires sharing and coordinating information, including with my director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper.
And even as he and the CIA confront a full range of threats, David’s extraordinary knowledge of the Middle East and Afghanistan uniquely positions him to lead the agency in its effort to defeat al Qaeda.
In short, just as General Petraeus changed the way that our military fights and wins wars in the 21st century, I have no doubt that Director Petraeus will guide our intelligence professionals as they continue to adapt and innovate in an ever changing world.
Finally, I’m pleased to announce my choice for the civilian military team that will lead our efforts in Afghanistan in this year of transition. I’m nominating a superb commander, Lieutenant General John Allen, to succeed General Petraeus as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force — or ISAF.
As a battle-tested combat leader in Iraq, he helped turn the tide in Anbar province. As deputy commander of Central Command, he’s respected in the region and has been deeply involved in planning and executing our strategy in Afghanistan. As our troops continue to sacrifice for our security — as we tragically saw again yesterday — General Allen is the right commander for this vital mission.
As coalition forces transfer responsibility to Afghans, we’re redoubling our efforts to promote political and economic progress in Afghanistan as well. Our tireless ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, has helped us dramatically increase our civilian presence of diplomats and development experts. Never before have our civilians and troops worked together so closely and so successfully. And I’ve personally relied on Karl’s candid advice on this incredibly complex mission.
After two years in one of the world’s most challenging posts, Ambassador Eikenberry’s time in Afghanistan is coming to an end. He’s hard at work in Kabul today. And I want to thank Karl and his wife, Ching, for their outstanding service.
To build on Karl’s great work, I’m very grateful that one of our nation’s most respected diplomats, Ryan Crocker, has agreed to return to public service as our next ambassador to Afghanistan. This is a five-time ambassador, and Ryan is no stranger to tough assignments. Few Americans know this region and its challenges better than Ambassador Crocker.
He was our first envoy to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. He reopened our embassy there. As a former ambassador to Pakistan, he recognizes that our strategy has to succeed on both sides of the border. As ambassador to Iraq, his remarkable partnership with David Petraeus helped to reduce the level of violence, promote reconciliation, and shift from the military surge to a political effort and a long-term partnership between our two countries.
This is exactly what is needed now in Afghanistan, where Ambassador Crocker will work with our new special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman. And I want to thank Ryan and his wife, Christine — a decorated former Foreign Service Officer herself — for agreeing to serve our nation once more.
So, Leon Panetta at the Defense Department; David Petraeus at the CIA; Ambassador Crocker and General John Allen in Afghanistan — these are the leaders that I’ve chosen to help guide us through the difficult days ahead. I will look to them and my entire national security team for their counsel, continuity, and unity of effort that this moment in history demands. And our people on the frontlines — our brave troops, our outstanding intelligence personnel, our dedicated diplomats — we’ll look to them for the leadership that success requires.
I urge our friends in the Senate to confirm these individuals as swiftly as possible so they can assume their duties and help meet the urgent challenges we confront as a nation. We are a nation still at war. And joined by the leaders alongside me today, I will continue to do everything in my power as Commander-in-Chief to keep our nation strong and the American people safe.
With that, I’d like to invite each of these leaders to say a few words. I’m actually going to start with Bob Gates.
SECRETARY GATES: Thank you, Mr. President, for your kind words. I want to thank President Bush for first asking me to take this position, and you, Mr. President, for inviting me to stay on — and on and on. (Laughter.) I also thank my wife, Becky, for 44 years of extraordinary patience, but especially the last four and a half years of patience.
Every single day I have been Secretary, our military has been engaged in two major wars and multiple other missions. It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve and to lead our men and women in uniform and our defense civilians. They are the best America has to offer. I will continue to give my all to them and to the President right through June 30th because obviously there is much left to do.
My highest priority from my first day in office has been to do everything I could for our uniformed men and women in harm’s way — to help them accomplish their mission, to come home safely, and if wounded to get them the best possible care from battlefield to home front. I’ve done my best to care for them as though they were my own sons and daughters. And I will miss them deeply.
There will be other occasions to speak over the next two months, so for now I’ll just congratulate Leon Panetta and thank him. (Laughter.)
Leon, I believe, is the best possible choice to succeed me, and I also congratulate General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, and General Allen. And I want to thank you again, Mr. President, for the opportunity to serve and to work with you.
MR. PANETTA: Thank you, Mr. President. I want to thank you and the Vice President and your entire national security team for the trust and confidence that you’ve placed in me. I especially want to thank my good friend Bob Gates, the guy with the big smile next to me. (Laughter.) He’s a public servant without equal whose tenure as Secretary of Defense will go down as one of the most consequential and important examples of leadership in the history of the American government. And since he too was a former CIA director, I’m hopeful that that experience can serve me as well as it served Bob as Secretary.
And speaking of the CIA, I also wanted to deeply thank the good men and women of the CIA for all they do without recognition or credit to safeguard this nation and protect it. They welcomed me to their ranks, and it has been the highest honor of my professional career to be able to lead them, and I only wish that all Americans could see — as I have — how vital their work is in protecting our national security.
If confirmed, I will be relying heavily, as I always do, on the support of my wonderful family — my wife, Sylvia; my three sons, Chris, Carmelo, and Jim; their wives; and our six grandchildren. In my 40 years of public life, they have been tolerant beyond measure, and very loving, and because of that I love them all very much.
I spent 40 years in public service, and it began when I served in the Army as an intelligence officer in the 1960s. I was proud to wear the uniform of our country, and my respect and admiration for our nation’s armed forces has only grown in the decades since.
This is a time of historic change, both at home and abroad. As the son of immigrants, I was raised to believe that we cannot be free unless we are secure. Today we are a nation at war. And job one will be to ensure that we remain the strongest military power in the world to protect that security that is so important to this country.
Yet this is also a time for hard choices. It’s about ensuring that we are able to prevail in the conflicts in which we are now engaged. But it’s also about being able to be strong and disciplined in applying our nation’s limited resources to defending America. None of this will be easy, but I am confident, Mr. President, that you can be assured that I will give you, the nation’s Commander-in-Chief, my best and most candid advice about these issues, and that I will be a faithful advocate for the brave men and women at the Department of Defense who put their lives on the line every day to ensure that we achieve that great American dream of giving our children a better life and a more secure America.
GENERAL PETRAEUS: Well, Mr. President, thank you very much. I feel deeply honored to be nominated to become the 20th director of the Central Intelligence Agency. And I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity, if confirmed, to continue to contribute to the important endeavors to which so many have given so much, over the past decade in particular.
During that time, I’ve had the privilege of working very closely with the quiet professionals of the Central Intelligence Agency. I have seen firsthand their expertise, their commitment to our nation, and their courage in dangerous circumstances. Their service to our country is of vital importance — indeed, it is all the more vital as it is all the more unheralded.
In short, I have enormous respect for the men and women of the agency and, if confirmed, I will do my utmost to serve, to represent, and to lead those great intelligence professionals, as well as to work closely with the DNI and the other intel community leaders, as Director Panetta has done so superbly over the past two and a half years.
As I return to Afghanistan tomorrow, I will do so with a sense of guarded optimism about the trajectory of the mission and the exceptional civil-military team the President will nominate to lead that effort. Indeed, I can think of no two individuals better suited than General Allen and Ambassador Crocker to build on the hard-fought gains that ISAF and Afghan troopers and their civilian colleagues have achieved over the past year.
During the flight back to Afghanistan, I will also reflect on the extraordinary leadership that Secretary Gates has provided over the past four and a half years at the helm of the Department of Defense. I believe that all in uniform are deeply grateful to him, but none can be more grateful to him than I am.
Again, Mr. President, thank you very much for the opportunity, if confirmed, to continue to serve our nation.
GENERAL ALLEN: Mr. President, thank you. I’m deeply honored by this selection, and I’m grateful for the support and the leadership of Secretary Gates and Chairman Mullen. Sir, I am mindful of the significance of this responsibility and I am deeply committed to the leadership of the magnificent young men and women of our armed forces and those of the armed forces of this great and historic coalition of nations.
I understand well the demands of this mission. And Mr. President, if confirmed by the Senate, I will dedicate my full measure to the successful accomplishment of the tasks and the objectives now set before us.
Mr. President, thank you for your confidence.
AMBASSADOR CROCKER: Mr. President, I am deeply honored to have your confidence, that of the Vice President, that of the Secretary of State, that of the National Security Advisor for this important mission.
The challenges are formidable and the stakes are high. 9/11 came to us out of Afghanistan; our enemy must never again have that opportunity.
I thought I had found a permanent home as dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M, as the Secretary of Defense had done before me. But the Bush School is a school of public service, and, Mr. President, I’m very proud to answer this call to serve.
Over nine years ago, I had the privilege of reopening our embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. If confirmed, I look forward to returning to build on the progress that has been achieved in recent months working with the courageous men and women at our embassy, with our military, with our NATO allies and the United Nations, and especially with the people of Afghanistan.
I also look forward to rejoining my old battle buddy, General Dave Petraeus, however briefly, and I am delighted that I will have the opportunity to carry forward with another good friend and comrade from Iraq, General John Allen.
Thank you, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT: I cannot think of a group of individuals better suited to lead our national security team during this difficult time. While I’m up here, I think it’s important to acknowledge the extraordinary work that my Vice President and my Secretary of State and my National Security Advisor have done as well. This is going to be an outstanding team. I’m grateful for the service that they’ve already provided, and I’m confident that they will continue to do everything that they can to ensure America’s safety and security — not just today but tomorrow.
Let me also just briefly thank their teams, some of whom are going to be shuffling their own lives. Whether it’s at the CIA or in Afghanistan, all of you have done outstanding work, and I’m grateful for your service to our nation.
And once again, let me thank the families of the individuals here. All of them make extraordinary sacrifices. Michelle can attest to that. (Laughter.) And we know that none of us could be successful were it not for your extraordinary support. So thank you very much.
3:40 P.M. EDT