(CBS News) "CBS This Morning" co-host Charlie Rose recently spoke with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
A transcript of the conversation is posted below.
Charlie Rose: How would you assess our national security today?
Robert Gates: There are many diverse challenges, none are probably existential at this point. But all of them are challenges and all of 'em have to be dealt with. And the problem is that that crises and problems just keep coming up and nothing ever goes away.
And what people I think don't understand is that we have this gigantic national security apparatus that people talk about. But when push comes to shove, it's eight people that have to deal with all of these issues sitting around the table in the situation room, led by the president.
Rose: Those people are the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security advisor, the chairman of joint chiefs, that's six.
Gates: The director of national--
Rose: Director of national intelligence and director of CIA.
Rose: And director of CIA. That brings me to a specific, which is the night of the bin Laden raid and the assassination and the killing--
Gates: The one where we pledged to each other we would never go out in public with operational (LAUGH) details--
Rose: And how long did that last?
Gates: Five hours. (LAUGHTER)
Rose: So you're sitting in that room, what were your concerns?
Gates: My major concern, I had no doubts that the SEALs could perform the mission.
My concern was whether or not he was there. And what I think people don't realize that made the decision tough for the president was we didn't have one single piece of hard data that he was actually in that compound, not one. The whole thing was a circumstantial case built by analysts at CIA.
Rose: There was no single person who could tell you he was in this that building?
Rose: No single person had seen him in that building?
Gates: Right. The crux of the decision, revolved less about the efficacy of the military piece of it than the consequences for us if he wasn't there in terms of the relationship with Pakistan, in terms of the war in Afghanistan.
Rose: What were your worries about these Navy SEALs going in that had been informed by your experience at CIA.?
Gates: Well, I wanted to make sure that if things all went south, that we enough--
Rose: They had more people in there than you imagined--
Gates: We had enough capability to get 'em out. And to get 'em back to Afghanistan.
Rose: It is said that you wanted to bomb and not go in.
Gates: My primary concern was the reaction of the Pakistanis if we went in there and he wasn't there. My view was, "Let's kill him, but let's use a missile of some kind." The objection to that was, "Well, we couldn't collect any information to exploit."
And-- and "We won't-- we won't know for sure whether we got him." My view was, "You'll know. It-- it may take a few months, and it's not as dramatic, and you won't get the headline that you will on-- on-- a SEAL raid. But you have, if you think he's there, that's probably the least risky way-- to take him out." But I, you know president asked for my view.
And, and I told him. I said, "You know, maybe Mr. President, I've been in this job too long. And I've become too cautious. But--" and he said-- and actually, he was very reassuring. He said, "No, you've raised lots of questions that I have to think about. But-- but I've-- I've always thought it was a very courageous call.
Gates: If this mission had failed, it could've put the war in Iraq, in Afghanistan, at risk. And-- and that was one of my principle concerns.
Rose: Which brings me to Iran. You have said that was the most difficult problem you had to find, or the worst problem for finding a good answer.
Rose: What are the choices?
Gates: The only good option, is putting enough pressure on the Iranian government that they make the decision for themselves that continuing to seek nuclear weapons is actually harming the security of the country, and perhaps more importantly to them, putting the regime itself at risk. And-- and there are signs that those sanctions are beginning to really bite. And some much more severe Europe Union sanctions will come into effect this summer.
Rose: What if Israel does it on its own?
Gates: That would be worse than us doing it, because I think that then has lots of regional complications that-- that you may end up in-- in a much larger Middle East conflict. So I think-- I think that would-- be worse.
Rose: You can answer this question as well as anyone I know, having said all the things you have just said-- do you give President Obama high marks in the national security arena? (LAUGH)
Gates: Well, if I don't, I'm sort of giving myself a flunking grade. (LAUGHTER) So there's that--
Rose: Well now, wait.
Gates: --is that so--
Rose: Fair enough, okay. (LAUGHTER) Yes, indeed, you are.
Rose: Indeed you are.
Gates: I think that-- let me answer the question this way. I had no difficulty as Secretary of Defense moving from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. The situation in Iraq, that path had already been cleared. The president sent-- the new president sent additional troops into Afghanistan. He was as aggressive if not more so in going after terrorists and Al Qaeda. I think that the relationship with China has been managed pretty well. So yeah, I think they've done a pretty good job.
Rose: What's the difference in the way President Obama acts in the councils of national security policy and the way President Bush acted?
Gates: Well, you'll just have to read about it in the book.
Rose: Well I know, but give me-- give me a hint. I will and-- with great pleasure I will. And I look forward to having you to talk about the book when it comes. But just give us a sense of how you see that.
Gates: I think President Obama goes out of his way to make sure he hears from everybody. And he will not only go table in the situation room, he'll go around the back bench to hear from the sort of second and third-tier officials. President Bush welcomed this debate and discussion. But-- but he didn't sort of point his finger at people and say, "What do you think?"
Rose: And what instinct did President Bush have say, that President Obama didn't have?
Gates: I think-- well, first of all, you have to put both of these presidents and-- and when I knew them, in perspective. President Bush was in the last two years of eight years as president. He was never going to run for office again.
And most of the big decisions had already been made.
I worked for President Obama in the very first two years of his administration. Here's a president who knew from the beginning that he was gonna run for re-election. But he also had a lot to learn in terms of the national security arena. Frankly, I think he was an incredibly fast learner. And-- and his desire to get a broad range of views-- was-- was highly commendable.
Rose: We are sitting here in a campus-- created in 1693, the second university created in the United States. So it's full of history. And history-- is to be learned from.
Gates: My favorite quote, and I use it in commencement addresses is-- is from John Adams. And it is to the effect that in-- and it was in a letter to his-- one of his sons. And he wrote-- "Public business must be done. It will be done one way or another. If wise men refuse it, others will not. If honest men refuse it, others will not." And then I always say to these young people, "Will the wise and honest among you come help us-- lead America?"