Talking With Defense Sec. Gates

This morning I interviewed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his car and got some good material, a bit more personal. He talked about Washington and how he feels about his job. Despite being the only Cabinet level holdover from the Bush administration (and, as he pointed out, the only Sec Def asked to stay on with a new administration) he says he hates to compare the two presidents.

Gates is the picture of equanimity and has a wry and mischievous sense of humor. He doesn't enjoy the D.C. social scene one whit.

I teased him about being the David Souter of the Cabinet.

Today he told the travelling press corps there were some initial conversations about sending Yemeni prisoners from GITMO to the rehabilitation program in Saudi Arabia…which we profiled last week on 60 Minutes.

Secretary Gates also met with U.S. servicemen and women in Riyadh. There are about 800 here whose primary job is equipping and training the Saudi Arabian National Guard. One soldier described his time here as a "unique living experience." They live apart from Saudi society, but told me the relaxed Saudi attitude of "inshallah"(god willing) can be somewhat frustrating.

My escort is 32-year-old Todd Hanks (no relation to Tom, though his uncle is a different Tom Hanks) who went to the University of Missouri in Kansas City for his MBA, joined the Army for an ROTC scholarship that paid for part of college and then business school. Todd served in Iraq in 2003 and 2005 as a logistics officer rounding up everything from paper and pens to air conditioning units. He says he was lucky....he received incoming mortar fire to his compound and travelled on roads where soldiers were killed the next day, but he was never hurt.

Todd and I talked about "Chop Chop Square" where public executions still take place here. I went there last night and it looked like any urban center with people pushing baby strollers or sitting around chatting, all wearing their abayas and head scarves, of course.

I've been to Saudi Arabia several times, but the repressive regime is always a shock. The gym in our hotel was men only and of course women can't drive and are often segregated in the workplace and at restaurants and shopping malls. One state department official told me there was talk of building a women only shopping mall but a male Saudi official said that would discriminate against men! My response: unprintable.

Last night I thought we might get harassed by the muttawa or the religious police (aka the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) who harass Westerners for exposing skin or check on Saudi women to make sure they're with their husbands or sons.

To state the obvious, it's a different world.

I bought a miniature rug for Carrie's dollhouse and an alarm clock that plays the call to prayers for Ellie, which I thought may be an interesting conversation starter when she heads to college. I worried that might be sacrilegious or disrespectful, but the vendor gladly sold them to our entire group. I bought a pink one.