Robert Gates: US can do more in the fight against ISIS

Former Secretary of Defense discusses rethinking the strategy against the terror group on 'Your World'


This is a rush transcript from "Your World," November 20, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

NEIL CAVUTO, HOST:  All right, now, given what has been happening over just the course of the last seven days, is it time to rethink our strategy with ISIS, reprioritize, what?  

To the former Defense Secretary of these United States Robert Gates.

Secretary Gates, very, very nice to have you, sir.  Thank you for coming.  


CAVUTO:  Secretary, first, on this ISIS strategy, depending on the party, either it`s going fine, just the way the president is going about it, or we`re not putting enough muscle in it.  Hence, Republicans say we have to do much more and start changing how we go about it.  Where do you stand?  

GATES:  I think we can do more.  I think that we actually can do more with the resources that we already have dedicated.  

I think we can let our special operations forces have more leeway in Iraq.  
I think that we can embed advisers and trainers not only with the Iraqi security forces down to the battalion level, but all with the Sunni tribes that are wanting to fight ISIS and with the Kurds.  I think we can provide more weapons to those groups.  

I think we can provide forward air controllers or spotters.  I think we need to take another look at our intelligence to see if we`re being aggressive enough there, and to see if some of the restrictions that have been placed on NSA in recent -- in the last year or two should be reversed.  

CAVUTO:  In light of the Mali attacks today, and the fact that there was a similar methodology used, in other words, take a public facility, seize it, hold hostages, do you think these global type of attacks are coordinated?  

GATES:  Well, I don`t know the answer to that.  And my guess is, that`s one of the things that people are looking at.  

I heard in your earlier comments that the question of whether they`re even in competition.  I don`t know the answer to that question.  But I think what it does show is that extremists Islamic radicals are prepared to reach out beyond the core area in Syria and Iraq, and try and attack the West any place they can.

And in terms of technique, they`re always going to good after the softer targets.  I noticed that the U.S. was increasing the number of armed guards around our monuments and museums and government buildings and so on in Washington.  That`s precisely why ISIS or al Qaeda or anyone wanting to come after us is going to do exactly what they have done in Mali, what they did in India and what -- what the terrorists did in India and then what happened in Paris.  

You go after soft targets that aren`t protected.  

CAVUTO:  Do you think that we`re next, though?  

GATES:  I think that ISIS would like to strike us here at home.  It`s harder for them.  It`s harder for them to get here.  It`s harder for them to plan.  

We do have, I think, better intelligence, better coverage, more resources, in this country, particularly in wake of a lot of the changes that were made and in intelligence and law enforcement after 9/11.  But I don`t think anyone in defense or law enforcement would deny that if ISIS could strike us here at home, if they would.  

CAVUTO:  What we heard in the case of what happened in Paris, Secretary, was very similar to what we heard in other cases, even back to the Boston Tsarnaev brothers incident, a lack of communication, a lack of shared communication, something we thought we addressed right after 9/11, when we first formed Homeland Security.

But in event after event, in city after city, whether London or Paris or Madrid, communication, it is the culprit and the problem.  People are not sharing information or somehow dropping the ball on information.  What`s going on?  

GATES:  Well, part of the problem is not so much communication, although that always is a challenge, but the fact that even where you have individuals who have been identified as potential threats, monitoring thousands and thousands of these people, for example, in Europe, on a real- time basis, requires an extraordinary level of resources, and even developed countries like France are hard-pressed to have the resources to keep an eye on these people all the time.  

I think the FBI and law enforcement in this country does a pretty good job.  
But whether they can cover everybody they worry about, I don`t know.  But it`s the magnitude of the problem and the resources required to track all these people that is the challenge.  

CAVUTO:  Secretary, I had John McCain here the other and he was talking about John Kerry, the secretary of state, and how he had tried to distinguish between the first Paris attacks back in January, Charlie Hebdo attack, and these latest ones, as if to qualify them and try to understand them.  

McCain immediately shot back to say, he is the worst secretary of state we ever had.  What do you think of that?  

GATES:  Well, I don`t want to comment on that, but I will...

CAVUTO:  Feel free.  Feel free.  

GATES:  I will say that I...


GATES:  I don`t think that it`s useful to try and differentiate between the kinds of terrorist attacks that these guys are launching or what motivates them in any particular case.  

The fact is, this is an extremist version of Islam, and they are attacking the West wherever they feel like they have an opportunity to make a big splash, to scare people, to disrupt our daily lives.  And, frankly, one of my concerns is that some of the rhetoric coming out of Washington is -- doesn`t signal a strong and confident country, which I believe we are.  

CAVUTO:  Well, whose fault is that?  Whose fault is that?    

GATES:  And I think we need to be more measured.  I think we need -- well, I think we need to be more measured in the way we talk about these things.


CAVUTO:  Does that include the president?

GATES:  And we also stop demonizing -- we need to stop demonizing each other.  And that includes...


CAVUTO:  But does that include the president, sir?


GATES:  ... in Congress and in the White House.  And that includes the White House.


You know, there are indications that Harry Reid in the Senate is not at all interested in taking up this measure that was approved overwhelmingly in the House to rethink, pause, to put a stop, reassess the number of Syrian refugees coming into the country and how we go about that, which could effectively table it in the Senate.  What do you think of that?  

GATES:  First of all, I think it would be a service to the American people and perhaps calm people down if the Congress would hold the public hearing and require the border police, the FBI, and Homeland Security to testify in the near term, the next week, about, what is the vetting process?  What procedures do we have in place to prevent terrorists from mingling in among refugees?

CAVUTO:  Well, you know those procedures.  

GATES:  It would be nice to start this debate with some facts.  

CAVUTO:  You know those procedures yourself.  I`m just curious whether you could share with us or with me that they`re OK, that we do probably vet, that do probably check, because a lot of folks are worried, including 47 Democrats in the House, that we`re not.  

GATES:  Well, I think people are justified in being worried.  I don`t know the procedures, frankly.  I never was involved in immigration matters when I was secretary or director of central intelligence.  

But I think they should get out in front and tell the American people what these procedures are.  Then people can judge from the Congress and from the public whether those vetting procedures are adequate.  And if they`re not, then some of the more far-reaching measures that are being discussed should be enacted.  

CAVUTO:  You know, Secretary, he has since sort of dialed back these remarks.  But Donald Trump had indicated maybe now is the time to get a database of Muslims going or something like that to keep track of where they are.  What did you think of that?  

GATES:  I think that would be a terrible mistake.  That`s not who we are as a country.  

CAVUTO:  All right.  

All right, having said that, all the more serious attacks we have witnessed have come via Muslims.  And it`s giving pause in this country that, if it`s just a few extremists who are ruining it for the majority, what did you think of that Turkey soccer game, in which in a moment of silence it was broken by a lot of noise and a lot of people yelling "Allahu akbar," God is great?  

GATES:  I didn`t hear that.  

But I do know that there are millions of loyal patriotic Americans who are Muslim, and it would be a terrible mistake to try and lump them in with everybody else.  

We have the capabilities in law enforcement and intelligence to differentiate the people, I think, who are our enemies and who wish to do us harm from the vast majority of Muslims in this country, who are loyal, patriotic, and hardworking.

And I think President Bush said it best after the 9/11 attacks.  It would be a mistake to demonize a whole segment of our population that way.  

CAVUTO:  Do you think, though, we do make a mistake in those we take into this country that they`re off on their own, that they get isolated?

And certainly it was the case in Paris, where a lot of Muslims are completely separated from the general populace, partly by their design, partly by the government`s design there, and that it breeds the type of terror that we see.  

GATES:  Well, I think it is a serious problem in Europe, and particularly in Paris.  

I think that, in this country, that is not nearly as serious a problem and that most American Muslims are fully integrated into American society and don`t wall themselves off, if you will, into separate suburbs or areas, like has happened in Paris.


CAVUTO:  I don`t doubt you`re right.  I don`t doubt you`re right.  

But, nevertheless, there is fear that we have the same sort of sleeper cells -- the FBI director said as much -- in this country.  He said at the time all 50 states.  I`m wondering now, in light of what happened in Paris and that a lot of these -- at least two might have come from Syria via southern Greece in this refugee wave and that there were groups waiting for them in this case in Paris, do you think we have the same here, groups waiting or already working on doing the same here?

GATES:  I think we have -- I think we do have to worry about whether there are people who have been radicalized, who are already in this country, who may be in touch with people living overseas, living in Syria, living in Iraq.

And I think that that`s one of the challenges that the FBI and law enforcement faces, is trying to identify these people and monitor their actions, but I think there is a real risk that in effect you have sleeper cells in this country from not only ISIS, but Al Qaeda as well.  

CAVUTO:  Do you think that online -- and you touched it at the outset of your remarks, sir, that online services, social networking sites, Twitter come to mind, Facebook, even by large extension Google and Apple, Snapchat, what have you, should be more forthcoming with unusual chatter at their sites and that they should be sharing this with security officials and not have to wait for a court order to do so?  

GATES:  Well, as I have said recently, I think that the leaders of some of the big tech companies in this country, that the president does need to call them in and have a heart-to-heart talk about the security of this country and the new encryption devices that are being developed, and so on, and the unwillingness to provide the government with access to that.  I think this is a -- I think this is a real concern.  

CAVUTO:  Do you think when the president first referred to ISIS as the J.V.
league, that it set the tone and delayed the severe response and it`s too late now?  

GATES:  Well, I don`t know if it`s too late, but I do think that we have all along underestimated ISIS, both in terms of how tough it will be to root them out in Syria and Iraq, but also their ability to extend beyond that area to Europe and potentially also to the United States.  

CAVUTO:  All right.  

Secretary Robert Gates, thank you very much.  Good talking to you.  


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