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Congressman Mac Thornberry’s worry about Defense cuts as part of the debt deal

Thursday, August 4, 2011

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HH: Since I have been talking about the national defense, I was lucky to catch up with Congressman Thornberry from Texas. Congressman, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program today.

MT: Thanks for having me.

HH: Now you are on the Intelligence committee, But you’re on the Armed Services committee, and you are the subcommittee chairman for, what, evolving threats and future assessments? Is that it, Congressman?

MT: Yeah, emerging threats and capabilities is the name, but it has a variety of responsibilities. But part of it is looking out ahead, and looking at what dangers, threats could be coming at the country in the future.

HH: So Mac Thornberry, if you look at this budget that we just passed, this deficit reduction that we just passed, $350 billion dollars from Defense over ten years, and another $600 billion coming up. Is that how we fund facing future threats?

MT: No, of course not. The first cuts are something that the Pentagon says they can live with, it’s going to be hard, but it’s kind of in the ballpark of what folks have been talking about for a while. The second cuts, if they were to happen, would be devastating. You simply could not operate the military with that second round of cuts. And the assumption is that they’re not going to happen, that there’ll be a way out of it. But it concerns me that they would even be taking Defense hostage in these budget negotiations.

HH: Well, that’s what alarms me. I don’t even know how they find $350 billion. Where’s that going to come from, Congressman Thornberry?

MT: Well, some is coming already from basically holding the Defense budget steady. And of course, part of the assumptions built in are that we’re going to be largely leaving Iraq by the end of the year, and that over time, that our presence in Afghanistan will go down. And so there will be changes over time. Remember, this is over a ten year period, and it’s cuts from what was expected to be spent in previous budget requests. But if you add on top of that another $600 billion dollars, if this sequestration takes effect, then clearly we can’t keep the military we have, much less prepare for future kinds of threats, be they in cyberspace or in outer space.

HH: Now I have been reading today a piece by Andrew Krepinevich called YRC Battle, and the Vanity Fair piece on Operations Shady Rat. These are about, both about unfolding sort of asymmetrical warfare issues, including cyber warfare. This crosses over into your Intelligence committee work as well, but have you seen the Vanity Fair piece on Operation Shady Rat, and all the hacking that’s been going on, Congressman?

MT: I have copied it, but I haven’t read it yet, actually. But clearly, we get briefed on cyber intrusions on a regular basis. As you may know, the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, has set up a special taskforce to deal with, to look at cyber issues, because it is such a growing threat not only to our national security, but also to our economy and jobs, because when you steal information, you’re stealing jobs out of the economy at the same time.

HH: Now Congressman, I didn’t know that he’d set up a special taskforce, and good on the Speaker for doing so. But in terms of defending the United States, are we spending enough money on cyber defense and on cyber warfare?

MT: It’s a hard question to answer. We’re spending a lot. Are we spending it as smartly as we should? I’m not sure. We certainly do not have the legal authorities and policies we need to operate in cyberspace, and to defend the country in that domain. So there’s a lot of catching up to do. But you’re right, money is a key part of it, and especially money to attract and keep top quality talent, because it doesn’t cost too much to have a keyboard, but what it really does cost are the people who are operating that keyboard, particularly when they could go make a whole lot more money working for Google or Microsoft or somebody, rather than being in the government. So that’s a key place we’ve got to put our money in cyberspace, it’s in people.

HH: Have you found the private sector, whether it’s Google of McAfee, or any of these companies, to be leaning forward to help the national security of the United States? Or are they standoffish?

MT: They lean forward as much as their lawyers will let them. But there’s, the lawyers hold them back for a variety of reasons that are hard to argue with. And so that’s part of the reason that Congress has to take a look at the laws and authorities, and make it easier for companies who want to work with the government, and want to help protect private citizens, to do that.

HH: Now Congressman, if you would, could you take the audience inside? Yesterday, I had Todd Akin on, your colleague from Armed Services. I also had Rob Wittman on, another of your colleagues. I’m trying to elevate the level of the Defense issue to where it was in 1988, 1984, and especially in 1980, because I think it’s that important. But I don’t know that it has any traction right now. How are you guys going to keep this issue front and center of the American people, and indeed the Republican caucus?

MT: Well, it is a challenge, because as you infer, people are war weary based on Iraq and Afghanistan. And so part of our challenge is to not be scaremongers, but to be realistic about the national security challenges that continue to face our country, and that includes, obviously, terrorism, it includes states like Iran and North Korea. It includes a growing military in China, and a threat that’s still there from Russia. And it includes things like cyberspace. So we want to be factual and accurate, but we’ve got to be realistic about what those threats are, and the need to update and modernize our military to keep up with those changing, evolving threats. We can’t just keep the military that we’ve had for the last decade, and be prepared for the challenges of the next decade. And so that’s part of our challenge.

HH: I’m talking with Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas, 13th Congressional district. He’s on the House Intelligence committee, as well as the chairman of the subcommittee of Armed Services on Emerging Threats and Capabilities. So Congressman, you mentioned China. I’d like your assessment of…I had Henry Kissinger on a couple of weeks ago, and his new book on China paints a very blunt picture of the emerging tigers within the PLA and their aggressiveness. What’s your assessment? Are they a near peer competitor? Are they really trying to deny us access to the South China Sea?

MT: I think they are certainly a growing competitor in a whole variety of ways. And some of them are military, some of them are economic, some of them, again, are in cyberspace. Will we ultimately have a shooting war with them? I don’t think anybody can say that one way or another. But clearly, China is trying to expand its influence, and some of that expansion comes at our expense. And so if we’re going to defend not only our people and our homeland, but our interests around the world, we’ve got to pay attention to that and be willing to invest in technologies and military equipment and systems to be able to prevent that.

HH: Do you think the Republican nominee for president, whoever that might be, Congressman, has got to make Defense and renewed recommitment to the appropriate funding a central part of their platform?

MT: Yeah, absolutely. To me, it’s the top and primary criteria for any of us choosing a president. We’ve seen domestic issues, you get Congress in and out, you know, you have a whole variety of players. But when it comes to national security, there’s one primary player, and that’s the president. And who we choose as president makes a gigantic difference in the security of our country, and whether our children are going to be free or not.

HH: Have you made a choice yet to back someone in the Republican presidential side?

MT: I have not.

HH: Any timetable for you? Are you waiting for the governor of Texas to decide?

MT: Well, I’m going to see who all gets in, including the governor of Texas, but it is the dominant issue for me, because I think that’s the first job of the president.

HH: All right, now I want to go back just briefly to domestic policy. The supercommittee is about to be named. Any idea who’s going to be on it? And who do you want to see on it from the House side?

MT: I do not know who’s going to be on it. There are some of us who have argued to Speaker Boehner that we need somebody on it who has expertise in Defense, because one thing we were talking about was the sequestration could trigger Defense cuts.

HH: Yup.

MT: Well, this supercommittee could also decide to have more Defense cuts. And so I hope that somewhere among the appointees is somebody who knows Defense, and will know that we can’t tolerate more cuts and keep the country secure.

HH: Congressman Mac Thornberry, thanks for spending time with us on your recess already, and I hope we can get back together and follow this as the supercommittee gets to work.

MT: That sounds great. Thank you.

HH: Thank you, Congressman Mac Thornberry from Texas.

End of interview.

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