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TODAY   |  January 13, 2014

Gates: 'Not really surprised' by response to book

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks with Matt Lauer about his new memoir, “Duty,” which has sparked controversy over criticism he made against a number of former colleagues, including President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> former defense secretary robert gates who served both the bush and obama administration sparked a fire storm with his new memoir. in it, he takes aim at everyone from the president to congress and even former secretary of state hillary clinton .

the book is called "duty: memoirs of a secretary at war ." good to see you as always.

>> thank you.

>> you surprised by the reaction?

>> not really surprised. you know, in a way, disappointed that the book has sort of been hijacked by people along the political spectrum to serve their own purposes, taking quotes out of context. and it's sort of part of the political warfare in washington that i decry in the book.

>> you say taken out of context. in reading the book, there are a lot of times where you level a very stark criticism at someone. and then a couple of sentences later, paragraphs later or pages later, you ease back on and say something. well, actually, i kind of agreed with that person. but you're a veteran. you served for eight presidents, actually, you've been in washington for a long time. you know it's the grenade you throw more than the pullback that's going to make the headlines. you had to know this would happen.

>> well, i wasn't surprised by it. and the truth is, i think the book is very even handed. i don't vilify anybody. i make it clear, i have a lot of respect for both president bush and president obama . and just like on afghanistan , i think that, you know, what has been lost in the news media is that i actually agreed with virtually every decision president obama made.

>> you agree with those decisions after saying you thought the president had lost his belief in the mission or his passion in the mission. and by the way, it's not something you just say once in the book. by my count, you said it about eight times using terms like you expected more commitment to the cause, you doubted his support for the mission, and you said that he was skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail. so you made a pretty strong point in the book that he didn't believe in the mission.

>> well, first of all, what gets c conflated is the fact i said along the way that when he made those decisions, particularly for the afghan surge in november of 2009 , i absolutely believe he was convinced it would work. i think his reservations grew -- and the way i outline it in the book is his reservations began to grow in the spring of 2010 . but as late as december of 2010 , he was still saying we're on the right track in afghanistan . so it was in our private conversations that he would express these reservations about whether it was working. the decisions were right. i believe he believed it would work. let me say, matt, in a way it parallels president bush in 2006 when president bush began to have reservations about whether his strategy in iraq was working.

>> but as he started to, perhaps, believe in the success of that mission less, you're still signing deployment orders for people to go over there. as secretary of defense, did you have a bad feeling about that? did you confront the president about his lack of passion for that mission at that time?

>> i talked to his chief of staff about the need for the president to take ownership of the war. and i did talk to the president about the need to speak out about the performance of the war and why it was important for the troops to be there.

>> as this criticism is leveled by you in the book at a time when some 40,000 u.s. troops are in harm's way, do you think that by calling him into question at this stage it is either dangerous or dishonorable?

>> well, neither. i think the decisions have all been made with respect to afghanistan . i agree with those decisions. we're going to be out of there in december 2014 . i agree with the decision for a residual force. i agreed with the president's deployment, the drawdowns.

>> you don't think it undermines his credibility with the troops he's commander in chief of right now?

>> no, i don't.

>> let me move on to another subject. and this is one that's gotten a lot of attention. you recount a conversation between hillary clinton and the president talking about george bush 's surge in iraq where you basically say that hillary told the president her opposition to the surge had been political because she was facing him in the iowa primary and the president conceded vaguely his opposition to the iraq surge had also been political. that's a pretty strong statement. i think people have a right to know, what exactly did the president say?

>> well, what i say in the book was that the president conceded a lot of opposition to the surge had been political. he never said that his opposition had been political. and, in fact, his opposition was consistent with his opposition to the war all along. the thing about hillary's comment that caught my attention was, first of all, i was on the other side of that issue in the spring of 2007 . but it was such an anomaly. because in the whole time i served with secretary clinton, i never heard her as secretary of state discuss domestic politics in any way, shape or form as influencing her recommendations to the president or her views on issues --

>> perhaps her opposition was purely political because of the iowa primary . do you think that will or should hurt her in her political ambitions down the road?

>> no. i think there's a difference when you're in the senate and campaigning for office and when you have the responsibility of office. and when she had the responsibilities of office, as i say, i never heard her bring domestic politics into the issue.

>> let me end on this. and this is something that got me. you talk about visiting cemeteries and front lines and the hospitals and seeing wounded soldiers. and you say you would wake up in the middle of the night , think of a wounded soldier you saw in the hospital. and in my imagination, i would hold him to my chest to comfort him. silently in the night, i would weep for him. how did seeing the cost of war up close impact you, mr. secretary?

>> it had a huge impact. as i write, i had served in government and cia and at the white house , the national security council for a lot time. i'd been through a number of wars beginning with vietnam. but generally from offices. but seeing these people up close on the front lines in afghanistan and iraq , seeing them in the hospital, seeing their families had a huge impact on me.

>> former secretary of defense, robert gates . mr. secretary, feel better.

>> thanks a lot, matt. appreciate it.

>> tell everybody the book is