Interview With Wolf Blitzer of CNN
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Madam Secretary, Mr. Secretary, thanks very much for joining us.
SECRETARY CLINTON: We’re glad to be here with you.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about Afghanistan briefly – $2 billion a week in U.S. taxpayer dollars being spent to maintain that troop level, the assistance to the Afghan people. Is this money well spent right now, $100 billion a year for another two-and-a-half years?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, first of all, Wolf, we are in a transition, and as we transition, the Afghan security forces are stepping up to protect their own people. And as we saw over the weekend with those deplorable attacks, luckily they were not successful. And that was because the Afghan security forces, which our soldiers and others of the NATO-ISAF alliance have been training and mentoring. So I think that if you look, as we do, at the progress that has been made on the security side but also in other indicators – health and education and the economy – there is definite progress. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but we are on the way to fulfilling the commitment that President Obama made about moving toward the 2014 deadline for the end of combat operations.
QUESTION: So this is money well spent, hundreds of billions of additional dollars? Is that what you’re saying?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I think you can certainly find fault with any kind of war, and this has been a war. You can go back and look at any of the wars that the United States has fought. But if you consider why we’re there and the fact that, thank goodness, we’ve not been attacked again since 9/11, and we have dismantled al-Qaida thanks to a lot of great work when Leon was at the CIA before going to the Defense Department, I think there’s no doubt that America is more secure, Afghanistan is more secure, but we’re not resting on our laurels. We’re looking forward to what kind of relationship we all will have, NATO and the United States, after 2014 to help Afghanistan continue on this path.
QUESTION: You trust Afghan President, Mr. Secretary, Hamid Karzai?
SECRETARY PANETTA: He is the leader of Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Do you trust him?
SECRETARY PANETTA: (Inaudible.) I mean, I’ve sat down with him. I talk with him. We talk very frankly with each other. And he is the leader and he is the person we have to deal with.
QUESTION: Does that mean you trust him, though?
SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, I mean, certainly you trust the leaders that you have to deal with, but you always kind of watch your back at the same time.
QUESTION: That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of the leader of Afghanistan.
SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, it’s true for any leader we deal with.
QUESTION: This one has said awful things about the United States.
SECRETARY PANETTA: No, I understand. And obviously, that’s been a concern. But at the same time, we have had the ability to directly relate to him when it comes to some of the major issues that we’ve had to --
QUESTION: When you served in Congress, you were on the budget committee, as I well remember. Hundred billion dollars, you know what that kind of money can spend in the United States during these tough economic times, and the American public is increasingly frustrated when they see this money is being spent in Afghanistan rather than in the United States.
SECRETARY PANETTA: I understand what you’re saying, Wolf, but you know what? The whole purpose of this is to protect the American people. That’s what this war is about.
QUESTION: But bin Ladin is dead.
SECRETARY PANETTA: I know, but the reality is that the attack on the United States on 9/11 was planned from where? It was planned from Afghanistan. And our mission there is to make sure that we have an Afghanistan that can secure and govern itself and it never again can become a safe haven for terrorists who would plan attacks on our country. That’s what this war is all about.
QUESTION: But you know that U.S. intelligence officials have told Congress there are more al-Qaida operatives in Somalia right now than in Afghanistan.
SECRETARY PANETTA: The danger is this, that if we don’t succeed in Afghanistan, then there is the real probability that the Taliban will come back, establish the same kind of safe havens that they have in the past. And who will be the first people to take advantage of it? Al-Qaida. That’s what we have to protect against.
QUESTION: Are we asking too much of these American troops who spend three, four, five tours of duty? And now these reports – posing once again with dead bodies of Taliban fighters, urinating on dead bodies, burning Qu’rans. One American soldier starts killing 17 Afghan civilians, including children. Is the stress too much to bear right now on these troops?
SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, there’s – look, there’s no question we’ve been 10 years at war. And obviously, 10 years of war takes a toll on people and families. But the reality is that the vast majority of our men and women in uniform have performed according to the highest standards that we expect of them. And for every one incident that we sometimes read about and the kind of atrocious behavior that we all condemn, there are a hundred incidents where our people have helped Afghans or they have performed courageously in battle.
So I’ve been there a number of times, as has the Secretary. I’ve got to tell you that I am always impressed by the quality of our people that are fighting the battle on behalf of the United States.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about Iran. As you know, these talks with the Iranians are continuing. Another meeting is scheduled for May 23rd. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, says – and I’m quoting now, when he heard about the – there’ll be another round on May 23rd, he said, “My initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie.” A freebie.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I think that is not accurate because what came out of the first meeting was a commitment to a second meeting with a work plan between the two meetings. We are really getting down to testing whether or not there is a willingness on the part of the Iranians to reach some kind of negotiated resolution --
QUESTION: Are you encouraged by the first round?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I believe that the first round was positive because, from our assessment, after having no contact for 15 months, the Iranians came back to the table at a time when sanctions are really continuing to put a lot of pressure on the Iranian Government and are willing to talk about their nuclear program, which is an important, positive step.
Now we have a long way to go, and this has got to be very clearly laid out as to what the international community expects, what is acceptable, of course, to the United States since we are at the table with the P-5+1. But there is a chance – and I don’t want to oversell it – that between now and the second meeting, we will hammer out what the international community, represented by the so-called P-5+1, requires of Iran and what Iran is willing to do.
QUESTION: And if they do take these measures, will you encourage the alliance to slow down on these economic sanctions?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I can’t answer that because it’s so hypothetical right now. I believe in very clear action for action. We have to see what the Iranians are willing to do, then we have to make sure they do it, and then we have to reciprocate. That’s what a negotiation is all about. And right now, we are still in the testing stage.
QUESTION: If they don’t do what you want them to do, the Iranians, are you – and you’re the Defense Secretary – ready to use military force to destroy their nuclear capabilities?
SECRETARY PANETTA: As the President has pointed out, and as I’ve pointed out, we are prepared with all options on the table if we have to respond.
QUESTION: And is there a plan in place? Because I know the Pentagon; I used to cover the Pentagon. There are always contingency plans for everything. Do you have a specific contingency plan to do that?
SECRETARY PANETTA: One of the things I found out as Secretary of Defense is we do one hell of a lot of planning on everything.
SECRETARY CLINTON: (Laughter.)
SECRETARY PANETTA: So I can assure you that there are plans to deal with –
QUESTION: And if you have to do it, will it succeed? Are you convinced it would succeed?
SECRETARY PANETTA: I don’t think there’s any question that if we have to implement that plan, it will be successful.
QUESTION: On Syria, is President Bashar al-Assad, according to your opinion, Madam Secretary, a war criminal?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I’m not going to get into the labeling, Wolf, because what I’m doing now is trying to see whether or not he is going to implement Kofi Annan’s plan. And I don’t think it’s useful to do anything other than focus on the six points of the plan. Right now, it doesn’t appear, once again, that he is going to follow through on what he has pledged to the international community he will do.
We are still working to see about getting monitors in to be able to have an independent source of information coming out to the Security Council. I will be going to Paris tomorrow afternoon to meet with like-minded nations at an ad hoc meeting to take stock of where we are. But it was significant that the Security Council endorsed Kofi Annan’s six-point plan, the Syrian Government said they would abide by it, and yet we still see shelling going on in Homs and Idlib and other places.
QUESTION: Are these crimes against humanity?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I think what we want to do is begin an accountability project to gather evidence. We really don’t want to be labeling what we see, which are clearly disproportionate use of force, human rights abuses, absolutely merciless shelling with heavy weaponry into unarmed civilian areas, even shelling across borders now into Turkey and Lebanon, as happened last week. We’re interested in stopping the behavior, but at the same time we do want to see evidence collected so that there could be in the future accountability for these actions.
QUESTION: It sounds like the answer is yes. You do believe these are crimes.
SECRETARY CLINTON: No, I don’t want you to put words – don’t put words in my mouth. We’re not making those kinds of charges or claims. Our goal right now is if the Assad regime were to say okay, we agree we’re going to everything that Kofi Annan asks us to do, that would be our focus, not some future maybe unlikely outcome in terms of criminal accountability. What I’m interested in is let’s stop the violence; let’s start the political transition.
QUESTION: Senator McCain says the U.S. should take the military lead in arming the rebels, maybe even going forward with a no-fly zone. Here’s the question. We’re at NATO headquarters, Mr. Secretary. Is NATO impotent in Syria right now?
SECRETARY PANETTA: I don’t think so. I think that NATO, frankly, has shown that it can take on the challenges.
QUESTION: In Libya, it did. But in Syria, it’s not doing anything.
SECRETARY PANETTA: And it did a great job. And it shows that when the international community comes together and decides to take action, that we can take action that achieves the result --
QUESTION: The argument is that Libya –
SECRETARY PANETTA: In this situation, the international community, Wolf, has not made that decision.
QUESTION: If it does, would NATO take action?
SECRETARY PANETTA: If the international community makes the decision that we have to take further steps, we’ll be prepared to do that.
QUESTION: A no-fly zone, arming the rebels, all of that?
SECRETARY PANETTA: I mean, obviously, that’ll – that would have to be discussed as part of what our plan is required in order to achieve the mission --
QUESTION: Any chance China and Russia will go forward with what they did in Libya and allow such a resolution to go forward at the UN Security Council?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, right now that’s a longshot. There doesn’t seem to be any willingness on their part to go further than where we are right now. But this is a fast-changing situation. And countries have a lot of relationships. We know that there are relationships, certainly, with Syria. There are also relationships with Turkey, there are relationships with the Gulf, there are relationships with European countries – all of whom are very worried about what will happen if Syria either/or both descends into civil war or causes a larger regional conflict.
So I don’t think we are even – I don’t think we’re halfway through this story yet, Wolf. We’re going to see a lot happen over the next few weeks. And it truly is up to the Assad regime. They’re the ones who hold it in their power to end the violence and begin the political transition.
QUESTION: How much time do they have?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I mean, they’re running out of time because they’ve made so many promises which they’ve never kept. So their credibility, even with those countries that support them --
QUESTION: Like Russia and China?
SECRETARY CLINTON: -- like Russia and China, is beginning to fray.
QUESTION: North Korea. Mitt Romney says the Obama Administration’s, in his words, “incompetence” emboldened the North Korean regime and undermined the security of the United States and its allies. Do you want to respond to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee?
SECRETARY PANETTA: No, not necessarily. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, he makes a serious charge: incompetence.
SECRETARY PANETTA: No, I think it’s pretty clear that this Administration took a firm stand with regards to the provocative behavior that North Korea engaged in. We made clear that they should not do it. We condemned that action. Even though it was not successful and it was a failure, the fact is it was provocative. And we have made very clear to them that they should not take any additional provocative actions. I think that was a clear, strong message that not only our country but the world said to North Korea. And that’s the way, frankly, the United States ought to (inaudible).
QUESTION: If they do an underground nuclear test, for example, what would you do?
SECRETARY PANETTA: That would be, again, another provocation --
QUESTION: And what would you do?
SECRETARY PANETTA: And it would worsen our relationship. I’m not going to get into how we would respond to that, but clearly we are prepared at the Defense Department for any contingency.
QUESTION: There’s still 30,000 U.S. troops along that demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
SECRETARY PANETTA: That’s right.
QUESTION: A million North Korean troops, almost a million South Korean troops, nuclear arms – this is a very dangerous part of the world.
SECRETARY PANETTA: No question we’re within an inch of war almost every day in that part of the world, and we just have to be very careful about what we say and what we do.
QUESTION: Does that keep you up at night more than any other issue?
SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, unfortunately these days, there’s a hell of lot that keeps me awake. But that’s one of the ones at the top of the list.
QUESTION: What are the others?
SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, obviously Iran, Syria, the whole issue of turmoil in the Middle East, the whole issue of cyber war, the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction, rising powers – I mean, all of those things are threats that the United States faces in today’s world.
QUESTION: You’ve got a lot of issues over there. What do you think of this new young leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un? Not even 30 years old yet.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we really are waiting and watching to see whether he can be the kind of leader that the North Korean people need. I mean, if he just follows in the footsteps of his father, we don’t expect much other than the kind of provocative behavior and the deep failure of the political and economic elite to take care of their own people. But he is someone who has lived outside of North Korea, apparently, from what we know. We believe that he may have some hope that the conditions in North Korea can change.
But again, we’re going to watch and wait. He gave a speech the other day that was analyzed as being some of the old, same old stuff and some possible new approach. But it’s too early.
QUESTION: When I was in Pyongyang in December of 2010, I was amazed that I could see CNN International in my hotel. They watch CNNI very closely. If you had a chance to speak to Kim Jung-un, even a sentence or two, what would you say to him?
SECRETARY CLINTON: I would say that as a young man with your future ahead of you, be the kind of leader that can now move North Korea into the modern world, into the 21st century; educate your people; open up your system; allow the talents of the North Korean people to be realized; move away from a failed economic system that has kept so many of your people in starvation; be the kind of leader who will be remembered for the millennia as the person who moved North Korea on a path of reform; and you have the opportunity to do that.
QUESTION: Are you ready to meet with him?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, under circumstances that don’t exist today. The United States, as you know, was willing to try and reach out to him, which we did. We had several high-level meetings. We agreed to provide some food aid in return for their ending some of their uranium enrichment and missile development. And then they do what has been already termed by Leon and the rest of the world as a provocative action.
So it’s hard for us to tell right now. Is this the way it will be with this new leader, or does he feel like he has to earn his own credibility in order to have a new path for North Korea? Too soon to tell.
QUESTION: The story of these military personnel in Cartagena, it’s a shocking story, I know. I mean, I can only imagine when you heard about the prostitutes and Secret Service agents and U.S. military personnel, I can only imagine, Mr. Secretary, what went through your mind. But tell us what went through your mind.
SECRETARY PANETTA: Well, I don’t usually use those words in public. It was very disturbing. And the reason it was disturbing is that whether it takes place in Colombia or any other country or in the United States, we expect that our people behave according to the highest standards of conduct. That obviously didn’t happen here, and as a result we’re investigating the matter. And as a result of that investigation, we’ll hold these people accountable.
QUESTION: Diplomatic fallout for this incident? It’s unfortunate, obviously.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, I don’t think so much diplomatic fallout as the unfortunate fact that it certainly ate up a lot of the coverage of the summit, which was a meaningful get-together, only happens once every three years, an opportunity to showcase Colombia. Think about how much Colombia has changed. And the United States, with our Plan Colombia support, has really been at the forefront of helping Colombia emerge as a real dynamo in the region.
As Leon said, there’ll be investigations both in the military and the Secret Service. I’ve had Secret Service protection for more than 20 years, and I’ve only seen the very best, the professionalism, the dedication of the men and women who have been around me and my family.
QUESTION: When we were in Cairo a year ago, I asked you a few political questions. We’re in a political season, as you well know, in the United States.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Are we?
QUESTION: I don’t know if you’ve heard about it.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yeah, and I don’t know about these things anymore.
QUESTION: All right. Let’s go through the questions that I’m sure you’ve been asked, but I’m going to ask them again. If the President of the United States says, “Madam Secretary, I need you on the ticket this year in order to beat Romney,” are you ready to run as his vice presidential nominee?
SECRETARY CLINTON: That is not going to happen. That’s like saying if the Olympic Committee calls you up and said are you ready to run the marathon, would you accept? Well, it’s not going to happen.
QUESTION: I disagree.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, well --
QUESTION: I think it’s – it’s unlikely, I will say that.
SECRETARY CLINTON: It’s more than unlikely.
QUESTION: But if he sees in July that he is going down, he doesn’t want to be a one-term president.
SECRETARY CLINTON: But Leon and I are in this awkward position, because we were – we’ve both been in politics and now we’re in two jobs that are out of politics for all the right reasons. So I don’t comment on politics anymore. But I’m very confident about the outcome of this election. And as I’ve said many times, I think Joe Biden, who is a dear friend of ours, has served our country and served the President very well. So I’m out of politics, but I am very supportive of the team that we have in the White House going forward.
QUESTION: But you would do whatever it takes to help the President get re-elected? You don’t want to see him be a one-term president, and you certainly don’t want to see Romney name one or two Supreme Court justices in four years.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, I could just imagine your poor mother. “Why? Why, mother? Why, mother? Why, Mother?” (Laughter.) No, honestly, it is not going to happen, so I’m not going to speculate on something that I know is not going to be happening.
QUESTION: Let’s try this one. (Laugher.) I asked my Twitter followers for a question for the Secretary of State. Shelly tweeted this: “Has Hillary seen the movie The Iron Lady about Margaret Thatcher, and it is time for a female president of the United States of America?” And then she writes, “My answer is yes.” Is it time for a female – like you, for example – in 2016 to run for president of the United States? (Laughter.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, let me depersonalize it, take it away from me. Of course I believe it’s time for a woman to be president. I was just in Brazil with the extraordinary Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil, at the Summit of the Americas. We had three presidents, two prime ministers of countries in our hemisphere. We just saw a woman succeed to the presidency in Malawi. It’s happening in the world, and obviously --
QUESTION: Except in the United States.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, it will. I just hope I’m still around when it does. I want to mark my ballot.
QUESTION: Well, let me ask the Secretary of Defense. If she runs in 2016 --
SECRETARY CLINTON: Here it comes, here it comes. You’re out of politics, remember? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: If she runs, will you support her in 2016, if she runs? (Laughter.)
SECRETARY CLINTON: Oh, let’s not (inaudible). (Laughter.)
QUESTION: It’s an easy question –
SECRETARY PANETTA: Are you kidding me? (Laughter.) You want her to run in 2016. She’s a great leader. She’s been a great leader and she will be a great leader in the future.
QUESTION: They really want you, and a lot of Democrats and others, they would like you to run in 2016. I just see you smiling. So you can go ahead and announce your --
SECRETARY CLINTON: Look, I am honored. That is not in the future for me. But obviously I’m hoping that I’ll get to cast my vote for a woman running for president of our country.
QUESTION: Did you see those pictures of her drinking a little beer? Have you seen those, Mr. Secretary? (Laughter.)
SECRETARY PANETTA: (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: Those were great pictures.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, we were having a good time celebrating the birthday of one of my colleagues. And I sometimes forget that everybody is now a potential reporter or photographer, but it was a lot of fun. We had a very good time just enjoying beautiful Cartagena.
QUESTION: I love that picture of you texting at the summit. You’ve seen that one too, right?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes, I have seen that, too. Yes, that actually was very funny, and a lot of the back and forth of the kinds of inventive dialogue was very funny. I’ve gotten a lot of comments about that.
QUESTION: Of course you have. Well, thank you so much to both of you for joining us. On behalf of all of our viewers in the United States and around the world, good luck to you, whatever you decide to do down the road. Mr. Secretary, you’ve got a lot on your agenda. Both of you have a lot on your agenda. We’re all counting on you to get the job done. Thanks very much.
SECRETARY PANETTA: Thank you.
SECRETARY CLINTON: Thank you, Wolf. It’s great to talk to you. Appreciate it.