Interview With Elise Labott of CNN

John Kerry
Secretary of State
New York City
September 29, 2015

QUESTION: Secretary Kerry, thank you so much for joining us. A lot of talk this week about President Putin’s actions in Syria creating new realities on the ground, and some have said that it’s kind of boxed the U.S. into a corner a little bit. Is that true?

SECRETARY KERRY: I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t see how it boxes us in the least. In fact, I think it opens up more options, but I think it makes life very complicated for Putin himself – for President Putin – because if he’s going to side with Assad and with Iran and Hizballah, he’s going to have a very serious problem with the Sunni countries in the region, and that means that he could even become a target for those Sunni jihadis. So this is very complicated for him. He needs to work something out, and --

QUESTION: But his --

SECRETARY KERRY: -- I think it’s an opportunity, to be honest with you. I think it’s an opportunity for us to force this question of how you actually resolve the question of Syria. And the bottom line is you cannot resolve it without including the Sunni in a political solution, a political agreement, ultimately. And that will mean that you’re going to have to have some kind of transition, some kind of timing, because as long as Assad is there, you simply can’t make peace, period.

QUESTION: Okay. But you’re talking about a managed transition.


QUESTION: So what role does Assad play in that – in managing that?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, according to the Geneva communique, there is supposed to be a transition entity set up, which is done by mutual agreement, so Assad obviously has a right to mutually agree. So the people that would be chosen on both sides have to be by mutual agreement. Now, maybe that’s beyond capacity, but it’s a sensible way to try to get a process in place.

QUESTION: Yeah, but for years we’ve been saying – you’ve been saying Assad should go. Now you’re saying that he’s going to choose his successor?

SECRETARY KERRY: No, the argument – we have not been saying that. We’ve said for the last year that he has to transition out over a period of time. We have not said or named --

QUESTION: How long are we talking?

SECRETARY KERRY: Let me just finish the one thought that for a period of time, all of the coalition were saying he had to leave immediately. That was the original statement way back when. We’ve changed that over a period of time. We’ve said no, that’s not going to work. We need to have an orderly transition, a managed transition, so that you don’t have a fear for retribution, loss of life, revenge --

QUESTION: A vacuum?

SECRETARY KERRY: You don’t have a vacuum; you don’t have an implosion – all of these things. These are legitimate concerns. So we concluded that it would be better and perhaps stand a better chance of reaching the mutual consent if it was done over a reasonable period of time so that you have a strong sustaining of the delivery of whatever government services are left – there are not many, frankly – but to hold the institutions themselves there so you have something there to build on, unlike Iraq years ago, where you can actually begin to put together a government and a future for Syria.

QUESTION: Can you join a coalition with Russia to go after ISIS?

SECRETARY KERRY: If the conditions were correct, in that Russia has decided they will be a constructive partner in the transition and that they will in fact seek to actually implement the Geneva communique in a realistic way, it’s possible to foresee that. But obviously, it predicates that you’ve got an understanding of how the Assad problem is going to be handled.

QUESTION: But today the Pentagon said that it’s pausing the train and equip program while it decides what to do. ISIS has certainly grown – some say doubled – in the last --


QUESTION: Well, certainly grown, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, nobody says doubled. The agency --

QUESTION: Okay. Well --

SECRETARY KERRY: Our intelligence estimates are that it’s – it was between 20- and 30,000. It may be up by about 3,000 to between 23- and 33,000.

QUESTION: Well – but --

SECRETARY KERRY: That is not doubled.

QUESTION: Okay. Certainly, though – I mean --

SECRETARY KERRY: But there – some additional fighters are there, yes. And --

QUESTION: But – I mean, why do you have to tie Assad and a transition if clearly you’ve decided --


QUESTION: -- that ISIS is the more important thing here? I mean, is everyone too fixated on Assad?

SECRETARY KERRY: No. The problem is that Assad has barrel bombed and gassed and tortured and starved his way into a complete lack of legitimacy for the three-quarters of Syrians who have already voted with their feet by being displaced and moving somewhere else in the country or in Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey. So the reality is today Assad is actually only ruling or governing over about 25 percent of the country. And if you’re going to actually have a chance of beating ISIL, you have to have the ability of having Sunni come to that fight in order to hold territory and move against ISIL. If they feel Assad is in fact being propped up and staying, they won’t do that. They will not come to the fight and you will not have a solution in Syria.

QUESTION: Well, you say he’s lost legitimacy, but he’s – but then you’re making him part of the process to choose the transitional government. Doesn’t – it seems a little inconsistent.

SECRETARY KERRY: That was an agreement that was reached a number of years ago because Iran and Russia support him, continue to support him, and Russia is obviously a member of the permanent Security Council membership. And they have continued that support in a way that if you don’t want to destroy or see Syria destroyed utterly – completely and totally, not able to be put back together again – you have to find some kind of a way to go forward on a political track. But you can’t do that in a way that makes impossible to actually make peace. And unfortunately, Assad has done so many terrible things to his own citizens that that fighting won’t stop and we can’t stop it.

QUESTION: President Rouhani was speaking to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, and he laid out very clear terms for a deal on prisoners along the lines of what you did with Cuba or Bowe Bergdahl. And he said that there have been talks about that. So what are you – what are your redlines in these talks?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to discuss – I’m not going to draw redlines and I’m not going to get into the details of any discussion of those talks.

QUESTION: But there are some talks about how to move forward.

SECRETARY KERRY: We have constantly – I have raised them in all of our sessions. We’ve had a lot of conversations. We are continuing those conversations now, and I am hopeful that the day will come soon – obviously sooner rather than later, but soon – when all of our citizens can come home.

QUESTION: Several presidential candidates have talked about tearing up the Iran deal. Is that a – is – what do you think of that? Is that possible? President Rouhani called it laughable.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, even – I mean, Donald Trump is very clearly – and other candidates, I’ve noticed, on the other side of the fence --

QUESTION: Yeah. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz.

SECRETARY KERRY: No, they have said --

QUESTION: They’ll tear it up day one.

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t know which ones have. Donald Trump I know said he’s going to live with it; he would work to improve it, but he recognizes that it is not a wise thing to try to tear it up. Now, I haven’t followed that. I’m not involved in the politics and I haven’t followed closely who said what. I’d just say this: If this agreement is fully implemented over the course of these next 16 months and Iran has rolled back its program and undone, destroyed their stockpile and limited their enrichment and reduced all of their centrifuges, and they have expanded the breakout time to one year, I would think it would be folly – pure folly – for any president then to sort of walk right in and say, “I’m going tear it up.” That – I don’t think the American people would allow it; I don’t think the world would allow it. It would not be a wise, prudent move. It’d actually be a very dangerous move, and not well received anywhere in the international community.

QUESTION: Hillary Clinton has said that she is tired of carrying your water on the pipe – Keystone pipeline. She’s – was waiting for you to make a decision but now has come out firmly against it, saying it’s a distraction from climate change, and climate change is also a very important issue to you. Do you agree with her?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I will release the decision – release my memorandum to President Obama when I’ve completed the process. And I’m not going to be rushed or herded by any outside statements. She has every right to make whatever positions that --

QUESTION: But are you leaning toward recommending against it?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to give any indication of what I’m doing. When the time comes, I’ll make my recommendation to the President; the President will make the final decision.

QUESTION: Was she wrong to come out against --

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to comment on anything to do with presidential politics. I will make the judgment when I’ve completed the process, and the President will make the decision based on the recommendation that I give him, or he may reject it – one way or the other.

QUESTION: You’re here talking about a lot of important issues – Syria just one of numerous issues you’re dealing with – yet back in Washington, on a weekly basis, members of – senior members of Congress, federal judges are blasting your State Department as incompetent on this issue of Secretary Clinton’s emails. And I’m – want to know how you feel about this. I mean, is this an unwanted distraction of time and resources for your department right now?

SECRETARY KERRY: I completely reject the judicial trashing of the department. There are politics involved in people who have certainly been tough on the department. But look, when I came in, I made an immediate decision that we were going to review and – the entire process. I’m the one who wrote a letter to the inspector general of our department and invited a review of the process, number one.

Number two, we’ve hired additional people, including a seasoned ambassador, Janice Jacobs, to be the head of the entire effort to move every piece of information requested by any public entity --

QUESTION: Is this a sideshow?

SECRETARY KERRY: -- whether it’s a FOIA – whether it’s a Freedom of Information Act request, whether it’s a committee request by Congress. We have augmented our ability to be able to meet those requests hugely. In addition, we’ve had a complete overhaul of the email/computer system in the State Department to strengthen it to resist any hacking, to put in new equipment. I’m very proud of what we’ve done in order to be able to get the emails out.

Now, I’d like to have them all out tomorrow. I’d put everything there is out there tomorrow.

QUESTION: Is this a sideshow, though?

SECRETARY KERRY: But it can’t be put out in one fell swoop, because we have an obligation to review what is classified information and what is not. And if any other department of the government is mentioned in a particular email, it has to go to that department in order for them to be able to clear it. So it’s by nature a cumbersome process. We are already ahead of the last court requirement. We’ve beaten the amount and we beat the time, and we will do the same. There will be another release, I believe, in the next days during this week shortly, and we’re moving as fast as we can to get every email out of there. And it’s to our credit that through the thorough search we are doing, we found additional ones. And we didn’t play with them --

QUESTION: Does that concern you?

SECRETARY KERRY: -- we put them right out there. No, it doesn’t, because we did find them and we are getting them all out there. So I’m very confident about the manner in which this is being done, the speed with which it is being done, the efficiency that is being applied to it – and importantly, the rights that are being protected in the process so that classified information is not put out there and we get it out as fast as possible.

And I can assure you that I’m sure former Secretary Clinton would want to see everything out there as rapidly as humanly possible. And that is exactly my wish, and we’re trying to comply with that.

QUESTION: But by doing this, was this – do you think she should’ve done this? I mean, was this – created a little headache for your department?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not – it’s obviously a labor-intensive effort, and because I have been so insistent that we not be able to be accused of dragging feet or being slow, we have augmented the capacity to do this several fold. We’ve cannibalized different bureaus to bring people from those bureaus and put them to work to help do this. But it takes an experienced eye to read the cable to know whether or not in fact it should or shouldn’t be classified and et cetera. So that’s what we’re doing, and I think we will be ahead of the curve and all of the information will be out there, and it’s coming out very rapidly.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you. Good luck with the rest of your week. Thanks very much.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you so much. Thanks.