Interview With VRT's Jan Valliant

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Brussels, Belgium
March 25, 2016

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, there has been a lot of criticism on Belgium in the run-up to the attacks. Do you deal – how do you deal with this criticism? Do you think that the Belgian authorities made fundamental mistakes?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, I’m not an expert, and I don’t know all the details of what everybody did. But I can tell you from my point of view the government that has been in place for about a year has been extremely vigilant and extremely proactive, and the prime minister and the foreign minister have been in touch with us. We have been working with them very closely. Just last month, before these attacks, we had a foreign fighter surge team here in Belgium working with the Belgian authorities. We have set up meetings before these attacks that will take place in next weeks in April to deal with passport security, deal with airport security, deal with police work and how you observe certain kinds of behavior and make determinations. So we’re working actively with Belgian authorities and have been for some period of time now.

QUESTION: But in a lot of previous attacks, there are always links to Brussels. Surely that is disturbing.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s a simple fact that the group that operated in Paris used Brussels as a base. I understand that. But it seems to me that you have to also recognize that it was Belgian authorities who captured Salah Abdeslam.

QUESTION: After four months.

SECRETARY KERRY: But that’s – yeah, but police work is tough work. I used to be involved in law enforcement. It doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s not automatic. You have to – and especially if you’re trying to adhere to high standards of laws that protect people and protect privacy and other kinds of things. Now, I think that there are things that could happen in Europe that would, frankly, make everybody safer.


SECRETARY KERRY: Like the passenger name record system – PNR, as it’s called. That needs to be put in place. Or the passenger screening system which allows people to do some checking on people ahead of time. There are things that could be done – advance checking on people’s flights. There are things like that that would help us to be able to prevent foreign fighters coming back from Turkey or Syria or some other country or from Africa. And we need to be more willing to allow authorities to trade certain kinds of information in order to be able to protect people. I think that’s important.

QUESTION: One of the suicide bombers, el-Bakraoui, was on a terror list, apparently, in the U.S. --

SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah, I heard that.

QUESTION: -- not in Belgium, not on the Schengen list. Doesn’t that illustrate that there is not enough exchange of information?

SECRETARY KERRY: Yes. Absolutely. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

QUESTION: What are you going to do?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we have been advocating for some period of time for Europe to adopt – Europe as a whole to adopt a broader information sharing system. I think it is fair to say that in a number of countries, partly because of Mr. Edward Snowden and the history, people have had a reservation about doing some of these things because they felt it might be an invasion of privacy. So we have to be honest about this debate.

QUESTION: So it will be less privacy in the future?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I don’t believe that, personally. I don’t worry about my privacy. The fact that I’m getting on an airplane – if I were not flying in a military plane now, but if I’m flying in civilian airplane, which I was doing as a senator, I don’t care if they know I’m on the plane, because I’m obeying the law. And I’m not worried about the fact that they’re doing it in order to make sure a terrorist isn’t on the plane. So I think people have to relax a little bit and understand that there are plenty of ways to protect your privacy without creating greater danger in society at large.

QUESTION: Brussels has six police zones for a city of 1 million people. Is that a way to deal with terrorism?

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. I think you have to – I’d have to study it. I have to know more, not – I’m not versed and steeped in the exact structure of everything that happens here. I do know that you have a federal system. I know that you have a fairly decentralized system, and I know that therefore – and I know this from personal experience, because I used to be in law enforcement years ago; I was an assistant district attorney, practicing law, prosecuting people. And I remember the difficulties we had in the United States between federal authority, state authority, and local authority in the movement of information. So we’ve streamlined much of that now. We’ve gotten better at it through the years, partly because of what happened in 9/11 in 2001.

QUESTION: And Belgium should also do that?

SECRETARY KERRY: I – it’s up to Belgium to decide what it should do. But I would urge Belgium and all European countries to create a more integrated flow of information so that we can protect ourselves more effectively. And I would say to every citizen there is a way to do that and still protect people’s legitimate privacy. There is absolutely a way to do that. And we’ve proven it, and we’ve lived with it. We passed the PATRIOT Act after 9/11, and I think most Americans – some object still, but most Americans have come to view it as not interfering with their day-to-day life and their rights.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.