Interview With CBS Face the Nation's John Dickerson

John Kerry
Secretary of State
CBS Studio
Washington, DC
March 26, 2016

MR DICKERSON: We sat down earlier with Secretary of State John Kerry, who is just back from Brussels. We asked him how worried he was about another terror attack in Europe.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think everybody’s concerned, because for several years now foreign fighters have been returning from Syria or from other locations and implanting themselves in the communities, and this is the threat that we’ve all been aware of. We’ve been looking for additional screening. We’ve been engaged actually with the Belgian authorities for some period of time now trying to fill gaps that they’re aware exist. And I think everybody is now geared up to recognize that the fight is not just in Iraq and Syria, but the fight is wherever those fighters have come from.

QUESTION: Belgian officials admit that there were lots of gaps in this case, and this is after the attacks in Paris. What’s the sense of urgency in Europe?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there’s great urgency. There’s a sense of urgency clearly.

QUESTION: There’s a sense of urgency, but can they capture that? You’re talking about 28 different countries.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, they have to. They really have to. And I met with the president of the European Commission yesterday. The prime minister of Belgium made it very clear they know they need to move on these things, and hopefully that will happen. It is essential to the long-term fight against Daesh.

But what’s important for people to understand is we are making real progress in Iraq and Syria, and I mean real progress. In 2014, when they began to sweep across Iraq, that is when President Obama ordered the initial bombing that stopped them from moving towards Baghdad. And since then, we have recouped about 40 percent of the territory in Syria which they had captured. And we’re taking out about one leader every three days of ISIL/Daesh, so we’re making progress. That doesn’t mean they’re not a continuing threat; they are, and probably more so now a threat in some of these other areas where they try to prove their viability.

QUESTION: That’s – you suggested that these latest attacks are, in fact, a sign that they’re being – that their attempts to create a caliphate are falling, collapsing.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s not – it’s not only that. This is part of their plan. They put people in other places, and those attacks will take place whether or not they are collapsing or hurting, but I think there are a number of people who believe that their need to reinforce their narrative – that even though they’re under pressure, they’re still this viable force – is the only way for them to recruit, it’s the only way for them to try to provide some added morale to people that we know are very much having morale problems in Syria and Iraq.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about Russia, where you were, but first let’s – before – let’s not leave Europe. You suggested that Americans traveling to Europe should continue with their plans, but, quote, “exercise vigilance.” What does that mean? If I’m scheduling a vacation, how do I know to exercise vigilance?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it’s really a matter of common sense, but there are guidelines and the State Department’s ready to help anybody to understand exactly what that means. It means avoid a crowded place where you have no control over who may be there, have a sense of vigilance, to watch who’s around you. If you see a guy walking into an airport with a black glove on one hand and nothing on the other and there are two of them the same way and they’re pushing a big suitcase, maybe that tells you something. I mean, there are things you can be alert to.

QUESTION: That doesn’t sound like much of a vacation.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, we live in a world today where, unfortunately, we have to be vigilant. I mean, look at what happened in San Bernardino. I mean, there are realities that there are dangers around. I don’t want to scare anybody. I don’t think you have to be. The odds of being hit by a terrorist are far less than the odds of an injury in the course of daily life, whether it’s an accident in an automobile or a home or elsewhere. So people do not have to live in fear, but it doesn’t mean you should be oblivious to your surroundings. There are plenty of ways and places to have a good vacation. I would not tell any friend of mine or member of my family, “Don’t travel to Europe,” or elsewhere. But I would say do so with an awareness of what you’re choosing to do, what activity you undertake, and where you are.

QUESTION: You’ve been working with the Russians on a cessation of violence in Syria. How long till Assad is out of power, which is a U.S. goal?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I can’t tell you that, but if Assad is not going to move to the side and cede to the transition that Iran and Russia and all the other nations in the international security group have called for and supported – if he doesn’t do that, there will not be peace in Syria. It is not sort of a discretionary choice that we are making where we say, “Oh, Assad must go,” because we simply want him to go. It’s because you can’t end the war while Assad is there.

QUESTION: Where are the Russians on the question of a post-Assad regime?

SECRETARY KERRY: The Russians believe – they’re not wedded to Assad. They believe that the Syrian people must decide in the context of this political process.

QUESTION: I want to ask you about criticism with respect to Russia. The argument is that Putin has won in Syria, that he has been able to get a foothold in the Middle East because of U.S. policy. What’s your --

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, frankly, I find that ridiculous. Russia has had a foothold. Russia built the air defense system of Syria years ago. Russia --

QUESTION: But they’ve gotten more of one.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, so – more power – have at it. We have base access in Incirlik in Turkey. We have bases all through the Middle East, in Bahrain, in Qatar. I see no threat whatsoever to the fact that Russia has some additional foundation in a Syria, where we don’t want a base, where we are not looking for some kind of a long-term presence. If Russia can help stabilize and provide for a peace process that actually ends this war, which is putting existential --

QUESTION: So they’re an ally in Syria?

SECRETARY KERRY: -- no – which is putting existential pressure on Europe as well as existential pressure on Jordan, on Lebanon, and creating an environment that threatens Israel – you talk about threats to Israel – that turmoil is a threat to Israel. So if Russia can help us – and it is right now – Russia has helped bring about the Iran nuclear agreement. Russia helped get the chemical weapons out of Syria. Russia is now helping with the cessation of hostilities. And if Russia can help us to actually effect this political transition, that is all to the strategic interest of the United States of America.

QUESTION: Finally, on politics, the President was criticized for going to a baseball game in Cuba after the Brussels attacks, the tango in Argentina. What is your response to the critics who say those – sticking with his schedule was discordant when there was this happening in Europe?

SECRETARY KERRY: My response is, to quote Charles Krauthammer, you don’t – the President of the United States’s schedule is not set by terrorists. The President of the United States has major diplomatic responsibilities. He has to engage with other countries. That was an important part of trying to build a relationship and achieve some of our goals with respect to human rights, with respect to transformation in Syria – in Cuba and elsewhere. And I think the President – life doesn’t stop because one terrible incident takes place in one place. The President responded to it. He talked to the prime minister of Belgium from Cuba.

QUESTION: So you think --

SECRETARY KERRY: I talked to the foreign minister from Cuba. And we – and an FBI team went to Belgium, is working with them now. We’ve been in direct contact every minute. So I don’t think the President lost one tick of – on the contrary, he continued what he had to do to engage in the diplomacy that had been pre-decided on.

QUESTION: In response to the Brussels bombing, from Republicans we’ve gotten a series of things – more talk about banning Muslim immigrants, talk about surveilling Muslim neighborhoods and also waterboarding. As you deal with people overseas, is that seen as the circus of campaigning, or is there any way in which that rhetoric has any effect overseas?

SECRETARY KERRY: Everywhere I go, every leader I meet, they ask about what is happening in America. They cannot believe it. I think it is fair to say that they’re shocked. They don’t know where it’s taking the United States of America. It upsets people’s sense of equilibrium about our steadiness, about our reliability. And to some degree, I must say to you, some of the questions, the way they’re posed to me, it’s clear to me that what’s happening is an embarrassment to our country.

QUESTION: All right. Secretary of State John Kerry, thank you.