Interview With Andrea Mitchell of NBC
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for joining us today.
SECRETARY KERRY: A pleasure. Thank you.
QUESTION: As you prepare to leave office at the end of the term, Russia and the role of Russia’s cyber hacking in the U.S. Russia has now, according to testimony and the intelligence at Armed Services hearings, Russia has hacked the State Department as we knew, the Joint Chiefs, obviously the DNC and other targets. It’s been going on for years and years. What is your message to Vladimir Putin for this wholesale attack on the United States?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think President Obama sent the message and made it very, very clear how totally unacceptable and dangerous this kind of behavior is. The President, I know personally because I was there, engaged President Putin on this face-to-face and has subsequently taken measures to express the concern of the American people about this kind of activity.
Now, it also needs to be said that many countries are engaged in this kind of behavior, and it’s a constant back and forth. We entered into an agreement with China a year ago where President Xi and President Obama arrived at a set of norms of understandings of how big countries and important countries should behave with respect to cyber activity, and that’s had an impact with respect to China.
QUESTION: But Russia – I mean, here the President said – he says, “I told him, ‘Cut it out.’” This was --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it was a bit more than --
QUESTION: -- an attempt to interfere with the American election process.
SECRETARY KERRY: Correct.
QUESTION: And they’ve done this in Europe. They’re done this elsewhere. But --
SECRETARY KERRY: Done it? They are doing it.
QUESTION: They are doing it.
SECRETARY KERRY: Correct.
QUESTION: So Putin now is ignoring these warnings. He doesn’t seem to be backing off.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I – there’s a lot of classified input on this, Andrea, which relates to what people are or aren’t doing in the current moment, so I can’t really go into it.
QUESTION: Understood. But --
SECRETARY KERRY: But I think that this has had an impact. I think that the United States has sent a very clear message about the unacceptability of this kind of behavior. Now, how we go forward is going to be determined to some degree by choices that the new administration makes, and obviously it is going to be important that the president of the United States going forward has a clear understanding of the degree to which Russia is engaged in this activity and the threat that it poses to the United States of America. Now, hopefully, in today’s meeting that would be made crystal-clear to the president-elect. But --
QUESTION: We know it’s going to be made crystal-clear. James Clapper made it very, very clear --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, crystal-clear in a way that results --
QUESTION: -- that he’s going to make it clear --
SECRETARY KERRY: -- in the president-elect accepting the information that is being made available.
QUESTION: What if he doesn’t?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let’s not get into --
QUESTION: Okay. Well, how damaging already is it? Clapper said, “Healthy skepticism about the intelligence community and all the mistakes that were made, WMD, that’s good. Disparagement is not.”
SECRETARY KERRY: Of course not.
QUESTION: How damaging is disparagement with our allies, our adversaries, and --
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it has an impact.
QUESTION: And our workforce.
SECRETARY KERRY: It has an impact, obviously, on the workforce. I mean, these are men and women who dedicate their lives and work unbelievably hard, many of them under very difficult circumstances, to try to keep America safe and to provide information to decision makers so that we can make the right decisions and make them on a basis of as much input as possible. I admire their work. I have grown to respect the extraordinary amount of effort that is put into informing us so that we can make good decisions. Excuse me. And I think it’s going to be really important for the incoming president to repair this relationship, to create a relationship in fact, because it is vital for the president to be able to work effectively with the intel community.
QUESTION: When asked about the fact that the president-elect is talking about his, like, intelligence on Twitter in very disparaging ways, Joe Biden said, “Grow up.”
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I work under a slightly different set of constraints than the Vice President, and I still have --
QUESTION: Oh, but cleanse your soul.
SECRETARY KERRY: No, I still have two more weeks.
QUESTION: Let your inner Joe Biden come out.
SECRETARY KERRY: My inner Joe Biden – and my inner John Kerry more importantly – will come out after the 20th of January. But it’s just important for me not to --
QUESTION: But how inappropriate is it to be talking about nuclear weapons and Taiwan, China, all the other isssues, big issues that you deal with every day, on Twitter in 140 characters, often in a very light-hearted or disparaging way?
SECRETARY KERRY: The American people have to make that judgment going forward, Andrea. I’m not going to get into the back and forth on the president-elect right now. I’ll just – I have a trip that I’m making to Asia in the next days, and I’m going to England and France. There’s a conference. I’m still representing the country.
SECRETARY KERRY: And I intend to do that with the same discipline that I’ve tried to exercise throughout my term.
QUESTION: But the days are waning of --
SECRETARY KERRY: They’re waning but they’re not gone.
QUESTION: They’re not gone, but you’ve got a president-elect who is making pronouncements on foreign policy and you’ve got foreign leaders dealing with him. You’ve got him calling Egypt and delaying a UN resolution. You’ve got the special relationship – the prime minister of Great Britain criticizing your speech on the Middle East and the UN resolution – that’s unheard of – when they helped write that resolution, according to my sources. How shocking was that to you?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well --
QUESTION: Clearly playing up to Donald Trump.
SECRETARY KERRY: Again, Andrea, you’re good at this and you’re very persistent, but we were very pleased that Great Britain worked extremely hard to pass the UN resolution on settlements. And they voted --
QUESTION: And then dumped all over it.
SECRETARY KERRY: And they voted for it. And my hope is that they will have had time now to digest the full text of my speech and to understand that I was defending a British position, which is support for a two-state solution, and that I was defending a long-held belief by Britain, by Europe, by all our allies and friends, and particularly by Republican and Democrat administrations alike, that settlements are an obstacle to peace.
Now, that’s our position. It was the position of Ronald Reagan, the position going back through all of history, the position of George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush, then Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and so forth. So I hope that our friends in Britain, where we do have a special relationship, will fully digest the text of my speech and exactly what we’re trying to do.
QUESTION: What would be the impact if the Trump Administration reverses the sanctions on Russia?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, again --
QUESTION: Just diplomatically looking forward --
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah.
QUESTION: What would – what signal would that send to Vladimir Putin?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the sanctions have been put there, Andrea, because of specific actions that have been taken with respect to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
QUESTION: And the hacking.
SECRETARY KERRY: And Russia agreed – oh, you’re talking about those – both sets.
QUESTION: Yeah, for – and the recent sanctions.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the more recent sanctions, obviously that would be a very dangerous and damaging message. It would be a complete reversal of the importance that the intelligence community – obviously the Congress as you listened to the hearings just the other day, yesterday – those are all indications of great concern that Americans have about anybody interfering in our democracy, in our electoral process, in a particular subversive way.
And I think that to – if there were a move to suddenly lift them, it would be a huge mistake and even in a very damaging direction because it would invite further activity without some kind of understanding about where we’re going. Now, obviously, it would depend on the circumstances that surrounded it. If it happens in conjunction with a very specific set of agreements and with a very specific, enforceable set of steps that can be taken --
QUESTION: That would be different.
SECRETARY KERRY: That’s a different question.
QUESTION: In the time we’ve got left I want to ask you about something else because – about Syria. With all the work, all your efforts – indefatigable; five years, so many people dead, displaced – a million people; the suffering – Russia the gamechanger, a year and some months ago, entering with no warning. Even 24 hours meeting personally with President Obama, Vladimir Putin’s planes are flying over Syria for the first time. No warning at all to us.
The Russian role has been so devastating, really, in propping up Assad at a critical juncture. Any regrets? You expressed some that were heard on an overheard audio to some of the opposition leaders. Any regrets that we did not arm the rebels sooner when there might have been a better opportunity?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, again, Andrea, I’m going to have a lot of opportunity to be able to sort of look back, and I just – what choices might have been made. I’m not going to do it now except to say to you --
QUESTION: But it’s being widely reported you argued for it.
SECRETARY KERRY: Except to say you’ve heard clearly that I’m proud of all the efforts that we made to try to lead people to a peaceful resolution. And in fact, the only solution to Syria will be a peaceful agreement along the lines of what we laid out in the course of the International Syria Support Group and the several communiques that we issued and the United Nations resolution which we passed, 2254. Those will be the basis of whatever happens if they get there.
Now, I believe there is an exhaustion setting in. Sometimes timing is everything in these kinds of negotiations. And I believe that there is a possibility over the course of the next year that the parties could come to the table and find a way forward. It will be on a different plane of leverage and different kind of outcome than some people might have anticipated, but I think there may be possibilities of trying to move forward. We will continue to encourage that. I will encourage it from the outside, not as secretary of state, because there is no military solution to the problem of Syria.
Now, when President Putin came in, he came in partly to prop up Assad but also because ISIL/Daesh was gaining huge ground. The radical extremists were gaining huge ground against Assad, and Assad was in a very fragile position. And so together, I think Iran and Russia decided they had to prop him up and save him from the possibility that the extremists might, in fact, take over the country.
And I will say to you that was not something that we weren’t also concerned about at the time that there was a gaining foothold of al-Nusrah and Daesh in their ability to push towards Damascus, push through, and the regime was on its heels. Did Putin make an enormous difference in that? Yes, together with Iran and Hizballah and the entities that basically overwhelmed some of the force available to the opposition.
But that doesn’t end the war. Nothing that he has done is, in fact, going to obviate the need to get to Geneva to have – or Astana, wherever it’s going to be – and have a real negotiation that resolves the political differences between the people that Assad has oppressed and killed and tortured and driven out of their homes and the possibility of a future Syria that is united and hopefully stable and peaceful. That’s a hard road to get to still, no matter what Putin has done. And he’s going to need the international community not only to achieve that but ultimately to figure out how you’re going to rebuild this country that has been absolutely devastated by this war.
QUESTION: To be continued. I know we’re out of time. Is there more public service in your future (inaudible)?
SECRETARY KERRY: It’s in my blood. It’s in my blood. I don’t intend to pull back. I’m going to do a lot of different things which I’m sort of thinking about still, but I look forward to continuing very much. I’m committed to these issues. I’m going to continue to speak out on them.
QUESTION: Thank you for your service.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you so much.
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