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Obama Aide Says Politics Accord Best for Syria (Transcript)

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend, said “a political settlement” remains best for Syria to resolve its civil war even as the U.S. steps up its involvement in the conflict.

(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)

JULIANA GOLDMAN: Thanks for joining us. I’m Julianna Goldman, filling in for Al Hunt. We begin the show with White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken. Tony, thank you so much.

TONY BLINKEN: Thanks for having me.

GOLDMAN: I want to start by talking about the continuing fallout from the government surveillance leaks. New documents show that there are instances where Americans’ calls, e-mails are incidentally collected. We already knew this, so doesn’t this just bolster the argument for greater transparency in the rules of these programs?

BLINKEN: First of all, when it comes to information from Americans that’s incidentally collected, it’s very important to note that the program in question is focused on non-Americans. And in the course of that, there are occasions - very rare - when information is incidentally collected on Americans. And that information is governed by very, very strict rules, and most of it gets thrown out right away, and there are very, very limited instances -basically, if a crime is being committed or if there’s a threat to security - where that information - in very constricted ways - can be retained. The deputy attorney general testified about it this week, but this is something that is very, very carefully (inaudible).

But when it comes to transparency and when it comes to moving forward on what the president said he would do, I think it’s important to note a few things. First of all, he’s asked the director of national intelligence to look to see if he can put more information about these programs so Americans have a better understanding of what they’re all about.

GOLDMAN: Do you know when we might see that information?

BLINKEN: That’ll be - I can’t give you - I can’t give you a date on that, but that’s an instruction from the president. Second, he asked his counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, to look at the decisions of the foreign intelligence court that governs this to see there, too, if more information can be put out.

And finally, today, as we speak, the president is going to meet for the first time with a privacy and civil liberties oversight board, a board of five very prominent individuals, named by the president, approved by Congress, and their job is to make sure that as we make sure that Americans are safe, we’re also taking into account privacy and civil liberties in the way we conduct our efforts and also in the laws and regulations that we propose.

GOLDMAN: So the president, others have said that Edward Snowden leaking this information has done major damage to our national security, to these programs. But, look, didn’t most nations, terrorist groups already either know about this kind of surveillance or assume that it was going on?

BLINKEN: Well, look, you’ll understand, I can’t comment on an ongoing and specific investigation. But any time you have an intelligence program, there are pieces of it that, were the information to be known to the folks who are our enemies and are trying to attack us, the details of how the programs are conducted, they could use that information to get around them. So there are specifics that, were they to get into the public arena, would undermine the programs and make us less secure.

So that’s why there’s got to be a balance between the transparency the president very much wants and making sure that these programs that are there, designed to protect Americans, are protected so they can’t be undermined and -and have the folks that we’re trying to prevent from attacking us get around them.

GOLDMAN: Former Vice President Dick Cheney, he suggested that Snowden is spying for the Chinese. Has this administration ruled out that he might have been working for another government?

BLINKEN: Again, I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.

GOLDMAN: All right. Let’s move to Syria. The president was in Northern Ireland this week meeting with G-8 leaders, and he said that everyone was united to see a negotiated political settlement to end the conflict in Syria. But, look, there have been nearly 100,000 deaths. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, they’re all backing Assad. Why is this president, the administration convinced that a political settlement is still possible?

BLINKEN: First, a political settlement is the best way forward, because it’s the - probably the only way to keep Syria intact, to keep its institutions intact, to make sure that everyone has buy-in on a post-Assad Syria. Of all of the answers out there, it’s for sure the least bad one that we have.

Second, if you look at what happened this week, the G-8, the major economies in the world, including Russia, signed up to a statement that was very clear on the desire to get a political settlement and the conditions for such a settlement, including that power needs to be transferred to a transitional government with full authority, including over the intelligence and security services, and it has to be done by mutual consent, which means that the opposition can make sure that the people that are part of that transitional government are people it approves of, just as any elements of the regime that are part of that would have the same right. So the Russians got behind that statement. That’s very important. And that’s - that remains the best way forward.

GOLDMAN: Well, after meeting with Putin this week, what other indications - or have you gotten any indications that his support for Assad’s regime has softened at all?

BLINKEN: Two things. Again, the statement on a political transition was very important, and the Russians signed up to it. The other piece is this that came out of the G-8, chemical weapons. As you know, we’ve made clear that we believe that the Syrian regime has used weapons on a limited basis multiple times in - over the past year. The G-8, including Russia, insisted that there be an investigation of credible allegations of use and that it be brought to the United Nations. And the Russians got behind that, as well.

GOLDMAN: Well, the Russian foreign minister said this week that the U.S. move to arm Syrian rebels, he called it a disaster and said that the U.S. was in danger of repeating the same mistake it made back in Afghanistan back in the ’80s. What’s your response to that?

BLINKEN: We have been working very carefully and very deliberately in terms of the assistance we provide to the opposition to make sure we know where it’s going, that it’s getting into the right hands and staying out of the wrong hands. And that’s why we’ve been very careful and deliberate about it.

In fact, one of the groups that has been part of the opposition, the so-called Al-Nusra Front, is a group that we designated as a foreign terrorist organization precisely to make sure that not only we, but other countries that may be assisting the opposition are channeling their assistance away from that group. We want to make sure that extremists on any side of this equation are not empowered as we work toward a political transition.

GOLDMAN: Well, Arab governments have complained that the light arms isn’t enough. Are there - is there consideration right now for the U.S. and its allies to do more?

BLINKEN: The president’s already made clear that - as he did last week - that we are going to be doing more in terms of the assistance we’re providing to the opposition. Other countries make their own decisions.

GOLDMAN: To go beyond - to be - to go beyond light arms?

BLINKEN: So I’m not going to detail the kinds of assistance we’re providing or get into breaking it down, but he made clear that in terms of the scope of that assistance, we would - we would be going further. And that’s exactly what we’re working on.

Other countries are making their own decisions about what they provide to the opposition. And as important is making sure that the opposition is coherent and cohesive and can work together and that the folks that we’re channeling assistance to are moderates, not extremists.

GOLDMAN: We’re running out of time, but I want to ask you about another hot spot this week, Afghanistan. It was supposed to be a good story coming out of Afghanistan, American military formally handing over control to Afghan security forces, peace talks with the Taliban, peace office, Taliban peace office in Qatar. And then that went south. Karzai broke off security talks. How did this get so botched?

BLINKEN: First of all, it is a good news story on two fronts. One, President Karzai announced that just this week that Afghans now have responsibility, lead responsibility for security across the country. We and our partners have moved out of combat operations, and we’re now in a support role. That is a major step forward in transitioning authority and responsibility to the Afghans.

GOLDMAN: Can the president stick to the timetable, the withdrawal timetable, if the security talks and the peace talks aren’t started?

BLINKEN: We - we’ve been very clear. We’ve been very consistent. We are - we have a timetable. This war will be concluded by the end of 2014, when Afghans have full control. And that timetable doesn’t change. But we had a major move forward in completing that timetable just this week.

Second, with regard to the Taliban office, there’s always going to be some turbulence in these things, but this is an important opportunity to actually start talks between us and the Taliban, but most important, between -among Afghans, between the Afghan government and the Taliban, to see if there’s a political way forward and a reconciliation process. Because at the end of the day, for all of the efforts that we’ve been making on the battlefield, which are vitally important and that the Afghans will continue to make, the best way to have a stable Afghanistan is for there to be a peace process and everyone gets brought in.

President Karzai showed real leadership in backing the opening of this office. We knew that going in people would say things or do things that - that others wouldn’t like. But let’s see how this goes. I think this is a good path forward.

GOLDMAN: Tony Blinken, thank you so much for the time, range of issues to get through, could have spoken to you for much longer, but thank you very much.

BLINKEN: Thanks for having me.

***END OF TRANSCRIPT***

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