Remarks at a Press Availability
Secretary of State
January 5, 2017
SECRETARY KERRY: Hi, everybody. Matt, welcome back.
QUESTION: Happy New Year. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Congratulations, Matt.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you very much.
SECRETARY KERRY: A little Vaille.
SECRETARY KERRY: No sleep.
QUESTION: Happy New Year, Mr. Secretary.
QUESTION: What’s that?
SECRETARY KERRY: What?
QUESTION: Happy New Year, sir.
SECRETARY KERRY: Happy New Year to everybody. Thank you all. Great to see you. That’s sort of a wistful smile. (Laughter.) Anyway.
Thanks all for coming to share some thoughts here. I want to wish everybody a very, very happy 2017 and great adventures ahead of all of you. I guess everybody wants to start off the new year by visiting our very elegant briefing room, so here I am.
Obviously, 2017 is a little different for me and for those of us who represent the transitory force of the State Department. So our key is to at this point be ensuring a smooth transition. And ensuring a smooth transition is guaranteeing that you have sort of a starting point, I think, which is what brings us all here. It brings me here this afternoon. It’s a moment where I have an opportunity to be able to talk about where we are now and how we got here.
So as all of you know, the White House – excuse me – the White House released a Cabinet memo earlier today that summarized the actions and accomplishments of the State Department over the course of these last four years. And as the memo makes clear, the United States has been more deeply engaged in more places to greater effect than at any time in American history. And while the full list is too expansive to review in detail here, I do want to just highlight a few key areas if I can.
First of all, the State Department’s core responsibilities are to protect the American people at home and abroad, and also to advance our interests and our values. That is what we do every single day, and nowhere, I think, has that been more pronounced than in our campaign to take on and defeat the terrorist group known as Daesh, or in some quarters, ISIL.
At President Obama’s direction, we here worked overtime to assemble a 68-nation coalition that has come together from across the globe to oppose a genocidal enemy waging war on civilization itself. Now remember, just two years ago these thugs were rampaging across the Middle East. I think everybody here can remember the images of convoys of Toyotas waving black flags and triumphantly parading through the desert and through community after community as they threatened the entire stability of the region. And we can all recall – some of us perhaps much more vividly than we might like to remember because of intelligence briefings – the videos, the horrific videos, of people being beheaded, burned alive, and the panicky predictions that Daesh was about to redraw the entire map of the Middle East. I ask you just to go back to those months and review a few days of the discussions to get back in touch with the fear and the impending sense of doom that a lot of people felt.
The President of the United States made an immediate decision then to deploy American airpower and to guarantee the safety of Baghdad – indeed, the security of Iraq and the region itself. And together with our coalition members and friends, we did not let the worst happen. We turned it around.
Our strategy has been to rehabilitate Iraq’s military, to kill Daesh’s leaders, to demolish their revenue sources, to curb their recruitment, to rebut their poisonous ideas, and to support our local partners as they liberate the towns and the communities that Daesh once occupied. I’m proud to tell you that that plan has in fact been working. Today, Kobani is free. Tikrit is free. Fallujah is free. Ramadi is free. And in time, Mosul, where there’s about a 60 percent liberation of the eastern side of the community, is inextricably going to be free. And then, Raqqa. And before long, Daesh’s phony caliphate is going to have been turned to dust.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the whole threat of Daesh is gone all of a sudden. No, it isn’t. Daesh obviously continues to adapt in certain ways to these changing circumstances, and so the threat adapts with it. And they will most likely try to establish new footholds or to instigate and to inspire isolated attacks. We have seen some of that obviously through social media.
But the bottom line remains that we have made enormous gains over the course of these two years, and we have done it without betraying our democratic ideals, without betraying our democratic values or changing our way of life. So we are on the right path both diplomatically and militarily and we need to stay on that course. And I guarantee you that over the period of this next year and into the future, Daesh is going to be thoroughly defeated.
We also need to remember that we will not defeat these terrorists anywhere, at any place, without the help from the one group that has been most victimized by terrorism, and that is our friends and our partners in the Islamic world itself.
The second area that I want to highlight is the Iran nuclear agreement, which is a demonstration, quite simply, of the power of diplomacy to be able to address major international problems short of war. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has made the world and our allies safer, including Israel and the Gulf states.
Let me be very explicit about that. When we sat down to begin that negotiation, there were more than 19,000 centrifuges spinning and enriching fuel. There were 12,000 kilograms of enriched radioactive fuel material, which with one more enrichment could move to bomb-level development capacity. There was enough nuclear material to be able to produce somewhere between 10 to 12 bombs, if that were the direction that Iran decided to continue to move. And a unilateral approach or refusing to negotiate at all, which some advocated, would have left us with two very bad choices: the short-term risk of a nuclear-armed Iran, and yet another conflict in the Middle East.
And to be clear – to be crystal clear – terminating that agreement now would leave us with those same bad choices. You cannot make a bomb with 300 kilograms of enriched material – that’s all they have today – from 12,000. You cannot make a bomb when you are limited to 3.67 percent of enrichment, and that is being tracked on a daily basis. The number of centrifuges today is down to about 5,000, which is permitted under the agreement.
So what we’ve seen is the joint plan has in fact blocked each of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon, and I might add, by the choice of Iran to submit to this – not because it does it in and of itself, but because this is an agreement and Iran agreed to these terms of the agreement. We have eliminated 98 percent of the stockpile that existed of enriched uranium, and we’ve shut down two-thirds of the centrifuges, and we have made the overall – I think a better way to phrase that is that the agreement, because it takes two to create an agreement, or more – in this case the P5+1 – the agreement itself creates the most rigorous inspection regime that has ever been negotiated.
We simply could not have accomplished any of that by going it alone, which is why we engaged in a joint diplomatic effort, and the result is that we now have the world on our side. The world is supporting this agreement and supporting the fact that a potential nuclear weapon has been eliminated in a particularly volatile region of the world.
The result is that if we maintain our leverage and meet our obligations, then we will be able to ensure that Iran has a reason to and a requirement to do the same.
Now, our diplomacy has already also made a major difference on global issues, including climate change. The science is absolutely irrefutable that the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is a dire threat to which we have to respond. And in 2016, we did respond. I think it’s safe to say that, in terms of environmental diplomacy, the past year may have been the most productive in history.
Our initiative to reach out to China changed the trajectory of possibilities after the disappointment of Copenhagen, where China had been on the other side. But because we reached out and we engaged proactively in diplomacy and we were able to reach agreement with China, our President, President Obama, and President Xi were able to stand up together in Beijing and together announce the unity of the two largest emitters in the world – emitters of gases – to come together to try to forge an agreement in Paris. And that initiative allowed us to reach the Paris Agreement, which then entered into force far more effectively and quickly than anybody in the world could have predicted.
The Paris climate agreement commits the parties to set and meet ambitious emission targets, each country with its own plan. I meant to bring it down and I didn’t bring it with me from my office upstairs. I have a number of vials of air in my office – small little vials, glass vials. They come from the South Pole. When I was in Antarctica, I was given these vials. We were snowed out in our ability to get there, but they gave me this vial, which has on it a tracing of the rise of carbon dioxide. And on the vial, it says “The Cleanest Air in the World.” And that air that is the cleanest air in the world is 401.6 parts per million filled with carbon dioxide. That is more than 50 parts per million above what scientists tell us is the tipping point with respect to the potential damage to the Earth’s climate. And that’s the cleanest air on Earth.
So the challenge comes home in scientific terms again and again, in ways that are just indescribable. And we now have, because of Paris, more than 186 nations joined together, each with their own plan to reduce emissions and try to preserve this planet of ours. But in addition to that, we worked together with other countries to bring the aviation industry together to the table. The aviation industry was not part of the Paris Agreement, but when you add the aviation industry to – all together, you have what would be the equivalent of the twelfth largest country emissions in the world. But we reached an agreement, whereby the aviation industry will also contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases.
And then in Kigali, we managed to approve an amendment to phase down the use of heat-trapping hydrofluorocarbons – HFCs as they’re called, which are – they’re used in refrigerants. And by phasing them down, this may be the single most effective one step we could take to try to reduce a rise in temperature, and the scientists tell us that that step alone could reduce the rise of temperature by one half a degree centrigrade by itself.
And finally, we designated the planet’s largest marine protected area, the Ross Sea, in the Antarctic Ocean and will preserve it for the future, in terms of science and research and in terms of fishing exploitation.
So the bottom line is that we have sent a powerful message to governments, to the private sector, to citizens everywhere that we are entering a new era in which reliance on fossil fuels is reduced while greener and cleaner energy carries us forward. And make no mistake – we do not believe that we can shift into reverse or even stop in this endeavor. This is a race against time, a race against what is unraveling, in terms of forces of ecosystem and Mother Nature that not everybody completely comprehends in terms of how fast or what may happen, but absolutely comprehends that it presents catastrophic risk to human beings. If we’re going to keep faith with future generations, it is imperative for us to keep moving ahead.
We also have progress to report in our own region. Our opening to Cuba after 54 years has strengthened our position throughout the hemisphere, and it’s given fresh hope to an embattled population just 90 miles from our shores. We also helped Colombia end the world’s longest-running civil conflict. We appointed a special envoy, Bernie Aronson, who worked day-to-day on that, and our team worked on it. I met with FARC; we met with President Santos, with the Colombians. We encouraged this process and, together with Norway, we are co-chairing the demining initiative, which will make a profound impact when it is complete to the lives of people in Colombia.
Across the Atlantic, we have been steadfast in supporting a democratic Ukraine and in responding to Russian provocations through expanded assistance to our allies in Northern and Central Europe. We have quadrupled, to about $3.4 billion, the amount of money that we are putting in to helping our friends on the frontlines be able to adequately build up their defenses and to guarantee their security.
We played a pivotal role in forging a national unity government in Afghanistan that, while still facing challenges, has kept alive the chance for future progress. And we all know how difficult that could have been when an election had serious problems and the country was poised to perhaps see the government fall apart and maybe even enter into civil war. And yet we helped to broker and pull together the parties into a unity government that still today is managing to move forward in Afghanistan.
Elsewhere in Asia, we have been standing side-by-side with our friends, strengthening sanctions on North Korea, improving regional missile defense capabilities, supporting the rule of law in the South China Sea, and forging a strategic partnership with India, enhancing our ties with Vietnam, and spurring democratic progress in Myanmar, where a freely elected parliament has been seated for the first time.
In Africa, I’m proud to say that we have worked long and hard with country after country, with governments and civil society every single day to combat hunger, to increase digital access, to train the leaders oftomorrow. I think one of the most lasting, enduring efforts of President Obama will be his Young Leaders Initiatives, and particularly the Young African and Young Southeast Asian, Young Asian Leaders Initiatives. And we have also taken a lead in helping Nigeria through a difficult election process and then ultimately to fight back against Boko Haram. We’ve helped the Somalians fight back against al-Shabaab. We have worked diligently to try to prevent genocide in South Sudan and worked in the region to try to bring people together and turn away from the potential of challenged and failing governments.
We have particularly helped push back against any number of violent extremist groups, including our efforts most recently to liberate Sirte in Libya from the clenches of Daesh.
We also joined with partners – and I think this is one of the most not fully understood but nevertheless important accomplishments of these last years, and that is rescuing the world, in a way, from the threat of Ebola. We stopped Ebola in its tracks, but it wasn’t easy, because nobody knew completely what we didn’t know even. And the President made the daring choice of sending some 3,000 or so American troops there to build capacity so we could deliver health care, working with the French, who took on major responsibility, and the British, who took on major responsibility. And together with partners all around the world, we were able to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people whom it was predicted would die by Christmas of two years ago. The predictions, as you recall, were perhaps a million people would die by Christmas. And through PEPFAR and the Global Fund, we’ve brought our world to the threshold of the first born-free-from-AIDS generation in 30 years.
Now, obviously we haven’t solved every problem. No, we haven’t. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, but we are absolutely right to support a two-state solution and to warn about the danger of actions on any side that could obstruct that possibility.
We’re also right to insist that a diplomatic path is the only way out of the disastrous situation in Syria, one of the most intractable and complex conflicts in modern history and the worst humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. And despite our best efforts to mobilize a unified response from the international community and to ease tensions and reduce violence and save lives, obviously the war has continued at considerable human cost.
After more than five years of tragedy, this much remains clear: It is only through a political solution that ultimately the country can be unified, the country can be rebuilt, and the violence can actually be stopped. It is only through a political solution that actual peace can finally come to Syria.
Now, the military strategies that are pursued by the regime and its backers in Moscow and Tehran, if that’s all there is, will only lengthen the war and generate more extremists and further inflame sectarian fighting. That’s why the United States continues to support diplomatic efforts to achieve an effective cessation of hostilities and a transition to a government capable of uniting the Syrian people. And we’re not competing with – we back – the efforts of Russia and Turkey and Iran to talk. We’ve – I’ve been in conversation with secretary – with Minister Lavrov, with Minister Cavusoglu and others, even in the last days, encouraging this process and talking about how we would build conceivably on what happens in Astana, if it can happen, in order to get to Geneva and get to the real negotiations that the international community supports.
Finally, I just want to emphasize how much of this department’s work takes place out of the spotlight. There are an amazing number of unsung heroes in this building and around the world in all of our outposts and our missions, and that includes people who work for us from another country but who join in and become part of the family and part of the team in some embassy, in some outpost, in some mission, in some consulate, somewhere in the world. Every day, at more than 240 posts that represent our nation, our personnel are sitting down with foreign counterparts in order to share outlooks and deal with different problems, to help American businesses, help students, help travelers; advocate on behalf of democratic values, human rights, including the freedom of the press; and contributing in ways large and small to the global goals of stability and prosperity and peace.
And overall, I think when you consider the scale of the challenges that we faced, the speed with which we have had to act, the multiple simultaneous crises that we faced, the limits imposed on our resources, I think when you measure all of this, Americans can take enormous pride in what our diplomats and our leaders have been able to accomplish in order to advance the interests of our nation and keep our country safe.
Now, we will turn over to our successors a country whose international standing is much improved from 2009 when President Obama took office eight years ago, and no one should forget the incredible fragility of the global economic crisis as a consequence of the late 2008/early 2009 economic disaster that we faced on a global basis. Economically, we have moved from the depths of crisis to robust levels of exports – the longest sustained period of private sector job growth in United States history.
Our overseas alliances in Europe and Asia are vigorous and strong. We have strengthened what we do in Asia, strengthened the relationship between Korea and Japan, strengthened our relationship trilaterally with Korea and Japan, worked effectively with China to try to define a new model of how important powers need to work in the world. Our overseas alliances in Europe and Asia are both vigorous and strong today. We have, as I described earlier, strengthened our alliance with NATO, strengthened our alliance with the frontline states. Our level of security support to a democratic Israel is unprecedented. Across the globe, we have helped to ensure that a child entering the world today is more likely to be born healthy, more likely to receive the necessary vaccinations, more likely to be educated, more likely to live a long life, than any previous generation. And that is just as true for women and girls as it is for men and boys.
Now, obviously, there are many people yet to reach. We all understand that. I just left a meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a luncheon today, in which I talked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle about the great challenge that we need to make sure we are properly funding in order to be able to meet the expectations of the United States of America as a force for good and a force for stability and a force for peace in the world.
Now, I know you know me well. I could probably go on a little longer on one or two aspects of this, but I want to save some time for your questions and have a chance to have a little give-and-take here. Let me just say, obviously, that for me it has been an enormous privilege to serve as Secretary of State. I still believe it is a spectacular job with enormous opportunities, but needless to say, those opportunities depend on the president you’re serving with to a large measure. And I have been very blessed to serve with a president who gave me a long leash, allowed me to take risks and attempt to get things done. It’s the best job I could possibly imagine.
And I’m obviously pleased to be able to share this last press briefing, press conference, with you here at the State Department, certainly, because you all do a very important job with respect to everything else we’re trying to do. And I talk about this, as you know, when I travel. We are blessed. We have a press, obviously, that’s inquisitive and open and free, that asks tough questions, and that’s part of the great strength of our system and of our country. And sometimes it gets contentious, sure. But in the end, this is part of what helps keep us free and keep us strong. So I appreciate the fact that you are trying to educate people around the world, but most of you, you’re focused on the truth. You’re trying to find out what’s really happening and keep the transparency and accountability of democracy alive and well.
I’m also mindful of the dangers that you and your colleagues face while covering conflict and turmoil and of the stress that your profession is undergoing today because of the transformation in the marketplace of ideas and of communications. I also understand it in more fundamental terms, having worked very hard to get Jason Rezaian home, and facing, as we do, challenges with respect to other reporters in other parts of the world. The demands on you are great. I salute the way in which you meet them with skill, with tenacity, and many, many long hours in pretty uncomfortable seats in the back of the airplane. And I trust that you will continue to do what you do today with the same good spirit and good intention.
So now I turn it over to you. Before I do that, I want to recognize the retirement of Samir Nader, veteran reporter from Radio Sawa. As many of you know, Samir has been covering Washington since the 1970s, here at the State Department since 2002. He is known for his incisive reporting about the Middle East and for sharing, I think, a lot of his wisdom with some younger reporters. So he’s also known for always being a gentleman. So we appreciate that and we’re all going to miss you, Samir. I wish you the best for the future. And so today, I’m going to turn to you and give you the first question. (Applause.)
You better be nice too. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Thank you. That’s wonderful. Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary, for your kindness and for your service. And we are both leaving at the same time. (Laughter.)
My question is about Syria.
SECRETARY KERRY: The question is: Is it the right time? (Laughter.) That’ll be answered down the road.
QUESTION: My question is about Syria. You said you are not competing with the Russians in the current phase, but did your coordination with the Russians reach a dead end about Syria? And what advice will you give the coming secretary of state about what should be done in the next phase in Syria?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think that I’m going to reserve the advice to give it to my predecessorpersonally. I’m going to be meeting with him somewhere in the next days, hopefully, and I owe it to him to give whatever advice I give on a personal level and not through the media. And I am sure you respect that.
With respect to the process on Syria, I think that the difficulty became what one party was willing to do or capable of doing with respect to Nusrah and separating Nusrah and being able to actually create a capacity for cooperation. As you know, we had some questions about cooperation on our side, and I think it was difficult. But that notwithstanding, I do think that whatever methodology there is of having an impact on the choices made by the opposition or by the Assad regime, we’re all supportive of it. I think the work that Russia was doing with the Turks basically was using a lot of what we did with the ISSG, but in a different format where it might have been able to produce a greater result with respect to what choice some of the opposition might or might not make.
Now, it’s proven to be very difficult. As you can see, the fighting is continuing. It’s difficult – the Assad regime seems to be playing the same card that it was playing previously. We’re all in this together in terms of trying to get to the table in Geneva and be – and find a solution. And my hope is that in the next days we’re encouraging the meeting in Astana. We hope that could produce a step forward. I’ve talked to Staffan de Mistura, I’ve talked with Minister Lavrov. We all agree that the same objective remains, which is to get to Geneva, where the real meat of the talks is going to take place. And I don’t think anybody at this point has an expectation that there’s going to be some major step forward out of Astana if that takes place. And obviously, there are questions about that just given the back and forth of what’s happening on the ground today.
So no, I don’t think it wore out. I just think that we all wanted to try different things and it might show greater promise of actually delivering what we all want to find delivered.
MR KIRBY: Thank you. We only have time —
SECRETARY KERRY: John, why don’t you manage this.
MR KIRBY: Yes, sir. We only have time —
SECRETARY KERRY: We’ll try to take a few here.
MR KIRBY: We’ll start with Matt.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, and Happy New Year, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.
QUESTION: I’m curious, from what you know, what you have heard, which of your priorities and accomplishments – some of which you just listed now, but you had – also in your exit memo – are you most concerned that the incoming administration will perhaps not have as much enthusiasm for, will deprioritize, or will actually roll back?
And then secondly, you mentioned in your comments just now that the international standing of the U.S. is much improved. And in your exit memo, you said the United States is more secure, more respected than it was eight years ago. And I’m just curious as to what is the metric for measuring that? Because I think a lot of people look around, they see the actions of rivals like China and Russia, as the Administration has detailed today. They see threats from foes like North Korea on ICBM launches, and they see real outrage and anger and sometimes hostility from friends like Israel and the Philippines. So I think – can you explain how it is that you see that the more respected —
SECRETARY KERRY: Sure. Well, I think I did explain it. You can’t achieve what we’ve achieved – a P5+1 agreement, the Paris Agreement, all the other things – without mutual respect, without working together in an effective way to try to make that happen. And I know that in my relationships, when I meet with – I mean, look at what we’ve done with the GCC, bringing the GCC to the table and effectively focusing on a regional security arrangement for the GCC. Occasionally you hear a complaint about one policy or another, and I understand that. I think the press actually overblows that. I think the reality is that compared to where we were – remember, folks, you had a economic implosion in 2008, and we had Iraq hanging around us in a very serious way. And we were not pressing for climate change or any of these other issues. So I think if you measure against where we were at the end of 2008 to where we are today, there is a significant amount of respect for what we have achieved and what we’ve done.
Does that mean everybody is simultaneously, universally happy with everything that we’re doing? The answer is no, obviously not. But we’ve stood up for what we stood up for in the South China Sea with the freedom of navigation and the respect for sovereignty, and even as we did that we simultaneously worked with China to get the toughest resolution ever passed with respect to North Korea and simultaneously managed to work out a cyber agreement with China in order to try to create some norms and rules of the road.
So I just think you have to look at what the accomplishment factor is in these countries, and you will measure it. And if you listen to people in the world, not some country that has a gripe about one particular issue or another, but people in the world, they look to the United States for the leadership that we have provided. And I think that’s the real measurement.
QUESTION: And on the incoming administration and what you’re concerned with?
SECRETARY KERRY: I’m not going to – you know, I think everybody here knows that nobody can predict what choices this administration is going to make. I don’t know. I don’t think you know. I think the question a lot of people ask is: Do they know? And we’re going to have to wait and see what choices they make. And I’m not going to start pre-rebutting or speculating or dealing with hypotheticals. It just doesn’t take us anywhere. I believe that there are some solid thinkers and patriots who are going to come to the table, who care about America, and they’re going to put their ideas on the table, and hopefully we have the normal, healthy debate that the United States has the ability to have. But hopefully we also find the common ground and the common interest.
We have got to move away from some of the partisanship and the – I think this election was a lot about people’s disappointment, and I’m venturing beyond my portfolio a little bit here – but I just think it was a lot about people’s disappointment with governance writ large, and I think it’s important for everybody in government to analyze that pretty carefully.
MR KIRBY: We’ll go to Elise now.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, Happy New Year. I’m wondering if you can speak about the fact that since his election, President-Elect Trump has kind of not sat on the sidelines, has been involving himself in matters of diplomacy, whether it’s speaking to Israel or to Egypt or to making policy pronouncements on Twitter. I’m wondering – and you see, like, other countries kind of responding to that, preferring now to deal with the president-elect even while this Administration is in office. If you could speak to that and whether you think it’s undermined your last couple of months in office and what you’ve been trying to do, and also whether you think that making these policy statements on Twitter is the new – is the new way of world leaders communicating. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I’m not going to – I don’t see a lot of them communicating by Twitter, but I’m not going to – I’m just not going to enter into that debate. I have two more weeks here. I still have a couple of trips which are important and conversations I intend to be having on behalf of our country, things we still want to get done, and so I’m going to adhere to the rule that I’ve adhered to for these four years and just stay out of commenting on what is effectively still politics. And I assure you that after January 20th I will have plenty of opportunity to speak out if I see fit, and I’ll do it at the appropriate time.
MR KIRBY: Andrea.
QUESTION: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, Senator McCain said today that Russia’s hacking and attempts to interfere with the election were an act of war. In that regard, how much is the criticism by the president-elect of the intelligence agencies hurting us in our ability to respond in real time? Because this is not hypothetical, it’s happening now. It’s hurting morale according to a lot of people who talk to us. What is your assessment of that, and whether there is legitimate criticism of our ineffectual response to cyberattacks, including against this building, which has been today pretty much universally accepted by people in both parties and by —
SECRETARY KERRY: Including against what?
QUESTION: Against this building.
SECRETARY KERRY: Oh, against this building. Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: In 2015, and whether there is a problem in our slow response to building up our cyber defenses.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, no, I think we’ve been building up our cyber defenses at a very, very rapid rate. Let me tell you —
QUESTION: We’re still outgunned according to the spy chiefs today —
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah.
QUESTION: — testifying.
SECRETARY KERRY: I think we are building up at a very rapid pace. We also have to build up in the context of budget allocations and so forth. But I think in this building, for instance, the minute we discovered when I – after I’d come in and we discovered a vulnerability, we shut down the whole system. We immediately moved into a very rapid transformation and we have not been, to our knowledge, visibly threatened or penetrated since then. We’re always threatened but we haven’t been penetrated, to the best of my knowledge – and that’s my knowledge.
I would simply say to you, Andrea, that you don’t know – and I can’t say – what the President may have chosen to do or not do, and there’s no way for you to measure whether or not the President adequately responded or not in terms of what options are available to him. I can tell you this, that both the President and I personally raised this issue with the Russians. And right now, as far as I’d like to go is simply to say that we could not do the work that we do as effectively as we’ve been able to do it – all the things that I just described to you – without the extraordinary contributions and input of people who put their lives on the line in many cases – not all – but everybody who is a dedicated patriot who is working 24/7 in order to protect our country in the intelligence community of the United States. And I have nothing but respect and appreciation for the vital work that they do.
They do not draw political conclusions. They put perceptions and facts and intelligence in front of you, and it’s up to us to ask them the questions based on what they’ve put in front of us. It’s up to leaders to be critical about it and to pursue whatever observation or assessment, as they call it, is made by them. But I will tell you this: I don’t think the President or this building could do the quality of job that we do without the input of the intelligence community, not all of which we accept every day on face value, believe me.
So the combined expertise of all of that community, probed and re-probed and re-probed-probed, has come to a common assessment that the Government of Russia engaged in a concerted effort to influence and interfere with the integrity of our electoral process. Now, that’s the conclusion. And I think that you can call it what you want. Senator McCain calls it what it is. It obviously is a very serious event. And I think the President has responded to it accordingly.
QUESTION: And how damaging is it that they’re being criticized by the president-elect? That’s not a hypothetical, that’s not a future —
SECRETARY KERRY: No, again, it’s not a hypothetical, but I’m not going to get into making judgment – I just – let my statement stand, that I have the utmost respect in their credibility and in their day-to-day work. I think they are deserving of an enormous debt of gratitude by everybody in the United States of America. And it doesn’t mean they’re infallible; it doesn’t mean they’re always correct. But they certainly deserve the respect in the way in which we question and evaluate what they present us.
MR KIRBY: Only a couple more. Lesley.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, Happy New Year. Do you personally believe that Vladimir Putin directed the hacking of the DNC and other political leaders? And also, number two, why did it take the U.S. Government – it had this – a lot of this information in the summer – until now to act and come forward with something?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, let me – yeah, let me – I’m not going to get into what I personally or don’t personally believe. I accept the judgment of the intelligence community that this went to the highest level.
But what I want to emphasize here is – let’s go back to late summer, your August, your September. You’re two and a half months from a presidential election, so the world is watching. And I think that if there had been a huge public – as it is, there was a big discussion over what was released, and it was very carefully done in a way that wouldn’t allow people to be alleging that the President and the White House and the intel community were somehow trying to affect the outcome of the election. And you just have to be in that moment to understand how absolutely likely and probable and almost certain that would have been. And that would have been equally troubling.
So that was about the time that we engaged, very personally and privately, with the Russians. And I’m not going to say more about it, except to say that a lot of judgment and consideration went into how that would be handled at that moment.
KIRBY: Okay. James, you get the last one of the day.
QUESTION: Thank you. And thank you, Mr. Secretary. I know I speak for everyone in this room when we wish you, after such a long and tireless career of public service, all the best for you and Mrs. Kerry in the next chapter of your lives.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you. Is my career in public service over? (Laughter.) I don’t know.
QUESTION: Well, is that a scoop right there? (Laughter.)
SECRETARY KERRY: Make it what you want.
QUESTION: Maybe it just earned me a follow-up. I want to return to this question of American standing abroad. And in particular, I want to return you to a pivotal moment in this presidency and in your tenure as Secretary of State. I refer to the whole sequence of events in 2013 when the President more than once very firmly declared a red line in Syria and then declined to enforce that red line. The famous photograph of you in the Situation Room seemed to telegraph your own incredulity at the whole turn of events.
You ask us to talk to people in the world. I’ve spoken to many of your counterparts throughout the Middle East who are among our allies, and even to heads of state. And far from overblowing these complaints, we haven’t even been allowed to report the severity of the complaints about that particular turn of events. They have told me that nothing they’ve seen in their careers has done more to damage U.S. standing and credibility around the world and – than the particular standing of this President than that failure to enforce his own red line. Should historians look back on this and identify it as a nadir of the modern presidency?
SECRETARY KERRY: No. No, because I don’t think that the press writ large, broadly, has actually properly analyzed, assessed, and reported on exactly what took place. So let me be very specific. It’s going to take me a minute, but I’m going to be very specific.
The President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, did decide to use force. And he announced his decision publicly and said we’re going to act, we’re going to do what we need to do to respond to this blatant violation of international law and of warnings and of the red line he had chosen.
Now, we were marching towards that time when, lo and behold, on a Thursday of a week before the Fridaydecision, Prime Minister David Cameron went to parliament – or he went on Wednesday. I forget which. Somewhere in the early part of the week, he went to the parliament and he sought a vote of approval for him to join in the action that we were going to engage in. And guess what? The parliament voted no. They shot him down.
So as we were briefing Congress, and I was on one of those briefing calls with maybe a hundred members of Congress on the call, many of them were saying, “Well, you’re going to come to us. You’re going to go through the Constitutional process, get permission from us to do something.” And the President had already decided to use force, but then the question became, “Do I need to go to Congress to get that permission?” There was a big debate in the security group. I was part of that. I remember the debate. And we felt that we’d quickly get Congress’s approval because this was such a blatant violation.
And the President decided – I got a call Friday night, we met Saturday morning, and the President decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval, and that was the way we do something like that. It wasn’t forthcoming very rapidly, number one. But number two, in the – the President never said, “I don’t want to bomb.” He never said, “I’m not going to.” He went to Congress to get permission to.
And in the meantime, at a press conference in London – you may have been there – I was asked the question, “Is there anything that Assad could do in order to avoid being bombed?” And I said, “Yes. He could agree to get rid of his weapons.” And within an hour, an hour and a half, I got a phone call from Sergey Lavrov of Russia suggesting that was a really good idea, why don’t we work on whether or not we could do that? And President Obama and President Putin had actually talked about it a few weeks earlier in St. Petersburg, and I’d already talked to Lavrov – I’d actually talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu about it, who thought it was a good idea.
And so all of a sudden, Lavrov and I were thrown together by our presidents in an effort to try to achieve that. And guess what? We did achieve it before Congress voted. The President never said, “I won’t drop a bomb.” What happened was people interpreted it. The perception was that he was trying to find a different road. And I will acknowledge to you, absolutely, I heard it all over the place. The perception hurt, yes. The perception hurt, but the perception came about despite the fact that we actually got a far better result of getting all of the weapons of mass destruction of Syria without dropping a bomb. And if we had dropped a bomb, there is no guarantee we would have gotten any of them out.
QUESTION: Is Syria today a better result, sir?
SECRETARY KERRY: No, obviously Syria is – it has nothing to do with that. What is happening today in Syria has nothing to do with the dropping or not dropping. It has everything to do with whether or not Assad was ready and willing to be held accountable by Russia and Iran to actually live by the agreements that they offered, and also whether or not the opposition was able to act in a way that could create enough leverage for Assad to have to come to the table and negotiate. And obviously, when Putin went in and put his troops on the ground to support – and his airplanes in the air to support Assad, that whole ballgame changed. We acknowledge that.
But the fact is that it wasn’t that decision. It was a whole bunch of other things that may have affected that.
The bottom line is, folks, the President never retracted his intent to – he just got rid of the need to do it by embracing a different approach that got all the weapons out. And so yes, I have to acknowledge – I can’t – he would acknowledge the perception certainly is out there. But I don’t think it’s fair, because I don’t think it actually reflected the decisions that he made, and it doesn’t reflect the reality of what we were able to achieve.
On that note, thank you all.
MR KIRBY: Thanks, everybody. Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Sir, a question on —
SECRETARY KERRY: I’ve got to run. I’ve got to run. Gotta run. Thank you.