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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript


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MR. GREGORY: Good morning. Breaking news in The New York Times this morning that North Korea has built a large nuclear facility to enrich uranium. An American nuclear scientist who visited the site telling the Times he was "stunned" by the sophistication of this new plant. This further complicates the president's nuclear disarmament agenda from North Korea to Russia to Iran , which was front and center at the NATO summit in Portugal , as the president used the world stage to press his Republican opponents in Congress to ratify a new nuclear arms deal with Russia . Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was with the president at the summit , and I spoke with her before she departed Lisbon . Secretary Clinton , welcome back to the program.

SEC'Y HILLARY CLINTON: Thank you very much , David .

MR. GREGORY: I want to talk about this showdown between the president and Senate Republicans over the START treaty . The president, in his comments to reporters, made it very clear he thinks politics is being played here, saying to reporters, "Nobody's going to score any political points to 2012 ." Is that the president's belief here about what's standing in the way? And in your view, is this really a, a litmus test of whether there can be bipartisanship in Washington after the election ?

SEC'Y CLINTON: Well, I think the president believes strongly, and I agree with him, that this treaty is in the national security interest of the United States . And it's not only Americans who believe that. I'm, you know, very impressed by the number of leaders at the NATO Lisbon summit who voluntarily told their own press, or American press, they were chasing down reporters to say this is so much in the interest of Europe and others. So the president sees this very clearly. But I don't think he considers this a political issue. It's a question of whether we have the time and whether we can make the case in the limited time that the lame duck provides to satisfy the concerns of two-thirds of the Senate . I think we can. I think that everyone has operated in good faith. We have looked hard at this. When it came out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee , it came out with an overwhelming bipartisan vote, 14-to-4. I think that the questions are being -- that are being asked by Republicans deserve thoughtful answers. And everyone in the administration stands ready, from Bob Gates to Jim Clapper , the head of the -- director of national intelligence , because we all see it in the same way. And we're in the tradition of both Republican and Democratic presidents , going back to Ronald Reagan , who famously said, "Trust, but verify." We have no verification without a treaty about what's going on in Russia 's nuclear program . So I think whether you're, you know, already convinced or can be convinced, I think we want to get our inspectors back on the ground, and the only way to do that is by ratifying this treaty .

MR. GREGORY: Is there an issue, though, of American prestige? The president was dealt a setback on fair trade when he was in Seoul. There was a feeling, when it comes to whether it's trade or economic policy , that America can't always get what it wants. Is this going to potentially be a problem of the president not being able to get what he wants on the world stage because of Republicans ?

SEC'Y CLINTON: Well, first of all, I think that the president didn't agree to a trade deal in Seoul because he didn't feel like it was enough in America 's interest. That's what a president is supposed to do. Obviously, he's still working to get one finalized that is. And in respect to START , which concerns, not just trade, but life or death , because we're talking about thousands of nuclear warheads that are still pointed at the United States , the president believes this does go beyond politics. You can argue about a trade deal, but what the tradition has been in the Senate , going back to the 1980s with President Reagan , is that once people have had a chance to carefully consider these arms control treaties, they have been passed overwhelmingly. We've seen it with the Reagan and the Bush administrations, the Clinton administration . Now, of course...


SEC'Y CLINTON: ...we are in the Obama administration . And in this one area, this goes beyond politics. This should be nonpartisan, not just bipartisan.

MR. GREGORY: Secretary Clinton , let me get to a few other areas, including the war in Afghanistan . Listening to the president, listening and following the events that have happened at the NATO summit , I wonder whether the Washington clock for the war has changed, and that Americans should expect that by next July there's a token number of U.S. forces that are withdrawn, and that, really, the war doesn't end for American until 2014 .

SEC'Y CLINTON: No, David , I think that we've been very clear about this, that the transition to Afghan security lead begins next year in 2011 . It is conditions-based. So where it can happen, at what pace it can happen, how many troops can be substituted for, that is what General Petraeus and the military leaders are going to be working on to recommend to the president and the leaders of other countries.

MR. GREGORY: Well, let me get in on a key point, then. Is it possible then, even at 2014 , when you envision and you hope that a transition is complete, might the United States have a long-term presence there, say, in the form of permanent air bases, to maintain a presence in the country ?

SEC'Y CLINTON: Well, we're, we're intent upon reaching the goal of transitioning to Afghan security in 2014 . But both the United States and NATO-ISAF partners have said that, of course, we'd be willing to help train and equip the Afghan military , what we do with countries around the world . There could be other missions that other countries would take on in terms of civilian aid and supporting the government . So the security lead, the, the fight, if you will, does transition to the Afghans. Support for that fight will continue to be provided by...

MR. GREGORY: What, what about...

SEC'Y CLINTON: ...not just the United States , but others.

MR. GREGORY: ...permanent bases? Permanent bases?

SEC'Y CLINTON: There's, there's been no decision whatsoever about any of that.

MR. GREGORY: But is that possible? Is that something that the U.S. is considering?

SEC'Y CLINTON: There's no consideration. It's just not on the table at this point.

MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about -- as secretary of State , you don't have to deal with airport security , but so many Americans do, especially coming up in this Thanksgiving week.

SEC'Y CLINTON: Right. Right.

MR. GREGORY: There's obviously a security threat out there...


MR. GREGORY: ...a terror threat , which is why you have this advanced technology and why you have these rather invasive pat-downs that we're seeing throughout airports around the country . Is this excessive, or is this the right response to the kind of threat environment that Americans face?

SEC'Y CLINTON: Well, the people responsible for our security , such as Secretary Napolitano , obviously believe that this is necessary. And I 'm not going to comment or certainly second-guess their considered opinions. At the same time, I think everyone, including our security experts , are looking for ways to diminish the impact on the traveling public. I mean, obviously the vast, vast majority of people getting on these planes are law-abiding citizens who are just trying to get from, you know, one place to another. But let's not kid ourselves. The terrorists are adaptable, they start doing whatever they can to try to cause harm. And when you have people who are willing to die in order to kill Americans and others -- you've got folks putting explosives in their underwear, who would have thought that? So striking the right balance is what this is about. And I am absolutely confident that our security experts are going to keep trying to get it better and less intrusive and more precise. But at the same time, we want people to travel safely.

MR. GREGORY: And a follow-up on, on terrorism . The Ahmed Ghailani case that was concluded this week with a conviction has raised new questions about whether it's wise to put these terror suspects in civilian courts . As secretary of State , why is it important to the rest of the world that these hardened terror suspects go in U.S. civilian courts to be tried?

SEC'Y CLINTON: Well, I think it's important, first and foremost, to Americans , which is my highest priority, what, what is best for the United States and for our own citizens. The civilian courts , known as Article III courts under the Constitution , have a good track record of convicting terrorists . And, in fact, if you look at the comparison between terrorists who are now serving time in our maximum security prisons compared to what military commissions have been able to do, there's no comparison. We get convictions, we send people away in our civilian courts at a much more regularized and predictable way than yet we've been able to figure out how in the military commissions . Secondly, I think there's a misconception in our own country about what's admissible in terms of evidence in a civilian court vs. a military commission . They don't have the same rules , but the rules are close enough in terms of what can or can't be admitted into evidence. So there's a, there's a very strong argument that what the judge in the Ghailani case said...


SEC'Y CLINTON: ...could not be admitted, would not have been admissible, either...

MR. GREGORY: Well, right, and that's kind of...

SEC'Y CLINTON: a military commission .

MR. GREGORY: And that's a very narrow issue, but the real issue is there's a lot of uncertainty in the criminal justice system , as you well know, as a lawyer...

SEC'Y CLINTON: But there -- but...

MR. GREGORY: ...and in a civilian case. But my question is, are we committed with these terror suspects that if they are acquitted in civilian courts , they should be released?

SEC'Y CLINTON: Well, no. And don't forget, we're not going to...

MR. GREGORY: Then why -- but then why hold up the American system ...


MR. GREGORY: the right route if you're not going to release them? That's what the American system says you have to do.

SEC'Y CLINTON: But, David , first of all, our system is the best system in the world . We all know that. It is good enough and strong enough to either convict and sentence the guilty or even execute, where appropriate, and, where you can't convince an American jury, which is certainly obsessed with terrorism , maybe there's a question about the strength of the case. And I think what we are trying to do is get the best result consistent with our laws and Constitution . And under our laws, military commissions are legal for certain cases, but it should be the primary decision to use our civilian courts whenever and wherever possible. So I, I think that this has become a kind of strange argument. On the one hand, people say we want to convict these people. The civilian courts have a better record of actually convicting and imprisoning than we do yet have in the military commission . But we also don't want to have security problems or publicity problems for particularly dangerous leading terrorists , so we should look at the military commission . So I, I think that this is a difficult issue, but I really hope that everyone can look at it carefully and consider all of the facts concerning this.

MR. GREGORY: All right. Secretary Clinton , before I let you go, I have to ask you this, just as a political observer, what do you make of what happened on Election Day ? And all this talk about Sarah Palin , when I interviewed you a while back, you said you'd be willing to sit down and have coffee with her. She may be someone who is in a position to try to equal what you accomplished in the political arena. What, what advice might you give her? And what do you make of what's happened politically?

SEC'Y CLINTON: You know, David , the best thing about being secretary of State is representing the United States around the world , but the second best thing is I'm out of politics. So, with all due respect, I am not going to comment on the political scene right now, other than to say that I'm focused on making the case to 67 plus senators in the Senate to pass the START treaty because that's, to me, the, the most important task facing the Senate , and it goes way beyond politics.

MR. GREGORY: And here I thought I'd lulled you into a moment of candor. Secretary Clinton , thank you very much , as always.


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