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Winter Wallop; Interview With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry

Aired February 5, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Secretary of State John Kerry has been on the job for a year now. And, today, he will join us exclusively for his annual performance review.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The world lead. Has the administration's policy in Syria failed? Did the Obama administration get played by Iran? Is it safe for Americans to go to the Sochi Olympics? Secretary of State John Kerry answering tough questions in our one-on-one and dropping a surprise revelation about his political future.


JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: One of -- one of the joys of this job is I'm out of politics.

TAPPER: Forever?


TAPPER: The national lead. A new study says shivering might count as exercise. If so, today's quite a workout. Snow, ice, frigid temperatures for the umpteenth time this brutal winter, with 120 million of us in the storm's path.

And the money lead. For years, it's been one-stop shopping for smoke efforts. You go in for cigarettes, or nicotine gum or emphysema medication. It's all there in one store. But now, CVS is breaking the cycle, why it's kicking a habit that added up to $2 billion in sales per year.

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We're going to begin with the world lead, our exclusive one-on-one interview with Secretary of State John Kerry. This week marks one year since Kerry started his new gig and began one of the busiest, most challenging years of his life. He left the Senate seat he held for 28 years and assumed the office on February 1, 2013.

His formal swearing-in followed five days later. Kerry took over for the departing Hillary Clinton, who left at a time of personal record- high approval numbers in order to coyly avoid questions about whether she will run in 2016. Kerry's work began immediately. He spent more nights on the road than your average NBA player, traveling 152 out of his first 365 days in office to push the Obama administration's agenda across the world. His track record? Well, it depends who you ask.

On Iran, Kerry played a key role in negotiating a temporary deal to freeze parts of Iran's nuclear program. But skeptics wanted more sanctions and said they shouldn't trust the Iranians. And one of Iran's top nuclear negotiators said the deal could be reversed and the program back up and running within 24 hours.

Kerry's next test on Iran comes in fewer than two weeks when he travels to Austria in the hopes of securing a permanent nuclear deal. Then there's Syria. The administration has appeared to waver very publicly. It's gone from Assad must go to threatening strikes over the use of chemical weapons to agreeing to stay out of it if Syria disarms.

Now the world watches as death continues in the streets there amid doubts over whether the regime will abide by its bargain. Kerry is playing a key role on Syria. And his track record over this busy past year is a matter for discussion, which is why we asked him to sit down with us today.


TAPPER (voice-over): When he's not flying around the world, most of John Kerry's days in Washington begin like today did. Here he is pulling into the State Department before dawn. There are meetings with key staff.

KERRY: No crises today, right?

TAPPER: And with heads of state, such as the president of Haiti this morning.

Kerry has been heralded by his new boss, President Obama, but this has not been a seamless transition for the former U.S. senator and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

At times, Kerry has seemed to be reading off a different script than the rest of the administration, or at least a different public script. Last September, for instance, the president announced a plan to strike Syria in response to Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against civilians.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons.

TAPPER: But Kerry, seemingly speaking extemporaneously, offered an out for Assad, reshaping, perhaps clumsily, U.S. policy.

KERRY: He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week, turn it over, all of it.

TAPPER: The Russians and President Obama, neither of whom seemed to want those strikes, both jumped at Kerry's suggestion, no U.S. strikes if Assad handed over his chemical weapons.

And that was the first thing we discussed when we caught up with Kerry at the State Department this morning, just back from his latest trip abroad.

(on camera): The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said that Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been strengthened since the chemical weapons deal. The United Nations says that Assad's regime is torturing children.

He seems to be -- Assad seems to be slow-walking the chemical weapons process and those are only the weapons that he's acknowledged he has, not other ones that he might be stockpiling, according to other reports.

Hasn't the policy in Syria failed?

KERRY: No, the policy in Syria is just very challenging and very difficult. And we know that.

TAPPER: How has it succeeded?

KERRY: Well, let me -- let me lead you into that, Jake, because it's an important question and an important policy.

First of all, the chemical weapons agreement is, in and of itself, a significant milestone. And it is progressing. Yes, it's been slowed down a little bit in the last month, but we have been raising that profile of questions about it and I think it's now speeding up again.

But, more importantly, what Jim Clapper is saying and what everybody would acknowledge, is that a lot has happened since the time of the potential strikes. The president of the United States made his decision to strike. He announced it publicly. That is, in fact, a significant point of leverage that helped to bring about the agreement to get the chemical weapons out.

Now, before we got that agreement, Assad was using those weapons against his people. Now he's not and he can't.

So we have eliminated a critical grotesque tool that this man was willing to use ruthlessly against his own people. And we're moving it out.

Now, I would describe the situation simply that Assad is not winning, but he's also not losing. It's sort of a stalemate at this moment. And there is increased capacity in some of the opposition. There is continued fighting among some other of the opposition.

TAPPER: So, you disagree with Clapper when he said that?

KERRY: Well, that's not -- no, he didn't say because of the deal, he said...

TAPPER: No, since the deal.

KERRY: ... since the deal. No, I agree. It's fair to say that Assad has improved his position a little bit, yes.

But he's still not winning. I don't want to make any excuse whatsoever. We want this to move faster. We want it to do better.

But I remember talks around Vietnam, where it took Henry Kissinger a year to get the size and shape of the table decided. It took another several years before they even came to some kind of an agreement.

I don't want it to be years. We don't have years in Syria. But the point I'm making is that diplomacy is tough, slogging, slow work and hard work. But we're beginning to see the -- the shaping of how you might potentially get somewhere. And we are always in the process of reevaluating whether there's more we can do, should do.

We'll work with Congress. We're working internally to figure out if we should -- if there's a way to get more response from the Russians, more response from Assad.

TAPPER: You, it's no secret, were advocating for -- for want of a better term, a more muscular way of dealing with this providing different kinds of aid to the rebels, providing weapons, in some cases, to the rebels. And your advocacy ultimately was not what President Obama decided to do.

KERRY: No, I...

TAPPER: You disagree with this?

KERRY: Yes, I do.

I don't want to go into details. I'm not free to go into all the details. But I will say to you that the president has taken an aggressive position. There are things the United States is -- is doing right now, and everybody knows we are providing non-lethal assistance to the opposition in significant amounts.

We are the largest single donor with respect to the humanitarian crisis on the ground. We have taken the leadership with respect to bringing our allies together in efforts to be able to coordinate the operations that are taking place there.

And as I said to you, the president is always reevaluating this. But I assure you, the United States is doing a great deal.

TAPPER: I understand you're the nation's top diplomat and so you're being diplomatic, and that's not a surprise. But -- but it's not a secret that you have told members of Congress behind closed doors that you have grave concerns that maybe more needs to be done.

KERRY: Well, I -- but that's -- you know, the president has said the same thing. I mean this, is not a divergence.

TAPPER (voice-over): The administration has made more progress on thawing the relationship with longtime enemy Iran and its newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani. To the objections of many in Congress, the Obama administration recently negotiated a short-term deal that would freeze parts of Iran's nuclear program, in exchange for limited relief from sanctions.

(on camera): Let's talk about the Iranians. The Iranians are telling their public that this deal is not that big a deal, what they've agreed to do, that they could undo it within a day.

Rouhani went to Davos and basically said, we're open for business in Iran. The French, the Turks, they have been sending -- it's not trade missions, but they have almost been sending trade missions, looking to do more business.

Have we been played?

KERRY: Not in the least, not even by a close margin.

In fact I -- you know, look, I think the Iranians naturally are going to go home and say what you've just said.

TAPPER: Sure, but to the world and the Turks and the French?


They -- Iran is not open for business. And Iran knows it's not open for business. We have announced increased sanctions against particular companies since this agreement was reached. We have told the Iranians that we will continue to apply the sanctions. And we have made it clear to every other country that the sanctions regime remains in place.

So while the French may send some businesspeople over there, they're not able to contravene the sanctions. They will be sanctioned if they do, and they know it. And we've put them on notice.

But nobody should doubt for an instant that the United States is prepared to enforce the sanctions that exist. And all of our allies are in agreement that those sanctions are staying in place until or unless there is a deal.

TAPPER: Do you trust Rouhani?

KERRY: It's not a matter of trust. There's nothing that we're doing that is based on trust. Everything that we're doing is based on verification, on specific steps.

Let me -- let me give you an -- I mean, let me be very specific to the American people and the world, who listen to CNN, about what this agreement does. This agreement takes Iran's stockpile of 20 percent uranium, and they have to reduce it to zero. They have to get rid of it.

They're not allowed to grow their 3.5 percent stockpile of uranium, not at all. They cannot do anything except replace an existing centrifuge. They can't put in new centrifuges. They have to literally stop the construction of their heavy water reactor. They have to allow inspection of the Fordow underground facility and of the Natanz nuclear plant. They didn't have to do that before.

Now, we have people in there every single day. We -- we've actually frozen their program in place and have rolled it back to the degree that they're destroying some of their stockpile.

So I can absolutely sit here and look you in the eye -- and I've looked Prime Minister Netanyahu in the eye and said, I believe Israel and the region are safer today then they were before we made this agreement, because the program is stopped and rolled back, and we have greater insight and accountability into the program.

TAPPER: You're a former senator. All of your colleagues are very skeptical of this deal. They want more sanctions on Iran.

KERRY: Right.

TAPPER: Are they just wrong?

KERRY: I believe it's a mistake now to break faith with a negotiating process when you're in the middle of the process.

The United States of America agreed, together with our P5-plus-one allies, with Russia, China, France, Great Britain, Germany, all of them agreed that, during the time we're negotiating, we would not increase sanctions.

Now, our word has to mean something, too. But we don't want to break our word in the middle of the negotiations. We also have other alternatives available to us. We've lost nothing off the table, but we want to give diplomacy a chance. And we think that's worthwhile.


TAPPER: We will have more of our interview with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Coming up next, he will tell me what the U.S. is doing to ensure the safety of Americans at the Sochi Olympics. And I asked him if the U.S. will agree to turn over Amanda Knox if Italy ends up asking for her extradition.

Plus, baby, it's cold outside and inside. Snow and ice knock out power for close to a million people and cause more massive travel problems. And this storm is not over yet.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Now, let's continue our world lead, our exclusive interview with Secretary of State John Kerry, now that he's a full year into his time in office.

On Friday, as you know, the Winter Olympics officially kick off in Sochi, Russia, but there's a prevailing pessimism about the games among Americans. In a brand new CNN/ORC poll, 57 percent of Americans say they expect a terrorist attack to rock the Olympics, more than half. Now, Secretary of State John Kerry is not going to Sochi, actually no one from the Obama administration is going. So I had to know, does the secretary believe it's safe for the rest of us to go? And what about his efforts to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians? An anxiety that's been handed down from the ghosts of secretaries of state past?

Kerry's taken a lot of heat from Israel for a recent remark he made. That's where we pick up our conversation. Be sure to watch all the way to the end when the secretary reveals his plans for the future.


TAPPER (voice-over): John Kerry has visited 39 countries and logged 327,124 miles in his first year as secretary of state. He has devoted more time to the Israeli/Palestinian peace process than any other single issue and, as with other contentious issues, he has been criticized for it.

A few days ago, Kerry offered this warning about the failure to achieve a peace agreement.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: For Israel, there's an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things.

TAPPER: The response from some Israeli politicians was furious. The Israeli economic minister, for example, fired back, "We expect our friends around the world to stand beside us, against anti-Semitic boycott efforts targeting Israel, and not to be their trumpet."

(on camera): What's your response to these harsh attacks from our allies, the Israelis?

KERRY: My comments need to be properly remitted, not distorted. I did not do anything except cite what other people are talking about as a problem. But I also have always opposed boycotts. I have 100 percent voting record in support of Israel for 29 years in the United States Senate. Unfortunately, there are some people in Israel and in Palestine and in the Arab world and around the world who don't support the peace process.

There are specifically some people who don't support two states. There are some people who don't want any restraint on settlements whatsoever. What's important is to look at the positive side of this, which is the majority of the people in Israel, the majority of the Palestinians, the majority of the people in the region, believe in peace and want peace and believe peace will strengthen everybody.

The United States of America through President Obama and his direction and his policy is absolutely committed ironclad to the security of Israel. And Israel needs to understand -- we will always stand by its security needs.

But no one should distort what we're doing or saying because they're opposed to the peace process or don't like two states or whatever, and, you know, words -- I have to tell you, my friend, I've been, quote, attacked before by people using real bullets, not words, and I am not going to be intimidated. I am not going to stand down with respect to President Obama's commitment to try to find peace in the Middle East.

TAPPER: We've gotten a very mixed response from lawmakers and even the president when it comes to the safety and security at Sochi. I asked the president last week, would he be willing to recommend friends of his daughters if they wanted to go? He said that he would never discourage anybody, but there's risk in any event, and he recommended that people check in with the State Department. Other lawmakers have said they wouldn't send their children at all.

But since President Obama said check in with the State Department before you go to Sochi, let me check in with you. Is it safe to go? And what should people do who are going to be extra safe?

KERRY: Well, I believe that anybody who wants to go to the Olympics, which is just a great event, should go. And we're not telling people not to go. I think it will be as safe as you can make any large public event in a place where obviously we all know there have been some threats of late.

But there are -- we have cooperated enormously. Our diplomatic security people are on the ground there. We've been there for some period of time. We've been working on this, leading up to it for a long period of time. We have 140 personnel, government personnel, representing FBI, Department of Homeland Security, diplomatic security, consular affairs, embassy, military, all working under the same roof in a coordinated way with the Russians.

We feel that everything has been done that can be done to try to guarantee people safety and security.

And we asked people, we simply alert them, as we would anywhere, where they are in a large public space where there are threats that people make that, you know, are sort of out there floating around. Just take precautions. Be careful. Think about where you are. Just as we did always in America post-9/11. We've got a new consciousness about this.

TAPPER (voice-over): Kerry may soon find himself in the middle of an extraordinary extradition request. The tabloid nature of some of the coverage notwithstanding, the saga of Amanda Knox could pose a serious diplomatic crisis.

Knox was recently retried in Italy for the murder of her roommate. The Italian court found her guilty. Now back in the States, Knox could one day face extradition back to Italy to serve a prison sentence.

(on camera): It may come that the Italians come to you and say, we really would like Amanda Knox to come back to this country to serve a sentence. It certainly looks like the justice system is going in that direction. Would you entertain that request?

KERRY: Well, we'll see, Jake, what happens. It's an ongoing legal process. There's nothing in front of us now. And I don't have to comment on it now, and I'm not going to. We let the legal process work out. And if and when the time comes that there's a reason I have to comment, I'll do my duty.

TAPPER: There's a lot of talk about two of your colleagues, your predecessor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Vice President Joe Biden possibly running for president in 2016. Is that something you would ever consider doing again?

KERRY: One of the joys of this job is I'm out of politics.

TAPPER: Forever?

KERRY: I'm out of politics. I have no plans whatsoever. This is my last stop. I'm going to serve the country in the extraordinarily privileged position the president's given me, the great challenges that I have, and move on. I don't have to comment and won't comment on anybody contemplating a run for office anywhere.


TAPPER: Our thanks to Secretary of State John Kerry.

When we come back, thousands of flights canceled and interstates shut down as states of emergency are declared in New York and New Jersey. We'll get a check of the conditions on the East Coast, next.

And later, one business taking the tobacco-free high road. But with $2 billion in tobacco sales each year, what's the reason behind the decision?