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Interview With Author Walter Isaacson; Interview With Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby. Aired 2-3p ET
Aired March 10, 2021 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
Here's what's coming up.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): This is a critical moment in our country's history.
AMANPOUR: Finally out of the gate, the massive stimulus that promises to alleviate the pain for millions of Americans.
I ask the Pentagon's John Kirby about President Biden's first win at home and what to expect from the administration's maiden trip abroad.
AMANPOUR: Plus: the next frontier. I speak to our own Walter Isaacson about his thrilling tale of scientific discovery in "The Code Breaker" and
how it will shift the balance of power from viruses to humans.
NSE UFOT, CEO, NEW GEORGIA PROJECT: This is a way for them to hold on to power, right? Like, if they -- if voters are not going to choose them,
they're going to choose their voters.
Michel Martin speaks to New Georgia Project CEO Nse Ufot about the latest attempt to suppress votes in her state.
AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
President Joe Biden is delivering on his campaign promise of a massive relief bill for the American people, as the House votes on a gargantuan
$1.9 trillion stimulus package that is both historic in scale and far- reaching in scope. It'll bring thousands of dollars to cash-strapped families whose livelihoods have been devastated by this pandemic.
And while the president focuses on COVID at home and this big win, his eye is focused on China abroad. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense
Secretary Lloyd Austin are due to travel to Japan and South Korea next week, the first international trip by Biden Cabinet officials since the
Blinken is also due to meet his Chinese counterpart in Alaska on his return, and that will be the first time officials from both countries will
It all starts this Friday, though, with a virtual gathering between President Biden and his counterparts in Japan, India and Australia. Beijing
denounces that as an anti-China bloc. So, what is the U.S. strategy here?
John Kirby is a veteran of American foreign policy. And he's the Pentagon spokesman. He was State Department spokesman under President Obama. And
he's joining me now from Washington, from the Pentagon, in fact.
And welcome back to the program.
So, let me ask you first to react to what's going to happen this Friday, this quad meeting, as I said.
JOHN KIRBY, PENTAGON PRESS SECRETARY: Right.
AMANPOUR: And the Chinese calling it an anti-China bloc.
What's your responses, as an administration, to that?
KIRBY: From our perspective, Christiane, this is about deepening and strengthening alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region. And
these -- and these other -- these three, four countries, including us, represent a significant amount of security requirements there in that
region, economic requirements in that region, and, of course, diplomatic power.
And so it makes sense that we would want to continue these kinds of deeper conversations with them. And it is not always all about China. But,
clearly, China has been posturing itself in a much more aggressive way in the region, coercing allies and partners of ours, as well as other
neighbors of their own.
And I do think that it is important for the international community to come together and to talk about how we can better forge an Indo-Pacific region
that's more secure, more stable, and is not susceptible to that kind of coercion.
AMANPOUR: OK, so, you say China is posturing itself, as you have described.
And we notice that the United States is posturing itself, very clearly, to take China as its principal foreign policy challenge. And we see all these
first big meetings, gatherings, trips happening in the Asia region.
So, what is the reason for two of the most senior Cabinet ministers, Defense and State, traveling now to Japan, to South Korea? They will be,
some of them, going to India, and then, on the return, Secretary Blinken and the national security adviser meeting with the Chinese foreign
minister. What is that about?
KIRBY: Well, the Indo-Pacific is probably the most consequential region in the world right now. Some of that is driven by China's activities.
We also have, as you well know, Christiane, five of our seven treaty alliances are in the Pacific region. And we're going to be meeting with
leaders from two of those countries, as you pointed out, Japan and South Korea. And we look forward to those discussions.
So, it's very much about revitalizing our alliances and partnerships overseas, alliances and partnerships that haven't always been treated with
the kind of respect that they earned, that they deserve to be. So we're going to sit down and talk about a range of alliance issues.
And, clearly, we expect that China will come up in these discussions, as it always does. But this is really about revitalizing alliances and
And for the Defense Department, Christiane, Secretary Austin has made clear that we consider China the biggest pacing challenge that we're dealing with
here. And so part of the trip for Secretary Austin is getting to talk to commanders on the ground, as well as leaders of foreign militaries out
there in the region, to help us develop better operating concepts and plans and strategies and develop the kinds of capabilities we need to be able to
counter and beat back that pacing challenge that China poses.
AMANPOUR: So, let me then play what some of the senior officials in the administration say.
This is Secretary Blinken last week about China:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TONY BLINKEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: China is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously
challenge the stable and open international system, all the rules, values and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, the way we want it to, work the way we want it to.
Where do you see the opportunities? In the context of what we're talking about, these trips, these bolstering of alliances focusing on China, where
do you see the opportunity to create a shift in China's behavior?
KIRBY: Well, it's up to the Chinese to answer how and whether they will be willing to change their behavior.
What we need to do, what we believe we need to do, certainly, from the Defense Department, is to make sure that we are investing properly in these
alliances and partnerships. As I said, five of seven of our alliances are in this part of the world.
So, we want to make sure that they are revitalized and capable and ready and that the relationships are sound, so that we can meet our security
commitments there, but also to encourage our alliances and our partners -- our allies and our partners to contribute as well to their own defensive
capabilities and to make sure that they -- that we -- that we're listening to them, and what they're seeing on the ground in terms of the threats and
the coercion that they face from China.
AMANPOUR: OK, so here's a threat. And here's what one of your allies is saying. And that's Taiwan.
They're concerned, and they and all of us have heard what China is saying directly, indirectly about places like Taiwan, which are -- have their own
independence, Hong Kong, which is meant to be one nation, two systems, et cetera, which is increasingly being brought under Chinese influence.
But, certainly, your military and very senior admiral has said that they're very concerned, you are all very concerned about what China might do to
Taiwan in the not-too-distant future. This is what he said:
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ADM. PHILIP DAVIDSON, COMMANDER, UNITED STATES INDO-PACIFIC COMMAND: Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and the line of actual control in the South China
Sea and East China Sea, I worry that they're accelerating their ambitions to be -- to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the
rules-based international order, which they have long said that they want to do that by 2050.
I'm worried about them moving that target closer. Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before then. And I think the threat is manifest during this
decade, in fact, in the next six years.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: That's pretty dramatic. Those are very short timelines.
You yourself are a Naval man. You were an admiral before you went into a civilian role. So, you know the situation, the layout out in the Pacific
AMANPOUR: What does manifest mean? What does the admiral mean when he says, in the next six years, maybe sooner, we could see China manifest?
What does that mean against Taiwan? What is he saying?
KIRBY: Well, look, nobody wants to see the situation with Taiwan become a conflict. And we take seriously our responsibilities to Taiwan's ability to
And we do that through the Taiwan Relations Act, and the assurances, and the three communiques that have been in place for a long time, but
bipartisan across decades in this country has there been a us support for making sure that Taiwan can defend itself.
But nobody wants to see them have to actually do that. Nobody wants to see this come to blows. And that's one of the reasons why it's so important
that we revitalize our alliances and partnerships in that region and we make this trip, and we make it clear that America takes seriously our
But to his other point about the speed with which China is developing these capabilities, we're certainly mindful of that. We would agree with Admiral
Davidson that they are moving at a clip that is concerning. And that's why, again, we want to make this trip and the secretary wants to be able to come
back and make sure that we are developing the concepts and the policies, the strategies, as well as the capabilities to meet that pacing challenge
that they represent.
One of the things, one of the first things that secretary did when he took office was stand up a China task force, which is up and running here at the
Pentagon, to help us get our arms around and our brains around the challenge that China is going to continue to pose.
AMANPOUR: Well, let's just say that the choreography that we will see with Secretary Blinken and the Chinese foreign minister meeting in Alaska is
going to be really interesting, because that's a very unusual meeting point for senior officials of these two superpowers.
Can I move on to Afghanistan, and obviously a decision that the administration, the Pentagon, the White House has to take on May 1? And
that is about withdrawing the remainder of the U.S. troops there.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman has said: "If the Taliban are confirmed as not meeting their commitments, which I personally believe
they are not, then we may have to reconsider the May 1 deadline."
And, as you know, a bipartisan panel appointed by Congress is urging President Biden to slow down this May 1 withdrawal deadline.
What can you tell us about that? Clearly, it makes sense, right, if the Taliban is still whacking civilians, attacking Americans, and all the
others in Afghanistan right now?
KIRBY: The violence is too high, Christiane. We have said that, and we have said it very, very clearly. And we want that violence to stop now.
We are reviewing the Doha Agreement right now. We are reviewing issues of compliance with the Doha Agreement. I don't want to get ahead of that
process. Everybody's mindful of the looming deadlines set by the agreement in Doha.
And what we have also said is two things. One, we have made no decision about future force posture in Afghanistan, not until we're through this
review and we have had a chance to also pursue diplomatic ends here, but also that -- and President Biden said this clearly -- there's not going to
be a hasty or expedited withdraw out of Afghanistan.
So, we're mindful of the clock, clearly. But we want to make sure that we're giving diplomacy a better chance to succeed. And we have made no
decisions about what the force posture is going to look like.
AMANPOUR: But if you had to guess, the condition is conditions. You don't think the conditions will be met, do you, by May 1?
KIRBY: I don't want to guess. That's exactly what I don't want to do, Christiane. We have we have talked about conditions being properly set for
us to be able to manage the future force posture going forward. And that's going to drive what the decisions are.
But I absolutely don't want to speculate.
AMANPOUR: OK, I think Congress has already decided what they think of those conditions being met or not. So I think it will be interesting to see
what happens and what the president does.
Can I turn your attention to the military in the United States. CNN has found, according to its analysis, that at least 27 current or former
members of the U.S. military are facing federal charges in connection with the January 6 insurrection, riot, invasion of the Capitol.
It's obviously a small proportion of the military. But I gather it's something you're taking very, very seriously. The Pentagon is also worried
about the rise in white supremacy beliefs amongst the ranks.
AMANPOUR: How serious is this? And what are you planning to do about it?
KIRBY: Well, we do believe it's serious, Christiane.
While we believe the numbers of extremists inside the ranks is small, we don't know for sure. We think it's certainly smaller than what the
headlines might suggest, but greater than we'd be comfortable with.
And so we're trying to get our arms around that. As you probably know, Secretary Austin ordered a 60-day -- a one-day stand-down to take place
over the next couple of months. That's ongoing. We expect we're going to learn a lot more from the troops about what they're seeing, what they're
feeling, what they're experiencing at their levels.
And it's also a chance for us to articulate, again, what our values are and what we expect of them in terms of behavior. This isn't about belief. We
want our men and women in uniform to vote and be a part of the electoral process. This is about extremist ideology, particularly white supremacy
ideology, that is counter to good order and discipline in the unit, and also can actually harm individuals and teammates inside the military.
It's about action and conduct, not just about a belief system. And we're taking that very seriously. We're going to learn a lot over the next six
weeks, I suspect as this stand-down starts to close.
But the secretary is not waiting. He's got the chiefs, the service chiefs, here in the building providing some recommendations about things we can do
to better get a sense of who we're bringing in, and making sure we know who they are and what they believe in, what they espouse, making sure we're
looking at radicalization inside the ranks once they're in, and then taking a look at, when they're about to become veterans -- and you mentioned
veterans were involved in this January 6 insurrection at the Capitol -- that we're taking a look at what they're beginning to learn and educate
about themselves when they get ready to leave.
Because these groups are waiting for them on the other side. We know that they want to recruit people with military training and experience and
leadership ability to come into their groups.
So, what are we doing to make sure that they're making the transition decisions in the most informed way possible?
AMANPOUR: It is really interesting to hear you talk about how you're going to go after it.
And there's another issue, a huge issue that broke today. As you know, the Pentagon has put out a statement that you are going to start, well,
hopefully, continuing your look at this really dreadful record of sexual harassment against female members of the military.
And you're looking at all sorts of bases to see where it is happening the worst. Let me just quote Secretary Austin to you. He has said that: "We
have been working on this in earnest for a long time now, but we haven't gotten it right."
Why not? This is not something that has just cropped up. It's something that congresspeople, senators, women's rights groups, women in the military
have tried to bring up for years. We have been reporting it on it for years ourselves. Why, in Secretary Austin's words, have you not got it right yet?
How difficult can it be to draw the line between unacceptable behavior and not?
KIRBY: I wish I had a good answer for you, Christiane. I don't.
I mean, we're all frustrated by the lack of progress on this. And you're right. We have been trying to tackle this for quite a few many years now.
And we haven't done it with much success. And it's bedeviling all the leadership here.
And what the secretary wants to do is try new things. One of the first things he did, in fact, on day two was issue a directive to the entire
department to come back with some creative ideas of what we can do that maybe we haven't tried before.
And the other thing that he did just recently was establish an independent review commission that's going to take 90 days -- and this is going to be
independent of the building. They will -- they have an independent role to take a look at what we have been doing, what we have not been doing, and
how do we close the gap? What are some ways that we can get -- get better solutions to this problem?
But, clearly, it's happening too much. It shouldn't happen at all, not in the military. We should have a better standard for ourselves. And we're
going to work at this very hard.
AMANPOUR: John Kirby, thank you so much for joining us from the Pentagon today.
Now, there are alarming new reports from Brazil, where the health care system is on the verge of collapse amid another devastating coronavirus
wave. It is a grim reminder of the struggle against this pandemic and how a virus often has had the upper hand over us humans.
But my next guest says that a scientific revolution promises to change that dynamic.
You know Walter Isaacson as our regular contributor. Well, tonight, he is in the guest seat. He is a prolific author, biographer and reporter, and
his latest couldn't be better timed. "The Code Breaker" explores the work of the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Jennifer Doudna, both the spectacular
scientific promise that it holds and the ethical conundrum over gene editing our future.
And Walter is joining me now from New Orleans in Louisiana.
Walter, welcome to the program, if I can put it that way.
WALTER ISAACSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Thank you.
AMANPOUR: Congratulations on the book. And, boy, is it well-timed.
So, I guess, for the layperson, just lay out for us, what is CRISPR? What is gene editing? That's obviously the focus of your profile and your
biography of Jennifer Doudna.
ISAACSON: Well, CRISPR is pretty simple. It's something bacteria have been doing for more than a billion years. And they're not much smarter than we
What they do is, when they get attacked by a virus, they take a mug shot of it and they take a little snippet of it and weave it into these clustered,
repeated sequences in their own DNA, now known as CRISPRs, and so that, if that virus ever attacks again, the bacteria takes a little scissors, an
enzyme and can target it and chop it up.
And so it's an adaptive immune system, which is exactly what we need during this pandemic. What Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered
was, wow, if bacteria can do that and chop up DNA wherever it targets it, we can use it as a tool to edit our own genes.
So, it's already been used to help cure cancers, to fight -- to cure sickle cell anemia, and even in China a couple years ago to make designer babies.
And, fortunately, it's being deployed now in the fight against coronavirus to be able to detect the virus and eventually just to chop up and kill the
virus the way bacteria do.
AMANPOUR: So, obviously, we will get to the China bit in a minute, because that fits into the ethical conundrum going forward. That doctor was slapped
around for doing what he did, because it wasn't authorized. We're going to get to that in a second.
But you have called this technology the third great technological revolution of the modern era. Describe the first and the second and why you
ISAACSON: Well, the first is, the first half of the 20th century was an era of physics, a lot of it coming out of Einstein's papers at the
beginning of the century about the atom and things like -- it leads to atomic weaponry and space travel and semiconductors.
Second half of the 20th century involved another fundamental kernel, which we call the bit, meaning a binary digit. It means all information can be
encoded with on/off switches, binary digits. And so you can create a computer, the Internet and the microchip. And when you combine them, you
get a digital revolution.
This third revolution is one that's based not on digital coding, but on the code of life. And it comes since we sequenced the human genome in the year
2000, and now since Jennifer Doudna, the heroine of my book, and Emmanuelle Charpentier and others have figured out, not only can we read the code of
life, but we can rewrite it.
And I think that's going to have far, far grander implications for good, but also a few ethical challenges, than even the digital revolution dead.
AMANPOUR: So, Doudna and Charpentier both won the Nobel for physics because of this technology. They're -- I think there have only been seven
women to have won the chemistry prize, including Marie Curie and her daughter. And that's a pretty low number.
So, I want to ask you, what made her -- her the hero of your book? What is it about her and how she came to this place that you found so interesting
ISAACSON: Yes, I did not know she was going to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry right when the book was about to come out. So that was
But, early on, five or six years ago, I was very interested in this life science revolution. And I met her. We started talking, and we talked about
how, as a young girl in -- growing up in Hawaii, she was from the mainland, but she felt like an outsider growing up in a small village in Hawaii with
mostly Polynesian extract kids, that she went home one day and her dad had left "The Double Helix," James Watson's book about DNA, on her bat.
And Jennifer read it thinking was like a detective story. And she noticed this character Rosalind Franklin, and she said, oh, my goodness, girls can
Well, her school guidance counselor said, no, no, girls don't do science. And that really caused her to persist, and she discovers the structure of
RNA and how it can replicate itself. It was the beginning of life on this planet. Then she goes on to discover this gene editing tool we talked
about, and then to apply it to things like fighting the coronavirus, and finally to dealing with the ethical issues.
So, she became an inspiration for me, but also somebody whose life narrative, the journey of discovery that all of us go on in life, like
going hand in hand with her through her life narrative, I can weave in all of these questions about why we are in a new age, a new epoch that will
involve rewriting the code of life.
AMANPOUR: And really fascinating for me, and I don't know whether others have talked to you about it, but I think she's the first female who you
have profiled in amongst your many, many extraordinary biographies. And it is really interesting, because, as you say, women are often discouraged
from getting into the scientific field.
So, just to reiterate, CRISPR, as you explain, is a naturally occurring thing in the body. She didn't invent that. It's the gene editing.
And explain to us, because one of the things you have said is that this could shift the dynamic, the power play between virus and human being.
Right now, virus looks like it could have the upper hand, but this could change that dynamic. Is that what -- is that your conclusion?
ISAACSON: Oh, absolutely.
The way bacteria have used it for a billion years is, they can reprogram the system every time a new virus attacks. Well, as you know, as you have
said earlier in the show, we're getting new waves of this coronavirus that have different variations.
I took the Pfizer mRNA vaccine. And there's Moderna. There's others doing it. Those are easy to reprogram. All you do is take the RNA in that vaccine
and say, here's the spike protein blueprint, so make some of that, so you can make it so that we're immune to that spike protein. If the spike
protein changes, we can recode it, but we can also recode it against any viral attack.
Or we can recode these things to detect -- CRISPR systems to detect cancerous cells in our body. So, by being able to treat molecules, as if
they were microchips, as if we could just reprogram them, we will be able to personalize medicine in a way that will help us fight all sorts of not
only genetic diseases, but viral attacks and bacterial infections, and cancer.
AMANPOUR: So, I think many people will really go gee whiz about that, because there's COVID and then there's the variants, which are scaring a
lot of people. And there's a lot of laypeople talking about this virus and what's mutating and what isn't, and scaring the bejesus out of everybody.
And, clearly, it's a very important issue. But the fact that you're saying that this technology can essentially -- I'm going to say it -- tell me if
I'm wrong -- pandemic-proof us is a big deal and keep adjusting for whatever variants pop up.
ISAACSON: It's not just a big deal. It's a huge deal, because viruses mutate. They change all the time. That's why even the flu, every new year,
every year, we need a new vaccine or something.
The balance of power -- as the head of Moderna said to me said, Noubar Afeyan, he said, this -- when he got the information that the messenger RNA
vaccines worked, and he knew they could be recoded every time we get a new virus come on, he said, finally, we're shifting the balance of power
between us and vaccines.
But even more so, the technologies that Jennifer Doudna and others have created will do things like, say, and, by the way, you can edit our genes
if we need to, to make sure that they don't have the receptors for viruses. That's a little bit more controversial. Or you can edit our genes -- it's
been done last year -- to say, your genes are flawed, so you have sickle cell anemia, you have sickle cell blood cells.
And a woman in Mississippi just last year, for the first time, they were able to just edit the DNA of her stem cells. And now she doesn't have
sickle cell. There are a lot of diseases like that, from cystic fibrosis to muscular dystrophy, Huntington's, Tay-Sachs, sickle cell, that we will be
able to just fix.
So this is going to usher in a whole new era of medicine, and particularly personalized medicine.
AMANPOUR: Walter, does it inevitably have to be? We have talked about the ethical conundrum, so maybe I'm just being rhetorical in my question to
Is there inevitably a dark side to this kind of extraordinary technology, this kind of extraordinary discovery? And let's go back to the Chinese
doctor who did intervene, and apparently against HIV for these -- for these twins. And then he was penalized because it wasn't allowed.
That's one issue. Where else can you see ethics cropping up?
ISAACSON: When Jennifer Doudna invented this technology with Emmanuelle Charpentier and others, she had a nightmare. And the nightmare was that she
came into a room with somebody who wanted to understand her discovery, the person looked up, and it was Hitler.
And she realized that, like any technology, Christiane, whether it's digital technology or Prometheus snatching fire from the gods, or -- that
it can be used for good or for bad, and we have to be careful. Like with the atom bomb and other things, we have to figure out, how are we going to
And so what Jennifer Doudna did, and which I tried to chronicle in the book, is she met with religious leaders, she gathered scientists, policy-
makers. And for the past four or five years, they have been meeting to say -- internationally, with the Chinese leadership, with Europeans, to say,
how are we going to have some guidelines for this?
What the Chinese doctor did is, he crossed a line that they have all agreed we should not cross for the time being, because it's not safe. Instead of
just editing the cells of a patient, he edited the cells of early stage embryos, which meant that the edits he made were inheritable.
They wouldn't just affect the twin girls who were born, but all of their children and all of their descendants. Now, what he did was, he edited them
so that all of their children and descendants would not have a receptor for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
And you might say, whoa, in this era of pandemic, why is that a bad idea? Don't we want to edit out our susceptibility to viruses, including AIDS,
including coronavirus? Well, yes, maybe so, but it's not safe yet.
And I think we have to go hand in hand carefully before we cross that line of making inheritable edits. So, that's the thing I worry about, especially
since it could lead to great inequalities, if the rich could buy better genes for their children, or if we start editing out the diversity.
And the diversity of the human species is not only what makes it really cool as a species, but it makes us resilient and safe. So, you don't want
to start messing too much with inheritable gene edits.
And that's what Jennifer Doudna and the team, including Eric Lander, who is going to become Biden's science adviser, that's what they have been
wrestling with over the past few years and thankfully so.
AMANPOUR: And this Chinese scientist, let's just be clear, he was sentenced to prison. And when you actually interviewed Jennifer Doudna
after that had happened, this is what she said about this manipulation of the DNA in the embryos. This is what she said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JENNIFER DOUDNA, PROFESSOR OF BIOMEDICAL SCIENCE, UC BERKELEY: I think it's harder when we think about making changes that are heritable, you
know, that become, you know, embedded in someone's genome and are passed onto their children. And that's the kind of editing that involved what we
call the germ line. So, this is an area where I think there's a lot of discussion at the moment about the ethics of that kind of use.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, I mean, I just wanted her to say what you were saying is as well. And it's going to be interesting to see where -- how the policing
takes place. You touched on it a little bit. But can I ask you also about what she is doing with this technology in the era of COVID? How is this
gene editing being used?
ISAACSON: My book starts with the story, because she is a mother like you and I are, and she her -- she has a 17-year-old son who she sent off to
some robot competition, building competition out in California, FIRST Robotics, and it was exactly a year ago. And then about 2:00 in the
morning, she wakes up her husband and says, we got to get Andy back from this robot building competition, this pandemic is spreading, I don't want
him in this conference with all these people. You know, he's an only child. So, when they retrieve him, he's not too happy but they get a text that
says, robot, you know, competition canceled. All kids to leave.
And that's when she realized that she should help gather scientists that she's been working with, using these tools to detect viruses, using these
tools to edit our genes and say, we're going to create 10 teams and we're going to now focus for the next year on using this technology to fight the
coronavirus. So, she creates a team that has a testing the lab, because as you remember a year ago, our national testing system was really messed up.
And then she has created a new type of test that will be a home test where it's not using this complicated PCR method where you got to cycle through
temperature, but like bacteria, it just uses CRISPR to detect the presence of the virus. And her main rival, her competition out in Boston is Feng
Zhang, a wonderful scientist there, he turned his attentions doing the same thing, creating this detection technology.
And even though they had been rivals, fighting for patents and prizes, and the book is about their race to discover things, now, in this past year,
they've been racing to discover to turn this technology against coronavirus, and both of them had been putting the papers in public record
and allowing any scientist to build upon those discoveries without worrying about patents if they are going to use it to fight the coronavirus.
Eventually, we'll have ways not just to have vaccines that make our immune system have to fight the virus, but have antivirals, using CRISPR,
CRISPR/Cas13 which can chop up RNA and will be able to be targeted on any virus that like the coronavirus that attacks us. So, all of these things
are going to help us to turn the tide against viral attacks, but it also reminded Jennifer Doudna and her 50 scientists' team and Feng Zhang and the
group at the Boston, at Harvard MIT doing it that even though they compete for prizes and they compete for patents, they're actually part of a noble
cause, they are part of a higher mission which is they're doing this, they're doing scientific research to help humanity. And I hope this
inspires the next generation to say so.
AMANPOUR: And very briefly though, you know, it could also play into this inequality that we see in the world. I mean, it's amazing that Kazuo
Ishiguro's latest book, "Klara and the Sun," is precisely about gene editing, is precisely about creating almost super people, lifted kids who
had been edited compared to those who haven't, and there's robots and artificial friends in this. It's incredible, you know, how all of this is
happening at the same time in culture as well as science. Do you worry about --
ISAACSON: Right. It's a wonderful novel.
AMANPOUR: -- that part of it?
ISAACSON: Right. I do worry and it's a wonderful novel. People are, you know, all focusing on this now. And of course, you know, we have movies
like "Gattaca." And yes, what I worry about is we have a society with a lot of inequalities. And if you allow individuals someday, 10, 20 years from
now, just to go to the genetic supermarket and have the scorecard saying, I want my kid to be taller or I want my kid to have this eye color or maybe
increased memory and muscle mass, that the rich will be able buy better genes.
Now, we already have inequality, but that will not only exacerbate it, it will encode it into our species and that's why you have novels like the one
you mentioned coming out that wrestle with it, which is great, because we need novelists to figure this out just like Aldous Huxley did with "Brave
New World," but I want everybody to also go step by step and say, I can understand now the science behind some of this, and especially, I can
understand the moral issues, because we, meaning you and me and all of our listeners, again have to discuss this as a society.
AMANPOUR: OK. It's an amazing story, it's an amazing discovery. Walter Issacson, "The Code Breaker," thank you so much indeed.
Now, this week marks the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday and that's when voting rights activists, of course, were brutally attacked in Selma,
Alabama. Nearly six decades later, voting rights are still under assault, bills restricting access to the ballot are now working their way through
legislators in more than 40 states, including Georgia.
Activist Nse Ufot is working to change that. She is the CEO of the New Georgia Project. It's a nonpartisan group that register voters. And here
she is talking with our Michel Martin about why so many of these bills are, of course, about race and class.
MICHEL MARTIN, CNNI CONTRIBUTOR: Nse Ufot, thank you so much for joining us.
NSE UFOT, THE NEW GEORGIA PROJECT CEO: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So, let's talk about the present moment. Just this week, the Georgia Senate passed a bill to end No-Excuse Absentee Voting. This is the
House, the Georgia House previously passed the bill with sort of an array of changes, change Georgia's voting laws. What are the implications of this
and how do you understand it?
UFOT: I understand it that after Georgians across our races, ages, genders turned up in historic numbers to vote in November and then nine weeks
later, turned up to make history once again, the Republicans, as defenders of the status quo, and people currently in power are shook. They are
afraid. And they cannot win on their ideas. That in the Court of Public Opinion, fewer and fewer people are buying what they are selling, and the
only way for them to continue to hold onto power is if they cheat, as if they attack the infrastructure, our election's infrastructure by making it
more difficult and constructing additional hurdles for new Georgians to participate in our elections.
MARTIN: What are some of the other things that this bill would do?
UFOT: Oh, my goodness. So, this bill gets rid of Sunday Voting, right, which is from our perspective, a direct attack on Souls to the Polls, an
important program that has the been a long-held part of sort of the civic engagement and the public engagement of black churches, particularly in
deep south. There's an element we call the Kinkos Bill (ph) that requires Georgians to submit a photocopy of their I.D. to request an absentee ballot
and then to submit in another copy of their photo I.D. in order to submit an absentee ballot.
I know that tons of people who are smart and engaged and do good work who don't have printers in their homes. And so, this is a problem, again, this
is a hurdle. We are talking about, you know, getting of drop boxes, you know, limiting drop box hours. We're talking about getting rid of local
control. So, at this moment, County Boards of Elections choose their own members, county commissioners choose their members, choose how they want to
fund elections, how they want a staff election, and it would take that control away from the local control, which is completely antithetical to
what is -- has always been communicated as the Republican approach to governance.
MARTIN: A lot of these voting regiments in Georgia preceded the pandemic, which means that the Republicans have control of the legislation there for
quite some time, presumable they supported them initially, right? They supported before?
UFOT: Absolutely. No-Excuse Absentee Voting is a Republican initiative. It passed 16 years ago. Georgia voters have been voting this way or have had
the ability to vote this way for 16 years thanks to the Republicans in our state. And so, it is only when this way of voting was adopted by the
majority of Georgians including young people and people of color that it somehow became indicative of voter fraud and it needed to be stopped.
MARTIN: The argument that many people are making, from the former president, the former vice president and including many state officials is
that people feel that there was fraud. They feel that something was amiss. And so, therefore, measures need to be taken to restore confidence in the
integrity of the system.
UFOT: Right. Well, one, feelings are not facts, one. Two, that if you look at, for example, the January 6th insurrection where people stormed the
capital, where they killed the capitol police officers, where they put their feet up on Nancy Pelosi's desk or they waved the confederate flag
inside of our nation's capitol, that was based off of the big lie, right, that there is widespread voter fraud that needs to be addressed in our
Well, these almost 100 bills that have been introduced in the Georgia legislature are also based on the big lie. These are solutions in search of
problems that there is no widespread voter fraud in Georgia. The secretary of state said so himself directly to the president of the United States,
MARTIN: Who is a Republican? Who is a republican by the way? I think it's important to point out. The governor of Georgia is a Republican, the
secretary of state is Republican and controlled the election apparatus through the state and said this. But what have they to say about that since
they have asserted publicly and to the former president directly that there was no fraud that, in fact, systems were put in place to triple check the
results and they were actually checked twice?
So, how -- what is their stance on -- three times.
MARTIN: They were checked three times, right. So, given that they have made that statement, that assertion, what's their posture about this slate
UFOT: Their silence is deafening. That they either have so little influence amongst their caucus in the Georgia State Legislature that like
to be rendered essentially impotent or they're going along with it. But they've been quiet. They have not forcefully come out and condemned these
attacks on our voting and our elections' infrastructure. And, again, they are either super OK with it or they're not and they have so little
influence that they can't stop this runaway Republican train in the Georgia State Legislature.
MARTIN: You are in Georgia and your focus is Georgia, but this is actually something going on nationwide. It's my understanding that, you know,
according to Brennan Center for Justice, which is a nonprofit organization that both tracks these things and advocates and litigates around these
things, you know, lawmakers in some 43 states are pushing more than 250 bills that would make it more difficult to vote. And that's actually
something like seven times the number of bills on this matter that were introduced in the last legislative session.
Now, I do want to mention that lawmakers are also introducing bills in many of these states to make it easier to vote, but the reality of it is that
Republicans control many of these state legislatures. In some places -- in many places they control both houses. So, why do you think this is
UFOT: I think there are a couple of things at play here, Michel. I think that, A, we are looking at sort of outside entities like ALEC, right, that
are drafting sample legislation for Republicans to sort of push on that agenda.
MARTIN: OK. So, ALEC for those not familiar, that's the American Legislative Exchange Council, it's a conservative group that drafts
legislation, it often, you know, drafts a template that it then shares with state governments who can sort of adopt it in their own states.
UFOT: Yes. I think, two, that Republican brains have been addled by misinformation and disinformation, that as a result of coordinated well-
funded robust disinformation campaigns that the big lie around widespread voter fraud continues to be pushed, and that there are some who have a
genuinely held belief that they are doing something to protect our democracy.
I think the other thing that is at play here is that they are losing. That when everyone is allowed to vote free from intimidation, free from
additional hurdles, free from these modern-day poll taxes, that they don't win. And that this is a way for them to hold on to power, right. That like,
if they -- if voters are not going to choose them, they are going to choose their voters by carving out pieces of the electorate with these what appear
to be race neutral suppression laws, but they are really not. They are designed to make it more difficult for low wealth people, for people of
color, for young folks to not participate in our elections.
MARTIN: Give an example of that, because when you raise this people say, well, what's wrong with, you know, showing an I.D.? I mean, you know, I
have to show an I.D. to get cough syrup. What's wrong with an I.D.? So, what do you say to that?
UFOT: Well, what I say is that there are tons of ways for people to establish their identity, and that there is tons of research that shows
that older people or our seniors, people of color who -- and young people who tend to have less wealth are prevented from participating in our
elections because they have to pay for an I.D., and that is, you know, from where I stand, a modern-day poll tax, that we have to spend money in order
to participate in our elections, that before Georgia -- the Georgia legislature passed it's voter I.D. bill in 2005, before Shelby versus
Holder kicked the teeth out of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and 30 additional states added their voter I.D. loss, that people could bring
utility bills, they could bring all manners of stuff to say who they are.
And as a voting rights activist, like an organizer, somebody who does this work, I know hard it is to get people to vote once. So, the idea that
people are trying to go and vote two and three or four times, it's nonsense, it's ridiculous. And again, these are solutions in search of
MARTIN: How do you make this case? I mean, part of issue here is that Republicans over the last decades have made a concerted effort to control
states houses and Democrats have not, or at least they have not been as successful. I mean, back in 2010, remember that Republicans won 2 dozen
chambers. Republicans now control about 3/5 of all the partisan legislative chambers and they are the ones -- if people who don't, you know, know this,
they are the ones who write -- generally write the district.
UFOT: I mean, we are in, what, the 40th, the 41st year of the Reagan revolution. And so, the work to take over school boards and statehouses has
been, you are right, decades in the making. I would say that in a Democratic, Republic and in a healthy democracy that one party rule is not
in our interests, it's not in our best interest. I would say that what we are looking at is not necessarily -- I mean, it is partisan, but it's
really a racist, sexist, classist power grab and an attempt to hold onto power for as long as possible.
A lot has been written and a lot has been said about this sort of the browning of America, right. And so, 2040, 2050 in some places that America
will be a majority of people of color. And nowhere is that change happening as aggressively and as acutely as across the deep south and across the sun
belt. So, we're looking at states like Arizona, and states like Georgia, et cetera.
And so, what we are looking at is a power grab. I don't want to couch it in political science terms because it is a racist, sexist, classist attack on
participation in public life. And it's not just the active voting, right. Because, I mean, voting is important, but it is a tool that is used to sort
of express our priorities as a community, how we want to spend our money. We have 12 hospitals in Rural Georgia that have closed or that are about to
close in a middle of a pandemic. We still don't have expanded Medicaid.
The minimum wage is $5.15 an hour, right. Like people vote so that they can get elected officials who go to Atlanta or who go to Washington, D.C. do
the people's business, and that's not happening right now. And we want to do something about it, and that is why we care so deeply about preserving
the integrity of our elections.
MARTIN: So, there is a bill that's moving through the Congress, it is called H.R. 1, it's been introduced before. It would do a number of things
to sort of standardize some of the practices that advocates believe would make elections more fair. For example, it would, you know, make it easier
to have some of the techniques that advocates say make it easier for people to vote. And this would standardize these across the country. As you would
imagine, that there's been sort of a furious type of response to that.
I mean, some of the conservative outlets call it, you know, a partisan attack on democracy. You know, they say that this is just a common sense --
these are common sense measures against concerns like ballot harvesting, somebody kind of, what, aggregating all the ballots and, you know, just the
kind of ballot stuff into people are accustomed to seeing in other countries, and they say they're just trying to guard against that. I mean,
how do you respond to that?
UFOT: I respond that America has a long history of federal intervention and judicial intervention when white conservatives lose their minds and try
to make it more difficult for people of color and for women and for new Americans to gain the rights that they enjoy.
I think about Robert F. Kennedy as attorney general who filed, you know, 50 lawsuits trying to fight back segregation. I think about the Civil Rights
Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 where federal laws that were meant to supersede racist laws that were being promulgated state by state
by state. I think about Title 9. Again, federal intervention that was designed to force the states and schools and school boards and colleges and
universities to not discriminate on the basis of gender because they weren't -- the institutions weren't getting it done on their own, and there
was this sort of the mishmash quilt patchwork quilt of laws.
And so, to set a basic standard, to set a universal standard is in the interest of the most vulnerable of us, and we welcome it.
MARTIN: Maybe we should have focus on Georgia now. I mean, this bill is passing through the legislature. What do you do? I mean, how do you
persuade people that that's just not fair?
UFOT: People know that it's not fair. I think when we talk about it in very plain terms, the majority of Georgians -- actually, the majority of
Americans, because we are talking about regularly to our colleagues and our siblings in Arizona and in other states, in Texas, who are fighting similar
fights. And the consensus is across the board that the majority of the Americans know that it is not fair. And that public sentiment and public
opinion is on our side.
What we have are unaccountable elected officials who know that they are about to get fired and they are doing everything that they can to, again,
break the machinery of our democracy. And unfortunately, I don't know, like we have made our most persuasive and our best arguments. I think all that's
left now is to vote them out of office and to go to court. And to get H.R. 1 and H.R. 4 passed as a way to supersede these trash state laws.
MARTIN: I know that at the core of other activists like Stacey Abrams, for example, and other activists have said that, you know, at the core of this
is this kind of notion of who is actually a citizen, right. I mean, if the core of it is this notion that only certain people are Americans and, if by
definition, if you don't look like that person, if you don't adhere to those beliefs, you therefore are foreign and therefore you are not allowed
to participate. What do you do about that?
UFOT: I think that I believe in the American people. I believe in us. And I believe that, ultimately, we'll prevail. I believe that there has been a
continuous expansion of who is a citizen and the definition of an American, right, and who can vote.
When this experiment started, you had to be a white man who owned land. right. Like -- and so, it has been a constant expansion of the definition
of citizen since the very founding of this country. And guess what, it's uncomfortable when you stretch, it's somebody that's put on a few pounds
during quarantine, I know that being stretched is uncomfortable, but that is how we grow. And that is what we're witnessing in this moment.
And that -- so, you know, I think that black Americans, I think that women, I think that poor people and folks without wealth, without land who didn't
own other humans have constantly been working to credential themselves, to identify themselves as Americans, as citizens, as people who are due and
owed the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship, and that is our fight. That is the fight of a democracy. And that will continue.
MARTIN: Nse Ufot, thank you so much for talking with us.
UFOT: Thank you again.
AMANPOUR: So important to fight for those rights. And finally, as Congress passes a historic $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, Democratic Congressman, Tim
Ryan, gave a fiery defense of the American worker, accusing Republicans of obsessing over cancel culture whilst rejecting efforts to support people
who are struggling. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. TIM RYAN (D-OH): Heaven forbid we pass something that's going to help the damn worker in the United States of America. Heaven forbid we tilt the
balance that has been going in wrong direction for 50 years. We talk about pensions, you complain. We talk about the minimum wage increase, you
complain. We talk about giving them the right to organize, you complain. But if we are passing a tax cut here, you would be all getting in line to
vote yes for it.
Now, stop talking about Dr. Seuss and start working with us on behalf of the American workers.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: The legislation that he is so passionately defending seems to strengthen the rights of workers unions. But Republican opponents claim
that it endangers worker's privacy and threatens free speech.
Now, the debate over how to bill back from these pandemic rages on. And we're going to be looking at some little known but fascinating aspects of
disaster relief from Ancient Roman times to now. So, look out for that.
And that's it for us. Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.