Senior White House Correspondent Major Garrett interviewed National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough about the first day of the Nuclear Security Summit. Topics included the summit's goals, its obvious limitations (no binding commitments, no enforcement mechanism), the side-stepping of the long-term issue of non-proliferation, and how China might factor into new United Nations sanctions against Iran.
This interview occurred before President Obama's meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. At that meeting late Monday, China agreed to back new sanctions against Iran. China agreed to sanctions in general. It did not commit to a specific set of sanctions -- those details must be worked out in future negotiations at the United Nations.
Transcript begins here:
Q: At the summit, what is the range of White House expectations? What's the best that could happen? What's the worst?
A: Well, Major, we already know what the worst thing that could happen is, just as a general matter for our national security, and that's loose nuclear material in the hands of a terrorist. We already know, obviously, that they would be inclined to use them, as the President and (Defense) Secretary (Robert) Gates, Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton have said over the course of the last several days, so what we're doing here is we're focusing the world's attention on this.
I think what you'll see out of the summit when it wraps up tomorrow afternoon is a communique expressing the views of all 50 participants, that's heads of state as well as international organizations, like the International Atomic Energy Agency, and not only a statement --- but also a work plan with concrete steps that they'll take to ensure that, as you say, the unthinkable thing, does not happen.
So we're very focused on this, the President over the course of the last several weeks has dedicated a lot of attention to it and we're feeling confident that it's going to be a good, a good evening tonight, and a good, a good event tomorrow afternoon.
Q: How do you respond to those that point out that the communique is not binding and not enforceable?
A: Well, you know, that's a, I, I guess I think that's a fair criticism, Major, but the bottom line is what we're doing here is bringing people together to affirm what I think everybody recognizes is a principle threat for all of us -- namely, loose nuclear materials in the hands of terrorists who will use that material.
So is this a new law, or a new treaty? No. But is this a very concrete work plan against which all of us will be judged by our populations, and frankly by each other? It absolutely is that.
And so I guess we have two options, Major, which is to sit back and continue to maintain what has been the posture of previous administrations, or to get our friends and our allies around the table and our partners around the table, and commit them to concrete work plans against which we'll hold them accountable, and they'll hold us accountable.
Q: Is it fair to say this summit deals with known quantities of loose nuclear materials and those produced in the future are not covered because that would require far tougher negotiations on non-proliferation of both civilian nuclear energy and on-going nuclear weapons production in nations like India and Pakistan?
A: Well, uh, no, no it's not. What is correct is to say that since the President took office he's been working aggressively on the issue of proliferation, not only in the countries that you list but obviously in Iran, which the President will be discussing later today, with President Hu of China so we're very focused on proliferation.
In fact, the treaty that the President signed late last week in Prague with (Russian) President (Dimitri) Medvedev, uh, allows us again to return to our role in the United States as an international leader in terms of proliferation, so we're working that issue very very aggressively.
Tomorrow's event, this evening's dinner, tomorrow's event, is focused on a particular part of this challenge, Major, which is to lock down the 1600 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and the 500 metric tons of separated plutonium that is out there, that is at the moment at the risk of proliferation into the hands of those who will use it.
There's been, as you know, I think, as many as 18 reported incidences of threat, of theft, or of loss of such (nuclear) material, and so we're bound and determined to make sure that stuff doesn't end up in the wrong hands.
But it's just not accurate to say we're not also working this issue on all hosts of levels, and will continue to do that including next month up in New York.
Q: Is the terrorist threat not only the use of nuclear materials but the threat to do so?
A: Well obviously the principle threat we're focused on is the use of it, Major. But, obviously, the ability of these extremists who have indicated publicly that they want to get their hands on it and they've shown us in the past that they're gonna tell us what they're gonna do, so it behooves us to stay ahead of this threat and make sure that we don't allow them to do that.
Q: As a candidate, Sen. Obama promised to spend $1 billion to augment international efforts to monitor and secure loose nuclear materials. He has asked Congress for hundred of millions this year. Will Congress provide it?
A: Well I think there's been a series of uh, observations made by Republicans and Democrats in the Congress that we have to invest the kind of resources necessary in this challenge.
We draw on a series of accounts at Department of Energy, and Department of Defense to invest in the kinds of steps we're talking about, that includes obviously investing through the State Department and the ability to stop smuggling of this kind of material -- but also then investing and securing known facilities, which we do through DOD and DOE. But the bottom line is this: that this is not just going to be, as a result of the summit tomorrow, this is not just going to be our responsbility, Congress's responsibility or the American taxpayer's responsibility, we're going to be working with our international partners to make sure they live up to their commitments, and their specific workplan and that's exactly why the President has called this summit.
Q: Is today's meeting between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao designed to take China's final temperature on how to proceed at the United Nations on sanctions against Iran?
A: Well, I don't know that anybody's going to ever take the final temperature on anybody on this matter as it relates to Iran or anywhere else.
We do anticipate making some good progress today. (With) President Obama's meeting with President Hu, we feel like given the ongoing consultations up in New York led by Ambassador Rice as well as uh, the efforts being undertaken in Beijing led by Ambassador Huntsman, we feel like we're making some good progress with our Chinese partners on this question.
The fact of the matter is, Major, we feel good about a resolution up at the UN. But that's not going to be the end of this. We're going to continue to press the Iranians, going to continue to make sure that we see the kind of outcome that we desire -- which is not having a nuclear arms race in a vitally important and strategic region of the world.
Q: Denis McDonough, thank you.
A: Okay. Appreciate the opportunity.