The following is a transcript of an interview with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan aired Sunday February 21, 2021 on “Face the Nation”.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We want to turn to White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. He is joining us in Washington this morning. Hello.
NATIONAL SAFETY ADVISOR JAKE SULLIVAN: Hello.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Jake, we’re about to take that milestone of half a million Americans dead from COVID. Do you think it takes a 9/11 commission to find out what went wrong?
SULLIVAN: I believe we need to take a variety of steps to examine this – the response of the previous administration to the pandemic and the lessons we need to learn so that it doesn’t happen again. I also believe that we need a credible, open and transparent international investigation led by the World Health Organization. And they’re set to release a report on the origins of the pandemic in Wuhan, China, which we wonder about because we don’t believe China has made enough original data available on how this pandemic started to spread both in China and then eventually around the world. And we think the WHO and China should take an interest in this issue.
MARGARET BRENNAN: President Biden spoke with Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, during what he said was two hours. Did he specifically ask China to make this data available? And – and in what you just said, are you suggesting that the WHO is being manipulated by China?
SULLIVAN: I’m not going to characterize it that way. What I’m going to say is that the only way to have a scientifically-based investigation is to have access to all the data and not just, MARGARET, to find out what happened in this pandemic, but to be able to prevent future pandemics. , because the lessons we learned this time around will apply in the future. President Biden raised the issue of COVID-19 and the need for all countries to take responsibility – to take their own responsibility to help protect the world, including China.
MARGARET BRENNAN: The State Department said in January that the United States had proof that a COVID-like virus was circulating in Wuhan, China, as early as fall 2019. And the Chinese military was conducting covert experiments in Wuhan Institute of Virology. Do you dispute any of these declassified documents?
SULLIVAN: Look, this is why the WHO investigation must be left to scientists and experts to proceed without any interference from a government, because that is the only way we are going. know the origins of it all. I am not in a position to say how COVID-19 came to this world. All I can do is ask WHO to do its job to the best of its ability.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you – so you stick to this declassified report?
SULLIVAN: No, I’m saying I’m not able, and the Biden administration is unable to pinpoint the origin of COVID-19. And that’s partly because there hasn’t been enough transparency from the Chinese government. And the WHO still has work to do to find out exactly where this virus has emerged.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So later in the program we’re going to hear from Matt Pottinger, who you know is President Trump’s former deputy national security adviser. And he says when it comes to dictatorships like China, they won’t be transparent, period, with health officials. And that’s why the intelligence community, he says, must play a more direct role in monitoring these biological threats. Do you agree with this assessment?
SULLIVAN: I think it’s absolutely the case that – and – and we’ve seen it in COVID-19, that pandemics are one of the most serious threats to Americans’ lives and livelihoods, and that , therefore, our intelligence community should, at all levels, be elevating its tools, resources, practices to focus on the detection, prevention and response to pandemics. And that’s something the Biden administration will pursue as we move forward.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think they failed to do that with COVID-19, that the intelligence community should have played a bigger role?
SULLIVAN: What I think is the Trump administration hasn’t taken pandemic surveillance as seriously as it should have. There was an office, MARGARET, at the National Security Council, which I now head, that was set up under the Obama administration to detect and prevent exactly the type of pandemic we have now seen in COVID-19.
MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s right.
SULLIVAN: The Trump administration has dismantled this office. It’s the kind of thing, the kind of step that we can’t see moving forward. So whether we are talking about the types of policy tools required, the types of intelligence tools required, or the type of engagement in international institutions required across the board, it will be important for every future administration to improve global health. , bio preparation and pandemic –
MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.
SULLIVAN: – preparation for the highest level of national security priority.
MARGARET BRENNAN: They would say they just transferred it in a different direction. But moving on to Iran, I want – I want to make sure I ask you, there are at least five Americans being held hostage there. It is seen as an attempt to create leverage on you, on us in the United States. Do you need to start hostage negotiations with Iran?
SULLIVAN: We intend to communicate very directly with the Iranians on the utter and utter outrage, the humanitarian catastrophe of the unjust and unlawful detention of US citizens in Iran.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Have you ever done that?
SULLIVAN: We intend to demand – we are – we have started communicating with the Iranians on this issue, yes. And we will continue to do so as we move forward. And our strong message to the Iranians will be that we will not accept a long term proposal where they will continue to detain Americans in an unfair and illegal manner. It will be an important priority of this administration to get these Americans home safely.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Has Tehran still responded to the offer made last week to start nuclear negotiations? And – and is the offer still valid, given what Iran has said overnight about disconnecting or, you know, dismantling some of the video surveillance of its nuclear facilities?
SULLIVAN: Well, to answer that question, let me offer you some basic suggestions. First, Joe Biden intends, determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Second, he believes that uncompromising and lucid diplomacy is the best way to achieve this. And so he is ready to go to the table to talk to the Iranians about how we get strict constraints on their nuclear program. This offer still stands because we believe diplomacy is the best way to do it. Iran has yet to respond. But what happened as a result was that the script was reversed. It is Iran that is now diplomatically isolated, not the United States. And the ball is in their court.
MARGARET BRENNAN: You recently said that action will be taken shortly to respond to this massive federal government hack known as SolarWinds. The sanctions have not deterred Vladimir Putin at all in recent years. How can we make Russia pay the price and not increase tensions?
SULLIVAN: Well, first of all, we asked the intelligence community to do some extra work to refine the attribution that the last administration made on exactly how this hack happened, what is the extent of the damage, what is the scope and extent of the intrusion. is, and we’re working on that now. And then what I said is that it will take weeks, not months, before we have a prepared response. This response will include a mix of seen and invisible tools. And it won’t just be sanctions because, as you say, a response to a set of activities like this requires a more comprehensive set of tools, and that’s what the administration intends to do. We are working on this and we will make sure that Russia understands where the United States draws the line in this kind of activity.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Jake Sullivan, thank you for your time this morning. We hope you will come back.
SULLIVAN: Thanks for inviting me.