May 27, 1999
How will the indictment of President Milosevic affect chances for a diplomatic end to the Kosovo conflict? National Security Adviser Samuel Berger answers that question. He also responds to the charge that he did not do enough to stop the alleged Chinese theft of U.S. nuclear secrets.
JIM LEHRER: And to President Clinton's national security adviser, Samuel Berger, who is with us for a Newsmaker interview. Mr. Berger, welcome.
SAMUEL BERGER, National Security Adviser: Good evening, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Following up on Ms. Arbour's comment, how will the indictment of Milosevic affect the Kosovo peace process?
|Impact on the Kosovo peace process.|
SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I think that Slobodan Milosevic, as a result of what happened today, is considerably weaker, and I think under substantially more pressure than he's been under before. The Serb people now know very clearly who is responsible for this conflict, who is prolonging it. Those who are around Milosevic I think are going to be less inclined to hitch their wagon to a falling star. He will be more isolated in the international community, and the fissures we have seen developing within Serbia over the last two to three weeks, demonstrations against Milosevic in the cities, desertions by his army, opposition leaders speaking out more vocally against Milosevic, I think that will only intensify. So I think this is a good development which will advance the cause of ending this conflict and achieving our objectives.
JIM LEHRER: How do you make a deal with a war criminal?
SAMUEL BERGER: Well, there are plenty... the conditions of NATO are quite straightforward and don't require a lot of negotiation. We're simply saying we want the Kosovar refugees to go back, and for that to happen, the Serb forces have to leave, otherwise we have a civil war. And there has to be an international security force in Kosovo with NATO command and control, NATO at the core, to keep the peace. So those are really not negotiable positions. The Serb authorities can manifest their agreement to those principles in many different ways.
JIM LEHRER: But isn't Milosevic still very much in charge, even more in charge now than he was when the bombing began 60 days ago?
SAMUEL BERGER: I think that you've got a fractured society. I think you've got a public who is suffering from a prolonged conflict. The rally around the flag mood that existed in Serbia several weeks ago has changed rather dramatically to a very grim and somber apprehension about the future. I believe the pressure on Mr. Milosevic is increasing, and I believe the fact that the international community represented by the United Nations, not by NATO, not by the United States, by the United Nations has basically said, "this man is a pariah, not a patriot," I think increase the pressure on him.
JIM LEHRER: But Mr. Berger, somebody has to make this... whether it's negotiated or not, somebody has to agree to the terms of NATO, that they've laid out, and isn't that, in fact, Milosevic as we speak now?
SAMUEL BERGER: Well, Mr. Chernomyrdin will be in Belgrade tomorrow. There are others who may have contact with Mr. Milosevic. There are other authorities in Belgrade with whom . . . who can express the views of the government. So I think there are plenty of ways to get the "yes" there. We have said that we have no plans to deal with Milosevic. We don't rule out that possibility. We will do whatever what we think is necessary and appropriate in the national interest.
JIM LEHRER: And his being indicted today as a war criminal does not change that from NATO or the U.S. point of view?
SAMUEL BERGER: What... does not change what, Jim?
JIM LEHRER: In other words, the willingness. If you said you're willing to negotiate with him if that's what it takes.
SAMUEL BERGER: We're not negotiating, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
SAMUEL BERGER: Let me make this very clear. We have some very basic conditions here, which are necessary to make the peace work. The Serbs come back... the Serb forces go out, the Kosovars come back, and an international security presence goes in. Those are not negotiable conditions.
|Talks with Mr. Chernomyrdin.|
JIM LEHRER: Well, then, what does Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott doing talking to Chernomyrdin? If he's not negotiating, what is he doing?
SAMUEL BERGER: He's making it very clear to Mr. Chernomyrdin what we mean by those conditions. So that he understands what it means to say NATO at its core, what it means when we say that Serb forces have to leave so that he has no mistake if and when he meets with Mr. Milosevic what it will take to gain our agreement to end this conflict and get on with the business of building a new Balkan region.
JIM LEHRER: Now, is... are the NATO forces now going to actively try to arrest Milosevic?
SAMUEL BERGER: Well, it is the obligation of the individual countries obviously in the first instance to apprehend and turn over war criminals to The Hague. There are no NATO forces in Belgrade. I think at this point the NATO forces have as their primary mission to destroy his military, as we are doing day by day, to increase the pressure on him so that it will be absolutely clear that each day he loses more. The only way to end this conflict is to accept the fundamental conditions that we've laid out.
JIM LEHRER: This thing is going much slower than you and others in the administration had hoped for, is it not?
SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I think we have to be patient here. We've been at this for about eight weeks. We've done an enormous amount of damage. Some of it we've had to overcome. A lot of bad weather in the beginning. The weather now is very clear. I think there is no question that with patience and persistence we will prevail. And I think the evidence of that is not only in the damage that is being done to his military and to his military industrial complex, but in what we are seeing expressed by the Serbian people. 1,000 Serbian army soldiers this week defected in central Serbia. There are three or four cities in Serbia now where anti-Milosevic demonstrations are going on. There are politicians in Belgrade who are speaking out against Milosevic who would not have had the temerity to do that two weeks ago or four weeks ago. He's in a weakened position, and now he's isolated internationally, and there really is only one way for him to end this, and that's to bring an end to this conflict.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of patience, are you and the president concerned about initial signs that the patience of the American people has manifested in opinion polls and college commencements and all of the newspaper editorials is beginning to wane?
SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I think the American people would like to see this come to a conclusion, but I believe they'd like to see it come to a successful conclusion. I do not believe the American people want at the end of this century to ratify ethnic cleansing. I believe they want us to reverse ethnic cleansing. That's what this is about, as well as the stability and peace of Europe. Would we like this to come to an end? certainly. But it has to come to an end that upholds the fundamental principle for which we are engaged in this matter, and this is that you cannot expel and murder and kill an entire people with impunity.
JIM LEHRER: What about the new comments that, yes, that may all be true, but the tools that we are using, meaning dropping bombs from 15,000 feet, is, in fact, killing innocent people also?
SAMUEL BERGER: Well, you know, first of all, NATO takes extraordinary efforts to minimize civilian casualties. We've flown 25,000-plus missions. There have been problems in perhaps a dozen. You know, there were 50,000 people it is estimated that were killed in Baghdad during the gulf war, civilians, there were no cameras that captured that. We try our best to minimize civilian casualties. It is impossible to eliminate them. But we have to persist in this campaign. I think we have the right strategy. I think we are winning. I think Milosevic is losing. And I think today was a serious blow to him and to his any hope that he could outlast the international community.
|Allegations of Chinese espionage.|
JIM LEHRER: Okay. On to this week's China spying report from the house select committee. Several members of congress have called for your resignation as a result of that report. Are you considering such a move?
SAMUEL BERGER: No. Not at all.
JIM LEHRER: You don't feel of you done anything wrong?
SAMUEL BERGER: No. Jim, I believe that personally and within the White House, I think we acted appropriately when this information was brought to our attention. 1996 when I first was briefed on some of this, we acted to have an FBI investigation launched. We told DOE to go brief the Hill. We got the same briefing that we did to increase their counter intelligence efforts and to conduct a wider investigation and report back. They did that in 1997. And they... in that report, it showed a pattern of Chinese behavior, not just the 1979 and mid-80's cases that were referred to in 1996, but a pattern over several years, and systematic problems in the labs over many years. And we swiftly acted to implement the most sweeping reforms of counterintelligence in the labs in history. And those are being implemented vigorously by Secretary Richardson. And I believe that we have taken what has been a long-standing problem over perhaps 20 years and made gigantic steps towards fixing the problem.
JIM LEHRER: The main hit on you, as you know, Mr. Berger, is that you were told in April of 1996 and you didn't tell the president about it until, what, a year or so later, even longer than that?
SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I was told in 1996, Jim, of the . . . at a briefing, of the evolution of China's strategic program, in two cases, one went back to 1979. The one that went that went to . . . involved in the mid-80's. I found that very troubling. I asked DOE. . . . I acted in response to what I heard. I asked DOE to widen and deepen its investigation, to intensify as they were planning their counterintelligence efforts to brief the Congress within several weeks the FBI had opened up a full investigation on the prime suspect. So I took the actions that I believe were appropriate. I get an awful lot of threat information every day. I have to make a judgment as to what I brief the president on and what I don't. In 1997, when this was clearly a pattern and a systemic problem, I thought it was essential for the president to know.
JIM LEHRER: You did not think it was important enough to tell him until a year later after you were told?
SAMUEL BERGER: I think I acted in 1996 to do the things that needed to be done, and based upon the briefing that I received in 1996, the same briefing, by the way, that Congress received. There were no hearings in the Congress at that time. And in 1997, when the problem really was broader in scope and wider, I think we, as I said, undertook a sweeping reform with the president's full support.
|Criticism of Mr. Berger.|
| JIM LEHRER: One of the criticisms that's been made of you,
was made on this program, in fact, the other night, was that you may have
been influenced in your reaction by the fact that before you came to government,
you were a private attorney here in Washington, representing interests,
international trade interests that were favorable to China. Is there any
truth to that?
SAMUEL BERGER: Well, I was a lawyer in Washington. I had no Chinese clients . . .
JIM LEHRER: You don't deny you were a lawyer?
SAMUEL BERGER: I'd like to. I think probably, you know, not the most admired profession in the world. I had no Chinese clients. It's hard to represent any large American corporation which doesn't do some with China. I represented companies that bought and sold in China. But the notion, Jim, that any decision that I would have participated in would involve . . . involving these issues would have been based on anything in my best judgment of what is in our national security interest is simply absurd and offensive. And one can question whether I made the right judgment, but not the motivation behind the decisions that I made.
JIM LEHRER: The judgment question here again, the wrap on you is that you did not see this as an important matter. You did not see this as a serious breach of security by the Chinese.
SAMUEL BERGER: To the contrary, and I think I've said this twice before, but I'll say it again. When I first got a narrower briefing in 1996 that focused on the general pattern of where China was going in the nuclear field, possible areas in the United States, Russia, and abroad where they could be acquiring information, two specific cases from the 70's and 80's, I was troubled. It was a serious merit, and I took the actions that I thought were appropriate. The FBI, DOE, broadening its investigation as it did and came back in a year with a much more troubling picture, encouraging Mr. Curtis, who is the deputy and had a plan to beef up counterintelligence at DOE to go forward and seeking... and telling DOE. I thought it should get to the Hill and brief them with the same information that they briefed me. So I did take it seriously. I did act. I believe I acted in the national interest, and I believe I acted appropriately.
JIM LEHRER: And the bottom line is your conscience is clear and you're not going anywhere?
SAMUEL BERGER: I'm going back to work.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you, Mr. Berger.
SAMUEL BERGER: Thank you, Jim.