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Susan Rice shares administration’s response to Paris terror arrest

March 18, 2016 at 8:23 PM EDT
President Obama was briefed on the arrest of the main suspect in November’s Paris terrorist attacks Friday and spoke with French and Belgian leaders by phone. For more on the administration’s response to the arrest and details on the president’s upcoming trip to Cuba, Judy Woodruff talks to National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama was briefed on today’s arrests in Brussels and spoke with the French and Belgian leaders by phone.

We get the latest on that and look ahead to the president’s historic trip to Cuba with National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

Welcome back to the program.

Susan Rice, first of all, tell us about the U.S. role in helping the French and Belgian authorities locate these people in Brussels.

SUSAN RICE, National Security Advisor: Well, Judy, it needs to be said, as the president did to the prime minister of Belgium and the president of France, it’s really the services of Belgium and France that deserve the lion’s share of the credit here. And congratulations on a well-executed operation. This is their day.

And, indeed, since the Paris attacks, actually, well before the Paris attacks, but especially after the Paris attacks, the United States has stepped up its intelligence and law enforcement cooperation with our European partners, the French in particular, but many other Europeans as well.

And we are sharing information and supporting each other in ways that are unprecedented. But I can’t get into think any specifics about this operation, and it’s an ongoing investigation, as you understand.

But I do think it’s important to give the Belgian authorities and the French authorities their due today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of a threat from the Islamic State does this take off the table? What does the U.S. now have less to worry about as a result of this, would you say?

SUSAN RICE: Well, Judy, obviously, this is a good development, but it is far from a turning point in the fight against ISIL.

We are engaged in a multifaceted, comprehensive campaign to degrade and defeat ISIL, and we have seen important progress, but by no means can we look at today and say we have turned a corner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to ask you about that, because the president told Jeffrey Goldberg in a series of interviews with “The Atlantic” that he doesn’t see ISIS, or ISIL, as an existential threat to the United States.

And Jeffrey Goldberg reported that the president has said to the White House staff that more people have to worry about falls in bathtubs and car accidents and gun shootings than they do terrorists. So, how much should Americans fear ISIS?

SUSAN RICE: Well, what is an existential threat, Judy? That’s something that can literally destroy our nation as we know it, physically and otherwise. So, I think that’s a very valid statement.

But that doesn’t mean ISIL can’t conduct attacks and do Americans harm, whether abroad or at home. And, obviously, we have every interest and the president is fully committed to doing all that we possibly can to defeat ISIL, because, like al-Qaida, it is a threat that we must guard against and that it can do real harm to Americans and our allies, not to mention the countries in which it is rampaging.

So, we have every interest in putting all of our efforts and that of our coalition partners behind the fight against ISIL. And Americans should take that threat seriously, but we also shouldn’t overblow it and turn ISIL into the equivalent of the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. That is not a fair comparison.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn the corner to Cuba.

The president is going to make this historic visit this weekend, the first visit by an American president there since Calvin Coolidge. How close does President Obama want relations to be between the U.S. and Cuba?

SUSAN RICE: Well, Judy, it’s not about how close.

I mean, obviously, this is a very new diplomatic relationship. It’s just begun in the last several months. Normalization is at the early stages, and it’s going to take time. There are real differences that remain between our governments and our systems.

And so we’re not going to be best friends. That’s not what we’re talking about here. But it is about moving out of a 50-year failed policy that yielded no change towards an era of engagement, which we’re confident, over time, will open up society in Cuba.

But at the people-to-people level, we think that there is a natural affinity between the people of Cuba and the people of the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of what you just mentioned, what do you say who oppose this kind of normalization with Cuba who say what’s happened here is that the U.S. has given in, has made concessions on things like travel and trade, while the Cubans have done almost nothing when it comes to human rights and democracy, in other words, that the U.S. has done more giving than the Cubans?

SUSAN RICE: Well, Judy, what we would say is, first of all, it is not a concession to allow U.S. businesses to operate and compete in Cuba, when our partners have been doing so for many years.

It’s not a concession for Americans to travel. That is in our interest. Our view is, rather than continue to do the same failed thing over and over again and hope for a different result, instead, we should do what has worked in so many other contexts around the world, which is to give the Cuban people the opportunity to engage with American ingenuity, American entrepreneurs, American civil society leaders, and to see through that engagement a future that they only — only themselves can bring to Cuba over the long term.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, we thank you.

SUSAN RICE: It’s good to be with you, Judy.