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Sullivan says Biden ready for Iran talks, vows "seen and unseen" response to SolarWinds hack

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Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, says President Biden is "prepared to go to the table" with Iran over the country's nuclear program.

Video Transcript

MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll have more on the situation in Texas in a moment, but we want to turn to White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. He joins us in Washington this morning. Good morning.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Good morning.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Jake, we're about to cross this milestone of half a million Americans dead due to COVID. Do you think there needs to be a 9/11-style commission to figure out what went wrong?

JAKE SULLIVAN: I believe that we need to take a variety of steps to look at this-- the previous administration's response to the pandemic and what lessons we need to learn to make sure that never happens again. I also believe that we need a credible, open, transparent international investigation led by the World Health Organization. And they're about to come out with a report about the origins of the pandemic in Wuhan, China, that we have questions about, because we do not believe that China has made available sufficient original data into how this pandemic began to spread, both in China and then eventually around the world. And we believe that both the WHO and China should step up on this matter.

MARGARET BRENNAN: President Biden spoke to Xi Jinping, China's president, for what he said was two hours. Did he ask China specifically to make this data available? And-- and what you just said, are you suggesting the WHO is being manipulated by China?

JAKE SULLIVAN: I'm not going to characterize it that way. What I am going to say is that the only way to have a scientifically-based investigation is to have access to all of the data, and not merely, Margaret, to know what happened in this pandemic, but to be able to prevent future pandemics as well, because the lessons we learn this time around will apply in the future. President Biden did raise the issue of COVID-19 and the need for all countries to shoulder responsibility-- to take their own responsibility for helping protect the world, including China.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The State Department said back in January that the US has evidence that a COVID-like virus was circulating in Wuhan, China, as far back as autumn of 2019, and the Chinese military was conducting secret experiments at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Do you dispute any of that declassified material?

JAKE SULLIVAN: Look, this is why the WHO investigation has to be left to the scientists and the experts to lay out without any interference by any government, because that's the only way we're going to know what the origins of this are. I'm not in a position to say how COVID-19 came into this world. All I'm in a position to do is to call upon the WHO to do its job to the fullest extent possible.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you-- so you are standing by that declassified report?

JAKE SULLIVAN: No, I'm saying that I am not in a position, nor is the Biden administration in a position, to make a determination about precisely where COVID-19 originated. And that's in part because there has not been sufficient transparency coming from the government of China, and the WHO still has more work to do to get to the bottom of exactly where this virus emerged.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So later on in the program, we're going to hear from Matt Pottinger, who you know is the former deputy national security advisor to President Trump. And he says that when it comes to dictatorships like China, they're not going to be transparent, period, with health officials, and that is why the intelligence community, he says, needs to take more of a direct role in monitoring these biological threats. Do you agree with that assessment?

JAKE SULLIVAN: I think it is absolutely the case, and we've seen this in COVID-19, that pandemics represent one of the most severe threats to American lives and livelihoods. And therefore, our intelligence community should, across the board, be elevating its tools, its resources, its practices to focus on detecting, preventing, and responding to pandemics. And that is something the Biden administration will be pursuing as we go forward.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think that they failed to do so with COVID-19, that the intelligence community should have played more of a role?

JAKE SULLIVAN: What I believe is that the Trump administration did not take pandemic surveillance as seriously as they should have. There was an office, Margaret, at the National Security Council, which I now lead, that was stood up under the Obama administration to detect and prevent exactly the kind of pandemic we have now seen in COVID-19.


JAKE SULLIVAN: The Trump administration dismantled that office. That is the kind of thing, the kind of step that we cannot see going forward. So whether we're 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 is going to be important for every future administration to elevate global health bio-preparedness and pandemic preparedness to the highest order of national security priority.

MARGARET BRENNAN: They would say they just rolled it up into a different directorate. But moving on to Iran, I want to make sure that I ask you, there are at least five Americans who are being held there as hostages. That's viewed as trying to build leverage over you-- over us in the United States. Do you need to begin hostage negotiations with Iran?

JAKE SULLIVAN: We intend to very directly communicate with the Iranians about the complete and utter outrage, the humanitarian catastrophe that is the unjust, unlawful detention of American citizens in Iran.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Have you done that yet?

JAKE SULLIVAN: We intend to demand-- we are-- we have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue, yes. And we will continue to do so as we go forward. And our strong message to the Iranians will be that we will not accept a long-term proposition where they continue to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful manner. It will be a significant priority of this administration to get those Americans safely back home.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Has Tehran responded yet to the offer made this past week to begin nuclear talks? And-- and does the offer still stand given what Iran said overnight about perhaps unplugging or dismantling some of the video surveillance of its nuclear facilities?

JAKE SULLIVAN: Well, in order to answer that question, let me offer just a couple of basic propositions. First, Joe Biden is intent, determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Second, he believes that hard-headed, clear-eyed diplomacy is the best way to do that. And so he's prepared to go to the table to talk to the Iranians about how we get strict constraints back on their nuclear program.

That offer still stands, because we believe diplomacy is the best way to do it. Iran has not yet responded. But what's happened as a result is that the script has been flipped. It is Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States, and the ball is in their court.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You recently said that action would be taken soon to respond to this massive hacking of the federal government, known as SolarWinds. Sanctions have not deterred Vladimir Putin one bit over the past few years. How do you make Russia pay a price and not escalate tensions?

JAKE SULLIVAN: Well, first of all, we have asked the intelligence community to do further work to sharpen the attribution that the last administration made about precisely how this hack occurred, what the extent of the damage is, what the scope and scale of the intrusion is, and we are in the process of working through that now. And then what I have said is that it will be weeks, not months, before we have a response prepared.

That response will include a mix of tools seen and unseen, and it will not simply be sanctions, because, as you say, a response to a set of activities like this require a more comprehensive set of tools, and that is what the administration intends to do. We're in the process of working through that, and we will ensure that Russia understands where the United States draws the line on this kind of activity.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Jake Sullivan, thanks for your time this morning. We hope you'll come back.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.