Yesterday, Senator Bill Frist sat down for an interview with Scott Johnson, John Hinderaker, and me, and spoke on a range of topics. Yesterday I posted about the secret hold on S. 2590, the federal budget online database, and Frist’s pledge to push the bill regardless of holds. The Senate Majority Leader had more to say about Iran and the security challenges of the Islamic Republic.
SJ: I’d like to follow up on a couple of questions. One of the short-term problems is Iran. I wonder if President Bush has has said it’s unacceptable. Do you think President Bush is going to accept it or do something about it before the end of his term? Can you make any sense of that?
BF: I can’t really go beyond what the President said, because what he has said publicly is what he said privately. The moral suasion of that is strong, but the next question – especially coming off Iraq – is what does that mean. … I think now, what’s happening in Lebanon, what’s passing through Syria, what the President has been saying all along has been happening in Iran, now people understand why it’s important to have all the options on the table. Before, people said “I think the president is going to go in there and militarily take out their nascent nuclear facilities here.” Beyond that, I can’t really say much. Literally, all options are on the table, some of which we haven’t talked a lot about. Who we support, how we support certain people other than the governments.
JH: If it comes to military action, will there be support for that in Congress?
BF: I was implying that a little bit when I said there was a greater understanding of the threats and the lines being drawn now directed by Iran around the world. I think that the preparation and understanding will go a long way into building that support. Right now – I don’t know, it’s so hypothetical. If the President were to say that we have to launch a military strike, I don’t know what the support would be.
JH: My impression is that the Democrats are doing anything rather than take a position on Iran. They’re lying in the weeds, hoping that things go badly.
BF: I think what they’re doing – it’s such a political problem – is that they’re taking the spotlight and doing whatever they can to focus that spotlight on Iraq, and trying to separate Iraq from the larger challenges that we have with the rise of the fundamentalist extremists, and that will be it. When they take that spotlight and put it on Iraq, it takes it off of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, plus other areas where terrorism [exists]. What I will do when we come back, I will use two arms, I will spend a lot of time talking about security issues and other issues, one of which will be the Hamdan decision, which raises questions about the military tribunals and these illegal combatants, and we’ll resolve that. We’ll have an opportunity for debate. The other arm will be in all likelihood a discussion of terrorist surveillance and what tools the government should have and legislatively put that on the table. Arlen Specter has an approach that I haven’t seen the final draft of which works with the administration more closely. We’ll use those two arms, those two platforms to address the sorts of issues on war and terrorism, regarding giving the enemy the playbook and threatening the security of the American people.
SJ: Can you tell us whether you believe that the disclosure of the NSA program, the terrorist surveillance programs, [hurt counterterrorism efforts]?
BF: I answer that “yes”, immediately. You’re going to ask me for three concrete examples, and I can’t give them, although that’s a question I ask in my classified briefings. I can tell you unequivocally, whether we’re talking about the original Afghanistan disclosure or the terrorist surveillance program … or the financial terrorism disclosure four months ago. Each of these three have, when openly addressed, have undercut our ability to [stop terrorism].
SJ: We’ve been making that case out there since last January, and I just wanted to come back and ask that.
JH: Is there anything else we can say that is more concrete?
BF: [crosstalk] Let me just think, because I know what you really need are two or three good examples. I know what kind of information was picked up [on the British plot] a couple of weeks ago, but I’m not at liberty to say right now. …
EM: I’d like to ask what non-military action would get some support in the near future in terms of Iran? Maybe some stronger support for democracy activists?
BF: I will continue to introduce resolutions or statements where we continue to support democracy-promoting organizations. … I continually go back and forth, because before Ahmadinejad came in, there was an undercurrent among the young people, with satellite dishes and college campus type activity. And now he’s captured the elite, so we don’t have enough intelligence to answer the question [on support for democratic change]. The question is how much his leadership has penetrated down into the groups that we thought would foment discussion and debate and change from below. I think that in the last two or three weeks that we can do a lot more so that change can come from beneath. I say that because it’s a wealthy, educated, intellectually bright constituency there. I’m also getting word from my doctor friends over there who have been in this country and have connections over there, and it’s interesting because they’re educated – they had to leave back in the late 70s – and their connections are still among the more educated group.
JH: What you say about supporting pro-democracy elements raises the question of why we haven’t done more of that over the last five years. People like Michael Ledeen have been arguing and arguing for that, and it seems like kind of a no-brainer to me.
BF: I can’t really answer that except to say that we should do better.
SJ: The full text of Ahmadinejad’s letter to Angela Merkel was posted on the Internet yesterday. I’ve read his long letter to President Bush, and taking all his public statements together, it’s a little bit hard to figure out what’s going on. One thing is that they’re trying to desensitize the world to the concept of wiping Israel off the map by saying it over and over again. Do you have any thoughts?
BF: I haven’t seen the on-line posting. I’ll tell you what’s interesting about the psychology. You’ve got someone who started as an aberration but has built himself into a populist movement, and at the same time he’s driving back to the 7th century ideologically, and clearly he’s engaging the nuclear imagination. That bothers me, because he’s pulling younger people into his future. He’s making his case for a nuclear supply that will all be for peace, and that dichotomy there, I don’t know how it’s going to play out, but we have to be very careful. That means this whole nuclear issue is an urgency we need to aggressively address or I think his popularity may increase.
The sanctions issue, like energy, will be interesting to see how it plays out. If they didn’t have to import and heavily subsidize gasoline so much … I haven’t followed in the last 24 or 36 hours what the plans will be, but I think that you do have a real opportunity in terms of sanctions, in terms of energy … and a real opportunity in terms of pressure points. The international global markets in banking itself, and you all have been following the discussions on this.
JH: The answer is no, and are we wrong to be cynical about sanctions, and that would just be dithering and not effective?
BF: [pause to consider] I think it’s an important part of our diplomacy. Will it be effective? I think it will be absolutely critical to make the stab, make the effort, use the peculiar situation there that’s very different than just saying you can’t have tourists there. There is a huge chunk of money, parts of the $500 billion I talked about [earlier], pieces of that, the way energy flows, and the peculiar relationship about where the money goes. I think it’s absolutely critical from a diplomatic standpoint that [sanctions] get tried, exhausted, and then … we’ll see.
JH: When you say the way energy flows, do you mean the fact that Iran has no refineries?
BF: They don’t have refineries, and the gas they put in cars all has to be imported. And then they’re heavily subsidizing that as well.
I’ll post more from the Frist interview, and later tonight will have a recap of the luncheon that preceded it.