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Retiring State Department Spokesman Jamie Rubin Discusses Foreign, and Family, Policy

Aired April 26, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET



JAMES RUBIN, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: And as much as some days it may have not looked like it, it was a privilege to exchange with you difficult questions, hopefully decent answers.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: He may have given his last briefing, but he's not done answering questions yet. Tonight, retiring State Department Spokesman James Rubin on Elian Gonzalez, that missing laptop and more.

ANNOUNCER: From Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, James Rubin, assistant secretary of state and state department spokesman.

PRESS: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE. The first round of friends of Elian Gonzalez have arrived in the United States, but don't expect any thaw in U.S. relations with Cuba. Peter Romero, acting assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said there was no interest in changing policy towards Castro's Cuba. That's just one of the thorny policy issues James Rubin leaves on the table as he prepares to end three-year-plus stint as public voice of the State Department. On other fronts, the Middle East peace process is stalled, permanent trading status for China, looks like it's Dead on arrival, violence is erupting in Zimbabwe, and the State Department's own security is leaking like a sieve.

And what we want to know is, why didn't he fix all those problems before jumping ship? We're going to find out.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin.

Jamie, welcome back.

RUBIN: Thank you.

PRESS: Congratulations.

RUBIN: Thank you very much. MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Thank you so much for joining us en route to your new cause, which after a month of the new baby I think you're going to find all those crises stress release. You'll go back and say that was a lot easier.

Well, let's take Cuba. This is still in your bailiwick, the visa issue, granted already are six for Juan Miguel and his family, granted -- suggested that will be granted are four more for playmates and adults. But Havana has asked for a little people's Cuba right on the eastern shore. They want to send upwards of 20, including psychologists, psychiatrists, a whole team of Cuban support. Is that likely to happen?

RUBIN: Well, we're handling this as responsibly as we can in this situation. Originally, they did ask for nearly 30 visas. We thought that was excessive. We reviewed and still are under review more than 20 of those, but we did provide the original six. Only three of those were used, so they may use the other three. That's who's coming to the United States now. But we're going to handle this using our best judgment of what is a legitimate request by the lawyer and the father for someone to spend time with. After all, they are staying in the United States during the court proceedings.

MATALIN: And would your deliberations include consideration of Cuban psychologist and psychiatrist, which concern Miami-Cuban community? Their thinking that there is reprogramming under way, and they would think, of course, if there are Cuban psychiatrists there, that would be the point of this support system,

RUBIN: Well, we're not going to do anything that we think will allow something like that to happen. Obviously there are a big number of visas with political figures requested in the original tranche, and we did not approve those. They are under review and, we're going take these visa by visa and make sure we're doing the right thing.

MATALIN: Doctors are out and political officials are out.

Now let's just ask your personal opinion, since you're almost a free bird here. Even the vice president said he would have handled this differently. He would have left it to the courts. He would have had the families reunite. Political opinion -- OK, take off your diplomatic hat for a moment. Was it necessary to provide all of those horrific images for the country, and the Cuban community and for the world at large?

RUBIN: Well, if it wasn't necessary, it was the fault of those who wouldn't voluntarily give him up. I mean, I watched this go on for weeks and weeks, and I know that our officials at the highest levels wanted to avoid this, but there were those in Miami who refused to comply with the request to give him back voluntarily, and they put the administration in this position, and I think politically, if I may say so, I have one more day at the State Department, so I'll make this just a little political point, I think the overwhelming majority of the American people understood that he needed to be with his father.

PRESS: Mr. Secretary, you're not out the door yet. You have two more days. But still, as Mary indicated, you're freer to say what you think tonight.

I want to ask you the truth. I mean, do you agree with Peter Romero that there is zero interest in improving U.S. relations with Cuba?

RUBIN: The question really is what the current situation, and the current situation is that the law of the land is the embargo, and so any real change between the United States and Cuban would require a new law, passed by a majority of the members of Congress and signed by the president. That's not going to happen.

PRESS: Well, isn't this though an opportunity. Wayne Smith, who used to be our interests -- chief of the Interests Section in Havana, was quoted in "The New York Times" yesterday morning, referring to, of course, the Elian Gonzalez matter, saying quote: "It's the first time these two governments find themselves on the same side of an issue. The more Cubans are seen as normal human beings, that the father is a decent guy, public opinion will swing."

Isn't this, though, an opportunity for taking another look and maybe changing U.S. relations towards Cuba?

RUBIN: Well again, the reality is to change U.S. relations toward Cuba, a new law needs to be passed by the Congress of the United States and signed by the president. That's the fact situation.

PRESS: Right, right.

RUBIN: I do know that in the early part of the administration, there was a time when people were trying to pursue the second track of the original Cuban Democracy Act, but that was blown out of the water when Castro shot down American citizens in those planes in 1996. So I don't see that happening.

PRESS: Well, first of all, Congress wouldn't have to act if President Clinton had not signed the Helms-Burton Act.


RUBIN: I know. That is the current situation. I just want to point out, President Clinton put himself in this box of needing a vote by Congress, but you mentioned shooting down those plane, which was a horrific act. Remember Tiananmen Square? And we're doing deals with China. In fact, you're pushing the permanent trading status with China. We're doing business deals with North Vietnam, with Korea. I mean, why not Cuba, 90 miles off the coast. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports that. So don't you think the president and secretary of state, Mr. Secretary, your advice to them may be, ask Congress to lift sanctions?

RUBIN: Well, I think we can all agree that Congress is not going to do that in an election year, so I think it's really not a serious possibility. But with respect to your question, the fact is that China and Cuba are not the same place. There is a free market and free economic enterprises in China. There is no such thing in Cuba. China is a large country with a billion people. They have an ability to influence the sale of weaponry and the provision of dangerous technology to countries around the world. It's in our national security interest to deal with China so that they stop doing some of the things that we've been able to stop them doing. So that's the calculation. China is not Cuba, as much as people want to make it that in this argument.

MATALIN: And, Mr. Secretary, thank you for reminding Bill what socialism and dictatorship is.

Let's move to a crisis in your backyard. The disappearance of a laptop computer from the State Department with the codeword classification, which is higher than top secret, about which the secretary has said, "It put our nation's secrets at risk," and you said, "We are talking about extremely sensitive information here." There was a staff shake-up. Can you give us the status of that investigation, and the nature of the information? How much jeopardy is our nation's secrets in?

RUBIN: Well, the short answer, Mary. is we don't know. The investigation is going to have to determine that, but the Intelligence and Research Bureau of the State Department does deal with our most sensitive information on very sensitive subjects, and the computer that is missing from that bureau's area could, therefore, contain very, very significant information.

Right now, we are working with all the relevant agencies in the government to try to understand what the implications would be if that did fall into the wrong hands.

The investigation, as far as I know, hasn't led to one conclusion or another, whether it was stolen for the hardware, stolen for the material in the computer, or has just been missing, and so that investigation is ongoing. But Secretary Albright is, frankly, quite furious about this, and took some very stiff measures earlier in this week to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again.

MATALIN: And this comes on the heels of eavesdropping device found in the state department, the man in the tweed jacket strolling in and taking sheaths of classified documents six stories down from the secretary, strolling out with them. How does this happen in the most sensitive and secure, ostensibly secure, areas of our State Department?

RUBIN: Well, there is no excuse for it happening, so I don't really want to go into the details of each of these cases, because they're still being investigated, but suffice it to say that it's inexcusable, and what the secretary's message on Monday was that 99 percent isn't good enough when it comes to security; 99 percent is a failing grade if 1 percent of the time there these kinds of problems. So she has really taken some stiff measures, shifted responsibility from one bureau to another, and sought to develop a new policy in the State Department where we're resensitizing a lot of people to the urgency of dealing with these issues and making sure that this kind of thing doesn't happen again, but it's inexcusable.

MATALIN: One final question on this, because the former assistant secretary of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, who was in charge of this, says that the reason they couldn't do their job as well as they could have is because of neglect and the secretary and her top aides ignoring that office.

RUBIN: Right. That's a very specious argument. What she said was that we didn't care enough about filling the bureau with more intelligence analysts. But whether the bureau has three analysts or 300 analysts, the security for that work has to be the same. So whether it's a small bureau of intelligence and research, it needs to have proper security. Whether it's a big bureau, it needs to have proper security.

PRESS: Mr. Secretary, I don't want to beat Cuba to death, but I just wanted to point out to you, having visited there, that Germans, Canadians, Spain, Mexico, they're all doing business deals in Cuba. The United States is about the only nation other than Israel that's not.

RUBIN: But Secretary Albright has, within the bounds of the law, taken a number of steps over the last several years and worked with the president to allow increased remittances, increased travel through air travel, allowed different cities in the United States to travel back and forth.

So within the confines of the embargo, we've encouraged people- to-people exchanges because we want the people in Cuba to be separated from the government that has done so much damage.

PRESS: Let's move on quickly, if I can, to the Middle East.


PRESS: President Arafat was here last week meeting with President Clinton. This situation where the talks with Syria collapsed, the talks between Israel and Palestine seem to be stalled again -- the deadline is coming up, September 13 for these two sides getting together -- realistically there's no way they're going to meet that deadline, is there?

RUBIN: Well, let me say this: One of the regrets I have in leaving government is that I won't be here if that event happens, and I bet it does happen. If I had to bet, I will bet that something does happen on the Palestinian track during this administration.

I'll tell you why: Having left Washington, Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat talked to the president and the secretary in a new and invigorated way, not only about what they need for an agreement, but also about what they understand the other guy needs for an agreement. And when you get to that stage where the leaders are starting to work on the other guy's needs is when you begin to get optimistic.

In the next six to eight weeks is going to be a decisive period. Secretary Albright will probably be traveling there very, very soon, and will make a judgment as to whether she recommends a summit with the president. PRESS: Last year, Chairman Arafat delayed for one year announcing -- unilaterally announcing a Palestinian state because the talks had not -- had not succeeded. If things aren't in place by September 13, wouldn't you agree he has no other option but to declare unilaterally a Palestinian state?

RUBIN: Well, it's not very useful for me to predict failure. I'm telling you that we are going to do our best to try to make this happen from now and until September, and we're not going to speculate on what would happen after that.

We have many months to do so. I know Secretary Albright and I know the president are determined to do everything they can. And the next six to eight weeks should be decisive on this subject.

MATALIN: Well, all right. Few secretaries of state have been as close to their top aides as our current one has with our guest tonight. When we come back, we'll ask him what he thinks her legacy will be.

Stay with us on CROSSFIRE.


MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright loses her longtime confidant and chief articulator as crises brew around the world and in her own shop. As the Clinton administration winds down, what challenges lie ahead and what mark did his boss leave behind in the foreign policy arena?

We ask departing but surely not soon-forgotten globe-trotting new father, Jamie Rubin -- Bill.

PRESS: Mr. Secretary, the White House says that the No. 1 foreign policy goal right now is permanent normal trading status for China: 47 out of 50 governors support it. The president can't even get the support of the members of his own party in the Congress. Isn't that a humiliation for the White House?

RUBIN: No. The fact is the question is whether the Congress will approve this legislation, not whether all Democrats agree with the president. The president has taken a leadership role in recognizing that this is good trade economics for the United States, and more importantly, this is a national security issue. If we lose this vote and we turn our backs on the Chinese, we face an increased danger in the future.

PRESS: Another hot spot: You said today that the greatest challenge of your time in the State Department was dealing in Kosovo. Now, we have a situation where Serbs aren't killing Albanians, Albanians are killing Serbs. Looking back, was it worth it? Is it going to work?

RUBIN: Absolutely. If the United States had not taken the decisions that we had taken, you would have seen a million people kicked out of their homes in refugee camp, hundreds of thousands potentially killed over the years.

Right now, we're talking about low-level violence. We're talking about a situation where Kosovo is secure, where institutions are starting to build.

We didn't think -- at least the administration didn't think -- that overnight Kosovo was going to turn into Switzerland. This is a difficult place, it's a difficult part of the world, and we have to have the patience to stick it through. And that's what we're going to do.

MATALIN: All right. As you're leaving, the administration winds down, there was just one of those long thumb-sucking pieces in The Washington Post, where many shots, some of them cheap, I thought, were taken at your boss. The text of the piece was that maybe she hadn't measured up to what our perhaps excessive expectations for the first female secretary of state.

One of her previous employers, the former dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Policy, said, for instance -- this is Dean Krogh -- "I don't think she's been very effective. I began to lose my way with her when she began to lecture the world."

This is a thing I like about Mr. Clinton's secretary of state, that she believes in the supremacy of the United States and that our values are transcendent. So would you please respond to the dean, tell him he's wrong on that one?

RUBIN: Yes, absolutely. That was one of the more silly statements I've ever heard. The United States is a unique country in the world. We do have unique values and unique power, and we use that power to the good.

And when the secretary of state goes to Central Asia, as she did last week, and stands up for democracy -- she told me in one of the meetings she was with the democratic activists, they said her coming to visit them in a private meeting in the former Soviet Union was like a visit from the pope, because they recognize that her speaking out for human rights and democracy is something they believe in very, very strongly, whether Mr. Krogh has the sense to understand that or not.

MATALIN: What about another former employee of the secretary's, Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said that he senses there's no clear foreign policy vision in this administration in which she is the head of?

RUBIN: Well, I think there is a clear vision, and that is that we are working to try to increase the acceptance around the world of the basic values we believe in: nonproliferation, preventing dangerous weapons, stopping terrorism, getting free markets and getting democratic values spread around the world. And with each year that the Clinton administration has been in office, there are more countries that are in that fold. That's the vision. That's the success.

And Dr. Brzezinski, who was a professor of mine, gets a failing grade on that comment.


PRESS: Now this is building up to the big issue now. The really big issue, as we get down to the end of this show, is that Prime Minister Tony Blair is under fire from his wife, who's asking him that -- almost demanding -- that he take paternal leave when their next baby is born, to be there with the baby. Do you have any advise for Tony Blair?

RUBIN: Well, you know, I'm going to be a citizen of Tony Blair's England...

PRESS: That's why I'm asking.

RUBIN: ... very, very soon.

PRESS: And a new father.

RUBIN: So let me say this: In my family, the right choice was to help my wife be able to return to work quicker by going and living with her in London. That's what I've chosen to do.

MATALIN: Well, and Mr. Secretary, today you held your last conference, and you waffled miserably on one question, a critical question. We're going to give you one more chance to answer it right. Let's look at the question now.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT/WIFE OF JAMES RUBIN: Much has been made, Mr. Rubin, of you leaving in order to spend more time with your wife and child, and indeed to become Mr. Mom. So what I want to know is how you can assure an understandably skeptical son about your commitment to one day change a diaper?



PRESS: I recognize that voice. It's too bad that...

MATALIN: Could you identify that reporter, please, and your answer?

RUBIN: Well, that was the first time my wife has ever entered the State Department briefing room. That was my wife, CNN's very own Christiane Amanpour. And my answer was true State Department style: When necessary and appropriate, I will do so.


PRESS: And you think you're going to get away with that answer?

RUBIN: Well, we'll see.

PRESS: How old is your son?

RUBIN: One month this week.

PRESS: You haven't changed a diaper yet?

RUBIN: Do you have any more foreign policy questions for me?


PRESS: No, but I have two sons and I've changed a lot of diapers.


Jamie, it's not as hard as it looks, OK. You want me to give you a little lesson in it?

Good to be with you, Mr. Secretary.

RUBIN: Thank you very much.

PRESS: Thanks for a good...

RUBIN: Really appreciate it.

PRESS: ... tenure there at the State Department. We're going to look forward to having you back with your new hat on.

RUBIN: Terrific. Thank you.

MATALIN: Good luck, dad.

RUBIN: Thank you, Mary.

MATALIN: Appreciate it as always.

PRESS: And Mary and I will have some choice closing comments on the secretary coming up.


PRESS: Mary, I have to say I think Jamie Rubin has done a great job, but this administration is so dead wrong about sanctions in Cuba. This is an open economy down there. People are now spending dollars down there, everybody but U.S. businessmen. We're just hurting ourselves. It's crazy.

MATALIN: They're socialists. I could not agree more with Jamie. He has done a great job. You are so wrong. But despite his doing a great job, and what I love about Madeleine Albright -- understanding supremacy of the United States values, and speaking out loudly, proudly and often about them -- is why the foreign policy power has shifted back to this White House, and really under Sandy Berger: because this administration doesn't share those values.

PRESS: I think this administration has done a good job on foreign policy, and foreign policy, being so important, by the way, is why we don't need somebody as president who needs on-the-job training when it comes to foreign policy.

Mary, going to Mexico for a couple of burritos and a beer is not foreign policy.

MATALIN: That is so cheap.

PRESS: That's all George Bush has.

MATALIN: And if you think this whole campaign is going to be about tearing him down, have at it, because you're going to lose. That's not what people want.

PRESS: It's going to be about pointing out the facts...

MATALIN: It's not what they want.

PRESS: ... and the lack of experience.

MATALIN: He's building people up, you're tearing people down. Let me build you up and congratulate you for changing diapers, Bill Press, the only good thing I would say about you.

PRESS: All right. From the left -- I've changed enough in my lifetime -- I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again for more editions of CROSSFIRE.



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