Susan Rice on contending with crisis

President Obama's national security advisor answers questions about the NSA leaks, Iran, Syria and the attack in Benghazi

The following script is from "Susan Rice" which aired on Dec. 22, 2013. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Rich Bonin, producer.

From her first day on the job as President Obama's national security advisor, Susan Rice has had to contend with one crisis on top of the other: the Edward Snowden leaks, the chemical weapons attack in Syria, Egypt, Iran, China, Russia…you name it.

During her four years as the U.S. ambassador to the UN, she had a reputation, as one magazine put it, for being "whip-smart, energetic, abrasive, charming, funny, combative, and frequently undiplomatic."

And yet the president wanted to name her to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. But then she walked into the Benghazi buzzsaw. She got swept up in the dispute over who attacked the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. There was no chance she would be confirmed by the Senate. So last July, she became one of the president's closest advisors -- both personally, and in terms of proximity.

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 Lesley Stahl: The Oval Office is right there?

Susan Rice: Down, actually, in the corner.

Lesley Stahl: Down there?

As the president’s national security advisor, Susan Rice works in what some consider the second best office in the White House.   

Lesley Stahl: This is the office, huh?

Susan Rice: This is Henry's office, as we call it.

Lesley Stahl: Henry's office, Henry Kissinger's office.

As Kissinger was, Rice is the quarterback of American foreign policy.  She’s the one who wakes up the president when there’s a 3 a.m. international crisis.

Susan Rice: My job is to bring the good news and the bad news and often in this business it can be more bad than good.

And there’s so much of it that’s bad. Her plate has been full from the day she got the job.

Lesley Stahl: I wanna give you a quote that a foreign policy expert gave us. "Syria has been a fiasco. Egypt is a fiasco. Relations with our closest allies in the Middle East are deteriorating. And at this moment in time, the Chinese choose to provoke Japan... And we are leaning back.”

Susan Rice: I couldn't disagree with that more. But you wouldn’t be surprised to hear me say that—

Lesley Stahl: No.

Susan Rice: We are very actively engaged in trying to broker a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after months, if not years, of stalemate. In Syria chemical weapons are leaving the country for the first time. The situation in the Middle East is complicated. But to paint this with a broad brush and say it’s a disaster, I think, is missing a lot of important data points.

Lesley Stahl: But it's in as much turmoil, I think, you tell me, as it's ever been.

Susan Rice: How about Suez? I mean, let's study a little history.

Lesley Stahl: But that was one place, you know?

Susan Rice: Yeah, but that was almost a global conflict in the Middle East. I think hyperbole is something to be utilized carefully.

Lesley Stahl: On both sides?

Susan Rice: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: Edward Snowden. You know, Snowden is believed to have a million and a half more documents that have never been released. Given that, would you, would the president, consider granting him amnesty in exchange for him never releasing any more documents?

Susan Rice: Well, Lesley, we don’t think that Snowden deserves amnesty. We believe he should come back, he should be sent back, and he should have his day in court.

Lesley Stahl: But if what he's released so far has been so damaging and he has a million and a half more documents, how important is it that he not release those? And what would we offer him, nothing?

Susan Rice: Lesley, you know I'm not going to get into a negotiation with you on camera about something that sensitive--

Lesley Stahl: You just seemed to suggest no—

Susan Rice: -- but the position of the United States is that he ought to come back and face justice.

Lesley Stahl: Has he either directly, indirectly, in any way proposed such an arrangement?

Susan Rice: Not that I'm aware of.

This past week, a federal judge ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection of American phone records, revealed in Snowden’s leaks, “almost certainly” violates the Constitution, while a panel of intelligence and legal experts urged the president to impose new restrictions on the NSA.

Lesley Stahl: According to an article in the New Yorker, every time there’s been a question about putting restraints on the NSA up to now, the president has sided with the intelligence community.

Susan Rice: What the NSA and our intelligence community does as a whole is designed to protect Americans and our allies. And they do a heck of a good job at it.

Lesley Stahl: Officials in the intelligence community have actually been untruthful both to the American public in hearings in Congress and to the FISA Court.

Susan Rice: There have been cases where they have inadvertently made false representations. And they themselves have discovered it and corrected it. 

Lesley Stahl: But when you have so many phone records being held, emails, heads of state’s phone conversations being listened in to, has it been worth our allies being upset? Has it been worth all the tech companies being upset? Has it been worth Americans feeling that their privacy has been invaded?

Susan Rice: Lesley, it's been worth what we've done to protect the United States. And the fact that we have not had a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11 should not be diminished. But that does not mean that everything we're doing as of the present ought to be done the same way in the future.

Susan Rice works 14 to 16-hour days. She’s not the first woman to be national security advisor, or the first African American. But she is the first mother. She has two kids: Jake, 16 and Maris, 11.

"Lesley, it's been worth what we've done to protect the United States. And the fact that we have not had a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11 should not be diminished. But that does not mean that everything we're doing as of the present ought to be done the same way in the future."

Lesley Stahl: See anyone you recognize?

A rare afternoon off is Sunday...when she goes to Maris’ soccer game.

Susan Rice: Maris is.. she’s got blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Lesley Stahl: Oh yeah.

Her husband, Ian Cameron, used to be an executive producer at ABC News.

Ian Cameron: Hey, how are you? Nice to see you. Thanks for coming out.

As the match proceeded, we got a sense of how fiercely competitive Susan Rice is when Maris scored a goal.

Susan Rice: Scream! You guys have to come every week ‘cause you’re good luck.

In the middle of everything, her BlackBerry went off and so did she, to confer with Secretary of State Kerry calling from Abu Dhabi.   

Lesley Stahl: How often when you do carve out time for your family, does work impinge?  Intrude?

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 Susan Rice: You’re never not working. I mean, you always have your BlackBerry and you have to be accessible. Even if the phone doesn’t ring, you better be checking your email from time to time.

Lesley Stahl: Ian, you actually have stopped working.

Ian Cameron: Yeah.

Lesley Stahl: To take care of the kids?

Ian Cameron: Yeah. Well we were in a situation, you know, financially that one of us could step out of the working world.

"You’re never not working. I mean, you always have your BlackBerry and you have to be accessible. Even if the phone doesn’t ring, you better be checking your email from time to time."

Lesley Stahl: What about the racial difference, was that ever an issue, a problem?

Ian Cameron:  It's interesting how much the country has changed, even in Washington, D.C., I think there were times, you know, 30 years ago where we were self-conscious about holding hands in Washington, D.C., where we worked.

Susan Rice: Now, absolutely never occurs to us.  We never hear or even sense anything.

Rice, 49, grew up in the national’s capital, on Embassy Row.

Lesley Stahl: D.C. girl through and through?

Susan Rice: Born and raised.

Her father was a governor of the Federal Reserve Board; her mother, a leading figure in education policy. And Rice herself had a distinguished academic career. Stanford and Rhodes Scholar.

Susan Rice: There were those who wanted to suggest as I was growing up, that any success I might have had was because of affirmative action. And that didn't sit well with me. And so from--

Lesley Stahl: That must've hurt.

Susan Rice: Well, I resented it. I don't know if it hurt because I didn't think it was true.

She describes herself not as an idealist, which is her reputation, but as a pragmatist like Henry Kissinger. Most days she’s at her desk dealing with one crisis and hotspot after the next, like overseeing the six-month deal with Iran that freezes their nuclear program in exchange for some modest sanctions relief.

Lesley Stahl: Say you get the comprehensive agreement and they get the sanctions lifted. If they cheat, then it’s going to be pretty impossible to get the sanctions back, given Russia, China. And a lot of people think that's their strategy: Make a deal, get rid of the sanctions, build a bomb.

Susan Rice: But Lesley, we will not construct a deal or accept a deal in which we cannot verify exactly what they are doing. And if they’re caught we will insure that the pressure is re-imposed on them because— take it from me, I worked on-- I worked on this at the United Nations. I know a little bit somethin' about Security Council resolutions and how to impose sanctions and how to lift sanctions. And there are ways to do that that impose automatic triggers, if possible, on-- for failure to comply. Now, we haven't designed that resolution yet. But this is something that's quite doable.

Lesley Stahl: You say we're not willing to allow them to have a nuclear bomb. But what about what they call-- leaving them to be a nuclear threshold power, which means that they can be a power that has the capacity to develop a bomb in several months.

Susan Rice: We do not want Iran to be not only to have a bomb, but be in a position to race towards a bomb undetected.

Lesley Stahl: Watching their behavior over many, many years, you know, it defies imagination almost that they are going to give this up.

Susan Rice: I mean, let's be clear. There's no trust. There's no naivety. The question is if a policy designed to put maximum economic pressure on them actually has come to the point where they are choking. Their currency is down 50 percent. Their oil revenues are down 50 percent. Their inflation is up. They're hurting. And the question is are they hurting enough so that they are going to be willing to make some very difficult decisions that they've resisted making thus far and give up in a verifiable way this nuclear program? The answer is we don't know. But the other half of the answer is we have every interest in testing that proposition.

Over the summer, Rice led a review of U.S. policy in the Middle East resulting in a new direction away from the use of force and a scaling back in the region that has upset our allies there like Saudi Arabia.

But it seems there’s no escaping the Middle East. Take the civil war in Syria where President Assad’s forces have gained ground, and among the opposition – Islamic extremists are gaining over the moderates that are backed by the U.S.

Lesley Stahl: So was it a mistake not to train and arm those moderates early on?

Susan Rice: Well, Lesley, I think we'll have to review that  in the context of history. And I can't judge that at this point.

But what about the humanitarian crisis in Syria? More than 100,000 killed; eight million driven from their homes. After the genocide in Rwanda, when Rice worked on President Clinton’s national security council, she vowed if there ever was another atrocity, she would support dramatic action. So why no dramatic action in Syria?

Susan Rice: It’s not that simple. The international community isn’t unified, there’s no agreement to intervene, there’s no basis in international law to intervene. And yet nobody who works on that problem is at all satisfied with how it’s unfolded.

Susan Rice became national security advisor as a consolation prize. She lost her chance to be Secretary of State when she – then the UN ambassador – was asked to pinch hit for Hillary Clinton and answer questions about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi where our ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and 3 others were killed. 

[Susan Rice on "Face the Nation": What our assessment is as of the present, is in fact what, it began spontaneously in Benghazi…]

That particular assessment from talking points prepared by the CIA was wrong, and Rice was accused of being deliberately misleading. But a former senior intelligence official told us that the talking point that called the Benghazi attack spontaneous was precisely what classified intelligence reports said at the time.

Susan Rice: I don’t have time to think about a false controversy. In the midst of all of the swirl about things like talking points, the administration’s been working very, very hard across the globe to review our security of our embassies and our facilities. That’s what we ought to be focused on.

Lesley Stahl: But the questions keep coming. When someone heard that I was going to be talking to you they said, "You have to ask her why Hillary Clinton didn't do the interview that morning." Did she, did she smell trouble?

Susan Rice: She had just gone through an incredibly painful and stressful week. Secretary Clinton, as our chief diplomat, had to reach out to the families, had to greet the bodies upon their arrival at Andrews Air Force Base. If I were her, the last thing I would have wanted to do is five Sunday morning talk shows.  So I think it’s perfectly understandable--

Lesley Stahl: So when they asked you –

Susan Rice: So when the White House asked me, I agreed to do it.

Lesley Stahl: Do you ever think, "Gee, I wish I hadn't done that." You know, if you hadn't done that, I'd be calling you Madam Secretary of State maybe.

Susan Rice: Well, you can call me Susan.

  • Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.

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