The following is a transcript of an interview with National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby that aired on Dec. 3, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And we're back with the coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House National Security Council, John Kirby. Always good to have you here.
COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL, JOHN KIRBY: Thank you, Margaret.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about this breakdown in the hostage negotiations. The Mossad has pulled their negotiators out of Doha, saying that there's no use in continuing to talk. Is this insurmountable? There are still Americans being held.
KIRBY: We don't believe it's insurmountable. In fact, even while the negotiations have stopped, Margaret, we haven't stopped our efforts on the National Security Council and according- and all the way up to the President, trying to work hour by hour to see if we can get this pause reinstated and get those hostages out. I will say, while the pause has been lifted, and no hostage exchanges are going on, what is still going on, importantly, is humanitarian assistance getting in including- including fuel, which is- which is critical.
MARGARET BRENNAN: It wasn't- it's restarted, you're saying.
KIRBY: Yeah, so even when the pause ended, what didn't end was humanitarian assistance.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We heard from your old boss, the Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, there in the beginning of the program, and he said that the lesson he learned from the ISIS campaign was that in urban warfare, you have to protect civilians. He was pretty sharp in his words, he said he has pushed Israeli leaders to avoid civilian casualties, shun irresponsible rhetoric, prevent violence by settlers in the West Bank. It certainly sounds like the Netanyahu government has not made the changes that they have been asked to make for the past few weeks.
KIRBY: They have been receptive to those messages, those messages that he delivered in public, we are also delivering in private. They have been--
MARGARET BRENNAN: For three weeks or more now, including on this program,
KIRBY: They have been receptive to those messages. Now, again, I want to make it clear, the right number of civilian casualties is zero. And clearly, many thousands have been killed, and many more thousands have been wounded. And now more than a million are internally displaced. We're aware of that. And we know that all of that is a tragedy. We grieve with all those families. That's why we continue to work, as Secretary Austin said, with our Israeli counterparts, to get them to be as careful and as precise and as deliberate in their targeting as possible. And I would tell you, as I said, they have been receptive, they went into North Gaza with a much smaller force than what they had originally planned to do. And here you have--
MARGARET BRENNAN: Because the United States slowed down those operations.
KIRBY: And if you have in the last 24 hours, they have been putting a map online of places where people in Gaza need to avoid and need to go.
MARGARET BRENNAN: They don't have connectivity widely in Gaza, you know that.
KIRBY: But they've also been doing it with paper and leaflets and that kind of thing. But my point is, Margaret, that it's very rare for a modern military to take those kinds of steps, basically telegraphing their punches before they actually conduct operations. So I think they're listening. I think they're receptive.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you're continuing to deliver this message at pretty high levels, including the Vice President is saying this, that- that number, you say thousands, the Gaza Ministry of Health says it's over 15,000 people who have been killed since October 7. Does the U.S.- have- had- U.S. have an assessment of civilians?
KIRBY: We don't have a specific number that we can speak to, we know many, many thousands have been- have been killed. And again, many, many thousands more had been wounded. But we don't have an exact figure.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So, Hamas when it attacked, so brutally, on October 7, you were very strong. You reflected the President's emotion on this, his defense of the Netanyahu government. But Senator Van Hollen who was on this program recently faulted you. I want you to listen to it.
SOT: Many of us were concerned, just a few weeks ago, when one of the White House National Security spokesperson was asked if the United States has any red lines. And the answer was no, which means anything goes and that cannot be consistent with American interests and American values.
MARGARET BRENNAN: He's talking about what you said October 24 from the podium. That's a Democrat saying they need clear language from the White House.
KIRBY: But everything we do for a foreign military, including Israel, when you give them security assistance, there are expectations with that security assistance, that it's going to be used in keeping with a law of armed conflict, the law of war and we are in constant touch with our Israeli counterparts about the way that they're prosecuting these operations. Secretary Blinken has said himself, it's not just what you do that matters. It's how you do that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But are their red lines?
KIRBY: We believe that the approach that we've been taking, Margaret, has had an effect. It has allowed Israel to continue to go after a very viable terrorist threat to their existence. And at the same time–
MARGARET BRENNAN: But you're correcting (unintelligible) correct course, are there red lines? Because what we're seeing right now as the Journal was just reporting, I mean, bunker buster bombs, 2000-pound bombs being handed over. The United States is a really strong supporter of Israel here. Should there be brighter lines?
KIRBY: We are having these discussions with our Israeli counterparts every day about being careful, precise and deliberate in their targeting and trying to minimize civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible. I think it's also important for people to remember what they're up against here. Hamas deliberately shelters themselves inside residential buildings, hospitals and schools. Basically on purpose, putting civilians in the line of fire and what Israel is trying to do is get them out of the line of fire. So it's an added burden that Israel has as a modern military, we recognize that, but it's also a very difficult burden and obstacle for them to overcome. So look, we're- we don't want to see a single more innocent life taken here, but- and so we're going to continue to work with- with Israel about this, but the approach that we've been taking has delivered some results, including more than 100 hostages getting out.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right, but you understand the implications for U.S. national security, to be seen as endorsing all of this, which is what Van Hollen was raising, but I want to ask you about Venezuela as well, before I let you go, the U.S. lifted some sanctions off the Maduro regime and set some goals. November 30, there were supposed to be three Americans who are determined to be wrongfully detained, released. That didn't happen.
KIRBY: No, it didn't. Nor did the release of other political prisoners.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Exactly. So what happens now? Will you put more sanctions on? What is the status of those Americans?
KIRBY: I don't want to get ahead of where we are in the decision making process, but we're reviewing our options right now. They- they had until the evening of the 30 to- to make these kinds of decisions. Unfortunately, they didn't. And so we're now going back to- to the- to policy options and reviewing what our chances are, but I don't want to get ahead–
MARGARET BRENNAN: Including snapback sanctions?
KIRBY: Again, I don't want to get ahead of where we are, but we were extremely concerned that they didn't take those two extra steps: release of political prisoners and getting our wrongfully detained Americans home. That's something we take very seriously, getting those folks home, and we're going to keep at it.
MARGARET BRENNAN: All right, admiral. Thank you for being here in person.
KIRBY: Good to be with you.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We'll be right back.
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