Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Kristen Welker of NBC’s Meet the Press

QUESTION:  And joining me now is Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  Mr. Secretary, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Good morning, Kristen.

QUESTION:  So the big question on everyone’s mind, Mr. Secretary:  How did Israel, how did the United States miss what Hamas was planning?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, put this in perspective – and you heard this from your correspondents as well.  This is the worst attack on Israel since the Yom Kippur War in 1973, almost exactly 50 years ago.  But there’s also a big difference.  That was a state-on-state conflict, army against army with clear front lines.  This is a massive terrorist attack targeting Israeli civilians, gunning people down in the streets of their towns, gunning them down in their homes, dragging Israelis – men, women, and children – across the border with Gaza.  A Holocaust survivor in a wheelchair, women and children – all being taken hostage.

So you can imagine the impact this is having in Israel, and it should be revolting to people around the world.  There will be plenty of time to figure out whether the intelligence should have done something different to see this coming.  Right now the entire focus is on supporting Israel, making sure that it has what it needs – as President Biden pledged to Prime Minister Netanyahu when they spoke yesterday – has what it needs to deal with this attack from Hamas, to make sure that it has control over its own territory, and that it takes the necessary steps so that there’s accountability, and to try to ensure, to the best of its ability, that this doesn’t happen again.

We’ve been on the phones constantly since yesterday – early yesterday morning – the President, myself, everyone throughout our government – working around the world both to build up that support and to get countries to use the influence they may have with Hamas to get it to cease and desist.

QUESTION:  But Mr. Secretary, do you acknowledge that both Israeli intelligence officials and U.S. intelligence officials were caught off guard here?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  This is an attack that I don’t think anyone saw coming in the – in the immediate.  And as I said, this —

QUESTION:  So was it an intelligence failure, Mr. Secretary?  Do you acknowledge it was an intelligence failure?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We will have plenty – we will have plenty of time to – the Israelis will have plenty of time to look into that.  All of us will have time to look into that.  The focus now has to be on making sure that Israel has what it needs to deal with this attack and to make sure that its citizens are safe and secure.  That’s the entire focus.

Now, more broadly, we have been intensely concerned about the possibility of violence in the region.  We have been working intensely with Israelis and Palestinians and other countries to try to make sure that that was – that was avoided.

The challenge is this:  We brought Israelis and Palestinians together in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh to make sure that neither took steps that could lead to conflict, and that was an ongoing effort, but Hamas was not involved because Hamas is a terrorist organization, and the difference maker here is you have a terrorist group that’s undertaken these actions.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, does the administration know at this point if U.S. citizens were among the dead or those taken hostage?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So we have reports that several Americans may be among the dead.  We are very actively working to verify those reports.  Similarly, we’ve seen reports about hostages, and there, again, we’re very actively trying to verify them and nail that down.

QUESTION:  Meaning that there could be some U.S. citizens who have been taken hostage as well, Mr. Secretary?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  That’s correct.

QUESTION:  And does the United States have a role, given that and more broadly speaking, in securing the release of the hostages that have been taken, both Israeli hostages and U.S. hostages and any other nationalities?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, Kristen, first, I’m not going to get ahead of the facts.  We need to establish the facts.  Second, any American anywhere who is being detained or held hostage, that is going to be a priority for this government, for this administration, and for me, but I don’t want to get ahead of where we are.  We have reports; we need to verify them.

QUESTION:  Did Iran play a role in this attack, Mr. Secretary?  What has the administration assessed in that regard?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So, Kristen, Iran and Hamas have a long relationship.  Hamas wouldn’t be Hamas without the support it’s had for many years from Iran.  In this moment, we don’t have anything that shows us that Iran was directly involved in this attack, in planning it or in carrying it out, but that’s something we’re looking at very carefully, and we’ve got to see where the facts lead.  But we do know that Iran’s had a long relationship with Hamas, long support.  It’s one of the reasons that we have been aggressively working to counter Iran, including sanctioning more than 400 Iranians, more than 400 – and companies, precisely for the things like the support it’s provided to Hamas.

QUESTION:  And we are learning just this morning that two Israeli tourists and their Egyptian guide were killed in Egypt.  This comes as major cities around our country are enhancing security at synagogues and other religious institutions.  How concerned should Americans be about a potential attack here, Mr. Secretary?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, we haven’t – we haven’t seen indications of that, but of course were on guard around the world.  We’re on guard wherever American citizens may be and could be in danger, and of course we’re always on guard in the United States.  But when it comes to the region as a whole, look, I was on the phone yesterday with my counterparts from Egypt, from Saudi Arabia, from Jordan, from Qatar, from the United Arab Emirates, from Türkiye, from European countries, and a big part of that was trying to make sure that everyone was doing everything they can to ensure security, ensure safety, and to use whatever influence they have to get Hamas to back down and also to make sure that others don’t try to take advantage of the situation.  You heard the President speak to this very clearly.  He issued a pretty stark warning that no one anywhere should try to take advantage of what’s happening in Israel.

QUESTION:  And speaking of Saudi Arabia, of course, this comes against the backdrop of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel having discussions about a potential deal to normalize relations, which would have further isolated Iran.  What, if any, role do you think those talks may have played in these attacks, and does this effectively mean that those talks are now dead?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It’s no surprise that those who are opposed to the talks, those who are opposed to Israel normalizing its relations with its neighbors and with countries beyond the region, are Hamas, Hizballah, and Iran.  And so it’s entirely possible that one of the motivations for this attack was to try to derail these efforts to advance normalization, something that is very hard.  There are a lot of really challenging issues to work through; we’re in the process of trying to do that.  But the result would be, if we were able to get there, a much different path for the region and for the future – a path of greater stability, of greater integration, of people working together to better their lives.

That’s in stark contrast to the path that’s offered by Hamas – a path of violence, killing, horror, terror, a path that offers absolutely nothing to the Palestinian people.  In fact, what it offers is more suffering, not less.  So, it’s a pretty stark choice.  And the fact that Hamas, Hizballah, Iran are lined up against that vision, I think speaks volumes.

At the same time, as we’re pursuing normalization, it’s imperative that it not be a substitute for Israelis and Palestinians resolving the differences between them.  On the contrary, it needs to be something that actually advances that prospect and supports it.

But right now, in the immediate, the focus is on helping Israel deal with this attack from Hamas.  That’s what we’re focused on.

QUESTION:  And Mr. – Mr. Secretary, as you know, Republican candidates have been criticizing the administration for the deal that you just struck with Iran to release five American detainees in exchange for some Iranian detainees as well as releasing $6 billion.  Your officials have already said Iran has not yet seen a cent of that money, but how do you respond to Republican critics who say that that deal funded the attacks on Israel?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, it’s very unfortunate that some are playing politics at a time when so many lives have been lost and Israel remains under attack.  Here are the facts:  The facts are that these were – these were not U.S. taxpayer dollars.  These were Iranian resources that it had accumulated from the sale of its oil that were stuck in a bank in South Korea.  From day one, under our law, under our sanctions going back many years, it’s always had the right to use those funds for humanitarian purposes – for food, for medicine, for medical equipment.  The funds were moved from one bank to another where it could more easily do that, but under the close supervision of the U.S. Treasury Department.  In other words, Treasury will verify any —

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary – Mr. Secretary, I don’t – I don’t want —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  No, it’s important – it’s important to get these facts right, because here’s what’s going on.  Again, not a single cent has been spent from that account.  When any money is spent from that account, it can only be used for medical supplies, for food, for medicine – and those who are saying otherwise are either misinformed or misinforming, and it’s wrong either way.

QUESTION:  What do you say about the argument that money is fungible?  So Iran may have known this money is coming and used other funds to help fund this attack that happened.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Iran has – Iran has, unfortunately, always used and focused its funds on supporting terrorism, on supporting groups like Hamas, and it’s done that when there have been sanctions, it’s done that there haven’t been sanctions.  And it’s always prioritized that.  And again, I come back to the proposition that from – these funds have always been, under the law, available to Iran to use for humanitarian purposes.  The Trump administration set up a very similar mechanism to enable Iran to use these kinds of assets for humanitarian purposes.  We’ve done the same thing.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, very quickly before we go.  As you know, there is currently no speaker of the House.  Congress is in a state of paralysis.  Is Congress able to respond should Israel ask for more aid from the United States?  What’s your message there?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So, Kristen, there’s a tremendous amount of aid and assistance already in the pipeline.  Back under President Obama, we signed a so-called memorandum of understanding with Israel that provides it with $3.8 billion a year in defense assistance, and much of that is ongoing.  The contracts are moving forward.  We do a lot of co-production with them.  A lot is in the pipeline.

At the same time, Israel has come to us and asked for some specific additional assistance.  I’m sure you’ll hear more about that probably later today, and we’re responding to that, and we have the ability to do that.  Now, as a general proposition, it would be very important to make sure that we have both houses of Congress, on a bipartisan basis, in a place where they can clearly show and express their support for Israel, especially in this hour of need.  And so that’s something we want to see, and we hope that that happens quickly.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Secretary Blinken, thank you so much for joining us.  We will look for that announcement about more aid later today.  Really appreciate it.

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