▶ Watch Video: Condoleezza Rice says early dismissal of coronavirus lab leak theory was a “mistake”

The following is a transcript of an interview with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that aired Sunday, June 6, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”

JOHN DICKERSON: The FBI director, Christopher Wray, told The Wall Street Journal this week that the ransomware threat was comparable to the challenge of global terrorism in the days after September 11th. Do you agree?

FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, there are certainly some similarities. I do think we need to have a talk as an international community with these countries like the Russians, for instance, to say if criminal ransomware activities are coming out of your country, why don’t we have intelligence cooperation, law enforcement cooperation, to shut it down and to in that way test the reality of how much the Russian government is or is not involved.

JOHN DICKERSON: President Biden is considering retaliating or punishing the Russians for just exactly what you’re talking about.

FMR. SEC. RICE: Well, I would certainly hope that the president has made clear to President Putin that this is just unacceptable. I mean, we’ve had attacks that have really, really gone after our infrastructure in important ways. These are serious infrastructure attacks that could shut down an economy. And so I think a very tough conversation with the Russians about their obligations under these circumstances is very much warranted.

JOHN DICKERSON:  It’s not just the Russians. An attack came from inside China on the New York subway system. What kinds of challenges does that pose for an administration and what kind of skills do they need if this is going to be a chronic ongoing problem?

FMR. SEC. RICE: Well, I thought that Director Wray started in the right place, which is every company, every organization, every infrastructure organization really needs to redouble its efforts not to be vulnerable. This is different than terrorism in the sense that the portal is not owned by the United States government. It is a private portal. It’s an open portal called the Internet. And I’ve always been struck, JOHN, that it seems to me sometimes that the private sector and the government don’t speak the same language here about what needs to be done. If you’re going to be able to attribute an attack, for instance, that very often isn’t a matter of physical signature. It’s a matter of marrying intelligence with what we know. So if we’re going to survive this then we’re going to have much- have to have much better cooperation between the government and the private sector.

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me switch to China. Do you think that the next age of US national security challenges is really one centered around the relationship and tensions with China?

FMR. SEC. RICE: Well, certainly the- the great rival now is China, and- but it’s different than the Cold War because during the Cold War, our great rival, the Soviet Union, was a military giant, but it was, frankly, a technological midget and economically completely isolated from the international economy. China is very different. It is a technological giant. It is increasingly seeking military capabilities that look as if they are trying to change the balance in the Asia Pacific. So it’s a different kind of challenge, but it’s one that I think can be met.

JOHN DICKERSON: President Biden is looking into how the pandemic started and he is looking into the idea it may have started at the Wuhan lab. What advice would you give him about trying to get actual answers about what happened?

FMR. SEC. RICE: Well, the first thing is to recognize that there was too much of a tendency early on to dismiss this possibility of a laboratory leak. And I think there was a lot- and I think the press bears some responsibility for this. “Well, it had to be animal to human transmission.” These were conspiracy theories about a laboratory leak. And in fact, some of the evidence was right in front of our faces. So we know that there was State Department diplomats who inspected, so to speak, that laboratory and came back and said that the safety practices were substandard when we knew that there were patients back in November that had suspicious symptoms. Maybe that was the time to start asking tough questions. And I think we perhaps didn’t say enough about the problems of the WHO going in and allowing the Chinese to control the territory while they were trying to investigate. So now better late than never. I’m glad we are fully looking at this. I’m not sure we’ll ever know fully the story, but putting pressure on the Chinese, taking this to the United Nations, raising the profile of what China needs to do to help us get this right.  I was actually a national security adviser when SARS hit, and it was the same problem. We knew something was happening. We couldn’t get answers from the Chinese. And so if we’re not going to keep repeating this problem, and this one had much more devastating consequences, then we’re going to have to be a little bit more aggressive with the Chinese about the need to cooperate. But I think we made a mistake earlier on in- in many, many people- many officials dismissed this possibility.

JOHN DICKERSON: Were the officials in the response, were they too accommodating of- of China in the sense that early on we were told the Chinese are on top of it? I can’t imagine during the Cold War, the US government ever saying, well, the Russians have told us they’re on the case, everything’s fine. 

FMR. SEC. RICE: Right.

JOHN DICKERSON: Were we too trusting of the Chinese?

FMR. SEC. RICE: Yeah,  it’s a really good point, JOHN. And in fact, I think there were even those who said that President Trump’s early decisions about border closures and travel restrictions were xenophobic or- or not appropriate. Turns out they were incredibly appropriate. But, yes, maybe there was a little bit too much of trusting of the Chinese. I- I- I’m going to give people a break, too. During this time, when you’re in the middle of one of these unfolding crises, you don’t really know what’s going on. But I would, given what we experienced with SARS and oh, by the way, with avian flu as well in the early 2000s, I don’t think it was worth trusting that the Chinese were being transparent about what was going on there.


JOHN DICKERSON: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION.  We continue our conversation with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now Director of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  What’s your opinion about whether there should be a commission to look into the events of January 6?

FMR. SEC. RICE: Well, we somehow need to look into the events of January 6. Look, it was a terrible stain on our democracy. We have a really terrific system. It was tested on that day. We need to understand what happened with security. We need to understand the nature of that test. The sad thing is, I- I testified before the 9/11 Commission. We also had the Iraq Study Group, which was another group of- of citizens, eminent citizens, who helped us understand what was going wrong in Iraq. And so we have a tradition of these citizens, these elders, if you will, of the country to help us through times like this. The problem right now is there isn’t enough trust in Washington to get this done in a way that everybody will- will trust the process. We do need to know what happened on January 6. 

JOHN DICKERSON: But it wasn’t both sides. The Republicans blocked the- the commission. So it’s it does seem like its–

FMR. SEC. RICE: Well look, the problem is there just isn’t- JOHN, there just isn’t enough trust in the Congress right now because we have constant discussions about how am I going to simply push you aside and do what I want to do. So let’s just recognize that we are not in 2004 when the 9/11 Commission was constituted and worked and try to find a way to get to a set of answers about what happened on- on January 6th. I would prefer that this were not the case, but maybe we have to think about ways to do this outside of our electoral bodies.

JOHN DICKERSON: As we debate how to look at January 6th, there’s also a debate in America about how we teach America’s history. You knew one of the students who died at the Birmingham Baptist Church. Explain for me how you see that part of American history, also the Tulsa massacre and other parts of America’s civil rights history and also America’s exceptionalism that you were tasked with promoting across the globe.

FMR. SEC. RICE: American history was in part shaped at its very beginning by this birth defect of slavery. Do I wish that the anti-slave forces had won out? Absolutely. But they didn’t. And then we had after the Emancipation, we had a Reconstruction which gave way to Jim Crow. I was born in Birmingham, Alabama. I was eight before my family could go to a movie theater, to a restaurant. I didn’t have a white classmate until we moved to Denver when I was 12. So, yes, I know America’s troubled past and that troubled past continues to have an impact going forward on how we see each other. When I hear the talk about structural racism, it really gives me pause and it gives me pause because it doesn’t tell me what to do. If we could talk about the impact of race on various aspects of our life. I have family members who were victims of sickle cell that was an orphan disease for a long time, and it affected mostly Black people. What do we think about medical outcomes that clearly are still disproportionate? Can we finally agree that our K-12 education system is really serving poor kids and- and minority kids very badly? Can we agree that we actually have a choice system? Because if you are of means you will move to a district where the schools are good, you will go and by the way, the houses will be expensive. So that’s a choice. You can send your kids to private schools. So those are choices. So who really doesn’t have a choice? Poor kids and many of them are minority kids. So there are these impacts of race that I think are worth examining. I want kids to know about Tulsa. I also want them to know what that Black community did to overcome that horrible massacre. I want them to know about ’63 in Birmingham, but I want them to know that the mayor of Birmingham today is a Black man who grew up in a poor community. So I want them to see the forward progress of America as well on these issues. And I want us as a country to do it together because I don’t want this to be black against white, my weaponization of my identity against yours. 

JOHN DICKERSON: And just one quick point of clarification. Your point about structural racism is not that it doesn’t exist, but that the term itself doesn’t get you as far as you would like?

FMR. SEC. RICE: Well, I just- JOHN, I’ve ceased to- to use it because I don’t know what it means anymore, and I think it’s become a barrier to- do I think that there are impacts of race that are clear in American life?  Absolutely. But, you know, the other problem with it is it sounds so big and impenetrable, as if we have to jettison the system somehow. And with all of its problems having been all over the world and having seen how people deal with difference, I will tell you that America deals with difference better than any country I’ve ever visited.

JOHN DICKERSON: All right. Secretary Condoleezza Rice, thanks so much for being with us.

FMR. SEC. RICE: Pleasure to be with you.