Campaign 2016

National Security Highlights from the 4th Democratic Presidential Debate

By Alex R. McQuade, Elina Saxena
Monday, January 18, 2016, 11:49 AM

NBC and YouTube hosted the fourth Democratic Presidential Debate on Sunday in Charleston, South Carolina featuring former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. In the last debate featuring the three candidates before the Iowa Caucuses, the Democrats vying for the nomination discussed gun control, healthcare, education, climate change, and more in the domestic policy lane. National security issues did not qualify for the main debate stage until the second half of the event.

The first foreign policy and national security question focused on Iran and whether it was time to reestablish diplomatic relations and open an embassy in Tehran. Senator Sanders called for the United States to normalize all relations with Iran even though Iran’s behavior is something that we, as a country, disagree with. However, Sanders stressed that the fact that we managed to strike an agreement with Iran regarding their nuclear capabilities without going to war is a positive one. In all, Senator Sanders would want to see a more positive relationship with Tehran in the future, mirroring renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Secretary Clinton was quick to praise the Iran nuclear agreement, applauding the Obama administration’s efforts. The former Secretary of State, who initiated most of the sanctions that pushed the Iranians to the negotiating table, explained that the United States needs to carefully monitor the Islamic Republic, even though Iran has so far complied with the conditions and requirements of the nuclear accord.

The next topic questioned the candidates’ positions on ground forces to combat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Secretary Clinton asserted that the United States should not deploy ground troops to combat the brutal terrorist group, but rather should continue the air coalition targeting ISIS, support local fighters in Iraq and Syria, and attempt to disrupt ISIS’s supply chain of foreign fighters and financial services.

Senator Sanders agreed with Secretary Clinton about ground forces. The senator added that Muslim troops should be on the ground fighting ISIS and stressed that this is the way to destroy the pseudo-state, instead of having American troops in perpetual warfare in the region.

Governor O’Malley suggested an increase in special operations advisors and a stronger technical support system to combat ISIS. He added that the United States needs a proactive national security strategy to combat different threats before they rise to this level, referencing ISIS. He took the opportunity to blast Republican candidates about using the term “boots on the ground,” saying we shouldn’t use the term to describe our military force.

Speaking more on ISIS, Senator Sanders reiterated his point that the United States’ job in the region is to provide military support to local forces to fight the self-proclaimed caliphate. Secretary Clinton invoked her credentials as Secretary of State and her many hours in the Situation Room advising President Obama on the turmoil in the region. Senator Sanders added that the United States needs to prioritize its interests in the region, especially in the “quagmire of Syria,” saying that the first priority must be to destroy ISIS and the second priority must be to remove Syria’s President Bashar al Assad from power. Governor O’Malley stressed that the United States does not have crucial human intelligence to understand what happens in the region and called for a renewed investment in a new generation of Foreign Service officers and business personnel to better understand the region.

And on to Russia. Secretary Clinton was asked about her relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Clinton responded, saying “…it’s interesting.” She commented on her and Putin’s tough dealings with one another and described Putin as a bully, one who you have to continually stand up to because he is “someone who will take as much as he can.”

Governor O’Malley was asked a question relating to national security versus privacy and noted that the United States government should obtain warrants when seeking access to devices, a requirement that should apply to “front door and back door” policies. He additionally called for a body of laws that protect Americans and their information in the digital age.

On the issue of homegrown terrorism, the candidates shared their ideas on how to effectively protect the American people. Senator Sanders stressed the need for Silicon Valley to help the government make sure that information being transmitted by ISIS is discovered and effectively reported. However, Sanders says that there needs to be a way to do this without violating the Constitution.

Secretary Clinton praised the Obama administration’s meeting with Silicon Valley and decreed that we must have better intelligence. Most importantly, according to Clinton, the United States’ first line of defense to combating homegrown threats is the Muslim community itself.

Think the Democratic candidates made their case? The first votes will be cast on February 1st during the Iowa Caucuses.

***

The Washington Post shared the full transcript. Highlighted below are quotes organized by topic that might be particularly relevant to Lawfare readers.

Gun Control

HOLT: Senator Sanders, last week Secretary Clinton called you quote, “a pretty reliable vote for the gun lobby.” Right before the debate you changed your position on immunity from lawsuits for gun manufacturers, can you tell us why?

SANDERS: Well, I think Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous. I have a D-minus voting record from the NRA. I was in 1988, there were three candidates running for congress in the state of Vermont, I stood up to the gun lobby and came out and maintained the position that in this country we should not be selling military style assault weapons.

I have supported from day one and instant background check to make certain that people who should have guns do not have guns. And that includes people of criminal backgrounds, people who are mentally unstable. I support what President Obama is doing in terms of trying to close the gun show loop holes and I think it should be a federal crime if people act as dormant (ph).

We have seen in this city a horrendous tragedy of a crazed person praying with people in the coming up and shooting nine people. This should not be a political issue. What we should be doing is working together.

And by the way, as a senator from a rural state that has virtually no gun control, I believe that I am in an excellent position to bring people together to fight the sensible...

HOLT: Senator, but you didn’t answer the question that you did change your position on immunity from gun manufacturers. So can you...

SANDERS: What I have said, is that gun manufacturer’s liability bill has some good provisions among other things, we’ve prohibited ammunition that would’ve killed cops who had protection on. We have child safety protection work on guns in that legislation. And what we also said, “is a small mom and pop gun shop who sells a gun legally to somebody should not be held liable if somebody does something terrible with that gun.”

So what I said is, “ I would re-look at it.” We are going to re- look at it and I will support stronger provisions.

HOLT: Secretary Clinton, would you like to respond to Senator Sanders.

CLINTON: Yes look, I have made it clear based on Senator Sanders’ own record that he has voted with the NRA, with the gun lobby numerous times. He voted against the Brady Bill five times. He voted for what we call, the Charleston Loophole. He voted for immunity from gunmakers and sellers which the NRA said, “was the most important piece of gun legislation in 20 years. “

He voted to let guns go onto the Amtrak, guns go into National Parks. He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives. Let’s not forget what this is about, 90 people a day die from gun violence in our country. That’s 33,000 people a year.

One of the most horrific examples not a block from here where we had nine people murdered. Now, I am pleased to hear that Senator Sanders has reversed his position on immunity and I look forward to him joining with those members of congress who have already introduced legislation. There is no other industry in America that was given the total pass that the gun makers and dealers were and that needs to be reversed.

HOLT: All right, Governor O’Malley, you signed tough gun control measures as governor of Maryland and there are a lot Democrats in the audience here in South Carolina who own guns. This conversation might be worrying many of them. They may be hearing, “you want to take my guns. What would you say to them?

O’MALLEY: This is what I would say Lester, look see, I’ve listened to Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders go back and forth on which of them has the most inconsistent record on gun safety legislation and I would have to agree with both of them. They’ve both been inconsistent when it comes to this issue. I’m the one candidate on this stage that actually brought people together to pass comprehensive gun safety legislation. This is very personal to me being from Baltimore. I will never forget one occasion visiting a little boy in Johns’ Hopkins Hospital, he was getting a birthday haircut, the age of three when drug dealers turned that barbershop into a shooting gallery and that boy’s head was pierced with a bullet. And I remember visiting him, it did not kill him - I remember visiting him and his mother in Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was getting a birthday haircut, the age of three when drug dealers turned that barbershop into a shooting gallery, and that boys head was pierced with a bullet.

And, I remember visiting him, it did not kill him. I remember visiting him and his mother in Johns Hopkins Hospital. In his diapers (ph) with tubes running in and out of his head, same age as my little boy.

So, after the slaughter of the kids in Connecticut last year, we brought people together. We did pass in our state comprehensive gun safety legislation. It did have a ban on combat assault weapons, universal background checks, and you know what? We did not interrupt a single person’s hunting season.

I’ve never met a self respecting deer hunter that needed an AR-15 to down a deer. And, so… we’re able to actually do these things.

Iran

MITCHELL: Senator Sanders, the nuclear deal is now enforced. Iran is getting it’s billions of dollars, several Americans who have been held are now going to be heading home. The president said today, “it’s a good day. It’s a good day for diplomacy. It’s a time now to restore diplomatic relations for the first time since 1979 and actually re- opened a U.S. Embassy in Tehran.”

SANDERS: I think what we’ve got to do is move as aggressively as we can to normalize relations with Iran. Understanding that Iran’s behavior in so many ways is something that we disagree with; their support terrorism, the anti-American rhetoric that we’re hearing from of their leadership is something that is not acceptable.

On the other hand, the fact that we’ve managed to reach an agreement, something that I’ve very strongly supported that prevents Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and we did that without going to war. And that I believe we’re seeing a fall in our relationships with Iran is a very positive step. So if your question is, do I want to see that relationship become more positive in the future? Yes.

Can I tell that we should open an embassy in Tehran tomorrow? No, I don’t think we should. But I think the goal has go to be as we’ve done with Cuba, to move in warm relations with a very powerful and important country in this world.

MITCHELL: Your response Secretary Clinton?

CLINTON: Well, I’m very proud of the Iran Nuclear Agreement. I was very pleased to be part of what the president put into action when he took office. I was responsible for getting those sanctions imposed which put the pressure on Iran. It brought them to the negotiating table which resulted in this agreement.

And so, they have been so far, following their requirements under the agreement. But I think we still have to carefully watch them. We’ve had one good day over 36 year and I think we need more good days before we move more rapidly toward any kind of normalization. And we have to be sure that they are truly going to implement the agreement. And then, we have to go after them on a lot of their other bad behavior in the region which is causing enormous problems in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and elsewhere.

Use of ground forces in Syria

MITCHELL: You mentioned Syria. Let me ask you about Syria, all of you. Let’s turn to Syria and the civil war that has been raging there. Are there any circumstances in which you could see deploying significant numbers of ground forces in Syria, not just specials forces but significant ground forces to combat ISIS in a direct combat role?

Let me start with you Secretary Clinton.

CLINTON: Absolutely not.

I have a three point plan that does not include American Ground forces. It includes the United States leading an air coalition which is what we’re doing, supporting fighters on the ground; the Iraqi Army which is beginning to show more ability, the Sunni fighters that we are now helping to reconstitute and Kurdish on both sides of the border.

I think we also have try to disrupt their supply chain of foreign fighters and foreign money and we do have to contest them in online space. So I’m very committed to both going after ISIS but also supporting what Secretary Kerry is doing to try to move on a political diplomatic to try to begin to slow down and hopefully end the carnage in Syria which is the root of so many of the problems that we seen in the region and beyond.

MITCHELL: Senator Sanders, ground forces yes or no?

SANDERS: As everybody you know, this is incredibly complicated and difficult issue and I applaud. I know President Obama’s been getting a lot of criticism on this. I think he is doing the right thing.

What the nightmare is, which many of my Republican colleagues appear to want is to not have learned the lesson of Iraq. To get American young men and women involved in perpetual warfare in the quagmire of Syria and the Middle East would be an unmitigated disaster that as president, I will do everything in my power to avoid.

O’MALLEY: Andrea...

MITCHELL: Governor O’Malley?

SANDERS: We should — we should learn — we should learn from King Abdullah of Jordan, one of the few heroes in a very unheroic place. And what Abdullah said is this is a war with a soul of Islam and that Muslim troops should be on the ground with our support and the support of other major countries. That is how we destroy ISIS, not with American troops in perpetual warfare.

MITCHELL: Governor O’Malley.

O’MALLEY: Thank you.

Andrea, governors have led us to victory in two world wars by doing what America does best, and that is by joining forces with others by acting in coalition. And I believe that President Obama is doing the right thing in this case.

We need to learn the lessons from the past. We do need to provide the special — special ops advisers, we need — do need to provide the technical support, but over the long-term, we need to develop new alliances. We need a much more proactive national security strategy that reduces these threats before they rise to a level where it feels like we need to pull for a division of marines.

And I also want to add one other thing here. I appreciate the fact that in our debate, we don’t use the term you hear Republicans throwing around trying to look all vibrato (ph) and macho sending other kids — kids into combat, they keep using the term boots on the ground. A woman in Burlington, Iowa said to me, “Governor, when you’re with your colleagues, please don’t refer to my son who has served two tours of duty in Iraq as a pair of boots on the ground.” Now, we need to be mindful of learning the lessons of the past.

ISIS

MITCHELL: I have a question. I have a question for Senator Sanders. Did the policies of the Obama administration, in which Secretary Clinton of course was a part, create a vacuum in Iraq and Syria that helped ISIS grow?

SANDERS: No. I think the vacuum was created by the disastrous war in Iraq, which I vigorously opposed. Not only did I vote against it, I helped lead the opposition. And what happened there is yes, it’s easy to get rid of a two-bit dictator like Saddam Hussein, but there wasn’t the kind of thought as to what happens the day after you get him and what kind of political vacuum occurs. And who rises up? Groups like ISIS.

So I think that President Obama made a promise to the American people when he ran, and he said you know what, I’m going to do my best to bring American troops home. And I supported what he did. Our job is to train and provide military support for Muslim countries in the area who are prepared to take on ISIS.

And one point I want to make here that is not made very often, you have incredibly wealthy countries in that region, countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Qatar. Qatar happens to be the largest — wealthiest country per capita in the world. They have got to start putting in some skin in the game and not just ask the United States to do it.

More on Syria

MITCHELL: Secretary Clinton, I want to talk to you about red lines, because former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a recent interview that President Obama’s decision to stand down on planned missile strikes against Damascus after Assad had used chemical weapons hurt the president’s credibility. Should the president have stuck to his red line once he drew it?

CLINTON: Look, I think that the president’s decision to go after the chemical weapons once there was a potential opportunity to build on when the Russians opened that door resulted in a very positive outcome. We were able to get the chemical weapons out.

I know from my own experience as secretary of State that we were deeply worried about Assad’s forces using chemical weapons because it would have had not only a horrific affect on people in Syria, but it could very well have affected the surrounding states, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey. So getting those chemical weapons out was a big deal, but...

MITCHELL: But should he — should he have stuck to his...

CLINTON: Well — but — but...

MITCHELL: ... line? Did it hurt U.S. credibility?

CLINTON: I think, as commander in chief, you’ve got to constantly be evaluating the decisions you have to make. I know a little bit about this, having spent many hours in the situation room, advising President Obama.

And I want to just add to something that Senator Sanders said, the United States had a very big interest in trying to help stabilize the region. If there is any blame to be spread around, it starts with the prime minister of Iraq, who sectarianized his military, setting Shia against Sunni.

It is amplified by Assad, who has waged one of the bloodiest, most terrible attacks on his own people: 250,000-plus dead, millions fleeing. Causing this vacuum that has been filled unfortunately, by terrorist groups, including ISIS.

So, I think we are in the midst of great turmoil in this region. We have a proxy conflict going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran. You know, one of the criticisms I’ve had of Senator Sanders is his suggestion that, you know, Iranian troops be used to try to end the war in Syria [...] and go after ISIS, which I don’t think would be a good idea.

[…]

SANDERS: Where Secretary Clinton and I think, I agree with most of what she said. But where I think we do have an honest disagreement, is that in the incredible quagmire of Syria, where it’s hard to know who’s fighting who and if you give arms to this guy, it may end up in ISIS’ hand the next day. We all know that.

And we all know, no argument, the secretary is absolutely right, Assad is a butcher of his own people, man using chemical weapons against his own people. This is beyond disgusting.

But I think in terms of our priorities in the region, our first priority must be the destruction of ISIS. Our second priority must be getting rid of Assad, through some political settlement, working with Iran, working with Russia.

But the immediate task is to bring all interests together who want to destroy ISIS, including Russia, including Iran, including our Muslim allies to make that the major priority.

O’MALLEY: But in all of that senator and secretary, I think we’re leaving out something very important here. And that is that we still don’t have the human intelligence: overt, in terms of diplomatic intelligence or covert, to understand even what the heck happens as the secondary and tertiary effects of some of these things.

We are walking through this region, Andrea, without the human intelligence that we need. And we need to make a renewed investment as a country in bringing up a new generation of foreign service officers, and bringing up a new generation of business people and actually understanding and having relationships in these places.

So we have a better sense of what the heck happens after a dictator topples and can take action to prevent another safe haven and another iteration of terror.

[…]

HOLT: Senator Sanders mentioned Russia a moment ago. Secretary Clinton, you famously handed Russia’s foreign minister a reset button in 2009. Since then, Russia has annexed Crimea, fomented a war in Ukraine, provided weapons that downed an airliner and launched operations, as we just did discuss, to support Assad in Syria. As president, would you hand Vladimir Putin a reset button?

CLINTON: Well, it would depend on what I got for it and I can tell you what we got in the first term, we got a new start treaty to reduce nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia. We got permission to resupply our troops in Afghanistan by traveling across Russia.

We got Russia to sign on to our sanctions against Iran and other very important commitments. So look, in diplomacy, you are always trying to see how you can figure out the interest of the other to see if there isn’t some way you can advance your security and your values.

When Putin came back in the fall of 2011, it was very clear he came back with a mission. And I began speaking out as soon as that happened because there were some fraudulent elections held, and Russians poured out into the streets to demand their freedom, and he cracked down. And in fact, accused me of fomenting it. So we now know that he has a mixed record to say the least and we have to figure out how to deal with him.

HOLT: What’s your relationship with him?

CLINTON: Well, my relationship with him, it’s — it’s interesting.

(LAUGHTER)

It’s one, I think, of respect. We’ve had some very tough dealings with one another. And I know that he’s someone that you have to continuingly stand up to because, like many bullies, he is somebody who will take as much as he possibly can unless you do.

And we need to get the Europeans to be more willing to stand up, I was pleased they put sanctions on after Crimea and eastern Ukraine and the downing of the airliner, but we’ve got to be more united in preventing Putin from taking a more aggressive stance in Europe and the Middle East.

Encryption and Surveillance

HOLT: We to want turn right now to the issue of balancing national security concerns with the privacy rights of Americans. That brings us to YouTube and this question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BROWNLEE: Hi, my name Marques Brownlee, and I’ve been making YouTube videos about electronics and gadgets for the past seven years.

I think America’s future success is tied to getting all kinds of tech right. Tech companies are responsible for the encryption technology to protect personal data, but the government wants a back door into that information.

So do you think it’s possible to find common ground? And where do you stand on privacy versus security?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOLT: So, Governor O’Malley.

O’MALLEY: Thank you.

I believe whether it’s a back door or a front door that the American principle of law should still hold that our federal government should have to get a warrant, whether they want to come through the back door or your front door.

And I also agree, Lester, with Benjamin Franklin, who said, no people should ever give up their privacy or their freedoms in a promise for security.

So we’re a collaborative people. We need collaborative leadership here with Silicon Valley and other bright people in my own state of Maryland and around the NSA that can actually figure this out.

But there are certain immutable principles that will not become antique things in our country so long as we defend our country and its values and its freedoms. And one of those things is our right to be secure in our homes, and our right to expect that our federal government should have to get a warrant.

I also want to the say that while we’ve made some progress on the Patriot Act, I do believe that we need an adversarial court system there. We need a public advocate. We need to develop jurisprudence so that we can develop a body of law that protects the privacy of Americans in the information and digital age.

Lone wolves

HOLT: You have all talked about what you would do fighting ISIS over there, but we’ve been hit in this country by home-grown terrorists, from Chattanooga to San Bernardino, the recent shooting of a police officer in Philadelphia. How are you going to fight the lone wolves here, Senator Sanders?

O’MALLEY: Yes, Lester, year in and year out I was the leader of the U.S. ...

HOLT: That’s a question to Senator Sanders. I wasn’t clear, I apologize.

SANDERS: OK. I just wanted to add, in the previous question, I voted against the USA Patriot Act for many of the reasons that Governor O’Malley mentioned. But it is not only the government that we have to worry about, it is private corporations.

You would all be amazed, or maybe not, about the amount of information private companies and the government has in terms of the Web sites that you access, the products that you buy, where you are this very moment.

And it is very clear to me that public policy has not caught up with the explosion of technology. So yes, we have to work with Silicon Valley to make sure that we do not allow ISIS to transmit information...

HOLT: But in terms of lone wolves, the threat, how would you do it?

SANDERS: Right. What we have got to do there is, among other things, as I was just saying, have Silicon Valley help us to make sure that information being transmitted through the Internet or in other ways by ISIS is, in fact, discovered.

But I do believe we can do that without violating the constitutional and privacy rights of the American people.

(CROSSTALK)

HOLT: We have to go to a — we have to go to a break, and when we come back, we’re going to get to some of the burning questions these candidates have yet to answer and are totally eager to talk about.

CLINTON: Oh, we’re breaking? OK.(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HOLT: And welcome back to Charleston.

As we were going to a break, Secretary Clinton, I cut you off. I’ll give you 30 seconds to respond on the issue of lone wolves.

O’MALLEY: Can I get 30 seconds, too?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Can I get 50 seconds?

HOLT: Secretary Clinton.

CLINTON: Well, I wanted to say, and I’ll do it quickly, I was very pleased that leaders of President Obama’s administration went out to Silicon Valley last week and began exactly this conversation about what we can do, consistent with privacy and security.

We need better intelligence cooperation, we need to be sure that we are getting the best intelligence that we can from friends and allies around the world. And then, we’ve got to recognize our first line of defense against lone wolf attacks is among Muslim Americans.

And it is not only shameful, it is dangerous for the kinds of comments you’re hearing from the Republican side.

We need to be reaching out and unifying our country against terrorist attacks and lone wolves, and working with Muslim Americans.

Silicon Valley Cooperation

MITCHELL: But — but — Secretary Clinton, you said that the leaders from the intelligence community went to Silicon Valley, they were flatly turned down. They got nowhere.

CLINTON: That is not what I’ve heard. Let me leave it at that.

O’MALLEY: Andrea, I need to talk about homeland security and preparedness.

Ever since the attacks of September 11th — 30 seconds.

(LAUGHTER)

Ever since the attacks of September 11th, my colleagues, Democratic and Republican mayors, Democratic and Republican governors, made me their leader on homeland security and preparedness.O’MALLEY: Here in the homeland, unlike combating ISIL abroad, we’re almost like it’s — your body’s immune system. It’s able to protect your body against bad bugs, not necessarily because it outnumbers them, but it’s better connected — the fusion centers, the biosurveillance systems, better prepared first responders.

But there’s another front in this battle, and it is this. That’s the political front, and if Donald Trump wants to start a registry in our country of people by faith, he can start with me, and I will sign up as one who is totally opposed to his fascist appeals that wants to vilify American Muslims. That can do more damage to our democracy than any...

Military spending

SANDERS: OK. One — and I agree with what the secretary said, and what Governor O’Malley said. But here’s an issue that we also should talk about. We have a $600 billion military budget. It is a budget larger than the next eight countries’.

Unfortunately, much of that budget continues to fight the old Cold War with the Soviet Union. Very little of that budget — less than 10 percent — actually goes into fighting ISIS and international terrorism. We need to be thinking hard about making fundamental changes in the priorities of the Defense Department.

HOLT: All right. Secretary Clinton...

(APPLAUSE)

... this is the first time that a spouse of a former president could be elected president. You have said that President Clinton would advise you on economic issues, but be specific, if you can. Are you talking about a kitchen-table role on economics, or will he have a real policy role?

CLINTON: Well, it’ll start at the kitchen table, we’ll see how it goes from there. And I...

(APPLAUSE)

... I’m going to have the very best advisers that I can possibly have, and when it comes to the economy and what was accomplished under my husband’s leadership and the ’90s — especially when it came to raising incomes for everybody and lifting more people out of poverty than at any time in recent history — you bet.

I’m going to ask for his ideas, I’m going ask for his advice, and I’m going use him as a goodwill emissary to go around the country to find the best ideas we’ve got, because I do believe, as he said, everything that’s wrong with America has been solved somewhere in America.

We just have to do more of it, and we have to reach out, especially into poor communities and communities of color, to give more people their own chance to get ahead