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Obama on ending wars, terror trials and more

President Barack Obama touched on a variety of topics — including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the upcoming terror trial in New York and more — during an interview with NBC News Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd. A transcript.
/ Source: TODAY

President Barack Obama touched on a variety of topics — including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the upcoming terror trial in New York and more — during an interview with NBC News Chief White House Correspondent Chuck Todd. Here is a transcript:

NBC: Mr. President, thank you — I know we don't have a lot of time, so I want to dive right into this — Afghanistan. When are you going to make your decision?

President Barack Obama: Well I think that I will announce my decision over the next several weeks —

NBC: Several weeks away?

Obama: Well, I don't want to be pinned down by you.

NBC: By the way, you said when I announce — so you've already made a decision?

Obama: Chuck, you’ll be the first to know. And I think that's important to understand the process that we're going through. We want to make sure that there is clarity of our mission, which is to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda. We want to make sure that we have an Afghan government that is clear on how we intend to work with them - we need to clarify the support of the Pakistanis in order for us to be successful. We want to make sure that we are training Afghanistan so that over time US troops can hand off security efforts in Afghanistan to the Afghan people. We want to make sure that the civilian side of this is coordinated effectively with the military side — so all these variables I think have come together and I'm confident that at the end of this process we will be able to present to the American people in very clear terms what exactly is at stake what we intend to do, how we're going to succeed, how much it's going to cost, how long it's going to take — and I think that's what owed the American people because frankly over the last several years that's not what they've gotten.

NBC: You said in Shanghai definitively to a questioner in the town hall Al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan — they are across the border, you talked about the instability of the Karzai government just now, among the options that are apparently not on the table, you're not considering is some sort of withdrawal — why?

Obama: Well, keep in mind that the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan are very fluid, so although right now Al Qaeda is in Pakistan, for them to bleed into Afghanistan would not be difficult if there was no significant coalition presence there. I think what's also true is that that a Afghanistan that has completely fallen apart that can further destabilize Pakistan, embolden terrorists in Pakistan who are now targeting the Pakistani government, a government that has nuclear weapons - so we've got some significant interest in the region. It is important for us to focus our efforts so that we don't start getting over-extended, we're not signing up for a permanent occupation and I think that some public discussion — you have the sense just throw more in then somehow that's going to solve the problem, that does not solve the problem it may be —

NBC: You said that there's no discussion of actually shrinking the footprint — of moving these troops out of Afghanistan and just prepare to go into Pakistan ...

Obama: Part of I think the task here is making sure that Afghanistan is sufficiently stable so that we can make that hand off. So my goal is exactly what you described, creating a situation in which our footprint is smaller and Afghan security forces can do the job of keeping their country together, they're not there yet, they need help from us and that's exactly what our strategy is going to be designed to do.

NBC: So the footprint will not be smaller immediately?

Obama: The footprint will not be smaller immediately.

NBC: This decision, will it be the decision that ultimately ends the war?

Obama: This decision will put us on a path towards ending the war.

NBC: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — can you understand why it is offensive to some for this terrorist to get all the legal privileges of any American citizen?

Obama: I don't think it will be offensive at all when he's convicted and when the death penalty is applied to him.

NBC: But having that kind of confidence of a conviction — I mean one of the purposes of doing — going to the Justice Department and not military court is to show of the the world our fairness in our court system.

Obama: Well —

NBC: But you also just said that he was going to be convicted and given the death penalty.

Obama: Look — what I said was people will not be offended if that's the outcome. I'm not pre-judging, I'm not going to be in that courtroom, that's the job of prosecutors, the judge and the jury. What I'm absolutely clear about is that I have complete confidence in the American people and our legal traditions and the prosecutors, the tough prosecutors from New York who specialize in terrorism and have brought multiple convictions before are telling us that they will convict this person with the evidence they've got going through our system. Now one of the things I think we have to break is this fearful notion that somehow our Justice system can't handle these guys. You know we convicted hundreds of terrorists — one of the key perpetrators of 9-11 or one of the persons who didn't succeed was part of the planning of 9-11 was convicted, he's in a maximum security prison right now — you've got Richard Reid who tried to blow up a plane coming over the Atlantic , he's in a supermax prison right now, directed by the way by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed - so we've done this before , now I think that it is important for the American people to have confidence in ourselves and to recognize that when people carry out venal acts like this that we are able to handle it. Military commissions have been set up because there may be circumstances where the targets are military, outside of the U.S.

NBC: So you'll be ok with some military commissions?

Obama: Absolutely well in fact Eric holder announced that half of the people being prosecuted right now are going into military commissions because of the specific factors involved. One last point I want to make it, you know Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's been sitting there years now, without us finally convicting him and meting out justice, and part of the goal I think of the attorney general is to make sure that justice is no longer delayed. That's something the American people should be happy about

NBC: Right before you left for this trip in Asia you announced that you were going to convene a jobs summit. This smacks of one of those classic Washington answers to a tough problem, convene a commission, convene a summit — how is this going to create a job?


Well you know, that's not the goal, we're doing all kinds of things to make sure that employment is accelerated. Our first job was to make sure that economic growth was happening and we're starting to see that now. As I said even when we first passed the stimulus package, job growth tends to lag, it tends to happen after, so what we're seeing now is businesses are starting to invest again, they are starting to be profitable again, but they haven't started hiring again. And so the goal of the jobs summit is figure out are they ways of us accelerating that hiring? And there are a whole range of ideas out there — we've examined a lot of them, but one of the benefits of convening this group is it gives us chance to talk directly to small businesses, medium size businesses , the main drivers of employment —

NBC: Should —

Obama: ... to find out what exactly is going on.

NBC: Should you have held this sooner?

Obama: No I think that the first job for us was to make sure we didn't slip into a great depression and I know that people may take that for granted now, back in March or April that wasn't guaranteed. So we had to focus all of our attention through the recovery act not only in making sure we didn't slip into a great depression but that we saved teacher jobs, firefighter jobs, police jobs that otherwise would have been laid off that we make sure that certain sectors of the economy where supported that construction and infrastructure continued, so that was our first task, we've gotten that job done, our next job is to make sure that we can accelerate the job growth because I recognize that people are really hurting right now.

NBC: There have been a series of missed deadlines: Closing of Guantanamo Bay, health care I know this has been a frustration to continue to see this slip a little bit, we had a couple that came up here, the START treaty — I know that not all of this is in your administration's hands, the Afghanistan decision, climate Copenhagen — do you worry, as a chief executive do you worry that these missing deadlines say something about maybe you're over loading your staff, over loading this system a little bit? Because you can't seem to meet these deadlines?

Obama: Well, Guantanamo we had a specific deadline that was missed, the rest of these deadlines that you're asserting often times are deadlines imposed by the media, not imposed by —

NBC: Well you imposed — on health care you said if I don't impose a deadline something won't get done — you've imposed a deadline and you're not getting it done.

Obama: Internally we understood Congress takes time, it's slow, the Senate is slow, that's how it's structured , those are the rules, so you know my main concern is making sure that I am constantly pushing and prodding and poking people to get things done and that our plan is right, our strategy is right, our trajectory is right.

NBC: You gonna sign health care before the state of the union?

Obama: I expect so.

NBC: But obviously not the end of the year at this point?

Obama: You will not hear that from me.

NBC: You're not ready to say that?

Obama: Absolutely not.

NBC: Quickly, on human rights — how do you know the Chinese aren't just paying you lip service because you're here, you brought it up — that they're just saying what we in the American media want to hear from them and you want to hear, what's going to be something tangible?

Obama: Well, you know look — I think that if you think about China's trajectory since 1979 when U.S.-China relations, modern U.S.-China relations began you have seen a modernization of the economy that is unprecedented in human history. One of the things I'm confident about is that when you start seeing economic freedom like that then political freedom starts, starts gearing up. You know in the young people that I met and the fact that we had the first town hall ever - maybe 300 million people might have had access to that over the internet — one of the interesting things that we're hearing now is that twitter can't be blocked, there is no firewall for twitter and now kids who are growing up wit freedoms that their parents or grandparents have never had are starting to see them. I think that what you're going to see is a steady improvement and it's critical for the United States to be clear for what we stand for, why we consider things like freedom of expression, freedom of religion universal rights and if we do that then I'm pretty confident that whatever the strategies of the day to day Chinese government may be that freedom ultimately will in out.

NBC: I have a couple people ask me this at NBC — are you losing weight? Do you feel the stress, where is this coming from? At the one year point do you feel like Oh my God I look in the mirror, wait they are right this job does age you.

Obama: You know this is the second person who has asked me this question. My weight fluctuates about five pounds — it has for the last 30 years, it's unchanging, I still wear the same stuff when I got married 17 years ago. My hair has gotten a lot grayer because I was at the age where my hair was going to start getting gray, having said all that, you know this has been an extraordinary year, less for me than for the American people, two wars, worse financial crisis since the great depression, you know when the issue of H1N1 and pandemic is just put on top about 8 other major issues then what you have is unprecedented convergence of challenges that we've had to deal with. I think we've dealt with them well and I'm confident that a lot of the work that we've done is going to be paying off — but everyday I wake up thinking how can I give those folks who are out of work right now a job — how can I make sure that people who don't have health care get health care, how can I make sure that I'm doing right by those young men and women who are in Afghanistan and I would be lying if I said that those aren't weighted questions that I carry around on my shoulders every day.