A Conversation With Michael McCaul

Friday, March 15, 2019
Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Michael T. McCaul

U.S. Representative from Texas (R); Lead Republican, House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Martin Smith

Producer and Correspondent, PBS FRONTLINE

Representative Michael McCaul discusses global hot spots, including the crisis in Venezuela, the implications of China's Belt and Road Initiative, the relationship between the United States and Russia, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, and the future of negotiations with North Korea.

SMITH: Well, I thought I’d start by saying good morning, but unfortunately with the events in Christchurch, New Zealand, it’s not a good morning. The causes of this were being picked over—whether it’s hate speech, or the internet, easy access to guns, it’s something of all of those. But it’s a very sobering and disturbing event—one of many that continue to happen.

You have Muslim constituents in your district. What would you want to say to them today?

MCCAUL: Well, first, my condolences to the victims’ families. And we denounce terrorism in all forms—whether it be international or domestic, and whether it be against—whether it’s al-Qaida and ISIS or whether it’s this type of individual who, for whatever reason, decided to kill Muslims in a mosque. And I’ll be doing outreach to my constituents in my Muslim community.

SMITH: I’m sure there’s some people that would like to hear from you.

So let me introduce Congressman Michael McCaul, eight-time congressman in a district that includes suburbs of Houston and outside. Doesn’t need much introduction. He was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee until January 1st.

MCCAUL: Homeland Security.

SMITH: Homeland Security. But also—I’m sorry—the House Foreign Affairs Committee also?

MCCAUL: So now I’m—

SMITH: Ranking member—you’re ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Excuse me.

MCCAUL: It’s all right.

SMITH: So I wanted—there’s a lot of things we could talk about around the world. We’re not going to get all of them in. But I wanted to talk about a few. Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, China’s One Belt, One Road initiative. So let’s start in with Venezuela. These issues are all challenges to American policymakers, like yourself. Everyone agrees that Maduro has been a disastrous president. I think it’s now fifty countries that have signed onto Juan Guaidó as the interim president. And that number seems to be growing. It was only twenty, I think, in January. So they’re calling for Guaidó to become the interim president. But the question is, how does this transition happen? This is a very delicate and dangerous situation. How do you—how do you propose that this happens.

MCCAUL: Well, first let me thank the Council on Foreign Relations for having me. And I’ve been here—I think I was here two years ago. And, you know, Martin, to be here with you as well—you’ve been such an expert on national security issues, it’s an honor.

Venezuela is probably one of the hottest—well, we’re dealing with a lot of hot topics, North Korea, and Syria—but Venezuela was a real debate this week in the Congress. As you mentioned fifty-four countries have recognized the interim president Guaidó as the legitimate president, as elected by the National Assembly. The administration has. We’re still working in the Congress to hopefully get there. I am—you look at Venezuela twenty years ago, it was one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America, and then a socialist dictator—Chavez and Maduro—literally brought down this country to create one of the greatest humanitarian crises that we’ve seen in the hemisphere, and one of the greatest refugee crises. We are looking at somewhere around three million Venezuelans that will be trying to get out of the country.

Chairman Eliot Engel and I will be traveling down there later this month to assess the situation. And it is—between the prisons—on average the Venezuelans, they’ve lost twenty pounds. They have no food. We’re trying to get humanitarian aid into the country, and Maduro is blocking that aid from getting into the country and Maduro is blocking that aid from getting into the country—in some cases lighting trucks on fire trying to get into the country. So talked to the U.N. secretary-general, trying to get their assistance. But it’s a very dire situation.

I think the average Venezuelan does not like the conditions. They don’t support Maduro. Maduro has the Cuban security forces protecting him, and he sells the oil to Cuba. And also has the backing of the Russians in there. And the Russians, with their mercenaries, and they put $17 billion into Venezuela. Iran’s backing, China, and Turkey. The rest of the civilized world, I think, is for President Guaidó. And I think ultimately, to answer your question, is we’re—which way is the military going to go? The sanctions, I think, are having some impact. I think you’ll see additional sanctions coming down, you know, very soon. But one thing is—to me, it’s a very—you’re either for the people of Venezuela, and democracy, and free and fair elections or you’re for a socialist dictator. And it really comes down to that simple argument. I think the heritage of this country is we’re for democracy for the people and free and fair elections.

SMITH: Now, President and Juan Guaidó have refused to rule out the use of military force. Do you want to weigh in on that?

MCCAUL: Right. We had a debate—we had a hearing on this just last week. I think as I talk to Ambassador Vecchio, the new ambassador for Venezuela, he is very—he does not want the American people or Congress to appear to be divided on this issue. When I talked to Special Envoy Elliott Abrams and the vice president last week, they believed that having—like in any diplomatic relations—you need all options on the table to give strength to the diplomats, so they can get their job done.

AUMF has come up, right? So authorized use of military force. I would be the first one if the president—and this is, I think, a very miniscule chance of happening. I give it less than 1 percent. But if it did, I would be the first in the Congress to say that the Congress under Article 1 has the power to declare war. And this is very different—very different from the 2001 AUMF. That it would require an authorization from Congress.

SMITH: This is, however, a push for regime change, right?

MCCAUL: I believe that we are for the free and fair elections and democracy.

SMITH: Right. That’s our—that’s our default position always.

MCCAUL: Right, but if you look at—

SMITH: But in this case we’re going in and we’re supporting Guaidó against an elected president—“elected” I’ll put in quotes for now—but our efforts at regime change, and certainly in the use of military or proxy forces—whether it’s in this case going to be Brazil of Colombia, who knows—have not worked that well. You can’t name very many situations in this hemisphere, or in the Middle East, or elsewhere where our efforts to change a regime have worked out well. What lessons do you bring from those failures to this situation?

MCCAUL: Well, I think the, you know, regime change in Iraq didn’t go too well, right? But this is very different. This is a National Assembly in Venezuela electing an interim president under their constitution. It’s the people of Venezuela speaking out. It’s the—you have broad-based support in Latin America from Brazil, and Argentina, and Colombia, and all the industrialized European countries have come together to support this effort—really, the support the people of Venezuela. And so I think the notion of some sort of conspiracy theory that—an American coup in Venezuela is actually a very inaccurate and I would say, in some respects, a dangerous statement, because that only emboldens Maduro and the Russians.

There are those observers who have been down there, who I’ve spoken to, who say that the rhetoric that’s coming out of Washington from John Bolton, from Elliott Abrams, from the president has emboldened those followers that Maduro still does have, and it’s polarized the situation and made it more dangerous. And where things are bad now, this is not yet a war. This is not—we’re not looking at Aleppo or, you know, Syria. We’re still short of that. But the rhetoric is driving a polarization that seems increasingly dangerous and volatile.

MCCAUL: I think rhetoric is important. I think the more we put the face on the people of Venezuela rather than the United States dictating, I think that’s probably the better way to go. But as I’ve talked to those two leaders, they don’t see—they want the use of force on the table for a couple reasons. One is it gives diplomatic leverage. But number two, and I think most importantly—and the vice president stressed this very strongly with me—was the personal security and safety of President Guaidó. But for that option being on the table—if that option’s taken off the table, we’re very concerned about the safety and security of President Guaidó. In fact, the attorney general of Venezuela—Maduro’s attorney general—has applied for a writ in their supreme court, which we’re very concerned will lead to his arrest. And so not only him being arrested, but also his personal safety and security that they could kill him.

SMITH: And what will that trigger, if that were to happen?

MCCAUL: The supreme court is considering this writ as I speak.

SMITH: But in terms of American response, what would you recommend that we do if that were to come to pass?

MCCAUL: Again, I think ultimately it’s the people of Venezuela who have been out in the streets, very supportive of President Guaidó and his efforts towards democracy and free and fair elections. I can’t imagine the United States of America, as the leader of the free world, standing on the sidelines and not participating and leading in an effort to promote democracy and free and fair elections.

SMITH: To what extent do you think U.S. sanctions have contributed to the suffering of the people of Venezuela?

MCCAUL: I think they’ve been suffering for a long time. I mean, we’ve seen over a million refugees spilling over into Colombia. We’ve seen the standard of living go way down. I think 90 percent of the population’s below the poverty level in Venezuela. It is a humanitarian issue. It’s a human rights issue and a humanitarian issue. And, again, I think we can’t just sit back and—I think we have a responsibility to help.

SMITH: But do sanctions—U.S. sanctions play some role in contributing to that suffering, that has—that, admittedly, has been longstanding, especially with the collapse of the price of oil in 2014.

MCCAUL: Well, I think it’s putting pressure on Maduro. It’s interesting that the Lima Group, who’s been—I think the Lima Group and the Organization of American States ought to be leading this effort. I think that would be important, right? But it’s interesting that the Lima Group supports the sanctions. And the Lima Group also supports having the option on the table of military force.

SMITH: Let’s switch, because we only have so much time and I want to get to questions out here. Saudi Arabia. This is another country with a leader who abuses human rights on a large scale. This is a country with an increasingly moribund economy. This is a troubled country that we—and a troubled leader—that we embrace. Very different from what you’re seeing in Venezuela. Thirty-six countries have now called for an independent investigation of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which is only one of many missteps or—missteps of the Crown Prince Mohammad. The Saudis have responded by saying that’s a breach of their sovereignty. How do we go forward with them here? If the Saudis are not going to cooperate—they didn’t cooperate with the Turks and they’re not cooperating now with the call from the U.N.?

MCCAUL: It’s a very complex situation. But I think we always in the United States have to stand from a position of moral authority. I was one of the first to come out and condemn the brutal execution of Khashoggi. We passed sanctions under the Magnitsky Act. We had a report that was required by law. It came back from Secretary Pompeo. I was very critical of the response. It was not adequate, I think, under what the law requires. And let me—if I could back up a bit, you and I are counterterrorism experts. We’ve been looking at Saudi for quite some time. The Wahhabis, the—you know, sixteen of the nineteen hijackers, bin Laden. They have a big issue from the counterterrorism standpoint.

Moving forward, we had great hope in the new crown prince. In fact, I remember meeting with him in then-Speaker Ryan’s office. We had this young, charismatic leader talking about moving Saudi forward in a progressive way with human rights, and women being able to drive, and diversifying his economy. And so I see it as a very unfortunate setback for this geopolitical alliance that was coming together between Israel and Saudi against Iran. It’s a huge setback. And also, there’s another dual citizen whose spouse I met with who’s currently being tortured in Saudi right now.

SMITH: Mr. Fitaihi.

MCCAUL: Exactly. And I don’t think—the United States has to stand with some moral clarity about this. You know, I’m a realist as well. I know what we’re dealing with in Saudi. This is a very—this is historically the way they’ve operated. But if they want to be an ally of ours they have to step this up. And then in terms of the investigation, that’s something that we’ve been looking at in the Congress, in terms of sanctioning the seventeen individuals. Can the Saudis really conduct a free—I mean, an objective investigation into this?

SMITH: You think they can?

MCCAUL: I have my doubts. I’m skeptical. And I do think, you know, at some point it’s—if they want to restore their alliance and, I think, integrity, we’re going to have to look at the possibility of an outside investigation.

SMITH: Well, if there is an outside investigation, and the Saudis are somehow forced to cooperate with an outside investigation—which is a big if—but if there were an investigation and Crown Prince Mohammad was seen to be the one who ordered the murder, which wouldn’t surprise a lot of people, what do you do then?

MCCAUL: Therein lies the question. I mean, is the—you know, seventeen individuals, but is the crown prince implicated in this gruesome execution. And—

SMITH: It’s hard to see that he’s not. It’s hard to—I mean, if you look at the evidence, you know, the arrival of the guy with the bone saw—(inaudible)—the cooperation of the consulate on the day of the murder. It’s hard not to see that it was an inside job.

MCCAUL: Yeah. And if he wants to hold on to power, he’ll do everything he can to prevent that outside examination.

SMITH: So what do we do? What do you recommend we do?

MCCAUL: Well, I think—I think Secretary Pompeo has a very difficult choice to make. And I know he values the Saudis alliance in the region against Iran, which is important to Israel, and that’s important to me. So we’re kind of stuck between this geopolitical alliance we’ve formed versus moral authority in the region, and how do you accomplish both of those objectives?

SMITH: And it undercuts our credibility when it comes to other countries, does it—does it not?

MCCAUL: Well, it does, yeah. I think so as well.

SMITH: I mean, that’s nothing new in the history of American foreign policy that that happens, that you embrace one leader who’s an abuser of human rights and you challenge another.

MCCAUL: Well, it’s hard. If you criticize Maduro on one hand for human rights abuses, and we criticize Kim Jong-un—you know, the U.N. just came out with their report on human rights violations in Korea, which are extensive and horrible, and China. So you can’t really have it both ways, right?

SMITH: Well, we always have. And I suppose going forward we still will. It’s very hard to adopt a purely, you know, human rights policy that applies equally across the board. I understand that.

There are nine women and, I think, three men—I think those numbers are right—that have just gone on trial on Wednesday for conspiring against the state, for talking to groups outside the country like Amnesty International and other human rights advocates. That’s one of the charges, apparently. This is only the latest of these obvious abuses. They were held for almost a year without lawyers, without being told what the charges were against them. But yet, you can go back to the war in Yemen, to the arrest of the prime minister of Lebanon, to the arrests at the Ritz Carlton hotel, to the blockade of Qatar, and it as just one thing after another that we saw and hit the snooze button and didn’t let the alarm go off. How did we miss this? How did he, you know, with the help of McKinsey and other groups—how did—how did he charm us so?

MCCAUL: Very charismatic. Young, dynamic, was moving Saudi forward, it was everything we wanted to see. I think—I think he charmed Senator Lindsey Graham quite a bit, who feels personally betrayed, you know. And he’s been one of the harshest critics of this. And now you see a spotlight that you and I have existed for quite some time—a negative spotlight, a world spotlight on these abuses.

SMITH: The president says, maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but I’m going to stick by him.

MCCAUL: Well, the whole other issue is do we—you know, the sale of military weapons. Chairman Engel and I sign off on those. That’s been put on hold, obviously, given, you know, the events and the—

SMITH: That’s the $110 billion arms deal that President Trump announced on this first trip.

MCCAUL: Right, to help—help them—

SMITH: The war in Yemen.

MCCAUL: —fight for themselves in the region, not having us there. But I think that’s obviously being called into question now.

SMITH: I have so many questions about Saudi Arabia. I’m now working on a two-hour documentary that will air on the day before the anniversary of the murder on Frontline about the rise and rule of Mohammad bin Salman. But let’s switch to the China One Belt, One Road. I had to get that plug in, excuse me. (Laughter.)

MCCAUL: And he also created a document on bin Laden in 1998 that Vice President Cheney requested after 9/11.

SMITH: Yeah, which was very frightening that the vice president needed a Frontline documentary to brief him on who is bin Laden. The Queen of England, and I applaud her, because I don’t generally consider her somebody who stays up on all of foreign policy, she’s also requested a copy. Sent a limo to have it picked up and then brought out.

The One Belt—this is an issue that’s really a frontpage issue that doesn’t get a lot of frontpage coverage because it’s not an immediate story. It’s a long-term story. But here is China with an initiative to spend a trillion dollars, whatever that is, on bridges, roads, infrastructure, ports, whatever, across Asia and across Africa, and even a nuclear plant in England.

You’ve introduced BUILD Act in an effort to counter this. But the president has committed himself to an America first policy. He’s withdrawn money from abroad. He’s troubled our alliances. He’s called—you know, he’s disparaged these countries with a four-letter word. How do we respond to this, and how serious do you take this?

MCCAUL: Very serious. So much so that when I talk to the military and the intelligence community, they tell me the number-one threat today is not radical Islamist terror anymore, it’s China. I think China is—it’s the Silk Road, they call it One Belt, One Road. If you look back, I think these trade tariff talks are interesting. I’ve urged the administration to weave in China’s abuses with theft of intellectual property, espionage, twenty million security clearances stolen, including mine, with no consequences. And also, what they’re doing across the globe. They’re very smart. And they’ve invested, as you mentioned, trillions of dollars into this.

But what they’re doing in these countries is over-leveraging countries, all the way from China into Africa and they’re in the western hemisphere as well, with a three-to-one ratio that they—return on investment. They bring their own workers in. They don’t hire the host workers. They exploit the natural resources. And then they, without a shot fired, take over these countries economically. A good example is Sri Lanka. They own the port in Sri Lanka now. Djibouti. Now, we have a—we have a base in Djibouti. Now the Chinese do too. They’ve leveraged their way in. They’re in a lot of the African countries, building nuclear power plants, and all sorts of other things.

 I had a dinner with—(coughs)—excuse me—eight African ambassadors. And they kind of know they’re getting exploited, but they don’t—they see the short-term gain, not the long-term pain. And what they told me when I said: Why are you doing business with China? They said, because you’re not there.

SMITH: Right.

MCCAUL: So what we’ve been trying to do through the BUILD Act, which puts OPIC, Overseas Private Investment Corporation, on steroids, and microfinancing. And, two—and I just introduced this week the Championing American Business Through Diplomacy Act, which gets our diplomats to put more pressure and to advance American interest in Africa and other countries and continents, so that we can be competitive with China in this respect. Because in my sense they’re wining right now, you know, on this.

And so the last piece is the Global Fragility Act that Senator Coons, and Graham, and myself, and Chairman Engel introduced, which will help—as we see the defeat of ISIS as I speak, in Syria, in the lower Euphrates, close to Iraq, we’re also seeing movement toward Libya, and the Sahel, and Central Africa. We need to stabilize these countries. So you look at the economic advancement, is there a national security interest as well? So the Global Fragility Act, as Lindsey Graham said, is kind of a—the Department of Defense likes this document. That the Institute of Peace had a taskforce to give us recommendations on legislation as to how to stabilize—because we’ve done it.

You know, we’ve done a great job, I think, with defending the nation. Highest threat briefings in 2015-2016, external operations to kill Americans, it’s gone way down. We’ve stopped about 95 percent. We’ve done a good job offensively to destroy the enemy. I think where we failed is on the prevention piece, to get to the root cause of what causes extremism and radicalization. And we got to start looking at investing, I think, in that piece, because not only is it good from a national security standpoint, it’s good for our economic interest as well.

SMITH: But we have to spend a lot of money. If we’re going to—if we’re going to build infrastructure in Asia, or Africa, and compete with the Chinese successfully, we’re going to have to spend a lot of money, right?

MCCAUL: We have to do a couple—yes.

SMITH: But we don’t even build infrastructure here. I mean, we don’t rebuild the roads out—just outside—

MCCAUL: Well, there is the political dynamic of my constituents saying, well, why are you helping Africa out when we need help here? I would argue it’s in our long-term best interest.

SMITH: You make that argument. Bills are introduced. But where are we getting in terms of—I mean, right now we—as I said, we have an America first policy in place. We’re pulling back from the world. But yet, you recognize, and others recognize, the need to compete internationally. And we’re not doing it.

MCCAUL: But I would argue it is in America’s best interest—whether it’s America First or America’s best interest. I think, you know, the Women’s Economic Empowerment Act that, you know, was Ivanka’s big, you know, signature bill, will provide microfinancing to women in these impoverished countries in Africa to rise the level of living standards.

SMITH: But these are small programs compared to the Chinese, that are going in there like a—like the world’s biggest private equity firms, essentially. (Chuckles.)


SMITH: And, you know, with—predatory lending practices are advancing.

MCCAUL: Well, we have the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which prohibits our businesses from going in and building a soccer stadium, giving them a bag of cash, which is what they do. So I think in terms of OPIC on steroids investment, which will happen, we’ll put more investment in those countries. But finally, Martin, it’s really just the power of persuasion to these countries that the Chinese are not in your best interest, and the American business is.

SMITH: And the last we looked, there weren’t enough people working in the State Department to fill the jobs and offices that they have. (Chuckles.)

MCCAUL: Well, my bill that I filed this week will—it’s a charge to the diplomats to advance American interest abroad, which if you look at the foreign service when it was formed, that was one of their key missions. And I think sometimes they forget that that is one of their key missions abroad. And it has reporting requirements and training to advance that mission. So I think it’s the power of persuasion and investment, and it’s all of the above.

SMITH: OK. Should I open it up? Yeah. So we’ll have a half an hour here. And you have a microphone and, ma’am, right here. Yeah.

Q: Hi. Wendy Luers from the Foundation for a Civil Society, and the wife of a former ambassador to Venezuela, Bill Luers.

And I’m doing a lot of work on Cuba, and that is also connected. It’s a conundrum. I mean, Martin—what Martin is asking is precisely the question: We cannot invade in our own hemisphere again, most of us believe. But on the other hand, how do you get rid of Maduro? And so can you get him—can you persuade enough, or put enough pressure on, to get him to Cuba or get him to Nicaragua? Or the only way to do this is to get this guy out of town with his assets and his kleptocrats, because otherwise he’s just going to keep sticking. And what Martin was talking about, there aren’t enough diplomats. We’re hollowed out in the State Department to do all of the things that you’re talking about. And then on Cuba, and we all understand the role that the Cubans played, but at the same time do you not think it is counterproductive for Bolton, and Mauricio, and Rubio to be trying to squeeze the Cubans at this point, when in fact if we kept the doors open and allowed for private enterprise there—which they know they need—it’s a much stronger path to democracy in that country?

MCCAUL: I mean, there’s an argument that if Cuba became capitalistic, then it—you know, it’s like we fought thirty years in Vietnam, and now they’re essentially a, I would say, a capitalistic country, right? So I understand what you’re saying, your argument. I still go back to I think we have an historic opportunity. If Venezuela can turn democratic, then it would also influence Cuba and Nicaragua. And it would also get the Russians—the Russians are just poking us in the eye. Their only objective in being in Venezuela—well, they invested seventeen billion (dollars), but it’s really to poke us, you know, in the eye. And it’s a geopolitical thing for them.

I don’t know how the—and everybody keeps talking about the military intervention. In every discussion I’ve had with the people you told me see that as not—you want to have the option on the table, again, for diplomatic leverage, which I think is smart, but is it really likely? I don’t—I don’t think so. And then how do you—I don’t have a crystal ball either or the answer. How do you Maduro—like you said, get him out of there, because as long as he’s there that country is going to be destroyed, and it has been. And so I think the leverage of diplomacy—fifty-four countries and sanctions, and all of the above, and the threat that—you know, I’m really worried, though, that they’re going to arrest President Guaidó.

And I think that could cause a martyr-like syndrome in the country, where the people of Venezuela, who are already rising up—I bet you if you polled the average military officer in the Venezuelan army that I would say 80 to 90 percent probably would support Guaidó, but they can’t publicly because their family’s held hostage. They’re being watched by Cuban security officials. And they’re being fed by Maduro. And to do otherwise would be suicide for them.

SMITH: I think what’s being—I think part of what you’re saying is that we need to turn down the rhetoric that’s coming out of Washington. We have a president who has a love affair with Kim Jong-un, but he can’t talk to Maduro. So there’s a disconnect here. I’m not suggesting he has to have a love affair with Maduro. I’m suggesting that if you can talk to Kim Jong-un you can talk to Maduro. And diplomacy is what we should always be about.

Anyway, I—

MCCAUL: Well, if I can maybe correct that a little bit. And I’ve got the classified—I mean, the president walked away from the table. And in his view, a bad deal—it’s better to walk away like Reagan did with the Soviets rather than—just to get a deal.

SMITH: But there was a table he walked away from.

MCCAUL: Maybe like the Iran deal. Psychologically you have to think—we do profile assessments on this guy. Kim Jong-un is not accustomed to people telling him no. And I think that had a deep psychological impact on him when he was told no, we’re not doing that.

SMITH: Let’s go over here—right here.

Q: Thank you, Congressman. And thank you to CFR.

Congressman, you’ve been a forceful advocate for human rights on Capitol Hill, and in this meeting today. And we’re in New York. We’re very close to the U.N. And lots of experts and reports have said certain rising powers, including one we’ve discussed today, have been progressively raising their influence relative to the U.S., following budget cuts and other measures. One example is cutting of posts and peacekeeping missions dedicated to human rights. My question is: Does this concern you? And how should the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N.—well, how can the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N. be a forceful advocate for U.S. engagement at the U.N.? Thank you very much.

MCCAUL: Yeah, and a special envoy. I think that, again, our moral authority here is very important here is we’re to be a world leader. And we’re seeing human rights abuses all over the globe. I think—you know, the Chinese are, you know, the Uighurs, they’re putting their Muslim population in gulags, essentially, you know? In North Korea, the abuses are beyond belief. And the United Nations, the secretary-general, just came out with a report to Venezuela and what they’re doing there. The Syria, I met with a prisoner who was a prisoner of Assad and his prisons who was beaten and tortured for years. We had an event, Chairman Engel and I did, with the Holocaust Museum. Caesar—the Caesar Act, which I think is really important we get passed through the Congress, which would impose sanctions on the Assad regime for the holocaust, if you will, that he’s perpetrated on his own people. We have pictures up of all the victims of these prisons in Syria. It is really, truly reminiscent of the holocaust.

My dad was a bombardier on a B-17, part of the D-Day air campaign, he bombed the Nazis. One of the worst—going to Normandy, it was inspiring that one of the most disturbing trips I’ve ever been on was when I visited Auschwitz, to see the horrors of what, you know, the Nazis were doing, the gas chambers, Dr. Mengele. And never again. And yet, it’s happening. It’s hard to believe that that’s still happening today. It’s hard to imagine that antisemitism is on the rise. It’s hard to imagine that white supremacists—the Klan got my grandfather fired because he was a Catholic. I mean, it’s just hard—I don’t—you know, and that’s one generation away from me. And yet, it’s happening right now. And we have to stand up against human rights abuses everywhere.

SMITH: Over here.

Q: Thank you. Diana Taylor.

So we’re talking about human rights, and human rights abuses. You’re a congressman from Texas. What do you think about what’s going on at our southern border, and our president’s supposed solution to that problem?

MCCAUL: Well, I was presented with the option of—when I was chairman of Homeland—of the separation of families at the border. And I was strongly opposed. And I was on Fox News Sunday opposing that. I don’t think that’s who we are as a country. And I don’t think it’s—I don’t think history will judge that well. I also look at the threats in my home state. You know, I said two years ago: A thirty-foot concrete wall two thousand miles is not the answer. Very simplistic. I mean, I’ve studied that—I mean, I was a federal prosecutor, counterterrorism, I saw the border. We need a combination of things. Physical barriers work in the heavily populated areas, but the technology piece is ultimately very important, particularly in my state where you have a river. The ranchers—they don’t want a wall separating their livestock from the river, or their access to the river.

That’s where technology, aviation assets—there’s a lot of great stuff. I brought back fifteen aerostats from Afghanistan when I was over there. They told me that was their border security against Pakistan. Now, we have fifteen—if you can see, situational awareness—see the threats and you know where they’re coming, and you can stop it. I do think our asylum laws, we need to look at that because it’s a magnet to bring in these—we’ve seen an evolution between—it used to be just young males crossing. And now you see these family units coming from Central America. We have to deal with the crisis in Central America at its root cause, through the Central America security initiative, so that they’re not—I mean, what parent would want to give a coyote $6,000 to take their child up through the dangerous journey where they’re exploited and abused?

So we got to—we got to focus on that as well. I’m worried about fentanyl. It kills about a hundred people per day, a lot of people in the northeast. China’s bringing it in through the U.S. Postal Service. They’re bringing it in through Mexico. Meth and cocaine coming up into the United States. It’s an epidemic. Opioid, you know, epidemic that we need to look at. Human sex trafficking, coming up into the United States. We’ve stopped through our biometric program 450 known or suspected terrorists as well. And if you only know about half of what’s coming in, you know what’s coming in. So I think we need that security. But I also think we need to start reforming our immigration system as well. And I think when we start that security then I think the politicians in Washington will have more of an appetite for the, you know, guest worker programs and immigration, you know, reform. My bill, with Chairman Goodlatte, we legalized the DACA program. But unfortunately, it failed.

SMITH: Right here.

Q: Thank you. Michael Skol, a former ambassador to Venezuela, but not Wendy’s husband. (Laughter.)

SMITH: I knew Bill. He supported a program several years ago.

Q: Congressman, is it not true that—the problem is not Maduro alone. It’s not like the good old days when you could get rid of the dictator and his wife, send them to Paraguay, and that was it. There are a thousand generals and other high-ranking people in Venezuela, all of whom are on every blacklist in the world, and they will resist to the death any kind of change which gives them extradition or worse. And then you add that to the Cubans, and my personal feeling is that changing the government in Venezuela is almost impossible. Anything can happen, but in my opinion it’s the pessimism not the optimism is justified. What do you think?

MCCAUL: Well, I think it is a challenge because of what you’re talking about. I think the military’s controlled. I mean, like I said, their life and, you know, keeping their families alive depends on them staying with him. And the Cubans are in there very intensely, and they’re literally following the military guys around. So it’s a—Cuba has a very vested interest in this, in keeping Maduro in power. And he’s their ally. But who are their allies? Russia, Iran, China. Those are not friends of the United States. So I look at this geopolitically. We have to—and it depends who you talk to. I’ve talked to a lot of world leaders lately, since I’ve gotten this foreign affairs position, and you’d be surprised how many are actually optimistic, because they think the conditions are so bad that the people will truly rise up and have a revolution. And I think it’s better driven by the people of Venezuela. To your point on the rhetoric, the people of Venezuela, the Lima Group, and the OAS, you know, to really apply that force and pressure.

SMITH: We thought the people would rise up in Iraq and support our—

MCCAUL: And Iran. We’ve been talking about Iran for a long time too. Now, Iran, we’re making some progress.

SMITH: That’s another intervention that didn’t go well, in ’54, whatever.

Right here.

Q: Thank you. I’d like to push a little more on Venezuela, because it’s I think a little ore grave than even you’ve said. Let’s just imagine that this effort to get rid of Maduro and the generals fails. That would be very bad. It would be bad for the Venezuelan people, first of all. It would be bad for American leadership. We have fifty countries, but more precisely we have Latin American countries there that have an interest in the future of the continent. I’m not the persuaded that saying that what we want is free and fair elections and democracy is the most powerful argument. What we want is what might be called the responsibility to protect the responsibility to rescue. That’s—you know, that’s the argument. And moving against Cuba, that could be a big part of it. So the question is, given all this support, and given the fact that $18 billion is not a lot of, you know, money in Russia’s life, what are, in your view, the consequences if we fail. We’ve got all of this stuff on the border. If it doesn’t work, it’s bad for everybody.

MCCAUL: Yeah. Well, that’s why I don’t think failures an option. If it fails—and this kind of sparked up. You know, a lot people didn’t anticipate this even happening. And I think it’s given people a lot of hope that change can happen, you know, down there. And I’m a realist. But having said that, I think this is what the majority of Venezuelans want. They’re tired of the oppression. You know, socialist dictatorships don’t work. It has destroyed that country over the last twenty years. And if it fails, you’re going to have a massive exodus that you’re already seeing. One-point-three million are in Colombia, and it’s estimated three million refugees coming out into Colombia. This is why the Colombians, and the Brazilians, and the Argentinians and the Lima Group are so supportive of this effort, because they know that if we fail it will be a humanitarian crisis, which it already is, buy a major refugee crisis. And what do you do with that?

Not to mention the starvation, the killings. I have four of my constituents that worked for Citgo sitting in a Venezuelan prison right now. And for all I know, President Guaidó will be joining them. I sure hope not. But, you know, it seems to me they’re getting heavy-handed. And I think that it’s just important to have—I think having more and more countries sign onboard with this. Fifty-four is good. And if you look at the map, you know, it’s pretty much the freedom-loving democracies across the world. And the ones that are for Maduro are, again, Russia, China, Iran and Turkey. You know, Chairman Engel and I said: Why are you supportive of Maduro? Well, he’s an old friend of ours. You have to question our NATO ally on that one. But I don’t—failure would be an outright disaster down there.

And a disaster for the western hemisphere, which I’m seeing, you know, signs of progress, whether it be in Brazil, and Argentina, or El Salvador, are other countries starting to move towards, I think, a more real democracies with, you know, better economies of scale. And that’s what we want for Venezuela. And it would impact Cuba directly. And it would impact Nicaragua and Bolivia. And it would have a direct impact on our real enemies, I think. And that’s Russia, China, and Iran.

SMITH: In the back, there.

Q: Thank you. My question goes back to China. Last month, Mobile World Congress took place in Barcelona. And the Chinese delegation ran circles around the American delegation. China has now signed—or, Huawei has signed MOUs to put equipment into wireless carriers in eighty countries. Their stated policy in 2015 for the Made in China 2025 program was to dominate wireless and telecom equipment. And it, you know, really puts us at risk in terms of escalation, superiority of cyber, and security for American IP. What can the American government do to catch up on 5G, and I guess close the gap with China?

SMITH: So we’re in—we’re in a race with China in technology and cybersecurity. They are on the path to developing quantum computing. I’ve been doing cybersecurity for a long time. And whoever gets quantum is going to rule, because it’ll be like—it’s almost like a digital race for the nuclear bomb in some—or maybe the space race to the moon. They have stolen, you know, trillions in intellectual property. And it’s hard to compete with a country that does that. And they’ve stolen our cyberweapons.

Russia’s probably a little bit more into hitting with cyberweapons, like Ukraine. I think China’s more just from an economics standpoint, you know, why invent when you can steal? They’ve stolen blueprints from our Pentagon. They’ve stolen a lot of critical information. And in the past, we haven’t had any consequences to that. But now you’re seeing the Justice Department starting to indict Chinese officials that are conducting espionage operations against the United States. On the global scale, you’re absolutely right. 5G, we’re moving forward. But when I talk to the Australians, you know, they’re, like, we don’t want to be under China’s 5G, because they know what that means. That they’ll have complete access and have to have complete loyalty to China. And they’ll be really surrendering their technology capabilities to China. And China’s moving in Eastern Europe as well.

We were—the FG for the Five Eyes, the intelligence, is really I think to—or maybe a NATO ally 5G. These are ideas we’re looking at, at the State Department level. I’m elevating the cyber mission at State, which is long overdue, to create an ambassador at large for cybersecurity that can negotiate with other countries on cyber issues. And it creates a cyber bureau within the State Department. I did this with Homeland and now I’m trying to do it with the State Department because we’re doing a better job here, but there are no international norms and standards. There really aren’t a lot of treaties. You know, it’s a wild west, you know, when you look at globally cybersecurity. And I think it’s—so I think it’s long overdue to have—to elevate that mission and priority within the State Department.

Key questions: What’s an act of cyberwarfare? Espionage we have a pretty good idea, but it’s never been defined into law, or statute. Or how about Article 5 NATO? When Russia shut down Estonia, our ally, should that have invoked Article 5? When North Korea had a digital bomb on Sony because they didn’t like the movie, you know, is that an act of warfare? So this is a—this is—again, it’s an evolving—you know, it’s one of the biggest threats now out there. It’s also, you know, great technology advances, but great threats as well that we have to start dealing with on a global level. And at the State Department, I’m going to do everything I can to get them to step up their mission beyond this.

SMITH: Sir, right there.

Q: (Off mic.)

MCCAUL: Yeah. I mean, we’ve been there since World War II. But we are seeing—just like with Putin and Russian expansion and aggression, we’re seeing China—you know, we talk a lot about cyber with China. And we talk a lot about what they’re doing in technology. But they’re also, I think, in a very kinetic fashion getting very aggressive, you know, with the islands in the South China Sea. And I think—you know, with these—I think President Xi’s meeting with the president this week. These are all issues that will be discussed—whether it be trade tariffs, the intellectual property theft, to what are you doing in the South China Sea. And also you know they’ll be talking about North Korea, because China really has the most leverage over Kim Jong-un to effectuate any deal, which I’m skeptical given the history of the Kim dynasty that they would ever give up their nuclear powers.

And I think what they present at the table—not to digress—but was not really satisfactory, given the history of them playing us, getting concessions from us, from three prior administrations. And yet—and now they have nuclear capability to deliver an ICBM, intercontinental. And we believe the miniaturized nuclear warhead is probably—they probably have advanced. So now they can hit the continental United States. So I know that’s not in answer to your—but I think the islands in the South China Sea are a major bone of contention.

SMITH: You had a question.

Q: Thank you. I’m a Kurdish journalist—(off mic).

(Off mic)—arms to a group of Syrian Kurds, which is seen as a terrorist organization. And you talked about Turkey being a NATO ally, and you questioned the support Turkey is giving to the Maduro government. And Turkey also has concerns that the NATO ally, the U.S., is supporting a terrorist organization in Syria. And my question is, while you also mentioned the defeat of ISIS in Syria, will the U.S. continue to supply weapons or what kind of relationship will you have with the Syrian Kurds? And how do you think you will address to the Turkish concerns? Thank you.

MCCAUL: Great question. Thanks for asking. Syria is probably the most complex foreign policy challenge we have today. I think through—if we don’t lead as a nation, inaction becomes a decision. And the result is the Russians—you know, the Turks will tell you, and I met with them last week with Chairman Engel, you know, the Russians are there because you weren’t. And now they took over the ports in the Mediterranean. There’s submarine warfare capability. And the Turks do view the Kurds as terrorists, which is complicated because we fought with the Kurds to defeat ISIS. In fact, one of the last battles in the Euphrates is taking place as I speak. We don’t want to throw them under the bus, because they worked with us. I thought that the president’s decision to withdraw our forces was a mistake, just like I criticized Obama when he withdrew 10,000 from Iraq. And then ISIS formed the caliphate, and we all know how bad that turned out. And so, again, I think the decision to—and I think Graham at the—Lindsey Graham at the Munich Security Conference played it masterfully, to get the 400 special operators back in with the assurance of a multinational force in Syria to provide a safe zone, if you will, safe haven for the Kurds. We don’t—if we pulled out completely, our concern was that the Turks would come in and just slaughter the Kurds. And remember, the Kurds have about—estimates of 1(,000) to 2,000 jihadists in their prisons. And we were worried about them being released, you know, from the prisons, you know, as well.

With respect to the alliance—NATO alliance with Turkey, we have an air base there. Incirlik is very, very important. We want them to remain a loyal NATO ally. We are concerned with some recent signs that Erdogan—well, they’re supporting Maduro. Secondly, they—we had the Patriot missiles that we wanted to sell to them. And instead, they’re buying the S-400 missile capability from Russia. We’re—you know, NATO was formed for a reason. It’s the NATO, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, because of the Cold War threat from Russia. And we’re a little worried about the sort of coziness, if you will, now between Turkey and Russia. And some of Erdogan’s—the way he’s changing his country—almost like returning to the Ottoman Empire in some respects. So we want to remain a firm, key ally of Turkey. But there have been some warning signs, I think, more recently that are of concern.

But I think we got to work with the Turks—with Turkey on the situation in Syria so that—and they can have some sort of political governance in that country, because it is utter chaos and devastation. Assad has destroyed Syria, just like Maduro has destroyed Venezuela, and Kim Jong-un is destroying his country as well.

SMITH: You want to just take one more? Yes, back here, sir.

Q: Thank you. (Off mic)—Johns Hopkins University.

Geopolitically, nothing happens in a vacuum. In ’92, Mr. Chavez organized a coup d’état that almost succeeded in Venezuela. Mr. Chavez was democratically elected president of Venezuela in 1998—democratically. Now, what happened between ’92 and ’98? The elites in Venezuela did nothing to deal with the basic social problems that had afflicted Venezuela for decades. It is a kleptomaniacal country under the former elites as it is under the Chavistas. The U.S. should learn some lessons of how to deal with so-called pseudo-democratic governments before they’re taken over by people like Chavez.

MCCAUL: I completely agree. And I think if you look at this last phony election, you know, with Maduro was not—it was hardly a free and fair election. You know, not to get too historic, our founding fathers believed in constitutional democracy because they thought they would not go to war with each other. And anytime you have dictators, and—you know, socialist dictators—we’ve seen the destruction. You know, and dictators I can point out—Kim Jong-un, to Maduro, to, you know, Assad. They have destroyed their countries. And the human rights abuses are rampant. And I don’t think this is a Republican-Democrat issue. This is really what America stands for. This is wrong. And how can we defend, you know, this? I don’t know. I get a little frustrated.

Congress should be coming together on all this stuff. And I hope that we can. And my—this committee has always been bipartisan. It’s always been—you know, it’s the second-oldest committee in the Congress. Benjamin Franklin was the first chairman. And it’s always historically been partisanship ends at the water’s edge. That’s what Eliot believes. That’s what I believe. And I really believe he’s a guy I can work with well to advance not a Republican agenda or a Democrat, but an American agenda that’s best for the world.

SMITH: On that note, I need to wrap it up. I want to thank you, Congressman, for answering hard questions.

MCCAUL: Thank you.

SMITH: Patiently.

MCCAUL: (Laughs.)

SMITH: There are very few solutions, I think, that we can come out of here with. And that’s disheartening. But it’s good that we’re talking. Thank you very much. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR


A year into the civil war in Sudan, more than eight million people have been displaced, exacerbating an already devastating humanitarian crisis.


The unprecedented Iranian attack on Israel presents U.S. officials with mounting challenges in trying to contain the conflict and maintain a deterrence against Iran and its allies.


The highlights from Kishida Fumio's busy week in Washington.