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Rep. Adam Schiff On Biden's Recognition Of Armenian 'Genocide'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden today took a step that his White House predecessors had resisted for decades. He recognized the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Empire forces more than a century ago as a genocide. Biden noted in his statement that an estimated 1.5 million Armenians were killed, deported or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination that began in 1915 in what is now Turkey.

Historians have long considered the atrocities as a genocide, the first of the 20th century. The Turkish government, though, has consistently rejected that label, saying the deaths were the result of a widespread regional conflict at the time. But Turkey is also a member of the NATO alliance and has been considered a key U.S. ally, and no prior president has been willing to make the statement Biden made today.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we called Representative Adam Schiff of California, one of more than 100 members of Congress who recently urged Biden to take this step. He is also, of course, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman Schiff, thank you so much for joining us.

ADAM SCHIFF: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: First, could I put your representative - could I ask you to put your representative hat on? You've been working on this issue for some years now, in part on behalf of your many Armenian American constituents in California. You helped get a resolution passed by Congress two years ago officially recognizing the killings of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. So, first of all, how does it feel to finally have the president of the United States agree and use that word now?

SCHIFF: It's an incredible feeling. And I'm with my constituents today, and there are lots of tears going around as the Armenian community take stock of the fact that now, at the highest levels of the U.S. government, we have recognized the trauma that their families went through, the grandparents and great-grandparents they lost.

It was another injury to have so many nations participate in Turkey's campaign of denial. And there's just utter relief now after so many decades of trying, so many heartbreaks and disappointments, that the president of the United States has spoken the words Armenian genocide.

MARTIN: Now I want to ask you to put your intelligence chair hat on. I mean, Turkey today angrily rejected President Biden's statement, saying the country has nothing to learn from outsiders about its own past. And the reason given by past administrations for not making this genocide declaration has been that the risk of alienating Turkey was too great, that it could compromise U.S. access to Turkish bases, for example, most of which have recently played a role, for example, in the fight against ISIS.

So has something changed to make this more feasible from a foreign policy perspective?

SCHIFF: I think a lot has changed. First, as you point out, in Congress, we took up a resolution that I've been carrying for 20 years and not only passed the Armenian genocide resolution but passed it overwhelmingly, with over 400 votes in the House and with a unanimous bipartisan vote in the Senate. And so the president went into today knowing that if he recognized the genocide, he'd have the full backing of the Congress.

More than that, though, Turkey has increasingly drifted away from the West, has become more and more of an autocracy. Turkey is now the leading jailer of journalists in the world. It's buying air defense missiles from Russia that are incompatible with NATO. And so I think the president also recognized that if the U.S.-Turkish relationship was reliant on our participating in a campaign of genocide denial, it can't be much of a relationship.

MARTIN: And you noted that President Biden's statement today will certainly mean a lot to Armenian Americans who have asked for this for years, as you pointed out. But is there any other reason why you think this is important?

I'm thinking, for example, about efforts by some governments to rewrite or even criminalize accurate historical reporting about the role of their citizens and their governments in past historical events. I'm thinking perhaps about the Rwandan genocide, which began in April of 1994, when the U.S. and others were criticized for not intervening in time. Is there a broader importance to this, in your view?

SCHIFF: There is. There is in a few respects. First, I think it helps cement the United States in the role that it has played historically in championing human rights around the world. If we're not going to speak truthfully about a genocide that took place a hundred years ago, are we going to be willing to call out the campaign to annihilate the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Uighurs in China? We can't pick and choose what genocidal campaigns to recognize - not if we're really to uphold our values.

But there's also a very contemporary reason vis a vis the Armenians, and that is Azerbaijan and Turkey made war on the Armenian community in Artsakh. And there are grave fears of another genocide in the making. And by speaking truth to power, I think the president is saying that the United States will hold accountable those that bring about violence on their neighbors and will stand up to autocrats everywhere.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, is there any particular response do you think the United States should make to Turkey, which is, as we noted, angrily responding today?

SCHIFF: Well, just continue speaking truth to power. And I think we need to reinvigorate a group called the Minsk Group that seeks to resolve issues around disputed status of areas like Artsakh so that we don't have more warfare in the region. But I think the president needs to keep doing what he's doing. I'm enormously proud of the steps he's taken today, which many of his predecessors promised during their campaigns but did not live up to. And he has. And I think we should all be very grateful to him.

MARTIN: That was Representative Adam Schiff of California. He is a Democrat and, as we said, chair of the Intelligence Committee.

Congressman Schiff, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

SCHIFF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.