Shields and Brooks Discuss Domestic Spying, Lobbying Reform
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks– syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
The NSA surveillance story, speaking of privacy, David, how well is the administration doing explaining what it’s doing and why?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, they come out politically quite strong. Cheney gave a speech yesterday, Karl Rove gave a speech today. I think Michael Chertoff is giving interviews.
Politically I think they are doing great, if they can be the party of anti-terror and the Democrats are the party of the ACLU, that’s a winner for them. You know, I expect them to come out with satellite dishes lapel pins, just to remind everything they’re watching.
What I don’t understand, frankly, is why don’t they just say, hey, we think the program is legal, but a lot of serious people don’t think it’s legal. So we’re going to work with Democrats and we’ll try to get some arrangement so we can all think it’s legal.
Politically, I think it would be a great thing to do, because it would split some Democrats who think spying on domestic people who have contact with al-Qaida is a good idea from those who don’t.
But then, substantively, I think it’s a decent program they’ve got, and most people seem to support the idea of the program, as long as we can get it within some legal framework. I’m not quite sure why the administration hasn’t gone that extra step.
JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about how the administration has played this, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Within some legal framework, I mean, it is the qualifying phrase, David used there. Well, we had –
JIM LEHRER: They claim, of course, they are within a legal framework.
MARK SHIELDS: They do. We had a report from Alberto Gonzales. Now, whatever anybody says about the attorney general, he doesn’t take a cramped view of executive power.
I mean, this is a man who has found no fault with holding suspects in perpetuity without charges with the — with no real condemnation of torture, with withholding information from congressional committees or other legitimate inquiries.
I mean, so, that was not a big surprise. I do think that the administration is, in the final analysis, going to have to go to court on this, and I think that’s where it’s going to be resolved. And I think the competing perspectives — I mean, legal scholars — we can argue about legal scholars– but I think the preponderance of legal scholars are lined up critical of the administration, saying why didn’t they just go that extra step?
JIM LEHRER: What about that explanation, just on that one point? They could argue they didn’t have to, but what’s their argument for not doing it, just because they didn’t have to?
DAVID BROOKS: No. I think their argument — first of all, they would say when the Congress gives you the right to go to war, it expects you to spy on your enemies. That’s normal. But then I think the second thing — and I think this is their strongest case, the technology has changed. The problem is we don’t exactly know what they’re doing, but if, as one suspects, that they are doing these vast data mining searches where they capture a laptop and then they are going through computer files like Google, frankly, and picking out a lot of names and a lot of numbers and a lot of e-mail addresses to get a FISA warrant on each one of those little numbers –
JIM LEHRER: That’s the federal law that controls surveillance.
DAVID BROOKS: Right, and that is the legal framework. You would have files deeper than this building. So I think there’s a legitimate argument to be made that the technology has changed, and we need a new framework. And they would say, no, we don’t, we’ve got enough flexibility. I’m just saying they should be accommodating.
JIM LEHRER: What about the Democrats on this? We had Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, on the program the other night, and I asked him what should be done about this in the context of Senate hearings that are come up and whatever, and he didn’t have a solution to this. He didn’t even say go to court. Is there a political solution, beyond going to court?
MARK SHIELDS: I think David has put his finger on it. I think some Democrats are quite nervous about it;I think some are concerned. I think, quite bluntly, the Osama tape probably serves the administration’s purposes this week. I’m not saying it was intended to do so, but it strengthens their argument –
JIM LEHRER: The fact that they’re still out there, they’re still under –
MARK SHIELDS: They’re still out there; we’re fighting them over there sort of thing. But David’s paper had a devastating report, front-page report, talking to 12 former intelligence and law enforcement officials, both administrations, saying that these leads were fruitless, that the FBI had been sent down blind alleys by the CIA — that really –
JIM LEHRER: The leads that came from this surveillance by the NSA, the National Security Agency.
MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. And they had not uncovered a single al-Qaida cell that was plotting anything.
DAVID BROOKS: But they did say — all leads are fruitless if you’re in the law enforcement business, 90 percent always are, 99 percent, but apparently they did intercept this plot to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. They did, apparently, help intercept an attempt to ship a missile projection system into the country. They did, apparently, this fertilizer bomb in London. So they’ve had some effect, how effective, we don’t know, but apparently we’ve had some effect.
And I know people in the administration fervently believe they’ve saved lives.
JIM LEHRER: What about Al Gore? Al Gore came out very strongly — we haven’t heard from him a lot lately, and he came out very strongly this week and accused President Bush of violating the laws of the United States. What did you think about that?
DAVID BROOKS: I thought his speech this week was less hysterical than normal. You know, he made a whole series of charges and some of them I think were over the top, saying he lied us into war, all that kind of over rhetoric. But frankly, as Mark says, most of the legal opinion does seem to be on the side saying that the Bush administration has dubious legal grounds for this, and that was his strongest case. So, you know, it served a purpose.
JIM LEHRER: Al Gore a good messenger?
MARK SHIELDS: Al gore’s message is strong. Just one point: The administration continually refers to this fellow picked up in Columbus, Ohio, with a plan to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge. His plan to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge began and ended with a blow torch. He was going to burn down the cables.
Now, Jim, this is not a realistic plan to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge–
DAVID BROOKS: There were box cutters on 9/11.
MARK SHIELDS: With a blow torch? What are you going to do, cable by cable? I mean, it was just absolutely bizarre.
JIM LEHRER: Al Gore.
MARK SHIELDS: Al Gore. I can’t understand – David Broder, the dean of political writers, gave, I thought, a very positive review –
JIM LEHRER: In the Washington Post.
MARK SHIELDS: In the Washington Post, across the country, with the caveat that Al Gore, he thought, had gone excessive in a couple of areas. But it was, it was a very serious presentation. And I can’t understand why it doesn’t get more coverage.
Now, part of it was, it was done on the holiday, Martin Luther King Day. But still, I mean, this is a man who got more votes for president than George Bush.
JIM LEHRER: One thing, for the record, we asked him to come on the program and talk about his speech. He declined and he said he’s not doing any interviews. So he was a one-shot — it could have been from his point of view a one-shot deal.
DAVID BROOKS: I will say this is a common complaint about people who give substantive speeches and they don’t get the coverage. And that was an example — I will say I’ve heard from people in the White House that they give substantive speeches and they know they’re not going to get coverage so one of the things they do is they’ll attack John Kerry or attack Harry Reid, put in a little paragraph, specifically attacking a Democrat by name, because they notice that’s when we in the media perk up, and so they devise little tricks to get some coverage.
MARK SHIELDS: And that’s guaranteeing they get no substantive coverage.
DAVID BROOKS: Probably that too.
JIM LEHRER: Right, you get what you get. I mean, you get — never mind. Whatever. Lobby reform, both the Republicans and the Democrats have plans out this week. How do you read it? What’s going on? Is something going to really happen this time?
MARK SHIELDS: Something is going to really happen, Jim. You have three candidates running for the majority leader’s position in the Republican Party, all complaining about the system under which two of them have risen to positions of prominence: John Boehner and Roy Blunt. And they say, my God, this place is awful. I mean, the piano players are complaining that something is going on upstairs –
JIM LEHRER: They’re shocked.
MARK SHIELDS: They’re going to change this whole thing. I think there is. Any time we’re talking about reform, it’s good, and it’s to be commended. Republicans have rediscovered John McCain. John McCain was the biggest pain in the neck to them. They couldn’t stand him. Now Rick Santorum, who is running the K Street Project, is joined at the hip to John McCain. He won’t let him out of his sight. The real story here is money. It isn’t skyboxes, it isn’t concert tickets, it isn’t Scottish golfing tours. It’s money –
JIM LEHRER: Money in the campaign.
MARK SHIELDS: Money in the campaign, money in Washington. And I’ll tell you, the only answer – and I give credit to two serious legislators who are going to introduce a serious proposal, Barney Frank and David Obey, two Democrats, one from Wisconsin and one from Massachusetts, after they come back and its for public financing of campaigns. I mean, we have gone from 1438 of these earmarks, where a congressman inserts a piece into a bill, no administration request, oftentimes at the behest and importuning of a lobbyist and contractor — we have gone through 1438 to 13,997, to $27 billion. That would pay for all the elections until your grandchildren have grandchildren.
DAVID BROOKS: First, as Mark was talking, I was thinking they should do these reform press conferences in golf shoes, holding a five iron just to see – where they come from — and I also agree with Mark that something’s going to happen, that there is, as they say, an arms race. And I also agree with Mark on a third point before I get to my disagreement, which is that the stuff they’re suggesting, lobbying reform, is not really the most important thing. A lot of it would help, especially the revolving door, congressmen immediately becoming lobbyists –
JIM LEHRER: They have to wait two years and now only a year.
DAVID BROOKS: Some of the stuff is trivial, whether you can accept a $20 gift, or a zero dollar gift. I don’t think that matters, and frankly, I’m troubled by some of the stuff. Right now they take trips to the Middle East and elsewhere sponsored by lobby organizations. I think those trips are good. I think, on balance, they learn something from a lot of those trips, but as Mark says, the problem is the money, and here, I would differ. I think the problem is the earmarks, but you have got to address the earmarks.
JIM LEHRER: Just head on, you mean? Do away with earmarks?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are many ways to do it. You could limit it to a percentage of a bill. The other thing is Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann, two scholars here in town, have pointed out it’s enforcing the rules, that if you can stick stuff in the legislation, there’s no oversight and nobody gets to read the bill and then vote on it, of course it’s an invitation to corruption.
I don’t think you need to go to complete public financing, which raises a whole bunch of issues. I think there are other ways to address the earmarks and address enforcing the rules.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think that Obey and Frank are going to get anywhere –
MARK SHIELDS: I talked to David Obey this afternoon, and he’s not – David Obey has been in Congress for 30-plus years, and he’s a realist, but he said, “We’re going to start the debate.” You have to confront that it is money, that it isn’t just — the reason that lobbyists are welcomed, all right, is because lobbyists bring money. That’s what the K Street Project was about. It was about money, all right, that you wanted to make sure that Republicans once they took over, that they were getting the money from the corporate clients that were represented, and they weren’t splitting it with the minority Democrats.
And one of the inhibitions — I’ll be very blunt about this — to reform taking place is there are some Democrats, some in positions of leadership, who say, hey, let’s not go too far, because we get a chance to win in November, and we don’t want to just absolutely unilaterally disarm. We want to have some of that advantage as well.
JIM LEHRER: And they also want the issue.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. There’s just a lot of ideas. Gingrich, Newt Gingrich has an idea that you should only be able to raise money in your district, not here in town, which would destroy the restaurants here. But it’s not a bad idea. There are others – Rahm Emmanuel, Democrat of Illinois; Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona — there’s just a lot of stuff still burbling forward.
MARK SHIELDS: It’s a terrible idea that you can only raise money in your district. For a national member of Congress.
JIM LEHRER: We’ll strike that one from the list, won’t we, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Mark and Newt can disagree.
MARK SHIELDS: For the first time.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you both, very much.