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Congress Debates Iraq; Gonzales Takes Heat for U.S. Attorney Firings

March 16, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, what did you think of Valerie Plame before Congress today, what she said?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, it was fascinating, Jim, because she had never spoken a word in public to my knowledge. I’ve never heard her voice in a microphone. And I thought she was a compelling, persuasive witness. And I think she dominated the room.

JIM LEHRER: Did she persuade you to what?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that she — first of all, that, in spite of all the statements to the contrary from everybody else involved in the case on the other side, to put it that way, she said she was a CIA operative, and that she was covert in her actions, and that she was outed by that disclosure made…

JIM LEHRER: That she was a victim.

MARK SHIELDS: And her career ended, effectively ended by that experience and that outing.

JIM LEHRER: What was your reaction to her story?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, just on that subject, there are laws about who is covert and who is not. And once you’re covert, you’re not always covert, as she claimed. You have to be in the field and such things. I’m not an expert on the law, but that is a matter of dispute.

And then as we saw, as the Republicans said, did the Republicans intentionally out her? I personally think this story is over and done with, to be honest with you.

I thought that the story was hot as long as people thought Rove and Cheney might be at the end of the line from the investigation. Once it became clear it was Richard Armitage, interest in the story died down. The prosecution went on. The only trial that is going to be has concluded, so I basically think the story is over.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t think she’s a victim?

DAVID BROOKS: No, no, she certainly was a victim. No, she certainly was a victim of a campaign to out her. And I thought — you know, I’ve said on this program before, I thought the whole process was terrible.

I thought it started with the misleading things her husband said. I think it continued with the vicious campaign by the White House to destroy her and to overreact to the op-ed piece. And then it continued, I thought, with a prosecution that went off in the direction it was not supposed to go on.

It was supposed to be about outing a CIA officer, not about going after the vice president. And so I thought it was a travesty from beginning to end with no real influence on policy.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, no real influence on policy?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s a reflection, I think it gave us an x-ray view of the White House and how it operates.

I don’t think there’s any question the vice president was into it up to his eyebrows to get her, to denounce the findings of her husband, which were not refuted, that, in fact, the statement made by the president in his State of the Union address was inaccurate. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that the president himself made a solemn pledge that anybody who was involved in revealing her identity would not continue to work at the White House. To this day, we have the vice president in place; we have Karl Rove in place. And we know that Karl Rove was actively involved in that attempt, in that effort, in removing her name to press people.

DAVID BROOKS: I feel like I’m getting involved in a dispute about the Dead Sea scrolls. I mean, this is ancient history, but Wilson’s report, as a bipartisan commission found, was not disputing what the president said in those 16 words. It was mildly supportive.

He was dishonest about what it said. I mean, there’s a whole series, as I said, of dishonesties building upon dishonesties, which is not to exculpate, whatever that word is.

JIM LEHRER: That’s a great word, whatever it is.

DAVID BROOKS: The vice president — I will never say it on television again. The vice president and the way they reacted, but it was just one, long, tawdry series of events after another.

MARK SHIELDS: It was the Republican Senate Intelligence Committee. It was not a commission that made that finding. And it’s the only one, to my knowledge, that was negative on Joe Wilson.

Is Gonzales on his way out?

David Brooks
New York Times columnist
[W]hat strikes me about this story is, first of all, how much Republicans around the country, and especially on Capitol Hill, are sick of the White House.

JIM LEHRER: New subject, speaking of the White House, David, the fired U.S. attorneys and Attorney General Gonzales, is he on his way out?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he might be. What strikes me, aside from the substance of this, what strikes me about this story is, first of all, how much Republicans around the country, and especially on Capitol Hill, are sick of the White House and sick of them, of the Republicans having to wake up in the morning and try to defend something which they think is incompetent.

And so there's just a wall of hostility coming from Republicans now. And there's also, apparently, disputes within the -- between the White House and the attorney general.

And there's also the knowledge that, if they want to pursue substantive matters, having to do with national security and other things that go through the attorney general's office, this guy is not going to be able to do that in an effective way.

So I think all that adds up to the likelihood, regardless of the merits of this case, that they're going to have a new attorney general.

JIM LEHRER: New attorney general, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Certainly, I wouldn't bet on long term. The one thing he has going for him right now is that Democratic leader Harry Reid said he would be gone in a matter of days. Then it becomes a matter of pride not to have him go in a few days.

JIM LEHRER: But should he go?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Al Gonzales has a unique problem, as "The Judge," as he's known by his colleagues and called by his colleagues, he has a constituency of one. Very rarely does someone -- and that one is George W. Bush.

George W. Bush took him from a law firm in 1994, made him his own counsel, and then brought him to Washington where he was the White House counsel, and then made him attorney general, and even considered him seriously for the Supreme Court.

He has no institutional support. It isn't like he comes from a constituency. He's never held elective office. I mean, in a strange way, it's been his undoing, it's been both his doing and his undoing, because his loyalty and his identity has been solely to the president. And I think that, if anything, is probably going to lead to his downfall.

The White House's role

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
The idea that Harriet Miers is a global political schemer and sat there and said, "You know, we've got to get rid of 93 U.S. attorneys"...

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel, David, that something really wrong was committed here by the White House, Gonzales, and all of the above?

DAVID BROOKS: I really don't know. I'm amazed everyone else around town seems to have an opinion on this subject.

It goes on to whether these attorneys were wrongfully fired, wrongfully dismissed for political reasons. And a lot of the cases which the administration was pushing these guys to push have to do with New Mexico, voter fraud in New Mexico and Washington State, capital defense cases, immigration law. I nothing know nothing about any of these cases.

But a lot of people in Washington assume that the White House must be wrong and the attorneys were right not to push these cases. I don't think we know that.

Nonetheless, I think what's clear and what's created this furor, especially on the Republican side, is just the incompetent way they first said they were not being fired for cause, then said cause, denied that there was any politics in it, when of course there's politics in it.

And so it's that whole atmosphere that has created this little skirmish. But the substance, unless you're a real expert in these cases, I don't think anybody knows.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that this is more of a handling offense rather than a substance offense?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don't know, Jim. I mean, certainly the San Diego U.S. attorney, I mean, raises serious questions, Carol Lam. She was the first one and the most conspicuous one sacked.

And, according to the chief of staff, the Department of Justice's own e-mails, they wanted somebody ready on the 18th of November when her four-year term was up to take her place. And that was just the day that she announced her investigation of Jerry Lewis, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee in the House, on the question of involvement with defense contractors, right after her office had prosecuted Randy "Duke" Cunningham.

JIM LEHRER: But the allegation was that she was soft on immigration.

MARK SHIELDS: The allegation was, also, Jim, that Harriet Miers came up with this idea. Now, Harriet Miers is a very lovely person. The idea that Harriet Miers is a global political schemer and sat there and said, "You know, we've got to get rid of 93 U.S. attorneys"...

JIM LEHRER: She was the White House counsel at the time, right, right.

MARK SHIELDS: She was the White House counsel. She didn't come up with that idea, Jim, any more than I came up with the idea of number theory in Albania. I mean...

JIM LEHRER: I'm sorry?

MARK SHIELDS: That was not Harriet Miers. And so, you know, going after her on immigration, you know, that seems to be a little bit of a smoke screen at this point.

JIM LEHRER: Anything you want to add to that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought Mark knew all about number theory in Albania. But this is the thing -- this follows on Plame. This is the second attempt to get Rove. This is the great white whale of Washington politics. And he's sort of vaguely implicated in this, and so there's a desire to see if he's deeply involved.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that complicates Gonzales. I think Gonzales may very well go. I think there are a lot of Democrats on Capitol Hill who want to get Karl Rove in there to testify, just as all of the White House staff was brought in to testify in Whitewater, you'll recall, when Bill Clinton was president.

And they'll want to fight this. And I think one way will be that Al Gonzales is offered up going as the peace offering.

JIM LEHRER: That could play out next week.

DAVID BROOKS: A friend of mine said he'd be a really good head of the Bush library in Texas. That would be a great place for Al Gonzales.

Congressional resolutions on Iraq

David Brooks
New York Times columnist
I think [the Democrats] were undermined by their own desire to keep political unity here, ignoring any reality in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, what do you see as the meaning of the Democratic moves in the House and Senate on the Iraq resolutions, those more than resolutions in the House involving funding, those in the Senate involving resolutions?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, first of all, you've got to have perspective. There were 296 votes for the war in the House. And there probably won't be 210 votes, you know, in support of the president come next week, I don't think.

JIM LEHRER: You mean 293 in the first vote...

MARK SHIELDS: ... and there were 77...

JIM LEHRER: Senate, right.

MARK SHIELDS: ... in the Senate, and there were 48 yesterday that went on record to end the war. I think the House vote is the most significant one, Jim.

The House Appropriations Committee extends from conservatives like Bud Cramer of Alabama, and Allen Boyd of Florida, and Ben Chandler of Kentucky, to Jose Serrano of the Bronx, and Jesse Jackson, Jr., on the left, Carolyn Kilpatrick of Detroit.

And they were able to get an agreement that all of them could support, which was really a signal achievement, because it was done in public. And I think that the fight is going to be on the left of the Democratic Party, where Nancy Pelosi has political roots to a considerable degree, the peace left of the Democratic Party, only one broke in the committee.

And I think that the vote in the House next week could be the vote that starts to trigger the true erosion. You'll see the Republicans scampering, I think, behind John Warner to come up with some sort of a resolution that gives them cover that, if it isn't done by September, we're going to be out of here. There will have to be progress made and so forth, and I think that's what's happening.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see that happening?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I think so far the Democrats have made it incredibly easy for the Republicans. The Republicans privately are all over the lot. Some think we should get out very quickly, some more gradually. Nobody likes the president, basically. There are five or 10 maybe who support the president's policy.

But the Democrats have handled this in a very partisan way. Instead of having a bipartisan thing, which the left of the Democratic Party would be happy with but a lot of Republicans would be happy with, the Democrats, at least in the Senate, have tried to hold the Democrats together.

And they've made it very easy. They've pushed all the Republicans apart. So we had, this week, basically a party-line vote in the Senate on this.

And, to me, the problem with the Democratic approach, another reason why it's become so easy for the Republicans is they took the president's policy, which is the surge, they took the liberal policy, which is to get out now on the ground, said it's a failure, both of which I think are serious policies, and they cut it in the middle, to say, "Well, we should get out vaporously at the end of 2008," a policy which has no substance.

And so, to me, I think they were undermined by their own desire to keep political unity here, ignoring any reality in Iraq.

MARK SHIELDS: I would say this, Jim: The Republicans are going to be in a terrible position next week in the House of Representatives, in political reality. They're going to be in the position they've always tried to put the Democrats in, which is you're voting against appropriations for the troops.

And that's the vote next week. It's whether, in fact, you're going to send troops there who are equipped, who are trained, and who are armored. And the Republicans are going to say, "No, we're not going to vote for it, because we don't like other positions in it."

That is a difficult vote for them to cast. And I think it's -- I mean, this is a political issue. It's a political fight. And I think there's been very, very effective political leadership demonstrated legislatively by the Democrats in the House, particularly David Obey and Jack Murtha.

JIM LEHRER: But not so much in the Senate?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the Senate's a different fight. They've got to the point where they're off procedural votes, they're now on -- and all you need on the appropriations bill in the Senate is a majority. You need 60 yesterday on that resolution.

JIM LEHRER: Resolution. Yes, yes. OK. We have to leave it there. Thank you both.