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CIA Interrogation Memos, U.S.-Cuba Relations Top Week’s News

April 17, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Columnists Ruth Marcus and Michael Gerson discuss the week's news, including the release of memos detailing CIA interrogation methods and the possibility of the U.S. and Cuba holding new talks.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Ruth Marcus and Michael Gerson. Both are syndicated columnists whose columns appear in the Washington Post. Mark Shields and David Brooks are off tonight.

And it’s good to see you both. There’s so much news to talk about, this administration making decisions one after the other over the last day or two.

Ruth, to you first. The release of these Bush administration-era interrogation memos and, simultaneously, the decision not to prosecute the CIA agents who carried them out, right move, wrong move by this administration?

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: Right move on both, and a very brave move on both. The president opened himself up, as he knew he would, to criticism from the right, as in the Wall Street Journal op-ed that was referenced in the previous piece, that by disclosing this he was making America weaker.

And he opened himself up to a firestorm of criticism from the left that he was — I know actually how much criticism you can get for this, because I wrote a few months ago that I didn’t think these folks should be prosecuted, and I was called a torture-enabler. And I don’t think of myself that way.

And so the left is very unhappy about the failure of prosecutions. They’re latching on to this hope that maybe some of the higher-ups will be prosecuted, and I honestly do not think that that’s going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is unhappiness on both sides, Michael Gerson. Did the administration strike it right? How do you see it?

MICHAEL GERSON, Washington Post Columnist: Well, sometimes when you get criticized from both sides it’s correct, but there are serious concerns in current and former intelligence officials that revealing this information about techniques is going to undermine security by telling the enemy essentially what are the possible extreme options in these cases.

And the reality is that many of these methods that are talked about — however, you know, we don’t want to use them — are not torture under the definition and could be used by this president or a future president if there was…

RUTH MARCUS: Well, this president has said he’s not going to use them any more.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, no, I actually — what he’s talked about is that he’s created a study of these methods that — that is going to be a report in the future.

And the reality is that any American president faced with the imminent possibility of an attack on an American city, a nuclear, biological attack, would use these methods. There’s no question. I mean, even members of Congress have essentially said that.

I think we also have to consider, however…

Risks of disclosure

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post columnist
The only thing that's potentially lost is the element of surprise to the alleged terrorist in the event that this president or a future president would make a decision to resort to these techniques, which I think are chilling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you don't take them at their word, is what you're saying?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I take them at their word that they're studying this because they don't want to make a final, public determination on this kind of issue. I think it would be irresponsible in this case.

RUTH MARCUS: Well, the only thing that's potentially lost is the element of surprise to the alleged terrorist in the event that this president or a future president would make a decision to resort to these techniques, which I think are chilling.

What's gained by revealing them, I think, is a way appropriately to show what we did, to say that is not -- and Michael can disagree with me -- that is not the American way, to try to come clean about that in order to put it behind us, without, I think, taking the risk of really chilling CIA folks and others who operated -- they did, I think, horrifying things, but they did it relying on wrong, but legally binding decisions, opinions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There still could be -- we don't know yet about the attorneys in the Justice Department. We don't think that's going to happen.

MICHAEL GERSON: But it's worth saying in this circumstance that, if you're talking about the people who were knowledgeable and approving about these measures, you're also talking about members of Congress, who were briefed 30 times on all of the details of these beginning in 2002, including Nancy Pelosi and Senator Rockefeller.

The Washington Post reported that, when the members of Congress were briefed on these methods, they didn't object; in fact, they asked if they were tough enough.

That's a reflection of the psychology of the country in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, that the CIA and others were working with at that time.

As Hayden says in his piece today, at that moment, they didn't know what the capabilities of al-Qaida were. They didn't know if there were attacks, more attacks tomorrow. And you have to take that into account, as even the national intelligence head today, Blair, I guess...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dennis Blair.

MICHAEL GERSON: ... Dennis Blair took into account and said, we're considering these things on a clear April day when they were considering them when there were, you know, emerging threats to the American people.

RUTH MARCUS: Which is the area of our agreement, that prosecution isn't the right cure here. We can just disagree about whether disclosure is the right cure or whether there's anything to be cured.

EPA ruling on greenhouse gases

Michael Gerson
Washington Post columnist
I actually support a cap-and-trade. It matters, however, what you do with the money that results, because Obama in his budget wanted to devote that to health care. That's not going to happen; the Congress has said that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, another non-controversial subject, the administration...

RUTH MARCUS: Next.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... the EPA announcing today that greenhouse gases, they've concluded, Ruth, are, indeed, harmful to public health. Is this, A, what we expected from the administration? And, B, what's the fallout from this?

RUTH MARCUS: Yes, it's what we expected; it's also a correct decision. It's about two years too late.

It follows on the heels of a Supreme Court ruling two years ago that said, yes, the EPA not only has the authority, but it has the obligation to regulate these greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

The thing that's very interesting about this decision is it opens the door for the EPA to regulate the car emissions, but it also sets the stage for regulation of an even broader set of emissions.

This is like -- and this is going to be as wonky as you can get, only on the NewsHour -- we talk about the use of reconciliation to get health care through. The threat of the EPA doing this on greenhouse gases could very much help get climate change through the Congress because it would be a better approach -- and the administration says this -- to have Congress legislate this rather than to have the EPA regulate it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see this, Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I see it in a similar way. I mean, many people at the beginning of the administration, including people who supported the cap-and-trade and opposed it, thought maybe this might go on the back burner because of other large issues that were emerging.

The reality is, in his budget message to the Congress, he made cap-and-trade a centerpiece commitment. And then now he's indicated through the EPA that -- put pressure on the Congress. You do something, because this is a threat to the American people. That was, you know, a leverage in this argument.

I think it's going to be a tough fight in this circumstance. This amounts to a fairly large tax in a time of economic recession.

I actually support a cap-and-trade. It matters, however, what you do with the money that results, because Obama in his budget wanted to devote that to health care. That's not going to happen; the Congress has said that.

RUTH MARCUS: No, Obama in his budget wanted to devote that to his tax rebates.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, no, no, he talked about health care, which was rejected by the Congress.

RUTH MARCUS: I'm going to just disagree with you on the facts there.

Stem cell research guidelines

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post columnist
Actually, this is an area in which we agree at the moment. I think that it was very important to be able to expand the use of embryos beyond this very narrow line of stem cells that the Bush administration had approved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK, well, we've got something else here to talk about that was just announced today, and that is stem cell research. The administration announcing that there will be some guidelines in how human embryos are used to do this research, that they can't be created just for the purpose of research.

Now, David, I think you had said on this program a couple of weeks ago that your sense was the administration was pretty much opening the door to a few restrictions?

MICHAEL GERSON: Right. This was more restrained than I thought it would be, probably less restrained than some of the reporting, because they restricted it just to the use of the so-called spare embryos, which most people find less morally problematic than producing embryos for medical experimentation. I think that would have been a terrible line.

But the head of the NIH also said, "Well, this could change if the science changes." They left it open for future changes.

So they essentially approved methods that are the ones currently being used in the private sector. They didn't expand those methods to cover new ones. And I think that's a good sign. It's a sign that the NIH is taking the moral issues on this issue seriously. These are not trivial questions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And my apology. I called you David. I know you're Michael, Ruth.

RUTH MARCUS: What's my name?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ruth. You're not Mark.

RUTH MARCUS: That's easier to distinguish.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stem cells

RUTH MARCUS: Actually, this is an area in which we agree at the moment. I think that it was very important to be able to expand the use of embryos beyond this very narrow line of stem cells that the Bush administration had approved.

I get queasy about the notion of creating new embryos for research purposes. If the science dictates it, I think we should have a very big national discussion about it. I'm glad we didn't go there yet. There are a lot of to-be-discarded embryos out there. This was a good compromise.

Opening dialogue with Cuba

Michael Gerson
Washington Post columnist
When this has happened before, when Bill Clinton tried to do this, for example, in the mid-1990s, Fidel Castro's response was to shoot down two airplanes, these rescue planes from Cuban exiles.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, another very big subject we're just learning about tonight. We know about the overture from Raul Castro, saying everything is on the table between the U.S. and Cuba, and we're just hearing a few minutes ago that President Obama in arriving at the Summit of the Americas in the Caribbean is, in essence, saying the U.S. is looking for a new beginning with Cuba.

Ruth, new things are happening.

RUTH MARCUS: New things are happening, and I think, as with many beginning -- we used to say green shoots when we're talking about the economy, you can't quite tell what it's going to grow into here.

The president fulfilled his campaign promise, made an overture to Cuba. Raul Castro said some very hopeful, different-sounding words.

But, you know, words are easier. Where's the action? I think it will be very interesting to see how this potential new budding relationship develops.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there's potentially real political opposition to this in the United States.

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I agree with that. You know, I'm skeptical in this circumstance for one reason. When this has happened before, when Bill Clinton tried to do this, for example, in the mid-1990s, Fidel Castro's response was to shoot down two airplanes, these rescue planes from Cuban exiles.

They have often -- Cuba has often been the one that sabotaged these overtures because the legitimacy of their regime in many ways is defined by their resentments of America, OK?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don't see Raul Castro as a different...

MICHAEL GERSON: It could be that -- this may be the difference, is that we are in a period of transition. Everybody sees it just with the age of the leaders involved. And so you hope that's the case.

I agree with Obama. It's in their court now, which is the proper thing. This was an appropriate and marginal outreach. Now the proper response from Cuba would be to release political prisoners, which it's been holding for decades, and that would be the basis of a genuine beginning in this relationship.

But I think that the administration is going to have to couple its outreach with clarity on that issue: human rights, release of political prisoners. And that would be a real accomplishment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fifteen seconds.

RUTH MARCUS: The ball is in Cuba's court, but a lot of pressure on the United States on this issue at the Summit of the Americas. They had sort of hoped to have it off the table, and this bizarrely may put it more on the table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A whole lot to think about. Ruth Marcus, Michael Gerson, we thank you both.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Appreciate it.

RUTH MARCUS: Thanks a lot.