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Shields, Brooks Mull Torture Memos, Obama’s Leadership

April 24, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the Obama administration's decision to release Bush-era memos on interrogation tactics and the shape of the president's first 100 days in office.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

The torture memos, Mark, where do you come down on the question, first, of how the president himself has handled the release of the memos?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I’d say the president has been ambivalent on the release, Jim.

I mean, he obviously is responding both to, I think, his own impulse. As far as torture is concerned, he’s gone on record, unequivocally, adamantly that such practices will not continue in the future. And he made it clear that he didn’t want to look back; he wanted to look forward.

But having expressed earlier an interest or some support for a commission not unlike the 9/11 Commission to at least report on how these decisions were made, he’s backed off that and is now tacitly supporting the Senate, Harry Reid and Dianne Feinstein, who are going to send it over to the Intelligence Committee.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. How do you read? Is ambivalence the right word?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Yes, I don’t think so. I think he just made a mistake for one day.

JIM LEHRER: Made a mistake?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, they had this very impressive debate. A lot of senior officials were against the release; a lot of senior…

JIM LEHRER: You mean within the administration?

MARK SHIELDS: On the release.

DAVID BROOKS: Within the administration were for it.

JIM LEHRER: Right, on the release, right.

DAVID BROOKS: They actually sat down. They had — people were appointed to debate each side. Obama watched the debate. At the end of the debate, he made a decision and dictated the policy.

And the policy essentially was, we’re going to release, but we’re not going to go back and re-prosecute the people. And that was the policy. It made everybody happy. And they announced essentially that.

He went over and, in the middle of the week, he had a sort of rambling press conference where he flipped up, and he said things that he shouldn’t have said, which opened the door to people thinking he did want to go re-prosecute.

And then they quickly realized he’d made a mistake. They had a little discussion. And they slammed the door, and they slammed it, I think, quite hard. They slammed it using Harry Reid. And there’s going to be no commission.

And so I think, on the whole, the debate was very impressive. I personally think the policy is the right policy. And there was just that one day…

JIM LEHRER: You mean the release was the right thing to do?

DAVID BROOKS: I think both the release and the desire not to go re-litigate.

JIM LEHRER: Not to go and prosecute, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: I think both those things were right, and then there was that one day where he seemed open to it.

But the problem essentially is that he’s trying to create this centrist policy that a lot of people on the left, who think it’s terrible, we should prosecute. There are people on the right who think it’s not terrible, it saved thousands of lives, or whatever, and we should be proud — or not be proud, but we should acknowledge its necessariness. And he’s sort of stuck in a very complicated middle position, but I think it came out of a very good process of discussion.

Two views on memos, prosecution

David Brooks
The New York Times
[Y]ou've got this horrible situation where barbaric action that we disapprove of and we think of as immoral actually produces actionable intelligence.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with where the president is. I think the commission made sense.

JIM LEHRER: Why? Why?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I'll tell you why, Jim. You think about this. First of all, the United States Senate ratified the Convention against Torture, which prohibits any cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.

We know from the photographic evidence cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment was done. We know we waterboarded, which we prosecuted after World War II. We prosecuted Japanese soldiers in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials for waterboarding. We court-martialed American soldiers for waterboarding in the Vietnam War.

So we're clear on that, that that is a violation. That Convention against Torture was pushed by a president of the United States who said we have to go on record against this abhorrent practice in the United States of America. That was President Ronald Reagan.

So that is clear. That is absolutely clear.

There is no act, short of the invasion and occupation of a country by the United States, that has alienated more people in the world than the torture and the evidence of it around. And I just think that how we came to this, to make this decision, how to avoid it in the future, made...

JIM LEHRER: You're not talking about prosecuting people necessarily?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I'm talking...

JIM LEHRER: You're just talking about having an investigation?

MARK SHIELDS: We had a multimillion-dollar, multiyear investigation over a blue dress and a president's infidelity, which was, I think, in historical perspective, a pretty minor transgression.

This is a major transgression. This has alienated the United States. The division on this fight, on this debate -- and it's an open wound -- is clear.

On one side are people who served in the United States military, whether their names are Shalikashvili, or Colin Powell, or Joe Hoar from the Marine Corps, or people like Fred Baldock, who spent seven-and-a-half years as a prisoner, or Phil Nelson, who spent seven-and-a-half years as a prisoner, or Pete Peterson, who spent seven-and-a-half years, led by John McCain.

I mean, it's a question whether or not we're going to do this to our troops. Are we going to lay down clear, unequivocal, unambiguous rules of behavior, which we didn't do, or simply say that this was the act of some random people? No, I think it's a very, very serious act.

DAVID BROOKS: Three quick points in ascending order of substance. First, if we went back and had a big debate about this, it would not just be about torture.

It would be about Iraq, WMD. It would be an incredibly divisive debate at a time when the president is trying to do other things and is going to have to take other blows, and I think that's one of the reasons the administration doesn't want to do it.

The second, who are you going to prosecute? Are you going to prosecute people who wrote legal memos? Is that illegal now? Are you going to prosecute the actual CIA agents, or whoever they were, who were operating within the framework that was provided to them?

Are you going to prosecute the members of the Congress, including Nancy Pelosi, who knew about this in a time and either tacitly accepted it or actually encouraged it? So then there's that question.

And then, finally, what have we learned this week? We've learned two things. One, that people were treated barbarically and that, what, some guy had 182 waterboarding sessions. We've learned that.

The second thing we've learned -- and this was a bit of a revelation to me -- is that we actually did get intelligence. I had always been told from all these experts it didn't work. Well, that apparently is not true, and that's apparently not true according to the Obama administration.

So we've got apparently 6,000 intelligence reports out of the information we got, half our knowledge about al-Qaida. So you've got this horrible situation where barbaric action that we disapprove of and we think of as immoral actually produces actionable intelligence.

Now, they would say -- and I would agree with them -- that on balance it was not worth it because of the stain on the country and because it -- for all the reasons Mark just elucidated.

Nonetheless, I don't think that's an illegal decision. I think, at that moment in time, it was a wrong but defensible, or at least not illegal position, and I don't think we should be going around criminalizing those kinds of decisions.

A possible investigative commission

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
We do know that there is no single, more effective recruiting device for al-Qaida across this globe than the pictures of torture, the evidence of torture by Americans.

JIM LEHRER: What about Mark's point that -- forget about criminalizing it -- have a commission investigate it so we all know what happened?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there is an intelligence commission...

JIM LEHRER: Intelligence Committee.

DAVID BROOKS: ... Intelligence Committee in the Senate, which is going to investigate. And if we could be guaranteed a sort of nonpartisan, very trustworthy, very calm and nonpolitical that will not turn into a massive, very divisive debate, believe me, I'd be all for that.

And I think what I would fear and I think -- I know what the Obama administration fears, it will not be that. It's an effort by some people to re-litigate, fight the war we've been having over the last seven years.

MARK SHIELDS: We can't...

JIM LEHRER: How can you -- to David's point -- how can you have a commission and not do what David is saying or not re-fight the whole thing?

MARK SHIELDS: We had one. We had one with Lee Hamilton and Jim Baker. I mean, there -- that divided the country.

JIM LEHRER: So you think it can be done?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure, it can be done.

JIM LEHRER: You can get people together...

MARK SHIELDS: You get good people, bipartisan people, people who put country ahead of party, and there are such individuals across this nation of ours, sure, it can be done, absolutely.

And as far as -- I mean, Bob Mueller, the FBI director, says he cannot point to any conclusive evidence that any of this information we got thwarted any kind of projects. We don't know how many lives were saved.

JIM LEHRER: He also fits your -- he's also a former Marine.

MARK SHIELDS: Former Marine, as well.

JIM LEHRER: A platoon leader, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But the point is, we don't know how many lives it saved. We do know that it's cost American lives. We do know that there is no single, more effective recruiting device for al-Qaida across this globe than the pictures of torture, the evidence of torture by Americans, and Americans not living up to the principles.

John McCain put it well. He says this isn't about who they are. I mean, these people say, "Well, it's a different kind of war." The war in the Pacific against Japan was a different kind of war. The war in Vietnam was a different kind of war. Korea was a different kind of war. Every war is different.

The ticking time bomb, every day in Iraq, American Marines on patrol with improvised electronic devices, they faced ticking time bombs. I mean, this is fundamental as to who we are. John McCain said, "It isn't about who they are; it's about who we are."

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree with all that. I'm not saying it was the right thing to do. But I'm saying at the time, is this something we want to go back and criminalize?

And I'm saying it's a much more complicated issue. I mean, suppose it comes out -- and the fact is, they have not released all the information. This is what Dick Cheney is talking about.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that Cheney -- you agree with Cheney that -- put them all out there, if you're going to put them out there?

DAVID BROOKS: I certainly want to know what -- I mean, maybe they can't tell us -- but I certainly would like to know if lives were saved. I mean, people -- a lot of people now say lives were -- they don't say lives were saved. They say valuable information was acquired.

And I've asked people in the administration, did you get stuff? Did they get stuff, the previous administration? And I expected them all to say, "No, it didn't work." And they all hem and haw, "Well, you know, it was ambivalent." And so I'd like to know the answer to that.

And my point is not to say that it was the right thing to do at the time, and I still don't believe it. I agree with everything Mark said.

My point is, it's actually kind of a tough call, or not a tough call, but there are balancing issues, because you're trying to save lives. And on 9/11, you've got to remember the atmosphere of that moment.

Assessment of first 100 days

David Brooks
The New York Times
Just as a matter of competence, this has been a very, very competent White House.

JIM LEHRER: All right, we're about to talk here for a few moments, as everybody else is about to talk for longer than a few moments, about the first 100 days of the Obama administration. Fit this dilemma into the end -- or to the coming of the 100-day anniversary, Mark, I mean, which is next week.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure. Well, ordinarily, the resistance to the president's decision on backing off on the commission or whatever would be expected to arouse great antipathy in the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

Democrats are crazy about Barack Obama: 93 percent of Democrats give him a favorable rating. It isn't that Republicans are any more negative toward him than they were toward Bill Clinton; it's just about the same. Democrats, very favorable, talking about very favorable, 79 percent of Democrats are very favorable versus 39 percent were for Bill Clinton at the similar point. I mean, so he has...

JIM LEHRER: So he doesn't have a political problem...

MARK SHIELDS: He doesn't have a political problem.

JIM LEHRER: ... with his own people, you mean.

MARK SHIELDS: He doesn't have a political problem with his own people on this one. He really doesn't. I think he strengthened his relationship with voters over the three months. I mean, I think it's a stronger relationship. There's a sense of strength and confidence.

I think he's treated grown-ups for the most part -- voters like grown-ups, and I think there's an appreciation of that.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think? What's your overview on the 100 days?

DAVID BROOKS: My overview is two points. The first is, obviously, the size of reach of what he's trying to do, and that, I think, has inspired people, because they wanted change. To me, it's raised a lot of concerns, concerns of hubris, taking on too much, too many issues, concerns of fiscal catastrophe, as we spend too much money.

But the second part -- and this, I think, was not automatic -- that a guy who was 47 years old with relatively little experience here who had run a competent, smoothly efficient organization, he's had an incredible complexity of plans he's had to put forward.

They've done it all intelligently, in an incredibly sophisticated way. They've negotiated a lot of tricky issues, including this one, in a sophisticated way. They've corrected for some mistakes.

So managerial -- just, you know, what was Dukakis' line? It's competence, not ideology. Just as a matter of competence, this has been a very, very competent White House.

And I think it's partly the president. I think it's partly people like Rahm Emanuel. It's partly Larry Summers, Peter Orszag and others. They have created a competent White House.

And so even if people have some disagreements on some of the scope of the activity, they still basically trust this guy, because he does not seem like an ideologue. He does seem basically pragmatic and competent.

Obama's temperament 'impressive'

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
I think...voters are rooting for [Obama] to do well because they see their fate, fortune and future and that of the country tied to him.

JIM LEHRER: Pragmatic and competent, is that -- do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he does. I think David's point earlier about how he made the decision, how they...

JIM LEHRER: That's unusual, isn't it?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: To have a bunch of people in, in front of the president, and have them debate it, his own people, and then say, "OK."

DAVID BROOKS: What surprised me is he made a decision, a verdict right away, and dictated the policy. That was unusual.

MARK SHIELDS: And you had the feeling in the previous administration that dissent was not welcomed in the counsel, deliberation, I mean, and that, you know, you were either on a side or you weren't on side.

I think that the president has shown a temperament that is quite truly impressive. I mean...

JIM LEHRER: Describe it. Describe...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, we knew his intellect going in. I mean, we knew how smart he was. But I think his sense of balance, almost equanimity, coolness, I guess, for lack of a better word, I mean, some people have said it's a shortcoming, that he should be able to show more passion or even more appreciation to some people.

But there is that sense, that he's almost unflappable, given the crises that he's confronted.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the temper? How do you raise the temper?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I...

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that's important, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, yes, that's the most important thing.

JIM LEHRER: The most important?

DAVID BROOKS: I think -- because it sets the tone for the whole White House. I had a meeting with a world leader who had just come back from the White House, and he was having a meeting with some journalists, and he couldn't believe the guy.

He said, "If I were facing what he's facing, I would just be under the table." And this is a guy who runs a country. So it's not as if he's unexperienced with pressure.

And so I do think that -- and it's translated in good ways and bad. It's a sense -- we have a problem, the auto industry. What's our solution? Let's get Steve Rattner. Let's get some smart people. Let's send them out there. And so it's just a very calm, methodical.

Now, to me, the downside is there's a bit of a technocratic mentality. If there's any problem on Earth, we should immediately -- we, ourselves, should solve it. I mean, Detroit's kind of been a problem for 40 years, but we have a lot of smart people, so we will solve it.

And I think the danger there is overreach. But it is certainly not a sort of a raving, ideological group of people there. It's a group of very smart people.

MARK SHIELDS: It's a little bit like Ronald Reagan. I mean, I think the election -- the comparable as probably not Clinton or Bush as it is to Reagan. That was a big change election. This was a big change election, which Republicans on the Congress have not quite accepted at this point.

But I think what -- voters are rooting for him to do well because they see their fate, fortune and future and that of the country tied to him. That's a big political asset for him.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, David, thank you both very much. Good to see you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.