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Shields and Brooks Weigh Obama’s ‘Measured’ Security Review

January 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top stories of the past week, including President Obama's review of U.S. intelligence systems, and the retirements of two prominent Senate Democrats.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, the Christmas bombing attempt, what do you think of what President Obama has said and done about it this week?

MARK SHIELDS: Somebody said a while back, Jim, that, sometimes, a man’s greatest strength is his greatest weakness, and there he endures.

The president has been accused of lacking emotion, of almost running a passionless presidency, by many of his supporters on the left. And, at this, you see that as a strength. It was totally non-bombastic. It was measured. It was classic Obama. It was thorough. It was reflective. It was intense.

And I thought it was impressive, impressive in the sense that a bombing that, unlike the experience in 9/11 or the Richard Reid bombing, the shoelace bomber in December of 2001, when there was — we were free of partisan carping or criticism, this one had been followed immediately by partisan criticism, led by the former vice president.

And I just thought that he stilled a good part of that. I mean, I thought the reaction to it was as serious as his delivery was. The one surprise I had was that the — and I say this as a total layman in the area of intelligence — his recommendations seemed to be self-evident.

JIM LEHRER: Do it a little bit better next time.

MARK SHIELDS: Do it a little bit better. We’re going to do — have a better list, better watch list. And we’re going to share the information. We’re going to have better equipment.

But I thought it worked. And I thought it was serious.

JIM LEHRER: David, impressive?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought by the end of the week.

JIM LEHRER: End of the week.

DAVID BROOKS: I was looking at the loyalty flow, if you want to call it that. Is he taking responsibility? Is he keeping a loyal team? People messed up, but is he saying, OK, I’m with you, I’m not going to publicly expose you?

In the beginning of the week, frankly, I thought there was a little finger-pointing toward people beneath.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But then, by the end of the week…

JIM LEHRER: Like what? What specifically?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he said, I’m going to make it clear this kind of behavior is not going to be tolerated.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Yes. Got it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. So, it was like, you guys really messed it up, and I’m above it all.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But, by the end of the week, I thought he had really taken care of it. He had said, we’re all part of a team. We have made some mistakes. I take responsibility. The buck stops here, all that.

So, you know, in times like this, where there are going to be mess-ups — it’s war — you have got to keep a cohesive team. And I thought, by the end of the week, he had done that pretty well.

JIM LEHRER: What about — what did you make of this — the war statement, “We are at war,” because that — one of the things that former Vice President Cheney has been knocking him for, that President Obama doesn’t act like it is war, he doesn’t seem to get it, that we are at war with Islamic terrorism, et cetera?

DAVID BROOKS: I have always thought that was three-quarters an unfair charge.

And one state — one moment I go back to an awareness that Obama knows we are at war was in France, where, if you remember, he held a town hall meeting there.

JIM LEHRER: That’s right. Right.

DAVID BROOKS: And he went out of his way to remind the people there that we are at war. This is a big problem. We are going to just have to deal with it.

And that wasn’t necessarily an audience that wanted to hear that. And, so, I took that as a sign that he really does know it. And I think, if you are president, you got that daily intelligence brief, there is no way you are not conscious of it every second of every day.

So, I thought that was three-quarters unfair. The one-quarter of legitimacy and concern I think some of the critics have is that, if we are at war, why are we not interrogating or questioning this terrorist, or this suspect, under military rules? Why are we allowing him to plead guilty, and then not go through that intelligence process?

Why are we trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York? If it is war, maybe we should have it war all the way down.

JIM LEHRER: It was a point Senator Gorton just — former Senator Gorton made that point to Judy that — that — the very point.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Don’t try the guy through the criminal courts. Hold him. Interrogate him.

What do you think of that argument?

MARK SHIELDS: You know, I don’t know the strengths of the arguments constitutionally. I do know that there was no question that, under President Bush and President Cheney, whom — it was intriguing to me it was such a different response.

President Bush immediately at the time of an attack was, let’s go after them. Let’s go get them. It was — you know, it was understandable, as opposed to President Obama, which was, what did we do? What do we have to do better?

As far as this is concerned, this was how the 20th hijacker, Moussaoui, was tried. It was saluted as a testimonial to the American judicial system by none other than Rudy Giuliani, who has recently become the avenging angel of military tribunals.

I don’t know if it is a real issue or if it isn’t a real issue. I do want to point out that Dick Lugar, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, longtime Republican senator, said…

JIM LEHRER: From Indiana.

MARK SHIELDS: From Indiana — said to Bloomberg’s Al Hunt this weekend that he thought the president had been firm, had shown firmness and decisiveness. And he thought the vice president’s criticism was unfair.

And I really think that we are now in a zone where everything becomes politicized. There is no question about it. During the campaign, Barack Obama said daily that we’re in a war on terror. It wasn’t a — it wasn’t something that just eluded him or — I mean, he regularly repeated that. It was part of his mantra.

JIM LEHRER: What about the point that — also going back to the earlier discussion, David, about the allegation in a Wall Street Journal editorial today — or the suggestion — that there is too much bureaucracy, there is too much there, and that’s one of the reasons that they caught it, they got the information, but then they didn’t deal with it properly, and something needs to be done about it?

What do you think about that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think that is absolutely true, on two levels.

One, as I have said before, we — the National Security Agency alone collects four times as much data per day as exists in the Library of Congress. That’s one intelligence agency.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s the agency that does, through telephone communications…

DAVID BROOKS: Right, all that stuff.

JIM LEHRER: … and all that stuff, radio…

DAVID BROOKS: But that’s just means there is just a ton of data.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: The second thing, and, to me, the more radical critique, is that the guy’s father comes in. And what — he gives — he tells a story. That story is then turned into a cable, so it’s turned into a piece of information that can be put on a computer and processed by a bureaucracy.

If you took a novel and turned it into the sort of information that could be processed by a bureaucracy, you would totally lose the meaning of the story. And, so, what we have got is a process that takes reality and narrows it down to checklists. And, to me, when you do that, you are losing the feel and the importance of a lot of that information.

And I suspect that’s part of what has happened here. And that is endemic to bureaucracies.

JIM LEHRER: So, how do you fix that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, one of the ways suggested to fix it, Jim, was made by the 9/11 Commission, by Jim Baker and Lee Hamilton and their colleagues, which was the director of national intelligence, Denny Blair, Admiral Denny Blair. That is where it is all supposed to go.

JIM LEHRER: And give him more authority.

MARK SHIELDS: And we have got 16 — you have got 16 sources, military and civilian, 16 separate smokestacks or silos, as we call them. And there is this is where it is supposed to come to and be acted upon.

There has been back and forth, as people know and has been reported. But, between Leon Panetta, the CIA director, and protecting his turf, and Admiral Blair and his mandate for the director of national intelligence, I mean, I think that’s something that only the president — a president can resolve.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but my point is that we — expert intuition is actually quite powerful. Somebody who really knows the field, they just have a feel for something.

We have a process that minimizes the role for expert intuition, because it has to go through all these different channels. And that bleeds away a lot of the, “Oh, I think; I have a hunch.” You just can’t do that in this sort of…

JIM LEHRER: Well, Richard Clarke, former White House guy for both George W. Bush and, before that, Bill Clinton, said on this program last night that software that works, that makes all of — all these pieces of data matched is also not — is also apparently not up to speed.

MARK SHIELDS: No, that is exactly — and that surprised me that, that that hasn’t — that eight years later…

JIM LEHRER: But you’re saying — but, David, you are saying, forget software. Go with the human mind.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, the human brain is a lot more complicated than any software program.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And people who know what they are doing come up with successful hunches.

JIM LEHRER: And make good software.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, but this was a human failure. I mean, this was a — I mean, the information was there.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, but there was a failure to integrate and there was a failure to act. I mean that — you know, that is isn’t a bureaucratic, as much as it is a human failure.

JIM LEHRER: New subject, David.

Two Democratic senators, Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan, have said they are not going to run again. How important is that in the course of human events, as it relates to the Democratic control, but also to everything else that President Obama and others on that — on the Democratic side may want to do?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

Well, just for two, it is not a big deal if you are thinking about the future of the Senate. It makes Democrats more likely to keep Connecticut and less likely North Dakota, but it is part of a larger climate. And there has been this significant shift in public opinion over the last — really over the last year.

When Franklin Roosevelt was passing his reforms, he galvanized the majority behind him. What Obama has done has recoiled the majority. So, you have the pollsters’ list, who do you trust on this issue, Republicans or Democrats, on 13 separate issues, the public opinion is shifting to the Republican side on all 13, and some of them quite significantly.

More people call themselves conservative than have before. More people think global warming isn’t real than before. More people are more pro-life than before, gun control, more hostility. So, the whole shift to the right in the country has happened over the past year, sort of a recoil.

And I suspect — and it’s just a theory — that it is because people are traditionally suspicious of Washington, and they see a lot of power concentrated in Washington, and they are recoiling. And so that should be of concern.

JIM LEHRER: That is a big picture, Mark. Do you see…

MARK SHIELDS: It is. It is an enormous picture, yes.

I mean, David…

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it quite…

MARK SHIELDS: David is just, tectonic plates.

DAVID BROOKS: I can get bigger.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I was going to say. I was going talk about Chris Dodd and Byron Dorgan, two senators.

JIM LEHRER: What did I ask?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Let’s talk about those two guys.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: You know them both very well.

MARK SHIELDS: I know them both, and I like them both, and I’m going to miss them both. And they have both — they have both been good public servants.

Chris Dodd’s leaving was refreshing in its candor. I mean, he talked about his political problems. He didn’t pretend, I’m just going to — I want to go home and spend more time with the family and do that.

He did, in fact, level that he had problems, that there’s a better chance of keeping the state Democratic by his leaving, and Dick Blumenthal, the attorney general, running in his place.

Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, the — sort of the touchdown twins, the two Democratic senators, they have been winning elections in that state since 1980 in a state that Ronald Reagan carried 2-1, that’s solidly Republican, North Dakota. And, somehow, they have managed to survive as sort of populist, fiscally responsible national Democrats.

And Byron Dorgan, I think, decided that he had spent enough time, energy and effort doing that, and maybe that the prospects weren’t that great.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t see glaciers moving, the way David does?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t — no, I do — I do think — I do think that what you have right now is a — it is a difference from 1933.

In 1933 — in 1932, there were 217 Republicans and 216 Democrats in the House of Representatives. And, two years later, there were 200 more Democrats than there were Republicans under Roosevelt. I mean, in other words, it just — it kept increasing.

The Democratic numbers are not going to increase. What the Democrats are concerned about are more retirements in the House, especially because open seats are the most vulnerable place for a party to defend. An incumbent is still tougher to defeat in a House election, 95 percent.

JIM LEHRER: No matter whether they are a Republican or a Democrat.

MARK SHIELDS: Republican or a Democrat.

But, in 1994, when the Democrats suffered their tsunami loss with Bill Clinton there, and lost 54 House seats, 40 of the 52 seats they lost were open seats, that is, members retiring or running for another office. They have been able to keep the retirements now to under single digits.

If they can do that, they should be in pretty good shape. But I don’t think anybody expects the Democrats not to lose, probably somewhere around the average of 21 seats, which is the average number that a president loses in his midterm of his first term.

JIM LEHRER: Do you want to take it to even a larger picture, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, in the Pleistocene age…

JIM LEHRER: Do you see the numbers kind of the same way?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think, you know, Charlie Cook, who follows the House for a living, says 25 to 30.

But I just think there is a…

JIM LEHRER: More that is going on?

DAVID BROOKS: … 10 percent chance it could get — it could be sort of a bigger landslide, because jobs stays terrible, the country is sort of scared, in a very bad mood.

This public opinion mood is unprecedented, the distrust of government, the distrust of Washington, pessimism throughout the country, not unprecedented in Democratic, Republican, but in anxiety, unprecedented.

MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Very brief, two seconds.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

In the decade between 2000 and 2010, this country created zero jobs, when 28 more million people came into the population, zero jobs. That’s a political dynamite.

JIM LEHRER: We have zero time left.

MARK SHIELDS: Sorry.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.