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Shields and Brooks on NSA Big Data Discovery, Christie’s Election Maneuver

June 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's political news with Judy Woodruff, including the NSA's secret collection of phone, Internet and credit card data, foreign policy staff changes in the Obama administration and the special election to replace late Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Hello, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, first, this revelation over the last few days that the U.S. government is collecting massive amounts of information, phone records of U.S. citizens, David, and listening to or collecting Internet e-mail communications of foreign citizens.

Reaction?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s worrisome.

I, on balance, think it’s justified. I think the president’s basically right on this and that most bipartisan leaders of Congress are right, that we live in a world of big data. We live in the world of gigantic databases where people are collecting large amounts of information. The stuff that is being done on American citizens, as the president said, is not the content of the calls. It’s the network of connections of the calls.

There is a FISA court review. There’s congressional review. The targets are reasonably narrow. I worry about this being abused later on. But, as I understand the program right now, I think it’s a reasonably supervised policy to try to control terror and balance it off with the normal privacy concerns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not troubled by it.

Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, to those Americans who are worried that nobody in Washington was ever listening to what they had to say, they ought to be reassured.

No, Judy, every administration since I have been in Washington has an absolutely bottomless appetite for secrecy and information and intelligence. They just love it.

I don’t know what it is about presidents, but that we talk so glowingly about the need for an informed citizenry, and yet they get information, they want to hold it. And it’s — what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the culture of secrecy is epidemic in this city.

And I would just say to those, my friends on the left who defend this that, do you imagine the same kind of power and authority with a President Donald Trump, with a President Rick Perry, with a President Rick Santorum?

It’s one thing to say, oh, well, President Obama is sensitive and all of these things. And I just — I really — I think it’s a real problem. It’s been a problem in this country. We classify too much. We keep too much from our citizens. And this is an example, I think, of it’s going too far.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree in part. We have a national security state which is gigantic and overblown. Hundreds of thousands of people have top security clearance, so I agree with that part.

And I agree with the penchant for secrecy. I blame it on the fact that, if you’re in the national security apparatus, your disaster if there’s an event. And so you will do anything possible to prevent an event, but your career will not hang on if somebody’s privacy is violated.

So, their interests are all over here. And I worry about that, too. Nonetheless, when you fight wars or when you are involved in international conflicts where there are enemies, you have to have — citizens, I think, have to have some trust in the authorities. The authorities have to have some power to do things that they think are right.

And as long as there’s a court review, as there is, as long as there’s some oversight, at some point, I think we as citizens have to say, we are going to trust the authorities to some degree.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s what the president said today, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s …

JUDY WOODRUFF: He said, there are protections. There’s the Constitution. There’s the so-called FISA court.

MARK SHIELDS: The FISA court, I have yet to see a decision made by the FISA court. It’s a secret process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is a special court that was set up a few years ago.

MARK SHIELDS: It is 11 judges, but we don’t know what goes on.

There’s one side presented. And I don’t know of the number of rejections that the FISA court has given. I guess where I disagree with David is, it’s very seductive to become part of this intelligence community, because we’re doing it because we’re protecting you. We’re taking care of you. We’re going to make sure you’re safe, and anything that’s done in that name.

We went through the entire Cold War. That was a real threat. That was a real threat, and the Soviet Union. And the intelligence community, which was closed off and completely cloistered, and nobody could go near it, was absolutely wrong.

As late as 1989, it was saying the Soviet Union was getting stronger economically, militarily, it was a bigger threat than it was — and George Kennan had predicted 50 years earlier it would implode of it — the seeds of its own destruction were there. And I just — I think that you have to trust your citizenry.

You have to open up to debate. Barack Obama ran on transparency and open debate. I don’t see that being present in this.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, a couple things.

First, we live an age of data. What the government has done to our phone records, private companies are doing that every single day. If you have a credit card, they’re looking at the vast array of spending patterns every single day. So, this is happening to us every single day. This is part of the age we live in.

Should we have known that they are doing this to the phone records? To some extent, we already did know this, but we probably should have known. The secrecy of the program was a mistake. I agree with that. But, nonetheless …

JUDY WOODRUFF: In other words, you’re saying the government should have told everybody, we’re doing this.

DAVID BROOKS: Told that they were doing this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But then they’re telling — the other argument is, they’re telling the terrorists.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. But, if you’re a terrorist, I assume — you assume the phone records are being used in this way.

But they still have the responsibility if they see somebody — if they see these Boston guys, the bombers, calling some number, and then they want to trace the links to that number, it seems to me that’s a — legitimates piece of information that they should have.

Now, the second question is — and Charlie Savage, my colleague, raised this earlier — should we just — instead of collecting big reams of data, when they have a suspicion, should they then have to go back and get a separate subpoena, so it’s a much narrower set of data? That seems to me a very legitimate argument we have to hear answered.

MARK SHIELDS: Can I just respond to David’s point about Visa and MasterCard and my Safeway card?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Safeway knows whether I bought the Ben and Jerry’s, and I shouldn’t have bought the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream last week.

But Visa and MasterCard, they have that information, and we know they have that information. They can’t indict you. They can’t …

DAVID BROOKS: Fair enough.

MARK SHIELDS: They can’t — they can’t go after my taxes.

I mean, a federal government with that kind of power and without restraint can do that. I mean, it’s really giving an enormous amount of power.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And that’s fair enough.

If I could just make one political point, usually — and this is sort of arguing against my point — usually, the people, the voters more or less side with security. But following the IRS scandal, following the other affairs, the Justice Department stuff, I think the politics of this may switch. There may be more people who may be more appalled by this program than maybe they would otherwise be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly to both of you. You both agree the media was right, the news organizations were right to report this once they found out, that that’s not a violation of …

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. All right.

Well, let’s move on to another announcement this week. David, the president announced that he wants Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador, to become his national security adviser, a woman who’s been on his National Security Council staff, Samantha …

DAVID BROOKS: Power. Power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … Power to be his U.N. ambassador.

What does it mean?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they’re outstanding picks.

He has tended to pick people who are more staff-oriented, who are more process-oriented. But Power and Rice are — they can do process fine, but they are strong advocates for positions. They’re idea-oriented. They’re aggressive, strong individuals. So I think they will widen the frame of debate.

And so I think they’re outstanding picks on that regard. As far as whether they shift foreign policy one way or the other, they’re known as — I guess the phrase is liberal hawks. They’re willing to use power to prevent humanitarian disasters in some circumstances. They were both among the more aggressive forces on whether we should do Libya.

That’s not to say all circumstances. They have not been aggressive, as far as I know, on Syria, for example. But they tend to be a little more aggressive on wanting to prevent humanitarian disasters, believing it’s in America’s foreign policy interests. So I think they’re both outstanding picks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t question David’s assessment of either individual.

I do find it fascinating that, when Barack Obama became president, that his secretary of state was Hillary Clinton, the secretary of defense was Bob Gates. Now he has — his national security adviser was Gen. Jim Jones, the former commandant of the Marine Corps.

Now he has in position Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, John Kerry as secretary of state, who will — will soon have Susan Rice as national security adviser, and, pending Senate ratification, Samantha Power as U.N. ambassador, all of whom supported him for the nomination and for election.

I mean, the Lincoln team of rivals …

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that’s different from how…

MARK SHIELDS: They’re loyalists.

Well, I mean, Hillary Clinton obviously didn’t support him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: Leon Panetta wasn’t an intimate or a supporter even, the successor of Bob Gates. Bob Gates didn’t support him. Gen. Jim Jones wasn’t campaigning in Iowa for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what does that say?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it says that there’s a pulling in of loyalty. And I’m not saying loyalty trumps ability, because these are able people.

I think, in the case of Susan Rice, there’s no question this was very personal with the president. He likes her. He’s close to her. He appreciates her support, particularly in 2008. And he knows she was hung out to dry on Benghazi, that his administration did a …

JUDY WOODRUFF: The talking — so-called talking points.

MARK SHIELDS: … did a terrible thing to her.

It wasn’t Petraeus. It wasn’t Clinton. It wasn’t Panetta who went out there and did those five shows. She did it, and she paid for it. And I …

JUDY WOODRUFF: She couldn’t be secretary of state.

… security adviser.

MARK SHIELDS: Couldn’t be secretary of state. And I think that’s it. And I think he really felt an obligation, as well as an emotional commitment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Change in foreign policy direction?

DAVID BROOKS: I doubt it. Obama runs his own foreign policy. There may be more of a tinge toward this humanitarian interventionist side, but he runs his own foreign policy.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I haven’t heard either one of them mention the word Syria in public.

Apparently, the Damascus moment for Susan Rice in her career was Rwanda in the Clinton administration. And she’s become — that would never be repeated, that that was on her watch and she feels an enormous sense of obligation. But I haven’t either heard her or Samantha Power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s bring it home finally, domestic — a political story.

New Jersey this week lost long time Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat. The Republican governor, Mark, Chris Christie, after a few days, announced that he will have a special election in four months from now, and he named somebody as a caretaker, the state attorney general.

But, David, what does it say that Christie is having a special election which just happens to be a month before his own standing for reelection as governor of the state?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. He’s an astonishing governor who wants to be reelected.

So he’s a Republican in a Democratic state, so he decides, I don’t want to run on the same ticket where there’s a popular Democratic senatorial candidate who will probably win and bring in a lot of Democratic votes.

So he decides he’s going to — he’s got a lot of flexibility. He can schedule the election when he wants. And he decides to schedule it 13 minutes before his own election to sort of get it all out of the way — even a couple weeks before.

But, you know, he wants to win, and he’s using power to do it. Is it inexcusable? I think it’s an excusable use of power. Is it …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Excusable?

DAVID BROOKS: … totally on the up-and-up? No. It’s a political maneuver.

MARK SHIELDS: What made him special? What made him special was, he was a tell-it-like-it is …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Christie.

MARK SHIELDS: Christie — different, not your typical pol.

Asbury Park, N.J., August of 2011, Hurricane Irene is coming. He goes down there and says, get the hell off the beach. Nobody else in American politics does it. People cheer. He is different. And this makes him very much a pol. This was too cute by half.

This was a way of saying, we’re going to have an election. OK, the Democrats will have a primary, because that means two House members can run and not jeopardize their seats, but, at the same time, Judy, what it means is that he will not face a — as David put it, a popular Democrat on the ballot, risk his margin. All he’s talking about right now is his margin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you mentioned that it’s going to cost 20-some-million dollars …

MARK SHIELDS: Twenty-four million dollars…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … to hold a special election.

MARK SHIELDS: … as you’re holding down the Meals on Wheels for people.

DAVID BROOKS: He was never Mother Teresa. He was a politician.

MARK SHIELDS: But he was different. He wasn’t such a self-serving — this was so transparently self-serving. Plus, he wouldn’t even let poor Frank Lautenberg be buried before he started speculating about the thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nothing self-serving about the two of you.

David and Mark, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Love your earrings.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On our home page, you can watch Mark and David’s conversation from 2007, when the issue of NSA wiretapping first dominated the news. Catch that. And don’t miss a special Doubleheader live with Mark and David on June 21.