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Brooks and Marcus on Obama’s surveillance reforms, Benghazi attack blame

January 17, 2014 at 2:25 PM EDT
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus join Gwen Ifill to discuss the week's top political news, including whether or not President Obama went far enough with his recommended surveillance reforms, who's blame for the Benghazi attack and the possibility for new sanctions on Iran.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight: the analysis of Brooks and Marcus.

But, tonight, we have a surprise host.

GWEN IFILL: That’s right.

Judy’s off, so I thought I would sneak in for a little pre-“Washington Week” news analysis from Brooks and Marcus. That’s New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is off tonight.

So, we get to play in their absence.

So, David, today, we — a very newsy week. Today, we saw the president’s speech on privacy and surveillance and the NSA. Did he go far enough?

DAVID BROOKS: He went not very far.

You know, he had — he sort of said, I feel your pain, you people who are worried about NSA surveillance, you people who are worried about the invasion of privacy. I get it. I sort of see the argument.

But, ultimately, the president represents an institution. And he gets a daily intelligence brief. He represents the intelligence community. And you could tell today that he basically is grateful to that community, basically has a great deal of faith in that community.

And so he more or less sides with them on most issues, not on all issues, but on most issues. And I think they until have a fair…

GWEN IFILL: Did he feel — or did he succeed in making the case that they are essential, Ruth?

RUTH MARCUS: I’m going to actually disagree with David here…


RUTH MARCUS: … and say that I think the president went significantly further than you’re either giving him credit for or acknowledging.


RUTH MARCUS: And I think there are a lot of people in the intelligence community who are not happy with this outcome.

It’s — he is — he always does these things in a very measured way: I see this argument. I see that argument.

But, in this case, he did a few things that are really important. First of all, he — from my point of view, the most important is that he brought the FISA court into the process of this metadata review. I’m a big proponent of judicial review. I think that is a very big change.

I think another, we don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen yet — another change, I’m less convinced that it’s essential and I’m also not convinced that it’s doable, is the thought of taking this metadata and taking it out of government hands, putting it back into private hands.

GWEN IFILL: The third-party idea.

RUTH MARCUS: I’m a little queasy about that, given that Target apparently can’t keep my credit card data. I’m not sure if I — look, there is a risk in the government having all this data. And, to some extent, the NSA is apparently very unhappy with this idea.

They kind of only have themselves to blame, because they weren’t clear enough about this program, transparent enough about what they were doing, willing to discuss it before Edward Snowden thrust it out into the open.

But I do think that, while the president certainly didn’t do all the things that the civil liberties and privacy community wanted him to do, there are some pretty big steps here, and I haven’t even listed them all.


GWEN IFILL: Well, one of the things is he certainly was able to say, we’re not going to spy on our friends anymore.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And that, I think, is — there are two issues here. One is, do we accord people who are not U.S. citizens constitutional protections? And that, I am little queasy about. But simply on the prudential matter of spying on our allies, that was just…

RUTH MARCUS: On foreign leaders.

DAVID BROOKS: On foreign leaders, right.


DAVID BROOKS: That was just stupid. And so whether we are extending rights or not, I don’t care about.

It was as a prudential matter for our own good. It is just insulting to them. And so there, I thought the gesture was absolutely right. More broadly, it depends how we are grading how much he moved. So, if we are grading by the advisory panel that issued these recommendations a couple weeks ago, he didn’t go there. He want some way there, but he didn’t go there.

And I would say one thing is going to happen. Fearless prediction. As the snooping technology gets better and better and better, people are going to get more and more nervous. The president — successive presidents are to the going to move as much, because the intelligence community, they are beholden to them.

GWEN IFILL: But, before that…

DAVID BROOKS: And we will have a clash.

GWEN IFILL: But, before that happens, doesn’t Congress have to play along with some of his ideas? And have we seen that happening a lot?



RUTH MARCUS: And this is a really complicated question.

There are certain things that the president can do by executive order or fiat and just order. There are other things, like bringing these privacy advocates into the FISA court to a certain extent — not as much as the panel recommended — that he is going to need congressional help on.

And let’s just think about how hard it is to get Congress to agree on, say, a spending bill. We got one this week. That is going to be a very raucous debate. And it’s going to be hard to do anything legislatively.

David brings up another really interesting point about the president’s suggesting that he was going to treat non-U.S. citizens in some senses equivalently or at least level the playing field with the protections that U.S. citizens get. He wasn’t very clear about how he is going to do that. And there is in all of these speeches a little bit of a “I haven’t quite completely baked the cake and we’re going to figure it out down the road” quality.

So, I think it is really important for all of to us keep our eye on the ball as it really emerges and develops.

DAVID BROOKS: There is a lot of Gitmo — Gitmo here, where…


DAVID BROOKS: … we’re going to close it, but we haven’t figured out how to do it.

RUTH MARCUS: So, I’m appointing a panel to look at it. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. So, we should put the NSA hearings, put them in Gitmo.

GWEN IFILL: And in the end, Congress may decide that they don’t really want to go along with your plan proposing on where the prisoners should go, which is what we saw again this week. I want to move on to Benghazi. The headline was Benghazi, the uprising, the killing, the sad assault that took the lives of Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, was preventable. So, after looking at the report and seeing what all sides have had to say about it, was it?

RUTH MARCUS: Yes. You read the report, and you want really to cry, because there is warning after warning after warning.

You see the security situation in Libya deteriorating. You see General Ham of the African Command offering repeatedly to Chris Stevens, do you want me to leave these forces with you to protect you? And, simultaneously, the embassy is asking for — Stevens is saying no to that, but simultaneously asking for additional help from State. It is not forthcoming.

It’s just a tragic moment of — not just because the committee concluded that it was preventable, but some of the ways in which it was preventable, we knew after the embassy attacks back in the ’90s.

GWEN IFILL: So, if it could have been prevented, whose fault it that it wasn’t, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Not Hillary Clinton’s, to be fair. The political bottom line of this…

GWEN IFILL: She was secretary of state, State Department.


No, but this is an operational matter. You are not expecting the secretary — in my view, to be fair, the secretary of state is not in charge of something this, frankly, low-level, this operational. She’s in charge of the larger policy agenda. So I do not think — if you want the political bottom line, it will be a talking point in the campaign, I’m sure.

Whether it will be an effective one, I’m extremely dubious of that.

GWEN IFILL: This wasn’t the end of this discussion?



DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it was closer to the end than the beginning. I think we’re getting toward the end of the whole Benghazi…


RUTH MARCUS: I think we’re getting to the end of endlessly debating the talking points and word changes in the talking points.

I don’t think, for the obvious reasons, that we’re getting to the end of the Hillary — “Was Hillary Clinton responsible?” debate, though I agree with everything that David said about what the role of a secretary of state is. It’s not to figure out what the security posture of an outpost is.

GWEN IFILL: But how much of the keeping this alive, just politically, is about keeping a weapon to wield against Hillary Clinton?

We saw TIME magazine this week had her on the cover, or at least a leg that looked like her on the cover, and the title was, “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?” Obviously, Benghazi is one of reasons — things they want to use to stop her.

DAVID BROOKS: Have we ever met a voter who is going to vote on Benghazi? No, I really don’t think so.

I mean, it is an issue. It is a thing. If she’s going to be stopped in the primaries, it’s going to be because there is a challenge from the left, which I think is a very plausible 20 percent possibility. And if she is going to be stopped in the general election, it is just because of health care.

So, you know, it’s always important when you think about elections, just picture on — the two or three big issues. And this ain’t one of them.

RUTH MARCUS: And the people who are going to rail about Hillary Clinton and dereliction of duty in Benghazi, they’re not her voters anyway.

GWEN IFILL: And not only that, but we remember President Giuliani may have been on the cover of a couple of these magazines a couple of years ago.

DAVID BROOKS: Also in high heels.




RUTH MARCUS: I looked at the TIME cover and I thought, what took you so long? It’s already January 2014, guys.


GWEN IFILL: Two more years to go.

OK, let me talk to you a little bit about what happened both in Iran — or with the Iran negotiations. In fact, it seems like Congress is digging its heels in on this idea of sanctions. And there may be enough votes to stop John Kerry and his plan to come up with a deal. How serious is that?


Well, if you think the Kerry deal is the end-all and be-all of the greatest ago of diplomacy since, I don’t know, Metternich, then you are in mourning, because it is under some threat. I thought it was — what Kerry is doing is worth trying, but always had a very low probability of success.

And I think that is a view shared by a lot of people who are actually doing the deal. And so I don’t think it’s a great threat. And the Iranians are not doing it because we have made them feel good. They are doing it because the sanctions are actually working.

And I sort of do buy the argument that a lot on Capitol Hill are making, that to have an extra layer of sanctions, an extra threat of sanctions, a little nastiness from the U.S., actually does further the possibility, which is remote, that Iran will not get nuclear weapons.

RUTH MARCUS: I think that the notion that sanctions are in the air, additional sanctions are in the air, that Iran has come to the table, if it leaves the table without having concluded a meal — I am going to torture this metaphor — that it’s going to end up worse off than it was previously is very healthy.

So it’s kind of good that there’s this Sturm und Drang. It wouldn’t be healthy, I don’t think — and I think some of the momentum for this is dissipating, especially in the Senate — it wouldn’t be healthy to have a new sanctions bill pass, even if it were one that would take effect only if everything blows up six months from now.

GWEN IFILL: There was some talk that this week, when Senate Democrats went to the White House, that the president had a martini with an olive and he was talking to them, obviously trying to get them to back away from this idea.

Is there anything he can do or say to Senate Democrats, members of his own party, to make them not do this?


GWEN IFILL: Please? Maybe.


RUTH MARCUS: What — he doesn’t — he doesn’t scare them. They’re mad at him for the health care debacle.


He can make an argument. And I think, look, this is a serious issue of foreign policy. This isn’t sort of building a bridge and doing some pork spending. So, I think he can make the argument. And I think he did have some impact there, but not so much sort of, do it for me, guys.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Chuck Schumer is in leadership, and he’s not doing it. He’s got his position, which is against the administration.

GWEN IFILL: This is not about loyalty, you don’t think?


GWEN IFILL: Before we go, I want to talk — we have seen what feels like a rash of retirements happening on Capitol Hill, at least three members of the House. And, today, we hear Sen.Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, because of health reasons, is stepping aside two years early. Is it a rash? Is it an exodus that we’re seeing, or is this just typical? And does it matter?

RUTH MARCUS: I think it’s pretty typical.

I think it doesn’t matter, in the sense of none of these retirements that we have seen in the last week or so are apt to tip the balance of power in either the House or the Senate. I think it matters in the sense of, we are having — ending up with an extraordinarily inexperienced Congress, people who haven’t had a lot of time in office, don’t know how the place works, don’t know each other.

Forty-six percent of House Republicans have been there for three years or less, 43 new senators since 2008. This is one of the newest, newbiest Congresses.

GWEN IFILL: Newbiest?


RUTH MARCUS: I don’t know.

GWEN IFILL: That was good.

RUTH MARCUS: Thank you.

Save me from that, David. Take it away.



DAVID BROOKS: So, let’s talk about the oldsters what are leaving.

Now, one of the ones I admire is this guy George Miller, a House liberal, very liberal Democrat.

GWEN IFILL: Nancy Pelosi’s right hand.

DAVID BROOKS: But most important is maybe the only member of the House who really understands education policy, and so a lot of human capital there, and sometimes taking votes on education policy very independent of what you would think of as the liberal party line on that issue.

And so what you are losing is people like that for a bunch of Ruth’s newbies.

GWEN IFILL: But Tom Coburn…

RUTH MARCUS: They’re not my newbies. They’re your newbies.


GWEN IFILL: Dr. No, you don’t think that is a loss?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I — just because I mentioned…

GWEN IFILL: Well, I’m trying to…

DAVID BROOKS: No, so, Coburn is — again, he has expertise on spending. He’s got expertise on health care.

So you are losing — if you want term limits, you Are sort of getting it de facto. And if you don’t want term limits, which is the intelligent position, you are in a bit of mourning.


Well, thank you both very much. I think you just got me warmed up.

I’m headed over to Washington Week, where we will tell you what really happened behind the scenes on all those topics and more…


GWEN IFILL: … on air and online.

That’s later tonight right here on your PBS station.