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Experts Discuss Ukraine and Intel Bill Reform

November 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who joins us from Philadelphia. Welcome gentlemen. Let’s talk first about how the Bush administration has handled this Ukraine crisis. David, it seems to me this is a situation that pits the president’s friendship with Vladamir Putin against the president’s rhetoric about the importance of spreading democracy. How do you think the administration has done on that meter?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s actually been pretty light-footed. They have pulled a little away from Putin. I think Putin and Bush had their first confrontation about democratization a few weeks ago.

And I think when the Ukraine situation hit, I think they said we don’t really accept the results of the election but we haven’t forced the Ukrainians or Russians into a corner. We haven’t hardened the situation prematurely, which is what you’ve got to do.

These are countries we care about for non-proliferation reasons; we still care about they’re pseudo powers in the world. So you’ve got to register your protest and make surety protestors know you’re on their side but you can’t whip up nationalist feelings among Kuchma and the establishment.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think –

MARK SHIELDS: I think, first of all, Margaret, you have to start with the premise you cannot impose a fraudulently elected president on any free nation and the United States can’t stand idly by.

I think David’s last point is the key one. I mean, this is something that has a life of its own. It is a rather remarkable move, there’s no question about it.

As far as the relationship between the United States and Russia, we have been very tolerant of Putin’s excesses, whether in Chechnya or in his own country of his own political enemies.

And I think this will be a test as well for the European Union. I mean, do they want to nurture their democracy in Kiev or do they want to nurture their own relations with Moscow? Does Putin himself respond and see this as another attempt to limit Russia’s own autonomy and interests?

So this thing is beyond the drama and the wonderful human element that is going on right now in the Ukraine. It is, I think… it’s fraught with political difficulties and tensions.

MARGARET WARNER: And different angles, not to mention the fact that Moscow’s guy is the one who thinks he would keep Ukrainian troops in Iraq and the reformer that President Bush is supporting is the one who says he’d pull the troops out.

Anyway, David, let’s move on to the intelligence bill which seemed to be the hot political story here this week.

Last weekend, two Republican committee chairmen, Duncan Hunter of Armed Services, Jim Sensenbrenner of Judiciary, put a halt to this deal that had been worked out between House and Senate negotiators including with the House Republican Intelligence Committee chairman.

And this is also a bill that the president says he supports. What are the politics behind this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s increasingly restive House. Basically they had a meeting on the House side on Capitol Hill and most of the members hadn’t read the bill, didn’t know the bill. They were looking for leadership.

And Hunter and Sensenbrenner stood up and said for different reasons, one having to do with immigration, one having to do with the fear that battlefield commanders would not have control of their own intelligence units, they said we can’t accept this bill.

And what you’re seeing is House Republicans feeling much more free to stand up to the president and stand up to their own leaders. I think for a couple of reasons.

They have been suppressed for two or three years by the need to reelect Bush. They have withheld a lot of their own true opinions on things like the Medicare prescription drug bill and all sorts of other issues, spending issues, because they said we’ve got to stand loyally behind the president.

Well, that’s all gone. The president is reelected and now they feel much more free to voice their true concerns and they really feel it is important for Congress to stand up. The Executive branch since Sept. 11 has really been the key branch of government.

These people in Congress say hey I was elected too; the Constitution gives me an equal role in determining policy; no more laying down before you guys.

So this intelligence bill while important in and of itself I think is the harbinger of a lot of Capitol Hill’s Pennsylvania Avenue fights that we are going to see even among this one body, the Republican Party.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it that way, Mark – something like this as a declaration of independence or an assertion of independence by conservative House Republicans?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it’s that deep. First of all you are seeing something that we never thought we would see, a Republican obstructionism. This is the charge against the Democrats.

They obstruct. I mean there were big majorities in favor of the bill in both the House and the Senate. It would have passed easily. It was a time for change. There’s a moment when, as Tom Keane, the chairman of the 9/11 Commission put it so well, there is always an army for the status quo.

And what they did was tap into the army for the status quo. The argument advanced by Duncan Hunter and by those in the Pentagon that field commanders in combat would be deprived of intelligence isn’t even a straw man.

It isn’t even a red herring. I mean, it is so absolutely mythical and fraudulent in itself. There is no way the president is suggesting George Bush would support a bill that would deprive military commanders in combat of that.

I think what you have is Duncan Hunter is representing the Armed Services Committee, it’s a jurisdictional fight, it’s a power fight. Eighty percent of the intelligence budget is controlled by the Pentagon. Don Rumsfeld -

MARGARET WARNER: And that committee.

MARK SHIELDS: And by that committee. And don’t forget the satellites that are chosen and purchased, billions in spy satellites, the manufacturers, most of which are in California.

I don’t want to say that there is an economic interest in this, but that’s a lot of power for any committee to exercise, to influence, and to be heeded.

Don Rumsfeld went so far as to say that the president, George Bush, is on record saying this even though he has yet to make a public statement or making a press conference or even speech.

He said the president’s position is evolving on this. George Bush just won an election, a very important election on the basis that he was strong, he was unequivocal, he didn’t trim, he’s a guy who said what he meant and meant what he said.

And now his position is evolving because he wouldn’t come out and take on Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers.

MARGARET WARNER: Pick up on that, David. Decode for us what the White House and the administration at the Pentagon really is doing here. Do they really want a bill?

Is the president now going to really push for this on the – when the members return for that brief little session in early December, or not?

DAVID BROOKS: Does the Pentagon want a bill, I suspect not, for the reasons Mark alluded to. Does Rumsfeld want a bill in his heart of hearts when he goes to bed at night, I suspect probably not.

But in the final analysis, I think when you talk to people on Capitol Hill and say why didn’t the Bush administration push a little harder on this, the things I have been told involve first of all that Rumsfeld actually wasn’t that active in the final days.

In the months leading up, Myers and Rumsfeld were a little active but in the final days he was disappointed he did not play a role. People on Capitol Hill also mention to the coincidence and the freak chance that when this thing really came to a head, the president was in Chile.

He made some calls but, you know, a face-to-face meeting with the president is a lot more persuasive than the few phone calls from the guy on the plane to Chile.

But the final thing I’d have to say is that I’m not sure even if the president was sitting there if he could have won this victory.

Once you get two chairmen with a bunch of people from two different caucuses – remember, we have got the Pentagon people in Congress who are loyal to the Pentagon and then we have this whole immigration wing which I think is a much bigger group of members, who are opposing this thing for entirely different reasons.

Once you get these two large groups of House members saying no, it is very hard for the fought say “yes” and overrule them. I spoke to Newt Gingrich about this and he made the correct point, which was that individual members of Congress find it very easy to stand up to a president if they want to.

They find it very hard to stand up to their own constituents. And without any public groundswell supporting this thing, or even establishment groundswell, they were able to stand up.

MARGARET WARNER: David, do you think then the president can afford to let this die? You don’t agree with Mark?

I think Mark was saying essentially he will look like he really wasn’t interested or he will look impotent when he controls both Houses of Congress.

DAVID BROOKS: I think he cares about it. The question is what can he do about it? What can he trade away? What can he give? I happen to think if you talk to people on Capitol Hill, there is a lot of pessimism about whether they can get this thing passed.

To me, if you actually look at the substance of the matter, it seems they can separate off the immigration side that Sensenbrenner is upset about and then get this thing passed.

But on the merits, I basically agree with Mark and the 9/11 Commission, this is a good piece of legislation.

But let’s not forget the fact that what people are upset about when it comes to our intelligence community is our inability to place human intelligence on the ground in places like Iraq. And we shouldn’t think this legislation addresses that.

This moves boxes around from the bureaucratic flow chart. It’s a good idea but there is a whole other range of intelligence that Bush is doing independently by executive order and that matters too.

MARGARET WARNER: John Lehman, the 911 Commission, the former secretary of the Navy was on the program Wednesday night and he actually said this fight about the money is in fact a fight about getting enough money carved away for human intelligence, and that’s what keeps getting lost.

DAVID BROOKS: If you’ve got the leadership.

MARGARET WARNER: Yeah. Mark, what is your reading of the Hill? Are the people you are talking to pretty pessimistic that anything is going to happen because Speaker Hastert did say he was going to bring it back?

MARK SHIELDS: The speaker could have passed it with Democratic votes.

MARGARET WARNER: Depending on the Democrats.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, and I think there was no question the Democrats would have passed it. The Democrats are enjoying this because they’re watching the Republicans fumble and bumble and look like the gang that can’t shoot straight — this and the appropriations as well.

So they’re both kind of enjoying it. They don’t have much power or clout themselves so they’re delighting in what’s going on before them, but I don’t think there’s an question a majority of the House would have voted for the bill.

I think the Sensenbrenner — Jim Sensenbrenner’s thing could have been handled very, very easily –the driver’s license — not giving driver’s license to illegal aliens.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m hearing a prediction from you.

MARK SHIELDS: Do I think it will be passed? I think it comes down to whether the White House sees this the way I see it and I’m not sure the White House will see it the way I see it.

They have very rarely — the president is going to look like somebody who is not a man of his world, not a strong leader who has been rolled by Duncan Hunter and Jim Sensenbrenner. Is that how they want the president to look?

DAVID BOIES: If I could just add, I think Hastert is the key player here. I really think we have to get out of the idea of thinking that George Bush runs the country, runs the capital.

The Congress is going to assert itself as an equal branch of government. And Hastert’s role is the interesting one here. Members of the House love Hastert. They love the guy. They’re ambivalent about DeLay, many of them. They love Hastert.

And if you really ask them, I think he can get it done. I think we really have to look at the House as its own body now that really is going to run itself. I happen to think they can get it done because Hastert does seem to care.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think Hastert’s credibility as a leader is at stake here?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Hastert didn’t want to run the risk of losing them both, but I have to say I disagree with David. I’m not saying the House wants to be independent. Sure it does and it has been.

The Congress was an equal branch for about ten years from the end of the Cold War forward until Sept. 11. Then the president became, as he does in a time of war, crisis, depression, becomes the central branch of government.

When the president speaks, he is the one voice who can speak to all of us, to all of us at the same time.

If George W. Bush, I don’t care what the Congress wants to do and how self important they feel after this election, if he stands up and says this necessary in the national security of the country to avoid we never have another 9/11 where the intelligence agencies aren’t talking to each other and aren’t coordinating information, then I’ll tell you, it passes.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We leave it there. Mark, David, thank you.