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Shields and Brooks Weigh CIA Tapes, U.S. Policy on Iran

December 7, 2007 at 6:15 PM EDT
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CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden said his agency had destroyed tapes of terror suspect interrogations, a new report revealed surprising information on Iran's nuclear program and presidential candidate Mitt Romney discussed his Mormon faith in a key speech. Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week in the news.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how does the CIA tapes thing look to you?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, Jim, in a week in which the intelligence community was kind of reasserting that things have changed and we’re not what we used to be, it’s a black eye for the CIA.

JIM LEHRER: Because of the…

MARK SHIELDS: Their statement of independence on Iran.

JIM LEHRER: On Iran, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: So it turns out, as the story unfolds, that the only reason that we learned about it was that the New York Times was about to break it and break the story itself.

And it was only under the fear of this revelation that the agency came clean and we get back-and-forth on Congress contradicting what the CIA has said they told them and were informed, members of Congress, and whether in fact — Peter Hoekstra, Republican, former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee from Michigan, saying that he was not informed. Jay Rockefeller said he was told only a year after the fact. It’s not a positive development.

JIM LEHRER: Words like “stupid” and “cover-up” were used earlier on in the discussion. Are those the kind of words you would use, David?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, I’ve sort of been following the 9/11 Commission members just to see how they would react and gauging their reaction, and it’s been hostile, the Lee Hamiltons, the Tom Keans, the Phil Zelikows of the world.

I would say their reaction has been so far measured, because we don’t have the full story. But you can tell from the mood of their comments that there was a sense of maybe betrayal, of anger, surprise, a little bit of shock. So I think they’re taking this quite seriously.

And as Mark indicates, if you’re going to fight this kind of war, you have to have some sort of trust in your intelligence agencies. You know they can’t tell you everything. Not everything can be open. But if they’re going to have that privilege of doing some things in the dark, which they have to have, the public has to be able to say, “OK, we trust you guys to do the right thing, basically.”

And stories like this just tremendously erode any public trust in those agencies.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, I mean, this is an erosion situation for the CIA?

MARK SHIELDS: It is, Jim. And the indication that they were destroyed after the court judgment on the Freedom of Information request made that they be made available, you know, makes it even more serious. So it even compounds the mistrust.

JIM LEHRER: So a congressional investigation is warranted, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, yes. I think…

JIM LEHRER: Inevitable?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s inevitable and probably warranted. You know, you have to — as I say, you’ve got be able — and as Mark said, you have to be able to trust the intelligence agencies. The CIA seems to have gotten their act together, but this is sort of a ghost from the past.

Iran's nuclear weapons program

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
In a practical sense, the administration is left without a policy toward Iran. I mean, obviously, comprehensive sanctions, involving all sorts of countries, becomes less plausible and less likely.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let's talk about the other CIA story, which is the new intelligence estimate on Iran, which said that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. What do you make of that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, in a practical sense, the administration is left without a policy toward Iran. I mean, obviously, comprehensive sanctions, involving all sorts of countries, becomes less plausible and less likely. And the military threat is off the table completely.

So it's left with what has been urged upon it by Democratic opponents, which is robust negotiation, an involved engagement with Iran. So that's the direct consequence, I think, of what we found out this week.

JIM LEHRER: But the president said this was good news, David, that it showed that the intelligence community was working.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, it's good news if the nuclear threat is less imminent, but the threat is still there. And it's important to emphasize the key point: We haven't been upset about the nuclear weapons program. We've been upset about the enrichment program.

And as the intelligence made clear, they halted both, but they restarted the enrichment. If you can enrich the uranium, then, later on, you can bring in the weapons program to actually produce nuclear weapons. So the threat is still there from enrichment.

But I think we've learned two things. First, it's not as imminent a threat. The next president probably won't face a nuclear-armed Iran any time soon.

And, second, I think it reflects something on the Iranian government. And what it reflects is there are at least some parts of the Iranian government that are a little nervous about this program, that are nervous about the international pressure that was brought to bear.

Remember, it was suspended in 2003. The inspectors were coming in. The U.S. had just taken out Saddam. There were a lot of carrots and sticks being offered.

And so there are parts of the Iranian government that respond to incentives. And that's really been the fear. The fear is that Iran is run by these mad mullahs who don't act rationally, who are likely to do something insane, and who are not deterrable. But what this indicates is that the government of Iran, at least large parts of it, are deterrable, are basically rational actors.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I do. I think there's a couple of parts of it, first of all that Iran -- you can make the case that Iran did respond to the invasion, occupation, toppling of Saddam, and said, "My goodness, these guys"...

JIM LEHRER: If they can do it to them, they might do it to us.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. "These guys are capable of doing it to us," and they did respond to that.

And the biggest winners, I think it's fair to say, in the Iraqi war have been the Iranians. Their number-one nemesis, Saddam, was removed. The Iraqi army was dismantled. And they have a friendly government in Baghdad. So it's hard to make a case that, in the long term, that the war hasn't been good for them.

In a strange way, Jim, the Arab nations were not really that negative toward the implied threat of the United States toward Iran, because it did keep Iran, a break on their nuclear pursuit, they felt, and as well as it kind of limited their or inhibited, anyway, their more aggressive actions with Hezbollah and Hamas.

DAVID BROOKS: I was in Jordan a couple of weeks ago with the intelligence officials there. And what struck me -- and now it all makes sense -- they were extremely alarmed about Iran. They were alarmed about Hamas, Hezbollahization of Hamas, the threat to the Jordanian government, the threat to the Palestinians on the West Bank.

But when we asked about the nuclear weapons, "It's not a big deal." And clearly they knew some of this intelligence, as the White House knew months and months ago.

But that does not mean that they were not terrified of an aggressive Iran. And it does not mean that the enrichment program, the uranium threat or the nuclear prospects for Iran are going away. They're just pushed back a little.

U.S. policy toward Iran

David Brooks
The New York Times
I think if you talk to the Europeans, and the president spoke to [Vladimir] Putin a few days ago, they're still basically alarmed at the thought, long term, of a nuclear-armed Iran, but it's more long term than it seemed.

JIM LEHRER: The bottom line, David: Should the United States' policy toward Iran change as a result of this new intelligence?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, as I've said on this program a zillion times, we are not going to launch any military action against Iran. I never thought that was true, and it...

JIM LEHRER: It was never on the table in the first place, you didn't think.

DAVID BROOKS: I never thought it was on the table. But as far as the sanctions, that's clearly still part of U.S. policy, as it should be.

It's become difficult in this way: We've spent a lot of efforts trying to get private companies not to do business in Iran. A lot of private companies just in the last few days have been telling the U.S. government, "What are you worried about? We're going to go ahead and do our business."

So it's become a little more difficult. But I think if you talk to the Europeans, and the president spoke to Putin a few days ago, they're still basically alarmed at the thought, long term, of a nuclear-armed Iran, but it's more long term than it seemed.

MARK SHIELDS: The axis of evil has really been dealt a serious blow here, Jim. We've got the president pen pals now with Kim Jong Il. We've got -- Iran will be negotiating with him soon. We entered into a long-term military mutual defense pact with Maliki government last week. So, you know, there is a sea change.

There is an embarrassment here politically at home; there's no doubt about it. It's an embarrassment for the administration.

JIM LEHRER: Explain the embarrassment.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the president was -- the saber-rattling, the nuke-rattling that both the president and the vice president have indulged in just up until short weeks ago. And each Republican candidate in turn competed as to who could be the more militantly confrontational and bellicose about Iran. Now they've got to walk back from that.

And it's embarrassing to Senator Clinton, because it will become an issue in the campaign Democratic primary fight. She'd been on the defensive about her vote in the Senate, voting with the White House, with the president, in naming and identifying the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group.

She had been criticized for this by her Democratic opponents. And so further identification with the administration on a vote that turns out to be not a particularly helpful vote for her is not a plus.

DAVID BROOKS: They're still a terrorist organization. But to me, it is embarrassing, because a lot of people did get out there a little far on the Iranian threat.

To me, the big political effect is, over the past several months now, a lot of good things have happened in the world which make the world seem less dangerous. We've had this Iranian situation, where the nuclear threat seems pushed off. Iraq is more stable than it has been. The Pakistan situation, which really could have been ugly, is not ugly and I think was handled reasonably well. The Palestinians and the Israelis are involved in some sort of peace process.

So the effect is the world seems a little less scary than it did seem three or four months ago, and it's changed the political atmosphere in the country. It means you don't have to elect someone like Giuliani or Clinton who you may not like but who you think is tough.

You're less likely to want to do that. You have more luxury to choose someone you might like. And that, I think, is why Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee have risen, because foreign policy is less salient, domestic policy is more so.

Foriegn policy in 2008 election

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Everybody is going after him [Mike Huckabee]. But he's authentic. He's likable. He's real. And I think that's contributed to his rise.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that analysis?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I do agree with it. I think that Rudy Giuliani, his fate rises with the terrorist threat. It's totally -- if the world looks like a dangerous place, you say, "Hey, look, this guy isn't much on civil liberties. He's no day at the beach, but he's going to protect us."

JIM LEHRER: He's tough.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. Hillary Clinton has probably been the most muscular of Democrats, maybe the most manly -- not to be a wise guy, but I think in many of the debates.

So I think, in that sense, when you can go to other factors -- I mean, in a strange way, the surge in Iraq has, to the degree that casualties have been reduced, have hurt both Giuliani and Clinton, because it's removed Iraq as a -- not as a dominant issue or a central issue, but as a salient issue that almost is emotionally carrying the Democratic voters.

So in that sense, they can going to other issues, to health, to a question of change, to a new direction, to perhaps making history in a different way. And I think that has contributed to it.

And Mike Huckabee, I think, is about to be the target. Let's be very honest about it. He's about to get shot at...

JIM LEHRER: Everybody is going after him, huh?

MARK SHIELDS: Everybody is going after him. But he's authentic. He's likable. He's real. And I think that's contributed to his rise. It's not been some sort of a religious movement by itself.

Romney's speech on Mormonism

David Brooks
The New York Times
Politically, from the people I spoke to, it [Romney's speech] was a success. Evangelical leaders, conservative Christians, social conservatives, they liked the speech.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the religious thing, how did you think Mitt Romney did in his speech to the group in Texas?

DAVID BROOKS: Politically, from the people I spoke to, it was a success. Evangelical leaders, conservative Christians, social conservatives, they liked the speech. So, politically, I think it was a success.

I have some problems with it personally. I think he appealed to those social conservatives on two grounds, one of which is great, the other is less great.

The first one, he appealed to them on the grounds of religious liberty and the American creed that we don't discriminate. And that was great.

The second way he appealed I have a little more problem with. He essentially created this war, a war between the faithful, who are all supposed to be together, against the faithless, against the secular. And he said, "We're in this war against the secular. All of us believers have to stick together."

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it that way? Is that the problem for you?

MARK SHIELDS: The problem for me -- I mean, there was one phrase, I mean, beyond personal testimony. Excessive religiosity has intruded in our politics to the point where candidates feel obliged to give this personal testimony about it.

I mean, the idea that religion depends on freedom and freedom depends on religion, I find just, quite frankly, offensive. I mean, there's an awful lot of good Americans who do not belong to a church, who are nonbelievers, who are good patriots, good citizens, and care deeply about their community and their country. And I found that offensive.

But it did work as a political document. It was a primary Republican statement, Jim. It was not John Kennedy. People will not be talking about this speech in 47 years as they are about Kennedy before the Houston ministers.

JIM LEHRER: This was aimed at Republicans. This was a particular kind of Republican...

MARK SHIELDS: It mainstreamed Mormonism for a lot of people. And David is right in that sense. It did establish a bond and a similarity that, "We have similar values." And I think that was the purpose of the speech, and it was done in a setting that made him look presidential.

JIM LEHRER: OK, thank you both very much.