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Shields and Brooks Look at Detention Policy, Election Race

October 5, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: An update of the story about secret Bush administration documents on interrogation, with the analysis of Shields and Brooks. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins.

KWAME HOLMAN: In again defending as legal the administration’s policies for interrogating alleged terrorists, the president insisted today the controversial methods have saved lives.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I have put this program in place for a reason, and that is to better protect the American people. And when we find somebody who may have information regarding a potential attack on America, you bet we’re going to detain them, and you bet we’re going to question them, because the American people expect us to find out information, actionable intelligence, so we can help them, help protect them. That’s our job. Secondly, this government does not torture people.

KWAME HOLMAN: But how torture is defined is at issue once again after the New York Times reported yesterday on two secret Justice Department memos leaked to the newspaper. In late 2004, the Justice Department publicly had called torture “abhorrent,” but according to the Times, Justice formulated a contradictory opinion in May 2005.

Under the leadership of then-new Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the department’s Office of Legal Counsel authorized in a memo a combination of painful physical and psychological interrogation methods. Those methods included head-slapping, simulated drowning, and exposure of detainees to frigid temperatures.

A follow-up memo said those interrogation practices did not violate legislation then pending in Congress to outlaw “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment.

Yesterday, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy blasted the president and the Justice Department on the floor of the Senate. He sought to place the revelations in a years-long continuum of disclosures about administration efforts to authorize harsh interrogation and, thereby, redefine torture.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: We’ve been here before. It would be bad enough if this administration had disgraced itself and this country by engaging in cruel and degrading treatment of detainees. It’s worse still that it enlisted the Justice Department in the effort to justify and cover up its activities.

KWAME HOLMAN: White House spokesperson Dana Perino said yesterday the newly disclosed memos did not conflict with the administration’s previous disavowals of torture. However, the White House rejected congressional Democrats’ demands to release the documents, saying that certain members of Congress had been notified of the administration’s legal judgment.

The chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller, issued a bluntly worded retort today, writing, “The administration can’t have it both ways. I’m tired of these games. They can’t say that Congress has been fully briefed while refusing to turn over key documents used to justify the legality of the program. The reality is the administration refused to disclose the program to the full committee for five years, and they have refused to turn over key legal documents since day one.”

Other congressional leaders have demanded the administration hand over the memos and have promised hearings into the administration’s handling of detainees and the methods it uses to interrogate them.

Examining interrogation tactics

David Brooks
New York Times
[T]he big, damaging thing about this is the difference between what we all thought was the administration interpretation of what could be done and what inside, apparently, this memo suggests they had agreed could be done.

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

Mark, what do you make of these interrogation memos?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, I think, Jim, we're going right back to where we were just two years ago. Two years ago, we had a major showdown. On one side of the battle was the administration, the White House, the attorney general then, Alberto Gonzales, but the president and the vice president, and on the other side were John McCain, John Warner, and Lindsey Graham in the Senate, Colin Powell, John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Hoar, former Marine general and chairman of Central Command.

And one side were those who said we're going to do this because it's extraordinary circumstances and we're going to take all these measures, this is unlike any other foe we've ever had. And McCain and Powell and Warner and others just said, no, this is totally not only violative of every American value, but it hurts our soldiers and troops in combat because it exposes them to greater possibility of torture, it gets unreliable information.

And in the final analysis, John McCain made the strongest case, as a member of the Senate, when he said, When I was a prisoner, and we were prisoners, and we were tortured, and many of my comrades died, what sustained us was our belief that we were different, that our system and our values were better.

JIM LEHRER: Is the administration in these memos taking the position, David, speaking of different, that the CIA interrogating suspects is different than the military, which was, of course, what Mark was going through and what this legislation was all about?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, there are sort of two issues here. One is, is it a good idea to torture?

JIM LEHRER: Period.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And then the second is the more legal issue, which these competing memos sort of we're talking about, which were, does the president have the legal authority based on precedent and all that to let the CIA do what it wants to do?

And to me, the political effect of this is a sense of elitism, a sense that people in the administration, some people in the administration, think, "This war on terror is serious. A lot of people don't take it as seriously as we are. They're not as hard and tough as we are. So we're going to put out one thing for the country, but secretly we tough guys are going to have another set of rules."

And so I think the big, damaging thing about this is the difference between what we all thought was the administration interpretation of what could be done and what inside, apparently, this memo suggests they had agreed could be done. And it's the gap between the private and the public that, to me, is the most damaging thing about this.

JIM LEHRER: Is it a little bit extraordinary that they put it all in writing?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I mean, they do go by the rules. And to be fair, one of the things the Times story made clear is that there's a group of lawyers that have been within in the Justice Department, no matter who the attorney general was, and they come from similar backgrounds, elite law schools, Supreme Court clerks, Federalist Society.

And what was fascinating and was well-described in the article was that this community of people who were friends split on this issue. And some of the lawyers decided this is within the president's rights. Some, who have very similar political philosophies said, no, this is an overreach. This is poorly argued.

So it was that split within the communities, and it depended on who happened to be sitting in what chair at what time that determined, seemingly, how the administration shifted. And, of course, within other non-legal parts of the administration, they wanted certain lawyers over others.

Media coverage of torture tactics

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The Army manual's been there for a generation of what you can do and you can't do.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Mark, we got here a case of two newspaper stories, a denial by the president and a counter-argument from Senator Rockefeller. Is anything else going to happen, or is that the end of this story?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I think, in the right now, talking to Democrats on the Hill today, in the Democratic -- in the appropriations, defense appropriations bill, there is specific tough language prohibiting and outlawing any of these past activities.

The cleavage, Jim, the fault line in this is between those who've worn the uniform and those who haven't. It's just remarkable. I mean, not only in the Senate, but even in the administration. I mean, people who have been in combat -- whether it's Powell or McCain or whoever -- or have ordered people into combat are overwhelmingly on one side against any of these practices.

JIM LEHRER: Even by the CIA?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the CIA, I think, they're pushing on that -- on the pro-torture side, the pro-tough side, as well, and then they have bureaucratic concerns. Is the stuff we did last year suddenly -- we're going to become legally culpable for it this year because the rules have changed?

MARK SHIELDS: The argument that's made is that, even if they do put it in there, even if the president signs it, he's already demonstrated, even after a public sort of Appomattox, if you would, with John McCain, the first time, two years ago, that they're going to ignore it. Lindsey Graham said the administration has to understand there isn't one branch of government. There's three. And this is a perfect example, I think.

DAVID BROOKS: I think the bottom line that nobody can dispute is that we're in the middle of the war, and we keep changing the rules in the middle of the war about what we can do, and the people who conduct these sorts of operations, the one thing they hate is gray areas. They want something that's black and white so they know what they can do and can't do, and this line has been moving around for five years.

MARK SHIELDS: The Army manual's been there for a generation of what you can do and you can't do.

The future for Blackwater

David Brooks
New York Times
Blackwater has never allowed a State Department employee to be killed -- there's never been a criminal conviction. There's been loose regulations about how they can behave.

JIM LEHRER: David, the Blackwater stories, the House hearings this week, does it emerge that it's the State Department that has a bigger problem than the Blackwater security group?

DAVID BROOKS: I think that is the story. I mean, I watched the hearings over the week, and to my point of view, they didn't lay a hand on Prince, the CEO of Blackwater. And all of the blame, I think -- not all of the blame, but much of the blame goes to the State Department, because these guys have been hired to do a job. Their job is to protect State Department employees. They don't have to worry about fighting counterinsurgency. They have an incentive to go off and annoy Iraqis. That's not their job.

And the problem has been that, in all the things they've done -- and to be fair, Blackwater has never allowed a State Department employee to be killed -- there's never been a criminal conviction. There's been loose regulations about how they can behave. The standards of the U.S. system of justice haven't applied there in sort of the gray zone floating out there.

So to me, the problem is not company. The problem is the oversight that went with the contract.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the problem is more basic than that. I think this is an administration, Jim, that at its philosophical core has an almost pathological hate of government, and their answer to virtually every problem is to privatize.

I mean, the reason our military is so small is that they privatized all the duties and all the responsibilities traditionally associated with the military, whether it's providing food for the troops, whether it's doing the laundry, whatever it is, now all of that is privatized.

And David's right: They privatized this in a way where there was no accountability, no responsibility. That wasn't Blackwater writing those rules. That was the provisional authority originally, but it was the administration and the State Department, in particular.

So they weren't in a gray area. They were in no area. There's no accountability. They're not under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. If a PFC did what some of these fellows are charged with, they'd be facing serious time.

DAVID BROOKS: This stuff started with Clinton. I mean, the KBR and all those things came into the military and were vital in what we did in Bosnia and under the Clinton years. The subcontractors were vital in what we did in fighting the tsunami. As the military changes, as you need highly skilled soldiers, it's just going to make a lot of sense to have subcontractors do some of the other work.

JIM LEHRER: Do the feeding, do the logistics?

DAVID BROOKS: And they do have certain rules of engagement they do have to obtain by, but this is a new situation, and they were unregulated.

MARK SHIELDS: I will say this about Blackwater, Mr. Prince. They did provide their troops, their employees with up-armored vehicles. They had mine-resistant armored vehicles. And to the point where our own military, those who volunteered to serve in uniform, don't have. So they had better working conditions in many respects than did our own troops.

Analyzing campaign contributions

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The best thing Rudy Giuliani has going for him is Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is the nemesis and the nightmare of Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: Some presidential politics, the new campaign contribution figures. What's the important news in those numbers to you, David?

DAVID BROOKS: A couple of things. One, the Democratic numbers were much larger than the Republican numbers.

JIM LEHRER: Just adding them all up?

DAVID BROOKS: There was just much of scale difference. Hillary Clinton has this dominating lead. It's not inevitable, but it's a dominating lead.

JIM LEHRER: Not only with money, but you mean in the polls?

DAVID BROOKS: Everything, momentum, conventional wisdom. And Obama, the problem is Obama is not closing the gap; the gap has been widening significantly over the period of months. So there's that thing.

And then I think you'd have to say Rudy Giuliani has a lead, but the Republican race is entirely different. Republicans have not made up their mind, so it's wide open. And to that extent, I think the money makes less of a difference on the Republican side.

I happened to see Giuliani and Fred Thompson speak today. And Giuliani gave a great speech. Fred Thompson was so boring it was in violation of the Geneva Convention. And so that's going to matter.

JIM LEHRER: Is that conviction?

DAVID BROOKS: It was the most boring political speech I've ever seen, and I'm still suffering from it. But that's going to matter a lot more than the money.

MARK SHIELDS: The best thing Rudy Giuliani has going for him is Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is the nemesis and the nightmare of Republicans. And what sustains Rudy Giuliani, the better she does among Democrats, and the more likely she looks as the nominee, the better Rudy's numbers.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

MARK SHIELDS: When asked by the Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, they said, "Who has the best chance of beating Hillary Clinton?" Forty-seven percent of those Republicans...

JIM LEHRER: But what's the...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, they see him as tough. They see him as somebody who's already passed a crisis. I mean, that's one thing. When you're hiring a president, you want to know how he's going to do in a crisis. They've seen that. But the virtue, the value he has is they think he can beat her.

JIM LEHRER: And they think he will go after her in a very tough way?

MARK SHIELDS: And they think he has an appeal beyond the base of the party, to independents, whatever. And so that's the first irony.

I agree with David that Senator Clinton had a wonderful week. She started a week ago with what's known in the trade as the full Ginsburg. The full Ginsburg is named after the attorney for Monica Lewinski, who was the only human being in history to have done five Sunday shows, news shows, and she did that on her health plan. Then she had the good news. She bested Obama on the money. And then comes a majority number poll in the Washington Post-ABC.

I would remind our viewers and my colleague that the national polls for a presidential nomination fight are a lagging political indicator, and the two gatekeeper contests have historically been Iowa and New Hampshire. And Iowa still remains very much a competitive race. But I do think that...

JIM LEHRER: Nobody has a lock, in other words, on the Democratic nomination?

MARK SHIELDS: Not at all. Not at all.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of David's less-than-complimentary comments about Fred Thompson's performance?

MARK SHIELDS: It's a cranky-esque side of David I've never seen before.

JIM LEHRER: Golly. Golly, Mark.