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Shields and Brooks Gauge 9/11 Trials, Afghan Troop Decision

November 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks break down the top political headlines of the past week, including Justice Department plans to try five Guantanamo Bay detainees in federal court in New York, and President Obama's Afghan strategy review.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, to the analysis of Shields and Brooks.

Judy Woodruff does the duty tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s, of course, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and “New York Times” columnist David Brooks.

So, gentlemen, the decision announced today by the attorney general to move the key suspects on 9/11 to New York City to be tried in civilian courts.

David, what did you make, not only of the decision, but of the attorney general’s explanation to Jim in that interview?

DAVID BROOKS: I found it disturbing, because the terrorists not only get to attack the country and make a global statement that way. Now they’re going to have a public trial to make more statements.

And potential future terrorists will also know that, if caught, they can have a trial, sort of an international reality TV show, to make their statements.

And the second thing that disturbed me is that, so many years after 9/11, we don’t seem to have made the distinction between what happened on 9/11 and crime. In the interview with Jim, Mr. Holder repeatedly called it the crime of the century and a crime.

I think it was an act of war. And I think the trial will — has national security consequences. And, as a result, in my opinion — and I think it’s going to be the American public’s opinion — he should have consulted Barack Obama. He should have consulted some people involved in the national security apparatus of the country, because the trial will have nationally security implications.

So, you separate it as a crime, and therefore to separate it from President Obama, to separate it from everybody else involved, concerned with the national security of the country seems to me a gigantic mistake.

Mr. Holder’s wife and brother notwithstanding, they’re not in charge of the national security of the country. And I think it should be intermixed with that, because what happened on 9/11 was not a crime. It was an act of war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I like David, I am surprised that he did not consult with the president.

But I think to…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re surprised?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m surprised. I really am.

I think this is a big decision, a major decision. I do dissent from David’s analysis in the sense that the crime vs. war crime or act of war distinction was not really available to Holder, to Eric Holder, because of the Supreme Court decisions. The Supreme Court had ruled that the constitutional guarantees had to extended to these people who have been held.

So, that’s already happened. The ball was in his lap, in his court. And I think as well he’s somewhat inhibited, obviously, by the actions of interrogation and water-boarding that have gone on in the past.

I think there’s enormous symbolic significance in doing it in New York. I agree it’s an unpopular decision. The applause or the praise has been muted, to the point of silence, so far today from what I have been able to find out.

But I’m not sure that the decision available to him, given the court rulings, was…

DAVID BROOKS: But I think he had the option to do military tribunals, as some of the other defendants are going to have. And that would have been appropriate, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that that’s what he should have done?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m saying I think there obviously is a consideration that — of the treatment internationally. I think that’s part of the consideration of Mr. Holder. He didn’t talk that way. He kept it straight and narrow with Jim, and rather limited in his answers.

But, you know, I think there are implications that go to foreign policy, to the country — to our nation in the world, our standing in the world, to what has happened in terms of rendition in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think justice will…

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well…


DAVID BROOKS: I mean, what is terrorism? The real targets of a terrorist attack are not the people who are killed. It’s the message that is sent to the country, the act of intimidation. It’s the message of rallying radicals in other parts of the world. And that’s what terrorism is. That’s why terrorism is a unique form of warfare.

This trial will become another act of propaganda. The future trials will become other acts of propaganda. And I think we have to understand that terrorism works through propaganda, not through simply killing. And, therefore, controlling the propaganda effects of an act of terrorism seems to me part of the process we should adapt.

They should have the rights that they’re afforded by the Supreme Court and by the Constitution, but that doesn’t mean we need to provide them with another propaganda opportunity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don’t think justice can be done?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think — I suspect, I’m sure, they will be found guilty. And I’m not even that concerned, though I would be a little concerned, about what’s going to happen in Lower Manhattan while the trial is going on.

As I say, to me, the key issue is the propaganda victory.

MARK SHIELDS: I think propaganda can be dealt with by the coverage of the trial, quite frankly.

But I do think that it’s going to be awfully tough to get a jury of 12 sentient, conscious human beings in New York who have — who open and unbiased on this question. I mean, in a strange way, you may have guaranteed a hanging jury by choosing New York.

Greg Craig's resignation

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
It was beyond public embarrassment. It was humiliation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quick question. Jim also asked the attorney general about the decision to let Greg -- for Greg Craig to leave the White House, the president's counsel.

Mark, the attorney general said with a straight faced it no connection to the Guantanamo...

MARK SHIELDS: I couldn't measure his nose, in Pinocchio style, just how far it went out.

This was a major event, not beyond the beltway. But, in this city, it was a significant event. Greg Craig is an exceptional human being of great ability, great accomplishment, and great integrity.

And he went early with Barack Obama, even though he had defended Bill Clinton, even though, as a State Department official, he had negotiated between China and Tibet. He was a great attorney in town. And he gave Barack Obama great loyalty and gave him great credibility by going with him when nobody expected him to win.

And he was treated not shabbily. He was -- it was beyond public embarrassment. It was humiliation. They leaked three times, this leak-proof White House did, that he was in trouble and on his way out the door. They were looking for a scapegoat for Guantanamo. They picked Greg Craig.

And I think it's unacceptable. And I think the president has it on -- it's his responsibility, even though it was done by his staff.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I agree. I don't really know Mr. Craig, but his reputation around Washington is sterling. He has a very high reputation.

And for the series of leaks to suggest incompetence is just mystifying. And my guess is that, you know, the president made this promise to close Guantanamo within a year. That was an undoable promise. And somebody had to pay. And I guess I second what Mark said.

Troop levels in Afghanistan

David Brooks
New York Times
I know the European patience is wearing thin. I know, in the military, patience is wearing thin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of leaks -- or -- we don't know whether they're leaks or deliberate or stories that reporters have dug out, but there are so many stories that have come out in the last few days about what's going to happen with regard to troops in Afghanistan.

We now know the ambassador Mr. Eikenberry, has a different view from what General McChrystal has in Afghanistan.

Mark, what do you make of this process of deciding what to do about troops to Afghanistan?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think this is one, unlike Mr. Holder's decision on the trials in New York, where the president is intimately involved.

And I think the president's role is comforter in chief, which we have seen as an addition to commander in chief, these past weeks, at Dover Air Force Base, where he met the family returning remains of an American soldier killed -- American soldiers killed in Afghanistan, where he went to Arlington, where he's gone to Fort Hood.

I think we're now getting a sense of the enormity and sort of the emotional enormity to the president of this decision. I think that General Eikenberry obviously has made his position abundantly clear.

Who made it clear to the public, that's the speculation in Washington, whether it was those who oppose General McChrystal's increase in troops, those supporting the vice president's position, maybe even Mr. Holbrooke's position.

So, I think that what we're seeing is sort of a back-and-forth right now that probably isn't confidence-inspiring in the decision process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A healthy give-and-take? What -- how do you see it?

America's mission in Afghanistan

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
When we're talking about the cost of health care and balancing that, as well as the national for the United States' expanded role in Afghanistan is shrinking.

DAVID BROOKS: I have thought deliberations are fine, but even my patience is wearing thin. I know the European patience is wearing thin. I know, in the military, patience is wearing thin. So, I wish they would make a decision.

They are not debating -- I mean, it's important. The troop level debate is a function of a deeper debate. The deeper debate is, what's our mission there? And that is the fundamental debate we're having. Are we going to have a big, clear, hold, and build counterinsurgency strategy? Are we going to pull back to the cities?

And the crucial issues are, one, can we hand over anything to the Karzai government? And, two -- and this surprises me a little -- the deficits, the amount it would cost is a major factor within the circle, I'm told, of the debates.

And, so, what you do get the sense, because of the -- because of the fundamental doubts that people in the administration have, is just this feeling of ambivalence. And, so, you wonder, can we start on another long process, long and expensive process, when there's so much ambivalence in Washington? And can you ask soldiers and Marines to go out who do not have the luxury of ambivalence? They have got go all-out.

Can we ask them -- will there be a disjunction between their need to go out -- all-out and the ambivalence back home?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because the sense is that there will be some troops sent, but that the decision is not going to be to send no more troops.

MARK SHIELDS: No. The reports I have are that Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton and General McChrystal are kind of focusing around 30,000 troops.

But David's right. For each thousand troops, it's a billion dollars a year. And when we're talking about the cost of health care and balancing that, as well as the national deficit, in addition to the other problems, Judy, of a declining confidence in the administration policy because of the lagging recession, and unemployment, support for the United States' expanded role in Afghanistan is shrinking.

Prospects for health care reform

David Brooks
New York Times
Its prospects for passing this year are worse than they were a week or two ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick to you both: Health care, it did pass the House last weekend. It's now before the Senate.

David, what does it look like?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It certainly comes with very little momentum.

There are new issues introduced in the House, like abortion. There's clearly great concern among the moderates in the Senate. Jim Cooper, House member from Tennessee, one of the smartest people on health care, said it was on life support. That may be a little strong.

But it clearly has no -- its prospects for passing this year are worse than they were a week or two ago.

MARK SHIELDS: Speaker Nancy Pelosi up there all day Saturday achieved what Speaker Sam Rayburn and Tip O'Neill, great legends of the House, were never able to do. She passed health care. She did it through her own resourcefulness, her skill, her ability, her guts.

She took on the Women's Caucus, the Pro-Choice Caucus, of which she is a leading member, stood up to them, said, this is a health care bill, not an abortion rights bill. She took on the Hispanic Caucus, said, this is not an immigration bill. It's a health care bill.

And she forced it through. She willed it through, after the Democrats had suffered big defeats last Tuesday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now it's on to the Senate.

And we appreciate the resourcefulness of Mark Shields and David Brooks.

Thank you, both.