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Brooks and Marcus on Obama’s Surveillance Stance, Prospects for the Post

August 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's top political news, including President Barack Obama's remarks on government surveillance programs, the state of U.S.-Russian relations, and the significance of the sale of the Washington Post.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is off today.

So I want to ask you both about the president’s news conference.

But, first, David, what we just saw coming from Detroit, is there some reason then for us to be hopeful, or what?


It’s not good when one of your leading industries is tearing things down. But there’s amazing gains to be made from concentrating population. Density of population creates creativity gains, creates economic gains. And so there’s actually some development in downtown Detroit, which is sort of like yuppies coming back. And so if they can shrink the city back to a more concentrated core, there may be some rebound. Property values are pretty low.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you take some hope away from this?

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RUTH MARCUS: Well, I thought the discussion of community organizing, I know that’s a little bit of a dirty word, but community action and the energy of the nonprofit sector was very uplifting and very hopeful.

But, in the end, you cannot have a city without a functioning city government. And when people are waiting for an hour for an ambulance…

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s tough.

RUTH MARCUS: … that it’s time.

Hopefully, the bankruptcy will help it get back with the community, will help Detroit get back on track, but you really do have to cross your fingers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tough, 40 percent of the streetlights not working. That’s tough.

Let’s talk about what the president said today, afternoon news conference, David, announced more steps to provide more transparency, more safeguards around government surveillance programs. Why is he — why is he announcing this now?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, I think — I saw the law professor back.

We had Federalist 10. Go back to the Federalist Papers. We have a system of government based on the idea of clashing interests. And in national security, there is a clash, a clash of interests between liberty ask security. And when we built all the post-9/11 stuff, we built up all these structures for security, kind of left out structures for the liberty piece.

And so even those of us who really think the programs are successful, think they work, don’t think there have been too many abuses should acknowledge there’s need for a structure for liberty. I don’t know how strong the structures are that the president built in, but he built in a component in the courts, in the private FISA courts of liberty, built some outside review boards to emphasize that side of the equation.

And so I think we’re getting closer to a mature system which has both sides represented, the clashing of legitimate interests. And so I think today was the maturation of our security state.

RUTH MARCUS: I have a shorter answer to your question of why the president announced this, and it’s two words, Edward Snowden.

I am not a partisan or fan of Mr. Snowden, but it has to be said that we wouldn’t be having this discussion were it not for him. And I think it’s long, long overdue. The president alluded to it in his previous speech that he mentioned today at the National Defense University. But the fact of the matter is, is that Snowden’s disclosures really prompted an assessment of the kind of tensions that David is talking about that really was long overdue.

I have to say, there’s a little bit less here than meets the eye. He sort of announced a four-point plan to have a four-point plan. The details are kind of to come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he said these changes are coming anyway. He said they were going to come. They just came faster because of what Snowden did.

DAVID BROOKS: That strikes as about right.

There’s no question we wouldn’t be talking about this without Snowden. My paper was doing all these stories on NSA, and things were dribbling out, and it was sort of the stuff we would write about, but it wasn’t a big, hot political item until Snowden. There’s no question about that.

The one thing I would say is, we’re never — I think it’s wrong to codify this entirely. When you have got a national security issue, we really have to rely on the discretion of the civil servants who are involved in this. When you have got a serious threat, we want them to lean a little forward. When you don’t, we want them to lean a little back, but it requires an awareness of the specific context we’re in.

And the president alluded to something interesting, that he trusted the system, but he understood people outside Washington don’t trust the system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Don’t understand it.

DAVID BROOKS: The one thing I would say is — and this doesn’t get said enough — even if you’re not a big fan of government, the people, the civil servants who actually work here are surprisingly competent, surprisingly committed. And I think they’re worth having some trust in, the career people who are in these sorts of jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying you don’t — you think the steps, what he announced today is unnecessary then?

DAVID BROOKS: I wouldn’t say that.

I do think you need those counterbalances, but I do think that the people doing these jobs are probably — they’re not particularly political. They’re not particularly aggressive, and, as he said, there have not been abuses. We’re talking about the potential for abuse, but so far, there haven’t been tremendous abuses.

At the same time, we have really done tremendous damage to al-Qaida.

RUTH MARCUS: Well, and we saw it this week with all of the warnings about the problems in Yemen and the closing of the embassies.

We do want, when things like that happen, a little bit of leaning forward, though I think I do disagree with David about the need for codification, because, while I think that the people who work in this field, and as many people in Washington, are very dedicated public servants, they do not have the built-in desire — and, in fact, the president mentioned their instinct to keep things secret.

And you do need to build in more protections, more oversight, both in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, and in terms of disclosure, and in terms of congressional review than the existing system has had.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I think I hear a difference of opinion.

DAVID BROOKS: I think so, but it’s not clear what’s been announced, and it’s not clear how it’s going to be enacted when it’s put into place.

RUTH MARCUS: Right. Well…

DAVID BROOKS: There might be an advocate in these courts, these FISA courts, but how strong will that advocate be? What kind of leverage will that person have? That, seems to me, is still pretty murky.

RUTH MARCUS: Definitely murky.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, connected to Snowden, the president — although he said today it is not the only reason — he canceled his meeting, coming meeting, with President Putin of Russia.

And where does this leave U.S.-Russian relations? He went on to dissect the relationship and compare Putin to his predecessor. Where…

RUTH MARCUS: And nobody slouch.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, nobody slouch.

RUTH MARCUS: Everybody sit up. Don’t be Putin.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, it’s bad. We’re in a dark point of the relationship. Part of it is at the top.

Putin is a guy who likes to compete with other men. Obama is a guy who likes to compete with other men. And they seem to have gotten a little psychodrama, as Putin got in a psychodrama with Bush before him.


DAVID BROOKS: And a lot of it was personal. A lot of it was petty, when you hear the backroom stories of the mano-a-mano thing. You think…

RUTH MARCUS: My dog is bigger than your dog.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, my dog is bigger than your dog. We’re being run by 14-year-olds. But…


RUTH MARCUS: Until the women take over.


DAVID BROOKS: Yes. But there was a competition about whose dogs were bigger. And Putin had a bigger dog than Barney.

But — but — so there’s that element. But the bigger problem is that we have gotten Russia into a spot where they’re benefiting from this. Putin benefits from this. He’s in dicey political straits. He gets to take the U.S. on, both on Snowden and on gay issues, really popular for him back home.

I think there probably was a more supple way not to put him in this confrontational mode where he would benefit from dissing us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s what you think has happened?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And I don’t think we have been supple enough about that.

RUTH MARCUS: And I think this was a pretty carefully calibrated snub.

In other words, yes, it’s a dark relationship, but we do not want to break it. In some ways, we need them more than they need us. We need them, Russia, on Syria, on Iran. They hold the seat on the Security Council. And so, even — as Margaret’s piece said, even as we are canceling the summit, we’re having these other meetings.

And so it — you want to — the relationship is frayed, but you don’t want to break it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other — the one domestic issue that came up today was health care reform.

Ruth, the president pretty passionate in terms of going after the Republicans for threatening to shut down the government. Should we read something into this?


Maybe the president finally, a year-plus after the fact, is getting his groove on health care. I thought this was the most effective presentation he’s made politically against the Republicans, saying, I don’t quite get this. They want to shut down the government to make sure that more people don’t get health care.

And I thought it was a pretty good line, and particularly because the Republicans have helped him in two ways, by having this really unfortunate and irresponsible threat to shut down the government, by refusing to do or even consider the normal tweaks that he mentioned that you would want to do to help fix any new law which is not going to be fully functional immediately, and also because the Republicans haven’t really come up with an alternative beyond, defund Obamacare.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally getting his groove?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought he was fine. But he is not going to allow the government to shut down. He will blink.

And he had his strongest about — whenever the last government shutdown thing was, I thought it was his strongest moment to really take on the Republicans, just thinking strategically. That was the moment for him to say, OK, shut down the government, boys. And he decided not to do that, for a legitimate reason. They were afraid of what would happen to the economy.

And so he folded a little there. I think they will know he will do that again.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Because he thought they would act on it? Is that what you’re saying?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he was afraid of going to the brink and shutting down the government, because he thought the economy would take a hit, which he was absolutely right about, so he caved in a little. And I assume Republicans know that will probably happen again. And so I’m not sure he’s going to — I’m not sure he’s going to…


RUTH MARCUS: I think there’s incentive to blink on both sides, at least in terms of the government running out of money. We will see what happens when we get to the very close issue of what happens with the debt ceiling.

But, yes, the president has had a history of blinking. I don’t think he’s going to — I think the Republicans may be more likely to blink over at least the defunding of Obamacare as the price for shutting down the government.

DAVID BROOKS: I totally agree with that.

RUTH MARCUS: All right.

DAVID BROOKS: The Republicans have a strong incentive to blink, too. So, that is probably good news.

RUTH MARCUS: Everybody is blinking.

DAVID BROOKS: Everyone is blinking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, nothing to do with blinking, but Ruth, the newspaper for whom you write for which you write your column, The Washington Post, big sale announced this week to the man who started Amazon.

Surprised? How did you — you and your colleagues, what did you think?

RUTH MARCUS: Surprise is not a strong enough word. Stunned.

This was something — I said it was the day our earth stood still. This was something we never in a million years contemplated, because the Graham family is The Washington Post. The Washington Post is the Graham family. We had always understood that their ownership structure — we are a publicly held company, but they had the controlling shares — was our bulwark against bad things happening to the paper.

That said, this was a very sad day for people like me, who spent 30 years working at The Washington Post, love the Graham family. I have worked for Mrs. Graham, for Don Graham, for Katharine Weymouth, the current publisher. And she will continue as publisher.

But the Graham family decided in the end to transfer the newspaper, sell it to Jeff Bezos of Amazon, in order to help protect it. And so there’s reasons to be — I’m stunned. I’m sad. But there’s reasons to be hopeful here. First of all, Jeff Bezos has a lot of money to help the paper.

Second of all, he’s got patience to work it out. And, third, he’s got experience in this new age of the Internet. My Amazon products come very quickly and effectively. And if he can do for The Post what he did for Amazon, God bless him.


JUDY WOODRUFF: You write for another newspaper. How do you see it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, another newspaper that is owned by a family, if I can kiss up to my…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what you were doing?


DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know.

RUTH MARCUS: I don’t care about them anymore. They’re history.

DAVID BROOKS: The sainted Sulzberger family, they have taken hits for us. And the Grahams took hits for The Post, financial hits to save newsroom jobs.

And I think people should be grateful for them. The Grahams, Katharine Graham, Donald Graham, one of the most humble people in Washington, maybe the only ones, actually.


DAVID BROOKS: Katharine Graham, a testament to a life. If anybody hasn’t read her memoir, really read that thing, a life, a fully, rich growth through life.

And so they were trustees to a great institution, treating it not only as a business, but as an act of public service. And I agree with Ruth. At the end of the day, The Post was doing what newspapers are doing these days, and this is a way out. But newspapers are going to be less like a business, a little more like a university in the years ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both.

David Brooks, Ruth Marcus, thank you.