GWEN IFILL: The uproar over the disclosures about secret surveillance intruded into already contentious debates over Iraq, the Patriot Act, and torture.
So where does all this leave us? Joining us to sort through all these developments are Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
GWEN IFILL: David Brooks, we saw the president sit down three times last week for nationally televised interviews. We saw him do an Oval Office prime time address last night, a year-end press conference today and what has been the running theme throughout all of this is how far should the president be allowed to go? Are there impediments, as Sen. Cornyn said, or is the president taking advantage of his claim to executive authority as Sen. Feingold said, what is all this? What's going on?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, people who want to defend the president, it has become a little hard. I think one thing that can be said is the FISA procedure is not working terrifically well. FISA, itself, is working well, but Colleen Riley's whole point in that memo about Musawi years ago was that getting through the FISA procedure, through the FBI directory took a long time.
GWEN IFILL: She's the whistleblower.
DAVID BROOKS: The whistleblower from the FBI in Minnesota.
GWEN IFILL: Right.
DAVID BROOKS: And then the 9/11 commission said that the FISA -- getting to FISA was long and slow.
So there was some concern about the delay. And I can see why the administration back in those days would want to say we've got a very long, slow process getting to FISA; let's go around it.
But should they have tried to change the procedure as opposed to just doing it surreptitiously, yes. Why didn't they try to do that -- no good answer from the president this morning.
And, secondly, I think the big question is you can't get so far outside of your opponent -- you know, the Democrats on Capitol Hill or anybody on Capitol Hill that when something becomes public everyone's against you.
And from what I can read in the papers and even here on Capitol Hill, everyone is against him. And so they -- they've just made a mess out of this for what could have been - you know -- they might have had a legitimate concern originally.
But by going, you know, going so far alone without consultation, I think they've created a big backlash.
GWEN IFILL: Mark, the president said today that he felt that the statute that the Congress passed in authorizing the war in Afghanistan gave him all of the latitude he needed to do this.
MARK SHIELDS: He certainly did. And he relies upon Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general who is his White House counsel, whose expanding definition expanses expanding, infinitely expanding definition of executive power must include coining currency and disbanding the Coast Guard if the president so decided.
I mean, this is total disrespect and total disregard by any measurement of the other two branches of government. The Congress is impotent under the president.
And David touched on what, recall after 9/11, if the president had come to the country then and to Congress and said I need this, I need that, I mean it would have been done in a matter of hours. I mean, there was a sense of the president was in charge and that the country did need -- why on Lord's earth they didn't I think is indefensible and I think it is going to come back to haunt them.
GWEN IFILL: So how toxic is the reaction today on Capitol Hill?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, it seems to be pretty toxic. I think a lot of the Republicans who are not civil libertarians but who really feel the country is under threat and that we have to -- you know -- we worry about getting killed by terrorists -- want an argument. They want a -- they understand the problem. They understand the threat; but they want to know why he had to do it so surreptitiously.
And I think they haven't been supplied that and they are on the defensive. They are hiding, basically; whereas, Russ Feingold is very much on the offensive with a lot of ammunition right now.
GWEN IFILL: This was supposed to be Iraq victory week. This was supposed to be the great rollout and the president today spent most of his passion on the Patriot Act.
MARK SHIELDS: On the Patriot Act. Under Gonzales's definition there is no need for the Patriot Act because the president can do anything he wants, I mean basically, so I don't even know why they are upset about the Congress not passing it and given the supine Congress -- they probably wouldn't object that strenuously.
But, no, you are right, and I thought that watching the president today, he really, he really got testy. And he got really contentious at the question about, you know, are you usurping too many powers.
GWEN IFILL: The phrase used in the question was: Are you guilty of having unchecked presidential power?
MARK SHIELDS: Unchecked presidential power. And I mean, I think that is -- you know I think that is a concern. It's not that the president -- I mean, we also had revealed this weekend, I mean, the counterintelligence field activity of the Pentagon, you know, which is something that probably eight people in the country have heard of, has been spying on domestic antiwar groups including the Quakers.
Now, you know, I don't know what kind of a tortured logic it takes to go after a Quaker meeting as somehow a threat to national security, but, I mean, that's sort of the attitude that has seized this administration it seems.
GWEN IFILL: Is a line being drawn here now on the concrete, in the sand over these issues, about how far the president can go on this war on terror, or is this just another kerfluffle in Washington?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, as a political thing, interestingly, because I think traditionally we get a big kerfluffle about civil liberties especially on the East Coast and the West Coast; there are a lot of people who are concerned about the violations of civil liberties.
Then you go to the country in an election and people want to be protected. And they are much more casual about civil liberties. And politically, if the president goes out and says, you know, those guys seem to distrust the government more than they distrust our enemies, whether that is a political winner for us.
GWEN IFILL: What the president did say today was, hey, I've got a tough job, I've got to make tough decisions but I'm here to protect you.
DAVID BROOKS: I think it's very unclear whether at the end of the day, despite all our concerns, whether there is a winner for the president. It might very well be.
MARK SHIELDS: I think the president, the well has gone dry on the president on "trust me." I mean, there's just been too many times when the administration has misled people, whether it's on torture, whether it's on weapons of mass destruction, I mean on the number of troops needed, on the cost of the war.
You know, just to come and say trust me, trust me, trust me, I think the people are willing to give that presumption the first couple of times to the president. But this administration has not been candid. It has not been forthcoming. And I think they're going to find that well pretty well depleted.
GWEN IFILL: And the president seemed to concede at some point today that this may create problems internationally when he was asked about whether if your intelligence is proven to be bad can you then make the case that you have intelligence on Iran or intelligence on North Korea that other countries should join you, should go to war with you over.
Is that a bigger problem down the road for the administration, that all this was happening in Congress?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, that goes back to the WMD problem. That is a problem, especially vis-à-vis Iran, I agree.
Though you know, I think in the long run, the civil liberties, if we get hit again, all these civil liberties debates will be out the door. And so I sort of sympathize with the idea that you have got to lean heavily to protect the country because even from a civil libertarian point of view in the long run, you have just got to explain it and you've got to do it in a above-board manner so when a story like this appears you have got a bunch of Democrats saying yes, we were consulted and we think it's necessary and if you can't get that, then you probably shouldn't do it because it will backfire in the long run.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about Iraq -- what the president hoped we would all be talking about this week and not about spying. Did he accomplish, the president accomplish what he set out to do with this rollout, the speeches, the interviews?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, if you go to the polls, that one measurement. But it hasn't moved public opinion according to the Gallup-CNN-USA Today poll that came out today.
But I think president's helped himself, at least establish some level of credibility by finally acknowledging the mistakes, I mean, and still on that path of construction, which is what we have, that mistakes were made, rather than I made mistakes.
But he did -- he did acknowledge that it had not gone well -- that the planning had not gone well. But I think it's going to be awfully tough to overcome the reality of what's going on on the ground. And I think that is where this war is going to be decided by the American people and their support for it is going to depend upon whether, in fact -- I mean we've gone from 150 attacks a week on Americans -- I should say terrorists, or insurgent incidents to 750 in the last year.
I mean if that continues and we've got 15,000 people who are basically leaving this insurgency in a nation of 28 million, and 95 percent of them are Iraqis. So I think, you know, I think that the president bought some time but not a whole bunch.
GWEN IFILL: Bought some time?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think for sure. I think he gave excellent addresses. You know, we have been talking for a long time. He never admits mistakes. He never, really, what he describes for six months really had nothing to do with the reality you saw.
And now I think what he is describing really does accord reasonably well with the reality, some good, some bad in Iraq. And then the other things he did was, first of all, he began to restate his opponents' arguments. And I think this was a conscious strategy in the White House. We restate their arguments, we show we're hearing. We show some respect for the people who disagree with us. I think that was important.
GWEN IFILL: Which he did last night in his speech.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and that was very self-consciously done. And then the second thing he did was he differentiated his opponents from the critics to the people he called the defeatists and the distinctions between those who see no progress in Iraq and those who are very critical of the way he's handled it but who do see progress. And that's the essence of Iraq, that you have got this contradictory reality.
The insurgents attacks -- Mark's talked about it -- on the other hand, the unemployment rate is down 15 percent; we've begun to take areas and hold areas in western Iraq. We had the amazing election. So there is good and bad. And he can play on that for I think another six months, eight months so long as the Iraqi government gets up to speed within say a month or two.
MARK SHIELDS: And writes a constitution and writes a constitution that respects minority rights and a constitution that includes in minority representation and the key, of course, is going to be oil revenues -- I mean who gets what.
GWEN IFILL: But we're all following all the details of the president's argument and the evolution of his thinking and of his pitch and saw what he was trying to do, which is get past us and get to the American people last week and also today and last night. Has it happened?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, he only -- the American people, the only -- the voice we have right now is that poll I mentioned.
GWEN IFILL: It hasn't shifted at all.
MARK SHIELDS: It hasn't shifted yet. I think, as I say, I think reality will trump rhetoric here.
GWEN IFILL: Did this story, this privacy story cloud that?
DAVID BROOKS: Oh, for sure. You know, when I saw that story on the front page I could imagine what they were thinking in the White House. The greatest thing that has happened in a year, and then it gets trumped by this story, and so politically within the beltway it takes all the momentum out of them.
GWEN IFILL: So what happens now? Everybody seems to be at the edge of their seats waiting for the president, either now or next week or perhaps the State of the Union to talk about when troops will begin to leave Iraq. Do you have any intelligence on when they plan to do that?
DAVID BROOKS: I think they really don't know.
I do think the president will keep -- I mean will draw down from 160 to 130, but I think he is perfectly capable and willing to keep one thirty in there for a year if he thinks it is helpful.
Henry Kissinger said you ought to keep them in there as the Iraqis build up so we can have more troops because when we see them, we have a lot of troops in an area, it does pacify an area in Iraq.
MARK SHIELDS: The magic number some Republicans talk about is to be under 100,000. I don't think it is the number of troops who are there; I think it is the number of Americans dead who are coming home. And if that is -- if that number does not abate and is not reduced dramatically and profoundly, I think it's going to continue to be an enormous political problem for George Bush.
GWEN IFILL: And, speaking of political problems, does he have a time constraint? I mean the holidays are here. And perhaps people will be distracted and not paying as much attention but does he have to do this in the next ten days, 20 days, 30 days?
MARK SHIELDS: No, I don't think he does. I think he has to -- he has got a reality of -- he has Republicans who are nervous on a whole host of issues, I mean a whole host of fronts. David did a litany of them last week in The New York Times, much to the consternation of his conservative colleagues.
But I mean, and this is going to be one of them, it going to be a main sticking point. And if the war is going badly and we're still mired down and all the rest of it, I think you'll see enormous pressure on the part of the Republicans whose names are going to be on the ballot next November to say can't you show some action?
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah but if you ask the American people should we stay, you get a very big majority of 60, 67 percent majority saying, you know, whatever our doubts about the war, getting out now would be a betrayal of what we are about, or it would hurt the situation in Iraq.
So he has got some -- I think he's got some public opinion support for that, for staying the course right now. And I happen to think, aside from little disagreements, there is a pretty big conscientious on how we should move ahead and the fact that we should stay.
GWEN IFILL: Well, we'll be rolling tape on that, David, to see if what you say is true in 30 days. Thank you both very much.