MS. IFILL: A national security shake-up, new details about Guantanamo, citizenship politics and the Fed shows a little leg, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Leon Panetta at the Defense Department, David Petraeus at the CIA, Ambassador Crocker and General John Allen in Afghanistan.
MS. IFILL: A grand reshuffling. What does it tell us about our national priorities? Guantanamo detainees – how dangerous are they? And on the domestic front, a crazy political week.
PRES. OBAMA: My name is Barack Obama. I was born in Hawaii, the 50th state of the United States of America.
MS. IFILL: Donald Trump rocks the boat and Haley Barbour gets out of it entirely. And as Americans worry about jobs and gas prices, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke goes before the cameras.
BEN BERNANKE [Chairman of the Federal Reserve]: There’s not much the Federal Reserve can do about gas prices. After all, the Fed can’t create more oil.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week: Mark Mazzetti of the “New York Times”; Tom Gjelten of NPR; Karen Tumulty of the “Washington Post”; and John Harwood of CNBC and the “New York Times.”
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill,” produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Well, musical chairs for the president’s national security team. Now follow the bouncing ball. With Robert Gates leaving the Defense Department, CIA Chief Leon Panetta heads to the Pentagon, while General David Petraeus leaves Afghanistan to take over in Langley. Lieutenant General John Allen takes Petraeus’ place in Afghanistan and former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker joins him there as the top U.S. diplomat.
Each man has a different career and a different relationship with the White House that can tell us much about how Obama policy and how wars themselves have changed. Isn’t that right, Mark?
MR. MAZZETTI: Yes. There’s a lot of familiar faces changing jobs. And one way to look at it is that there’s not going to be a significant change in foreign policy or the war in Afghanistan. General Petraeus will continue to do his job in CIA. And Panetta will, I think, carry out a lot of the counterinsurgency policy, although even he has been somewhat of a skeptic of the counterinsurgency policy.
I think that a bigger, more deeper issue going on is there’s a certain interchangeability about the CIA and the Pentagon these days. The Pentagon is very much in the military business. They’re dropping bombs in Pakistan. The Pentagon is expanding its intelligence gathering. There’s this sort of whole apparatus of secret war going on. So in many ways Panetta and Petraeus will switch jobs but they’ll be very familiar in their positions.
MS. IFILL: So does it make less difference than it would have in the past that when the White House draws the distinction that we’re not going to put boots on the ground in Libya, for instance, it doesn’t matter as long as they are wingtips on the ground and they happen to work for the CIA?
MR. MAZZETTI: That’s right. There are CIA officers on the ground in Libya. They’re trying to get a sense of the rebellion. They’re trying to gather intelligence for air strikes. So boots on the ground still means military, although the CIA has expanded its paramilitary force. It has expanded the number of people who show up in places like Libya. So many times it’s kind of a distinction without a difference.
MR. GJELTEN: The CIA under this administration has been really a favored agency. I think that your newspaper quoted President Obama as once saying that the CIA gets what it wants. Will Petraeus – a very powerful, very prestigious, very well respected general – going to the CIA – will that even more accentuate the importance of the CIA within the administration?
MR. MAZZETTI: It’s hard to say. I mean, the CIA loves to be at the center of things. They’re always fearful of being marginalized. And they liked having Panetta as a director because he had a very good relationship with the White House. He’s a longtime politician. He had close ties with the Obama advisers. Petraeus, although he is this rock-star general, has had a prickly relationship with the Obama White House. So it remains to be seen whether actually they will be closer, at the center of the action, or whether the White House will keep him in a little bit more arm’s distance than they did with Panetta. So it’s actually very interesting. It may be a different – it may be even a little bit of a colder dynamic than they had under Panetta.
MR. HARWOOD: Mark, speaking of that prickly relationship, we’ve had this unusual circumstance of the president’s ambassador to China, John Huntsman, coming back, potentially running against him. There had been some talk that David Petraeus was a potential Republican presidential candidate. Did that factor into this in any way? Did the administration ever take seriously that talk?
MR. MAZZETTI: You know, I don’t know if they ever thought he was a serious presidential candidate to run against President Obama. He has, of course, ruled it out. But there was some real concern about what to do with Petraeus, right, what job to give him. And I think the assumption was that if Petraeus could have been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he would have liked that job, but there was concern in the White House that maybe that just puts you too close to the president and that wouldn’t have worked out. So it is this question of this guy who’s been at the center of everything since 9/11, what do you do – what’s the next job you give him? And so I think most people think this was a pretty good selection and it keeps him at the center of things.
MS. TUMULTY: Mark, before Leon Panetta developed his foreign policy credentials at the CIA, he was known in Washington mostly as a budget expert, as head of the OMB, as chairman on the House Budget Committee before he was White House chief of staff. What are the skills he brings to the Pentagon? And is he going to be a budget cutter there?
MR. MAZZETTI: I think he’s going to have to be. He has – you know, he had a brief military service. And he’s been steeped in national security issues and obviously became more steeped in it running the CIA. But he really is a savvy politician. He knows how Washington works. He knows how this administration works. And he also has this budget background. I think these are the things that they see as essential that he brings to the job. And there’s going to be a lot of bloodletting at the Pentagon over the next several years. Robert Gates started it, but it will have to continue under Panetta because everyone agrees the budget is too big. And so this is one of the primary reasons I think that they chose Panetta.
MS. IFILL: Is it fair to say, Mark, that we are no longer waging conventional wars, when you look at this kind of – or does leadership matter in this kind of case? It feels like as the shift has gone toward intelligence or toward diplomacy that there – we’re not going to see an Afghanistan war again. We’re not going to see an Iraq invasion again.
MR. MAZZETTI: I think the Obama administration has embraced the idea of secret warfare much more than American presidents – predecessors. You see it in Yemen. You see it to some extent in Libya with some of the shadow wars going on there; certainly in Pakistan. It is a movement away from the Bush administration, where you saw large combat forces, big messy battles. I think the Obama administration has tried to dial it back and to see what can be done more in the shadows.
MS. IFILL: And as we see with the sanctions against Syria today, more diplomatic pressure instead of military pressure. Thanks a lot, Mark.
As the U.S. role in the world shifts from overt militarily to discrete diplomatically, to covert, relying more and more on intelligence, one has only to look to the detention center at Guantanamo to gauge the fallout. New documents released this week to NPR and other news organizations showed how complicated it has become to take, hold and classify detainees or, as they used to be called, prisoners of war. There’s no longer anything conventional about any of this, is there, Tom?
MR. GJELTEN: That’s right, Gwen. These Guantanamo detainees are prisoners of the war on terror, which is a very unconventional war. You’re absolutely right. These guys constitute – to the extent there is an enemy in this war, these guys constitute the enemy. And what we got here were documents, detainee assessments, of each of the roughly 800 men who have gone through Guantanamo summarizing – the assessments summarize what was – what they told interrogators, what other detainees said about them, what it was they were doing that got them to Guantanamo in the first place, how they were captured. So what we’ve got – you know, Guantanamo has been this kind of iconic institution. Now we have a much more individualized picture of these guys, 800 individual stories. They’re not prisoners of war. They’re not prisoners of war in two senses: one, they were not captured as soldiers wearing uniforms on a battlefield. They are sort of ordinary people in many cases.
MS. IFILL: And they were not necessarily captured by U.S. forces.
MR. GJELTEN: Most of them were not. You’re absolutely right. And the second thing, which is even more important, is they’re not being held the way we used to hold German prisoners of war, just hold them to keep them from going back. We held these guys in order to get information out of them. And I think one of the things that we learned from looking at these detainee assessments is how much uncertainty there was even among U.S. intelligence officials. Who these guys really were? Were they really dangerous? Were they really a threat? That’s one of the things that comes through.
MS. IFILL: And we still don’t know that.
MR. GJELTEN: We still don’t know that. These assessments – about a third of them were ranked likely to pose a threat if released, but many of them got released anyway.
MR. HARWOOD: Tom, Guantanamo has also become iconic as an example of something President Obama promised to do in the campaign, but failed to do. He said he was going to close Guantanamo. He hasn’t done it, doesn’t look like he’s going to do it anytime soon. Does anything in these documents aggravate that embarrassment or political problem for the president?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, I think that one of the things that these documents show is that – and it’s debatable, of course – but that harsh interrogation probably doesn’t work because one of the things that we found from reading these assessments is, in hindsight at least, how wrong many of the assessments were. And many of the assessments, many of these detainees were themselves subjected to coercive interrogation or the detainees who testified against them were. And we have found that a lot of the assessments were simply inaccurate. So I think that in that sense it will provide data to support those who say that this interrogation system was wrong.
On the other hand, you know, this administration, like the previous administration, is convinced that a good bunch of these guys are too dangerous to let go. They’re not able for political reasons to bring them to the United States for trial. So, regardless, I think that this administration is still stuck with this Guantanamo problem.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, speaking of bringing them to trial, one of the sort of surreal aspects of this, the way these documents came out, is that they remain classified even though they’re available to anyone who has access to a browser. Where does it leave their legal teams, because their lawyers are being told that they cannot use these documents in making the defense of their clients?
MR. GJELTEN: Yes, Karen. It’s sort of reminiscent of what happened with the WikiLeaks cables, when the United States, when the White House and the State Department leadership told federal employees that they could not click on those documents to read the WikiLeaks cable. In truth, most of the defense attorneys have had access to the classified information before. So I don’t think it makes a big difference. But you’re right – it is this kind of paradoxical situation where anybody can go online and read these documents and there is a lot of sensitive information in there about the identity of people who gave information against these detainees. And I think that some of the same concerns that we heard in the aftermath of the WikiLeaks cables apply here. You know, it is really a good idea to reveal the identity of some of these informants?
MR. MAZZETTI: So even though we’re just learning about these assessments now and seeing what was said about these prisoners, the assessments are old.
MR. GJELTEN: Right.
MR. MAZZETTI: And so nothing really will change, do you think, in terms of the disposition of the prisoners or what happens going forward?
MS. IFILL: What happened to this idea of moving them to a facility in the U.S.?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, that’s now against the law basically – would be against the law if the legislation favored by the Republicans advances. There are only 172 left. About 47 of them are considered to be too difficult to prosecute, but too dangerous to let go. Thirty-six roughly will be prosecuted. The remainder will be transferred. So we’re talking about an ever smaller group. But you’re right. You know, 95 percent of the detainees at Guantanamo went there in 2002 and 2003 so these guys have been out of the fight already for eight years.
MS. IFILL: Thanks, Tom, because now we move to perhaps the most politically bizarre story of the week, which involved the release of a birth certificate – you may have read it in all the papers – that proved something already known to be true. The president, as they say in the U.K., was not amused.
PRES. OBAMA: We’re not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.
MS. IFILL: The carnival barker the president was clearly taking aim at is reality TV star and New York businessman Donald Trump who, even more bizarrely, went on to use the F word at least three times during a speech in Las Vegas last night. No, we’re not going to play that for you. So many wanted to know why did the president even dignify the birther buzz with a response, Karen?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, you know, Gwen, by all accounts this decision was an audible by the president himself. He essentially had finally reached the point about a week ago where he decided he had had enough of all of this – that these questions kept coming up as he was attempting to do, for instance, interviews about his approach to deficit reduction. So, at that point he called in the White House Counsel Bob Bauer and said, okay. I put out the basic legal form that people in Hawaii use to do things like get drivers’ licenses and passports and that wasn’t satisfying people. So let’s go through this whole rigmarole that it takes to get the longer form of the birth certificate. It required sending – putting his personal attorney on an airplane and sending her to Hawaii to pick up this document.
But I think – why? I think it’s as much a reflection of the media culture that we are in, basically that Donald Trump was able to sit on television on the morning shows and on cable shows nonstop and keep hammering at this issue. And in the old days, the – I mean, gossip’s been around, innuendo has been around as long as politics has. But the old rule was that you ignored it. You tried to stay above it. That is clearly no longer something that works.
MR. MAZZETTI: Did it look like – inside the White House, did they start thinking that this is having an effect, that the polls are changing, people are starting to believe this, that the president wasn’t born in the United States? I mean, it was having a real political impact?
MS. TUMULTY: It was. In fact, the polls suggest that something like a quarter of all Americans had reached the point where they believed the president was not born in this country, despite the fact that there was never any evidence to the contrary. So clearly the polls were affecting this decision. Another thing that probably factored into it is an alarm that was being raised by some Republicans, like Karl Rove, that this was actually an argument that was beginning to bite against the people who were making it – that it was looking so whacky that it was splashing over on all critics of the president. So there may have been a measure of political calculation in there as well that the president thought, you know what, it’s not a totally bad thing for me to have these sort of whacky looking conspiracy theorists having their day.
MR. GJELTEN: Karen, yes, Donald Trump sure does look whacky. And what does this episode mean for the future of the Republican field? Has this put in a sense more pressure on the Republicans to look for some serious faces? You know, the conventional wisdom on this field is that it’s weak. Does this mean – are we going to see now John Huntsman, the former ambassador to China and Utah governor, or Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana – does their stock rise as a result of this view of the Republican field as, at least in Trump’s case, whacky?
MS. TUMULTY: You know, no one really knows because the other thing that has been going on within the Republican Party itself is it’s – you have to go back probably a half a century to find the presidential election process at this stage with such an unsettled Republican field, where no candidate really registering very much in the polls.
MS. IFILL: This week we saw Haley Barbour drop out.
MS. TUMULTY: Haley Barbour dropped out. He had been testing the waters in the very traditional sense; said he didn’t really feel that he had the fire in his belly, which most people took to mean that he didn’t feel that there was really much of a chance for him to win. But it’s a very unsettled field, which is why someone like Donald Trump, who under more normal circumstances for the Republican Party where the establishment finds its candidate and begins the procession to the coronation, somebody like Donald Trump probably couldn’t have gotten that kind of traction. But he is now, in part just because people know his name, registering big in the polls.
MR. HARWOOD: Karen, one more question about the birth issue itself. There are some people, especially outside the White House, who have made the argument that that issue was simply a proxy for people going after the president, the first African-American president as somebody different than Americans had been used to seeing in the White House, people who are uncomfortable with his race. If that’s the case, that sentiment could move on to other conspiracy theories or other issues. In fact, Donald Trump immediately started talking about his academic background whether he could have gotten into Harvard? What is the White House – do they think that this sentiment is simply going to find another outlet?
MS. IFILL: They’ve always had a kind of a tightrope that they walk when the question of race is raised.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, it is true that – in fact, we have seen the circumstance come up in previous presidential campaigns where a candidate actually was born outside the United States and it was not made an issue of.
MR. GJELTEN: John McCain.
MS. TUMULTY: With John McCain, with Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, who ran in 1968. He was born in Mexico. So, you know, there is clearly – I think the president’s defenders say there’s a racial element to this and there’s also this – this same argument seems to underlie a lot of criticism of the president. And a lot of, for instance, the mention of American exceptionalism and the criticism that somehow Obama doesn’t believe this country is special enough. A lot of his allies will say this is just another way of saying that the president is different, that he’s somehow un-American.
MS. IFILL: And, finally, briefly, I have to ask you about this Haley Barbour – he wasn’t in it so he didn’t withdraw, but does that have an effect on anybody else in the race? Does it help anybody? Does it hurt anybody?
MS. TUMULTY: Haley Barbour, for all of his limitations, including being a former lobbyist, was very beloved by the Republican establishment. And it does seem to open up some more space for perhaps somebody like Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, somebody who would carry the establishment banner.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thank you on that. And, finally tonight, we’re going to move on to Ben Bernanke at the Fed, who pulled back the curtain over at the Federal Reserve, confessing to what he can do, what he can’t do, and probably what he won’t do to speed up the nation’s sluggish economic recovery. It wasn’t the most scintillating thing to happen in Washington this week, but in its own way it may have been the most revealing. What was the sense of this? What was the purpose of this?
MR. HARWOOD: Now, what do you mean not the most scintillating? Ben Bernanke comes –
MS. IFILL: At CNBC I know it was but elsewhere –
MR. HARWOOD: – together with the Washington press corps. It was our version of the royal wedding this week. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Without hats.
MR. HARWOOD: Exactly, with no hats. Look, 25 years ago, Bill Greider, one of the great journalists of his generation, wrote a book about the Federal Reserve called “Secrets of the Temple.” When you think about that, that is completely antithetical to the drift of public affairs in the United States. It’s a move toward greater transparency. It’s a move toward opening up things that had been closed before.
Ben Bernanke, since he became the Fed chairman, had been interested in opening up and expanding transparency in the Fed. The need to do that is all the greater in light of the extraordinary interventions that the Fed had to take in the period of the financial crisis and the attempt to stabilize financial markets and get economic growth going. In that sense, he was working hand-in-glove with President Obama, who also took extraordinary steps in terms of the stimulus package and intervention in the auto industry. This is why the administration I think was pleased with what Bernanke is doing because, like the president, Ben Bernanke felt the need to go justify why he was doing things that hadn’t been done by the Fed in the past.
And he had this very sober-sided press conference. There was no news made in terms of what he disclosed, but the mere fact that a Fed chairman, where in the past you had people like Alan Greenspan and people would analyze what he was carrying in his briefcase, how thick his briefcase was to try to decipher what he was going to do with monetary policy, here you had somebody coming out, taking questions, and explaining.
MS. IFILL: Be careful what you ask for, right?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, yes. But all indications are that he’s going to continue this and that he believes and the market believes it came off reasonably successfully. The market actually went up slightly when he was speaking.
MR. MAZZETTI: John, on that point, you know, you used to watch Greenspan’s press conference or not press conferences – testimony before the Hill and his very opaque statements and then the markets would fluctuate based on the smallest thing. Does the greater openness and transparency have an impact on the market? It is a good or bad thing? You said the markets went up a bit. Are you seeing Bernanke moving the market more because he’s saying more than Greenspan did?
MR. HARWOOD: I think probably moving the market less. The more transparency you have, the less mystery around what a Fed chairman says, the less you’re likely to see a jolt in one direction or the other based on some stray word that comes out of his mouth. But I think Ben Bernanke has a completely different style than Alan Greenspan. Yes, he’s a professor, former professor at Princeton, but he’s pretty plainspoken. He speaks in ways, even while talking about arcane subjects, that the average person does not find intimidating. And he’d stepped out in the media before. “Sixty Minutes” did a piece on him. And I think this is an attempt by him to sort of unwind some of that mystery.
MS. TUMULTY: The day after his press conference came news that the economy was growing at a slower pace than a lot of people expected. What kind of sense did we come away from his press conference in terms of what the real condition of the economy is?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, he addressed that in fact before the number was out that showed 1.8 percent GDP growth. He said, we expect it to be below 2 percent. He cast that as a transitory, short-term thing, affected by weather and other factors that might not persist very long. But the Fed has downgraded its forecast for economic growth from close to four to closer to three. But he did talk about how the economy is on strong enough footing that as the Fed fulfills both parts of its mandate, controlling inflation but also encouraging growth, it looks as if the bias has shifted more toward watching inflation than trying to stimulate the economy.
MS. IFILL: Quick.
MR. GJELTEN: So was there any sort of policy news coming out of this in terms of what this administration or the Fed intends to do? I mean, a lot of concern about are we going to see more quantitative easing, et cetera?
MR. HARWOOD: It does not appear that there’s going to be more quantitative easing, although he said he’d keep the size of the current portfolio stable. But no, this was a no news press conference. They didn’t change rates. They said for the foreseeable future we’re going to keep short-term rates close to zero. That’s good news for people who don’t want to see things tightened up too quickly.
MS. IFILL: And if you want to hear John explain quantitative easing, you have to tune into the “Washington Week Webcast Extra” and he’ll tell you all about. We have to end it here for now. But the conversation will continue online and we’ll talk more about the economy, about foreign policy, about politics. And that’s at the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” You can find us at pbs.org. Keep up with daily developments on air and online at the PBS “NewsHour.” That’s where you’ll find that royal wedding video you were hoping to see here. And we’ll see you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.