GWEN IFILL: Secret killings, political positioning, and a big lawsuit, all the ingredients for a busy week in the nation’s capital, tonight on “Washington Week.”
Tough talk from the nation’s likely next top spy.
JOHN BRENNAN: (From tape.) We only take such actions as a last resort to save lives when there’s no other alternative to taking an action that’s going to mitigate that threat.
MS. IFILL: When is it OK to use U.S. drones to kill Americans and when does Congress get to know about it.
SENATOR RON WYDEN (D-OR): (From tape.) If the executive branch makes a mistake and kills the wrong person or a group of the wrong people, how should the government acknowledge that?
MS. IFILL: Closer to home, did the folks who issued credit ratings make the mortgage crisis worse? The Justice Department says yes.
TONY WEST: (From tape.) We believe that S&P played a significant role in helping to bring our economy to the brink of collapse.
MS. IFILL: And on politics, Republicans and Democrats map out the future.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) It’s important not to read too much into any particular political victory because this country is big, it is diverse, it is contentious, and we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom.
REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR (R-VA): (From tape.) To uphold this legacy of those who’ve come before us, Washington will need to make some choices. And in a divided government, these choices are often tough.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week, Carrie Johnson of NPR, Pete Williams of NBC News, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics, and Beth Reinhard of National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. The U.S. government has been secretly targeting its enemies for years now, using unmanned aircraft to do the work, but this was the first week they said so out loud through a leaked White House – whitepaper that is – newly released legal memos, and a high profile confirmation for the next CIA chief, a window was opened this week into how our wars are now waged, even when Americans are the targets.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: (From tape.) We say that we only take these kinds of actions when there’s an imminent threat, when capture is not feasible and when we are confident that we’re doing so in a way that’s consistent with federal and international law.
MS. IFILL: The attorney general’s words were carefully worded and John Brennan, the likely next CIA director, was just as precise.
MR. BRENNAN: (From tape.) The president has insisted that any actions we take will be legally grounded, will be thoroughly anchored in intelligence, will have the appropriate review process, approval process before any action is contemplated, including those actions that might involve the use of lethal force.
MS. IFILL: Carrie, watching this hearing this week, I was struck by how much John Brennan was being so particular in what he said, and yet he didn’t say that much. How did the story become a public issue this week?
CARRIE JOHNSON: Gwen, the U.S. has been engaging in drone strikes overseas against al Qaeda figures since at least 2002, but mostly that program is operated in the shadows with very little public acknowledgement and very little oversight. People on Capitol Hill, members of Congress, used John Brennan’s confirmation hearing as a way to extract some promises from the administration and a way to get some information, even a tiny bit of information we never had before.
So starting out the week, 11 senators from both political parties had sent a letter to the White House demanding information that would justify the killing in 2001 of a U.S. citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki. He’s a radical cleric, who the U.S. government says become a high leader in al Qaeda in Yemen and he was killed in a drone strike by the U.S. in September 2011. But the U.S. has never acknowledged that killing. They acknowledged his dead, but they don’t acknowledge the U.S. role in it.
MS. IFILL: And then they also killed his son and they killed somebody he was there with at the time, another American citizen.
MS. JOHNSON: That’s right. So, Gwen, we know at least three Americans have been dead at the hand of drone strikes from the U.S. government, although there are some indications that two of those people, Awlaki’s son and the man with him, were more collateral damage than direct targets.
MS. IFILL: Well, here’s what’s interesting about this week. We see this white memo – whitepaper memo come out, which basically summarizes the administration’s legal argument for this, no mention of al-Awlaki men, at all. We see the senators asking for this information, then we see the White House saying, oh, you can have some. Why now, because Brennan is up?
MS. JOHNSON: Well, because John Brennan has been one of the president’s closest advisors and the man more or less directing the targeted killing program from the White House for the last four years. Remember that Brennan was the president’s first choice to lead the CIA in his first term, but he had to step aside. And it’s quite clear that White House wants John Brennan to be the CIA director and they were willing to give up something to get that.
It’s also important to note that civil liberties groups have ongoing lawsuits against the Justice Department and the administration to get this information. And most importantly, the White House is finally starting to acknowledge that when you take such a serious action as to kill a U.S. citizen with a drone, you maybe have some responsibility to explain a little bit about that.
PETE WILLIAMS: One of the most controversial things about this was the notion in this whitepaper that in order to kill someone, they have to be an imminent threat. What was Brennan’s definition of imminent?
MS. JOHNSON: Well, what the lawyers’ definition of imminent, which is what stands here, is something that would be a little bit different than you and I would use, Pete. It’s a very elastic definition and it doesn’t mean that the U.S. has evidence that somebody is about to engage in a deadly plot against the U.S. It means, rather, in their view, that somebody is engaged in a continuing effort to hurt the U.S., but there need not be any specific and clear evidence of a plot about to take place.
MR. WILLIAMS: So “chronic” would have been a better word than “imminent,” I guess.
MS. JOHNSON: In some ways, yes. The other thing that bothered a lot of civil liberties groups and Democrats on Capitol Hill was this notion of when do you decide when you can capture somebody as opposed to kill them. And the administration’s argument is it just can’t be feasible to capture somebody. What does that mean? Well, it means maybe the conditions overseas are a little bit difficult. If somebody’s hiding out in Yemen, it’s hard to get them. That definition was too broad for a lot of folks out there on Capitol Hill this week, especially because we’re talking about somebody’s Fifth Amendment rights, depriving somebody of their life, the most serious action a government can take. And –
MS. IFILL: Fair to call that due process.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: Carrie, one of the things that I was listening carefully to is the discussion about the president suddenly deciding to be somewhat more willing to be transparent or talking as if he would be. One of the things –
MS. IFILL: Optimizing transparency was the words that Brennan used –
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yeah, interesting term of art. One of the things that polls keep showing is that the American public has been relatively supportive of the concept of a drone program, but internationally much less support. So one of the things that has come up is whether we’re undermining our best ambitions by using this program if abroad the reputation of the United States erodes to the point that it’s counterproductive. What do we know about our thinking of that or our measurement of that or where that takes us?
MS. JOHNSON: We do not have a clear estimated of how many civilians have been killed in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia because drone strikes went awry or because civilians were surrounding targets. Some people think that number is very high. The administration maintains it’s in the single digits. But interest groups and civil liberties groups that have gone overseas and tried to study this think that can’t be the case. That said, just as Guantanamo prison was a recruiting tool for wannabe terrorists, some people in the U.S. government now believe drones may be a recruiting tool for people on the street in Yemen, in Pakistan, who see their family members killed in this manner.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s move on because there was another big issue that came out of the Justice Department this week. That’s when they dipped their toe into civil matters, filing suit against Standard & Poor’s, a leading credit ratings agency, for its role in the housing collapse.
MR. WEST: (From tape.) It’s sort of like buying sausage from your favorite butcher and he assures you that the sausage was made fresh that morning and is safe. What he doesn’t tell you – what he doesn’t tell you is that it was made with meat he knows is rotten and plans to throw out later that night.
MS. IFILL: Nothing like a rotten meat analogy that Pete can explain.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, this involves packages of financial investments. These are bundles of mortgages that were issued by banks and the government claims that for at least three years, S&P gave them the highest rating, even though it knew that these investments were risky and that it did it to please the very banks that was paying S&P to rate the investments that they were issuing. So the prosecutors say that what happened is these gold plated ratings lured people in to buy these investments, and then when the housing market tanked, those investors – those institutional investors were stuck with huge losses. And so it’s the Justice Department and now 16 states were suing, some pretty incendiary language – the Illinois attorney general, for example, said, S&P was the trigger for the destruction of our economy.
Now, the Justice Department is not charging S&P with the crime, but under the law, it could seek some huge fines. The federal government says it might ask for $5 billion in fines. California says it might ask for $4 billion in fines.
So even though it’s not a criminal case, it could still be very serious.
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, one of the things that I remember from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which investigated the causes of the crisis –
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MS. SIMENDINGER: – was a conclusion that the failures of the credit rating agencies were key enablers of the financial meltdown – key enablers. And they talked about the errors and failures, but they did not talk necessarily about what they knowingly had done, althuogh there was a great deal of evidence in that report. But one of the things I pointed out was that the rating agencies have always said that what they put forward to investors was opinion and they’re protected by the first amendment. Is that –
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, they’ve tried this defense. They’ve tried this defense, although they say, this time, S&P says that’s not going to be our defense. S&P says here’s what we’ll say –
MS. JOHNSON: But they hired Floyd Abrams –
MR. WILLIAMS: Floyd Abrams, who’s a First Amendment lawyer. Is a bit of a mixed signal, but what the company says is these were honest calls that you have to prove the company knew this was wrong. And the company says, look, we weren’t just the only ones saying it. So were our competitors, the two other national rating agencies, and the Federal Reserve, and the treasury secretary, we were all working off the same data. We all made the same calls. And those other two rating agencies are not being charged.
BETH REINHARD: Pete, is this likely to end with the company pleading?
MR. WILLIAMS: It could. The difficulty for the company – and there were plea negotiations – is if the company admits any wrongdoing, which is what the government wants it to do, then that gets it off the hook with the government, but that opens it up to a huge raft of other lawsuits from anybody who invested in one of these instruments that they rated highly. And so they get other exposure if they plead.
MS. JOHNSON: Pete, there was some sense that this may have been a payback investigation because S&P famously downgraded the U.S. debt a few years ago.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right. That happened in 2011. Now, the government says nothing up our sleeves. We actually started investigating them two years earlier, in 2009. But the telling thing is that S&P is the only company they’ve gone after. They have not gone after Moody’s and Fitch, the other two rating companies, who were rating the precise same instruments, the precise same investments that the government now says S&P was being phony about.
MS. IFILL: Why is this a civil case and not a criminal case if they are guilty of bringing the entire housing market – I mean, they were using pretty incendiary language the other day?
MR. WILLIAMS: I think there’re two reasons. One is this is behavior that dates, at the latest, to 2007. There’s five-year statute of limitations for a criminal case. But the second thing is it’s easier to bring a civil case. In a criminal case, you all know the phrase, proof beyond the reasonable doubt. OK, in a civil case, it’s a lower standard. It’s a preponderance of the evidence standard. So I think those are the two reasons.
MS. IFILL: Does this make this a slam dunk for the government, then? Can they win this, especially with all these states on board?
MR. WILLIAMS: No, I don’t think this is going to be easy for a couple of reasons. First of all, remember, S&P did not sell these investments. It rated them. So you have to prove that the – or you have to make a pretty convincing argument that the companies that bought them and got stuck with them and went down the tubes with them bought them because of the S&P ratings, not because of the exact same ratings that were coming from the other rating companies.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the interesting elements of that, though, is that there are laws on the books that require that some of these complex instruments had in those ratings. So some of those investors had to utilize and rely on the ratings of risk. So we see –
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, and the other problem here is perhaps a more fundamental problem with the way these rating agencies work. They’re rating – they’re paid by the people that are asking them to rate them. So this is like the movie company paying, you know, Siskel and Ebert to rate the movie that they’re releasing. And there’s some effort in Congress to change this, but it doesn’t happen.
MS. IFILL: OK, well thank you, Pete. And now, of course, we go to politics. There was something of a fun house mirror quality to the political landscape this week as major party leaders jockeyed for a position. The issues were mostly the same: immigration, budget, guns, but the approaches were different. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for instance, sees room for Republican compromise on immigration.
REP. CANTOR: (From tape.) One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. And it is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.
MS. IFILL: Speaking at a Democrats’ retreat yesterday, President Obama also turned his attention to fishers within his own party.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Bottom line is this, people, we got a lot of work to do. What we’ve learned over the last four years, at least what I’ve learned over the last four years is that it won’t be smooth. It won’t be simple. There will be frustrations. There will be times where you guys are mad at me and I’ll occasionally read about it.
MS. IFILL: Bottom line, people. So Alexis, they’re all laughing about being mad at the president. That only happens once every four years. So are there strategies we’re beginning to see emerging on both sides?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely. One of the things that I think President Obama took away from the campaign is keep campaigning – campaigning to govern. And he’s very much organizing, not only his legislative agenda, domestic agenda, but certainly the techniques of campaigning to try to do that, to work against or with Congress by using campaign techniques. And we’re seeing him talk about, you know, there may be divisions that you may not like, but stick together. If we stick together, we will prosper politically, we will prosper in our legislative agenda.
So one of the things that he’s taking away from the campaign is campaign results have consequences. We know that the American people in majorities are supporting my agenda – immigration, certain elements of gun control, my fiscal and economic issues. He may talk about political reform or environmental issues, climate change coming up, for instance, in the State of the Union address. And he’s going around the country. He is campaigning, much as we saw him in 2012, trying to put the squeeze on Republicans in the House specifically to try to work with the Senate to get legislation and then box them in to try to get what he wants this year. And it’s very important that we talk about this year because he knows he has one year.
MS. IFILL: Back, to, you know, the really – the great advantage for the Democrats as opposed to Republicans, is they have a very clear leader. They know who’s in charge. He sets it out there and they theoretically will follow along. But for Republicans, they’re still trying to figure out what direction they’re heading.
MS. REINHARD: Absolutely. And you’re seeing a lot of debate and sort of a division between what the, quote, unquote “establishment Republicans,” which is elected officials and donors who, you know, spent millions of dollars on behalf of Mitt Romney and, you know, fueled these Super PACs, what they think the party needs to do to sort of rebuild after the November election, and then there’s the tea party wing of the party, the sort of grassroots activists who tend to be more conservative and more ideological, and frankly, less practical. You know, they’re motivated more by ideology and on the other side more by winning. And so those – those two goals do not always collide or not always unite, I should say.
So as we saw House Majority Cantor speaking, I mean, he’s speaking sort of more from the establishment point of view. Let’s be more pragmatic. And of course, he talked about immigration reform. I mean, if there’s one lesson that Republicans learned from this election is that we’ve got to be doing something different with Hispanic voters. We’ve got to reach out.
And you know, Republicans are not united in how far they’re willing to go. Senate leaders have talked about a much more sweeping immigration plan than what Representative Cantor mentioned, but he’s willing to go so far with, you know, the kids, as he talked about kids who were brought to this country illegally.
MS. JOHNSON: One of the big questions is whether the NRA is going to prevail in its opposition to any new gun control, including universal background checks. There was some hint this week, though, that there might be a bipartisan compromise in the works?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, one of the things that the White House is talking about more privately is that their ambitions or expectations realistically are much more for universal background checks as a legislative achievement this year than it might be for the passage of something that really looks like strong assault weapons ban, or restrictions on high capacity ammunition. That’s not necessarily their concession right now to the NRA, but it’s a concession also to the regional issues, the – where public opinion is, and what might be more doable.
Privately, also, it’s important to remember the president is talking to constituency groups, this base of people who brought him a second term, that immigration reform is his number one legislative priority. He wants to say I’m going to continue to go out there and talk about gun violence and we see that he’s going to continue to do events to talk about that, but privately the discussion is if there’s one thing they are hopeful it’s still more likely to be universal background checks.
MS. IFILL: But publicly, Beth, the discussion from the Republicans has all been about the budget. Today they started – they branded it the Obamaquester, which I don’t know where that’s going to go, but that’s their way of tagging the president with being responsible for this draconian plan to slash the budget.
MS. REINHARD: Right, I mean, that’s certainly been sort of the unifying message of the Republican Party. You know, the fiscal – our fiscal house is out of order and the deficit is spiraling and we need to get that under control. But you’re also seeing Republicans saying we can’t just be about fiscal issues. And in fact, the very beginning of that speech that Majority Leader Cantor gave, he said, let’s put aside fiscal issues for a minute. Let’s talk about education. Let’s talk about health care. Let’s talk about immigration. And so they’re trying to put sort of a kinder, gentler face on the party because the exit polls show a lot of voters perceived Mitt Romney as sort of out of touch and removed from middle class concerns and not really someone who could relate to, you know, just the average American.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And the makeup of the party is a much wider Republican Party –
MS. REINHARD: Right.
MS. SIMENDINGER: – in every way by the polls.
MS. REINHARD: Right and they can’t survive that way. You know, the demographic tide is moving. And it was funny that the title of that speech that Majority Leader Cantor gave was Make Life Work, which to me sounds like an Oprah –
MS. IFILL: I didn’t get that. I didn’t know what that – and especially since the speech didn’t seem to be –
MS. REINHARD: No, but I think – but a sort of an Oprah feel to it, right?
MS. IFILL: Yeah, very friendly.
MR. WILLIAMS: There’s going to be a social media thing, MLW. (Laughter.) But the president seems to announce something and then leave town and go out and pitch it. Is he going to be, do you think, any better – there was criticism that in the first term he didn’t work very well with Congress. Is there a sign that he’s doing more of that engaging Congress more?
MS. SIMENDINGER: He’s engaging Congress in the sense of using what he thinks is his strength. And his strength is appealing to his base, going out to the American people, talking about very poll tested things, doing interviews.
MS. IFILL: We say Congress, do we mean – is it different in the Senate than House?
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, I think his relationship is rugged, you know, in both chambers, but he certainly has stronger ties to the Senate, and that’s also partially because of the vice president, Vice President Joe Biden.
MR. WILLIAMS: And there’re more Democrats there.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Yeah, and there’s more Democrats there. But one of the things that I think is interesting related to your question is I was also thinking myself, gee, there’s this frantic looking president running around the country. I’m talking about six things at the same time. And in my time covering presidents, I thought, you know, gee, message – you know – measurements here. But one of the things that I heard this week is that they’re trying to what they call “flood the zone.” They’re thinking in the second term, with one year to go, let’s throw a lot of stuff into the sausage-making machine to send Republicans having to respond all over, while the president has this very strong bully pulpit, which Gwen just referred to. He’s the leader of his party. He has the chance to set an agenda and keep articulating it.
So we’ll see if that works, but there is a method to that level of freneticism.
MS. IFILL: One of the things I’m curious about, as we listen – you mentioned, Beth, that the Republicans are having a slight internal tussle about whether the tea party, the Karl Rove practical wing of the party versus the tea partiers, who are more ideological. Are we talking about – and then we watched Eric Cantor’s speech – is tone shifting or is ideology shifting? How much of this is just about dressing things up?
MS. REINHARD: Yeah, that’s I think a really important question. I mean, everyone can kind of agree they need to not say the word “self-deportation,” that that would be offensive to Hispanics. There’s agreement on that within the Republican Party. What they don’t agree on is, wow, do we actually need to change policy and if so, how far do we go? Are we just going to legalize the kids or are we going to legalize everybody, all 11 million undocumented workers?
MR. WILLIAMS: But it sounds like even, as you say, legalizing the kids, it is a huge step, because when the president announced this last summer, they all panned it. Now, we hear Eric Cantor saying it’s maybe not such a bad idea. Is it the same plan?
MS. REINHARD: Well, it’s basically the same plan, but, you know, that was then and this is now and seven out of 10 Hispanic voters rejected Mitt Romney. So Eric Cantor may have a different view.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Can we talk about unity when you have two responses to a State of the Union address? What kind of unity – how is that marriage going?
MS. REINHARD: Not only two responses, but –
MS. IFILL: What do you mean? Tell people what you mean by that.
MS. REINHARD: Well, we have the official Republican response coming from Senator Marco Rubio, and then we have the tea party response coming from Senator Rand Paul. Both of these guys are very likely to be running for president in 2016, which makes it even more interesting.
MS. IFILL: Absolutely. Is this about 2016 or 2014, though?
MS. REINHARD: I think it’s about both. I mean, the Republicans are – certainly by choosing Senator Rubio, they’re sending a message. And again, it’s –
MS. IFILL: For the Democrats about 2014?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Oh, it’s about both. The president’s already transmitting that he’s going to do 14 fundraising events. I mean, this was a president who was all about his fundraising. He’s got Organizing for Action. We’re going to work with you to get you reelected.
MS. IFILL: We’ve actually got to go for now, but thank you all so much. We’ve got to go, but the conversation, however, will continue online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. You’ll be able to find us still talking about the Boy Scout secret oval offices – that’s a really good story – and other things at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Keep up with daily developments over at the PBS “NewsHour,” including live coverage of next Tuesday State of the Union address. And we’ll see you again right here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.