GWEN IFILL: Investigation, introspection, and interventions. We examine the open ended questions tonight on “Washington Week.”
Grappling with terrorism close to home.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) Based on what I’ve seen so far, the FBI performed its duties. The Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing. But this is hard stuff.
MS. IFILL: As new details emerge in the aftermath of the Boston bombing, was there a cover up?
ROBERT STAHL: (From tape.) Mr. Kadyrbayev and his family are very sorry for what happened here in Boston and he did not have anything to do with it.
MS. IFILL: And how are Americans coping with their fear? Meanwhile, in Washington, the president confronts a raft of bad news: chemical weapons in Syria, starving prisoners in Guantanamo.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe.
MS. IFILL: But today, better news about the economy.
JONATHAN KARL: (From tape.) Do you still have the juice to have the rest of your agenda through this Congress?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) If you put it that way, Jonathan, maybe I should just pack up and go home, golly.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week: Pete Williams of NBC News, Michael Duffy of “Time” Magazine, Doyle McManus of the “Los Angeles Times,” and Christi Parsons of “Tribune” Newspapers.
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. Not a day has gone by this week when we did not learn more about the man who allegedly planted the bombs at the Boston marathon and also a little about ourselves. What’s unfolding is a plot involving a plan to create the greatest mayhem possible and then hide in plain sight. Three weeks later, what do we know, Pete.
PETE WILLIAMS: Well, we know that it wasn’t much of a plan and that it was constantly evolving. We know, for example, that they – now, we know what has been claimed by the surviving bombing suspect during the brief interrogation, when he was – after he was arrested, before he got his lawyers. He says that originally they wanted to do something on the 4th of July, in the Boston area. But they were able to build the bomb so quickly, they decided to do something sooner. So they were kind of driving around, realized the marathon was going on. It was Patriots Day, and decided they’d plant their bombs, but they didn’t even realized at the time, he claims, that one of them was at the finish line. And then, of course, we know that they had no real strategy of how to get out of town afterwards or what to do beyond then.
We know that they talked briefly about going to New York, but seemed to have been a sort of a spur of the moment thing, as they were riding along in a car that they had carjacked. We know that the forensics has given the investigators a fairly good idea of where the idea for how to build the bombs came from, the al Qaeda online magazine called “Inspire,” which has instructions in clear English about how to do this, sadly.
We know probably where they got the explosives to build it, from fireworks. We know what happened afterwards, that they seemed to blend back in with friends, the younger suspect, the surviving one, went to the gym. He went to classes. He visited these friends of his that have an apartment in New Bedford. And then, the strange event that we found out about this week, when his friends see the pictures the FBI put on three days after the bombing of the suspects, they say, boy, that sure looks like our friend Dzhokhar. And they even text him and say, boy, you look like one of them. And he texts back “LOL.” And then says come to my dorm room and take whatever you want. And they did go to his dorm room, according to the FBI, according to the statements that they’ve given investigators, found a backpack full of empty explosives, thought better take that away. They ended up throwing it away, and then they told the FBI what they’d done and miraculously agents searched the landfill and found it.
MS. IFILL: Let’s go back to what you said at the very top. You said that this is what Dzhokhar claimed has happened. So far, most of the information we have about the planning and the bombing itself comes from the surviving suspect.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yes.
MS. IFILL: But do we believe him?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, they’re trying to verify everything that he has said. For example, just today, they had ATF agents and bomb sniffing dogs searching a wooded area near the campus where he went to school because people who live in the area had heard loud booms, they say, in the months before the bombing. Now, he has said that they did not practice their bombs, which for bomb technicians seems very unlikely. Remember they were three for three for these pressure cooker bombs. And if they were just doing it the first time, that’s a remarkable success rate. So they assume that they did practice, although he has said they didn’t.
He’s also told them that they built the bombs in his brother’s apartment, and that’s focused some new concern about his surviving widow.
MS. IFILL: I want to go back to the blow by blow of how this all came, but also there was a poll, new poll that was published this week in “Time” Magazine and it surprised me a little, especially this. When asked to choose which concerned them the most that government would fail to protect them from terrorism or that a government crackdown would restrict civil liberties, 61 percent said they were worried about the latter, while only 31 percent about the former. Is this a post-9/11 attitude we’re seeing, Michael?
MICHAEL DUFFY: Well, certainly, you know if you were – you’d expect after a bombing that got this much attention and that sort of was made with such simple devices, everyday gettable devices, that you would think Americans would be more concerned about security than about privacy. But this poll suggests quite the opposite, that by a two to one margin, there really, as the war on terror or even the law enforcement aspect of this continues, Americans are actually a little more concerned about what civil liberties they may – may be at stake or in jeopardy than the ability of the government to actually go after people who would conduct these acts. And that’s at a time when Americans also say, and this is interesting to me, that they now recognize in a way maybe they didn’t even five or six years ago, that this kind of occasional – that’s what this is – bombing, might be something the government just can’t stop.
MS. IFILL: You know, the cover of “Time” Magazine – your magazine this week has homeland and security as the headline, and I wonder if since 9/11 we are less secure about the fears of terrorism or more. I got – I read both things into the results of this poll.
MR. DUFFY: You can. You can see – Americans have a very nuanced feel kind of what an appropriate intrusion into their privacy is. They say look, if you’re out on the street or you’re in a public space, you have no presumption of privacy from the government, you know, following you with cameras, listening to you if they can do that, using facial recognition technology in public spaces to search for terrorists by large majorities, four to one, which in anything in this country you can get four to one for, that’s really striking.
DOYLE MCMANUS: Including surveillance cameras.
MR. DUFFY: Yes, including surveillance cameras. And I think they are used to now seeing them everywhere.
MR. WILLIAMS: But which is going to be a big thing because remember, the most important break in this case came from a surveillance camera from a restaurant that was – happened to be looking down at the area in front of the restaurant, where the FBI says you could clearly see one of the suspects coming in and planting the bomb.
MR. DUFFY: They followed him down the street with those cameras and –
MR. WILLIAMS: Right, right. It was actually surveillance cameras, not people’s iPhones and cell phones that provided the big break in this case.
MR. MCMANUS: Michael, do you have a kind of a big philosophical takeaway from this. Is – I’m wondering what you think the cause of this is. Is it that there have been relatively few successful terrorist attacks in the United States, and if we saw something big that was successful and terrible, we might change?
MR. DUFFY: Yes, I think they have – I think through the last 10 years, they have come to think that this was something that 9/11 might have been a one off, something that was going to happen on that scale again, and got comfortable with where they were. I think they also – there’s a deep civil libertarian streak in this country. It’s an instinct. It’s a tradition. It’s something that goes back hundreds of years. And I think they watched over the last 10 years, with the Patriot Act and some other steps taken by both administrations, Bush and Obama, to change the way the cops and FBI agents are able to snoop. That perhaps that’s gone too far. And the rush of data and technology has made them now a little more nervous about just how far this could go and they don’t fully understand it.
MR. WILLIAMS: I wonder also if it isn’t people’s more intimate relationship with their phones and devices and computers that maybe now they have a more daily contact with this stuff than just the cell phone or the telephone that used to be mounted on the wall in the hall.
MR. DUFFY: You can google my home address in Columbus, Ohio, where I was born and raised, and you see a picture of my father taking out the trash. And on one hand, that’s nice, that’s daddy, looks great. On the other hand, it’s a little creepy.
CHRISTI PARSONS: It’s a lot creepy.
MR. DUFFY: So I think they know that, too.
MS. PARSONS: One of the scariest things for most Americans about this whole case has been that these guys were self radicalized. They were sitting at home. They didn’t have to have any contact with anyone overseas to trip – you know – to trip the wires, the intelligence wires. I mean, when that’s happening, is it possible even to prevent it without, you know, for the government going through our emails and –
MR. DUFFY: You probably have a take on this, but I think they watched how this is somewhat amateur hour 2.0 put this together so easily and thought, on one hand, that’s something maybe anyone can do. On the other hand, it’s also hard to stop.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, they’ve always said. They’ve been saying for the last several years. This is the most difficult thing to stop. Now, you know, we assume it’s self radicalized. In all the three weeks since the bombing, there’s been no hard evidence that there was overseas training or guidance or anything like that. So when people are doing this themselves, it’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen people become inspired by what they say on the internet. We’ve seen many cases of this in just the last few years.
MR. DUFFY: And is there anything we’ve learned in the last week, Pete, about why they did it that is new?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, no. They basically – we’re back to what he said – this surviving suspect after – when he was interrogated, that they had become upset with the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thought that they were wars on Islam and wanted to make a statement.
MS. IFILL: There seem to be a lot of loose ends. But one of the loose ends also is what we’re willing to do now, for instance. Are we – there was discussion of surveillance mosques and a pullback from that, right, leading on to this.
MR. DUFFY: Absolutely. Something that happened in the Bush administration is – in the aftermath of 9/11 is that they had gone a little further than anyone had gone before in allowing federal agents to get close to, talk to, maybe listen in on religious institutions, which was something that the government up until then had not at allowed. That was – that was privileged zone. And the Bush folks took it further than it’d ever been before. Obama has walked that back, creating a new special review panel that before federal agents can say I think the problem is here in this place or this place, they now have to have special clearance, doesn’t mean they can’t get it, but that’s one thing under pressure from civil libertarians that this White House has cranked back, even as it’s made other forms of investigation easier.
MR. WILLIAMS: And of course, that cuts both ways because they also want the cooperation of the communities and if they – if those communities feel that the FBI is spying on them, they’re going to be less likely to report potential trouble. And that community response has been very helpful, for example, with the Somali community in Minneapolis.
MR. MCMANUS: Now, in this case, though, Pete, there’s been a lot of questioning about whether the – what was known about these brothers, this family, particularly the older brother, Tamerlan, who had gone back to Russia –
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MR. MCMANUS: – whether all of that intelligence was handled properly. Do we have any better sense of that?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I think we still don’t know what he was doing in Russia, in Dagestan, when he went there last year for six month. But the hard part here is that the FBI says the Russians were concerned that he was coming there. They said, look, we think this guy could be trouble. He’s on his way. They knew that because he had a visa. So what do you got on him that we should be worried about? And when the –
MS. IFILL: Because the Chechnya battles really gets Russian. Now, that gets to the U.S. So that he thought – they thought he was going to create mayhem there.
MR. WILLIAMS: Exactly. That was the Russian concern, not that, hey, you should be watching out. He might do something, you know, in New Bedford. So they looked at – they did everything they could under the lowest level that the FBI has, what’s called a threat assessment, and they followed the rules. And I think one the questions that may come out of this review that’s been ordered over how the intelligence was handled is what do you do in a case like this. You get a complaint from a foreign country, of which they’re thousands of them a year, and then you know that person is going to that country that complained about them. Do you automatically follow up or not? That’s not an easy question.
MS. PARSONS: Pete, one question, the friends who were arrested this week, why were they not charged with something more serious?
MR. WILLIAMS: In order to charge them with something like accessory after the fact, you have to have evidence that they knew that Tamerlan Tsarnaev did this. It was their suspicion. There’s no claim here that they knew it.
MS. IFILL: There are so many loose ends and missing laptops. We know you’re going to be over the story, because you really have been all over the story. And we have to say on behalf of everybody in journalism, great job.
MR. WILLIAMS: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: Thank you. Get some sleep. (Laughter.)
The president had an awful lot on his plate this week, especially as we appear to be inching closer to red lines in Syria and tipping points at Guantanamo. After years of virtually no action on the status of the detention center, the president, this week, renewed his pledge to shut it down.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) The notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no man’s land in perpetuity, even at a time when we’ve wound down the war in Iraq, we’re winding down the war in Afghanistan, the idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried, that is contrary to who we are. It is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.
MS. IFILL: But it’s easier said “stop” than done, isn’t it, Doyle?
MR. MCMANUS: It is, Gwen. There’re a lot of reasons that the problem of Guantanamo is still with us four years after Barack Obama set a deadline for closing that camp. And you have to say, at least some of those reasons are partly the president’s own fault. Let’s go back to the basics. Because it has been a while since we’ve talked about Guantanamo. We’ve sort of been averting our eyes from this problem, partly because it seemed so insoluble.
There are 166 detainees who are still there. Only about 20 of those are the real big fish, the arch-terrorists who are going to face a trial. There’s a much larger group there, 86 detainees, who have already been cleared by military and intelligence boards of the United States government to be sent back to their home countries. Some of those people were cleared during the Bush administration, in 2007. And they’re sitting around stuck in this very bizarre –
MS. IFILL: Because?
MR. MCMANUS: Because politics got involved. Two things happened, first, of course, back in 2010, Congress, mostly Republicans, some Democrats too, got alarmed about the idea of moving Guantanamo prisoners to the United States. Even though there was a super-max prison that wasn’t being used in Illinois, the president’s home state that could have been used, but that got blocked.
Then, a second problem arose, and that was that some – there had been releases and transfers back over time, including during the Bush administration, of the least threatening detainees, but some of them went back to extremism. Some of them went back to the battlefield. Amazingly enough, their time in Guantanamo in American custody had not made them pro-American anymore and they were all – you know, many of these people were not nice people to start with. So Congress started putting restrictions on the transfer process.
So there’re these 86 people, but Congress said, well, the secretary of defense has to personally guarantee that none of them will do anything bad before you send them back. Defense Department said we can’t guarantee that. Congress loosened up those rules a little bit. Here’s where the president’s discretion comes in.
It is possible for the administration to transfer them back if it certifies that the country is taking every reasonable step to make sure nothing bad is going to happen, but it really puts the onus on the administration to take a risk every time it sends someone back to his home country.
MS. IFILL: Something they have not been willing to do.
MR. MCMANUS: Something they have not been willing to do.
MR. DUFFY: Why would the other countries want them back?
MR. MCMANUS: You know, well, for one thing, the United States is asking all of these countries to take them back. It’s a lot cheaper to house a Yemeni prisoner in Yemen or an Afghan prisoner in Afghanistan. A lot of people – for a while, there was a problem that the countries weren’t taking them back. That problem is basically gone now, at least for the 86 we’re talking about.
And in some cases, these people are really such small fish that they could be rehabilitated and sent back.
MR. DUFFY: So it’s not that the countries won’t take them.
MR. MCMANUS: No.
MR. DUFFY: It’s that the United States is unwilling to send them.
MR. MCMANUS: It’s that we’re unwilling to send them. And it’s this log jam between Congress and the White House, where the administration is understandably worried that one of those people –look, there’s a big debate over the recidivism rate, but that some of those people will go back and do bad things.
MS. IFILL: And Congress is understandably worried on some level as well.
MR. MCMANUS: Absolutely.
MS. PARSONS: Doyle, why do you think the president brought this up this week? Is there some sign on the Hill that maybe there’s some motion here or are we talking about this because there’s a hunger strike?
MR. MCMANUS: We are talking about this because there’s a hunger strike. We’re talking about it because there are about 100 prisoners who are starving themselves. That hunger strike has gone on for more than three months. It became a piece of news. And this is really kind of interesting. A hunger strike is the kind of last resort of the absolutely powerless. The only reason for a hunger strike – and the U.S. authorities at Guantanamo understood this – was to force this issue onto the agenda, and you know what, it succeeded.
MS. IFILL: When the president came to office, he thought he could do this with the stroke of a pen, proved untrue. But now, the end – the final withdrawal from Afghanistan is looming next year. There’s not going to be really a good reason to have this jail still.
MR. MCMANUS: Well, there is, unfortunately, this group of people, number one, the 20 really bad guys, and then, a group of people – you know, none of these people are real innocents anymore. The real innocents, the ones who were picked up by mistake were sent home long ago. These are people for whom there is some kind of evidence, but it’s not evidence that would stand up even in a military court. So they’re in a gray area. We have a long-term problem here that nobody has quite figured out and probably can’t get figured out until that happy day, if it ever arrives, when the president can say, you know, what, al Qaeda is completely gone. The war on terrorism is completely over. And we can ship them all back. But it’s going to be a different president.
MS. IFILL: When the president walked into the White House briefing room this week for one of those impromptu news conferences he pulls off, he faced a grab bag of complicated questions, not only Guantanamo, but also about his own future, as in can he get anything done. To be clear, every president gets these questions.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: (From tape.) The Constitution gives me relevance, the power of our ideas gives me relevance. The president is relevant here, especially an activist president.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From tape.) When I tell you I’m going to sprint to the finish and finish this job strong, that’s one way to ensure that I am relevant. It’s one way to ensure that I’m in the process.
MS. IFILL: Relevant. So here’s what President Obama said.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Right now, things are pretty dysfunctional up on Capitol Hill. Despite that, I’m actually confident that there’re a range of things that we’re going to be able to get done.
MS. IFILL: So what we have here is a balancing act, Christi, between being relevant and getting some things done.
MS. PARSONS: Right, exactly. And I love that you showed those clips of Bill Clinton and George Bush insisting on their relevance, when the president actually took it a step farther and said, I’m not dead yet. He quoted Mark Twain, right?
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. PARSONS: The reports he might demise, are exaggerated. It is a balancing act and it’s really a balancing act of priorities for him to, you know – in his first term, he sacrificed some things so that he could get health care passed. In his second term, he’s sacrificing things so he can work on immigration. We could still be talking about gun control right now, for example, but we’re not.
So I think at the moment in the briefing room, where he said his demise had been exaggerated, you know, it – he was joking, but he’s very well aware that time is limited, resources are limited for him, and the feeling in the White House is sort of let’s see what we can do and do what matters.
MR. WILLIAMS: I was surprised. I must say. I don’t cover politics as you all do. And the question surprised me because I thought the whole immigration thing was going well. I know the gun thing came off the rails. But is that the reason – if the gun thing hadn’t gone down, would this question even have been –
MS. IFILL: The juice question?
MR. WILLIAMS: – yeah, would even have been asked?
MS. PARSONS: I think it probably would have, I mean, because it’s – there’s a general feeling around the White House that the president will not persuade Congress to go along with him on any of his economic or budgeting plans, for example. Sequester seems to be something he can’t work a deal out with the Hill on. And then, you know, gun control goes down. That doesn’t look as if he may be able to bring it back up. That doesn’t seem very likely. And so there looms immigration as this one big thing. But I do think – there’s a sense of frustration around the White House, too, I think. And reporters pick up on that. I think that’s what the question – what inspired that question.
MR. DUFFY: I guess I want to know whether you think, Christi, he’s surprised. You know, before he was re-nominated, in Charlotte, he gave a series of interviews, including one to time, in which he said – we asked him. What will be different in term two, because your Congress isn’t going to be different? He said, don’t worry. When I’m reelected, Republicans will see that I have a complete – I have suddenly, you know, something better –
MS. IFILL: New powers.
MR. DUFFY: – new powers. And they will just – their opposition, their strategy of no will just disappear. He literally said that he thought it would go away and if anything, it’s hardened.
Do you think he didn’t mean it when he said that? Because most of us were shocked. Or that he is really surprised by the hard line that the other party is taking?
MS. PARSONS: It’s hard to believe that he really believed that would be the case when he said it. And he certainly came to this conclusion quickly, if in fact he did believe it when he said it just last year. And in the briefing room this week he also said, you know, it’s not – it’s not all of this on me. It’s not all whether I have enough juice. It’s whether folks on the Hill are willing to do their jobs and work with me. He was projecting confidence during the campaign, obviously. That’s what people do when they’re running for office.
It was interesting to see – he came out in that briefing, not with an agenda. He wasn’t trying to set an agenda. He was actually trying to probably clear some questions before he went to Mexico that he didn’t wanted deal with in front of the Mexican president. But today, when he was speaking in Mexico City, he did – he did go to some length to project a little bit more confidence and surety about his interactions with the Hill. He said, we’re going to pass immigration this year. We’re going to pass immigration reform this year. I’m absolutely confident.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. That’s more confident than he is when he’s standing at podium in the White House.
MS. PARSONS: Right.
MR. MCMANUS: OK. So immigration is obviously kind of do or die at this point. I want to ask about the two that haven’t been going so well. One is gun control. Any prospect of that coming back? And the other is the sequester and budget. He’s been taking all of these senators to dinner, hasn’t that done anything?
MS. PARSONS: Right. And that – that doesn’t seem to have been very persuasive for him over time, right? And he’s sort of in a little bit of a trick box. When the president wants something, he can’t really act like he wants it a lot. For example, when gun control – when lawmakers were drafting legislation immigration, gun control, if the president makes phone calls on behalf of it and is too obvious about it, it sort of scares people away.
MS. IFILL: In fact, Pat Toomey said as much about the gun bill, the Republican senator who tried to get the gun compromise. But today, good news on unemployment. That’ll change everything. We’re down to 7.5 percent, four consecutive months or years of growth, right? This is good.
MS. PARSONS: And that’s a big number, that’s right.
And it was funny that the president passed on the opportunity to take credit for that. But the White House – you’ll notice, whenever these numbers – they get some rosy numbers, they’ll say, that’s nice to hear, but we’ve got a lot more to do. The economy is still such a big thing for this president to deal with. And he’s just not in a really strong position to do anything other than, you know, under his own power.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thank you all very much, very good program. The conversation has to end here, but you can still find us chatting away online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra, streaming live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, at pbs.org/washingtonweek, where among other things, we’ll talk about how Big Pappy here – (laughter) – as we now call him, since the president gave Pete this nickname, how he got the story right.
Keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour” and we’ll be back around the table right here next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.