MICHELE NORRIS: On Capitol Hill, riveting testimony about the attacks in Benghazi, the diplomatic quandary in Syria deepens, a bumpy road ahead for immigration reform, and the change in complexion of the American electorate. I’m Michele Norris sitting in for Gwen Ifill tonight on “Washington Week.”
GREGORY HICKS: (From tape.) At about 3:00 a.m., I received a call from the prime minister of Libya. I think it’s the saddest phone call I’ve ever had in my life. He told me that Ambassador Stevens had passed away.
MS. NORRIS: Emotional testimony about the attacks in Libya that killed four Americans. Fact finding, finger pointing, or both?
REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA (R-CA): (From tape.) The administration, however, has not been cooperative.
REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD): (From tape.) What we have seen over the past two weeks is a full-scale media campaign of unfounded accusations to smear public officials.
MS. NORRIS: Getting to the bottom of the Benghazi attacks.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: (From tape.) We all know that the current path in Syria is simply unsustainable.
MS. NORRIS: Shuttle diplomacy for the secretary of state on the continuing crisis in Syria and how Israel has become a central figure.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate tackles immigration reform.
SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From tape.) There are many who will want to kill this bill. I would ask my colleagues, if you don’t agree with everything – no one does – be constructive. We are open to changes.
SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From tape.) I just want to say this. The House is going to work its will on immigration reform.
MS. NORRIS: Hurdles on the road ahead. And minority voters turned out in historic proportions in 2012. What does that tell us about elections in the future?
Covering the week, Charles Babington of the Associated Press, Peter Baker of the New York Times, Jeff Zeleny of ABC News, and Jeanne Cummings of Bloomberg News.
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, sitting in for Gwen Ifill this week, Michele Norris of NPR.
MS. NORRIS: Good evening. The questions continue and so does the investigation into the tragic attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, last September. Four Americans died in that attack, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Since then, the events of that day and the U.S. government reaction to those events has come under scrutiny.
This week, three State Department employees, including two who were based in Libya, testified that there were security lapses and conflicting information on the origins of the attack, particularly the talking points used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.
While appearing on a series of television shows the Sunday after the attack, Ambassador Rice said the assault on the compound grew out of demonstrations over an anti-Islam video.
REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY (R-SC): (From tape.) She blamed this attack on a video. In fact, she did it five different times. What was your reaction to that?
MR. HICKS: (From tape.) I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed.
REP. GOWDY: (From tape.) You were the highest ranking official in Libya at the time, correct?
MR. HICKS: (From tape.) Yes, sir.
REP. GOWDY: (From tape.) And she did not bother to have a conversation with you before she went on national television?
MR. HICKS: (From tape.) No, sir.
MS. NORRIS: Then, today, reports that the CIA talking points on the Benghazi attacks were changed a dozen times in a series of small – in a series of email exchanges between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department, leading to questions about what the administration knew and when.
This afternoon, the White House tried to explain how and why those were edited.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY: (From tape.) Let’s remember that these are talking points. It’s not policy. It’s talking points. To this day have been shown to be wrong in only one instance, and that was the existence of demonstrations preceding the attack. And so all of this, from the beginning, the Republican attempts to politicize this, has been based on that single thing which we corrected once we knew that it was no longer a correct description of what happened.
MS. NORRIS: So, Peter, let’s begin with those talking points. What changed over the course of those 12 edits in all of those email exchanges?
PETER BAKER: Right, exactly. Well, Jay Carney today said only one thing that turned out to be wrong, but what he didn’t say was what was left out. What changed between the initial version and the final version were a lot of details that were excised, the mention of al-Qaida, the mention of Ansar al-Sharia, which is a African based affiliate. The words were toned down. The use of word of “violent demonstration” instead of “attack.” And any mention of the CIA having previously warned of previous attacks that suggested that somebody should have known better about security.
MS. NORRIS: And did Jay Carney, in that rather contentious White House briefing today, explain why there were these changes or in some cases those omissions?
MR. BAKER: What Carney said is that they wanted to make sure they only put out the information that they actually knew to be true. They didn’t want to be speculative. They didn’t want to put out information that would turn out to be wrong after more investigation.
What he didn’t really explain, though, is why he said originally that the White House and State Department actually only asked for one word to be changed. In fact, we learned today that White House presided over an interagency process in which a lot of these changes were made, eventually re-written by the CIA, but after White House and State Department input. So I think there’s a lot of questions about, you know, how much was political on the part of Republicans – that’s what Jay Carney was talking about – and how much is political on the part of the administration.
MS. NORRIS: We’re going to come back to you, but we’re going to stay with Benghazi. Chuck, there was a very contentious hearing on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue this week, as well. And are we any closer now to understanding what actually happened on that day in September and a better explanation of what happened in the days after that?
CHARLES BABINGTON: Right. Well, Michele, probably no great groundbreaking new revelations. That is definitely dramatic, and you showed some of these clips. You had this firsthand account from Greg Hicks, the man who was speaking in that segment. Once the ambassador was killed, he was the top ranking person. He was in Tripoli and not in Benghazi.
His testimony was certainly riveting. Obviously, he’s on the outs now with the leadership of the State Department, but probably the Democrats will still say that the most authoritative report that’s been done was that independent report that came out in December and it said that the State Department did fall down very badly on security issues, but it also said that, you know, the buck kind of stopped at the assistant secretary level. It did not place any direct blame on Secretary Hillary Clinton. The Republicans are now saying – Rand Paul said it today – that if she’s the top person in the Department, she’s got to take the blame. And the Democrats love to remind the Republicans that they cut some of the money that President Obama wanted to use for security at diplomatic areas before this happened.
MS. NORRIS: And Congressman Issa said this is not over. This will continue. And where does this go next? Where does the investigation go?
MR. BABINGTON: After the hearing, Congressman Issa, the Republican leader of this committee, he actually made a kind of a public call for more whistleblowers to come forward, which I think is a sign that it is going to go forward. This has been like the ninth hearing. Other committees will have hearings. The Speaker of the House John Boehner has asked – has gotten involved and said that he wants the White House to be more forthcoming. So the Republicans are not going to let this go. And they think that – but the substantive reasons and the political reasons are good for them to keep after it.
MR. BAKER: Chuck, there’re five committees, though, aren’t there?
MR. BABINGTON: Yeah.
JEFF ZELENY: Five separate House committees. I mean, at what point does it become or look like a witch-hunt or what point does it actually get more information here? I mean, there’re more witnesses coming, like Mr. Hicks, who we haven’t heard from, who we want to hear from, or –
MR. BABINGTON: Well, that’s what you have to wonder, is how much more new information can come up. But there’s a little bit of a surprise today out of these findings. They may not have gone terribly far, but they were new. But this is exactly, Jeff, what the Democrats are saying is what more new can possibly be. They used the term “witch-hunt.” They say, you know, if Hillary Clinton were not a strong possible candidate for president, they would not be pursuing this.
So these arguments have been made for some time, but one thing is clear is that the Republicans are certainly, if for no other reason, they feel that this is a good issue for their base.
The next election that comes up is a midterm election in 2014. That’s not a presidential election. They tend to be low-turnout elections. Both parties want their base fired up. They want to raise money. This issue seems to be a good issue.
JEANNE CUMMINGS: But what – this issue, by the time we’re in 2014, it’ll three, four years old. How much of a motivator can this be for them and how long can they maintain this sort of scandalous edge that they have on it?
MR. BABINGTON: It’s a great question, Jeanne, and I’ve talked to some Republicans and raised that same question because a lot of time is passing and more time will pass. They do feel, though, that – you know, the conservative media is something that’s taken a lot of interest in this. The more conservative radio and TV shows. They’re staying on this very hard saying that the mainstream media has not been after it. And it seems to resonate – some of these Republican House members at this hearing said that they – there’s intense interest in their districts about this.
Now, I think partly what they’re talking about is they have town hall meetings when they go back and people who come to those meetings – this is the type of thing that galvanizes them. Whether that applies to a larger audience is another question.
MS. NORRIS: And it’s in the news right now also, so the question is when that –
MR. BABINGTON: And they’re keeping it –
MS. NORRIS: – falls off the front pages, will that continue?
Secretary of State John Kerry has been conducting shuttle diplomacy on the civil role in Syria and the U.S. role in mediating the conflict. He had a nearly three-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the escalating civil war. He also met with various diplomats from nations in the Middle East, including Israel and Jordan.
Meanwhile, here in Washington, President Obama once again reiterated the U.S. commitment to restoring stability in Syria.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) We have both a moral obligation and a national security interest in, A, ending the slaughter in Syria, but B, also ensuring that we got a stable Syria that is representative of all the Syrian people and is not creating chaos for its neighbors.
MS. NORRIS: So Peter, what is the administration prepared to do? What are their options?
MR. BAKER: Well, at this point, they don’t feel like they have a lot of good options. They are moving closer toward the idea of lethal aid to the Syrian rebels, something that the president had rejected a few months back, when then Secretary Clinton and General Petraeus, then the CIA director, proposed it. But you see with John Kerry’s trip to Moscow that they’re really relying on the idea that somehow they can bring the Russians onboard with them to help them pressure Assad, either into stepping down, or at least into making some sort of a combination they agreed on, some sort of peace talks that might – some sort of conference that might be held later this month. But it’s not very clear where that’s going to lead. The Russians don’t have a great interest in helping at this point.
MS. NORRIS: So they’re trying to engage other nations, but is everyone speaking with one voice here? Is it possible that some of the European agent – European countries could actually move forward, whether or not the U.S. decides to do anything?
MR. BAKER: Well, that’s right. The European embargo on lethal aid will end – and some of them have indicated they might start supplying more to the Syrian rebels and you saw these strikes by Israel in Syria, not directly related to the conflict, but because they are concerned about weaponry falling into the hands of Hezbollah. And that’s something they’re just not going to tolerate. So those strikes could add extra complexion to it. The Assad government quickly said, aha, this is evidence that Israel is trying to involve us all here and we should rally together against the common enemy.
MR. BABINGTON: This must be a difficult issue for President Obama. One reason he became president was his early opposition to the Iraq war. He takes pride in winding down that war and the Afghan war. There’s a lot of war weariness – or wariness among Americans about another involvement in the Middle East. What – how does this play out in the White House?
MR. BAKER: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. He drew a, quote, “red line” about the use of chemical weapons, but the last thing he really wants to do is go into Syria with any kind of American force, whether it be air power – certainly boots on the ground, ruled out in his mind, I think, does not want it to be like Iraq. And in fact, it’s exact opposite. If under the last administration every scrap of evidence was seen as proof that Iraq did have weapons, in this case it’s benefit of the doubt in the other direction. Every scrap of evidence is questioned. Is it really true that they had any use of chemical weapons? And there’s such a desire to not have another involvement there.
MS. NORRIS: Is it clear what he meant when he spoke of that red line?
MR. BAKER: No, it’s not. He – there had been – this is what – way back in August, there were indications that the Syrians were moving some of these chemical weapons around. Weekend long series of meetings. But when the president was asked about it in public on Monday afterwards, he kind of had this unscripted moment where he used the words “red lines.” Some of his own advisers were surprised, didn’t realize that he was going to use it, and in fact, set himself into a geopolitical box. Now, that he’s used that term, the feeling is he has credibility to maintain. Otherwise, it won’t mean anything in the future.
MS. NORRIS: The debate over immigration reform began in earnest this week with the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the proposals from the so-called Gang of Eight, four Democrats and four Republicans looking for a compromise. But while there was optimism from some, there were warnings from others.
SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL): (From tape.) And this is our chance in this hearing room to write an immigration bill for the 21st century for America and its future.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From tape.) I’ve introduced amendments to remove the pathway to citizenship for those who are here illegally and to make them ineligible for means-tested government benefits. In my view, if those provisions are insisted upon and the majority has the votes to insist on those provisions, it is likely to scuttle this bill and cause it to be voted down in the House of Representatives.
MS. NORRIS: We always hear about these gangs in Washington. I expect to see them chained together somehow. (Laughter.) Now, will the Gang of Eight hold together and while the conservative voices that are out there trying to rally the skeptics, saying that it’s time for immigration reform, will they hold together? Is there unity on this issue?
MR. ZELENY: So far they are holding together and I think we saw some of that this week in a pretty extraordinary marathon hearing on Thursday, seven and a half hours of a lot of the testimony we just saw and the statements from senators back and forth. But so far the gang is actually holding together. And it’s pretty remarkable when you think about everything else that Republicans and Democrats can’t find agreement on much on anything on Capitol Hill, that there is more of a willingness to go forward on immigration reform.
Of course, Republicans have an imperative with the future of their party and with politics, but also John McCain has been supporting and pushing this issue for a long time. So I think a couple of things are going on. I think the thing that is different this time than in 2007, when it failed, of course, is that a lot of conservative groups from the outside, you know, the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Conservative Union, a lot of these outside groups are supportive of this now. The Chamber of Commerce is very supportive of this.
So I think those are the forces that make this debate different. But it is far from certain if this is going to be – if the whole Senate is going to be able to do something on this together because there’re so many outside forces, like Senator Ted Cruz there. He introduced a ton of amendments, 300 amendments he and others introduced. And a lot of them were poison pills.
MS. NORRIS: Three hundred –
MR. ZELENY: Three hundred amendments and probably not constructive. Some of them probably were not constructive. They were designed to sort of blow things up. But so far it’s still holding together.
MS. NORRIS: Well, we’re going to hear from the table in just a minute, but one of the things has changed since 2007, and that’s President Barack Obama.
MR. ZELENY: Right.
MS. NORRIS: What role does he play in this because the White House, obviously, would like to see comprehensive immigration reform? Normally, in a moment like this, they might turn to him to be the primary spokesperson, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.
MR. ZELENY: That’s a really good point. I mean, he is – he’s very supportive of this. He wants to sign this bill into law, but he’s not talking about it. He went to Austin, Texas, this week, did not mention the word “immigration” one time. Why is that? Because he does not want to spoil this. He does not want to sort of create an opening for some Republicans to say, oh, this is the Obama immigration bill. The White House is working very aggressively behind the scenes to make sure they can do all they can to support it. But he is staying out of it at this point. Did not say “immigration” once the whole week long. It’s pretty extraordinary for something that he wants so bad.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, Jeff, we’ve talked about the White House and the Senate, but we haven’t talked about the House, and that is the real stumbling bloc. And Boehner said they’re going to, you know, put their – they’re going to have their influence on this piece of legislation. But they’re taking totally different, a totally opposite track, where they’re looking at breaking it apart.
MR. ZELENY: A piecemeal approach, bit by bit by bit. So you’re absolutely right. The House is the reality check here on all of this. What the senators – what Senator McCain and Senator Marco Rubio mentioned to me earlier this week was that they hope it can come out of the Senate with enough support that Speaker Boehner has no choice but to sort of use the same bill and get a mix of Republicans and Democrats on this. But there are so many conservative Republicans who do not support this in the House.
So it is a tough road for them. It’s absolutely a reality check in this whole bill once it gets to the other side of the Capitol.
MR. BAKER: I was fascinated by you talk about where the sources of opposition are. Heritage Foundation, a longtime, established, conservative organization, this week put out a study saying that this costs America trillions of dollars and instead of galvanizing conservative support, it went the opposite way, right? I mean, people –
MR. ZELENY: Right.
MR. BAKER: – tell – what does that tell us?
MR. ZELENY: This report from the Heritage Foundation said that some type of immigration reform bill would cost $6.3 trillion, with a T, over 50 years. Marco Rubio immediately said, look, this is faulty science basically. Actually, these immigrants will – if they come here, if they have a pathway to citizenship, they will be contributing to the economy. But the Heritage Foundation doubled down on it for most of the week. But then the author of that study actually ended up resigning earlier on Friday. He has some controversial thinking on immigrants in his background.
So the Heritage Foundation has been discredited a little bit, but they do represent some of the opposition here. And there is an issue on how much this will cost the social program. So it is one of the concerns here.
MR. BABINGTON: Jeff, you mentioned the House being a problem. It is amazing that you do have these major, major conservative groups coming in for this thing, but one thing that always interests me about House members is they really look to their district and that’s the problem, isn’t it?
MR. ZELENY: It is because all of them are standing for reelection in 2014. So it’s really a mixed bag. It’s not necessarily Republican-Democrat. Sometimes it’s urban-rural. If you’re a Republican representing a suburban district, probably – you’re probably, you know, more inclined to vote for this. But also farming interests, there’re a lot of people in the ag community who want this reform. So it does not divide how things normally do.
If the Chamber of Commerce really goes head on here and pushes some of those people, I think it’s an open question of Speaker Boehner and some of the others would be able to hold the opposition. I think he is fine with it, but he has, you know, a lot of members to herd here. I think still he has the toughest job in Washington, a lot of different viewpoints.
MS. NORRIS: One of the toughest jobs.
MR. ZELENY: Right, right. (Laughter.)
MS. NORRIS: Some people say I think I have the toughest job, this wee especially.
The debate over immigration reform is fueled, in part, by the nation’s changing demographics. A recent report from the Census Bureau paints a picture of a changing electorate. The report shows that black voters surpassed the white voter turnout rate for the first time in the 2012 election. Black voters were the only demographic group to show a significant rise in voter participation. Almost two in three eligible black voters cast ballots in 2012.
Democrats might be applauding those numbers, but might that be a little bit premature? Will those voters show up in the same kinds of numbers, Jeanne, when you don’t have a candidate like Barack Obama at the top of the ticket?
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, that’s what the Democrats will have to find out once Obama is gone. But they’ll get their early lesson in the midterms. Clearly in the midterms there’s always a falloff between the presidential turnout level among every group and midterms, elections in 2014 when the House and many senators are up.
And so the Democrats, they are going to try to keep as much of the coalition together as they can. They – Organizing for America, the arm of the Obama campaign that was responsible for a lot of the turnout, now is its own entity, separate from the DNC, so it can continue more freely to do the work that it did. And the black voting level is really a product of several different things.
First of all, clearly the first black president – that’s a great motivator. But keep in mind; they went up, but only by 2 points. It wasn’t some dramatic thing. So it’s voter – it’s also the turnout operation that the Democrats have mastered. And in addition, it is part of a continuum.
Since 1996 – in 1996, the black voter turnout was 8 percentage points lower than white. And since then it’s gone up every single election and it’s moved up 13 points. And so it’s part also of a long-going trend.
MS. NORRIS: And is this – the rate is based not just on who shows up, but who doesn’t show up.
MS. CUMMINGS: Well, that’s true and there were – I mean, in the case of the black community, they did the best. You know, their voters did come out, but still we had 38 percent of Americans, over 100 million – around 100 million voters who didn’t show up. So there still is a lot of opportunity out there for turnout operations.
MR. ZELENY: Looking at young people, you know, we talked so much in 2008 about how Obama’s campaign brought in a new generation of voters. And he had done what no politicians or very few politicians had been able to do. What did we see in 2012? Did he keep that up or did that –
MS. CUMMINGS: He didn’t. Every – other than the black voting population, every other population went down and the young people were among them. They were one of the biggest falls, about 2.5 million of them stayed home this time.
And that can be of concern for the Democrats if these were their lost voters because voting is a habit. And one of the big things in 2008 was that the young people got involved and if they could hold them – you know – the experts say two cycles, when you’re voting, you’re almost there. The more you do it, the more you’re going to be coming back. And so for the fall off among young people, that is a particular concern.
MR. BABINGTON: Jeanne, there’s been so much talk about Latino voters and how they were crucial to Barack Obama’s two victories. Is that group still growing? Are they –
MS. CUMMINGS: That group is going to be the most interesting to watch. Their turnout rate was only 48 percent, tons of growth room. Not only that, every year 800,000 Latino kids turn 18, and that’s how fast they’re growing.
MS. NORRIS: That’ll have to wrap it up for us tonight, but the conversation continues on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra” streamed live, beginning at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, so tune in online at pbs.org/Washingtonweek, either live with us or anytime over the weekend.
I’m Michele Norris. Gwen will be back around this table next week. And for all those moms out there, including my own, have a happy Mother’s Day from all of us here at “Washington Week.” Good night.