GWEN IFILL: A lot of moving parts this week on Syria, security politics, immigration, and at the Supreme Court tonight, on “Washington Week.”
Red lines obliterated in Syria –
NAVI PILLAY: (From tape.) This extremely high rate of killings month after month reflects the drastically deteriorating pattern of the conflict over the past year.
MS. IFILL: – with more than 90,000 now dead, as the Syrian government uses chemical weapons against its own. The White House says it’s ready to act.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): (From tape.) The Russians, Hezbollah, the Iranians are all in, and so you’ve got to change the equation on the ground and you can’t do it with half measures.
MS. IFILL: But how far is the U.S. willing to go?
The NSA leaker goes public.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: (From tape.) You can’t come forward against the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies and be completely free from risk. If they want to get you, they’ll get you in time.
MS. IFILL: And so the investigation begins.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From tape.) I hope that he is prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
GENERAL KEITH ALEXANDER: (From tape.) If we tell the terrorists every way that we’re going to track them, they will get through and Americans will die. That’s wrong.
MS. IFILL: Plus, the Senate moves on immigration.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) The system’s still broken and the truly deal with this issue, Congress needs to act. And that moment is now.
SENATOR MARCO RUBIO (R-FL): (From tape.) If this bill fails and we do nothing, that’s the de facto amnesty.
MS. IFILL: And a high court says human genes cannot be patented.
Covering the week, Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post, Alan Gomez of USA Today, and Joan Biskupic of Reuters.
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. Under pressure from all sides, allies and critics alike, the White House has announced it will intervene in the bloody Syrian civil war. But how far is the Obama administration willing to go?
BEN RHODES: (From tape.) People have to understand that this is a very fluid and dynamic situation and the situation on the ground will have its own twists and turns. Now, our own policy has been one of incrementally increase support for the opposition, efforts to pressure the Assad regime, but this is not something that’s going to be resolved with the turn of a switch.
MS. IFILL: Mark is, whatever the administration is willing to do, a little too little too late?
MARK MAZZETTI: A lot of people think it is. I mean, the last week, last couple of weeks have seen the rebel positions collapsing, government troops moving on a number of key positions, and it really looked like the rebellion was beginning to fall apart. And that precipitated this flurry of meetings in Washington, senior levels of the Obama administration, to decide what to do about possibly supporting the rebels.
At the same time, you had this calculation about the determination of chemical weapons, whether chemical weapons were used by the government troops and, as we heard on Thursday, the determination is that they did. So there were these two strands coming together: the chemical weapons issue and the fact that the rebellion was falling apart.
MS. IFILL: Except that I watched what Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser said and I still didn’t come away clear, what are we doing exactly?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, they’re doing the least they could do while still looking like they’re doing something.
MS. IFILL: Ah, that would be it.
MR. MAZZETTI: It’s – they’ve said they’re going to provide for the first time direct military support to certain rebel groups. And the military support is small arms ammunition possibly and anti-tank weapons. They are drawing the line on – for the moment on anything heavier than that. And they pretty much are ruling out no-fly zone. They’re reviewing – ruling out some of the things that the rebels have said that they need. And so the question is, of course, is this real? Is this cosmetic? I mean, it could be both. I mean, it could be a cosmetic move that could have an impact. I mean, ammunition is not nothing. And so we’ll see what kind of a change this could affect on the ground.
JOAN BISKUPIC: Mark, what – you speak about on the ground. Didn’t Ben Rhodes say no boots on the ground, but maybe a role for the CIA. What is the CIA’s role here for this?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, yes, they have ruled out any American military, which – as they did in –
MS. IFILL: That was never really part of the debate.
MR. MAZZETTI: Correct. It was never really part of the equation and they said no boots on the ground in Libya, but of course, that didn’t mean they couldn’t send CIA operatives into Libya. And so the CIA, as best we can tell, will be a coordinating role, arming, training certain rebel groups in countries around the region, and then working with these vetted groups, again, to try to change the balance not only against the government, but also change the balance within the rebellion. They’re very concerned about the rise of Islamist groups. And so they want to support with the CIA taking the lead the groups that are considered to be more secular.
KAREN TUMULTY: Well, Mark, we know that in the first term, there were some pretty deep divisions on the president’s national security team over this issue that, you know, we now have some new people in new positions. What is your sense of how the Obama team – are they all unified on this at this point or are there still these divisions?
MR. MAZZETTI: No, there’re still pretty deep divisions. And the White House position pretty much remained consistent. They’re very, very reluctant to do this. They’re skeptical of the benefits of it. And they’re concerned about another – getting deep into another war in the Middle East.
The State Department really has been the most hawkish. They’re concerned about the collapse of Syria. They’re concerned about what it could do throughout the Middle East. There’s elements within the State Department who have really been pushing for something a lot more aggressive than what was announced on Thursday. There’s been talk of direct air strikes to hit Syrian airfields, cutting off Iranian supplies. This push in the State Department thus far hasn’t had a big effect. It’s only moved the policy so far.
ALAN GOMEZ: And Mark, trying to figure out the impact of what this aid is going to accomplish or what it can do, we saw a report this week that there’s 500 some air to ground attacks by the Assad regime. So if they’re not going to have any sort of anti-aircraft potential, if they’re just going to have small arms and possibly anti-tank weapons, what impact can that have?
MR. MAZZETTI: And that’s what people like John McCain are certainly asking. It’s – they will not be able to blunt the air offensive by Assad. And so it’s, at this point, a good question about whether you can really change the dynamic, when there’s such an overwhelming superiority on the part of the government, the government that’s being supported not only by Iran, but also by Hezbollah. So how much of this really does change the dynamic when you’re talking about small arms and anti-tank weapons?
MS. IFILL: You know, it’s – as you look at all the bad choices here, you think to yourself that the United States may or may not be able to affect a change. They may or may not be able to arm the right rebels, who might not turn back on whatever U.S. presence is on the ground. Does the Obama administration regret at all drawing a red line about the use of chemical weapons?
MR. MAZZETTI: I think, you know, the “Times” had a story about a month ago about some of the back and forth in the Obama administration about using that red line. I think there are some regrets that they sort of walked – backed themselves into a corner. The problem with by declaring a red line is if it’s crossed, you’ve got to do something about it, and I think there was a feeling that U.S. credibility was on the line. The fact is you couldn’t have ignored the chemical weapons determination. And once you made that determination, you had to do something. And this is the something.
MS. IFILL: Or you could say they ignored everybody else’s determination until they made their own, because the U.S. determination was not the first one they have been made.
MR. MAZZETTI: Right. And they’ve been really trying to play this out in terms of buying time to make a decision.
MS. IFILL: Thanks, Mark. I wonder if Bill Clinton had anything to do with it.
MR. MAZZETTI: It might be the case.
MS. IFILL: Might be the case as well.
Seven years ago, we sat at this table and talked about the discovery of a vast secret program the National Security Agency was using to collect phone records of American citizens. The president then, George W. Bush, defended it. The American people mostly yawned. And here we are again, with one key difference. We have the identity of the person who leaked the information. What’s more? He’s fled to China. So the conversation has switched from the existence of the program to the motives of the leaker. Why is that, how did that happen, Karen?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, for one think, one reason that switched it is was so surprising to discover that this person who had all this access to all these government secrets –
MS. IFILL: Edward Snowden.
MS. TUMULTY: Edward Snowden, who had the capacity to leak them, turns out to be a 29-year-old contract employee of the NSA. His actual employer was a consulting firm, Booz Allen. And he’d only been on the job for three months. So that was one reason that it was just so surprising, shocking. But I also think that Edward Snowden has in many cases become the Rorschach test of how conflicted this country is because you have people as diverse as, you know, Glenn Beck, the conservative commentator, Michael Moore, the liberal filmmaker, even, you know, Daniel Ellsberg to whom he is –he’s been – calling him a hero, and yet, you also had basically the entire congressional leadership coming down, calling for him to be tried as a criminal.
MS. IFILL: And is that happening in part because – by turning the conversation to whether what he did was illegal, Congress no longer has the conversation about whether it’s lawful what they did, which is allowing this program to exist?
MS. TUMULTY: You know, it appears that everything that was done was in fact lawful. So the question is what should be lawful and, you know, how do we balance our, you know, desire for security with our desire for privacy. And of course, nothing has been more – you know – brings that point home more clearly than to watch the president of the United States, who, as a senator in 2007, said that it was a false choice to suggest that there is some choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand. Well, this week, what he was saying was that they were striking the balance between the need to keep people safe and their concerns about privacy because there are tradeoffs involved.
MR. MAZZETTI: So what’s behind the change? Is it just when you become president, you like power and you like to have as much – (laughter) –
MS. IFILL: Being president changes your world view.
MR. MAZZETTI: What’s the difference between Senator Obama and President Obama?
MS. TUMULTY: It was really funny because as Dick Cheney was leaving office, he gave an interview where he said the new president, once he’s in office, he’s going to appreciate some of these things we put into place. But the other thing that’s been really interesting is the public opinion on this. There was a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll that came out early in the week that suggested that overall public opinion has not changed at all on this subject since 2006. What has changed is who supports what. Where only 30 something percent of Democrats supported these kinds of programs when they were George Bush’s to run, now something like, what is it, it’s 64 percent of Democrats support it. And the Republicans have gone exactly the other way.
It’s essentially, you know, as long as it’s our guy in the chair, we’re more comfortable with this.
MS. BISKUPIC: And it is interesting, given that he was a constitutional law professor who spoke so much about civil liberties, but it is a different role he’s in now. Is there defensiveness on the Hill because so many people in Congress supposedly were briefed about this, supposedly knew a lot about it. And I know some of them said being briefed is not the same as knowing the extent of it. That it’s easier to target Edward Snowden now than to take responsibility. What’s your sense about what they really knew?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, they know this time, unlike when George Bush, you know, essentially had got caught going around the FISA Courts and going around Congress, they’re very much – they have been briefed that – you know – and people in the White House were saying the first day, if there’s a scandal here, they’re part of it, too. But you are hearing some talk about some sorts of legislation, one – basically they fall into two groups of bills. One that would require the government to prove that these people that they are going after, these records they’re going after are, in fact, much more closely tied to a terrorism case. But the other set of legislation would be something that just adds a little bit more transparency to the whole process and maybe declassify some of these decisions or makes the government sort of tell the public a little more what the rationale is here.
MR. GOMEZ: And Karen, this – I mean, I’m curious. This is a – this comes at the tail end of quite a few situations for the administration. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: Situations, that’s good.
MR. GOMEZ: You know, you got the IRS targeting tea party groups. You got the Justice Department obviously going after media organizations and subpoenaing their records. So what position does that put the administration in, in terms of pursuing Snowden personally.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, one thing it tells us, the second term has in fact arrived and you know, all of these, whether you call them scandals or trumped up scandals or pseudo-scandals, what they all have in common is this sense that government has sort of run amuck, that this is intrusive –
MS. IFILL: Overreach.
MS. TUMULTY: Yes, overreach. And it’s interesting because essentially you’ve had – you know, the tea party’s been gored here. The press has been gored here. The Left has been disappointed in its president. So it’s – that’s the theme that, if anything, unites it.
MS. IFILL: That everybody is unhappy. Great. Thank you, Karen. As the massive immigration reform bill lumbers its way through the United States Senate, there have been any number of sticking points. Chief among them this week, what border security would and should look like?
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): (From tape.) My amendment has real border security triggers in place, while the Gang of Eight bill has no effective trigger that will guarantee implementation of border security standards that reach the Gang’s own standards of 100 percent situational awareness, 90 percent apprehension rate.
SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From tape.) We certainly want to improve the border, but we cannot improve that border and put in place triggers that are not specific and achievable.
MS. IFILL: We have to start by explaining what it was that Senator Cornyn was talking about. There was a little bit of Senate gobbledygook, but he was talking about triggers and 90 percent, and achievability. What is his proposal and what has the Gang of Eight been talking about, which is this bipartisan group of senators?
MR. GOMEZ: Let’s start with Senator Charles Schumer from New York. He’s a member of the Gang of Eight, the group that put together this immigration bill. And the way they’re proposing it is that they’re putting $6.5 billion toward the border, 3,500 new Customs and Border Protection officers along the borders. So they’re trying to beef that up. And then they’re also establishing goals that government needs to monitor 100 percent of the Southern border with Mexico and stop 90 percent of people that are trying to cross it.
What Senator Cornyn wants to do is make those goals – turn those into requirements, turn those into triggers, so that nobody – none of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants who are in the country right now can proceed to start getting their Green Cards, start applying for U.S. citizenship, until those 90-100 go – triggers are met.
MS. IFILL: I’ve heard somebody this week call the Cornyn counterproposal a poison pill, something designed to kill the overall bill.
MR. GOMEZ: And that’s the contention from the Gang of Eight and from Democrats in the Senate right now. They feel that they’re doing more than enough to further secure the border. You know, Republicans don’t. They have flashbacks in 1986, when there was the last mass legalization of unauthorized immigrants. And in that case, the legalization part happened, but the border security part did not. Obviously, we’ve now got 11 million unauthorized immigrants who’ve come into country since then.
So what the Democrats are saying is we’re going to be putting all this stuff down for border security, but you can’t put up all these other roadblocks for the unauthorized to get citizenship. And that’s the battle that you’re seeing right now and we’re going to be fighting for this for a little while now.
MS. BISKUPIC: Let me ask about the moment that they just talked about – president Obama talked about this moment, members of Congress have talked about this moment. You know, we’re rapidly approaching another midterm election season, in 2014. This feels, as strong as I’ve seen energy toward an immigration bill in a long, long time. What’s the sense of what’s going to happen next with the Senate and the House now taking it up? I mean, is there a sense of urgency that might actually make this thing happen this time around?
MR. GOMEZ: Yeah, I mean, the last time there was any kind of an attempt like this was 2007. And there was no appetite for this a year ago. Then, the 2012 elections happened and the Republicans got hammered with the Hispanic vote. Mitt Romney got 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. And immediately afterwards, this group came together, John McCain took the stage and said, politics, we need those votes. And this is we can’t continue losing this voting segment, this quickly growing, this constantly growing electorate. We can’t keep losing it as much as we have. So that’s therein. But as Democrats have been wanting to do this for quite some time –
MS. BISKUPIC: So 2014 facing them.
MR. GOMEZ: Exactly.
MS. TUMULTY: Beyond the potential for triggers to be a poison pill, what are the other deal breakers that are going to be coming up in amendments on the Senate floor?
MR. GOMEZ: Well, we’re seeing the costs of this are really just all over. The Republicans that are looking at this are very concerned about bringing 11 million people, a lot of them performing low skilled jobs, you know, their education levels aren’t necessarily as high as other folks, so they’re worried about all of them becoming public charges. So what you’re going to see now in the next few weeks is a wide variety of ways to try to get them to not be public charges. I mean, there’s one amendment by Senator Sessions of Alabama that specifically says if the person shows that he’s going to become a public charge, he cannot apply for citizenship.
Senator Hatch from Utah is proposing an amendment to require them to pay all of their back taxes that they’ve owed for the duration of the time that they’ve been here. All these ways to try to make it less of a financial burden on the American taxpayers as it possibly can. And Democrats, obviously, are being very reluctant to some of these because, again, putting too many roadblocks, putting too many hurdles on the way for the 11 million to get their citizenship.
MR. MAZZETTI: Alan, we saw just a second ago Marco Rubio speaking. His role is very interesting and prominent. How do you envision that his role is affecting the debate or will affect the debate?
MR. GOMEZ: Well, Senator Rubio has been one of the most fascinating characters throughout this. Obviously he’s a presidential – he’s talked about as a presidential candidate in 2016. He’s taken the lead on this. And he’s the one who’s given this group cover with conservatives. He’s the one that’s always on the conservative talk shows. He’s the one that’s selling this to them. So his support is absolutely paramount. At the same time, right after they came out with the bill, he’s been saying that the bill needs improvements. And border security is one of those areas.
MS. IFILL: And on top of that, he said he’s willing to walk away if he doesn’t get what he wants.
MR. GOMEZ: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: So he’s got some leverage.
Thanks a lot, Alan, and welcome to “Washington Week.”
MR. GOMEZ: Thank you.
MS. IFILL: Finally, tonight, a big Supreme Court decision that could have a far-reaching effect on a uniquely 21st century question. Can human genes be patented? The Supreme Court says, no and yes. What’s the distinction there, Joan?
MS. BISKUPIC: The court said you cannot patent a naturally occurring gene that’s been extracted from the body, but you can patent a gene that’s been modified, like what they call complementary DNA, CDNA. This is a big case. You know, we’re now in June. We’re getting our best rulings over the next two weeks. And this one, you know, brings the court, a very stuffy, old-fashioned institution, into this very modern biotech industry.
And the justices essentially went very narrow in sort of a compromise saying under patent law – just let me back up for a second and explain for patent law. You can patent an invention, but you can’t do a natural phenomena. And the question here was just isolating the gene, is that working with a natural phenomena or does that change it in some way and entitled to a patent? And Myriad Genetics based in Salt Lake City had gotten multiple patents on this. And the company was challenged by a group of medical researchers and patient advocacy groups, who said, look, with Myriad Genetics having these patents and charging more than $3,000 for genetic testing, it’s making it very hard for people to get these tests. And what –
MS. IFILL: Unless you’re Angelina Jolie.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. And that’s what made this case even more interesting, because people know that she had recently had a double mastectomy because she had discovered that she had this propensity toward this gene that is – the mutation carries a high risk for breast cancer and ovarian cancer. And what patient rights advocates said was, you know, it shouldn’t just be left to actresses, that more companies should be able to do this kind of genetic testing. It should be more accessible. And this ruling, according to the groups that brought the challenge, should do more of that.
Now, Myriad Genetics has said, because it was a split ruling and it held multiple patents on the CDNA, the synthetic DNA gene, that it’s not going to hurt their business as much.
MR. MAZZETTI: This is all very complex. It’s very confusing, even after reading all the coverage, you still find it very confusing. Do the justices themselves – are they qualified to be ruling on these issues? (Laughter.)
MS. BISKUPIC: There was a lot of action on the blogs afterwards saying, gosh, they just don’t get it. Well, let me just tell you about how the justices handled this. This was a case that was argued in April. And they came down, lickety-split with this unanimous ruling, an opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas, and you know, they all signed on for, as I said, narrow compromise decision.
And Justice Scalia wrote a separate concurrence that basically said I am with them, but I don’t get it. I do not get molecular biology. I only know what I read in the briefs. And you know, don’t hold me to it. So it didn’t go that far. But the truth is, it is a very difficult area for these folks. Right now, patent law is actually handled by a very specialized federal court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. And when we get these cases, the justices do have – you know, science – they’re not afraid of science, but it’s not their closest ally.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, they’ve got a lot of work to do between now and the end of the month. As the longhorn at this table, one of the cases that’s been sitting around for a long time, they heard arguments a long time ago, is the University of Texas affirmative action case.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes, Karen, that –
MS. TUMULTY: Where is that?
MS. BISKUPIC: They heard those arguments on October 10th, and we still don’t have that case. That’s the one that tests whether universities nationwide are able to use race as one factor in admissions, looking at students who apply. In Texas, it’s a supplementary program to the top 10 situation, where they led all the kids from, you know, who’ve gotten in the top 10 percent of their high schools into the Flagship University at Austin. And then they have the supplementary race program. Big, big case, really testing the legacy of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who, in 2003, in the University of Michigan one said, yes, race should still be used. She’s no longer on the court, so there’s a real, real strong possibility that affirmative action is going to be rolled back.
MS. IFILL: Briefly.
MR. GOMEZ: And looking ahead at the other case, the same-sex –
MS. BISKUPIC: Same-sex marriages –
MR. GOMEZ: – had to ask.
MS. BISKUPIC: – two big cases, one testing Proposition 8 from California, whether the ban on same-sex marriage is legal out there and maybe would it be legal nationwide. And whether the Defense of Marriage Act, which limits federal benefits for same-sex couples who are married in states that do allow it, whether that’s constitutional.
MS. IFILL: Only Joan Biskupic could get that in 30 seconds. Very, very good. Thank you, everybody. The conversation does have to end here for now, but we’ll keep chatting away online on the “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. That streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern. And if that’s not enough, join me next Thursday for my Ask Me Anything chat on Reddit, anything. Find all the information you need to join in on our website pbs.org/washingtonweek.
If you have a dad, call, write, email, or hug him right now and tell him that Gwen said happy Father’s Day. And while you’re at it, tell him to watch us here next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.