GWEN IFILL: The beginning of the end in Afghanistan; the end of the beginning on immigration reform; and secrets, secrets, secrets, tonight on “Washington Week.”
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC) [Senate Minority Leader]: (From tape.) So I am very pleased to support what I think is the most dramatic amendment in the history of our country to secure our border at a time when we need it secured.
MS. IFILL: The Senate takes giant steps toward immigration reform. But in the House, new battles break out.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA) [House Minority Leader]: (From tape.) It’s silly. It’s sad. It’s juvenile. It’s unprofessional. It’s amateur hour.
MS. IFILL: As lawmakers defect on the left and the right over a massive farm bill.
MR. : (From tape.) The bill is not passed.
MS. IFILL: Will anything get done now? The president focuses his energies abroad, on Afghanistan.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) We had anticipated that at the outset there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground.
MS. IFILL: And on Syria.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) And with respect to Syria, we do have different perspectives on the problem, but we share an interest.
MS. IFILL: But does he have the juice to get things done? And Mr. Obama steps up his defense of the government’s extensive surveillance program.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information.
MS. IFILL: Covering an eventful week, Ed O’Keefe of the Washington Post; Peter Baker of the New York Times; Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News; and Tom Gjelten of NPR.
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. It appears the Senate may have finally come up with a deal on immigration that spends a lot more money on border security and provides a path to eventual citizenship for people living in the country illegally.
Great news, right? But don’t take your eye off the House, which stopped a huge agriculture bill, the kind of legislation that used to be a slam dunk, in its tracks. That’s where the immigration bill could be headed as well.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [House Majority Leader]: (From tape.) I don’t see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn’t have the majority support of Republicans.
MS. IFILL: But John Boehner couldn’t get majority support on the farm bill either. So much hanging in the balance, Ed.
ED O’KEEFE: There really is. An 800-page, $20 billion immigration measure became a $50 billion, 1,100 page immigration bill just today, an incredibly big agreement now that will basically, you know, militarize the U.S.-Mexico border.
You’re going to double the size of the U.S. Border Patrol, if this plan goes through, bringing 40,000, you know, members of the Border Patrol to – down along – as Chuck Schumer said this week, you could put a Border Patrol agent every 1,000 feet, from San Diego all the way to Brownsville, Texas.
As an immigration advocate put it to me this week, we now have the second most militarized border in the world behind the Koreas.
MS. IFILL: I have been along that border and I can’t quite envision how they do this, even physically, but where do they get the money -- all this money all of a sudden?
MR. O’KEEFE: There’s a combination of things. There are various fees that are involved in applying for visas and for other services that are done through the immigration bill. They’re going to take money from that.
They also got a score this week from the Congressional Budget Office that suggested that this actually was trimming a lot more from the deficit in the coming years than they initially expected. So when Republicans came to them with the idea of adding more Border Patrol agents, and Democrats and Republicans in the Gang of Eight said initially that’s too much money, well, then the CBO score arrived, and they said, wait a second. Actually, now we have some money to play with. Perhaps we can do this.
TOM GJELTEN: Ed, is that really the key to getting this immigration bill passed? I mean, what is – what is that provision? What are those provisions going to add that are going to swing people from opposing this to supporting it?
MR. O’KEEFE: It allows about a dozen Republican senators to say, I have now convinced the gang of eight to fortify security along the border. And the biggest GOP concern, making sure that the border is secure, can now happen.
Now, there’s still about 10, maybe 15 Republican senators who do not like this because it doesn’t go far enough, but it will bring along, many believe, about a dozen. Guys like Mark Kirk of Illinois, Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker of Tennessee. Corker was instrumental in getting this deal done. Others, perhaps people like Tom Coburn; Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire has said that she is on board as well. The goal is to get to about 70 because then it will set it up in a way that perhaps the House can’t ignore it.
PETER BAKER: Yeah. The name you didn’t mention just now is Barack Obama, president of the United States. Where is he on this? And if you listen to the Republicans, he has absolutely nothing to do about it. If you listen to the White House, they’ll say quietly, covertly, we’re really actually, you know, pretty involved. What’s the role of the White House in all of this?
MR. O’KEEFE: Well, the president is about a phone call away. Now, we know that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who has been the lead Democratic negotiator, did keep in touch with the president while he was overseas -- in fact, had a few phone calls cut off as the president was flying on Air Force One.
And, basically, they’re keeping the White House in the loop. They were kept abreast of the situation regarding this deal on the border. And, eventually, the White House said, OK. It looks fine.
Apparently, there were some concerns about how you would conceivably hire these people, whether they’ll be government employees or could be private security contractors. All signs suggest that they’re going to be government employees. And so that really puts the onus on the White House to be able to hire 20,000 people in the next decade or the next president has to do that.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: It seems like a great job creation method –
MR. O’KEEFE: Absolutely.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: If that’s – if that’s what they’re looking at. This is the new part of his stimulus package.
MR. O’KEEFE: Perhaps. And they believe that there are 20,000 people out there who would like jobs along the border.
MS. IFILL: But let’s talk about the House, because what we saw happen in the House may be a presager of things to come, the farm bill. Generally, it used to be the thing that brought the urban people who like food stamps and food support programs together with agriculture states, which the farmers liked farm supports. This is a bill that was going to reduce some of that spending, but it crashed and burned. What happened?
MR. O’KEEFE: It did in an incredibly dramatic fashion. And the real irony is that at the moment that the gang of eight and the Republicans who negotiated this border security agreement were announcing it on the Senate floor, across the Capitol, Republican and Democrats –
MS. IFILL: That same moment.
MR. O’KEEFE: The same moment were defeating the farm bill.
MR. GJELTEN: Now, Boehner said, I can’t bring – I’m not going to bring a bill that doesn’t have majority of Republican support, referring to immigration, to the floor. He didn’t say a conference report. Is there any sort of loophole here that – you know, where they might actually bring the Senate bill in?
MR. O’KEEFE: This is pure Washington, for people back home going, what? This is the agreement when the House and the Senate pass their versions of the bill and then negotiate an agreement. His aides went back later, and said, no, no, no. He means the conference report also.
But, at the end of the week, he was suggesting bipartisanship might come into play when it comes to the immigration issue. So he kind of slightly reversed course by suggesting at this conference on Thursday that, you know, well – you know, hopefully, this will be a bipartisan thing, but it will be – you know, a majority support situation.
MS. IFILL: But he has caucuses, people within his caucus who don’t seem interested in listening to whatever he says.
MR. O’KEEFE: Yes, that is true. I mean, you’ve got the ardent tea party-backed Republicans who have – are more interested in pleasing groups like the Heritage Foundation than they are – and worrying about the speaker and the majority leader.
This was an incredible meltdown. Republicans will blame Democrats who says they had assured them at least 40 votes in support. But there was an amendment to the farm bill regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, what people know as food stamps. It was an amendment that said, basically, if you’re collecting food stamps, you have to be working. The idea was that you’re not getting a free handout.
Republicans got it under the bill. Then they asked for a vote. And the moment that they asked for a vote, the Democrats said, hold on a second. Now we don’t want to play ball. And the ranking Democrat told Eric Cantor, (we know how it works ?).
MS. IFILL: This is why America loves us so much or at least loves them.
The president’s European journey this week was a typical foreign trip – face to face with other leaders, strolls in the Irish countryside, a big speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
But there were a lot of loose ends that no G-8 summit could resolve. Among them, the end of America’s longest war, the bloody civil war in Syria, and the on-again, off-again peace talks with the Taliban, which he conceded may be tough to pull off.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Not only have the Taliban and the Afghan government been fighting for a long time; they’re fighting as we speak. I mean, we’re in the middle of a war.
MS. IFILL: Is there any worry that in the rush to get out of Afghanistan or to get all of these things going at once that the president may be overreaching, Indira?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, I think he’s got to reach. I mean, he’s go to try. As he has been saying for a few years now, you know, you can’t end a war in Afghanistan just militarily. There’s got to be some form of reconciliation.
So it’s been a few years that the president and his administration have been talking about this idea of fight, talk and build: keep fighting against the Taliban; at the same time, try to build reconstruction projects; and, at the same time, we have to figure out a way to talk with them and come to a peaceful solution.
The problem is, of course, that within 24 hours, less than 24 hours of this idea being announced, there were going to be talks with the Taliban. It all seemed to come crashing down initially.
MS. IFILL: But this is a kind of a critical week. This is the week of the formal handover. This is the week in which the Afghans have to prove that they’re up to the security task. And then this collapses. Is there despair? Is there a plan B?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, let’s point out that President Karzai just this morning has already said that he’s willing to come back to talks with the Taliban as long as the Taliban gets rid of that name plate.
Just to back up a little for people. I mean, this became – the idea of having Taliban talks between the U.S. and the Taliban and also the Taliban and the Afghan government ended up becoming a public relations coup for the Taliban, who set up something in Qatar, in Doha, that was like a foreign embassy with a flag and a plaque with the old name they used to use when they were in charge of Afghanistan. And that was really what sent President Karzai’s nose out of joint. He said, no way. Take down the flag. Take down the plaque or else we’re not going to talk to you at all.
MS. IFILL: Well, Peter, so the president is trying to keep all these balls in the air: Afghanistan, which always is problematical; Syria, intervention there; probably economic conversations he was supposed to be having at the G-8. How is he perceived in the second term on the world stage?
MR. BAKER: Well, the bloom is off the rose, right? I mean, this is no longer the novelty figure that was the last time he visited Berlin as a candidate in 2008. He shows up at the Brandenburg Gate to give a speech. There’s about 4,500 people there as opposed to 200,000.
MS. IFILL: Two hundred thousand.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. And he’s behind this – I don’t know if you saw on television, behind this sort of glass barrier that made him look like he was in an aquarium. It was a security thing, clearly Secret Service, bullet proof, but it was done in a way that as he talked about bringing down barriers seemed a little odd.
But, you know, he’s not the new guy on the block anymore. He’s got tough relations with Putin. He’s got tough relations with President Xi from China. Even Angela Merkel, who’s been friendly toward him, gave him a little bit of an earful about the NSA surveillance thing. So it was not the most fun trip he’s going to have this year.
MS. IFILL: Can we talk about the Putin meeting, which we saw a little bit of? That was not the warmest, fuzziest moment I’ve ever seen on a long day.
MR. GJELTEN: He looked like a sullen teenager the way he was slumping.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Yeah, slumped in his seat.
MR. BAKER: Both of them, right? This is – with any Putin meeting, I really think the picture tells the story. You know, it’s worth 1,000 words. They do not like each other. They do not get along. They’re very different personalities.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Putin even brushed off his attempt to make a joke in a very embarrassing way.
MR. BAKER: He did. Putin – Obama made a joke about how, well, we’re both getting older. He’s older at judo. I’m older at basketball. It probably didn’t go over well with Putin.
MS. IFILL: In translation.
MR. BAKER: Well, also because Putin has been on the defense at home about his age and health. So I don’t think Putin took that all that well. So, you know, this is not a meeting of friends. And they had a lot to disagree about, particularly Syria. And that’s one thing we’re not going to settle in this week I think.
MR. O’KEEFE: When you walk away from this week though – there were G-8 meetings, there was the speech in Berlin – really, what was the point of the week? And did the White House really accomplish anything that it had planned to accomplish?
MR. BAKER: I don’t think they can call this a week of accomplishment. I think that they look at this in a long-term fashion. This is building toward what they hope will be some progress on various issues.
Syria is only going to work in their view if they can get Putin and Russia on board for some sort of peace process that brings Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, to the table. It may be a far-fetched wish on their part, given Putin’s obvious attitudes, but they see that as the only real key. And this week was an important part toward getting there.
There’s another meeting between Putin and Obama in September, in Russia. He’s going to go to St. Petersburg for another summit. He did agree to go to Moscow as well, so, you know, that’s the next step.
MR. GJELTEN: So, Indira, to what extent is the calendar working against this administration, you know, in all of these areas? I mean, we have a president in his second term. Second terms always seem to be more disappointing than first terms. And with respect to Afghanistan, I mean, the U.S. is committed to pulling out the end of next year. What reason is there for the Taliban to negotiate a peace agreement with the United States and Karzai at this point?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Right. It’s a question that a lot of people are asking, whether the Taliban is simply trying to run down the clock until we and NATO have committed to pull out all of our combat forces by the end of 2014.
What I think is really interesting though, is you look at the surveys -- the public opinion surveys in Afghanistan. And I was stunned to see that 93 percent of Afghans express confidence in their 350,000-strong Afghan Security Forces that they have now. So that means at least the Afghans themselves think there’s a chance, a good chance that the Afghan Security Forces, backed by whatever residual forces we may be able to leave behind – and, remember, that is based on whether we’re going to get this kind of bilateral security agreement, which temporarily Karzai froze discussions about that this week in his frustration.
So, you know, we do have a time clock. The question is just, ultimately, you know, Hillary Clinton said this 100 times. Every war eventually has a peace process. People have to talk it out. And, you know, we didn’t expect a lot of peace accords.
MS. IFILL: You mentioned Hillary Clinton. What’s become of John Kerry in all of this? Does he have a role in this? And in Syria, as well, I mean, and where we’re trying to fix an identifiable problem a different way than we did in Afghanistan?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, it’s interesting, because John Kerry is actually headed to Doha right now, Qatar, but he’s not going to be involved in the Afghan-Taliban talks that are planned. That will be run by, you know, his head special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Jim Dobbins.
But, you know, I think that John Kerry has put most of his attention and energy into two things since he’s taken office: one is trying to solve Syria and the second is trying to revive Mideast peace. And, on Syria, he spent quite a lot of time as we know in Moscow. He was there back in May. He met with Putin. He met with Lavrov. They came up with this grand idea of this peace conference they were going to have with Syria. But so far –
MR. BAKER: And then he left and the Russians sold more weapons to Bashar al-Assad. Yeah.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: That’s exactly what happened. And, you know, went back, he felt, on their word. And then, now, the Russians feel that the Americans have gone back on their word by agreeing to now do something to arm the Syrian opposition more. So a bit of a stalemate on that.
MS. IFILL: Is there anything that this administration has identified – he has a new foreign policy team kind of, sort of in place. He now has someone new at the National Security Council. He’s got someone new at the Department of State. He’s got someone new at the U.N.
Do we – with all of these balls he has to keep in the air, including suspicion from places like China, is there a different approach? Is there a pivot away from Asia to something else?
MR. BAKER: Well, I think you see a little bit of difference in the sense that the decision to arm and send military aid to the Syrian opposition did expose a little bit of differences between some of these players, new and old, with John Kerry in favor of sending more aid, for instance, and the outgoing National Security Adviser Tom Donilon expressing skepticism and concern. So –
MS. LAKSHMANAN: And the controversy about whether Kerry even possibly wanted to bomb Syria, you know, that whole –
MR. BAKER: Wanted to bomb Syria, exactly. And I think you’re going to see – you’ll see more of that. You do see a little bit of a pivot in the sense that the president, again, addressed while he was in Germany this nuclear agenda, which he basically has dropped for the last two years. He wants to resume the ability to cut back on the number of warheads we have and do some other things to curb fissile material and so forth, more of an idealistic view that kind of got dropped when the Republicans took over the House and made gains in the Senate.
But, you know, it’s a tough time for him. There’s not a lot of bright spots on the foreign policy agenda to speak to. I talked to a White House person today. He said, the best thing about the G-8 is we didn’t talk about the economy. (Laughter.) Because, in fact, they didn’t need to. It wasn’t a crisis compared to previous G-8s. And so the absence of bad news on that front was good news.
MS. IFILL: That’s OK. They came home and the stock market crashed so that gave them plenty to talk about.
One more thing about this. And that’s that as we talk about the pullout, we’ve talked about at this table before about the deadlines for actually withdrawing and ending this war formally in Afghanistan. How much more difficult is it from now – between now and next year, when this is actually supposed to be done? We’ve done the political handover. We’ve done the tactical handover. Now what?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, I mean, we have to figure out a way to responsibly draw down the force, the forces, the NATO and U.S. forces without completely leaving the Afghan forces in the (limb ?). I mean, what the administration has been trying to say all along is this is a gradual process. It’s been taking place over time, and we’re not just abandoning them, that in fact we’ve trained them and we’re going to still be there in the background helping them in one way or another.
I think the other question is economic. You know, what is the economic transition in Afghanistan going to look like, because we are not going to be funding them at the levels that we were before. And, also, the post-Karzai picture, because, remember, Afghanistan is up for elections next year, and think about that as well, what is the future government going to be like? So there are a lot of question marks hanging over this process.
MR. GJELTEN: Just physically getting out of Afghanistan is going to be hard enough.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Right.
MS. IFILL: Physically breaking everything down. OK. Well, thank you both very much. It’s very interesting.
When it comes to the nation’s secrets, the pendulum appears to be swinging toward keeping more of them. This is how Mike Rogers, the Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, put it.
REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS (R-MI): (From tape.) Listen, we still need secrets in the United States. If we’re going to protect Americans, our national security apparatus still needs to keep secrets about how we do things.
MS. IFILL: On this, Rogers and the Obama administration appear to agree. So what are the basics of their argument for why this should be – that secrets should be kept, Tom?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, we’re still dealing here with the fallout from the NSA revelations about surveillance. And the basic argument is about the need to collect secret personal data. It’s all about data. It’s – that’s where the action is.
In this electronic day and age, if you’re going to go after terrorists, you’ll need records of their phone calls, their wire transfers, their e-mails. And because you don’t know who the terrorists are beforehand, you need to collect data like that about as many people as you can, as much data as you can. You need this kind of vast collection.
And this was the week when the administration laid out its case, this is why we’re doing that. There was this interesting hearing before the entire House Intelligence Committee, where you had – you had the NSA represented, General Alexander was there, the head of the NSA; you had the FBI; you had the Justice Department; you had the director of National Intelligence Office there. They laid out in great detail their case for why this surveillance program is important.
And the interesting thing is, there wasn’t one member of Congress – in spite of all this controversy, there wasn’t one member of Congress that really stood up and gave them a hard time. So I think from that point of view, this was actually a good week for the administration.
MS. IFILL: Where is the president in this argument? Of course, he’s defending himself to Angela Merkel, his friend in Germany, but other than that, is he – it is more credible for the White House to leave it to the FBI, the NSA, the guys with the fruit on their shoulders to – I’m going to get mail about that.
MR. GJELTEN: Well – I mean, look, in the aftermath of the IRS scandal, the Benghazi scandal, I think this administration is grateful to have a scandal that is not breaking out along partisan lines. So, you know, I think let it just be at that.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. Send the guys in uniform and be done with it.
MR. BAKER: So today, the president in the Rose Garden introduces Jim Comey, former deputy attorney general from the Bush administration, as his choice for the new FBI director and alludes to these very questions because, of course, the thing that Jim Comey is best known for is refusing to authorize part of the surveillance program during the Bush administration so, Obama, in effect, sort of using him as a crutch or a defense in his argument.
But I wonder, thinking about the Bush administration, they also said there were 50-plus that were prevented, which reminds me of what the Bush administration said in the same type of situation. How credible is that? We doubted it back then. Do we doubt it today?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, first of all, you know, the number 50 jumps out, but of those 50, only 10 were in the United States. And I think Americans are concerned mostly about terrorist attempts in the United States. So 10 are in the United States. They laid out details about four of them. Clearly, this surveillance, whether phone calls or e-mails, played a part in cracking these 10 cases.
Now, the thing about anti-terrorism, counterterrorism efforts, as the deputy director of the FBI said, it’s more of an art than a science. And you don’t know what particular technique it is that allows you to break, because you put together a lot of – you know, a lot of efforts, of which part of them were surveillance. And now, some of the critics of this surveillance program say the administration is really overemphasizing how important the surveillance was. They could have cracked these cases without the surveillance. It’s really hard to know unless more details are given.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: What I want to know is we’re two weeks now into knowing this incendiary information about tracking our phones, and our e-mails, and everything.
How do you think the public reaction is playing, because we hear the ACLU, we hear, you know, Ron Wyden, certain Democrats saying, this is wrong; we can’t do it, but I have not heard a giant hue and cry from the American public, who seem to think, well, if I’m not doing anything that – you know.
MS. IFILL: Even though, it should be said, that today, Edward Snowden, the leaker, the NSA leaker was actually – charges were finally brought against him.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Right. That’s right.
MR. GJELTEN: Yeah. And there have been polls that say that charges – people say charges should be brought against him. I think it depends a lot on how you ask the question. Do you want the government snooping on you? No. Do you think that government should be reading e-mails in order to crack terrorists? Yes. I mean, you know, the same people answer the question twice.
I think that one of the things that’s been interesting in what’s come out in the last few days is that you can look at – you can look at these programs in two different ways. You can look at them in terms of the surveillance and the snooping that’s going on or you can look at how many restrictions are put on the agencies in order to do this. And what we found in – as some of these court orders come out, you know, you can be scandalized by them or you can go through the language and see that it’s actually very hard to do this.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thank you, Tom. Thank you everyone else as well. Our conversation has to end here, but we’re going to keep talking online in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” That’s where we get to everything that we ran out of time for here. It streams live, beginning at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
And while you’re online, check out my thumbnail guide to the key decisions we’re waiting for and waiting for at the Supreme Court, which we’ll cover every night over on the NewsHour, and right here again, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.