GWEN IFILL: Riots in Egypt, assaults in Syria, and evidence of extensive spying at home. Plus, we look back at the March on Washington, tonight on “Washington Week.”
More red lines crossed in Syria.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) What we’ve seen indicates that this is clearly a big event of grave concern when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale. And, again, we’re still gathering information about this particular event, but it is very troublesome.
JEN PSAKI [Department of States Spokesperson]: (From tape.) There’s no reason, if there’s nothing to hide, for the regime not to let the investigative team in.
MS. IFILL: More tough choices in Egypt.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) What we’re doing right now is doing a full evaluation of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship.
AMBASSADOR MOHAMED TAWFIK [Egyptian Ambassador to the United States]: (From tape.) We have the same objective. We want to see a democratic system in place in Egypt.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): (From tape.) John McCain and I called it a coup because that’s exactly what it is.
MS. IFILL: And new disclosures about government surveillance of American citizens.
REPRESENTATIVE BOB GOODLATTE (R-VA): (From tape.) I think that the trust of the American people in their government is what’s at stake here.
MS. IFILL: A trio of late summer policy dilemmas. Plus, 50 years later, we look back at the march that may have changed America.
Covering the week: Tom Gjelten of NPR, Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics, and Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post.
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: This week proved again why nothing is simple. What to do about the terrible pictures of apparent chemical attacks in Syria? What side to take with the nation, a longtime ally that has booted us out, that has booted out a democratically elected leader in favor of a military government? And who should Americans trust when the people we pay to protect us begin spying on us?
In a CNN interview today, the president spoke to the critics of U.S. inaction in Syria and Egypt.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) We remain the one indispensible nation. There’s a reason why, when you listen to what’s happening around Egypt and Syria, that everybody asks what the U.S. is doing. It’s because the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders.
MS. IFILL: But, in Syria at least, doing more means turning to the U.N. rather than the U.S., Alexis?
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: That’s right. What we heard from the president today in the interview and certainly from the White House this week was an effort to try to turn to the United Nations and United States allies abroad to try to work on both the investigation of what happened with the alleged chemical attacks but also to try to apply some pressure on the situation to try to assess where things go from here.
So what we heard at the White House earlier this week was, let’s take a long pause and try to figure out what the facts are on the ground and let the U.N. inspectors investigate. And what we heard from the president today was he actually said in the interview on CNN that he didn’t think there would be cooperation from the Assad government, which suggests that he’s going to have to be considering other options simultaneously.
We know that there have been meetings. There will be more meetings at the White House. We know that the administration has options that it is considering, it has been considering about, you know, how to proceed. But the president seems to be very concerned about not only the U.S. pressure to lead but also the American public’s desire not to lead.
MS. IFILL: Tell me about this red line issue, Tom, because we – the president is the one who used the word “red line” and seems like he’s been backpedaling from it ever since. Exactly what is the line that the administration is waiting? He says it’s a big event.
TOM GJELTEN: You know, the State Department spokeswoman, who we heard from earlier, Jen Psaki, was asked about this yesterday. And she said, well, the red line was already crossed. The red line was crossed some time ago and we took action, which raises the question, now what was the action that we took?
MS. IFILL: What was the action?
MR. GJELTEN: There was talk of providing more supplies – not even arms, more supplies to the rebel forces. So, clearly, the administration has walked way back from that idea that there is going to be something dramatic. You know, what President Obama originally said was going to change the whole calculus of what we do, but what he said today is that without a legal mandate to go into Syria, it would be very hard to do it. If he’s going to use that as the criterion for an intervention in Syria, it’s never going to happen.
MS. IFILL: So if a legal mandate, we assume it’s the United Nations –
MR. GJELTEN: That’s what he’s talking about.
MS. IFILL: What are we talking about? A resolution? Are we talking about a joint action? I don’t quite – maybe that’s the problem.
MR. GJELTEN: There have been –
MS. SIMENDINGER: The president was suggesting that, based on what we know from how the United States has done this in the past, most prominently dealing with Iraq – not a memory all of us enjoy, not one that the president enjoys – that there’s a discussion about having the provable evidence of weapons of mass destruction being either moved or used against Assad’s own people, the Syrian people. With that evidence, with some sort of independent verification of that, then the president is suggesting that provides the basis to go to the U.N. to seek a joint effort to try to force Assad to do something.
Now, as Tom suggests, that is a very long process. And what we’ve learned is, if the president wanted to use some interim military options, you would think about removing the U.N. inspectors who are already on the ground trying to get access to what is considered a battlefield. You would want to remove those folks. So then you would be undercutting your effort to get that independent evidence.
MS. IFILL: One of the things the president said today was that the idea that the U.S. can just sail to the rescue is overstated. Is he right about that?
MR. GJELTEN: Right. Well, I think that – I mean, when you consider that he has already definitively ruled out boots on the ground, the – you know, even if you did have some kind of mandate or legal foundation to do something, you’re talking about cruise missile strikes; you’re talking about, you know, air raids. That’s not going to do it.
So the United States is just not really in a position – particularly if you think about the reluctance of the military – to make a major difference on the ground in terms of the outcome of this conflict.
MS. IFILL: Let me read to you a tweet that Ambassador Rice, who’s now the national security adviser, Susan Rice –
MR. GJELTEN: Right.
MS. IFILL: – sent out this afternoon. She texted or whatever – someone did for her – what is Assad hiding – talking about Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. The world demands an independent investigation of Wednesday’s apparent CW –
MR. GJELTEN: Chemical weapons.
MS. IFILL: – chemical weapon attack, immediately. That’s pretty tough language. So is that what we’re reduced to, the national security adviser tweeting our displeasure?
MR. GJELTEN: You know, the one sort of promising development is that Russia is now sort of endorsing this call for the U.N. investigators to actually have access to those chemical weapon attack sites. And they are putting some pressure on the Syrian government. So, clearly, the administration is hoping that tough talk like this, with a little bit of help from Russia might actually move that investigation a little bit.
MS. IFILL: There was tough talk also from the new U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Samantha Power, there’s obviously talk from the U.N. secretary general. There is – the president’s trying to build that coalition of folks who are willing to press. And what Tom is suggesting about Russia that’s important is Russia is, of course, an ally of Assad and his regime and an arms supplier. So to get – remember this relationship that the United States has put sort of on ice for a while with Russia and to be able to enjoin Russia to join this effort might be profitable in some ways that we don’t yet know.
MS. IFILL: Well, Syria wasn’t the only agenda. There was Egypt, which continues to unravel. And the U.S. continues to struggle over what if anything to do about that. More from the president’s CNN interview.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Well, my sense with Egypt is that the aid itself may not reverse what the interim government does. But I think what most Americans would say is that we have to be very careful about being seen as aiding and abetting actions that we think run contrary to our values and our ideals.
MS. IFILL: And this, from Judy Woodruff’s interview this week with Egypt’s ambassador to the U.S., Mohamed Tawfik.
AMB. TAWFIK: (From tape.) The U.S. assistance to Egypt is part of a strategic partnership that serves both countries enormously. It’s a win-win situation. So, basically, we would like it to continue to be a win-win situation, particularly since we agree on the objective.
MS. IFILL: Do we even know what the objectives are anymore, Tom?
MR. GJELTEN: Well, I do – I actually think that he’s right, that the United States and Egypt sort of do agree on some things. The United States has a very clear interest in Egypt being – continuing to be committed to the Camp David Accords, to continue to be committed to the stability of the Suez Canal. Those are really important strategic interests. And it’s certainly my impression that this administration is willing to bend over backwards not to break that relationship. You see the great reluctance of the administration to call it a coup and to cut off aid definitively.
MS. IFILL: To not call it a coup.
MR. GJELTEN: To not call it a coup. They may cut some partial aid shipments. You know, in order to say that they’ve done something, but it’s pretty clear they don’t want to break with Egypt.
MS. IFILL: So what – there’s all this dancing going along and this is what foreign policy is really about, but it still strikes me that at some point, the objectives that they’re agreed on is not who should run Egypt.
MS. SIMENDINGER: The objectives – that’s right. I mean, the president has been saying repeatedly, and the administration has said repeatedly, that this is for the Egyptians to decide, that this is an effort for democracy to take root and that there’s been an effort to use rhetoric to enjoin the interim government to try to restore peace.
One of the things the president has said today that I thought was interesting about Egypt, he talked about Syria and our U.S. interests. He talked about our long-term interests. He talked about them in a different way with Egypt, but he said that there is no way to go back to the way things were. And after Mohamed Morsi was overthrown and has now been detained, imprisoned without any legal process, he’s saying again and again that the relationship will change, but he’s not saying how this review – how long this review of the U.S. assistance will continue to run out.
And, you know, at the White House, there was this effort this week to talk about how the U.S. relationship in terms of military and other aid is not a spigot, and that’s because in one way the president knows that not only is this kind of a – it’s like a credit card in which Egypt has been buying tanks and, you know, F-16s. But this also will affect the U.S. economy. These are – these are people whose jobs depend on some of these tanks and weapons going forward. And so I think the president’s thinking about the long-term interests when he says –
MS. IFILL: He used that phrase, “long term.”
MS. SIMENDINGER: He kept talking about the long-term interests, U.S. and Egypt, and he’s thinking about that.
MR. GJELTEN: But, you know, like you say, he can’t go back. But this week, what happened? Hosni Mubarak is released from prison. And this is the man who was – you know, the great celebrations in Tahrir Square when he was imprisoned and now he’s out of prison, there’s no a whimper of protest. It almost is as if –
MS. IFILL: Maybe because he came out flat on his back. And, you know, as far as we know –
MS. SIMENDINGER: At 85.
MR. GJELTEN: He’s no longer the symbol of the anger of the Egyptian people the way he was in 2011.
MS. SIMENDINGER: Because of their economy too.
MS. IFILL: So the symbol is now the person who replaced him.
MR. GJELTEN: Yes. Democratic.
MS. IFILL: But it’s not – when we talk about aid, whether it’s a spigot, whether it should be cut off, it’s not just the U.S. which doesn’t want U.S. aid cut off. It’s also the region.
MR. GJELTEN: Well, and not only that, Gwen. You know, the United States could cut off aid, and Saudi Arabia has already said that it will make up for anything that the United States and Europe cut off to Egypt. So if all that aid is simply replaced by Saudi aid, then what’s been accomplished?
MS. IFILL: So the National Security Council has been meeting about this, probably on a daily basis, every day they say they’re meeting and then they come out, and say, we won’t tell you what happened. Do we have any idea what they’re discussing, what’s on the table?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, the review part of it is I think going to go on for a continued period of time. There has been no indication that they want to say that they’re going to come to a conclusion about that. But there was vigorous discussion about this ongoing U.S. review of assistance and aid.
But the president I think in reemphasizing in the CNN interview that he’s talking about the long-term interests, I think he’s also been talking about what American interests are too.
MS. IFILL: There were also unresolved debates this week within our borders over secrets and surveillance. A military court convicted Private Bradley Manning, known as Bradley Manning at the time, for releasing a trove of secret documents to WikiLeaks. And the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald was held for nine hours in London on suspicion of being a go-between in the transfer of other secret information from admitted NSA leaker Edward Snowden. And this, the National Security Agency confessed that contrary to past claims, it may have been inadvertently collecting your e-mails after all. Yet, we’re told the president is still confident that this is not a problem at all, Tom.
MR. GJELTEN: You know, one reason I think that they’re so confident is because in Congress, the people who know the most about this program on the Intelligence Committee, both Democrats and Republicans have, for the most part, been solidly in support of it with a few exceptions: Ron Wyden and Senator Udall. But mostly this has not been turned into a partisan issue. You see Democrats and Republicans alike in positions of authority endorsing it.
I think the administration is thinking, even though there was a close vote on funding for the surveillance program in the future, I think the administration is thinking that, you know, once the dust settles, this program is going to go ahead and they’re going to have congressional support for it.
MS. IFILL: You know, briefly, I’m just curious of what all these things that links them together as credibility for the president, Alexis, do they worry about that, that in all three of these issues?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Absolutely. And you could hear the president in a series of questions, again and again and again, whether it was at his news conference or in a CNN interview, the question is about whether his word is his deed, whether he has measured up to expectations, not only that Americans have for him or abroad but his own expectations, and whether he’s being honest about what it is that the Americans are looking at and finding fault with. Absolutely. I think that the credibility and trust in government means trust in him.
MS. IFILL: That’s what you’re hearing as well.
MR. GJELTEN: Yeah. I mean, you said at the beginning, Gwen, no easy answers. You know, I think – I think that there actually is some sympathy for the difficulty of the positions that the United States is dealing with.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thanks to both of you.
We end tonight with a look back at over 50 years at the historic March on Washington for jobs and freedom. A quarter of million people of all colors, genders and ages travelled to the nation’s capital on an August Wednesday, 1963, to march peacefully for economic equality and civil rights. It’s most remembered now for being the moment when the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech, now recited by school children everywhere.
For this month’s Smithsonian magazine, Washington Post reporter Michael Fletcher interviewed some of the people who were there. We talked about what else happened that day.
They came by train, plane, automobile, bus and on foot to be part of the March on Washington. An estimated 250,000 people converged on the Lincoln Memorial on that hot August day, 50 years ago this month.
Michael, people forget that it was really hard to get that many people in one place in 1963. How did the march come together?
MICHAEL FLETCHER: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, the idea for the march actually had been planted 22 years before it occurred. A. Philip Randolph, the famous labor leader, had wanted to have a march on Washington, at that time, to protest discrimination in the war industries of the United States and segregation of their armed forces. But that was forestalled when FDR desegregated the war industry. So the march wasn’t held.
But then 22 years later, here we are in the aftermath of the murder of Medgar Evers, the civil rights bill had just been introduced, and he felt that there’s a time – now is a time for people to converge on Washington and make this demand.
But it was an audacious idea because, in those days, marches on Washington just didn’t happen. Mass marches didn’t happen. That was something that had never been used as a political tool in this country. Marches in those days, they attracted 10,000 people. That was big. So this was a big, audacious idea. And it was pulled together really in eight or 10 weeks.
MS. IFILL: One person you mentioned, A. Philip Randolph, and another person who was behind the organization, Bayard Rustin.
MR. FLETCHER: Bayard Rustin was the key. People say he’s a master organizer. And what a controversial figure. Back in 1963, this is an openly gay black man who’s at the center of the civil rights movement. And he was attacked, of course. People in Congress attacked him. Strom Thurmond, you know, talked about his lifestyle in a way to try to undermine the planning for the march.
But it was Bayard Rustin who brought the logistics together. He did all of the organizing. He got word out to various organizations around the country. And, again, 1963, no email. You know, everything is snail mail. But he was able to organize the march and bring people to Washington.
And, again, no one knew that it would end up being a quarter million people, because, you know, you just had no way to know this kind of thing.
MS. IFILL: And the faces in the crowd. The faces were not just black faces. So it wasn’t like someone got up in black church pulpits, and said, you go to Washington. I was struck looking at the pictures now how integrated it was.
MR. FLETCHER: And that was one of the great triumphs of the march because we think of the civil rights movement now, we sort of think back, and say, oh, you know, we think of the freedom summits, we think about this integrated kind of movement in some ways.
But, at that time, I think there were a lot of questions in America about what is this civil rights movement? It felt kind of frightening and it felt like a black Southern movement. And the march I think kind of brought it into focus for most Americans and really for a global audience. And it brought it together in a way that it was an American movement. It was kind of this revolution. And the integrated nature of the march I think really helped that along.
MS. IFILL: And yet, the Kennedy administration was nervous enough about potential for violence in a march of this type that the president and the attorney general were like, I don’t know if this is a good idea. And, in fact, he had some of these leaders into the White House.
MR. FLETCHER: Yeah. They did. And think of it – they had to march on a Wednesday. They closed all the liquor stores in D.C. They had armored reserves on notice and ready to come into the city if things had turned violent.
And Kennedy didn’t know what to make of it. Let’s face it. I mean, he was worried that, you know, all these people are coming to Washington. Again, you know, a march was an unheard kind of phenomenon in those days so he wanted to be kind of hand-offs.
It was interesting. After the march, he had the leaders come back to the White House and congratulated them on a great success.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS (D-GA): (From tape.) President Kennedy invited us right down to the White House. He stood in the door of the Oval Office and he greeted each one of us, shook our hands. He was like a beaming proud father. You could see it all over him. He was so happy and so pleased that everything had gone so well.
MS. IFILL: In your piece for Smithsonian, you talked to a lot of folks who were there that day. And some people who spoke, how do they look back on that march now with 50 years (advantage ?)?
MR. FLETCHER: Well, it’s interesting. Like, well, looking back now, like if they take their 50-year kind of retrospective, everyone sees it as this kind of pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, the moment when the civil rights movement kind of grew into a kind of an international human rights kind of movement and not just a regional kind of race-based kind of thing. It was something that kind of, you know, pricked the American conscience in a way.
And John Lewis, at the time, his famous speech at the march watered down because of concern that it was too radical. You know, he talked about the civil rights bill not being – you know, not going far enough.
So, at the time, there was a lot of – you know, there was the normal kind of tensions you get in the moment, but, you know, with the advantage of time, looking back half a century, everyone says that this just an astounding moment.
MS. IFILL: Well, we look back at the conversations that went on leading up to this march and the coverage since. It’s almost all been about the “I Have a Dream” speech. You mentioned John Lewis’ radical speech, which, even watered down, was pretty tough. But not so much – that’s not how it’s been remembered.
MR. FLETCHER: No. It’s interesting. You know, people obviously talk about, you know, Dr. King’s speech and everyone remembers “I Have a Dream.” But the original notion for the march was a march for jobs and a march for kind of economic justice. And the freedom part almost got added on as a result of the civil rights bill, and, of course, the assassination of Medgar Evers. So it was almost a secondary thing. Now it’s become the thing that everyone remembers.
And, interestingly, another thing people say when they look back, they say, that’s the part of the agenda that has not been fulfilled. You look at disparities, economic disparities in this country, they remain. You know, African-Americans, obviously, have made great progress. We’re sitting on this set. But, you know, you still have huge disparities in terms of income, in terms of unemployment rates. They’re almost identical to what they were back in 1963.
MS. IFILL: And even Dr. King’s speech, he spoke about a promissory note. He talked about what Americans were owed. He wasn’t just talking about integration.
MR. FLETCHER: No, not at all. He was talking about economic justice. And you saw where he went, you know, in the years following the march, the poor people’s campaign and all of that, and his efforts to try, you know, lift so many, you know, African-Americans and others out of poverty. That was his focus.
Bayard Rustin talked a lot about that. He wrote a piece shortly after the march, saying that the roots of discrimination are economic and that the economy of this country has to shift for the real reality of people’s lives to be changed.
MS. IFILL: Looking back now, 50 years later, there’s an entire generation, a couple of generations of people who are going down to the Mall and looking at the Martin Luther King memorial. And the only monument in Washington to a non-elected official, and he’s a black man. And a lot of emotion is tied up in that, in the very fact of its existence.
Fifty years later, though, if King were able to stand in that spot and look out, what is the legacy of that day that some people say, we have a black president; everything is much better, and some people say, we have so much further to go?
MR. FLETCHER: I think it’s mixed. You know, of course, there’s no way to diminish the sort of the astounding sort of sense of having a black president. That would have been unthinkable. Imagine someone saying that from the speaker’s podium, you know, in 1963. It would have been like, oh, that’s a great dream. But, you know, here we are. It’s a reality.
So that’s part of the legacy. I mean, there’s been, obviously, great growth in the black middle class. You see African-Americans doing all kinds of things in all walks of life, so that’s part of the legacy. But you still have this, you know 27 percent roughly of African-Americans living in poverty. That’s huge. And that hasn’t improved that much over the last, you know, 30 or 40 years. It was great improvement through the ’60s, but after that, that progress slowed. So that’s part of the legacy.
There are these – you know, there’s been great progress in education, but not enough. That’s part of the legacy. You can go in any inner city and look at the housing. You’ll have, you know, prosperous African-American communities and poor ones. So all of that, you kind of have this mixed legacy. And I think it speaks to the need for kind of the struggle to continue.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: (From tape.) This has been one of the great days of America. And I think this march will go down as one of the greatest if not the greatest demonstrations for freedom and human dignity ever held in the United States.
MS. IFILL: Looking back and looking forward. For more, be sure to watch “The March,” the one-hour documentary on the story behind that day, Tuesday, August 27th, at 9:00 p.m. on most PBS stations. Our “Webcast Extra” streams live beginning at 8:30 p.m. tonight, Eastern Time, and all weekend long at pbs.org/washingtonweek.
And we’ll see you next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.