MS. IFILL: Confusion, finger-pointing, defensiveness, stand offs, and blame, from the Gulf Coast to the Korean Peninsula, everybody’s on edge. We explore why tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: I ultimately take responsibility for solving this crisis. I’m the president and the buck stops with me.
MS. IFILL: Rare admissions of fault from our president who likes to be right.
PRES. OBAMA: Where I was wrong, was in my belief that the oil companies had their act together when it came to worst-case scenarios.
MS. IFILL: Surveying the damage today.
PRES. OBAMA: We’ve got about seven miles of beach here where two types of boom have already been laid.
MS. IFILL: He viewed efforts to stem the tide of oil polluting the Gulf Coast, as the tide of blame kept rising in Washington.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): And it’s also clear the president has failed in his obligations to the American people to uphold the law and act.
TONY HAYWARD: What we’re seeing here is a whole series of failures.
REP. CHARLIE MELANCON (D-LA): Our culture is threatened, our coastal economy is threatened, and everything that I know and love is at risk.
MS. IFILL: Six weeks later the BP oil disaster continues. Also, Congress moves to make it easier for gays to serve in the military. And tensions build on the Korean Peninsula again.
SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: This was an unacceptable provocation by North Korea.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week: Karen Tumulty, of the “Washington Post” Elizabeth Shogren of National Public Radio, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, and David Sanger of the “New York Times.”
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”
Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. No end in sight. That’s the current state of the nation’s worst oil rig disaster as it continues to foul the Gulf and to throw the Obama administration seriously off balance.
The president hit the beach in Louisiana today as criticism mounted about his handling of the catastrophe from Republicans, Democrats, local officials, and apparently he even gets it at home.
PRES. OBAMA: When I woke up this morning and I’m shaving and Malia knocks on my bathroom door and she peeks in her head and she said, “Did you plug the hole yet, daddy?”
MS. IFILL: Not yet, Malia. But as BP tries, again and again, to stem the flow is there a plan to get the hole plugged scientifically, or politically? Let’s start with you Karen and the politically part. There’s a pretty gaping hole here politically.
MS. TUMULTY: Well, this news conference yesterday was pretty remarkable. We’ve seen very much of an evolving message out of the administration and sometimes conflicting messages out of the administration over the last five and a half weeks. Yesterday’s news conference, where originally the whole thrust was to sort of keep the pressure on BP, the oil company that caused the spill, and to keep reassuring people that BP was going stop the leak and that it was going to clean-up the damages.
Yesterday, we really heard the president take ownership of this crisis in a way that he had not explicitly done before. And I think that was to do several things. One was to quell doubts about how this administration has handled it, and also to address the kind of criticisms they’ve been getting, including that they have been slow on response and that BP was actually in the driver’s seat, that BP is not – that it hasn’t – that the administration hasn’t been in control.
MS. IFILL: So all the BP bashing that he has been doing and Ken Salazar, the secretary of interior, has been doing, it wasn’t really working.
MS. TUMULTY: It wasn’t. And again, as people kept looking the fact that, A, the leak was continuing and not only continuing but we had these dreadful live videos going essentially constantly on cable TV, and also that what began as a sheen on the water is now becoming destroyed livelihoods for people, dead animals, black beaches. It’s a different kind of crisis even than it was two weeks ago.
MS. IFILL: So Liz, where do things stand tonight about their efforts? We’ve seen – what – as we’ve been talking about this for six weeks now and for six weeks there’s been a new plan every week about how to stop – how to plug the hole.
MS. SHOGREN: Right. And what we see right now is they don’t know yet whether this so-called “top kill” is working or not. They have been using it now for a few days and they’re still pumping more in. It’s not clear that it’s going to work. And then if this – and there was so much hope that this one would work because this was the one that was supposed to be able to top it – stop it completely. And BP just this evening said that they still think that it could work, but they don’t know yet. And if that one doesn’t work then there’s another plan to cap it off. And then there’s another plan. They’re drilling wells down to intercept it. But that’s weeks and weeks in the future. So it’s hard to say when this is going to end.
And I think one of the things that Doug Suttles from BP said today was that you have to remember, we’re working under a mile of water and that everything is really hard. And when I was down there just about a week ago, there was one of the operations going on. And I was talking on the phone to a BP guy who said he just gotten out of this column here that the operation to put a riser in had been going very well. And this was the riser that was stiffening oil and gas out of the well.
And then two of these remote robots knocked into each other and they knocked the pipe out after it had been stuck in. And it just shows how difficult it is to do anything under a mile of sea. And I think that’s one of things that President Obama was talking about – that we all kind of believe that the oil company knew what they were doing out there. President Obama said that he thought that the oil companies had their act together when it came to how to deal with things like this. And it seems they didn’t.
MR. SANGER: Liz, you raised a really interesting question on the technology here because in many past accidents, the government has had some technology to go handle this. So it was a fascinating moment at the White House this week, where the Coast Guard commandant, Thad Allen, said the U.S. does not have the technology. Only the oil companies do. And he was using this as an answer to those saying why doesn’t the government take this over. At this point, is the U.S. completely dependent on BP and its subcontractors for this?
MS. SHOGREN: Completely dependent. And they have been from the beginning. And I think that’s where you get the perception that BP is the one in charge and not the U.S. government. And I think it’s a very difficult argument for the president to make that “I’m in control of this project” when he’s not in control.
MS. IFILL: I just want to talk about that because the president talked about that today when he was traveling in Grand Isle, Louisiana, when he talked about it using the word “catastrophe.” Let’s listen to that, then Karen responds.
PRES. OBAMA: This is a man-made catastrophe that’s still evolving. And we face a long-term recovery and restoration effort. America has never experienced an event like this before. And that means that as we respond to it, not every judgment we make is going to be the first time out.
MS. IFILL: Is that an acceptable political answer to the question?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, one reason that the president is so exposed on this politically is that this accident happened three weeks after he announced a dramatic expansion of offshore drilling that was going to open up hundreds of thousands of new acres to offshore drilling. And one of his arguments in doing that is that the technology is now so advanced that drilling is a lot safer than it used to be.
So I think the president is dismayed, I am told by people at the White House, that the assurances that he relied upon to make that decision turned out not to be true. And so now the administration is going back and looking at a lot of the things it could have done differently, including the permanent – the environmental impact statement for this well – the approval was on this administration’s watch, but also, as he said, looking forward to things that could prevent these sorts of things from happening in the future and in the meantime, suspending a lot of this new drilling activity that he had been ready to authorize.
MS. RADDATZ: Elizabeth, you talk about not knowing really how long this will last. But has anybody looked at it and say what’s really the worst case here? What’s the worst case with Louisiana? What can happen here? How – I hate to say it – but how bad could it get? And how long potentially could it last?
MS. IFILL: Even if they plug the well.
MS. RADDATZ: In fact, look of both if you will, if they plug the well, still how bad is it for Louisiana? And if – how long could it go on that they don’t?
MS. SHOGREN: Well, the scientists I talked to talk about a worst case scenario, which is that a storm comes, as they start to come around this time of year, and it pushes all of this oil into the coast. What you have to remember about this coast is it’s an incredible fertile estuary, where all kinds of sea life and birds all have their nursery grounds. And so this just an amazing place where just abundant life takes place. We don’t always think about it that way, but that’s what it is.
And so what you get if – and we have seen some pictures of the oil in there and there have been rookeries where brown pelicans that were just taken off the endangered species list are surrounded by oil now. And these are heartbreaking pictures. But the worst case scenario is that the storm comes and blows a lot more of this oil into these estuaries and even into this huge Lake Pontchartrain, which is this huge estuary.
MS. IFILL: So there’s no control. There’s no answer there.
MS. RADDATZ: And if it keeps going and going and going.
MS. TUMULTY: We also don’t know the long-term of some of the chemicals that they’re using to disperse this. And perhaps even these chemicals under the water are making the problem worse. And there you’ve also had a tug of war between the federal government and BP because the federal government tried to get BP to stop using the particular chemical that it was using. BP said, we don’t really have any other alternative to this one.
So they have cut – they’ve scaled back on this particular chemical. But it is more toxic than they are comfortable with.
MS. IFILL: Why haven’t more heads rolled? We saw yesterday where the head of the Minerals Management Service, which gives these leases – the federal government agency in charge of overseeing or not overseeing these wells – we saw her quit. And the president couldn’t –
MS. TUMULTY: Or maybe not.
MS. IFILL: – couldn’t say she was quit or forced out. He didn’t seem to know about it, at least at yesterday’s news conference. Why haven’t we seen more people take a hit?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, I think we may still. And one of the things the president has done is he’s established a bipartisan commission to study the causes of this and it’s going to do its work over the next six months. And it is, I think, entirely possible that there may be more heads that would roll. But what really needs to happen, what the president says needs to happen and what everyone believes, is that the culture of the agency that has issued all these permits, one where the oil companies and the regulators are just working too closely, has to change.
MR. SANGER: Karen, I’ve been fascinated by the argument over big government versus small government here. It was not so many months ago that Bobby Jindal, the governor, was out talking about the need to keep government away from the great free enterprises that make Louisiana tick. What’s the view now and not only of the politicians, but of the people of Louisiana who depend on the oil industry?
MS. TUMULTY: Well, certainly – this has been the big argument we’ve had politically for the last year is the size and scope of government. But I do think that crises like this, also things like the Times Square bomber, remind us that there are some things that we need our government to be able to do and to be able to do right.
MS. RADDATZ: And can we talk a little bit about the money? Is BP responsible for this? How does it play out in terms of money and who pays for this?
MS. SHOGREN: There was a really interesting part of the press conference yesterday – the president’s press conference, when he was talking about how BP would pay for everything. And he also mentioned – he referred to how he was approving part of Governor Jindal’s plan. And Governor Jindal’s plan is to build this massive berm or sand bar around the whole coast. And it’s hundreds of millions of dollars. It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and what the government wants is for BP to pay for this.
MS. IFILL: The question is who pays for it, the federal government or BP down the line, but the state doesn’t want to pay for it.
MS. SHOGREN: Right. And what the president announced yesterday was that two miles of this 100- mile berm was going to be paid for with BP. And Governor Jindal was not impressed by that because he wants all 100 miles – and that’s to protect all of this estuary.
MS. IFILL: Well, the one thing we know for sure is it’s at the very least a billion-dollar clean-up cost so far.
We move on to something else because so much went on this week. After flowery bipartisan deal making that stretched from both chambers of Congress to the Pentagon the House and the Senate moved this week to end the ban on gays serving openly in the military. The policy and the delicately negotiated plan to end it divided even political allies.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): I think it’s really going to be very harmful to the morale and better effectiveness of our military.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I-CT): It is time for this policy to go. It doesn’t reflect America’s best values of equal opportunity, and it’s not good for the military.
MS. IFILL: McCain and Lieberman no longer buddies, at least not on this one. In a year when compromise doesn’t appear to exist on any other issue why did we see it on this one, Martha?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, we saw some compromise among the Democrats and the White House and the lesbian and gay community because frankly not anybody is really saying this out loud. I think the Democrats did not think they would have the votes in November if they waited until November. So I think they want to get this through. They want to get it through as soon as possible. It is called a provisional repeal. And what they are saying is, if that passes – and the Senate passed it, and the House it’s passed, in the Senate Armed Services Committee – that the provisional repeal means it would not take effect until the military, until the Pentagon finishes its review, which will not be finished until December. But if they have the votes wrapped up, then they can go ahead and implement this.
MS. IFILL: I’ve heard talk of – already – talk on the Senate floor of filibuster. This is not at all a done deal.
MS. RADDATZ: I do not think it’s at all a done deal, but it’s much harder if they do it this way. They’d need 60 votes to stop it. So I think they have a much, much better chance of getting this through and frankly, they have a much better chance in terms of where the country is on this. The country now, according to one of our polls and some other polling, is three quarters of the country don’t care. Now, that doesn’t mean the military doesn’t care. And that’s what they’re trying to find out in this review.
MS. TUMULTY: Now what happens to servicemen and women in the meantime, while this is all being hashed out in Congress, to say – will gay members of the military still be getting bounced?
MS. RADDATZ: Yes. In a word, yes, because the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which means if you are gay or lesbian, you can’t tell anybody and no one will ask you if you are, but you can’t tell. So if someone in – two weeks says “I’m gay,” they’re going to be bounced out of the military.
Some to rules have been softened. Secretary Gates wants a more humane approach and he did this a couple of months ago, saying “third party outings” he doesn’t want to see happening. But if you say, “I am gay,” you will be bunked out.
MR. SANGER: Martha, you mentioned Secretary Gates and, as you know, he usually asks as interesting questions as any of us do about the military. And he asked one very interesting the other day, which was “don’t tell me whether we should do this; tell me how I implement this policy?” What did he mean by this?
MS. RADDATZ: That’s a really important point about all of this and about this review. And it’s caused some consternation in the military. Secretary Gates has made clear – and Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – that they’re not going out there saying, how do you feel about this policy? Should we do away with it? It’s not “should we,” but how do we implement it in the best way. And they say it cannot affect unit cohesion, readiness, retention, or recruitment. If you’re asking people how to do something, I don’t know how you ask them about unit cohesion. You just have to say what would be the best way to do it to keep unit cohesion, what would be the best way to change this policy in order to keep people in the military or continuing to attract people.
They have made it very clear they are going to implement this policy. They want to know the best way to do that. So if there are members of the military who don’t like it, that’s not necessarily what they want to hear. They may say, “You don’t like it, so tell us how we can do it the best way.”
MS. SHOGREN: And what do other senior members of the military think about this?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, the Joint Chiefs – Army, Navy, Marine Corps, they’ve written a letter saying they would like to see this review finished before there is any law enacted or have Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repealed. So they have made it very clear.
MS. IFILL: December is the deadline for that.
MS. RADDATZ: December. So they have made that very clear. But I think part of that and I think particularly in the Marine Corps, you have some real pushback. But I think part of the chiefs saying this is they want to say they’re respectful of military opinion about this. So they would rather wait. And there are some really complicated issues with this. There are housing issues. There are people who say, look, if you have someone who’s got a gay partner or who is married somewhere, do they get base housing? Do they – are they treated to all of the benefits that a married couple would be treated to? So they’ve got all kinds of things to consider as they go forward in this. And I think it’ll take a while.
MS. IFILL: One of the things that the president did necessarily bring up – wanted to bring up this year, with everything else on this plate, was gays in the military. And yet, here it is. Was this something that happened over the White House’s objection or did they just silently say, if you can get it through, you can try it?
MS. RADDATZ: Well, it’s certainly something that President Obama talked about in his campaign, that he would get this through. And the longer he waited, the more he was hearing from the lesbian and gay community and why hasn’t this happened. And you’ve seen some members of the military, gay and lesbians, chaining themselves to the wall, to the fence of the White House and saying, we’ve got to get this through.
MS. IFILL: And the president famously heckling a heckler saying last week in San Francisco, hey, go pick at the other guy. I’m on your side.
Finally tonight, another recurring argument, one that smells of Cold War and nuclear threats. South Korea is blaming North Korea for sinking one of its ships and it’s cut ties. North Korea immediately vowed to strike back. We’ve seen such hostilities wax and wane over the years, but everyone, including the U.S., the UN, and China seem to be taking this latest escalation seriously, David, why is that?
MR. SANGER: Well, they’re taking it seriously, Gwen, because there’s every likelihood that this is going to get worse before it gets better. Usually, there’s a pattern to these things. The North Koreans do something outrageous. Everybody condemns it. There’s talk about sanctions. And somebody says, you know, we can’t really risk a bigger confrontation.
MS. IFILL: We have been on this roller coaster before.
MR. SANGER: We’ve been here before. And they scale back the sanctions. And the North Koreans ask for talks and try to see what they can get out of it. And then we go and do the cycle all over again.
This one is a bit different because some of the causes are different. There’s a succession crisis going on in North Korea, as Kim Jong-II, the leader for the past 15 years, tries to get his son in as the third generation. There is a new government in South Korea that is not interested anymore in doing things to make the North feel happy. And you have the president of the United States who, believe it or not, has taken a harder line on this issue than George Bush did. He said, we’re not in the extortion business anymore. We’re not going back to negotiations to give you something.
So it’s very possible that the North Koreans could respond to this by doing something more to see if they can force the kind of reaction that their looking for.
MS. RADDATZ: And the South Koreans are in such a difficult position because they want to punish the North in some way, but they’ve got to walk that fine line because they certainly don’t want to go to war and then you have China. So what about the South Koreans? What do they do? Have they struck the balance and it seems like the same thing the United States is trying to do?
MR. SANGER: They are trying to strike this balance. But let’s face it. Everybody else in the neighborhood has got a lot more to lose here than the North Koreans do, which is the North Koreans –
MS. RADDATZ: Nothing, yes.
MR. SANGER: – yes, if you’re North Korea, there’s nothing the rest of the world can do to give you more sanctions. They’re really under every sanction around. And so the South Koreans saw their stock market drop dramatically. They have something between, depending on whose measure you believe now, the eighth and 11th biggest economy in the world. So they have a huge amount to lose from that. The Chinese don’t want any instability on the border. If they get instability, two things happen. Twenty million North Koreans, hungry, go over their border, or the South Koreans and the United States end up right up on the Chinese border. China is not interested in that.
MS. TUMULTY: There were some reports this week, though, that there’s some skepticism among some in South Korea as to this government investigation. What is the evidence that the North Koreans sank the ship?
MR. SANGER: Well, the South Koreans did something interesting. Initially, they weren’t sure what sank the ship. And there were thoughts that maybe they hit an old mine or maybe they blew themselves up with their own ordinance in some way. And so there was a two-month long investigation. And the South Koreans invited five other countries to send their experts, knowing that the results would be questioned. Well, they came out a week ago and concluded that they had found parts of a torpedo that appeared to be North Korean. There were lots of other pieces of evidence along that line. But this has become a little bit like those who think the U.S. government staged 9/11. There are some in South Korea and many outside South Korea who simply don’t believe the evidence out here and maintain that this has all been a put-up.
MS. SHOGREN: Are there some things that U.S. government can do or should do here. And what do they want the Chinese government to do?
MR. SANGER: Well, the theory has always been that the Chinese are the only ones who have any real influence over the North Koreans. And the Chinese answer to that is, you know, we don’t have as much influence as you think. And the Chinese aren’t particularly happy with this North Korean regime. But what they want the Chinese to do is somehow reig in the North Koreans and put a permanent stop to this.
The Chinese say, if we could, we’d like to, but in fact, the Chinese value the stability much more than say a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
MS. IFILL: Okay. We’ll be watching that as always – we know we can always count on you, David, to keep us up to date, thanks so much. And thanks everyone else.
We’ve got to end this conversation on the air, but it continues online at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Check out our Webcast Extra, where we’ll talk about all the other things we haven’t gotten to, including that Joe Sestak deal. And then keep up with daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour,” and we’ll see you again next week on “Washington Week.” Have a great Memorial Day weekend. Good night.