MS. IFILL: The spy swap, the Netanyahu handshake, and intraparty political drama -- a lot of questions left unanswered. We’ll try to fix that tonight on “Washington Week.” Cloak and dagger, a Russian spy ring brings the Cold War back to an overheated nation’s capital.
MR ROBER BAUM, Attorney for Russian Spy Anna Chapman : All of those who entered a guilty plea will be boarding a bus which will take them to one of the New York airports to be transported to Moscow.
MS. IFILL: As the U.S. strikes a deal with the former enemy; it mends fences with an old friend.
ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The bond between Israel and the United States is unbreakable.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: The bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.
MS. IFILL: While on the domestic front, Republicans and Democrats look for a little mojo. With the president on the campaign trail –
PRES. OBAMA: Hello, Nevada.. . . Hello Kansas City.
Robin Carnahan wants to move forward. Missouri wants to move forward. That’s the choice in this election: moving backward or moving forward.
MS. IFILL: As Republicans debate among themselves, who speaks for the party?
MICHAEL STEELE, RNC Chairman: Every time something happens, people go “oh, you should step down, step down.” Well, the reality of it is that’s not happening. So stop the noise on that.
SARAH PALIN, former Alaska Governor: If you thought pit bulls were tough, well, you don’t wanna mess with the mama grizzlies.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week, Pierre Thomas of ABC News, Christi Parsons of “Tribune” Newspapers, John Harwood of CNBC and the “New York Times,” and John Dickerson of “Slate” Magazine and CBS News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Ten Russian spies – some glamorous, some ordinary – arrested, jailed, then spirited off in a jet to a clandestine meeting in Vienna. There, four Russians who had been imprisoned for spying for were released and the 10 arrested here were handed over to Russian authorities. All in all, it was dramatic, novelistic and also a sign of how sensitive U.S.-Russia relations remain. But we still don’t know how dangerous the spies among us were, do we, Pierre?
MR. THOMAS: Well, I’ve been talking to sources all week about this, and they’re saying that they have a very good handle on what knees people did and didn’t do, because they watched them for nearly a decade, which is pretty extraordinary. They’re seeing this as a major touchdown against the Russians. And what they’re describing these folks are as people who were expressly told, “don’t try to infiltrate the government, don’t try to get classified information, but infiltrate the policy, think tank parts of American society and try to spot people” that they could then go after to turn into spies for the Russians.
MS. IFILL: So they were supposed to be recruiting double agents, is that it?
MR. THOMAS: Exactly, to look for the people that could be recruited. So FBI officials feel very strongly that they’re sending the Russians and others a strong message that we can find out what you’re trying to do in our country.
MR. HARWOOD: Pierre, let me ask you a broad question about the role of espionage in the post-Cold War world. My 12-year old daughter asked me this morning, “I thought we didn’t have such a big problem with the Russians anymore,” and I said, “Well, think of it like frenemies or something.” But tell me exactly what we think the Russian espionage operation is trying to accomplish and what we’re trying to accomplish against them.
MR. THOMAS: Well, the Russians want to know as much as they can find out about nuclear strategy, our positions in the Middle East, but also a lot of it’s economic espionage, trying to get the upper hand in terms of technology. And the interesting thing is that while we try to have a great relationship with the Russians and the Chinese, those are the two primary countries still trying to steal secrets from us. So –
MR. HARWOOD: And that’s openly understood by all sides. It’s no surprise to anyone that that’s going on.
MR. THOMAS: – the interesting thing, if you talk to law enforcement officials who do this kind of work, they are dead on it. But the administration, from a political standpoint, doesn’t often want to talk about this.
MR. DICKERSON: So, Pierre, 10 years they watched these people. There were a lot of late nights, probably, guys drinking coffee to stay up all night and now all this hard work didn’t go out the window? How does the FBI feel about the fact they were just sent back?
MR. THOMAS: That’s a great question. I asked an official, I said, look, you guys put all this hard work into it. You like to put people in jail. It’s what you do. They said, look, at the end of the day we know everything these people got and tried to do. We were listening to everything they did. They couldn’t go to the bathroom without us knowing it. So in that sense the damage assessment from this particular group is low. And look what we got in return, one official said. We’re getting military officials and science leaders from Russia who they convicted of treason. So we’ll be able to bring them to this country and, in theory, get information about, well, how did they debrief you? What did they want to know? And maybe there’re few additional secrets that these people still have.
MR. DICKERSON: And the FBI says they did never get to that higher level of people that they could recruit.
MR. THOMAS: Well, that’s what we don’t know. What we don’t know is if the FBI now has a list of the people that they did spot. And the question is, did the Russians make any headway with some of the people who were spotted?
MS. PARSONS: How did they pull this off? How did the FBI monitor these folks all this time?
MR. THOMAS: I’m hearing from some sources that we got a tip from an informant that led to the FBI putting all these tentacles out. And, again, there was round-the-clock surveillance pretty much for almost a decade.
MS. IFILL: What is the president’s role? You mentioned about what the CIA did in this and what the Justice Department did, what the FBI did. What is the president’s role? Did they come to him and say, do we pull the trigger, Mr. President, and he says, pull the trigger, or do they just – Rahm Emanuel suggested on the NewsHour yesterday that they just briefed the president.
MR. THOMAS: Well, on something like this, which is a high-priority FBI case, the president is going to be briefed at different points, usually when the case is about to be culminated. What we think happened in this particular case is that the FBI got word that some of these people were planning to leave the country during the summer months, so they didn’t know, was this going to be an orchestrated chance for everybody to leave? So they made the decision pretty much to wrap this thing up.
Now, in terms of the swap, would you do the swap, the president would be briefed and would have a role in weighing in on whether this is a good idea or not.
MS. IFILL: He could say, no, I don’t think this is a difficult time diplomatically with Russia.
MR. THOMAS: Exactly. Look, in terms of a criminal investigation, the White House is not going to interfere. They cannot do that. But on matters of diplomacy and national strategy, of course the Justice Department, the State Department are going to listen to what the White House wants to do.
MS. IFILL: Do we know they knew about this when they were eating burgers last week?
MR. THOMAS: I don’t think it came up from the sources I talked to.
MS. IFILL: Well, I guess not, when you think about it.
All right. Well, when President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in the Oval Office this week, they flattered each other, emphasized the closeness between their two nations, and engaged in what may have been one of the firmest, longest handshakes in diplomatic history. There it is. It just went on and on, and then they did it a second time.
The reason for all these blandishments -- both leaders needed to reassure each other, and the world, that they are committed to Middle East peace. So they agreed not to talk – in public at least – about the things they don’t necessarily agree about. Isn’t that right, Christi?
MS. PARSONS: That’s right. Can’t you tell by that natural, warm handshake?
MS. IFILL: Yes, it definitely is there.
MS. PARSONS: I actually thought that said so much about what was going on in that room. It was really a choreographed event for broadcasting the message, we’ve had a rocky patch – the U.S. and Israel and Obama and Netanyahu – but we’re back on firm footing again and this is important for us to project this to the world. That’s what came out of that meeting.
MS. IFILL: Every time – there were only two questions asked at this pool spray, as we call it, but every time someone asked Obama about this process, he talked about the move toward Middle East peace and sitting down face-to-face. When they asked Netanyahu, he talked about Israel’s security and Iran. It seemed almost like they were on parallel paths, but not -- that they hadn’t – whatever that term is I’m looking for here.
MS. PARSONS: Right. They’re not going to – they didn’t cross at any point. They were on parallel paths. And that’s exactly the point. What the president said he was trying to do was create an atmosphere where the move toward direct talks can take place. And the first thing that needed to happen was that the U.S. needed to signal to Israel and to supporters of the Jewish state, we are friends with Israel, we stand with Israel, notwithstanding the outreach to the Muslim world that’s been such an important part of the president’s administration so far. And so what you also heard in that Oval Office event, where each made a statement and then took a question from the Israeli press and the American press, was affirmation of each other and of the unbreakable bond between the two countries. And so with that out of the way, what they’re hoping now is to be able to actually begin getting some of those things out of the way that are in the way – that are obstacles to the direct talks.
MR. DICKERSON: Now that they’ve had the therapy session, what are those specifics? Netanyahu mentioned that there would be specific things that would come pretty soon that would show that he was ready to move from this stage of kind of indirect talks to actual direct talks.
MS. PARSONS: Right, right. It’s not clear. He did talk about concrete steps, and in the run-up to this meeting there were a few little things that happened, Israel sending the message of being willing to cooperate, for example, on the very same day the Israeli government took some action against its own – charged some of its own soldiers for action – for behavior in the Gaza initiative a year and a half ago. But as far as talking about final status, a freeze on settlements, those were not things that were addressed. We presume they were discussed in some way behind closed doors. They were not addressed in public.
MR. HARWOOD: Christi, there’re a couple of ways of looking at the choreography of the meeting, one is a reassertion, as you’ve mentioned, of the special relationship between the United States and Israel, which has been the case for a long time. There’s another -- and there was an undercurrent of this in some of the coverage that said that Obama had been slapped down, that he had tried to take on Israel, challenge Israel, but he is now knuckling under to the political influence of the Israeli lobby and Jewish Americans within the U.S. political process. What is your interpretation of how the president got to that point and that very long handshake?
MS. PARSONS: That’s a great question. For the first year of his administration, he focused – he did – he spoke very bluntly, for example, about the need for an extension of the freeze on settlements. Maybe that didn’t put him where he wanted to be in a conversation with Israel, for one thing. We weren’t moving toward direct talks at any sort of pace that the president would want to see. So maybe he just didn’t think it was effective. But the fact is that folks in Israel were getting the message, maybe we need to be suspicious of this new American president. For whatever reason, this doesn’t sound good to me. He acknowledged that, I think, in doing the meeting in this way and then in an interview on Israeli TV immediately afterward. He clearly knew he had some fence-mending to do there. So what his reasoning was, I don’t know. But obviously he’s decided to adopt a new tactic.
MR. THOMAS: Did the prickly issue of what to do about Iran heading more toward a nuclear weapon come up?
MS. PARSONS: I think it’s clear that it did. It’s impossible to imagine – that’s the number one foreign policy item for the president right now. Israel can’t be worried about anything much more than that. So clearly they talked about it in some way and there was an acknowledgment of it in the statements afterwards, when Netanyahu talks about security, and when the president says, we’ll back up Israel, whatever it takes, not just in words, but in actions. I think those are implicit messages about Iran.
MS. IFILL: This was their fifth face-to-face meeting since each of them have been in leadership positions, and now Netanyahu invited him to come to Israel. Is that on the schedule yet?
MS. PARSONS: That’s not on the schedule yet. It was one of those awkward invitations where you see it coming and the president sort of, sure, yes, I’ll be there, I’ll be there. But obviously there are a lot of things that have to happen before that could ever be scheduled, and it’s not happening in the immediate future.
MS. IFILL: All right. Thank you, Christi. Well, with Congress out of town this holiday week, the midterm political campaign has now begun in earnest. For the Democrats, the president is the standard bearer, leaping at various chances to get away from Washington and its problems to hit the road on behalf of endangered Democrats who have survival problems, shall we say. In Missouri, where he campaigned for Senate nominee Robin Carnahan, and in Nevada, where he went to bat for embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he had the same message – pick us, not them.
PRES. OBAMA: There is a real choice here. We know how the movie ends if the other party’s in charge. You don’t have to guess how they’ll govern, because we’re still living with the damage from the last time they were governing. (Applause.) And they’re singing from the same hymnal. They haven’t changed. They want to do the same stuff.
MS. IFILL: The other party is having its struggles, too. First, there is its chairman, Michael Steele, who got into hot water again last week by saying Afghanistan is Obama’s war, not one the U.S., quote, “actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in,” just a tad off message. But there are other voices out there, not the least of them Sarah Palin, who is making a pitch to women voters.
MS. PALIN: We’re going to turn this thing around. We’re going to get our country back on the right track, no matter what it takes, to respect the will of the people. Look out, Washington because there’s a whole stampede of pink elephants crossing the line and the ETA stampeding through is November 2nd, 2010. A lot of women coming together.
MS. IFILL: As tempting as it is to start with the pink elephants, I’m going to start with the Democrats. I’m wearing pink tonight, so we can talk about that, but don’t make any elephant jokes. What are the challenges for a party whose leader is sometimes welcome and sometimes not, John Harwood?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, the big challenge is the unemployment rate is almost 10 percent. The economy is recovering, but not robustly, and in fact it feels less robust than it did just a couple of months ago. And you’ve got a president who is somewhat less popular than he was. He’s still liked by the American people. People still want him to succeed. But when you’ve got sustained economic conditions this bad, it’s a very, very tough environment.
And the president did, this week what many Democrats have been wanting him to do, which is get out of Washington and really hit the Republicans. Remember the two, Gwen, elements of the president’s message. One is I’m going to change Washington and the second is I want to implement some policies that took the country in a different direction on health care, on economic stimulus, on financial regulation, on energy. And Democrats think that he had been leaning too much on the “I want to change Washington; it’s kind of a messed-up place.” They want to say, no, no Republican Party, that’s what’s messed up. And that’s what he did when he went on the road -- framed it not as a race against himself or Democrats and how well do you think we’re doing, but how well do you think we’re doing compared to those other guys? And remember, that was President Bush who was in office when –
MS. IFILL: Doesn’t that run the risk of backfiring against to change candidate, for him to go back to old partisan bashing?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, it could. But he doesn’t have a lot of great options at this moment. When you’ve got the public in a mood like they’re in right now, where the direction of the country is seen as negative by so many people, and people are asking for change – in fact, if you ask them in a poll, they will say they want to replace a lot of the members of Congress and get new people in. So he’s got to be very aggressive and frame this as a choice between Democrats taking the country forward and Republicans wanting to take it back, reminding them about George W. Bush, who however subdued the president’s ratings are right now, George Bush’s were a lot lower when he left office.
MS. IFILL: John Dickerson, let me ask you about the Republicans because we saw Sarah Palin talking about the women’s vote and we saw Michael Steele kind of stumbling over his own tongue. Who speaks for the Republican Party? Are they trying to figure that out?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, everyone and no one speaks for the Republican Party. And this is the problem when you’re the out party; there are different voices, and sometimes those voices clash. And we’re seeing that. In 1994, the Republicans figured out how to do it. Newt Gingrich was the general. He had the strategy and the party did very well.
This year the Republicans are poised to do well. Historically they’re in good shape. Not exactly like 1994, but they’re poised to do well. The problem is their leadership is ragged. There have been a number of these gaffes and little gaffes. Michael Steele, as you mentioned in the intro, had a constellation of inaccuracies. And the problem, of course, was that he was saying something that was at odds with the leadership of the other leaders in his party, and he seemed to be playing politics with issues of war and peace and life and death, something Republicans have stood as guardians. They see themselves as guardians. The problem, though, with Steele is that now we’ve been talking about this for a week and he can’t go out and talk and it’s a distraction. They would rather be pointing to the economy, the deficit, those jobs numbers, and so it distracts them from their number one message.
MS. IFILL: And Sarah Palin, she is not a distraction, she’s a focus in some ways.
MR. DICKERSON: She is and this is what happens when you don’t have a single messenger. You have other messengers arrive. And what’s interesting is if you look at the Palin message in that ad, it was everything that the Michael Steele message was not. He got very specific on Afghanistan, suggesting that it was folly to begin with.
Sarah Palin’s ad was very vague. We are under threat, she argued. And this goes to this question of the deficit. And talking to lots of Republican strategists, what they’re trying to plug into is people feel like the government is just totally out of control and that this is embodied in this deficit that is ballooning, and that the government is just going to run amok and we need to be protected from it. And that was the sentiment in her commercial, but it was all very vague. And a lot of people think that’s effective, even on the Democratic side.
MS. PARSONS: You mentioned 1994. Do you see parallels here? Are Democrats bracing for something akin to that?
MR. DICKERSON: Well, the parallels are that people are very angry and the Democrats are the incumbents. There is not – in 1994, they were angry at the incumbents because they seemed to be abusing their privileges -- fat and lazy after 40 years. Republicans were a heck of a lot more popular though in ’94 than they are now. If you look at a lot of polls, the Republicans in Congress are less popular than the Democrats in Congress, which is really a race to the bottom. They’re both very far below. But the Democrats had two good years in ’06 and ’08 and so there’re a lot of districts in which Democrats hold seats that really should be Republican seats. And so you have this national message of bad unemployment numbers and the deficit, and then you have this historical trend that suggests it’s a wave election for Republicans, if they can get out of their own way.
MR. HARWOOD: Devil’s advocate question on the question of whether you have a singular leader, 2006, Nancy Pelosi was in the minority; Harry Reid was in the minority. They were pushing to try to gain power back. They didn’t have a single leader, either. They did have a powerful issue in the Iraq war. People were very upset. Why can’t the economy work for them the same way for them, whether or not Michael Steele makes a mistake every 10 minutes?
MR. DICKERSON: Absolutely, I think that’s right. And remember, there were lots of articles written about how –
MS. IFILL: That may be indeed what happens.
MR. DICKERSON: – what happens. And then there were articles written about how Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid were a disaster, leaderless part, very similar to what we’re seeing right now. And you’re exactly right, I think on the economy and, again, on this deficit question.
And we haven’t mentioned two other things that are a part of this, which is that Republicans are quite enthusiastic in all and across all of these polls. Republicans are enthusiastic and independents are moving away from the president and the Democratic Party. And so as you suggest, there are forces here that, again, the Republicans can’t – the leadership can’t get in the way of, and that’s largely because these are huge, big forces that are affecting people in their daily lives.
MR. THOMAS: John, going back to Steele for a moment, what are Republicans saying about why he seems to get into gaffe after gaffe?
MR. DICKERSON: This is a mystery not just for Republicans, but for sages across the land. (Laughter.) He seems to be in a contest to top himself in the gaffes that he makes. Now, in fairness, he is trying to shake up the party and do new things and show – that was why he was elected and that’s why some people still support him and why he won’t be ousted. He has supporters. This is to change and shake the party, and he shook it to its foundation. So this is a part of his internal being and it’s just something that can’t be controlled.
MR. HARWOOD: We shouldn’t take seriously this talk about Michael Steele as a presidential candidate in 2012?
MR. DICKERSON: No.
MS. IFILL: There’s three people talking about that, John. (Laughter.) Let me ask you another question though, John Harwood – not John Dickerson. It seems that it doesn’t matter what Michael Steele does. It almost doesn’t matter what Sarah Palin says, if the Democrats can get their own act together. So we see polls this week showing people like Barbara Boxer, who’s running for the Senate, an incumbent senator in a very, very tight race. The person’s running for – the top Democratic nominee for governor in California, a very tight race there. What are Democrats doing and what is the political operation in the White House doing to speak to that?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, a couple of things. First of all, it’s flat a very bad year to run as a Democrat. There’s no doubt about that. They’ve had two strait wave elections – the midterm in 2006 and in 2008 President Obama brought in a ton of first time voters, expanded the electorate. That tipped a lot of states – North Carolina, Indiana – that hadn’t gone Democrat in a while into his column. Those voters are not going to be here this time. So one of the things the White House is trying to do with the Democratic Party is invest $50 million or so to try to get some of those one-time voters, people who don’t regularly vote midterms, to come out.
The second thing is, they’ve got to go aggressively at their Republican opponents. You’re going to see very negative Democratic campaigns this year because it goes to what I talked about initially with the president. You’ve got to frame a choice. You can’t make it about yourself and how am I doing because all those Democratic incumbents have very bad approval ratings themselves, so they’ve got to say, you may think I’m bad, but Carly Fiorina is worse. And one of the things that Barbara Boxer has in her favor, even in a bad year, very Democratic state; she’s a very experienced politician. Carly Fiorina is not. And we’ve seen a couple of early mistakes by Carly Fiorina as well.
MR. THOMAS: John, quick question. Obama: help or hindrance to the Democrats as well?
MR. HARWOOD: By and large, I think Barack Obama is a help to Democratic candidates for a couple of reasons. One, people still like him. Even if his approval rating’s under 50 percent, when you look at people’s admiration for Obama, their affection for him, they think he’s a good guy, even if they disagree with his policies. We’ve seen a divergence between his own personal numbers and those of his policies from the beginning of this presidency. The second thing is they need to get turnout of. John mentioned the enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats. That’s stark and it’s very, very important because Republicans – midterm elections, you have turnout problems always, right? It’s a smaller turnout.
MS. IFILL: We only have a minute. I want to ask you the same kind of question, which is who’s raising the money for Republicans? Who is the core messenger?
MR. DICKERSON: It’s fascinating. They’re going outside of the Republican National Committee. The Republican Governors Association, run by Haley Barbour, who used to be in Steele’s job, is bringing the money in like crazy. It’s like a reunion from his old days at the GOP. They’re also giving money directly to the candidates and the third party groups. So they’re basically not giving it to Michael Steele. And his fundraising numbers have been down. And this is the other problem people have with him. It’s not just the gaffes in public, hasn’t raised the money as he should. And they worry really – the Republican side – about the ground game. The Democrats have a ground game they’ve worked for 18 months since Obama. That’s very –
MR. HARWOOD: Republicans are going to have the money they need.
MS. IFILL: Okay, thank you. Thank you both Johns and everyone else as well. We have to leave you now, but the conversation continues online, where we’ll talk about immigration politics and whatever else occurs to us. You can join us as well, just log on at pbs.org and while you’re there, you can read my blog, check us out on Facebook, and generally let us know what you think. As always, keep up with daily developments at the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you again right here next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.