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Shields and Brooks Examine Security Debate, Politics in 2010

Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the stories of the week, including the political fallout from the failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day and the prospects for politics in 2010.

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And finally tonight: the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Happy new year, first.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Happy new year.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Happy new year.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Fallout all week from the attempted airline bombing.

    David, how did the Obama administration handle this?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, not so well. But, I mean, to me, the whole reaction was overwrought.

    We have all these geniuses who are, post hoc, that they could have figured out if only they were in place, sort of a hysteria calling for Janet Napolitano's head, calling for this person's head.

    The fact is that we have this vast bureaucracy. The NSA, National Security Agency, alone captures four times as much data per day as exists in the Library of Congress. They do a pretty good job of reducing the risk of terrorist attack. Occasionally, somebody gets through. That is going to inevitably happen.

    We should have some sort of steady, level-headed response. That is the sign of a resilient nation. We don't have it. We have had the last week of the whole country going — or at least the punditocracy — going into semi-hysteria over this. And it's just not the sign of a serious country. And I think nobody has covered themselves with glory in all this.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Hmm. Mark, not a serious country.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Boy, not a serious country, that is a serious charge.

    I do — I mean the point David makes about — that — and that NSA information, which is four times as much as the Library of Congress, is just from cell phones and wireless. I mean, so, it is a remarkable amount of information to be processed.

    But I think there is cause for concern, and there's no doubt about it, not — there has been partisan overreaching, excessive and indefensible. But, at the same time, there were signs. There were warnings here.

    And we're supposed to have, eight years later, some sense of communication, and especially some sense of urgency. And I think that was missing. And I think the president recognizes that. The president says, there was a systemic failure. He is accepting accountability from his administration. And I think it is serious. And I think it is something that has to be addressed.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, there were — there were… Oh, go ahead.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, I would just say they haven't achieved the right balance. The country, I think, is reacting in an overwrought, almost…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Who hasn't achieved…

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, the Obama administration, because they have responded to what the country wants. The first line of spin was, everything is fine. That is what Janet Napolitano and Robert Gibbs said on Sunday. Everything is fine. The system worked.

    And then they realized that wasn't flying. So, they went to the other extreme and said, this is totally unacceptable.

    The reaction, the proper reaction, should, seem to me, to be, listen, we get most of what gets through. There are always going to be things that get through. We have successfully degraded the amount even somebody who gets through can do, because they have to resort to this very inefficient means of trying to blow up an airplane.

    But, folks, this is going to happen. And let's keep our head about this and let's not get — go crazy over this. So, I thought the Obama administration has gone from one extreme to the other, without finding any balance in between.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, then, what about the opposition finger-pointing…

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, no, I will be happy to address the opposition.

    I do think there is no question that Secretary Napolitano's answer was an attempt — misguided, inept — to assure people who were traveling over Christmas that it was going to be safe, and which was a legitimate intention, but not a sensible assessment of the situation.

    And I do think that what we are seeing as a result of this is, we're still in silos, we're still in smokestacks, as far as intelligence is concerned. I mean, we did have 9/11 recommendations that did require the director of national intelligence to coordinate all this.

    I mean, there were failures at each level, I mean, whether the State Department on the visa, all the way along the line, the CIA on information, whether as to whether in fact this fellow was going to be a real problem. We had specific information from his dad.

    So, I think there is cause for concern. I think the president has shown restraint. I mean, I really do. I mean, he insisted that he wouldn't do anything until the facts are there. But he addressing it as a serious problem.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You think he got it right?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I do think he did get it right. And David's point is, as always, thoughtful.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But wrong.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    No, and, usually, about 85 percent incisive.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    No. But, as far as the other side is concerned, I mean, Jim DeMint comes in, the senator from South Carolina, comes in for special treatment in this New Year's season. I mean, this is a man who has held up the appointment of the director of the Transportation Safety (sic) Administration, which is charged with airport safety and the travel — or the safety of travel, and he said for one person — reason.

    And that is that he wants to get from this man, to extract from him, a guarantee that employees of the TSA will not be able to collectively bargain, Jeffrey. And, I mean, if this — it's based on some know-nothingness that says, oh, they will — union bosses will interfere with the safety of the country.

    Now, this is a man who is a graduate of the University of Tennessee, has a master's in business from Clemson, was 50 years old on 9/11. When — to go in to save, after the Twin Towers were leveled, the trapped and the terrified, 343 New York firefighters walked into the jaws of death and the fires of hell, and every one of them was a dues-paying union member.

    And, I mean, the fact that, somehow, he associates that these people are not public servants, not interested in public safety is probably partisanship of the narrowest and the most unforgiving nature.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I don't want to defend DeMint. I think most nominees, and especially this nominee, should be let through.

    That said, I can't hide my jaundiced attitude toward the TSA. I think most of what they do is pure security theater and a jobs program, and that the stuff they do has very little effect on our security. The stuff that actually helps us is invisible and stuff we can't see. The stuff about taking off your shoes and the toothpaste and all that stuff, I think, is designed to make us feel good.

    And the idea that they would respond to this latest attack by upping the silly things that we have to do — or potentially have to do — is, again, a sign of theater, and not a sign of — that we are willing to accept risks. There are risks in traveling these days, and we're willing to accept that.

    And then, just to — the one person we haven't mentioned is Dick Cheney.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Right. I was just going to bring him up, because he was…

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Again, the idea, to me, this is endemic in the nature of this kind of warfare. We're going to have failures. And it's just because you can't predict the future.

    The idea that it was, as Dick Cheney said, as the result of some ideological failure is also silly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    He said the president was trying to pretend we are not war, was the way he put it.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    This is a president who, much to the consternation of his base and his strongest supporters, will have tripled the number of American troops in Afghanistan, will have doubled the amount spent for the — in support or aid of the democratic country of Pakistan, and hardly somebody who has been indifferent to it.

    And, I mean, Dick Cheney would do well to heed the counsel of his alleged superior, the man who put him on the ticket, George W. Bush, who, when asked to criticize President Obama, said, "I owe him my silence."

    And, compared to Dick Cheney, George Bush ought to be on Mount Rushmore. And it looks more like that every passing week.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    If we try to look forward now, how does — how do these events and the new things you have just talked about, the counterterrorism, the intelligence problems that have now been re-raised, how does that complicate the president's agenda going forward?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, to me, the one lesson is, we will never get out of the paying attention to the Islamic extremism. This is just going to be an issue that will pop up in Afghanistan. It will pop up here at home…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    As we heard in tonight's earlier discussion.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    … these attacks.

    And I suspect the big story, one of the big stories of this year will be Iran, because it's just huge, what is happening over there, where we have a regime that has lost legitimacy, that knows it has lost legitimacy, and now is in full-bore pursuit of nuclear weapons, these two — the dissolving of the regime, going after nuclear weapons, these things will occupy us for the next several years.

    And, so, it is just one more lesson. We think we can put this issue behind us, move on to health care and economics and all that stuff. We just can't.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    In fact, this week, we got a new player, Yemen, right?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    We did get a new player in Yemen. And I think it probably complicates certainly the president's promise to close Guantanamo. Ninety-two of the 198 remaining detainees at Guantanamo are Yemenis.

    So, I think that…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Complicates or stops?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Complicates — well, makes it more difficult, yes, stops.

    But I do think that — and all of these are important, if not urgent, but what has to occupy and preoccupy this president is what preoccupies the country. And that is the economy, going into 2010. I mean, we have just been through a year of bitter partisan rancor. And it wasn't an election year. This was a non-election year. Now we are into an election year. That's right, when you will really see the gloves come off.

    And, so, I do think that, you know, if unemployment is at 7.5 percent the first of October or 11 percent is going to make the difference in this administration's ability to have allies in Congress that support its program.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You think that is what he does going forward; he focuses more on the economy and jobs?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes. The question is, what can he do? Because there is no money left over.

    But I do think they have done some things which have not gotten the credit they have deserved — one, education. The single most successful thing he's done is Race to the Top, this education program, which is kicking off reform. And that will get trained workers, though it will take a long time.

    The second thing is to really give a lot of money to basic scientific research, which they have done. Again, it is not a quick fix. It is not going to get you jobs tomorrow, but, down the road, in a country that, as Mark has pointed out in past weeks, that has — where the country is really depressed about the long-term prospects, are we in decline, these are the things that actually will make a difference over the long term.

    And, so, I hope he does, as he seems to be doing, focusing on these fundamental long-term economic issues, not more fizz to try to stimulate some short-term bump in the economy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You know, last year, we sat — last week, we sat here, and we looked at the last year. And you both were pretty down on American politics.

    I want to give you a chance. Your New Year's resolution, what would you like to see happen? What is your New Year's resolution for American politics going forward?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I think a recognition on all our parts that the vast majority of people who are in public office, whether elected or non-elected, are there for public service and not for private gain.

    And I would like to see our leadership and our citizenry, I mean, recognize that — Will Rogers said it best. This is a great country, but you can't live in it for nothing. It does require our involvement, our commitment, our responsibility, our — educating ourselves as active and committed citizens. And, you know, rather than walking away from it, I would say get engaged in it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You think that has been lost?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I think the idea of public service as a noble calling, which many of us grew up with, is, unfortunately, lost.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes, just echoing on that, I'm always reminded when I talk to politicians — which, unfortunately, I do a lot — they're actually in it for the right reasons.

    The life itself is kind of crappy, a lot of travel, a lot of fund-raising, a lot of really unpleasant stuff. They wouldn't do it, most of them, unless they really thought they were doing something good for the country. And, so, they are in it for the right reasons. They happen to be trapped in a system which they hate.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Something happened along the way, huh?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, it is the system itself, not the individuals. And it is the emotional motivations within the system which create the polarization.

    And, to me, the big issue which they will have to deal with starting in the coming year is the long-term fiscal situation. And how they do that when they're at loggerheads is a mystery to me. But paying our debts, getting the country back on some sort of fiscal stable road is just the gigantic issue that threatens to crush the country.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, again, happy new year.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Happy new year to you, too.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Thanks.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Thank you.