Shields and Brooks on the CIA interrogation report, spending bill sticking points

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government and the Senate’s investigation of the CIA’s interrogation methods.

Read the Full Transcript


    This week, Congress is going down to the wire again on averting a government shutdown. New and familiar divisions emerged inside both parties. And all that happened just days after a report on the CIA's alleged use of torture went public.

    For all that and more, we turn to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Welcome, gentlemen.

    So, Mark, we're going right down to the wire once again on a spending bill. Was this inevitable, lame-duck session, after the midterm elections? Is this what we knew was going to happen?


    Probably, Judy.

    And it's a great opportunity for people who have particular causes that they want to slip into the final legislation, that it's — the train is pulling out of the station. You have to vote to keep the government going, keep it open. And so I think there's a certain appeal, in addition to the procrastination, that contributes to this.


    Sometimes, people want to avert their eyes, but here we go again.


    Yes, though I'm upbeat.

    I think we have a right to be happy and joyful, holiday season. We had an actual government shutdown not too long ago. And this time, the odds are, we're not going to have one. And so a couple things have happened. The center has held.

    President Obama and John Boehner, Democrat, Republican, it seems like they're going to win this thing. They're not going to win it without blood and setbacks, but they are going to win it. Boehner clearly has much more control over the Republican Caucus than he did this time a year ago or six months ago.

    And so that's interesting and probably productive. On the other hand, the Democrats are beginning to behave like an opposition party, a party in opposition. And we're beginning to see the shifts there. Now, I would say the big loser of the week is Hillary Clinton.

    If you thought she was going to walk in, cakewalk to the coronation, if I'm mixing metaphors there, but that ain't going to happen. Clearly, the Democratic Party is beginning to have an argument within itself with a more populist wing, a more establishment wing, so a little parallel to what happened to the Republicans a couple of years ago, but it's really interesting.

    And so we have seen a lot of the new formations of the next two years come into being here.


    David is referring, Mark, to Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, a darling of many of the liberals, who is taking issue with one of the easing of the financial regulations in the bill. There are other liberal Democrats who are unhappy about changing campaign finance.

    Is this what we have to look forward to in the Democratic Party?


    Well, I think I have a little different take on it from David, in the sense that I think the Democrats had a great opportunity here to define themselves as a party.

    They have gone through an election where they'd never had an economic message. And here's a bill presented with the amendment, quite openly written by Citigroup. The four biggest banks in the country handle 93 percent of derivatives. And this is written for them.

    It's to make their business easier and to provide backup if — in case things still go wrong, that Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer of this country will bail them out once more under — in the worst possible circumstances. They say, oh, it's just — it's making it easier logistically and so forth.

    The Democrats had a chance to break that. Nancy Pelosi stood up on it, and I think — really think that the White House buckled too soon. I think they had the Republicans very much on the defensive. They didn't want — wanted to deny paternity of this provision. It ties them very much into the negative public stereotype of the party as too close to big money.

    And then on top of that, they quintupled or actually octupled the amount of money that millionaires and billionaires can give to party committees. So, you had two really good issues. And we have ended up with 70 percent, seven out of 10 House Democrats voting against, not simply the speaker, but voting against the president on this bill.


    So, you're saying it's a good thing for the Democrats.

    David, a good thing?


    Well, it's a good thing. Any turmoil in the Democratic Party has got to be a good thing.

    It's very much like what happened in the Republican Party. It's the difference between, are you trying to make a statement or are you trying to pass a law? If you are progressive and you have, as Mark says, two great issues, you can make a statement.

    On the other hand, if you don't pass this right now, and you kick it over to the next Congress, say, then it's certainly going to be worse on a whole range of other issues for Democrats because Republicans will be in control. And so the people who supported this thing, like Barack Obama, Steny Hoyer, all these people, they are looking at what is going to happen, not only those two issues, but on a whole range of issues.

    So, if you're trying to define your party, then Mark is right. Elizabeth Warren has a good defining issue there. If you're trying to pass a law that will be good for your people on a whole range of other issues, Barack Obama is right.


    Weren't we just talking, Mark, a couple weeks ago about the president making gestures to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party on immigration reform, the executive action, net neutrality?


    Yes, no question.

    But I think this was a crunch question. I don't think there's any question the Republicans could not — this is a practical political question, rather than just symbolic and philosophical. I think the Republicans were in a terrible position. The more heat, the more light, the more attention that had focused on these two provisions would have put them very much on the defensive, to the point — there was — Tea Party Republicans were upset because of the money.

    They see this opening up the money, the millionaires and billionaires' money, to the establishment of the Republican Party, then running against them, as they did very effectively in 2014, in primaries, so that they will nominate more establishment candidates.

    So I just think a missed opportunity was here. And I think that the White House, quite frankly, was eyeball to eyeball with the Republican Congress and the White House blinked.


    But a lot of it is what's getting your juices flowing. And for Elizabeth Warren, this issue on the derivatives gets her juices flowing. That's like a core issue.

    And for a lot of Democrats, that is a core issue. I think, for a lot of other Democrats, it's just not a core issue. They might agree with it nominally, but they're just not passionately involved. And that's why I leap ahead to the primary season. And that's why Elizabeth Warren owes it to us to run, or somebody like owes it to us to run to make our lives interesting, of course.


    Well, we're going to wait and talk about that on another — on another Friday.

    The Senate Intelligence report, though, Mark, on the CIA's so-called enhanced interrogation techniques or, as others say, that's euphemistic for torture, what do you make of the report and the reaction of the CIA, this this — a few people did it, it was legal, and they did what they had to do in a time of great stress for the country?


    The critics have basically they didn't talk to enough people, it wasn't complete, it wasn't balanced, it shouldn't come out at this time, doesn't — helpful.

    Is it true? Yes, it's true. Did the United States — I mean, Ronald Reagan signed the anti-torture U.N. convention as president of the United States in 1988. The Senate ratified it in 1994. Torture was declared not simply immoral, but illegal.

    In 2001, we repealed it. Without any official act, it was effectively repealed. And that's what this is about. And, on this issue, Judy, it's very rare that this happens in American public life. There's one figure who stands unassailable and alone as the authority. And that is John McCain.

    And John McCain is the moral clarity on this torture issue and on this report. And he is the one who has said, quite bluntly, yes, we should have it, we should have had this report, and what we did done was wrong, and it's not the United States. We are better than that as a people. He believes in American exceptionalism.


    What do you make of the report?


    Yes. I will add four things.

    First, the best thing about the report is, it cuts through the ocean of euphemism, the EITs, enhanced interrogation techniques, and all that. It gets to straight language. Torture — it's obviously torture. What was done is obviously torture.

    And when you cut through it, though, the technology — or the metaphor and the euphemism is designed to dull the moral sensibility. And this aroused the moral sensibility. It's very hard to read this report and not be morally outraged. And so that does have — that had a great effect.

    Second — the second issue raised, which is another issue McCain has gone to, is the effectiveness of the evidence. And I think we're right to be agnostic about that. Brennan says he's not sure. John Brennan says he's not sure.




    Unknowable whether it helped. McCain says, from his own personal experience, that torture leads to bad intelligence. He's probably right about that. So we're unsure about that.

    I do have some sympathy for those who say the document was too partisan. It was written by Democratic staffers. It was done in a partisan way. I'm a little bothered, as a reporter, that they didn't interview as many people as they should have. I do — there's some merit in that.

    And then the thing they do whitewash is the role of Congress here and even the role of Democrats. At the time, the CIA claims, with some evidence, that they did brief people. And a lot of people who are now on their high horse saying how horrible that it was sat there in those rooms and didn't say anything or even were for it.


    So, what is the argument really about here? What matters in all of this, Mark?


    Well, what matters, Judy — it was not a perfect document and I don't think anybody is pretending that it is.

    What matters is, do we confront what we have done and what was done in our name and under our flag? And, you know, to quote John McCain, this isn't about our enemies. It's about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be.

    And I wasn't just being glib when I said he believes in American exceptionalism. A lot of people on the left who are very supportive of McCain's position don't think America is exceptional otherwise. But — and all the people who talk about America being exceptional and doing whatever we want militarily all of a sudden are very defensive and don't even — don't even pretend to hold us to a standard on something like torture.

    This was torture. The United States of America does not, does not, does not hold somebody by chains to a floor half-naked and let him freeze to death in the name of the United States of America. We don't do that. David's right. It's impossible to read it and not to be morally upset.


    If that's the case then, why aren't we talking about punishment for the people who did this?


    Well, people are put in miserable jobs and decisions were made at a political level.

    And there was — a lot of what we have learned is that decisions are made, but then don't tell me what you're going to do, under the aegis of the decision I just made.

    And I do — I would hesitate to do it, because it was a tough time. They didn't know anything about what al-Qaida was up to. And I do think they were motivated by the national security interest. I think it was wrong. I think the people who were involved — and we know this from the report — the people who were involved were appalled at the time, but sometimes they thought, you know, they are doing the right thing.

    We kill people with drones. We're killing people all the time with drones. Killing is probably worse than torture. Those moral calculus shouldn't be legalized, except for in extreme cases, in my view.


    Just very quickly to both of you, the CIA comes out of this how?


    The CIA comes out of it, I think, damaged and wounded.

    I think that's what John Brennan is trying to do. Judy, most of all, what it hurts is the honest, effective, dedicated professionals who get intelligence without torturing people, without degrading other human beings, who do that every day, and do it well.


    It wasn't just the CIA. It was the whole country. There was a lot of people, and a lot of people up the political chain, a lot of people in Congress, a lot of people in the public. And so we're trying to rediscover our moral center.


    Tough questions tonight.

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, we thank you.

Listen to this Segment