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Shields and Gerson on cyber-attacks after Sony, Obama’s year ahead

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to discuss this week’s news, including the state of race relations in America in the wake of continuing protests and the killing of two New York police officers, what the hacking of Sony Pictures means for cyber-security in the future and the balance of power between Congress and the president.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, the news, unfortunately, this holiday week wasn't exactly peace on earth.

    New York City is mourning two assassinated police officers, and Sony released its controversial film "The Interview."

    For our Friday news analysis, we are joined by syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away.

    Happy holidays to both of you.

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Likewise.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, as we say, Mark, the news is kind of tough.

    Let's talk about Sony first. They went ahead and released this picture after all online, streaming, as well as in the theaters. The expectation is there are going to be more cyber-attacks like the one on Sony. What — has the U.S. handled this the right way and what's been learned, do you think?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    You know, I think the president handled it right in his press conference, I thought, by saying it was an act of vandalism, rather than an act of terrorism, because if it's an act of terrorism, then it does rise to the level of national security and there has to be an American governmental response.

    Judy, it is really difficult to generate enormous sympathy for Sony in this. They are not an admiral corporate character, and they have hardly handled themselves that way. The fact that North Korea is the heavy in the piece, and deservedly so, I just think that we are seeing only the edges of what cyber-security involves.

    The FBI director said in October there are two kinds of big companies in America, those that have been hacked by the Chinese and those that don't know they have been hacked by the Chinese.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    By the Chinese.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes, and I just think that — I think North Korea is a secondary or tertiary player in this whole drama. But this is the new reality.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But they still were able to pull this off.

    Michael, lessons learned?

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Well, it did highlight a few things.

    One of them is the role of the NSA. This is an organization that is reviled by Snowden and Rand Paul and others, but it's our front line of defense when it comes issues like this. They are heavily involved in this case. So I think it's — this is an important part of our national defense that we need to take seriously.

    I also think that we have missed — the important emphasis this last week was in the U.N. Security Council in exposing North Korea, not in a screwball comedy, but in a major report, and then a Security Council session, where our ambassador, Samantha Power, laid out a very powerful case against North Korea, 100,000 people in gulags perhaps, systematic rape, torture.

    It's an unbelievably grim circumstance that deserves a lot more attention than it receives. And I'm afraid that the controversy on the movie may have actually distracted from the real news, which is, the world is calling attention to this problem.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It almost got overlooked, in fact, the human rights…

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    No, it did. That's a good point.

    I would just point out, on the NSA, we know about the — the NSA has been playing offense for a long time. So we are aware that we are — we have not been missing in this action from — just check Mrs. Merkel's phone records, if nothing else.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, the North Korean Internet went down, but it was only for nine or 10 hours, and back up again.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    And who knew…

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And nobody knows…

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    It's not a highly wired society.

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    It had no effect on North Korea.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    That's right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The other story we're covering today is the funeral of the New York City police officer who was killed and — assassinated sitting in a patrol car last weekend.

    Mark, this comes as there have been protests around the country about the killing of unarmed — young unarmed black men. I guess my question is, is this a conversation that's shifted this week because of what happened to those police officers? And how do we as a country make any progress on this issue? It feels like we're stuck on this.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    To answer your first question, yes, there's no question it has changed.

    There's a sense of urgency. What had been seemingly a pattern of tragedies and the different circumstances in Staten Island, Cleveland being different from Ferguson, but a pattern that was nonetheless disturbing, this was an act of just blatant assassination and people — because they were police officers.

    And I think, Judy, what it does is, it forces us to confront it. We all felt — I shouldn't say all, but so many of us felt, after President Barack Obama's election in 2008, and even more so after his reelection in 2012, that we had reached a watershed in racial relations in this country, that somehow we'd gone beyond the original sin of slavery and racism and all the rest of it, and that we were now just sort of a happy, whole society.

    You know, the numbers are terribly daunting, that this recession has hit African-Americans, non-white, Hispanic — non-Hispanic, non-whites harder than anybody else. We know what we don't need to do, and that is to ignore the issue. And we don't need to in any way turn our back on the fact that 93 percent of African-American children go to public schools.

    And, as Senator John McCain said, I think wisely, there's no reason in the world to pay a bad congressman more than a good teacher. And I just think the last thing in the world we can do is turn our back on public education in this country and should concentrate our efforts and attention.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, is that what we should be thinking more about, economic and education…

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    No, I agree with that, but there is a large policing issue here.

    And one of the main difficulties — we have had large shifts in the way race is viewed in America. There are generational shifts. One in 12 marriages is now an interracial marriage in America. That is going to shift opinion over time. There are some good things here.

    But there are fundamental disagreements on the way our criminal justice system is viewed by whites and blacks in America. And you see, this is largely a municipal issue, not a national issue. So, a place like Saint Louis, which is my hometown, has not done it well. They have not built trust.

    They have municipalities that are dependent on ticket revenue. They have a history of racial and class profiling in the way tickets are done. It's perceived as harassment. And then, when a crisis comes, there's no trust. There's no resources of trust to build on.

    You look at a place like Los Angeles, which had huge problems in conflict between the community and the police, but have gotten better over the last decade. They now have a police force that is very closely representative of the racial composition of Los Angeles, a lot of trust built up over time. It's possible to make those kinds of changes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    They have worked at it.

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    They have really worked at it. They have had good leadership, including William Bratton, who is now in New York.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    That's right.

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    But it's — it takes a lot of intentional effort to build that trust.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, I mean, is — do you see any signs that that's happening, Mark? We have these conversations, but then you have a — the shooting, like what happened in New York.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Judy, there are any number of topics that can be discussed at any time in America.

    And this has forced us to address this issue. I mean, we can make the decision to look at it briefly and then move away, or it can be central to the 2016 debate. I mean, Michael mentioned Rand Paul in another context. He has been one of those very vocal and visible in the question of sentencing and treatment, as Jim Webb, the former Democratic senator from Virginia, had been, in the treatment of people who were convicted of a crime and winning back the right to vote and winning back their citizenship and a chance to earn a living.

    So, there is a debate here. But I think the assassination of the police officers is not comparable to, but it directs the attention like the attack of the dogs of Bull Connor's did in the civil rights. I mean, you can't turn away from it and from those funerals and those families and say, well, this is just a simple problem, minor problem. We can now discuss whether we should cut the capital gains tax instead.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Yes. Yes.

    Well, I want to — I do want to raise with you all something else that we are watching as we come. We're just days away from the end of the year. It seems like — it was only seven weeks ago, Michael, that we had the midterm elections. President Obama seemed like he was back on his heels, he couldn't get anything done.

    But then, in the course of the seven weeks, immigration reform initiative, he moved on a climate change, environmental agreement with the Chinese, and then, just in the last few days the announcement about normalizing relations with Cuba.

    And then there was a poll that came out, I guess, just a day or so ago, CNN, shows the president's approval rating, it's actually up, only four points, but it's gone up.

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So what's the deal? What is the story? As we head into the seventh year of his presidency, how do you see the balance of power between him and the Congress?

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    I think you have to start by saying that the press narrative of the president's irrelevance was always absurd.

    The United States president is never irrelevant. He has the ability to do things. George W. Bush, at the low point of his approval in his second term, did the Iraq surge, which was historically quite important.

    Presidents have the power to do this and can. The real question is whether we now, in this fairly short legislative window at the beginning of the new Congress, before we get into the 2016 debate, where really all the legislative action is overwhelmed, is it possible to make some progress here?

    A lot of that depends on what Republicans do, whether they decide they want to pursue a positive, incremental agenda, even if it's vetoed by the president, that shows what their values are, or whether they want catastrophic, cataclysmic conflict over budget and immigration and other issues, you know, up-or-down votes on major issues like that.

    That's a different approach, a different strategy. And I think Republicans are going to need to be more incremental, more hopeful, more positive, more policy-oriented in this period in order to set up their candidate for 2016.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    How do you see the balance?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I think there's been a real change in balance.

    I think even President Obama's greatest admirers had a feeling during the fall that he was mailing it in, that he was almost enduring the office, rather than exhilarating in it. And every discussion, every decision seemed to be calibrated by, how is it going to affect Louisiana Senate race, or Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina?

    In a strange way, he's been liberated since there, sadly by the defeat of those four Democrats, I'm sure, to him. But he seems reenergized. I mean, the audacity of hope, hope may not be dominant, but certainly audacity is back in the litany of the things that you mentioned he's done.

    In addition to that, Judy, the Republicans find themselves in a very difficult position. It reminds me of when Ronald Reagan was president of the United States and the Democrats were in the majority in the Congress. And, 1986, along comes Iran-Contra. And Democrats immediately charge, Ronald Reagan knew about this completely. He cleared everything.

    And Jim Wright, who was the Democratic speaker of the House, the majority leader, about to become speaker of the House that next year, said, wait a minute, you can't have it both ways. We can't say Reagan for six years didn't know what time it was, what day it was, and now he's this diabolical mastermind.

    The Republicans have Obama characterized and caricatured as this feckless, sort of passive, disengaged — now he's a despot. Now he's in charge of everything. Now he is too strong. He's overly muscular.

    So, I mean, they have got to decide on which Obama they're going after at this point.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You have got 10 seconds to tell me which Obama they're going to go after.

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    I don't know.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    But there are some divisions on the left too.

    The Warren anti-Wall Street wing could play out as well in this part as well.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    No question.

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Both sides have their own internal divisions.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Glad there are no divisions here right now.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, there are some, which is OK, as we get to the end of the year.

    Michael Gerson, Mark Shields, thank you both.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Thank you.

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Thank you.

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