GWEN IFILL: Drone strikes gone wrong. The Clinton cash machine. A confirmed attorney general. And parsing mixed messages from Iran. All tonight on Washington Week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From video.) It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur.
MS. IFILL: A tragic intelligence mistake kills Americans on both sides of the anti-terrorism war and raises questions about where to go from here.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN DELANEY (D-MD): (From video.) It’s my opinion that we need to do more. We should have done more on Warren’s case and we should do more for all of these hostages because this is a complicated business.
MS. IFILL: On the 2016 campaign trail, the spotlight turns once again to Hillary Clinton.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From video.) The Republicans seem to be talking only about me. I don’t know what they’d talk about if I weren’t in the race.
MS. IFILL: But it’s not just the Republicans talking. What do we need to know about the Clinton Foundation?
On Capitol Hill, it took five months and a vote on an entirely unrelated bill.
SENATOR JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): (From video.) This has been a long, strange journey here to final passage, but here we are.
MS. IFILL: But Loretta Lynch finally wins Senate confirmation.
And in Yemen, on again, off again military strikes; a growing U.S. presence in the Gulf; and the looming influence of Iran.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): (From video.) There’s a lot of speculation about what may or may not be on these – on this Iranian convoy, but I think having our ships in place is the right thing to do.
MS. IFILL: And then what?
Covering the week, Mark Mazzetti, national security correspondent for The New York Times; Jeff Zeleny, senior Washington correspondent for CNN; Juana Summers, congressional reporter for NPR; and Hannah Allam, national correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is Washington Week with Gwen Ifill. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening.
It was an extraordinary moment, the president yesterday taking responsibility and apologizing for the deaths of American citizens at the hands of American forces. Today, in a speech to the national intelligence community, he spoke of his regret.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From video.) We all bleed when – when we lose an American life. We all grieve when any innocent life is taken. We don’t take this work lightly, and I know that each and every one of you understand the magnitude of what we do and the stakes involved. And these aren’t abstractions, and – and we’re not cavalier about what we do.
MS. IFILL: But we are still figuring out exactly what did happen on two separate dates in different locations, where U.S. drones apparently guided by faulty intelligence took the lives of four men, one an American hostage, another an Italian hostage, and two American-born al-Qaida operatives. None of it happened on purpose. Three months after it happened and barely 36 hours after we learned about it, what do we know now about the circumstances that led to this, Mark?
MARK MAZZETTI: Well, we know that the CIA was tracking several compounds, as it has for years, in the tribal areas of Pakistan. And in the case of the strike that killed the hostages, it was – there were drones surveilling this compound for days, weeks, and in the very end almost unbroken surveillance. And the order was taken to take the – to carry out the strike, and it took weeks to find out what actually had happened. And as it turned out, and as we’ve reported today, they found out that the evidence – real evidence of the mistake was there were two extra bodies pulled out of the compound and buried when the CIA had only thought that there were four in the compound. So that is the strike that’s getting the most attention, and obviously it sort of raises this issue of just how accurate these strikes are.
MS. IFILL: Well, so they were watching, they were careful, but is it they – how could they not detect the two additional humans inside this building?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, they can only – the technology only allows them to see who comes and goes. They can’t see inside of a compound. And so hostages are presumably kept in one place for a long period of time or they were brought in during one point in the gap in the surveillance. So all they were able to see were the four people coming and going and not the two people who were possibly inside the compound the entire time. And so, again, it was only afterwards that they found out how many people had been killed.
JEFF ZELENY: We saw the president speak there and we saw him make this announcement at the White House on Thursday, fairly dramatic fashion. Why has this drone program defined his administration, and how has it defined his administration?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, we – you know, President Obama campaigned on getting the United States out of big, messy wars of occupation, and the drone in many ways has been a tool that he’s embraced because it was something besides Iraq and Afghanistan. He has accelerated the drone campaign – far more drone strikes under Obama than there were under Bush. And so this has been, in many ways, his program.
This is really the first time, though, you see him out there expressing this regret. But it should be noted this is not the first time, obviously, there have been civilians killed. It’s not even the first time that there’s been Americans killed. But clearly this weighed on Obama, and I think it really created this moment where the program’s under fire like never before.
HANNAH ALLAM: Well, and it even – it calls into question also the use of the signature strikes, which I thought we were told were going to be phased out last year sometime. So what happened?
MR. MAZZETTI: Yeah, so it’s interesting. So –
MS. IFILL: First of all, what are they?
MS. ALLAM: Yeah. (Laughs.)
MR. MAZZETTI: So signature strikes are when the CIA will carry out a strike without knowing specifically who they’re targeting. They’re based on what they call patterns of behavior – someone who’s determined to be al-Qaida or a different type of militant, but they don’t know that is – the specific people. Those have been allowed in Pakistan in part because of questions of people going over the border into Afghanistan and going after American troops.
As you pointed out, President Obama indicated in a big speech he gave two years ago that by the end of last year those strikes would end, but very quietly they were allowed to continue. And as we saw in these two strikes in January, they have sometimes, when you lower the – lower the bar, you have really dangerous consequences.
JUANA SUMMERS: One person we haven’t talked about in this conversation yet is John Brennan. When we’re looking at this whole landscape and these drones, what does this mean for him?
MR. MAZZETTI: Yeah, Brennan is an interesting character. He was an architect of the program in the first term in the White House. He goes to the CIA, he continues the program. But he remains very close to Obama. He’s one of Obama’s closest advisers. He’s been embattled before – I mean, notably last year, when he – with the issue of the Senate Intelligence Community and hacking into their computers. Obama stood by him, and for all we see so far, will continue to stand by him.
MS. IFILL: You know, we only have a few seconds, but I do want to talk about Pakistan, because it’s interesting that both of these things happened – both this strike and the strike that killed Adam Gadahn, the al-Qaida Americans. Both happened in one of our – the country that’s one of our –one of our allies. How do we know that – aren’t they supposed to be helping us on this?
MR. MAZZETTI: Well, that’s a long and complicated story about the relationship with Pakistan. Yes, the relationship is better, but the United States is continuing to carry these strikes out at a – at a lower rate than before. But they’re not doing it – they’re not informing the Pakistanis in advance, and sometimes there is real tension in the relationship when the U.S. carries out these unilateral acts.
MS. IFILL: OK, there’s going to be more. There’s supposed to be – they’re supposed to investigating this, so we’ll see what they come up with.
MR. MAZZETTI: Right.
MS. IFILL: Thanks, Mark.
We hopscotch now to another of the big headlines this week, following the money inside the Clinton Foundation. And it’s a lot of money, much of it directed toward philanthropy, but where is it coming from and why? A number of reports this week have sought to make the link between the Foundation’s activities and the actions of then-Secretary of State – surprise! – Hillary Clinton. Are we seeing smoke or are we seeing fire, Jeff?
MR. ZELENY: Yes. We’re seeing both. (Laughter.) And I think that it depends – we’re not quite sure yet how much fire there’s going to be because there’s so much smoke we’re not – we’re not sure where this is going to go. But I think more often than not – the reports this week were not as revealing for something that we didn’t know was going on, but just sort of shining a broader light and reminding us that the Clinton Foundation has been underway for a while, but it’s grown so much over the last several years. We’ve had no idea, really, what the speaking fees that the president was getting, former President Bill Clinton – $500,000 to give one speech in Moscow. The reason that became important was because Moscow and Russia, this uranium company was trying to invest in the U.S. and buy U.S. uranium, and someone else involved in it happened to give $2.35 million to the Clinton Foundation. The deal went through, so of course it looks suspect. We don’t know if it is suspect, but that was one example that The New York Times wrote about this week that just reminded us that all these – this is such an unusual situation, a former president, a secretary of State, and now she’s running for president so everyone is looking at this.
MS. IFILL: Wasn’t the secretary of State supposed to notify the administration she was now work for whether ever she had any – the Foundation had any dealings with foreign governments or foreign entities?
MR. ZELENY: Yes, and that did not appear to happen in this case. And that is a good point.
Going back to January of 2009, Senator Dick Lugar sat in the Foreign Relations Committee hearing and said the Clinton Foundation is going to be a tempting entity for foreign governments and, you know, other people who are trying to do business with the U.S. So she said, look, you know, everything will be above board. We will sign a pledge to disclose everything. So for the first time we’re seeing that this didn’t happen in this case. So what’s why it matters.
So this has all come to attention because of the new book that is going to be released on May 5th. It’s written by a conservative author, a former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, a former Sarah Palin adviser. So the Clinton campaign has seized on that and said, oh, this is a partisan hit job. Don’t mind that quite as much. There is so much actual interesting stuff at the Foundation that we’re going to see. Some people ask why it’s legitimate. Well, if she wins, the president will still be in the White House. She will be the president. Other entities will be there. The Clinton Foundation is still there. So it’s a legitimate question with so many – so many angles.
MS. SUMMERS: Jeff, it’s April 2015. Election is still a pretty long ways away. Is there any benefit to this coming out now as opposed to, say, around Labor Day or when she is actually the Democratic nominee?
MR. ZELENY: Good question. I mean, I suppose it could be seen as old news – like, oh, this sounds familiar – but I’m not sure that this is what the Clinton campaign wanted on week two of its candidacy. A very careful rollout; you know, she was doing this reconnection tour with voters. So they certainly didn’t want this. But you know, you sort of deal with the hand that you have, so I guess it gets it out of the way at this point, at least this part of it. But we still don’t know the whole picture.
MR. MAZZETTI: And I mean, obviously people have very strong opinions about Hillary Clinton. Does something like this, do you think, is this going to affect people? Do they care? Are voters going to care? From anything we know at this point.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, it helps that it’s really murky and hard to explain.
MR. MAZZETTI: Yeah.
MR. ZELENY: And the more complicated it is, probably the better it is for the Clintons, I would say, because it just sort of seems like, you know, a very familiar story.
But look, I think you’re right, most people have their minds made up. They like her or they, you know, like what she stands for or they don’t like what they stand for. But it does go to the heart – of course voters aren’t paying attention to this because they don’t know enough about it yet, but it does go to the heart of the key worries of some of her advisers: trust and credibility. And if this is hammered out every day for the next, you know, year and a half, that’s not good for her.
MS. ALLAM: Was there a betting failure here?
MS. IFILL: What do you mean by that?
MS. ALLAM: Well, I mean, why didn’t we know about all this before? (Chuckles.) I mean –
MR. ZELENY: I mean, we do think of her as someone that, you know, she’s been on the national stage for so, so long, don’t we know everything about the Clintons. Well, the Clinton Foundation actually has changed so much since 2008, when she ran for president the last time, because Bill Clinton’s speaking fees through the roof, the Clinton Foundation has grown into this sprawling thing. When she ran the first time, it was much smaller and she wasn’t secretary of State. So that’s a key question: Did it grow on her watch?
MS. IFILL: Is it too soon? Is this affecting her fundraising or what people – voters are saying at all?
MR. ZELENY: I think it’s a little too soon right now. The reaction has basically been a partisan reaction, but they are trying to raise money, a lot of money, and the fact that they’re reminded that the Clintons really got pretty wealthy over the last decade does not help fundraising. It doesn’t help it at all.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thanks, Jeff. I get the feeling we’re going to be revisiting this time and time again.
Today over at the Department of Justice, outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder had yet another goodbye ceremony, five and a half months after he first announced he was leaving.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: (From video.) This is my third going away. (Laughter.) But I promise, it’s the last one. I think we can officially say now that Eric Holder is free. (Laughter.)
MS. IFILL: He then took off two “free Eric Holder” rubber wristbands and flung them into the crowd.
Holder’s replacement, Brooklyn prosecutor Loretta Lynch, is finally on her way to Justice after 10 Republicans joined every Senate Democrat in voting to confirm her nomination. So in the end, finally, she got through, Juana. What changed?
MS. SUMMERS: Everything and absolutely nothing at all at the same time. Look, this was never really entirely about Loretta Lynch and it was never really about her qualifications. What this long, protracted nomination battle – something we haven’t really seen before – was about was the fact that Republicans did not like Eric Holder, and yet when they were presented with the replacement in Loretta Lynch, who many of them will concede is very well-qualified, very ready for the job, they got someone who vocally stood up and said that she supported the president’s executive actions on immigration, which may be one of the few things Republicans dislike more than Eric Holder himself. So they were in a really tough corner here and they didn’t quite know what to do with it, so we saw that it got drug up on immigration. We saw an unrelated human trafficking bill, which you’ve discussed on the program before, get drawn into this. That was resolved earlier this week, and they were finally able to confirm her. In the end, Loretta Lynch won the support of 10 Republicans, most interestingly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
MS. IFILL: You know, one of the things I found interesting about this – about all of these confirmation hearings, but this one in particular – is she was being penalized for being with the president who nominated her. What was expected?
MS. SUMMERS: If you listen to what Republicans said, what they wanted in a new – in a new head of the Justice Department was someone who would lead the Justice Department independently of the president, which I think may be a little bit far-flung when asked for a nominee from a Democratic president. What they want is their own head of the Justice Department, which obviously, with President Obama in the White House, they really weren’t going to get.
MR. MAZZETTI: And there’s –
MR. ZELENY: The old adage elections have consequences, I mean. But the person who talked the most was Ted Cruz. He urged senators to – he said he was going to put a hold on her nomination. Where was he this week?
MS. SUMMERS: (Laughs.) That’s a funny one. Ted Cruz took to the floor. He spoke forcefully about Loretta Lynch, said that she was lawless and would continue the lawlessness of Eric Holder’s Justice Department. He voted on a procedural test vote, hoping to deny her nomination advance, and then he got out of town. His staff said it was a scheduling conflict, and RealClearPolitics posted online an invitation that he had flown back home for a fundraiser. So it’s definitely an interesting moment, one that Democrats –
MS. IFILL: That’s a scheduling conflict.
MS. SUMMERS: It’s a scheduling conflict.
MS. IFILL: You set your priorities.
MR. ZELENY: And it was a big fundraiser. But hypocritical, right?
MS. SUMMERS: A little bit. And it’s also happening during a week where Ted Cruz is coming under fire from a number of news organizations, including Politico and The Huffington Post, who are chronicling just how much time he spends not doing the thing the voters of Texas elected him to do, which is showing up to committee hearings of consequence and voting.
MR. MAZZETTI: So she’s in, OK. So what do we know about what does she want to do, what are her priorities at the Justice Department?
MS. SUMMERS: One of the biggest things we’re likely to see from Loretta Lynch – and this is something that President Obama stressed in remarks that he made last night after this vote – was that she will work really hard to bridge the trust gap between minority communities across this country and law enforcement officials. As the president and others in the administration have said, Loretta Lynch knows a lot about justice, but she also knows a lot about community. So that’s a role we expect to see her step into, particularly as we have events unfolding across the nation as what we saw in North Charleston, South Carolina, as what we’re seeing play out this weekend in Baltimore, Maryland. So there will be a lot of ground there. She will also be tasked, obviously, with sentencing reform and surveillance issues that have been huge for the Holder Justice Department. She will also have to work, though, to gain the trust of Republicans, who are, as we’ve stated earlier, not likely to trust her given the – given the feelings that they have about Eric Holder and the feelings they have about the president’s immigration policies, which of course she will play a huge part in.
MS. IFILL: Well, I’m always curious about what Republicans are up to more broadly. So for instance, in this case, this was an effort to say we got something done, right? After five and a half months, but we got something done. They got something done also on moving ahead on trade authority, got something done on the Medicare documents – doctors fix to Medicare. So is this part of a new campaign on the part of Republicans to say we’ve got something going?
MS. SUMMERS: If you listen to Republican leadership on both sides of the Capitol, the House and the Senate, the big thing they’re talking about right now is this is the new Republican Congress. It has been a little bit more than a hundred days since the 114th Congress was sworn in, and they pointed to the accomplishments you’ve listed, the so-called “doc fix,” the Medicare fix, the human trafficking bill that finally just passed the Senate. But there’s still a long way to go, and that’s really important to note. They have another big deadline at the end of May: the Highway Trust Fund is set to run out. They’ll have to deal with the debt limit. There are lots of other hurdles. So while Congress writ large has made some compromises, many of which have come from a bipartisan place, I think it’s maybe a little too soon to start blowing up the balloons and throwing a party for this Congress.
MS. IFILL: And can I look back just a little bit on the 10 Republicans? Who were – I mean, how significant, other than Mitch McConnell, were the votes for her?
MS. SUMMERS: They are fairly significant, particularly if you look at the map and who’s up for reelection. One person who came out of the woodwork, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, who was a last-minute person who jumped in and voted. Obviously if you’re looking at her reelection chances, that’s a really big deal. Ron Johnson, another Republican who also voted for her. So these are significant if you’re looking at the 2016 Senate map.
MR. ZELENY: That was fascinating because they need independents to vote for them in 2016.
MS. SUMMERS: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: Exactly. It’s everything is connected to everything else. It’s always important to see. Thank you.
Well, as you see here tonight, nothing is simple. Only a few weeks ago, the State Department was celebrating a breakthrough in negotiations to scale back Iran’s nuclear capabilities. But this week, even as those negotiations resumed, we were keeping an eye on Iran again – this time in Yemen, where Saudi airstrikes have upped the ante. The worry? That an internal conflict has now become a proxy war between two powerful neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It sent another U.S. warship into the Gulf of Aden this week.
WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY JOSH EARNEST: (From video.) Movement of the – of this particular aircraft carrier would augment the American military presence in the Gulf of Aden, and would send a clear signal about our continued insistence about the free flow of commerce and the freedom of movement in the region.
MS. IFILL: So where does that stand tonight, Hannah?
MS. ALLAM: Well, the good news is – and believe me, it’s in short supply in Yemen – but if there’s any glimmer, I suppose, of good news, it would be that this crisis on the high seas that we all braced for this week appears to have dissipated because these Iranian vessels have moved back northeast toward Iran, and one of the warships that the U.S. had positioned there has also been redirected back to the Persian Gulf. So it looks like no showdown on the high seas. There had been this question of, you know, would the U.S. go so far as to intercept a ship, would the U.S. board an Iranian vessel or, you know, any of the – there are other ships there from the coalition, Egyptian vessels, Saudi and Emirati as well. So nobody wanted to see that kind of escalation, and certainly the Pentagon described it as a de-escalation of the tensions that we’ve seen this week.
MS. IFILL: But one of the things – every single day there was a different report coming out of Yemen, and one of them one day, the Saudis said, you know, we’re done, we’re no – we’re done with our airstrikes and we’re going to pull back, and then the next day they began again. Another day the Houthis, part of the – the ethnic minority trying to overthrow the current government, they said, oh, we’re going to step back, too, and then they didn’t. There seems like a very confusing situation on the ground.
MS. ALLAM: Oh, to say the least. I mean, it’s conflicts within conflicts within conflicts, and it’s very difficult to get a clear picture. But the latest, I suppose, is that there is some movement on the diplomatic front with the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, today appointing a new special envoy for Yemen to wrangle these parties back to the negotiating table. But as you said, there hasn’t been a cessation of the hostilities. The Saudis announced one day they’ve stopped the airstrikes, only to begin them hours later. There’s still fighting raging in several cities. And of course, this massive humanitarian disaster with, you know, a thousand civilians killed, 4,000 injured, many hundreds of those children, and an internal displacement problem that has spilled now – you know, the refugee commissioner for the U.N. said we’re now seeing this awful irony that Yemen getting so awful that people are fleeing to Somalia. So that’s – yes. So we have averted this conflict on the seas for now, it seems. Certainly no letup in the violence inside.
MR. MAZZETTI: And for years the United States, their primary objective in Yemen has been to go after al-Qaida.
MS. ALLAM: Right.
MR. MAZZETTI: We’re now on the side of the Saudis, who are fighting al-Qaida’s enemies. And the real question, I guess, among people you talk to, I mean, is there a concern or any evidence that this conflict that we’ve been now brought into is actually strengthening al-Qaida, which is the real primary American interest in Yemen?
MS. ALLAM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, already we’ve seen al-Qaida gain territory. They have done – they did a much-publicized prison break, freed several of their operatives. They have taken a port and an airport nearby. So, so far, they seem to have benefited from this conflict. And the warning from counterterrorism experts, from analysts who study Yemen, is that the longer this drags on, the more operating space AQAP – al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula – will get, and then the more regional and international intervention will only exacerbate that kind of chaos.
MR. ZELENY: What does this do to the Iran talks overall that are now going to be underway in Vienna? What’s our update on that?
MS. ALLAM: Well, U.S. officials always like to say these are two separate issues and we keep them –
MS. IFILL: They wish they were two separate issues. (Laughter.)
MS. ALLAM: And they wish they were. I don’t think anyone would dispute that it’s nice to sit down in Vienna to talk. This is the first formal talks since the framework agreement was reached. So I think they’re all relieved that they don’t have a maritime crisis in the backdrop to them.
MS. IFILL: Well, and they’ve got a deadline. June 30th is the next deadline for the next turn on these.
MS. ALLAM: Yes. Tick tock. (Laughs.)
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’ll be watching all that. Thank you all very much.
We’ve got to go, but the conversation will continue later on tonight online on the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where, among other things, we’ll talk about the Sunshine State war heating up between two Republicans, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. That’s Mr. Zeleny. You can watch it all – you can watch it all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff at the PBS NewsHour. And we’ll see you here next week on Washington Week. Good night.