GWEN IFILL: Another shocking attack revives debates over terrorism and guns, politics and leadership, tonight on Washington Week.
FBI ASSISTANT DIRECTOR DAVID BOWDICH: (From video.) We are now investigating these horrific acts as an act of terrorism.
MS. IFILL: A husband and wife, one an American citizen, both with an infant daughter, and with apparent connections to ISIS, wreak havoc in a mid-sized American city.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ASHTON CARTER: (From video.) Right here in the United States, where we've had people, some of them just losers with a keyboard, who get excited by ISIL propaganda and decide to take off against our fellow citizens.
MS. IFILL: Another tragedy consumes the week, as candidates campaign.
SENATOR TED CRUZ (R-TX): (From video.) All of us are deeply concerned that this is yet another manifestation of terrorism – radical Islamic terrorism here at home.
MS. IFILL: And as the Pentagon makes history, allowing women into combat with no exceptions.
Covering the week, Michael Crowley, senior foreign affairs correspondent for POLITICO; Doyle McManus, columnist for the Los Angeles Times; Reid Wilson, chief political correspondent for Morning Consult; and Pete Williams, justice correspondent for NBC 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. Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. The massacre in San Bernardino has predictably revived old debates about terrorism and safety. But it has also exposed us to something new, the potential that through the radicalization of U.S. citizens, ISIS has for the first time that we know of successfully launched an attack on the homeland. FBI Director James Comey earlier today.
FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY: (From video.) The investigation so far has developed indications of radicalization by the killers and of a potential inspiration by foreign terrorist organizations.
MS. IFILL: For obvious reasons, Pete Williams is work late at NBC’s Washington bureau tonight, and he joins us with the latest. Pete, what do we know?
PETE WILLIAMS: Well, Comey never mentioned ISIS specifically, but we did learn today that just as Wednesday's attack on Syed Farooq’s fellow county employees was beginning, his wife, Tashfeen Malik, sent an endorsement of ISIS to her Facebook timeline, pledging support for the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. So the FBI director wouldn't comment directly on that, but he did talk about radicalization, signs of potential inspiration by foreign terror organizations, not specifying which organizations. But he said there's no sign the two were in direct contact with any terrorists here or overseas, and no indication they were part of any network. So it does seem like this is inspiration overseas to homegrown terrorists. And it does seem also clear that a good deal of what the FBI has so far comes from records of phone calls and emails. And that takes them only so far. There's no way to tell, for example, the FBI says, what the couple's intent was, why they attacked that county facility, or whether they planned other attacks, Gwen.
MS. IFILL: It seems like in first a couple of days of this, and it's only been a few days since this happened, there was great reluctance to call this terrorism. Why is that?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I think because they didn't know what it was. Now, the FBI is bound by a legal definition, an act of violence of danger to people – it certainly was that –intended to influence the civilian population or influence the government. And that's the part they didn't know. And Comey said today that this investigation of this, it's confusing. It's an odd situation, he says, because it has the hallmarks of both workplace violence, attacking people that you know and work with, and terrorism. And at first, they really couldn't tell what they had here.
And another problem is that Farooq and Malik tried very hard to cover their tracks. They smashed their cellphones and hard drives. And that undoubtedly, or probably, is where the real keys to this are that would explain what they were up to, why did they choose these things, were there other attacks they wanted to carry out? It may be a long time before we get to those answers.
MS. IFILL: As we try to put this in some sort of context, especially a laywoman's context, is this more like what we saw happen in Paris in terms of attacks on civilians? Or is this more like what we have seen happen in this country in places like Garland, Texas, a thwarted attack in that case?
MR. WILLIAMS: Right. At this point it seems much more like Garland than it does like Paris. Paris was an export. Paris was an attack hatched in Belgium with help from Syria, probably, and imported into Paris and carried out there by someone who was directing it. This doesn’t seem like that. Now, you know, Comey said today several times: We're only 50 hours into this investigation. So they don't really know where this is going to end up.
But at the point – at this point, it does look like what they've been worried about for a year and a half, which is people here in the United States receiving this message and agreeing to go out and kill people. What we don't know is, did Tashfeen Malik – who came to the United States just a year ago, who Syed Farooq met overseas through an online dating service – did she come here with that predisposition? As a matter of fact, some are even wondering was this, you know, a plot all along, to try to find an American and come in and do an attack? That's way down the road. No sign of that yet.
MS. IFILL: OK, Pete. Well, as usual, we're in the position of being very cautious about what's happening, and also having to go about our business. As the attorney general keeps telling us, it's a complicated balance to strike. Thanks, Pete.
MR. WILLIAMS: You bet.
MS. IFILL: We turn now to our studio roundtable for some analysis of how this week's events have affected our policy and our politics. Starting with you, Michael, it seems like we have crossed a kind of a definitional line between what we call domestic terrorism and what we have come to know as international terrorism.
MICHAEL CROWLEY: I think that it's probably sinking in, it’s hitting us in a really unpleasant way that we’ve crossed this line, but we have been crossing this line for some time now, actually, if you think about it. Remember, there was the Fort Hood massacre in 2009 that was 13 dead. You had an attempt to set off a bomb in an SUV in Times Square in 2010. The Boston marathon bombings. You mentioned the thwarted attack in Garland, Texas. Those all seem to be cases that largely had to do with self-radicalization, different ones have different details. But this has been the trend for some time now.
I think what's worrying is that this sort of thing appears to be becoming easier to pull off because people are radicalized. They have access on Twitter and to literature that’s distributed by al-Qaida and ISIS, to magazines that not only encourage them to do this, but say if you want to kill yourself and take a lot of Americans with you, here's how you make these bombs, here’s how you get these guns, this is how you can kill a lot of people in a short time. So they’re getting great advice on how to do it.
MS. IFILL: That word, radicalization, seems to be what has now come to be part of the regular conversation. Before it was talking about people who were already radicals, they were al-Qaida or ISIS was a top down – al-Baghdadi was ordering people to do things. These are people who are, as far as we know so far, taking it upon themselves, thanks to technology, to undertake these kinds of attacks.
MR. CROWLEY: Right. Taking upon themselves or as the FBI Director Comey said in testimony several weeks ago, some of them are sort of identified on Twitter, maybe they show some sign of frustration, certain religious proclivities, somebody zeroes in on them. And then, as Comey said, it's like they have a devil sitting on their shoulder all day long saying, kill, kill, kill. And that’s a really terrifying thing.
The question – somebody asked the question today: Is it worse if these attacks are directed from outside the country or if it’s a self-radicalization? They are bad in different ways. The directed attacks can be coordinated, you can have more people. You get Paris, where you have a large number, you can have funding, you have more sophistication. But with the sort of lone wolves, the numbers can get so large. And so they may be more isolated attacks, but if this – particularly if you have a copycat effect, you can start to see this become a viral phenomenon. That's very scary.
MS. IFILL: Now, Reid, what we always do kind of instantly in this country is to look to Capitol Hill, or look to the White House and say, what can we fix here? So what was the – I shouldn’t say knee-jerk – but knee-jerk, automatic response?
REID WILSON: Yeah. And how many times has President Obama called for stronger gun control legislation in response to one of these particular events? We saw a lot of the same this time. President Obama made a statement from the Oval Office, which is rare in these sort of instances. But there was a different tone to a lot of gun control supporters, I think. And what a lot of them – what the undertone that sort of ran through a lot of the gun control advocates is the realization of the political reality. After Newtown in Connecticut, after Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was attacked and shot, after the two reporters in Virginia were executed on live television – what's different about this that is going to change the way an actual vote takes place on Capitol Hill? And in fact, just yesterday –
MS. IFILL: It didn't change anything.
MR. WILSON: Just yesterday we saw the U.S. Senate take a vote to try to block some gun sales to those on terrorism watch lists. That bill failed.
MS. IFILL: But is it because this time it doesn't really feel like it's a gun issue, and that it’s more of a terrorism issue?
MR. WILSON: Well, but we started talking about this particular gun issue last week when the attack on the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs happened. So, by the way, this wasn't even the only mass shooting that happened this week. On the same day that the mass shooting happened in San Bernardino, there was another shooting in Savannah, Georgia. So I hate to say this, but I think this is becoming something normal, something regular. And the politics are getting harder and harder because you've got a majority on Capitol Hill who are simply unwilling to take up any kind of gun control legislation.
MS. IFILL: Well, and the politics extends beyond Capitol Hill, obviously, Doyle. We are in the middle of a very heated political campaign. And we hear, especially the Republicans, their response seems to be: Let's call it what it is, radical Islamic terrorism. It's not about guns at all.
DOYLE MCMANUS: Exactly. I mean, you had in the campaign immediately the same partisan divide you had on Capitol Hill. It was striking how stark it was. You might, in a utopian world, hope a national tragedy would pull people together. This one is driving people apart. And so the partisan divide is over what the issue is. Is it terrorism? Is it gun control? And for Republicans, it fits fairly comfortably into a critique they've had of the Obama administration, that President Obama has been too soft on terrorism, that he doesn't dare call it radical Islamic terrorism. The president will tell you that’s – it’s dysfunctional. It’s a bad idea to call it that. But it's a theme that works for Republicans. Remember, we're in the primary campaign. So each side is talking to its base.
MS. IFILL: Right. And what’s interesting is watching some of the outsiders trying to show their chops on foreign policy. So we saw a little bit of that this week as these candidates appeared at the Republican Jewish Coalition.
MR. MCMANUS: Yeah, exactly. And, actually, if you take a step back and look at the structure of this race, the most amazing thing in a way that's happened is when this campaign began, the economy was, as it usually is, the number one issue. Now if you ask Republicans what the number one issue is, Republicans will say terrorism. Even a partisan divide on that. For Democrats, the economy is still the number-one issue.
Anyway, Republicans now have to prove that they are capable of being a commander in chief in time of war. That's been bad news for Rand Paul, who is a foreign policy minimalist. It's been bad news for Ben Carson, who's had a terrible time proving that he has experience in foreign policy, because he doesn’t.
MS. IFILL: And didn't help it this week by pronouncing Hamas, hummus.
MR. MCMANUS: Hummus, which is an excellent hors d'oeuvre, but not actually a Middle Eastern radical group. Exactly, it's been – it’s been a tough road for several of those candidates.
MS. IFILL: Well, we have much to talk about. And there was other huge news this week as the Pentagon made history in announcing that, without exceptions, women will be permitted to compete for combat roles in the armed forces. I spoke to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter on the day of the announcement.
SEC. CARTER: (From video.) We have an all-volunteer military. And in order to have as we have in the future what we have today, which is the finest fighting force the world has ever known, I need to be able to reach into the entirety of the American population, because remember it's an all-volunteer force. So I want to recruit from all pools.
MS. IFILL: But, as you might expect, this did not happen without controversy. I know the Marines didn't think it was a good idea for a long time, Mike.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, so the commandant of the Marines, General Joe Dunford, is also the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
MS. IFILL: Awkward.
MR. CROWLEY: And the Marines produced a study during the kind of review process that Secretary Carter undertook, in which they presented data which they said proved that units that had women in them had lower performance. Now, there are critics of the way the data was compiled, there's an argument about the study itself. But Dunford evidently was persuaded by it. He does not support the decision. So it's a little bit of an awkward situation, where you have the defense secretary endorsing the situation, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is not on board with it. And indeed, Dunford was supposed to appear with Carter for the announcement, and said he wouldn't do it. He didn't want to be up there disagreeing and he also didn't want to be a potted plant. So, you know, maybe it made sense. But you do have that gap between them. But really, Carter seems to have no qualms about that study, and he's full speed ahead on it.
MS. IFILL: Why did Secretary Carter feel the need – and he did this repeatedly – to stress that there would be no quotas applied?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think that the point is that it's not – they're not doing anybody a favor. If – that there are women – you know, this summer you had two women graduate from the Army Ranger School for the first time. And they did everything that everyone else had to do. So the point is that if you can meet the qualifications, you can do the job. And this is not a kind of an affirmative action thing. The idea is that there are women who are perfectly up to doing this, so let them have the jobs. And this involves about 200,000 positions. We’re talking about things like Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, Green Berets. Had this happened a few years ago, it's possible that a woman would have been the one to shoot Osama bin Laden.
MS. IFILL: How does it compare to “don't ask, don't tell,” another comparison they like to make at the Pentagon?
MR. CROWLEY: Right. Well, you know, the Pentagon has really evolved quickly. I mean, it’s an institution that sometimes has been ahead of the curve on integration, for instance, in World War II, but remains traditional, let's say charitably, in some ways, but has been modernizing quickly as the country changes its social mores quite quickly. In fact, women were banned from frontline combat in 1994 and Leon Panetta reversed that in 2013. So we're seeing rapid change, but some people might way say long overdue, so they’re just catching up.
MS. IFILL: Doyle, let’s talk politics. That’s another big thing that kept rolling all week long. And we saw that Trump is still riding high in the polls. Ben Carson, not so much. Chris Christie got an endorsement from New Hampshire that helped. But really, what does it mean?
MR. MCMANUS: It doesn't mean a heck of a lot, Gwen.
MS. IFILL: What?
MR. MCMANUS: And I am here to actually give viewers what I hope is a piece of good news, which is if you want to tune out the polls, feel free to tune out the polls until about January.
MS. IFILL: Reid is not going to like that. He’s not very happy with that answer.
MR. MCMANUS: And none of us are really capable – I'm not really going to do that. None of us are capable.
MS. IFILL: I believe you described yourself in your column as a pusher of these things.
MR. MCMANUS: Not – exactly. Not just a junkie, but also a pusher. (Laughter.) OK, so I'm to blame as well. But, look, all you got to do is look at the record of the polls. Four years ago, the leading candidate in all the polls for the Republican nomination by a big margin, almost as big as Donald Trump today, was Newt Gingrich. Four years before that, it was a heated race between Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee. Now, none of these characters actually got close to being the nominee. So that ought to prove it to you.
But the main – the main mistake we make at this point is this – there are two, really. One, we look at national polls. The national polls are interesting early as a beauty contest, but there is no national primary. It really doesn't matter what the national poll says. It matters what they think in Iowa. OK, look at the Iowa polls. We know from past experience that Iowa voters don't really key into this, don't really start focusing, even Iowa voters who are –
MS. IFILL: But don't polls count for donors, people who want to write checks?
MR. MCMANUS: Oh, of course, yes.
MS. IFILL: People who want to keep candidates afloat?
MR. MCMANUS: OK. Polls count for donors. Polls actually are reasonable as an early beauty contest to see who's kind of viable, and who's not. So, for example, we know Donald Trump is, you know, unexpectedly strong. We know that Jeb Bush is unexpectedly weak. But anytime you try and get more precise than that – you know, for example, when the networks were saying, well, if you’ve got 3.5 percent you're on the stage, if you've got 2.9 percent you're off the stage – that's just nuts.
MS. IFILL: You're so going to be getting mail from Donald Trump for not giving him credit for his incredible polling success.
MR. MCMANUS: I think Donald Trump better enjoy his polling success right now, because there actually is some evidence it may not be there forever, because here’s the last little technical part of this.
MS. IFILL: OK.
MR. MCMANUS: The real question is, which of those people who answer those questions are going to show up? And if you look at Donald Trump's support, it is disproportionately among a number of groups who don't always show up to vote in a Republican primary – independents, voters with less than a college education, unreliable voters – and I don't mean that as a slam, just people who don't show up as often. He's not going to do as well as it looks. Could he still win some of these? Of course he could. Could he win the nomination? Of course he could. But the numbers you’re looking at now, they’re not going to be there on February 1st.
MS. IFILL: We're so going to find you February 1st and ask you these questions.
OK, Reid, other big story – would normally be a huge story in a week like this. Bipartisanship blooms – a $305 billion highway bill, which not long ago fights over this were going to shut down the government. It got signed today.
MR. WILSON: It got signed today. It passed by broad bipartisan majorities after the two chambers and the two parties within the two chambers came together and negotiated this. It's the first time since I think it’s 2005 that we've had a long-term transportation bill. This is going to last us five years. And it pays for itself through a bunch of – some let’s call it creative budgeting.
MS. IFILL: Which means we didn't raise the gas tax.
MR. WILSON: We didn’t raise the gas tax. We’ll remain at 18.4 percent. It’s been at that – 18.4, I’m sorry, cents per gallon. It’s been at that rate since the Clinton administration. The way they're paying for this bill is through a bunch of things like raising customs fees, allowing the IRS to go after tax cheats and those who owe taxes more aggressively, and by changing the rate at which the Federal Reserve offers dividends to some big banks, from about 6 percent to about 2 percent.
MS. IFILL: Somebody might call those gimmicks. Not me, but –
MR. WILSON: As Senator Tom Carper from Delaware, one of the most outspoken advocates for doing something on a sort of broader basis, is one of those who calls these gimmicks. The interesting thing, though, is that these pay-fors were all used so that they essentially wouldn't be available for other measures. Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, wanted to make sure that these weren't offsets that you could use to raise spending in the federal budget agreement that’s going to be the next thing that Congress moves to debate.
MS. IFILL: OK, here's another thing that slipped in. Remember the big fight over the Ex-Im Bank that was supposed to be shutdown, it was a terrible thing. And it was actually quite an engaged fight for certain Republicans. And it's going to get renewed.
MR. WILSON: This is a fight not a lot of people expected. There were a – there’s a vociferous minority among the House Republicans who did not want to pass any kind of reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which of course has been around since the 1930s, and these conservative Republicans call it a form of corporate welfare. They succeeded in shutting the bank down for, what, close to six months. And in doing so, they really sent a message that this is something that the Republican Party specifically is going to fight over in primaries.
MS. IFILL: But in the end –
MR. WILSON: In the end it snuck through because Republican leaders are secretly in favor of this. The Chamber of Commerce is a huge backer of the Export-Import Bank. They're a huge pillar of the Republican Party at the moment. And so this not only got through, everybody sort of knew this was coming. The highway bill just happened to be the appropriate vehicle.
MS. IFILL: Yeah. Funny how things change in a moment.
Thank you, everybody. I know that went really fast, but we have to leave you a few minutes early to give you the chance to support your local station which, in turn, supports us. But we'll keep talking on the Washington Week Webcast Extra, where we'll discuss plans to expand the U.S. military footprint in Iraq. That happened this week too. You can watch the webcast all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Keep up with developments with Judy Woodruff and me over at the PBS NewsHour. And we'll see you next week on Washington Week. Good night.