GWEN IFILL: An American citizen executed by terrorists. How far will the U.S. go to stop them? And the attorney general steps in in Ferguson, Missouri, tonight on "Washington Week."
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) ISIL speaks for no religion. No just God would stand for what they did yesterday and what they do every single day.
DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: (From videotape.) This is beyond anything that we've seen. So we must prepare for everything.
MS. IFILL: A shocking act takes the life of an American hostage; the alarming rise of a terror group, and mourning at home.
DIANE FOLEY (mother of slain American journalist James Foley): (From videotape.) He was a courageous, fearless journalist, a very compassionate American; I mean, the best of America.
MS. IFILL: What next? And Ferguson, week two; the violence fades, but the anger does not.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: (From videotape.) There is a history to these tensions, and that history simmers in more communities than just Ferguson.
MS. IFILL: Plus Texas politics. An indicted governor battles back.
TEXAS GOVERNOR RICK PERRY (R): (From videotape.) I'm going to fight this injustice with every fiber of my being, and we will prevail.
MS. IFILL: What's really going on in Austin?
The reporters covering the week: Indira Lakshmanan, foreign policy correspondent for Bloomberg News; Nancy Youssef, national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers; Pierre Thomas, senior justice correspondent for ABC News; and Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens; live from our nation's capital, this is "Washington Week with Gwen Ifill."
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Whether it's the plight of the Yazidis or the fate of a lone American journalist, the threat posed by the terrorist group known variously as ISIL, ISIS, or the Islamic State group, has become alarmingly real.
GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY (chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): (From videotape.) This is an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision, and which will eventually have to be defeated.
BEN RHODES (deputy national security advisor): (From videotape.) We stand ready to take action against that threat. We've made very clear time and again that if you come after Americans, we're going to come after you wherever you are. And that's what's going to guide our planning in the days to come.
MS. IFILL: In the wake of James Foley's execution and the threat of another, is the Obama administration preparing for military intervention at this point, Nancy?
NANCY YOUSSEF: This week we started to hear increasing signs of that. Ben Rhodes suggested that the United States would not be stopped by the border between Syria and Iraq. Marty Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the threat that ISIS poses cannot be stopped unless you address their sanctuary in Syria.
The question becomes what kind of action would the United States take, and would it be enough to stop the threat or simply to contain it for a short period of time? That is, will the United States go after their sanctuaries, or will it go after its leadership?
And that remains to be seen, in addition to the fact whether the United States will take that bold action going into Syria. In Iraq, the United States was invited in. In Syria, of course, it would be very different. They would not be invited in.
MS. IFILL: Indira, the language seemed much more apocalyptic this week. And I don't know whether it was because of the execution of James Foley or because they know things we are just beginning to know about how dangerous this is.
INDIRA LAKSHMANAN: I mean, this has been building over weeks now. It's been building ever since the president - and I think he really regrets what he said - called them the JV squad compared to al-Qaida. You know, since then we've seen them beheading Iraqis, Syrians. We've seen what they did to the Yazidis, the minority group who are trapped on the mountain. You know, we've seen all sorts of horrors.
Of course, it really drives it home when we're talking about an American journalist, like all of us at this table. And, you know, I think that for a lot of people that really made it very personal, and they had to take a stand against that; plus with the threat against the other American journalists who are being held.
At the same time, I don't think it's that they're just discovering it now. I think maybe some of the pennies are dropping, that they're realizing, wow, this is a group that is like nothing we've seen before. And part of that is because they now control territory. They're acting not just like, you know, different militants and terrorists out in the wilderness. They're actually controlling a large part of Syria, a large part of Iraq. They're collecting taxes. They're extorting money. They're running gas stations, oil wells. I mean, we're talking about a really serious problem.
PIERRE THOMAS: Well, that's my question. How did it get to the point where this group could take property, take land, and amass all this power?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Well, this is a group that really has acted, on one hand, like a military. They've advanced like a military. We heard all these wild numbers about how much they may control in resources, as much as perhaps $2 billion. Those numbers may be exaggerated. At the same time, you know, there is good reason to think that they are making at least a million dollars a day on the oil they're selling.
I think they got there by using military tactics. And now they're trying to, you know, rule through fear and extortion.
MS. IFILL: One of the interesting things we learned, or at least some of us learned this week, was, especially for those who had the stomach to watch that execution tape, is that the voice of the executioner was British. And therefore, these ISIL activists or terrorists are not at all just homegrown.
MS. YOUSSEF: That's right. And so when you hear the administration talking about an imminent threat, the one that they're referring to is that a lot of those who are participating hold western passports, have access to the United States and to Europe. And there's no way to control their entering the country. And once they're here, what tactics could they potentially bring to the homeland and pose the threat to the United States, to American citizens? And so that becomes the most immediate, imminent threat.
I think, for those of us who haven't been in the region, it's shocking in the sense that somebody who's grown up in this country or in Europe would want to go overseas and pick up tactics and bring them back, because, up until this, al-Qaida, for example, was seen as a threat in the region, borne of people of the region. And what ISIS has brought to the forefront is the threat that people can pose from the homeland.
AMY WALTER: So, Nancy, I want to still go to the idea about going to Syria. I mean, we've heard the president say, time and time again, no boots on the ground. We've heard worries about mission creep. How do you square that with no boots on the ground?
MS. YOUSSEF: Well that's a very good question. The dilemma for the United States is, on one hand, it says that it wants to contain the threat of ISIS. But the reality is it cannot be done without dealing with Syria.
So one of the things, arguably, the United States has taken away from the past two weeks is that it has been successful in thwarting the ISIS threat in Iraq; that it was able through, up until today, 93 strikes destroy some of its weapons, destroy some of its tanks, some of them which were American, and that they've seen, in effect, that ISIS has been pushed back a bit, I think, has boosted the confidence of some that perhaps airstrikes can have some effect in Syria as well.
MS. IFILL: Let's talk about the hostage situation, because we saw what happened with James Foley this week. We also learned that there had been an effort that did not succeed to free the hostages on the ground in Syria, not just James Foley but others we're just now hearing publicly about. Where does that stand?
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Yeah, that is really interesting, because, of course, normally we hear about the tactics that worked - you know, Zero Dark Thirty and, you know, the mission for Osama bin Laden. That's what gets publicized.
In this case, some news organizations found out about it, and the White House felt that they had to disclose the other details. And it's really quite interesting. They used special forces from all different units. They also used fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters. They went in there. They had information, as we understand it, from one of the former hostages about where exactly they had been held at the time. But when they got there, lo and behold, the hostages were no longer there.
Now, I think one of the problems that this really points up to us is the problem of lacking human intelligence. If you don't have people on the ground, if you're relying on what a former hostage is telling you, it's really hard to have a successful rescue mission.
I think it's quite interesting how this brought up a lot of questions also about how do you rescue hostages and the really controversial question about paying ransom, because we know that European governments, with the exception of the U.K., do pay ransoms and do negotiate with terrorists. And the U.S. and Britain have both said we're not going to do that because it's only going to encourage more hostages being taken. But look what happened to an American hostage who wasn't -
MS. IFILL: And we have heard -
MS. LAKSHMANAN: - (paid for ?).
MS. IFILL: We have heard the family of James Foley. We've heard one of his employers say the U.S. could have done more. Is that a constant concern among journalists, among the patrons of journalists who are at risk throughout the region? Because we're not just talking about American journalists here. Most of the journalists in Syria are actually Syrian.
MS. YOUSSEF: It is. So in the case of James Foley, his newspaper has come out and said that they were contacted by his kidnappers at the end of the year and asked for $132 million. And it should be noted that by April of this year, several French and Spaniards who were being held along with James Foley were released because ransoms were paid.
The family has said that the threat - excuse me - the offer wasn't deemed serious. They didn't get any real feedback. It's hard to know whether they had an opportunity to pay a ransom and did not, or whether this was a play by ISIS to suggest that they had an opportunity, only to snatch it away.
The reality is - and I can tell you, having been overseas - American hostages are treated differently. It's not just because of the ransom, but we are seen as bigger targets. And those who stayed with James during his captivity said that he was treated differently because he was an American, and they think that the outcome was affected by the fact that he had a passport. So when I'm overseas, I'm very aware of the threat that comes with being an American citizen in these environments.
MS. IFILL: I also wonder, though, whether this doesn't put a damper on the ability to get the news. We talked about human intelligence a few moments ago. You both have been overseas. I wonder if this is a huge disincentive, especially for freelancers, because if you're a freelancer, there's not really an organization that's supporting you.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: You put your finger on it. In a lot of these cases, a lot of the hostages that we know of - we know of about 20 journalists who are being held somewhere in Syria or in Iraq; we don't know - many of them are, in fact, freelancers. And the problem is, when you don't have a big news organization behind you, bankrolling, you know, a search for you, even if it's not a ransom request, it's very difficult. And I think it really shows that there is an increasing vulnerability for those people.
MS. YOUSSEF: You know, I would just add to that. I started doing this in 2003. The reality is that the risks are higher and higher, the margin of error is smaller and smaller, and the consequences are bigger and bigger, that the smallest mistake can lead to the most dire of circumstances.
There are people who are being held in Syria because they stayed too long. There are people held in Syria because they trusted the wrong person and have now been held for years. There's something inconceivable when I started this in the early days after 9/11. And so that's the real risk.
Compounding that, you have freelancers coming in who are younger, who don't have the experience, and there's still a thrill that people see with the job - and it is a thrilling job - but the risks are increasing every year, with every conflict. And it's one of the factors that those who go into this business have to consider.
MS. IFILL: Finally, I want to bring you back to this idea of Syria and Assad, because it seems to me that one of the big question marks over the Obama administration is whether or not we should have gone into Syria. They certainly called repeatedly for Assad to step down.
Now, perhaps, in order to get to ISIL, ISIS, it may require his cooperation.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: I mean, this is really an incredible story, because you could say it's the chickens coming home to roost. I mean, three years ago President Assad said, you know, don't fight against me, because I'm telling you, these opposition people, they're not good people. They're al-Qaida types. They're extremists. And, you know, and everything that has happened is sort of, in a way, what he laid out.
I think the problem is the U.S. didn't want to - they were concerned about aiding the opposition because they didn't want weapons to get into the wrong hands. Now we see what happened - the wrong hands, you know, all of this development and all of the territory they control.
I think, though, it's not fair to say the enemy of my enemy is my friend. I don't think we're going to see the U.S. pairing up with Assad to fight ISIL. I think we may be fighting them, but I think the U.S. is very careful to blame what's happened on Assad. And think about, you know, the Soviet Union during World War II. They were part of the allied powers, but they weren't our friend.
MS. YOUSSEF: Here's the conundrum. If the ISIL threat - if Assad stays in power, he can say I'm thwarting off this ISIL threat. To keep him in power, there must be an ISIL threat. Otherwise he's in jeopardy again.
MS. IFILL: That's amazing. So either way, it's a complete circle and you end up right where you began; bad things yet to happen. Thank you both.
Back here at home, we watched carefully as the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri appeared to calm down. But from all appearances, the federal response seems to be ramping up. Attorney General Eric Holder promised as much after visiting with the family of Michael Brown on Wednesday.
ATTY GEN. HOLDER: (From videotape.) I wanted them to know that while so much else may be uncertain, this attorney general and this Department of Justice stands with the people of Ferguson. Our investigation will be fair, it will be thorough, and it will be independent.
MS. IFILL: So what does the federal response look like tonight, Pierre?
MR. THOMAS: Well, there are at least 40 FBI agents who've been canvassing the community. They've done dozens and dozens of interviews. Also this week, the federal government took the unusual step of doing their own autopsy on the victim's body. Also they have community resource officers from the Justice Department working in the community, trying to work with community leaders to calm some of the tensions there. So this is an all-out effort by the Justice Department and the attorney general.
MS. IFILL: Is it creating expectations among folks in Ferguson that there is - that the federal government is riding to the rescue?
MR. THOMAS: Well, difficult days could be ahead, because the fact is you have a community that does not trust law enforcement. They do not trust the police. And by the attorney general going and promising that there would be a thorough investigation, there are some that will take that as this means automatically there will be a prosecution, automatically that there might be a conviction, where the FBI investigation will go where the facts take them. And the facts may not take them where some of the people expect them to take them. So you could have a situation where tensions run high again because people don't get the results they want.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Pierre, I want to ask you what it is about Ferguson that made all of this happen compared to many other cities in America where, unfortunately, we've had similar cases of young black men being shot by the police. Why did this take off in this way?
MR. THOMAS: I'm going to give you two numbers that will tell you a lot. Over the years, Ferguson became a predominantly African-American town; 67 percent of the population, roughly, African-American; 58 or so law enforcement officers, police. Three are African-American.
So 85 percent of the arrests involve people of color. So the imagery is of white cops locking up black people. And so that - the tensions have been simmering because that's the feeling that many African-Americans have, that they were under siege, occupied by a force.
MS. YOUSSEF: Pierre, for the past few days there's been relative stability in Ferguson. What does that portend for the week ahead? What are things we should be looking for?
MR. THOMAS: Well, the funeral is coming up in the next couple of days. Again, that will be emotional. Again, this young man was so young - life just ahead of him. So we have that to deal with.
The other thing that's coming up is that this investigation, both by the federal government and you have - a state investigation is going on as well - may take some time. You know, you have to rely on witness testimony.
At some point the law enforcement officials are going to have to sit down, look at all the witness testimony, make some kind of decision as to was there excessive force, or did the young man attack the police officer? Those things have to be determined. And if you don't have some kind of evidence that's concrete, like video, that will show the community and the world, if you will, what happened, you could have a situation of they said and the police said.
MS. WALTER: But Pierre, how much can the federal government really do? Or is this something that the local community in Ferguson ultimately is going to be responsible for fixing?
MS. IFILL: The local community that doesn't trust the local law enforcement.
MS. WALTER: That doesn't trust - exactly. (Laughs.)
MR. THOMAS: Well, two things. The FBI will get as many facts as they can get. So at some point a report is going to go to the attorney general's desk that will say we believe this happened. And so that will be put out and made public to the citizens of Ferguson. But again, that's going to take time. And how much patience does the community have?
Think about the Zimmerman case involving Trayvon Martin, where the Justice Department said they were going to do a thorough investigation of that. By all accounts, they have been. But the announcement of the results, we still don't have.
MS. IFILL: I think about the Rodney King case, in which they had ended up having to come back and bring a federal indictment or a federal prosecution separately from the local prosecution because that didn't turn out the way people expected. And in this case, they don't trust the local state prosecutor.
MR. THOMAS: Correct.
MS. IFILL: So that's hovering over this. I mean, what does the attorney general do in that case? Does he just have to keep hands off - hands off - and stay out of it?
MR. THOMAS: Well, one of the reasons why he launched a federal probe is to say, separate and apart from what the local prosecutor does, we are going to do our own investigation. So I'm telling you, people of Ferguson, we don't - we're not going to focus on what he's doing. We're going to do our own case. So you can trust us that we're going to be thorough, because clearly they don't trust the local prosecutor to be thorough.
One of the things that may come out of this case is that you're hearing more and more about what can be done in the future to calm these kinds of tensions when people don't trust each other.
Cincinnati had a similar situation a few years ago where another unarmed black man had been shot by police. One of the things that they did is that they started having more conversations with the community. They developed advisory boards. And they used technology, cop cams, basically cameras on the helmets of the officers, so that the facts always are -
MS. IFILL: (Inaudible.)
MR. THOMAS: - what they are. So any time they would have a tense situation, they would roll out that tape and show the community here's what happened.
MS. IFILL: We certainly wish we had tape in this case. Thanks, Pierre.
Just as we were going off the air last Friday, a dramatic headline crossed the newswires. Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry had been indicted for allegedly abusing his authority. Perry, who appears to be readying himself for another run for president, more or less shrugged it off, traveling to D.C. and New Hampshire for speeches as scheduled, even posing at an ice cream stand right after he took what has to be the best-looking mug-shot picture in history.
So does he have something to worry about, or is this all just Texas politics?
MS. WALTER: And I wish my driver's license looked that good. Mine is terrible.
So if you're Rick Perry, what you will hear from Rick Perry personally and from his team is of course this is all politics. In fact, when he was up in New Hampshire today, he said the Travis County grand jury, which indicted him, they are the blueberry in the tomato soup. All right, Travis County, which is Austin, very blue, very Democratic, obviously very red Texas. So they say this is all political. We've seen this here before. There's no "there" there.
MS. IFILL: There's a few other blue spots in Texas too; a couple others.
MS. WALTER: A couple others.
MS. IFILL: (Inaudible.)
MS. WALTER: But the point being there. If you look at this, though, from just a legal standpoint, you say, well, first - and political standpoint - you say, first of all, he's only the second governor who's been indicted in 100 years, so this is not something that's done lightly, and that, at its core, what he's accused of is abusing the official capacity and coercion of a public servant. So let's just step back and say what did they accuse him of?
Back in 2013, the Travis County DA - so this is Austin; she's a Democrat - she was arrested for drunk driving. There's video of this, very powerful video. She is not just a little tipsy. She is three times the legal limit. She's belligerent with the officers.
He says to her, you will resign your office. She says I will not. He says, well, then, we're going to cut off funding to the DA's public integrity office. She says I'm not resigning. He goes ahead and vetoes it. The grand jury said, well, that's coercion. You can't threaten somebody with public money and not give that to them.
So the - Rick Perry, though, of course, saying it's of course in my power. I can veto anything that I want.
MS. IFILL: He's saying it's a constitutional issue.
MS. WALTER: He thinks it's a constitutional issue. I'm the governor. I have absolute constitutional authority. The question would be, as this goes to trial, why you can't - first of all, why he went and did this in the first place, and whether or not you can actually threaten someone with doing this action versus just going ahead and vetoing it in the first place.
MS. LAKSHMANAN: Wow, that's fascinating. But I really have to ask you, I mean, how does this fit into his plans to rehabilitate his political career and try to run for president, with his fancy glasses that make him look smarter and all of that?
MS. WALTER: He definitely gets a lot of attention for the glasses, which he couldn't wear in the mug shot. But he's been doing a very - he's been making a very conscientious effort, doing media tours. We sat down with him a few weeks back where he's laying out what went wrong in 2012 and the ways in which he's going to be a better candidate if he runs in 2016. He's not saying for sure he will do that. But you can hear it in the way that he talks about issues.
He wants to bring it back to the story he never got to tell in 2012, which is look how great Texas is. All these other states were losing jobs; we were gaining jobs. We're the great success story. I want to bring that to Washington. And also I'm not part of Washington.
Instead he gets derailed once again by something. In this case it's the indictment. The other piece, though, for him is whether or not he's ever going to be able to get off the ground in the first place with people still thinking about Rick Perry as the "oops" guy. Now are they going to think of him as the indictment guy?
MR. THOMAS: That's my question. Does he have a chance?
MS. WALTER: Well, you know, the people around him say he's a governor, longest-serving governor of one of the largest states in the country. He has a great story to tell. Of course he has a chance, especially because this field is so wide open. And it is true. There's no frontrunner in this race.
The question for Rick Perry is going to be, one, how does he deal with this issue that's hanging over him, probably through at least early 2015? That's when we expect a trial. So he's going to have "indicted" in front of his name. At best he'll have "acquitted" in front of his name. And then he's got to really prove that there is some "there" there. After stumbling in the 2012 campaign, can he show that he's really got the stuff of presidential caliber? Which is why you're seeing him in New Hampshire and here in Washington.
MS. IFILL: What's different this time, it seems to me, is that he's being defended by both Democrats and Republicans. People like David Axelrod and John Sununu, neither of whom liked him too much -
MS. WALTER: Right.
MS. IFILL: - four years ago, or three years ago, now seem to be saying there's not much -
MS. WALTER: It seems really kind of - there's really no "there" there. And this is what the Perry supporters will say is, you know, the Travis County - this office, this public integrity, they kind of pull this stunt a lot on Republicans. And they indicted Kay Bailey Hutchison, senator, Republican senator. She was acquitted; DeLay also acquitted.
MS. IFILL: Tom DeLay. That's right.
MS. WALTER: Yeah.
MS. IFILL: Thank you, everybody.
We do have to go, but not without sending our condolences to the family of former Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, who passed away this week. He was 80 years old. For more on how one man tipped the Senate, log on right after we go off the air to the live stream of our "Washington Week" webcast extra. Or you can find it all week long at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek.
You can keep up with daily developments with me and Judy Woodruff on the PBS NewsHour. And we'll see you here again next week on "Washington Week." Good night.