GWEN IFILL: We’re back, and there’s plenty to talk about, from the Secret Service to Ebola to politics to the economy. We’ll catch you up, tonight on “Washington Week.”
JULIA PIERSON (former Secret Service director): (From videotape.) It’s clear that our security plan was not properly executed.
REPRESENTATIVE STEPHEN LYNCH (D-MA): (From videotape.) I wish to God you protected the White House like you’re protecting your reputation here today.
MS. IFILL: Julia Pierson out at the Secret Service, as the people charged with protecting the president suffer a succession of black eyes, raising new questions: How deep do the problems go, and how will they be fixed?
Only last week, the president sounded the global alarm.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) If left unchecked, experts predict that hundreds of thousands of people could be killed in a matter of months. That’s why I’ve told my team that fighting this epidemic is a national security priority for the United States.
MS. IFILL: This week, that alarm hit home.
ANTHONY FAUCI, M.D. (director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases): (From videotape.) Our health care infrastructure in the United States is very quick to stop Ebola in its tracks.
MS. IFILL: The Ebola crisis – how much of a danger?
And finally, good economic news as the nation’s jobless rate drops to its lowest point since 2008. But one month away from critical midterm elections, will it matter? That’s our Friday focus.
Covering the week, Carol Leonnig, national reporter for The Washington Post; Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Michael Duffy, executive editor of Time Magazine; and contributing correspondent John Harwood of CNBC.
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.
By any standard, this has been a remarkable week, one where, in so many cases, brand new questions and a few old ones beg to be answered.
We begin tonight with a series of frankly shocking reports involving the United States Secret Service. Most of what you’ve heard – reports of an armed fence jumper who made it into the White House; news that another man armed with a checkered past joined – armed and with a checkered past joined the president on an elevator – came from stories broken by one reporter, Carol Leonnig of The Washington Post.
But this is far from the first time Carol has uncovered cracks within an institution we’ve always instinctively trusted. Her reports ultimately led to this.
JOSH EARNEST (White House press secretary): (From videotape.) Over the last several days, we’ve seen recent and accumulating reports raising questions about the performance of the agency. And the president concluded that new leadership of that agency was required.
MS. IFILL: Are we talking dysfunction here, Carol?
CAROL LEONNIG: I think we are. I think we’re – you know, as Elijah Cummings said at the hearing, it’s got to be a problem for the director if people are trusting lawmakers and the media with their concerns about their agency before they’re telling their boss.
And, you know, we’ve seen this all come to pass in very dramatic fashion in the last week. But people have been talking to me for two years about their concerns about this agency, and we’ve been writing about it for a while. And finally these – as you described them, these terrible black eyes all came one after the other. And the director was really caught very flat-footed trying to explain how that could have happened.
MS. IFILL: Peter, one of the keys in all of this is what the president knew and when he knew it, except in this case he’s not the perpetrator, but he’s potentially the person who would be done harm to. When did he find out about the extent of it? Because there was one day this week where he was standing by Julia Pierson, and another day when he just wasn’t.
PETER BAKER: Yeah. You’re in a terrible position if you’re the president of the United States and something happens with the Secret Service like this, because you can’t actually kind of go out there and say off with your head in a very public way, the way you might with some other agency, because who would you offend? You would offend the very people who are closest to you, you depend on for your safety. So it’s a very awkward position for him to be in.
But, in fact, we do hear that he and Mrs. Obama, Michelle Obama, have been caught flat-footed on a number of occasions. It’s not even so much just the lapses, but the fact that they weren’t told about some of the details in a timely way. The one that Carol and some others wrote about this week about the Atlanta situation, where the guy got on the elevator with a gun and a checkered past, as you put it, they didn’t know about until just before the newscast came out. I think that was probably the final blow for Julia Pierson.
MS. IFILL: I want to ask you both this interesting question, because we have spent a lot of time on this program talking about the Veterans Affairs Administration and all the terrible things that happened within the VA that led to the resignation of the guy at the top, which didn’t fix the problems.
So I’m wondering, now that we have led to the resignation of the person at the top here at the Secret Service, whether there’s still more digging to be done.
MS. LEONNIG: Absolutely. I mean, agents that talk to me all the time say that the problem is called the eighth floor, and it’s a series of leaders where the meritocracy doesn’t rule. Who gets promoted is a favored clique that is protected. They engage in a lot of misbehavior and misconduct, and they never get punished. The people who are low-level, rank and file, are so demoralized because they get dinged for forgetting to file their paperwork.
There is a terrible lack of leadership at that level because of the way they’ve allowed this agency to be eroded from a budget standpoint, from a staffing standpoint. They’re flying in field agents from other offices at huge expense now because they don’t have enough guards on the White House grounds to monitor the complex properly.
And I have to wonder, you know, did the jumper get through because that’s – they literally didn’t have people on post.
MS. IFILL: That’s the alarming part.
MR. BAKER: Well, it is. And, yeah, look, they have jumpers. They had – Julia Pierson testified they’ve had 16 in the last five years, six this year alone. It’s not a new phenomenon. So they ought to be pretty used to how to handle it, right? They’re pretty good at handling the toddler who slips through the gates, but they’ve got to be able to handle the guy with the gun or the knife who makes it all the way into the East Room. And there were multiple layers of failures on that case.
What’s interesting is whether or not that will lead to systemic change or whether or not, you know, it will be written off in the way it has been in the past. I think Carol has gone a long way to making sure that doesn’t happen.
JOHN HARWOOD: Peter, do you – having covered multiple presidencies, do you get the sense that the beginning of this erosion was evident under prior presidents? Did it relate to the way the bureaucratic boxes were moved around after 9/11, or is it about the individuals in charge of the agency?
MR. BAKER: That’s a great question. I think part of it is the attention we brought to it. There have always been lapses by the Secret Service, as there would be by any agency, by the way. And we’ve asked the Secret Service to do something that is almost impossible. You have to be 100 percent right. The guy who wants to do harm to the president only has to be right once, you know.
And we’ve brought greater attention to it, again, partly through Carol’s stories, and it looks much more dysfunctional when you shine the light of day on it. And – but I don’t know how different – and Carol may have a better answer to this – it is than under prior presidents, whether this is a matter of coming to grips with something versus a changed situation.
MS. IFILL: Carol?
MS. LEONNIG: I think it’s a little bit of an interesting combination. You know, post-9/11, this agency has had a whole new host of tasks, right, and it’s gotten smaller. You know, they’re monitoring the grandchildren of the vice president. They’ve got CAT teams responsible for the diplomats’ daughters. You know, it’s a really expanded role, while their budget’s shrinking.
And also post-9/11, there are a whole host of new factors for them that they have to worry about that they didn’t have to before. And they’re just not modernizing or growing to that task.
MICHAEL DUFFY: I was going to ask, from a security point of view, which of the incursions was the more dangerous for the president’s safety, the guy with the gun in the elevator or the guy who jumped the fence with a knife?
MS. LEONNIG: Well, the president had just lifted off from the South Lawn at that moment when – you know, seven minutes before the jumper made his mad dash. So you can’t say the president was in danger there.
MR. DUFFY: Right. But in terms of lapses –
MS. LEONNIG: I would say it’s pretty shocking that you’re able to get through that many layers. Remember, there’s supposed to be counter-surveillance, plainclothes guys on the outside. There’s supposed to be a uniformed division officer who grabs you on the post. There’s supposed to be a dog that knocks you down. There’s supposed to be a locked door. There’s supposed to be a guard at the door. There’s supposed to be a guard on the inside of the door. I could go on and on.
MS. IFILL: But is it different when the first family is not in residence? Because that’s part of what the explanation was here in this case.
MS. LEONNIG: Yeah. That’s a good question too. We’ve described something that the Secret Service has really been angry about, but agents and officers absolutely say it’s casual Friday when the number one and the number two protectee are gone. You kind of relax.
And that’s sort of a little bit what was at play in 2011 in this shooting, which angered so many people, who said, really, you’re going to shoot into the White House and not know that the bullets hit the building? It happened that Sasha was home and Malia was on her way home. And it’s kind of amazing that it could happen.
In terms of your good question about incursion, I think the most dangerous thing was that jumper, because if he had been there, or if his daughters had been there –
MR. BAKER: Well, and what’s interesting too is that most of the people who jump the fence, most of the people who end up in these instances of breaches, are actually not just trying to necessarily hurt the president. They’re often trying to bring attention to some cause, some crazy notion, what have you. Imagine if they actually were intent on hurting the president, to get through the way they have. That doubles the –
MS. IFILL: That’s always the question, which is the what-ifs. But the other flip side of these kinds of kerfuffles, or it’s more serious than that, is people say, you know, in the good old days, this would never have happened. And I’m not certain that’s true. Our experience with Secret Service protection in the past has been people who almost gave their lives or did give their lives to protect the protectee. So maybe we’re just – we’re confusing our romance with the times in which something bad was avoided with these cases, where nothing bad happened, but the potential was there.
MR. BAKER: If you go back in history, you’ll find all kinds of examples where intruders made it into the building and where there were various lapses along the way; you know, FDR, the great story where he’s watching a movie during World War II and the lights come up and there’s a stranger standing right next to him; and, you know, Teddy Roosevelt. You know, a guy marches across the – you know, the guy asks for an appointment, and he says get this crank out of here.
MS. IFILL: I know what you’ve been doing for – (inaudible). (Laughter.) You’ve been watching the Roosevelts.
MR. BAKER: That’s true. But, you know, what’s interesting is, of course, when you have an incident like the Reagan assassination attempt or obviously the Kennedy assassination, it hones the agency and it sharpens them for a long period of time. We’ve been lucky, and it’s been a long time since we had that kind of thing. And it’s not sure if an agency would not necessarily be at the sharpest edge, as they were in those moments.
MR. HARWOOD: Peter, you wrote a story this week about the belief among some people, African-Americans, that there is a reason that this is happening to the first African-American president. Do either of you think there’s any reason to believe that’s true? And even if it’s not, is that a significant political fact that people feel that way?
MR. BAKER: Carol – (inaudible). I don’t know of any evidence that the Secret Service doesn’t provide the best possible protection it can for this president, as opposed to any other president. But it speaks to our society that this issue resonates so strongly among African-Americans, who have been worried for years about the president’s safety. The idea that the first black president could somehow be in danger is one that’s a powerful strain, a commentary in the black community. And I think that that’s the (type of ?) thing that we ought to be paying attention to.
MS. LEONNIG: And, you know, Director Sullivan has sung that note as well. You know, he demanded that when President Obama was a candidate, not the president, that he be picked up for coverage. It was historic, because he was being covered full-time as a candidate far earlier than anyone else, except for Hillary Clinton, who, of course, was being protected as a former first lady.
But the racially tinged threats against the candidate were what some threat assessment agents have said to me that just make your jaw drop; it was so frightening.
MS. IFILL: But they since – they’ve died down since he’s been president.
MS. LEONNIG: Yes, the – not the number of articulated threats, electronic or verbal or a guy in a bar fight who says I’m going to hurt the president; not the number and the volume of those threats, but the percentage of those that have a racial element. Now it’s more like he’s trying to take over our government.
MR. DUFFY: You mentioned the new director. Is he part of the culture that was at the heart of the problem in the first comment, or is he different from it?
MS. LEONNIG: So Joe Clancy really well liked and certainly is going to be a pleasant temporary place holder and caretaker until there’s a permanent replacement. People adore him inside the agency, people who work PPD – forgive me – presidential protective detail. I can be so nerdy. And -
MS. IFILL: You’re in the right place.
MS. LEONNIG: (Laughs.) So they think the world of him. In fact, some of them call him Father Joe. He was in the seminary. He’s very likable. But he’s anti-conflict. So this is not the person that we’re going to be looking to for reform. But the president trusts him. The first lady trusts him. And the first lady has had her problems with the last two directors.
MS. IFILL: Well, and a lot of this is going to be about whether we’re judging poor judgment or poor execution, or some combination of both.
Thank you, Carol, and welcome to “Washington Week.”
MS. LEONNIG: Thanks, Gwen.
MS. IFILL: This week’s Time Magazine cover sums up the nation’s and the world’s latest health scare with one line: Chasing Ebola in America and in West Africa. More than 3,000 people in West Africa have died. More than 7,000 are infected. And the numbers keep rising.
Amid concerns that the contagion, or the fear of contagion, could catch fire, senior administration officials, including Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell in Washington, weighed in today.
SYLVIA MATHEWS BURWELL (secretary of health and human services): (From videotape.) We cannot overcommunicate about this issue. So the steps that we have to take are about making sure execution, execution, execution. And that gets to your question, which is that is why we need to communicate and communicate again and communicate with clarity.
MS. IFILL: They didn’t mind talking this to death today for just that reason. But one of the things they are attempting to do is make a distinction between what we’ve seen unfolding in West Africa, in Sierra Leone and Guinea and Liberia, and what we’re seeing begin to unfold here.
MR. DUFFY: Yeah, it’s a world of difference. West Africa has an epidemic. What we may have at worst case in the Western Hemisphere is an epidemic of fear. And so to draw some distinctions between the two, there are a few just sort of epidemiological sort of realities to put on the table.
One, where you live has a lot to do with whether you’re going to get this. If you are in a small rural village in Liberia, your chances of getting this are high and your chances of dying from it are very high, 90 percent. If you’re in a midsized African city in West Africa, it falls to about 50 percent. If you get this disease and you find you’re in Dallas, Texas and you’re in your hospital, the chances of survival are very high.
The closer you are to good doctors and nurses and antibacterials and electrolytes, the more likely you are to survive. We have lots of that in this country. They have a dearth of it in most of those three West African countries. So geography is really a huge part of the story.
MS. IFILL: But still, is some fear justified?
MR. DUFFY: There is –
MS. IFILL: It depends where you live.
MR. DUFFY: It depends on where you live and it – this is a disease that has been contained many times in the past. It just takes people. It takes a lot of people. It takes people to monitor the exposed, treat the infected, do the sort of tracing of - the contact tracing of people who have been exposed or infected, have talked to.
It’s not high tech, but it’s high touch. And it takes people who are brave enough to do it; again, something in the infrastructure of West Africa there isn’t a lot of, something that in this country is quite prevalent in almost every city in the country. So -
MR. HARWOOD: And yet the authorities in Dallas were unable, at least immediately, to get that apartment cleaned up with that man who came back from –
MR. DUFFY: And probably didn’t detect it on the first presentation by Robert Eric Duncan. But that raises the third thing, which really is the difference in the two epidemics, and that goes to – and partly to human nature, but it goes to transparency. People have to be honest about where they’ve been and who they’ve seen. And it’s clear that, in the case of Duncan, he wasn’t completely honest.
But governments have to be transparent. They have to – and governments in Africa have not been. They’ve tended to ignore this, brush it under the carpet, hide the bodies in some cases. In this country, the government is reacting - as you saw Secretary Mathews say today, they are trying to outcommunicate this. They’re trying to get ahead of it.
They’re trying to be – it’s important not to overassure the public, because the public is counting on its public health professionals to be honest with them, but not to be too calming or too confident. And if the government in this country and elsewhere goes too far to say everything’s fine, we’ve got this under control, it will almost always in epidemics rebound badly.
MR. BAKER: You’re talking about an epidemic of fear. I mean, how many cases are there – we’re hearing already people say, ah, I’ve got symptoms. This person may be infected. I mean, are we going to walk down the street and look at a person and say maybe that person has it; I don’t want to –
MR. DUFFY: Lots of people are presenting at hospitals. About a dozen around the country in the past have presented saying they think they have it; but so far only one case, the one in Dallas. We know this much. He had direct contact between – with between about 12 and 18 people. All told in Dallas, there are 100 people who they are monitoring. And four of the original 18 have been quarantined.
But as of about 2:00 p.m. this afternoon, none of those 100 people in either the first or the second circle have shown any signs of symptoms. Now, they may. Public health professionals are saying, both in Dallas and here, that there will probably be a case or two to come out of this.
MR. BAKER: How long before they know? How long –
MR. DUFFY: Well, it depends on when you are first exposed.
MS. IFILL: Twenty-one days.
MR. DUFFY: It could be anywhere between one and 21 days.
MR. BAKER: I think if you were exposed today, if three weeks later nothing happens, you’re OK.
MR. DUFFY: That’s exactly right.
MR. HARWOOD: We’ve just been talking with Carol and Peter about the high level of dysfunction at the Secret Service. Is this an area, given the confidence expressed by Anthony Fauci, where, in fact, we see the government performing at a high level, doing what needs to be done?
MR. DUFFY: The federal government, yes. And they’re working very hard overseas. That’s where they are concentrating most of their effort at the source of this. I think they feel in general, just to be very simple about this, much more confident about their ability to halt the disease than to halt the fear.
MS. IFILL: OK. Thank you, Michael.
We’re now only a month away from election day. With control of the Senate up for grabs, every issue is on the table, from the economy to foreign policy. Tonight we bring you the first in a series of reports from contributing correspondent John Harwood, who took his CNBC crew to Colorado, where one key race is playing out. It’s our new feature, the “Washington Week” Friday focus.
(Begin videotaped segment.)
U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE THOM TILLIS (R-NC): Keep your insurance. Change your senator.
MR. HARWOOD: What makes Republicans optimistic this year is the range of targets across the electoral map. And forecasting models like their chances of winning the Senate narrowly. Democrats have experienced candidates and strong turnout operations, but they’re also defending many more vulnerable seats.
Wins in conservative South Dakota, Montana and West Virginia, all now held by Democrats, would give the GOP half the gains they need. And lately they’ve gained in states that aren’t so conservative, including here in Colorado. While President Obama carried this state twice, recent polls show Republican Cory Gardner leading Democratic incumbent Mark Udall.
Udall’s strategy is to hammer his prolife opponent on social issues, which helped another Democrat win here four years ago.
SENATOR MARK UDALL (D-CO): So how is it we’re still debating a woman’s access to abortion or birth control? For most of us, those debates got settled by the last generation. Yet today there are still politicians like Congressman Gardner promoting harsh antiabortion laws and a bill to outlaw birth control.
MR. HARWOOD: But Gardner calls that changing the subject; that even though unemployment is falling – and in Colorado it’s well below the national average – the economy isn’t improving enough to help most voters.
REPRESENTATIVE AND U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE CORY GARDNER (R-CO): Senator Udall clearly is a social-issues warrior. That’s what he wants to campaign on. That’s what he’s made his career on. I think the people of Colorado are talking about the economy. You know, if you look at the last several years, the median household income has declined by over $4,000. People are working fewer hours every week thanks to “Obamacare.” It really is a veneer. You scratch the surface of the economy and there are people really hurting.
(End videotaped segment.)
MS. IFILL: Well, we heard good news today, that the jobless rate continues on its march downward - what the president called an impressive, uninterrupted stretch of improvement. Is that factoring at all into voting decisions in places like Colorado, John?
MR. HARWOOD: Not as much as you would think. You know, we’re all used to thinking that the economy is the driving factor in elections. But this is a year in which the improvement is against the backdrop of tremendous unhappiness among voters.
And the person who could benefit the most from the improvement – that is, President Obama and his party – are out making the argument for an economic program on the basis of the fact that, even though you think the indicators are up – Wall Street’s doing well, corporate profits are doing well, unemployment’s coming down – that average people aren’t, in fact, seeing their wallets fattened by this. And that’s the point that Cory Gardner was making in that piece. So it is a difficult one.
Today Mark Udall, the Democratic candidate, came out and said, yes, I’m glad that unemployment is down, but it’s – I’m not going to rest until it goes – you know, people are feeling flush. And Cory Gardner is making the point, as he did here, that, yeah, Colorado’s unemployment rate is a point below the national average in Colorado, but people aren’t feeling it.
MS. IFILL: They heard the president say we’re going to be running on my policies this time. Does that make people like Mark Udall happy or make them crouch under a table?
MR. HARWOOD: No, there were a couple of new ads out today. Mitch McConnell had one. You had one by Pat Roberts in Kansas, who’s an endangered Republican who’s facing an independent candidate, who said, yeah, that’s right, President Obama’s policies are on the ballot, and Greg Orman, the independent, is the guy who’s going to advance those policies. So it is not a message that is particularly helpful for Democrats. They’d rather have the economy be better than worse, but it doesn’t make all that much difference right now.
MS. LEONNIG: What is the strategy behind focusing so much on a woman’s right to choose and birth control in these prominent ads?
MR. HARWOOD: It’s a proven winner in Colorado. Michael Bennet, who’s now the head of the Democratic Senatorial Committee, won his race unexpectedly in 2010 by focusing very hard on suburban women, single women, making the case that the Republican in that year was somebody who would restrict abortion.
Cory Gardner is of a similar profile ideologically, but he has flip-flopped and said I’m not for this constitutional amendment I was for previously. And he’s trying to sort of take that off the table. He’s one of several Republicans who are making the argument publicly, no, I don’t want to restrict contraception; in fact, I want it sold over the counter. And this is something that Republicans have agreed on as an effective counterstrategy.
MR. BAKER: How hard is it for the president and his party to get this economic message through when they hear about Secret Service, ISIL, Ebola, all these different things?
MR. HARWOOD: Almost impossible. There is a blizzard of frightening news all over the world and in parts of the country. And so if you have an economy - yes, it’s getting better, but people’s incomes aren’t going up - it’s pretty hard to translate that into a winning message.
MS. IFILL: And I wonder, just briefly, is the economy out of the woods? I mean, this was good news today. But does that mean that we’re now out of the woods? The rebound is fully under way.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, we’re out of the woods if that means recovery from recession and getting on a steady path going forward. That’s clear. But we’re not out of the woods if, in fact, we look at the long-term problem that is a multi-decade problem in this country of median incomes simply not rising. We’ve got an economy that delivers – knows how to deliver corporate profits, knows how to deliver rising stock values. It doesn’t know how to put money in average people’s pockets right now.
MS. IFILL: And those are the people who we’re waiting to see if they vote next month. Thank you very much, John.
And thank you to everyone else as well.
A point of personal privilege as we go. Tonight marks my 15th anniversary hosting “Washington Week.” I think it’s paper or something. Isn’t it gold maybe? Gold? It’s been a real privilege.
I got a great birthday gift this week – a brand new, snazzy “Washington Week” website. You can check it out – the links, the archive, the special features, the great reporting from our “Washington Week” panelists, all in one place, all day, every day, at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. Be sure to take a look. Bookmark it and visit early and often. It’s where you’ll also find our weekly Webcast Extra, where we continue the conversation we started here, including tonight, a 2016 update. That streams lives at 8:30 p.m. eastern time.
Keep up with developments weekdays with me and Judy Woodruff at the PBS NewsHour. And we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.