Full Episode: NSA Reforms, Benghazi Probe, ACA Political Fallout

Jul. 07, 2014 AT 5:29 p.m. EDT

Obama's recommendations to reform NSA surveillance practices; a congressional report calls Benghazi attack “likely preventable”; the political fallout from Obamacare, and two cases argued before SCOTUS dealing with restrictions on abortion protesters and presidential recess appointments. Joining Gwen: Peter Baker, New York Times; Joan Biskupic, Reuters; Jeff Zeleny, ABC News; Tom Gjelten, NPR.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: Spying, Benghazi, abortion, health care politics. Can we fit any more hot buttons into a single show? We’ll give it a try, tonight on “Washington Week.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) Our system of government is built on the premise that our liberty cannot depend on the good intentions of those in power. It depends on the law to constrain those in power.

MS. IFILL: With new NSA revelations dropping from the sky seemingly every week, President Obama announces new limits on how, where, and on whom the government can spy, while defending the NSA.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) They’re not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your e-mails.

MS. IFILL: On Capitol Hill, even a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Benghazi attack reveals partisan fault lines.

DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-CA): (From tape.) I can’t say that it was all preventable. And I don’t want to say that. What I can say is that the security was inadequate.

MR. : (From tape.) As we saw in Kansas, simply put, it just doesn’t add up. We now know this tragedy did not have to happen.

MS. IFILL: Who takes the blame? At the Supreme Court, justices wrestle with how much free speech is too much. And as the mid-term election year begins in earnest, we examine the politics of “Obamacare.”

MR. : (From tape.) Now that people are starting to feel its effects, you just see the Democrats running farther and farther away from it. And who can blame them?

REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): (From tape.) It’s time for Republicans to end their fixation and start working with Democrats on the priorities of the American people.

MS. IFILL: Covering the week: Peter Baker of the New York Times, Tom Gjelten of NPR, Joan Biskupic of Reuters, and Jeff Zeleny of ABC 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.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. How far is too far to go when national security is at stake? That question is at the heart of the roiling debate over how the nation spies on itself and on others.

Today, the president went to the Justice Department to declare there can and should be reasonable limits.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) Those who are troubled by our existing programs are not interested in repeating the tragedy of 9/11 and those who defend these programs are not dismissive of civil liberties. The challenge is getting the details right. And that is not simple.

MS. IFILL: And that is exactly what still bothers the administration’s critics.

SENATOR RAND PAUL (R-KY): (From tape.) I want to stand up and cheer until I realize what he just told me was all these great things about my privacy except for really, between the lines, he told me he’s going to continue to collect all of my private records without a warrant.

MS. IFILL: So, Peter, given what we now saw in what the president laid out today, what exactly is different?

PETER BAKER: Right. Well, not as much as the civil liberties advocates would have liked or as much as the national security program advocates would fear. What you heard was the president made a lot of lofty statements and he expressed a lot of strong sentiments about the need to guard against abuse. But the actual details, as he said, right, getting the details right, are still a little bit unclear. Some of this could be left to a number of reviews. The attorney general and the director of national intelligence have to come back and tell him how to do some of the things he wanted to do. Some of this has to go to Congress, particularly the most important or the biggest controversial program, what to do about these bulk data storage that everybody can’t quite agree on.

MS. IFILL: Does it add up, what he’s proposing, or is he just nibbling around the edges?

MR. BAKER: Well, he’s not undoing what has been done in these last 10 years or so since 9/11. He’s basically leaving them intact and trying to find ways of adding transparency and safeguards to make people feel more comfortable with it, without actually changing anything in a substantive way in terms of chasing terrorists and so forth. And it’s a real tricky balance he’s trying to achieve here, one that probably leaves neither side completely happy, but there’s still a lot to be decided.

JOAN BISKUPIC: And where did he tip this time? You know, I was thinking about his own record as a senator who complained against – about George W. Bush as a former constitutional law professor and as someone who has openly talked about how he’s tried to balance. What is your sense, Peter, about whether he’s tipped more to one side or another and who kind of wins and loses in this round?

MR. BAKER: It’s interesting because he is, as you say, a past critic of some of these things. And he spent a lot of the speech defending them, saying, look, there hasn’t been abuse. These people are citizens who want to do this the right way. They’re not going into your phone calls and listening to them. If you haven’t done anything, you’re not talking to Yemeni terrorists, you have nothing really to worry about. And it puts him in the awkward position, in effect, of being a defender of a program that he’s often felt uncomfortable about.

TOM GJELTEN: Peter, how hard was it for them to find this balance, the president and his advisers, specifically with respect to this metadata program, the telephone records, how hard was it for them to decide in the end what they wanted to say about it?

MR. BAKER: This has been going – this debate has been going on literally all week, all the way up until the late hours of last night as they’re trying to put together this speech and make last minute decisions. The decision that he announced, in which NSA analysts will have to go to the secret surveillance court for a judicial approval before tapping into this database, that decision was made very late last night. It was added in at the last minute, in effect. So you saw a very roiling process here in which you had a lot of actors at play.

James Comey, this FBI director, had come out strongly against requiring court approvals of these national security letters. Those are sort of these administrative subpoenas that we go to businesses and grab records. A lot of different players spoke out and the president really didn’t want to challenge I think some of the significant figures in this national security environment.

JEFF ZELENY: One person that sort of hung over all this was Edward Snowden, of course. I mean, the president mentioned him a couple of times in passing.

MS. IFILL: Maybe a paragraph.

MR. ZELENY: It is a – you know, he said it’s an open investigation; I’m not going to talk about it. But would this have ever happened if he had not released this – all this information, stolen information and released it?

MR. BAKER: It sort of it seems so. We had five years, obviously, in which the president had every opportunity, if he wanted, to have a national debate to start it on his terms, if he didn’t like the way this debate played out because of Snowden’s revelations. But, in fact, it did force him to address this in a different way. And it changed the politics of it. You know, when he came into office, of course, his priorities on security were closing Guantanamo and banning torture. Surveillance wasn’t really at the top of the agenda, either his or the country’s. Snowden put it there.

MS. IFILL: Was this a speech that could have made anybody happy? I mean, obviously, the president is not the kind of guy who does drastic things, rolls back one way or the other, but it seems that the civil libertarians were not particularly pleased with everything he did. And, certainly, the defenders of the intelligence community and the right to do these searches couldn’t have been happy either.

MR. BAKER: Yeah. I think both sides were also uncertain exactly how to evaluate it because of the fact the details haven’t really been sketched out. This could be a more significant change than it looks today, if in fact they come back with specific ideas about how to change the storage of the metadata or what standards to set for judicial review. But we don’t really know yet and that’s part of the issue.

MR. GJELTEN: You know, one other constituency is the technology sector, the technology executives. They had very strong feelings, particularly about the way the NSA was undermining some of their own security standards. That seemed to be almost absent entirely from the president’s speech.

MR. BAKER: Right. He didn’t address those issues. He didn’t address the cybersecurity and cyberattack kind of issues that were all in the review panel report that he had appointed. But those were issues that could continue to challenge the administration as it goes forward because technology is only going to get more and more, you know, advanced, and these issues are not going away.

MS. IFILL: Which he actually acknowledged himself at some point in the speech, that things just keep – even the things that we hear about coming out every week in these Edward Snowden documents are things that happened 10 years ago already. So we’ll be watching.

There’s another debate that never seems to die as well: the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans in 2012. The tentacles of responsibility seem to stretch everywhere, from the military to the diplomatic corps, to the intelligence community, to garden variety politics. And when a Senate committee weighed in with a report this week that found the attacks were preventable, but without laying sole specific blame on anybody, it managed to stir all those pots.

This is what State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf had to say about the latest actor action report.

MARIE HARF [State Department Spokesperson]: (From tape.) There was no specific threat indicating that an attack was coming. You can only act when you know – when you have information that a specific attack may be coming.

MS. IFILL: But it doesn’t end here, does it, Tom? That explanation certainly doesn’t satisfy a lot of people.

MR. GJELTEN: Well, I think it’s fair to say that the State Department was a little defensive in its reaction to this report because even though, as you say, blame was spread around, it was really targeted on the State Department for not taking security conditions seriously enough. And this report came out with all the different intelligence warnings that were issued in the two or three months before the attack, the Defense Intelligence Agency saying we expect more anti-U.S. attacks in Eastern Libya; Pentagon, conditions ripe for terrorist safe haven in Libya; the CIA, al Qaeda establishing sanctuary – these are all very detailed reports that came out. And they appeared – they weren’t specific saying it’s going to happen on September 11th, but they were pretty serious reports. And those are the warnings that the State Department did not heed.

MS. IFILL: Well, let’s take us back a minute because this is not the first such report. This is not the first investigation and probably won’t be the last. But we keep getting mixed signals on what the cause of this was. And this doesn’t – this report doesn’t really clear that up.

MR. GJELTEN: No, it doesn’t, although, you know, this was a bipartisan report, which means you had – that held out the promise, you know – but there were two key points in which Democrats and Republicans actually were able to find some agreement, one is that there was al Qaeda involvement in the sense of individuals who had ties to al Qaeda affiliates were definitely involved.

And the other one, which is also important, is they did agree that there was no order from the White House or anywhere else to stand down. There was no opportunity for the military to come in and rescue. And those, of course, were controversial points, you know, in the initial discussion. But, as you know, the Republicans issued a dissent or like an additional commentary at the end that was as partisan, as critical as anything they’ve said before.

MS. BISKUPIC: Can I ask about what we learned about Ambassador Stevens? That’s one thing that’s new in this report is sort of how he might have resisted some things, but also wanted other help. So tell us what we learned about our – (inaudible).

MR. GJELTEN: You know, Joan, I think this has been known for a long time but I think out of respect to Ambassador Stevens, who of course died tragically in this attack, no one really wanted to go there. But this report does actually say that he turned down twice offers for a military security team in Benghazi, saying he didn’t think it was necessary. And the report actually faults him for not taking conditions at the Benghazi facility seriously enough.

MR. BAKER: When they say it’s preventable, is that what they’re talking about or do they have other things in mind as well that would have been – should of been done before this?

MR. GJELTEN: There were a number of measures that could have been taken that were not taken. There were security upgrades that were considered and were not taken. There was this military security team that could have been sent in to help protect the facility. That was not taken.

MS. IFILL: But they didn’t know about the CIA facility. Wasn’t that true as well, that there was a communications lapse there as well?

MR. GJELTEN: The CIA does not share information with other agencies very well. They like to keep the locations of their safe houses very secret. And no, the Pentagon did not know, the military did not know about the existence of that CIA safe house there.

MR. ZELENY: Tom, how does this fit in the context of other Benghazi reports we’ve seen? And I guess the biggest one most recently was in the New York Times by David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief. How do all these Benghazi reports – like what should people take away from this vis-à-vis that and are there others?

MR. GJELTEN: Well, one of the big issues, Jeff, is whether this was an al Qaeda attack. Of course, that was the dispute that surrounded the talking points with Ambassador Susan Rice at the beginning, originally saying it was just a protect demonstration, and David Kirkpatrick reported, I think accurately, that there was not – that al Qaeda was not behind this attack.

But it partly depends on how you define al Qaeda. If you define al Qaeda as central al Qaeda under Ayman al-Zawahiri in Pakistan, that’s true. But then, when you break it down to all the little affiliated al Qaeda groups and people that might have been tangentially involved in those groups, then there was al Qaeda involvement. So it’s really a semantic issue I think. And that’s – that’s sort of the way that you square that circle. If you like – can agree on the terms, you can agree on what the cause of this was.

MS. IFILL: Is the reason – is the real reason this stays alive not just because there are unanswered questions but also because it has some political value for 2016?

MR. GJELTEN: Well, one of the things that enraged the Democrats the most is that the Republicans in their comment at the end of the report singled out Hillary Clinton saying that her leadership could have made a difference in the lives of these four murdered Americans. The Democrats felt that was a real cheap shot. And I think when they say that there is kind political considerations here, that’s what they’re talking about, the way that Hillary Clinton herself was singled out by name in this report as bearing responsibility.

MS. IFILL: But there was that one reference to her, that was the only time she was mentioned in that report. That’s what the other side says, which is she – they didn’t say that much about her.

MR. GJELTEN: Well, she was not mentioned at all in the bipartisan portion of the report and just that one reference in the Republican part.

MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thank you. The Supreme Court is stepping into a slightly altered version of an old debate. It’s about abortion, yes, but also about free speech, in this case, how close can protesters come to physically preventing a woman from entering a clinic. The First Amendment debate centers on a painted yellow line, Joan.

MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. In America, the abortion wars play out in many ways. And this one is about how close can anybody who is a protester or, in this case, the challengers call themselves counselors get to a woman who might be going to a health clinic to have an abortion, because, of course, they want to dissuade her from it, but they are also causing problems at abortion clinics because of the disruption.

And Massachusetts adopted a law in 2007 that said that you could have – that allowed a 35-foot buffer zone around health clinics in the state that perform abortions. And these people who want to try to talk to women as they approach the clinics have challenged it as a violation of their free speech rights.

Now, it’s been almost 14 years since we had one of these cases. You know, when you think of the ’80s and ’90s, you think of all these abortion protests. And, actually, frankly, a lot of violence, you know, killings at these places. But in 2000, the Supreme Court, by a vote of six to three, upheld a buffer zone in Colorado in a very divisive vote, and with Justice Kennedy, who supports abortion rights, saying, you’ve turned your back on people who oppose abortion because they should be able to talk to people and try to talk them out of that.

MS. IFILL: Let’s talk about that buffer zone. Thirty-five feet – I don’t know how to measure it here – it’s a big, big buffer zone, right?

MS. BISKUPIC: Well, actually, that was an issue in the courtroom. Yes. The courtrooms are like, how big is this? Is this the size of a stadium or what? Thirty-five feet is like, you know, two car lengths and it’s – I think there was some confusion over the size of the courtroom which is maybe 35 yards, but anyway. It’s a very large space compared to other buffer zones. For example, the Colorado one, which is a floating buffer zone, was eight feet. And, you know, the court has allowed others that have been smaller.

So 35 feet is large. And what some of the conservative justices said and the challengers say is 35 feet, you can hardly know who’s going to be headed in the clinic until they’re within that zone, and then you can’t actually talk to them.

MR. BAKER: It’s been a long since college, but I remember being taught that free speech is not, of course, absolute. Government can regulate time, manner, and place. So why then is this is an issue? Isn’t this a settled law or there’s something different about this?

MS. BISKUPIC: Well, time, place and manner is what they’re saying, that Massachusetts can regulate it, you know, because of the situation there during – while the clinic’s available to these women, but those things aren’t absolute either. It can’t – you always have to have the least restrictive means when you’re talking about free speech, because you don’t want to – you want to make sure that a message isn’t squelched in some way. And what Massachusetts is saying is – you know, they can get their message out in other ways – that this actually hurts public safety when they get so close to the clinic, and, you know, cars are driving by trying to drop off literature and there’s a lot of commotion, and people can get hurt.

MR. GJELTEN: Is this idea of buffer zones just unique to abortion clinics? I mean, is this purely a discussion about abortion or is it about buffer zones?

MS. BISKUPIC: No. Abortion is big enough, but this is – abortion is great enough for all of us but it’s – but no. The AFL-CIO was in on the side of the challengers saying they want to – you know, they want to make sure these kinds of time, place and manner restrictions aren’t so restrictive. No. It’s not just abortion. It’s other things.

MR. ZELENY: What did Chief Justice Roberts have to say about this? I was reading some of the hearing. He didn’t ask any questions, right? Isn’t that (somewhat ?) unusual?

MS. BISKUPIC: No. And that is highly – that’s highly unusual.

MR. ZELENY: Only Clarence Thomas – (inaudible).

MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. And what we always say is since, you know, for the past seven or eight years, Clarence Thomas has not asked a question. But the chief, surprisingly, asked nothing. And the chief’s vote is in play.

MR. ZELENY: What do the – (inaudible) – say about that?

MS. BISKUPIC: Well, I actually think the chief would probably be inclined to think this is too big of a zone and that he’d want to rein it in, but we don’t know from any single thing he said.

MR. BAKER: How big is the zone that the Supreme Court has itself, right? It doesn’t allow protests –

MS. BISKUPIC: You can’t – yeah. You can’t get up on the plaza. Right. Right. In fact, yeah –

MR. BAKER: Is that 35 feet?

MS. BISKUPIC: That’s more than 35 feet, much more than 35 feet.

MS. IFILL: So is this like a stalking horse issue now? You mentioned it’s been 14 years since there’s been a big abortion case at the court. Does that mean that now anti-abortion activists are finding other ways in?

MS. BISKUPIC: Right. It’s been 14 years since we’ve had an abortion protest case. We’ve had abortion since then.

MS. IFILL: Oh, I see. OK.

MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. But you’re right, Gwen, that the fundamental issue of Roe v. Wade, can abortion be outlawed, that’s basically settled. It cannot be outlawed. Since 1973, women have a constitutional right to end of pregnancy. But there have been all sorts of access issues. And this is another access issue of how close can people get there. Is it going to be hard for a woman to get into a clinic?

MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thank you, Joan. Here is the least surprising news of the week, the Affordable Care Act with all of its glitches, its snafus, its delays, its cancellations and its complications. It’s going to be a prime political football this year. Surprise. Television ads have already started and in key state and federal races around the country, it’s already defining the debate. Where are you watching it play out, Jeff?

MR. ZELENY: Well, Gwen, I think first of all, it’s playing out the most actively aggressively right now in southern states where Democrats are facing reelection in red states, in those red Republican states.

MS. IFILL: Give me examples.

MR. ZELENY: So we’re talking North Carolina, Senator Kay Hagen – President Obama went there this week. She was too busy to campaign with him.

MS. IFILL: He said nice things about her but she didn’t show up.

MR. ZELENY: He did. He did. Moving on to Louisiana, Senator Mary Landrieu, and, in Arkansas, Senator Mark Pryor – those are three key Democratic seats. The outside conservative groups have always been on the air for weeks and months really hitting these Democratic senators hard on “Obamacare.”

But it’s moving beyond that. We’re talking – a few days ago, we saw ads in Iowa, in Michigan, and those aren’t exactly the top tiered Democratic Senate races. So across the – throughout the Senate, any Democrat who is now worried about “Obamacare,” I talked to one this week who I can’t say who it was, but I talked to one Democratic candidate who said, I can beat my Republican opponent; I don’t know if I can beat all this stuff on “Obamacare.” It’s just coming so hard at him.

MS. IFILL: What do the ads say?

MR. ZELENY: The ads are saying basically, if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance. And it’s in those voices. And they have someone specifically from that state saying, I lost my insurance plan. So not necessarily – it’s basically a reprise of what we’ve heard, but they’re very localized, very personalized for those states.

MS. IFILL: Rand Paul today talking about privacy said – I think the president said if you like your privacy, you can keep your privacy. And like that rhythm.

MR. ZELENY: Just keep it alive.

MS. BISKUPIC: Well, what is the White House doing though? I mean, didn’t the president have a bunch of – several Democratic senators in to sort of calm them down?

MR. ZELENY: The White House is paying attention. And they had the first all-Democratic senators’ meeting of this midterm election year to overrun on Wednesday night; all 55 were invited. Most came. And they’re basically saying, look, the best thing we can do is get this plan up and working, the rollout working. But there is deep anger here among these Democrats. Some of them didn’t want to vote for this in the first place, but they sort of walked the plank, and now they feel that no one has their backs on this. All these outside groups are beating them up and the White House isn’t exactly defending them.

MR. BAKER: Somebody was recycling this week a quote from a Democrat from a couple of years ago. I think it might have been Chuck Schumer saying, in two years, this is going to be a political advantage. You wait and see. It’s obviously not.

MS. IFILL: He’s still waiting.

MR. BAKER: He’s still waiting. Is there any chance that could change by November if the plan starts to work better or is it too short a time to change perceptions that dramatically?

MR. ZELENY: At the very least, they hope that they can be, you know, sort of neutralized. And, of course, the people who are opposed to it probably are going to stay opposed. But it’s those independent voters we talked about, you know, who may know someone who knows someone who actually is on insurance now. So they believe – you know, if the website is fixed, more people sign up, it will improve somewhat. But, by then, it may be too late in some respects.

MR. GJELTEN: Jeff, how much of a consensus is there on the Republican side about focusing on this issue, because it’s not across the board that they want to just sit back and let this sort of self-destruct, right?

MR. ZELENY: I mean, Republicans realize that “Obamacare” is a big issue, but one thing we saw interesting this week, when the Senate was moving forward on the spending bill, this $1.1 trillion spending bill, you know, this could have been another opportunity to defund this, but Republicans sort of have a new sense of discipline, at least most do. Senator Ted Cruz was thinking about sort of gumming up the works again. He decided against it. So they really believed that “Obamacare” is a central issue that hurts Democrats. So they did not take away the funding for it because they believe in and of itself it hurts Democrats. They really don’t want to look obstructionist. We’ll see if they can hold on to that – (inaudible).

MR. GJELTEN: But there’s an element of the party that still sort of believes in obstruction has challenged this.

MR. ZELENY: Some element in the party, but the House voted overwhelmingly in this spending bill as did the Democrats. So we’ll see how long they can hold them in line. But you’re absolutely right – it’s playing out in the Republican primaries across the country.

MS. IFILL: Do any Democrats have a strategy for saying “Obamacare” is good yet?

MR. ZELENY: No one who’s really facing a tough reelection battle. But they definitely are collecting stories from their states, you know, and trying to have anecdotes to sort of, you know, show that, you know, some people are helped out by this. And there are, of course, people being helped out by this.

MS. IFILL: But they haven’t figured out a concerted way to make that case yet.

MR. ZELENY: It’s too toxic.

MS. IFILL: For now. OK. Well, we’ll keep visiting, revisiting. Thank you, everyone.

We have to leave you for now. But the conversation is going to continue online. As you can tell, we have a lot to talk about. So we’ll go there and we’ll tackle all the things we didn’t get to here, including the rash of retirements that could reshape Congress on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” That streams like at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time all weekend long and at pbs.org/washingtonweek.

Keep up with daily developments now seven nights a week on the PBS “NewsHour.” Be sure to be and do your best on the coming King Holiday. And we’ll see you here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.


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