MR. DAVID GREGORY: Our issues today: America's fight against terrorism, a debate about the past...
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: All too often our government trims facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions.
MR. GREGORY: ...and the future.
FMR. VICE PRES. DICK CHENEY: In the fight against terrorism there is no middle ground, and half-measures keep you half-exposed.
MR. GREGORY: President Obama looks for middle ground in the fight against America's enemies, but is it really a new course or an approach much closer to his predecessor's than he is willing to admit? On the controversial issue of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where will the detainees go? And have members of the president's party deserted him on a key national security decision? This morning, an exclusive debate: with us, the Senate Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Then our roundtable weighs in on the Obama/Cheney national security debate and more, including where the Obama agenda goes from here as the summer begins, a Supreme Court nominee, healthcare reform, the economy and energy. With us, editor of the National Review, Rich Lowry; host of NPR's "All Things Considered," Michele Norris; columnist with The Washington Post Gene Robinson; and NBC's chief White House correspondent and political director, Chuck Todd.
But first, the politics of national security, and we are joined by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin.
Welcome, both of you, back to MEET THE PRESS. So on day two of the Obama administration, the president shuts down Guantanamo Bay, the prison there, says it'll be closed within a year, but he doesn't really have a plan for how he's going to do it. And of course this week the debate bursts into the open over the issue of what's going to happen to these detainees who are still at Guantanamo once the prison is closed. Vice President Cheney waded into this debate this week during a speech. This is what he said.
FMR. VICE PRES. CHENEY: I think the president will find, upon reflection, that to bring the worst of the worst terrorists inside the United States would be cause for great danger and regret in the years to come.
MR. GREGORY: And here is Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid. He says, "What we don't want is them [to] be put in prisons in the United States. We don't want them around the United States."
Senator Durbin, strange bedfellows, Cheney and Reid, in lockstep on this issue.
SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D-IL): I think that President Obama made it clear in his speech at the National Archives that he is going to face this issue squarely and resolve it fairly. And he said, I think very clearly, that we're not going to allow anyone who is dangerous to come to the United States. Now, let me just say this, I know what Vice President Cheney said. But if you want an insight into his analysis of intelligence and national security, you should always remember four words: weapons of mass destruction. That was a bogus fear tactic used by Vice President Cheney years ago which led us into a war that has cost us 4,283 American lives, we should recall on this Memorial Day weekend, added a trillion dollars to the national debt and took the eye off of capturing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
MR. GREGORY: But, Senator Durbin, in this case you have not just Vice President Cheney, but the majority leader of the Senate saying, "No, we don't want these detainees to come into prisons in the United States."
SEN. DURBIN: Now that President Obama has made it clear what his plan is, he'll bring that to Congress. We have successfully tried terrorists in the United States. As I sit here today, we have 347 convicted terrorists secure in our incarceration in our facilities. We know that they can be tried and held safely. I'm sure the president will be able to work this out with members of Congress.
MR. GREGORY: Speaker Gingrich:
FMR. REP. NEWT GINGRCH, (R-GA): Well, let, let me start with, first of all, it was Secretary of State Colin Powell who also talked about weapons of mass destruction, so this is not a Cheney problem. The fact is every member of the American government senior leadership believed in the intelligence they were getting at the time. And the question comes right down to, as Vice President Cheney said this week, what's your highest priority? Is it to defend America and protect American lives, or is it to find some way to defend terrorists and to get terrorists involved in the criminal justice system? I can't imagine--given the fact, for example, that we just picked up four terrorists in New York who had been converted in prison, I can't imagine--the director of the FBI has said don't put these terrorists in prisons because there'll be an active threat to convert other people. The fact is these, these terrorists--we're now down to the worst of the worst. These are the--the Bush administration released over 500 people. One out of every seven actually went back to war against us and is out actively trying to kill Americans today. So I would be very cautious. I think the president made a very big mistake. It was a campaign promise, it is not a national security plan. I think, frankly, they should keep Guantanamo open. Whatever the, whatever things that are wrong at Guantanamo they would fix by moving them to somewhere else, fix them at Guantanamo.
MR. GREGORY: How long should Gitmo remain open?
REP. GINGRICH: Until the war is over.
MR. GREGORY: When is that?
REP. GINGRICH: We'll--when the terrorists disappear. I mean, you're faced with...
MR. GREGORY: Well, you're talking about a pretty long-term proposition here.
REP. GINGRICH: Yes, because this is a long-term proposition. You have people out there today who want to kill Americans, who would like to set off a nuclear weapon in an American city, who would like to set off a truck bomb down the street from where we are right now. These folks are serious. They're, they're still there. They're fighting in Pakistan right now, they're fighting in Iraq right now. We just arrested four people in New York City last week. What do you do with somebody who's a dedicated, religiously-motivated terrorist? You had better keep them locked up.
MR. GREGORY: But, Senator, what about this issue of conversion in prison? What about the FBI director saying that there are concerns if you bring some of these figures into U.S. prisons?
SEN. DURBIN: Just remember that President Bush called for the closing of Guantanamo; President Obama did the same, as did Senator McCain in the last campaign. And I also want to remind the former speaker that Major Matthew Alexander, who has actually interrogated al-Qaeda suspects in Iraq, attributes half of the deaths of Americans in Iraq to the detention abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Continuing Guantanamo, unfortunately, makes our troops less safe. The bottom line as I see it is Guantanamo should close in an orderly way. President Obama announced that last Thursday. We understand that at the end of the day there will be some of these people, I don't know the exact number, who will be too dangerous to be released, and President Obama said he would work with Congress and the courts to detain them in a humane, constitutional and legal way.
MR. GREGORY: Let me pick--I want to pick up on a point here, and this is another argument that the president made with regard to keeping the prison at Guantanamo Bay open, and the, the stain on the U.S. image because of that. This is what he said.
PRES. OBAMA: Instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al-Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Durbin, where's the evidence to support that claim?
SEN. DURBIN: I just gave it to you: Major Matthew Alexander, who interrogated the al-Qaeda suspects in Iraq. And it was his conclusion that half of them had been recruited and were fighting, trying to kill Americans because of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Are we going to ignore this? The fact is that closing Guantanamo, that announcement by the president, as well as abandoning torture techniques and so-called enhanced interrogation, finally said to the rest of the world that it's a new day. Join us in a new approach to keeping this world and America safe. I think it was a break from the past we desperately needed. And to turn around now and to take the approach that Mr. Limbaugh has suggested, that Newt Gingrich has suggested, Vice President Cheney, would put us back in that same terrible position where our troops will be less safe by continuing Guantanamo.
REP. GINGRICH: Let me say, first of all, there were over 550,000 troops who served in Iraq. I'm sure you can find one to agree with you. The fact is the 3,100 Americans who were killed on 9/11 were killed before there was a Guantanamo. The recruits who were going into Iraq were going into Iraq long before Guantanamo was, was a serious factor. The people fighting today in Pakistan are fighting Pakistanis. The people--the Taliban who's fighting in Afghanistan, they're not running around using Guantanamo. They're running around using the existence of America. One of the terrorists in Guantanamo recently threw his television down and broke it because he had a picture of a woman with bare arms. I think we are kidding ourselves about who these terrorists are and we're kidding ourselves about the power of this. Guantanamo matters because in America and Europe the left has decided the matter. So let's build a brand-new facility. Tell me how it will be different from Guantanamo and tell me how many weeks it would take before it became the new symbol that was attacked because you're still going to be holding people in prison, they're still going to be isolated. You have to keep them isolated. These are bad people who want to destroy America, and if they're not isolated they're going to actively engage in terrorist planning. The World Trade Center bombing in 1993 was in part planned from Attica prison by a terrorist that we had locked up in Attica who was sending information out by a helper.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Durbin, isn't it also an issue that the 1993 bombing happened, there was no Guantanamo Bay prison. In other words, terrorists who want to attack America are going to find a rationale. They will find a symbol of America to attack.
SEN. DURBIN: Guantanamo is not the only reason that inspires terrorism around the world against the United States. But let's be honest about it, since 9/11 we have seen al-Qaeda become a global franchise. And their recruitment tool, the one that they're using repeatedly, is the detention techniques used by the United States at specifically Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. What I don't understand from the speaker, if he thinks we shouldn't incarcerate convicted terrorists in the United States for fear that they might continue to be dangerous, what are we going to do with them? What would you have us do with the 347 convicted terrorists now in prison in the United States?
REP. GINGRICH: Well, look.
SEN. DURBIN: We know they're being held safely. And when we checked with the director of FBI, Mr. Mueller, he said there's no question that supermax facilities, not a single escape, we limit the communication of these detainees and prisoners, and we can continue to do that.
REP. GINGRICH: Well, first of all, I think we should, in fact, rethink how we are handling terrorist recruitment and terrorist propaganda in prisons because, as I said, last week there were four examples of people who were picked up in New York who had been converted in prison. So then we need to rethink the terrorists who are currently in prison, design a specific facility for terrorists, keep them totally isolated from the rest of the prison population and put them somewhere. And, and again, I think this is a, this is a hard problem that'll be around.
But let me also point out, Senator, al-Qaeda did not become a global concern after 9/11. Al-Qaeda had been operating in Iran, in Iraq. They had, they had bombed the United States forces in Saudi Arabia, they bombed two American Embassies in East Africa, they bombed the Cole in Yemen. All of these happened before 9/11. Now, it's true that in the, in the 1990s people in the Clinton administration didn't want to confront that this was a war; they kept trying to handle it as a criminal procedure. In fact, it's very dangerous to go back to thinking of these guys as criminals. This is a war and these are terrorists.
MR. GREGORY: Let me bring it back to this week. Senator Durbin, all but six Democrats voted in the Senate to block funding to support the president in his plan to close down the prison. Why the defiance of their president, and do you think the speech this week by President Obama changed things? If so, how?
SEN. DURBIN: What I heard from my colleagues on the floor is we're waiting for the president's plan. What is he going to do in terms of the future of Guantanamo and what will happen to the detainees? On Thursday at the archives, National Archives, the president spelled this out clearly that he is going to follow the values of our Constitution, rule of law and transparency, there'll be real accountability, and he went through four or five different categories of how we'll treat these detainees. I think at this point that you'll find members of Congress, I hope from both sides of the aisle, who will step forward and say now we have to find a way.
MR. GREGORY: So...
SEN. DURBIN: And I might add that that's going to include people like Lindsey Graham. I've spoken to him, he's spoken on the floor. I think there are ways we can come up with a bipartisan approach to implement the president's plan.
MR. GREGORY: All right, but was it a mistake to bring the plan forward without the resolution for these detainees?
SEN. DURBIN: Well, it was a mistake for us to entertain putting money, $80 million in for the transfer of these detainees until the president's plan was released. And so that's why the NOA amendment was successful.
MR. GREGORY: You'd be OK with al-Qaeda prisoners, those currently at Guantanamo Bay, in a prison in Illinois?
SEN. DURBIN: Well, I'd be OK with them in a supermax facility, because we've never had an escape from one. And as I said, we have over 340 convicted terrorists now being held safely in our prisons. I just don't hear anyone suggesting releasing them or sending them to another country. That isn't part of the prospect that we have before us.
MR. GREGORY: Let, let me take a, a larger view here. If you look at the question of how President Obama is trying to put his imprint on national security in this war against terrorists, two competing points of view from President Obama and Vice President Cheney, as we think about chapter two in the war on terrorism with the new administration. Let's listen to both men and have you both react.
PRES. OBAMA: The American people are not absolutist, and they don't elect us to impose a rigid ideology on our problems. They know that we need not sacrifice our security for our values, nor sacrifice our values for our security so long as we approach difficult questions with honesty and care and a dose of common sense.
FMR. VICE PRES. CHENEY: But in the fight against terrorism there is no middle ground, and half measures keep you half exposed. You cannot keep just some nuclear armed terrorists out of the United States, you must keep every nuclear armed terrorist out of the United States. Triangulation is a political strategy, not a national security strategy.
MR. GREGORY: Why can't there be a middle-ground approach, some compromise with regard to how to fight terrorists?
REP. GINGRICH: Well, I think there can be a, an effort to find a common agreement, but I don't think you can find--I don't think it's a question about compromise. The thing that I think motivates Cheney, and I watched this firsthand after 9/11, is the shock of 9/11, the reality that his children and his grandchildren could die, that he has an obligation to America to take extra steps to keep us alive. And I think this was burned into him that day and the following day, and the realization we had been caught totally off-guard. Despite all the warnings of the '90s, we have been caught totally off-guard. And so they did everything for seven and a half years to--and they have a very simple principle: If you're in doubt, do what it takes to help America survive every time. So they consistently fell down on the side of being very tough about national security, being very tough with specific terrorists. And remember, the Obama administration has reserved to itself the same right to use enhanced interrogation techniques at the direction of the commander in chief that the Bush administration did. They were used three times--they were used on three people who were known terrorists who had very high value information. So I'm just saying it's, it's ironic; when you get below the speech, President Obama in many ways--he's now back to military tribunals...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
REP. GINGRICH: ...you know, he's, he's, he's back to somehow keeping all these terrorists, even if not in Guantanamo, he is keep--he's reserving the right to use enhanced interrogation techniques in his administration, which by the way is absolutely correct...
MR. GREGORY: But do you agree with the vice president when he says that the country is less safe under President Obama?
REP. GINGRICH: Absolutely.
MR. GREGORY: Why?
REP. GINGRICH: Because I believe if you just look at the behavior of the last two months, the effort to open up past wounds--if you were a CIA employee today and you understood that there were people out there who wanted a truth commission, there are people who wanted to say to you, "I'm, I'm going to go back six, seven, eight years and I'm going to put you on trial potentially," if you look at what, what Speaker Pelosi said, "They all lied to--they lied to us all the time," the drop in morale, which frankly Director Leon Panetta, himself a former Democratic congressman, has testified, has said this has hurt morale. The question is, is the most important thing to us today to find some kind of civil--American Civil Liberties Union model of making sure that we never offend terrorists, or is the model for us today to say to the CIA and others, "Do everything you can to protect America. We're going to cover your back, we are proud of you and we want you to defend America"?
MR. GREGORY: Senator Durbin, the vice president's--former vice president's daughter, Liz Cheney, said that President Obama has a September 10th mentality in his fight against terrorists.
SEN. DURBIN: Let me say--if you, if you step back and take a look at history for a moment, you will find the message we just heard from Mr. Gingrich, from Vice President Cheney and Mr. Rush Limbaugh to be the same, it's a message of fear: "Be afraid, be very afraid." And to say that this president is not doing everything in his power to keep America safe is just as irresponsible as anything I've ever heard said on your program. This president is dedicated to the safety of America. He has said clearly that he's not going to allow a single dangerous person to be released in the United States or be in a position to harm us. He's doing everything night and day to keep us safe. But let's look at what we have here. The president said in his speech--he didn't question the motives of those like Vice President Cheney, who thought they were keeping America safe. The fact is, in a way it didn't work. Guantanamo became an inspiration for recruiting terrorists around the world. At the end of the day, it was President Bush in his second term who abandoned the Cheney approach, who said, "We're not going to use torture. We're going to close down Guantanamo because it isn't working to keep America safe." Now, I just want to tell you, when people like General Colin Powell step forward and say to us, "Put torture behind us and close Guantanamo," I believe they are on the right track. Here's a person who served our nation in the military and on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and he believes we can keep America safe with a much better approach. And this notion somehow that President Obama is not keeping America safe has been rejected by the American people. They trust his leadership.
REP. GINGRICH: Let me just say, I think people should be afraid. I think the lesson of 1993, the first time they bombed the World Trade Center, was fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of Khobar Towers, where American servicemen were killed in Saudi Arabia, was fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of the two embassy bombings in east Africa was fear is probably appropriate. I think the lesson of the Cole being bombed in Yemen was fear is probably appropriate. I'll tell you, if you aren't a little bit afraid after 9/11 and 3,100 Americans killed inside the United States by an effort, if you weren't worried about the second-wave attack that was designed to take out the biggest building in Los Angeles, I think that, that you are out of touch with reality.
MR. GREGORY: Right. But--wait, but Speaker Gingrich, you make the point about how Vice President Cheney felt personally, personal fear. And isn't President Obama's argument that fear as a basis of national security policy is not sustainable over time? How do you come up with a sustainable legal framework, a sustainable national security policy?
REP. GINGRICH: We, we...
MR. GREGORY: Don't we elect leaders to transcend fear for lasting policies?
REP. GINGRICH: Look, we sustained the Cold War against the Soviet Empire for 44 years because our national leadership came together and said to the country there are sufficiently great dangers to America to sustain our power worldwide. I mean, we sustained against the Soviet Empire worldwide for 44 years. Now, that requires us to have a--I think the first level of debate's simple: How much should you worry about something truly terrible happening to America? I belong to the wing that believes we live in an age when very few people using very dangerous weapons can cause incalculable damage, and I think we should take very strong steps to make sure that doesn't happen.
MR. GREGORY: All right.
Senator Durbin, let me ask you this. You've heard criticism from the right of President Obama. There's also criticism from the left, and that is there is very little distinction between President Obama's approach to fighting terrorists and President Bush's approach, and there are numerous examples: military commission are still in place, targeted killings are going on, the issuing of state secrets, the detention of war criminals in a kind of middle ground who can't be released, who can't be tried. The president is also for that. Is there a difference between the two?
SEN. DURBIN: First, let me tell you that America cowering in fear is not going to be a strong nation. I disagree with Mr. Gingrich. We can understand the threat, we can deal with it rationally, we can be strong and we will be safe with President Obama. But this notion that fear is going to guide us is what brought us to the notion of weapons of mass destruction and this war in Iraq and all that it has cost us. You know, Vice President Cheney said the other day without hesitation, "I'd do everything all over again." He hasn't learned any lesson from history.
Now, as far as President Obama's approach at the National Archives, he made it clear and he was open to the American people, and this is what he said: there will be military commissions, but these are going to be commissions that are going to follow our constitutional values. We're going to basically say that we're not going to have hearsay that has to be rebutted by a defendant. We're going to allow for the right of counsel. We're going to have the basic approaches under the law that the Supreme Court is going to demand this.
MR. GREGORY: But do you, do you see that correlation between President Bush's approach and President Obama?
SEN. DURBIN: I would say they'll both have military commissions, and we've had them back to the time of George Washington. But the approach of President Obama is one that is closer to our Constitution and our rule of law. And just consider this, in seven years in Guantanamo there were exactly three who were convicted by military commissions, and those were thrown out by the Supreme Court. The--President Obama has learned from that lesson of history. He's going to make sure that any military commission, military tribunal in the future is one that can be sustained by the courts.
MR. GREGORY: Let me move on to the controversial issue of the House speaker currently, and that's Nancy Pelosi, and the fact that she accused the CIA of misleading Congress with regard to briefings about the Bush administration's so-called enhanced interrogation techniques.
Speaker Gingrich, you have said that Speaker Pelosi has disqualified herself from the office that she holds, and you wrote this this week about what may be motivating her: "Why would Speaker Pelosi," you wrote, "escalate the small skirmish she found herself in over the 2002 briefing into a full-scale war with the CIA? Perhaps it's because if America knew that Speaker Pelosi consented, fully informed and without complaint, to waterboarding back in '02, it would reveal the current liberal bloodlust over interrogations for what it is: The Left's attempt to hunt down and purge its political opponents. ... If Pelosi believed that waterboarding was justified in '02...then a policy of selectively using enhanced interrogation techniques in carefully circumscribed ways in order to prevent future attacks--in other words, the Bush Administration policy--is vindicated."
Senator Durbin, first to you. Do you think that policy is vindicated?
SEN. DURBIN: Well, I can just tell you this. When it comes to this attack on Speaker Pelosi, there are those on the right who will do everything they can to divert attention from the real issue of the threat of terrorism, the interrogation techniques that have been used in the past and whether or not we can be stronger in the future. They want to...
MR. GREGORY: Do you believe that Speaker Pelosi consented to those techniques?
SEN. DURBIN: No, I don't. I think what--if you look at the record, and here's what it is, she was briefed in September of 2002. She was told that some of these techniques, as I understand it, could be viewed as legal. She wasn't told, as Time magazine has reported, that waterboarding had already been used 83 times. All of those--Mr. Goss, Senator Graham, Senator Rockefeller, all the others who were involved in this don't agree with the conclusion that there was a complete and accurate briefing as to what had occurred up to that point when it came to waterboarding.
MR. GREGORY: You, you speak often to this president. Is President Obama behind Nancy Pelosi?
SEN. DURBIN: I can tell you this. He said publicly that he supports Speaker Pelosi, and I do as well. She is a great leader, she is a person who is going to help the president bring us out of this economic crisis, deal with the issues of healthcare and energy that the American people really want us to focus on.
MR. GREGORY: Are you concerned about the damage to morale at the CIA?
SEN. DURBIN: I can tell you that with Leon Panetta there, they have an excellent leader. It is a new day. He's going to stand up for approaches at that agency which will help keep America safe. And I think that most of those who work at the intelligence agencies realize we value them. They're important allies in our war on terror.
MR. GREGORY: Speaker Gingrich, some on the left have said for you to attack Speaker Pelosi this way is nothing but political payback.
REP. GINGRICH: Well, let me say, first of all, I agree with Leon Panetta. Leon Panetta, the day after her statement, sent a message to every employee at the CIA, said, "We did brief accurately in 2002. We do report legally. It would be illegal to do what she's said, and we do not break the law." He came back the following Monday and said this kind of political attack on the CIA--he didn't name her by name, obviously, but he said these kind of political attacks on the CIA are damaging to morale and politicians should remember we are fighting two active wars and have a worldwide terrorist threat we're engaged with. Now, I just think that that's a pretty firm statement of what was wrong with, with her press conference. I think all she's got to do is go to the floor of the House and apologize. She ought to say she, she exaggerated, that what she said was not true about the CIA. And again, there are two different fights here. What, what she did or didn't learn in 2002, a House ethics investigation can determine. The question of what she said about the CIA that Thursday is flatly false and dishonest, and she ought to apologize to the country on the floor of the House and to the CIA for having said it.
MR. GREGORY: Because she was critical of the CIA?
SEN. DURBIN: I just wanted to--Mr. Gregory...
REP. GINGRICH: No, because she, she said flatly they lie all the time to the Congress, which is, which is A, illegal; B, not true; and C, just a reminder, I mean, if you want people to risk their lives to defend America, it'd be nice to occasionally support them rather than smear them.
MR. GREGORY: Senator:
SEN. DURBIN: I just say that I'm afraid Mr. Gingrich is suffering from a little political amnesia here. He's forgotten that in year 2007 that he criticized the National Intelligence Estimate relative to the capability of Iran to develop nuclear weapons and said that, if I can remember the quote correctly, I'm looking down here, that what they did damaged our national security and misled the American people. Mr. Gingrich, would you like to make an apology to our intelligence agencies for what you said in 2007?
REP. GINGRICH: I said, I, I said that particular report was intellectually dishonest. It was a public, nonclassified report, and we were debating it. I can also...
SEN. DURBIN: Do you apologize? Do you apologize?
REP. GINGRICH: I can also--I said it was intellectually dishonest.
SEN. DURBIN: Do you apologize?
REP. GINGRICH: I didn't--I've never said the CIA lied to the Congress, which would be a--illegal, would be a felony.
SEN. DURBIN: Well, what do you say about Republican Congressman Hoekstra, who did, in fact, say that the intelligence community had lied and misled the American people when it came to the killing of an individual in Peru?
REP. GINGRICH: There, there's a...
SEN. DURBIN: Should he apologize?
REP. GINGRICH: Chairman Hoekstra, as he was at the time, was engaged in a specific incident. The inspector general of the CIA actually did the right job. The investigative board of the CIA did the right job. It was a specific case. They reported that it was wrong and the CIA actually insisted on telling Congress the truth. And if you checked with Chairman Hoekstra, he'll tell you he agrees with me on this particular issue.
MR. GREGORY: I, I just have a couple of minutes left and I want to get to a couple of more topics. One is the Supreme Court and a vacancy that will be filled by President Obama.
Senator Durbin, when? Will it come this week?
SEN. DURBIN: I think it is going to come this week.
MR. GREGORY: You think as early as Tuesday?
SEN. DURBIN: Well, I, I've been told it's likely to come this week, but I don't know which day.
MR. GREGORY: The, the--I spoke to a White House official this week who said it'll be clear what the president wants to accomplish when you see the nominee. Can you interpret that? What is it that the president wants to accomplish with this first nomination?
SEN. DURBIN: I think the president's made it clear. Understand, this is a man who, who's spent his life studying the law and the Constitution and teaching it. He understands it. I would, I would hate to go through that interview on constitutional issues with our president, because he knows a lot more about the Constitution than many people who serve as judges today. And I think he's going to look for a person who understands the law, someone of high integrity and, as he said, someone who's in touch with the real world in terms of the real impact of constitutional decisions.
MR. GREGORY: And I want to pick up on that point because, Speaker Gingrich, one of the things that then Senator Obama said in 2005 when he was opposing the nomination of John Roberts as chief justice, that when it comes to the 5 percent of difficult cases, he says, "In those difficult cases, the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge's heart." Does that trouble you?
REP. GINGRICH: It doesn't trouble me, but I think this will be--this decision will be the test of his Notre Dame speech. He said at Notre Dame we should come together. He said we should try to find common ground. Is he, in fact, going to nominate a moderate this week, or is he going to nominate somebody who in their judgments and in their rulings has proven to be radical? I think this will be one of the most important definitional moments of this administration, and we'll find out whether he meant the Notre Dame speech or whether it was just a nice speech on the way to a very radical administration. I don't know yet. I'm, I'm looking forward to seeing who he nominates. And I think it will tell us a great deal about this president and about this administration's future.
MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the future of the Republican Party and the ongoing debate about who's the leader of the party. Vice President Cheney said when it came to Colin Powell he didn't even consider him a Republican any longer. Well, Secretary Powell--General Powell responded this week. He said this: "Rush Limbaugh says," effectively to me, "`Get out of the Republican Party.' Dick Cheney says, `He's already out.' I may be out of their version of the Republican Party, but there's another version of the Republican Party waiting to emerge once again." Do you think Colin Powell is part of that Republican Party?
REP. GINGRICH: Absolutely.
MR. GREGORY: You think Dick Cheney was wrong?
REP. GINGRICH: Yeah. I, I don't want to pick a fight with Dick Cheney, but I think, I think the fact is the Republican Party has to be a broad party that appeals across the country and that does so--I mean, we have the governor of Vermont, we have the governor of Rhode Island. These, these are not states that are traditional Southern, right wing states. The--to be a national party you have to have a big enough tent that you inevitably have fights inside the tent. Ronald Reagan understood that. And Reagan always used to say--and as you know, my wife Callista and I did--recently did a movie on Reagan. And, and, and Reagan always used to say, "My fellow Republicans and those independents and Democrats who are looking for a better future." He consciously wanted the broadest possible coalition. That's how he carried 49 states in 1984. I think Republicans are going to be very foolish if they run around deciding that they're going to see how much they can purge us down to the smallest possible base.
MR. GREGORY: When you were last here, I asked you if you were considering a run in 2012, you said probably not.
REP. GINGRICH: Right.
MR. GREGORY: Are you, are you thinking that through a little bit differently now?
REP. GINGRICH: I'll, I'll be glad to accept an invitation in early 2011 to have that conversation, but I'm not...
MR. GREGORY: So you're thinking about it?
REP. GINGRICH: ...I'm not going to think about it till 2011.
MR. GREGORY: All right, we're going to save the date. Speaker Gingrich, thank you very much.
REP. GINGRICH: Good to be here.
MR. GREGORY: Senator Durbin, thank you as well.
SEN. DURBIN: Thank you, too.
MR. GREGORY: And coming next, a look inside the Obama/Cheney debate from this past week and a look ahead at the issues that will top the political conversation in the coming weeks: a Supreme Court nominee, healthcare reform, the economy and energy. Insights and analysis from our political roundtable: Rich Lowry, Michele Norris, Gene Robinson and Chuck Todd, only on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. GREGORY: Our roundtable weighs in on the Obama/Cheney debate and the issues topping the president's agenda after this brief commercial break.
MR. GREGORY: And we're back with our political roundtable this morning: Rich Lowry of the National Review and The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson and Michele Norris of NPR and NPR's--NPR's--NBC's Chuck Todd. You'd think I'd get that right. Welcome to all of you.
So, Chuck, I will start with you. You just heard the debate between Speaker Gingrich and Senator Durbin.
MR. CHUCK TODD: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Not so sure that it was resolved. but as we look at this week, the same question I asked speaker, what have we learned about President Obama's approach and his--the imprint he's trying to put on this national security debate?
MR. TODD: Well, the difference in this debate was more tonal than it was on policy.
MR. GREGORY: Hm.
MR. TODD: Speaker Gingrich himself brought that up on how that there's actually--that President Obama seems to be moving closer to where President Bush was at least in the last couple of years. And what I found interesting that wasn't brought up by either one of them is, you know, President Obama basically said we're going to have a new Guantanamo. He didn't say it's going to be called...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. TODD: You know, he was making the case. And that's where these debates sometimes, you, you wonder if, like, people out there watching are going why can't they just say, oh, we're not going to have--we're going to have a, a prison. He called them prisoners of war.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. TODD: Which was a very important phrase that I thought people didn't pick up on enough. The president, the president of the United States said we're going to have prisoners of war. We're at war, that's what these folks are. We're going to have a new...
MR. GREGORY: And we're going to hold them indefinitely.
MR. TODD: And we're going to hold them indefinitely.
MR. GREGORY: Where, though?
MR. TODD: Well, and that's--basically we're just changing the name...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. TODD: ...of Guantanamo to something else and moving it someplace else.
MR. EUGENE ROBINSON: Well...
MR. GREGORY: Yeah, go ahead, Gene.
MR. ROBINSON: No, I'm--but I think it--there is more than changing the name, though, because what Obama said is we're going to do this legally. We're going--we're not just going, going to hold people indefinitely without specifying their status, without filing charges just because we can and because we think we need to.
MR. TODD: Right.
MR. ROBINSON: He said there, there is going to be some sort of process for determining who gets held and, and presumably for determining how long they get held, or at least one hopes.
MR. GREGORY: But, Rich, here's what interested me, and I got into it with Speaker Gingrich as well, which is I, I thought the president's argument this week boiled down in some ways to the idea that, "Yes, fear was a motivator after 9/11. Yes, there was a chapter won on the war in terror, some of which I'm going to pick up and I'm going to continue. But for a policy to be sustainable, something you can really do over time, we have to make some changes." And that seems to be the crux of the disagreement.
MR. RICH LOWRY: Well, on the politics of fear, I don't have a problem with politics of fear when there's something actually to be fearful of. Earlier--you know, late last year and earlier this year both the Bush administration and the Obama administration embraced what you might call a politics of fear on the economy because they thought we were on the precipice of a depression.
MR. ROBINSON: Yeah.
MR. LOWRY: And I think it's, it's kind of a funny debate because Obama has embrace the essentials of the Bush counterterrorism program. I think that program worked, I think it's wise of him to do that and it, it reflects some admirable kind of flexibility and pragmatism. My problem with the speech was that Obama participated in this two, three, four year long smear campaign defaming these tactics, now has changed his mind and won't come out honestly and explain that he has changed his mind and why.
MR. GREGORY: Is it a case where he should've said--and should he, in fact, say, especially to his supporters on the left, "This is why I changed my mind on some of these issues"?
MS. MICHELE NORRIS: Well, they say that, that he has said that, that he's being deliberative, that he's, he's hearing this out, this is a careful sort of rendering of all the arguments.
To answer your earlier question, though, I just want to go back to something you said we learned about him this week. One thing that we learned is that he's not afraid of jumping in and taking on difficult issues and, and taking them on frontally. What was interesting to me is not just what he said, was where he said it and the date that he decided to deliver this speech. They decided to do this on Thursday of this week knowing that Dick Cheney was going to be speaking at--they could've done this Tuesday, they could've done this after the fact on, on Friday.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MS. NORRIS: They decided to do this on Wednesday...
MR. GREGORY: They wanted...
MS. NORRIS: ...to, to basically try to shut...(unintelligible).
MR. GREGORY: And I spoke to somebody in the White House who said we liked that contrast.
MR. TODD: Well, not only that--well, because here's the, here's the problem. Dick Cheney's positions, when you take away Dick Cheney's name, are, are fairly--I mean, the problem is the public is in between...
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. TODD: ...President Obama's positions and what he argued on Thursday, and vice--former Vice President Cheney's. What they knew was putting the Cheney brand on it made it a lot easier for them to win the initial political argument and made it--because they were making it tough. Now, look, the White House on Thursday, after the speeches, they were like, "Boy, this wasn't a home run. We know it wasn't a home run, because it wasn't going to be easy because of the fact that Cheney's positions are popular."
MR. GREGORY: Right. Well, and, Gene, here's the point, which is--and this, I think the vice president said it, you can't compromise on these matters. There is a pragmatism...
MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: ...in the leadership of President Obama on all sorts of issues.
MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.
MR. GREGORY: Can you really bring that same kind of pragmatism to the issue of the war on terror?
MR. ROBINSON: Well, pragmatism, yes; compromise, no, in the sense that either you torture or you don't. I mean, you, you know, either...
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. ROBINSON: ...you're going to waterboard people or you're not, and Obama says we're not going to waterboard people. He says it was, was a mistake to, to have done so in, in the past. That's a, an aspect of the Bush-Cheney program, among others, that he, he rejects. Even the, the late Bush-Cheney program. So, but--so compromise, I think, is, is, is indeed the wrong framework. But pragmatism is doing what works, and Obama says that what works is not the, the, the Bush-Cheney technique of take no prisoners, essentially, or take every prisoner.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
Rich, in the politics of national security, I--Republicans I talked to said, "Oh, yeah, there was a rallying cry from Dick Cheney this week." It was an argument to conservatives and to Republicans, "Hey, this is where you should oppose this president."
MR. LOWRY: Yeah.
MR. GREGORY: Because both on politics and on substance, on policy grounds, you've got a real legitimate fight here.
MR. LOWRY: Yeah, that's, that's exactly right. I talked to a Republican strategist last week who said, "Look, would we prefer to have someone with 70 percent approval out there making this case? Yes." But where is that person with 70 percent approval? He's not, you know, evident. And I think...
MR. ROBINSON: He's in the White House, actually.
MR. LOWRY: ...and I think the--well, yeah, that's 60 percent, not exactly. But in terms of the politics of this, no one's going to vote in November 2010 in their congressional or Senate races based on what Dick Cheney is saying right now.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. LOWRY: And I think what's motivating Cheney is a sense of honor. His administration has been accused of war crimes. Someone has to go out there in a high-profile way and defend it. And Condie Rice and Steve Hadley and all the rest of them apparently are hiding under their desks, so it falls to Dick Cheney.
MR. GREGORY: What about President Bush, former President Bush?
MR. LOWRY: Well, he has a very strong belief that it's not his role as the, you know, former president to be sniping at the current occupant.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MS. NORRIS: But, Rich, some of those people, though, that you say are hiding under their desks also evolved in the course of that eight-year administration. I mean, they were not at the place that they were at the end of eight years that they were at the beginning of eight years. And so it's, it seems unrealistic to almost expect that they would come forward and carry this water...
MR. LOWRY: Well--but, but initially in '02...
MS. NORRIS: ...because they, they weren't--basically weren't there by the end of the administration.
MR. LOWRY: In '02 and '03 the top echelons of the Bush administration, all these folks were in favor of these things. Now, what happened over time is the, the threat seemed to fade a little bit and we knew more about al-Qaeda, and the legal environment changed with the McCain amendment and the rest of it.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. LOWRY: So there was an evolution. But at the beginning, when we thought we were going to get hit again and we had these high-value guys who might have had information about ongoing plots, everyone wanted to push right up against the line.
MR. GREGORY: And there were other folks who were in line with the Bush-Cheney agenda at that time, Democrats; and that gets to the issue of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who claims actually that that was not the case, that she knew that they were asking for legal authority for waterboarding but hadn't actually done it. But what is clear is there were no prominent Democrats at the time publicly saying, "Why don't we stop this? We're going down a real dark corridor here." What happens to Speaker Pelosi?
MS. NORRIS: Well, this is--I think we're still in a dark corridor on this. It, it's very difficult to try to ascertain what actually happened inside that room for all kinds of reasons, and it's clear that people who were through these--went through these briefings have different interpretations. Not just the briefing that, that Nancy Pelosi was involved in, but former Senator Graham and Senator Shelby have very different interpretations of the briefings that they went to--went through. And it's difficult to try to get a handle on this, because the people who are actually going through, looking at these documents, they leave with different interpretations. It's hard for Nancy Pelosi to defend herself because she has to sort of talk around what happened inside that room.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MS. NORRIS: These are classified meetings, she can't actually talk about what happened inside them without breaking the rule of law, so.
MR. GREGORY: Well, but she, but she certainly doesn't have a problem, Chuck, with going out and saying the CIA uniformly misleads Congress, I mean.
MR. TODD: Well, you know, don't forget, she's got to protect her own left flank.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. TODD: I mean, what she was fearful of at the beginning when our--you know, when that OLC memo that, that, that came out, and we're reading these things...
MR. GREGORY: Office of Legal Counsel.
MR. TODD: ...that--Office--yeah, my, my apologies for using the initials there. Too much time at the White House, right.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. TODD: You remember seeing that, "Wow, Colin Powell was briefed." You know, you start seeing all of these people that had been critics of waterboarding had been briefed at that time, and then you realize that Speaker Pelosi at the time, who was on the Intelligence Committee. And so she couldn't sit there and say, you know--so I don't think--I think it was Martin Frost, a former member of Congress, wrote this, you know, "What if everybody's telling the truth, where everybody heard what they thought they wanted to hear," you know, and the CIA did--you know, maybe they weren't direct in what they were saying, but they were basically going, "Wink and a nod, read between the lines, this is what's probably going to happen. We wanted to give you guys a heads up." And maybe there is, there is where there was this miscommunication. But for her politically right now, look, no Democrat's calling for her to go down.
MR. GREGORY: Mm-hmm.
MR. TODD: What's happened for her, I think, is she has no more margin of error. If something else happens, this John Murtha scandal with the Democratic congressman, if something, something else comes up and bites her, she could be in trouble.
MR. LOWRY: You know, the--going to the different recollections, the Russians have a saying that no one lies like an eyewitness. Just because given human fallibility, everyone's going to have a different recollection and your memory plays tricks on you. And it usually plays tricks on you that you want it to play, you know, it goes, goes the way you want it to. I think she's clearly wounded. That press conference Friday where you had Majority Leader Steny Hoyer trying to pull her away from the podium when a CIA question came up, that was really cringe-making. But I think beyond the politics, beyond the, the "gotcha" aspect of this, the real substantive import in this entire controversy is, I believe, very strongly, Nancy Pelosi, a liberal Democrat, has pretty impressive human rights credentials. If she had been told we were using methods that were clearly, inarguably tortuous--we're pulling out fingernails, we're burning people with cigarettes--she would have raised holy hell. And that she didn't raise that kind of fuss over waterboarding tells us that it at the worst exists in a murky area and is not on par with those sort of clearly tortuous methods.
MR. GREGORY: And as Speaker Gingrich says, it may be the policy was vindicated if she did not do that.
MR. ROBINSON: Well, I--first, I, I, I don't think I would agree, actually, that waterboarding is in some sort of gray area. I mean, we--you know, our government has prosecuted it as a war crime in the past.
MR. LOWRY: Right.
MR. ROBINSON: And so it, it is, it is generally considered to be torture. And I'm, I'm also not sure that I agree that she's in such terrible political danger. People underestimate Nancy Pelosi sometimes as a politician. And remember, she is Tommy D'Alesandro's daughter, the former political boss of Baltimore. That's the why she plays politics. She's good at it.
MR. GREGORY: All right, I want to talk about--I want to look forward a little bit to, where, where Memorial Day is upon us, the beginning of summer and where the Obama agenda goes from here.
The big one, Michele, is the Supreme Court nominee. You heard Senator Durbin, we could get it--he thinks we're going to get it this week, as early as Tuesday. Steve Scully from C-SPAN did a very interesting interview with the president which aired this weekend. And again, this is what the president had to say about what he's looking for in a nominee.
PRES. OBAMA: I think it's also important that this is, this is somebody who has common sense and somebody who has a sense of how American society works and how the American people live. You know, I said earlier that I thought empathy was an important quality, and I, I continue to believe that. You have to have not only the intellect to be able to effectively apply the law to cases before you, but you have to be able to stand in somebody else's shoes and, and see through their eyes and get a sense of how the law might work or not work in practical, day-to-day living.
MR. GREGORY: So that's one priority; demographics, diversity another. Here are some of the top picks who are women: Judge Sotomayor; Elena Kagan, the current solicitor general; Diane Wood, who serves on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago; Jennifer Granholm, governor of Michigan; Janet Napolitano, who is Homeland Security secretary. Where's he going?
MS. NORRIS: You know, there are a couple of things here. One, the White House is--has said repeatedly, if you talk to people inside the White House, that this so-called short list is not fully inclusive; that the president is considering people that aren't on that list. What's interesting when you listen to the president talk about his vision of the law, it is very different than the current majority on the court. People seized on this term empathy and wondered what it really meant. It seems that he sees the law as something that is dynamic, that changes over time. One of the criticisms that we saw that he had of, of Chief Justice Roberts is that it's more of a static view of the law, the law is written in stone. It's more of a conservative view. He sees--it's almost as if they see the law as a river, something that flows through people's lives, from the courtroom into the classroom into the boardroom, through field and factory, past the kitchen table, and that the Constitution, this magnificent document, was written 200 years ago. And what he seems to be saying is that you need to consider how the terrain of this country has changed, because that will determine the ebb and the flow of this sort of dynamic force. And so he's looking--what they say is that they're looking for someone who has intellectual heft. And, you know, the law is 95 percent of it, but there's this other 5 percent, and that 5 percent goes to experience.
MR. GREGORY: Well, and that subjectivity, Chuck, is no doubt going to be grounds for a pretty hearty round of questioning for whoever the president chooses then, if there's that much leeway.
MR. TODD: Well, and not to jump ahead to a subject matter that I know we're about to take on, but I think the--this first pick and the timing of it, I don't know if they want a big political fight over their Supreme Court. I think when they nominate somebody--and for instance, the timing of this thing, why do it this coming week? Congress isn't here, right? We--it's not easy for us to go find senators to start the media's confirmation process. So that's number one. Two, I think he wants somebody that can get confirmed with 70 to 75 votes. Would he like to make a political statement? You know, with--on the demographic front, particularly with Hispanics, I think they would. If they can't find the perfect candidate that can get--that can make this an easy process so they can tackle healthcare...
MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.
MR. TODD: ...which is the real fight of the summer and the real debate that they want to get done, then, you know, I have a feeling we may see somebody--even though we said don't look on the circuit, we may see somebody who's a current judge, maybe a Diane Wood.
MS. NORRIS: One thing that, that's clear when you talk to them, they are confident that they're going to get more than bite at this apple, also.
MR. TODD: Right.
MR. ROBINSON: Right.
MS. NORRIS: They're...
MR. GREGORY: Rich, speak to the healthcare debate, because it's important. Where is a bipartisan solution that emerges this year?
MR. LOWRY: Well...
MR. GREGORY: What does it look like?
MR. LOWRY: ...I don't know. You know, it's--everyone thinks something inevitably is going to pass, which is exactly what everyone in Washington thought in 1993 when the Clintons took this on. But you talk to Republicans in Congress and they're very frustrated at the fact that the industry groups are not there for them the way they were in '93 and '94. And that's driven mostly by that sense of inevitability.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. LOWRY: So it's kind of a self-fulfilling dynamic here. But Republicans are going to try to make the case that things, that things that people are really worried about--the portability, not being able to keep their health care if they lose their job, cost--can be addressed by all sorts of measures short of this massive intervention into the healthcare plan--system.
MR. GREGORY: What is interesting as well, Wall Street Journal pointed out this week that the president is leaving a lot of the details for how the reform is structured to Congress.
MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm. He is. This seems to be his, his MO, the way he wants to tackle these, these huge issues. You know, there's a, there's a difference from--another big difference from '93, though, and I think it's, it's that there is more of a consensus in the business community, which generally opposed healthcare reform in '93, that in fact it's time for reform, that something needs to be done; that these businesses are realizing that our current system, which imposes all of these costs on business, essentially, or, or, or the lion's share of them, is--makes them less competitive, creates all sorts of problems. You know, GM is essentially, you know, a health insurance company that makes a few cars.
MR. GREGORY: Yeah.
MR. ROBINSON: So, so, and that changes the dynamic, and that's partly responsible for the weak response the Republicans are getting.
MR. GREGORY: Right. Before we go, a great image of the week and we're going to show it to you, the Naval Academy graduation. The president spoke. And there he is, John McCain IV, John McCain's son, with an embrace for the commander in chief, the man who defeated his father, there at graduation ceremonies this week.
Chuck, certainly an interesting political moment to see.
MR. TODD: It was. And it's, it's--what's remarkable is over 103-year period the Naval Academy has graduated somebody named John McCain four different times. I mean, forget what you--that is a remarkable public service achievement no matter where, where, where you fall in the political spectrum.
MR. GREGORY: Rich, before I let you go, the issue of Colin Powell and the Republican Party. Speaker Gingrich seemed to--on this program, at least, Republicans were talking to are saying, no, no, let's get away from this idea of the fact that Powell is not part of the party. There seems to be a move toward more inclusion now.
MR. LOWRY: Well, it's such a--this is something where I disagree with Dick Cheney on. I think he fell into a false choice with that question, you know, who do you take, Limbaugh or Colin Powell? You need both, obviously.
MR. GREGORY: All right.
MR. LOWRY: And Republicans say it's a center-right country, it means you need a right and a center in your party.
MR. GREGORY: All right, we have to leave it there. Thank you all very much. I'll be right back with some final thoughts on this Memorial Day weekend after this.
MR. GREGORY: Finally, a Memorial Day story. This week I flew home from San Diego after a couple of days off with my family. Shortly before landing in Washington, the captain informed us we were in special company on the flight. A Marine casualty officer was on board to escort the body of a fellow Marine en route to Arlington National Cemetery. Twenty-seven-year-old Captain Jessica Conkling of Centre County, Pennsylvania, died May 5th when her Cobra helicopter crashed during a nighttime training exercise. Having returned from service in Japan, Captain Conkling was preparing for another deployment. The captain of our United Airlines flight encouraged all of us to take a moment and reflect on the sacrifice so many young men and women have made for the cause of defending America. As I sat in silence with my fellow passengers, I felt honored to make that emotional connection with those serving in harm's way, something we may not do enough. On this Memorial Day weekend, we...(technical difficulties)...paid by so many of our troops, and we offer the family of Captain Conkling and other families of the fallen our profound thanks. And we'll be right back.
MR. GREGORY: That's all for today. We'll be back next week with a special conversation from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange with three key business leaders of Google, Caterpillar and Xerox. That's coming up next week. If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.