Breaking News Emails

Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
 / Updated 

DAVID GREGORY:Breaking news, a bombshell report in The New York Times could change the debate over the deadly attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya on September 11th, 2012. One of the hot political topics of this year.

ANNOUNCER: From NBC News in Washington … the world’s longest-running television program. This is Meet the Press, with David Gregory.

DAVID GREGORY:And good Sunday morning, happy holidays. The New York Times report concludes there was no involvement by Al Qaeda in the attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The Times also says in a piece out this morning that the attack was in part fueled by anger over an American-made video critical of Islam.

So does this bolster the Obama administration's initial response to the attack and undermine its critic? Coming up, I'll have inclusive interviews with the journalist who broke the story in The Times and also one of the key Republicans in Congress who claimed there was indeed a cover-up. Also this Sunday, some of the key questions for 2014.

Will ObamaCare survive in its current form? Plus, the U.S. and the state of the world, how much influence does America still have around the globe? And what more is in store from leaker-in-exile Edward Snowden? I'm going to speak with his lead U.S. attorney coming up in just a couple of minutes.

But first, the developments in the Benghazi story. Joining me here in Washington on our set is NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, and from Vermont this New York, New York Times Cairo Bureau Chief David Kirkpatrick and the writer of today's report.

David, thanks for being here. This is a significant story because it changes the narrative, it changes the debate around Benghazi. And let me lay out for context what you conclude in your own investigation. I'll put it up on the screen for our viewers at home. "Months of investigation," you write, "by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi, who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.

"The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO's extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam." So the Al Qaeda connection and the video, to key points. How do you know it wasn't Al Qaeda? DAVID KIRKPATRICK:Well, I don't think I'm out on a limb there. I think honestly, if you ask anybody in the U.S. intelligence business, they would tell you the same thing. I've talked to some of the people who I believe were lead perpetrators. And it's just obvious from them and the people around them, they're purely local people. Their pasts are known, their records are known, when they were in prison, who they hung out with in prison, who their associations are.There's just no chance that this was an Al Qaeda attack if, by Al Qaeda, you mean the organization founded by Osama bin Laden. Now, try to understand some of the statements coming out of the United States Congress blaming Al Qaeda for this. And the only way that they make sense to me is if you're using the term Al Qaeda a little differently.

If you're using the term Al Qaeda to describe even a local group of Islamist militants who may dislike democracy or have a grudge against the United States. If you're going to call anybody like that Al Qaeda, then okay. Certainly there were some anti-Western, Islamist militants involved in this attack. But to me, that's a semantic difference and not a useful way of answering the original question, which is, did the group founded by Osama bin Laden and led by Ayman al-Zawahiri lead this attack? DAVID GREGORY:So let me bring in Andrea Mitchell as well, and both you listen to this. In the days after the attack on September 16th, on this program and others, then ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, now the president's national security advisor, came on the program. And I asked her about whether there was a terrorist element involved. This is what she said then. SUSAN RICE (ON TAPE):Putting together the best information that we have available to us today. Our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo. Almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted of course by the video. DAVID GREGORY:So she says video was part of this. This was a spontaneous event in part based on what the intelligence community believed. That's being bolstered, that original assessment, by this reporting in The New York Times. ANDREA MITCHELL:Well, I think that the United-- DAVID KIRKPATRICK:Well, if I can interrupt you, I would say no. We're not bolstering that original assessment. In fact, she made some clear misstatements there. This was not a street protest. And it was not a copycat of what happened in Cairo. That was unarmed street protest. This is a group of armed men, who inspired by the video, deliberately attacked the compound.And so what she's doing there through her misstatement is actually setting up a kind of a false dichotomy. Either it was a spontaneous street protest, or it was an armed terrorist attack. And neither of those turns out to be exactly the case. It was an armed terrorist attack motivated in large part by the video. DAVID GREGORY:But that's the point of the role of the video as opposed to an attack that was carefully planned and orchestrated. ANDREA MITCHELL:Exactly. I think that you can parse the words, it's very clear and it was clear from the review boards report that the State Department itself had commissioned. That review board, led by Mike Mullen and Ambassador Pickering said that there was a terrorist element here. So I think the question here, how much were they motivated by, or sparked by the video, and how much was it purely terrorism, anti-U.S., anti-Western terrorism, showing again how vulnerable the confluent and the outposts were.I think part of the problem with Susan Rice's approach, and in her defense, the State Department's approach as well, in those first few days were everyone was trying to cover up, appropriately, they thought, the fact that this was a C.I.A. outpost. This was barely a diplomatic mission. It was a cover for an outpost to try to disarm the very militias that ended up attacking. DAVID GREGORY:So David, just a final point here, there's a larger takeaway in your report reporting, the result of your investigation. One thing that is not removed is the sting against this administration for inadequate security for a diplomatic outpost on the ground in post-war Libya. DAVID KIRKPATRICK:Yeah, I would say in addition to inadequate security, there was a real intelligence failure here. There's a substantial C.I.A. operation tasked with trying to figure out what is a threat to American interests among these militias. And it's clear that the United States fundamentally understood the dynamics of those militias. The people who attacked the compound were members of the militias the U.S. expected to help protect the same mission. DAVID GREGORY:All right, David Kirkpatrick, thank you very much for your reporting and for coming on the program this morning. I appreciate it. Happy new year to you. Joining me here with Andrea is Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In a few minutes, I'll also be speaking with Democratic Congressman, Joaquin Castro of Texas. He's in San Antonio this morning.Congressman Issa, let me start with you. Back in May on this program, after the Independent Review Board came out with its conclusions about what had happened, you and I had the following exchange. If I could play it and then ask you about it now.

(BEGIN TAPE) REP. DARRELL ISSA:The fact is, we want the facts. We're entitled to the facts. The American people were effectively lied to for a period of about a month. That's important to get right. DAVID GREGORY:I just want to be clear what you believe the lie was. REP. DARRELL ISSA: :This was a terrorist attack from the get-go. It was never about a video.

(END TAPE) DAVID GREGORY:Have you changed your mind based on The New York Times investigation? Were you wrong about that? REP. DARRELL ISSA:Well, The New York Times, quite frankly, David Kirkpatrick did some very good work. But interviewing people in Benghazi after the fact, after the world has been told about this video, is really not real time. So we have seen no evidence that the video was widely seen in Benghazi, a very isolated area, or that it was a leading cause.What we do know is September 11th is not an accident. These are terrorist groups. Some of them linked to or self-effacing, or self-claimed as Al Qaeda link. But before I go on, I want to make a very good point that David put out. Look, it is not about Al Qaeda as the only terrorist organization any more than Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Hamas or Hezbollah. DAVID GREGORY:No, no, But you've said repeatedly that it was Al Qaeda. And the reason that matters is that you and other critics said the president specifically won't acknowledge it's Al Qaeda because it's an election year and he wants to say that after bin Laden, it's been decimated and it would make him look bad if it were Al Qaeda. REP. DARRELL ISSA:Al Qaeda is not decimated and there was a group there that was involved that is linked to Al Qaeda. What we've never said, and I didn't have the security look behind the door, that's for other members of Congress, of what the intelligence were on the exact correspondence for Al Qaeda, that sort of information. Those sources and methods I've never claimed.What I have claimed and rightfully so, is Ambassador Stevens and others alerted well in advance that they had a security threat including, of course, the two attempts to kill the British ambassador to closing down these facilities and so on. On the day that the ambassador was killed, he said, it was in a cable, "It was not a question of if, but when there'd be an attack."So we had warning beforehand and we, instead of increasing security, reduced security. During the attack, eight and a half hours, we didn't launch so much as one F-16. There's a lot of questions about not what the military capability is today, which has been improved, but what the military capability and response was there, and why there wasn't a greater response. DAVID GREGORY:But then when you-- REP. DARRELL ISSA:And then lastly, there was this clear attempt, and Andrea said it very well, there was an attempt to put a bright spot, and maybe it was to cover up C.I.A. activities, but they went out on five stations and told the story that was at best a cover-up for C.I.A. And at worst, something that cast away this idea that there was a real terrorist operation in Benghazi. And by the way, there's nobody from the U.S. government in Benghazi today. It is too dangerous to go there. DAVID GREGORY:Andrea, a question on this? ANDREA MITCHELL:One point is that they would deny a C.I.A. outpost in the initial days because it was still too dangerous and because we don't talk about it now. REP. DARRELL ISSA:We still call it the annex officially. ANDREA MITCHELL:We still call it the annex. But to the point of why use the term Al Qaeda? Because you and other members of Congress are sophisticated in this and know, that when you say Al Qaeda, people think central Al Qaeda. They don't think militias that may be inspired by bin Laden and his other followers. So it is a hot button for political reasons from the administration’s-- REP. DARRELL ISSA:But Andrea, it was accurate. There is a group that was involved that claimed an affiliation with Al Qaeda. Now, Al Qaeda's not a central command and control. It was, in fact, a loose group that could take general statements and act on them. The important thing in our investigation, in the Oversight Committee investigation, where people have said under oath repeatedly, they were not given the security they asked for in advance, and they can't understand why there were not clear attempts to help them during those eight and a half hours. DAVID GREGORY:All right, but these are separate issues, Chairman. REP. DARRELL ISSA:And then after, the facts were not properly stated. DAVID GREGORY:The key question is, do you stand by that the administration lied about who was behind it and what initially happened, given this reporting? REP. DARRELL ISSA:I think David Kirkpatrick very clearly says that the statements made were false and misleading. He says that in this report. I don't have to state anything. I'll stand, quite frankly, behind what the Kirkpatrick-- DAVID GREGORY:Misleading based on the amount of information they had at the time. REP. DARRELL ISSA:No, that's not at all-- DAVID GREGORY:Isn't there a distinction between fog of war and an attempt to deceive? REP. DARRELL ISSA:Gregory Hicks, hearing the last words of Ambassador Stevens to the outside world, was told, "We're under attack." And under oath, when asked, "If any ambassador had seen a protest or anything else earlier, would he have reported it?" He said, "Of course, yes." The fact is, people from this administration, career professionals, have said under oath, there was no evidence of any kind of reaction to a video and, in fact, this was a planned attack that came quickly. That's the evidence we have by people who work for the U.S. government and were under oath. DAVID GREGORY:And again, the reporting today indicating that there was no evidence to be found of direct, core Al Qaeda linked to all this. This was clearly an attack, as people on the ground, felt it was.

REP. DARRELL ISSA:David, I'm sure Kirkpatrick doesn't have the classified information that Mike Rogers and others have, and neither do I. I have never asserted that there was-- DAVID GREGORY:But classified information can also be based on incomplete information. It's real time. If intelligence were always right, we wouldn't have a lot of the oversight in this country we have. Initial reports are often wrong, are they not? REP. DARRELL ISSA:What we know, David, is that the initial reports did not name this video as a prime cause. There was a small piece of information in a cable. They seized on it along with a lot of other information, and chose to use that as a talking point. And Andrea, I think you hit it right on the head. If this was always about trying to deflect the fact that there was a large, other facility, fine. But the administration should honestly say that. We have already had Director Clapper say effectively, he lied as little as possible before the Congress. ANDREA MITCHELL:Mr. Chairman, didn't the administration's own review board, the Independent Review Board, Admiral Mullen and Ambassador Pickering, come to the conclusion that the security failures you cited from Gregory Hicks and other witnesses, were accurate? And it was a slamming report, in terms of security. REP. DARRELL ISSA:It was a slamming report. My concern with that report is it doesn't go high enough, it doesn't go to Undersecretary Kennedy and others who had direct responsibility. But having said that, yes. They made it clear that they should've have security they didn't have. Admiral Mullen, in front of my committee, when asked, "If they had had a fast team like Yemen had or like Libya has today, would there have been an attack?" And in his opinion, with those kinds of forces behind the walls, there wouldn't have been an attack. DAVID GREGORY:I want to turn to Congressman Castro, just want to, before I let you go, I quickly want to touch on ObamaCare, which is a big area of concern for you, especially at the Oversight Committee. Your colleague in the Senate, Senator Ron Johnson told The New York Times this on Friday and I want to put it on the screen."It's no longer just a piece of paper that you can repeal and it goes away. There's something there. We have to recognize that reality. We have to deal with the people that are currently covered under ObamaCare." Some 400,000 in your state of California have signed up, have enrolled in ObamaCare. Will ObamaCare survive, whether you like it or not? REP. DARRELL ISSA:ObamaCare is a reality. Unfortunately, it's a failed program that is taking a less-than-perfect health care system, from the standpoint of cost, and making it worse. So the damage that ObamaCare has already done and will do on January 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, will have to be dealt with as part of any reform.Some of these things that the administration talks about as good are in fact large expansions in Medicaid. The fact that people well into the middle class are going to get subsidies, is going to cause them to look at health care differently. Health care sort of in a third-world way of do we get subsidies from the government for our milk, for our gasoline, and/or by the way, for our health care.So as Americans, we're going to have to ask the question of have we done anything to drive down the cost of healthcare, the answer obviously is no, we're going up. Are we making it more affordable with government subsidies? Yes. But are government subsidies the answer? Or do we really need to look at the cost-drivers of healthcare to get effective health care delivered at an affordable price, which was the stated goal of the Affordable Care Act. DAVID GREGORY:All right, Congressman Issa, thank you very much. A lot to get to --

REP. DARRELL ISSA:Thank you. DAVID GREGORY:--this morning. Would've loved even more time on healthcare, but we're out of time this morning. REP. DARRELL ISSA:N.S.A. next time. DAVID GREGORY:We'll come back, and N.S.A. as well. Thank you very much. Congressman Castro, let me bring you into this. But before you talk on health care, give me your response as a Democrat more aligned with this administration on the aftermath of Benghazi and this reporting this morning. Does it change the debate? REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO:Well, it certainly does, David. And I hope that Chairman Issa and others have learned a lesson from this. Chairman Issa and members of that committee crusaded for over a year on what was really a fairytale, claiming that the administration knew that Al Qaeda was involved and wouldn't admit it.And the fact is that when a tragedy like this happens, whether it's something like this or a mass shooting at a school, there's a lot of information that comes out at the beginning that later has to be verified. But the important thing is that Susan Rice and the administration were trying their best to level with the American people and some of the information that came out early, although it may have been wrong, that was their best effort. Darrell Issa and others took that and crusaded against the administration in a way that I think has been a big distraction for the American people. DAVID GREGORY:Let me ask you about health care. The news this morning is that there have been 1.1 million Americans who have enrolled via, a surge that we've seen in the last days and weeks. Back in September, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, said, "This was the standard of success."


DR. NANCY SNYDERMAN:What does success look like? KATHLEEN SEBELIUS:Well, I think success looks like at least seven million people having signed up by the end of March 2014.

(END TAPE) DAVID GREGORY:So we're about 1.1 million now, certainly far short of that standard of that goal. If you don't reach it, what are the implications? REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO:Well, obviously we're going to try as hard as we can to reach it. The Affordable Care Act is something that's good for the country. It really is a new day for the American people. They can't be denied now because of preexisting condition, they won't get lifetime caps.And we have been a little bit behind the curve. But on Christmas Eve and the day just before that, there were about a million people that were either on the website or made a phone call to enroll. And so we've seen the numbers spike up incredibly since November 1st. DAVID GREGORY:Do you believe that the individual mandate will have to be delayed? Is that something worth considering? REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO:No. At this point, I think that we should continue with the law. The administration of course has made some adjustments. But David, there's not a single big law like this that America has passed probably in our history where there haven't had to have been changes made to it to tweak it to make it better. So some of those delays that you see the administration making are really in the best interest of the American people and made with the intent of serving the American people and getting people health care in a better way. DAVID GREGORY:The fight coming up in the new year will be over the economy and jobless benefits that are set to expire for Americans who are out of work. What are the economic ramifications of letting those benefits expire? REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO:Well, obviously you've got about 4.1 million long-term unemployed in this nation. In Texas alone, we've got 66,000 people who as of yesterday lost their benefits. 235,000 people in all who will lose their benefits through midway in 2014. So it's not only the benefits, which by the way, only average about $300 a month. So it's not only the benefits to them, but also all of that economic development for the country, for retailers, for grocers, et cetera. And so it's going to have a sizeable impact on our economy if Congress doesn't come back and do something about it. DAVID GREGORY:All right, Congressman Castro in Texas this morning, happy new year to you, thanks so much for your time. REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO:Happy new year. Thank you. DAVID GREGORY:We're back here in one minute, with one of Edward Snowden's lead attorneys. Are more surprises in store for 2014? Plus, this holiday season, praying for Billy Graham. FRANKLIN GRAHAM (ON TAPE):He felt that God did this and put him in that place so that he could be a spiritual counselor and advisor and every one of the presidents, always at some point in that relationship, would talk to my father about spiritual things. DAVID GREGORY:My colleague, Harry Smith, with a special look at the man who's been a spiritual leader to millions for more than half a century. Plus, our roundtable's back with its analysis and insights about the U.S. and our position in the world. What are the biggest threats to the U.S. in 2014? And how will President Obama handle them?

DAVID GREGORY:President Obama and the U.S. intelligence world were rocked this year by the leaks from Edward Snowden. Here's this week's front page of The Washington Post. Snowden was interviewed for hours by Barton Gellman and he said that, quote, "The mission's already accomplished. I already won." The questions remain including Snowden's plans for 2014. Snowden's key legal advisor in the United States, Ben Wizner joins me now. Ben, good to have you here. BEN WIZNER:Glad to be here, David. Thanks. DAVID GREGORY:Welcome to Meet the Press. So the question is, what happens in 2014 legally when he says, "Mr. Snowden, I've already won." That may not be a view of the court. Just this past week, there was a ruling in U.S. District Court by Judge William Pauley that concluded the following. "No doubt, the bulk telephony metadata collection program vacuums up information about virtually every telephone call to, from, or within the United States."That is by design, as it allows the N.S.A. to detect relationships so attenuated and ephemeral they would otherwise escape notice. As the September 11th attacks demonstrate, the cost of missing such a thread can be horrific. The bulk telephony metadata collection program represents the government's counterpunch, connecting fragmented and fleeting communications to reconstruct and eliminate Al Qaeda's terror network." So here's a district court judge disagreeing with another district court judge, if it goes to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Court of Appeals has to do something. Is that where this is headed? BEN WIZNER:Well, it is. But let me just say, this district judge is not just disagreeing with another judge. He's also disagreeing with the president's own hand-picked advisory panel. That panel, which included a former top-level C.I.A. official, a former counterterrorism advisor, concluded that they had seen no evidence that the bulk telephone metadata program had been uniquely successful, had stopped any kind of attack.So there is a dispute about whether this is effective or even legal. But yes, I think we always expected that there would be differences of opinion in the lower courts. There's no question that it's time for the Supreme Court to weigh in and to see whether, as we believe, the N.S.A. allowed its technological capabilities to outpace democratic controls. DAVID GREGORY:One of Snowden's key claims is that this is an abusive program. This is an abuse of government authority. I can understand the argument that there is the potential for abuse by this kind of bulk collection. What is the actual abuse that's occurred? BEN WIZNER:Well, this is a general warrant. I mean, this is what the framers of the constitution were worried about when they said that the government needed to have individualized suspicion before it collected records from the American people. What the N.S.A. has done is they put down their head. They say, "We're going to collect everything now because we can. And we think that it will be relevant to some investigation in the future." DAVID GREGORY:And the Supreme Court said that that was okay, if your data between you call someone else, just the data, not the content, that that's not private. BEN WIZNER:You know, the Supreme Court said that was right about one person. The Supreme Court didn't say that that was right about all people. Remember--

(OVERTALK) BEN WIZNER:The N.S.A., that's exactly right. They're collecting the telephone records of every American. But I want to go back to that Washington Post headline where Mr. Snowden said, "I won and mission accomplished." He didn't mean that the mission was accomplished. What he meant was that what he had set out to do was to bring the American public into the conversation. To bring open federal courts into the conversation. To bring the whole Congress into their conversation. He did his part. It's now up to the public and our institutional oversight to decide how to respond to the intelligence. DAVID GREGORY:This is the ultimate act of civil disobedience. The question is, why doesn't he come back and face the music, face charges? Is that the honorable thing to do? Here's the president speaking in August of this year. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (ON TAPE):So the fact is, is that Mr. Snowden's been charged with three felonies. If in fact he believes that what he did was right, then like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer, and make his case. DAVID GREGORY:Would he do that? Under what circumstances would he do it? BEN WIZNER:Here's the problem with that. The law under which Mr. Snowden is charged, the 1917 Espionage Act, a World-War-I-era statute, doesn't distinguish between leaks to the press and the public interest, and I think that we can all agree that some of this information has been profoundly in the public interest, and someone who sells secrets to an enemy for personal profit.And in fact, the Department of Justice has argued in legal cases that it's actually worse, a worse violation of the law to leak to the press than it is to sell it to an enemy, because all enemies get to see it. Well, that's true. But the American public also gets to see it. And in a democracy, it's very, very important that-- DAVID GREGORY:But he took an oath not to disclose classified information. BEN WIZNER:That's not right. He took an oath to follow the constitution. Now, he certainly signed the same standard classification agreement that everybody else signed. But his oath was to the constitution. Now, if the law allowed him to make a public interest defense, if the law allowed him to come here and say, "Look at all the good this has done," if the law allowed him to say, "The government hasn't been able to prove any harm from these disclosures," sure, he would face trial in that kind of system. But for now, he doesn't believe and I don't believe that the cost of his act of conscience should be a life behind bars. DAVID GREGORY:How often are you in touch with him and how are you in touch with him? BEN WIZNER:We're in touch very regularly over encrypted channels. DAVID GREGORY:Would he come back to the United States under any circumstances? BEN WIZNER:Sure, he would come back to the United States. He hopes to come back to the United States. I mean, he would like--

(OVERTALK) DAVID GREGORY:Only if given some deal, some amnesty? BEN WIZNER:You know, amnesty is not a dirty word. There's a lot of people in this town, including some who have been on your show, who have been given amnesty. We just don't call it that. Lying to Congress is a crime. Torturing prisoners is a very serious crime. There are lots of times when people violate the law and society decides for one reason or another to look forward rather than backwards.I think that this is one of those cases. Mr. Snowden's disclosures have been profoundly valuable to the country and to the world. They've really changed the whole debate here. And I also think that there is much that the United States could gain through conversation with him. DAVID GREGORY:I understand your point of view. And I wonder if you can understand those who believe that here is Mr. Snowden, who has great faith in the American constitution who is in exile in Russia, a country that does not have faith in our constitution or in the freedoms that it affords. BEN WIZNER:Absolutely. And I actually think if there's one thing that we all should agree on, it's that Edward Snowden shouldn't be in Russia. The reason why he's in Russia is that the United States revoked his passport when he was transiting through there. And I hope that the U.S. will see that it's not in anybody's best interests for him to be there. And that even if he isn't going to return here, that there should be some other place where he can live. DAVID GREGORY:He's a big public figure now. What can we expect from him in 2014? BEN WIZNER:You know, it's very possible that he will emerge a little bit. You know, he's been called narcissist in a lot of corners. But as you know, your network and every other has been trying to get interviews with him. People have been trying to give him money for book deals and movie deals. And he prefers to stay out of the limelight. But I do think we can expect to see him engage a little bit more in the public debate. DAVID GREGORY:Certainly love to have him here at this table and talk about his views. Mr. Wizner, thank you very much. BEN WIZNER:Thanks, David. DAVID GREGORY:I appreciate your time this morning. And coming up here, it's the U.S. and the world. How has President Obama handled America's foreign policy from the brink of war with Syria over its chemical weapons to the controversial nuclear agreement with Iran. Our roundtable is back to analyze the hot spots and the issues that will define America's role in the world in 2014 and beyond. That's up next after this short break.

DAVID GREGORY:We are back. We've got a special roundtable we put together to talk about the U.S. and the state of the world. Back with me is NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Andrea Mitchell. Also here, The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson, author and foreign policy analyst Robin Wright, Elliott Abrams, foreign policy advisor to Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, and the provost and professor of history at George Mason University, Dr. Peter Stearns, first time on the program.He's here because I spent more than a month with you listening to the great courses in your brief history of the world. Which made me sound very smart in front of my kids, even though they weren't as interested. So professors, welcome. Welcome all of you. So I guess Gene Robinson, as we think about the U.S. and the state of the world, it is still my big question, what is the big story in the U.S. about the U.S. that dominates 2014? EUGENE ROBINSON:Well, number one, this continuing conflict between two visions of government. Which paralyzes our government and in turn, paralyzes the world. And the U.S. is so at the center of the world economy and the world political system. More government, less government, big government, small government. This whole approach, this conflict is going to continue. That's one thing.Other big stories, we saw, of course, our domestic surveillance, the Snowden story. You covered that in the last segment. And one story, a huge story in 2013 that we kind of don't mention was the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the racial issues and conflict that remain just under the surface, that bubble up from time to time, that erupt. And I think you can predict we'll have more eruptions in 2014. We come to a big anniversaries of the Civil War, big anniversaries of the Emancipation -- and this and that and we'll see more of it. DAVID GREGORY:And if this, Professor Stearns, our historical context, the rest of the world looks at us and looks at how healthy the United States is to be a world leader. And that becomes a lot about our domestic disputes, about ideology, about role of government, healthcare, and the like. DR. PETER STEARNS:Absolutely. Obviously the recurrent paralysis in Washington is an international embarrassment. Hardly a single advertisement for democracy. But I do think there was one other, if not story, process, that's a little more encouraging. And that was however weak the economy still, the fact is economy improvement in the United States has arguably improved our global position. ANDREA MITCHELL:I think one story that is connected to that in a perverse way, is the growing income inequality. We're seeing, as we speak today, the continuing surge on Wall Street. But the fact that companies are not investing, they're sitting on their profits, and that the people at the lowest end of the income ladder are becoming more and more disadvantaged. And that gap is connected to what you were talking about, the role of government, which is perhaps best identified and symbolized by ObamaCare. DAVID GREGORY:It's interesting, if you throw this out there, the U.S. role today as a world leader, compared to ten years ago and it has fallen. Because you've now got 53% saying that the United States is less important and less powerful in the world, Robin. ROBIN WRIGHT:Absolutely. And I think this looks like something that's happening globally. We're seeing not only a democratization demands within countries, but the democratization demands among countries. That there's no, in a post-cold-war world, there is no superpower rivalry, there is no major power, we are the biggest power because of our economy, because of our military.But there are other countries, there are the upcoming countries like India and Brazil, that want to have a place in the decision making, whether it's at the United Nations, or in deciding the big question. We're seeing the rise of China, not just because of its economy, but because of its growing kind of claim to territory, whether it's in the three seas, the South Sea, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, in a rivalry with Japan, but there are a kind of set of conflicts that are redefining our ability to influence.We're seeing what's happening in the Middle East that's quite extraordinary with our alliances. A year ago, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were our close friends. And now Saudi Arabia is saying it's moving away. And Egypt is going through a military coup. ELLIOTT ABRAMS:But link the internal and the external President Obama. In 2013 in general, we thought not has been a good year for him. 2014, he's got an off-year election. If he loses the Senate, a lot of people are going to say, "Okay, now he's really a lame duck." On the international leadership question, it's partly fundamental issues like the economy, it's partly a question of national leadership. And if you look to people in the Middle East, Arabs, Israelis, they all seem to think the United States is receding. DAVID GREGORY:Well, and the question is whether the issue is whether the United States chooses to use its influence, not whether it's lost its influence. Which leads to something that The Economist wrote about in its World of 2014 issue, which I enjoy every year. And one of the leaders is this. "Obama has seemed a defensive president, retreated from Iraq and Afghanistan, and willing other guide the Arab awakening, and keen to outsourced responsibility and other regions to local powers."The question is whether the cautious Mr. Obama will use this to leave a mark on the world. Like many second-term presidents, he will increasingly focus on matters abroad. Now that America looks a little stronger, might he become a little bolder?" And Professor Stearns, to me this goes to a question of what is coming to define this era of world history? And how Obama plays in it. DR. PETER STEARNS:Well, look, I mean, one point's already been mentioned. No matter what Obama does, the world is becoming more multi-polar. It's not only democratization, it's global industrialization. So we will simply not have the single voice that we thought we might have ten, 11 years ago. That's not going to happen. At the same time, we're also dealing with the winding down of a second, inconclusive war that probably did us no good in the world. And that's an area where Obama can display leadership in helping us to find what's our mission after this. Not to reclaim superpower status. That's an illusion. DAVID GREGORY:But so where is he bolder, Elliott Abrams? How does he make a difference? ELLIOTT ABRAMS:I don't think he's going to be bolder. I think his main concerns are still domestic. And I do think there's a leadership gap here. If you look at what our Middle Eastern friends are saying, and some of those who are surrounded really by China, they're saying, "Where are you guys? You used to be the biggest power here. What are you doing?" I think we see this in Syria. And in the Middle East, that's the thing that people play to. President stepped up, and then he stepped back. ANDREA MITCHELL:The power-- EUGENE ROBINSON:But if you ask the question though, how well did that work out? How well did it work out for the United States to essentially believe that it had the right to try to direct events in the Middle East. I would argue that there's at best, a mixed record. And I think President Obama would argue that it didn't work out that well. That in fact, you'd have to find a different role that doesn't make us the boss of everybody. ROBIN WRIGHT:But two-thirds of Americans and three recent polls indicate that they thought that the Afghan War was the wrong war to engage in or that it's gone on too long, that this has been a failure. But this version of power or presence in the region in the world generally doesn't mean the use of military force, but often means the use of diplomacy. And that's where I think President Obama actually scores points.That in dealing with Iran, which is likely to bet big story of 2014, that he has tried a diplomatic initiative that has borne a little bit of fruit and maybe the only way we can avoid another war in the Middle East. And then on Syria, there are some really ugly choices. There is nothing that is particularly attractive.And the story on Benghazi this morning illustrates, because some of the people who were responsible for the attack on the Benghazi mission were those who benefited from the U.S./NATO strikes on Libya. And so that our intervention in Syria doesn't necessarily mean that those we like are going to win. And frankly, there aren't that many to like in Syria on either side anymore. ANDREA MITCHELL:On Syria, I think that the main criticism that you hear from multiple sides, not just from Elliott Abrams, is that we waited too long to decide who to back. And by now, that backing has been filled with the Islamists and the people that we wanted to train have fled and no longer can play a role. And then Assad, you can't make a statement, "Assad must go," and then not take some action. ELLIOTT ABRAMS:And nothing, yeah. ANDREA MITCHELL:But one other quick point was the Israeli/Palestinian gambit. And I think that it shows, as Robin was just saying, that there is a boldness to the diplomacy of this second-term president. But many might not have expected, but comes from John Kerry who is leaving again on New Year's Day for the Middle East. DAVID GREGORY:The question that I have is whether, you see this, after the armistice in World War I, Churchill was a lone voice in arguing that there were still threats that had to be confronted in Great Britain, and this British society wanted nothing to do with it. And that's a bit of what we're going through.We still face terror threats, terror safe haven, in some of the familiar places, in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Places that the president said, "We are committed to rooting out Al Qaeda." And yet, we're in such a period of retrenchment on the left and the right in many circles. It makes it difficult for any American president to be bold in the way that I think you like him to be bold. ELLIOTT ABRAMS:Well, I think the problem is, there's a huge price to be paid. If we pull out completely from Afghanistan in 2014, you can see really this president's term rebuilding of Al Qaeda there. Look at the price in Syria. We stood back. We didn't do much in Syria. 200,000 people dead, six billion refugees, threatening all the countries around them, and 10,000 jihadis now gathered there.Not in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the Middle East. It's very dangerous. And what I fear is, is that during this period of retrenchment, we're going to see the threats grow. And then you just have them off to the next president. That's not going to work. ANDREA MITCHELL:The last president did that. DAVID GREGORY:But Professor Stearns, how do you see the period? DR. PETER STEARNS:Well, hard to say. I would like to make one other point though. Boldness is not just boldness in some of the conventional, diplomatic areas. And I'm not trying to downplay the seriousness of terrorist threats. There are bold opportunities, for example, in leadership on environmental policy. I'm not trying to play political correctness.But a nation that works, for example, with China, that's eager to collaborate on environmental issues for very selfish reasons. There are opportunities to develop new kinds of alignments and collaborations that don't ignore the more conventional operations, but strike out in new ways that could be very fruitful. I think that's an area where bold leadership is possible. DAVID GREGORY:If we have a deal, we'll look at the big calendar for next year coming up in a few minutes, if there were to be a deal with Iran in the middle of next year, how does that impact diplomacy around the region? Does that help to burn out the Syrian civil war? Does it have impacts beyond that? ROBIN WRIGHT:I think that actually the Iranians, having just come back from Iran, are quite interested in seeing a settlement in Syria. That they understand the damage and the dangers to the region because of all the factors that Elliott mentioned. This is terribly destabilizing in a way, far in excess of what Afghanistan and its conflict did.So that I think they’re prepared, at this point, to lob off the head, in other words, Assad, but to keep the body. To see him go, but to see, whether it's the Ba'ath party remain, or a coalition of the Ba'ath party and the opposition. That they would be prepared to work. But they also have to feel that they're being participants in the political process.And the focus on this issue in Iran are in many ways not just a nuclear issue, but they're really the kinds of things we want to see in Iran, whether it is the opening up of a political system, the inclusion of all a wider array of political players, women's rights, that when I talk to people in Iran, they were all saying, "Everything depends on the nuclear deals."The women's rights activists saying, "If there's a nuclear deal, then we believe the administration, the current new president Rouhani will have greater say in doing things that we want, whether it's including reformers in the political process, dealing with some of the regional dimensions with the United States, and the Gulf countries that are important allies." DAVID GREGORY:All right, let me get a break in here. There's a lingering question on the state of the world peace that I want to ask about, but I also want to tell you about some of our big choices politically in this country next year in 2016. We'll talk about that, the key headlines, and the fights ahead. Plus, he's been a spiritual leader to millions for more than half a century. We're looking at the life and legacy of Billy Graham during the close of our holiday season, coming up after this. FRANKLIN GRAHAM (ON TAPE):His message, he was preaching God's message.

***Commercial Break***

DAVID GREGORY:Here now, some of this year's images to remember.


A great image of Pope Francis, there are so many of them with that young boy grabbing his leg and stealing the show. This year's images to remember. And coming up next here from one religious man to another. A look at the life and legacy of the world's most famous preacher, Billy Graham, coming up next.

BILLY GRAHAM (ON TAPE):Well, I'd like to celebrate time, take it a little bit easy. But I believe that I've seen enough people's lives changed that I'm going to continue proclaiming the gospel as long as I can. DAVID GREGORY:That of course was legendary Christian leader Billy Graham here on Meet the Press back in 1979. After a lifetime of preaching the gospel to millions worldwide and serving as pastor to the White House, Reverend Graham is now fighting for his life at the age of 95. Our own correspondent Harry Smith talks to Frankly Graham about his father's unwavering faith, his life, and his legacy.


HARRY SMITH (V/O):Just last month, Billy Graham delivered what might well be his last sermon. FRANKLIN GRAHAM:He said, "Franklin, I want to preach one more time." He said that to me several times. HARRY SMITH (V/O):No longer capable of standing at a pulpit, Franklin Graham told us his father's message was recorded this past summer. And the film The Cross, was completed in time to celebrate his father's 95th birthday in November. BILLY GRAHAM (ON TAPE):I want to tell people about the meaning of the cross. HARRY SMITH:Soon thereafter, Billy Graham was hospitalized. And while he has returned home, he is not well. FRANKLIN GRAHAM:He's very weak. His vitals are good, blood pressure, heart beat, these kinds of things, they're good. And he's eating a little bit. But he's just extremely weak. And so I've asked people to pray. So people who are watching this program, I would hope that they would pray for him. He would appreciate it very much. HARRY SMITH (V/O):Billy Graham had a gift. He spoke, it seemed the world listened. He preached to millions. And they came forward. BILLY GRAHAM (ON TAPE):There is a way. FRANKLIN GRAHAM:I believe God empowered him. And my father, when he stood to preach, he wasn't preaching his message. He was preaching God's message. HARRY SMITH (V/O):While Graham preached to packed stadiums, he was also a pastor in the White House. No matter the party of the president. FRANKLIN GRAHAM:He felt that God did this to put him in that place so that he could be a spiritual counselor and advisor and every one of the presidents always at some point in that relationship would talk to my father about spiritual things. HARRY SMITH (V/O):Franklin Graham might have become a prodigal son. In the beginning, he was not about his father's business. FRANKLIN GRAHAM:When I saw my father preach in Madison Square Garden, and I was a little bit embarrassed I think the first time I heard him preach, because that's my father up there and I kind of slid down my chair. HARRY SMITH (V/O):Young Graham was kicked out of his first college. But by 22, he returned to the fold. And while the resemblance to his father is striking, he is his own man, outspoken about Islam, questioning President Obama's Christianity, for which he later apologized. FRANKLIN GRAHAM:Well, I've never really been one to try to be politically correct. I just feel that truth is truth. And sometimes I probably offend some people. HARRY SMITH (V/O):With that kind of no-nonsense attitude, Franklin Graham has run Samaritan's Purse for more than 30 years, a ministry aimed at helping people when they need it most. FRANKLIN GRAHAM:This plane will be on its way soon to the Philippines. HARRY SMITH (V/O):Graham's call to serve the less fortunate is something he shares with Pope Francis. And he applauds the new pope, but to a point. HARRY SMITH:He was asked about gays in the church and he said, "Who am I to judge?" Will there ever be a shift for you in that issue? FRANKLIN GRAHAM:Well, God would have to shift. And God doesn't. God's word is the same yesterday, today, a million years from now. And this is sin. That the weakest sin, and to tell somebody it's okay, then I know the consequences what will happen one day when they have to stand before God. So I want to warn people, and I think the pope is right when he says he is not the judge. He is not the judge. God is the judge. HARRY SMITH (V/O):Franklin is also the head of the organization his father started. And in that role, helped his father fulfill his wish for a final sermon. FRANKLIN GRAHAM:Help my father finish, well, I feel that that's what God wanted me to do, is to help him finish what he-- HARRY SMITH (V/O):And Graham told us that sermon received more response than anything his father had done before. FRANKLIN GRAHAM:And when I told him, he was just quiet for a second and then he said, "Praise the Lord." And he said it real strong with a loud voice and he was excited. HARRY SMITH (V/O):For Meet the Press, Harry Smith.

(END PKG) DAVID GREGORY:Thank you, Harry. When you think about big, sweeping, historical figures, Billy Graham. And we talk so much, and Franklin Graham talks about this pope, Pope Francis, and his potential to reach those heights as well. ANDREA MITCHELL:I think Pope Francis is the biggest thing that happened this year on the world scene. And the way that you think of John Pope John Paul and the impact that he had in Eastern Europe, this pope, not only in his flock, clearly I'm not Catholic, but I stayed up Christmas Eve just to watch the replay of that Mass and to hear the homily. I am so moved by him and by the message of caring for the poor and for those who can't care for themselves.

ROBIN WRIGHT:And talking about leadership in so many parts of the world that he is providing principle, morality, and directions is quite striking. DAVID GREGORY:And we look, Professor, when you look at Billy Graham and the shadow that he cast for years and years in this country, which is what makes the comparison to the likes of Pope Francis, but Billy Graham is an enduring figure. ELLIOTT ABRAMS:Absolutely. The role of papal leadership at this point, you not only mentioned attention to the poor, after all, he also emphasized peace. And I think in the year where presumably we wind down a war, I'm not trying to be naïve, but some discussion of what peace can mean and what role the United States could play in helping to construct a more durable peace in key regions I think is one of the things that ought to be on the agenda. DAVID GREGORY:We end the year looking ahead, Gene, at some of the key dates for next year, which are about foreign affairs and domestic affairs, the State of the Union in January, in March the deadline to sign up or face a fine for healthcare, the end of that timetable for Iran in July, midterm elections in November, perhaps leaving Afghanistan by the end of next year. A lot there. EUGENE ROBINSON:I think you're right. Midterm election, elections have consequences. And so I think a lot of the year will be aimed at that election. One question I have about the campaign running up to that election, mentioned by Franklin Graham, the culture wars. We've seen this year huge advance in gay marriage, suggesting that maybe there could be possibly a truce in the culture wars. It'll be interesting to see if indeed the truce holds or if the wars break out. DAVID GREGORY:Right, a reasonable advance in--

(OVERTALK) ANDREA MITCHELL:And whether Hillary Clinton runs or not runs, should be this coming year. DAVID GREGORY:Right, and that's this year. All right. I'm going to leave it there. Thank you all very much for spanning the globe with me this morning. I appreciate it very much. That is all for today. I hope you have a very happy and healthy new year in 2014. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press. * * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *