Week In Politics: Drones, Brennan's Confirmation Hearing

Audie Cornish talks to regular political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss the U.S. drone program, John Brennan's confirmation hearing, and President Obama's upcoming State of the Union address.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Joining us now to talk about the week's political news, our columnists and Friday regulars, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.

CORNISH: So we're going to turn to actual - to national security news because there were a lot of revelations this week. One of the big Washington events this week was the Senate confirmation hearing for John Brennan. He's nominated to lead the CIA and there was a lot of talk there about targeted killings and the use of drones. To start, I mean, did the hearings give us any clearer sense of this program, which so far, for most Americans, very secretive, very controversial?

BROOKS: Nope. You know, I don't think we got a much clearer sense. It's a popular program, 62 percent of the Americans support it, and I think we got a strong defensive by John Brennan, who did an excellent job. And I think - I support the program myself. What we didn't get and which I do think is necessary is some oversight. Certainly not from the committee, but I do think there's provision, there's possibility of having effective oversight, which would either be a secret court appointed by Congress or some panel of former intelligence and military people.

It's just - I think the drone policy is a very good policy, but it's just too dangerous for people within the same workplace, in the same information cocoon to get carried away because the thing is so easy.

CORNISH: E.J., before I let you answer, I want to actually play a clip from John Brennan because it goes to this point. Brennan was asked by a senator about this idea of some kind of due process for - particularly for the targeting of Americans who join al-Qaida.

JOHN BRENNAN: Any American who did that should know well that they, in fact, are part of an enemy against us and that the United States will do everything possible to destroy that enemy to save American lives.

DIONNE: Well, you know, I find this disturbing. I'm not very dove-ish when it comes to fighting terrorism, but this is not an American who is killed fighting in a battle in an enemy army. This is a decision by our government made very specifically to kill an American citizen without any due process. And I think that should trouble people.

I think what's so interesting about this week, everyone's been talking about how they hate partisanship. Well, we've really had it completely break down this week 'cause the people raising questions about drones and in particular raising questions about targeting American citizens tend to be liberals and Democrats. The people largely supporting the president have been Republicans.

CORNISH: David, this gets to your point about oversight. I mean, what did you see here from Congress?

BROOKS: Well, I do think you can't have effective target-by-target case of Congress and it is true that the drone program is reasonably effective. If you compare it to any sort of other activity, whether we're going to bomb people, whether we're going to set boots on the ground, many, many fewer casualties in the drone program than anything else. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism found most recently that of the 152 people killed by drone strikes this year, only three were innocent victims.

So that's a reasonably good sort of rate you're gonna - as good as you're going to get in this sort of warfare. I just don't think there's any way to tackle the enemy that's better than this.

DIONNE: I think the one question that even people who support the program are starting to ask is, this is creating some backlash against us, particularly in Pakistan. And I think we've got to think about: A, that backlash; and B, think about the day when these could be used against us.

CORNISH: And obviously a complicated issue, we're going to hear more about it. I also want to turn to another exchange on the Hill regarding national security, this time with outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. They're being questioned in this clip by Senator John McCain about differences within the administration about whether to arm rebels in the war in Syria.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: Did you support the recommendation by secretary of State, then-Secretary of State Clinton and then-head of CIA General Petraeus that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria? Did you support that?

SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: We did.

MCCAIN: You did support that?

We did.

CORNISH: Now this is being seen obviously as exposing a rift in policy within the administration. What does this tell us about the security team?

BROOKS: Well, the foreign policy is run out of the White House. Listen, in this instance you had the State Department deciding it would be a good idea to arm the rebels. You had the Defense Department deciding that. You had the CIA deciding that. The three major apparatuses of our foreign policy thought it was a good idea and the White House overruled them.

And so that should raise some questions. Did they do it because it would be politically difficult to be going into the Middle East at the time when they were trying to campaign on the idea that we were getting out? And I do think there's good reason to believe it was a mistake in policy, that now the bad parts of the rebel force are stronger, the good parts are weaker, that Assad is still there, the reign of terror continues. And I do think arming the rebels would've been a good idea.

DIONNE: Leon Panetta sounded like he was talking into his sleeve there. He was not wild about answering this question, though he's somebody who answers honestly. I think what you see here is an administration and a president who is far more confident than he was in the days when he was reviewing his Afghanistan policy.

If you go back to then, he was very concerned with overruling his military then, and he came up with a policy that was a kind of compromise aimed at satisfying the military. What's clear is that he's gained enough confidence that they felt that the dangers of an intervening outweighed the potential benefits, and he was willing to go up against his generals and his Defense Department.

CORNISH: So that brings us to the State of the Union Address, which is coming up next Tuesday. What are you guys expecting to hear? Anything specific you think you're going to hear, especially given an inaugural address that actually had some policy in it?

BROOKS: Yeah. I'd love him to get out of the budget fights. We've been two-and-a-half years of budget fights. We're about to go into probably a pretty brutal sequester. We're not going to solve this thing. It's getting boring. It's getting stale. I'd like to see him go and shove that off into a corner and go through a whole series of policy measures where we could make progress, guns and immigration being the first but social mobility, getting some help for working-class Americans.

There's some possibility if we set aside the budget fights to do something serious and just change the subject.

CORNISH: E.J., your wish list?

DIONNE: I have a very similar wish list, and I really hope he does talk about shared economic growth and equality and the decline of economic mobility. And I think he is going to call for an end to these budget fights. He's consistently said we can't be running budget policy on a constant, unnecessary, emergency basis. The question is, how can you end that?

And it'll be interesting to see if he puts something on the table that would end it, and also I want him to warn that if we cut and cut this year, we could endanger a very fragile recovery.

CORNISH: And of course the Republican reply coming from Senator Marco Rubio. I look forward to your review on that. E.J. and David, thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Thank you so much.

BROOKS: Thank you.

CORNISH: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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