Lack of Leadership Causing US Defense Issues Abroad?

A terror threat closes American embassies, and changes the political debate about intelligence gathering. Host Michel Martin talks politics with Republican strategist Ron Christie, and former Obama administration advisor Corey Ealons.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we'll look at a new analysis of the NFL's own injury statistics to find out whether the league's efforts to minimize serious harm to players is bearing any fruit. We'll also talk about the one-year anniversary of the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last year to find out how the community is doing a year later. First, to political news this week. Even though Washington is a little quieter because Congress is on recess until September, and around the world select U.S. embassies have also gone quiet. Nearly 20 embassies and consulate offices across the Middle East and Africa, including in Jordan, Egypt and Rwanda, are now closed until the end of the week.

This comes during the traditional holidays in celebration of the end of Ramadan, but also after reports surfaced of worrisome communications among Al Qaeda operatives. And as you might imagine, all this has led to a new round of debate over the U.S. government's intelligence gathering methods, especially those involving those big data mining sweeps that have raised alarms with privacy advocates. We wanted to talk about all this so we've called upon two of our regular contributors on politics. Ron Christie is a former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush. He's now the CEO of Christie Strategies, a consulting firm. Also with us once again, Corey Ealons, former communications advisor to the Obama administration, now senior vice president with the strategic communications firm VOX Global. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

COREY EALONS: Always good to be here, Michel.

RON CHRISTIE: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: So you were both with us on the program when we originally talked about these NSA data mining operations that had come to light, very controversial. Now a number of political leaders ran the Sunday show - talk show route saying that these embassy closings prove that these NSA security programs actually work. So Corey, what do you think?

EALONS: I think that's exactly right. Based on - it's interesting, when these folks go on the air, they have to try to talk about the issues without revealing too much information, but reassuring the American people that we're moving in the right direction. And based on what we've been told, there was a significant amount of chatter and intelligence that's been gathered over the past several weeks and months that indicate that something imminent and serious was about to occur at one of our facilities in the Middle East.

The thing that's different about this versus what we talked about the last time we were here is the level of disclosure. Now you can't close 20 embassies and consulates around the world without some visibility associated with that. But the fact that members of Congress appear to be - have been told about this in a good amount of time, the American people have been told why and how this is happening, so that's the real difference and the fact that you have such bipartisan support for what the president and the decision that they made. That is a very good position for us to be in right now.

MARTIN: Ron, what about that though? A lot of people are saying that's ridiculous, that the issue is domestic privacy versus these international surveillance issues - those are totally different things. I mean, what do you say? Does this change anything for you about how you think about this issue?

CHRISTIE: It doesn't. I think the way that you frame that, Michel, is exactly the way I think about this. I think there is an entirely different paradigm to look at when you're talking about the domestic NSA surveillance program versus what our intelligence community has been up to by their means and methods to obtain actionable intelligence that would allow them to brief the National Security Council and the president to make the decision to close those embassies abroad.

I think it was a smart move, a prudent move, obviously, anytime that you have a significant level of threats, and what we've heard over the talk shows the last couple days is this is the most significant threat, based on American intelligence, that we could've been struck in a way that we haven't been hit since 9/11. But at the same time it only underscores, in many ways, I think, our vulnerability as a country and what this administration has done to continue to fight the war on terror and their success or lack thereof in doing so.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of the question of what this country is doing and what other broader issues this raises - Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was CNN's "State of the Union" yesterday. He said this is something that points to a wider conversation. It's really about our political climate here. Let's play a short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: It is scary. Al Qaeda's on the rise in this part of the world and the NSA program is proving its worth yet again. But we need to reevaluate where we're at in a lot of these threats. Sequestration has to be fixed. If this happens a year from now, our intelligence community, the military, will be less capable.

MARTIN: Ron, I'll go to you first on this. You know, what about that? There have been a number of respected figures who say, really, what's weakening the country is our own political climate and our inability to show the world that we can function and handle our big issues. And what do you say about that?

CHRISTIE: I think that's right. I think, unfortunately, we've seen this with sequestration. The Washington Post had an editorial over the weekend that said that sequestration is actually harming the Department of the Defense more than it is helping, and it's really put a damper on President Obama's ability to lead the Defense Department the way that he's articulated. So I think there is a lack of leadership and I think there's a lack of vision by leaders in both political parties that have led us to this point. And it's most unfortunate - this should not be a partisan gamesmanship area. We should come together on areas of national security and intelligence to protect the country.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Republican strategist Ron Christie and former Obama administrator communications advisor, a Democrat, Corey Ealons. Corey, what do you say about that? And while you're - you know, while you're thinking about that, I mentioned earlier that members of Congress are on recess right now. A number are back in their home states.

You know, some people - you know, Allen West, former member of Congress, some people consider him a gadfly, but his argument is it's ridiculous for Congress to be on recess when they have not managed to address some of these big issues, like the budget. And we spoke to two members of Congress on opposing sides of the aisle recently and they have joined a group called No Labels, they're trying to see if they can find a way to get beyond the partisan division. This is a short clip of Jim Cooper, he's a Tennessee Democrat, and this is from our conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

REPRESENTATIVE JIM COOPER: Threatening Congressmen with no pay really got a lot done. We need to do that in some other issues. We face a debt ceiling crisis coming up. I would say that Congress shouldn't be paid if we allow America to default on its credit. That would be a huge embarrassment for America and would raise interest rates forever. But there are a lot of folks who are wanting to play chicken on that one. So there are other proposals - a lot of basic things - and surely, we can agree on these and build confidence for future, bigger measures.

MARTIN: Corey, what about that? I mean, do you see any sign that that is happening?

EALONS: Not really. And if you take a look at what we have accomplished or not accomplished over the course of the first half of this new congressional cycle, you can see that we're still very much at the same impasse that we were even a year ago. The only thing is, we didn't have the drama of the brinksmanship that we had going into dealing with the debt ceiling debate, but we still have some real challenges. When you take a look at the wins and losses, the progress we've made this year versus where we've been short, all the gains have been in the Senate.

The Senate has now began to take on its old stature as the place where deliberation can take place and real consensus can be gained. And you can see that with the gun control debate, you can see that with immigration, you can see that with the presidential appointments that just went through recently. If you take a look at what's been happening in the House, it's the same old-same old. John Boehner still has a real challenge bringing together the extremes - the moderates and the extreme right in his caucus and getting anything done. And as of right now, we're at an impasse in the House and it's very, very frustrating to our processes here in D.C.

MARTIN: It doesn't appear that you're saying anything can happen really during recess to change that?

EALONS: No. I don't know that there is. I do know that they will be back two times over the course of the recess period to meet with the president, to talk about how they can move forward on getting an actual big budget done - the big package done. But as long as these folks have to go back home and speak to their constituents, especially our 20 to 30 Tea Party members in the House, they want to be able to go back and say, we're holding the line, we're not allowing spending to increase and we're doing what you sent us there to do. On the other side, you have John McCain - in a recent new Republic report - basically saying that's nonsense. That's not within the spirit of the Congress in either House, in either party, and people who come here need to be prepared to lead and to get things done.

MARTIN: Ron, do you see anything over the course of the recess that could change these dynamics? I mean, recently we reported on Carlos Gutierrez put a group together, put a letter together, with a number of very high-profile Republican donors and activists, including people like Karl Rove, urging Congress to move forward on immigration reform. And he said, and he told us, that part of the intention here was to send the message during the recess that people who are interested in moving forward and compromising will have the support of the Republican establishment. Is that the kind of thing that can change the conversation or not?

CHRISTIE: I think so. And, you know, by way of full disclosure - you mentioned No Labels a few minutes ago - I'm actually cofounder of NoLabels.org. And one of the things that we're so encouraged about is that we have over 80 members of Congress, nearly an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, who are saying that we need to fix Washington, that gridlock should not be the status quo, and that we need to reach across the aisle to find accommodations. And you look at some of the most liberal members in the House - I'm thinking Peter Welch from Vermont reaching across the aisle to Tim Griffin from Arkansas, from Little Rock. And the two of those members saying, you know what, I'm going to visit your district during the recess, please come to mine.

Let's have a town hall. Let's hear what's on the minds of the American people. So while I think the leadership seems to be stuck in molasses, if you will, in Washington, I think there are young members, first-term members, second-term, third-term, who are willing to reach across the aisle. So I remain optimistic about coming into September, that we might actually be able to get some agreements reached.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you that question about recess, Ron? I mean, I know this is the kind of thing that members of Congress tend to scoff at, but there are people who say why are you leaving town at all when you haven't accomplished anything? I mean, do you think they should even go?

CHRISTIE: I do. I think the August district work period is very important for members to go home and to have town hall meetings, and to hear from their constituents - to hear what they're doing right, to hear what their constituents are upset with them with. And I also think getting out of Washington is not such a bad thing, to actually be back among the constituents that you're honored to represent. So I think it's a good thing that they're going back.

MARTIN: Corey, final thought?

EALONS: One hundred percent agree with what Ron just offered, and he said it just right. It is the district work period. This is a time - I know when I was a member - a staff member on the Hill working with my member of Congress, we didn't rest. We didn't have days off, including Saturdays. During the district work period, we went back home, we held town hall meetings, we met with constituents, and we had a real opportunity to get in their faces and to get a sense of what's happening in the real world - to get out of this D.C. air and to get back in the real world and find out what's going on. It's a very valuable time.

MARTIN: Corey Ealon's former communications adviser to the Obama administration. Now senior vice president with the strategic communication's firm VOX Global. He was with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. With us from our bureau in New York, Ron Christie - former assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush, now CEO of Christie Strategies. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure.

EALONS: Thank you.

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