Week In Politics: NSA Surveillance, U.S.-Russia Relations

Melissa Block talks to political commentators Amy Sullivan correspondent for National Journal and director of the Next Economy Project, and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. They discuss President Obama's news conference, U.S. relations with Russia and the governor's race in Virginia.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now, as promised, to our Friday political commentators, David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times. David, hello.

DAVID BROOKS: Hello.

BLOCK: And filling in for E.J. Dionne this week, Amy Sullivan, correspondent for National Journal and director of The Next Economy Project. Amy, welcome back.

AMY SULLIVAN: Thank you. It's good to be back.

BLOCK: I want to focus on what the president had to say about these government surveillance programs. He said the question is how do I make the American people more comfortable. At the same time, he's saying the programs are working fine. There are checks and balances to prevent abuse. David, he seems to be saying it's the perception that's the problem, not the programs themselves so more transparency. Is that how you see it?

BROOKS: I guess so. You know, he kept emphasizing again and again, there have actually been no abuses. There's the potential for abuses, but no actual abuses. And I thought in trying to create more credibility for the program, he went back to his law professor past and sort back to the Federalist Papers. We have a system of government based on the idea that most things are tensions, tension between security and liberty.

And so you want built-in structures that represent each side of the tension. And after 9/11, we built in a bunch of structures which really emphasize the security part of the tension, whether it's in the courts, whether it's in the NSA and we sort of left out the liberty part. And so, if you take a look at all the reforms he put together today, basically it's giving the liberty part a structure, an advocate within the system to create a better balance. And I think that's a reasonably decent way to approach this.

BLOCK: Amy, do you see the changes that the president mentioned today as being substantial, significant in some way, or is this really nibbling around the edges of something that you find much more troubling?

SULLIVAN: Well, they were mostly in terms of the style in which he talked. And there was a significant change there in that previously he's been almost dismissive of concerns from people who are concerned about civil liberties. And here today, he did sound more like a law professor who's at least, if not willing to admit that there have been any potential abuses, at least willing to entertain the possibility that there could be.

But I think there's one significant change. We just don't know because they haven't provided us yet with the details of what it will look like. And that's the reforms that he suggested might be made to the FISA courts. That's something that the president brings up time and again to say that, you know, people shouldn't be concerned. There's oversight here. There's checks and balances.

And yet, as far as we know, judges on the FISA courts virtually never reject request from the government. And so, it doesn't go very far to alleviate people's concerns and just depending on what those changes are, that could actually be substantive.

BLOCK: Well, the notion that there would be an advocate on the side of privacy arguing before the court along with the government, does that change things, do you think, David Brooks?

BROOKS: You know, I think it helps rebalance. It's tough to know beforehand how strong that advocate will be or how much power or sway that advocate will have. It's worth emphasizing these are successful programs. The president is right. Al-Qaida has been dismantled, even with the threats to our embassies this week, we've had tremendous success in dismantling these terrorist organizations.

We've really prevented major attacks since 9/11 basically. Relatively few Americans have died in attacks, relatively few attacks recently on the West. And so these are successful programs, which have the effect of undermining themselves because we feel less threatened. But they have, because they've been so successful, allowed us to emphasize this liberty piece a little more. It's tough to know how it will play out, but at least it's a gesture toward a little better balance.

BLOCK: Amy, one other thing the president said today was that they're going to, as he put it, put the whole elephant out there to let people know what they're looking at with these programs. Really, the whole elephant?

SULLIVAN: I don't think so. Yeah, I still think the elephant's going to be a little blurry, but this is a president who has gone quite a ways just over the course of the summer from taking almost a combative trust-me-about-this stance to saying, I respect the American people enough to understand that there are concerns and we should be more transparent than we have been.

BLOCK: Well, and so much for the reset with Russia. We heard Ari talking about the president's language about Russian President Vladimir Putin and the cancellation of the summit. David Brooks, do you see a way to reboot the reset?

BROOKS: Not that relationship, apparently. Putin is the nasty kid in the back of the room looking bored.

BLOCK: Slouching.

BROOKS: Slouching back there, slouching to Moscow. You know, this I think the administration can be criticized for mishandling. Russia stands in our way in Iran, in Syria. You've got a reasonably weak power, granted Putin is in political trouble. He loves these conflicts with America. It helps him domestically.

Still, there must have been a better way to manage the relationship with Russia, so it didn't become so adversarial. A relatively weak power standing up in many ways to the West, to the world, and to a much stronger power, a stronger economic power, at a time when commodity prices are falling, and it's economically vulnerable. Somehow we've turned them into a corner, and they seem to be inherently adversarial toward us right now.

BLOCK: Well, Amy, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, the secretaries of defense and state, will be meeting their Russian counterparts. Do you see back-channel ways, leaving aside the presidents, that progress can still be made given the climate between these two countries right now?

SULLIVAN: Well, that's exactly right. It's not as if we have cut off all relations with Russia. We have just decided not to hold a summit that the administration decided didn't have a good chance of being particularly productive. In Obama's first term, he was able to, as he said, cooperate a bit with Medvedev, discussing things like getting arms control agreements going again.

That's a discussion that they wanted to be ongoing with the Russian government and did not see any signs that there was reciprocation on the other side. So I would disagree that they had mishandled this. To me the language sounded, as much as anything, like a couple that's having a marital disagreement.

In fact, the president even said I think it's appropriate to take a pause, which sounded like the parents telling their kids we're going to take a break for a little while.

BLOCK: A bit of a time out being called, David?

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: Yeah, I don't know. Putin is the kind of guy who just wants to be one-upmanship. He wants to get in mano-y-mano contests. He did it with George W. Bush over the size of their dogs for crying out loud.

BLOCK: Really?

BROOKS: Yes, that's the kind of thing...

BLOCK: Who won?

BROOKS: Well, Putin had the bigger dog.

(LAUGHTER)

BROOKS: That's the kind of thing he goes in for, and therefore you don't give him those opportunities. Putin loves this moment. He gets to thumb his nose at the president of the United States over gay issues and over the (unintelligible) issue in a way that Russian voters, such as there are voters, will love.

And so we're giving him plenty - an opportunity that he relishes. The idea is to maneuver things so we don't have these mano-y-mano things, which he specializes in.

BLOCK: There's one last thing that I wanted to toss your way, Amy. We are in an off year in the election cycle, but there is a hotly contested race for the governor of Virginia, and both candidates are facing ethical scandals. You have the Republican, the State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli running against the former DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe, a big fundraiser and close to the Clintons. Your publication, National Journal, leads its story this way: Pity the Virginia voter. Amy, so why don't you describe the sorry state of affairs in Virginia briefly.

SULLIVAN: Yes, well as my colleague Beth Reinhard reported this week, Virginia voters are not exactly thrilled about this particular race, even by the standards of recent electoral politics. Kind of the mud-slinging that's going back and forth and some of the substantive concerns, too, about money and gifts that have been taken, particularly on the Republican side, has really turned off voters.

And, you know, as entertaining as it can be, I have to wonder whether my friend Tom Perriello, the former congressman in Virginia, is wishing that he had actually gotten into the race and taken his chances this year because I think he could clean both of these guys up.

BLOCK: OK, Amy Sullivan of National Journal, David Brooks of The New York Times, have a good weekend. Thanks.

BROOKS: You, too.

SULLIVAN: Thank you.

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