Roundtable II: Drama Over Drones

Rep. Tom Cole, Rep. Keith Ellison, Stephanie Cutter, Nicolle Wallace, and Martha Raddatz.
19:17 | 02/10/13

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Transcript for Roundtable II: Drama Over Drones
your view seems to be that even if we could save american lives by detaining more terrorist, it would be better to kill them with a drone I respectfully disagree, senator. I never believe it's better to kill a terrorist than to detain him. How many high-value targets have been arrested and detained and interrogated by the united states during your four years with the administration? I'll be happy to get that information to you, senator. I submit to you the answer to that is one. President obama's take for cia director john brennan faced some tough questions this week on tar. Let's talk about that on the roundtable. Abc foreign affairs correspondent martha raddatz replacing jon karl because you spent so much time on the issue, and the drone war has become kind of the signature characteristic on the war on terror. Dramatic expansion over the last four years, but this is the most scrutiny it's got. That's certainly because of the testimony of john brennan and what he brought to the hill, what he talked about, which, frankly, wasn't very much. The drone wars have not been discussed for four or five years. No one talks about them. It's a brilliant strategy. If you don't talk about it, no one else will talk about them either. I just returned from the mideast, I was in israel, I was in northern israel. A lot of people are talking about drones. A lot of people are talking about the effects of drones, george. As you know, I've been in all the places they're used, in yemen, in pakistan, and people there do not like them. John brennan is able to say, look, it's very effective and it's certainly been effective taking out core leadership, but when you talk to people on the street, you wonder what the long-term strategy is. Well, but let me press you on that, but you're right, there has been a lot of discomfort on the ground with these drone strikes. On the other hand, it does appear the number of civilian casualties has been going down since 2008, and certainly there are less casualties than caused by massive bombings. I think one of the things is that, yes, I think they become much more careful. I think john brennan is probably very careful. No one wants to kill civilians and yet the american public doesn't really know much about this. I INTERVIEWED stan McChrystal a few weeks ago, the former head of the joint operations command who ran a drone strike program. WHAT general McChrystal said is, look, what concerns him is they're now going after midlevel al qaeda and midlevel taliban. Where does that stop and who makes the decision that something is imminent? Congressman ellison, you've been on this for some time. You want much more oversight from the congress. That's right. I looked into this. I haven't found one public hearing on drones. Now, we had the brennan hearings but congress has the oversight way, the president has invited the conversation and said we need a legal architecture around this thing so why not do it. I don't think this is a partisan issue at all. I think we need to get a hold of this technology because other countries will be weaponizing drones. Certainly we will probably have objections to how they use them if they don't use them in accordance to due process d international standards. And, by the way, the paper that the president -- well, the administration released uses the term "imminent threat." And who decides that, right? Well, this is the broadest use of the term imminent I've ever. Al qaeda. If you're a member of al qaeda -- not even that, if you're in affiliated group. It can be pretty attenuated. I'm glad the president invited the conversation. I think we ought to take him up on it. Congressman, as he said, somewhat bipartisan. A lot of republicans also -- first, let me say the guy has the material in his pocket. In yellow. The policy that started under president bush continued and expanded under president obama. I, like everybody else, i actually think the hearings and discussion have been very helpful. There probably needs to be more of it. The two things that come out of it that concern me the most, frankly, I think -- and it's not a criticism of the president, i think he's probably been more directly involved in some of the targeting decisions than if i were his adviser, I would think would be wise. I think he should supervise, the program needs to be intimately familiar. I think he's taking on too much risk for himself, quite frankly. But, again, that actually says good things about the president, not bad things. The second thing is, and this is to senator chambliss' point. I think we're losing a lot of opportunities to actually extract people and get information and human intelligence is really much more important than taking out individual targets. And, nicolle, one of the ironies a lot of people have sensed even is that even though president bush -- obama may have modified bush administration policies, he's also continuing them. Yeah, it's slightly hilarious people have all this patience for legal architecture to be crafted after the fact. If this is in president george w. Bush's admission that there were that many drone attacks going on, there would be impeachment hearings going under way and hypocrisy and the actual policy and the fact that president obama has continued almost the entire basket is in the case of drone killings greatly accelerated their use has republicans feeling pretty satisfied that the counterterrorism policies put in place by the bush administration, which dick cheney was the architect of many of them, have been continued as president and the interesting other side of the coin to this extremely progressive president on domestic policy. And, stephanie, it does seem as if the president is uncomfortable at least we -- of the criticism he's not being as ent as he promised to be. Look, this is sensitive information. There is oversight through the intelligence committee, which is the way the law is currently set up. He has made it clear that he's open for a discussion how these programs are handled in the future. You know, the document that you're holding up is based on a legal architecture, but -- but, you know, mr. Brennan, the president, the administration has said that they want transparency, accountability and a process to ensure that thnow, everybody is aware of what we're doing going forward. There are elements of the president bush's war on terror that haven't been continued, many forms of torture, and, you know, the fact that the president just put this memo out after it became known and, you know, he wants to work with congress and be open -- another revelation this week in the foreign policy area, pretty remarkable hearing, secretary of defense -- outgoing secretary of defense leon panetta conceding that there had been a real internal debate and that most of the president's national security advisers wanted to arm the rebels in syria. Did you support the recommendation by 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? We did. You did support that? We did. You were in that region this week, martha raddatz. It was pretty surprising to learn not only secretary panetta but secretary of state clinton had pushed for this. The president said no. And the chairman of the joint chief of staffs. I think that came as a surprise to those in the region, and I talked to a lot of officials in the region about this. I don't think they're convinced that if the rebels were armed this would have changed much. A lot of the people I talked to said, look, we didn't know who they were then and there was actually some disagreement -- the rebels. Military -- the rebels. We just don't know who they are. We admit we shouldn't have been giving them guns, people i talked to and, yet, when you think about it, the united states really could have had someone to deal with in there and that's probably the argument that panetta would make, that general dempsey would make, that hillary clinton would make, you had somebody there. Well, let me tell you, you got nearly 800,000 displaced people according to the un, you got more than 60,000 people dead. If you talk to syria and americans, you have maybe many, many more than that. We've got to do something. I am even hearing reports that we're not even coming up to the plate on humanitarian assistance. I mean -- and you've got chemical weapons which -- that's a complicated -- seriously complicating factor, but I just think that, you know, we've got to do more than we're doing. Now, you know, armed rebels are not -- this is a fact-based issue. I think this -- we can be doing a whole lot more, and I'd like to see it. senator McCain was saying that, as well. You know, I want to give the president some support here actually. This is real presidential leadership. When you turn, you know, away from the advice of your very top leaders, that's a presidential level decision. He deserves a lot of respect and it's a tough call either way. On the arms issue, I am very uncomfortable. I actually agree with the president. We don't know enough to be interjecting arms. There's plenty of people sending arms. The rebels haven't been short of arms. So I don't know that we need to take the lead. On the other hand I agree very much with what keith said. We need to be on the ground with humanitarian aid and need to have political intelligence. We can provide a lot of communications and logistics, that kind of stuff that keeps us in the game but arming people who may be the very ones that take the chemical weapons and misuse them, that would have been a disaster for us too, so i think the president has been, frankly, appropriately cautious. Stephanie, how would you respond to people who say this was interesting timing, that the president chose to say no to his entire national security team right in the middle of a campaign. Just didn't want that trouble in the middle of a campaign. Well, look, george, I think there are decisions made with the national security team all the time. Sometimes the president agrees with the national security adviser. Sometimes he doesn't. That's why the president has built the team that he has. And, you know, I only know about this from what I read. I'm not inside the white house anymore. And my understanding is that panetta and others didn't push for it because of the risk involved that the congressman just laid out and because these arms could end up in the hands of al qaeda or they could be used against israel. So this is -- this is why administrations are set up. This is why national security teams have been built. This is why the president wanted such strong personalities and expertise on the national security team. Doesn't always agree with them buets their best advice and then he makes the decision. He's the commander in chief. Just two quick political points. I mean, if you look at where president obama's foreign policy is likely to crack wide open among partisan lines, this is it. YOU WILL SEE senators McCain, i think, and graham and others start to string together instances of america leading from behind and of this president's comfort in doing so in places like libya and now in syria, and I think this will become the most political part of the president's -- scrambling with party lines over here. But I think this is where he's opening himself up to criticism of what was a historically strong america, a strong role for america in the world is being deteriorated by decisions like this and the terror policies are pretty much in line with what bush and cheney advocated. It's his foreign policy in this very complicated, very fragile region and, again, you're going to see people parting with their OWN PARTY BUT senators McCain and graham and chambliss -- in a place that's changing rapidly, the united states needs to be seen on the side of people who are fighting for liberation, for democracy and, by the way, is the world really going to miss bashar al assad? No. It's be great if he was gone and -- and he will go. Something has to happen this year. I mean that's the sense I got over there. Something has to happen. Either he is gone, or it's fragmented completely. People are so nervous over there in that region. I traveled to northern israel and the iron dome, which is the missile intercept that they're so nervous that syria or lebanon, more likely lebanon, hezbollah will start launching missiles toward israel they have these intercepters set up all over the northern border and those chemical weapons, if I can just say, those chemicals weapons I was told are all now consolidated in certain areas, they believe it was assad and the syrian regem that helped -- if israel knows where they are, should we expect another strike from israel? I think you very well will see another strike. If they do anything with those weapons, they said it's easier to take them ow. It's easier than to take people into safeguard. libya and weapons got out of libya and dealing with them in mali and other places now. At least those weren't american weapons, but we helped stabilize -- we ought to be pretty careful here. I couldn't agree more with you about assad, but again I don't sense there is aof weapons in the region and the rebels seem pretty well armed. Well, again, we agree on that. Yeah. Butere be careful and there are times when you do break with your advisers, frankly, president bush broke on surge with all his advisers and i think he was right to do that the president here is running risks. Now, the political risk is he owns it. I mean you can't point to anybody else. I made this decision above people. That speaks relatively -- abouto own, again, middle east policy more broadly, the president announced this week that he's going to go to israel in march. You were here when the announcement came. What was the reaction and what is the trip really about? We're hearing from the white house they don't expect this to be the sign the president will have a new peace plan on the table. It seems like it's largely about mending fences with mr. Netanyahu. I think it probably is more about mending fences. In fact, I've never seen more expectations. As soon as he announced, it's like nothing is really going to happen. We're never going to get there. If you talk to people on the street, and there's some people I have known there for 25 years who say, you know, nothing will happen, never ever has and usually you get a little bit of a spark, oh, the president is coming. Isn't that great? People are talking -- the president is coming. What do you think, oh, the traffic is going to be terrible. You were kidding. That's where the expectations are on that, but I do think he needs to mend some fences with netanyahu. It's time that the president engaged over there. And in part because, you know, we still have this issue, congressman ellison, of the coming confrontation with iran. You got two different messages from the iranian leaders this week, the supreme leader says no direct talks. President ahmadinejad today maybe said we might be open to it. But you see on that score, the president can't be criticized for not being in support of trying to make sure that iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon. What I hope happens is that the president raises issues around stimulus expansion. I'm very concerned about -- yeah. I mean, the bottom line is after the u.N. Vote where the u.N. Voted 138-9 to recognize palestine's estate, there was housing settlements announced the next day, which was disappointing to me in areas that were thought to be part of the palestinian state so I hope after the president leaves this time, that there's no such announcement and nothing embarrassing happens. I would be surprised if the president made a huge issue of that. Look, I think that they're viewing this trip as, you know, it's our most important ally in the region. The president hasn't been there yet. It's an important trip. It's an important way for him to engage directly with the israeli people, first and foremost. So I think that's through the lens through which they're looking at this trip, whether expectations are low on the ground. Expectations, keeping them low is always a good thing. Should be in place by then. Secretary kerry started this week. Secretary of state kerry. Senator hagel still waiting for his confirmation up in the senate and I was struck last night talking about dick cheney earlier. Dick cheney giving a speech in wyoming who really took off on the president. He said "the performance now of barack obama as he staffs up the national security team for the second term is dismal. Frankly, what he has appointed are second-rate people, hagel was chosen because obama wants to have a republican that he can use to take the heat for what he plans to do to the department of defense." There is an unbowed dick cheney. Well, listen, senator hagel didn't do his new boss, president obama, any favors by looking befuddled and confused and clueless as to what the department of defense does, an agency he's up to now run, so i don't think senator hagel did himself any favors for the president. When you look at how republicans have sort of stood back and i think given the president a lot of running room in foreign policy it was because of the belief that secretary clinton, secretary gates were incredibly competent and incredibly reasonable and really quite measured in their foreign policy world view. That's trepidation, the coalition of senator kerry, senator hagel and a sort of renewed former senator biden are going to have a much more left-leaning foreign policy. Senator kerry approved overwhelmingly, but speak to this issue of senator hagel right now. The white house was not trying to defend his performance before the committee but they're still confident he's going to get confirmed. And I love that stephanie cutter has to do that on senator hagel and jay carney who was a white house -- a correspondenring the bush years covering senator hagel. It makes she so happy. This is my karma. What's yours? I love. look, first of all, let me address dick cheney. I think the worst thing that we could do right now is take dick cheney's advice on foreign policy. That's number one. Number two, john kerry comes to this job with so much experience. Life experience, both on the job as the chair of the foreign relations committee, he has been an ambassador all over this world on behalf of president obama bringing, you know, conflicts on the ground to an end and representing this country in a strong way, a balanced way and a diplomatic way, and I think that, you know, his becoming secretary of state is a sign of strength for this administration and and being celebrated all over the world. Senator hagel? Senator hagel. Sorry. No, no, previous on his performance, you know, and committee hearing, which will have nothing to do with how he performs his job as secretary of defense. He also comes to this position with significant experience, both as an enlisted man, as a senator and has strong support across the board in being able to do this job including from republicans. You know, what happened that day in the hearing, putting aside his performance, there was a lot of grudges being settled. A lot of personal conflicts being worked out. It had very little to do with current foreign policy. barely even mentioned. It was all about the surge in iraq. That is dealing with old wounds and not something that we need -- stephanie has to come back and be hagel's communication -- thank you, but, no. Obama administration, gates, HAGEL, LaHOOD. We're trying to do the right thing -- we're out of time. Anybody think he's not going to get confirmed? He's going to get confirmed absolutely. Great roundtable. Stephanie will stick around and answer your facebook questions

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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